By Dave Hershorin
December 12, 2006

Congratulations to the BCS!!! With all of the possible permutations and pitfalls that could have messed things up, the powers that be in college football seem to have gotten it right – we appear to have the two best teams facing off in the championship game January 8, 2007 in Glendale (see bowl matchups). Besides the Ann Arbor faithful and a few academics, most would agree that Florida, one-loss winners of the SEC, is the most deserving candidate to face Ohio State.

The Gators dealt their last possible league detractor to the bottom of the deck as they beat Arkansas 38-28 in Atlanta for the SEC title. It was a great game that swung drastically depending upon who had the momentum. UF went up 17-0 and seemed in command throughout the first half – until Arkansas’ Marcus Monk had 48-yard TD reception with 1:55 left before the break. During halftime, Georgia Dome patrons became privy to UCLA’s shocking 13-9 upset of USC, and all seemed right in Gainesville as their Gators looked like they had their ducks lined up properly for BCS finale consideration. But no one told the Hogs, for they kept coming back, earning an INT on Florida’s first official pass of the second half. All-around phenom Darren McFadden then threw a two-yard scoring strike to backfield-mate Felix Jones out of the “Wildcat” formation, which sees McFadden line up at QB (usually in the shotgun). That made it 17-14 and McFadden 6-for-6 on the year with three TDs, but it would prove to be his last success as a hurler. UF QB Chris Leak didn’t look like the school’s all-time top passer (which he became during the game) as he went 0-for-4 to start the second half. He looked more like the reason the Gators lost their mojo – Leak’s second pick of the second half was returned 40 yards by DE Antwain Robinson for a 21-17 Arkansas lead. Florida had six games in ‘06 which saw UF ahead and seemingly in control, only to then almost lose each time. Now they were behind and needing to regroup before the “gold ring” slipped out of their grasp forever. The entire team took it upon themselves and fought on every down, finding new heroes to lead their charge. First, it was freshman CB Wondy Pierre-Louis recovering a botched punt by Arkansas reserve PR Reggie Fish for a score to give the Gators the lead for good 24-21 with 3:47 left in the third. Then junior LB Brandon Siler earned four of UF’s six tackles on the Hogs’ next drive to force a punt. True freshman Percy Harvin, the nation’s top WR prospect for this past recruiting class, continued his breakout game with a 67-yard run to start the fourth, affording UF a 31-21 advantage (Harvin was second on the team with five catches for 62 yards, first with 105 rushing yards and scored once each way). The Razorbacks came right back, thanks to an interference call that kept their next drive alive when it seemed they were stopped on 3rd-and-nine. But UF kept the trickery going as next WR Andre Caldwell flipped to Tate Casey for a five yard strike to end all scoring at 38-28. Arkansas tried to return the favor, but McFadden threw his first incomplete pass of the year (an INT) to halt their next drive and Casey Dick then threw an endzone INT to seal it for the Gators. It was an exciting game that featured tough offense and solid defense as both teams proved why they were in the conference championship. Now we will see if UF can repeat the same quality of performance to prove why they are the most qualified team to face the Buckeyes. For me, it is a short conversation and a no-brainer as to how/why they jumped over Michigan, and that detail is not worthy of much conversation. Hey, when Michigan didn’t drop even one place after losing to OSU, both the BCS and the polls have to reconsider why that happened, and fortunately they fixed this mistake in time (and it wasn’t because Urban Meyer whined about it).

Oh, Southern Cal. You had control of your destiny and looked like a formidable foe for the Buckeyes before you looked past your city/conference rivals and lost in grand style to end your regular season campaign with great disappointment. But let this be a lesson to all of you kiddies out there – never underestimate your ultimate goal’s ability to motivate your enemies even more than it does you. UCLA knew it was an afterthought due to most people’s forgone conclusion that USC was on their way to Glendale. But no one told fourth-year alumni coach Karl Dorrell that his Bruins were supposed to roll over so that last year’s runner-up could glide back into the title game. Dorrell had his guys ready, and hid them behind a 6-5 record that made the Bruins seem non-threatening. In hindsight, Pete Carroll should have asked Charlie Weis about how his Irish barely squeaked by the Bruins in South Bend 20-17 in week eight. UCLA broke through against the Trojans in a defensive struggle 13-9, highlighted by their front seven that exposed USC’s marginal running game by allowing it only 55 yards of production. The Bruins’ big stoppers rank sixth in the country for sacks earned and led the conference in rush defense (12th nationally) and third-down conversions allowed (3rd). UCLA just smacked the then-No.2 team right in their unsuspecting jaws, showing the toughness that won them 10 games last year and has many thinking they can return to the top 25 in 2007. Dorrell will see 20 returning starters – seven seniors on offense and nine on defense – and is expected to challenge USC for the Pac Ten title. The Trojans actually get a great challenge in their Rose Bowl matchup with Michigan (see bowl games below). If USC had beaten the Bruins, it was doubtful that we would have gotten Florida and Michigan to face-off. But the battle for who is most likely to finish second between the Wolverines and Men of Troy is really what the BCS too often overlooks – that the forgotten teams in third and fourth should also be paired. This way we can partially mimic a playoff so that even more of the top is sorted out. Michigan is 6-11 overall in Rose Bowl appearances, 2-5 against Southern Cal. In 2003, Michigan came into the Rose Bowl 10-2 and lost to USC 28-14, the last time these two met. They have never met in the regular season or in a game besides the granddaddy of them all.

