Well, with NCAA Football’s regular season over, it’s time to look forward to Bowlmania. But with so many bowls – 35 in all – which ones are the most I’m looking forward to?
Well, I’m going to present my top 10 bowl games to look forward to. Now myself, I think of myself as a hardcore college football fan, so there will likely be a few games on this list that some may think, “Really, you want to watch a bowl game between these two teams instead of these?”
10.) Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – December 31 – Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)
You’d think a battle between two mediocre teams wouldn’t be that interesting, right? But what makes this matchup interesting is that both of them have recently fired their head coaches after such a mixed bag.
Ron Zook began the season 6-0, including a win over then-#22 Arizona State. But the team couldn’t manage another win afterwards, and capped off the season with a loss to the lowly Golden Gophers of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, at UCLA, Rick Neuheisel and the Bruins managed to make it to the first Pac-12 Championship game, due to USC facing sanctions and the rest of the Pac-12 South being horrible. They did beat California and Arizona State, but also lost to Arizona, Utah, and were thrashed by USC 50-0.
However, both teams have had highlights of brilliance. Illinois has a great defense, ranked 21st in points allowed (including limiting Penn State to 10 points, and Ohio State to 17). Though their sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is nothing stellar, they do have a quality receiver in senior A.J. Jenkins, who should get some looks within the middle of the 2012 NFL Draft.
UCLA’s QB situation isn’t particularly well either, but they do have a good rushing attack, with sophomore Johnathan Franklin providing the speed and Derrick Coleman providing power. However, unlike Illinois, they lack the stopping power that the Fighting Illini has shown.
Predictions: Illinois 24, UCLA 10. Neither team has the momentum going in this match, but the Fighting Illini have the better defense, and thus, should get the win.
9.) Gildan New Mexico Bowl – December 20 – Temple (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-4)
Wait a moment. Temple and Wyoming? A matchup between a former Big East dropout and a Mountain West afterthought in a game in New Mexico is considered exciting?
Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. The first game of Bowlmania kicks off between two teams that are big on the running backs.
Temple averages 256.7 rushing yards per game, good for 7th in the nation, and is headlined by Bernard Pierce, another player who should some warrant looks in the 2012 Draft. They also post a great defense, 3rd in points scored; some people will question as to how good their D really is, when you’re facing opponents like Akron and Buffalo. However, they did limit Penn State to just 14 in a loss, and crushed Maryland 38-7.
Wyoming finished 8-4, but of their four losses, three of them came against quality opponents in Nebraska, TCU, and Boise State (the fourth loss against Utah State). Wyoming’s rushing attack, while not as great as Temple’s, they do average 185.1 rushing yards a game, good for 31st in the nation. The rest of their team is middle-of-the-road; not great, but not bad either. The main problem for the Cowboys is that they allow running backs rush for too many yards, which Temple will try to capitalize on.
Prediction: Temple 30, Wyoming 20. The only way the Cowboys have a shot at winning this is to stop Bernard Pierce and force the Owls to pass (ranked 117th out of 120th). However, I think Pierce will be too explosive and will exploit them handily.
8.) Pinstripe Bowl – December 30 – Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Yeah, I’m a bit biased on this one, because of Rutgers. When I’m home in New Jersey, I’m literally minutes away from both the campus and Highpoint Solutions Stadium. Ah, Rutgers, I remember the days in the late ’90s, when as a Cub Scout, I would watch the Scarlet Knights get pummeled by teams like Tulane and Prairie View A&M…
But under the coaching of Greg Schiano, he’s turned this program around the past decade, and they’re going to their sixth bowl game in 7 seasons (they missed last year, going 4-8). They had a shot of claiming a share of their first-ever Big East championship, but were beaten by Connecticut, another team I’ve had the chance to see live the past couple of years.
But anyway, enough of my Rutgers bias. There are still a number of reasons why I like this bowl game. First thing is the bowl itself. It’s only one of two bowls in the Northeast (the other being the Military Bowl in Washington D.C.), something of which I think should be changed; do we really need so many bowl games in Florida? It’s also located in the new Yankee Stadium, an interesting place to play in; the old Yankee Stadium had its share of historic football games, particularly between Notre Dame and Army. Mmmmm, nostalgia.
