First look at 2012 bowl matchups

First, this is a nearly impossible puzzle to put together correctly in the first week of December with all the inside information possible, much less now. There will be changes in the bowl tie-ins, the seedings and the conference pecking order before the dust settles at the end of the season, but these are close.

Some of the bowls aren’t even sure which teams from which conferences will be available to them, so while a slot might make sense, things get out of whack when bowls jump the gun with invites or go with geographical matchups over good football pairings. The goal here is to attempt to account for the self-interests of the bowls that’ll want to sell tickets and generate publicity.

Second, remember that schedules mean everything. Some teams might be better than others but are predicted to go to lesser bowl games because their records might not be as strong as other possible choices. The best educated guess is taken at every turn.

Third, not everyone will get the call. There are only so many available slots, so some worthy teams, especially from the Big 12 and Big East, might get shut out due to a lack of at-large bids available.

Finally, don’t yell at us if you don’t like where your team is predicted to go. This will all likely change this before the season starts and will be updated every week throughout the year. If it looks like some team that we have playing in December looks like a world-beater, it’ll obviously be predicted to go to another bowl as the season goes on.

A few rules going forward.

1) The BCS games that lose their natural tie-ins get the first choices of at-large teams, and after that it goes Fiesta, Sugar, Orange in the selection process.

2) Notre Dame will have an automatic berth if it is in the top eight of the final BCS standings and can be selected as an at-large bid if it finishes in the top 14.

3) Some bowls ignore the final standings as far as the seedings and pairings. Again, geography is a big deal.

4) Here’s the deal with the traditional New Year’s Day bowls. The NFL will have Sunday, Jan. 1 to itself, and it’ll have Monday night, the 2nd, for Monday Night Football coming after the Rose Bowl. The Sugar Bowl moves to the 3rd, the Orange the 4th, and the Fiesta the 5th.

New Mexico Bowl

December 17, 2011 — Albuquerque, NM, 2 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

Mountain West No. 5 vs. WAC

Way Too Early Projection: Colorado State vs. Arizona*

Top Three Other Options: 1) Fresno State, 2) Louisiana Tech, 3) San Diego State

WHY? The pecking order in the Mountain West should be pretty easy, and assuming the TCU vs. Boise State winner ends up getting a BCS bid, then the spot could be tough to fill. The WAC will have a tough time finding enough bowl eligible teams, especially considering Fresno State’s schedule. Assuming there won’t be any WAC teams available, the bowl will find a way to take the most attractive Pac-12 team still alive.

uDrove Humanitarian Bowl

December 17, 2011 — Boise, ID, 5:30 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

WAC No.1 or No. 2 vs. MAC No. 3

Way Too Early Projection: Nevada vs. Toledo

Top Three Other Options: 1) Louisiana Tech, 2) Western Michigan, 3) Fresno State

WHY? Hawaii is locked into the Hawaii Bowl, but the big key will be how impressive Nevada is. If it’s half as interesting as it was last year, it’ll probably be off to the Poinsettia Bowl and Louisiana Tech will be here. Take a pick of MAC teams from Western Michigan to Northern Illinois to Temple, but Toledo will be the fun and exciting team with the explosive offense to make this interesting.

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

December 17, 2011 — New Orleans, LA, 9 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1 million

Sun Belt No. 1 vs. C-USA No. 5

Way Too Early Projection: Troy vs. UCF

Top Three Other Options: 1) FIU, 2) Marshall, 3) Arkansas State

WHY? The Sun Belt should be wild and crazy, but it’ll likely come down to the Troy vs. FIU winner. Several Conference USA teams will be in the running for this game, but SMU will likely stay in Texas somewhere and Southern Miss will probably get a stronger bowl bid.

Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl

December 20, 2011 — St. Petersburg, FL, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1 million

Big East No. 5 vs. C-USA No. 2

Way Too Early Projection: South Florida vs. Southern Miss

Top Three Other Options: 1) Louisville, 2) UCF, 3) Cincinnati

WHY? The bowl will want someone from Florida, and while UCF would be a thought, USF would be better. If Houston can escape one of the Texas bowls, it would be a thrilling foe for the Big East opponent. USF might be too good for this bowl slot, but it would be a good fit to stay close to home.

