That's all, folks.
The 2013 college football regular season officially came to a close this weekend, yielding us the final batch of BCS rankings—ever!—and a long, juicy slate of bowl games. Here's a look at the standings:
1. Florida State
4. Michigan State
7. Ohio State
9. South Carolina
13. Oklahoma State
14. Arizona State
20. Fresno State
21. Texas A&M
23. Northern Illinois
Auburn will take on Florida State in the final BCS National Championship—the final two teams to play for a national title without first playing in a national semifinal. Alabama was left on the outside looking in, having to settle for Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, while Nos. 4 and 5 Michigan State and Stanford are poised to play an epic 100th edition of the Rose Bowl.
Here's a full preview of Bowl-a-palooza 2013.
Colorado State vs. Washington State
When: Dec. 21, 2 p.m. ET
Where: Albuquerque, N.M.
Colorado State (7-6) displayed great offensive balance en route to a surprising seven-win season, finishing in the top 40 nationally in both passing and rushing yards per game. Sophomore running back Kapri Bibbs plays with a refreshing old-school attitude around the goal line, leading the nation with 28 touchdowns on the ground, while Nick Saban disciple Jim McElwain has molded the rest of CSU's offense in the vein of Alabama's. In just his second year at the helm, he has this program moving in the right direction.
Washington State (6-6) was one of the pleasant surprises this college football season, starting the year with a near-upset at Auburn—how much better does that result look in hindsight?—and finishing bowl-eligible despite a very tough Pac-12 slate. Mike Leach is known for his prolific Air Raid offense, but the Cougars' defense is what's dragged them this far. Keep an eye on hard-hitting safety Deone Bucannon: He's one of the most underrated players in America.
Fresno State vs. USC
When: Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Las Vegas
Fresno State (11-1) won't be headed to the BCS bowl it competed for all season, thwarted by an ugly loss at San Jose State a couple of weeks ago. But Derek Carr and (especially) the beleaguered defense had a nice rebound performance against a good Utah State team in the MWC Championship Game, winning 24-17 and advancing to play in Vegas. At least for the 21-plus-year-olds on the team, heading to Sin City is not the worst consolation prize.
USC (9-4) has been a better team than Fresno State for most of the season, despite a much inferior record. But any momentum the Trojans had (at least for the 2013 season) went out the door with Ed Orgeron, who left the program enraged after it hired Steve Sarkisian to be the next head coach. How will USC respond to such adversity? The task will fall to its locker room leaders—guys like Marqise Lee and Devon Kennard—to step up and get the boys ready for action.
San Diego State vs. Buffalo
When: Dec. 21, 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Boise, Idaho
San Diego State (7-5) responded well after starting the year 0-3, a stretch that included losses to FCS Eastern Illinois, Ohio State and Oregon State. The Aztecs won seven of their next eight games, including a win over Boise State, and their only loss came in overtime against eventual conference champ Fresno State. A blowout loss to UNLV was an ugly way to end the regular season, but a bowl win over Buffalo would still make this year a relative success for SDSU.
Buffalo (8-4) has enjoyed a fine year under Brian Kelly disciple Jeff Quinn, one of the most underrated coaches in the country. The Bulls didn't notch any signature wins, but they beat every team they were "supposed" to beat, even giving a brief scare to Ohio State in Week 1. Enjoy watching linebacker Khalil Mack in college while you can: Next time you see him after this, he'll be shaking Roger Goodell's hand in New York.
Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
When: Dec. 21, 9 p.m. ET
Where: New Orleans
Tulane (7-5) faded down the stretch after a strong start to the year, which included signature wins over East Carolina and North Texas. Even in defeat later in the season, the Green Wave acquitted themselves well by hanging in games on the road, losing to UTSA and Rice by a combined seven points. As a reward, Tulane gets to play a bowl game in the Superdome—a venue it's lucky enough to call home.
Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) stays in-state as well, advancing to the New Orleans Bowl for the third consecutive season. Unfortunately, do-it-all quarterback Terrance Broadway—the Ragin' Cajuns' emotional leader and best player—broke a bone in his arm, which forced him to miss the season finale against South Alabama. The result of this game might hinge on his status.
