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NCAA College Football Bowl Preview — Dec. 31-Jan. 8

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson leads the Razorbacks into the Cotton Bowl.
Wesley Hitt, Getty Images

Bowl season is hitting its high point with the biggest games of the year coming up in the next week. While much of the focus is understandably on the BCS games and the national championship, there are a lot of other good games coming up for your viewing pleasure in the next few days. We’ll have previews of the BCS games coming up shortly. But in the meantime, here is what to watch for in all the remaining non-BCS bowl games.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS: Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6)

[Saturday, Dec. 31 at 12:00 PM ET on ESPN]

After being ranked #8 in the preseason, Texas A&M struggled through a disappointing season that saw a series of second-half defensive collapses and the eventual firing of head coach Mike Sherman. Now the Aggies, after limping into bowl season losing four of their last five, look to build for the future in their final game as a member of the Big 12. A&M’s offense wasn’t the problem, ranking eighth in the nation in total offense and 12th in scoring. However, they could be without both members of their star running back tandem. Christine Michael (899 yards and eight touchdowns) is out with a torn ACL, while Cyrus Gray (1045 yards and 12 touchdowns) is questionable with a shoulder injury suffered in late November.

On the other side of the ball, Northwestern is seeking its first bowl win since 1949. The Wildcats suffered through a five-game losing streak early in the season, but rallied to win their next four in a row — including an upset of then-#10 Nebraska — to gain bowl eligibility. Despite missing the first three games of the season, quarterback Dan Persa still threw for over 2,100 yards and ranked 10th in the nation in passer rating.

HYUNDAI SUN BOWL: Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Utah (7-5)

[Saturday, Dec. 31 at 2:00 PM ET on CBS]

Utah’s first year in the Pac-12 got off to a rocky start before the Utes rallied to win four of their last five. The Utes are led by the Pac-12’s stingiest defense (18th nationally in scoring), but one of the nation’s worst offenses (110th in total offense). They rank seventh nationally in rushing defense (98.3 yards per game), but will have their hands full with Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, which ranks third in the nation at over 316 yards per game.

This is Georgia Tech’s 15th consecutive bowl game, the fourth-longest streak in the FBS. The Yellow Jackets started the season 6-0 and had risen has high as #12 in the rankings, but closed the season with losses in four of their last six. games After averaging 46.5 points per game in the first half of the season, Georgia Tech’s offense has gone stagnant, putting up less than half that figure in the last six.

KRAFT FIGHT HUNGER BOWL: Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)

[Saturday, Dec. 31 at 3:30 PM ET on ESPN]

That whole “bowl games are a reward for a successful season” thing? Yeah, you can forget about that in this one. Both coaches have been fired, the Illini have lost six straight and UCLA needed a special waiver from the NCAA to be the first team in 10 years to go to a bowl game despite a losing record. Really, the only reason to watch might be to see Illinois’ All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with 14-and-a-half sacks.

AUTOZONE LIBERTY BOWL: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)

[Saturday, Dec. 31 at 3:30 PM ET on ABC]

After going 4-8 a year ago, Cincinnati mounted one of the nation’s biggest turnarounds with a nine-win season in 2011. The Bearcats are anchored by a ferocious defense that led the nation in both sacks (3.6) and tackles for loss (8.9) per game. The offense may also have some good news this week: after missing the last three games of the regular season with a broken ankle, quarterback Zach Collaros is expected to be back under center for the Bearcats.

Vanderbilt features a pretty stout defense of its own. The Commodores rank 19th nationally in total defense and have given up an average of just 14 points per game in the last three games of the regular season.  On offense, Vandy is led by running back Zac Stacy, who rushed for 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns, seven of which came in the last three games.

CHICK-FIL-A BOWL: #25 Auburn (7-5) vs. Virginia (8-4)

[Saturday, Dec. 31 at 7:30 PM ET on ESPN]

To be blunt, Auburn’s offense is a mess. The Tigers rank 104th nationally in total offense and 86th in scoring. They have juggled three different quarterbacks this season. And now the one offensive bright spot, running back Michael Dyer (1,242 yards and ten touchdowns), has been suspended for the bowl game for violations of team rules. Unfortunately, the defense isn’t a whole lot better, ranking 79th in total defense and 86th in scoring. However, Auburn has won four consecutive bowl games (including last years BCS National Championship) and is playing for the pride of keeping that streak alive. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has already been announced as the new head coach at Arkansas State, but will be calling the plays in this game.

