Nearly two weeks have passed since college football’s regular season came to an end, since conference champions were crowned and postseason matchups were announced. There was last Saturday’s annual clash between Army and Navy to keep the appetite slightly sated, but the game stood alone. Tomorrow the dry spell ends. Tomorrow bowl season begins.
Tomorrow is the day.
Nearly two weeks have passed since college football’s regular season came to an end, since conference champions were crowned and postseason matchups were announced. There was last Saturday’s annual clash between Army and Navy to keep the appetite slightly sated, but the game stood alone.
Tomorrow the dry spell ends. Tomorrow bowl season begins.
Tomorrow begins a festival more than three weeks long when 35 bowl games will be played over the course of 24 days. The first of the orgy of games is the New Mexico Bowl between a couple of acronyms - BYU and UTEP - kicking off in the afternoon and then Northern Illinois and Fresno State playing in the Humanitarian Bowl at night, and of course it comes to a thrilling finish with the BCS title game between Auburn and Oregon.
They’re not all great games. Some of them, like, well, the games tomorrow, aren’t even particularly interesting. But some are flat-out phenomenal matchups, games that are appointment television, including all but one of the BCS bowls.
What follows are the five postseason games with the most intrigue.
* Florida State vs. South Carolina (Chick fil-A Bowl): The Seminoles playing Steve Spurrier again is fun, but it’s just a sidenote.
Both the Seminoles (9-3) and Gamecocks (9-4) were still playing on the first weekend of December, each in their respective conference championship games with a shot at reaching one of the BCS bowls.
Both, of course, lost, and pretty decisively. But that doesn’t mean Florida State and South Carolina are suddenly lousy. Quite the opposite is true.
The Seminoles and Gamecocks were two of the hotter teams in the country before they faced Virginia Tech and Auburn, respectively, on Dec. 4. They simply ran into two hotter - and better - teams. Before losing to the Hokies, the ’Noles had won three in a row, including a 31-7 whipping of Florida (y’know, Spurrier’s old team). The Gamecocks had similarly won three in a row, including a 36-14 victory over Florida.
New Year’s Eve brings the first true treat of the college football postseason.
* Alabama vs. Michigan State (Capital One Bowl): This is another matchup of teams that very nearly made one of the BCS games.
In fact, you could argue that based on their win over Wisconsin, the Spartans (11-1) should have been the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl. And if not headed to Pasadena, with that win over the Badgers in pocket, they’re certainly a more deserving BCS team than Ohio State (they just don’t have as many fans).
But the intrigue in this game doesn’t lie in Michigan State getting snubbed. It lies in the battle between the Big Ten and the SEC.
It’s acknowledged that the SEC is the best conference in college football, and it’s impossible to argue against four straight national championships and the potential for a fifth, but there’s no doubting that the league fell off this year, and there’s also no doubting that the Big Ten improved.
This, simply, is one of those games for conference bragging rights. And it happens to be between Alabama (9-3) and Michigan State teams that were part of the national-title discussion well into October.
* LSU vs. Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl): The Aggies (9-3) were under the radar much of autumn, hidden way down in the Southwest during a season when the focus was on the Southeast and the Pacific Northwest.
But down in the Texas dust, A&M beat both Oklahoma and Nebraska - the teams that played in the Big 12 title game.
The Aggies are also rolling, winners of six in a row.
The temptation is to assume LSU (10-2), which was a top-10 team for much of the season, will merely need to show up to cruise past A&M. The temptation is to assume a strong team from the SEC will crush one that was good but not great in the Big 12.
But that temptation is wrong.
Both LSU and Texas A&M played Arkansas, and both lost by similar scores (The Tigers fell 31-23 while the Aggies were beaten 24-17). Throw in how lucky LSU got in some of its wins and there’s reason to believe in A&M.
* TCU vs. Wisconsin (Rose Bowl): Fascinating.
That’s one word to describe what will take place in Pasadena. Riveting. Historic. Meaningful. Those are others.
It begins with a fight between the privileged and the underprivileged.
Wisconsin (11-1) represents the haves, a school that should it ever go undefeated would almost automatically play for the national title. TCU (12-0) represents the have-nots, a team that’s been unbeaten each of the last two regular seasons but never once been seriously considered for the national championship.
It’s a referendum on the entire system, the first time a school from a non-automatic qualifying conference is going up against a one-loss or undefeated team from the Big Six in a BCS game (Oklahoma had two losses when it was beaten by Boise State to close the 2006 season, and Pitt had three losses when it fell to Utah at the end of the 2004 season.)
And then there’s the battle on the field, which is no less intriguing than the larger meaning of the game.
TCU boasts the best defense in the nation - at least statistically - while Wisconsin averages 43.3 points per game, has topped 70 three times and 80 once, and hasn’t scored less than 31 since losing to Michigan State on Oct. 2.
If it weren’t for a brilliant championship game, this would easily be the best bowl of them all.
* Auburn vs. Oregon (BCS Championship): It’s been said the Tigers (13-0) and Ducks (12-0) might combine to score 100 points.
It’s not much of an exaggeration - Oregon leads the country with 49.3 points per game, while Auburn is sixth with 42.7.
What the championship will ultimately come down to, however, is defense - more specifically, which team’s offense will wear down the opposition’s defense.
