College Football Nation: The five best bowl games

Eric Avidon

The feast of college football is about to commence.

Beginning Saturday night with the New Mexico Bowl match-up between Fresno State and Wyoming, there will be a bowl just about every night until the season comes to a climax with the BCS Championship Game between Alabama and Texas on Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl.

Some among the 34 games are duds. Idaho against Bowling Green in the Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl and Marshall vs. Ohio in the Little Caesars Bowl aren’t appointment television. But a lot of the games are enticing.

It’d be pretty easy to pick the five BCS bowls as the five best among the bunch, since even though the BCS messed up by pitting Boise State and Texas Christian against each other rather than having them - the elite from the non-automatic qualifying conferences - play the best from the six automatic qualifying conferences, all five games feature tremendous match-ups.

But even though the BCS offers up five potentially great games - all must-see TV for the college football fan - they’re not necessarily the five best of them all. So what follows is a list of the five best, the handful of games that stand out from the rest. All fall relatively late in the bowl schedule, since that’s when the better teams tend to match up.

- Texas A&M vs. Georgia (AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl, Dec. 28):

Scoring is fun, and neither the Aggies nor Bulldogs can play defense.

If there’s one game among the 34 bowls that figures to be a shootout, that has the potential to wind up 45-42, this is the one.

Texas A&M showed just what it can do with the football on Thanksgiving night when it put a pretty decent scare into Texas, putting up 39 points on a defense that was ranked among the best in the nation. Jerrod Johnson leads an attack that’s ranked fifth with better than 450 yards per game. But the defense is among the worst, ranked 107th and giving up 431 yards per game.

Georgia, meanwhile, wasn’t able to average quite the numbers as Texas A&M while playing against the brilliant defenses in the SEC, but the ’Dawgs did score 52 against Arkansas, 41 against South Carolina and better than 30 against both Auburn and Georgia Tech. The defense, meanwhile, underperformed to the point that head coach Mark Richt fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez after the win over the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 28.

The ’Dawgs and Aggies might just bust the scoreboard down in Shreveport.

- Miami vs. Wisconsin (Champs Sports Bowl, Dec. 29):

Both the Badgers and Hurricanes are teams on the rise. Miami actually played a small role in the chase for the national championship early in the season with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma back in September. Losses to Clemson and North Carolina dropped them down in the rankings, but a 9-3 season still marked a leap forward from where the Hurricanes were in recent years when they were 7-6 twice and 5-7 once.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, also took a big step forward, rising from 7-6 with some bad losses to 9-3 and some victories over good but not great teams. And the Badgers did it with the same old formula that helped them rise from the dregs of college football in the 1980s and early 1990s to one of the best in the Big Ten - by running the ball down their opponents’ throats.

This will be a contrast of styles, Wisconsin’s running - 14th in the nation - behind sophomore John Clay against Miami’s passing - ranked 27th - behind sophomore Jacory Harris. And it will be a measuring stick for two very young teams - and two young rising stars - who could play a major role on the national scene in the next couple of years.

- Penn State vs. LSU (Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1):

The Nittany Lions and Tigers are interesting teams, both well-respected and highly ranked throughout the year but without any marquee wins between them. Penn State’s toughest opponents were Ohio State and Iowa - both of which are playing in BCS bowls - and the Nittany Lions lost them both. LSU’s toughest opponents were Florida, Alabama and Mississippi - two of which are playing in BCS bowls - and the Tigers lost all three.

Defense should dominate this game. Penn State is fourth in the nation, allowing only 11.8 points per game while LSU is 12th in the nation at 16 points per game, and that includes games against Florida and Alabama. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions average a pedestrian 29.6 points per game against a schedule that includes such juggernauts as Akron, Syracuse and Eastern Illinois and the Tigers score only 25.5 points per game, which has them ranked 74th.

- Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi (Cotton Bowl, Jan. 2):

This is all about what might have been.

After the way they closed last season, which included wins over eventual national-champion Florida and Texas Tech in last year’s Cotton Bowl, Ole Miss figured to be one of the top teams in the country this year. But an early loss to South Carolina was a harbinger of bad things to come, and instead the Rebels - ranked in the top 10 in the preseason polls - limped to an 8-4 season and even lost to archrival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

It wasn’t much different for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State was supposed to challenge Texas for the Big 12 championship but instead was beaten early at home by Houston, then fell to the Longhorns and lost to archrival Oklahoma - a five-loss team this year - by 27 points.

Still, Ole Miss against Oklahoma State is a game between two nearly elite teams, two teams that underachieved but have the talent to have been considered BCS-worthy.

- Texas vs. Alabama (BCS Championship Game, Jan. 7):

Little needs to be said about the game the season has built toward. The ramifications are obvious - the Longhorns and Crimson Tide will play for the national championship.

It’s a game that has everything - two undefeated teams, Heisman Trophy candidates (Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who won the award), dominant defensive players (Tide defensive tackle Terrance Cody and ’Horns linebacker Sergio Kindle), defenses that can shut down the opposition, offenses that can run away from the opposition.

It even features an obvious favorite (Alabama) against and obvious underdog (Texas).

The season, simply, culminates with a game worthy of crowning a champion.

What We Learned

For a week when there was just one game, plenty happened.

There were the coaching hires of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame and Turner Gill at Kansas, the Heisman Trophy was awarded to Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram and potential No. 1 draft pick Jake Locker decided to return to Washington for his senior season.

