Power Rankings the Most Watchable Bowl Games Remaining

David LutherFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2011

Power Rankings the Most Watchable Bowl Games Remaining

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    We're just about half way through the 2011 bowl season, and we've already seen some instant classics.

    Whether it was the thrill-a-minute nail-biter between Toledo and Air Force, the back-and-forth battle between TCU and Louisiana Tech, or the defense-optional record-breaking score-fest between Baylor and Washington, the 2011 bowl season hasn't been short on entertainment.

    But a quick glance at the bowl schedule shows that the best may be yet to come.

    Many of us are pressed for time, especially around the holidays, so we've decided to provide a bit of a public service by power ranking the remaining bowl games based on their “watchability.”

    If you only have time for a few more games this football season, you're going to want to make sure you catch these entertaining matchups.

    And if you can't find the time to watch the game, make sure you clear some room on your DVR, because if the early bowls were any indication, we're in for one heckuva finish!

10. TicketCity Bowl

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    Houston vs. Penn State, January 2 at Noon (EST), ESPNU

    We're starting off with the TicketCity Bowl, played at the Cotton Bowl on January 2.

    Houston turned out to be one of the bigger BCS frauds this season. After breezing through a ridiculously easy schedule, Houston faced their lone ranked opponent in the Conference USA Championship Game—Southern Mississippi—and were absolutely taken to school.

    The Cougars were outplayed in every facet of the game, and Houston watched its dream of BCS-busting glory vanish.

    Penn State has had its own problems this season. Even ignoring everything that's occurred off the field in State College, PA this season, the Nittany Lions still have reason to feat Houston. Penn State has been completely unable to produce much of anything this season on offense. Sure, the Lions are great on defense (10th in the FBS in total defense, 5th in scoring defense), but PSU is just 93rd in total offense this season. Ouch.

    The real storyline here is whether or not Penn State can score enough points against Houston to stay in the game. We've also seen Case Keenum undressed by the only half-way decent defense he's faced this season, so it's going be interesting to see if Keenum can shake off the ghosts from the C-USA Championship Game and find a way to produce against a quality defense.

9. Orange Bowl

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    West Virginia vs. Clemson, January 4 at 8:30 pm (EST), ESPN

    Somebody from the Big East had to make it to the BCS this season... unfortunately.

    Rather than watching a quality—not to mention more deserving—team like Boise State or Kansas State or Arkansas play, the nation is having West Virginia forced down our throats.

    This is the same West Virginia team that was dismantled by Syracuse earlier this season, and barely finished the season ranked in the polls.

    On the other end of the field will be the ACC Champions, the Clemson Tigers.

    Clemson has been one of the great, feel-good stories this season (unless you're a Florida State or Virginia Tech fan). When the season began so many weeks ago, no one was talking about Clemson. In fact, there weren't many people who could name three starters for the Tigers.

    But as the Tigers kept winning, beating a few ranked teams along the way, Clemson's stock slowly but surely rose until the Tigers found themselves sporting a top ten ranking.

    Sure, Clemson fell back down to earth a little as the season wore on, but they not on managed to capture the ACC title this season, they did so by beating a very good (and BCS participant) Virginia Tech team twice.

    It's very difficult to beat a good team twice in a season (just ask Michigan State), so Clemson deserves major kudos for a job well done.

    It probably seems odd to see a BCS game so low in any power rankings list, but with an uninspiring West Virginia team shoehorned into the BCS taking part, the game just doesn't have the national appeal it could have with a Boise State or Kansas State in the mix.

8. Insight Bowl

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    Iowa vs. Oklahoma, December 30 at 10 pm (EST), ESPN

    One team knew 2011 was going to be rough, and a quality bowl berth against a quality opponent is a nice reward for a lot of hard work during what many saw as a dreaded “rebuilding” season.

    The other team had their sights set on the BCS—possibly even a BCS title game berth—before three devastating losses. A trip to Tempe on December 30 wasn't on the agenda, but life is sometimes full of disappointments.

    Of course, we're talking about Iowa and Oklahoma, and we bet you can figure out which team is which.

    Iowa should be proud of what it accomplished this season, especially considering many people thought the Hawkeyes chances for a quality bowl berth this season wasn't very good in a resurgent Big Ten.

    On the other end, Oklahoma fans, used to watching their Sooners compete in BCS bowls, will have to find a way to shake off the despair, and get geared up for the Insight Bowl.

    Iowa will clearly be motivated to take on a great program like Oklahoma is a bowl game, but will OU be able to overcome their sense of disappointment?

    We've already seen what happens this season when the Sooners don't show up, and if they give Iowa an inch, expect the Hawkeyes to take the entire 100 yards.

7. Capital One Bowl

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    Nebraska vs. South Carolina, January 2 at 1 pm (EST), ESPN

    We've come to our first Big Ten-SEC bowl clash, and it's looking like it could be a good one.

