NCF Nation: 2010 blog bowl overview

Auburn Tigers (13-0) vs. Oregon Ducks (12-0)

Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Oregon take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas keeps things mostly close to the vest with reporters. But when a group of them expressed skepticism when running back LaMichael James said people doubted the Ducks, Thomas piped in with one word: "Masoli."

That's fair. When quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team during the offseason, many thought the Ducks’ chances of contending for the national title were no longer an issue. They were still a Pac-10 front-runner, but only by a little. At that point, in fact, most thought senior Nate Costa would win the starting job, not Thomas. But Thomas not only won the job, he gave the Ducks an upgrade at the position. And that has been the key this season.

Thomas and Oregon used the Ducks’ explosive, high-tempo, spread-option offense to wear down foes. They've outscored opponents by nearly 31 points a game this year. Only one team, California, came within single digits of the Ducks.

The Ducks made their first national statement with a blowout win at Tennessee, but their overwhelming 52-31 victory over Stanford proved to be a signature victory, one that grew in stature as the year went on because it would be the Cardinal's only defeat. The Ducks trailed 21-3, but then exploded and ran away with the game.

Oregon has owned the second half this season, outscoring foes 277-77, and it's yielded just 24 fourth-quarter points. The underrated defense is ranked 14th in the nation in scoring.

Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Outside of Florida and the junior college ranks, nobody really knew who Cam Newton was when Auburn opened preseason practice back in August. Even the Tigers’ coaches weren’t completely sure what they had.

Everybody knows now.

Newton, who started his career at Florida and then detoured through Blinn College, was the driving force in leading the Tigers (13-0) to their first-ever appearance in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. The front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy, Newton passed for 28 touchdowns and ran for 20 touchdowns, taking turns beating teams with his arm and his legs.

He’s coming off an MVP performance in the SEC championship game where he threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more in Auburn’s 56-17 dismantling of South Carolina. In his last five games, he’s thrown 15 touchdown passes and just one interception.

Auburn has been comfortable outscoring teams all season. The Tigers are sixth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 42.7 points per game.

Their defense has been vulnerable against the pass, as evidenced by the fact that they rank 105th nationally in pass defense. But those numbers are deceiving, because the Tigers have made a living out of coming up with key stops and forcing turnovers in the second half. In their last two games against South Carolina and Alabama, they've given up a total of two field goals in the second half.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Nevada Wolf Pack (12-1) vs. Boston College Eagles (7-5)

Jan. 9, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Nevada take by nation blogger Andrea Adelson: The Wolf Pack have put together the best season in school history: 12-1, WAC co-champs and a No. 15 national ranking. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has to be one of the most underrated players in the country. This past Saturday, he became just the third player in NCAA history to rush and pass for 20 touchdowns in the same season, joining Tim Tebow of Florida and Cam Newton of Auburn. Kaepernick had 155 yards rushing in a 35-17 win over Louisiana Tech, becoming the third quarterback in NCAA history to run for over 4,000 yards. He also had three rushing touchdowns, giving him 59 for his career, tied atop the NCAA rankings with Eric Crouch.

Nevada has had its breakout season because Kaepernick is running the Pistol offense to perfection. The Pistol has in fact become all the rage across the country, and that is because of inventor -- Nevada coach Chris Ault. Running back Vai Taua and Kaepernick have combined to be the most prolific rushing duo in NCAA history, passing Craig James and Eric Dickerson of SMU. After beating California earlier this year, it would send a strong statement to close out the season with yet another win over a team from an AQ conference. But keep in mind -- Nevada has lost four straight bowl games. Of course, those teams weren’t as strong as this one. I’ll come right out and say it -- Nevada can compete with anybody in the country right now.

