Big 12: Jordan Jefferson
Here's the best and worst of the Big 12 bowls after the 2010 season:
Best team performance: Oklahoma. The Sooners shut down Connecticut running back Jordan Todman early in the game and poured it on with plenty of offense late in the game. With their win over Connecticut, the Sooners also ended a five-game BCS bowl game skid.
Best offensive play: Broyles. Up 34-20 and on Connecticut's six-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Broyle's caught a high pass from Landry Jones on the right side of the end zone. He jumped out of bounds to make the catch, but unbelievably reached a foot back and tapped the red paint in Oklahoma's end zone for the score on his final catch of the night.
Best defensive play: Coryell Judie, DB, Texas A&M. On LSU's opening drive, Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson tried to loft a ball down the right sideline for a score, but Judie flew up from a zone underneath the receiver and snagged an interception with one hand to keep the Tigers off the board early.
Worst play: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. The Tigers looked in complete control late in the fourth quarter, driving deep in Iowa territory with a 24-20 lead. Gabbert rolled to his left, and tried to loft a pass across his body to receiver Wes Kemp. He under threw it, Iowa's Micah Hyde intercepted it and returned the pick 72 yards for the final score, 27-24.
Worst team performance: Nebraska. Few gave Washington a chance after Taylor Martinez and the Huskers stomped the Huskies in Seattle 56-21 in September. The Huskies entered as two-touchdown underdogs, and outdid the Huskers in about every way possible, running the ball well and throwing the ball efficiently with Jake Locker.
Most harmless salute: Adrian Hilburn, WR, Kansas State. With his team trailing by eight in the final minutes of the Pinstripe Bowl, Hilburn caught a short pass and took it 30 yards into the end zone, setting up a possible game-tying two-point conversion. But after the score, he flashed a salute to some Kansas State fans in the stands. An official told Hilburn "Wrong choice, buddy." and tossed a flag that cost the Wildcats 15 yards. Carson Coffman's long pass for the conversion fell incomplete and K-State lost.
Second-most harmless salute: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. Blackmon gave one to Philadelphia Eagles' receiver/punt returner DeSean Jackson. After toasting an Arizona defender for an easy 71-yard score, Blackmon cut across the goal line, delaying his touchdown that opened the game's scoring. He wasn't flagged, but he did catch a cheap shot from a Wildcats defender later in the game, presumably for the premature celebration.
Best unsung hero: Dan Bailey, K/P, Oklahoma State. Bailey was forced into punting duty because Quinn Sharp was academically ineligible. All five of his punts were solid, and he pinned one inside the 20-yard line. He also hit all three of his field goals, two of which came from beyond 40 yards and another that was from 50.
Best out-of-nowhere performance: Hilburn. The senior receiver had a career-high 84 yards with his 30-yard score. His five catches were the most receptions he's had in a game in all but one match during his two-year stint as a Wildcat. His salute got plenty of attention, but it overshadowed a game in which he was K-State's leading receiver and made one of the biggest plays of their season.
Biggest fade into Bolivian: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska. David finished the Big 12 season with four double-digit tackle performances in five games to lead the league by 19 stops. But against a Washington team bent on running the ball, he made just seven stops, and one for a loss. Those seven tackles were the fewest David made since he notched five against Washington earlier this season.
Worst break: Michael Hodges, LB, Texas A&M. The Aggies senior linebacker, leader and leading tackler was playing his last game after earning his spot the previous year as a former walk-on. But with a 10-0 lead, Hodges sprained an ACL and couldn't return. After his injury, A&M was outscored 41-14.
Best atmosphere: Cotton Bowl. Two of the country's best fan bases made themselves known, packing Cowboys Stadium and staying loud for most of the game. Texas A&M and LSU sold out the game just days after the matchup was announced, and brought their excitement to JerryWorld.
Texas A&M finished its season as the Big 12's best rush defense, reclaiming the "Wrecking Crew" nickname in the process.
"We had to mix it up," said Tigers offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. "We felt like if we could loosen them up with some big passes, we'd be able to run the football."
Few figured the Tigers would have the kind of success they did doing both, but they did. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson had thrown four touchdown passes in 12 games entering Friday's Cotton Bowl, including just two in his past 11 games.
"I thought he threw the ball about as good as I've seen him throw on tape," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "He was decisive, aggressive and accurate."
With Jefferson keeping the Aggies honest, LSU rolled over the Wrecking Crew for 288 rushing yards. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Spencer Ware both topped 100 yards, and Jefferson made a handful of plays with his legs, extending drives on third down on plenty of occasions and finishing with 67 yards on 12 carries.
"For our run game, I thought we were doing a really good job of dominating the line of scrimmage," Crowton said.
Early on, the Aggies were up 10-0, but with one torque of a knee they were down a leader. Senior linebacker Michael Hodges suffered a sprained ACL in the first quarter, and Texas A&M's leading tackler never returned.
