Five Reasons Nebraska Will Win the Gator Bowl
Las Vegas didn't find much to separate Clemson and Nebraska in this year's Gator Bowl, installing the Tigers as a slight 1.5-point favorite when the line opened. You had two teams with ugly mid-season losing streaks and strong finishes against the easiest parts of their conference schedules. You had a stingy defense facing a high-powered offense. You had two coaches whose name's rhymed (can't be overstated or overlooked). Add it all together and, even from the national pundits, you got a giant collective shrug of the shoulders.
But there are some very good reasons Nebraska will win the Gator Bowl. Here are five of them.
Just about every statistical category you can look at involving either Nebraska or Clemson is colored by the following suppositions: Clemson is a good defensive squad in what most view as a poor offensive conference and Nebraska is a good offensive unit in what many view as a poor defensive conference. Without any common opponents almost every attempt at differentiation comes back to that question: Whose stats are for real? That's what makes this an intriguing match-up but it is a match-up that Nebraska can win.
1) Joe Ganz - Ganz is easily the best quarterback Clemson has seen this season. If he plays in the ACC and puts up the same numbers as he did this year in the Big 12 you're probably looking at a guy who would've been the recipient of dark horse Heisman talk. Seriously. But there was nobody of the caliber of Ganz in the ACC this year. As Corn Nation noted in their breakdown, Ganz will be the highest rated QB the Tigers have faced thus far. The only QB who even comes close is NCSU's Russell Wilson who made his first start against the Tigers and compiled a 74.9 rating in their September 13 meeting before finishing the season at 134.29. Throw in the fact that Clemson ranks 106th nationally in sacks and all signs point to a big finale for Joe Ganz.
2) Time of Possession - Dabo's scared of this aspect of the Nebraska offense and for good reason: Nebraska ranked 2nd in the country in time of possession and, if Nebraska fans know one thing better than most, it's that even athletic and imposing defenses wear down and when they do they can be attacked.
3) First Downs - How do you end up with a nearly eight minute advantage in time of possession? Make first downs and Nebraska, again, will be the best first down converters Clemson has played. On the season, the Cornhuskers had 281 first down conversions to Clemson's 221, a per game advantage of five first downs or basically one medium-sized drive. You always hear coaches talk about staying on schedule offensively and this year Nebraska has been on Greenwich Mean Time averaging a first down every 3.01 plays. Just the way they draw it up.
4) Third Downs - And here's where it all comes together. To keep an offense off and a defense on the field you dominate the clock. To dominate the clock you get first downs. To get first downs you have to convert on third down and Nebraska does that almost half the time (48.75%) to rank 14th in the country. Clemson, on the other hand, converts on less than a third of their third down attempts, ranking 111th in the nation. Statistically, Nebraska is an average defense but simple assignment football, Pelini's mantra this year, and avoiding the big plays will make the Tigers earn their yards. Nebraska's proven they can do that, can Clemson?
5) About that lack of Big 12 Defense - Quietly, Nebraska finished third in Total Yards Allowed in the Big 12 at 361.5 yards per game trailing only the ultra-talented Longhorns and Sooners. Nationally that's a fair to middlin' average but consider this: only two teams in the ACC, Georgia "The Option is Alive" Tech and Florida State, averaged more than the 361.5 yards per game Nebraska allowed. Yes, Nebraska will face a statistically tougher defense than they have most of the year but Clemson is by no means getting a break when they have the ball. In fact, the opposite might be true. While Davis and Spiller represent a daunting running back tandem, overall Clemson doesn't bring near the across the board offensive talent of a Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas Tech or Kansas.
Which brings us back to the uber-question for this year's Gator Bowl: What do we know for sure? Technically, nothing but you have to like what Nebraska's good at, namely moving the ball, possessing the ball, scoring and efficiency in the passing game. Clemson is a talented defense team with the gaudy Total Defense ranking to match but their lack of sacks and negative turnover margin on the season, still resulting in a 7-5 record, say more to me about the lack of offense in the ACC than the strength of defense in the conference.
Nobody in the Big 12 stopped anyone else. Nobody in the ACC got anything started against anyone else. Thursday something will give and it's largely a question of belief at this point. Who do you believe will blink first? In this case, I'm tossing the old adage about defense winning championships and going with the unstoppable force.
(Programming Note: Lest we be branded as homers of the most ignominious ilk, Darren will be providing the flip-side of this particular coin tomorrow by taking a look at the ways Clemson could win the Gator Bowl. Join us, won't you?)