Boston College take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Under the direction of true freshman quarterback Chase Rettig, Boston College became the first ACC program to follow a five-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak, and for that the Eagles have been rewarded with their 12th straight bowl appearance. BC reversed its fortunes with the proven formula of running the ball and playing stingy defense. Even with leading rusher Montel Harris sidelined for the final two games of the regular season, the Eagles were able to establish their ground game, thanks to true freshman backup Andre Williams, who helped lead the team to wins over Virginia and Syracuse.

Equally as important as their ability to run the ball this year has been BC’s ability to stop it. The Eagles lead the nation in rushing defense, and have allowed just 962 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, a 2.7 average per carry and only 80.2 yards per game on the ground. Much of that can be attributed to the exceptional play of linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the nation in tackles this year and was named the most outstanding defensive player in the same bowl game last year. The Eagles have also been helped by the return of linebacker Mark Herzlich, who made a full recovery from Ewing’s Sarcoma cancer after missing the entire 2009 season.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Pittsburgh Panthers (7-5) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (6-6)

Jan. 8, noon ET (ESPN)

Pittsburgh take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: If you would have told Pittsburgh before the season it would be be playing an SEC team in a bowl, the Panthers would have envisioned the Sugar Bowl, or maybe even the BCS title game. Expectations ran that high.

Playing Kentucky in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl? Never. But that's how disappointing this season has been.

Pitt was widely expected to win the Big East, and it did earn a share of the conference title. But it was one of the hollower championships you'll ever find as the Panthers finished 7-5 and spit the bit in all their crucial games (Utah, Notre Dame, Miami, UConn and West Virginia).

The offensive line was a mess early, but problems ran deeper than that. First-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri had his ups and downs, reigning Big East defensive player of the year Greg Romeus barely contributed because of injuries, the linebackers looked lost, etc. But mostly, Pitt just kept making mistakes in costly situations.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt still has enough individual talent -- like running back Dion Lewis, receiver Jon Baldwin and defensive end Jabaal Sheard -- to beat just about anybody, especially a middling SEC team like Kentucky. But as a team, Pitt has been untrustworthy in big situations, and that's why Wannstedt is on the hot seat.

Kentucky take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Making its fifth straight trip to a bowl game, Kentucky is in some pretty exclusive company in the SEC. The only other four schools who can say they’ve done that are Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

The Wildcats (6-6) had high hopes for this season and looked like they might be on the verge of breaking through after rallying from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat South Carolina at home on Oct. 16. But that wound up being their final real highlight, and they lost three of their last four SEC games, including a 25th consecutive setback to Tennessee.

The thing Kentucky did do all season was keep defenses on its toes. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline had his best season with 3,178 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. It hurt the Wildcats when senior running back Derrick Locke went down during the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. He’s back now and should be completely healthy for the bowl game.

The Wildcats’ top playmaker, and one of the best all-around players in the country, is junior receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb accounted for 16 touchdowns four different ways this season and is ranked second nationally with 2,192 all-purpose yards.

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 6, 2010
LSU Tigers (10-2) vs. Texas A&M Aggies (9-3)

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. Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (6-6) vs. Miami (Ohio) RedHawks (9-4)

Jan. 6, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Nation blogger Andrea Adelson’s take: Miami had the best turnaround in the country, going from 1-11 to 9-4 and MAC champions.

The RedHawks needed Ohio to lose to Kent State in its regular-season finale to get into the MAC title game and the Bobcats obliged. Mike Haywood has done an unbelievable job there, instilling discipline and making sure his players stay out of trouble off the field.

Up in the air is whether starting QB Zac Dysert will be ready for the bowl game. He has missed the last three games with a lacerated spleen. Redshirt freshman Austin Boucher has been good in his place, throwing for 333 yards in the MAC title game.

The defense has gotten better and better, and a huge key in this game is its ability to shut down the Middle Tennessee running game. That’s what Miami did to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game.