On the other side, the Cavaliers limp into this game wondering what might have been. While 8-4 is Virginia’s best record in four years, the Cavs were one game away from an ACC title game spot. Unfortunately, however, they were thumped by Virginia Tech, 38-0, and limp into this game with all the lingering doubts a shutout like that will bring. While Auburn’s defense may not be the greatest, Virginia will still need a stronger showing from its offensive line than it got against the Hokies: quarterback Michael Rocco was sacked a season-high four times and the Cavaliers managed just 30 rushing yards.

TICKET CITY BOWL: #19 Houston (12-1) vs. #22 Penn State (9-3)

[Monday, Jan. 2 at 12:00 PM ET on ESPNU]

Although most of the focus will be on the ongoing Penn State scandal, this game will actually be an interesting contrast in styles as one of the nation’s top defenses takes on Case Keenum and the explosive Houston offense. The Cougars rank first in total offense, passing offense and scoring, averaging 599 yards and 50.8 points per game. Keenum, who holds the NCAA record for career touchdown passes (152), is looking for some redemption after struggling against Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship game. But to do so, he’ll have to find success against a Nittany Lions defense that ranks fifth in the nation against the pass and in scoring.

Motivation (or lack thereof) could be a factor in this game as both teams think they deserved better. Ordinarily, a 9-3 Penn State team that was one win away from the Big Ten title game would have been an attractive draw for bowl officials. But the ongoing sex abuse scandal made the Nittany Lions toxic, dropping them to the Ticket City Bowl, the seventh of the Big Ten’s eight bowl tie-ins. The Cougars, meanwhile, are still wondering what might have been as their upset loss to Southern Miss not only cost them a Conference USA title, but a likely BCS bid in the Sugar Bowl, as well. Emotion and how “up” the teams are for this game could play a big factor in determining the outcome.

CAPITAL ONE BOWL: #9 South Carolina (10-2) vs. #20 Nebraska (9-3)

[Monday, Jan. 2 at 1:00 PM ET on ESPN]

In mid-October, the state of South Carolina football was in doubt after on-again/off-again starting quarterback Stephen Garcia had been kicked off the team and star running back Marcus Lattimore (who was leading the SEC in rushing) was lost for the season with a knee injury. But thanks to a stifling defense (fourth nationally in total defense, second against the pass), the Gamecocks won six of their last seven and are now one win away from the best season in school history. While South Carolina is still a run-first team on offense (behind just Alabama and LSU in the SEC in rushing), quarterback Connor Shaw has been remarkably efficient down the stretch, going 30-of-38 for 427 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in the last two games.

The one chink in the armor of South Carolina’s defense could be the Cornhuskers’ best chance of victory. The Gamecocks rank just 44th nationally in run defense (135.9 yards per game) and will be facing a Nebraska offense that averages 223.9 yards per game (13th in the nation). The Cornhuskers are led by workhorse junior running back Rex Burkhead, who led the team with career highs of 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. In Nebraska’s regular-season finale against Iowa, Burkhead rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 38 carries. Add in quarterback Taylor Martinez’s 837 rushing yards and you have a ground game that could pose problems for the Gamecocks.

OUTBACK BOWL: #16 Georgia (10-3) vs. #17 Michigan State (10-3)

[Monday, Jan. 2 at 1:00 PM ET on ABC]

Georgia and Michigan State both came up just short of the BCS, losing in their respective conference championship games. But the fact that both schools won 10 games and made it to their conference title games indicates this could be one of the better matchups of the bowl season. If you like hard-hitting defense, this could be the game for you, since both teams rank in the top five in total defense. The Spartans actually had the best record in the Big Ten this year, but lost out on a Rose Bowl bid with a heartbreaking 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. This is Michigan State’s fifth straight bowl game under head coach Mark Dantonio, but he is still seeking his first postseason win. The Spartans last bowl win came in 2001.

