Bowl season is in full swing, and while the next few days' games are both important (in their own right) and entertaining, they're still merely appetizers to the main course: the final slate of BCS bowls.
Starting with the Rose Bowl, on New Year's Day, the best of the best in college football will square off on the nation's biggest stages, ranging from Pasadena to Miami Gardens. Every game on the postseason schedule matters.
These just matter more.
Here's a final preview and look at each of the BCS bowls.
When: Jan. 1, 5:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The loss of Max Bullough, who was suspended for violating team rules, isn't just a media-created non-story. It's a big one. Without their senior leader and best run defender, the Spartans should struggle to keep Tyler Gaffney in check, especially with America's best offensive line paving holes in front of him.
The battle between Ty Montgomery and Darqueze Dennard should be one of the best this bowl season, and Dennard's success in coverage could stymie Stanford's offense. Even then, though, the Cardinal have a two-dimensional attack that is balanced enough to survive.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State's improved (but not quite good) offense will need to play its best game of the season. According to Football Outisders' F/+ ratings, these are the second- and third-best defenses in America, but Stanford's offense is No. 15 while Michigan State's is No. 51.
If Connor Cook can continue his current hot streak, Sparty has a chance to eke this one out. But even then, that chance is fairly small. Stanford is a rich man's version of MSU, and that difference should show vividly in Pasadena.
Final Score: Stanford 27, Michigan State 13
When: Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
One of the sneaky-best games on the bowl schedule, Baylor vs. UCF should feature points, points, points and even more points.
Maybe that's an exaggeration. Neither the Bears nor Knights has a "bad" defense, so there's a chance at least one comes out with a solid game plan and stifles its opponent. But the odds of that are unlikely, especially given the form and talent of quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Blake Bortles, who could both, eventually, be high NFL draft picks.
Keep an eye out for Baylor safety/linebacker Ahmad Dixon, who is one of the best unknown defenders in college football. He should play a big role in stopping Storm Johnson, the running back who helped UCF torch Louisville in the second half of that upset win. If he can do what Louisville safety Calvin Pryor couldn't, the Bears might be able to find some success.
Both teams are far from football royalty, so a BCS bowl will wake the players up on both sides. Given that case, Baylor is likely good enough to win. Despite some struggles toward the end of the year, the time off should help the Bears heal and get them back into early season form.
Final Score: Baylor 45, UCF 35
When: Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Allen Kenny of Blatant Homerism wrote a nice piece about this game and the nature of motivation in bowls. In it, Kenny reminds us:
By any objective measure, the [Crimson] Tide had a spectacular regular season. It doesn’t get much more deflating than having it end the way it did, though.
The NFL awaits.
One hallmark of a classic bowl flop: A team featuring a significant number of NFL prospects. Last season, for example, Florida laid a massive egg in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville, and eight Gators, including three early entrants, were picked by NFL clubs in April.
Kenny has a point, even though he, an Oklahoma fan, might be grasping at straws through his fan-colored lenses. Alabama has far less reason to care about this game than Oklahoma. The Tide were supposed to be playing in Pasadena, not New Orleans. This is not how things were supposed to be.
This is all worth mentioning, because the Sugar Bowl, more than any other postseason game this year, is a matter of motivation. Alabama is the far superior team, and if it shows up to play, this one won't be close. But that was also the case against Utah in 2009.
My money says Nick Saban can wake his team up—especially because of what happened against the Utes. It's AJ McCarron's final game. This team will care.
Final Score: Alabama 35, Oklahoma 16
When: Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Orange Bowl is fascinating on so many levels.
Beyond just one-on-one matchups, Clemson and Ohio State are "reputation mirrors" of one another. Both teams were national title contenders at one point this season; both teams are respected as very good...and yet, both are also widely considered overrated.
Ohio State star cornerback Bradley Roby, who had a disappointing season, might be the deciding factor. He's one of the few players in college football that can keep up with Sammy Watkins, possessing the ideal size/strength/speed combo to defend him. But will he play? And if he suits up, does he have the discipline to contain Watkins?
Across the line, Clemson's iffy defense will have its hands full with running back Carlos Hyde, who is one of the most physically imposing players in the country. If Urban Meyer can wake up his team and convince it that this game matters, his offense should be able to score enough points to win.
I'm willing to bet on Meyer.
Final Score: Ohio State 35, Clemson 31
When: Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
As you've no doubt heard before, the key to this game will be Florida State's ability to stop the run. Auburn has proven to be no fluke on the ground, beating Alabama before gashing Mizzou in the SEC Championship Game.
The Seminoles, though, are well-equipped to stop a spread offense. A team like Stanford might have had more success overpowering this defense, which is fast and disciplined enough to keep up with the likes of Tre Mason. If Auburn wants to win, Nick Marshall will have to make some big-time throws.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have his hands full with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the best array of skill players in America. Even in victory this year, the Tigers have struggled to stop lesser offenses than FSU. How will they try to keep up?
"The positive thing for my standpoint is our players are really excited about practicing," said head coach Gus Malzahn, according to Joel A. Erickson of AL.com. "They're buying in to everything the coaches are asking them to do as far as getting themselves in playing shape and the plan as far as that goes, so like I said I feel good about where we're at."
This won't be a blowout like Alabama vs. Notre Dame. Auburn is too good and too well-coached to let that happen, and it knows how to stick around in games. Billed a "team of destiny," Malzahn's boys will have a chance to win at the end of the game.
But this time, the luck will run out.
Final Score: Florida State 34, Auburn 28