This is always a bittersweet time of the year for me. I love college football, and I hate to see the season end, but I always enjoy the bowls. Some more than others, of course.
That goes back to my childhood, I guess. There weren't nearly as many bowls then as there are now, and being in a bowl was special. It was a reward for a great season, and most were played on New Year's Day. What a great way to start a new year. And there was often a real mystery as to who would end up being the national champion. If certain things happened, a group of football players who woke up on New Year's Day with no expectation of being judged the best team in the land could go to bed that night with a legitimate hope that the pollsters would rank them #1 the next day.
I have seen it happen.
In those days, not every team in the then–Top 20 got a bowl bid. Many did, but many did not. There are so many bowls now that all the teams in the Top 25 and nearly five dozen more will be playing an extra game. There are so many bowls now that even teams with losing records are being permitted to play in some.
I grew up in Arkansas, and I can recall many years when the Razorbacks had seasons that would have qualified them for a bowl today — but for which they were not rewarded with a bowl bid at the time. It seems to me we've gone from one extreme to another. There must be a happy middle ground where an appropriate number of teams are rewarded for a good season but aren't simply rewarded for participating. For being there.
In the meantime, though, the Razorbacks have been back in bowl games the last two seasons, and I enjoy watching them play, even if I am not convinced that they deserve to be playing in the postseason.
- Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas: Brigham Young vs. #20 Utah, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Until about five years ago, these two teams were conference rivals, and this will be the 90th time they have faced each other. Utah holds the all–time advantage and has won five of the last six meetings.
If one judges by the schools' national rankings in total offense, though, the edge in this game belongs to BYU, #47 nationally while Utah is #86. BYU holds a slender advantage in total defense as well. The Cougars are #36 nationally while Utah is #41.
But it is important to remember that Utah plays in the Pac–12 while BYU is an independent. Both teams are 9–3. Utah started the season strongly but kind of fizzled near the end. BYU started slowly but finished with wins in seven of their last eight games.
I'm guessing it will be a good game. Seven of their last nine meetings were decided by a touchdown or less. Momentum is with Brigham Young, and I'm picking the Cougars to win in an upset special.
- Miami Beach Bowl, Miami: #25 Western Kentucky vs. South Florida, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams have met twice before, and South Florida won both games.
However, Western Kentucky wasn't 11–2 in those years (2009 and 2010) as it is this year. In fact, Western Kentucky was the exact opposite — a combined 2–22 in those two seasons.
Besides, Western Kentucky is sixth in the nation in total offense (South Florida is 46th). South Florida has the edge in total defense (#37) while Western Kentucky is #88.
I'm guessing that defensive deficiency will hurt Western Kentucky in this game, and that South Florida, playing what amounts to a home game, will be enough to lift unranked South Florida to an upset victory.
- Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla.: Toledo vs. #24 Temple, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the 10th time these teams have met, and Toledo has won two–thirds of the time.
Both teams have been better on defense than on offense this year; of the two, Toledo (9–2) has the edge over Temple (11–3) in the national rankings on defense. For that matter, the Rockets have been more productive on offense, too.
I pick Toledo in yet another upset special.
- Military Bowl, Annapolis, Md.: Pittsburgh vs. #21 Navy, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These are familiar rivals, having played each other 39 times before. Pitt holds the advantage in the all–time series, winning about 60% of the time.
And Pitt has won six of the last eight meetings — but Navy won the last meeting.
Statistically, Navy's offense has been better than Pitt's, but Navy is only ranked 61st nationally in total offense. In total defense, Pittsburgh is ranked #23, and Pitt is ranked #42 — so this game figures to be more defensive than offensive.
If that turns out to be the case — and I think it will — I pick Pittsburgh in an another upset special.
- Russell Athletic Bowl, Orlando, Fla.: #10 North Carolina vs. #18 Baylor, 4:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This should be one of the more interesting bowl games to be played before the national semifinals in which, until recently, the Baylor Bears hoped they would be participants.
The North Carolina Tar Heels probably never had such hopes even though they ran the table in the ACC until coming up against top–ranked Clemson in the ACC championship game — which North Carolina might well have won had it not been for some bad officiating. Most likely, the Tar Heels couldn't have leaped past enough teams in the rankings to claim a spot in the Final Four if they had won — but they certainly would have deprived the Tigers of a berth in the semifinals, which would have been almost as good.
