Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Bowl Edition of My Top 25 Picks

Utah State's Chuckie Keeton can take a step
toward joining the school's all–time greats

in today's Idaho Potato Bowl against Toledo.

Earlier this fall, I speculated about the possibility that Notre Dame and Alabama would meet in the national championship game.

That possibility has gone far beyond speculation. It is a reality now. The Irish and the Crimson Tide will meet in Miami on Jan. 7.

Obviously, they are two storied programs. Between them, they have shared or won outright 25 national championships — and, in a few weeks, they can add another one to the list, no matter who wins the game.

That game has a lot for college football fans to be excited about, but most of the rest of the bowl schedule isn't so appealing.

There are about three dozen bowls now, which means that there are roughly 70 bowl slots available. Yet only eight bowls match teams from the Top 25. Eight other members of the Top 25 are playing unranked — albeit bowl eligible — foes.

When I was growing up, there were far fewer bowls. Even ranked teams — and the rankings in those days only covered the Top 20 — didn't get to play in one.

But with so many slots available, it is just wrong for any ranked team to have to play an unranked one.

This season, third–ranked Ohio State is banned from postseason participation, so that's a valid excuse, but there are so many bowls these days. With all those bowls, it seems to me there is no excuse for a ranked team having to play an unranked one.

Oh, well, that's my rant for today. Here is the bowl lineup that features the ranked teams.

Idle: #3 Ohio State

  • Idaho Potato Bowl: Toledo vs. #18 Utah State at 3:30 p.m. (Central) in Boise, Idaho on ESPN: Of all the bowls that have at least one Top 25 team involved, this one has the distinction of being ranked as the least interesting by Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel.

    Oh, Mandel ranks about a dozen bowls as being less interesting than today's Idaho Potato Bowl, but it is the least interesting of the bowls that have Top 25 teams playing in them.

    And that should tell you something. The numbers tell you something, too.

    Both teams rank in the Top 30 nationally in offense. For all intents and purposes, they are about even in that regard. But Utah State is, far and away, the better defensive team.

    So I pick Utah State to win.
December 22
  • Las Vegas Bowl: Washington vs. #20 Boise State at 2:30 p.m. (Central) in Las Vegas on ESPN: These teams actually met once before — in a regular–season clash in 2007.

    Washington won that one, 24–10 (one of only four games the Huskies won that year and one of only three the Broncos lost).

    Not too long ago, offense ruled in Boise, but the star of this game should be Boise State's defense, the ninth best in the land. It should have no trouble with Washington's 99th–ranked offense.

    Washington has a pretty good defense, too — #30 in the nation — but it will be pressed more by Boise State's offense, which is mediocre but still ranked higher (#76) than Washington's.

    Of course, it can be argued that Washington faces stiffer competition in the Pac–12, and there is something to that — and the Huskies were on a roll in the second half of the season, winning four straight before losing the regular–season finale to Washington State in overtime.

    Boise State went 10–2 and hasn't lost since Nov. 3, when the Broncos lost to San Diego State.

    Thing is, though, that San Diego State team lost its season opener — to Washington.

    In an upset special, I'll take Washington.
December 27
  • Military Bowl: Bowling Green vs. #24 San Jose State at 2 p.m. (Central) in Washington on ESPN: Excluding the Idaho Potato Bowl, this game qualifies as the least interesting bowl game featuring a Top 25 team, according to Mandel.

    But there is at least one interesting aspect of this game.

    When San Jose State has the ball, it will have the nation's third–ranked passer (David Fales) facing the nation's seventh–best defense. That should be entertaining.

    And if that battle turns into a stalemate, San Jose State defense (28th in the country) seems equipped to handle Bowling Green's offense (85th in the land).

    I favor San Jose State.
  • Holiday Bowl: Baylor vs. #17 UCLA at 8:45 p.m. (Central) in San Diego on ESPN: This one really has the potential to be a good game.

