Syracuse vs. West Virginia: Pinstripe Bowl Breakdown
Syracuse (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
Dec. 29, 3:15 p.m. ET, (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Earlier this season, West Virginia was a dark horse national championship contender and quarterback Geno Smith was the Heisman Trophy favorite. Then the Mountaineers fell off the college football radar. Anchored by the nation's 116th scoring defense, West Virginia followed its 5-0 start with five consecutive losses before tacking on two wins against lightweights Iowa State and Kansas to end the regular season. Now, West Virginia will look for some saving grace in the Pinstripe Bowl against a quietly successful Syracuse team that was the first to expose the kinks in USC's supposedly invincible offense. The Orange enter the game on a three-game winning streak and have won five of their last six.
• Keep an eye on: Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who tossed 13 touchdowns and only one interception during the Orange's 5-1 stretch. Coach Doug Marrone isn't afraid to turn Nassib loose, and the senior attempted at least 40 passes in six games this season, including 66 against Northwestern. Nassib completed just 63.2 percent of his passes this season, but he was more efficient in the second half. Much of that progress can be attributed to the improved running of Jerome Smith, who strung together four consecutive 100-yard games between October and November and delivered a career performance in the upset win against Louisville on Nov. 10. Nassib is comfortable in quick, no-huddle sets, which could be the answer against a West Virginia defense that ranks 123rd against the pass.
• Did you know: Stedman Bailey caught as many touchdowns this season (23) as the previous West Virginia record holder caught in his career. The redshirt junior, who entered the season with 16 career touchdown catches, needed eight touchdowns to break the school record. He passed it in the fourth game of the season with a five-touchdown game against Baylor and led the FBS in touchdown catches this year. Bailey is now targeting the FBS single-season record of 27, which Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards set in 1998. Bailey isn't Geno Smith's only target, though: fellow speedster Tavon Austin caught 110 passes for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
• Final analysis: West Virginia's defense has improved, but remains atrocious. Syracuse is riding a three-game winning streak, and will have the home crowd behind it at Yankee Stadium. None of that matters: Geno Smith is the best player on the field, and he'll lead West Virginia to victory in a game that could very well approach 100 combined points.
• The pick: West Virginia 48, Syracuse 35