NCF Nation: 2009 blog bowl overview

Texas (13-0) vs. Alabama (13-0)

Jan. 7, 8 p.m., (ABC)

Texas take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: The Longhorns nearly played their way out of the BCS title game Saturday night and were fortunate to beat Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.

That narrow victory should provide much emphasis over the next few weeks to the Longhorns, who earned their first BCS title game berth since 2005. Mack Brown’s program has become one of the most proficient in the postseason, winning five consecutive bowl games including three BCS bowl games during that streak.

The Longhorns offensive line struggled mightily against Nebraska’s defensive front, producing a season-low 18 rushing yards and allowing nine sacks against the Cornhuskers. It will be another challenge against Alabama’s defense studded with defensive All-Americans Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas and mammoth run-stuffer Terrence Cody. The game will also feature offensive starpower with Heisman contenders Colt McCoy of Texas and Mark Ingram of Alabama.

The Longhorns streaked to their first Big 12 title since 2005 thanks to an offense keyed by McCoy’s passing talents and a deep collection of receivers. It will be a challenge for them to make yardage against an Alabama defense that led the nation in pass efficiency defense and scoring defense and ranks second in rushing defense and total defense. In order to be successful in the title game, the Longhorns will have to show improvement over their struggling performance in the Big 12 title game.

Alabama take by SEC blogger Chris Low: It took Nick Saban all of three years to build Alabama’s program back to national championship contention. The Crimson Tide are right where they expect to be after sweeping through the regular season unbeaten for the second straight year, and this time, finishing it off with a 32-13 demolition of Florida.

This is an Alabama team that’s every bit as physical as it was a year ago, but even more diverse offensively. Junior quarterback Greg McElroy showed how diverse by carving apart Florida’s vaunted defense in the SEC championship game. The convincing 19-point win over the Gators was easily the Crimson Tide’s most complete performance of the season.

Saban has already started to send the message to his team through the media that no matter how well Alabama played in its conference championship game and how shaky Texas was in its conference championship game that this isn’t a “David vs. Goliath” affair. In other words, don’t look for the Crimson Tide to get caught sleeping no matter how big a favorite they are in this game. They will be ready.

Alabama’s defense is one of the best in the country, and Saban’s a master when he has this much time to scheme up a team. But Texas has a pair of assistants on its staff that know his system extremely well. Saban has called Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp one of the best assistants that he’s ever had. Muschamp, the Longhorns’ head coach-in-waiting, was Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU and was also with Saban on the Miami Dolphins’ staff for a year. Texas assistant head coach/running backs coach Major Applewhite was Saban’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama during Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa in 2007.


December, 6, 2009
Central Michigan (11-2) vs. Troy (9-3)
Jan. 6, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

This bowl could be considered the other championship.

Similar to what TCU and Boise State did in the Poinsettia Bowl a year ago, Mid-American Conference champion Central Michigan and Sun Belt champion Troy will have a mini-championship in the GMAC Bowl to see which conference is better.

Both teams ran through their conference seasons undefeated. Troy captured its fourth consecutive title -- second outright -- while Central Michigan won its third MAC title in four seasons.

For Central Michigan, Troy will present the biggest challenge in terms of defending a truly multidimensional offense. The Trojans excel in both the run and the pass behind quarterback Levi Brown and running back Shawn Southward. Troy’s total offense ranks third in the country with 478.50 yards per game and the passing game ranks fourth. Brown has passed for more than 300 yards seven times this season and more than 400 three times.

Central Michigan’s defense has been tough this season, limiting teams to 329.69 yards per game and just 17.23 points per game.

The biggest concern for Troy will be stopping dual-threat quarterback Dan LeFevour, who is in the midst of one of his most complete seasons as a Chippewa. He’s broken several MAC and school passing records and in the MAC championship he broke the FBS record for overall touchdowns. This season, he accounted for 41 of his team’s 54 touchdowns.

