Predictions: Big East bowls

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
11:00
AM ET
The time has come for me to make my can't-be-beat Big East bowl predictions. All year you guys wanted me to think outside the box and pick some upsets. I shall deliver today. The pick for the Orange Bowl comes later this week, so West Virginia fans have to wait a few more days.

Belk Bowl: Louisville (7-5) vs. NC State (7-5), Dec. 27, 8 p.m. Here comes Test 1 against the ACC. The Wolfpack will have the benefit of playing in front of a partisan crowd, but Louisville goes into the game on a bit of a hot streak, having closed the season with a 5-1 mark. The Cardinals have simply found their identity. This offense is not going to light up the scoreboard, but it has become more efficient and balanced since play-calling duties switched to Shawn Watson. The defense has been solid, and will be one of the best the Wolfpack have faced this season. Louisville ranks No. 10 nationally in rushing defense (103.5 ypg), No. 14 in scoring defense (19.2 ppg) and No. 23 in total defense (327.8 ypg). Here is the bottom line for me: You know what you are going to get out of the Cardinals. They have been exceptionally consistent in the second half of the season. You cannot say the same for NC State, one of the most inconsistent teams in the nation. Will we see the NC State team that beat Clemson or the one that lost to Boston College and nearly lost to Maryland? Louisville 24, NC State 20.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6), Dec. 30, 3:20 p.m. Once again, Rutgers is playing the quarterback shuffle game, and coach Greg Schiano has not announced whether Chas Dodd or Gary Nova will start in the bowl game. No matter who is behind center, you can bet one thing has been emphasized since Rutgers lost to UConn -- hold onto the football. Rutgers turned the ball over six times against the Huskies and simply never gave itself a chance to win. Iowa State has been solid at forcing turnovers, but the Cyclones have given the ball away too many times this season. Rutgers owned the turnover margin earlier this season but has fallen off lately. The key for Rutgers in all its wins this season has been simple -- create turnovers, limit mistakes and allow defense and special teams to carry the day. Schiano always gets his team up for bowl games, and Iowa State has dropped two games in a row since beating Oklahoma State. Rutgers 27, Iowa State 20.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6), Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. I have been outspoken on this game in the past week so you know where I am going with this one. Zach Collaros might be back at quarterback for the Bearcats, which should be a huge advantage. Still, these teams are very similar -- good running backs (Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy) and good defenses (Vandy ranks No. 19 in the nation, Cincinnati ranks in the top 10 against the run and leads in sacks). The quarterback matchup between Jordan Rodgers and Collaros should be a good one as well, but I still give the advantage to the Bearcats. This is a team that was on pace to get to a BCS game before Collaros broke his ankle. Cincinnati has been terrific at getting after the quarterback and making tackles behind the line, and the secondary is much improved. The seniors are eager to win their first bowl game and eager to prove the naysayers wrong once again. Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21.

BBVA Compass Bowl: Pitt (6-6) vs. SMU (7-5), Jan. 7, 1 p.m. The big question headed into this one is how Pitt responds with interim coach Keith Patterson leading the way. The Panthers played under an interim coach in this game last year against Kentucky and won, so clearly this is not a unique situation. Pitt has to do what has worked best this season -- establish the run and let quarterback Tino Sunseri manage the game. The defense has been much improved in the second half of the season, and SMU has struggled to put up points of late. The Mustangs also will be without leading rusher Zach Line, who played a big role in the offense. If the Panthers can continue to get after the quarterback and play well in the secondary, they should be able to win this game. Pitt 28, SMU 17.

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