"He is the heart and soul of our defense in many ways," Sherman said. "At the same time, you can't use that as a reason why we didn't perform the way we should have been capable of performing. ... One guy gets hurt, another guy has to step in and make the play."
His replacement, Kyle Mangan, managed just four tackles, the same amount Hodges had already accumulated in the first quarter.
"I think Kyle, put in the situation he was in, he played well," defensive end Lucas Patterson said. "You can't replace a player like Hodges."
With Jefferson having one of his best games of the year, and the Aggies patching together a run defense that often looked out of character, there was little expectation after Texas A&M's 10-0 lead had evaporated that chants of "Wrecking Crew" would make an encore in Cowboys Stadium.
Early on, it might have. Jefferson's first deep pass -- and the Tigers first attempt to soften the defense -- was interecepted with one hand by Coryell Judie. But Jefferson's first of three connections in the end zone with senior receiver Terrence Toliver assured an end to the Aggies' six-game winning streak.
"I came back with the next deep ball call when we got in the right situation," Crowton said. "Jordan stood in there, took a big hit, but got the touchdown. I knew we'd be alright from that point on because we were going to run the ball. We pound it in there."
The Aggies had no answer for the majority of the night. Gaps went unfilled and runners sliced through wide lanes. The Tigers ran the ball 55 times, and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
"Our offensive line came to play," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Our offensive line said this is a challenge they wanted. I think they played to that challenge."
How the game was won: LSU ran all over Texas A&M's defense for 60 minutes, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill tossed three interceptions, equaling his total from the past six games of Texas A&M's season, when he moved from receiver to starting quarterback. The Tigers easily topped 250 yards on the ground, and hit on a pair of deep balls for touchdowns.
Turning point: Michael Hodges' injury. It was hardly the only reason why the Aggies couldn't stuff the run, but Texas A&M lost its leading tackler and middle linebacker to a right knee injury early in the game, and never regained the physical defensive play it became known for during its six-game winning streak.
Stat of the game: LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson threw three touchdown passes. The Tigers had thrown seven touchdown passes in 12 games this season entering the Cotton Bowl.
Player of the game: Terrence Toliver, WR, LSU. The 6-foot-5, 203-pound senior went out in style, hauling in three touchdown catches to tie an LSU bowl record, including a pair of deep balls over the middle for 41- and 42-yard touchdowns.
Record performance: Friday's crowd of 83,514 was the second-most in Cotton Bowl history, behind the 2009 game between Texas Tech and Ole Miss, the last Cotton Bowl game in the Cotton Bowl stadium.
Record performance II: Texas A&M running back Cyrus Gray became the first Aggies running back since Darren Lewis in 1988 to rush for 100 yards in seven consecutive games.
What it means: Texas A&M's big finish to the regular season won't end with a bang, but they do finish 9-4 despite the loss. The Aggies won nine games for just the second time since 1998. The Big 12, meanwhile, finishes an underwhelming 3-5 in bowl games after a favorable draw. Of the five ranked Big 12 teams playing, Texas A&M was the only one matched up against a ranked opponent.
Here's some instant analysis:
Turning point: The opening kickoff. Texas A&M's Coryell Judie returned it 69 yards to the LSU 31-yard line, and firmly established the Aggies as the dominant team early.
Turning point II: Jordan Jefferson's deep ball to Terrence Toliver. That brought the Tigers to within three and confirmed that we were in for a ball game. And when Jefferson is throwing perfect strikes 50 yards downfield for touchdowns, you know it's going to be a high-scoring day.
Stat of the half: LSU has 187 rushing yards. The Tigers have consistently run the ball for the first 30 minutes, and the Aggies will be without leading tackler Michael Hodges for the rest of the game with a right knee injury. That won't help matters, but Texas A&M can't win if they give up another 187 on the ground in the second half.
Best player in the half: LSU's offensive line. The big guys up front haven't been fantastic pass blockers for the first half, letting Jefferson take a handful of big hits, but they're the ones to thank for the dominance in the running game.
What Texas A&M needs to do: First off, Ryan Tannehill has to quit turning the ball over. His first interception was poor communication; Uzoma Nwachukwu curled off an option route and Tannehill tossed a ball for the fly route. His second was a bad throw behind his receiver and a bad decision into double coverage that resulted in seven points for the Tigers.
Outside of the turnovers, Texas A&M has had good balance offensively, but defensively, it's as simple as stopping the run. More difficult is figuring out how to do it with Hodges sidelined.
He entered the game with 111 tackles, and already had four in the first quarter before leaving. There's no doubt he'll be missed in a big way by the Aggies. Look no further than LSU's last drive, which resulted in a touchdown to put the Tigers ahead 14-10 after an early 10-0 spurt by the Aggies.
LSU threw exactly one pass on the drive, and it was incomplete. It ran eight times for 60 yards and finished it off with a touchdown.
