Sigh. I wish I was writing a preview of the first round of the NCAA Division I-A Football Tournament instead of this. But we make do with what we've got. Let's go bowling!
Saturday, December 20
EagleBank Bowl: Navy (8-4) vs. Wake Forest (7-5), 11:00 AM, ESPN
Wake arrives in Washington D.C. equipped with the country's top linebacker in Butkus winner Aaron Curry and memories of a turnover-plagued September loss to the Midshipmen. Riley Skinner threw four of his seven interceptions on the season in that one game, part of a six-turnover nightmare for the Deacons. Wake has the superior athletes, and if they take care of the ball- which they usually do- the Deacons should be able to overcome Navy's tricky option attack.
Prediction: Wake Forest 24, Navy 13
New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State (7-5) vs. Colorado State (6-6), 2:30 PM, ESPN
Albuquerque is a lovely town, but Pat Hill's Bulldogs probably had other destinations in mind than this back in August when they were dark-horse candidates to crack the BCS. CSU will take whatever it can get in Steve Fairchild's first season in Fort Collins. Fresno is coming into this game off the wipeout on the blue turf of Boise in the season finale, while the Rams have won their last two. Fresno is probably the better football team, but I'm going with the warm hand.
Prediction: Colorado State 27, Fresno State 17
St. Petersburg Bowl: South Florida (7-5) vs. Memphis (6-6), 4:30 PM, ESPN2
South Florida performed its usual implosion after climbing into the Top 10, while Memphis came back somewhat strongly from a 0-3 start. The Bulls ought to have home-field advantage in Tropicana, not far from their Tampa campus. Memphis wasn't good enough to beat Louisville at home, and probably isn't good enough to beat USF on the road, so...
Prediction: South Florida 28, Memphis 10
Las Vegas Bowl: BYU (10-2) vs. Arizona (7-5), 8:00 PM, ESPN
Brigham Young is making its fourth straight trip to the Vegas Bowl, and after heady and ultimately unrealized preseason aspirations, the destination might be a little stale. The Wildcats are feeling pretty good about themselves after handling Arizona State in the season finale and clinching their first winning record and bowl appearance since 1998. The Mountain West dominated the Pac-10 this season, but the bowl season is a little different from the regular season. The mood of a team matters more. Arizona is presumably happy to be there. BYU? Not so sure.
Prediction: Arizona 37, BYU 31
Sunday, December 21
New Orleans Bowl: Troy (8-4) vs. Southern Mississippi (6-6), 8:15 PM, ESPN
The speedy Trojans took down their third straight Sun Belt title and, as usual, played maybe the toughest non-conference road schedule in the country. They won't be intimidated by a Southern Miss team that got off to a woeful 2-6 start and scrambled to save .500, a bowl bid, and a little breathing room for first-year coach Larry Fedora. New Orleans is only a two-hour drive from the Southern Miss campus in Hattiesburg, so the Golden Eagles will "bring heads" as they say.
Prediction: Troy 38, Southern Miss 28
Tuesday, December 23
Poinsettia Bowl: Boise State (12-0) vs. TCU (10-2), 8:00 PM, ESPN
Boise partisans might be a little disgruntled by the BCS selecting twice-beaten Ohio State over their pristine Broncos, but they'll have as much as they want in terms of competition when their team meets the Horned Frogs in the marquee match-up of the pre-Christmas bowl season. TCU is second in the nation in scoring defense, first in rushing defense, and ninth in passing defense. It isn't easy to do anything against them. Boise has a lot to gain here- respect for the WAC nationally, resume-filler for future BCS bids, and a showcase in their favorite recruiting haunt, southern California. But this is the best defense the Broncos have faced all season.
Prediction: TCU 27, Boise State 21
Wednesday, December 24
Hawaii Bowl: Hawaii (7-5) vs. Notre Dame (6-6), 8:00 PM, ESPN
Notre Dame's late collapse dropped them into a match-up with in all likelihood the weakest bowl opponent in the history of the program. Hawaii has had its problems in 2008, but the Warriors are a different animal at home on the islands, going 5-2 with the support of their hostile fans and benevolent officials. The Irish have a lot to gain- a winning record for 2008, their first postseason win since the 1994 Cotton Bowl, and some much-needed momentum going into next season. They'll be on the road, but they'll have the superior talent on the field, especially on defense. Notre Dame sure could use a running game here, and they may be in luck- Hawaii is 73rd in the nation in rushing defense, and that's against a schedule that included three teams in the bottom eight in rushing offense.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Hawaii 17
Friday, December 26
Motor City Bowl: Central Michigan vs. Florida Atlantic, 7:30 PM, ESPN
A duel between two pedigreed quarterbacks highlights this otherwise blah match-up of also-rans between the FBS's JV conferences. CMU's Dan LeFevour threw for 2,531 yards, ran for 536 more, and accounted for 25 touchdowns, while FAU's Rusty Smith struggled after a big 2007 season. Each of the two quarterbacks has led his school to the lone bowl victories in its respective history. Central Michigan played a Sun Belt team- Middle Tennessee State- in the 2006 Motor City Bowl and won 31-14. When last heard from, venerable Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger's mouth was writing checks his team couldn't cash against Texas.
