College football bowl season preview, part 2
It has been days since he passed, and I still can’t stop thinking about Mike Leach.
Yes, we have bowl games to discuss. We have opt-outs and opt-ins of note. We have a College Football Playoff that is suddenly barreling closer. But I cannot get over the fact that one of the sport’s most unique personalities is no longer with us.
Leach died at the age of 61 last week due to complications surrounding a heart condition. Perhaps the most jarring aspect of his death was the response from so many respected minds around the sport. The news seemed to pause the entire CFB world.
Although he found his way into the SEC, Leach’s impact on football was seismic. His ‘Air Raid’ offense can now be seen and felt differently across every level of the sport.
In a way, the offense was perfectly Leach. Effective. Stubborn. Precise. There was something artful in mastering this pass-heavy attack through repetition, and it proved to be incredibly effective.
Beyond the playbook, Leach was a true original. Funny. Abrasive. Rude. Outlandish. We can go ahead and stay stubborn once more because it fits in many ways. He was controversial in many ways because he was himself. While coaches only give you a glimpse of who they truly are, Leach let everyone in.
This was Leach’s greatest asset. He didn’t give a damn what you thought, and that mentality was so powerful and distinct in both the playbook and at the podium.
College football is the greatest sport on earth because of the emotion that pours its way into every game. Leach was, in a large way, an extension of its greatest asset. Only he was more than that, and his absence will never truly be filled.
What a legacy. What a loss.
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. What a season for Troy. The Trojans beat UTSA in the Cure Bowl, overcoming a slow start to win 18-12. Troy ultimately closed as a three-point underdog with some late-line movement, but it didn’t matter. With the victory, the Trojans finished the season with 12 wins and only two losses, one of which came to Ole Miss. Tremendous run.
2. What a day for Frank Gore Jr. The Southern Miss running back ran for 329 yards against Rice in the LendingTree Bowl, a record for a bowl game. Oh, and he also threw a touchdown pass. The Eagles covered the 6.5-point spread. After the game, despite having plenty of opportunities to star elsewhere, Gore announced he was staying with Southern Miss for next year. What a day.
3. Oregon State and Florida are two programs heading in different directions. The Beavers covered a spread that got down to 7.5 in the Las Vegas Bowl, but the game wasn’t close. The Gators mustered three total points, and it came on a very sad field goal near the end of the game. The Beavers, meanwhile, capped off a brilliant season in convincing fashion. While we don’t want to declare him on the hot seat too early, Florida coach Billy Napier enters next season 2 in need of a jolt.
4. Will Anderson Jr. and Bryce Young are in for the Sugar Bowl. Considering that both could go No. 1 and No. 2 in the upcoming draft, these decisions are a direct counter with where the rest of the sport is headed. While the spread had been heading toward K-State, with many expecting the linebacker and QB to opt out, Alabama has settled in as a six-point favorite.
5. Take note of what is happening at Michigan and Ohio State. On Saturday, QB Dylan Raiola, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2024 class, de-committed from the Buckeyes. During the same weekend, Michigan landed Myles Hinton, a transfer from Stanford and a former 5-star recruit. One decision does not change the rivalry, although the movement is significant. For the first time in a long time, the momentum is in favor of the Wolverines.
6. Early national signing day is this week. Did you know this? Probably not. Heck, I had to look it up. While I understand the need to get freshmen on campus in January, the timing of this signing day remains bizarre. With the coaching movement, the transfer portal and the playoff, it just feels like it needs to move either up or backward. College football has changed too much to keep this ritual in place. Also, remember when this date used to be a great deal of fun?
The Buffet: The Five Best Bowl Games of the Week
This week, we’re previewing games between Monday, December 19th and Tuesday, December 27th.
In many ways, this football game encompasses the sea of change hitting college football right now. Wisconsin, of course, hired Luke Fickell shortly after the season ended. The Badgers are undergoing a massive change, although the offense, led by running back Braelon Allen, should feel similar despite the departure of QB Graham Mertz. Oklahoma State will not have the same luxury. QB Spencer Sanders hit the transfer portal, which means freshman Garret Rangel, who played some this year, is likely under center. This is a tough one with so many variables, although I lean Wisconsin early.
It’s one of the more underappreciated bowl games on the card this season, and I won’t wait to give you an opinion. The over is looking juicy. Both teams can be explosive in doses. Both also come into this game relatively intact. (Missouri did have some departures, including talented wideout Dominic Lovett. In general, however, both teams should be ready, and that’s a good thing. Wake QB Sam Hartman will play his final game with the program, and that’s very good news. Still, the Demon Deacons closed out the year failing to cover the spread in four of the last five games. Expect plenty of points.
To say Coastal Carolina closed with a thud would be an understatement. The Chanticleers lost their final two games, allowing a combined 92 points. Jamey Chadwell, who helped jumpstart the program, left for Liberty. QB Grayson McCall, who announced he was transferring, will play in the game after missing time due to injury. East Carolina closed out a solid year by losing the final two games against the spread. Still, the Pirates were competitive in most games this season. The question here is simple: how much value does McCall bring? He’s been excellent, although it’s been a very turbulent end of the year.
For Baylor, it’s been a strange year, and I don’t mean strange in a good way. The regular season ended with three straight losses, albeit against Kansas State, TCU and Texas. But a program that gave teams fits a season ago struggled to find its footing despite signs along the way. Air Force closed out the year winning five of the final six, the lone loss coming against Boise State in a competitive showing. While the natural expectation is that size and speed in a game such as this should conquer, I’m not sure I agree. Air Force was the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack by a significant margin, and Baylor wasn’t dominant on defense against the run.
One season ago, this would have been a delightful football game. Now, it’s a curious bowl matchup between two teams we’re still trying to figure out after a full regular season has passed. Houston closed out the year on a high note, winning five of the last seven games. Considering the Cougars started the year 2-3, the finish was significantly better. Louisiana finished 7-5 against the spread, and that about sums up the season: it was a mix of good and not-so-good. It was also a drastic departure from 2021. In general, this is a tough one to figure, although second-half Houston, if that team shows up, will likely be a problem.
Last Call: Parting Shots on Other Games of Note
South Alabama lost only two games this year against quality teams UCLA and Troy) by a combined four points. And yet, the Jaguars weren’t superb against the spread. I have battled with this game, although I lean slightly toward the chalk.
Is this actually a good football game? Probably not! But it will be played on Christmas Eve, and I implore you to have your family watch it. They will judge you for it, although I won’t. This is a holiday tradition, after all. Also, take the points.