December 17, 2010

Bowl Preview 2010-11: December Bowl Games

Tomorrow is the official start of college football's post season. No, there's nothing quite like the mystique and tradition of the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.

Despite what many of us had been bracing for, Penn State is not featured in this first part of the bowl season preview. Today, we'll give you the quickest rundown of each December bowl game, and whether or not it could be really worth watching. Part 2 will debut closer to January, probably on December 30-31. So stay tuned.


Saturday, December 18
New Mexico Bowl at Albuquerque - 2:00pm, ESPNBYU-9.5UTEP
When bowl opponents combine for 12 wins coming into the game, it's not usually appointment television. But BYU (6-6) is a name brand program, even if they are on the outs this year. Bronco Mendenhall has done a fantastic job in Provo, going 61-27, including four straight 10-win seasons before this year. UTEP (6-6) is back in a bowl game after a 4-year hiatus. Mike Price has kept the Miners competitive during his tenure in El Paso, with a 46-50 record. Since both teams are quite mediocre at doing just about everything this year, it could hinge on things like special teams. Keep an eye on UTEP's punt and kickoff return teams, which are both in the top-25 nationally. Watchability (1-5): 1
Humanitarian Bowl at Boise, ID - 5:30pm, ESPNNorthern Illlinois-3Fresno State
Bowl games before Christmas Eve are tough to watch in any way, but staring at a blue field actually makes my eyes hurt. Northern Illinois (10-3) beat Minnesota and Temple this year, but lost to Illinois, while Fresno State (8-4) beat Illinois, and Cincinnati. Northern Illinois has the No. 7 rush offense in the nation, and a good defense. Fresno doesn't to much very well outside of sacking opposing quarterbacks. Huskies head coach Jerry Kill left last week to take the Minnesota job, but this is a veteran team that shouldn't get distracted. Watchability (1-5): 2
New Orleans Bowl at New Orleans - 9:00pm, ESPNOhio-2.5Troy
Our old pal Frank Solich has done a great job at Ohio, bringing the program up from perennial loser to perennial bowl team. The last six seasons, Solich has brought 40 wins and a MAC title to the Bobcats (8-4). Troy (7-5) is hardly the historical loser, as Larry Blakeney is one of the longest tenured and best overall coaches in major college football (19 years). The Trojans are known for giving BCS teams a tough time, while consistently reaching bowl games. Watchability: 2
Tuesday, December 21
St. Petersburg Bowl at St. Petersburg - 8:00pm, ESPNSouthern Miss-2.5Louisville
Louisville (6-6) squeezed into bowl eligibility by crushing Rutgers in the season finale, while Southern Miss (8-4) is 8 points away from 11-1. The Golden Eagles lost by 1 to East Carolina, 1 in double OT to UAB, and 6 in the season finale to Tulsa. The Cardinals, under former Florida DC Charlie Strong, are gaining back some of the swagger their program had under Bobby Petrino, but aren't there yet. Southern Miss is than its record indicates, but don't count out the Cardinals, who played a tougher schedule. Watchability: 2
Wednesday, December 22
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas at Las Vegas - 8:00pm, ESPNBoise State-15Utah
Everyone will be asking going into this game: Can Boise recover? It will be a difficult challenge for both teams, as Utah has flown under the radar since consecutive losses to Notre Dame then TCU. But the Utes are still 10-2 and a traditional winner in bowl games. Boise State (11-1) was bashed all season long, particularly with pundits pointing to the Broncos' weak schedule. But they do rank in the top 10 nationally in almost every single major defensive and offensive category. Utah has been very good at stopping the run, protecting the QB, and returning punts. This could be fun, provided both teams show up to play. Watchability: 3
Thursday, December 23
Poinsettia Bowl at San Diego - 8:00pm, ESPNSan Diego State-2.5Navy
It's always fun to watch the Navy (9-3) flexbone option in action. But even up against a decent San Diego State (8-4) team, I'll have to have nothing else to do in order to watch this game from start to finish. Aztecs 2nd-year head coach Brady Hoke has been a hot topic this season, taking his team from 4-8 to 8-4. SDSU is a pass-oriented offense, which will offer up a perfect clash of offensive styles in this game. One key to watch is the turnover battle. Navy is good at holding onto the ball, while SDSU has trouble not giving it away. Watchability: 2
Friday, December 24
Hawaii Bowl at Honolulu, 8:00pm, ESPNHawaii-8Tulsa
