Here we are…the final so-called “minor” bowls before the big bowls start on New Year’s Day. Don’t tell these teams their bowl is minor, though…this is their time, and they’ll go all out to bring a trophy home to their respective colleges. Swami McMullen dusts off the crystal ball for the last time this year and brings you the final “minor” bowls of the bowl season.
Insight Bowl: Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Iowa State Cyclones
The Golden Gophers are on the way back from a 1-10 season, which they suffered in 2007. They are also trying to exact a little bit of redemption at the Insight Bowl after dropping a 31-point lead against Texas Tech in 2006 and lost by a field goal.
For the Gophers to get that sweet redemption, they need to shore up their offense (after switching to a new offensive set, they slowly devolved to the worst offense in the Big Ten) and establish a viable option at running back (they tried three running backs over the course of the season but never found a viable starter). This will also be a quarterback battle for next season, as Adam Weber has been inconsistent this year, and backup MarQueis Gray is nipping at his heels. If the offense comes in clicking, the Gophers could pull off the victory.
The Cyclones, like Minnesota, are trying to rebound from a dismal season. The Cyclones finished 2-10 in 2008. They run a more reliable offensive attack, similar to the offense Minnesota sees all season: using their offensive line and running backs to try and win the game in the trenches.
However, the defense is the problem for Iowa State, which is the mirror opposite of Minnesota. The key to this defense will be linebacker Jesse Smith. He leads the Big 12 in tackles and needs to have a big game in order for Iowa State to pick up the victory. In all honesty, this is a game where you have to pick the lesser of two evils. Iowa State has a good offense but a bad defense, and that will be the difference in this game.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Iowa State 6.
Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Tennessee Volunteers
This is a story of two very good rushing teams. For the Hokies, running back Ryan Williams has taken some of the onus off of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The offense as a whole has found balance, as Taylor has become more comfortable throwing the ball deep (averaging 17 yards per completion).
The defense is suffering slightly, as linebacker Zach Luckett blew out his knee in the regular season finale and will miss the bowl game and spring practice. If the defense, led by defensive ends Jason Worilds and Nekos Brown and linebacker Cody Grimm, can blow out the SEC leader in sacks, they should make this a very good game.
The Volunteers have two major distractions dogging them on their way to Atlanta: the college is under investigation for recruiting violations by head coach Lane Kiffin. On top of that, two assistants are leaving for Florida State and LSU.
However, quarterback Jonathan Crompton has blossomed as the starter, taking some of the pressure off of running back Montario Hardesty. Once Crompton turned into a reliable quarterback, the receiving game took off as well, led by wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore.
If they play like they’ve been playing all year, they should make the short trip back to Rocky Top with a Chick-Fil-A trophy in their overhead bins. Expect a low-scoring defensive battle, with Crompton leading the Volunteers to a victory.
Prediction: Tennessee 10, Virginia Tech 7.
International Bowl: South Florida Bulls vs. Northern Illinois Huskies
It could be believed that the Bulls backed into this bowl, losing five of their last seven games after starting the season 5-0. The defense, ranked third in the Big East, is the key for South Florida. Led by defensive end George Selvie, the Bulls led the league in pass defense, allowing almost 200 yards per game.
However, they’ve only produced 25 sacks in the meantime, which is only good enough for second to last in the league. This is Selvie’s final game, and if he wants to make a good impression for NFL teams, he needs to step up and win in Toronto.
The Huskies have established the Mid-American Conference’s best rushing game, and they will face a very tough test in one of the stingiest defenses in the Big East. They also have a good scrambling and passing quarterback in Chandler Harnish, who overcame a knee injury so that he could lead the Huskies to two close losses at the end the season.
The defense, allowing only 21 points and less than 330 yards per game, exceeded expectations after losing a bunch of seniors. They are led by defensive end Jake Coffman, who is first on the team in tackles for losses and sacks. They say that defense wins championships, and given the explosive state of the Huskies’ defense, I give this one to Northern Illinois.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, South Florida 10.
Papajohns.com Bowl: Connecticut Huskies vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
The Huskies come into this bowl losing their five games this season by a total of 15 points. They are also extremely motivated after the death of one of their teammates, Jasper Howard. They are exceptionally strong on both aspects of the offense and are led by quarterback Zach Frazer.
However, it seems that the passing game is slightly behind the running game, so if the Gamecocks stop the run and force Frazer to pass, it could be a long day for the Huskies. The defense needs to step up in the wake of Howard’s death and linebacker Greg Lloyd’s injury if they want to win this game.
