Though the BCS bowls won't arrive until the calendar reads "2014", the early bowls represent the prime time for some less prominent schools. Saturday, Dec. 14 was a vast canyon of college football emptiness, except Navy's 34-7 defeat of Army, but fear not, as the bowl season kicks off on Dec. 21.
Here's your complete guide to get ready for the first FBS bowls on a huge Saturday around the Mountain West Conference.
New Mexico Bowl: Colorado State vs. Washington State
The Washington State Cougars bring a ferocious passing attack into the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. They posted a 6-6 record that included losses to Auburn, Stanford and Oregon. However, they also nipped USC in a gritty 10-7 win back in September. This bowl game thrilled fans last year, and it could very well repeat that this year.
The Cougars' defense has been their undoing, as it gives up 31.3 points per game, 92nd in the nation. It faces the Colorado State Rams, who went 7-6 overall and just 5-3 in the Mountain West. To their credit, the Rams have a balanced offensive attack that averages 258.5 passing yards (39th) and 202.7 rushing yards per game (31st).
However, Colorado State did not play as high a caliber of competition as the Cougars. That's a big reason why Washington State is favored by four points (per Bovada). But the Cougars can be stopped if their passing game is limited, as their rushing attack ranked 123rd with a paltry 58.7 yards per game.
The Rams' pass rush has tallied 27 sacks this season, and if it can harass Cougar quarterback Connor Halliday and force him into some mistakes—he has thrown 21 interceptions this season—then Colorado State will be poised to pull off the upset.
When: Dec. 21, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
Las Vegas Bowl: Fresno State vs. USC
In another clash between the Pac-12 and Mountain West, No. 25 USC takes on the MW champion Fresno State Bulldogs. It's slightly hard to believe Fresno State is ranked No. 20 despite its 11-1 record. The Bulldogs' lone loss came on Nov. 29 against San Jose State when their defense yielded 547 yards and six touchdowns to David Fales in the 62-52 shootout.
Nevertheless, 11-1 is 11-1, and there's no denying the four losses on the Trojans' schedule. They allowed 62 points to Arizona State back on Sept. 28 and fell to Notre Dame in mid-October. USC registered an inspiring win over No. 4 Stanford on Nov. 16, but then looked sluggish two weeks later in a 35-14 loss to No. 22 UCLA. It was the first time the Bruins edged USC in 16 years.
Despite their inferior record and lower ranking in the polls, the Trojans enter that game as six-point favorites (via Bovada). It will be an odd atmosphere on the USC sidelines, as the school has hired new coach Steve Sarkisian, but he will not coach the bowl game. Former interim head coach Ed Orgeron is gone as well, replaced by new interim head coach Clay Helton.
Assistant coaches Johnny Nansen, Keith Heyward and Peter Sirmon have been hired for next season, and many members of the current coaching staff do not know if they will have a job with the Trojans next year. As Sarkisian told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, "These are good football coaches. Sometimes it doesn't work out because of circumstances."
Helton admitted it's difficult, but the focus remains on the task at hand. He admitted to Klein, "Obviously, we have to take care of ourselves and families at some point in time, but until that last game is over and done with, we owe that to USC and to these kids."
Look for USC's 21st-ranked scoring defense to stun Fresno State, as quarterback Derek Carr is more accustomed to the porous defenses in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs needed overtime to beat Rutgers and San Diego State, and they won't even get that far in Vegas.
When: Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Buffalo vs. San Diego State
The Buffalo Bulls are not a misprint; they're the ones who finished second in the MAC behind Bowling Green. Buffalo's 8-4 record included no-doubt losses to Ohio State and Baylor to start the season, but the defense keyed a strong stretch run and finished 27th in the nation for allowing 22.3 points per game.
San Diego State finished second in the MW West despite a 7-5 record. The Aztecs dropped their first three games but won seven of their next eight. The only blemish was an overtime loss to aforementioned Fresno State, the conference champs.
However, the Aztecs are coming off a dreadful 45-19 loss to UNLV on Nov. 30. Rebels quarterback Caleb Herring accounted for six touchdowns as San Diego State watched 31 unanswered points appear on the scoreboard.
The defensive players will have had three weeks to mull that over, and they have to focus on the Bulls' big playmakers. Running back Branden Oliver and receiver Alex Neutz have combined for 26 touchdowns on the season. Oliver has hit 150 rushing yards five times this season, and bottling him up will be the key to sinking Buffalo. Neutz is seeking to snap a two-game streak without a TD.
The Aztecs rank 97th in the nation for giving up 32.3 points per game, and the sun will set on them when they fall to Buffalo's superior D and unheralded playmakers.
When: Dec. 21, 5:30 p.m. ET ESPN
New Orleans Bowl: Tulane vs. UL Lafayette
The Tulane Green Wave appropriately face the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns at the Superdome to decide some in-state bragging rights.
Tulane finished fourth in the Conference USA West with a 7-5 record. While the Ragin' Cajuns were the champions of their conference, a Sun Belt title does not carry tremendous prestige.
Louisiana-Lafayette lost its last two games in a squeaker to Louisiana-Monroe and a 30-8 domination by South Alabama. Now it faces one of the nation's best defenses in Tulane, which ranks 19th in points allowed at 21.2 per game.
But the Green Wave have also crashed on the rocks of a losing streak, having dropped three of their last four. The main reason being their forgettable offense that ranks 104th in passing yards and 102nd in rushing yards.
Ragin' Cajuns running back Elijah McGuire and receiver Jamal Robinson will outscore Tulane single-handedly and deliver a bowl win for Lafayette.
When: Dec. 21, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
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