The Blue Raiders needed a win over FIU on Saturday to become bowl eligible for the second straight season. They were a popular preseason pick to win the Sun Belt, but then dynamic QB Dwight Dasher was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games of the season for improperly accepting a $1,500 loan. He wasn't the same after his return -- 6 TDs, 14 INTs, career-low 3.6 yards a carry -- although he had his best game of the season against the Panthers. Last season, Dasher had an awesome game in the New Orleans Bowl and became the fourth player in NCAA history last season to pass for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards.

Middle Tennessee has had turnover problems all year, ranking last in the country in turnover margin. Miami has been one of the best.

AllState Sugar Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Arkansas Razorbacks (10-2) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1)

Jan. 4, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Arkansas take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino joins two of his SEC colleagues (Nick Saban and Urban Meyer) in becoming only the third coach to take two different schools to BCS bowl games. Petrino led Louisville to a victory in the 2007 Orange Bowl.

The Hogs (10-2) charge into their Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup with Ohio State playing their best football of the season. They’ve won their past six games and are averaging 42.5 points in those six contests.

Arkansas’ résumé is equally impressive. The Hogs own four wins over teams ranked in the top 25 of the final BCS standings. They’re the only team in the country with a quarterback (Ryan Mallett) who has passed for 3,000 yards, a running back (Knile Davis) who has rushed for 1,000 yards and five receivers (Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton, Jarius Wright and D.J. Williams) who have at least 500 receiving yards.

While known for its explosive offense, Arkansas’ defensive improvement has been the real story to its success. The Hogs were 89th in the country in total defense a year ago, but enter the bowl game ranked 34th nationally this season.

This is a team playing with a lot of confidence right now and a team that showed a lot of resilience after losing a close game at home to Alabama in September and then getting toasted in the fourth quarter by Auburn a month later.

Ohio State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State ended its three-game slide in BCS bowls last January in Pasadena. Now the Buckeyes’ take aim at snapping a more sobering streak.

Most Buckeyes fans know what 0-9 means, and if they don’t, SEC fans will happily remind them. Ohio State is 0-9 against SEC teams in bowl games, including back-to-back losses in the BCS title games in 2007 and 2008 that continue to blotch the Buckeyes’ national reputation. Jim Tressel’s crew will try to overcome its SEC blues in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Arkansas.

Ohio State has been a slow-starting, strong-finishing team, both in games and throughout the season. The Buckeyes’ early stumbles against Wisconsin led to their only loss, but they won their final five regular-season games, all but one contest by 24 points or more.

Aside from the Wisconsin setback, Ohio State’s defense allowed no more than 17 points in a conference game and overcame some key injuries, particularly in the secondary. Containing Mallett is clearly Ohio State’s top priority, and the Buckeyes boast a top 10 pass defense led by cornerback Chimdi Chekwa and safety Jermale Hines.

Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor took a major step forward in the Rose Bowl and looks for another big performance on the big stage. Pryor’s mobility could be key against an Arkansas defense that applies a lot of pressure.

Discover Orange Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2

Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Stanford take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: The big question for Stanford in the preseason was how would the Cardinal do without Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart. The answer quickly came: Pretty darn well.

Stanford finished 11-1 because quarterback Andrew Luck looked every bit like the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft, the running game was nearly as good as it was with Gerhart and the defense was significantly improved. That Stanford ranks eighth in the nation in scoring should be no surprise. But the defense ranking 11th in the nation in scoring is why the Cardinal are playing in the Discover Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. That defense has pitched three shutouts and seemed to improve under first-year coordinator Vic Fangio as the year went on.

Stanford rolled through its early schedule until it got hammered at Oregon 52-31. That loss seemed to suggest that the Cardinal still lack the overall team speed to play with the elite programs. But that would be their final loss. They played a couple of tight games with USC and Arizona State, and they dominated Arizona before winning their final two games over California and Oregon State by a combined count of 86-14.

What is most notable about Stanford is how it’s taken on coach Jim Harbaugh's tough-guy image. It's an extremely physical team, particularly on an offensive line that ranks among the best in the nation.

