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Bowl Predictions 2014-2015: Heart of Dallas Bowl to Sun Bowl

Mike Dudek
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Cotton Bowl, Dallas on December 26th
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (8-5)

While it did take longer than some hoped, Tim Beckman managed to get the Fighting Illini into a bowl game, thanks back to back wins over Penn State and Northwestern to end the regular season. While a Big Ten-Conference USA matchup is usually one sided, Illinois better be well prepared against a Louisiana Tech offense that can be absolutely lethal at times. The Illini have benefitted from the superb play of QB Reilly O'Toole down the stretch, along with impact wide receiver Mike Dudek, a freshman who caught 69 passes in the slot position. Though, youth on defense has been a problem all season for Illinois, especially in the secondary, an issue against the Bulldogs, who can air it out. Iowa transfer Cody Sokol has seen the Illinois defense in his Big Ten days and he could absolutely pick it apart for Tech. Sokol threw for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns on the year, and rarely made any mistakes despite throwing the ball 420 times. Along with dangerous runner Kenneth Dixon, who eclipsed 1,200 yards on the year, and receiver Trent Taylor, a speedy sophomore, the Bulldogs have the explosiveness and playmaking potential to put up huge numbers. A key point in this game is the turnover battle, where the Bulldogs are +37 while the Illini are -20 in turnover margin. If O'Toole makes mistakes and the inconsistent defense can't force Sokol to do the same, Illinois will have problems. While Illinois does have momentum following those key Big Ten victories, their shaky defense could be their undoing against the plethora of offensive weapons Louisiana Tech can bring to the table.
Louisiana Tech, 35 Illinois, 23

Quick Lane Bowl: Ford Field, Detroit, on December 26th
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-5) vs. UNC Tar Heels (6-6)

While their inaugural Big Ten season wasn't exactly a roaring success for the Scarlet Knights, a 7-5 posting and a decent bowl bid isn't too bad. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are hoping they can cap off a year with a solid victory in a 2014 filled with disappointment. Forget the embarrassment of a near loss to FCS opponent Liberty, UNC's defense was obliterated in key opportunities to change their season, against East Carolina (where they allowed 70) and Notre Dame. Marquise Williams did all he could do for the Tar Heels at quarterback, passing for over 2,000 yards and running for over 700 more, and he will enter 2015 as a dark horse Heisman candidate. He also is supported by receiver Ryan Switzer, who grew into more than just a special teams demon this season, recording 703 receiving yards. Although his career in Piscataway has been highlighted for ups-and-downs, Rutgers QB Gary Nova has found his stride in 2014, a major reason why the Knights did win seven games despite losing injury prone halfback Paul James for the season. Receiver Leonte Carroo has played a major reason in Nova and the offense's success, while the defense has been stout all year long, especially against the run despite being pretty inexperienced. While it has been a widely successful year and a statement year for head coach Kyle Flood and Rutgers to the rest of the Big Ten, losing here to North Carolina would greatly hurt their momentum heading into next season. UNC is a talented team offensively, but their defense is an absolute joke, stunning for a program that prided itself defensively during the Butch Davis era. Perhaps the Tar Heels can force a couple turnovers off of Nova, who has struggled with turnover problems throughout his long tenure as Rutgers QB. If they don't, they will be in poor shape.
Rutgers, 34 UNC, 24

St. Petersburg Bowl: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida on December 26th
UCF Knights (9-3) vs. NC State Wolfpack (7-5)

George O'Leary and Central Florida followed up their most successful year in school history with a strong season, going 9-3 and winning a share of the American Athletic Conference title. Now, they get a chance to accomplish another double-digit win year, if they can stop NC State's dynamic QB Jacoby Brissett, a transfer from Florida. Brissett showed all kinds of magic this year, throwing for 2,344 yards and 22 touchdowns, while also running for 498 and three more. Along with back Shadrach Thornton, and the quick but deceptively powerful Brissett, NC State has a ground attack that can give UCF linebacker Terrance Plummer and his teammates troubles. The big question is what they can do through the air, against an experienced secondary that is very disciplined. The Wolfpack defense has been solid all season, but Central Florida has the chance to put up some points, if QB Justin Holman can continue the rhythm he has been playing with in the second half of the year. The Knights have also replaced NFL running back Storm Johnson with powerful rusher William Stanback (10 touchdowns in 2014) and have found a consistent top target in junior Breshad Perriman, who is averaging over 22 yards per reception this season. Mix in the sure-handed J.J. Worton, and UCF has a strong, efficient offense to go along with it's dominant defense, which is among the nation's best. Not only is Plummer one of the nation's best linebackers, the unit as a whole has incredible depth and is very experienced and the Wolfpack will certainly struggle to get anything easy.  While Brissett's playmaking ability gives NC State a fighting chance, the offense will most likely still have a tough time putting up points,  and UCF will put up just enough to get a nice bowl victory.
UCF, 28 NC State, 22