East Carolina vs. Ohio
When: Dec. 23, 2 p.m. ET
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla.
East Carolina (9-3) is consistently one of the best mid-major programs in the U.S., and this might have been one of its best years to date. The Pirates barely lost at Virginia Tech early in the year, beating their other two ACC opponents, North Carolina and North Carolina State, by 38 combined points. Despite not even making the C-USA title game, Shane Carden and Justin Hardy are a QB-WR duo that nobody in the country envies facing.
Ohio (7-5) got the bowl nod over fellow 7-5 MAC team Toledo, a decision some might call into question given both teams' respective profiles. Still, even though the Bobcats have been blown out a few times toward the end of the season, they still enjoyed nice early wins over Marshall and North Texas, so it's not like they're in any way undeserving of this spot. They just need to improve dramatically over their recent form—otherwise, a very good ECU team will run them off the field.
Boise State vs. Oregon State
When: Dec. 24, 8 p.m. ET
Boise State (8-4) was good, not great, this season, but this is not the season Broncos fans are worried about. After Chris Petersen (finally) accepted a job from a bigger school—Washington of the Pac-12—it's the future that keeps folks in Boise awake at night. It should be interesting to watch this team respond to the loss of its leader; will it come out extra invigorated, or unrecognizably flat?
Oregon State (6-6) was consistently plagued by its porous defense this year, starting with the Week 1 upset against FCS Eastern Washington (when QB Vernon Adams had 500-plus total yards) and continuing until Washington and Oregon combined to score 105 points in the Beavers' final two games. Still, this team is capable of hanging around with anyone because of its passing offense, which is led by two of the best in college football, QB Sean Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks. Boise State is typically too well coached to get beat by a one-dimensional team, but without Chris Petersen around, this might be a different story.
Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
When: Dec. 26, 6 p.m. ET
Bowling Green (10-3) more than just rained on NIU's parade last Friday night, it monsooned on the Huskies' BCS dreams, dominating the MAC Championship from start to finish, eventually winning 47-27. The Falcons are known for their defense, ranking fifth in the country with 14.8 points allowed per game, but they proved their offense was up to snuff against NIU as well. Pitt has some extremely talented skill-position players, so this could be an interesting matchup.
Pittsburgh (6-6) has been a hard team to peg all season, losing six games despite boasting some of the most exciting players in college football. At the vanguard of that list is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a finalist (and perhaps the favorite) for the Bednarik Award who leads the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss. Offensively, the passing game has been up and down, but if wide receiver Devin Street returns to the lineup healthy, Tom Savage and Co. might be able to find some success against BGSU.
Utah State vs. Northern Illinois
When: Dec. 26, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: San Diego
Utah State (8-5) nearly beat Fresno State in the MAC title game late Saturday, but its first season sans Gary Andersen still has to be considered a wild success, especially after losing do-it-all quarterback Chuckie Keeton early in the year. The Aggies have been one of the pluckiest, scrappiest, most surprisingly competitive teams in America, going 7-1 in league play behind a very stout defense. That unit will be key against all-world quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Northern Illinois (12-1) squandered a chance to crash its second consecutive BCS bowl against Bowling Green on Friday, losing the MAC Championship in blowout fashion, 47-27. That's probably for the best, because these 2013 Huskies, while good, are nowhere near BCS-caliber and might have been embarrassed on a big stage. Utah State's defense will be a stingy but beatable test for Jordan Lynch's collegiate farewell—much more appropriate than a power conference team.
Maryland vs. Marshall
When: Dec. 27, 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Annapolis, Md.
Maryland (7-5) did well to become bowl-eligible (and then add another win for good measure) in yet another injury-plagued season. The Terps were riding high at 4-0 before getting mauled at Florida State, and season-ending injuries to seemingly half of their starters led to some ugly losses in the next few games. Head coach Randy Edsall, despite incessant whispers of being on the hot seat, actually did a heck of a job this season—it's the UMD training staff that needs an upgrade.
