By Mitch Light
Champs Sports Bowl — Florida State vs. Notre Dame
These two tradition-rich programs were among the bigger disappointments in 2011. Florida State had significant injuries (most notably to quarterback E.J. Manuel), while Notre Dame’s biggest issue was its inability to protect the football. The Irish ranked 116th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.08 per game).
Notre Dame 31, Florida State 30
Alamo Bowl — Washington vs. Baylor
This figures to be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. Both quarterbacks — Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Washington’s Keith Price — are very talented and both defenses are suspect.
Baylor 41, Washington 34
Armed Forces Bowl — BYU vs. Tulsa
BYU won nine games but only beat one team (Utah State) that currently has a winning record. All of Tulsa’s four losses came to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at one point — Oklahoma, O-State, Boise State, Houston.
Tulsa 30, BYU 20
Pinstripe Bowl — Rutgers vs. Iowa State
Iowa State is the only team in the nation that played 11 BCS conference teams in the regular season. The Cyclones went 5–6 in those 11 games, with two of the wins coming in overtime, vs. Iowa and Oklahoma State.
Rutgers 24, Iowa State 20
Music City Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
Insight Bowl — Iowa vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will be coaching against his alma mater for the first time. His team will be more talented; just not sure how motivated the Sooners will be after their late-season struggles.
Oklahoma 28, Iowa 24
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas — Texas A&M vs. Northwestern
Texas A&M is likely the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. The Aggies lost two games in OT and three others by three points or less. Northwestern can be dangerous on offense, but the Cats’ defense will have problems with the A&M attack.
Texas A&M 38, Northwestern 24
Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech vs. Utah
Georgia Tech is 0–3 in bowl games under Paul Johnson and has scored a total of 24 points in those three losses. There’s pressure on the ’11 Jackets to prove that the option attack can be successful when the opponent has a month to prepare.
Georgia Tech 24, Utah 23
Liberty Bowl — Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati
This game features two of the most underrated tailbacks in the nation, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy (1,136 yards on an SEC-best 6.2-yard average) and Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead (1,110 yards).
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 23
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Illinois vs. UCLA
These two teams have a combined 13 losses and both head coaches have been fired. This is why some people believe there are too many bowls.
UCLA 24, Illinois 17
Chick-fil-A Bowl — Virginia vs. Auburn
Auburn will take the field without Gus Malzahn calling the plays for the first time since 2008. Maybe it’s not as big of a loss as we think: The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and currently rank 104th in the nation in total offense.
Virginia 21, Auburn 17
TicketCity Bowl — Houston vs. Penn State
Penn State has not played a Conference USA team since it hosted Southern Miss in November 2001. The Nittany Lions won that game, 38–20, and should win this one as well due to their outstanding play on defense.
Penn State 31, Houston 20
Capital One Bowl — Nebraska vs. South Carolina
South Carolina is flying under the national radar — pretty surprising for a Steve Spurrier team — but the Gamecocks have won 10 games and bring the nation’s fourth-ranked defense to Orlando. This should be an entertaining matchup.
South Carolina 17, Nebraska 13
Outback Bowl — Michigan State vs. Georgia
Georgia won 10 games this season, but has only defeated two teams with a winning record — Auburn (7–5) and Georgia Tech (8–4). Michigan State is known for its defense, but the Spartans averaged 38.6 points in their last five games.
Georgia 28, Michigan State 20
Gator Bowl — Florida vs. Ohio State
It’s the Urban Meyer Bowl. Florida (6–6 overall) needs to win this game to avoid its first losing season since 1979, when Charley Pell’s first Gator team went 0–10–1. Ohio State, also 6–6, hasn’t had a losing season since 1988.
Ohio State 20, Florida 16
GoDaddy.com Bowl — Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois
Times are good at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves went 8–0 in the Sun Belt Conference and somehow convinced Gus Malzahn to take over as the head coach after Hugh Freeze bolted for Ole Miss after one season.
Arkansas State 37, Northern Illinois 34
BBVA Compass Bowl — Pittsburgh vs. SMU
Times are tough at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are returning to the BBVA Compass Bowl — despite their objections — and they are doing so without a head coach. Todd Graham left after only one season to take over at Arizona State, forcing to Pitt to undergo its third coaching search in the past 12 months.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24
Cotton Bowl — Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Arkansas averaged 41.8 points in its 10 wins and 15.5 points in its two losses — at Alabama and at LSU, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. Kansas State ranks 74th in total defense and 71st in scoring defense.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 23
Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon
Two of the nation’s best and most-balanced offenses — both Wisconsin and Oregon average over 200 yards per game rushing and passing — will be on display at the Rose Bowl. This game features some serious star power, as well, with each team featuring an All-America-caliber running back (UW’s Montee Ball and UO’s LaMichael James) and dynamic playmakers at the quarterback position (Russell Wilson and Darron Thomas).
Oregon 34, Wisconsin 31
Sugar Bowl — Virginia Tech vs. Michigan
Brady Hoke did a tremendous job in his first season at Michigan. On the surface, a three-game improvement in the win column (both overall and in the league) is impressive, but when you dive into the numbers you really get an indication of how much better Michigan was in 2011. Last year, the Wolverines were outgained by an average of 1.4 yards per game in Big Ten play. In ’11, they were statistically dominant in the league, outgaining their opponents by an average of 130.7 yards per game. That is a staggering improvement in one season.
Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21
Orange Bowl — Clemson vs. West Virginia
Clemson, which won an ACC title for the first time since 1991, averaged 39.4 points in its 10 wins and 14.3 points in its four losses. The Tigers rebounded from a late-season swoon — they lost three of the final four regular-season games — and pounded Virginia Tech, 38–10, in the ACC Championship Game. This is an explosive offensive team that can be very difficult to stop once it gets rolling.
Clemson 38, West Virginia 20
Fiesta Bowl — Oklahoma State vs. Stanford
Oklahoma State will react in one of two ways: The Cowboys, feeling snubbed by the BCS, play with a chip on their shoulder to prove that they, not Alabama, deserved a shot at LSU in the national title game. Or, the Pokes, feeling jilted by the BCS, are lethargic and fail to recapture the magic that made them one of the most entertaining teams throughout the 2011 season. My guess: The former.
Oklahoma State 34, Stanford 27
BCS National Championship — LSU vs. Alabama
The two SEC West superpowers meet in a winner-take-all rematch for the national title. LSU won the first fight, 9–6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa, but the Tigers weren’t necessarily the better team. Yes, they won the game, but the better team doesn’t always win. Alabama hasn’t faced quite as difficult of a schedule as LSU, but the Crimson Tide’s numbers on defense are scary good; they are giving up less than 200 yards per game (60 yards fewer than the No. 2 team, LSU) and only 3.4 yards per play. The offense has been more than good enough to win every game that wasn’t against LSU and did a decent job moving the ball against the Tigers (295 total yards) in its only loss.
Alabama 20, LSU 17