SEC: Zach Collaros

Cincinnati dropped the SEC to 1-1 in bowl play with a 31-24 win against Vanderbilt, in what was a pretty exciting AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

After a bit of a sluggish first half from both offenses, each team found more ways to find the end zone in the last two quarters, combining for 34 points. The Bearcats put more of an emphasis on the running game, pounding Vandy's defense with Isaiah Pead, and another costly turnover doomed the Commodores.

How the game was won: Defenses led the way in the first half, as the offenses combined for 292 yards and 21 points. But things were very back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. There were three lead changes before two minutes passed in the quarter. Cincinnati took the lead for good when Ralph Abernathy took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown immediately after Vanderbilt took a 21-17 lead on a 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd. Pead sealed the Bearcats' win with his 12-yard touchdown run, three plays after a costly interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Larry Smith.

Best call: With Vanderbilt's offense stumbling through the first two quarters, coach James Franklin made the decision early in the third to permanently sit starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers after Rodgers suffered an injury. Smith replaced him, and the Commodores compiled 183 yards and 17 points with Smith under center. Rodgers appeared to be healthy enough to return, but Franklin stuck with Smith.

Turning point: Vanderbilt's offense was much more efficient with Smith at quarterback, but he made a fatal mistake with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth when he threw behind receiver Jordan Mathews and into the hands of Cincinnati's Nick Temple, who returned the ball 12 yards to Vandy's 31-yard line. Three plays later, Pead's touchdown run made it 31-21 Cincinnati.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 15 punts for an average of 42.5 yards per kick. Four punts went for 50-plus yards and three were down inside the 20-yard line.

Player of the game: Pead was an absolute workhorse for the Bearcats. He carried the ball 28 times for 149 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Unsung hero: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros returned from his broken ankle and showed good game management late. He was far from great and was shaky early, but he limited his mistakes for the most part. He did have just 80 passing yards and two interceptions, but for as rusty as he looked early, he could have been a lot worse.

Second guessing: With the score tied 7-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Franklin decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44-yard line. On the play, running back Zac Stacy took the handoff, but then tried a jump pass to tight end Brandon Barden. The pass was way off and Cincinnati took over. The Bearcats then drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.

What it means: Cincinnati, which might have been in a BCS bowl game if not for Collaros' injury, heads into the offseason with a ton of momentum following a 10-win season. Vanderbilt will have to deal with losing another big game because of costly mistakes. Still, things feel different at Vandy, and even with the loss, the Commodores have to feel good about Franklin's first year.

Record performance: With his two interceptions Saturday night, Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward tied Leonard Coleman for first all-time in Vanderbilt history with 15 career interceptions.

SEC predictions: Non-BCS bowls

December, 26, 2011
We’ve picked nearly 100 football games this season, and we’re dead even.

I’m 83-14 for a .856 percentage, and so is my soccer-loving colleague, Edward Aschoff. You know him best as the ATL Kid.

There was a time, not long ago, that he held a three-game lead. Something says you’re already well aware of that given how much he crowed about it.

But that was then, and this is now.

It’s bowl season, meaning it’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders … and the rookies from the veterans.

Edward has fought the good fight. He’s learned not to pick his alma mater, Florida, every week, and he’s not basing his picks solely on how his Xbox games turn out anymore.

Hey, he’s picked enough games now that he’s no longer a rookie. We don’t use youth as an excuse on the SEC blog like some coaches in this league have been known to do.

We’ll kick off our picks with the non-BCS bowls and will come back in a week or so with our prediction in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Enough talking, though. It’s showtime:

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Dec. 30)

Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)

Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs didn't exactly have the year they expected, as offensive-line injuries and offensive inefficiency doomed them. They also enter this one with quarterback issues. Wake Forest started hot, but lost four of its final five, including a 41-7 defeat to Vanderbilt. Mississippi State's defense surprised most this year and will be the difference. ... Mississippi State 20, Wake Forest 17

Chris Low: Both teams just did squeeze into the postseason, but Wake Forest was really wobbling there at the end. The Deacons' only victories since the second week of October came over Duke and Maryland. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were playing their best defense when the regular season ended, and that will be the difference in Nashville. … Mississippi State 31, Wake Forest 17

AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31)

Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)

Edward Aschoff: Vandy enters its first bowl game since 2008 with some nice momentum. James Franklin has turned the Commodores into a pretty tough team with some attitude. It looks like the Bearcats will have starting quarterback Zach Collaros back from his broken ankle, but while Cincinnati won a share of the Big East championship, this Vandy defense will be too jacked up and aggressive for the Bearcats. ... Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 21