Marshall (9-4) followed up one of its best games of the season, a 59-28 win over East Carolina, with by far its worst, a 41-24 drubbing by Rice in the C-USA Championship Game. Still, despite that ugly form, Rakeem Cato and the Thundering Herd have an offense that should give Maryland trouble on a "neutral" field. Both teams played Virginia Tech well in Blacksburg this year, though only UMD came out victorious.
Minnesota vs. Syracuse
When: Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET
Minnesota (8-4) was the darling of the Big Ten this season, coming out of nowhere to start the year 8-2 before crashing back to Earth against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Head coach Jerry Kill has been in and out of the locker room while battling chronic seizures, and the way his team has rallied to perform around him has been nothing short of remarkable—almost certainly the best story of this season. If the Gophers want to end on a high note, though, they'll need to do something about their offense, which has scored just 10 points in its past 10 quarters.
Syracuse (6-6) took a substantial step back from last season, but that was to be expected after losing quarterback Ryan Nassib, head coach Doug Marrone and so many other pieces. All things considered, going 6-6 and making a bowl game has to be considered a mild success, especially for a program with such a rocky football history. The Orange came up huge when they most needed it, beating Boston College to end the season, and if they can carry over some momentum from that performance, there's no reason this team can't take down Minnesota.
Washington vs. BYU
When: Dec. 27, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: San Francisco
Washington (8-4) should be happy after finally breaking the seven-win mark with Steve Sarkisian, but it should be even happier—no offense, Sark—that their former head coach took the USC job and opened a vacant position. Even though the Fight Hunger Bowl will be a good game, fans in Seattle can't be blamed for looking past it: They're way too stoked about the hire of Boise State's Chris Petersen to run this program moving forward. Interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo has his work cut out for him the next few weeks; how do you get your guys to focus on the present with so much excitement for the future?
BYU (8-4) enjoyed yet another fine season, though it would probably love to wipe that season-opening loss at Virginia off the record. Still, the Cougars got to eight wins on the strength of their dominant ground game, boasting multiple 200-plus-carry and 1,200-plus-yard rushers in quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. If Washington's coaching staff can't regroup after losing Sarkisian, the Cougars might be able to gash it.
Notre Dame vs. Rutgers
When: Dec. 28, noon ET
Where: Bronx, N.Y.
Notre Dame (8-4) took a few steps back after making last year's BCS National Championship, but that was to be expected after Manti Te'o's departure and Everett Golson's academic suspension. All things considered, the 2013 season was a decent one, including impressive wins over Michigan State, Arizona State and USC. Tommy Rees now gets one more chance to infuriate Irish fans at Yankee Stadium, which will be emotional in a strangely masochistic way.
Rutgers (6-6) didn't qualify for the postseason until late Saturday night, getting its sixth win of the season against USF, 31-6. The Scarlet Knights have been a tough team to peg this season, but for the most part, 2013 has been a step backward. With so many defensive personnel losses this offseason, they never really seemed to put it all together, firing coordinator Dave Cohen (along with some other coaches) on Sunday afternoon. But even a struggling defense, on certain occasions, can have its way with Tommy Rees.
Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
When: Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. ET
Where: Charlotte, N.C.
Cincinnati (9-3) is peaking at the right time once again; the Bearcats had won six in a row before losing to Louisville in overtime on Friday, and there is no shame in losing to Louisville in overtime. Returning to the Belk Bowl for a second consecutive year isn't sexy, but after getting blown out by Illinois and losing to USF early, it's a nice salvation to the year. Head coach Tommy Tuberville has (and has earned) his fair share of critics, but he's done a pretty good job at Cincy in 2013.
North Carolina (6-6) was unable to play Coastal Division spoiler against Duke in its final game, snapping an impressive five-game winning streak in a 27-25 loss. But that streak was enough to salvage an ugly 1-5 start to the season, sparing head coach Larry Fedora an offseason of critics and potential hot-seat chatter. This team can hang with anyone when it's clicking, but inconsistency has plagued it all year.
