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The bowls from 34 to 1: How we rank the matchups

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It seems like yesterday that we were debating those darned BCS standings (actually, it was yesterday, and we'll probably be debating them tomorrow, too), but now it's time to the turn the page and turn on the TV.

College football bowl season gets under way Saturday.

With a record 34 bowls on the calendar, there's something for everyone — and for almost every team. Sixty-eight of the 119 major college teams were invited to the postseason, leaving out only three teams (Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Bowling Green) that won the required six games for bowl eligibility.

Get ready to see plenty of Atlantic Coast Conference teams — 10 are playing in the postseason — and it's not even March Madness yet.

Get ready to see Vanderbilt in a bowl for the first time since 1982.

Get ready for six non-BCS bowls pitting two Top 25 teams. That includes the TCU vs. Boise State matchup in a Poinsettia Bowl that might be dubbed the non-BCS championship game.

Get ready to see Florida State in a bowl for the 27th consecutive year, the longest active streak. (Michigan, meanwhile, stays home for the first time in 33 seasons.)

Get ready for the final Cotton Bowl at the venerable state fairgrounds in Dallas.

Those are just a few of the storylines. Want more?

We rank the bowls from the worst to the best today

— John Bridges and Kevin Lyttle

34. Independence Bowl

Dec. 28; Shreveport, La.

Northern Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

This was supposed to be a Big 12 vs. SEC matchup. Instead they couldn't even get a MAC team with a winning record. The Huskies are 6-6. At least Louisiana Tech will fill some seats. But what an ugly matchup. The Weed Eater Bowl resurrected.

33. Motor City Bowl

Dec. 26; Detroit

Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan

The Big Three automakers may get their bailout, but there's no saving this lemon. At least Chippewas quarterback Dan LeFevour is worth watching for a few minutes before organizing your bad Christmas ties.

32. New Mexico Bowl

Dec. 20; Albuquerque

Fresno State vs. Colorado State

When Bulldogs coach Pat Hill declared, "anybody, any time, any place,'' with his take-on-all-comers approach, he probably didn't have the 6-6 Rams in mind.

31. New Orleans Bowl

Dec. 21

Troy vs. Southern Miss

There is at least some fascination with seeing a Trojans team that was good enough to build a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead at LSU — and bad enough to blow every bit of it. Their opponents, the Golden Eagles, have won four straight.

30. St. Petersburg Bowl

Dec. 20

South Florida vs. Memphis

The curiosity factor is playing the first college football game at Tropicana Field . Organizers have some concern about punts hitting one of four catwalks that circle above the playing field. There's no infield-fly rule in football.

29. Humanitarian Bowl

Dec. 30; Boise, Idaho

Maryland vs. Nevada

While the home team, Boise State, was leased out to a better bowl, the Terrapins are talking about how much fun they'll have frolicking in the snow. The Wolf Pack has a couple of hidden gems: Western Athletic Conference offensive player of the year QB Colin Kaepernick and WAC rushing champ Vai Taua.

28. Liberty Bowl

Jan. 2; Memphis, Tenn.

East Carolina vs. Kentucky

Give it up for the Pirates, who went 9-4 and won Conference USA for the first time. And they did it without Chris Johnson, the Tennessee Titans rookie running sensation.

27. International Bowl

Jan. 3; Toronto

Connecticut vs. Buffalo

Turner Gill, recently spurned by Auburn, sparked an amazing turnaround with the Bulls, who won their first MAC title. Here he runs into the national rushing champ, Donald Brown, who averaged 152 yards for the Huskies.

26. PapaJohns.com Bowl

Dec. 29; Birmingham, Ala.

Rutgers vs. North Carolina State

The records don't look like much — the Scarlet Knights are 7-5, the Wolfpack 6-6 — but at this moment Rutgers is probably the second-best team in the Big East and N.C. State might be playing better than anyone in the ACC. N.C. State was 2-6 and presumed dead until catching fire. Rutgers was 1-5, then went 6-1.