    In their first season in the Big Ten, the Nebraska Cornhuskers found their way into the top non-BCS bowl in terms of payout. Not bad for a first season, but these types of bowl invites are a big part of the reason Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for the Big Ten.

    Nebraska wasn't quite able to make good on their preseason expectations of beating up on their fellow Legends Division members, but a 9-3 (5-3) record was good enough to earn a trip to Orlando for the New Year.

    Similarly, South Carolina came up just short in its bid for a second-straight SEC-East title with a 10-2 (6-2) record. Unlike the Big Ten's Legends, the SEC-East is definitely considered the weaker of the conference's two divisions, but South Carolina has shown that top ten rankings aren't just for the western teams in Dixie.

5. (tie) Cotton Bowl Classic

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    Kansas State vs. Arkansas, January 6 at 8 pm (EST), FOX

    Let's be frank: both of these teams could easily be BCS participants in any other year.

    For some reason, 2011 just seemed to be the worst year possible not to be a conference champion.

    It's rare to find a bowl outside of the BCS that features two top ten teams, but the 2012 Cotton Bowl Classic is exactly that.

    If you look at Kansas State, they are clearly the Cinderella of the season. No one, and we definitely mean no one had Kansas State in their top ten when the season began. Even fans in Manhattan weren't diluted enough to think that their Wildcats could possible find their way into the BCS discussion.

    But as soon as you turn your back on a Bill Snyder-coached team, you can find yourself in a heap of trouble, and that's exactly what happened to so many opponents in the Big 12 this season.

    Kansas State finished 10-2 (7-2), with their only losses coming to Oklahoma and conference champion Oklahoma State.

    Arkansas is in almost an identical position as Kansas State. After earning a Sugar Bowl berth last season, the Razorbacks will have to “settle” for the Cotton Bowl Classic this season, even though the Hogs finished 10-2 (6-2), and also claim a top ten ranking in every poll.

    The only losses for Arkansas this season came to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. Unfortunately for that pesky “two teams per conference only” rule in the BCS, Arkansas wasn't even eligible for a BCS berth this season. Kansas State was simply passed over.

    This season's Cotton Bowl Classic is easily one of the best non-BCS bowls this season, and as we've already seen, ranks several positions higher on our watchability power rankings than the Orange Bowl.

5. (tie) Outback Bowl

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    Michigan State vs. Georgia, January 2 at 1 pm (EST), ABC

    Typically seen as the bowl between third-place finishers in the SEC and Big Ten, this season's Outback Bowl pits two conference championship game participants against one another.

    The SEC-East champion Georgia Bulldogs will face the Big Ten-Legends champion Michigan State Spartans. Georgia is making their fifth appearance in the bowl game (most by any team) while MSU makes their first trip to the Outback Bowl.

    Georgia was able to rebound after last season's disappointing 6-7 finsih, and an 0-2 start to 2011 to win the final 10 games of the regular season before falling to No. 1 LSU in the SEC Championship Game. In doing so, sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray matured before our very eyes and Mark Richt bold said, “what hot seat?”

    For Michigan State, the Spartan football program is continuing its long, steady climb out of the cellar of the Big Ten. Head coach Mark Dantonio has transformed football in East Lansing to something more akin to the hoops program. Every team MSU faces now realizes that the Spartans are becoming a perennial contender in the conference, and you can't look past the Spartans any more these days. Led on field by senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Spartans are hoping to add one final piece to their football renaissance puzzle: a bowl victory—something that has been elusive for MSU since a 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl victory against Fresno State.

    While Georgia was walloped by LSU in the SEC title game, Michigan State narrowly lost to Wisconsin, 42-39 in the Big Ten Championship Game. A victory by MSU would not only be another milestone for Sparty, but it would be a sign that the Big Ten is back.

    A Georgia win, on the other hand, would give a lot of firepower to those SEC fans who love to rag on the guys from up north.

4. Sugar Bowl

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    Virginia Tech vs. Michigan, January 3 at 8:30 pm (EST), ESPN

    When Virginia Tech lost to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, many thought it was the end of the Hokies' BCS hopes.

    When Virginia Tech's name was called on selection Sunday, there were probably a lot of surprised reactions, and we bet many of them were in Blacksburg.

    Not that you'll hear the Hokies complain. After all, Virginia Tech only lost to one team this season, but they lost to that one team twice. The 11-2 (7-1) Hokies have been quietly consistent this season, winning game after game. Considering the Hokies lost the services of standout quarterback Tyrod Taylor after his graduation last season, Va Tech's run back to the BCS has been nothing short of impressive.