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl

December 21, 2011 — San Diego, CA, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1 million

Mountain West No. 2 vs. WAC

Way Too Early Projection: Air Force vs. Louisiana Tech

Top Three Other Options: 1) TCU, 2) Boise State, 3) Nevada

WHY? Assuming the TCU vs. Boise State winner is in the BCS, then Air Force should be a lock here. Nevada would be the sexier choice, but Louisiana Tech should end up with one of the WAC’s few openings here or in the Humanitarian Bowl.

MAACO Las Vegas Bowl

December 22, 2011 — Las Vegas, NV, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $2.2 million

Mountain West No. 1 vs. Pac-12 No. 5

Way Too Early Projection: TCU vs. Utah

Top Three Other Options: 1) Boise State, 2) Oregon State, 3) Air Force

WHY? The TCU vs. Boise State loser will go here, unless Air Force steps up and shocks the Mountain West world. Utah would go back to its Mountain West roots to face its old arch-nemesis, but several Pac-12 teams from Stanford to Cal to Oregon State could certainly go here.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

December 24, 2011 — Honolulu, HI, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA C-USA No. 6 vs. WAC (Hawaii, if eligible)

Way Too Early Projection: East Carolina vs. Hawaii

Top Three Other Options: 1) UCF, 2) Houston, 3) Marshall

WHY? Hawaii is a lock, and then it comes down to who gets to make the long trip. Houston and Case Keenum would mean a fun day of over 700 combined passing yards, but UCF, Southern Miss and East Carolina could all be in the hunt for the sweet vacation.

Advocare V100 Independence Bowl

December 26, 2011 — Shreveport, LA, 5 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $2.3 million

Mountain West No. 3 vs. ACC No. 7

Way Too Early Projection: San Diego State vs. Georgia Tech

Top Three Other Options: 1) Boston College, 2) Miami, 3) Air Force

WHY? Take a pick of any one of about four ACC teams and it’ll have a good chance of being the right one. The San Diego State vs. Air Force winner will be here.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

December 27, 2011 — Detroit, MI, 4:30 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

MAC No. 1 vs. Big Ten No. 8 (or Sun Belt if no Big Ten)

Way Too Early Projection: Western Michigan vs. Northwestern

Top Three Other Options: 1) Toledo, 2) Northern Illinois, 3) Arkansas State

WHY? The bowl had a thriller last year, but after hosting Toledo, it’ll want a Michigan team from the MAC. FIU was here last year, and it’ll be the best option if there aren’t any Big Ten teams available. Arkansas State will be in the mix.

Belk Bowl

December 27, 2011 — Charlotte, NC, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $3.4 million

Big East No. 3 vs. ACC No. 4

Way Too Early Projection: Pitt vs. Miami

Top Three Other Options: 1) North Carolina, 2) NC State, 3) South Florida

WHY? North Carolina and NC State are always going to be in the discussion for the home crowd, and while Miami won’t travel, it’ll bring a big name. South Florida might be here if it doesn’t stay home in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman

December 28, 2011 — Washington, DC, 4:30 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1.725 million

ACC No. 8 vs. Navy (or C-USA if Navy not eligible)

Way Too Early Projection: NC State vs. Navy

Top Three Other Options: 1) Georgia Tech, 2) Virginia, 3) Boston College

WHY? Navy is a given, but it’ll struggle this year a bit to get bowl eligible. Several ACC teams will be in the hunt with Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Boston College all in the mix.

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl

December 28, 2011 — San Diego, CA, ESPN

Payout: $4.3 million

Big 12 No. 5 vs. Pac-12 No. 3

Way Too Early Projection: Texas Tech vs. Stanford

Top Three Other Options: 1) Texas A&M, 2) Michigan State, 3) Iowa

WHY? The Holiday Bowl has the prestige, but the Big 12 will want to be in as many January bowls as possible. Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas are all going to be options, while the bowl would love to take UCLA over Stanford, if possible, for the fans. Utah and Arizona State will be in the hunt.