25. Music City Bowl

Dec. 31; Nashville, Tenn.

Boston College vs. Vanderbilt

The attraction here is the hometown team, the Commodores, playing in their first bowl game in 26 years. After a 5-0 start, they almost didn't make it, winning just one of their last seven games. The 9-4 Eagles face a major motivational challenge after losing the ACC title game.

24. EagleBank Bowl

Dec. 20; Washington D.C.

Navy vs. Wake Forest

Hat's off to Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo for going 8-4 and preventing any slippage once mastermind Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech. Gotta love the old-school Middies, who average fewer than four completions a game. The Demon Deacs offer not one, but two All-American defenders: CB Alphonso Smith (20 career picks) and LB Aaron Curry.

23. Texas Bowl

Dec. 30; Houston

Rice vs. Western Michigan

Hey, at least it's a matchup of 9-3 teams. Not many bowls can top that. The Owls are fun to watch, with Chase Clement throwing to Jarrett Dillard, who has an NCAA-record 59 career touchdown receptions. Plus, there's always the M.O.B. to entertain at halftime.

22. Hawaii Bowl

Dec. 24; Honolulu

Notre Dame vs. Hawaii

Ho, ho, ho: The 6-6 Irish get back to a bowl after their 3-9 disaster of '07, but it's a low-rent one on Christmas Eve. Look at the bright side: Charlie Weis could double as Santa Claus! The thought of Notre Dame losing to the hosts — and this is not a good Hawaii team — to fall back under .500 again is amusing. And it gives this game some added interest.

21. Insight Bowl

Dec. 31; Tempe, Ariz.

Kansas vs. Minnesota

The Golden Gophers offer the nice storyline of going from 1-11 to 7-5 in former Texas assistant Tim Brewster's second season. But they faded badly down the stretch. It's always a treat watching diminutive Jayhawks QB Todd Reesing (a Lake Travis product) drive opposing defenses crazy.

20. Outback Bowl

Jan. 1; Tampa, Fla.

Iowa vs. South Carolina

In a Big Ten loaded with excellent running backs, the Hawkeyes' Shonn Greene topped them all, leading the league in rushing and ripping off 100-plus yards in every game. He's a first-team All-American. Kirk Ferentz needed that 8-4 bounceback year. Meanwhile, Steve Spurrier must be mortified watching his collection of ragtag QBs try to throw a pass to the right team.

19. Armed Forces Bowl

Dec. 31; Fort Worth

Air Force vs. Houston

Interesting contrast of the Cougars' full-throttle attack vs. the Falcons' option ground game. Houston leads the nation in total offense at 575 yards per game and hung up 40 or more points in seven of their last eight games. Case Keenum of Houston is the No. 1 quarterback in total offense. This, folks, should be a track meet.

18. Gator Bowl

Jan. 1; Jacksonville, Fla.

Nebraska vs. Clemson

Bo Pelini made strides with the Cornhuskers in year one. The defense went from wretched to mediocre. The offense is nearly prolific, ringing up 40-plus in its last three games. Joe Ganz, a complete afterthought among Big 12 QBs, threw for 3,332 yards and 23 TDs. The Tigers have way more talent than their 7-5 record, starting with the backfield of Thunder (James Davis) and Lightning (C.J. Spiller).

17. Champs Sports Bowl

Dec. 27; Orlando, Fla.

Florida State vs. Wisconsin

These two are accustomed to playing on New Year's Day, although not so much the Seminoles anymore. However, FSU does own the nation's longest bowl streak — 27 in a row. The Badgers will try to plow over the 'Noles with the one-two running punch of P.J. Hill (1,021 yards, 13 TDs) and John Clay (845, 9).

16. Emerald Bowl

Dec. 27; San Francisco

California vs. Miami

Golden Bears running back Jahvid Best romped for a school-record 311 yards in his last game, and he'll be going up against a defense that was pierced for 472 yards rushing by Georgia Tech. Randy Shannon has recruited up a storm with the Hurricanes, but now he's got to coach 'em up. There's no way they should be 7-5 in the soft ACC.

