NCF Nation: 2011 Bowl Overview

LSU Tigers (13-0) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1).

Jan. 9, 8:30 ET (ESPN)

LSU take: Before the season, everyone thought LSU had talent. That was never an issue. But the youth of this team was something many questioned.

Even more questions began to form when senior starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was suspended for the first four games for his role in a fight at an off-campus bar.

LSU threw embattled quarterback Jarrett Lee out there and all he did was start the season as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the SEC, leading LSU to wins against three ranked teams on the road in the first four weeks.

Helping Lee was one of the stingiest and most athletic defenses the SEC had to offer. Loaded with speed and depth at every defensive position, the Tigers cruised past opponents, catapulting to the No. 1 ranking in Week 5.

The Tigers never relinquished their hold as the country’s best and head into the Allstate BCS National Championship Game as SEC champs with a 13-0 record.

LSU wore down defenses with its running game and delivered death blows with its defense. The Tigers ended the year ranking second nationally in total defense (252 yards per game) and led the SEC with a turnover margin of plus-22.

However, there were plenty of chances for this team to crumble. From suspensions to keys starters, to a quarterback controversy, this hasn’t been an easy season.

But LSU never quit and actually emerged stronger from its distractions.

LSU had a knack for pummeling teams in the second half of games, and that really showed when the Tigers erased back-to-back double-digit deficits in the final two weeks against Arkansas and Georgia.

It was a perfect ending for the Tigers as they finished off Georgia with a 42-0 run in the SEC title game to beat their eighth ranked opponent.

Alabama take: This was the team that most picked at the beginning of the season to represent the SEC in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Sure, there was youth at quarterback and wide receiver, but there was a bona fide workhorse in the backfield (running back Trent Richardson), and one of the stoutest and scariest defenses that coach Nick Saban has ever fielded.

The Crimson Tide were never flashy on offense, but they were effective enough to churn out yards and points against opponents. But this team was always respected more for its defense. Alabama ended the season ranking first nationally in total defense (195.3 yards per game) and rushing defense (75), and opposing teams moved the ball just 3.4 yards per play. This was a group that was criticized last season for being too raw and young, but completely transformed in 2011.

LSU might have the best defensive depth in the country, but it’s hard to find a tougher defense than Alabama’s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better combination of linebackers and defensive backs on one team.

Richardson didn’t just fill former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram’s shoes, he replaced them with his own pair. He was the SEC’s top rusher (1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns) and put up 137 yards a game against SEC opponents on his way to a legitimate Heisman run.

The only roadblock was LSU. The top-ranked Tigers ended Alabama’s run at perfection with a 9-6 win in overtime. Four failed field goal attempts by Alabama proved to be the difference, but now, the Tide get a shot at redemption in the season’s biggest game. Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (10-3)

Jan. 8, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Arkansas State take by college football blogger Matt Fortuna: The Red Wolves' 45-14 win Saturday over Troy made them the first team in Sun Belt Conference history to win 10 regular-season games. Hugh Freeze became just the 14th FBS first-year head coach to win 10 regular-season games. In addition, by going 8-0 in conference play, Arkansas State is just the third school in Sun Belt history to go undefeated in conference play.

The Red Wolves have their first 10-win season since 1986 and are on a nine-game winning streak for the first time since 1975. They won seven games by double-digits, their most since 1987. And they have done it behind both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in total offense and 20th in total defense.

Wide receiver Dwayne Frampton has rewritten the school record book, amassing a school-record 1,125 receiving yards on 90 catches this season. His 159 career catches are a school record. His five 100-yard receiving games this year are tied for most in a single season in school history.

Defensively, the Red Wolves have held six opponents below 20 points and seven below 100 rushing yards, and have 18 interceptions, tied for fifth in the nation.

NIU take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: Not again, right? Every time Northern Illinois had gotten into the MAC title game, it ended in disappointment for the Huskies.

They were back in it this year after losing a heartbreaker in 2010, and found themselves down 20-0 to Ohio at one point in the second half. But quarterback Chandler Harnish willed his team to a win, and the defense came up with huge plays as the Huskies rallied for a 23-20 victory, tying the largest comeback in school history. Northern Illinois can call itself conference champions for the second time, and have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Northern Illinois also is one of just five teams among the non-AQs to have at least six wins in five straight seasons.