Oklahoma gets to face those upstart Boise State Broncos in the Fiesta Bowl, their prize for upending the Cornhuskers 21-7 in the Big 12 championship. NU outgained their former-Big XIII rival 366-307, but gave the ball away five times to send OU to their BCS bowl ranked seventh in the AP and 10th in the BCS. The Sooners – if you remember from week three – are one bad call from being one of the one-loss teams clamoring for a shot at Ohio State. That was the week when they played Oregon up in Eugene and had a (n officially reviewed) call on an on-sides kick late in the game go against them. Further review after the game showed OU should have gotten the ball back, and the Pac Ten officials that called the game were mildly admonished. But, of course, the score remained 34-33 in favor of the Ducks. Oklahoma has two losses (also tanked versus Texas 28-10) and is probably the best two-loss team next to USC, LSU and Auburn. Facing Boise State will be an even matchup in many ways, but Bob Stoops has his work cut out against a team that has no size deficiencies, even up front. The last/first time a mid-major made the BCS was 2004, when they paired Urban Meyer’s stacked Utah squad against three-loss Pittsburgh, the surprise Big East winner that year but also a weak foe that collapsed 35-7 against the Utes. After 2005, Boise State lost team architect Dan Hawkins to Colorado, and first-year coach Chris Petersen was supposed to need a bit of time to adjust to being more than the offensive coordinator (2001-05). Boise has only beaten Oregon State, Hawai’i and a disappointing Fresno State team, so it isn’t like they have seen competition on the level of Oklahoma yet in ’06. But bet on the Broncos being ready for anything OU throws at them, including the return of Adrian Peterson from a broken collarbone for the Fiesta. BSU’s 7th-ranked run defense needs to make Paul Thompson beat them, not let OU run it and control the clock while they methodically grind Boise down. Anyway, it will be a good game on January 1st, so watch Davey take on Goliath that night.

Rutgers’ 41-39 3OT loss to West Virginia in Morgantown was a great finish to a great game. The Mountaineers didn’t seem to miss Pat White (high ankle sprain) much as freshman Jarrett Brown was 14-of-29 for 244 yards and both a TD and INT in his very first action since WVU beat Eastern Washington 52-3 in the second week of the campaign. Brown also ran for 73 yards and a score versus the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers held WVU more than a hundred yard under their season average on the ground, and came one two-point conversion away from the BCS. Rutgers is now relegated to the Texas Bowl on December 28th, not even making the January 1st lineup of prestige games. Instead, they play Kansas State, which at 7-5 tied as the Big 12’s fifth-placed team and offers little postseason challenge for the prowess Rutgers has displayed all year. The ‘Univ. of New Jersey’ really expected that the WVU game could be a loss, so if one is going to point fingers at where it went wrong for them, it should be at the Knight’s 30-11 away loss to Cincinnati. Otherwise, if Rutgers had come in against WVU undefeated, they could still have won the conference even with this loss to end the regular season. Louisville instead represents the Big East in the BCS, facing ACC champ Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl Tuesday January 2nd. That should be a good matchup, considering that UL and WK represent the two perceived weakest BCS-aligned conferences, the Big East and the ACC. Both are lucky to be included with the elite of the country and both would probably lose if matched up against anyone else (save Boise) out of the 10 teams. Wake showed they could win a defensive shootout by beating Georgia Tech for the conference crown 9-6. It isn’t likely, though, that Louisville is in a low scoring affair – they scored at least 23 against every opponent this year, topping 40 against six of them. The Demon Deacons are predicated on defense, only allowing 27 points twice, both times in their two losses. WF has to hold UL to under 30, or they likely lose (see bowl listings below).

 

BOWL GAMES WORTH THE TIME

There are an inordinately large number of great pairings in this year’s slate of bowls. Some good ones to start only get better and better, until the BCS and the championship ends things in style. Here are the best of these games, in order chronologically and without the lame corporate sponsor listings wherever possible.

