Bowl Bonanza: Pre-Christmas bowls

Just like you now see Christmas sales in October and Christmas trees in early November, bowl games have also crept up before Dec. 25. With Stanford back in the bowling business for the first time in a long while, here's a breakdown of the pre-Christmas bowls so you'll know what to watch for (and why to watch) as the holiday nears.

Bowl: New Mexico Bowl, Sat. Dec. 19, 1:30 p.m., ESPN (all times PT), Albuquerque

Teams: Wyoming (6-6), Fresno State (8-4)
Title Sponsor: None. Maybe it's New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment?
Why you should care: It's the kickoff of bowl season! Heck, by the time you'll read this, the game will have started already, so what are you waiting for? Turn on ESPN.
Root for: Wyoming. A Bootie's kid's on the team. They've gone through one heck of a schedule, with their losses to Texas, Colorado, Air Force, Utah, BYU and TCU. That's four ranked teams and one heck of a schedule for a mid-major.
What will happen: Five of Wyoming's six wins have come by a touchdown or less, four by a field goal or less, while all of their losses have been of the double-digit variety. They also scored 10, 10, 10, 0, 0 and 0 in those six losses. Ouch. Fresno State should have no problem against a team that has scored only 203 points all season, compared to 327 allowed, so the Bulldogs should roll in a game Wyoming's lucky to be at in the first place.
However, a major caveat (and a reason this author would never bet on bowl games) is the motivation question. Countless times we've seen a big favorite get blown out of minor bowl games because they don't really want to be there, while the underdog upstart has been waiting for years. (Heck, that's why we picked every single underdog in the BootPool; let's see how it turns out.) So Fresno State is a better team and should win, but who knows? Heck, ESPN even has a bowl betting column which touches upon this: check it out.
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 2, and not a 1 just because it is the first game of the season. Fresno State's Ryan Matthews is a guy Gerhart diehards were tracking throughout the year because of his productivity, so I guess it'll be fun to see him. Late add: the teams just screamed at and shoved each other at midfield prior to kickoff. Let's upgrade to a 2.5.

Bowl: St. Petersburg Bowl, Sat. Dec. 19, 5 p.m., ESPN

Teams: Rutgers (8-4), Central Florida (8-4)
Title Sponsor: Beef ‘O' Brady's. Some pub/diner in 23 Southeast/Midwest states. (This Michigander had never heard of it, for what it's worth.)
Why you should care: You know someone at one of the schools? You strongly prefer your knights either Scarlet or Golden? You're in some cold clime and just want to be viscerally warmed through a broadcast from Florida?
Root for: Central Florida. New Jersey could be a poor man's Florida, a potential recruiting hotbed. Rutgers, however, has come on in recent years and is starting to keep some of those prospects. (In totally unrelated news, just saw an ad hawking Hooters gift cards as Christmas gifts. This week's sign of the apocalypse.)
What will happen: Rutgers' losses are to Cincinnati, Pitt, West Virginia, (okay, okay, okay) and Syracuse. (Really?) Their best win was against Connecticut. UCF, meanwhile, has lost to Texas and Miami, fine, but also Southern Miss and East Carolina. Their best win was against a marginal Houston team, and three of their last four wins have been by a touchdown or less. The Big East is also a much tougher conference than Conference USA. We're not going to repetitively mention the motivation caveat 20 times for all these also-ran bowls, so with that disclaimer in mind, Rutgers should win this one hands down.
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 1

Bowl: New Orleans Bowl, Sun. Dec. 20, 5 p.m., ESPN

Teams: Southern Miss. (7-5) Middle Tennessee (9-3)
Title Sponsor: R+L Carriers, a shipping company.
Why you should care: You're an addict and have 100G on this one? You want to watch football but hate the NFL, either because your team, real or fantasy, has seen its season go up in smoke, or on the merits? You hear Sunday football in the Superdome and that the Saints are 13-0 and turn on ESPN figuring it's time for Drew Brees? Beats me.
Root for: Middle Tennessee. In this battle of directional schools, keep in mind we already have a lot of north/west/east/south: Southern Miss, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Michigan, Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington, South Florida, East Carolina. Heck, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, North and South Dakota – Mississippi, you got beat by 150 years. (Also, I think that sentence just made Scout's macro that links school names to their respective websites explode.) There aren't a whole ton of Middles though, so points for originality. Oh, and Southern Miss was mean and fired a successful coach for no reason whatsoever, because he was "only" going 8-4 every season. They're Southern Miss, what did they expect? It was a widely ridiculed decision. Plus, Blue Raiders, awesome nickname.
What will happen: Southern Miss is better: they have a similar point margin to MTSU, but play in a far better conference. Indeed, the Sun Belt is the worst conference out there, but then again, MTSU has won six straight and scored at least 27 in every single win this season. Plus USM is 1-5 outside its state. So hey, why not, let's go with the plucky underdog Blue Raiders? Maybe a bit of wishful thinking?
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 1. Total sock drawer time. The worst of the 34 bowls, I think.