That didn't happen, though, so North Carolina finds itself playing Baylor. The Bears spent most of the season ranked well ahead of just about everyone, but they stumbled badly down the stretch. Even so, Baylor is ranked second nationally in total offense. North Carolina is pretty good on offense, too. The Tar Heels are ranked 11th.
Neither team finished in the top 50 in total defense so I am inclined to think that offense will rule in this game. And North Carolina's defense has been so weak this year that I expect Baylor to get back into that 50–plus–points–a–game mode the Bears were in for first six games of the season.
I pick Baylor.
- Texas Bowl, Houston: Texas Tech vs. #22 LSU, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams met twice in the '50s, but this will be their first encounter in nearly 60 years.
Still, it doesn't seem that much has changed. LSU won those first two encounters and seems likely to win this one.
But, as Lee Corso would say, "Not ... so ... fast."
Texas Tech had the #4 offense in the land this season (LSU was #74). LSU's defense was #10. Will that be enough to contain the Red Raiders? I don't know, but it looks like it could be kind of ugly on both sides of the scrimmage line when LSU has the ball. Tech's defense is ranked #100 in the nation.
The marquee matchup will be Tech's offense against LSU's defense, but I expect the other matchup to be the one that generates headlines. I pick LSU.
- Holiday Bowl, San Diego: Southern Cal vs. #23 Wisconsin, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: It has been nearly 50 years since these teams faced each other. In all they have played each other six times — twice in Rose Bowls — and Southern Cal has won every time.
Like most Pac–12 schools, the emphasis is on offense at Southern Cal, and the Trojans rank #22 nationally in total offense whereas Wisconsin is #84. But I am one of those who believes that defense wins championships — and bowl games — and Wisconsin's is second in the nation (Southern Cal is 94th in total defense).
San Diego may be a short trip for the Trojans, but I believe Wisconsin will prevail.
- Peach Bowl, Atlanta: #14 Houston vs. #9 Florida State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: What a blockbuster game this would have been in the Guy Lewis basketball era at Houston. It might even have been a blockbuster in the Bill Yeoman days in football.
But Houston, frankly, plays a lower–caliber schedule now than it did then. The quality of Florida State's competition hasn't changed much.
There was a time (1960–78) when these schools faced each other just about every year, and Houston won more than 80% of the time.
But their last meeting was in 1978 so that doesn't have a lot of relevance to the modern teams, does it?
Speaking of the modern teams, Houston's offense was tied for #11 with North Carolina while Florida State was #50. Of course the quality of the respective leagues' defenses had lot to do with that. And speaking of defense, Florida State finished #16 while Houston was #77.
Both offenses look like they will probably be able to score. Houston's defense has been much weaker than Florida State's, which makes me think that Florida State will prevail.
- Orange Bowl (national semifinal), Miami: #4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson, 3 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The first of college football's semifinals matches two very good teams in a rematch of last year's Russell Athletic Bowl.
The all–time series is tied at 2–2, but the last two games were bowl games. Oklahoma won the first two games, which were played in Norman.
And, appropriately for a college football semifinal, both teams have good offenses and defenses, although Clemson has the edge in both categories. It is particularly close in the national rankings — Clemson's offense is #8 while Oklahoma's is #10. The Sooners scored at least 30 points in each game they played — except the one they lost to Texas. Clemson was held under 30 points three times. That sounds like offenses will be the postgame story, no matter who the winner is.
And I think it will be Clemson.
- Cotton Bowl (national semifinal), Arlington, Texas: #3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This might very well be the game of the postseason.
Alabama has the #3 defense in the land, but Michigan State has a kind of a sneaky defense. The Spartans are only ranked #46 in defense, but, other than Nebraska, no team scored more than 28 points against Michigan State. In fact, five of Michigan State's foes were held under 20 points.
Alabama won their only previous meeting — the 2011 Capital One Bowl — and won it by six touchdowns. I wouldn't expect such an easy time in this one. Alabama's defense is ranked 34th while Michigan State's is 43rd. Alabama does have the Heisman Trophy winner. Ironically, the 2011 Capital One Bowl was the last time that Alabama had a current or former Heisman Trophy winner in the lineup. That was Mark Ingram, who scored two touchdowns in his final collegiate game.
I don't think the score will be nearly as lopsided this time, but I do think the same team will win. I pick Alabama.
- Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla.: #12 Northwestern vs. Tennessee, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: These teams met once before — in the '97 Citrus Bowl — and Tennessee won that one. Peyton Manning was the game's MVP.
The Vols could probably use Manning in this game. Even at his age, it couldn't hurt.
