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July 31, 2007

Predicting the bowl matchups: The first look

We know the season is still a month away, but that didn't stop us from hashing out our preseason bowl predictions.

Here is a glance at the 32 postseason games and which teams we think will be facing off after the 2007 season.

The Bowl Projections
Poinsettia Bowl: Mountain West vs. at-large

San Diego, Dec. 20
Utah vs. Navy

Consider this the (Paul) Johnson & (Brian) Johnson contest. Navy automatically qualifies for this bowl if it wins six games this season. The Middies ought to be good enough for at least six wins as long as Paul Johnson remains their coach. The return of quarterback Brian Johnson to health could help Utah get in a better bowl, but we're guessing the Utes settle for a trip to San Diego.
New Orleans Bowl: Sun Belt champ vs. Conference USA

New Orleans, Dec. 21
Troy vs. UTEP

We're guessing a second consecutive Sun Belt title allows Troy to return to New Orleans after boiling Rice 41-17 in last year's game. We're also taking a leap of faith that UTEP bounces back from a 5-7 season even without prolific quarterback Jordan Palmer and receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins. UTEP had made two consecutive bowl appearances under Mike Price before struggling last season.
Papajohn's.com Bowl: Big East vs. Conference USA

Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 22
Cincinnati vs. UCF

One year after South Florida won this game, we're banking on another Florida team to make the trip north. The return of running back Kevin Smith should help the Golden Knights return to their 2005 form after going 4-8 last year. This also would represent some personal redemption for Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk, a Wake Forest transfer whose old team won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and advanced to the Orange Bowl after he suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
New Mexico Bowl: Mountain West vs. WAC

Albuquerque, N.M., Dec. 22
New Mexico vs. Nevada

We're guessing New Mexico will keep getting invited to play this game on its home field as long as it wins at least six-regular season games. Nevada loses its top quarterback (Jeff Rowe), rusher (Robert Hubbard) and receiver (Caleb Spencer) from last season, but we think the Wolf Pack will still earn a third consecutive bowl bid. This might look like a lackluster matchup on the surface, but Nevada often creates excitement in the postseason. The Wolf Pack's last two bowl games each were decided by one point.
Las Vegas Bowl: Mountain West vs. Pac-10

Las Vegas, Dec. 22
Arizona State vs. Texas Christian

This would represent an intriguing matchup, with quarterback Rudy Carpenter and running back Ryan Torain leading Arizona State's high-powered offense against a Texas Christian defense that ranks among the best in the nation. The Pac-10 will be looking to redeem itself after Oregon's embarrassing 38-8 loss to Brigham Young in this game last year.
Hawaii Bowl: Conference USA vs. WAC

Honolulu, Dec. 23
Tulsa vs. Hawaii

Hawaii could really shake up these bowl pairings by going undefeated and earning a BCS bid, but we think the Warriors will slip up once in the regular season. Their poor schedule may also prevent them from getting a BCS invitation even if they go undefeated. The Pac-10 doesn't have a tie-in with the Hawaii Bowl anymore, but this matchup still could prove as high-scoring as Hawaii's 41-24 victory over Arizona State last year. This game would feature two of the game's top quarterbacks in Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Tulsa's Paul Smith, plus two outstanding offensive minds in Hawaii head coach June Jones and Tulsa co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
Motor City Bowl: Big Ten vs. MAC

Detroit, Dec. 26
Michigan State vs. Central Michigan
This matchup between two in-state programs would assure a sellout. We're gambling that Michigan State will bounce back from a 4-8 season in its first year under former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio and that Central Michigan will win its second consecutive MAC title even after losing Brian Kelly, who took Dantonio's old job.

Holiday Bowl: Big 12 vs. Pac-10

San Diego, Dec. 27
Missouri vs. UCLA

This would represent an interesting matchup between Missouri's potent offense and UCLA's outstanding defense. It also would give new UCLA offensive coordinator Jay Norvell, who formerly was the offensive coordinator at Nebraska, a chance to return to his Big 12 roots.

Champs Sports Bowl: ACC vs. Big Ten

Orlando, Dec. 28
Boston College vs. Iowa

Although we like Boston College's chances of winning the ACC Atlantic Division before losing the conference championship game, we're guessing the Eagles' relatively small fan base will keep them out of the Gator Bowl or Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Eagles instead will head to Orlando, which will seem like paradise after postseason trips to Charlotte, N.C., and Boise, Idaho, the last two years.
Texas Bowl: Big 12 vs. Conference USA

Houston, Dec. 28
Virginia vs. Southern Methodist

We're working under the assumption that the Big 12 won't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all its bowl tie-ins. That would leave room in the Texas Bowl for an at-large team such as Virginia, which ought to go 7-5 if its offense improves much at all this season. The presence of Southern Methodist would at least give this game some type of local flavor. The return of quarterback Justin Willis last year's Conference USA freshman of the year could help the Mustangs earn their first bowl bid since 1984.
Emerald Bowl: ACC vs. Pac-10

San Francisco, Dec. 28
Maryland vs. Oregon

We're guessing Oregon is a little better than last year and Maryland is a little worse. That should lead to this postseason matchup, which would represent the first time these two schools from across the country have ever faced each other.