FedEx Orange Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Georgia Tech (11-2) vs. Iowa (10-2)

Jan 5., 8 p.m., (FOX)

Georgia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Georgia Tech has been an inspired team since its embarrassing 38-3 loss to LSU last year in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it enters the Orange Bowl determined not to suffer the same fate. In a matchup of two of the country’s top 10 teams, the Yellow Jackets’ offense will be unlike anything Iowa has seen this year. But the Hawkeyes are a disciplined defense that has what it takes to the stop the triple option -- dependable interior linemen. This game will feature two of the country’s top defensive linemen in Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan and defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn.

On paper, it’s a very intriguing matchup. Georgia Tech has the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, and the No. 11 scoring offense at 35.31 points per game. Iowa is 10th in the country in scoring defense at 15.5 points per game.

The players Iowa will need to stop, though, are B-back Jonathan Dwyer, quarterback Josh Nesbitt, and receiver Demaryius Thomas. All of them have big-play potential and showed it in Saturday’s win over Clemson en route to the program’s first ACC title since 1990. Thomas had his fourth reception of 70 yards or more, and his ninth of at least 50 yards. Statistically, Nesbitt and Dwyer are the second-best rushing tandem in ACC history.

Iowa take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Nothing came easily for Iowa this season, even the team's BCS at-large berth.

Hawkeyes fans had to sweat it out Sunday night and hope bowl selection committees prioritized what had happened on the field ahead of outside factors in their final decisions. Because between the lines, Iowa was a heck of a football team this fall. And it gets one final chance to silence its critics against ACC champion Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Kirk Ferentz's team will get a big boost for the bowl as quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns from a severe right ankle sprain. Stanzi drives fans nuts with interceptions, but he's a tremendous clutch player and instills confidence in everyone around him. Stanzi and big-play wideouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos face a Georgia Tech defense that can be gashed.

The big question Jan. 5 will be how Iowa's fundamentally sound defense handles Jonathan Dwyer, Josh Nesbitt and Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, which ranks second nationally in rushing (307.2 ypg) and 11th in scoring (35.3 ppg). Iowa boasts an excellent defensive front seven, led by linebacker Pat Angerer and ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns. Those defenders need to be at their best against the Ramblin' Wreck.

Iowa returns to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2003, when it got crushed by USC. The Hawkeyes never have faced Georgia Tech.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 6, 2009
TCU (12-0) vs. Boise State (12-0)

Jan. 4, 8 p.m., (FOX)

While both teams are happy to be playing in a BCS bowl, it’s fair to say that playing each other has resulted in an anticlimactic ending to two undefeated campaigns.

The Boise State-TCU game is a rematch of last year’s Poinsettia Bowl in which TCU won 17-16. That game was Boise State’s consolation prize after not being selected as an at-large team despite finishing the year with an undefeated record.

This year’s game between Boise State and TCU might also seem like a consolation prize since both programs hoped to topple an automatic qualifying team and continue to show the parity between the AQ and non-AQ schools.

Still, this is a good matchup between two teams with top offenses and defenses.

TCU is the only team in the country that ranks in the top four in total defense and total offense. The Horned Frogs have the best defense in the country, led by defensive end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington. The defense allows just 23.25 yards per game and is especially tough against the pass. The Horned Frogs offense averages 40.67 points per game and 469.08 yards per game, which both rank No. 4 in the country.

Boise State has the nation’s top scoring defense with 44.15 yards per game and its offensive line allows .38 sacks per game. The Broncos rank second in passing efficiency and are No. 2 in turnover margin.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Texas Tech (8-4) vs. Michigan State (6-6)
Jan. 2, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Texas Tech take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: Mike Leach’s season was marked with several up-and-down performances. Leach’s offense never found any real continuity under one quarterback as injuries resulted in the use of three different starters over the course of the season. The Red Raiders looked like world beaters in a blowout home victory over Oklahoma and a strong road performance in a loss at Texas. But they also struggled in an embarrassing home loss to Texas A&M and were lucky to beat Baylor in their regular-season finale.

