Bowl Preview III: King of the Mountain

With 34 bowls in total this year, here are seven that will tell us plenty about whether the Big 12 or SEC was the nation's best conference this year, whether the Mountain West might just be better than the Big East and whether the ACC is the also-ran the rest of the country perceives it to be, or the best conference in the league, as the computers say.

We're unabashed playoff proponents, but one of the great strengths of the bowl system is that these minor bowl games allow to see where college football's true strength lies. For as much as the National Title Game results are scrutinized to determine conference strength, the law of large numbers dictates these minor-tier bowl games are a truer indicator of which conferences are best -- just because there are so many of these pre-New Year's Bowls.
Note: The Vegas over/under and the Vegas spread are used to form the Vegas prediction.
Tacky Corporate Sponsorship Bowls

20. Champs Sports (Dec. 27, Orlando, ESPN)
Florida State vs. Wisconsin 
First we had BYU in its fourth-straight Las Vegas Bowl, and now we have even more bowl placement hijinks. Of course Free Shoes University (see No. 4) would meet Wisconsin, also known for a five-finger discount or two. And of course they would play in a bowl named after a retail chain. No word on whether the winning team will receive its payout Supermarket Sweep-style: the team's allowed three minutes in the store, and whatever they can grab is all theirs. Rhodes scholar Myron Rolle's Seminoles better come up with a top-ten season within the next year or two, lest they become the South's Notre Dame ("Returning to Glory Since 1993.") I think the talent's there, especially defensively, for Florida State to absolutely manhandle a Wisconsin team that hasn't been able to do much other than run since the Ron Dayne days.
Vegas: Florida State 29, Wisconsin 24
The Bootleg: Florida State 33, Wisconsin 10

21. Meineke Car Care (Dec. 27, Charlotte, ESPN)
North Carolina vs. West Virginia
West Virginia and Coach Bill Stewart is like me and my first girlfriend in seventh grade. I'm a nerd, she's the prettiest girl in the grade. I was in hopelessly over my head (or, as a Bootleg poster once phrased a similar situation, "he'd outkicked his coverage") and she was going to come to her senses and realize that soon enough. Here, West Virginia is the (soon-to-be former) top-10 program and Bill Stewart the career assistant for a reason. So I'm naturally inclined to go against West Virginia. Plus, they certainly didn't think their season would end here: how motivated will they be?
Also, the ACC may be a joke at the top, but its eighth-best team, North Carolina, is markedly better than a Baylor or UCLA or Purdue or any other conference's eighth-best team. They might have won three more games in any other league. And they're at home. That's more than enough reasons to go with the Heels here.
Vegas: North Carolina 23, West Virginia 22
The Bootleg: North Carolina 27, West Virginia 23

22. (Dec. 29, Birmingham, Ala., ESPN)
Rutgers vs. North Carolina State
NC State finished tenth, that's correct, tenth, in the ACC, but has won four straight, the last three over bowl teams. Rutgers, meanwhile, started off 1-5 and the year's biggest disappointment this side of Sarah Palin. They, however, have also rallied, winning their last six straight games. In fact, the Scarlet Knights won its last five games by an average of 46-17. Rutgers is finally clicking and has the higher overall talent level, so they're the pick here. Except a shootout -- I don't trust either defense.
Vegas: Rutgers 30, NC State 23
The Bootleg: Rutgers 35, NC State 31

23. GMAC (Jan. 6, Mobile, Ala., ESPN)
Tulsa vs. Ball State
Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock was ridiculed preseason for predicting Ball State would go undefeated. Whitlock had the last laugh, as the Cardinals (hey, at least the Cardinals were bowl eligible) did have a 12-0 regular season, though a loss to Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game places them here. Ball State's offense covers up a defense that has allowed at least 14 points in all but two games this season, and Tulsa's perfectly built to exploit that. The 10-3 Hurricanes topped 56 points six times this season and their season-low of 23 points was more than Stanford's 2007 average. Of course, Tulsa also allowed Houston to hang 70. With Tulsa having lost three of its last five, Ball State is the pick here, despite a shaky defense.
Vegas: Ball State 40, Tulsa 37
The Bootleg: Ball State 55, Tulsa 45

Acceptable Corporate Sponsorship Bowls

24. Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31, Atlanta, ESPN)
LSU vs. Georgia Tech
This is everything a bowl should be. Cool city. Regional teams, so you can expect a good crowd. Interesting matchup between two of the best conferences, with both squads good enough that the outcome won't be easily pooh-pooed by the losing side. And, oh yeah, great commercials. LSU's lost three of four and has given up 31 points in three straight games. Georgia Tech, which will be playing perhaps a mile from its campus, has just the option attack to drive an undisciplined defense nuts. I'm predicting a lot of big scores this bowl season, and I think Paul Johnson's Jackets add to the tally here.
Vegas: Georgia Tech 27, LSU 23
The Bootleg: Georgia Tech 41, LSU 24

25. Capital One (Jan. 1, Orlando, ABC)
Michigan State vs. Georgia
The former Outback Bowl isn't acceptable because of its sponsor per se, because if anyone finds Capital One's commercials funny, it's the same people who laugh at Dane Cook. [Full disclosure: I may have listened to the man's CDs semi-regularly for a three-month period. I was 18, living proof that young and foolish people do young and foolish things.] Rather, the bowl's annual matchups make it one of the ten best bowls most postseasons, so it's in the acceptable column almost by default. This year, the Big Ten Hate parade marches on, because I don't think Michigan State has a NFL prospect outside RB Javon Ringer, I know the Spartans haven't seen a defense with the speed of Georgia's, and I strongly suspect the Spartans don't have a prayer. SEC, let the crowing commence.
Vegas: Georgia 31, Michigan State 23
The Bootleg: Georgia 35, Michigan State 14

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