Perhaps most impressive about the championship is this: The Huskies did it with a first-year coach in Dave Doeren and nine new starters on defense. Plus, they lost MVP running back Chad Spann. Without him, Harnish picked up his game and won MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, setting a school record with more than 4,000 yards of total offense, and adding 37 touchdowns.

Harnish, always a threat out of the backfield, had more than 1,000 yards on the ground -- the 12th time in 13 seasons the Huskies had somebody go for more than 1,000 yards rushing. Jasmin Hopkins replaced Spann in the backfield and ran for 932 yards and 15 touchdowns. Linebacker Pat Schiller leads the way with 108 tackles, including 10 for loss. This is a team that is generally involved in some pretty entertaining and close games. Seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less -- five by a field goal or less.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 4, 2011
SMU Mustangs (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6)

Jan. 7, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)

SMU take from college football blogger Matt Fortuna: Following a Conference USA West division title, the Mustangs opened this season with a 5-1 record, including an overtime win at TCU. In the season's second half, however, things turned south. SMU lost four of its last six games and two of its final three to finish 7-5. A lot of that falls on the offense, which averaged 33.7 points per game through the season's first half before scoring just 17.7 points per game in its final six games.

Quarterback J.J. McDermott replaced Kyle Padron in a season-opening 46-14 loss at Texas A&M and has started every game since, throwing for 3,182 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Running back Zach Line eclipsed the 100-yard mark in eight of SMU's first 10 games and led the conference in rushing, but he is out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson have emerged at receiver, with each just shy of the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Defensively, linebackers Taylor Reed (93 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) and Ja'Gared Davis (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions) lead the way for a Mustangs unit that ranks 37th nationally in total defense.

Pitt take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: Expectations were high for the Panthers this season. First-year coach Todd Graham predicted his team would run a “high-octane” offense, a line he used over and over again to promote his program and the new regime hitting town. To be sure, it was a huge departure from the pro-style, smash-mouth football Pitt has been known to play. Graham says he has no regrets over ratcheting up hopes, even though Pitt failed to resemble anything high or octane. Simply put, he does not have the personnel to run the hurry-up, spread system that ran to perfection in his final season at Tulsa.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri never bought in or adapted to the changes, and that contributed to Pitt giving up 56 sacks this season. Injuries on the offensive line didn’t help, either, as Pitt used myriad different starting lineups to help fill in the gaps. The line wasn’t the only area that was impacted by injuries. The Panthers lost star tailback Ray Graham to a torn ACL against UConn in October and from that point on, it was an even bigger struggle for the offense to do anything with Sunseri behind center.

Pitt needed a 33-20 win over Syracuse in the final game of the season to become bowl eligible, but at least salvaged the season. What the Panthers do have is a much improved defense from Week 1. Defensive end Aaron Donald was a breakout star, with 10 sacks. The pass defense made a huge turnaround. After giving up more than 300 yards in two of the first three games of the season, the most they gave up in the final nine weeks was 271 yards to Rutgers.

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Kansas State Wildcats (10-2) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (10-2)

Jan. 6, 8 p.m. (FOX)

Kansas State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: Kansas State does it ugly. All the time, every time. But it does it. The Cats are college football's biggest overachievers, and they do it on the back of Collin Klein, who has dragged defenders on his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame for 1,099 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. By the way, he's the quarterback. Never mind his wonky delivery. He's gotten better and more accurate as the season has gone on, and somehow has stayed healthy. He just might be the toughest player in college football, and if you're watching K-State's offense, he's probably the guy with the ball in his hand.

Bill Snyder deserves the national coach of the year nod, and the Wildcats have had a defensive renaissance under coordinator Chris Cosh in 2011. This is the same team that gave up more than 3,000 rushing yards last year. Well, sort of. It's not quite the same team. Linebacker Arthur Brown doesn't miss very many tackles and he's one of the Big 12's speediest linebackers. Cornerback Nigel Malone picked off seven passes this year for an All-Big 12 caliber season.