Leach has alternated between Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield at quarterback. Potts started and finished the season after Sheffield underwent foot surgery. It’s a typically high-powered Texas Tech offense that ranks second nationally in scoring, seventh in total offense and ninth in scoring. But the biggest surprise has been the emergence of a strong defense keyed by Brandon Carter, who notched a school-record 15 sacks this season to rank second nationally. They will be facing a Michigan State program that has already been ravaged by controversy after two players were kicked off the team and eight others were placed on suspension. The Spartans look like an appealing opponent for the Red Raiders, considering they rank 96th in pass efficiency defense and 103rd in pass defense. Michigan State will counter with All-American linebacker Greg Jones and leading receiver Blair White, but the Spartans have lost two of their top receivers to suspension and likely won’t have the firepower to match Tech in a shootout.

Michigan State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg:This could go one of two ways for Michigan State.

1. Things completely fall apart in San Antonio, as an undermanned Spartans squad gutted by suspensions and dismissals gets steamrolled by a Texas Tech team led by the nation's No. 2 passing offense (380.7 ypg). Taylor Potts becomes the latest quarterback to shred Michigan State's secondary, and fans raise some serious doubts about head coach Mark Dantonio just a year after the team reached the Capital One Bowl.

2. The Alamo Bowl becomes Michigan State's finest hour, as the team shows its newfound resolve in the wake of a "crisis," as Dantonio is calling it. Spartans receivers fill in for Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, and the secondary makes up for the loss of suspended cornerback Chris L. Rucker.

For the second scenario to take place, Dantonio will have to do his finest coaching in the coming weeks, as more suspensions could be on the way. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones needs a huge performance Jan. 2 in the Alamodome, and Michigan State's defensive backs will have to be at their best against Potts and his wideouts.

The Spartans offense also must step up in a game that should feature plenty of points. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and wideout Blair White must find gaps in the Red Raiders' defense.

The teams meet for the first time, and Michigan State makes its first trip to the Alamo Bowl since 2003.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December, 6, 2009
East Carolina (9-4) vs. Arkansas (7-5)

Jan. 2, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

East Carolina take by Independents and others blogger Graham Watson: East Carolina made Conference USA history this past weekend by becoming the first team to win back-to-back Conference USA titles since the game went into the championship format.

After last season’s C-USA championship, the Pirates weren’t able to follow up with a bowl victory and they’re hoping to change their fortunes this year.

East Carolina has never faced Arkansas, and is just 4-12 against SEC opponents in its history. A win in the bowl would give the Pirates their first 10-win season since winning 11 in 1991.

This will be a great test for an East Carolina defense that stifled Houston in the C-USA championship. The Pirates allow just 22.08 points per game, but have been gashed in yardage this year. Arkansas has one of the best scoring offenses in the country this year with 37.33 points per game to go along with 439.33 yards per game.

East Carolina has a couple of things going for it in this matchup. Not only have the Pirates seen a high-powered offense and defeated it, but its seniors have been carrying the team from the beginning and want to end on a good note. This game will likely be a lot closer than many expect.

Arkansas take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Arkansas had two problems this season -- playing away from home and stopping people on defense. The Hogs didn’t win a true road game in 2009 and finished the regular season ranked last in the SEC in total defense.

Still, the Hogs flirted with nine wins in Bobby Petrino’s second season in Fayetteville and were one of the most exciting and productive offensive clubs in the league. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett was the SEC’s top newcomer after transferring from Michigan and needs one more touchdown pass in the bowl game to reach the 30-plateau for the season.

As good as Mallett was this season, the playmakers around him were equally good. Receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright all took turns making big plays, while D.J. Williams is one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the SEC.

Had the Hogs been able to muster a little more defense in the final minute against LSU in regulation or cover anybody in their 52-41 loss to Georgia back in September, this could easily be a nine-win team right now. And don’t forget about the 23-20 loss to Florida in October ... and the phantom personal foul penalty.