Champs Sports Bowl

December 29, 2011 — Orlando, FL, 5:30 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $4.65 million

ACC No. 3 vs. Big East No. 2

Way Too Early Projection: North Carolina vs. Notre Dame

Top Three Other Options: 1) Florida State, 2) South Florida, 3) Miami

WHY? Notre Dame can be in this bowl once in the four year contract, and now it’s time. The Irish will be this close to getting into the BCS, but will just miss out. North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson, and Miami will be the top teams on the board if North Carolina doesn’t take it with a strong finish.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December 29, 2011 — San Antonio, TX, 9 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $6.35 million

Big 12 No. 2 or 3 vs. Pac-12 No. 2

Way Too Early Projection: Texas A&M vs. Arizona State

Top Three Other Options: 1) Oklahoma State, 2) Stanford, 3) Utah

WHY? The geography works out well, and while the bowl would like Texas, A&M is hardly a consolation prize. Arizona State, Stanford and Cal are the three most likely choices for a bowl that got a dud last year out of Arizona.

Bell Helicopters Armed Forces Bowl

December 30, 2011 — Fort Worth, TX, 12 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1.2 million

C-USA No. 3 vs. BYU (or Mountain West if BYU not eligible)

Way Too Early Projection: Houston vs. BYU

Top Three Other Options: 1) Southern Miss, 2) UCF, 3) Tulsa

WHY? BYU is a wanted team, and the Armed Forces Bowl gets it this year. Houston is a natural to be relatively close to home for a Cougars vs. Cougars battle, but Tulsa, Southern Miss or UCF could easily end up getting the bid.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

December 30, 2011 — Bronx, NY, 3:20 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $3.6 million

Big East No. 4 vs. Big 12 No. 6

Way Too Early Projection: Syracuse vs. Virginia*

Top Three Other Options: 1) Rutgers, 2) Notre Dame, 3) Texas Tech

WHY? Two big questions. 1) Will the Big 12, now with just ten teams, have a team available, and 2) will there be another mega-snow storm that keeps the fans away? Syracuse beat Kansas State in a thriller last year, but Rutgers could be in the hunt. Also, don’t rule out Notre Dame, who might be here with a mediocre record.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

December 30, 2011 — Nashville, TN, 6:40 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $3.675

ACC No. 6 vs. SEC No. 7

Way Too Early Projection: Boston College vs. Georgia

Top Three Other Options: 1) Georgia Tech, 2) NC State, 3) Tennessee

WHY? A whale of a game last year when North Carolina beat Tennessee in a thriller, the bowl would love to get the Vols again. Georgia would fill the house, too, while Miami and NC State would be interesting choices if Boston College doesn’t get the bid.

Insight Bowl

December 30, 2011 — Tempe, AZ, 10 p.m.

Payout: $6.7 million

Big Ten No. 4 or 5 vs. Big 12 No. 4

Way Too Early Projection: Iowa vs. Missouri

Top Three Other Options: 1) Michigan, 2) Texas A&M, 3) Texas

WHY? Let’s try this again. The two teams put on a great show in last year’s Insight Bowl, with Iowa picking off the Tigers for the late win. Every bowl wants Iowa and its fans, and Mizzou will put its share of butts in the seats.

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

December 31, 2011 — Houston, TX, 12 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $3.4 million

Big Ten No. 6 vs. Big 12 No. 6

Way Too Early Projection: Penn State vs. Oregon State*

Top Three Other Options: 1) Michigan, 2) Michigan State, 3) Texas Tech

WHY? Penn State will be decent, but it’ll struggle a bit. This might be seen as a booby prize bowl game, but it would be ultra-competitive. Texas or Texas A&M could get the call in what used to be called the Texas Bowl. There almost certainly won’t be a Big 12 team eligible and available.