Louisville vs. Miami
When: Dec. 28, 6:45 p.m. ET
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Louisville (11-1) is still kicking itself for the loss to Central Florida, a game it had in firm control before the Knights rallied late for the win. It was just one blemish, but one is more than enough to keep an AAC team out of the BCS, even if that team has Teddy Bridgewater, and even if that team won a BCS game last year. Still, in what's expected to be Teddy's final career collegiate game, the Florida native should enjoy taking on another one of his traditional home-state powerhouses.
Just like Louisville, Miami (9-3) harbored BCS dreams well into this season, ascending into the Top 10 after starting the year 7-0. But after getting blown out at home against Florida State, the Hurricanes crumbled and lost another two consecutive games against Virginia Tech and Duke, ending those delusions of grandeur in painful fashion. The offense played well down the stretch, though, scoring 40-plus points in each of the final two games, and there's certainly enough talent on this roster to give Louisville some problems.
Kansas State vs. Michigan
When: Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: Tempe, Ariz.
Kansas State (7-5) bounced back well after its season-opening loss to FCS North Dakota State and 2-4 overall start, salvaging the season and ending up in a respectable (albeit underwhelming) bowl game. But did anyone expect less from Bill Snyder? No matter what happens, Kansas State will always remain competitive as long as there is a wizard roaming the sidelines in Manhattan, Kan. Michigan was decent against the run for most of most of this season, but after seeing how Ohio State gashed it in the Big House, Snyder should be able to turn his guys loose on the Wolverines.
Michigan (7-5) started the season 6-1 before dropping four of its next five games; if not for a turbo field goal to beat star-crossed Northwestern, it would have finished the season on a five-game losing streak at 6-6. Still, despite coming up in defeat, the Wolverines played their best game of the year last time out against Ohio State, nearly beating the Buckeyes before losing on a failed two-point conversion. If offensive coordinator Al Borges and quarterback Devin Gardner perform like they did in "The Game," Michigan should win this bowl. But who at this point is willing to bet on either of those gentlemen?
Navy vs. Middle Tennessee State
When: Dec. 30, 11:45 a.m. ET
Where: Fort Worth, Texas
Navy (7-4) still has to play next week's game against Army before prepping for MTSU, but the Midshipmen should still come out rested enough and prepared. They've been quietly impressive all season, nearly beating Notre Dame and Toledo and boasting decent wins over Pittsburgh, at Indiana and at San Jose State. MTSU has been remarkably average against the run this season and will have its work cut out for it against (maybe) the best rushing offense on its schedule.
Middle Tennessee (8-4) has fared well in its C-USA debut this season, going 6-2 in conference play against a league that was more competitive (and much deeper) than usual. The Raiders roll into postseason play on a five-game winning streak, which began with a 51-49 shootout win over Marshall. Capable of winning in multiple different ways, MTSU will need to step up big on third down against Navy, preventing the Midshipmen from extending drives and controlling the clock.
Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
When: Dec. 30, 3:15 p.m. ET
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
Ole Miss (7-5) was a popular sleeper pick before the season, owing that title to a strong finish in 2012 and one of the best recruiting classes in America. Things never totally came together, though, and despite rapturous highs like the win over LSU, this season was ultimately a disappointment. Bo Wallace is infuriating under center, but his talent is not unlike Zach Mettenberger's at LSU; if he can put it all together next season, this team might ascend to new heights. A good bowl performance would give him some nice momentum for 2014.
Georgia Tech (7-5) lost in heartbreaking fashion against Georgia last time it took the field, but the Yellow Jackets won't have to wait long before getting a chance at redemption against the SEC. As always in Georgia Tech games, the key here will be whether it's able to establish the run and dominate on the ground with its triple-option attack. Ole Miss allowed 240-plus rushing yards in four of its five losses this season.