    A couple of weeks ago, UCLA was one win away from playing in only the Bruins' third Rose Bowl in the last 25 years, and Baylor's football team apparently acquired a taste for winning football during Robert Griffin III's Heisman–winning season last year.

    RG III, as Griffin is known, is playing for an NFL playoff berth, but, believe it or not, the once lowly Baylor Bears have the nation's top–rated offense. (For the record, UCLA's offense is pretty good, too. It is ranked #20 in the nation.)

    "Not only can Baylor [be] counted on to rack up 600 yards, but it could allow as many if not more against the attack–minded Bruins," writes Mandel.

    Neither defense has been very impressive so my guess is that the offense that is clicking is the one that will win. I predict that will be Baylor in a high–scoring affair.
December 29
  • Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. #15 Oregon State at 5:45 p.m. (Central) in San Antonio on ESPN: These teams met twice in the '80s, and Texas won both.

    And, frankly, as inexperienced as Oregon State is when it comes to postseason football (well, until fairly recently, that is), it is logical to expect the trend to continue.

    However one may feel about the Longhorns, there is no disputing this: Texas is often maligned for going 8–4 (that's a rebuilding season, as far as UT fans are concerned) but it is seldom mentioned that two of the teams that beat the Longhorns are ranked in the Top 12, and all four are playing in bowls.

    And Texas has a long history of playing in — and winning — bowl games.

    Interestingly, though, the offenses are about even — Oregon State's is ranked 34th and Texas' is ranked 37th.

    On defense, Oregon State appears to have a clear edge. The Beavers are ranked 33rd. Texas is 75th.

    Even more telling are the details of the matchup when the Beavers have the ball. Oregon State's 15th–ranked passing game could have a big day against Texas' 69th–ranked pass defense.

    And that is what I think will happen. I pick Oregon State.
December 31
  • Chick–fil–A Bowl: #14 Clemson vs. #9 LSU at 6:30 p.m. (Central) in Atlanta on ESPN: This will be the third time these schools have faced each other — each time in a bowl, and each of the first two was won by LSU.

    Mandel thinks this will be the fourth–best bowl game, and it isn't hard to see why.

    Clemson has a clear advantage on offense; LSU has a clear advantage on defense. Which will prevail?

    Well, I've always been a big believer in defense so I will take LSU to win.
January 1
  • Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. #21 Northwestern at 11 a.m. (Central) in Jacksonville, Fla., on ESPN2: Northwestern has been in bowls on a fairly regular basis for the last couple of decades, but the Wildcats haven't won one since Jan. 1, 1949, when they won the Rose Bowl.

    Mississippi State, meanwhile, has won its last five bowls. The Bulldogs last lost a bowl game on Jan. 1, 1999 — 50 years to the day after Northwestern's last bowl win.

    Obviously, a Northwestern victory would end all sorts of streaks at both schools. And the rankings would suggest that is a possibility. Is it?

    Could well be. Northwestern holds the statistical edge on both offense and defense — although it really is only an edge, nothing more.

    So I look at each team's record against teams that finished in the Top 25. Mississippi State cruised through the soft portion of its schedule, but then dropped three straight to the ranked teams on their schedule — each by 20 points or more.

    Northwestern went 0–2, but one of its losses (to #23 Nebraska) was by a single point, and the other was in overtime to #19 Michigan.

    I pick Northwestern to end its bowl skid.
  • Capital One Bowl: #23 Nebraska vs. #6 Georgia at noon (Central) in Orlando, Fla., on ABC: If you can remember the one and only time these teams met, you really are an old–school fan.

    On Dec. 20, 1969, Nebraska routed Georgia in the Sun Bowl.

    I don't think it will be nearly that lopsided this time. I think it could be one of the most entertaining of the postseason games.

    Nebraska enjoys narrow statistical advantages in both offense and defense — but both teams are in the Top 30 in both categories so we're talking quality on both sides.

    Both programs have long, proud traditions so I guess you have to look at the intangibles.