Military Bowl: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland on December 27th
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6)

After a dominant early-season victory over Ohio State, Virginia Tech and head coach Frank Beamer appeared ready to be a major factor in the ACC race, after falling off the last couple years. But, the offense continued to be a major problem and the defense had some injuries, amounting to a less than spectacular 6-6 record. Beamer is eager to prove the program has not slipped, to both Tech fans and the nation as a whole, and beating a solid Bearcats team would certainly help. Cincinnati has enjoyed some instant success from Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel, who exploded for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on the year. Although he will still make mistakes, Kiel's strong arm and Shaq Washington's playmaking ability at receiver give Cincy's offense some serious explosiveness, something they have lacked as of late. It will also test Bud Foster's defense, who has been great all year, as usual. Cornerback Kendall Fuller will have his work cut out for him, stopping Kiel from making plays down the field, though he is up to the task. The Hokies' defense shouldn't be too much of a problem, but the offense has been dreadful all season. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer has had his moments, but the lack of a consistent ground attack and offensive line struggles have doomed him. Though, if the defense does shut down the Bearcats, Brewer has proven he can play smart with the ball and make good decisions, like he did in that Ohio State victory. A surprisingly major problem for Tech this year? Special teams, which has been a staple of "Beamer Ball" under Frank Beamer but could turn out to be a problem if the offense can't put up points. If Kiel can make some plays down the field and the defense put some pressure on Brewer, Virginia Tech will have little hope. They just don't have the offensive firepower, or anything close to it, to compete with an offense like Cincinnati's.
Cincinnati, 31 Virginia Tech, 17

Sun Bowl: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, on December 27th
Arizona State Sun Devils (9-3) vs. Duke Blue Devils (9-3)

Following an impressive victory over Notre Dame where they forced Everett Golson to make mistake after mistake, the ASU Sun Devils appeared to be a threat down the stretch and possibly a CFB Playoff possibility. But, the offense has had some shaky moments since the return of quarterback Taylor Kelly and the defensive's lack of experience culminated to losses to Oregon State and then Arizona. Taylor Kelly is a great QB but he has had some ups-and-downs since returning from an injury, making some uncharacteristic mistakes. Halfback D.J. Foster has been a stud all year long, along with reliable receiver Jaelen Strong, who just this week announced that this bowl game would be his last one in an ASU uniform, and that he will soon be playing on Sundays. While the "Big Three" have done wonders as usual for the Sun Devils, the defense has been shaky. While it has had some signature moments, it was picked apart by Sean Mannion in the loss to the Beavers, and Anu Solomon in the loss to Arizona. It does have the ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and pick off some passes, but it lacks the discipline to be a strong defense. Duke faltered late in the year, after appearing to be on a collision course in the ACC Championship game with Florida State, a repeat of last year. Anthony Boone has done a decent job since taking over the reigns full time of the offense, having lots of support from record-setting receiver Jamison Crowder, who caught 78 passes for 942 yards in 2014. Though, the Blue Devils' defense has also lacked consistency, and despite safety Jeremy Cash's best efforts struggled in a loss to archrival North Carolina. While Kelly has struggled, along with the defense, Arizona State is by far the more talented team in this battle. While Crowder will certainly help keep the game close, this Duke team hasn't seen an offense with the explosiveness and playmaking ability since last year's loss in that ACC Championship game to FSU. Coming off a loss to their hated instate rival, Arizona State should be motivated to end the year on a high note, and record their second straight 10-win season.
Arizona State, 35 Duke, 27

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