Hyundai Sun Bowl

December 31, 2011 — El Paso, TX, 2 p.m. CBS

Payout: $4 million

ACC No. 4 vs. Pac-12 No. 4

Way Too Early Projection: Clemson vs. California

Top Three Other Options: 1) North Carolina, 2) Miami, 3) Stanford

WHY? It would be entertaining if it’s Clemson vs. Cal. Stanford, Utah, and Arizona State could all be mentioned as a possible team from the Pac-12, while Clemson, Miami and North Carolina would all be good picks. The Sun Bowl is almost always decent.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December 31, 2011 — Memphis, TN, 3:30 p.m. ABC

Payout: TBA

C-USA No. 1 vs. SEC No. 6 or No. 7 (Big East if no SEC team)

Way Too Early Projection: Tulsa vs. Tennessee

Top Three Other Options: 1) Houston, 2) Southern Miss, 3) Georgia

WHY? Houston, Southern Miss, UCF, East Carolina, SMU and Tulsa are all going to be in the hunt for the Conference USA title. Tennessee would be a dream to fill the Memphis house, but Georgia and Mississippi State will be there for the taking, too.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December 31, 2011 — San Francisco, CA, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1.675 million

Pac-12 No. 6 vs. Army (WAC if Army not available)

Way Too Early Projection: UCLA vs. Army

Top Three Other Options: 1) California, 2) Stanford, 3) Utah

WHY? Army won’t just be bowl eligible; it’ll be decent. The bowl would love to grab Cal or Stanford, and might end up doing it, but UCLA would bring a decent fan base, too.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December 31, 2011 — Atlanta, GA, 7:30 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $6.9 million

ACC No. 2 vs. SEC No. 3, 4 or 5

Way Too Early Projection: Virginia Tech vs. South Carolina

Top Three Other Options: 1) North Carolina, 2) Florida State, 3) Arkansas

WHY? Always one of the more interesting matchups, North Carolina, Florida State, Miami or Clemson could end up here. The bowl loves it when Georgia is in, but South Carolina, Florida or Arkansas could get a spot.

TicketCity Bowl

January 2, 2012 — Dallas, TX, 12 p.m. ESPNU

Payout: $2.2 million

Big Ten No. 6 vs. C-USA

Way Too Early Projection: Illinois vs. SMU

Top Three Other Options: 1) Penn State, 2) Houston, 3) Northwestern

WHY? Illinois and Northwestern will be the most likely options from the Big Ten. Conference USA gets the slot this year, and it’ll either be SMU or Houston to keep the Texas crowd close.

Capital One Bowl

January 2, 2012 — Orlando, FL, 1 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $9.2 million

Big Ten No. 2 vs. SEC No. 2

Way Too Early Projection: Michigan vs. Arkansas

Top Three Other Options: 1) Nebraska, 2) Wisconsin, 3) LSU

WHY? Michigan might have been a total dud last year in the Gator Bowl, but it’s still Michigan. The Wolverines, Nebraska or Wisconsin are top options, while the third wheel among Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas will get the bid.

Gator Bowl

January 2, 2011 — Jacksonville, FL, 1 p.m. ESPN2

Payout: $5.4 million

Big Ten No. 4 or 5 vs. SEC No. 6

Way Too Early Projection: Michigan State vs. Mississippi State

Top Three Other Options: 1) Michigan, 2) Georgia, 3) Nebraska

WHY? Mississippi State obliterated Michigan in the last Gator Bowl. Michigan State was a complete and utter disaster in the loss to Alabama in the Capital One. Each team will be hoping for a bigger Florida bowl, but they’d wage a terrific battle if they got the matchup in Jacksonville.

Outback Bowl

January 2, 2012 — Tampa, FL, 1 p.m. ABC

Payout: $7 million

Big Ten No. 3 vs. SEC No. 3, 4 or 5

Way Too Early Projection: Nebraska vs. Florida

Top Three Other Options: 1) Wisconsin, 2) South Carolina, 3) Ohio State

WHY? The Florida vs. South Carolina loser will almost certainly end up here to face the Wisconsin vs. Nebraska loser. The Gators won a thriller over Penn State last year, and the bowl would love nothing more than to bring the Huskers in for a marquee matchup of big names.

AT&T Cotton Bowl

January 6, 2012 — Arlington, TX, 8 p.m. FOX

Payout: $7.25 million

Big 12 No. 2 vs. SEC No. 3, 4, or 5 (West)

Way Too Early Projection: Texas vs. Auburn

Top Three Other Options: 1) Texas A&M, 2) LSU, 3) Oklahoma State

WHY? Texas in the Cotton Bowl would be a dream come true for those who’d like to see Jerry World filled, but Texas A&M, Oklahoma State or Oklahoma wouldn’t be disappointing. Auburn isn’t going to be the Auburn of last year, but getting the defending national champs would make Fox happy.