On the other side, Georgia is coming off a disappointing loss of its own, giving up 42 unanswered points while being held to season lows in rushing yards, total yards and points in a 42-10 loss to LSU in the SEC championship. Although Michigan State ranks 12th nationally against the pass and ninth in scoring defense, itcould face a tough challenge from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who set the school record with 33 touchdown passes this season.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL: Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)

[Monday, Jan. 2 at 1:00 PM ET on ESPN2]

Two of the biggest names in college football will meet up after both struggled through disappointing seasons. But the game itself could be overshadowed by Urban Meyer, the former Gators head coach who has now been hired by Ohio State. Meyer led Florida to two national titles in his six years in Gainesville, but left after the 2010 season, citing health concerns. However, after just one year as a TV analyst, Meyer jumped at the opportunity to take over the head coaching job at the premiere football school in his home state.

Ohio State limps into the game after losing its last three regular season matchups. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has shown flashes of his potential with his legs (452 rushing yards and seven touchdowns his last five games), but has been inconsistent in the passing game. With an offense that ranks 107th in the nation, the Buckeyes’ one bright spot this year has been a solid defense that ranks 24th in total defense and 26th in scoring.

Florida, meanwhile, has been a team in a tailspin. After starting the season 4-0, the Gators lost six of their last eight (with the only wins coming over Vanderbilt and Furman) and have now lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to the head coaching job at Kansas. In many ways, the Gators are a mirror image of the Buckeyes, with a sub-par offense (102nd nationally in total offense, 76th in scoring) and a solid defense (25th in scoring).

AT&T COTTON BOWL: #6 Arkansas (10-2) vs. #8 Kansas State (10-2)

[Friday, Jan. 6 at 8:00 PM ET on FOX]

Arkansas’ only two losses this season came to LSU and Alabama. The Razorbacks could well have been headed to the BCS were it not for a rule that precludes conferences from getting three teams in. The Razorbacks feature a potent offense that ranks 14th nationally in scoring and, aside from those two losses, has averaged 41.8 points per game. Quarterback Tyler Wilson has thrown for over 3,400 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

On the other side, Kansas State just continues to overachieve. Quarterback Collin Klein rushed for a school-record 26 touchdowns and a school quarterback record 1,099 yards this season, to go along with 1,745 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air. Kansas State’s offensive numbers might not be spectacular (96th in yardage), but they have been efficient at points on the board (30th in scoring).

BBVA COMPASS BOWL: Southern Methodist (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)

[Saturday, Jan. 7 at 1:00 PM ET on ESPN]

SMU started the season 5-1, but then had to hold on by the skin of its teeth to make a bowl game, losing four of its last six. Pittsburgh found itself in a similar position, needing a win in its last regular season game against Syracuse to become bowl eligible.  Both teams feature relatively anemic offenses, neither of which is better than 73rd in the country in scoring. The key could be Pitt’s ability — or inability — to protect quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has been sacked 54 times this season.

SMU will be without leading rusher Zach Line, who underwent a season-ending toe surgery last month after rushing for 17 touchdowns, two shy of Eric Dickerson’s school record. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will also try to regroup after the sudden departure of head coach Todd Graham to Arizona State.

GODADDY.COM BOWL: Arkansas State (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (10-3)

[Sunday, Jan. 8 at 9:00 PM ET on ESPN]

Although they might not be household names, these are actually two of the hottest teams in the nation. Arkansas State is riding a nine-game winning streak, while Northern Illinois comes in with an eight-game streak of its own. The game has the potential to be a high-scoring shootout, as the two teams average almost 72 points per game between them. Northern Illinois ranks 10th nationally in total offense and quarterback Chandler Harnish owns 20 different school records. The senior has thrown for over 2,900 yards and rushed for another 1,382 on the ground and scored 37 total touchdowns while being named MAC Player of the Year.

Arkansas State features a potent dual-threat quarterback of its own in Ryan Aplin. The junior has thrown for 3,235 yards and 18 touchdowns while adding another 605 yards and nine scores on the ground. The Red Wolves will be without head coach Hugh Freeze, who has been named the new head coach at Mississippi.

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