Meineke Car Care Bowl: ACC vs. Big East

Charlotte, N.C. Dec. 29
Clemson vs. Rutgers

This would represent one of the best of the second-tier bowl matchups. Having Rutgers running back Ray Rice and Clemson's dynamic duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller on one field would make this one worth watching. A victory over a big-name school such as Clemson also would solidify Rutgers' status as one of the nation's top up-and-coming programs.
Liberty Bowl: Conference USA vs. SEC

Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 29
Southern Mississippi vs. Arkansas

Liberty Bowl officials will be doing cartwheels if they somehow secure this pairing. Landing two teams that play within driving distance of Memphis would guarantee a sellout for this game. We're guessing Southern Mississippi earns a bid by winning the Conference USA title, while a relatively disappointing season for Arkansas also lands the Hogs in Memphis.

Alamo Bowl: Big Ten vs. Big 12

San Antonio, Dec. 29
Purdue vs. Texas Tech

The passing would start shortly after the opening kickoff and might not end until early the next morning if these two teams square off in the Alamo Bowl. Purdue's Curtis Painter and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell combined to throw for more than 8,600 yards last season.

Independence Bowl: Big 12 vs. SEC

Shreveport, La., Dec. 30
Kansas State vs. Kentucky
Kentucky's defense probably won't be good enough to warrant a better postseason invitation, but the offense should be good enough to get the Wildcats a second consecutive bowl berth. The presence of two exciting quarterbacks Kentucky's Andre' Woodson and Kansas State's Josh Freeman might make this battle of the Wildcats worth watching.

Armed Forces Bowl: Mountain West vs. Pac-10

Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 31
Brigham Young vs. Oregon State

Brigham Young had no trouble disposing of Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Now the Cougars get their shot at Oregon State. This game would pit two teams that won at least 10 games last season. While it's unlikely either team will have that much success this year, this still would represent one of the more interesting second-tier bowl games.

Sun Bowl: Big East/Big 12/Notre Dame vs. Pac-10

El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31
Notre Dame vs. California

How does a bowl as run-of-the-mill as the Sun end up with this kind of matchup? We're guessing Notre Dame isn't good enough to earn a BCS bid this year. When the Gator chooses to take a Big 12 team, the Sun happily snaps up the Irish. California finishes second to Southern California in the Pac-10 and also isn't quite strong enough to merit a BCS invitation. That leaves the Bears heading to the Holiday or the Sun. Since California played in the Holiday last year, we'll send them to El Paso. Sun Bowl officials now can spend the next four months praying for this dream scenario.
Humanitarian Bowl: ACC vs. WAC

Boise, Idaho, Dec. 31
Wake Forest vs. Boise State

Speaking of dream scenarios, the Humanitarian Bowl could do a whole lot worse than landing two teams that played in BCS games last year. Boise State should win at least 10 games again this season, but the Broncos aren't getting another BCS bid unless they go unbeaten. We figure the Broncos must stay home and face Wake Forest in a matchup between two of last season's biggest Cinderella stories.
Music City Bowl: ACC vs. SEC

Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 31
Georgia Tech vs. South Carolina

This would mark a renewal of a rivalry. Georgia Tech and South Carolina faced each other every year from 1970-78 and squared off again annually from 1988-91, but they haven't met since. For the record, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier went 3-0 against Georgia Tech while coaching Duke from 1987-89.

Chick-fil-A Bowl: ACC vs. SEC

Atlanta, Dec. 31
Florida State vs. Tennessee

This would represent a rematch of Tennessee's 23-16 victory over Florida State in the 1998 Fiesta Bowl that determined the national champion. That represents the only time Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer have faced each other. The only other previous Florida State-Tennessee game was the Seminoles' 10-0 victory at Knoxville in 1958.
Insight Bowl: Big Ten vs. Big 12

Tempe, Ariz. Dec. 31
Arizona vs. Oklahoma State

Because we're predicting two Big Ten teams will earn BCS bids, we're guessing the conference won't have enough other bowl-eligible teams to fill all its bowl tie-ins. That should make room for an at-large berth to Arizona, whose presence in this game would assure a large crowed.

