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Athlon ranks all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid.
35. Little Caesars – Toledo (8-4) vs. FIU (6-6) – Dec. 26
Christmas in Detroit? No thanks. Mario Cristobal has done an excellent job turning around FIU, but the Golden Panthers aren’t expected to bring many fans to Ford Field, turning this into a Toledo home game. Despite losing quarterback Austin Dantin, the Rockets haven’t missed a beat on offense with Terrance Owens under center. FIU wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is a dangerous playmaker and the Golden Panthers nearly pulled a couple of upsets against BCS teams this year, but all signs point to a Toledo win.
34. GoDaddy.com – MTSU (6-6) vs. Miami, Ohio (9-4) – Jan. 6
The RedHawks are one of this season’s biggest surprises, going from 1-11 to 9-4 and MAC champions. MTSU began the year as one of the preseason favorites in the Sun Belt, but needed a win over FIU in its final game to get bowl eligible. MTSU quarterback Dwight Dasher can be an exciting player to watch, but has been a disappointment this season.
33. New Mexico – BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6) – Dec. 18
BYU started out a disappointing 2-5, but won four out of its last five games to finish bowl eligible. UTEP started 5-1, but dropped five of its last six games. Injuries have played a big part of UTEP’s struggles down the second half of the season, including running back Donald Buckram and quarterback Trevor Vittatoe. The time off should get the Miners closer to full health, but will have their hands full with a much-improved BYU team.
32. Humanitarian – Fresno State (8-4) vs. Northern Illinois (10-3) – Dec. 18
Fresno State returns to the blue turf, hoping for a much better outcome after its blowout loss to Boise State earlier this season. Northern Illinois was the best team in the MAC during the regular season, but is coming off a disappointing loss to Miami, Ohio in the championship game and lost head coach Jerry Kill to Minnesota. How the Huskies respond with a coaching change is one of the big question marks going into this game. Don’t be surprised if this matchup is a high-scoring affair, with both teams possessing solid quarterbacks and plenty of playmakers around him.
31. New Orleans – Troy (7-5) vs. Ohio (8-4) – Dec. 18
This will be the first matchup between these two teams and should be the best game on the opening Saturday of bowl season. The Trojans have won at least a share of five consecutive Sun Belt titles, while Ohio won seven out of its final eight games to finish 8-4. Both teams are dangerous on offense, but have struggled with turnovers all season. There should be no shortage of points, but whichever quarterback (Corey Robinson of Troy or Boo Jackson of Ohio) can avoid the mistakes should lead its team to the victory.
30. TicketCity – Northwestern (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (7-5) – Jan. 1
Northwestern limps into this bowl game, losing its last two games by a combined score of 118-50. The Wildcats are clearly a different team without quarterback Dan Persa, who is out for the rest of the year due to an Achilles injury. Although Mike Leach is no longer in Lubbock, the Red Raiders remained potent on offense, but the defense had its issues, with the secondary ranked last in the nation. Although the bowl practices should help Northwestern find some answers, the Red Raiders simply have too much firepower and should easily cruise to a victory.
29. St. Petersburg – Southern Miss (8-4) vs. Louisville (6-6) – Dec. 21
Charlie Strong has engineered quite a turnaround in his first season at Louisville. The Cardinals were picked by most to finish last in the Big East in the preseason, but fought to a 6-6 record and their first bowl appearance since 2007. Southern Miss brings a dangerous offense to Tropicana Field, averaging 37.6 points per game. Quarterback Austin Davis averages 277.8 yards of total offense per game, while the emergence of Kendrick Hardy over the second half of the season added more balance to the offense. The Cardinals may get quarterback Adam Froman back, after missing the final four games of this season with a thigh injury. Even if Froman is out, backup Justin Burke has plenty of experience and the offense can lean on 1,000-yard rusher Bilal Powell.