Las Vegas Bowl (December 21st – 8pm EST) – Brigham Young vs. Oregon – BYU (10-2) is the best in their state after beating Utah 33-31, but Oregon relinquished their state title 30-28 to the Beavers. Oregon should be 6-6 after winning via a blown call versus Oklahoma. The Ducks are evenly matched against the Cougars – both have strong offenses and decent defenses.

PapaJohns.com Bowl (December 23rd – 1pm EST) – East Carolina vs. South Florida – The 7-5 Pirates held WVU to 27 points, went 2-1 against BCS-aligned teams, and beat CUSA division winner Southern Mississippi 20-17 in OT. South Florida overcame the Mountaineers 24-19 in Morgantown and went 8-4 with good balance on both sides of the ball. USF has to have a slight advantage, but ECU poses a good challenge for freshman Bull QB Matt Grothe in his first bowl appearance. USF is looking for the team’s first-ever bowl win after losing last year in the Meineke Car Care Bowl 14-0 to N.C. State, their first-ever bowl appearance.

Armed Forces Bowl (December 23rd – 8pm EST) – Utah vs. Tulsa – It’s the spread versus the red. The Golden Hurricane just pulled out of a three-game skid to sneak into their first back-to-back bowl appearances (beat Fresno 31-24 in ’05 Liberty Bowl) since going to the Bluebonnet Bowl in both 1964 & ‘65. Utah is in a bowl for its fourth-straight year, outscoring the last three teams they beat by a combined score of 90-17. Formerly the Fort Worth Bowl for locational purposes, this game looks to provide fireworks regardless of who wins.

Independence Bowl (December 28th – 4:30pm EST) – Oklahoma State vs. Alabama – The Crimson Tide lost to Arkansas by one point, Tennessee by three and Auburn by seven, but that was enough to get Mike Shula canned. They have the rushing defense to stop the Cowboy’s 8th-ranked ground attack, but can ‘Bama’s benign offense exploit OSU’s lacking D? Both are 6-6 and have been perennial conference bridesmaids since the new millennium started. A meaningless outcome, but an entertaining 60 minutes nonetheless.

Holiday Bowl (December 28th – 8pm EST) – Texas A&M vs. California – Either team easily could have been in a New Year’s Day game, but these two 9-3 squads find each has their hands full with the other. Expect a high scoring affair as both schools can run as well as they pass. The Aggies have the edge with a better stopping unit, but the Bears are No.14 for total and scoring offense and will force A&M to have to put up at least 40 to win. Don’t miss even a bit of this one getting something from the fridge.

Liberty Bowl (December 29th – 4:30 EST) – Houston vs. South Carolina – Master of the passing game Steve Spurrier goes up against the Cougar’s 12th-rated aerial attack with his 22nd-ranked secondary. The CUSA champs live on opponent’s turnovers (24), and USC has given it up 22 times. Houston lost three games in ’06 by a total of eight points and is riding a six-game winning streak since their three-game skid ended. This will be a physical battle that comes down to a matter of wills in the fourth quarter.

Meineke Car Care Bowl (December 30th – 1pm EST) – Boston College vs. Navy – The Middies go to a school-record fourth bowl in as many years. They have the nation’s top rushing attack but also the worst passing efforts, with a mediocre defense to try and stop BC’s solid aerial assault. BC is 12 points from being undefeated, but has had trouble this season against some seemingly lesser squads. Tom O’Brien leaving the Eagles for N.C. State means pesky Navy could seize the day with interim coaching still adjusting during the Eagles eighth-straight bowl appearance. BC has to be favored, but this one should be interesting.

Chick-fil-A Bowl (December 30th – 8pm EST) – Georgia vs. Virginia Tech – Two schools that started off the season as serious challengers for conference titles meet after disappointing results. Tech’s No.1 defense has given up 29 points during their current six-game tear, but – like the Dawgs – their offense has been a no-show in ‘06. UGA has won two big ones in a row (Auburn, Georgia Tech) with their own top 10 defense, but lost four of five just prior to that. Tech is 6-7 in 13-consecutive bowl appearances, whereas Georgia is 7-2 in this, their 10th in a row. Add in location (Georgia Dome) and this one becomes too close to call.

MPC Computers Bowl (December 31st – 7:30pm EST) – Miami (FL) vs. Nevada – What does Miami earn for going 6-6 and firing Larry Coker? A trip to balmy Boise for an outdoor matchup with WAC upstart Nevada…happy New Year!!! The Canes are most recently 1-4, but they match up well with their No.3 rushing defense going up against the Wolfpack’s run-reliant “pistol” packages. Weather has often played a factor in this one, and a blizzard is just what Nevada needs to neutralize Miami’s size/strength advantages – who knows how weak this Hurricane squad may become in sub-freezing circumstances so far from home. Should be interesting to see guys from Coral Gables forced to deal with the winter elements.