If you like lots of offense, this could be your best December game to watch. Hawaii (10-3) comes in with its traditional passing attack, naturally rated No. 1 nationally this season. The Rainbow Warriors have quietly reached double-digit wins. Tulsa (9-3) threw itself onto the national scene when it beat Notre Dame in South Bend back in October, even though no one actually knows much else about this team. But what you should know is that the Golden Hurricane is one of the best, definitely most balanced, offense in the nation, with the No. 16 pass and No. 15 rush offenses. The advantage for Hawaii is that Tulsa's defense stinks. Watchability: 2
Sunday, December 26
Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl at Detroit - 8:30pm, ESPNToledo-5FIU
Do I really have to write something about this game? Ugh. Okay, here it goes. Toledo (8-4) is a MAC school, so we Big Ten fans kind of have to care a little bit about what happens here. Plus, this bowl game is actually a Big Ten tie-in, but our conference couldn't fill out the bowl bids this year. The Rockets are also the team that pounded Penn State 24-6 in Beaver Stadium 10 years ago. FIU (6-6) played a ridiculously tough non-conference schedule--Texas A&M, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Rutgers--for a Sun Belt team. Toledo is No. 3 nationally in turnover margin, while FIU couldn't even compile good stat numbers even in the Sun Belt. Watchability: 1
Monday, December 27
Independence Bowl at Shreveport - 5:00pm, ESPNAir Force-2.5Georgia Tech
Think of this bowl game as the polar opposite--offensively, anyway--of the Hawaii bowl. Georgia Tech (6-6) and Air Force (8-4) are both flexbone option teams, which also happen to boast the No. 1 and No. 2 rushing offenses in the FBS(I-A) respectively. Paul Johnson brought his offense over from Navy, where he brought that program incredible success. At Georgia Tech, Johnson is doing it once again, although this year has been a tough season. Yellow Jackets QB Josh Nesbitt was injured for the season in October, but his backup Tevin Washington has stepped in nicely and will start this game. Air Force may have a slight advantage in defense, where the Falcons boast the No. 5 pass D nationally. But that may be due in part to Air Force not being able to stop the run this year. If you like rushing yards, tune in. Watchability: 3
Tuesday, December 28
Champs Sports Bowl at Orlando - 6:30pm, ESPNWest Virginia-4N.C. State
Now we're finally getting into more name-brand programs, even if they're not the best-selling products on the shelves. West Virginia recently announced Bill Stewart will "retire" after the 2011 season, but it shouldn't affect much, because a succession plan is in place. The Mountaineers (9-3) actually have the best overall record in the Big East, but key losses to Syracuse and eventual-champ UConn prevented the league title from coming to Morgantown once again. After years of leaning on the offense to win games, this year it's the defense that's gained national attention. West Virginia's D is No. 3 nationally in total defense, No. 2 in scoring and No. 2 in rush defense. North Carolina State (8-4) is another "shoulda-coulda" team, which was one win away from clinching its ACC division and playing for a BCS bowl. But a late loss to Maryland squashed that. The Wolfpack are great at getting into the backfield, as they are No. 4 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss. As with any Tom O'Brien coached team, NC State has a great quarterback in Russell Wilson. Watchability: 3
Insight Bowl at Tempe - 10:00pm, ESPNMissouri-3Iowa
My how the mighty have fallen. The Hawkeyes came into the season with a roster stacked of potential NFL draft picks, and was labeled as one of the best every under Kirk Ferentz. But Iowa (7-5) pulled off a nice "Wisconsin" this year, stumbling over their lofty expectations. Much of that came from underperforming stars, but things could actually get worse yet. Iowa will be without four of its key players--the top three running backs, and receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who was recently charged with being nothing less than a Walmart for recreational drugs. Mizzou (10-2), on the other hand, has put together another very nice season, surprisingly enough on the back of its phenominal defense. The Tigers are giving up only 15 points per game, and beat Texas A&M and eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma in successive weeks. It all depends on whether Iowa shows any fight in this one. But with Ricky Stanzi being forced to essentially go it alone on offense, the Iowa defense will have to hold Mizzou under 17 points. Watchability: 3
Wednesday, December 29
Military Bowl at Washington, DC - 2:30pm, ESPNMaryland-8East Carolina