Arkansas take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: Before the season, it looked as if coach Bobby Petrino was equipped with his best, most complete team since his arrival in Fayetteville. The defense was easily the best he had, and while quarterback Ryan Mallett was gone, Tyler Wilson appeared to be just as talented, and with their wealth at wide receiver, it didn’t look like the Razorbacks would miss a beat in the passing game. Not to mention Arkansas had one of the SEC’s best in running back Knile Davis.

But days before the season began, the Hogs were dealt a crushing blow when Davis went down with a season-ending ankle injury. With Davis sidelined, the Arkansas offense became more one-dimensional as it searched for a consistent running back. Injuries then took hold of the defense and the Hogs found themselves outmanned in a huge game with Alabama, losing 38-14. The Razorbacks then struggled to get going in the first half of games after that. The slow starts nearly cost them at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, but things changed during their homecoming game with South Carolina.

The Hogs jumped out quickly against the Gamecocks and never looked back. Starting with that 44-28 win, the Razorbacks won their first three games in November by a combined score of 137-52. Arkansas had an opportunity to shake up the BCS and sneak into the national championship, but fell 41-17 to No. 1 LSU in its season finale. Still, Arkansas had another fine year under Petrino, getting to 10 wins and finishing first in the SEC in total offense (445.8 yards per game).

Discover Orange Bowl

December, 4, 2011
West Virginia Mountaineers (9-3) vs. Clemson Tigers (10-3)

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

West Virginia take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: Go ahead and say it: West Virginia has a flair for the dramatic this season. The Mountaineers never made things easy on themselves, down to the final game of the season. They dropped a game at Syracuse (has anybody figured that out yet?), and lost at home to Louisville for the first time since 1990, forcing them to scramble to win a share of the Big East title for the sixth time in the past nine seasons. Under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers were the preseason choice to win the Big East because of high expectations for a high-powered offense. Indeed, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin shattered passing and receiving records, but nobody would say things ran smoothly for this team all season. The defense, which lost seven starters off one of the best groups in the nation last season, struggled for a good portion of the season at stopping the run and getting a sustained pass rush.

Even Holgorsen will tell you the offense was not running as consistently as he would like because of struggles on the offensive line and in the ground game. Still, this team found a way to win down the stretch -- and that is the mark of a good team. Consider that it had to come from behind in eight of its nine wins this season. That includes the final three against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and USF. A loss in any of those games would have eliminated the Mountaineers from Big East contention. And in those three games, it was the defense that came up with huge plays -- from a fumble recovery in the end zone against the Bearcats; to 10 sacks against Pitt; to an interception return for a touchdown against USF and a fumble recovery late that gave the Mountaineers a chance to drive for the winning field goal. That victory got West Virginia to nine wins -- making it one of three programs in the nation to have at least nine wins in seven straight seasons.

Clemson take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Clemson defied all logic and most expectations when it flat-out dominated Virginia Tech in Saturday’s ACC championship game. After finishing the regular season with losses in three of their past four games, including an inexplicable implosion against NC State and the program’s third straight loss to rival South Carolina, the Tigers played their best and most complete game of the season against then-No. 5 Virginia Tech to win their first ACC title since 1991. It will be Clemson’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl since its national championship season in 1981. After starting the season 8-0, the Tigers struggled down the stretch with pass protection and turnovers, but it all seemed to come together against the Hokies. It’s the first time Clemson has had a 10-win season since 1990.

Clemson enters the Orange Bowl with the nation’s No. 21 passing offense under first-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris, but West Virginia will also have to be wary of standout true freshman receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Dwayne Allen. All three of them have had record-setting seasons, but Clemson’s defense has been inconsistent this year. The Tigers are allowing 26.15 points per game, and will face an offense that is averaging 34.92.

Clemson will be facing the Mountaineers for only the second time in its history. The Tigers won 27-7 in the 1989 Gator Bowl. Clemson has a 16-17 record in 33 bowl appearances. Overall, it is Clemson’s fourth appearance in the Orange Bowl (1951, 1957, 1982).

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Michigan Wolverines (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2)

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

Michigan take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: The Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup elicited some groans from around the country, but Michigan fans were all smiles. Michigan is back in a BCS bowl for the first time in five years as the program turns a page on one of its darkest periods.

A victory in New Orleans would give Michigan its first BCS bowl win since the 2000 Orange Bowl.