Virginia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Despite their current 11-game winning streak, the ACC champions still feel like they have something to prove after an 0-2 start. The Hokies will have an ideal chance to silence any remaining doubters with their matchup against Stanford, one of the best one-loss teams in the country. The ACC, which is 2-10 in its BCS bowls, needs the Hokies to represent well.

Virginia Tech will once again rely on the ACC’s Player of the Year, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and a defense that has 14 interceptions in the past six games. Even with two starting linebackers sidelined with stingers in the ACC championship game and starting corner Rashad Carmichael out for most of the game with an ankle injury, Virginia Tech found a way to pressure FSU backup quarterback E.J. Manuel into mistakes. The Hokies will look to do the same against Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, a Heisman contender. Luck leads an offense that averages over 40 points and 200 rushing yards per game -- a challenge for Bud Foster’s defense, which has been average against the run this year. Stanford’s rushing defense has been better, and the Hokies will need all three of their running backs -- Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and David Wilson -- to contribute.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Connecticut Huskies (8-4) vs. Oklahoma Sooners (11-2)

Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Connecticut take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: Connecticut figures to be a heavy underdog against Oklahoma. It's a role to which the Huskies grown quite accustomed.

The Huskies have had skeptics since the school decided to jump to the FBS level for the 2002 season. Billed as a sleeper before this year, they stumbled out of the gate with a 3-4 record while losing their first two Big East conference games. Some on the lunatic fringe even called for head coach Randy Edsall's dismissal.

That adversity suited UConn well. Playing with no margin for error after that rough start, the team has not lost since.

The Huskies often make you wonder how they get it done, with a passing stats that only an option-based team could love and players most hardcore fans have never heard of. But there's no real secret to their success. They run the ball behind a mammoth, well-coached offensive line and through the nation's No. 2 rusher, junior Jordan Todman. They're solid, if undersized, on defense. And they have an outstanding kicking game, which led the way in the BCS-clinching win at South Florida.

Mostly, Connecticut just figures out ways to win and is mentally tough enough to accomplish it. Hardly anybody will give the Huskies a chance to beat the Sooners. That's just the way they will like it.

Oklahoma take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: If Bob Stoops can't win this one, well... who knows? Linebacker Travis Lewis reminded those in attendance at Oklahoma's Big 12 Championship postgame news conference the Sooners were on a one-game bowl winning streak, but it's the big ones that matter. The Sooners are back in the BCS, and will get their chance to end a five-game BCS bowl losing streak that's included three BCS National Championship games and a pair of Fiesta Bowls.

During that stretch, the Sooners have run into some pretty elite teams. Four-loss UConn wouldn't qualify. The Huskies qualified by winning the Big East, but now face the seven-time Big 12 champion Sooners. Last year, injuries to key contributors everywhere sent the Sooners to an 8-5 season and a bid in the Sun Bowl. The earlier than expected experienced play by Oklahoma's young players like quarterback Landry Jones is paying off in 2010.

A pair of fantastic defensive performances against Oklahoma State and Nebraska away from home has the Sooners back on top of the Big 12 and in the BCS, with a great chance to end the drought that's marred the second half of Bob Stoops' decade-plus tenure at Oklahoma.

The Fiesta Bowl looks like the biggest mismatch of the five BCS games, and for evidence, look no further than a comparison of losses. Oklahoma's only two came on the road to Big 12 teams who earned a share of a division title. Two of UConn's four losses came to Temple and Rutgers, a pair of teams that won't be bowling this postseason. That said, this is why they play the games. We thought the same thing when the Sooners matched up against Boise State. Considering Bob Stoops' five-game losing streak in BCS bowl games, anything could happen.
Wisconsin Badgers (11-1) vs. TCU Horned Frogs (12-0)

Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Wisconsin take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin evolved into one of the nation’s most dominating teams down the stretch, and the Badgers were rewarded with their first trip to Pasadena in 11 seasons as they face TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Bret Bielema’s team won its final seven regular-season games and destroyed everything in its path, averaging 48.3 points during the streak and combining for 201 points in its final three games. A veteran and talented offensive line led the way, creating room for backs James White, Montee Ball and John Clay and buying time for quarterback Scott Tolzien to attack downfield with the play-action game. Arguably the only downside for red-hot Wisconsin is the five-week layoff between the end of the regular season and the Rose Bowl.

