The Sugar Bowl – Washington 37 Texas 31
Both starting Quarterbacks in this game responded from the opening kickoff. The Huskies’ Michael Penix made it clear he was ready early with his 77 yard completion on the game’s 4th play, but the Longhorn’s Quinn Ewers did not shy from the competition as he passed for for 318 yards on 24 of 43 with one TD. Time and again Ewers brought his team back with clutch throws in this seesaw game. With 50 seconds left, Ewers would drive the Longhorns from his own 31 to the Washington 12 yard-line, but Texas would get no farther as 3 straight incompletions in the end zone ended the game.
It would be Michael Penix and the Washington Huskies’ day. Penix would show why he led the country in total passing yards (currently at 4,648 and counting) completing 29 of 38 for 430 yards. His arm strength and lightening release is why he hits big plays down field. Penix is the epitome of “vertical.” In this game he had 6 completions of over 20 yards. As more dual threats emerge in the college game, Penix demonstrates his value by staying in the pocket and stretching the defense with laser shots all over the field. He has just enough “escapability” qualities to avoid the sack, extend plays and move the chains… In big gulps.
Texas would not get to Penix in the Sugar Bowl and in fact, he was only sacked 11 times the entire season. This is a credit to both his ability to read defenses as well as his lightening quick release. And, lets give credit to the outstanding performance by the Huskies’ O-line who were recognized as the recipient of the Joe Moore Award for the outstanding offensive line unit in college football.
Texas is eagerly awaiting word from Quinn Ewers on his NFL Draft status as he has remaining eligibility and is only 20 years old. His QB2, Arch Manning, is also watching this decision very closely. But in typical Manning style, Arch had Quinn over to his mom’s house for dinner during their stay in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. It’s a crowded QB class in this year’s NFL draft and Ewers would benefit from another year in Austin.
As far as Michael Penix goes, here’s my two-cents: If the Heisman vote had taken place after Bowl season Michael Penix might have replaced Jayden Daniels as the winner. Daniels opted out of LSU’s Bowl game and Penix has his team undefeated and positioned to win it all on Monday night with a huge national audience. I’ll add that if I were an NFL GM looking for a QB, I’d make Penix my pick. His arm strength and release are reminiscent of one Dan Marino. Caleb Williams (USC) and Drake Maye (UNC) are getting most of the pre-draft hype but Michael Penix is proving he can carry a team in the big games. I like Mike!
The Rose Bowl – Michigan 27 Alabama 20 (OT)
How can Michigan muff a punt, miss an xtra point, miss a FG, and fumble a flea-flicker while still beating … Alabama ???? Easy. The Wolverines QB, JJ McCarthy, outplayed his Alabama counter-part, Jalen Milroe. In fairness to Milroe, McCarthy was assisted by better coaching and a better game-plan.
Milroe was the toast of the SEC for the last 8 weeks of the season. After being benched by Nick Saban following the early loss to Texas in week two, Milroe came back and matured each week to eventually lead his team to the CFP. Highlights included an already legendary TD completion on 4th and 31 in the final seconds of the Iron Bowl to defeat Auburn 27-24, and a spectacular, athletic-driven performance against Georgia’s elite defense in the SEC Championship game; a 27-24 Bama win.
Defense Wins Championships?
Michigan’s #1 rated defense would get the better of Jalen and the Tide on New Year’s Day. Michigan’s defensive game plan was to keep pressure on the elusive QB resulting in two sacks on Alabama’s opening drive. The Wolverines would eventually take down Milroe a total of 6 times during the game and held the incredibly athletic Quarterback to a mere 63 yards on the ground across 21 carries (3.0 ave). Jalen would add a pedestrian 116 yards thru the air. Without the Wolverine special team muffs this game would have never made it to OT.
The most glaring example of Michigan dominance in the trenches came on the game’s final play. After Michigan scored quickly in OT on a 17 yard TD run by Blake Corum (his Michigan record 55th career rushing TD), the Tide found themselves down seven and facing another existential 4th down in a huge game. Alas, the Iron Bowl magic would not repeat. In fact, the play-call by Alabama’s OC Tommy Rees is still being, shall we say, discussed?
Nick Saban, “It Was a Terrible Call”
On 4th and goal from the Michigan 3 the Tide ran… a Quarterback sneak? It was hard to tell if there was supposed to be more dynamics to the play. Perhaps more of a QB draw? It was impossible to know, because the snap from the shotgun (first clue, don’t run a sneak by putting your QB back 5 more yards) was low and slowed Milroe’s timing. The young QB didn’t have a chance. The Michigan defense had 8 players “in the box” or at the line of scrimmage. When Bama put in motion its only RB the die was cast. Yes, a Michigan linebacker followed the RB out of the box, but at that point everyone in the stadium knew Milroe was running the ball. Michigan still had Bama out-manned in the trenches 7 players to 6. Michigan did its job – they stuffed Milroe right at the line of scrimmage. Game over.
