With his job done for the year, Santa will have to try to keep track with the growing number of bowl games.
- Air Force v. Georgia Tech [Independence] (ESPN2, 5:00pm ET). This is the first installment of the Independence Bowl now that the SEC and Big 12 are no longer tie-ins. This is unfortunate. You know how the Detroit (Pizza) Bowl is a punishment for Big Ten teams who are barely eligible to continue playing in December? Sending two teams to the BCS meant the Big Ten did not have enough eligible teams to take one to Detroit. The Independence Bowl was likewise the punishment in the SEC, making it humorous when Alabama was sent their twice in the middle of the decade and when Georgia sold a fraction of their allocated seats last year. Now, it’s an ACC-Mountain West affair. The inaugural match under this new set up is Air Force-Georgia Tech. Over/under on completed passes in this game for both teams: 8. Anyone want to take the over?
- West Virginia v. North Carolina State [Champs Sports] (ESPN, 6:30pm ET). This is another familiar bowl game that has undergone a transformation. The Big Ten tie-in, which saw Wisconsin pummel Miami last year, has given way to a Big East tie-in and Wisconsin has given way to West Virginia. The Mounties are undergoing a transformation themselves. Remember way back when a disgruntled West Virginia booster bemoaned that West Virginia hired a painter (Bill Stewart) to succeed the architect (Rich Rodriguez)? Well, the Mountaineers got impatient, threatening to force Stewart out but ultimately settling on a coach-in-waiting with Dana Holgorsen for 2011. He will take over the program in 2012 while Stewart goes off to whittle after being thrown under the bus by his own AD. WVU will face North Carolina State, one of the better turnaround stories in college football. Granted, a turnaround by NC State’s standards gets you the Champs Sports Bowl, but alas…
- Missouri v. Iowa [Insight] (ESPN, 10:00pm ET). Hey, the Big Ten is on the board. Last year’s Orange Bowl campaign led to lofty expectations in Iowa City. I even saw a preseason prediction that foretold an Alabama-Iowa national title game. The schedule set up that way with key home games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. What followed was a senior-laden team that wound up at the Insight Bowl, i.e. the bowl game that fired two Minnesota coaches, an Arizona State coach, a Kansas coach and a Notre Dame coach. The string of transfers and the arrest of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos means the Hawkeyes will be a little light-handed (and depth wasn’t their forte this year) against the 10-2 Missouri Tigers, one of the better scoring defenses in college football.
- East Carolina v. Maryland [Military] (ESPN, 2:30pm ET). Ralph Friedgen began his coaching career at Maryland as the conference’s coach of the year and will end his career as the conference’s coach of the year. Yes, the reigning ACC coach of the year has been fired after refusing to take a buyout. Bill Curry says that’s too damn bad, son, since Alabama didn’t even offer him that. His successor remains uncertain, though all signs point to Under Armour U throwing money at Mike Leach to take over a team with dilapidated facilities and a stadium that may very well have weeds growing through the cracks in the stands. It shouldn’t be too difficult to turn Maryland into a winner, but the Terps can’t halfass it. They could send Friedgen out a winner while simultaneously look to the future against East Carolina. The Pirates had that phenomenal season opener against Tulsa and even beat NC State (ACC, yo). It’s good that they have those victories. They’re 6-6 on the season, 5-3 in the Conference-USA.
- Illinois v. Baylor [Texas] (ESPN, 6:00pm ET). The Big Ten picked up a bowl tie-in in Houston, Texas. The Illini will be the first Big Ten team to play in the Texas Bowl in Reliant Stadium. It happens to pit Illinois and Baylor in one of the weirder bowl games. The Illini are 6-6. Despite showing promise against Penn State and Ohio State (though in a losing effort against the Buckeyes), the Illini couldn’t shake the fact that they are a Ron Zook team. Dumb losses against Minnesota, Michigan and Fresno State may have returned Ron Zook to the hot seat. A promising season could become a losing season if they fall to Baylor. This is Baylor’s first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo Bowl, when they were still part of the Southwest Conference. Both Baylor and Illini are limping down the stretch. Illinois destroyed Penn State and Baylor finally beat Texas. Since then, the Illini have lost four of seven. Baylor has lost their last three, annihilated by Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Illinois and Baylor have met once in 1976. Baylor beat Illinois 34-19 in a game played in Champaign.