The Gamecocks are still being praised for their great performance against Clemson, when they rushed for 223 yards. However, that rushing attack is far from perfect, as they finished last in the SEC.
They more than make up for it, however, with their defense, which ranked 15th in the nation and only third in the SEC (behind BCS contenders Florida and Alabama). They will be in a fight against UConn, who averages 32 points per game. Their leader, linebacker Eric Norwood, just needs one more tackle for loss to move into fifth all-time in the SEC. If Norwood steps up to stop the running game and forces Frazer to pass, the Gamecocks will win this game, and that’s the way it will be.
Prediction: South Carolina 48, Connecticut 20.
AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic: Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. Ole Miss Rebels
The Cowboys usually have a true balanced defense, mixing run with pass in a perfect blend of offensive attacks. Star quarterback Zac Robinson is truly the key to the Cowboy offense; as he goes, so goes the team. With the suspension of wide receiver Dez Bryant, a new go-to receiver has sprung up in Hubert Anyiam.
The running game is led by a very good duo Keith Toston and Kendall Hunter. The offensive line must give Robinson enough time to make a play if they are going to leave Arlington with a Cotton Bowl victory.
The Rebels have relied on quarterback Jevan Snead a little too often this year. However, when he faltered, they did have a second option: running back Dexter McCluster. He is proficient in the rushing and receiving games. Where Snead has faltered this season (throwing 17 interceptions and only completing a little more than half his passes), McCluster has stepped up (only needing 15 yards to be a 1,000-yard rusher and 25 yards to be a 500-yard receiver). If the Oklahoma State defense learns how to stop both Snead and McCluster, it will be a long day for the Rebels.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 20, Ole Miss 3.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: East Carolina Pirates vs. Arkansas Razorbacks
This is a second chance for the Pirates, after they frittered away a 13-point lead to Kentucky in last year’s Liberty Bowl, and they have the offense to get that sweet redemption they’ve been waiting for since last year. The offensive line has allowed only one sack in the last seven games (they went 6-1 in that span).
The defense has forced at least one fumble in the last two-and-a-half seasons and has 19 takeaways in the last seven games. If they are able to take away Ryan Mallett’s passing game, this should be sweet redemption for the Pirates.
The Razorbacks’ offense is led by sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett, who has flourished since his transfer from Michigan (he led the SEC in passing yards, with just over 300 per game). The running game is weak, only accumulating 136 yards per game, but Mallett more than makes up for it. The defense needs to step up to match the high-powered offense (the Razorback defense allows just over 400 yards per game), and I don’t think they can.
Prediction: East Carolina 46, Arkansas 24.
Valero Energy Alamo Bowl: Michigan State Spartans vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Spartans are coming into the Alamo Bowl with a depleted passing attack. Star wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell have been suspended. This means that quarterback Kirk Cousins needs another option besides top choice Blair White.
The defense has looked good against the run but needs to step up and establish their passing defense. The key to that is linebacker Greg Jones. He will need to get to quarterback Taylor Potts if they want to win this game.
The Red Raiders have been able to spread out the ball this season with quarterback Taylor Potts. However, the offensive line has looked porous at times, allowing 30 sacks this season, and has had teamwork issues. There is one bright spot: running back Baron Batch, who can give the offense balance by pulling off a good work day in the backfield.
The defense is also pretty good for a Big 12 team, giving up only 21 points per game. They are led by defensive end Brandon Sharpe. He should be able to get to Cousins most of the day and conquer the Spartans.
Prediction: Texas Tech 30, Michigan State 6.
GMAC Bowl: Troy Trojans vs. Central Michigan Chippewas
The Trojans have looked suspect on defense, giving up just about 140 yards rushing and over 400 yards total. They haven’t really played anybody of note except for Florida, and they were crushed 56-6. The defense needs to step up big time if they want to win. Central Michigan is ranked 25th and looks really good lately. This could be a very long day for the Trojans if they don’t step it up on defense.
The Chippewas have to deal with a very big distraction concerning the future of head coach Butch Jones. Rumor has it Jones is a leading candidate to coach Marshall next year. However, they do have a great leader in quarterback Dan LeFevour. He has had a great career for the Chippewas, breaking all kinds of records. He is the key to the Central Michigan defense, and he will be able to lead them to a victory in Mobile.
Prediction: Central Michigan 40, Troy 10.
There you have it…the final bowls before the major bowls start on New Year’s Day. Will the Spartans be able to overcome their passing woes to defeat Texas Tech? Will East Carolina be able to cap off another great year with another bowl victory? You’ll have to watch to find out!