Game over thanks to a masterfully engineered game plan by Michigan’s JJ McCarthy. JJ is a 6’3” 202lb QB who prepped at IMG Academy. He’s been Michigan’s QB1 since week two of the 2022 season and is 26-1 as the Michigan starter. He is 14-0 this season because he knows his role and he is a team-first QB. He is caretaker of a well-balance, albeit run-oriented, offense that is complemented by an elite defense. His job-one is to protect the football. I once had a coach tell me the offense’s number one job is to leave the defense in good field position. JJ gets the job done. In his four previous games prior to the Rose Bowl, McCarthy did not throw for more than 150 yards per game. He averaged about 20 attempts per game in those four victories.
JJ Stepped UP
McCarthy knows when to step up. Over the past two seasons, JJ has thrown for 44 TDs against only 9 interceptions. In 2023 he has completed 73.2% of his passes, only second in the country to Oregon’s Bo Nix. In the Rose Bowl he was asked to step up, and he completed 17 of 27 for 221 yards and three TDs without a turnover. That’s the stuff Champions are made of! He led his team on a 75 yard drive that was capped by his four yard TD pass to Roman Wilson to tie the game with 1:24 left in regulation.
Jalen Milroe’s education at the QB position will continue in 2024. If his decision making continues on the upward slope he established in 2023, Milroe should have the Tide fighting for another SEC crown and he will be in the Heisman discussion. As for the Alabama QB Room? Well, on December 20 the Tide signed the top Quarterback in the class of 2024, Julian Sayin. The 5-star from Carlsbad, Calfornia has already enrolled in Tuscaloosa and joined the team for the Rose bowl practices. Sayin will have a ring-side seat behind Milroe to watch and learn how to develop in a big time program.
ESPN’s Mel Kipper has JJ McCarthy rated as the No. 7 QB in the 2024 draft. Recall this is a VERY strong QB draft class. Kiper observes, “McCarthy is an intriguing wild card… who has been one of the most difficult evaluations of this entire draft class.” Kiper goes on to ask, “Where were the ‘wow” throws,” and note that “He wasn’t asked to beat teams with his arm, partly because the Wolverines blew out all of their opponents until November,” concluding that, “He could even drop to day 2.”
Well Mel, he did beat Penn State and Ohio State in November. Now he’s beaten Alabama in January. I think Kiper’s assessment is a little lite. JJ McCarthy is another young, draft eligible QB. He’s only 20 and you get the impression he’s still filling out his frame. If he wins the national championship he’s going to be pressured to come out while he’s “hot.” He could also be impacted by the rumors surrounding Jim Harbaugh’s return to the NFL. But all things being equal (and they are not!), I’d like to see JJ come back to Ann Arbor for another year of victories and maturity. It could be the difference between a day one and a day two selection.
Other Key QBs and QB Rooms in the Bowls:
The Orange Bowl – Georgia 63 Florida State 3
Following Georgia’s annihilation of a under-manned FSU, Kirby Smart indulged the press in his post game interview with, “People need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this.” He added, “It is really unfortunate for those kids on that sideline (FSU) that had to play in that game that didn’t have their full arsenal. It affected the game one hundred percent.” Of course Kirby was referring to the 29 FSU scholarship players who missed the game due to injuries, opt outs, and transfer portal decisions. While the Seminoles were the extreme example of this attrition, other Power 5 schools were not immune. The Heisman winner Jayden Daniels opted out of LSU’s Bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft, as did last year’s winner Caleb Williams at USC, as did QB Drake Maye at UNC. Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Oklahoma and Tennessee all lost QBs either to the transfer portal or the NFL Draft. Kirby is right, this needs to be fixed.
Georgia’s Breakthrough QB
One QB who elected to play and stay was Carson Beck at Georgia. Beck has been the best of the first-time starters in college football in 2023. In the Orange Bowl Carson was pulled at half-time after taking Georgia out to a 42-3 lead while posting 13 of 18 for 203 yards and 2 TDS. That just added to his 338 completions for 3,941 yards and 24 TD passes vs only 6 interceptions. His 72.4 completion percentage ranked 5th in the country and is a key reason Georgia went 13-1 under Beck’s leadership.