The stats don't really clarify things. Northwestern had one of the best defenses in the land this year — #8 nationally — but one of the worst offenses — #117. Tennessee was around #50 in both categories.
Northwestern opened the season impressively with a win over Stanford (who can be seen in the Rose Bowl) and won its first six games but stumbled in the middle of the season against Michigan and Iowa (who will be playing Stanford in the Rose Bowl). Tennessee had high hopes when the season began but lost three conference games before Halloween. The Vols come into this game riding a five–game winning streak, which sounds better than it is. None of those wins came against a team with a winning record.
I'm an SEC boy, and I pull for Southern teams whenever I can, but I have to be honest and say that Northwestern probably will win.
- Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.: #17 Michigan vs. #19 Florida, noon (Central) on ABC: This will be the third time these teams have met, and each game was played on New Year's Day. Their most recent encounter was in this same bowl — only it was called the Capital One Bowl in those days.
Neither team was impressive on offense this year, but Michigan was impressive on defense, ranking fourth in the land. Florida was pretty good on defense, too, with a #12 ranking.
It looks like this game will be a defensive struggle. Michigan's offense was anemic at #72, but Florida's was positively pedestrian at #98. All things considered, I have to pick Michigan to win.
- Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz.: #8 Notre Dame vs. #7 Ohio State, noon (Central) on ESPN: If you want to see a game between two really big names, this is it. It really doesn't get much bigger than a game between Notre Dame and Ohio State.
They have only played five times before — and never during Woody Hayes' tenure. Isn't that remarkable? Well, maybe not. For most of Hayes' time at Ohio State, the Big Ten would not permit any members other than the league champion to play in a bowl. Since the Big Ten champion always went to the Rose Bowl and faced the champion of the Pac–8 or Pac–10 conference, that meant the schools would have had to schedule a nonconference game.
They could have done that. Hayes coached in nonconference games against Oklahoma and Penn State — and, for all I know, he tried to arrange for a game with Notre Dame, but a point or two could not be resolved. Anyway, they never played each other when Hayes was at Ohio State, and that is a shame. It could have been fun, especially when Ara Parseghian was still coaching at South Bend.
Ohio State has a huge edge on defense. The Buckeyes are #7; Notre Dame is #37, which isn't bad unless you're facing a team that is in the Top 10. The Irish have the advantage on offense (#28 to #45), but I doubt that it can get the best of Ohio State's defense enough to put a reasonable number of points on the board. After all, the Buckeyes held opponents under 20 points in 75% of their games this season.
I've always believed in the saying, "Defense wins championships," and I think defense will win the Fiesta Bowl for Ohio State.
- Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.: #5 Stanford vs. #6 Iowa, 4 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams have never faced each other before, but both teams have faced Northwestern this season, as I mentioned earlier. Stanford lost in the opener; Iowa prevailed in midseason.
Based on that comparison, the logical conclusion would be that Iowa will win this game. But I learned a long time ago that comparing outcomes against common opponents wasn't a good way to predict future games.
The teams really reflect the priorities in their conferences. Iowa comes from the more defensive–minded Big Ten and is ranked 36th in the nation (Stanford is #71). The Pac–12 favors offense, and Stanford is ranked #27 in that category (Iowa is #48).
It looks pretty even to me, but I'm usually inclined to favor the more defensive–minded school when it looks like a draw, especially in bowl games. So I'll take Iowa.
- Sugar Bowl, New Orleans: #13 Oklahoma State vs. #16 Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the third meeting between these schools. Their first two encounters were in the Cotton Bowl. The change of scenery can't hurt.
But will it change the outcome? Ole Miss won those first two games, and statistics suggest the Rebels have the edge again.
According to the rankings, this should be an offensive game. Ole Miss is ranked #14 in total offense while Oklahoma State is ranked #20. Ole Miss also has the edge on defense, which isn't saying much. The Rebels are ranked #53; Oklahoma State is ranked #90.
I expect a lot of scoring, but, in the end, Ole Miss will win.
- Alamo Bowl, San Antonio: #15 Oregon vs. #11 TCU, 5:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Historically, these teams have played twice — in the late '70s. Each won on the other's home field.
This game is being played on a neutral site — although Fort Worth, Texas, is much closer to San Antonio than Eugene, Oregon, is.
Both teams are in the Top 10 in offense. TCU is #4, and Oregon is #9. Neither team was particularly impressive on defense — but Oregon was spectacularly bad, ranking #115. I pick TCU to prevail.
Last week: 5–1
Upset specials last week: 1–0
Upset specials overall: 8–14