By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Which bowls should you tune into? Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid.
35. Little Caesars Pizza Bowl – Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6) – Dec. 27
Despite being less than 200 miles outside of Detroit, this is Western Michigan’s first appearance in this bowl. The Broncos should have a homefield advantage over the Boilermakers, who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2007. If you are looking for an individual matchup to watch, keep an eye on Western Michigan receiver Jordan White against Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen. White caught 127 passes for 1,646 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Allen was selected by the coaches as a second-team All-Big Ten defensive back.
34. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7) – Dec. 31
Is there really much to get excited about this one? Both teams will have interim coaches and combined for a 12-13 record this year. It’s just over a six-hour drive from UCLA to San Francisco, which should make this a home game for the Bruins. However, as it is with many bowls, whichever team wants to be there more after a disappointing regular season will win.
33. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl – FIU (8-4) vs. Marshall (6-6) – Dec. 20
Coach Mario Cristobal continues to push the FIU program to new heights, posting a school-record eight victories this year. This is also the Golden Panthers’ second bowl appearance after beating Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl last season. Marshall is returning to the postseason after a one-year absence and this is a good spot for a team that recruits heavily in Florida. FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the nation’s top all-around players and will be a handful for the Thundering Herd’s defense.
32. Compass Bowl – Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. SMU (7-5) - Jan. 7
Out of the 35 bowl games, Birmingham has to be one of the least desirable locations for a postseason trip. And Pittsburgh certainly isn’t thrilled to be in this game after making a trip to Birmingham last year. This is SMU’s third consecutive bowl appearances, but will coach June Jones make the trip? Jones is rumored to be in the mix at Arizona State and UCLA. Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham went 2-2 against the Mustangs while he was Tulsa’s head coach from 2007-10.
31. Poinsettia Bowl – TCU (10-2) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4) – Dec. 21
Coach Sonny Dykes did an underrated job with the Bulldogs this year, leading this team to a WAC title and their first bowl appearance since 2008. The Horned Frogs were on the doorstep of a BCS berth, but didn’t reach the top 16 in the latest release of the BCS standings. This is the first matchup between these two teams and interestingly enough, both enter with seven-game winning streaks.
30. New Mexico Bowl – Wyoming (8-4) vs. Temple (8-4) – Dec. 17
Bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, with Temple making the long trip from Philadelphia to take on the Cowboys. Wyoming has quietly put together a nice season behind freshman quarterback Brett Smith. The Owls were left out of the postseason last year, but are making their second bowl trip in the last three years. Coach Steve Addazio did a good job in his first season at Temple, leaning on running back Bernard Pierce for a solid 8-4 record.
29. New Orleans Bowl – San Diego State (8-4) vs. UL Lafayette (8-4) – Dec. 17
One of the nation’s top first-year coaching jobs went to UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 8-4 after a 3-9 record last season and are back in the postseason for the first time since 1970. The Aztecs are making back-to-back bowl appearances in program history. This could be the final game at San Diego State for running back Ronnie Hillman, who ranks third nationally with 138 rushing yards per game. The sophomore is eligible for the NFL Draft at the end of this season. It’s a short drive from Lafayette to New Orleans, so this should be a virtual home game for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
28. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4) – Dec. 17
2011 was a season of near misses for Utah State. The Aggies lost close games to Auburn, BYU and Louisiana Tech, but closed out the year with a five-game winning streak. Coach Gary Andersen is a rising star and will eventually get a shot at a BCS program. Ohio is 0-5 in previous bowl appearances and doesn’t have much time to erase a disappoint loss in the MAC title game. Both teams are averaging over 30 points a game, so a shootout appears likely.
27. Music City Bowl – Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Wake Forest (6-6) – Dec. 30
Nashville is all about music, but it will be a different type of noise invading LP Field. The Bulldogs will be bringing their cowbells from Starkville for their first appearance in the Music City Bowl. The Demon Deacons are also making their first bowl appearance in Nashville and will look to earn their third consecutive postseason win in a row. After giving up 297 rushing yards in the season finale to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest’s rush defense will be under attack from Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard.