15. Las Vegas Bowl

Dec. 20

17-BYU vs. Arizona

This could be a deceptively good matchup in Sin City. The Cougars are 10-2, the Wildcats just 7-5. But Arizona scores a ton of points (36.7 per game) and will counter BYU's prolific passing attack with an excellent secondary. Max Hall and BYU throw for 310 yards per game. Arizona's Willie Tuitama can light it up, as well. Expect a shootout.

14. GMAC Bowl

Jan. 6; Mobile, Ala.

23-Ball State vs. Tulsa

We normally trash these post-New Year's minor bowls stuck in the middle of BCS week, but this one merits some attention. The 12-1 Cardinals vs. the 10-3 Golden Hurricane. And they'll wear out the light bulbs on the stadium scoreboard. Ball State's Nate Davis vs. Tulsa's David Johnson is the poor man's version of Sam Bradford vs. Tim Tebow.

13. Meineke Bowl

Dec. 27; Charlotte, N.C.

West Virginia vs. North Carolina

Trivia: Which minor bowl draws more fans than any other? Bingo. For the third time in its seven-year existence, the car care bowl has peddled all 73,000 seats. So there is a great atmosphere. But the main reason we gave this bowl a boost is the farewell of Mountaineers QB Pat White. The slithery one has had a brilliant career. We'll see what Butch Davis can scheme up to stop him.

12. Alamo Bowl

Dec. 29; San Antonio

25-Missouri vs. 22-Northwestern

Speaking of send-offs, Chase Daniel gets one here, back in his home state. The senior from Southlake Carroll took Mizzou to back-to-back Big 12 title games. It's also the finale for pass-catching machine TE Chase Coffman and perhaps for WR Jeremy Maclin, too. Both receivers were first-team All-Americans. The Wildcats can match 9-3 records with the Tigers, but they lack the sizzling offensive cache.

11. Sun Bowl

Dec. 31; El Paso

18-Pittsburgh vs. 24-Oregon State

The folks in El Paso did well to get teams with a 17-7 combined record and a pair of spectacular running backs. The Panthers' LeSean McCoy, who plays big in big games, has quite a burst. The Beavers' Jacquizz Rodgers, though, has got to be the most exciting back in the country. The 5-8 dynamo from Rosenberg, who won the Pac-10 rushing title, was impossible for even USC to stop.

10. Orange Bowl

Jan. 1; Miami

12-Cincinnati vs. 21-Virginia Tech

Only our rule of thumb that all BCS games must at least make our top 10 keeps this one up there. It is Exhibit A of why leagues should not be guaranteed BCS bids. At least the 11-2 Bearcats are a nice story, especially with QB Tony Pike picking apart secondaries while playing with a broken left forearm. But the 9-4 Hokies? Even their dedicated legions of fans are tired of traveling.

9. Peach Bowl

Dec. 31; Atlanta

14-Georgia Tech vs. LSU

We've adopted the Yellow Jackets and their old-style option attack as our favorite team to watch, which bumps this bowl's rating way up. Come on, how cool is it that somebody from a BCS league is going all Jamelle Holloway on us in the year 2008? And succeeding. Meanwhile, LSU's mighty tumble from national champ to 7-5 still has us wanting to take a peek ... like you would at a train wreck.

8. Capital One Bowl

Jan. 1; Orlando, Fla.

19-Michigan State vs. 16-Georgia

Knowshon Moreno, meet Javon Ringer. Moreno may have the size, speed and burst that the NFL likes better, but Ringer is the more productive workhorse. The Spartans' back is No. 3 in the nation with 135 yards rushing per game and 21 touchdowns. Moreno, of course, has a lot more help, with Matthew Stafford throwing to Mohamed Massaquoi and A.J. Green. This is almost assuredly Stafford's last college game in a pairing of 9-3 teams.

