From Gator Bowl to national title game, great matchups await
Last Updated - December 13, 2012 11:56 GMT
The holidays can be tough. The specter of gift-shopping – and having your eyes repeatedly spritzed with perfume at every turn while being forced to listen to Justin Bieber Christmas songs on repeat in the dreaded, marble-floored monolith known as the mall – looms over nearly every waking moment. Plus, what are you going to do with the dog before you head home to see your parents? There are logistics to juggle, casseroles to make and gifts to try to wrap then take back to the store to have them gift-wrapped for you because you could never really grasp the concept of a crease. And amid all of this, there are 35 bowl games to watch.
Though there seemed to be a bevy of teams with big wins this season, finding quality bowl matchups was tricky. These are the 10 you should watch, carefully ranked by a committee of me. In ranking these, I didn’t factor in whether it was a BCS bowl or a bowl that history (meaning old dudes) tells you you’re supposed to care about. Instead, I had two simple criteria: How good were the two teams this season? And how much fun will it be to watch?
If the other 34 games are merely ornaments on the Christmas tree this is the biggest, heaviest present underneath it. This is the only one that’s got substance; it’s more than just something pretty to look at. If you have to, go ahead and skip the other 34 while you visit family and accidentally leave Kevin home alone, but do not, under any circumstances, miss this one. Can you remember another time when two programs so polarizing, so steeped in history – the teams have combined for 17 national championships in the polling era – have collided with a title on the line? And the SEC’s streak of six consecutive national championships is at stake, too. Will it end at the expense of a program that had slipped mightily on the gridiron during the past decade?
The teams enter the game a combined 24-1, with five of those wins coming against teams that finished the season ranked in the BCS top 25. They rank first and second nationally in scoring defense, both holding opponents under 11 points per game. They’re both in the top six in total defense. They’re both in the top four against the run and both teams’ offensive attacks happen to revolve around the ground game. That’s a bad combination for those of you who enjoy watching the chains move and repeated commercial breaks. But for the people who enjoyed LSU 9, Alabama 6 last year, you’re in for a treat. I give Alabama the edge, but, given how close it came to losing to Georgia and Notre Dame’s propensity for miracles on the field this year, it should come down to the wire.
This is clearly the second-best offering of bowl season. In fact, it’s no contest. And it’s fitting that these two teams drew each other. After Alabama lost to Texas A&M, it seemed Oregon and Kansas State were on a certain collision course for the national championship, with each team playing winnable games the rest of the way. That certainty lasted all of one week; K-State got blown out by Baylor and, minutes later, Oregon succumbed to Stanford in overtime. The losses opened the door for Notre Dame, which likely would’ve been left out if all three had stayed undefeated, and gave the Tide a quick reprieve after the shocking upset. This will be the exact opposite of the national title game; both teams are in the top 10 in scoring – the Wildcats averaged 40.7 PPG this season and the Ducks clocked in at 50.8.
Welcome back to the Big 12, A&M. Oklahoma split the conference championship this year with K-State; I like the fact that the conference’s most notable, and recent, expat has a shot to take on a conference co-champion and justify its departure. A&M flourished in the SEC this year, nearly knocking off No. 8 LSU and No. 3 Florida and toppling then-No. 1 Alabama, so if the Sooners can get the best of the Aggies it’ll provide quite an infusion of pride not only for folks around Norman but for the conference that A&M spurned. But, just in case you need a reminder, this isn’t the Aggie team that the Sooners thumped 41-25 last season. The Sooners have yet to feel the wrath of redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. If Manziel averaged 285 yards passing and 98 on the ground against SEC defenses all year, what might he have in store for the Sooners, who gave up 380 yards and 25 points per game? It’ll be up to Landry Jones – playing in his 53rd, and final, game for the Sooners – to match blows with the otherworldly freshman if the Big 12 is to get the last laugh against its most prominent defector.
Given the head coaches we’re dealing with here, this should be entertaining. Les Miles and Dabo Swinney are good for a sound bite and a trick play at any moment. Unlike the three aforementioned contests, this will be a stark contrast in styles. LSU doesn’t score much and beats you with its defense. Clemson has heard of defense, but is not too fond of practicing it. But what’s the need for defense when you’re scoring more than 42 points per game, and scored 37 points or more in all but two games this season? Unfortunately for Clemson, those two low-output games came against SEC opponents. In the season opener, a win, they managed only 26 against Auburn and in its loss to South Carolina they were held to 17. And, yes, LSU is in the SEC. Based on that trend alone I think the purple-and-yellow Tigers have an advantage over purple-and-orange ones.
