Enough with the hor d'oeuvres, lets dig into the main course of college football. This penultimate post will preview all the bowl games up to the Orange Bowl on January 3rd.
Meineke Car Care Bowl
Charlotte, North Carolina
Clemson versus South Florida
While it may not seem like it on the surface, this game has pretty big implications for Clemson. The Tigers enter this game with a disappointing 6-6 record. A loss here would give the Tigers their first losing season since 1998, and only their second since 1995! The Tigers could have had a much better season if their offense cooperated. The Tigers boasted the best defense in the ACC, but their offense ranked only 10th. Quarterback Kyle Parker took a huge step backward in 2010, throwing just 12 touchdowns after tossing 20 in 2009. The running game and special teams also took a hit with the loss of CJ Spiller. The Tigers averaged 4.81 yards per rush in 2009 (19th in the nation), but fell 4.09 yards per rush in 2010 (70th in the nation). In addition, after scoring 6 touchdowns on special teams in 2010 (5 by Spiller), the Tigers scored just one in 2010. On the other sideline, South Florida didn't do a whole lot very well in 2010, ranking 6th in the Big East on offense and 5th on defense. They did do a good job of hanging around and attempting to use the patented Skip Holtz close game magic. 7 of South Florida's 12 games were decided by 8 points or less, and the Bulls managed to win 4 of them (not quite up to his ridiculous standard at East Carolina). This game has low-scoring defensive struggle written all over it. Clemson is probably the better team, but 6 points is a little too much to feel comfortable laying on a team without an offense.
El Paso, Texas
Miami versus Notre Dame
While the two teams in the Sun Bowl have a relatively mediocre 14-10 combined record, the 'name' brands are pretty strong. Miami enters the game looking to send its senior class out with their first bowl win (Hurricanes haven't won a bowl game since 2006), and set the stage for a revival under new coach Al Golden. Golden won't coach the 'Canes in the bowl (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has a chance to rank as either the best or worst coach of all-time in terms of winning percentage), but with the job he has done at Temple, you have to figure Miami is in good hands. By all accounts, the Hurricanes should have finished much better than 7-5 in 2010. The offense was the best by far in the ACC, and the defense was solid (5th in the conference). However, the Hurricanes committed 32 turnovers (only Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State committed more) en route to a not-so-bad turnover margin of -4. However, those turnovers all seemed to come at once. In their 5 losses, they committed 20 turnovers (compared to just 12 in their 7 wins) and forced only 5 for a turnover margin of -15. If they did a better job of holding onto the ball, the Hurricanes could have contended for the ACC title. For the Irish, a 7-5 mark certainly represents progress, and compared to where they were in early November, the record is a success. On October 30th, the Irish lost at home to Tulsa to 4-5 with games remaining against a ranked Utah squad and a date at Southern Cal, a team the Irish had not beaten since 2001. The Irish held Utah to only 3 points and then took advantage of quarterback Matt Barkley's injury to upset the Trojans in LA. Notre Dame is a decent team with no bad losses (all 5 of the teams that beat them are playing in bowls), but this field goal spread seems about right. Miami is a very helter-skelter team though, so don't go laying any significant amount of money on them to win or cover.
Georgia versus Central Florida
The Bulldogs are in danger of enduring their first losing season since 1996! They needed a win over their in-state rival Georgia Tech over Thanksgiving Weekend to even qualify for postseason play. This has been by far the worst season Georgia has experienced under head coach Mark Richt. In fact, in the past two seasons, Georgia has lost 9 SEC games. When Richt took over the reigns of the Bulldogs in 2001, he did not lose his 9th conference game until 2005! Of course, Georgia is probably a little better than their 6-6 record would indicate. The Bulldogs were just 1-3 in one-score games and 4 of their 6 losses came to teams ranked in the current top 25. Georgia was middle-of-the-road on both sides of the ball in the SEC. Their offense, led by a redshirt freshman quarterback (Aaron Murray), ranked 6th in the SEC, and the defense ranked 5th. Georgia will be facing a team with their own star freshman quarterback (Jeff Godfrey) looking for their first ever bowl win (0-3 in their previous appearances). The Knights from UCF paced Conference USA in defense the pair of BCS-conference teams they faced this year fits in close losses. They held NC State quarterback Russell Wilson to his worst game as a collegian (completed just 10 of 30 passes for 105 yards) and Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas had one of his worst rushing days against UCF (76 yards on 22 carries). In addition, for the first time since Kevin Smith left following the 2007, UCF also had a solid offense. While they ranked only 7th in Conference USA on offense, their attack was very efficient. Jeff Godfrey ranked 8th nationally in pass efficiency, completing over 68% of his passes and averaging 9.8 yards per throw. Godfrey also hurt defenses with his feet, gaining over 500 yards on the ground and rushing for 10 touchdowns. UCF is a very dangerous team, representing the best defense Georgia has faced since their Cocktail Party date with Florida, and potentially the second best defense they have faced all year. Georgia will also have their hands full defending Godfrey and the efficient UCF offense. UCF may not win this game, but they will give Georgia a serious challenge.
