College football's bowl season begins on Saturday with the New Mexico Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Here are predictions on the first 14 bowl games.
New Mexico Bowl – Arizona vs. Nevada
Defensive stops will be at a premium in Albuquerque, which plays host to one of only two bowls in which both teams are averaging over 500 yards of offense. Nevada won seven of its first eight games but slumped late to finish with a 7–5 record. Arizona’s regular season ended on a down note — a loss at home to rival Arizona State — but Rich Rodriguez’s first year in Tucson has to be considered a success. The Wildcats are 7–5, highlighted by wins over Oklahoma State, Washington and USC.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — Toledo vs. Utah State
Utah State is one of the best-kept secrets in the nation. The Aggies went 10–2 overall (with a two-point loss at Wisconsin and a three-point loss at BYU) and swept through the WAC with a 6–0 record. Gary Andersen’s club is potent on offense, but the Aggies’ strength is on defense, where they only give up 15.4 points per game. Utah State will be tested by a Toledo team that went 9–3 with all three losses coming by seven points. Utah State 37–30
Poinsettia Bowl — San Diego State vs. BYU
Rocky Long has done an outstanding job maintaining what Brady Hoke built at San Diego State. The Aztecs, 17–8 in two seasons under Long, won a share of the Mountain West championship (their first title since 1986) with a 7–1 record in their final season in the league. BYU completed its second season as an Independent with a 7–5 record. The Cougars are strong defensively but really struggle to score points against quality competition.
San Diego State 28–14
Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl – Ball State vs. UCF
The coaching carousel hasn’t come to a complete stop, but it appears Ball State will hold on to Pete Lembo for at least one more season. Lembo built a winner at Lehigh and Elon before jumping to the FBS ranks, where he has compiled a 15–9 record in two seasons at Ball State. His counterpart in this game, UCF’s George O’Leary, is on the tail end of a career that has seen him win 111 games in 17 seasons as a head coach (eight at Georgia Tech, nine at UCF).
Ball State 30-24
New Orleans Bowl – East Carolina vs. UL Lafayette
UL Lafayette will make the short trip to down I-10 to play in the New Orleans Bowl for the second straight season. The Ragin’ Cajuns played their best football in the latter half of the season, highlighted by wins over ULM and Western Kentucky and a seven-point loss at Florida. East Carolina won a share of its first C-USA East title since 2009 by recording a 7–1 record in league play.
East Carolina 27-20
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas – Boise State vs. Washington
It was a rebuilding year for Boise State, but the Broncos still went 10–2 overall with a four-point loss at Michigan State and a two-point loss vs. San Diego State. Not bad for a team that only returned seven starters. Washington completed its third-straight 5–4 conference season under fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies had some big wins (Stanford, Oregon State) but ended the season with an inexplicable loss to Washington State. Boise State 23–20
Hawaii Bowl – Fresno State vs. SMU
Tim DeRuyter’s first season as a head coach went quite well. Fresno State went 9–3 overall and won a share of the Mountain West title with a 7–1 record in league play. The Bulldogs boast two of the top skill players on the West Coast — quarterback Derek Carr and tailback Robbie Rouse. SMU is back in a bowl game for the fourth straight season under coach Junes Jones. The Mustangs’ quarterback is Garrett Gilbert, the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year who began his collegiate career at Texas.
Fresno State 37–23
Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl — Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
The good news: Western Kentucky is playing in its first bowl game. The bad news: The Hilltoppers’ coach, Willie Taggart, is now the boss at South Florida and will not coach his team in the bowl game. Lance Guidry, WKU’s defensive coordinator, will serve as the interim coach through the bowl season. The Topper’s opponent, Central Michigan, is arguably the weakest team to be invited to a bowl games in 2012. The Chippewas are 6–6 and rank seventh in the MAC in both total offense and total defense.
Western Kentucky 30–20
Military Bowl – Bowling Green vs. San Jose State
Mike MacIntyre has worked a minor miracle in his short time at San Jose State. The Spartans went 1–12 in 2010, his first season as the head coach, improved to 5–7 last year and then broke through with a 10–2 mark this fall. SJSU features one of the nation’s most efficient passing attacks and a defense that specializes in stopping the run. Bowling Green struggles to score, but the Falcons lead the MAC in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass defense.
San Jose State 27–17
Belk Bowl – Cincinnati vs. Duke
Duke is playing in a bowl game for the first time since 1994, but the Blue Devils limped to the finish line after picking up their sixth win on Oct. 20. Duke lost five of its last six games and gave up an average of 47.8 points in the five losses. Cincinnati won a share of the Big East title for the fourth time in the past five seasons, but the Bearcats lost their head coach Butch Jones, who is now at Tennessee.
Holiday Bowl – UCLA vs. Baylor
This should be one of the most exciting games of the pre-New Year’s Day bowl slate. Baylor, ranked No. 1 in the nation in total offense, ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak, beating Kansas State (ranked No. 1 at the time), Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. UCLA, the champs of the Pac-12 South, went 9–4 under first-year coach Jim L. Mora and feature an explosive offense led by quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin.
Independence Bowl – Ohio vs. ULM
These two mid-majors stole national headlines in September, but neither program was able to sustain its strong play throughout the entire 2012 season. Ohio beat Penn State in Week 1 and won its first seven games but finished 8–4 overall and 4–4 in the MAC. ULM, which won at Arkansas in overtime in Week 1, missed a chance to win its first Sun Belt title since 2005 by losing to UL Lafayette and Arkansas State on consecutive weeks in early November.
Russell Athletic Bowl – Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech
Rutgers had two chances to secure its first trip to a BCS bowl but lost at Pittsburgh and at home vs. Louisville in the final two weeks of the season. The Scarlet Knights will have to “settle” for a Big East co-championship and an invite from the Russell Athletic Bowl. Virginia Tech’s 2012 season has been a struggle. The Hokies have won only six games and need to beat Rutgers to avoid the program’s first losing record since 1992. Rutgers 20–10
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas – Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
Texas Tech’s ego was bruised when head coach Tommy Tuberville made the surprising decision to leave Lubbock to take over for Butch Jones at Cincinnati. Tuberville left behind a team that lost four of its last five games after starting the season with a 6–1 mark. Minnesota sneaks into postseason play as the only bowl team that was four games under .500 in its league. The Golden Gophers went 2–6 in the Big Ten but won all four of its non-conference games to get to the six-win mark.
Texas Tech 33–21
Final regular-season record: 92–48 (76–48 ATS)