You would think one of the military academies would have gotten a berth in the Military Bowl, but whatever. Call me a traditionalist, but I'm drawn to teams like Maryland (8-4) because of their historical ties to Penn State and my unwavering bias towards Northeast football. But for all the good things East Carolina ((7-5) has done the past few seasons, it's tough to get really enthused to watch any non-AQ team that's not a powerhouse like Utah or Boise. Ralph Friedgen has done a great job bringing UMD back from the brink, pulling a 180 in the wins column from last year's 2-10 campaign. Ruffin McNeill at ECU is in his first season, following Skip Holtz's success in Greenville. Watchability: 2
Texas Bowl at Houston - 6:00pm, ESPNBaylor-2Illinois
Baylor is in a bowl game for the first time in 15 years. The Bears' dynamic quarterback, Robert Griffin, III, is finally healthy for a full season. While the defense isn't exactly shutting down anyone with a pulse, Baylor (7-5) isn't giving up the kind of points or yardage it had for so many years. Still, the Bears An interesting note for Penn State fans is that Brian Norwood, former safeties coach and father of Jordan Norwood, is the Bears' first-year defensive coordinator. Illinois (7-5) could have had a very good season, but choked in a season finale loss at Fresno State. The Illini have some very good young players, including QB Nate Scheelhaase and RB Mikel Leshoure, and a decent defense. Ron Zook was on the hot seat going into the season, then it cooled off, but it's warming again. A bowl win would drop a bucket of ice water under his butt. Watchability: 3
Alamo Bowl at San Antonio - 9:15pm, ESPNOklahoma State-7Arizona
Thursday, December 30
Armed Forces Bowl at Dallas - 12:00pm, ESPNSMU-7.5Army
I wonder how many times ESPN will plug their own '30 for 30' film Pony Exce$$ during this game. Both of these teams had spent years away from the bowl scene, but SMU (7-6) did grab its first bowl appearance and win since the 1984 Aloha Bowl. June Jones arrived a few years ago to revamp the SMU program, bringing his pass attack used so well at Hawaii. Army (6-6), believe it or not, has gone to more bowl games in that span, with its last berth in 1996. The Black Knights enjoyed success all those years by playing typical military academy football--run the option, hold onto the ball--until new coaches tried to install pro-style games. It didn't work. But now with Rich Ellerson's option offense, Army is 10th nationally rushing the ball, and back in a bowl game. The differences in offensive styles could be interesting to watch. Watchability: 2
Pinstripe Bowl at Bronx - 3:20pm, ESPNKansas State-2.5Syracuse
There could be snow on the sidelines, and bundled fans in the stands. But this bowl game in Yankee Stadium is what it is... a bowl game. At least there are two brand-name teams going up against each other, even if they're not all that great this season. Syracuse (7-5) is still in the rebuilding process, but is in its first bowl since 2004. Doug Marone is a "Syracuse Man" who is offensive-minded, but started this job with a great defense. That D is now 5th nationally in total yardage allowed per game. Kansas State (7-5) is back under the guidance of Bill Snyder, who took a few years off before returning in 2008. Since first taking the job in 1989, Snyder built this program from the worst to one of the best. The problem for KSU is that their rush defense is 118th nationally, and that's no way to win a bowl game against any team. Watchability: 2
Music City Bowl at Nashville -6:40, ESPNNorth Carolina-1Tennessee
North Carolina was one of the hot teams coming into this season. With so many NFL draft picks on defense, and a good enough offense, some were even talking national title run for the Tar Heels. But with the big agent scandal and other problems, many of the best players were suspended for chunks of the season. North Carolina (7-5) lost three games by a touchdown or less, but won a few more by the same kind of margin. The Tar Heels are pretty good passing the ball, and still decent on defense, but Butch Davis doesn't have the kind of team he's spent the last few years building. Tennessee (6-6) started a terrible 2-6 under new head coach Derek Dooley, but strung together four wins to close out the regular season for a bowl berth. This is still a very bad Vols team, with the 70th total defense and 61st total offense in the nation. This could end up being a very sloppy bowl game, but it still has--as you'll hear a lot more in these previews--two name brand programs, which always attract more viewers. Watchability: 2
Holiday Bowl at San Diego - 10:00pm, ESPNNebraska-14Washington