The Badgers’ offense likely faces its toughest test of the season in a TCU defense that leads the nation in fewest points allowed and ranks third against the run. If TCU can contain Wisconsin on first and second downs and force Tolzien into some obvious passing situations, the Badgers could be in trouble. As good as Tolzien has been, he hasn’t faced the type of pressure TCU might provide on Jan. 1.

Wisconsin’s defense isn’t dominant like TCU’s, but the Badgers are opportunistic, recording 23 takeaways. TCU hasn’t faced a defensive end as disruptive as Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, who made more impact plays than any Big Ten defender and needs to heat up Horned Frogs star quarterback Andy Dalton.

TCU take by nation blogger Andrea Adelson: Well, the Horned Frogs really, really wanted to be that first non-AQ to get into a BCS national championship game, but hey, playing in the Rose Bowl is not exactly settling. They are making their second straight BCS appearance after a second straight undefeated regular season, a tremendous accomplishment under coach Gary Patterson. A big reason TCU is back on the big stage: experience. TCU returned a majority of their starters, including Andy Dalton, selected Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. But if TCU has any shot to win, he is going to have to have a better game than the one he had last year against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Dalton threw three interceptions in that game, including one that was returned for a touchdown, and the offense could manage little in the way of production.

They are better at running back this season with the tandem of Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker, and Jeremy Kerley is one of the best all-purpose players in the country. TCU has the No. 1 ranked defense in the country for the third straight season, and that is impressive considering the Horned Frogs lost their two best players in Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington. The heart of the defense is with linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock, but the leader is safety Tejay Johnson. Runners beware against this defensive front.

Gator bowl

December, 6, 2010
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) vs. Michigan Wolverines (7-5)

Jan. 1, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Mississippi State take by SEC blogger Chris Low: There was a little drama at the end about where, but Mississippi State is going back to a bowl game for the first time since the 2007 season. At one point, it looked like the Bulldogs (8-4) might fall to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, but the Gator Bowl scooped the Bulldogs up to face Michigan in what will be their first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since the 1999 Cotton Bowl.

Dan Mullen, in his second season at Mississippi State, has rejuvenated the program. The Bulldogs won six straight games during the middle portion of their schedule before losing back-to-back games to Alabama and Arkansas following the death of defensive end Nick Bell, who died of cancer.

Mississippi State recovered to beat Ole Miss for a second straight season, really endearing Mullen to the Bulldogs’ fans. Perhaps the best news for Mississippi State entering this game is Mullen said Sunday night he’s staying put. School officials are working on a new deal to keep him in Starkville amid reports that he was one of the top targets at Miami.

The Bulldogs have leaned on their running game all season. They're ranked 16th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 215.8 yards per game.

Michigan take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Michigan is bowl bound for the first time in three seasons, and once again the spotlight will be on the Wolverines head coach.

The Wolverines sent Lloyd Carr out as a winner by knocking off defending national champion Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. They’ll try to deliver a similar performance Jan. 1 against Mississippi State for embattled coach Rich Rodriguez, who still doesn’t know whether he’ll return for a fourth season.

The Gator Bowl features two spread offense teams and two of the system’s proven practitioners in Rodriguez and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Michigan has had the more dynamic offense this season, ranking sixth nationally in yards per game (500.9) and 11th in rushing (251.1 ypg). The Wolverines also boast the most dynamic player on the field in quarterback Denard Robinson, who ranks fourth nationally in rushing average (136.9 ypg).