In a strange sense, it’s an old-fashioned matchup between size and speed. As much as Auburn is a fast SEC team, it’s playing a team that’s faster. If the Tigers win, it will likely be because their size overpowered the smaller Ducks, grinding down the Oregon defense until it folds in the final quarter,
If the Ducks win, it will likely be because their speed is simply too much for the Auburn, and just as that speed has done throughout the regular season will exhaust the Tigers as the second half progresses.
And who knows, maybe both offenses will overwhelm the opposing defense, delighting with 100 or so points on the board.
What We Learned
They aren’t the sexiest hires, but they’re strong ones.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley wasted no time replacing Urban Meyer as coach of the Gators, hiring Texas defensive coordinator - and coach-in-waiting - Will Muschamp away from the Longhorns on Saturday.
At the risk of getting overwhelmed by Florida and the resurgent Florida State, Miami answered on Sunday by luring Temple’s Al Golden to Coral Gables.
It doesn’t stir the blood, a defensive coordinator and someone from ... Temple. But just because the names Muschamp and Golden aren’t as spectacular as Harbaugh or Gruden doesn’t mean the Gators and Hurricanes didn’t just make moves that will strengthen their respective programs.
Muschamp has vitality. He’s young. He’s energetic. He’s a lot like Meyer in that respect, and assuming he surrounds himself with solid offensive coaches he shouldn’t have any problem keeping the Gators where they’ve been in recent years, a 7-5 record this season notwithstanding.
His personality will attract talent to Gainesville, and his coaching acumen should result in a brilliant defense.
“University of Florida is about winning championships,” he said when introduced as head coach of the Gators on Tuesday. “I understand the expectations and that’s what we’re here to do. ... We’re not on a five-year plan here.”
While Muschamp’s hiring is about keeping alive a tradition that started with Spurrier, dipped for a short time under Ron Zook and reached new heights with Meyer, Golden was brought in to put the finishing touches on a restoration project.
And restoration is exactly how he made his bones.
Randy Shannon seemed to have Miami headed in the right direction, until this year. His teams improved by two wins each of his first three season as head coach, from five victories in 2007 to nine last year, but then came regression this fall despite highly ranked recruiting classes and obvious talent on the field.
Golden, meanwhile, won at a place that was left for dead.
Temple was essentially kicked out of the Big East after the 2004 season for being too lousy, and landed in the Mid-American Conference. They promptly went 0-11, allowing more than 60 points three times.
But then Golden arrived.
He built something from nothing, winning nine games last year and eight this year after going 1-11 in 2006, then winning four and five games in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He’ll have plenty to work with at Miami, merely needing to mold the players into a team.
“Judge this hire next fall,” Miami athletic director Kirby Hocutt said at a news conference on Monday night. “Judge this hire after two football seasons are completed. I’m confident that our fan base, once they meet Al Golden ... they’re going to be very pleased.
“It was critically important for this program to find the right fit, and we found the right fit at the right time.”
Nah, Will Muschamp and Al Golden aren’t names that get the heart pumping. But they’re solid hires that with Florida State on the rise under Jimbo Fisher should make football throughout Florida scintillating over the next handful of years.
Game of the Week
Boise State got screwed.
The Broncos were right there with Oregon and Auburn in the discussion of best teams in the country ... until two missed field goals from short range resulted in a loss to Nevada late the Friday night after Thanksgiving.
Instead of merely sliding back from one of the post-New Year’s bowls to something right around the turn of the calendar, Boise State got relegated all the way down to the Las Vegas Bowl on Wednesday night.
Fortunately for fans - and thanks to a little backroom wheeling and dealing - Boise State will be playing a legitimate opponent. The 11-1 Broncos won’t get a deserved crack at a team like Wisconsin, the way TCU will, but they will play a 10-2 Utah squad that was undefeated into November before getting blown out at home by the Horned Frogs and then suffering a hangover against Notre Dame the following week.
“Our team is looking forward to another great bowl experience and the opportunity to finish our season against another nationally-ranked opponent,” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said when the matchup was announced on Dec. 5. “Utah has one of the top programs in the country, and proved that again this season.”
Boise State should win. And should win big.
The Broncos rank fourth nationally in both scoring defense and total defense, and trail only Oregon in scoring offense. The Utes, meanwhile, are 20th in scoring defense and 18th in scoring offense.
But in a reversal of roles, the Broncos are the team that didn’t have quite the season they wanted and wound up in a lesser bowl than they had hoped against a lesser opponent than they had hoped. Just as Boise State took advantage of that position a few years ago to upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Utah stands poised to take advantage of the Broncos should they not take the Utes as seriously as they might have a team from the SEC or Pac-10 or Big 12.
“Until a week ago, the Broncos were in the mix for the national championship, so this game will have a lot of national as well as regional interest,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said on Dec. 5. “Not many bowls outside the BCS games will feature teams with the kind of success Boise State and Utah have experienced in recent years, which makes this an exciting matchup.
“We will have our work cut out for us, but I know our players and staff are looking forward to playing in a bowl game against such a quality opponent.”
It’s not a brilliant game. Those come later in the bowl season. But Boise State against Utah is a nice appetizer, a superb team playing a good one to get the postseason moving forward.
If I Had a Ballot ...
It would be the same as last week since only Army and Navy have played over the past seven days.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.