This one won't be pretty. In fact, it's a flat out travesty. Why? Because these two teams already played this year, and the Huskers absolutely demolished the Huskies, 56-21. Nebraska (10-3) is a few first downs away from playing in the Fiesta Bowl as Big 12 champs, and boast a top-10 scoring defense, pass defense, and rush offense. Bo Pelini has done a fantastic job bringing the Huskers back to the national elite, even though his team hasn't won any titles under his guidance. Nebraska only lost to Texas and Texas A&M before choking away the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma. Washington (6-6) barely squeaked by Oregon State and USC, preventing a 1-8 start to the season. One-time Heisman contender Jake Locker has fallen off the map, as have the Huskies as a team. It's a good step to get UW back to the bowl scene, but Steve Sarkesian has a lot more work ahead of him. Watchability: 2
Friday, December 31
Meineke Car Care Bowl at Charlotte - 12:00pm, ESPN Clemson-4.5USF
This bowl game will feature two of the better defensive football teams this season, but also two of the worst offenses in the game. Remember the 2008 Sun Bowl? Yeah. This one feels like it could rival that epic display of offensive ineptitude. Clemson (6-6) can at least go into this game relying on a stout defense, 9th nationally in scoring D, and a very good special teams unit that ranks in the top-30 overall. In a game where every point must be earned, special teams are critical. South Florida (7-5) was a defensive stop of UConn short of keeping the Huskies out of the Fiesta Bowl, and propelling the Bulls to a solid 2nd-place finish in the Big East. Sophomore QB B.J. Daniels is good, but inconsistent, and lacks a great supporting cast But Skip Holtz has done a pretty good job in year 1 of his tenure at USF. Watchability: 3
Sun Bowl at El Paso - 2:00pm, CBS Miami (Fla.)-3Notre Dame
Let's get this out of the way: Catholics vs Convicts. Okay, there, I said it. Let's move on. Miami (7-5) just fired Canes-alum Randy Shannon, replacing him with Temple's Al Golden. Golden won't coach this bowl game, however, as offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will be the interim coach. The Canes are still a very talented football team, particularly on defense. Miami ranks 1st nationally in tackles for loss, 6th in sacks, and 2nd in pass defense. Notre Dame (7-5) has been surprisingly good on defense this season, though it's not nearly an elite unit. The Fighting Irish were streaky most of the season, winning a few, losing a few. But they were at least able to get the USC monkey of their backs, with the 20-16 win in Los Angeles. First year head coach Brian Kelly wasn't used to losing, after incrdibly successful tenures at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. But he's been able to perk up the program a bit, as have the last few coaches in South Bend. Watchability: 3
Liberty Bowl at Memphis, 3:30pm, ESPNGeorgia-6UCF
The Georgia Bulldogs were left for dead my almost everyone around college football. Sitting at 1-5, UGA was coming off a loss to a bad Colorado team, and many were questioning whether it was time for Mark Richt to hit the road. Well, a blowout over Tennessee and four more wins later, here they are. Georgia (6-6) isn't exactly a good football team, but it was able to get hot at the right time. There is a great core of young players to keep building around, specifically RB Washaun Ealey and QB Aaron Murray. Central Florida (10-3) is the C-USA champion, with a strong focus on running and stopping the run. Special teams have also been big, as the Knights are No. 1 in the nation in kickoff returns. Though the records look very different, this could be a very good game to watch. Watchability: 3
Chick-fil-A Bowl at Atlanta, 7:30pm, ESPNSouth Carolina-2.5Florida State
As the New Years Eve parties really start to kick into gear, you can take comfort that there's still football to watch. This time, though, the teams are much better than anything we've seen so far in the December bowl lineup. South Carolina (9-4) was a fun team to follow this season, mostly because of probably the best true freshman performance in decades, from RB Marcus Lattimore. The guy was literally the entire running game for the Gamecocks, while QB Stephen Garcia was expected to just not make mistakes. "The Other" USC won the SEC East, beating everyone except for Kentucky, when Lattimore went down with injury. Steve Spurrier may have brought his team very close to winning that elusive title this year, but with many key components coming back, 2011 could be even bigger for the Ol' Ball Coach. But Florida State, with its new ball coach, Jimbo Fisher, has come on strong this year. Not yet quite efficient or consistent enough to be considered "back", the Noles are definitely on the right track. FSU is No. 2 nationally in sacks, 17th in tackles for loss. QB Christian Ponder, when focused, can be really entertaining to watch. For both of these programs, this bowl game equates to a huge springboard into the next football season. Watchability: 4

Remember to stay tuned for Part 2 in two weeks.

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