The Miami Hurricanes will return to postseason play for the first time since 2010, and who the 'Canes will face in a 2013 bowl is slowly becoming clear.
Due to Florida State's elite status and weak remaining schedule, a BCS bid is practically locked up for the Seminoles. Clemson, the next best team in the ACC, is hanging around the Top 10 of college football's important ranking system and could steal an at-large BCS bid.
Over the past three games, Miami lost star running back Duke Johnson and its biggest vertical threat in wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, but the Hurricanes are still among the top of the conference.
Whether it is a surprise home game for the Orange Bowl, a trip to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl or Orlando for the Russell Athletic Bowl, the 'Canes will take a shot at one of the nation's top teams.
And for a team striving for a return to national prominence, there is no better way to gauge its current status than to battle the nation's top competition.
Sun Life Stadium—Miami's home field—is where the BCS Orange Bowl game will be played on Jan. 3. The ACC champion faces an at-large opponent in this game, and the Orange Bowl holds the first BCS selection as it pertains to non-automatic qualifiers this season.
Bowl history: The Hurricanes' most recent appearance in the Orange Bowl came against Florida State during the 2003 season, beating FSU 16-14.
With a win over Virginia Tech, Miami is in position to make a trip to Charlotte, NC for the ACC Championship Game. Then, if the Hurricanes pull off an enormous upset by beating Florida State in the conference championship, Miami earns a spot in the Orange Bowl.
But, to be blunt, color me shocked if the Hurricanes qualify for this one. Though the 'Canes playing in this game is far from likely, it is still worth mentioning.
Central Florida Knights
Earlier this season, Central Florida knocked off then-No. 8 Louisville to take control of the American Athletic Conference. By doing so, the Knights are steadfastly in position to earn a BCS bid.
Quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson carried UCF to road wins over Penn State and the Louisville Cardinals, while nearly taking down No. 12 South Carolina at home.
The Knights are still not respected by voters, only ranked 21st in both meaningful polls and somehow five spots behind Louisville in the Harris Poll.
Regardless of its unfortunate ranking, however, Central Florida is still in solid position to appear in the Orange Bowl.
Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave will not overpower opposing defenses with his arm, but led by running backs Melvin Gordon and James White, the Badgers boast the 10th-best rush offense in the nation.
Wisconsin—like Miami recently—isn't winning pretty, but the Badgers are winning. Plus, Wisconsin faces a very winnable schedule for the rest of the regular season, matching up with BYU, Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State.
What's more, the Wisconsin fanbase is notorious for traveling well, having played in three consecutive Rose Bowls and packing the stadium each time.
Assuming Ohio State earns the Big Ten's Rose Bowl bid as anticipated, Wisconsin is a highly attractive at-large selection for the Orange Bowl.
Held on Dec. 31 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga, the Chick-fil-A bowl gets the first pick of non-BCS ACC teams, so this game features ACC No. 2 vs. SEC No. 5.
Bowl history: Miami has twice appeared in this game—formerly known as the Peach Bowl—topping Florida 27-10 in 2004 before being demolished by LSU 40-3 in 2005.
If Florida State is ranked in the top two of the BCS at season's end—which is a definite possibility—Clemson likely receives the ACC's spot in the Orange Bowl.
And so, the Hurricanes would take on a mid-level SEC team; of course, a mid-level SEC team performs near the top of the ACC. That's not SEC bias, that's fact.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger is creeping up 2014 NFL Draft boards, and running back Jeremy Hill is bruising opponents with regularity.
But it's been a disappointing season for Les Miles' squad, having lost two games heading into a prime-time clash with No. 1 Alabama.
Additionally, Auburn, South Carolina, Missouri and Texas A&M are fighting the Tigers for a berth in one of the SEC's four top bowl games.
If LSU falls to the Crimson Tide, it will have suffered its third conference loss of the season and must take out Johnny Manziel and the Aggies to avoid a fourth.
Texas A&M Aggies
Speaking of Johnny Manziel, his Texas A&M team has undergone a "frustrating" two-loss season.
He and star wide receiver Mike Evans comprise a deadly combination, but the Aggies are actually a more favorable matchup for the 'Canes over LSU because of defense. The Tigers' stout D surrenders 351.7 yards, 21.9 points per contest.
Manziel will create ways to put up points, ad-libbing and launching jump balls to his favorite target in 6'5" Evans. But Texas A&M's defense allows 443.1 yards and 29.8 points per game, ranking 14th and 11th in the SEC, respectively.
In other words, "You want a shootout? I'll give you a shootout."
Texas A&M could very well be selected for a repeat trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl, meaning another SEC team gets a crack at the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Other teams to watch: Missouri Tigers, Georgia Bulldogs
Russell Athletic Bowl
The Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla. hosts the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28, showcasing ACC No. 3 vs. AAC No. 2.
Bowl history: Miami lost 20-14 to Wisconsin in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl.
If ever thrown into the prediction gauntlet, know that this is the Hurricanes' probable destination. This pairing in this bowl game is the likeliest scenario for Miami.
One-time Miami commit Teddy Bridgewater quarterbacks this Louisville team, and the Cardinals would pose an interesting matchup.
Louisville's offense is certainly the team's strength, and the 'Canes defense, surprisingly, is proving itself to be more effective than Stephen Morris and Co.
The Hurricanes are on their way to finishing third in the ACC, and barring an unforeseen UCF loss, Louisville will finish second in the AAC as long as the Cardinals defeat Houston.
Louisville would immediately be snatched by this bowl's selection committee, and after FSU and Clemson are chosen, Miami is the ACC's most intriguing school.
Other team to watch: Central Florida
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Consider an appearance in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 the worst-case scenario for Miami.
Should the Hurricanes lose to Virginia Tech and another ACC team (say, Duke or Pittsburgh), they could conceivably fall to the Sun Bowl.
Bowl history: Miami fell 33-17 to Notre Dame in 2010—the 'Canes last postseason appearance—as newly hired coach Al Golden watched from the press box.
Depending on whether or not Oregon earns a spot in the BCS National Championship, the Sun Bowl takes ACC No. 4 vs. Pac-12 No. 4. However, Stanford is also threatening for both the automatic or at-large bid, so the Sun Bowl will probably take the Pac-12 No. 5 this year.
Arizona State and UCLA are on track to lock down the third and fourth spots, so the next program on the Pac-12 radar is Keith Price and the Washington Huskies.
But eight games into the year, Washington sits at 5-3 and has yet to play UCLA and Oregon State.
Like ASU's Marion Grice, running back Bishop Sankey is a player who would demand extra attention from the 'Canes defense. Sankey's 145.3 yards per game ranks third in the nation.
An 8-4 finish is in the forseeable future, and that would be good (or bad) enough for the Pac-12's fifth selection.
Other teams to watch: USC Trojans, Oregon State Beavers
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