But the most intriguing development of the last seven days was news that the Big Ten is taking a serious look at expanding to 12 teams, which would mark the first addition to the conference since Penn State became a member in 1990.

Expansion - which has been explored multiple times by the Big Ten - is tricky, and whether it’s a good thing for the conference really depends on who the 12th team would be. Candidates mentioned in the last few days include Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, Nebraska and Notre Dame, and Missouri went so far as to issue a statement regarding the Big Ten’s potential expansion.

Expansion could be great for the conference.

A 12th team would mean a split into two divisions and a conference championship game. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 all have championship games, but only the SEC’s is a complete success. The Big Ten’s title game would certainly be more successful than the ACC’s, which suffers each year, and could rival the SEC’s given the size of the Big Ten’s schools and the proximity of its members around major cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis.

But expansion is not necessary.

The Big Ten has a problem. It’s season ends way too early, which is a public relations problem in that the nation’s attention turns elsewhere. That, in turn, hurts recruiting.

Most Big Ten teams end their season the weekend before Thanksgiving and aren’t heard from again until bowl season. Meanwhile, the three conferences with championship games stage those encounters two weeks after the Big Ten stops playing, and the Big East and Pac-10 are still playing regularly scheduled games the first weekend of December.

At a time when many high school seniors are making their decision on where to play in college, the 11 teams that make up one of the premier conferences are home watching the same games on television as the potential recruits. While schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State may have been a possible choice for an elite prep player, out of sight is out of mind. Suddenly Florida, Alabama and Texas are at the forefront.

“We go into hiding for six weeks,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno. “Everybody else is playing playoffs on television. You never see a Big Ten team mentioned.”

Beyond recruiting, there’s the matter of competitiveness in bowl games.

Ohio State, which played in the BCS Championship Game at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, sat for six weeks between their games with Michigan and the title games against Florida and LSU. The Gators and Tigers had significantly less time between the SEC Championship and the BCS Championship - about a month - and looked much sharper than the Buckeyes in those two title games.

Perhaps they would have won anyway, but who knows what might have happened with all things schedule-related being equal.

There’s a simple answer to the Big Ten’s current problem, which is extending the schedule the way the Big East and Pac-10 - conferences without championship games - do each season. Cincinnati and Pitt played each other on the same day as the ACC, Big 12 and SEC Championship Games. So did much of the rest of the Big East. Oregon and Oregon State played for the Pac-10’s Rose Bowl spot two days before that Championship Saturday, and four other Pac-10 teams battled on that Saturday.

There’s still plenty of time for all those teams to get healthy after the long regular season, while still staying fresh for their respective bowls.

That being said, with the right team - Notre Dame or perhaps Nebraska - expansion would be great for the Big Ten.

As Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel wrote on Tuesday, economics are critical. According to Mandel, the Big Ten earns a shade under $250 million from its annual television contracts and BCS berths, which winds up in a payout of just under $23 million per school. Whichever school is added would have to help raise $23 million in value to renegotiated contracts for the move to make fiscal sense.

If there’s a perfect fit, the Big Ten should go for it. But if there’s no perfect fit, there’s no reason for the Big Ten to expand just for the sake of expansion. There’s another perfectly viable option.

Game of the Week

The bowl season gets off to a slow start this week, with just six games between now and next Friday, and then kicks into high gear between Christmas and New Year’s.

There is, however, a tremendous match-up on Tuesday in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl between Oregon State and BYU.

BYU, ranked 14th, is 10-2 with losses only to Florida State and unbeaten TCU. That includes wins over Oklahoma and Utah.

The offense is one of the best in the country, averaging 437 yards and just under 36 points per game. The defense is decent, ranked 34th allowing 21.7 points per game. And the Cougars have a true superstar in quarterback Max Hall.

Hall ranks third nationally in passing efficiency, and has thrown for 3,368 yards and 30 touchdowns to date.

“I think the biggest thing is that this guy is experienced and productive, so the chances of rattling him are tough,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “You’re talking about a guy who has been through a lot in his career and played a lot and been productive as heck. ... They just present a lot of problems on what they do.”

The 18th-ranked Beavers, meanwhile, very nearly made it to the Rose Bowl, losing 37-33 in a winner-take-all game on the road at Oregon. They’re 8-4, with wins over Stanford and California, and their losses, beyond the Ducks, came against Cincinnati, Arizona and Southern California.

The four losses came by an average of less than a touchdown, with the biggest a 10-point defeat at the hands of the undefeated Bearcats.

And while Oregon State doesn’t have a shutdown defense or a light-it-up offense, sophomore running back Jacquizz Rodgers is must-see. After gaining 1,291 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns as a freshman last year - including 186 in an upset over USC - he upped those numbers to 1,377 yards on the ground and 21 scores this year with a game still to play.

“When you scan through the list of bowl games, I think this could be one of the most compelling match-ups of the bowl season,” said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, an Oregon State alumnus. He added, “We know their coaches and we know how well they have done and how well their team will be prepared. Any time you play a team with no history in recent years, there is a little bit more of a edge that comes to the game, and a little bit more uncertainty.”

Bowl season, happily, is upon us.

If I Had a Ballot ...

It would look the same as last week since the only game played last weekend was Army-Navy.

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 oreavidon@cnc.com.