26. Pinstripe Bowl – Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6) – Dec. 30
The first Pinstripe Bowl ended up as a classic between Syracuse and Kansas State and this one seems to be another even matchup. The Cyclones have made two bowl appearances in three seasons under coach Paul Rhoads, while the Scarlet Knights are happy to be back in the postseason after a disappointing 4-8 record last year. This will be the first meeting between these two teams.
25. Hawaii Bowl – Southern Miss (11-2) vs. Nevada (7-5) – Dec. 24
The Golden Eagles are disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Liberty Bowl, but can you really complain about Hawaii in mid-December? Look for this matchup to be a high-scoring affair, as both teams rank in the top 15 of total offense and are averaging over 30 points a game. Nevada quarterback Cody Fajarado missed the season finale against Idaho with an injury, but should be back under center for this matchup. One question to ponder: Is Larry Fedora Southern Miss’ coach by the time this one kicks off?
24. Armed Forces Bowl – BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4) – Dec. 30
This matchup could be one of the hidden gems of the bowl season. BYU won eight out of its last nine games, largely sparked by a quarterback change. Riley Nelson took the starting spot from Jake Heaps and finished with 16 passing scores to only five interceptions. Tulsa had a similar finish to the season, winning seven out of its last eight games. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is an underrated player nationally, throwing at least 22 passing scores in each season at Tulsa. The Cougars rank 29th nationally against the pass, but will be tested by Kinne and a solid group of receivers.
23. Military Bowl – Air Force (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4) – Dec. 28
With Navy not qualifying for the postseason, Air Force was a logical replacement for this game in Washington, D.C. With nearly a month to prepare, Toledo will have plenty of time to develop a game plan to stop the Falcons’ option attack. The Rockets ranked 28th nationally against the run this season and allowed opponents to manage only 13 rushing scores. Toledo’s offense should provide plenty of fireworks after scoring at least 40 points in each of its final five games.
22. Chick-fil-A Bowl – Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5) – Dec. 31
The Cavaliers were one of the biggest benefactors of Virginia Tech’s BCS berth. Virginia was likely headed to the Music City Bowl, but jump over Florida State to land in Atlanta. With several young players stepping into key roles, Auburn took a step back in the standings after winning the national title last season. Points could be at a premium, as both teams averaged under 25 points a game this year. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is usually a solid matchup, but this year’s game is not that inspiring.
21. Independence Bowl – Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5) – Dec. 26
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels and Tigers, the Dec. 26 date for this bowl means spending the holiday season in Shreveport. It’s not an ideal location, but both teams have to be happy to be in the postseason. The 2011 season did not get off to an ideal beginning for either team, as Butch Davis was fired by North Carolina in late July, while Missouri got off to a 2-3 start. This will be the Tigers’ final game as a member of the Big 12, as they will be joining the SEC for the 2012 season.
20. GoDaddy.com Bowl – Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Arkansas State (10-2) – Jan. 8
This bowl is the last one before the national title. And it’s actually a pretty solid matchup. Both teams averaged over 30 points a game and are led by starpower at quarterback. Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin led the Sun Belt with an average of 320 yards of total offense per game, while Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is averaging 332.6 per game. Expect plenty of points in the appetizer to the big one in New Orleans a day later.
19. Belk Bowl – Louisville (7-5) vs. NC State (7-5) – Dec. 27
A matchup of 7-5 teams usually won’t register on most national radars, but there is some intrigue with this one. Both teams will be bringing a lot of talent back next season and should easily threaten more than seven wins. The Wolfpack won three out of their last four to get to seven wins, while the Cardinals got on track after a 2-4 start. NC State quarterback Mike Glennon will test a Louisville secondary that ranks 61st nationally in stopping the pass.
18. Liberty Bowl – Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3) – Dec. 31
After disappointing 2010 seasons, both teams have to be excited to ring in the New Year in Memphis. The Commodores won only two games last year, while the Bearcats finished with a disappointing 4-8 record. James Franklin has done a terrific job in one season with Vanderbilt, and a win over Cincinnati would give the program its second winning record in the last four years. One aspect to watch over the next couple of weeks will be the health of Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros. He suffered an ankle injury in the Nov. 12 loss to West Virginia and did not play in the final three games. Collaros could return for this game, which would provide a boost for the Cincinnati offense.