South Carolina versus Florida State
South Carolina -3
Steve Spurrier versus Florida State, does it get any better? Did you know its been over 9 years since Spurrier last coached against Florida State? November 17, 2001 marked the last time Spurrier coached against the Seminoles. One of Spurrier's best Florida teams crushed the 'Noles 37-13. Two weeks later with a spot in the Rose Bowl (the national title game for 2001) on the line, the Gators were upset at home by Tennessee. Florida went on to crush Maryland in the Orange Bowl and Spurrier left to coach the Washington Redskins. In his absence, the Gators endured the Ron Zook era and then won a pair of national titles under Urban Meyer. Spurrier did not enjoy his collegiate success in the nation's capital, and returned to the coaching ranks at South Carolina. Under his guidance, the Gamecocks won the SEC East for the first time ever and with a win here, will finish in the top 25 for the first time since 2001 (eery coincidence eh?). South Carolina was solid on both sides of the ball, ranking 4th on both offense and defense in the SEC. The offense is led by quarterback Stephen Garcia, but freshman running back Marcus Lattimore has given the offense a new dimension this season. From 2008-2009, the Gamecocks rushed for 19 touchdowns as a team. Lattimore rushed for 17 himself in 2010 (as well as 1198 yards). He has a long way to go to catch George Rogers on the all-time Gamecock rushing list (5204 yards), but if stays healthy he will easily be the at worst the second best back in school history. For Florida State, this is their first bowl game since the 1971 Fiesta Bowl without coach Bobby Bowden. A win for the Seminoles would allow them to end the season ranked for only the second time since 2005 (consider the 'Noles were ranked in the top 10 of the final polls for every season 1987-2000). Florida State appeared to be the class of the ACC early in league play, but stumbled down the stretch. In their first 4 ACC games, the 'Noles averaged 424 yards per game and allowed an average of 295 yards per game (they were 4-0 in those games). In their last 4 ACC games, the 'Noles averaged 352 yards per game (failed to gain more than 374 yards) and allowed an average of 416 yards per game (they did manage a split in those 4 games). Florida State appears to be on a downward trajectory after their early season success. South Carolina should probably win this game, which would represent only the second bowl win for the Gamecocks since Spurrier took over.
Ticket City Bowl
Texas Tech versus Northwestern
Texas Tech -9.5
Is this the year? Can Northwestern finally break their bowl winless streak that stretches back to nearly World War II? Since winning the 1948 Rose Bowl against Cal, the Wildcats have lost 7 straight bowl games. To be fair, the Wildcats have been underdogs in each of those games, and have been substantial underdogs (at least a touchdown) in 6 of them. The Wildcats have come close to breaking the streak the past two seasons, losing in OT both years. If Northwestern is to break the streak, they will have to do so without quarterback Dan Persa who was lost for the year while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa. Without Persa, the Wildcats averaged over 100 fewer yards of total offense per game in their final two Big 10 games than they did in the first 6 with Persa. Of course, the defense also bears a great portion of the blame for those two defeats, surrendering a combined 1118 yards and 118 points in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. On the season, the Wildcat defense ranked just 9th in the Big 10, ahead of only Indiana and Michigan. If the Wildcats are to break the bowl losing streak, the burden will almost certainly rest with the offense. Their opponent in the Ticket City Bowl is the worst Texas Tech team in a decade. Not only did Tommy Tuberville severely cripple the offense (their ranking of 5th was the worst for any year I have SDPI data for), but the defense was among the worst in the Big 12 (tied with Baylor, ahead of only Kansas). The Red Raiders finished 3-5 in the Big 12, their first losing record in league play since Mike Leach's first season in 2000. The red Raiders were also very fortunate to qualify for a bowl. They won each of their Big 12 games by a touchdown or less (outscored by 80 points in their Big 12 games), won only two road games versus New Mexico (1-11) and Colorado (5-7), and even when factoring in their relatively soft non-conference slate, were outgained on the year. Texas Tech is a very shaky team to be favored by so much. Northwestern may not end their postseason victory drought, but they should do enough to cover. The Wildcats are your 4th lock of the bowl season.