28. Independence – Georgia Tech (6-6) vs. Air Force (8-4) – Dec. 27
With two option teams squaring off in Shreveport, what’s the over/under on how many passes will be thrown? Georgia Tech may get quarterback Joshua Nesbitt back from an arm injury, but if he’s forced to miss this game, Tevin Washington has proven to be a capable replacement. The Falcons have won at least eight games in each of coach Troy Calhoun’s four seasons and finished the regular season riding a three-game winning streak. The Yellow Jackets have lost five consecutive bowl games, but should have a slight edge on the Falcons.
27. Armed Forces – Army (6-5) vs. SMU (7-6) – Dec. 30
Due to the renovations at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, the 2010 version of the Armed Forces Bowl was moved to SMU’s campus for at least one season. The Black Knights have steadily improved under Rich Ellerson, making their first bowl trip since 1996. This matchup features an interesting contrast in styles, with SMU wanting to throw 40 times a game, while Army would like to win this game without using the forward pass. SMU faced Navy earlier this year and lost 28-21, but Army will have its hands full trying to slow down quarterback Kyle Padron and a dangerous group of receivers.
26. Meineke Car Care – Clemson (6-6) vs. South Florida (7-5) – Dec. 31
Clemson fans will certainly invade Charlotte and fill Bank of America Stadium, but this matchup won’t draw much interest nationally. Both teams are solid on defense, but struggled on offense this year, likely pointing to a low-scoring affair. The last two Meineke Car Care bowls were decided by two points or less and another close one should be in the works in 2010. Even though it will be close, it may not be the most appealing to watch with both teams likely to struggle to move the ball.
25. Military – East Carolina (6-6) vs. Maryland (8-4) – Dec. 29
The Terrapins aren’t thrilled to be in this bowl and will have their hands full trying to stop East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis, who is tied with Hawaii’s Bryant Moniz for the most touchdown passes thrown this season. East Carolina played three ACC teams this season, beating NC State and losing to Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The Pirates have struggled on defense all year, which means there should be plenty of points scored in the nation’s capital.
24. Pinstripe – Syracuse (7-5) vs. Kansas State (7-5) – Dec. 30
This is the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl and the second college football game played in New Yankee Stadium. Kansas State is making the trip from the Little Apple – Manhattan, Kansas – to the Big Apple, while Syracuse is making its first postseason appearance since 2004. The Orange have shown big improvement under second-year coach Doug Marrone, but their run defense will be tested by Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas.
23. Music City – Tennessee (6-6) vs. North Carolina (7-5) – Dec. 30
North Carolina and Tennessee just have to be relieved to be in the postseason. It's rather interesting these two teams are meeting up in the postseason, after Tennessee canceled an upcoming series earlier this year to lighten up the schedule for 2011. The Volunteers started 2-6, but a light schedule to close out the season gave them an opportunity to get bowl eligible. The Tar Heels had to deal with an academic scandal and NCAA violations by some of its top defenders before the first kickoff. North Carolina has patched things together all year, but has to find a way to slow down Tennessee freshman quarterback Tyler Bray and a talented group of receivers.
22. Poinsettia Bowl – Navy (9-3) vs. San Diego State (8-4) – Dec. 23
The hometown Aztecs are making their first bowl appearance since the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl, while this is Navy’s eighth consecutive trip to the postseason. Both teams have starpower at quarterback (Ryan Lindley at San Diego State and Ricky Dobbs at Navy) and with both offenses averaging over 30 points a game, expect plenty of fireworks in this one.
21. BBVA Compass – Pittsburgh (7-5) vs. Kentucky (6-6) – Jan. 8
Pittsburgh began the year as a heavy favorite to win the Big East and appeared to be in position to win the conference going into November. However, the Panthers went 2-2 in their final four games, surrendering the Big East title to Connecticut. Birmingham certainly wasn’t high on Pittsburgh’s preseason bowl destination list and one has to wonder how motivated the Panthers will be. This is Kentucky’s fifth trip in a row to a bowl and the first under coach Joker Phillips. The Big East has won all four matchups in this bowl’s history, but the Wildcats seem to be a slight favorite.