First-year coach Brady Hoke and his staff deserve much of the credit for Michigan’s turnaround, as the team not only improved its win total by three from 2010, but made significant strides on defense after historically poor results the previous three seasons. Michigan’s defense improved from 110th nationally last season to 18th this year, and it did so without any first-team All-Big Ten selections. Defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen lead the way for Michigan, which must contain Hokies junior running back David Wilson, the nation’s No. 7 rusher.

The defense carried the Wolverines for much of the season, but the offense came on strong late behind quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who both rank among the nation’s top 40 rushers. Michigan still used many spread elements with the speedy Robinson at the helm, although offensive coordinator Al Borges mixed things up quite a bit and showed plenty of creativity with his calls. Virginia Tech’s defense provides a good test for Michigan, which has scored 28 points or more in its 10 victories.

Hoke earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and has made a significant impact on Michigan’s recruiting for 2012. A Sugar Bowl win would cap what has been a remarkable first season for Hoke in Ann Arbor.

Virginia Tech take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: This was easily the most shocking selection in the ACC -- if not the country -- as Virginia Tech is coming off its poorest performance of the year in a 38-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. It was the program’s worst margin of defeat since joining the ACC, but the Hokies still leapfrogged several other BCS bowl-worthy teams. This the first time the ACC has had two teams play in BCS bowls, but it’s going to be a difficult challenge for the Hokies, who struggled against Clemson’s offense and will have similar challenges against Michigan.

The Wolverines have an even more athletic quarterback than Clemson in Denard Robinson. Offensively, the Hokies will have to get quarterback Logan Thomas back on track after he threw two picks and lost a fumble in the title game. The Hokies scored a combined 13 points in two losses to Clemson, and have no marquee wins on their nonconference schedule. They are also notorious for coming up short against nonconference opponents on the big stage. In three trips to the Orange Bowl in the past four years, Virginia Tech has only a win against Cincinnati.

This will be another chance for coach Frank Beamer to change the perception of his program on the national level as one that can win outside of the ACC and Big East, too. Virginia Tech ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak and was ranked No. 5 in the country heading into the ACC title game, but the Hokies allowed Clemson 450 total yards, and ACC Player of the Year David Wilson had only 32 yards on 11 carries. Still, Virginia Tech will bring the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense to New Orleans, and odds are it's going to need it.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Stanford take by Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell: Welcome back to the BCS. The Cardinal return after smoking Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season -- many thinking it was the final game for coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh left, Luck stayed. And he turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions, including a perfect 26-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the red zone.

With a trio of top-flight tight ends -- headlined by Coby Fleener -- Luck has proved why he's considered the No. 1 NFL prospect. But he's not the only top draft pick on the team. Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is considered one of the two best left tackles in college football and guard David DeCastro is the best interior lineman in the country.

The tight ends -- Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- have accounted for more than half of Luck's 35 passing touchdowns on the season.

But what makes Stanford go is its balance. Stepfan Taylor had his second straight 1,000-yard season, and he did it platooning with Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart and Anthony Wilkerson.

Defensively, Chase Thomas leads a front seven that is one of the best in college football. The loss of inside linebacker Shayne Skov in the third game of the season was a blow to the defense, but youngsters Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley have filled the void nicely -- steadily improving every week.

Oklahoma State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Cowboys are best known for their offense, and for good reason. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are one of the nation's best pass-catch combos, and between Blackmon's physical nature and Weeden's accuracy, they're a nightmare for defenses.

Making matters more difficult is Joseph Randle, who has quietly had one of the best seasons of any running back in the Big 12. He's racked up 1,193 rushing yards with 23 (!) rushing touchdowns. Only three players in college football have more TDs. The first-year starter might be the Cowboys' secret weapon.

Defensively, the raw numbers aren't great for the Cowboys, but those rumors you've heard? They're true. The defense is a lot better than most give it credit. The Cowboys have an efficient defense that plays well when it counts, and ranks second nationally with a plus-20 turnover margin. Tough to beat that.

Quinn Sharp and Justin Gilbert make things interesting on special teams, too. Sharp leads the nation in touchbacks, is one of the Big 12's best place-kickers, and would be one of the nation's best in punting average -- if he had enough attempts. Gilbert is a dangerous return man who already has four touchdown returns in his first two seasons.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio

December, 4, 2011
Wisconsin Badgers (11-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (11-2)

Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Wisconsin take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: The memory of last year's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl helped motivate Wisconsin this offseason.

