2011 AT&T Cotton Bowl
Texas A&M (9-3) vs.
Friday, January 7, 8:00 FOX
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By Pete Fiutak
The world is ready to move on.
If this was late September, LSU vs. Texas A&M would be one of the biggest games on the sports calendar. It might have been worth a GameDay appearance, it would’ve showcased the two mega-conferences, and it would’ve highlighted two programs a mere 350 miles from one another with the Houston recruiting base in between them.
But instead of this being hailed as one of the biggest and best bowls of the college football season, the Cotton has turned into an afterthought. The college football world has been in a prolonged pregame show ever since Ohio State narrowly avoided gagging away the Sugar Bowl, and while there might be other bowl games before the BCS Championship, A&M vs. LSU deserves to get more attention.
It didn’t used to be this way, and there’s a chance in the near future that this might be a sixth BCS game. The Cotton, for some old-timers, is the bowl season even more than the Rose, the Orange, or any of the other traditional games. Before the Big 12, the Southwest Conference would send its champion to Dallas, and going to the Cotton Bowl became the prestigious goal that everyone in Texas shot for. The game lost its luster after getting thrown in the glut of New Year’s Day games, and it hasn’t had a national title-level impact for decades, but the SEC-Big 12 matchup is always big among the fan bases, and lately, it has been a feather in the SEC’s cap.
The Cotton Bowl might be in Southwest Conference/Big 12 country, but it has been owned mostly by the visitors over the years with the SWC/Big 12 representative going 13-27 against the outsiders since bowl games started to matter in the final polls. Over the last seven years, the Big 12 has been a total and complete flop with the SEC going 6-1 with the lone bright spot being Missouri’s 38-7 win in 2008 over an Arkansas team in transition. This year, Texas A&M is looking to keep its hot second half of the season going by translating it into a decent bowl showing … for once.
Texas A&M sounds like a big-time program, it has the fan base of a big-time program, and it has the reputation of being a big-time program, but it has been a total failure in the bowls over the last two decades, going just 2-11 since beating BYU in the 1990 Holiday Bowl. The Cotton has been particularly unkind to the Aggies, who have gone 4-8 all-time and have lost five straight since beating Notre Dame in the 1987 game. This year’s team is all about momentum, and for a program that’s been looking to turn a corner for several seasons, beating LSU might be it.
After losing three straight with a 3-3 start and the meat of the Big 12 season to come, A&M looked like it was in for another mediocre year. The offense was working, and the defense wasn’t bad, but there were too many mistakes and there were too many problems against three high-octane offenses in a row, losing to Oklahoma State, Arkansas, and Missouri. But with a change at quarterback, the team seemed to find a spark, hanging 45 on both Kansas and Texas Tech before legitimizing the hot streak with a solid win over Oklahoma. With wins over the Red Raiders, the Sooners, Baylor, Nebraska, and Texas to close, A&M has a shot at its first ten-win season since the 1998 Big 12 Championship season, but the one time since then that it had ten wins on its stick, it got obliterated in the 2006 Holiday Bowl by Cal.
This is a prove-it game. Beating Oklahoma and Nebraska were great, but for the Aggies to make this a truly special season, they need to beat LSU, or at the very least make it a battle. The program’s last four bowl games, all losses, were by a total score of 151 to 54 including a 44-20 drubbing from Georgia in last year’s Independence Bowl.
While the Aggies have had a rough bowl run, LSU has been terrific going 10-3 since 1995 and with one of the losses coming on the all-timer of a Hail Mary from Iowa in the 2004 Capital One and with a close call in last year’s 19-17 Capital One loss to Penn State. While the program has been special over the last decade, this is the first ten-win season since winning the 2007 national championship, and it could’ve been better.
It was a strange and bizarre season for the Tigers, with a wild finish to get by Tennessee, a late big play to beat Florida, and a stunning win over Alabama to set the tone for a big year. But 2010 just missed out on being truly special with the run defense getting rumbled over by Cam Newton and Auburn for the first loss of the year, and with the loss at Arkansas with the Sugar Bowl on the line. The Cotton Bowl isn’t necessarily a consolation prize, and it’s being considered a higher-profile bowl than the Outback and the Capital One, but it’s not the Sugar.
Along with the game itself is the backdrop of speculation over the Michigan job opening. Is Les Miles on the radar? Is this a distraction in any way? It’ll be a storyline, but if LSU wins in dominant fashion, the story could be squashed immediately.