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Oklahoma State Cowboys (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4)

Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (FOX)

Oklahoma State take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: Mike Gundy’s team had hopes of making its first BCS at-large appearance before a stunning 27-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the season. They could be facing more of the same against a talented Mississippi defense that ranked in the top 25 in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. The Rebels whipped Texas Tech at the point of attack last season in the Cotton Bowl and will be looking for more of the same against the Cowboys. But they will be facing a different challenge from a run-heavy Oklahoma State offense keyed by All-American offensive tackle Russell Okung, bullish running back Keith Toston (1,177 rushing yards) and 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter, who will have another month to get over his early-season injuries.

Bill Young has done a nice job retooling Oklahoma State's defense, which ranked sixth nationally in rush defense and will be tested by leading Mississippi running back Dexter McCluster (985 yards). The key for the game could well be which team gets the best play from quarterbacks who struggled late in the season. Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson was hobbled with injuries and Mississippi's Jevan Snead threw three interceptions in a season-ending loss at Mississippi State. These teams have met once before when Mississippi escaped with a 31-28 victory over the Cowboys in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.

Mississippi take by SEC blogger Chris Low:Ole Miss gets a return trip to Dallas, this time getting to play in the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. The Rebels can only hope the whole Cotton Bowl experience is as much fun as last season when they shredded Texas Tech.

The end of this regular season wasn’t much fun for anybody in Oxford. Ole Miss was whipped 41-27 by rival Mississippi State, solidifying the Rebels as the toughest team to figure this season in the SEC. They didn’t live up to their top-10 billing early, but then hit a stretch in October and November where they did look like the real deal, only to bow meekly to the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl.

After a brilliant debut season in the SEC, junior quarterback Jevan Snead threw 17 interceptions and was one of the more disappointing players in the league. He never found a rhythm and didn’t play with a lot of confidence at times.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t put Dexter McCluster at running back full time until midway through the season, and boy, did he take off. Always a threat to go the distance, McCluster rushed for 821 yards in his last five SEC games.

Nutt and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy go back a ways. Nutt was an assistant coach on Oklahoma State’s staff when Gundy was the Cowboys’ quarterback in the 1980s. Bowl

December, 6, 2009
PM ET Bowl: Connecticut (7-5) vs. South Carolina (7-5):
Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Connecticut take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: The reason why UConn is going bowling is because of its late-season offensive improvement.

The Huskies are known mostly for their running game, and backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards this season. More than that, though, the passing game finally started to develop late in the year with quarterback Zach Frazer at the helm. UConn scored 45 points against Cincinnati, 33 at Notre Dame, 56 against Syracuse and 29 in the snow against South Florida on Saturday, engineering a winning field goal drive with less than a minute to play.

Just how far has the Connecticut offense come? Playing South Carolina should provide a good measuring stick.

The Gamecocks had one of the SEC's toughest defenses this season, allowing just 20 points per game. They held Alabama to that number and Florida to 24.

It's funny, because South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is a legendary offensive guru, while UConn's Randy Edsall built his reputation on defense. But now Spurrier is relying on his defense, while Edsall is hoping to outscore people while covering up holes on the other side of the ball.

The Huskies are one of the best stories of the bowl season, having overcome the death of Jasper Howard in October to rally together and make the postseason. They should get the bulk of the support from the nonpartisan fans sitting in the Birmingham stands and watching this game on TV.

South Carolina take by SEC blogger Chris Low:South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the Gamecocks weren’t picky, that they’d go play wherever they were told to go. As it turns out, they were the last team picked in the SEC’s bowl pecking order and will square off against Connecticut in the Bowl.

The game will be played at Legion Field, where Spurrier won his first SEC championship game while coaching at Florida in 1993. Some 16 years later, he hopes to cap South Carolina’s season with a win for only the second time in his five years as the Gamecocks’ coach.

At one point this season, it looked like the Gamecocks might be teetering after one-sided losses at Tennessee and Arkansas. But they regrouped and lost to Florida in a game that went down to the fourth quarter, and after a bye week, whipped Clemson in the regular-season finale in their most complete effort of the season.

There’s a lot of young talent on this team, led by freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore, freshman receiver Alshon Jeffery, redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Taylor and sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia.

