December 06, 2010
The regular season is finished and the schedule is set for all 36 bowl games. Yes, thirty-six. Five are part of the Bowl Championship Series. Here's your guide to the rest.
• Must-see TV. The Cotton Bowl's strategy for maneuvering its way into the BCS lineup gets a boost this year from a BCS-like time slot (primetime from Cowboys Stadium on Jan. 7, well after four of the five actual big-money bowls) and a BCS-caliber matchup between LSU and Texas A&M. The Tigers may have been the first team out of the BCS process after spending the last two months in the top dozen of the polls, moving as high as fifth after stunning Alabama on Nov. 6. Texas A&M has ripped off six straight since installing quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Cyrus Gray as the top options in the backfield, with wins over Big 12 frontrunners Oklahoma and Nebraska, bowl-bound Baylor and Texas Tech and archrival Texas.
The winner could easily find itself in the top 10 in the final edition of the polls, but there will be no more offseason "hot seat" chatter surrounding coaches Les Miles or Mike Sherman either way.
• Look, I need this, part one. South Carolina and Florida State came into Saturday bearing their highest December rankings in years, both on the cusp of validating conference championships – and subsequent BCS bids – for the administrations of coaches Steve Spurrier and Jimbo Fisher. Then they were both run out of the respective stadiums by the true overlords in the ACC and SEC, Virginia Tech and Auburn. The Chick-Fil-A Bowl isn't a bad consolation, especially for two new faces. For the loser, though, a potentially special season will have melted into just another unranked, five-loss dalliance with mediocrity.
• Look, I need this, part two. No team is openly playing for its head coach's job, but if anyone's future is in doubt, it's Rich Rodriguez, whose emotional state after three less-than-inspiring season at Michigan has deteriorated to the point that he's blasting Josh Groban songs in public. Mississippi State is far from a pushover in the Gator Bowl – the 8-4 Bulldogs have been poll mainstays for eight consecutive weeks since their upset at Florida; Michigan hasn't been ranked since the first week of October – but a Jan. 1 win over an SEC school to push the Wolverines' final record to 8-5 would go a long way to warding off the vultures circling his office.
• Hidden gem. The obvious "value" pick among non-name brand bowls is the Las Vegas Bowl showdown between 10-2 Utah and 11-1 Boise State on Dec. 22, the only game outside of the traditional January bowls featuring two ranked teams. The last time the Utes faced an opponent of Boise's caliber, though, they were trashed on their own field by TCU, 47-7. The week after that, they staggered into an ambush at Notre Dame. There's no good reason not to expect another comfortable win in Vegas for the Broncos, still owners of the widest average margin of victory in the country.
Take a flier instead on the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, which gets a West Virginia-N.C. State matchup that could have just as easily gone down in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers were only an overtime away from the Big East championship, and finished as the conference's highest-ranked team on the heels of a five-game winning streak to close the regular season. N.C. State came within a touchdown (and a questionable spot) in a 38-31 loss at Maryland of representing the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game. Even if that wouldn't make for such a great Orange Bowl, the collision of West Virginia's first-rate defense and prolific Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson is still the best bang for your buck among the second-tier games you might normally scroll past.
• Hide your kids, hide your wife. I hate to keep piling on poor UConn, which is facing a month of steady scorn for turning in the best season in school history. But even as Big East champion, the Huskies are easily the lamest participant ever foisted upon the BCS, and should come in for one of the most lopsided big-money beatings ever delivered in the Fiesta Bowl. If a team bearing the scars of losses to Temple and Rutgers and a shutout at the hands of Louisville can keep the score within three touchdowns against 11-2 Big 12 champ Oklahoma, it will be a truly heroic effort.
• This ticket is non-refundable, part one. The happiest bowl of them all is the Sun Bowl, which landed one of the sexiest possible name-brand matchups: Miami vs. Notre Dame, together again for the first time since their epic "Catholics vs. Convicts" series ended in 1990. Back then, though, the Irish and 'Canes were undisputed national powerhouses from opposite sides of the tracks battling for the soul of college football. Now, they're just another pair of struggling 7-5 outfits – one of which just fired its head coach – who are glad for the extra practices after losses to Navy, Tulsa, Virginia and South Florida between them. Tune in for the nostalgia, the scenery and the jokes about Miami fans taking Notre Dame fans to Ciudad Juarez after the game. But not for championship-caliber football.