Players to Watch: Before the Michigan job opening and the speculation over Les Miles and if he’s even a candidate, the individual storyline going into the game was whether or not LSU star running back Stevan Ridley would be eligible. Suspended from the game after being academically ineligible, he has been reinstated, and that means everything to the Tiger attack that’s inefficient at best, completely ineffective at worst, the one part that’s been solid is Ridley, who ran for 1,042 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight scoring dashes in the last four games. While he hasn’t run for 100 yards in a game since the win over Tennessee on October 2nd, he hasn’t been used as a workhorse with just one 20+ carry game in the final six. That might not be the case against the Aggies as he’ll be the base of the offense to grind things up the middle, and as long as he’s working, the passing game doesn’t have to force the ball down the field.
Texas A&M’s season completely changed once Ryan Tannehill took over as the starting quarterback. A good enough athlete to be one of the team’s most dangerous receivers last year, catching 46 passes for 609 yards and four scores, he was a jack-of-all trades to start 2010 before taking over against Kansas. To be fair to Jerrod Johnson, the starter over the previous few seasons, Tannehill wasn’t under center against Oklahoma State, Arkansas, and Missouri, but the junior had his share of battles to deal with facing Oklahoma and Nebraska, and he came up with wins. While extremely athletic and mobile, he’s not much of a runner, at least by design, and he has been extremely careful throwing the ball with just three picks on the year, two against Oklahoma, with 11 touchdown passes. He’s not going to bomb away on the LSU secondary, but he has to be careful on his short-to-midrange throws and he’ll have to handle the quick Tiger pass rush.
Tannehill will have to be extra careful to know where 2010 Thorpe Award winner Patrick Peterson is at all times. While still a junior, Peterson is expected to enter the 2011 NFL Draft and is considered to be a possible top five overall pick and the first defensive back to come off the board with the size to get physical enough to be a run stopper, and the speed and athleticism to be a shut-down corner on the outside. Not just a top defensive back, Peterson is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men ranking fifth in the nation in punt returns, averaging 16.08 yards per try, and 29.34 yards per kickoff return. Electrifying whenever he gets the ball in his hands, LSU will work to make sure he’s handling the ball even when A&M tries to stay away from him.
Texas A&M will win if ... LSU has to throw to win. Texas A&M will give up passing yards, but it doesn’t give up a slew of big plays and it benefits from Von Miller and a strong pass rush that keeps the pressure on all game long. The teams that threw well on the Aggies were the teams with the top passers like Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma, and LSU isn’t one of those teams. LSU has been able to throw at times, surprising Florida and coming up with some nice plays through the air against Alabama and Ole Miss, but the air show isn’t exactly potent with just seven touchdown passes and ten interceptions on the year. A&M will load up to keep the running game in check, and while that’s easier said than done against a Tiger line that’s having a strong year, but only the teams with dangerous running quarterbacks – Kansas and Baylor – had any success moving the ball on the ground. Either LSU’s Jordan Jefferson gets moving, or the Tiger offense might not go anywhere.
So what was it about Tannehill taking over that provided such a spark? Besides the competition being easier, at least for a little while, the interceptions slowed to a crawl and the offense kept the chains moving. It wasn’t about coming up with the big play as much as it was being consistent and not making the big whopper of a mistake. A&M can’t be afraid of the LSU defense and it can’t be worried about making errors. North Carolina and Arkansas were able to throw on the Tiger secondary, and Auburn, thanks to Cam Newton, was able to rumble for 440 yards on the ground. Basically, the entire playbook needs to be open for the Aggies.
LSU will win if ... start winging it. Yeah, that might sort of be what Texas A&M goes into the game hoping for, and the Tiger passing game has been so inconsistent all season long that it might seem crazy to try chucking it from the start, but A&M isn’t going to respect the running game in any way unless Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee, or both, can connect on a few big throws early on. LSU has a phenomenal receiving corps that’ll show up at the next level and produce, but someone has to get the ball in the right spots to do something with it. With so much time to prepare, the Aggies are going to lock in on Ridley, and Jefferson has to exploit the single coverage on his NFL targets.
Defensively, it’s all about getting to Tannehill. For all the good things he has done so far, and for all his mobility, he’s still relatively green as a starting quarterback, working as the main man for only half the season. The Tigers bring the pressure from all angles and from inside and out, and A&M will be looking to take advantage with plenty of quick-hitters and quick draws and traps to take advantage of the aggressive D. As long as the Tigers are disciplined and don’t get caught napping on the misdirections, the zone reads, and the other quirks the Aggies are going to try, Tannehill should be kept in check.
What will happen: It’s not going to be the prettiest of games, and it’s not going to be a shootout. There will be times when both offenses bog down and slow to a crawl, but LSU’s athleticism and overall talent will win out. Jefferson isn’t going to be Tom Brady, but he’ll have a surprisingly decent game with just enough good plays both with his legs and his arm to keep the pressure off Ridley. The LSU defense will make Tannehill look human, and while it’ll come down to the final moments, Les Miles and the coaching staff won’t have problems with the clock.