Prediction: Central Michigan 41, Florida Atlantic 24
Saturday, December 27
Meineke Car Care Bowl: North Carolina (8-4) vs. West Virginia (8-4), 1:00 PM, ESPN
The Tarheels progressed nicely under Butch Davis in 2008, while the Mountaineers regressed under Bill Stewart. Despite perhaps not being where they want to be this bowl season, WVU should come out ready in Pat White's final collegiate game. Playing close to home, Carolina can use a bowl win as a springboard into 2009, when they might be favored to take down the ACC Championship. The Butcher was 4-0 in bowl games as the HMFIC at Miami, not that it means anything in particular.
Prediction: North Carolina 24, West Virginia 17
Champs Sports Bowl: Florida State (8-4) vs. Wisconsin (7-5), 4:30 PM, ESPN
The Seminoles performed a little above expectations and stayed in contention for the ACC Atlantic Division crown until the final week. Wisconsin underachieved, losing four straight in mid-season, and had to escape with a lucky win over FCS member Cal-Poly just to finish over .500. The Badgers are traditionally strong in bowl games and as usual were one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten this season. Can FSU avoid its usual spate of suspensions and field a full roster for this one? We shall see.
Prediction: Florida State 20, Wisconsin 16
Emerald Bowl: California (8-4) vs. Miami (7-5), 8:00 PM, ESPN
Not only are the Hurricanes playing 3,000 miles from home, they've brought their occasionally ragged rushing defense with them, not a good thing when facing the home-standing Golden Bears and 1,394-yard rusher Jahvid Best on what could be a muddy track at Pac Bell Park. Cal will also bring the more experienced quarterback in Kevin Riley, while Miami goes with true freshman Robert Marve. Advantage: Bears.
Prediction: California 27, Miami 7
Sunday, December 28
Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (6-6), 8:15 PM, ESPN
Left in the lurch after the SEC and Big 12 went skimpy on bowl-eligible teams, the Independence Bowl had to scramble and wound up with the most unappealing match-up of the entire bowl season. Louisiana Tech started Sly Croom on the way out of Starkville and finished with its first winning record since 2005. Northern Illinois got off to a 5-3 start but skidded down the stretch, losing three of its last four. Playing an hour away from their campus in Ruston, the Bulldogs will be the de facto home team.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, Northern Illinois 7
Monday, December 29
Papajohns.com Bowl: Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina State (6-6), 3:00 PM, ESPN
The Scarlet Knights and Wolfpack will carry six-and-four-game winning streaks, respectively into crumbling Legion Field in Birmingham, and both will have a chance to put a positive stamp on unexpectedly gratifying seasons. Both have done it with defense and fine quarterback play, Rutgers behind much-maligned senior Mike Teel and N.C. State behind freshman Russell Wilson, who has thrown one interception in 252 attempts this season. Teel's performance will be the difference, one way or another. When he's on, he's on. When he's off- cut your eyes.
Prediction: Rutgers 31, North Carolina State 24
Alamo Bowl: Missouri (9-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3), 8:00 PM, ESPN
Like Kansas State in '98, Mizzou dreamed of championships but woke up in San Antonio against a lackluster Big Ten opponent. If the Tigers can avoid the mental letdown that proved fatal to Bill Snyder's team, they should put up a number on Northwestern, which is 0-5 in bowl games since the Gary Barnett era, giving up an average of nearly 45 points per game. The last time the Wildcats made the trip to San Antonio, in 2000, they were waxed 66-17 by Eric Crouch and Nebraska. I wanted to see Iowa-Mizzou in this one, but no one from the Alamo Bowl called to get my opinion.
Prediction: Missouri 49, Northwestern 26
Tuesday, December 30
Humanitarian Bowl: Nevada (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5), 4:30 PM, ESPN
The folks in Boise couldn't keep the Broncos at home, but they did nab Chris Ault's Wolfpack, who gave a pretty good account of themselves against Miami in this game two years ago. Nevada's Pistol attack is second in the nation in rushing and could present problems for Maryland, which was in a position to win the ACC Atlantic before an awful home loss to Florida State. The Terps beat Cal and lost to Middle Tennessee State- you just don't know which version will show up. This is the last Humanitarian Bowl to feature an ACC team; the game will tie in with the more geographically convenient Mountain West Conference starting next season.
