Bowl season is here, which means there will be college football games almost constantly between now and January 6. While the first week of bowls do not produce any huge matchups, as all the highly ranked teams don’t play until around New Year’s, and the national title game isn’t until January 6, there are still some good matchups in some of these smaller bowl games.
Game of the Week: Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, #20 Fresno State (11-1) vs #25 USC (9-4) (-6)
These two teams come into the biggest bowl before Christmas having had two very different seasons. Fresno State, led by QB Derek Carr, started the year 10-0 and was battling with Northern Illinois for a BCS at-large bid (neither ended up getting one, because both lost). The dream ended when they allowed 62 points to San Jose State the day after Thanksgiving. An interesting note is that this team has won games in overtime against Rutgers and San Diego State, and beat Boise State by just 1 point. USC has had a soap opera-like season, that started with the mid-season firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That was followed by the team going 6-2 under interim coach Ed Orgeron, with their only losses to Notre Dame and UCLA. Due to the success, Orgeron felt he deserved to be named head coach, but when Steve Sarkisian was hired instead and the school offered Orgeron a high-paying assistant position, he declined. Clay Helton will assume the interim position for their game against Fresno State. With all of that going on at USC, focusing on a bowl game may be difficult, particularly for a program so used to going to big bowl games and now playing before Christmas. Also, USC struggled on defense at times this year, and this may be the best offense they’ve played. Then again, Fresno State can probably say the same. USC is favored by 6, although that may just be a basic case of name recognition when these teams are actually somewhat even.
Fresno State 45, USC 38.
Big Game Guarantee: Texas Bowl, Syracuse (6-6) vs Minnesota (8-4)
These are two of the bigger names to play in the first week of bowl games, even if neither football program has really been at the top recently. That may change soon, as both of these programs are on the rise. Syracuse is in their first year of ACC play, which has been highlighted by 4 wins in conference play, including two against bowl-eligible teams (Maryland, Boston College). However, the Orange also have bad losses to Northwestern, who was just 1-7 in Big Ten play, and Georgia Tech, who is in a bowl game but beat Syracuse by 56. Minnesota, who is favored by 4, was 4-2 to start the season, with losses coming to Iowa and Michigan, before coach Jerry Kill took a leave of absence to seek treatment for epilepsy. While their record since is an identical 4-2, they have played better since against a tougher portion of their schedule, with wins against Nebraska and Penn State, among others, and losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, both of whom are ranked in the top 20 and playing bowl games on New Year’s Day. Minnesota lost the Texas Bowl a year ago, and may be looking for redemption.
Minnesota 24, Syracuse 20.
Another Big Game Guarantee: Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Boise State (8-4) vs Oregon State (6-6)
Oregon State is favored by 3 when these teams play Christmas Eve in Maui. However, the Beavers have lost 5 straight since their 6-1 start, and that first loss was in their season-opening game against Eastern Washington. While their 5 consecutive losses are all to good football teams, they only had a good chance to win in 2 of those games. To the contrary, they did look pretty good in a 1-point loss to Oregon in their last regular season game. Boise State has had their own struggles at times this season, with blowout losses at Washington and at BYU, as well as close losses on the road against Fresno State and San Diego State. The Broncos will find motivation for this game after losing their head coach, Chris Petersen, who has taken the job at Washington after 13 years in Boise (8 years as head coach). The conference the Broncos lost their coach to, the Pac-12, coincidentally happens to be the same conference Oregon State is in. I simply believe the Broncos have more motivation in this case than the Beavers, and the winner of a bowl game is often the team that wants to be there the most.
Boise State 27, Oregon State 26.
Another Big Game Guarantee: Fight Hunger Bowl, BYU (8-4) vs Washington (8-4)
Washington is favored by 3 in a matchup of two pretty good 8-4 football teams taking place at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, home of the Giants from April to October. I say that after looking at the seasons each of these teams have had. Washington’s season has been highlighted by blowout wins against Boise State, Arizona, and Oregon State, as well as 10-point wins over both Illinois and in-state rival Washington State. Their 4 losses are all to teams currently ranked in the top 17, including losing by just 3 at Stanford. Perhaps this success is a big reason coach Steve Sarkisian has left for the USC job, perhaps offering this team extra motivation for this game. BYU has had a similar season, with wins over Texas, Boise State, and Georgia Tech. Additionally, all of their losses except a season-opening loss to Virginia are understandable, although they could have beaten Utah in a close game. There should be a lot of offense in this contest, as Washington is 8th in total offense and BYU is 14th.
Washington 49, BYU 38.
Upset of the Week: Little Caesar’s Bowl, Pittsburgh (6-6) vs Bowling Green (10-3)
Bowling Green is favored by 5 in this game, which will be played at Ford Field in Detroit, only about a 75 minute drive from their campus in northern Ohio. The Falcons come into the game at 10-3, and as champions of the MAC after beating Northern Illinois in the championship game, which was also at Ford Field. Their three losses are to Mississippi State by a point, Toledo by 3, and Indiana by 32. That last one is unusual considering how much the Hoosiers struggled throughout the season. In addition to their 7-1 MAC record, they beat Tulsa 34-7 in non-conference play. While they have a good résumé, Pittsburgh is better than most of the teams they have beaten. Pitt may have 6 losses, but they are all to teams who are playing bowl games, and #1 Florida State is the only team to blow them out. Actually, that Florida State game (41-13) was closer than most of the Seminoles games this year. The Panthers also have a couple of quality wins over Duke and Notre Dame. I’ll be curious in this game to see how Bowling Green responds to playing an ACC opponent, particularly after losing their head coach, Dave Clawson, who left for Wake Forest, which is ironically in the ACC.
Pittsburgh 31, Bowling Green 23.
Another Upset of the Week: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Tulane (7-5) vs Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)
Tulane is a 1-point favorite in their home building at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. While this game may be on their home turf (literally), Louisiana-Lafayette isn’t far from home either, and seems to have made a home playing in New Orleans on the third Saturday in December, as this is the 3rd consecutive year the Ragin’ Cajuns have played in this bowl game. Lafayette comes into the game having lost back-to-back games, although Tulane has lost 3 out of 4. This will be Tulane’s first bowl game in 11 years, and while they have 5 losses, 1 was to ACC opponent Syracuse. Similarly, 2 of Lafayette’s 4 losses were to Arkansas and Kansas State. These two neighboring schools have played 15 times, with Tulane winning 10 of the 15, although Lafayette won last year’s meeting, 41-13, in the only meeting since 2000.
Louisiana-Lafayette 28, Tulane 17.