    Nebraska seemed to stagger through its Big Ten title game, losing to Wisconsin. Georgia, meanwhile, gave Alabama a down–to–the–wire battle for the right to play Notre Dame for the national title and seems to have the momentum.

    I choose Georgia.
  • Outback Bowl: #19 Michigan vs. #11 South Carolina at noon (Central) in Tampa, Fla., on ESPN: Neither team is a stranger to Tampa.

    This is Michigan's fifth Outback Bowl. The Wolverines won three of their first four visits. This is South Carolina's fourth Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks won two of their first three.

    They are, however, virtual strangers to each other. The teams met twice in the 1980s with each team winning on the other team's turf. They haven't faced each other since 1985.

    If this game had been played when I was growing up, Michigan would have been the overwhelming favorite. South Carolina was seldom invited to a bowl in those days — and even more rarely won one.

    But times have changed, and South Carolina showed me that it had some true grit when its top running threat went down with a season–ending injury. The Gamecocks, who were the only ones to beat Georgia until Alabama did it in the SEC Championship game, finished the season 10–2.

    South Carolina comes into this game with the momentum, and I think the Gamecocks will win.
  • Rose Bowl: Wisconsin vs. #8 Stanford at 4 p.m. (Central) in Pasadena, Calif., on ESPN: The Rose Bowl is the "granddaddy of them all," they say.

    It was first played in 1902, and it has been played every year since 1916. For more than half a century, it was exclusively played between the champions from the conferences in which Wisconsin and Stanford compete.

    Yet this will be only the second time they have met in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin won on that first occasion.

    They played four other times prior to that, and Wisconsin never lost. The Badgers didn't win them all — the teams tied in 1995 — but they might as well have.

    At first blush, it looks like Stanford might reverse that trend this time. Even with Andrew Luck gone to the NFL, Stanford managed to beat highly regarded Oregon and win its division, then win the league championship with its second consecutive win over UCLA.

    Wisconsin, on the other hand, wouldn't even have been in a position to play for the Big Ten crown if Ohio State or Penn State had been eligible to do so. Nevertheless, the Badgers were next in line — much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of Nebraska and the Cornhuskers' fans.

    It would be folly to underestimate Wisconsin — and it would be so easy to do, with Wisconsin's coach bolting for Arkansas.

    Given Arkansas' defensive tradition, though, it isn't hard to see what attracted the Razorbacks' attention. Wisconsin's defense is ranked 13th in the nation.

    I'm inclined to think this might be a low–scoring defensive struggle. Stanford's defense is 21st in the nation.

    And neither offense has been particularly impressive — but Wisconsin's (#62 nationally) has been more productive than Stanford's (#83).

    I pick Wisconsin.
  • Orange Bowl: #16 Northern Illinois vs. #13 Florida State at 7:30 p.m. (Central) in Miami on ESPN: Of late, the Orange Bowl has been a showcase for teams from lesser conferences (i.e., Boise State, Hawaii) playing teams from elite conferences. Sometimes Cinderella wins. Sometimes she doesn't.

    That trend appears to continue this year. NIU is 12–1, but the Wildcats play in the MAC. The ACC, where Florida State plays, isn't on the same level as the SEC, but it is a level or two higher than the MAC.

    Sometimes those teams from the lesser conferences make statements in the Rose Bowl. Remember what Boise did to Oklahoma?

    OK, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place. But it has been known to happen.

    With that disclaimer, I pick Florida State — with its second–ranked defense.
Janury 2
  • Sugar Bowl: #22 Louisville vs. #4 Florida at 7:30 p.m. (Central) in New Orleans on ESPN: Let's see.

    Florida, which plays in the SEC (whose champion has won six straight national titles), has the fifth–best defense in the nation.

    On offense, Florida has struggled (#102 in the nation), but the Gators do, after all, play in the SEC — and Florida's offense was good enough to beat Texas A&M and future Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Louisville's offense isn't much better (#47), but the point is that it is better — at least on paper.