Prediction: Maryland 30, Nevada 24
Texas Bowl: Rice (9-3) vs. Western Michigan (9-3), 8:00 PM, NFL Network
Playing close to home in Reliant Stadium, Rice comes armed with duel-threat quarterback Chase Clement and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Western Michigan has its own top-flight passer in Orrville's Tim Hiller and plenty of experience against good quarterbacks, having faced Joe Ganz, Dan LeFevour, Juice Williams and Nate Davis among others this year. Rice will be looking for its first bowl win since 1954, while Western has never won a bowl game. We should see plenty of scoring (actually, the game is on NFL Network, meaning few will see it at all), but the Owls have the home-field, and that gives them the edge.
Prediction: Rice 45, Western Michigan 30
Holiday Bowl: Oregon (9-3) vs. Oklahoma State (9-3), 8:00 PM, ESPN
The Cowboys make their first trip to the Holiday Bowl since Barry tore up Wyoming in 1988, and they'll be going for their first ten-win season since that same year, back when coach Mike Gundy was Oklahoma State's starting quarterback. Both teams are in the top seven nationally in rushing offense. Both played Washington State: the Ducks drilled the Cougars 63-14 in Pullman, while the Cowboys beat them by a relatively mundane 39-13 in the opener in Seattle. This is almost a pick ‘em, but it'll be interesting to see Oregon's mental state out of the chute. The Ducks are coming off a big emotional win over Oregon State in the Civil War, in Corvallis, and probably won't be as "up" for this one.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 39, Oregon 34
Wednesday, December 31
Armed Forces Bowl: Houston (7-5) vs. Air Force (8-4), 12:00 PM, ESPN
It'll be a study in contrasting offenses: Air Force's rushing attack, fifth nationally, against Houston's second-rated passing attack. The Cougars have already lost to the Academy this season, but that was a strange case- the game, played on September 13, was moved to SMU's Gerald Ford Stadium to avoid Hurricane Ike and played in rainy, gusty conditions. Air Force ran the ball 71 times and didn't complete a pass. Houston's Case Keenum threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns in that game, and probably won't be encumbered by gale-force winds this time.
Prediction: Houston 41, Air Force 21
Sun Bowl: Oregon State (8-4) vs. Pittsburgh (9-3), 2:00 PM, CBS
The Panthers and Beavers arrive tasting various degrees of bittersweet. Both teams finished one game short of a conference championship, but the sting of Oregon State's failure is more acute: needing only a win in the Civil War to clinch the program's first Rose Bowl bid since 1965, the Beavers were embarrassed at home in Reser Stadium and wound up in El Paso for the second time in three seasons. The vibes at Pitt are positive with the Panthers bowling for the first time in the Wann-stache era and bouncing back nicely from the opening-day disaster against Bowling Green. OrSU will have Jacquizz Rodgers back for the bowl game and the canny Mike Riley always has his teams prepared in December. The Rodgers-LeShon McCoy running-back duel should be a treat.
Prediction: Oregon State 31, Pittsburgh 28
Music City Bowl: Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. Boston College (9-4), 3:30 PM, ESPN
The Commodores are at home in Nashville in their first bowl since 1982, and they'll keep a punch-less offense and six losses in seven games with them. Boston College will arrive in town with an excellent defense, an eight-game bowl winning streak, and an ornery frame of mind from having been whipped by Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. It's nice to see Vanderbilt in a bowl, but hard to see them making much headway in this one.
Prediction: Boston College 23, Vanderbilt 3
Insight Bowl: Kansas (7-5) vs. Minnesota (7-5), 5:30 PM, NFL Network
Both teams will head west for this game, but they'll get there by different paths. Kansas struggled at times coming off their 12-1 season of '07, but got a big win in the Border War with Missouri to salvage a successful campaign. Minnesota started out 7-1 but collapsed down the stretch with four straight losses, including a 55-0 scorching by Iowa in the final game at the Metrodome. The Gophers lived off opponents' mistakes this year, and when the well ran dry on those, they were exposed as a team with marginal talent, one year removed from going 1-11. Todd Reesing and the Jayhawks should roll.
Prediction: Kansas 38, Minnesota 17
Chick-fil-A Bowl: Georgia Tech (9-3) vs. Louisiana State (7-5), 7:30 PM, ESPN
Paul Johnson had a terrific first season in Atlanta, transitioning the Artists Formerly Known as the Engineers to his triple-option without a hitch, beating Georgia for the first time since 2000, and putting the program in position to win ten games for the first time since 1998. LSU struggled mightily off their MNC from a year ago, finishing with a losing record in the SEC. The Bayou Bengals looked increasingly worse as the season went on, flat-lined in November, and will have to face a hot Tech team playing in its own backyard. Coach Johnson's funky offense isn't exactly a balm for an LSU defense that has had all sorts of trouble stopping people this season.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 34, LSU 21
I'll have my picks for the January 1st-and-beyond bowls sometime close to New Year's Eve. Be happy, safe and festive this season, and enjoy the bowls.