Lets talk about the teams though. The big positive about Rutgers is that they have an underrated defense. Outside of West Virginia and UConn, they haven’t allowed a whole bunch of points, and all of their losses – again, except UConn, were relatively close (North Carolina by 2, Louisville by 2, West Virginia by 10); the Scarlet Knights can at least say, they play competitive football. The other big positive is that have junior receiver, Mohamed Sanu, who set a Big East single-season record in receptions, with 109. Sanu has great speed and hands, he could become the next Kenny Britt (who, coincidentally enough, also played for Rutgers)! However, the Scarlet Knights have two problems. One, is they commit too many stupid turnovers (again, providing the UConn game as an example). Two, is their QB situation; sophomore Chas Dodd and true freshman Gary Nova both have the ability to start, but they also have the tendency to make poor throws. My guess is they’ll go with Nova, as his statistics are just slightly better than Dodd’s.
Meanwhile, for Iowa State, they’ve had an up-and-down year. They began the season 3-0, including a win over Iowa. They then suffered a four-game losing streak, followed by a yet another three-game winning streak, including wins over Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. They lost the final two games against Oklahoma and Kansas State. Like Rutgers, their QB situation is a mystery. The awesomely named Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett are both capable of starting, but like Rutgers, it’s difficult to say who will. My money is on Barnett, who is able to run with the football, as well. They have decent depth at receiver position; there’s no one big option, as the ball is spread out more, though senior Darius Reynolds would be their number one. Interesting thing to note with Iowa State is how they go about winning/losing games. When they win, they’re very close; four of their six wins were decided by four or fewer points, and the game against Oklahoma State went to double overtime. When they lose, however, it’s big; 52-17 to Missouri, 49-26 to Baylor, and 26-6 to Oklahoma. Ouch.
Prediction: Rutgers 24, Iowa State 13. With that being said, Iowa State is an underrated team and should not be taken lightly; they are a Big 12 team that beat two top-20 nationally ranked teams. However, Rutgers has a tough defense, UConn game notwithstanding. Plus, playing at Yankee Stadium will be like a home game for them, and they have already played there once before (earlier in the season against Army). Sorry, Cyclone fans, my money’s on Rutgers.
7.) TicketCity Bowl – January 2 – #19 Houston (12-1) vs. #22 Penn State (9-3)
Provided you have ESPN U or ESPN3.com, this match should be a good showcase of great offense (Houston) vs. great defense (Penn State).
Houston had a shot of earning a BCS at-large bid, but failed to do so after losing the C-USA Conference Championship to Southern Miss last week. That loss aside, Houston has the ability to score like no other team in the nation. They average more than 50 points a game, and have scored no less than 28 points during the regular season (and that was in their loss to S. Miss). This team is led by the arm of Case Keenum, who now has just about every career passing record you could possibly get. Though he’s a sixth-year, he should still get a lot of looks in this year’s draft. Say what you will about him playing for Houston and a weak conference, he’s accurate and throws for a lot of touchdowns; I don’t care who your competition is, but when you can throw 9 touchdowns in a SINGLE game, you have talent (vs. Rice).
As for Penn State, I thought they deserved a better bowl than this, considering their season was not only marred by the Sandusky scandal, but they played, as usual in the Big 10, a tough in-conference schedule, along with having to face Alabama. Despite all of this, they still managed to win a share of the Leaders division of the Big 10. I was expecting this team to break down, but they still managed to play with a lot of heart. I give them a lot of credit. The Nittany Lions win games through defense. They’re not flashy and their offense is not particularly great but they get the job done. Senior defensive tackle Devon Still and junior linebacker Gerald Hodges are their two best guys, and boy, can these two pound offensive lines and tackle.
Prediction: Houston 30, Penn State 22. Originally, I thought that the loss against Southern Miss will demoralize them for this game. And I highly doubt Houston will score 40-50 points plus against a defense like Penn State’s, but I still think Case Keenum and the Houston offense will still be too much for them to handle.