20. Holiday – Nebraska (10-3) vs. Washington (6-6) – Dec. 30
No, this is not a misprint. These two teams matched up earlier this year, with Nebraska easily handling Washington 56-21. Considering there are 35 bowls, it’s certainly a little ridiculous to have a rematch in the postseason. The Huskies enter this game with some momentum after three straight wins, while one has to wonder how hungry Nebraska will be after the Big 12 Championship loss and the bowl snub. If the Cornhuskers are motivated, the Huskies will be in for another long night.
19. Liberty – UCF (10-3) vs. Georgia (6-6) – Dec. 31
Finishing 6-6 and playing in the Liberty Bowl is certainly a disappointment for Georgia, but this is an opportunity to get a victory and build momentum for 2011. However, UCF won’t be an easy opponent for the Bulldogs. The Knights lost by seven points or less to NC State and Kansas State and won eight of their last nine games. The UCF offense is averaging 33.7 points a game, led by freshman quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey. The Knights are stingy on defense, allowing 18 points per game and ranking 10th nationally against the run. The Bulldogs have had a disappointing year, but still have plenty of talent on the roster and should ring in 2011 in Memphis with a victory.
18. Kraft Fight Hunger – Nevada (12-1) vs. Boston College (7-5) – Jan. 9
It’s only appropriate with a food sponsor to consider this game is a dessert. With the first round of the NFL playoffs finishing up before this one kicks off, it’s like the icing on a cake to a great weekend of football. Boston College boasts one of the nation’s top defenses, but will have its hands full trying to stop Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Wolf Pack rank seventh nationally in scoring offense, while the Eagles rank first against the run and are allowing less than 20 points per game. A big question mark for Boston College is the health of running back Montel Harris. Harris missed the season finale with a knee injury and is considered questionable for this game. Don’t lose sight of this game on Wildcard Sunday – this is a solid matchup with a great offense matching up against a good defense.
17. Hawaii – Hawaii (10-3) vs. Tulsa (9-3) – Dec. 24
The scoreboard operator at Aloha Stadium will certainly earn his money on Christmas Eve. Hawaii and Tulsa are both averaging 39 points a game, while the Warriors own the nation’s best passing attack. The Golden Hurricane is one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning their final six games, including an upset over Notre Dame in South Bend. Although Tulsa is riding high, winning in Honolulu at Hawaii’s home stadium will be difficult. If you like offense, this is certainly the game to watch and with this matchup on Christmas Eve, it’s a good excuse to stay glued to the television and away from chats with the in-laws.
16. Texas – Illinois (6-6) vs. Baylor (7-5) – Dec. 29
If there is a sleeper bowl matchup to watch, this game would be the one. Illinois is 6-6, but is arguably better than its record indicates. The Illini lost three games by four points or less and pushed Ohio State before losing 24-13. Behind sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, Baylor is making its first trip to the postseason since 1994. Griffin is one of the nation’s most exciting players, totaling 3,786 yards of total offense this year. The Illinois defense could give Baylor’s offense some trouble, but a high-scoring game wouldn’t be a surprise.
15. Insight – Missouri (10-2) vs. Iowa (7-5) – Dec. 28
The Missouri and Iowa campuses are separated by less than five hours, but these two teams have not played since 1910. These two teams were nearly conference mates this offseason, with Missouri believed to be a target of the Big Ten during its expansion. Although this is an intriguing matchup, there’s also a sense of two teams headed in different directions. Iowa entered this year with hopes of winning the Big Ten title, but losses in its final three games ended any hopes of playing in a BCS bowl. The Tigers started 7-0, but back-to-back conference losses prevented a trip to the Big 12 title game. Iowa running back Adam Robinson should return to the lineup after missing the season finale with a concussion, which should give the Hawkeyes an opportunity to exploit a Missouri rush defense that ranked 56th nationally. If Iowa erases the late-season disappointment, this has the opportunity to be one of the gems of the bowl season.