17. Sun Bowl – Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Utah (7-5) – Dec. 31
Even though the Utes missed out on a chance to play for the Pac-12 title game, a lot of credit is due to coach Kyle Whittingham. In its first season of Pac-12 play, Utah managed a winning record, despite losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn early in the year to a shoulder injury. This game will be decided in the trenches, as Georgia Tech ranks third nationally in rushing offense, while the Utes rank seventh nationally in rush defense. Utah doesn’t want to get into a shootout, but the Yellow Jackets are averaging 34.9 points a game.
16. Meineke Car Care Bowl – Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6) – Dec. 31
Can the Wildcats snap their bowl drought? Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949 and have lost its last eight postseason trips. Texas A&M has lost its last five bowl contests and with a coaching change, one has to wonder if this team will be motivated for this one. Assuming the Aggies are motivated, this should be an entertaining matchup. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa should light up a Texas A&M secondary that ranked 113th nationally against the pass.
15. Insight Bowl – Iowa (7-5) vs. Oklahoma (9-3) – Dec. 30
Considering the Sooners were picked by many to win the national title this year, landing in the Insight Bowl is definitely a disappointment. Iowa appeared in this game last season, beating Missouri in an entertaining 27-24 contest. An intriguing storyline to this matchup will be Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. He played at Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1979-1982 and this will be his first game on the Sooner sideline against his alma mater. After a disappointing regular season, will Oklahoma be motivated for this bowl game?
14. Holiday Bowl – Texas (7-5) vs. California (7-5) – Dec. 28
2004 may be seven years ago, but has California forgotten? The Golden Bears appeared to be on the way to the Rose Bowl, but some late politicking by Texas coach Mack Brown propelled the Longhorns into that spot. While that might be in the back of the mind for California coach Jeff Tedford, it won’t factor any into this one. Texas is making a slow climb back into Big 12 contention, and will catch a break with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron returning to full health after missing time throughout November. California closed out the year on a high note, winning three out of its last four games.
13. Capital One Bowl – South Carolina (10-2) vs. Nebraska (9-3) – Jan. 2
With both teams struggling on offense at times this year, the Capital One Bowl might not be the most entertaining to watch. The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore to a torn ACL in mid-October, but finished with a 4-1 record the rest of the way. Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten was solid, but fell short of preseason expectations to reach the conference title game. Whichever quarterback gets on track through the air – Connor Shaw (South Carolina) or Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) – will likely be the deciding factor.
12. TicketCity Bowl – Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3) – Jan. 2
It’s rare to see a 9-3 Penn State team fall so far in the Big Ten bowl pecking order, but considering all that has transpired in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were not an attractive team during bowl selections. The Cougars also had quite a fall, losing the Conference USA title game and missing out on a BCS bowl. This matchup will come down to whether or not Penn State running back Silas Redd can get going. If the Nittany Lions can get their rushing attack on track, it will be their best chance to slow down Houston’s wide-open passing attack.
11. Cotton Bowl – Kansas State (10-2) vs. Arkansas (10-2) – Jan. 6
The Wildcats were one of the most surprising teams in college football this year, getting picked near the bottom of the Big 12, but finishing with a 10-2 record and nearly earning a berth in a BCS bowl. The Razorbacks have also had quite a year, but lost to the top two teams in the nation (Alabama and LSU). Kansas State’s secondary ranked 104th nationally in stopping the pass, which is going to be under fire from Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and a deep group of receivers.
10. Las Vegas Bowl – Boise State (11-1) vs. Arizona State (6-6) – Dec. 22
Kellen Moore vs. Vontaze Burfict. What an interesting contrast in personalities. The Broncos just missed out on a BCS bowl, while the Sun Devils will hope to salvage some pride after a disappointing finish to the season. This will be the final game for Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who was fired after the regular season finale against California. Boise State appeared in this game last season, defeating Utah 26-3.