Texas vs. Oregon
When: Dec. 30, 6:45 p.m. ET
Where: San Antonio
Texas (8-4) was 60 minutes away from winning the Big 12 Championship and advancing to a BCS bowl, which is remarkable given the tatters this team was in during mid-September. Whether or not this team actually played well in 2013 is up for debate, but it certainly started playing better, and for that, Mack Brown deserves at least a modicum of credit. Will that be enough to save his job? Fat chance. But at least Mack gets a big-name opponent—in the state of Texas, no less—for his last stand with the Longhorns. That seems like a fitting sendoff.
Oregon (10-2) hasn't looked like itself the past few weeks, getting blown out at Arizona before barely squeaking by Oregon State in Eugene. But the Ducks' slow finish might be a blessing in disguise: It helped convince quarterback Marcus Mariota to return for his junior season next year. If Mariota can get healthy in the next three weeks, he and Oregon's read-option offense should be able to shred—and when I say shred, I mean shred—Texas' run defense to pieces. That would be a nice start to his premature 2014 Heisman campaign.
Texas Tech vs. Arizona State
When: Dec. 30, 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: San Diego
Texas Tech (7-5) hasn't won a game since Oct. 19, and it hasn't actually looked "good" since routing Kansas two weeks before that on Oct. 5. That's a five-game losing streak to end Kliff Kingsbury's first regular season as an FBS head coach, casting a pall over his once-promising 7-0 start. The Red Raiders can be forgiven—they were, after all, starting a pair of true freshman quarterbacks all year—but they will be heavy underdogs against a very good Arizona State team in San Diego. Does Kingsbury have any magic left in his tank?
Arizona State (10-3) might just have the same kryptonite as Oregon, another team that has proven woefully unable to beat the Stanford Cardinal. The Sun Devils have hung around in every other game they've played this season, including impressive wins over Wisconsin, USC, Washington, UCLA and Arizona. As long as Todd Graham can wake his team up after the wild disappointment of Saturday night, there's no reason ASU shouldn't come out victorious.
Boston College vs. Arizona
When: Dec. 31, 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Shreveport, La.
Boston College (7-5) ended the season with a loss that should have been a win against Syracuse, playing sloppy against a team that it is much better than. Had they won, the Eagles would have had a shot for a program-building nine-win season, but now they must settle for a shot to reach eight. In order to get there, Heisman candidate Andre Williams will need to outduel Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, another one of the best players in the nation. That duo of ball-carriers might join each other on the All-America first team this season.
Arizona (7-5) got run off the field by Arizona State in its last game of the season, looking bad enough to balance out its amazing blowout win over Oregon the week before that. Still, Rich Rodriguez has found a suitable new home in Tucson, and while he's yet to build a team as dominant as some of his West Virginia outfits, he definitely has this once-hapless program moving in the right direction. Carey vs. Williams will steal all of the headlines, but quarterback B.J. Denker, who has struggled throughout much of the season, might be this game's ultimate deciding factor.
UCLA vs. Virginia Tech
When: Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET
Where: El Paso, Texas
UCLA (9-3) hasn't lost to a bad team all season, falling at the hands of both Pac-12 Championship game participants (Stanford and Arizona State) along with Oregon. The Bruins also finished the year with a statement win at USC, which was enough to convince head coach Jim Mora Jr. to spurn his alma mater, Washington, and sign a lengthy extension to remain in Westwood. The paradigm of Southern California football is shifting, and UCLA is becoming a genuine power; beating another traditional power in Virginia Tech would only stoke that momentum.
Virginia Tech (8-4) is happier than any team—save maybe Notre Dame—to know that this will be the official end of its starting quarterback's career. Logan Thomas has tantalized Hokies fans with his physical prowess and potential these past few years, but his inconsistency and inaccuracy has ultimately caused more stress than success. The difference between he and Brett Hundley will make UCLA a rightful favorite in this game, but Virginia Tech's defense is still the best unit on the field, so picking this game isn't exactly cut and dried.
Mississippi State vs. Rice
When: Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Memphis, Tenn.
Mississippi State (6-6) was not expected to make a bowl game before the season, and that expectation didn't change until the Bulldogs upset Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl a couple of weeks ago, winning their unlikely sixth game to become eligible. Now Dan Mullen is playing with house money, and his team should show up loose in Memphis on New Year's Eve. A loss to C-USA champion Rice would not reflect well on the mighty SEC, so other fans of the conference will be rooting hard for the Bulldogs.