• This ticket is non-refundable, part two. The other heavy-hitting showdown that doesn't quite live up to the marketing potential is Florida's Outback Bowl date with Penn State on Jan. 1, another meeting of 7-5 powers that barely made it to .500 in conference play and were both blown out by their only respectable non-conference tests. Between them, the Gators and Nittany Lions finished with five wins over opponents with winning records, and three of those were Miami (Ohio), South Florida and Temple.
• I don't believe I've seen you around here before. Four name changes and two brand new games to familiarize yourself with in this year's lineup:
GoDaddy.com Bowl (Mobile, Ala.): Formerly known as the GMAC Bowl and Mobile Alabama Bowl. (This year: Miami, Ohio vs. Middle Tennessee.)
TicketCity Bowl (Dallas): First-year game, held in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day. Not to be confused with the Cotton Bowl game, now held in Cowboys Stadium in Irving, Texas, on Jan. 7. (This year: Northwestern vs. Texas Tech on Jan. 1.)
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (San Francisco): Formerly known as the Emerald Bowl, and prior to that, the San Francisco Bowl. Played in the picaresque but bizarrely configured AT&T Park, where both teams are forced to share the same sideline – although they can actually fit an entire football field in the stadium. (This year: Boston College vs. Nevada on Jan. 9.)
• Thank God almighty, we're in a bowl at last. Four of the longest bowl droughts in the nation are ending for Army, Baylor, San Diego State and Washington, none of which has seen the postseason since 2002. Baylor's 16-year absence from the bowl lineup matched Duke's for the longest drought among "Big Six" conference teams, and leaves the Blue Devils alone in big-time futility with a bid to play Illinois in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 29. Army's Dec. 30 date with homestanding SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl is the Academy's first since 1996. San Diego State will stay at home for a Dec. 23 Poinsettia Bowl visit from Navy, the Aztecs' first bowl game since 1998.
And long-suffering Washington, fresh off a three-game winning streak and last-minute touchdown against Washington State to get to 6-6 for the season, is rewarded with a Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl rematch against a team that beat the Huskies by five touchdowns in Seattle in September. When you haven't sniffed the postseason since the 2002 Sun Bowl, you'll take what you can get.
Only one team is making its first ever bowl appearance: Florida International, Sun Belt champion, which takes its nine-year-old program into Detroit on Dec. 26 to take on Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. With the Golden Panthers off the hook, the list of schools that have never been bowling dwindles to Sun Belt brethren Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky. Hang in there, fellas.
• Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Georgia Tech and Air Force get together on Dec. 27 to recreate the mirror scene from "Duck Soup" in the Independence Bowl, a matchup of two of the four offenses nationally still running a classic bone-based, triple-option attack. It may be a high-scoring affair, but it most certainly will not be high-flying: The Yellow Jackets and Falcons finished No. 1 and No. 2 nationally in rushing offense, and put the ball in the air less often than any offenses outside of their option brethren at Army and Navy. If you're into disciplined cut-blocking, though, this is your game.
• Funny meeting you here, part one. The last time Michigan State won ten games in a season: 1999, when the Spartans finished off a 9-2 regular season with a Citrus Bowl win over Florida. The head coach: Nick Saban, who missed the bowl win to take over a demoralized ship at LSU. This year's edition of Michigan State is back above the double-digit mark in the win column at 11-1 under coach Mark Dantonio. MSU's opponent in the Capital One (née Citrus) Bowl: One Nick Saban, who'll send 9-3 Alabama up agains the co-Big Ten champs on Jan. 1 – the only matchup of a head coach against a former school.
• Funny meeting you here, part two. Tennessee was panned in August for dropping North Carolina from its 2011 schedule in a transparent attempt to give a still-rebuilding team a better chance at bowl eligibility. The Vols' opponent in the Music City Bowl? The very same Tar Heels, who'll meet a sea of orange in Nashville on the heels of four straight Tennessee wins to turn a 2-6 catastrophe into burgeoning optimism for the future.
Carolina fans certainly expected better at the start of what they hoped would be a banner season, but they should still enjoy the trip. There may not be another for a long, long time.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.