Finish the Job
Carson Beck is a player who demonstrated loyalty while waiting three years for the Georgia QB1 job to open up. When it did, he made the most of it. With a very good chance to go in the first or second round (Beck is 6’4”, 220 lbs, with good mobility) in the 2024 NFL draft, Beck has chosen to return to Georgia for his senior year. The Bulldog nation should be flattered. Dawg fans should also credit Kirby Smart for the course on loyalty and goal-setting and “finish the job” attitude he is instilling in Georgia players. Beck was not the only Bulldog to opt into the game. There were at least ten draft eligible players who decided they wanted “to play one last game with my brothers” as stated by Ladd McConkey (and most of the others) who have now declared for the draft after playing in the Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl – Missouri 14 Ohio State 3
Kyle McCord was a 5-star QB out of St Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, tutored at OSU under CJ Stroud for two years and ascended to QB1 for the Buckeyes in 2023. He led Ohio State to an 11-1 record losing only to Michigan (ouch) and posted numbers like 2,899 yards passing with 24 TD passes against only 6 interceptions. So the big question is why will Kyle McCord be playing for Syracuse next year? What?????
Yup, following a reported lack of support from head coach Ryan Day, McCord entered the transfer portal prior to the Cotton Bowl.
Ya’ Gotta Blame Someone, Right?
Coach Day must have felt very confident about his QB2, Devin Brown, to let McCord walk (note I didn’t say “push”) out the door. So how did that turn out? Well, the Buckeyes’ vaunted defense held strong for three quarters and without much help from the offense. Devin Brown went down with an injury in the second quarter after throwing for 20 yards. He was succeeded by QB3 Lincoln Kienholz. Both Kienholz and Brown were highly recruited HS players but with just a few college snaps between them. In the 2023 Cotton Bowl the Buckeye offense was anemic. Klienholz went 6 for 17 for 86 yards and no TDs, and the offense converted only 2 of 15 third down attempts. In fact, OSU would register a meager 12 first downs in the entire game. Very ugly.
On the other side of the ball Missouri was playing with their emerging star QB Brady Cook. Brady has been QB1 for the Tigers for the last 27 games and 2023 was the big breakthrough year for Brady and head coach Elias Drinkwitz. Following two seasons at 6-7 the Tigers broke to 11-2 in 2023, including its first Cotton Bowl win ever. Make no mistake, this was a hard-fought game. The Buckeyes did not go easy and led 3-0 at the half. Toughness won this game for Missouri and it was manifested in RB Cody Schrader and QB Brady Cook.
A D-ll RB and the “Chef”
After being shut down in the first half, the Tigers broke through with two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. Cook went 11 of 18 for 128 yards and 1 big TD, and also fought for another 66 yards on the ground. The stats aren’t glamorous but the timing of his big plays to keep drives alive was the difference in the ball game. Schrader, who was held to less than 60 yards rushing in the first half, would finish with 128 yards on a bone cracking 29 carries. Eventually they wore down a tired, albeit valiant, Ohio State defense.
Congratulations to Brady Cook and teammates on beating Ohio State for the first time since 1976, and congratulations to Coach Elias Drinkwitz on his new contract extension and the big news that Brady Cook will return to Missouri for his senior season! Go right ahead and put Brady Cook on your Heisman watch list!
As far as Ohio State? The execution was so poor on offense it will take a lot of nurturing to build back the confidence level of both Brown and Kienholz. But then again, Ryan Day has one of the top QB recruits in 5-star Air Nolan (Yup, “Air”) from Fairborn, GA. It also looks like OSU will have portal transfer Will Howard coming in from Kansas State. Howard had a solid junior year with K-State and brings 25 Power 5 starts to the OSU Quarterback Room. But can he beat Michigan? Someone’s got to take the blame, right?
The Sun Bowl – Notre Dame 40 Oregon State 8
Irish QB Sam Hartman opted out of the bowl game and opened the door for Sophomore Steve Angeli. Angeli, out of Westfield, NJ, was a three star recruit in the 2022 class. Not exactly the blue-blood type the Irish typically go after, but his development at Notre Dame has been steady, if not slow. For his day in the Sun, Steve Angeli answered the bell posting a line of 15 of 19 for 232 yards and three TD passes! It was exciting to watch the underdog succeed while opt-out mentor Sam Hartman added his support to Angeli on the sidelines.
On the other side of the field it didn’t go as well for the Beavers’ opt-out (DJ Uiagalelei) replacement, Ben Gulbranson. The OSU offense was clearly out-classed by the Irish defense who came with a lot of heat on Gulbranson all day, resulting in four sacks and even more “hurries.” The Oregon State Quarterback Room for 2024 will need some new energy. The Beavers will also need some new opponents, as it has 6 open dates in 2024 following the demise of the Pac-12.