6.) TaxSlayer Gator Bowl – December 2 – Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)
Let’s be honest. Were it between any other teams, this matchup probably wouldn’t happen. A January matchup between two 6-6 teams, surely you jest? Somehow though, the stars were perfectly aligned; Urban Meyer’s former team vs. the team Urban Meyer will coach next year. Yeah, Meyer isn’t even coaching in this game, but he will be talked about. And a close bout should be expected in this one.
No team, I feel, deserves an excuse for mediocrity, but if I had to give a benefit of the doubt to some team, it would have to be the Buckeyes. Despite loss of scholarships, despite having a first-year head coach in Luke Fickell – who I hope will still get a head coaching job in the near future, because he does deserve it -, despite injuries, they still managed a .500 record. Yes, the lost to Purdue was ugly and the one against Michigan State was even more atrocious, but they did manage to beat Wisconsin and put up a heck of a fight against the much-improved Michigan. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller is not very accurate, but has the ability to run with the football, and is the key component of this offense.
Florida has less of an excuse though. They hired Texas defensive coordinator and long-time coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp to be their head coach. Charlie Weis provided as their offensive coordinator. People were expecting to great things to come out of this team, myself included. Boy, were we all wrong. The defense was certainly there, but the offense wasn’t. The Gators’ season began on a four-game winning streak, though they were against three cupcake teams and Tennessee, which currently is a shell of its former glory. Then, they faced Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, and lost to all of them. They barely beat an improved but still building Vanderbilt, lost to a Marcus Lattimore-less South Carolina, and lost to in-state rival Florida State. Senior QB John Brantley improved in his second post-Tebow year, but was still susceptible to bad judgment and continued to face a struggling offensive line, which is something that the Gators should look at in recruiting. I like sophomore safety Mike Elam; though small, he is not only capable of breaking up plays, but is also capable of sneaking into his opponent’s backfield and tackling for losses; I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next year. Sophomore defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell is another player that deserves positive feedback; a 5-star prospect out of California, he has certainly lived up to his hype so far.
Prediction: Florida 14, Ohio State 13. This game will be an ugly, low-scoring game. But part of what makes this is an exciting game to watch is to see how ugly both teams will play on offense. Turnovers almost feel like a given in this one, and the game may just come down to which team is capable of capitalizing on them. That said, I think Florida gets the notch.
5.) BCS National Championship – January 9 – #2 Alabama vs. #1 LSU
Like most people who are not from the Southeast, I didn’t want this to matchup to happen. I’m not a fan of rematches when it comes to bowl games or championships, and felt that Oklahoma State – with their high-powered offense – was more deserving of the #2 spot, despite the loss to Iowa State (which, by the way, they played on the road, on the night tragedy struck for the university). However, despite that, Round 2 between LSU and Alabama should be a good one, though TV ratings may say otherwise.
As we have seen from both teams, their defenses speak more than anything else, but that’s not to say these teams don’t have anything on offense.
Alabama has Trent Richardson, one of the top running backs in the nation and a Heisman finalist. But there’s more to the Crimson Tide than just him. How about their quarterback, A.J. McCarron? Quietly, the 6’4″ sophomore has had a pretty good season, completing roughly 2/3 of his passes for 2400 yards and 16 touchdowns.
LSU, meanwhile, has scored 30+ points in all but two of their games (Mississippi State and Alabama). Both senior quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson weren’t much of factor in the first game (Lee was 3-of-7 for 24 yards, 2 interceptions; Jefferson was 6-of-10 for 67 yards) against Alabama. Jefferson played in the SEC Championship, not Lee, and did better statistically in their first game, so my money’s on Jefferson starting. LSU, also has an effective two-back system in place though; sophomores Michael Ford and Spencer Ware both had 700+ rushing yard season, and will prove to be a nuisance once more in this game.
Prediction: LSU 13, Alabama 10. I can just picture it now… Crimson Tide will attempt to win with under two minutes to go. McCarron will throw it deep, only for the “Honey Badger” himself (and Heisman finalist), Tyrann Mathieu, to make the interception and seal the game.
