NCF Nation: 2008 blog bowl preview

Jan 3., noon, (ESPN2)

Connecticut take by Brian Bennett: Connecticut will play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history, but the Huskies aren't exactly streaking into the postseason.

They ended the season with two straight losses and dropped five of their final seven games after a 5-0 start. Uncharacteristic problems with turnovers and on special teams plagued the Huskies the second half of the year. Even with the return of senior quarterback Tyler Lorenzen from a midseason broken foot, the UConn passing game has been awful. Receivers have dropped throws and Lorenzen and his backups have been far too careless with the ball.

Buffalo has actually fared slightly better against the teams' two common opponents, losing to Pittsburgh by 11 and beating Temple by two. The Huskies fell to the Panthers by 24 at home in the season finale and nipped Temple by three in overtime.

Still, UConn hopes to have star cornerback Darius Butler (knee) back in time for the bowl. And Buffalo will have to find an answer for Donald Brown, the nation's leading rusher who can surpass 2,000 yards with a slightly above-average performance in Toronto.

Buffalo has its own star rusher in James Starks, who ran for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. And the Bulls' offense is far more balanced, as quarterback Drew Willy had 3,091 yards passing and 25 touchdowns.


Buffalo take by non-BCS blogger Graham Watson: Buffalo is a team of destiny, according to quarterback Drew Willy, and after the Bulls' improbable win over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference championship game, it's hard to argue the point.

Buffalo is one of the more diverse offenses in the MAC. Willy, receiver Naaman Roosevelt and running back James Starks are all record-setting performers this season. Roosevelt has five consecutive 100-yard games heading into the International Bowl.

Willy, who as thrown for more than 3,000 yards this season, is a four-year starter and is smart with the football. The Bulls like to utilize speed out of the backfield with screens to Starks and even Roosevelt. Starks and fellow running back Brandon Thermilus are both power backs that like to run between the tackles and over their defenders.

The Buffalo defense hadn't been all that dangerous until last Friday and has really struggled against the run. That will need to be shored up before going against the nation's best rusher in UConn's Donald Brown.

Connecticut will be the toughest defense the Bulls will face this season. The Huskies are 10th in the country in total defense (281.42 yards per game) and seventh in the country against the pass (164.50 yards per game). They haven't given up more than 259 passing yards in any game this season.

Jan. 1, 2009, 8:30 p.m. (FOX) 

Cincinnati take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: Some people might make this matchup out to be Cincinnati's offense against Virginia Tech's defense, but they would be missing the point.

Yes, the Hokies are as fearsome as ever defensively, ranking seventh in the country in total defense. But the Bearcats have a swift, ball-hawking defense with 10 starting seniors themselves. The two teams feature outstanding secondaries, led by Macho Harris for Virginia Tech and Mike Mickens for Cincinnati, assuming the latter is healthy after late-year knee surgery. And both sides are terrific on special teams.

It's been endlessly documented how Cincinnati overcame all its quarterback issues this season. Virginia Tech had its own issues until Tyrod Taylor stepped up and solidified the position.

The Bearcats have a much better passing attack with quarterback Tony Pike and big-play receivers Dominick Goodman and Mardy Gilyard. But the Hokies are far more effective at running the ball and can use that to control the clock.

The Big East has won three straight BCS games and would like nothing better to defeat one of the three teams (along with Miami and Boston College) that bolted the league for the ACC before the 2005 season. The ACC has lost its last eight BCS games.


Virginia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: One of the first things Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said after winning the ACC title game was the team wanted to represent the ACC well this season at the Orange Bowl -- something they didn't do in last year's 24-21 loss to Kansas. The Hokies are peaking at just the right time, as the freshmen receivers have proven capable of making the offense less one-dimensional, and they're giving quarterback Tyrod Taylor more options. Tailback Darren Evans has also started to catch the ball out of the backfield a bit more, and Beamer has continued to praise freshman Dyrell Roberts, who played well on Saturday against Boston College.

Still, the Hokies don't exactly have a prolific offense and will need their stingy defense against the No. 3 scoring offense in the Big East. Cincinnati has won a school-record 11 games, including six straight, but is making its first BCS appearance in school history. The Bearcats have used five quarterbacks this season, but have had consistent receivers in Dominick Goodman and Mardy Gilyard. The Hokies offensive line will have a tough job protecting Taylor against a defense that led the Big East in sacks this season.

Dec. 27, 1 p.m., (ESPN)

North Carolina take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: North Carolina couldn't get much closer to home for the holidays, and it's exactly what executive director Will Webb was hoping for. The Tar Heels will face a West Virginia team that finished third in the Big East and hasn't scored more than 15 points in its past two games. Still, shifty quarterback Pat White will present challenges for the Tar Heels' defense. White is 81 rushing yards shy of his third straight 1,000-yard season. He'll be throwing into a defense that has 19 interceptions this season. UNC's top priority will be stopping the run, as West Virginia averages a conference-best 217.2 yards per game.

The Tar Heels have had an inconsistent season, which was a product of its inconsistent offense. Butch Davis switched quarterbacks after a 17-15 loss to Maryland, but starter T.J. Yates, who was injured for half of the season, didn't look like himself until the season finale against Duke. The Mountaineers have the best scoring defense in the Big East, holding opponents to 15.9 points per game. UNC will need a strong performance from tailbacks Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston in order to open up the passing game for standout receiver Hakeem Nicks, who leads the ACC with 83.8 yards per game.


West Virginia take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: For the first time since 2002, West Virginia won't play in a New Year's Day or a BCS bowl. But the Mountaineers are in the familiar position of trying to salvage a little Big East pride against North Carolina. The Tar Heels hammered both Connecticut and Rutgers earlier this season.

Though the game is within easy driving distance for its fans, West Virginia will basically be playing on the road in Charlotte. More importantly, the Mountaineers will have to recapture their previous offensive magic after totaling just 28 points in its final two games. They'll have to do so against an athletic North Carolina defense that held down Georgia Tech's triple-option rushing attack in a 28-7 win earlier this season. But never count out quarterback Pat White, who will try to cap his outstanding college career by finishing 4-0 in bowls.

It's been a disappointing season in many ways for the Mountaineers under first-year head coach Bill Stewart. Even the ever-optimistic Stewart admitted Saturday night that he's "not a happy camper" with the 8-4 record from a team that was picked to win the Big East. A bowl victory would go a long way toward easing some of the disappointment.

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