Finally time for some good bowl games

Charles Davis previews the Cotton Bowl, which is Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
Charles Davis previews the Cotton Bowl, which is Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
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Pete Fiutak

Pete Fiutak writes previews, predictions and prognostications for


It’s been an entertaining bowl season so far, with some strong games from unlikely sources, but now is when the fun really starts to kick in. Now is when the bowl season becomes the bowl season.

The slow trickle of games over the first two weeks is good, but this time of year is about gluttony. It’s about a Saturday with five games and a loaded Monday with some of the best matchups of the year, closing out with the Rose and Fiesta bowls. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.

While you can check out the bowl previews for the breakdown, analysis and prediction of each game, here’s a quick primer on the bowl matchups leading up to the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 9 in New Orleans.

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Saturday in Houston
Noon ET on ESPN
Northwestern vs. Texas A&M

Northwestern (6-6) is trying to ease its bowl pain, having lost eight straight after winning its inaugural bowl appearance in the 1949 Rose. A four-game winning streak — highlighted by a shocker over Nebraska — saved a season that wasn’t going anywhere, and with QB Dan Persa and an ultra-efficient passing game, this might be the year the Wildcats finally end the season on a positive note. Texas A&M might be 2011’s most disappointing team after coming into the year with national title hopes. The Aggies might be 6-6, but they lost five games by a touchdown or less thanks to several fourth-quarter collapses. Before taking off for the SEC with new head coach Kevin Sumlin, A&M will be trying to finish on a positive note after losing four of its final five games.

Hyundai Sun Bowl
Saturday in El Paso, Texas
2 p.m. ET on CBS
Georgia Tech vs. Utah

It’s the big question mark: Does the Paul Johnson option-style offense work when good teams have time to prepare for it? The Yellow Jackets (8-4) lost four of their last six after starting out 6-0, but they still finished third in the nation in rushing. Georgia Tech has lost six straight bowl games, starting with a 38-10 clunker against Utah in the 2005 Emerald Bowl. Utah (7-5) struggled in a disappointing first year in the Pac-12, made worse by a choke at home to a bad Colorado team with a shot at the conference title on the line. The offense was the worst in the conference, with the passing game tanking after losing star quarterback Jordan Wynn early on. But the team still closed strong with four wins before the gaffe against the Buffaloes, and it has had a month to figure out how to stop the option.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Saturday in San Francisco
3:30 pm ET on ESPN
UCLA vs. Illinois

This is the bowl that gives bowls a bad name. Illinois was the first team in college football history to lose six in a row after starting out 6-0, leading to the firing of coach Ron Zook. While the offense fell off a cliff during the second half of the season, the defense, led by All-American DE Whitney Mercilus, was solid. The Illini have the nation’s fourth-best pass defense, while UCLA would like to find any semblance of defense at all after giving up a total of 99 points in its final two games to USC and Oregon. The Bruins had to petition the NCAA to be eligible for a bowl game after finishing 6-7 — thanks to the Pac-12 title game loss to the Ducks — and now they’re trying to close out strong before new coach Jim Mora takes over. UCLA has one of the worst pass rushes in America — finishing 112th in sacks and 102nd in tackles for loss — while the Illini is ninth in the nation in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss.

bowl season action gallery

Sensational Sammy

Clemson star WR Sammy Watkins is just one BCS bowl players to watch
this postsason.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Saturday in Memphis, Tenn.
3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt

First-year coach James Franklin took over the job declaring that Vanderbilt could be a winner. If he can get the Commodores (6-6) past Cincinnati, this year, he’ll be right. Vandy found an offensive spark when quarterback Jordan Rodgers — brother of Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers — started to boost the passing game. Meanwhile, its aggressive defense was strong enough to keep games against the top SEC teams from getting out of hand. Cincinnati (9-3) came close to taking the Big East’s BCS berth after closing strong with wins over Syracuse and Connecticut, but the loss of starting quarterback Zach Collaros changed the season at a critical time in late November. The defense led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss and was dominant against the run. Don’t expect a high-scoring shootout.

Chick-fil-A Bowl
Saturday in Atlanta
7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Virginia vs. Auburn

Auburn (7-5) has spent the year in rebuilding mode, and it showed from the start as the Tigers needed a miraculous comeback to beat Utah State in the season opener. The offense died against decent teams — failing to score more than 17 points against anyone in the SEC except Ole Miss and Mississippi State — and finished 104th in the nation. Virginia (8-4) was one of the ACC’s biggest surprises. While the Cavaliers' blowout loss to Virginia Tech to miss out on a chance to play for the conference title was disappointing, this year appears to be a stepping-stone under coach Mike London. The Cavaliers have a decent running game and a strong defense, but can they deal with Auburn’s speed?