The Badgers made it their mission to get back to the BCS and change the outcome this year, a plan that was nearly derailed by two straight dispiriting October losses. But they battled back to clinch consecutive trips to Pasadena for the first time since the 1998-99 seasons. And the players say they're not satisfied just to get there.

"We didn't finish it right last year," safety Aaron Henry said. "To have a chance to go out there and finish off something is a truly amazing, special feeling."

It won't be easy. Oregon is one of only three teams in the country that scored more points than Wisconsin this season, and the Ducks' speed could cause major problems for a defense that struggled against swiftness in space at times this year.

The Badgers' best defense, though, could be its offense. Their imposing offensive line could wear on the smaller Ducks, and the ground game led by Montee Ball -- who needs just two more touchdowns to set the single-season FBS record -- will help keep Oregon's offense off the field. Quarterback Russell Wilson should thrive against a less physical defense than he faced in the Big Ten, and he embraces the big stage.

An NC State transfer, Wilson will be making his first BCS appearance. The rest of his teammates know the Rose Bowl well. They hope to find out what a Rose Bowl victory feels like.

Oregon take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon is headed to its third consecutive BCS bowl game and second Rose Bowl in three years. That's great, but the Ducks are 0-2 in those games, so the program is no longer just happy to be there. They need to win to climb another rung in the national pecking order.

The Ducks are not unlike previous varieties. They are again an offensive juggernaut, ranking third in the nation in scoring, fifth in rushing and sixth in total offense. Their relentless, up-tempo offense wears opposing defenses down and causes them to lose concentration and gap integrity. The perceived Achilles’ heel that will be tested, however, is this: Coach Chip Kelly has lost six times. In five of those losses, high-quality teams had extra time to prepare their defenses. Your turn, Wisconsin.

That's one take of the Ducks' opener against LSU in Cowboys Stadium. They lost 40-27 in large part because their rebuilt offensive line struggled with the Tigers’ front seven. Of course, Oregon fans will point to losing the turnover battle 4-1. And it's worth noting no other team scored as many points against the Tigers this year. Only West Virginia had more total yards against LSU.

After the LSU loss, Oregon mostly cruised. The marquee showdown at Stanford was underwhelming, as the Ducks' defense controlled Cardinal QB Andrew Luck and the offense just looked too fast for Stanford.

The win at Stanford put the Ducks back into the national title discussion. A week later, however, they were out with a 38-35 loss to USC, missing a late field goal for the tie as time expired. They bounced back with easy wins over Oregon State and UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Ducks' chief star is running back LaMichael James, the 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and the first back in conference history to rush for more than 1,500 yards three consecutive seasons. But there are plenty of weapons on offense, including multipurpose true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, backup running back Kenjon Barner and tight end David Paulson. The defense produced three first-team All-Pac-12 players and a second-teamer, so it's not a nameless bunch in conference circles. It's solid in most areas and ranks third in the nation with 3.3 sacks per game. Gator Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Ohio State Buckeyes (6-6) vs. Florida Gators (6-6)

Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Ohio State take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: The Buckeyes are used to playing in bigger postseason games, and they certainly aren't used to finishing 6-6. But this bowl brings excitement because it begins an eagerly awaited future.

New head coach Urban Meyer will merely serve as interested observer in this one, as Luke Fickell finishes up his one-year apprenticeship as head coach. Yet Meyer's shadow looms large, both because Ohio State is facing his former team and because the Buckeyes' underclassmen are eager to audition for their next leading man.

The extra bowl practices should prove invaluable for a young team, particularly quarterback Braxton Miller. The Big Ten freshman of the year showed great promise while starting the final eight games, including his 335-yard, three-touchdown performance in the season-ending loss at Michigan. Miller used his shake-and-bake skills to lead Ohio State in rushing this year and figures to flourish under Meyer's creative offensive schemes.

The immediate concern for the Buckeyes is finding ways to score against a Gators defense that finished ninth in the nation in total defense. Ohio State got off to slow starts offensively while losing its final three games and had the worst passing attack in the Big Ten.