14. Las Vegas – Utah (10-2) vs. Boise State (11-1) – Dec 22
Although Las Vegas is a nice destination for both teams, there is certainly a sense of disappointment surrounding this game. Boise State had an opportunity to play in a BCS bowl, but a loss to Nevada two weeks ago ended those hopes. Utah looked like a threat to finish undefeated in late October, but was crushed by TCU and lost at Notre Dame the following week. Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn is out after shoulder surgery, but senior Terrance Cain has 10 career starts, posting a 9-1 record. Although the Broncos would rather play in a bigger bowl, expect Chris Petersen to have his team ready to play.
13. Fiesta – Oklahoma (11-2) vs. Connecticut (8-4) – Jan. 1
The Huskies are making their first appearance in a BCS bowl and are doing so as heavy underdogs. However, the Sooners have been in this same spot in previous years, taking on West Virginia and Boise State as a significant favorite – and lost both times. For the Huskies to pull off the upset, they have to get more production from the passing attack to open up rushing lanes for running back Jordan Todman. If the Sooners jump out to an early lead, the Huskies may not have the firepower to rally. Although this is a BCS bowl, all signs point to a major mismatch.
12. Alamo – Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Arizona (7-5) – Dec. 29
Oklahoma State may have fell short of reaching the Big 12 title game, but the Cowboys still have to consider 2010 a successful season. Despite returning five starters and breaking in a new quarterback and offensive scheme, the Cowboys finished 10-2, with both losses to the participants in the Big 12 title game. The Wildcats started 7-1, but closed the year with four consecutive defeats. The Alamo Bowl has a history of producing high-scoring affairs and this one should produce a similar result.
11. Champs Sports – West Virginia (9-3) vs. NC State (8-4) – Dec. 28
Considering both teams narrowly missed out on a conference title and could easily be playing in a BCS bowl, this should be one of the top matchups outside of January 1. NC State’s Russell Wilson is one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks, but faces a tough matchup against West Virginia’s defense. The Mountaineers ranked third nationally in total defense and 11th against the pass. The West Virginia offense struggled with turnovers this season, but the time off should benefit running back Noel Devine, who battled a foot injury most of the year. If West Virginia can slow down Wilson and hold onto the ball on offense, the Mountaineers should be able to win their fifth bowl game in six seasons.
10. Gator – Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Michigan (7-5) – Jan. 1
Michigan is back in the postseason after two years of missing out on a bowl. Rich Rodriguez could use a win to cool his seat going into 2011, but the Wolverine defense will need to improve in a hurry if they want to win this game. Mississippi State’s offense will lean heavily on the ground, led by running back Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf. If the Wolverines can’t slow down Ballard and Relf on the ground, it will be up to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson to carry his team to victory once again. Robinson is certainly capable of trading scores with the Bulldogs, which should make this a high-scoring and entertaining affair in Jacksonville.
9. Sun – Notre Dame (7-5) vs. Miami, Fla. (7-5) – Dec. 31
In terms of name value, El Paso is getting one of the best bowl matchups. Notre Dame and Miami are two storied programs, but this will be the first meeting since 1990. The Irish rallied to win their last three games to get to the Sun Bowl, while the Hurricanes lost their last two games, costing head coach Randy Shannon is job. Miami will be led by interim coach Jeff Stoutland. The Hurricanes own one of the nation’s top pass defenses, which will be a difficult matchup for Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tommy Rees.
8. Outback – Florida (7-5) vs. Penn State (7-5) – Jan. 1
Similar to the Sun Bowl, this is a great matchup in terms of name value. Florida and Penn State are having down seasons, but two programs with a lot of recent success will draw plenty of interest. There will be a lot of eyes watching the Florida offense in this game. The Gators have struggled to find the right mix all year on offense and with a month to prepare, it will be interesting to see what head coach Urban Meyer does.