The Gamecocks could be one of the teams to watch next season in the Eastern Division. Getting to eight wins and playing well in Birmingham would be a good way to go into the offseason.

International Bowl

December, 6, 2009
South Florida (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (7-5):
Jan. 2, Noon (ESPN2)

South Florida take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: Suppose you would have asked South Florida back on Sept. 26, just hours after it scored a potentially program-changing victory at Florida State in Tallahassee, where the Bulls would end up bowling.

I bet you could have polled all 85 scholarship players and not found a single one who would have said in Toronto against a 7-5 MAC team.

Such, however, is the state of South Florida, a program that never wins enough after strong starts to matter much in the end. The Bulls won just twice after Oct. 3 and thus earned the Big East's version of a postseason banishment: Canada.

Head coach Jim Leavitt's first order of business will be to get his players excited about such an assignment and convince them that Northern Illinois is dangerous. The Huskies, after all, beat Purdue and gave Wisconsin a battle on the road earlier this year and have a strong rushing attack.

Still, there's little to suggest that Northern Illinois can keep up athletically with the Bulls, who have future pros like George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul on defense, electric boom-or-bust quarterback B.J. Daniels and a fleet of fast receivers. With proper motivation and focus, South Florida should be the heavy favorite in this game.

But that's assuming a lot for a team that too many times comes out flat emotionally. And that's why a promising start to the year is ending in Toronto for the Bulls.

Northern Illinois take by Independents and Others blogger Graham Watson: For the first time in school history, Northern Illinois will play a bowl game in back-to-back seasons. This is only the sixth overall bowl for the Huskies, and head coach Jerry Kill, who is in his second season, is responsible for two of them.

Northern Illinois finished second in the Mid-American Conference West behind league champion Central Michigan. The Huskies seven wins are the most since 2006 and that included a 28-21 win over Purdue, the school’s second-ever win over a Big Ten school.

Northern Illinois has spent most of the season dealing with injuries. Starting quarterback Chandler Harnish missed significant time and backup DeMarcus Grady put the Huskies in a position to play for a division championship.

The strength of Northern Illinois is its running game. The Huskies have a one-two punch in Chad Spann and Me'co Brown. The two have combined for 1,590 yards and Spann has accounted for 19 rushing touchdowns. Spann’s 20 total touchdowns give him the most points in the MAC.

The Huskies’ rushing attack should be able to find some daylight against South Florida, which allows 137.75 rushing yards per game.

The Northern Illinois defense will have a challenge against dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels, who leads the team in both passing and rushing. He is the bulk of the Bulls offense and will be a point of emphasis for the Huskies’ defense.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Cincinnati (12-0) vs. Florida (12-1)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. (FOX)

Cincinnati had hoped to play for the BCS title after its perfect season. A Sugar Bowl trip against the defending national champs and the team that was ranked No. 1 most of the season is not a bad consolation prize.

The Bearcats -- who are making their second straight BCS appearance -- could even siphon some first-place votes in the final Associated Press poll with an impressive performance against the Gators. But that won't be easy.

The Cincinnati defense allowed 146 points in its last four regular-season games, and while Florida struggled at times this season to score points, giving Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow nearly a month to prepare is a scary proposition. The Gators' overall team speed and athleticism will provide a stiff test, though with guys like Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and Isaiah Pead, the Bearcats are not exactly plodders either.

Interim Bearcats coach Jeff Quinn has to be encouraged by how Alabama scored 32 points on the mighty Gators' defense, which had allowed only 20 points once before Saturday. Nobody has been able to keep Tony Pike, Gilyard and the Bearcats' attack under 24 points all season, and they're very comfortable if it becomes a shootout.

It's no BCS title game, but beating the program that has recently been the gold standard in college football would represent a huge leap forward for Cincinnati, which is Meyer's alma mater. Like a lot of alumni, Meyer probably never thought he'd see the day when the Bearcats could stack up to SEC powers in the Sugar Bowl. We'll find out if that day has arrived.
Oregon (10-2) vs. Ohio State (10-2)
Jan. 1, 4:30 p.m. (ABC)

Oregon take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: On the surface, the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi looks like a classic “irresistible force meets immovable object” matchup.