    Another impressive resurgence occurred in Ann Arbor. Michigan fans finally had something to cheer about this season, beating Notre Dame in a thriller early in the season, and capping it all off with a long-awaited win over “that school from Ohio,” as new head coach Brady Hoke puts it.

    While Michigan fall just short of winning the Big Ten's Legends Division this season with yet another loss to Michigan State, it's clear that fans of the Wolverines are finally starting to feel good again about the future of Michigan football.

    A win for Michigan in the Sugar Bowl against a BCS veteran like Virginia Tech will serve notice to everyone that the Maize and Blue are back.

3. Rose Bowl Game

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    Oregon vs. Wisconsin, January 2 at 5 pm (EST), ESPN

    After last season's run to the BCS National Championship Game, Oregon was rightfully ranked in the top five to begin 2011. An opening week loss to LSU, which eventually climbed into the No. 1 spot at the nation's only undefeated team at season's end, could be excused. But a rather shocking (at the time) loss to USC, at home no less took the last gust of wind from the sails of the Ducks' BCS title hopes.

    Still, Oregon recovered in time to defeat Stanford rather easily before sleepwalking past UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

    While Ducks fans may be a bid blue having not earned another trip to the title game, a trip to Pasadena is nothing to feel bad about.

    A Rose Bowl trip is a special thing, and Wisconsin is making their second-straight trip to the Rose Bowl Game. In fact, between Oregon and Wisconsin, this will be the third-consecutive year one of those two teams has played in Pasadena at New Year's.

    Wisconsin has had another magical season, this time with the addition of senior transfer quarterback Russell Wilson.

    Along with unstoppable running back Montee Ball, Wilson has guided the Badgers to their second Big Ten title in as many seasons.

    If you're a fan of high-octane passing attacks with powerful grounds games, pull up a chain and get comfortable. This is definitely the game for you.

2. BCS National Championship Game

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    Alabama vs. LSU, January 9 at 8:30 pm (EST), ESPN

    No, we didn't wimp out and pick the BCS National Championship Game to top our power rankings of most watchable remaining bowl games this season.

    Why?

    Quite simply, we've seen it before, and it wasn't all that entertaining the first time around.

    That being said, the title game still finds its way onto our list at No. 2 simply because it is the title game, and there is plenty of intrigue this season with it being a all-SEC affair, and a rematch.

    There's no question that both LSU and Alabama have been great teams this season, but after the first game between these two teams, the “Game of the Century” which turned out to be the “Sorority Pillow Fight of the Century.”

    While some like to remind the rest of us that it's all about great defense, the annoying slap-fight was also about missed field goals, sloppy offense, and a game that no one seemed to want to win.

    There's also the argument that Alabama had its shot (just like Michigan against Ohio State in 2006, and the Wolverines didn't get a rematch). The Tide didn't win their conference. It just seems a little counter-intuitive to reward a team that couldn't find a way to win its own conference.

    Still, it's highly doubtful we'll see another 9-6 finish, but this probably won't be one of the highest-scoring BCS National Championship Games we've ever seen.

    If LSU wins, it will cap off a dominating season, and the Tigers will reign as the only undefeated team in the FBS (and one of a potentially three in all of college football along with Division III National Champion Wisconsin-Whitewater and FCS Championship Game participant Sam Houston State).

    But if Alabama wins, start the discussion.

    With all of the storylines possible depending on who wins, this game is still a very watchable game. Just get ready for endless mentions of the SEC being the greatest thing since God invented air.

1. Fiesta Bowl

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    Stanford vs. Oklahoma State, January 2 at 8:30 pm (EST), ESPN

    The game we've selected to top our power rankings of most watchable remaining bowl games this season is the 2012 Fiesta Bowl.

    So what is it about the Fiesta Bowl that gets us more excited than the BCS title game? First off, there's more than one conference involved.

    Next, it's going to be very interesting to see how Oklahoma State responds to the snub of not getting the invite to New Orleans. Will the Cowboys be able to shake off the slap in the face for long enough to contain Andrew Luck?

    Stanford has shown there are chinks in the armor. Andrew Luck had trouble getting past a surprisingly good USC team this season before running into an Oregon buzzsaw that was able to frustrate Luck all night long.

    But Oklahoma State doesn't exactly field the same caliber of defense we typically see in the Pac-12. So the real question becomes can Oklahoma State score enough against Stanford to outlast Andrew Luck, who could be getting ready for a college career-defining moment.

    Luck also has some major motivations in this game. Beyond guiding the Cardinal to their second-straight BCS bowl victory, he has the opportunity to solidify his status as the likely top NFL Draft selection—a status that has, for the first time in forever, been questioned with his struggles against Oregon and the outstanding play of others, including Baylor's Heisman winner Robert Griffin, III.

    While we may not see as many points as we did in the Baylor-Washington Alamo Bowl, we're sure to see some fireworks in Glendale on January 2.