Rice (10-3) came out of nowhere to win 10 games this year, starting the season by hanging around against Texas A&M (sans suspended Johnny Manziel for one half) and ending it with an impressive blowout win over Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game. Without a "bad loss" on their resume, the Owls have to be lauded for depth and week-to-week consistency, despite lacking a true signature player to hang their hat on nationally.
Duke vs. Texas A&M
When: Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET
Duke (10-3) played a pretty good all-around game against Florida State on Saturday and still lost 45-7—that's how dominant the Seminoles have been all season—and it doesn't get any easier from here. After playing 2013's (likely) redshirt freshman Heisman quarterback in Jameis Winston, the Blue Devils now have to square off with the original 2012 version in Johnny Manziel. David Cutcliffe's team has been a fantastic story this year, but in order to avoid ending on a two-game losing streak, Duke will really have to earn it.
Texas A&M (8-4) didn't reach the heights it planned on reaching in Manziel's second season, playing better than advertised on offense (for most of the year) but worse than anyone could have possibly imagined on defense. This could morph into a shootout against a clearly overmatched Duke team, which isn't quite loaded on offense but good enough to move the ball against A&M's woeful defense. In what should be Manziel's final collegiate game, expected JFF to go out with a bang instead of a whimper—even outside of the BCS spotlight. He'll want to leave one last big impression.
Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: Jan. 1, noon ET
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
Nebraska (8-4), like its opponent in this game, entered the season with glaring defensive questions; and also like its opponent in this game, those questions never really got answered. There is loads of individual talent on the Huskers defense—JUCO transfer Randy Gregory stands out, in particular, at defensive end—but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Georgia torched Nebraska in a bowl game last year, and even without Aaron Murray, there's a chance it could find similar success in 2013.
Georgia (8-4) has had a roller-coaster ride of a season, starting with the thrilling Week 1 loss to Clemson and continuing through a barrage of offensive injuries. Murray's (collegiate) career-ending injury was tragic to watch a few weeks ago, but watching the Bulldogs come together for a comeback win against rival Georgia Tech was equally uplifting. Backup Hutson Mason looked serviceable against the Yellow Jackets, and worse-than-serviceable quarterbacks have found success against Nebraska at times this season.
North Texas vs. UNLV
When: Jan. 1, noon ET
North Texas (8-4) might well have been the best team in C-USA this year, losing the West division after getting beat by a UTSA team it should have coasted past. Still, the Mean Green boast wins over eventual conference champion Rice and MAC stalwart Ball State, two very nice victories for a mid-major team. UNLV's (sometimes) porous defense will have its hands full.
UNLV (7-5) ended the season in style, beating down San Diego State, previously one of the hottest teams in America, to the tune of 45-19. Bobby Hauck has finally turned this program around in his fourth year on the job, making his first bowl game after three consecutive two-win seasons, and he's done so with a fun-to-watch brand of offensive football. This one could be a bona fide shootout—one of the most fun under-the-radar games of bowl season
South Carolina vs. Wisconsin
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Despite what folks are saying about the clean ordeal at the top, South Carolina (10-2) is proof that the final BCS is not without inequity. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have just two losses, and they beat Clemson decisively a couple of weeks ago—so why are the two-loss Clemson Tigers heading to the Orange Bowl while USC is heading to Orlando? Whatever. This team is very, very good, and watching Jadeveon Clowney battle Wisconsin's massive offensive line should be one of the best treats of this postseason.
Wisconsin (9-3) blew its BCS hopes with a loss against Penn State to end the season, though Michigan State's upset over Ohio State would have rendered that moot regardless. Despite the troubling end, Gary Andersen's first regular season in Madison was an astounding success, and his Badgers are far better than a 9-3 record indicates. Not many Big Ten teams would be able to hang with South Carolina, but few experts—I assume—will predict this to be a blowout. My money might actually be on the Badgers.