This would’ve been a lot more compelling had Nebraska not yielded 10 touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. I’m going to assume that was an outlier that we can throw out, because the rest of the data suggests that Nebraska can at least hang with Georgia. At 254 yards per game, the Huskers had the nation’s eighth-most potent rushing attack this season and scored a healthy 35 points per game. And, despite allowing Wisconsin to run for more than 500 yards, Nebraska finished the season ranked 23rd in total defense – unspectacular, but respectable. So they can’t get embarrassed twice in a row, right? Remember, Georgia was a mere 15 feet away from heading to the national championship game and will be an infinitely tougher test than the Badgers. Nebraska’s best hope for a win is if the Bulldogs are still despondent after coming so close to their first national title in three decades. But something tells me that in the month between the SEC title game and the Capital One Bowl any lingering sadness and disappointment will only morph into bitter, angry fuel for the boys from Athens.
Here’s a sneaky-good one. UCLA was 9-2 not too long ago … then it ran into Stanford. Two losses to the Cardinal later, the Bruins’ very good season doesn’t look so special – on paper, at least. But, issues with Stanford aside, this was a good football team that played hard for its enthusiastic new coach. A 56-piont war-paint-infused (seriously, the coaches wore war paint on their faces) win against Arizona and victories against Nebraska and USC were high points of the campaign. Baylor, on the other hand, struggled out of the gate; the Bears yielded 210 points during a four-game Big 12 losing streak and lost a game in which their offense put up 63. But they closed the season with a narrow loss to Oklahoma, a dominant win against Kansas State and a two more wins against quality conference opponents, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The enigmatic Bears had the nation’s fifth-best scoring offense (44.1) and eighth-worst scoring defense (38.2). Baylor has the momentum, but UCLA had a better season. Yes, they combined for nine losses, but these teams are far better than their records.
I bet you’d forgotten by now that Oregon State started 6-0 and looked like the biggest threat to shatter the Ducks’ perfect season. Stanford changed that by beating both teams and Oregon State’s good start got swept under the rug. The Beavers closed the season by losing to Oregon and putting up 77 against Nicholls State. But in this game they have a chance to validate a good season by taking on a big-name program. Texas finished the season in the BCS top 25; the Longhorns’ best win came against Oklahoma State in September. They went on to do well in the season’s small pop-quizzes but failed the important tests against West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State. The Longhorns may have the name recognition, but Oregon State has the better résumé. Coupled with the Oregon-Kansas State clash, this will be a good way to measure whether the Big 12 or Pac-12 can call itself the nation’s second-best conference. It’s a battle between the upper middle class of both conferences: Texas finished third in the Big 12, while Oregon State was fourth in the Pac-12.
Yes, I know this is a BCS bowl and that the teams only lost a total of three games, but, c’mon, it’s Florida against Louisville – is there much doubt about how this will go? Louisville did pretty well in the Big East, but is sharing the conference crown with three other teams and snuck by Rutgers with a last-minute field goal to earn its spot in the game. Florida beat Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State – all ranked in the BCS top 12 – to earn its spot. Forget stats, just look at those wins. My only question to you is: How would Louisville have fared against that schedule? Stranger things have happened – Utah knocked off Alabama in this game in 2009 – but you’ll probably only need to watch the first half of this one to get the gist of how it’s going to end.
The game may not slay its audience with awesomeness, but it’ll at least wake you from your post-New Year’s Eve cobwebs. Northwestern quietly had a pretty good season, nearly knocking off both Nebraska and Michigan along with solid wins against Michigan State and Vanderbilt. The Wildcats do their damage on the ground thanks to the combo of tailback Venric Mark, who eclipsed 1,300 yards this season, and triple-threat quarterback Kain Colter, who had 12 rushing scores to complement his eight through the air. Mississippi State, on the other hand, enjoyed beating up on lesser teams, but struggled against the SEC’s big boys. Consecutive losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU disrupted what had been a perfect season. This game presents a prime opportunity for the Big Ten to gain a little pride by beating a team from the venerable SEC.
It’s the Rose Bowl. … This would’ve been much higher up the list if Nebraska had handled its business against a five-loss, unranked Wisconsin team. Instead, the Badgers will be rewarded by having to face a stout, disciplined Cardinal defense. Stanford only yielded 17.5 points per game and had the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense. The game provides Stanford an opportunity to garner both a 12-win season and a top-five BCS ranking for the second time in three years. Overshadowed by Oregon’s flash, the Cardinal have quietly become a juggernaut out West. They have a chance to show exactly how formidable the team has become.