TicketCity Bowl
Monday in Dallas
Noon ET on ESPNU
Penn State vs. Houston

Which disappointed team will be more interested in finishing with a big win? Just when you thought the Penn State season wasn’t ugly enough, things took yet another turn when receiver Curtis Drake sent quarterback Matt McGloin to the hospital in a locker-room fight. Drake won’t make the trip and McGloin is still trying to recover, making things that much harder for an offense that averages less than 20 points per game. The Nittany Lions (9-3) were openly upset about not going to a bigger bowl, while Houston (12-1) was crushed after blowing its BCS chance with a home loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship. On opposite ends of the spectrum, Penn State is 112th in the nation in passing efficiency, while the Cougars — thanks to the NCAA’s all-time passing leader, Case Keenum — have college football’s No. 1 offense, passing offense and scoring offense and are third in passing efficiency.

bowl season mascots

Costume party!

Owls, Tigers, Bucky ... oh, my!
Who has the best mascot? Take a peek and judge for yourself!

Capital One Bowl
Monday in Orlando, Fla.
1 p.m. ET on ESPN
Nebraska vs. South Carolina

If you’re expecting high-octane passing games and thrilling offensive attacks, look elsewhere. This game will come down to the trenches as the Huskers' offensive line will wage one of the best battles of the bowl season against the terrific Gamecocks defensive front. Nebraska’s inaugural season in the Big Ten was a success, for the most part, and finishing out with a 10th win by giving its new conference a victory over an SEC team would be special. The Huskers (9-3) have a two-man attack with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead leading the way for a ground game that averages 224 yards per game, but South Carolina’s defense is loaded and has had a month to prepare to stop the rushing stars. The Gamecocks' defense has helped bail out an offense without star running back Marcus Lattimore and with top NFL receiver prospect Alshon Jeffery kept down because of poor quarterback play. Arguably the SEC’s fourth best team behind LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, South Carolina (10-2) is playing for its first 11-win season. Gator Bowl
Monday in Jacksonville, Fla.
1 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Ohio State vs. Florida

Urban, Urban, Urban. Urban Meyer doesn’t coach Florida anymore, and Luke Fickell will be handling things for Ohio State (6-6) in the bowl before Meyer takes over in Columbus. But most of the storylines in this game surround a figure who doesn’t have much to do with this game. The 2007 BCS championship between the two teams seems like it was 20 years ago, but both teams are loaded with young talent, and both have the potential to be special again soon. Ohio State has to enjoy this now after the NCAA banned the program from playing in a bowl next year, and it has to come up with a win to break a three-game losing streak and avoid its first losing season since 1988. The Buckeyes have a terrific freshman quarterback in Braxton Miller and a good defense led by a nasty secondary. Florida’s defense has been even better statistically, but that’s partly because it didn’t face a slew of high-end offenses. The offense was a disaster with too many turnovers, not enough big pass plays, and no more than 26 points against an FBS team since late-September. A loss for the Gators (6-6) would mean the first losing season since 1979 and would put coach Will Muschamp squarely on the 2012 hot seat.

Outback Bowl
Monday in Tampa, Fla.
1 p.m. ET on ABC
Michigan State vs. Georgia

There aren’t too many teams more motivated than Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans (10-3) get slighted by the BCS for a second straight year, but they’re also trying to avenge one of the ugliest bowl performances of last year — getting blown out by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. From quarterback Kirk Cousins on down, the team has been waiting for its chance to make amends. But the Big Ten runner-up has to deal with Georgia (10-3), which is looking to prove that its light SEC schedule — no LSU, Alabama or Arkansas in the regular season — wasn’t the reason for its big turnaround. The MSU defense has been one of the best in college football all season long, especially on the line, but Georgia’s has been better, coming into the game No. 3 in the nation behind Alabama and LSU. Cousins vs. Georgia’s Aaron Murray is one of the best quarterback matchups in the bowls, but the defenses should be the stars in what might be a slugfest.

bowl season action gallery

About that time

Bowl season is rolling along, and we've got the best images from every game.

Rose Bowl
Monday in Pasadena, Calif.
5 p.m. ET on ESPN
Wisconsin vs. Oregon

Welcome to the new world order. USC might be on its way back to being the powerhouse of the Pac-12, but Oregon (11-2) has won three straight conference titles. Ohio State might look scary down the road and Michigan is putting together a whopper of a recruiting class, but it’s Wisconsin (11-2) that is going to a second straight Rose Bowl and is the Big Ten’s current star. Now, one of the two programs has to win something big. Oregon lost last year’s BCS championship and the 2010 Rose Bowl as part of a run of six bowl losses in the past eight years. Wisconsin has lost three of its past four bowl games, including last year’s Rose Bowl against TCU. The Badgers pound the ball with Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball working behind one of college football’s toughest offensive lines. But this isn’t a one-dimensional attack, as quarterback Russell Wilson is capping off one of the most efficient passing years in college football history. Can the Badgers' power overcome the blinding speed and quickness of LaMichael James and an Oregon attack that led the Pac-12 in scoring, total yards and rushing yards? The Big Ten has won just one Rose Bowl since Wisconsin’s victory over Stanford in the 2000 game, while the last Pac-12 team other than USC to win one was Washington in 2002.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Monday in Glendale, Ariz.
8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Oklahoma State vs. Stanford