LSU vs. Iowa
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Tampa, Fla.
LSU (9-3) did what no other team has been able to do this season, beating No. 2 Auburn convincingly back in September. The Tigers' defense has struggled to coalesce after losing seemingly everyone to last year's NFL draft, but Cam Cameron's offense has stepped up to carry the load, becoming one of the best and most explosive units in America. That, however, was all with QB Zach Mettenberger in the lineup, which he won't be in January after tearing his ACL against Arkansas. Freshman Anthony Jennings has a month to prepare for his first career start.
Iowa (8-4) missed a bowl for just the second time in 12 years last season, but it's back with a vengeance in 2013. The Hawkeyes have flown under the radar all season because they don't play an appealing brand of football, but all four of their losses—Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin—came against teams that were in BCS bowl discussions as recently as two weeks ago. LSU is far, far, far more talented on paper, which will make it a heavy favorite, but that was exactly the case before Clemson upset the Tigers in a bowl game last year.
Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
When: Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Arlington, Texas
Missouri (11-2) was close—oh, so very close—to the BCS National Championship, but it couldn't stop Auburn's rushing attack to save its life. The Tigers defense was exposed in a big way against the likes of Nick Marshall and Tre Mason, which might not bode well against Oklahoma State, a team that has found success on the ground all season. Gary Pinkel needs to do some serious coaching with this team the next four weeks; he must re-instill them with the same sense of purpose they showed all season. Otherwise, the Cotton Bowl might turn into another track meet.
Oklahoma State (10-2) also missed its chance at a BCS bowl on Saturday—albeit a smaller one—by losing a heartbreaker to rival Oklahoma in Bedlam. The Cowboys didn't look bad, per se, against the Sooners, but they looked a far cry from the team that smoked Baylor a few weeks prior. Like Pinkel, Mike Gundy needs to convince his team there's still something left to play for despite "just" making the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps no postseason game (save Auburn vs. Florida State) will rely so much on coaching and mental preparation.
Houston vs. Vanderbilt
When: Jan. 4, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Birmingham, Ala.
Houston (8-4) might be the best team in America that nobody is talking about, unknown to most of the world outside of college football diehards. All four of the Cougars' losses have come against very good teams—BYU, Louisville, UCF, Cincinnati—and none has come by more than a touchdown. With offensive coordinator Doug Meacham gone to TCU, however, this team will need to band together in a big way, lest it run the risk of being shut down by an SEC defense.
Vanderbilt (8-4) reaped the benefits of a banged-up SEC East this season, beating teams like Georgia and Florida that were depleted to the core en route to an eight-win season. But don't let that detract from what James Franklin is doing in Nashville: No matter the circumstance, bringing Vandy to three consecutive bowl games is nothing short of miraculous. Receiver Jordan Matthews, who rewrote the SEC career record book this season, will not want to end his career with a loss.
Arkansas State vs. Ball State
When: Jan. 5, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Mobile, Ala.
All things considered, Arkansas State (7-5) has had a pretty solid year. Have you seen what former head coach Gus Malzahn is doing at Auburn? For a Sun Belt team to overcome that loss of leadership on the sideline and still compete for a conference championship—it's nothing short of remarkable...even if the roster is decidedly not.
Ball State (10-2) lost just two close games at NIU and North Texas this season, storming through the rest of its schedule with remarkable efficiency. Senior quarterback Keith Wenning came up big all year and followed in a long line of successful Cardinals quarterbacks, helping both Willie Snead and Jordan Williams finish with 1,000-plus receiving yards. The only thing Ball State fans should worry about is enjoying too much success: With an impressive showing in the bowl game, head coach Pete Lembo might become an attractive option for high-major programs with coaching vacancies.
Stanford vs. Michigan State
When: Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET
Where: Pasadena, Calif.
Stanford (11-2) silenced a lot of critics with its 38-14 blowout of Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game, especially because it was a true road game. Despite the two letdowns against Utah and USC, the Cardinal are capable of beating anyone, anywhere, on any given night—that's what a dominant defense and experienced coaching staff can do for you. The question, as always, is the performance of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who has been up and down this entire season.