7. Holiday Bowl

Dec. 30; San Diego

13-Oklahoma State vs. 15-Oregon

The 9-3 Cowboys are the most dangerously balanced team in the country. They rush for 255 yards and pass for 235 yards. QB Zac Robinson, RB Kendall Hunter and WR Dez Bryant (first team All-America) can move on even the best defenses. The 9-3 Ducks are No. 4 in rushing (and they're from the Pac-10?) at nearly 280 yards per game. Do you get the idea neither of these defenses will be pitching a shutout? Of course, it's the Holiday Bowl.

6. Cotton Bowl

Jan. 2; Dallas

8-Texas Tech vs. 20-Mississippi

It's a shame Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and the chief pirate couldn't take their high-wire act to a BCS bowl. But they had better not take Ole Miss lightly. The red-hot Rebels closed on a five-game winning streak. Houston Nutt earned a second straight Cotton bid with a second school, but this time he actually gets to coach the game. Last year at Arkansas he resigned before the game. Stephenville product and Longhorn transfer Jevan Snead returns to his home state as the Rebels' QB. Sentimental bonus points because this also is the last Cotton Bowl in the 1930s-vintage stadium.

5. Sugar Bowl

Jan. 2; New Orleans

4-Alabama vs. 7-Utah

The unbeaten Utes become the first team from a non-BCS conference to crash the big-money bowls a second time. Utah finished undefeated in 2004 and won the Fiesta. But can a 12-0 Mountain West team hang with a 12-1 SEC giant that came thisclose to playing in the national title game? Hawaii couldn't stand up to Georgia last year. The one dazzling offensive performer in this game will be Bama wideout Julio Jones.

4. Poinsettia Bowl

Dec. 23; San Diego

9-Boise State vs. 11-TCU

This is the marquee matchup before New Year's Day. "We wanted to go to the BCS, but I believe this is the best bowl game there is outside the BCS," Boise State receiver Vinny Perretta said. The Broncos are 12-0. The 10-2 Horned Frogs haven't played in a bowl with two teams combining for a ranking this high since the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl, when No. 11 Clemson defeated No. 7 TCU 23-7.

3. Fiesta Bowl

Jan. 5; Glendale, Ariz.

3-Texas vs. 10-Ohio State

This isn't where the Longhorns wanted to be (their lobbying effort for a trip to Miami came up 0.181 short), and it's where Ohio State always seems to be (Buckeyes have made a bowl trip to Phoenix four times in six years). It's Big 12 offensive dazzle vs. Big Ten defensive brawn. The Bucks and Horns have played just twice in their illustrious histories, splitting their games in 2005 (when Texas won in Columbus) and 2006 (when Ohio State won in Austin). Each team used those victories to catapult into the national title game. Now, they'll settle their 1-1 tie on a neutral field. Winner gets bragging rights among the two biggest spenders in all of college sports.

2. Rose Bowl

Jan. 1; Pasadena, Calif.

5-Southern Cal vs. 6-Penn State

The Granddaddy gets its traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup for the third consecutive year, and the hometown Trojans return for the fourth straight year. They've won three in a row since falling to Texas in 2006. Two one-loss teams with marquee names, rich traditions and respected coaches make for matchup made in Hollywood that should prove to be the top attraction on New Year's Day. Here's hoping JoePa gets to coach from the sideline on that always picturesque Pasadena turf.

1. BCS championship

Jan. 8; Miami

1-Florida vs. 2-Oklahoma

We saved the best for last, and so did the BCS. The storylines are plentiful. It's Sam Bradford vs. Tim Tebow in a matchup of the two last Heisman winners. It's Bob Stoops vs. the team he coached before heading to OU. It's the Big 12 vs. the SEC to settle a season-long debate. It's the nation's top scoring offense (Oklahoma at 54 points a game) vs. a Florida defense that gives up just 12.85 points. Longhorn fans will argue that the BCS didn't get it right this year. But at least it did give us an enticing national championship game and fine way to ring out the bowl season.

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