Oregon’s rushing attack ranks sixth in the country with 236 yards per game, while Ohio State’s run defense ranks fifth, surrendering a scant 83.4 yards per contest.

So who buckles first?

And will the Big Ten finally break through after losing six consecutive BCS bowl games?

Ohio State, which will be making its first Rose Bowl appearance since its 1997 win over Arizona State, is 7-0 all-time against the Ducks, but the teams haven’t met since 1987. Oregon last played in the Granddaddy in 1995, when it lost to Penn State.

Although the Ducks' spread-option against the Buckeyes' stout front seven will get top billing on the marquee, Oregon’s defense isn’t so bad -- the Ducks surrendered 329 yards per game, which ranks 32nd in the country -- and the Buckeyes run the ball well (199 yards per game).

It will be interesting to see how the Ducks' fast but undersized front-seven matches up with a Buckeyes line that struggled early but has improved during the latter portion of the season.

The quarterbacks, however, might end up deciding things. Oregon wanted hotshot recruit Terrelle Pryor badly in 2008 to run its spread-option, but Pryor chose Ohio State, and the Ducks ended up with a JC transfer named Jeremiah Masoli.

Masoli has become one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, while Pryor has been inconsistent.

Will Masoli continue to roll or will Pryor break through?

Ohio State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State has been the team of the decade in the Big Ten, dominating the conference and experiencing both highs and lows in postseason play. But throughout Jim Tressel's incredible run, the Buckeyes have never been to Pasadena. They make their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1997 and hope to snap a three-game BCS bowl slide that has damaged their national reputation.

The Buckeyes once again played their best football in November, beating two top 15 opponents and arch-rival Michigan to lock up their fifth consecutive Big Ten championship. The defense has carried this team throughout the fall, posting three shutouts, nearly two more, and tying for third nationally in takeaways (33).

Still, Ohio State hasn't faced an offense that remotely resembles Oregon's in terms of firepower. The spread system has given the Buckeyes problems, and Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is a dangerous man at the controls. Ohio State must be extremely sound in its tackling, much like it was for most of the Fiesta Bowl against Texas, and keep Masoli and running backs LaMichael James and LeGarrette Blount from getting into the open field.

The Buckeyes likely can't match Oregon score-for-score, and Tressel's offense has endured obstacles this season. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor limited mistakes and spurred a potent rushing attack while operating in a scaled-down system down the stretch, but he'll likely be called upon to do more against Oregon.

The teams share two common opponents: Purdue and USC. Oregon dominated USC but struggled to beat Purdue, while Ohio State lost to both.

Will the Buckeyes' BCS fortunes change in a new setting? We'll find out Jan. 1.

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Florida State (6-6) vs. West Virginia (9-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m., (CBS)

Florida State take by Heather Dinich: In the end, Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett got what he wanted, but will the product on the field match the off-field drama? Probably not. This is still a 6-6 Florida State team with one of the nation’s worst defenses. That hasn’t changed just because it will be the last game of Bobby Bowden’s career.

Considering that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has already begun to build his staff, it could be an awkward preparation period for those assistants who know their time in Tallahassee is coming to an end. If the staff isn’t on the same page heading into this game, how are the players supposed to be? And those are just the off-field issues.

Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who took over late in the season for injured star Christian Ponder, will be making his first appearance in a bowl game. Sure, FSU has proven it can score, but the last time it was on the field, it suffered a humiliating 37-10 loss to rival Florida.

The Noles’ defense is ranked 108th in the country in rushing defense, 113 in pass efficiency defense and 110 in total defense, and 98 in scoring defense. West Virginia, led by Noel Devine, has the No. 2 rushing offense in the Big East, and leads the conference in pass efficiency defense.

This might be not turn out to be the celebratory sendoff Bowden supporters would like to see.