GoDaddy.com Bowl

DATE TBA — Mobile, AL ESPN

Payout: $1.5 million

MAC No. 2 vs. Sun Belt

Way Too Early Projection: Northern Illinois vs. FIU

Top Three Other Options: 1) Western Michigan, 2) Arkansas State, 3) Toledo

WHY? Toledo and Western Michigan could be in the discussion from the MAC. Troy makes geographic sense, and even though the Trojans will probably win the title, they might find a way to get to Mobile.

BBVA Compass Bank Bowl

January 7, 2012 — Birmingham, AL, 12 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $1.925 million

Big East No. 4 vs. SEC (or MAC if no Big East or SEC)

Way Too Early Projection: Cincinnati vs. Ole Miss

Top Three Other Options: 1) Connecticut, 2) South Florida, 3) Mississippi State

WHY? Louisville or Syracuse might end up being the right choice because of the slot, but Cincinnati, or Connecticut would also work. Ole Miss will probably squeak out six wins to get here. Don’t rule out Kentucky getting six wins and the bid.

BCS BOWLS

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

January 2, 2012 — Pasadena, CA, 5 p.m. ESPN

Payout: $36 million

Big Ten No. 1 vs. Pac-12 No. 1

Way Too Early Projection: Ohio State vs. Oregon

Top Three Other Options: 1) Wisconsin, 2) Nebraska, 3) Arizona State

WHY? Ohio State is still the most talented team in the Big Ten, even without Terrelle Pryor and even with Luke Fickell on the sidelines. With an us-against-the-world mentality, the Buckeyes beat Nebraska in the inaugural Big Ten championship — and then the program is never heard from again for three-to-five years. HOWEVER, put Wisconsin in Pasadena if the NCAA comes up with its final ruling in a hurry. Oregon has too many issues on the offensive line and defensive front to get back to the national championship, but it’ll find its way to a Pac-12 title.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

January 3, 2012 — New Orleans, LA, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

SEC No. 1 vs. BCS at-large

Way Too Early Projection: LSU vs. Wisconsin

Top Three Other Options: 1) Alabama, 2) Florida, 3) South Carolina

WHY? Wisconsin will beat Nebraska to end up earning the higher slot in the BCS rankings and the higher spot in the pecking order. The Sugar Bowl will LOVE to get the Badger fans to come down to New Orleans. The LSU vs. Alabama loser will probably end up here.

Discover Orange Bowl

January 4, 2012 — Miami, FL, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

ACC No. 1 vs. BCS at-large

Way Too Early Projection: Florida State vs. Boise State

Top Three Other Options: 1) Virginia Tech, 2) North Carolina, 3) Clemson

WHY? Florida State is the cream of the ACC crop, but North Carolina, Miami, and Clemson will be in the thick of the fight. West Virginia or South Florida might be an option, depending on who wins the Big East, but the TCU vs. Boise State winner will have to go somewhere and would likely play in the Sugar Bowl or in the Fiesta Bowl.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

January 5, 2012 — Glendale, AZ, 8 p.m. ESPN

Payout: TBA

Big 12 No. 1 vs. BCS

Way Too Early Projection: Oklahoma State vs. West Virginia

Top Three Other Options: 1) Oklahoma, 2) Missouri, 3) Texas

WHY? Assuming the Fiesta Bowl loses a Big 12 team to the BCS Championship, it’ll get its pick of at-large teams. Oklahoma State fits the mold with the Big 12 conference tie-in, while getting West Virginia and its rabid fan base is never a bad move.

BCS Championship

January 9, 2012 — New Orleans, LA, 8 p.m. ESPN

BCS No. 1 vs. BCS No. 2

Way Too Early Projection: Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Top Three Other Options: 1) LSU, 2) Oregon, 3) Boise State

WHY? The call is for the LSU vs. Alabama winner to end up winning the SEC title and getting the call. Oklahoma won’t get through the season unscathed, but it will likely finish 11-1 to get to its second BCS Championship game in four years.