4.) AT&T Cotton Bowl – January 6 – #8 Kansas State vs. #6 Arkansas
I’ve been a fan of college football for a long time now. I’ve watched every Cotton Bowl since 1998 and enjoyed all of them (with the exception of 2005; Tennessee vs. Texas A&M). It’s a classic that dates back to the 1930s, features a Big 12 vs. SEC matchup, and is in a venue that seats 105,000+. It’s a game that should be considered as a BCS matchup, but due to ESPN’s television contract, it won’t happen… for now at least.
What can you say about Kansas State? Under the coaching of Bill Snyder, the Wildcats finished second in the Big 12, with losses to only Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Their defense is considered to be about average at best; then again, they did face against teams like Oklahoma State, Baylor, and won a 53-50, 4OT game against Texas A&M, so maybe they deserve some more credit. The big weapon the Wildcats have on offense is junior quarterback Collin Klein. You think guys like Cam Newton and/or Tim Tebow are something? You haven’t seen this kid. He had just 12 passing touchdowns this season, but also had 26 rushing touchdowns in this season. Wow! Did I forget to mention that the 6’5″ Klein does special teams too? Yeah, this kid can fly.
But Arkansas has noteworthy guys as well. With all the talk about QBs like Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Kellen Moore, Case Keenum, Russell Wilson, Brandon Weeden, and Robert Griffin III, it seems that the Razorbacks’ Tyler Wilson gets lost in the shuffle. Despite playing for the SEC, he has the 21st best passer rating in the nation, threw for 3422 yards(15th in the nation), and 22 touchdowns. He also set a record for most passing attempts without an interception (184). Like Alabama and LSU, they have a good defense, as well (though obviously to a lesser extent). Linebackers Jerry Franklin and Alonzo Highsmith are two guys I would watch for in this matchup.
Prediction: Kansas State 30, Arkansas 24. Bill Snyder has worked miracles for this program, but the Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since the 2002 Holiday Bowl. It’s about time they won one, right? I believe Klein will work around this Razorbacks’ D, either by air or by ground. Wilson will put up great numbers too, but I think will underperform when they need him most.
3.) Outback Bowl – January 2 – #17 Michigan State (10-3) vs. #16 Georgia (10-3)
A battle between Big 10 and SEC Championship runner-ups, the Outback Bowl should pose as a good matchup between teams that have relatively balanced offenses.
Michigan State has senior Kirk Cousins as their quarterback, who should be known for more than just that hail mary touchdown pass in the first contest against Wisconsin. Like Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, he’s had a mostly quiet season, throwing for more than 3000 yards. He doesn’t throw too many deep passes, but he is an accurate quarterback. Running backs LeVeon Bell and Edwin Baker had nearly the same amount of carries (Bell had 165, Baker had 164) this season, although Bell has amassed 245 more rushing yards, and 6 more touchdowns. Bell is big for a running back; he’s 6’2″ and weighs 237 pounds. He pounds you through the middle, and likes it that way. However, the best weapon this team has on offense is their senior receiver, B.J. Cunningham. He made big waves late in the season, grabbing 9 touchdowns over the last 4 games, including three in the conference championship game against Wisconsin.
Georgia’s QB, sophomore Aaron Murray, also had a quiet season. Though a little small for QB (he’s 6’1″) and not as accurate as Cousins, he did throw for 33 touchdowns. However, the player I’ll be watching in this game is true freshman RB Isaiah Crowell. Despite not playing in two games and the competition he has on the depth chart, he still amassed for 847 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. Given more playing time and carries, I think he could be a force to reckon with in the SEC for the next year or two.
Prediction: Georgia 28, Michigan State 24. Mark Dantonio has done a great job with this Michigan State program since taking over in 2007, but he has yet to win a bowl game in his tenure so far, including a loss to Georgia in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, and a 45-9 schlacking against Alabama in last season’s Outback Bowl. I think Cousins will put up decent numbers in what should be the final game of his collegiate career, but Georgia’s Murray will end up being the hero in this one.
2.) Rose Bowl – January 2 – #10 Wisconsin (11-2) vs. #5 Oregon (11-2)
Do you like running backs? If so, you’re going to love this matchup. These are two teams that love to score and love using their pro-potential running backs.
