I've never wanted to completely eliminate bowl games from college football's postseason. Instead, I would take the top eight or 12 teams in the BCS rankings, bracket-ize them and have at it, leaving the remaining teams with better than six wins to go bowling.
Like the NCAA Tourney and the NIT, two postseason options would co-exist in a phenomenon I like to call "the best of both worlds." But *sigh* it's never going to happen.
In the meantime, this year we have three bowls of significance to the majority of football fans in our circulation circle: the Citi BCS National Championship Game, the PapaJohns.com Bowl and the Outback Bowl. The national championship game will be profiled in excruciating detail in next week's column, leaving us this week to ponder the teams, circumstances and potential outcomes of this year's Pizza and Steak bowls. Applause and a hearty huzzah, if you will, as the curtain rises on the Weekly's second-annual bowl preview.
The PapaJohns.com Bowl
South Carolina Gamecocks (7-5) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7-5)
Jan. 2, 2010 • 1 p.m. • Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
South Carolina at a glance: It would be an understatement to say that nothing has come easy for South Carolina this season. After busting out of the gate with a 5-1 record — including a 16-10 win over Ole Miss (which, at the time, seemed like a huge upset) — the Gamecocks struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last six games. Steve Spurrier, as he has every season since returning to the college game, has struggled to field an overachieving quarterback. Stephen Garcia had another inconsistent season, completing just over 56 percent of his pass attempts for 2,733 yards, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Carolina has also had a difficult time running the football, relying primarily on frosh back Kenny Miles. Miles carried 111 times for 602 yards this season, but scored only one rushing touchdown. Defensively, the Gamecocks rank 15th in the nation in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense. Senior LB Eric Norwood is the team leader in sacks (7.0-50) and tackles for loss (11.5-55).
Connecticut at a glance: Those of us hundreds of miles removed from Storrs, Conn., could look at UConn's schedule and come up with any number of excuses for their mid-season swoon. But then again, you'd be forgetting about the terrible story of star CB Jasper Howard, who was stabbed to death during an on-campus party following the Huskies' 38-25 homecoming victory over Louisville on Oct. 17. Head coach Randy Edsall was tasked with identifying Howard's body following the incident.
UConn dropped three straight games following Howard's death; two to ranked teams, each by four points or less. The Huskies did manage to close out the season with three big wins over Notre Dame, Syracuse and South Florida, respectively.
On offense, UConn is lead by sophomore RB Jordan Todman (226 carries, 1152 yards, 14 TDs) and senior WR Marcus Easley (44 catches, 853 yards, 8 TDs). Cody Endres and Zach Frazer have been sharing QB duties throughout the season (oddly, each has thrown for exactly 1,354 yards in 2009), but Endres is apparently recovering from a late-season shoulder injury. Defensively, the Huskies have struggled. The team ranks 60th in the nation in scoring defense, having given up 22 or more points in nine of 12 games. Senior lineman Lindsey Witten has been a force on the defensive side of the ball, collecting 8.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Junior LB Lawrence Wilson has 136 total tackles, an average of just over 11 per game.
Prediction: Which Carolina team will show up? The team that beat Clemson handily, or the team that dropped four out of five games before beating Clemson handily? Will the Huskies perform well on the road, where they have dropped three of their last four? Both schools have a flair for the dramatic – 2 of the teams' 24 combined games have been decided by seven or less points – which suggests that we should at least have another entertaining pizza bowl matchup this season. So who's got the edge? Well, it's hard to pick against the guys who are playing on behalf of a fallen teammate. UConn 21, South Carolina 17
The Outback Bowl
Auburn Tigers (7-5) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (8-4)
Jan. 1, 2010 • 10 a.m. • Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Auburn at a glance: The Tigers have struggled to find consistency on offense for much of the season. Chris Todd started the year hot, cooled off mid-season, and has been up-and-down since the LSU game. Todd has an impressive 21 touchdown passes in 2009, but his stats were inflated by a four-game stretch of toothless opponents to open the season. Senior RB Ben Tate has picked up the slack on offense, collecting 1,254 yards on 243 carries and scoring eight touchdowns. Backup Onterio McCalebb (when healthy) has also been impressive, rushing for 547 yards and four scores on 99 carries.
Auburn's two top wideouts, Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams, have game-breaking potential. Both receivers average nearly 20 yards per catch. Adams has scored 10 touchdowns this season thus far.
On defense, new coordinator Ted Roof has struggled to juggle a roster thin on bodies and talent. Junior LB Josh Bynes leads the Tigers in tackles with 94, while senior lineman Antonio Coleman has a team-best nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. Auburn is 51st in the nation in total defense and 73rd in the nation in scoring defense. Of particular concern against Northwestern, the Tigers give up roughly 200 yards passing per game; that's the fourth-worst pass defense in the SEC.
Northwestern at a glance: I'm not sure how much stock I put into the numbers I pulled from TeamRankings.com, but they do back up the disparity in strength of schedule between Auburn and Northwestern. The Tigers rank No. 2 in the nation — behind only Alabama — on a list of the nation's toughest schedules. Northwestern? No. 63. Indeed, not too many bowl-bound teams have played as weak a slate as the Wildcats have. Towson, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Syracuse — not to mention the perennially underachieving teams they play within their own conference! For God's sake, they didn't even play conference champion Ohio State this year! Worse yet, of Northwestern's eight wins, only one (week one against Towson, 47-14) was by more than 10 points.
Still, the Cats have some playmakers, starting with senior QB Mike Kafka. Although his touchdown-to-interception ratio wasn't good (12 to 7), Kafka did complete better than 65 percent of his pass attempts for roughly 2,900 yards this season. Senior wideouts Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen combined to catch 128 of the team's 295 pass completions this season. Brewer, who racked up 792 receiving yards, averaged better than 16 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns.
Perhaps out of character for a Big Ten team, Northwestern isn't big on establishing the run. The team doesn't have a single back with more than 300 yards this season. Kafka is the Cats' second-leading rusher with 130 carries for 265 yards and seven touchdowns. Defensively, Northwestern is led by senior DB Brad Phillips and junior LBs Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. Each player averages roughly seven tackles per game. Davie is the team leader in tackles for loss with nine for 25 yards.
Prediction: Northwestern, on paper, doesn't really have a shot against Auburn. They're a typical, lumbering Big Ten team; middle of the pack in a conference of also-rans. They haven't won a bowl game since Harry Truman was president. Auburn has competed and achieved marginal success against eight solid SEC teams. They're faster, bigger and stronger than Northwestern. They're playing (relatively) close to home against what's sure to be a big pro-Auburn crowd. On paper, it's probably Auburn by double-digits. However, there are some important questions we won't be able to answer until after kickoff: Did Auburn pour everything into that final regular-season game against the Tide? Can they recover from that crushing defeat? Teams with strong coaches and veteran leadership can. Will Auburn? Eh...still...it's the Big Ten, for goodness sakes. Auburn 31, Northwestern 20
Next week: The BCS National Championship Game preview