Bowl: Las Vegas Bowl, Tues. Dec. 22, 5 p.m., ESPN

Teams: BYU (10-2) Oregon State (8-4)
Title Sponsor: MAACO, an auto body shop. This is like an SNL skit – really scraping bottom of the barrel here.
Why you should care: Stanford nearly ended up here. It's Vegas for goodness sake. Oh, and the Pac-10 kicks off its bowl season here, after Stanford's best football player arguably ever got snubbed the Heisman Trophy, in no small part due to the rest of the country not noticing the league. There's one way to change that and it's to win. A lot.
Root for: Oregon State, Pac-10 pride. Plus I'm still bitter at all of the backlash from that 2004 Mormon marriage halftime show.
What will happen: Oregon State was 20 yards away from being in the Rose Bowl, and BYU has been to this game for seemingly the last eight years running. Hard to imagine either team will be incredibly fired up. Plus, of course, you'd have to think OSU would get into more trouble in Vegas than the Cougars. Still, I don't see where BYU finds the athletes to stop James and Jacquizz Rodgers. OSU has shown its ability to score on anyone this season – think of its games against the Pac-10's top teams, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, USC – its offense was never a problem. So however many OSU needs, I think it gets. And, of course, never go against Mike Riley after September. OSU in a fun shootout.
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 3.5

Bowl: Poinsettia Bowl, Wed. Dec. 23, 5 p.m., ESPN, San Diego

Teams: Utah (9-3), California (8-4)
Title Sponsor: S.D. County Credit Union. "San Diego's largest locally based financial institution. Everyone living or working in San Diego, Riverside & Orange Counties is welcome."
Why you should care: Stanford's archrival, who handed the Card a last-second loss that cost Toby the Heisman, is playing. Pac-10 pride is on the line. It would be really funny if the preseason top-10 Bears lost and finished 8-5. Plus, as is the case in a lot of these games, Stanford's final rankings could be impacted. Win and the Card could finish Top 15. Lose and the Card could remain in the Top 25. Of course, that all depends on what all the teams above and below Stanford in the polls do, however.
Root for: Cal? I think the joy in seeing Cal lose and the benefits of finishing with no worse of a record than the Bears blush compared to the regional squabbling going on, especially with Stanford's recruiting base so national. The Card have recruited relatively well against Cal besides, so I think something like a 1-5 bowl season from the league would hurt recruiting more than a Cal win. So Go Bears?
What will happen: We've seen how mercurial Cal has been all year. Stanford? Big game (and Big Game), they played to their potential and then some. Arizona? Ditto. Oregon or USC? A little bit of adversity and goodbye. Arizona State? Seemingly a small-time game, almost choked away. Washington? Whoopsies. (Unrelated, but love mentioning it: two years ago, clock running? Call timeout, Cal! Call a timeout!) So I think that, while Cal does benefit from having played more recently, they're not all that fired up and that's the difference against a Utah team that will always play with a chip on its shoulder whenever it's playing a BCS-league team. (Remember last year's Sugar Bowl thrashing of Alabama? Or the 2004 takedown of Pitt?)
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 2.5

Bowl: Hawaii Bowl, Thu. Dec. 24, 5 p.m., ESPN, Honolulu

Teams: SMU (7-5) Nevada (8-4)
Title Sponsor: Sheraton, the hotel chain.
Why you should care: Washington State beat SMU and now the Mustangs are in a bowl! Kind of nuts. SMU hasn't been to a bowl in 25 years and the school president himself was on hand to accept the bowl bid, so let's be happy for them. We know what eight years is like – imagine 25!
Root for: SMU is a very conservative school and is housing W.'s library, so I guess your politics could play into this one. Reno's a nice place -- Stanford students have definitely given those casinos and ski slopes our fair share of money over the years -- and if you graduated in the last ten years, you've probably been on ski trips there yourself. So Was it you or some other dude that got the late-night Jacuzzi makeout session with your crush freshman year? was it a win or a loss of $300 at that Harrah's senior year? There's your rooting interest.
What will happen: Nevada can score loads, and has put up 63, 70, 62, 52 and 63 in separate games this season, not to mention 37, 35, 31 and 33 for good measure. Of course, the Pack can't play D and also allowed Jimmy Clausen one of the craziest stat lines ever in the season opener: 15-of-18 for 315 yards and four touchdowns. SMU, meanwhile, has actually yielded more points than it's scored, and now faces a Nevada team which has won eight of its last nine. So on the merits, Nevada should run away, but again, SMU hasn't been to a bowl game in a quarter of a century, while Nevada was this close to winning the WAC, and so Hawaii must feel like a letdown. If you're not 100 percent focused, Hawaii's a pretty easy place to get distracted, so let's call for a Nevada upset.
Excitement rating (1 = sock drawer… 5 = can't miss): 3.5. Should be 100 total points in this one. If SMU can stay close, it'll be loads of fun.


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