Cotton Bowl (January 1st - 11:30am EST) – Nebraska vs. Auburn – Like UGA-VT, Ok.St-Bama and A&M-Cal, high expectations have led to marginal disappointment for these two, but at least they made to January 1st in this battle royal. The Cornhusker’s ‘west coast’ offense (ranked 9th) has to remain balanced going up against the Tiger’s tough No.7 scoring defense. Auburn has beaten BCS finalist Florida, but their offense has sputtered as of late and underachieving NU is hungry to prove they can win against a favored foe. A low scoring affair favors Auburn, but if both teams break 20, advantage Nebraska.

Capital One Bowl (January 1st – 1pm EST) – Wisconsin vs. Arkansas – Really should be the Rodney Dangerfield Bowl with as little respect as these two have gotten this season. One-loss Wisconsin boasts the country’s top pass efficiency defense and No.3 overall unit, so we get to see if this proves to be enough against the SEC’s top rushers. The Badgers struggled against their last three mundane conference foes, while Arkansas (riding a two game skid) finds all of its detractors in the BCS. Look for a low scoring game where special teams decide the outcome…which gives a slight advantage to Wisconsin.

Gator Bowl (January 1st – 1pm EST) – Georgia Tech vs. West Virginia – This one comes down to whether Tech’s No.11 run stoppers can handle the Mountaineers’ second-ranked rushing attack. Foes have proven that if you can stop Pat White and Steve Slaton, you can beat WVU. But, similarly, disrupting senior Reggie Ball is the easiest way to beat Tech. Ball is again completing less than half his passes, but is also making less pivotal mistakes. West Virginia is quietly confident after Rich Rodriguez turned down Alabama, re-affirming his need to make Morgantown a happy place to reside. Take the “OVER” and don’t miss a snap as this one goes down to the wire.

Rose Bowl (January 1st – 5pm EST) – Southern Cal vs. Michigan – Finally, a true battle for second place. USC is 21-9 all-time in this by-default home game, but they just tanked against UCLA, and Michigan eerily reflects the same kind of tough defense (No.1 against the run) as the Bruins. You have to like a seasoned vet like Henne against first-year starter Booty in the QB matchup, but the Trojans have shown up with bells on for all their biggest ’06 tilts. With so much time to prepare, a slight advantage goes to Pete Carroll in this consolation game made in heaven.

Fiesta Bowl (January 1st – 8pm EST) – Boise State vs. Oklahoma – You get the feeling Oklahoma can score on Boise, so it comes down to whether Boise’s No.11 offense can return the favor enough to keep this one close. OU wins a low scoring affair by at least 10, but if they fly through the OVER (51 points as this is written), look for Bob Stoops to dig deep for ways to stop the Bronco’s juggernaut. Bottom line - Boise needs at least 20 by the half to prove they have a chance. Any mid-major getting this far has to be taken seriously, and the Sooner’s disrespecting BSU as they prepare would spell instant upset.

Orange Bowl (January 2nd – 8pm EST) – Wake Forest vs. Louisville – The Demon Deacons have been to six postseason bowls (3-3) and have won the last three. The Cardinals are 4-7-1 all-time, currently 2-6 in eight consecutive trips to the extra stanza. One-loss UL has scored under 30 only three times and have gone over 40 six times this year, while WF has allowed only four foes to reach 20+and has held four to 10 or less. It’s simple – Wake has to hold the Redbirds below 30 to win. Louisville, which has struggled against top 25 competition, is three points from playing the Buckeyes in the final, so the DDs have their work cut out. Wake shutting out FSU in Tallahassee has to be good for something, but in 2006, Louisville sure ain’t FSU, eh?

Sugar Bowl (January 3rd – 8pm EST) – Notre Dame vs. LSU – This one looks like a mismatch on paper – State should clock the Irish as they play 60 miles from Baton Rouge. But if anyone can figure out a way to get past the Bayou Bengal’s No.2 (total) defense, it’s Charlie Weis with over a month to prepare. The real test is whether the Irish defense can show up against LSU’s balanced attack, for ND has allowed 40+ against both top 10 teams faced. Brady Quinn will go down swinging, so expect a real war as this classic returns home after Katrina.

BCS National Championship Game (January 8th – 8pm EST) – Ohio State vs. Florida – This is the right matchup, regardless of what the detractors might say. We will break this one down fully in an upcoming article, but missing this game is not an option. Those who think OSU runs away with this one must not have seen how porous the Buckeye defense was against the only quality offense they faced (Michigan). Florida has seen scrappy, tough defenses all year coming out of the SEC. Expect a close, physical contest that will be won by Ohio State is the kickers are the deciding factor.