Whatever happens, Buckeyes fans will love saying goodbye to a controversy-plagued 2011 and focusing on the potential of 2012 and beyond.

Florida take from SEC blogger Chris Low: Will Muschamp’s debut season at Florida has been anything but smooth sailing, and the Gators are hoping to change that in just a short drive away in Jacksonville. They’ll face former coach Urban Meyer’s new team, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

After starting 4-0, Florida lost six of its next eight games and didn’t beat anybody that finished the regular season with a winning record. The 6-6 record marks Florida’s worst regular-season finish since 1987.

For the second straight season, the Gators were a disaster on offense, and it all started with senior quarterback John Brantley suffering a high-ankle sprain in the Alabama game. He missed the next two games against LSU and Auburn, both Florida losses, and returned against Georgia even though he wasn’t close to 100 percent.

The Gators lost that game as well as the South Carolina and Florida State games. In six of their last seven games against FBS foes, the Gators were held to 13 or fewer points on offense and enter the bowl ranked 101st nationally in total offense.

It was a different story on defense, where Florida held its own for most of the season and deserved better on that side of the ball. The Gators are ranked 10th nationally in total defense.

Capital One Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2)

Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Nebraska take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After having very different results in the same bowl (Holiday) the past two seasons, Nebraska heads to a new destination looking for its 10th victory.

The Big Ten’s newest member endured some ups and downs in its first season in the conference. Nebraska had two really bad days, getting blown out by both Wisconsin and Michigan on the road, but the Huskers also crushed Legends Division champion Michigan State and looked good in their regular-season finale against Iowa. In many ways, Nebraska has been two different teams in 2011.

If the defense plays to its potential, Nebraska is very tough to beat. Linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard are two of the best in the country at their respective positions. But depth has been an issue at times, and Nebraska struggled to contain Big Ten offensive stars like Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and Denard Robinson. The Blackshirts will need a strong effort against a South Carolina team that plays a little defense of its own.

Nebraska’s young offensive line will be tested by Gamecocks star defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney, although a run-heavy scheme will limit their pass-rushing prowess. While South Carolina ranks fourth nationally in total defense, it ranks just 45th nationally against the run, an area Nebraska will try to exploit with junior I-back Rex Burkhead, one of the nation’s most consistent ball carriers, and sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez.

A victory gives Nebraska its third consecutive 10-win season, something the Huskers haven’t done since 1999-2001.

South Carolina take from SEC blogger Chris Low: The Gamecocks and bowl games have historically not mixed very well. They’ve lost four of their past five bowl games, including their past three. They’re just 4-12 all time in bowl games.

This season, though, South Carolina heads into the postseason with some real momentum. They ended the regular season winning six of their final seven games and saved their most complete performance for the finale, a 34-13 beatdown of archrival Clemson.

It’s a season that could have easily gone the other way when you consider that star running back Marcus Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game and fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia was booted from the team a couple of weeks earlier.

The Gamecocks, though, persevered, and won 10 games for only the second time in school history. They were edged out by Georgia for the Eastern Division championship.

Sophomore Connor Shaw took over at quarterback in Week 6, and South Carolina adjusted its offense to Shaw’s dual-purpose talents. The defense has been a force for most of the season. The Gamecocks are ranked fourth nationally in total defense, holding opponents to an average of 268.9 yards per game, and gave up more than 13 points only twice in their final nine contests.

Outback Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Michigan State Spartans (10-3) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (10-3)

Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET (ABC)

Michigan State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans are still dealing with the heartbreak from the Big Ten championship game, as they came so close to securing their first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years. While the sting might linger for a bit, Michigan State still has an excellent opportunity to take another step toward becoming an elite program.

Coach Mark Dantonio has things pointed in the right direction, as Michigan State has recorded consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in team history. About the only thing Dantonio hasn’t done is win a bowl game, as his teams are 0-4. The Outback Bowl gives Michigan State the chance to get over the hump.

After being snubbed for a BCS bowl in 2010, the Spartans looked like anything but a BCS-worthy team in the Capital One Bowl, getting pounded 49-7 by Alabama in the most lopsided result in the bowl’s history. They will look for a stronger performance against Georgia in a rematch of the 2009 Capital One Bowl.