Let me talk about Wisconsin’s Montee Ball for a bit. A lot of people are talking about how Richardson has more pro potential and is more of a Heisman candidate, but not only can you not take away Ball’s stats – 1759 rushing yards, 32 rushing touchdowns, plus 6 receiving touchdowns (his 38 total touchdowns is one behind the single-season TD record, which was accomplished by none other than Barry Sanders) but I find him a more dynamically exciting player. No matter who the competition is, Ball finds a way to get into the end zone. An easy 1st-round draft pick, no doubt. But wait, there’s more! Wisconsin also boasts a solid quaterback with Russell Wilson and one of the top defenses in the nation. Junior linebacker Chris Borland, though a bit small, is a tackling machine. Senior DB Antonio Fenelus is another solid player, who is capable of getting interceptions.
Oregon, meanwhile, also has a decent defense, though nowhere near the level Wisconsin plays. Instead, they like to light up the scoreboard, and it all starts with LaMichael James. This kid has speed, speed, and even more speed. I’m sure some pro teams will be wary of his past conduct, but don’t let that take away the talent he possesses. Junior QB Darron Thomas is a solid talent, as well. Thought not a prolific passer, he did throw for nearly 2500 yards, and 30 touchdowns. But what keeps James and Thomas perform so well is their great O-line. One, in particular, is senior right tackle Mark Asper; he has the size (6’7″, 325 pounds) and the strength (he led offensive linemen with a 500-pound squat during winter conditioning) to prevent incoming defenders from getting in the backfield.
Prediction: Oregon 45, Wisconsin 42. Forget about how Oregon performed against LSU, that was Week 1 and have been much better since. It’s going to be a real test for the Oregon O-line, as they face against the Badgers’ D. My original prediction was going to be the Badgers winning by 10, thanks to Montee Ball. However, I almost forgot about James’ speed, and I think that will be the biggest factor as to who wins this game.
1.) Fiesta Bowl – January 2 – #4 Stanford (11-1) vs. #3 Oklahoma State (11-1)
Or as I like to call it, the “Consolation Bowl.” With that said, this will be the best game of Bowlmania, in my personal opinion. Now normally, I like good defensive matchups, but when you have the high-powered offenses that these two teams possess, you might well as throw that out the door now and enjoy it. Look forward to seeing Brandon Weeden and Andrew Luck throw the ball everywhere across the field.
Speaking of Brandon Weeden, there might not be a better quarterback-wide receiver duo than Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. I love watching these two perform, they simply gel together, and Blackmon should be a clear top-10 draft pick. Blackmon is such a dynamic, go-to guy; he’s had at least 50 yards and 6 receptions in every game this season. And you know what? That wasn’t even his best season; take a look at last year’s performance, where he had 20 receiving touchdowns. Oklahoma State also boasts a quality running back in Joseph Randle. Don’t overlook this sophomore, he had nearly 1200 yards on the ground and had 23 touchdowns.
As for Stanford, we all know how great Andrew Luck is. He’s accurate, he’s intelligent, he’s a Heisman candidate (both this year and last year), and he’ll likely be the #1 draft pick in 2012. But there’s more to this Stanford offense though. On the receiving end, you have senior Griff Whalen; though he didn’t have many touchdown, he does possess solid hands. Meanwhile, senior tight end Coby Fleener amasses the yards and touchdowns. He averaged just over 20 yards a CATCH, and is a very solid red zone threat. Fleener, I think, has a lot of pro potential for a team in need of a solid receiving tight end (see: Chicago, Arizona, St. Louis, etc.)
Prediction: Oklahoma State 52, Stanford 45. Let the points fly! Luck and Weeden, as I said, will be throwing everywhere. Left, right, short passes, deep passes, you name it. In the end, though, I think it comes down to Joseph Randle with a late 4th quarter TD from the red zone, followed by some close-but-no-cigar Hail Marys from Luck that finish off this game. No matter who wins this matchup though, I can honestly say that this might be the most exciting bowl game of the year.