Mississippi State, however, looks like the better team. The Bulldogs don’t have an obvious flaw like Michigan (defense, special teams), and all four of their losses came against top 20 opponents (Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama). Michigan’s defense will have its hands full with Bulldogs dual-threat quarterback Chris Relf.

Perhaps the best news for Michigan is that Mississippi State doesn’t play in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are 8-0 in nonconference games the last two seasons but just 6-18 in the Big Ten under Rodriguez.

Capital One Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3) vs. Michigan State Spartans (11-1)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Alabama take by SEC blogger Chris Low: National championships don’t come easily, and back-to-back national championships in college football are practically unheard of.

Alabama (9-3) fell short in its goal to repeat this season, which isn’t stunning given how rarely that’s happened in this sport. But seeing the Crimson Tide lose two of their last three SEC games was certainly different, especially when you consider that Nick Saban’s club had won 16 straight regular-season SEC games coming into this season.

Inconsistency plagued the Crimson Tide, who had trouble putting four quarters together. Never was that more apparent than in the final regular-season game when they built a 24-0 lead on No. 1 Auburn in the first half, only to unravel across the board and drop a bitter 28-27 decision at home.

This is still an extremely talented team with three guys who will probably go in the first round of the NFL draft next April. Nonetheless, the Crimson Tide’s inexperience in the secondary caught up with them this season. They will be even more inexperienced in the bowl game. Junior safety Mark Barron underwent surgery for a torn pectoral muscle after being injured in the Auburn game and won’t be able to play against Michigan State.

Senior quarterback Greg McElroy suffered a concussion against Auburn, but he should be fine for the bowl game. Probably the most surprising thing about this season for the Crimson Tide was that they weren’t able to run the ball better, although Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson battled injuries.

Michigan State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: A BCS bowl appearance would have been huge for Michigan State, but a matchup against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl is the next best thing.

As expected, the Spartans were snubbed from the big bowls despite a BCS-worthy résumé: a team-record 11 wins, a co-Big Ten championship, a victory against Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin. Instead, they get an opportunity to prove just how worthy they are against the defending national champions, who are led by a man who used to coach in East Lansing.

The Nick Saban-Michigan State connection certainly adds intrigue to arguably the nation’s best non-BCS bowl. Saban coached the Spartans from 1995-99, compiling a 34-24-1 record before bolting for LSU before the 2000 Citrus Bowl (now Capital One Bowl). Current Spartans coach Mark Dantonio served as Saban’s secondary coach in East Lansing.

The game pairs two of the nation’s smartest and classiest quarterbacks in Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and Alabama’s Greg McElroy as well as two of the nation’s most accomplished defenders in Michigan State’s Greg Jones and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus. Jones and the Spartans’ run defense face arguably their biggest test of the season against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, a native of Flint, Mich., as well as dynamic sophomore Trent Richardson.

After setting so many milestones this fall, Michigan State aims for one more. The Spartans look for their first bowl win since 2001 and their first Jan. 1 bowl win since the Citrus in 2000.

Outback Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Florida Gators (7-5) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5)

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

Florida take by SEC blogger Chris Low: It will be a short drive for Florida to its bowl destination. The Gators are headed to Tampa, Fla., to take on Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

A bit of a surprise choice this high in the SEC’s bowl pecking order, the Gators (7-5) still carry a lot of clout with their brand, especially in the state of Florida. That brand won’t help them come Jan. 1 unless they figure out a way to move the ball and score some points.

They ended the regular season with a dismal 31-7 loss to Florida State, the third time this season the Gators were held to a touchdown or less. It was a struggle the whole way offensively, as John Brantley simply wasn’t a fit for Florida’s spread offense. The Gators went to a three-quarterback system after losing three straight games in October, adding Trey Burton and Jordan Reed to the mix, but the results weren’t much better in their last two losses to South Carolina and Florida State.