The Spartans’ offense has surged since an Oct. 30 loss at Nebraska, averaging 38.6 points in the past five games. Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and his receivers are in a groove, and running back Le’Veon Bell has emerged as of late. The offense will face an excellent test from a Georgia defense ranked third nationally. Michigan State’s defense is no slouch, either, ranking fifth nationally, but the Spartans' secondary will need to contain talented Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

Georgia take by SEC blogger Chris Low: The Bulldogs were left for dead back in September after losing their first two games of the season to Boise State and South Carolina. Senior cornerback Brandon Boykin went as far as to say they were thrown out with the trash.

With everybody on the outside wondering whether coach Mark Richt was going to make it, the Bulldogs came storming back and reeled off 10 straight wins to clinch the Eastern Division and make it to the SEC championship game, where they lost 42-10 on Saturday to No. 1 LSU.

Georgia will be looking to make amends for a woeful performance in its bowl game last season. The Bulldogs lost 10-6 to UCF in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, which only elevated the unrest coming into this season.

This season’s team has been the picture of resiliency and has leaned on a defense that made major strides in the second year in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. The Bulldogs are ranked fifth nationally in total defense and feature one of the country’s best pass-rushers and big-play defenders in sophomore outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray played his best football during the second half of the season and was able to spread the ball around. He threw touchdown passes to 10 different players on his way to setting the school record with 33 scoring tosses.

TicketCity Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Houston Cougars (12-1) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3)

Jan. 2, noon ET (ESPNU)

Houston take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: It was all right there for Houston.

All the Cougars had to do was beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game to make the first BCS appearance in school history. But they had their worst performance of the season, losing 49-28, dashing any hopes of getting up on the big stage. Now they have to settle for a lower-tier bowl game as they wonder about what could have been.

The loss puts a damper on what has been a special season. The 12 wins are the most in school history, and quarterback Case Keenum shattered virtually every NCAA passing mark -- career yards, career touchdown passes and total offense came tumbling down in a torrent of scoreboards that were lit up every single week. He threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in his career, along with a career-high 45 touchdown passes. Patrick Edwards had a terrific season as well, with more than 1,500 yards receiving. Linebacker Sammy Brown anchored the defense with his standout play. But this has been a program with a reputation of dropping a game it is favored to win every season. Just go back to 2009. After beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to open the season 3-0, Houston lost to UTEP. Later that season, the Cougars lost to UCF and in the Conference USA championship game. They managed to make it through this season unscathed until the very moment it mattered most. Perhaps the gravity of the situation overwhelmed the players. Perhaps distractions surrounding coach Kevin Sumlin and future coaching destinations were too much to bear. In any case, what has been one of the best seasons in school history may not be remembered that way.

Penn State take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: Penn State's players deserve a bigger bowl game than this.

The Nittany Lions finished 9-3, tied for a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division lead and are ranked in the Top 25. In any other year, that would all but guarantee a spot in Florida or some other traditional locale.

But this was far from any other year at Penn State. The Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal enveloped the entire university in November and led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Bowls do not like negative publicity, so the Nittany Lions tumbled down the Big Ten postseason pecking order -- all the way to the second-year TicketCity Bowl in Dallas against a non-AQ team.

At least it's an intriguing battle of offense versus defense. Penn State, led by Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still, finished fifth nationally in scoring defense and 10th in yards allowed. That defense will get a major challenge from record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum and a Houston offense that averaged an FBS-best 50.8 points per game this season.

Both teams could have new head coaches by the time the game kicks off, as the Lions are being led by interim coach Tom Bradley, while Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is a candidate for several current openings. We already know at least one winner from this bowl: Penn State has pledged to donate $1.5 million of its postseason proceeds to sex-crime advocacy organizations.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

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

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.

UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Virginia Cavaliers (8-4) vs. Auburn Tigers (7-5)

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

Virginia take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Just getting to a bowl game was an accomplishment for Virginia, which hasn’t been to one since 2007, but to be chosen as high as the top pick behind the Discover Orange Bowl exceeded expectations once again in Mike London’s second season.