Capital One Bowl
Alabama versus Michigan State
The Capital One Bowl features Nick Saban's current school versus (one of) Nick Saban's old school. With a win, Michigan State would guarantee themselves of a finish inside the top 10 for the first time since Nick Saban's 1999 team ended the year ranked number 7. Despite their disappointment in not playing in the Rose Bowl, its been a pretty special year for Michigan State. The Spartans have won 11 games for the first time in school history, beaten Michigan 3 times in a row, and won a share of the Big 10 title for the first time since 1990. The Spartans had an average offense by Big 10 standards (6th in the league), but it was very efficient. Kirk Cousins completed over 67% of his passes and ranked 19th nationally in pass efficiency. Running back Edwin Baker quietly rushed for nearly 1200 yards at over 6 yards per carry. The defense on the other hand, was very good, ranking second in the Big 10 (behind the always stout Ohio State unit). To win their first bowl game in nearly 10 years, the Spartans must contend with an Alabama team that was able to defend neither its national nor conference title. After not losing a regular season conference game since 2007, the Tide lost 3 in 2010, including one at home against archrival Auburn that likely would have doused their national title hopes. Alabama was solid, but not spectacular at any phase of the game in 2010, finishing 5th in the SEC on offense and 3rd on defense. Alabama is rightly favored in this one, as Nick Saban is one of his generation's best college coaches. However, don't count the Spartans out, as Saban is only 6-6 career in bowl games and this falls into one of the double digit favorites categories. Don't be surprised if the Spartans hang with the Tide and cover the number, and maybe even win outright.
Florida versus Penn State
This will be the final game (for now) for one of these coaches, and amazingly, it is not Joe Paterno. Urban Meyer's successful, but short tenure at Florida will draw to a close at the conclusion of this game. Both teams come into this game with identical 7-5 records hoping to ease the sting of a relatively disappointing season. For Florida, which finished atop the polls in 2008 and at number 3 in 2009, 2010 will either find them outside the final polls or in the nether regions of the top 25. The Gators struggles this season were all on one side of the ball--offense. The defense was the best in the SEC, but the offense only managed a 9th place showing. Sans Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez and a few others, the offense could never find its footing. As a team, the Gators threw just one more touchdown pass (12) than interceptions (11). The team also averaged just 4.35 yards per rush, after averaging over 5 yards per carry during each year Tebow was the starting quarterback (2007-2009). Penn State also failed to meet expectations after finishing in the top 10 of the final polls in both 2008 and 2009. Perhaps this was to be expected without an experienced quarterback heading into the season. However, not only did the offense disappoint (7th in the Big 10), but the defense did as well (also 7th in the Big 10). On the bright side, the offense did appear to step it up a notch after quarterback Matthew McGloin was earned the starting quarterback job. In their first 3 conference games, when Robert Bolden started, the Nittany Lions averaged just 296 yards and 16 points per game. In their final 5 games, all started by McGloin, Penn State averaged 425 yards and just over 30 points per game. How will McGloin fare against the strong Florida defense with such a long break? Its anyone's guess. Florida is probably the better team, but laying a whole touchdown seems a bit steep here.
Mississippi State versus Michigan
Mississippi State -5
Rich Rodriguez may be coaching for his job in the Gator Bowl. In his 3rd season at the helm of the Wolverines, he has finally gotten them bowl eligible. However, for the 3rd consecutive season, the Wolverines are saddled with a losing Big 10 record. Rich Rod's record against the Big 10 in his 3 seasons is now a sorry 6-18. In 2008, Michigan beat Wisconsin and Minnesota, which both finished 3-5 in Big 10 play. In 2009, the Wolverines only managed to beat Indiana which finished 1-7 in the Big 10. This year, the Wolverines beat Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue. Indiana once again finished 1-7, Purdue went 2-6, and the Illini went 4-4. The win over Illinois marks the Wolverines only win over a conference opponent that finished with at least a .500 league record. Michigan was the epitome of unbalanced in 2010. Their offense was the best in the Big 10 (even without Denard Robinson for significant portions) and their defense was the worst in the conference. 7 of their 8 conference opponents (all save Purdue) scored at least 34 points against the Michigan defense. The good news for Michigan is that their opponent in the Gator Bowl may not be able to take advantage (at least not significant advantage) of that glaring weakness. Mississippi State is back in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and just the second time since the turn of the century. A win in the game would give the Bulldogs 9 wins for the first time since 1999 and have them ranked in the final polls for the first time since 2000. That would be quite a coup for second year coach Dan Mullen. While Mullen's forte is offense, the Bulldogs won this season with a solid defense. Their offense ranked just 11th in the SEC (ahead of only lowly Vanderbilt), but their defense 6th (ahead of the defense of eventual SEC champ Auburn). The Bulldogs won with good defense, but they also won with good fortune. They went 4-2 in one-score games and recovered an amazing 14 of 17 opponent's fumbles. This should be a very interesting game. Can Mississippi State's weak offense exploit Michigan's obscenely weak defense and can Michigan's powerful offense exploit Mississippi State's solid defense? If you are itching to make a play here, take Michigan on the moneyline. Otherwise, leave this one alone.