It’s hard to get a read on where this team is emotionally right now or how excited it will be to even play in a bowl game. Florida coach Urban Meyer vowed to rebuild the program the “right way” following the loss to Florida State.

This is a chance for the Gators to get off on the right foot in that process as they make their 20th consecutive bowl appearance.

Penn State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Joe Paterno has done his best work preparing teams for the postseason, as the legendary Penn State coach owns a record 24 bowl victories in his extensive career. Paterno once again will try to prepare a young Nittany Lions squad for an intriguing postseason test against Florida in the Outback Bowl.

Although a 7-5 regular season never sits well in State College, Penn State won four of its final six games and showed significant strides on offense down the stretch. Spunky sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin provided a lift for a struggling unit and needs to perform well against the Gators. He’ll also need help from running backs Evan Royster and Silas Redd. Florida boasts a top 10 defense, so the Outback Bowl should provide a good barometer for the Penn State attack.

Penn State’s defense will get some time to heal up before facing a Gators offense that has taken several steps back following the departure of superstar Tim Tebow. Penn State won a low-scoring Capital One Bowl against LSU in January, and while we all hope for better weather and much better field conditions in Tampa, this game could play out in a similar way.

All but one of Penn State’s losses came against top 20 opponents, so the Lions have fared well against comparable opponents. Florida certainly qualifies as one.

TicketCity Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Northwestern Wildcats (7-5) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-5)

Jan. 1, noon ET (ESPNU)

Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern’s season will officially end Jan. 1 in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech. The bigger question: Did the Wildcats’ campaign already come to a close back on Nov. 13?

Northwestern has looked extremely shaky since losing star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending ruptured Achilles’ tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats have struggled on offense as backup quarterback Evan Watkins goes through some growing pains. The more shocking backslide has come on defense, as Northwestern surrendered 118 points, 848 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. Missed tackles became a big problem down the stretch, and Pat Fitzgerald’s crew needs to get things rectified against a Texas Tech squad that ranks among the top 20 in both passing and total yards.

Bowl practices will be valuable for Watkins, who had attempted only seven passes before taking over the starting job on Nov. 20. The redshirt freshman could use a boost from the ground game, although top running back Mike Trumpy is questionable for the game after fracturing his wrist against Illinois. Northwestern needs to find a way to establish an offensive rhythm and keep the high-powered Texas Tech attack on the sideline.

After two near misses in bowls the last two years, Northwestern aims for its first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. This one would qualify as an upset.

Texas Tech take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: Early in the season, a bowl game was no guarantee for the Red Raiders. A loss to Oklahoma State landed them at 3-3 and 1-3 in conference play, but the transition year from Mike Leach to Tommy Tuberville didn't result in the end of the Big 12's longest bowl streak. Texas Tech is the only team to qualify for a bowl game in every year since the birth of the Big 12, and that wasn't going to end in the final year of its existence as a 12-team league.

The Red Raiders offense has been inconsistent this season, but it still boasts two experienced, senior quarterbacks in starter Taylor Potts and backup Steven Sheffield, who saw time this year and a start, despite losing a preseason quarterback battle. Receiver Lyle Leong is also a player to watch; his 17 touchdown catches are second only to Biletnikoff Award finalist Justin Blackmon.

The in-state Red Raiders should have the advantage in an atmosphere with a substantial amount of alumni not needing to leave the Dallas city limits to see Texas Tech play. They’ve already played in the Cotton Bowl once this season, facing Baylor back in October.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 6, 2010
South Carolina Gamecocks (9-4) vs. Florida State Seminoles (9-4)

Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

South Carolina take by SEC blogger Chris Low: South Carolina had only played one game indoors in its entire history prior to last Saturday’s 56-17 loss to Auburn in the SEC championship game.

