Texas Bowl breakdown: Minnesota vs. Syracuse
Minnesota (8-4) vs. Syracuse (6-6)
Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Minnesota has been one of the feel-good stories in college football this season. After coach Jerry Kill announced he was taking a leave of absence to focus on his epilepsy on Oct. 10, interim coach Tracy Claeys and the Golden Gophers rattled off four straight conference victories for the first time since 1973. With Minnesota's ascension from the Big Ten cellar to the middle of the pack, it remains to be seen if there is another a leap coming for the Gophers in the near future. Or is this the ceiling for a school that hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since '62?
The Orange rebounded from an 0-2 start to clinch bowl eligibility, but they're still early in their development under first-year coach Scott Shafer. It wasn't a pretty season -- they tied for 98th nationally in scoring offense -- but Syracuse rallied past Boston College on Nov. 30 to finish 6-6. The Texas Bowl is a bonus, and the Orange should play loose.
• Keep an eye on: The quarterbacks. Both teams start young passers who struggled this season (Syracuse ranked 103rd in passing offense; Minnesota ranked 116th), and their performance will be key. Orange sophomore Terrel Hunt threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another in his first start, a 52-17 win over Tulane on Sept. 21. But he ran into trouble after that, throwing seven interceptions with no touchdown passes over the subsequent six games. The Golden Gophers' Philip Nelson won the starting job as a freshman, but an injury allowed redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner to temporarily take command of the attack. Nelson reclaimed the starting role and threw for four touchdowns at Indiana on Nov. 2, but he completed just 13-of-41 attempts in his last two games.
• Did you know: With a victory over Minnesota, Syracuse would secure consecutive winning seasons for the first time since its run of 15 straight winning campaigns ended in 2001.
• Final analysis: The teams shared two common opponents this year: Penn State and Northwestern. The Golden Gophers beat both in tight games. The Orange lost to both. The ability to pull out a tight contest -- and the presence of first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman -- will be the difference.
• The pick: Minnesota 27, Syracuse 24