College Football: December 29th-31st Preview
The final days of 2008 are upon us, which means that there will be a glut of bowl games on television and how much each game means is essentially up to the fan bases involved. Outside of the BCS games, it's usually about one of two goals: a springboard into next season (Florida State most likely will be a favorite in the ACC next year) or a final chance to cap a successful campaign (Louisiana Tech did that tonight with a win in the Independence Bowl). A few of the games on the final three days of this year have the capability to light up the scoreboard, and some will offer a contrast in styles that should make for good television. At the least, "styles make fights". Add in two teams in Missouri and LSU that many thought were national title contenders in August but now find themselves looking to salvage something from the season and you've got three good days of football. Here's the schedule for the 29th-31st.
Monday December 29th
Papajohns.com Bowl: NC State vs. Rutgers (Birmingham), 3 PM on ESPN
Two of the hotter teams in the nation meet in this game, and truth be told without their respective streaks they'd both be home for the holidays. Which program does this game mean more for? On the surface the answer would be the Wolfpack, who make a bowl appearance in Tom O'Brien's second year at the school. But it's not like Rutgers has been world-beaters themselves despite the recent run of success under Greg Schiano. And with seniors such as QB Mike Teel and WR Tiquan Underwood playing their final collegiate game you know they'll be ready.
But the key playmaker on offense for Rutgers is a junior, talented wideout Kenny Britt. With his size and speed he's going to be a tough assignment for the NC State defense. On the other side there's a talented freshman quarterback in Russell Wilson, who grew exponentially as the season progressed. Look for Rutgers to win a close one, but keep in mind that Coach O'Brien is one of the best in all of college football when it comes to bowl preparation (he didn't lose one while leading Boston College).
Valero Alamo Bowl: #21 Missouri vs. #23 Northwestern (San Antonio), 8 PM on ESPN
Both teams enter this game with nine wins, but the feelings surrounding that fact couldn't be further apart. Missouri was expected by many to be a suitable challenger for the best in the Big 12 South when the season began; they still won the North but found themselves walking off the Arrowhead Stadium field as another victim of the powerful Oklahoma offense. Expectations went out of the window following losses to Oklahoma State and Texas, dropping this one-time BCS hopeful to the Alamo Bowl.
Northwestern, on the other hand, was a candidate for six or seven wins when the season began but Pat Fitzgerald was able to squeeze nine out of a team hit hard by injuries to their offense. Another good thing for the Wildcats is the return of senior Tyrell Sutton, who missed most of the season due to a serious wrist injury. Even though those facts would lead many to believe that Northwestern would have the momentum, those Missouri seniors (led by Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and William Moore) are far too proud to lie down in their final game at Mizzou. Tigers win.
Tuesday December 30th
Roady's Humanitarian Bowl: Maryland vs. Nevada (Boise), 4:30 PM on ESPN
Is anyone else wondering whether or not ACC schools relish this road trip? This could be a setup for a non-BCS school taking out the team from a power conference. The Terrapins don't seem to do well in the role of favorite, and many will expect a team led by RB Da'Rel Scott to take care of business. But in Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick they face a playmaker who can get the job done with either his arm or his legs. Across the board Maryland may have more talent, but look for the Wolf Pack to pull off the mild upset.
Pacific Life Holiday Bowl: #13 Oklahoma State vs. #17 Oregon (San Diego), 8 PM on ESPN
Pity the defensive coordinators heading into this game. Both teams are two of the best when it comes to running the football, but the Cowboys are also one of the country's most balanced offenses. QB Zac Robinson and RB Kendall Hunter lead the way for Mike Gundy's team, but don't forget about WR Dez Bryant, TE Brandon Pettigrew or the capable backs who can come off the bench to not only spell Hunter but make things happen themselves. Oregon's got a strong rushing attack, thanks in large part to RB Jeremiah Johnson and a pair of junior college transfers in QB Jeremiah Masoli and RB LaGarrette Blount.
The last time Oregon's offense saw a color scheme similar to the one they face in this game, they went off to the tune of 694 total yards in a beating of rival Oregon State. If the Cowboys can force Masoli to make more plays through the air then they'll win. But if they don't stop the run then the Ducks will make a habit of running up and down the field. A tough game to call, but go with the Cowboys due to the types of offenses that they've already encountered in the Big 12.