Now, the Gamecocks (9-4) will play their second game indoors in less than a month, as they return to the Georgia Dome to face Florida State on Dec. 31 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Merely getting to the SEC championship game was an accomplishment for the Gamecocks when you consider they’d never previously been. Their performance would suggest they didn’t belong, but a lot of that had to do with Auburn.

South Carolina has some of the finest young talent in the SEC in freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery and sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, although Gilmore is coming off a rough outing in the SEC championship game.

When Lattimore has had big games this season, the Gamecocks have won.

Defensively, they’ve been shredded through the air and were again against Cam Newton and Auburn last Saturday. But they’re good up front and led the SEC with 39 sacks this season. Their undoing has been giving up too many big plays, and they’ve also been an inconsistent tackling team.

Florida State take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Overall, it’s been an impressive season for Florida State, considering the Seminoles won nine games, finished 6-2 in the ACC, won the Atlantic Division and played for the league title in Jimbo Fisher’s first year as a head coach.

Still, this is the consolation prize for the Seminoles, the runners-up in the ACC championship game, and it’s not going to get any easier. Florida State’s defense, which has made significant strides this year under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops, couldn’t find an answer for Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the 44-33 loss to the Hokies. It’s going to have to find one for standout South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery.

The Seminoles rank No. 2 in the nation sacks and are No. 17 in tackles for loss, but really struggled to get Virginia Tech off the field on third downs. Florida State has also had problems at quarterback, where starter Christian Ponder missed the title game because blood was found in the fluid drained from his elbow last week. Backup E.J. Manuel threw for almost 300 yards but had two interceptions in his place.

FSU was also held to just 53 rushing yards against Virginia Tech, so there are plenty of areas for improvement heading into the final game of the season, but also much to build on for next year.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Georgia Bulldogs (6-6) vs. UCF Knights (10-3)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Georgia take by SEC blogger Chris Low: For a while there, it looked like there was no way Georgia would keep alive its bowl streak, especially after losing four straight games for the first time in the Mark Richt era.

But the Bulldogs battled back and gained bowl eligibility on the final Saturday of the regular season with a 42-34 win over Georgia Tech, extending their bowl streak to 14 consecutive appearances.

The best part about this season for Georgia was the way redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray played. He’s passed for 2,851 yards this season, the second most ever for an SEC freshman quarterback. He’s thrown 24 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and also has four touchdowns runs.

Unfortunately, Murray didn’t have star receiver A.J. Green to throw to all season. Green was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games for selling one of his game jerseys, but he’s been a favorite target ever since returning.

The Bulldogs had their ups and downs in their first year in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and still need to recruit to that scheme, in particular add some bigger defensive linemen. But junior outside linebacker Justin Houston certainly flourished. He’s second in the SEC with 10 sacks and is a blur coming off the edge.

UCF take by nation blogger Andrea Adelson: The Knights won their second Conference USA title on Saturday over SMU and hope that this win allows them to turn the corner and be taken seriously in Florida. After all, they have watched Florida, Florida State, Miami and even USF get all the headlines while they struggle for consistency.

This is actually the first season they have posted back-to-back winning campaigns since George O’Leary became coach in 2004. They have the best run defense and total defense in Conference USA and are led by defensive ends Bruce Miller and Darius Nall, and linebacker Derrick Hallman is the leader of the unit.

One point to watch -- cornerback Josh Robinson has been burned badly at times this season on the deep ball, so you can expect Georgia to take advantage with A.J. Green. Robinson did come up big against SMU because he knew the target would be on him. Well, it’s going to be even bigger against the Bulldogs.

The offense is balanced, and is led by a true freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey, who has been outstanding. UCF also has great depth at running back with Latavius Murray and Ronnie Weaver. The Knights need one more win to set the school record for most wins, but they are 0-3 in bowl appearances. Also, the Knights only own two wins over schools from AQ conferences -- Alabama (2000) and NC State (2007). So if they do want to be taken seriously, they need to win a game like this one.