- Oklahoma State v. Arizona [Alamo] (ESPN, 9:15pm ET). This is another former Big Ten bowl tie-in. The Big 12 again sends an exotic offense to the Alamo Bowl, following Texas Tech in last year’s Adam James Bowl. The Cowboys were one win away from going to its first Big 12 Championship Game. They just needed to beat Oklahoma at home in Bedlam, a primetime game that played host to ESPN’s Gameday. They could not do that. Their consolation is not going to Arizona, but playing Arizona for the first time since 1942. Mike Gundy could not beat Bob Stoops, but he could beat a Stoops. Mike Stoops started 4-0 this season, but limped to 7-5. They’re currently on a 4-game skid.
- Army v. Southern Methodist [Armed Forces] (ESPN, 12:00pm ET). This is the first bowl appearance for Army since 1996 and, I think, the first time all three service academies have gone bowling in the same season. It’s a good rebuilding effort for Rich Ellerson, who took the Army job after coaching Cal Poly in I-AA. His reward is an automatic tie-in to the Armed Forces Bowl this season (it rotates among the academies), but he will have to play a road game against Southern Methodist. That’s right, SMU is hosting its own bowl game in its own stadium. June Jones took over this mid-major rebuilding project after taking Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl in 2007. It was definitely an undertaking. SMU had one winning season since the death penalty that wiped out two years of football in the late 1980s. Like the Independence Bowl and Poinsettia Bowl, this will feature two unique offenses: flexbone triple option v. run and shoot.
- Kansas State v. Syracuse [Pinstripe] (ESPN, 3:20pm ET). I am intrigued by this one. Yes, it’s another game, like so many this bowl season, that allows one team to basically host its own bowl game. However, it is in New York City and I think it would benefit college football to establish New York City as a destination for bowl season. Syracuse is finally back in the bowl scene. They are 7-5, but only have 6 recognized wins (they played two 1-AA teams). It’s good enough for their first bowl game since 2004, where they were ripped apart by Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl. They will host Kansas State, the 97th ranked passing offense1. Syracuse isn’t exactly a bastion of offense either, 106th nationally in total offense.
- North Carolina v. Tennessee [Music City] (ESPN, 6:40pm ET). Tennessee got flak for dropping North Carolina from the schedule. As you know, SEC teams are not allowed to look weak out of conference. A rebuilding effort in 2011 was thought to spell doom for the Volunteers against the Tar Heels. The two will meet in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, though both squads are on different trajectories. The Tar Heels were thought to be an elite team in 2010, but lost so many important players to agent-centered ineligibility. They ultimately finished the regular season 7-5, 3rd in their ACC division. Meanwhile, the Volunteers were on the cusp of being ineligible under first year coach Derek Dooley. Starting 2-6, including an overtime win against UAB, the Volunteers rallied to win out. Granted, the opponents in the four game winning streak are not exactly murderer’s row (Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky), but that’s still an impressive feat. Getting a winning season in Derek Dooley’s first year will mean either getting its ground game going, or finding some way to compensate for it. The Volunteers are 100th nationally in rushing offense, not good for a team that’s had to swap quarterbacks (Tyler Bray, Matt Simms) midway through the season.
- Nebraska v. Washington [Holiday] (ESPN, 10:00pm ET). Congratulations, Nebraska. You concluded your stay in the Big 12 with your second straight divisional championship, narrowly losing to Oklahoma in the championship game. Your prize: a return trip to San Diego, where, last year, the Huskers blanked Arizona 33-0. Their opponent? A rematch with Washington, who they blasted in Seattle by 5 touchdowns. Rematches: the bane of the bowl season.
- You may remember how little they threw the ball when they ripped apart Texas on national TV. [↩]