TCU versus Wisconsin
Thanks to some special teams gaffes on the part of Boise State, the Horned Frogs will be proud participants in the granddaddy of em all. A win by TCU would likely land them their highest end of season poll ranking since they won the national title in 1938. Win or lose, TCU will likely finish in the top 10 of the final polls for the 3rd consecutive year (Alabama and Ohio State are the only other teams that can join TCU in that club--for Ohio State it would mark a 6th straight year of top 10 finishes). TCU was uber-dominant for the 3rd consecutive season in the Mountain West, easily ranking as the best offense and defense in the conference. With the exception of their 5-point win over San Diego State, they won each league game by at least 27 points. TCU has won 25 of their past 26 conference games, with the lone loss coming at undefeated Utah in 2008. Of those 25 wins, only 3 have come by single digits. In their never-ending struggle to earn national respect, Wisconsin will serve as a fine opponent. The Badgers have not lost since early October when they were turned away by 10 points at Michigan State. Since escaping Iowa by a single point on October 23rd, the Badgers have won their final 4 league games by a combined 151 points, twice scoring at least 70. In those final 4 games, the Badgers have averaged 505 yards per game (including 299 on the ground) after averaging just 362 yards in their first 4 league games (185 on the ground). TCU allowed only two opponents (ground conscious Air Force and rival SMU) to gain more than 100 yards rushing this season. The onus will be on Wisconsin to push around the TCU defense. With TCU being such a dominant team and such a small favorite, they are the 5th and final lock of the bowl season.
Oklahoma versus Connecticut
Congrats to the University of Connecticut who have gone from IAA to IA Independence to the Big East to the Fiesta Bowl. That being said, I don't know that the Huskies are actually that good. For starters, they lost to a team that finished last in the Big East (Rutgers), were shut out by a 6-6 (now 7-6) team (Louisville), were beaten by Temple (a solid team, but one a BCS bowl participant should not lose to), and scored just 10 points in a loss to a terrible Michigan defense. Their offense ranked just 7th in the Big East and their defense was not much better at 6th in the conference. The Huskies were able to grab the Big East's BCS bid thanks to a solid record in one-score games (3-1), including narrow wins over fellow conference co-champs West Virginia and Pitt, and a great turnover margin. The Huskies won their final 5 games after a 3-4 start, and in that span the Huskies committed just 5 turnovers while forcing 17 for a margin of +12. You will win a lot of games with a margin that high. For the Huskies to have any shot at actually winning this game, they will need to force a ton of turnovers. Oklahoma comes into this game looking to get off the BCS bowl snide, having lost 5 consecutive BCS bowls since winning the 2002 Rose Bowl. Their two losses in the Fiesta Bowl were especially painful as they were touchdown favorites over both Boise State in 2006 and West Virginia in 2007. In those games, the defense was torched for a combined 91 points! That shouldn't happen this year as Oklahoma comes into the game with the 3rd best offense and defense in the Big 12. The Sooners may not cover this large number (see the previous explanations of the trouble with double-digit favorites), but a loss here would mark one of the largest bowl upsets in history.
Stanford versus Virgina Tech
After the potential bloodbath in the Fiesta Bowl, the BCS offers up a fantastic showdown in the Orange Bowl. Both Stanford and Virginia Tech are strong teams that both ranked second overall in their respective conferences. After losing their Heisman contending running back Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal got better thanks to another Heisman in quarterback Andrew Luck. The Cardinal boasted the second best offense in the Pac-10 (behind Oregon), and they complimented that strength with the second best defense in the conference as well (behind Cal). Outside of close wins over Southern Cal and Arizona State, the Cardinal laid the wood in their other 9 wins. They beat solid teams like Notre Dame and Arizona by 23 and 25 points. They pounded average teams like Washington, Cal, and Oregon State by 41, 34, and 38 points. Outside of their second-half meltdown against Oregon, the Cardinal may have been the best team in the nation. Virginia Tech was certainly not an elite team, but they were very good. After opening the year with close losses to Boise State and James Madison, the Hokies reeled off 11 consecutive victories, with just one (a 7-point win over Georgia Tech) coming by fewer than 11 points. Ironically, it was the Hokie offense that carried the team, ranking second in the ACC. The defense was solid (6th in the conference), but not its usual outstanding self. This game should be one of the better ones of the bowl season. Stanford is the favorite, and rightly so, but methinks Virginia Tech will give the Cardinal a good game.