    On paper, this should be a game that is decided by defense, so I will take Florida.
January 3

  • Fiesta Bowl: #7 Kansas State vs. #5 Oregon at 7:30 p.m. (Central) in Glendale, Ariz., on ESPN: Mandel writes that, next to the national title tilt, this should be the most interesting bowl game. And I'm inclined to agree.

    By far, Oregon has the most impressive offense. The Ducks are #4 in the nation; the Wildcats are #55.

    Kansas State has the advantage on defense, but it is much more narrow. KSU ranks 42nd in the nation; Oregon is 47th.

    I think Oregon's offense may overwhelm Kansas State's defense, and I expect Oregon to take care of business.
Janury 4

  • Cotton Bowl: #12 Oklahoma vs. #10 Texas A&M at 7 p.m. (Central) in Dallas on Fox: This game got a real shot in the arm when it turned out that the Heisman Trophy winner would be playing in it.

    Ever since the matchup was announced, I've figured it will be well attended. Both campuses are reasonably short drives from Dallas, and both schools have large fan bases that will follow them anywhere.

    For awhile, there was talk that A&M would be paired with Texas, reviving that old rivalry. But the Cotton Bowl officials instead invited Oklahoma, reviving a series that goes back more than a century but really only began to heat up when the Aggies migrated from the imploding Southwest Conference to the newly formed Big 12 Conference in the mid–1990s.

    This will actually be the 30th time the teams have played, and Oklahoma wins about two–thirds of the time. Lately, the Sooners have done better than that, winning eight of the last nine encounters. Current OU coach Bob Stoops beat the Aggies 11 times in 13 seasons.

    Both teams have Top 10 defenses — A&M is third in the land, OU is 10th — and either defense is likely to be capable of stopping the other team's offense (OU ranks 44th, A&M ranks 56th).

    I think this game could be close and quite competitive. It might even go into overtime. But when the dust settles, I think Oklahoma, with a better defense, will win.
January 6
  • GoDaddy Bowl: Arkansas State vs. #25 Kent State at 8 p.m. (Central) in Mobile, Ala., on ESPN: At this stage, with only the national title game remaining in the college football season, this qualifies as an are–you–kidding–me? moment.

    Could anyone really care who wins this game — outside each school's student body and fan base?

    Well, it might be fun to watch, at least when Arkansas State has the ball. ASU is 17th in the country in offense, thanks mostly to its pass–happy ways. Kent State is 74th.

    It's hard for me to see, frankly, how Kent State could be ranked in the Top 25 when neither its offense nor its defense could crack the Top 70.

    I'm taking Arkansas State.
January 7
  • BCS National Championship: #2 Alabama vs. #1 Notre Dame at 7:30 p.m. (Central) in Miami on ESPN: This is the big one, the one college football fans have been waiting for.

    These teams have played six times in the past, and Notre Dame has won all but one.

    Bear Bryant faced Notre Dame in the first four meetings, and Alabama lost all four. I think, though, that he would approve of the defensive nature of this game.

    Most college football fans know — or should know — that 'Bama has the top–ranked defense in the nation. But Notre Dame's defense is ranked sixth, and it has overcome numerous challenges this season.

    The offenses are good, not spectacular. Alabama's is ranked 40th in the nation; Notre Dame's is 49th.

    I think this will be a low–scoring game. It might come down to a last–minute score.

    As an Arkansas graduate, I must admit that there is a part of me that wouldn't mind seeing the SEC's streak of national championships grow to seven. And I have friends who went to A&M who wouldn't mind if Alabama won — after all, in addition to having the Heisman Trophy winner, they would also have the only victory over this year's national champion.

    But there's another part of me that says Notre Dame is a team of destiny. What other conclusion can one reach after some of their amazing finishes this year?

    And that part tells me that, somehow, Notre Dame will find a way to win.
Last week: 6–3

Season: 209–58

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