7. Chick-fil-A – Florida State (9-4) vs. South Carolina (9-4) – Dec. 31
Here’s a familiar storyline – Steve Spurrier vs. Florida State. Spurrier was 5-8-1 in his tenure at Florida against the Seminoles, but this is his first matchup since taking the job as the South Carolina head coach. The big question mark for Florida State will be health of quarterback Christian Ponder. The senior missed the ACC Championship with an elbow injury and may not be recovered in time for this game. If Ponder is unable to go, backup EJ Manuel has proven he is a capable replacement. South Carolina returns to Atlanta for the second time this season, hoping to erase its disappointment from the blowout in the SEC title against Auburn. If freshman running back Marcus Lattimore gets on track, the Gamecocks should be able to earn only their second bowl win under Spurrier.
6. Cotton – Texas A&M (9-3) vs. LSU (10-2) – Jan. 7
Texas A&M closed out the regular season with six consecutive wins, including victories over Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. The Aggies had quite a turnaround behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who assumed the starting job after Jerrod Johnson’s struggles earlier this season. LSU has lived dangerously this year, with eight of its games decided by eight points or less. The Tigers struggled on defense in their final two games of the season, which is a major concern against a potent Aggie offense. A close game should be expected in Jerry’s World and with Les Miles on the sideline, you never know what to expect.
5. Capital One – Alabama (9-3) vs. Michigan State (11-1) – Jan. 1
The Nick Saban Bowl is the marquee matchup from the games outside of the BCS. Saban was the head coach at Michigan State from 1995 to 1999, before leaving East Lansing to take the LSU job. Although Saban facing his former squad will be a major storyline in Orlando, this is an even matchup between two solid teams. Michigan State was the odd team out in the Big Ten’s BCS contingent and the Spartans should be highly-motivated to close out the year with a statement win. Alabama began the year with hopes of repeating as national champs, but the Crimson Tide had too much youth on defense and struggled to get running back Mark Ingram on track in the second half of the year. The Big Ten has won five out of the last six matchups in this game and the Spartans have a good chance to add to that run.
4. Orange – Virginia Tech (11-2) vs. Stanford (11-1) – Jan. 1
Two red-hot teams are taking its talent to South Beach. Virginia Tech has won 11 straight since opening the year 0-2, while Stanford has reeled off seven wins in a row after losing to Oregon. The quarterback battle between Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor is enough to make this matchup one of the top games of the bowl season. The Hokies and Cardinal are also two of the most well-coached teams in the nation. This game looks like a tossup and should be decided late into the fourth quarter.
3. Rose – Wisconsin (11-1) vs. TCU (12-0) – Jan. 1
This game should garner plenty of national interest with TCU getting a shot at the Big Ten champion. The Horned Frogs will be hungry to erase last season’s disappointment in the Fiesta Bowl to Boise State and prove they can hang with anyone in the country. The Badgers have arguably the nation’s top offensive line, which should test a strong TCU defense. If Wisconsin can establish its ground attack, the Horned Frogs will suffer their first loss of this season.
2. Sugar – Arkansas (10-2) vs. Ohio State (11-1) – Jan. 4
Ohio State has wanted another shot at a SEC team since losing back-to-back national championship games to the conference in 2007 and 2008. The Razorbacks have won six in a row and is arguably playing the best football in the SEC outside of Auburn. The Buckeyes own one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, which will be tested by Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and red-hot running back Knile Davis. Although the Razorbacks have no concerns on offense, the defense will have a difficult time trying to stop Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor. With Big Ten/SEC bragging rights on the line and plenty of fireworks expected, this should be the best matchup to watch outside of the national title.
1. National Title – Oregon (12-0) vs. Auburn (13-0) – Jan. 10
These two teams have over a month to get ready for the national championship, but expect this matchup to be worth the wait. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game, with two of the nation’s best players facing off – Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton and Oregon running back LaMichael James. The success of both offenses often causes the defenses to be overlooked, but its play will likely determine the outcome of the game. The Tigers have a vulnerable secondary, but are strong along the defensive line and coordinator Ted Roof always seems to make the right adjustments at halftime. The Ducks are allowing less than 19 points per game and have forced 35 turnovers this year. There is already a lot of hype surrounding this matchup and everything points to a classic in Glendale on January 10.