CFN Prediction: LSU 23 … Texas A&M 20 ... Line: LSU -1.5
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Pick ATS: LSU
Confidence Score: 157
OVERALL CONFIDENCE (35 most - 1 least): 33 out of 35
Pete Fiutak: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
- The place should be rocking. Texas A&M was one of the hottest teams in the country after Ryan Tannehill took over and the offense started to shine, while LSU was a win against Arkansas away from being in the Sugar Bowl. Each team has major flaws, but they play wildly entertaining games and they're each going to use this game as a stepping-stone for what should be a great 2011. The two will almost certainly be in everyone's preseason top 15, if not top ten.
Richard Cirminiello: Pick ATS -
LSU Pick Confidence -
- Cotton Bowl officials must be ecstatic about having these two schools in Dallas. It’s an interesting pairing of two programs that’ll have no problems selling out their allotment of tickets.
Matt Zemek: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
- The Aggies got better as the season went along, but the Big 12 was a very thin conference without the quality depth and the substantial heft it used to possess. The feeling here is that LSU has better athletes across the field.
Russ Mitchell: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
- Next to the Capital One Bowl, maybe the best non-BCS game on the slate. Actually, perhaps better than half of the BCS games at that. Rekindles an old rivalry between two neighboring programs. LSU should have a slight nod; but once again, how does one really handicap this Tiger offense?
Barrett Sallee: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
- LSU’s defense didn’t play great down the stretch, and Texas A&M ranks 20th nationally in total offense. It could get ugly for the Bengal Tigers.
Gabe Harris: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
Brian Harbach: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
Matthew Smith: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence -
Billy Gomila: Pick ATS - LSU Pick Confidence
Clucko (A coin flip): Pick ATS -
Texas A&M Pick Confidence
Cotton Bowl History
2010 Ole Miss 21, Oklahoma State 7
Ole Miss 47, Texas Tech 34 5
Tennessee 38, Texas A&M 7
Mississippi 31, Oklahoma St 28
Texas 35, LSU 20
Oklahoma 10, Arkansas 3
Kansas State 35, Tennessee 21
Arkansas 27, Texas 6
Texas 38, Mississippi St. 11
UCLA 29, Texas A&M 23
BYU 19, Kansas St. 15
Colorado 38, Oregon 6
USC 55, Texas Tech 14
Notre Dame 24, Texas A&M 21
Notre Dame 28, Texas A&M 3
Florida St. 10, Texas A&M 2
Miami, Fla 46, Texas 3
Tennessee 31, Arkansas 27
UCLA 17, Arkansas 3
Texas A&M 35, Notre Dame 10
Ohio St. 28, Texas A&M 12
Texas A&M 36, Auburn 16
Boston College 45, Houston 28
Georgia 10, Texas 9
SMU 7, Pittsburgh 3
Texas 14, Alabama 12
Alabama 30, Baylor 2
Houston 17, Nebraska 14
Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
Notre Dame 38, Texas 10
Houston 30, Maryland 21
Arkansas 31, Georgia 10
Penn St. 41, Baylor 20
Nebraska 19, Texas 3
Texas 17, Alabama 13
Penn St. 30, Texas 6
Notre Dame 24, Texas 11
Texas 21, Notre Dame 17
Texas 36, Tennessee 13
Texas A&M 20, Alabama 16
Georgia 24, SMU 9
LSU 14, Arkansas 7
Arkansas 10, Nebraska 7
Texas 28, Navy 6
LSU 13, Texas 0
Texas 12, Mississippi 7
Duke 7, Arkansas 6
Syracuse 23, Texas 14
Air Force 0, TCU 0
Navy 20, Rice 7
TCU 28, Syracuse 27
Mississippi 14, TCU 13
Georgia Tech 14, Arkansas 6
Rice 28, Alabama 6
Texas 16, Tennessee 0
Kentucky 20, TCU 7
Tennessee 20, Texas 14
Rice 27, North Carolina 13
SMU 21, Oregon 13
Penn St. 13, SMU 13
Arkansas 0, LSU 0
Texas 40, Missouri 27
Oklahoma St. 34, TCU 0
Randolph Field 7, Texas 7
Texas 14, Georgia Tech 7
Alabama 29, Texas A&M 21
Texas A&M 13, Fordham 12
Clemson 6, Boston College 3
St. Marys 20, Texas Tech 13
Rice 28, Colorado 14
TCU 16, Marquette 6