It’s No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 4 Stanford, but many think the Cowboys (11-1) should be No. 2. It’s statement-making time for an OSU team that came within inches on a missed late field-goal try in the double-overtime loss to Iowa State from playing in the BCS title game. If the Cowboys win, then the argument could be made that the wrong team is playing LSU for the national title. But if Stanford wins, the BCS lovers will cry out that the system worked. Either way, it should be a fascinating battle between two NFL-caliber quarterbacks and two terrific offenses. Considering the way LSU and Alabama played the first time around, this is the game for fans of the forward pass. Led by QB Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State finished second in the nation in scoring offense and passing offense, highlighted by a 44-10 blasting of Oklahoma that probably should’ve been enough to kill the LSU-Alabama rematch plan. Stanford (11-1) got dominated at home by Oregon and wasn’t quite right over the final two games against Cal and Notre Dame. Quarterback Andrew Luck already has said he’s ready to go pro. If the Cardinal wins, he’ll leave with the 2011 Orange Bowl and 2012 Fiesta Bowl titles to his credit.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Tuesday in New Orleans
8:30 pm ET on ESPN
Virginia Tech vs. Michigan

Michigan State has a legitimate case that it deserves to be here over Michigan, and several teams — such as Kansas State and Boise State — are still grouchy about Virginia Tech slipping in, but the matchup is the matchup, and it should be great. The Hokies (11-2) lost two games to Clemson, and there isn’t a signature win on the résumé. Shutting out Virginia to get to the ACC title game was nice, but that was all forgotten after Clemson roared past Tech in a blowout. The defense is stingy and active, and David Wilson and the running game have the potential to be special. Meanwhile, Michigan (10-2) is looking to close out Brady Hoke’s first year with the program’s second 11-win season since it won the national title in 1997. The defense is night-and-day better than it was under Rich Rodriguez, while Denard Robinson led the Michigan offense to 85 points combined in its final two regular-season games against Nebraska and Ohio State. The Wolverines have the running game to match the Hokies yard for yard.


New-style or old-style, uniforms and helmets were the talk of the town. Here are some of the most distinctive.

Discover Orange Bowl
Wednesday in Miami
8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Clemson vs. West Virginia

The knee-jerk reaction from most fans is to dismiss and ignore the one BCS game the ACC and Big East champions were stuck in, but this has the potential to be wildly entertaining. West Virginia (9-3) doesn’t know how to play a boring game. It has four thrilling victories in the past five weeks, and its past four games all were decided by three points or fewer. The offense gave LSU a battle thanks to Geno Smith, who bombed away for 463 yards and two scores in the loss, and it’ll have to get its track shoes on against a Clemson offense that’s becoming among the most exciting in the ACC. Freshman sensation Sammy Watkins is a premier home-run hitter, while QB Tajh Boyd and most of the key parts to the rest of the offense are tuning up for what should be an even bigger 2012. The Tigers (10-3) took their foot off the gas after wrapping up the Atlantic title, losing three of the final four games before blowing away Virginia Tech for the ACC championship. Can they be focused enough to come up with their first Orange Bowl win since they took home the 1981 national title? There should be plenty of fireworks.

AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic
Friday, Jan. 6, in Arlington, Texas
8 p.m. ET on FOX
Kansas State vs. Arkansas

One of 2011’s biggest surprises, Kansas State (10-2) has been a great story under legendary head coach Bill Snyder. Arkansas (10-2), meanwhile, has overcome the preseason loss of star running back Knile Davis to put together a great year. Kansas State probably should be in a BCS game over Virginia Tech or Michigan, and Arkansas might be the No. 3 team in the nation, with its two losses coming to LSU and Alabama. While these two might have deserved one of the bigger bowl games, squaring off on a night all to themselves at Cowboys Stadium isn’t too far off from being a BCS-level battle. It’s certainly a far better matchup than the Orange or Sugar bowls. It’s the ultimate contrast in styles with Arkansas and one of college football’s best passing games trying to outplay Wildcats QB Collin Klein and one of the Big 12’s best ground attacks. The Razorbacks have been mediocre against the run and can be shoved around on the defensive front, while the Wildcats need their formula of no turnovers, third-down conversions and time of possession to mix together perfectly.

Tagged: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia, Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Boise State, Ohio, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia, Tulsa, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas, Cincinnati, Houston, Utah, Brigham Young, Montee Ball, Jake Knott, A.J. Klein, Collin Klein, Zach Collaros, G.J. Kinne, Riley Nelson, Dan Persa, LaMichael James, Whitney Mercilus, Jordan Rodgers, James Franklin, Marcus Lattimore, Marcus Coker, Mike London, Mohamed Sanu, Jordan Wynn, Aaron Murray

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