9. Gator Bowl – Florida (6-6) vs. Ohio State (6-6) – Jan. 2
There is no shortage of storylines for this one – even with two 6-6 teams squaring off in Jacksonville. Urban Meyer won’t be coaching in this bowl game, but he will be in the spotlight as he gets ready to take over in Columbus after this game. It’s been a disappointing year for both teams, but the bowl is a chance to at least salvage a winning season.
8. Sugar Bowl – Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2) – Jan. 3
The decision to choose the Hokies over Kansas State or Boise State certainly raised some eyebrows when the bowl schedule was released. Although Virginia Tech’s selection into the game was a surprise, this should be a relatively close matchup. And the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both feature a dynamic, mobile quarterback and defenses that are allowing 17 points a game. Michigan has only played in the Sugar Bowl once (1984), while Virginia Tech is 1-2 in three previous trips.
7. Alamo Bowl – Washington (7-5) vs. Baylor (9-3) – Dec. 29
If you like offense, this game is for you. The Huskies rank 116th nationally against the pass, which is bad news with Baylor and quarterback Robert Griffin averaging 356.2 yards a game through the air. Washington began the year 5-1, but lost four out of its last six games. The Bears were headed in the opposite direction during that stretch, winning their final five games to finish 9-3 overall.
6. Outback Bowl – Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3) – Jan. 2
Conference pride will be on the line on Jan. 2, as the Outback Bowl is one of three matchups featuring the Big Ten against the SEC. The SEC has won the last two games in the Outback Bowl, but on paper, this one looks like a tossup. Both teams are strong on defense, ranking in the top 10 of yards allowed this season. The Bulldogs could benefit the most from the long layoff, as the time off will allow running back Isaiah Crowell to return to 100 percent after an ankle injury late in the year. These two teams met in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, with Georgia winning 24-12.
5. Orange Bowl – Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3) – Jan. 4
The last three Orange Bowl matchups have been short on excitement, but that should change with this one. Clemson-West Virginia was a good draw and a game that should provide plenty of offensive fireworks. The Tigers snapped out of a late-season funk in the ACC title game, defeating Virginia Tech 38-10. The Mountaineers were part of a three-way tie atop the Big East standings, but get the BCS berth due to the higher rank in the BCS standings. If West Virginia’s offensive line can hold up against Clemson’s defensive front, this should be a high-scoring matchup.
4. Champs Sports Bowl – Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4) – Dec. 29
In terms of name value alone, this has to be one of the most intriguing bowls outside of the BCS. Both teams began the year with BCS bowl hopes, but neither matched preseason expectations. Considering there’s a lot of young talent returning at both programs for next season, this could be a springboard to a big 2012. The Seminoles’ defense is one of the best in college football, but will be tested by Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd and running back Cierre Wood. Florida State owns a 4-2 edge over the Irish in previous matchups, including a 31-26 Orange Bowl victory in 1996.
3. Fiesta Bowl – Oklahoma State (11-1) vs. Stanford (11-1) – Jan. 2
The Cowboys are certainly disappointed about missing out on the national title game, but has to be excited about making a BCS bowl for the first time in school history. Stanford is making a return trip to the BCS after demolishing Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game, so the scoreboard operators will be busy. The Cardinal’s secondary has been vulnerable this year, which is bad news against Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon.
2. National Title – LSU (13-0) vs. Alabama (11-1) – Jan. 9
Some may be disappointed with a rematch, but these are the two best teams in college football. The Tigers won 9-6 in overtime in the first meeting, but the last four games in this series are split 2-2. LSU has navigated a difficult schedule outside of winning in Tuscaloosa, including wins over Georgia, West Virginia, Oregon and Arkansas. Will the rematch produce a different result? Expect another close game and one that may be decided on a field goal once again.
1. Rose Bowl – Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (11-2) – Jan. 2
The matchup of Oregon’s speed and hurry-up offense against Wisconsin’s power will be one of the most interesting contrasts of styles of the bowl season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game and rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense, so a high-scoring game can be expected in Pasadena. If the Badgers can control the clock and keep the Ducks high-powered offense on the sideline, they should get revenge for last season’s Rose Bowl loss to TCU.