Chris Low: It looks like Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros will be back for the bowl game after breaking his ankle in November. The Commodores’ defense will be ready no matter who lines up under center, and an improved Vanderbilt offense will make enough big plays to carve out only the third bowl victory in school history. … Vanderbilt 28, Cincinnati 24

Chick-fil-A Bowl (Dec. 31)

Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)

Edward Aschoff: These teams mirrored each other at times this season. Both won close games and were loaded with youth. However, Auburn's youngsters hit the wall at the midpoint of the season, while Virginia almost made the ACC title game. Coach Gene Chizik is now coaching Auburn's very subpar defense and star running back Michael Dyer is suspended. Advantage Cavaliers. ... Virginia 31, Auburn 17

Chris Low: It’s been hectic around the Plains lately. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at UCF, meaning Gene Chizik is running the defense for the time being. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is leaving for the Arkansas State head job after the bowl, and the Tigers’ only consistent offensive threat during the season, sophomore running back Michael Dyer, is suspended. The Cavaliers smell blood in the water, but Chizik loses bowl games about as often as he loses close games. … Auburn 27, Virginia 21 Gator Bowl (Jan. 2)

Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)

Edward Aschoff: All anyone will be talking about in this one is Urban Meyer ... and he isn't even coaching. His former team (Florida) takes on his future team (Ohio State). Both teams really struggled on offense this season, but the Gators' defense ranks ninth nationally. Florida should be motivated to play the Buckeyes, but even with a new man calling the offensive shots, nothing tells us the offense will look any different. ... Ohio State 20, Florida 13

Chris Low: There’s no truth to the rumor that Urban Meyer will conduct the coin toss. In fact, he’s not even supposed to be at the game. He will be in spirit, though. Both teams have had forgettable seasons, although the Gators’ defense deserved better. At the end of the day, it’s Ohio State vs. an SEC team in a bowl game, and we all know how that movie ends. … Florida 21, Ohio State 17

Outback Bowl (Jan. 2)

Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3)

Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs were one of the hottest teams in the country before getting blasted by LSU in the SEC championship game. Michigan State was also a victory away from the Rose Bowl. Both sport top-five defenses and fun offenses. This one could be one of the top bowl games of the year and should come down to the very end with Georgia squeaking by. ... Georgia 27, Michigan State 24

Chris Low: If you like rock-solid defense, this is your game. Georgia is ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense, Michigan State No. 5. The question is: Which offense can find a way to move the ball and score some points? The Spartans averaged 38.6 points over their final five games, and the Kirk Cousins-to-B.J. Cunningham connection was lethal. But Aaron Murray has an array of targets and will use them all in this game. … Georgia 30, Michigan State 21

Capital One Bowl (Jan. 2)

Nebraska (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2)

Edward Aschoff: The Gamecocks haven't been very good in bowl games, losing three straight. While Nebraska had its own bowl issues last year, barely showing up in the Holiday Bowl. Both teams really know how to run the ball, but South Carolina's defense has fed on offenses for most of the year. With all those athletes up front, the Gamecocks will end their postseason woes against the Huskers. ... South Carolina 27, Nebraska 20

Chris Low: It’s always risky to pick the Gamecocks in a bowl game, especially when you consider that they’ve lost their past three and didn’t come close to playing a decent game in any of the three. But the Head Ball Coach is doing things at South Carolina that have never been done before, and he has a defense that’s capable of dominating games. The Gamecocks will find a way to grind it out and accomplish another first – winning 11 games in a season. … South Carolina 24, Nebraska 20

AT&T Cotton Bowl (Jan. 6)

Kansas State (10-2) vs. Arkansas (10-2)

Edward Aschoff: Both of these squads looked BCS-worthy, but didn't make it to the party. Still, this game should have people glued to their TV sets. The Razorbacks and the Wildcats know how to move the ball, while their defenses had a lot of bend in them this year. There shouldn't be any shortage of points, but if this one turns into a shootout, Arkansas is better equipped when it comes to talent. ... Arkansas 34, Kansas State 28

Chris Low: Both of these teams feel like they should be playing in a BCS bowl game, although it doesn’t get much better than Cowboys Stadium and the Cotton Bowl. The Hogs’ big problem this season was that they happened to be in the same division as Alabama and LSU. Kansas State was one of the surprise stories of the college football season, but the Wildcats won’t be able to keep up with the Hogs. … Arkansas 38, Kansas State 24

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.