Without Hodges in the lineup, and unless the Aggies can slow an uncharacteristically leaky run defense for the final two-plus quarters, the offense is going to need to put plenty more points on the board to keep up.
But it gave up a big play, too, allowing a 42-yard deep ball over the middle from Jordan Jefferson to Terrence Toliver that cut the Aggies lead to 10-7.
Tolliver beat his man, and it cost the Aggies, but two other mistakes could have cost them further. Fortunately for Texas A&M, neither did.
Texas A&M's Coryell Judie intercepted a pass on the opening drive, but only after the Aggies extended LSU's drive with a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt, though the punter did bobble the snap.
On the Aggies last drive, which ended in a missed field goal, Tyrann Mathieu blitzed and hit Ryan Tannehill without being blocked, forcing a fumble. Right tackle Jake Matthews whiffed on the block, but recovered the fumble, allowing the Aggies to keep possession.
The Aggies have looked like the better team after the first quarter, but more mistakes like those could catch up to them. Eliminate them and prevent another big play like the Tigers' pass, and the Aggies, who have run the ball well early, should be in good position to spring the mild upset.
Jan. 7, 8 p.m. ET (FOX)
LSU take by SEC blogger Chris Low: For a team that went 10-2 in the regular season with both losses coming to top 10 opponents, LSU took its share of grief this season.
Part of that was another near disaster at the end of the game, this time against Tennessee. The Vols bailed Les Miles and the Tigers out by having 13 defenders on the field, though.
It looked like the clock had expired before LSU could push across that last touchdown. The Tigers got another shot thanks to the penalty on the Vols … and survived.
LSU’s defense was excellent for most of the season and carried a far heavier burden than it should have. That’s because the Tigers tried to do it without a passing game for the first two months of the season. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee split time for a while, but it's been mostly Jefferson at the end of the season.
About the time the Tigers found a passing game and beat Alabama 24-21 in their best win of the season on Nov. 6, their defense started to fade a bit.
The Tigers had trouble getting off the field defensively in both of their last two games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. They barely squeezed by Ole Miss, but were beaten by the Hogs in Little Rock -- costing the Tigers a BCS bowl.
Texas A&M take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: There weren't many who picked the Aggies to be here back in October. Texas A&M sat at 3-3 and 0-2 in Big 12 play, fresh off a three-touchdown home loss to Missouri. Forget the Cotton Bowl, the Aggies would have been thankful for any bowl at that point.
And yet, here they are, snug in the Big 12's No. 2 bowl spot. They have a six-game winning streak to thank, one that included wins over two top 10 teams. That streak was keyed off by making a switch from Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Jerrod Johnson at quarterback to Ryan Tannehill, who also happened to be one of Johnson's top receivers. He's not the only reason. Running back Cyrus Gray bulldozed his way onto the media's All-Big 12 team with his dominance down the season's stretch after top running back Christine Michael's season ended with a broken leg. The Aggies defense is one of the league's most improved units, too. Mike Sherman got what he expected with new coordinator Tim DeRuyter, and now, the Aggies are in the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 2004.
Expect the Aggies fans to head three hours west to Dallas in droves, eager to support their red-hot team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Nebraska (Big 12 No. 4) vs. LSU (SEC No. 4)
Nebraska's record against the SEC: 2-2
LSU's record against the Big 12: 2-2
Previous series: Nebraska leads the series, 5-0-1
Most recent game: Nebraska won, 30-15, in the 1987 Sugar Bowl
Distance between them (as the crow flies according to How Far Is It): 780 miles.
Where they should play: Fort Smith, Ark. (388 miles from Baton Rouge, 396 miles from Lincoln)
Who wins: LSU.
Why: Bo Pelini knows all about LSU's talent after serving as the Tigers' defensive coordinator from 2005-07. The Tigers struggled without him last season, allowing opponents to score 50 points twice -- something that had never happened before in LSU history. Look for new coordinator John Chavis to have the Tigers playing with a growl like they did when Pelini was calling defenses.
LSU sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson has more experience than his Nebraska counterpart, Zac Lee, and would be able to exploit the Cornhuskers' pass defense with veteran deep threat Brandon LaFell. Bruising tailback Charles Scott would be able to run the ball consistently as a beefy LSU front should be able to neutralize Ndamukong Suh up front.
Nebraska would have its moments and would likely be able to move the ball on the ground with Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille against a rebuilt LSU defensive front that features three new starters. But I doubt the Cornhuskers have the deep receiving threats they would need to score the points in bunches to beat the Tigers.
Pelini is narrowing the talent gap with the nation's elite from what he inherited. He'll get there soon enough, but his program still isn't to the point where it can consistently beat teams like LSU on a neutral field.
Wednesday: Oklahoma State (Big 12 No. 3) vs. Alabama (SEC No. 3).
The count: SEC, 5-4.
Note: Matchups are determined by the most recent rankings of Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin and SEC blogger Chris Low. All cumulative records go back to the 1996 season -- the first of competition in the Big 12.