Texas Bowl: Western Michigan vs. Rice (Houston), 8 PM on NFL Network
One of the most prolific passing tandems in the history of college football makes its final appearance in this one, with Rice QB Chase Clement and WR Jarrett Dillard putting on the Owl uniform for the final time. But while watching those two, keep an eye on TE James Casey. There's no telling where Casey could end up on the field for any given play, be it offense or defense. WMU comes into this game with a nice passing game combo themselves in QB Tim Hiller and WR Jamarko Simmons, but it doesn't look like they've got enough to keep up with David Bailiff's team on the scoreboard.
Wednesday December 31st
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl: Houston vs. Air Force (Fort Worth), Noon on ESPN
This is one of those "styles make fights" games, with Houston looking to spread the field and air it out with QB Case Keenum while the Falcons will run their option attack. Troy Calhoun's Falcons have done a good job most of the season of not shooting themselves in the foot with costly turnovers and penalties, while the Cougars have put up some massive turnover numbers in their losses. And by massive, I mean five- and six-turnover efforts. Both teams are relatively young, making this game a springboard opportunity into 2009 for the winner. Houston has the explosive ability on offense, but are they stout enough to slow down Air Force on defense? Yes, but only by a field goal.
Brut Sun Bowl: Oregon State vs. #20 Pittsburgh (El Paso), 2 PM on CBS
Two of the best running backs in the nation will be on display here, with Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers and Pitt's LeSean McCoy toting the football. Rodgers was banged up late in the season, missing the second half of their win at Arizona along with the home loss to Oregon. If he's able to have an impact in this game that'll open things up downfield for receivers such as older brother James and the dangerous Sammie Stroughter. As for the Panthers, their quest for a tenth win will depend largely upon the legs of McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, along with some consistency through the air from QB Bill Stull. Look for the Beavers to do just enough to win this football game, although Pitt LB Scott McKillop may be the best performer on the field.
Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl: #24 Boston College vs. Vanderbilt (Nashville), 3:30 PM on ESPN
Essentially a home game for the Commodores, who make their first bowl appearance since 1982. On the other side is a Boston College team that finds itself once again victimized by the fact that they don't travel well when it comes to bowls. But they win games, having won their last nine bowl games (best in college football). QB Dominique Davis, who looked confused in that ACC Championship Game loss to Virginia Tech, has had a few weeks to get used to the role of starter and should play better in this game. And with the Eagles rarely being a team that hands away opportunities to score, this could be a tough day for Vanderbilt. Boston College makes it ten consecutive bowl wins.
Insight Bowl: Kansas vs. Minnesota (Tempe, AZ), 6 PM on NFL Network
The last bowl game for the Minnesota program was the Insight Bowl a few years ago. And after racing out to a big lead over Texas Tech, the Golden Gophers could do nothing other than watch as the Red Raiders pulled off what would be the biggest comeback in bowl history. That game was also the end for Glen Mason in Minneapolis, meaning that this game is also a match of two schools formerly coached by Mason. Tim Brewster has done some phenominal things with the program in just two years, and with a new stadium set to open in the fall this game could catapult Minnesota to new heights in the near future.
Kansas, on the other hand, makes back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history, something that some people have ignored thanks to Mark Mangino taking them to the FedEx Orange Bowl last season. As for this game, what's Minnesota's state of mind? They didn't play well late in the season, and they could be in for a long day should that hangover continue. Look for the Jayhawks to win their second consecutive bowl.
Chick-Fil-A Bowl: LSU vs. #14 Georgia Tech (Atlanta), 7:30 PM on ESPN
When the season began it was Georgia Tech with the major question (Would Paul Johnson's defense work in a BCS league?) and LSU with all the answers thanks to a dominant defense. But as the season progressed the Yellow Jackets became a team that no one wanted to bump into, while the once-feared Tiger defense was at times little more than a speed bump. Can the Tigers stuff an option attack led by backs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones along with QB Josh Nesbitt? Secondly, can an offense rended inept (at times) by poor play under center wake up behind freshman Jordan Jefferson?
LSU still has one of the best offensive lines in the nation, but they'll be tested by a Georgia Tech front four led by senior DE Michael Johnson. And with Yellow Jacket fans outnumbering Tiger fans at this game, the Georgia Dome could become a loud and uncomfortable locale for a team being led by a young quarterback. Georgia Tech will win this game, setting themselves up for another run at the ACC in 2009.