West Virginia take by Brian Bennett: Three weeks ago, the Mountaineers stood at 7-3 with an uncertain bowl future. They finished by winning their final two games to earn the Big East's second-best bowl spot and make it a nice season.

The West Virginia offense has lacked its usual firepower lately, failing to score more than 24 points in any of its final five games. But it remains a dangerous attack, thanks to quarterback Jarrett Brown's strong arm and scrambling ability and running back Noel Devine's capability of turning any play into a touchdown.

The cure for whatever has slowed that offense may arrive in the form of Florida State's 98th-ranked defense. The Seminoles haven't really been able to stop anybody since October.

The biggest boon for West Virginia the past few weeks has been its defense getting fully healthy, especially difference-making linebacker Reed Williams and safety Sidney Glover. They helped put the clamps on Pitt and Rutgers and hold Cincinnati to its lowest-scoring output of the season.

Of course, the storyline of this game will be all about Bobby Bowden coaching his last game for Florida State against the school that gave him his first Division I head coaching job. Current West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has a little bit of Bowden's folksy wisdom and down-to-earth style about him. And this year, he's got a better team.

Capital One Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Penn State (10-2) vs. LSU (9-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m., (ABC)

Penn State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Penn State's BCS bubble burst Sunday, but the Nittany Lions still have an excellent chance to notch a signature victory on New Year's Day.

Two of college football's most storied programs meet for just the second time at the Capital One Bowl. Penn State beat LSU in the 1974 Orange Bowl, which capped head coach Joe Paterno's eighth season at the helm. Paterno boasts 23 bowl victories, an NCAA record, and he aims for his 14th season of 11 or more wins against the Tigers.

Penn State's defense has been its calling card all season, as the Lions rank in the top eight nationally in yards allowed (277.1 ypg), points allowed (11.8), tackles for loss (8.25 per game) and sacks (2.9 per game). You can bet Big Ten defensive player of the year Jared Odrick and star linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee will be geared up to face an LSU offense that has endured its struggles this fall and will be without standout running back Charles Scott (fractured collarbone).

The Lions' Spread HD offense was both dominant at times this fall and dormant against elite defenses in both Ohio State and Iowa. LSU's defense provides another very tough test for Daryll Clark, Evan Royster and, most importantly, an offensive line that has taken some time to jell.

Penn State makes its fifth appearance in the Capital One/Citrus Bowl and its first since 2002. The Lions are 1-3 in the Orlando game.

LSU take by SEC blogger Chris Low: The wolves were howling in Baton Rouge following LSU’s 25-23 loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 21 when Les Miles and the Tigers’ offensive staff butchered the end of that game with their clock management. Miles was roasted by the fans and the media.

That next week, the Tigers were again on the ropes, but they showed their mettle by rallying in the final minute of regulation and beat Arkansas 33-30 in overtime to change the complexion of this season. A home loss to end the regular season, particularly coming off that Ole Miss debacle, would have made for a long offseason no matter what happened in the bowl game.

But, now, the Tigers have a chance to win a 1oth game and get one more chance to improve offensively. That’s been the sticking point, because John Chavis’ defense in his first year as LSU’s coordinator has played well enough to win every game the Tigers have played this season.

Injuries have decimated LSU’s running back stable, and the Tigers are down to Stevan Ridley. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson has struggled with his overall awareness, and LSU has also given up an SEC-high 35 sacks.

The Tigers are 11th in the SEC this season in total offense (309.7 yards per game). That’s 130 yards fewer per game than what they averaged in 2007 when they won the national championship.

Outback Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Northwestern (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After being snubbed by the Outback Bowl for Iowa last year, Northwestern received a somewhat surprising invitation to the Tampa game, as it makes its first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since 1997.

The Wildcats now look for the same result as the Hawkeyes, who last year crushed South Carolina in the Outback to claim the Big Ten's only bowl victory. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose.