Michigan State (12-1) upset No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, coming up huge when it mattered most on both defense and—surprise!—offense. A couple of 90-yard drives both stole and clinched the lead for the Spartans, who might be headed to Pasadena for a much bigger game if not for some dubious pass interference calls at Notre Dame earlier this year. Watching the MSU front seven battle Stanford's offense line should be, well...not for the faint of heart.
Central Florida vs. Baylor
When: Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Central Florida (11-1) has played down to competition this year, looking shaky in close wins over Memphis, Temple, USF and SMU—a woeful quartet that it beat by just 17 combined points. But the Knights have also played up to competition, beating Louisville in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and hanging in for a three-point loss to South Carolina. Despite the lows, this team's "best" is pretty darn good, and UCF should be able to give Baylor a run for its money in Glendale.
Baylor (11-1) might have stumbled a bit down the stretch, but by virtue of Oklahoma's win in Stillwater, it was able to pass Oklahoma State (which beat it by 32 points) and win the Big 12. With nearly a month to prepare and get healthy, the Bears should look a lot more like their early-season selves against UCF than they did against OSU and TCU. This one could quickly become a shootout.
Alabama vs. Oklahoma
When: Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: New Orleans
Alabama (11-1) was unable to work the same voodoo magic it did in 2012 and 2011, when it caught some breaks that allowed it to play for a national title despite losing a game during the regular season. Had the calendar read 2014, the Crimson Tide, whom many still believe are the best team in America, would still control their own fate in the college football playoffs, with an Iron Bowl rematch against Auburn likely waiting in the semis. But I guess playing Oklahoma is kind of decent, too...right?
Oklahoma (10-2) won Bedlam in thrilling fashion on Saturday, scoring on a late touchdown pass from Blake Bell to Jalen Saunders that sunk Oklahoma State and propelled the Sooners to an unforeseen BCS bowl. Bob Stoops seems to take heat every single season, but year after year, his teams end up playing in huge bowls with double-digit wins to their name. Oklahoma will come to New Orleans ready for a fight, but unless the Crimson Tide sleepwalk through a non-national title game—see: the 2008 Sugar Bowl vs. Utah—it still might be in store for a spanking on national TV.
Ohio State vs. Clemson
When: Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET
Ohio State (11-1) scored 24 consecutive points in the middle of Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game, and at one point, it looked poised to be headed for Pasadena. But the Buckeyes allowed Michigan State to score the first 17 and last 17 points of the ball game, eventually falling in decisive fashion, 34-24. OSU and Clemson are two consistently good teams that are consistently picked on by the public, which doesn't make much sense. Whichever one loses this game will be picked on, unfairly, this entire offseason, after ending the season with two consecutive losses.
Clemson (10-2) is playing in a BCS bowl over South Carolina, which has the exact same record at 10-2 and thoroughly beat the Tigers a couple of weeks ago. But such is the steep price of playing in the SEC, where two other teams have earned BCS bids; and so is the pittance of playing in the ACC, where Duke can make a conference title game. Still, Clemson played its best game of the season in last year's bowl game, beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A. Can Tajh Boyd go out on a similar note?
Florida State vs. Auburn
When: Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Pasadena, Calif.
Florida State (13-0) played the worst quarter of its season to start the game against Duke, but it still ended up rolling the Blue Devils and coasting into the national title game. The competition has left much to be desired, but FSU has yet to even be truly tested, making quick work of its entire schedule. If it has one more dominant performance left in the tank—and really, there's no reason to think it doesn't—this might go down as one of the best college football teams ever.
Auburn (12-1) rode the insane 300-plus-yard rushing performance of Tre Mason to an SEC championship, benefiting from Michigan State's win over Ohio State en route to Pasadena. The Buckeyes' loss was the latest in a long line of breaks that have helped these Tigers along their path, but at this point, it's impossible to deny their bona fides: They deserve to be here. Gus Malzahn and his defensive staff, however, will need to do some fine tuning with the secondary before taking on Florida State.