The Hoos got some help from rival Virginia Tech, whose bid in the Sugar Bowl bumped everyone up a notch in the selection process. It’s a legitimate place for Virginia, though, which beat Florida State on the road during the regular season, and was in contention for the Coastal Division title through the final game, when it lost to Virginia Tech.

The Cavaliers had won four straight heading into the regular-season finale, before losing 38-0 to the Hokies. Despite the loss, London was named the ACC Coach of the Year, as his team had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the division this year.

The Cavaliers’ strengths are their front seven on defense, which is a veteran group, and an offensive line that has had the same lineup all season. The Hoos have been able to run the ball well for most of the season. It will be Virginia’s fourth appearance in the bowl, but the program hasn’t been there since 1998 -- also the last time UVa faced Auburn, a 19-0 win for the Hoos at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Auburn take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: Along with replacing the nation’s best player in Cam Newton, the Tigers had to find players to fill in for just about everyone who was a part of the 2010 championship team.

Coach Gene Chizik and his team never let youth be an excuse for a team that had freshmen making up almost half of the entire roster. Auburn began 4-1, and while the Tigers were sloppy at times, when the game was on the line late, Auburn found ways to win. That included beating preseason East favorite South Carolina 16-13 on the road.

However, as the season continued, the team's youth began to show. The physicality that Auburn showed in close games started to die down and as the struggles continued, the Tigers found themselves dealing with a quarterback shuffle.

Junior Barrett Trotter began as the starter, but saw highly touted true freshman Kiehl Frazier take more and more snaps. But everything changed in Auburn’s 17-6 win over Florida, when sophomore Clint Moseley took the starting job after a solid second-half performance against the Gators.

Moseley remained the starter, but Auburn never really looked like the same team that opened the year. Outside of solid play from running back Michael Dyer, the Tigers’ offense struggled along, ranking 10th in the SEC (328.2 yards per game), while the defense stayed near the bottom of the league, giving up 405.8 yards and 29.3 points per game.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6)

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

Cincinnati take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: Most everyone expected the Bearcats to be better this season, with veteran players returning at key positions on offense and defense. But just how much better was the big question. Cincinnati answered that early, jumping out to a 7-1 start to the season behind vastly improved play from its much-maligned defense. Then the season turned.

Quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle early against West Virginia and was lost for the regular season. All of a sudden, a team that controlled the Big East was no longer in control at all. The Bearcats lost to the Mountaineers and dropped one to Rutgers the following week, dealing them what would be a death blow to their BCS chances. What perhaps hurts most was this team had a lead on West Virginia in the fourth quarter and could not hold on for the win.

But the Bearcats can still call themselves Big East champions for the third time in four seasons, so that should help take the sting away. Running back Isaiah Pead had another terrific season, becoming the first Cincinnati back in 25 seasons to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The defensive front played outstanding all season, stuffing the run and getting great pressure on the quarterback with 44 sacks and 106.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was a load to handle inside, and linebacker JK Schaffer had 100 tackles for the third straight season.

This was also a team that made a complete turnaround when it came to turnover margin. Last year, the Bearcats were last in the Big East at minus-15 in this category. This year, they led the Big East at plus-11. The good news for Cincinnati is that Collaros is expected back for the bowl game, but he might remind everyone what could have been for the Bearcats this season.

Vanderbilt take from SEC blogger Chris Low: James Franklin vowed when he took the Vanderbilt job that he was unconcerned about what had or hadn’t happened in the past there.

Never mind that the Commodores had been the rest of the SEC’s punching bag. Franklin saw to it that they punched back, and they’re headed to a bowl game for only the fifth time in school history.

Vanderbilt earned that trip by going to Winston-Salem, N.C., on the final weekend of the regular season and routing Wake Forest 41-7 for its sixth win of the season.

The Commodores were agonizingly close to being an eight- or even a nine-win football team. They lost in overtime at Tennessee and lost three more close games to Arkansas, Florida and Georgia by a combined 13 points.

Vanderbilt leaned on its veteran defense early in the season. The Commodores intercepted 17 passes, which is tied for second in the SEC.

But where they made the most improvement was on offense, especially after Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback in Week 7. He had plenty of help, too. Junior running back Zac Stacy set a school record with 1,136 rushing yards. The offensive line made major strides, and sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews became one of the SEC’s premier big-play threats in the passing game.