Outback Bowl: Big Ten vs. SEC

Tampa, Jan. 1
Ohio State vs. Auburn

Ohio State has earned a BCS bid four of the last five years, but all that inexperience on offense could cause the Buckeyes to settle for a New Year's Day appearance in a lesser bowl this season. Auburn beat Ohio State 31-14 in the 1990 Outback Bowl, but that's the only time these two traditional powers have met since a scoreless tie in 1917. This spot normally goes to a team from the SEC Eastern Division, but we expect Outback officials to opt for a team from the West this time because two of the top teams in the East (Florida and Georgia) will be invited to bowls higher in the pecking order and the third (Tennessee) went to Tampa last year.
Cotton Bowl: Big 12 vs. SEC

Dallas, Jan. 1
Texas A&M vs. Alabama
This dream matchup of Nick Saban and Co. against a home-state team would fill a stadium twice the size of the Cotton Bowl. We expect Auburn to finish ahead of Alabama in the Western Division standings, but we're guessing the Cotton would prefer to invite Alabama this year instead of welcoming Auburn back for a second consecutive season.

Gator Bowl: ACC vs. Big East/Big 12/Notre Dame

Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 1
Miami vs. Nebraska

The Gator Bowl is under contract to take a Big 12 team instead of a Big East school or Notre Dame two of the next three seasons. Gator Bowl scouts would probably jump at the chance to bring Nebraska's large fan base to North Florida. Miami fans don't usually travel in large numbers, but Nebraska's presence should guarantee a sellout. The renewal of the Miami-Nebraska rivalry from the 1980s and 1990s also ought to assure solid TV ratings.
Capital One Bowl: Big Ten vs. SEC

Orlando, Fla., Jan. 1
Penn State vs. Georgia

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Penn State-Georgia Sugar Bowl showdown that resulted in Joe Paterno's first national championship. How better to celebrate the event than by holding a rematch in a bowl game?

Rose Bowl: Big Ten champ vs. Pac-10 champ

Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1
Michigan vs. Florida

We're betting that one Pac-10 team ends up playing for the national championship and no other schools from that conference warrant BCS invitations. That will leave the Rose Bowl searching for an at-large team to fill the Pac-10's spot. If you can't have the ideal Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup, inviting the defending national champions to California represents the next-best option.
Sugar Bowl: SEC champ vs. at-large

New Orleans, Jan. 1
Louisiana State vs. Louisville

We're taking a leap of faith that an 11-1 Louisville team can earn a BCS invitation even if it fails to win the Big East. Louisville doesn't have the world's largest fan base, but the Sugar Bowl shouldn't have to worry about selling out a game that features LSU playing in New Orleans. Former LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell made himself the first pick in the NFL Draft by leading the Tigers to a Sugar Bowl blowout of Notre Dame last season. Could Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm put himself in a similar position at this year's Sugar Bowl?
Fiesta Bowl: Big 12 champ vs. at-large

Tempe, Ariz., Jan. 2
Texas vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin had to settle for a Capital One Bowl berth after going 11-1 last season because Ohio State and Michigan already had secured the Big Ten's two BCS invitations. The Badgers should finally get that long-awaited BCS bid this season, even if they can't beat out Michigan for the Big Ten title. This game would resemble a homecoming of sorts for a few assistant coaches with Arizona roots, albeit in Tucson instead of Tempe. Texas co-defensive coordinators Duane Akina and Larry Mac Duff worked as assistant coaches on Arizona's "Desert Swarm" defenses in the 1990s. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was a defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Arizona in 2003.
Orange Bowl: ACC champ vs. at-large

Miami, Jan. 3
Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma

This would mark the 19th Orange Bowl appearance for Oklahoma, which has won this game a dozen times. Oklahoma used to come here all the time when the Big Eight champ earned a trip to the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl's automatic bid now goes to the ACC champion, which explains why Virginia Tech soon might be making regular appearances here.
International Bowl: Big East/Notre Dame vs. MAC

Toronto, Jan. 4
South Florida vs. Toledo

This matchup underscores why the Big East must improve its bowl tie-ins. We're guessing South Florida finishes just outside the Top 25 and wins about eight games this year. That kind of season merits a greater postseason reward than a holiday trip to Toronto to face a team that couldn't even win the Mid-American Conference championship.

GMAC Bowl: Conference USA vs. MAC

Mobile, Ala., Jan. 6
Houston vs. Western Michigan
We have nothing against Houston coach Art Briles and Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, who have done admirable jobs building winners at their respective programs, but this nondescript matchup shows why games such as the GMAC Bowl and International Bowl shouldn't be played this late in the season. As one of the first bowl games on the calendar, these games would whet the appetite of fans starved for football. When they're played amidst all the BCS games, however, they simply get lost in the shuffle.
BCS championship game: At-large vs. at-large

New Orleans, Jan. 7
Southern California vs. West Virginia

Picking Southern California to reach this game has been a pretty safe bet for most of the Pete Carroll era. The Trojans' non-conference schedule might be tough enough to allow them to reach this game even if they don't finish the regular season unbeaten. West Virginia undoubtedly must go 12-0 to earn a bid to the title game, but the Mountaineers should benefit from playing Big East rival Louisville at home this year.

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