In 2023 QB1 at Oregon State was former Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei. DJ was a great fit for the Beavers offense posting 21 TD passes with only 7 pics while racking up 2,638 yards, and leading Oregon State to an 8-4 record in the tough, albeit defunct, Pac-12. With one year of eligibility remaining, Uiagalelei hit the portal in November. What? Yet another successful QB who seemingly found a home, and yet, says adios for “greener” pastures. In this case “greener” as in NIL cash. And Uiagalelei has landed, of all places, at Florida State. He now brings some 27 Power 5 starts, and presumably, stability to the FSU QB Room as the Seminoles strive to put the Orange Bowl hangover behind them.
As for the final analysis of the Notre Dame QB Room it starts and stops with two words: Riley Leonard. The Duke transfer had a spectacular breakout year in 2022 for the Blue Devils, posting 2,967 yards with 20 TD passes against only 6 Ints. He completed 63.8% of his passes and rushed for an additional 699 yards and 13 touchdowns. WOW. But the key words for Riley are “stay healthy.” His 2023 was marred by injuries and limited Leonard to only seven starts. Leonard’s athleticism is off the charts. I’ve seen video of him dunking a basketball in high school and it looks like an NBA slam dunk entry. He is 6’4” and can run. At this point his rushing is probably his most natural instinct and he’ll need to develop a more sophisticated touch on the passing side to optimize his potential, but he’s probably the jewel of the portal.
The ReliaQuest Bowl – LSU 35 Wisconsin 31
I’m including LSU in this conversation for a number of reasons, including this was another opt-out game by the starting QB and in this case it was Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels. This was not surprising given the lack of interest in this matchup and Daniels’ value going into the NFL Draft. Still, I favor the guys who have stuck it out with their teams and fulfilled their commitment to their schools even when it might not be in their best interests. Hey, come on, these QBs all buy injury insurance (up to $5 mil) plus at this level they’re all making $1 mil+ NIL “salaries.” Let’s take one for the Gipper in the post-season, right?
My main reason for covering the LSU game is replacement QB Garrett Nussmeier, LSU’s sophomore QB2. Why? Never heard of him? Well… back in 1993 I was the color commentator of the Lehigh University vs Idaho football game in Moscow, Idaho. The game was played in a blizzard, but fortunately Idaho has a dome named Kibbie Dome. The guy lighting up Kibbie that day was one Doug Nussmeier, who just happens to be Garrett’s father. QB Doug would win the Walter Payton Award in ’93 as the best FSC player in the country, and would go on to play five years in the NFL as a backup QB. He is currently The Quarterback coach for the LA Chargers. I love to see coaches’ sons succeed!
The Coach’s Son
When I saw Garrett’s name I figured there are not a lot of Nussmeiers out there, so there must be a link. Voila! I’ve seen Garrett play some and he’s got potential. He competed for the QB1 job against Daniels in 2022 and we know how that turned out. But as he enters 2024 he’s a red-shirt sophomore who’s seen action in 11 games over the past two years with 5 TDs and 4 pics. What can I say? I’m sentimental and will be pulling for Garrett in 2024. Naturally, Brian Kelly will bring elite competition into the Tigers QB Room but as it stands now Nussmeier appears to be the QB1 in waiting. Plus he has shown the type of loyalty (over past three years) that should be rewarded. He would have been in high demand in the portal.
Oh, almost forgot! In his first start in the ReliaQuest Bowl Garrett looked just like his father vs Lehigh: 31of 45 for 395 yards and 3 TDs! Whoa Nelly! And let’s not forget his competition in this game: Tanner Mordecai of Wisconsin. Try and concentrate because this guy has quite the story as well. Tanner is out of Waco, Texas and committed to Oklahoma out of HS. As a freshman he was behind Kyler Murray (think Heisman) and then Jalen Hurts (good grief). So as a redshirt sophomore he competes vs Spencer Rattler, but again, ends up as QB2. I’m all for competing but that was a ridiculous QB run of talent for the Sooners.
Nine TD Passes?
So naturally, Tanner enters the portal, goes to SMU, wins the QB1 job in 2021, and in his first game throws for 7 TD passes vs Abilene Christian and follows up with 9 friggin’ TD passes vs Houston! The Mustangs won that game 77-63! Good grief! Over the next two seasons Tanner led the Mustangs to 8-4 and 6-6 records as the starter, but in December 2022 he… Enters the portal. Again. Winds up at Wisconsin. With the Badgers Tanner went 6-3 in the nine games he started. Along the way he suffered a broken hand in a 15-6 loss to Iowa (only Iowa can win 15-6!) but was back in the lineup to win the final two regular season games. Clearly this is a guy who just loves to play. We wish him well at the next level.