The game pits two teams (Northwestern and Auburn) that have never played, as well as two potentially explosive spread offenses. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, leads a Wildcats attack that settled into a rhythm in its final two games. Kafka will need to be sharp against an Auburn defense that ranks 28th nationally against the pass, though there could be some running room for a Wildcats rushing attack that has struggled to get on track.

Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been a key part of Northwestern's surge the last two seasons, but he will be tested against Auburn and spread guru Gus Malzahn. The Tigers will try just about anything on offense and boast the nation's No. 12 rushing unit, led by senior running back Ben Tate. The game features two efficient passers in Kafka and Tigers senior Chris Todd, who ranks 21st nationally in passer rating.

Northwestern comes in very hot, having gone 3-0 in November with two wins against top 20 opponents. Auburn started 5-0 before dropping five of its final seven contests, though the Tigers did give No. 1 Alabama all it could handle.

Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Auburn was one of six teams in the SEC this season finishing 7-5, but emerged out of the pack as the Outback Bowl’s top choice. The Tigers were one defensive stand away from knocking off Alabama in the regular-season finale two weeks ago and really putting a memorable stamp on Gene Chizik’s first season as head coach.

The long break before the bowl game should help Auburn as much as any team in the SEC. The Tigers battled depth problems all season, which explains in part their fast start and rocky finish to the season. They wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But the way they played against the Crimson Tide gives everybody on the Plains hope that there are better days ahead.

Gus Malzahn’s offense is one of the more unpredictable units in the country. The Tigers like to spread you out and will run everything from reverses, to direct-snap packages to throw-back passes. Their bread and butter this season, though, was turning around and handing the ball off to Ben Tate, who rushed for 1,254 yards.

Defensively, it was a struggle for Auburn. The Tigers finished last in the SEC in scoring defense (26.9 points per game). But, again, they looked like a different defensive unit against Alabama and turned in their best effort of the season on that side of the ball, holding Mark Ingram to 30 yards rushing.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. Tennessee (7-5)
Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Virginia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Virginia Tech is no stranger to the city of Atlanta, as this is the third time this season the Hokies will play there, and the second time they’ll face an SEC team in the Georgia Dome. Hokies fans are probably hoping the third time is the charm, as Virginia Tech lost to both Alabama and Georgia Tech in the city during the regular season. Tennessee, though, hasn’t seen that kind of success under Lane Kiffin yet, and No. 12 Virginia Tech should be favored heading into this game.

That’s due in large part to the Hokies’ defense, which is holding opponents to just 15.75 points per game, and the offensive star power of redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, who is fifth in the country in rushing yards per game, third in total rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns. He has had nine 100-yard rushing games this year.

Tennessee is one of four 7-5 teams in a muddled group in the SEC East, and statistically, the Vols have been average in just about every category but one this year -- pass efficiency defense. Tennessee is No. 8 in the country, allowing just 99.98 yards per game. Vols running backs coach Eddie Gran better get used to seeing this defense, as he’ll be joining Florida State offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher’s staff eventually.

Tennessee take by SEC blogger Chris Low: There has been talk for several years now about possibly matching Tennessee and Virginia Tech for a football game at Bristol Motor Speedway. There won’t be any fumes or tire tread to speak of, but the Vols and Hokies will meet for the first time since Peyton Manning's freshman season at Tennessee in 1994.

Lane Kiffin proved in the buildup to his first season at Tennessee that he could talk a good game, but his Vols won some respect around the league with how tough, how hard-nosed and how disciplined they were on the field. Monte Kiffin’s defense was the backbone of this club, although the Vols didn’t play as well on that side of the ball at the end of the season when they lost a few players to injury and/or suspension.

Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton was one of the most improved players in the league. After a dismal stretch in September, he rebounded to pass for 2,565 yards and 26 touchdowns. Senior running back Montario Hardesty rushed for 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns after being under-utilized by the previous staff.

The Vols had some quality losses this year to Alabama and Florida and had the Crimson Tide beat if they could kick a field goal. What they need to make this a successful first season under Kiffin is a quality win, and taking down Frank Beamer and the Hokies would certainly qualify.