Tanner Mordecai is out of eligibility and coach Luke Fickell is stocking up the QB Room for his second season after taking over in Madison (from Cincinnati) in 2023. At the top of the list is Miami transfer Tyler Van Dyke who will bring 25 Power 5 starts (14-11) to the depth chart. Braedyn Locke was QB2 for the Badgers in 2023 and did some good work across three spot starts when Mordecai was out. Finally, the new hot-shot in the room will be 2024 recruit Mabrey Mettauer, from The Woodlands HS in Texas. Mettauer is a 6’6” four star who has trained with personal QB guru Will Hewlett, the same coach who tutored Brock Purdy and Anthony Richardson. It should be a very interesting 2024 in the Wisconsin Quarterback Room!
The Fiesta Bowl – Oregon 45 Liberty 6
Ok, Liberty’s appearance in the Fiesta bowl was the CFP’s gift to the Group of 5 conferences. They earned it going 13-0 but they were also clearly outmatched against an Oregon team that is now on its way to the Big10 in 2024. Why? We discussed in previous blogs the dynamics involved with the demise of the Pac-12. The irony; that arguably the most entertaining college football conference in the country has collapsed in the same year the conference champion, Washington Huskies, is playing in the CFP Championship game. Why Again? Because the Pac-12 leadership could not craft a media deal that would compete with those already in place with the SEC, Big 10, and Big 12.
Big 10 members will get approximately $60 million apiece in 2024 from their multi-network deal, although late comers Oregon and Washington will receive only about $30 million each in 2024 and then increasing annually until they arrive at parity with other members in the new deal in 2031. The best offer the Pac-12 had on the table was about $20mil from the Apple streaming service. It should be noted that former Pac-12 members UCLA and USC will be receiving the full $60 million in 2024 as they made the leap a year earlier when the “gettin’ was good.”
Gotta’ Love Bo
There was another success in the Pac-12 in 2023 that is just fun to talk about! Yup, I’m talking about Bo Chapman Nix. The QB was born in Arkadelphia, Arkansas and grew up in Pinson, Alabama. As a senior in HS he was named Mr Football in Alabama and rated the top dual threat in the country by 247Sports. Naturally, for a kid from Alabama it would either be Tuscaloosa or on The Plains in Auburn. It was Auburn.
Bo won the QB1 job at Auburn as a true freshman and he didn’t disappoint as he led the Tigers to a 9-4 record including a win over Bama in the Iron Bowl and was named SEC Freshman of the Year. But the next two years at Auburn were rocky for Nix and the program. Coaching changes and injury would keep Nix and Auburn at below expectations, and we all know expectations in the SEC are high and frequently expressed.
Bo Goes for 61
In 2022 Bo nixed it to Oregon via the transfer portal. It was the best decision of his football career. Dan Manning had just arrived as head coach and had competed against Bo when Manning was DC at Georgia. Dan liked what he had seen. As soon as he arrived in Eugene, Bo slipped right into the QB1 slot and Oregon has never looked back. There are many records and amazing stats we could cite for Bo Nix, but here are my favorites: He has set the record for most starts ever in the history of college football at 61. He shows up every day and he plays. In his two years at Oregon he went 22-5 as the starter. He wins. In his five years he’s thrown 108 TD passes against only 26 interceptions. He protects the football. And finally, in 2023 he set the all-time NCAA completion percentage record by connecting on 77.55 of his passes. He knows the game.
Teammates Still Count!
In his last collegiate game against Liberty, Bo Nix hit 28 of 35 for 5 TDS and 363 yards. But more importantly, he actually PLAYED in the game. He didn’t opt-out with a pending NFL Draft on the line. He wasn’t wishy-washy about it either. He came out immediately following the heart-breaking loss to Washington 34-31 in the Pac-12 Championship game and stated he would finish the season with his teammates in the Fiesta Bowl. Said Nix, “I wanted to go out and compete one more time. And with the year that we had, it would have been a shame if I didn’t go out there and compete with guys who made it all possible.” End of discussion. NFL, are you listening? Bo Nix is not the first, second, or third rated Quarterback in this draft. He’s in the mix but probably in the second tier. If I’m an NFL GM and I’m looking for depth in my QB Room I want Bo Nix.