College football bowl season is rapidly closing in on us and the projections for who will play in what bowl are as rampant as they've ever been.
So much depends on the outcome of this week's final regular season and conference championship games. Unless chaos ensues this weekend, we have a pretty good idea of how the BCS bowls will take shape—once those are set, the other 33 bowls should fall into place.
Every year around this time, the winners and losers can be found not just by looking at the scoreboard but by evaluating which teams overachieved and got to a better bowl game than projected (and conversely which ones got snubbed), which coaches made a national name for themselves, and players that hurt or drastically improved their Heisman or NFL Draft stock for the following year.
Remember when Boise State made itself a national media darling with its upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl?
Or Brian Kelly parlaying a successful Sugar Bowl run with the Cincinnati Bearcats into the head coaching job at Notre Dame?
And who could forget JaMarcus Russell's dominant play against Brady Quinn in the Sugar Bowl that ultimately led to the former getting selected with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft?
This year's crop of bowl games will go much farther than simply ending the season on a positive note or garnering some bragging rights. So who will be the biggest winners and losers of college football's postseason in 2010-11? Let's run through a few candidates...
The Horned Frogs rolled through their second consecutive undefeated regular season and are in prime position to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl for the first time in school history.
TCU avoided the dreaded upset bug that would destroy any chance a non-automatic qualifier had of making a BCS game and did so in impressive fashion, racking up an average of 261.2 rushing yards (No. 9 nationally) and 43.3 points (No. 4) while boasting the nation's top scoring defense (11.4 points allowed).
And if Auburn or Oregon were to fall to South Carolina or Oregon State (respectively) then TCU would be waiting in the wings to claim a spot in the national championship game.
Either way, TCU will get a chance to represent the mid-majors of college football (whether it be in the national championship or the Rose Bowl) against one of the best teams in a power conference.
On the other side of TCU's historical run to back-to-back BCS bowls and an outside chance of playing in the national championship is Boise State, who lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Nevada last Friday and eliminated any chance they had of playing in the Rose Bowl.
A win last week by the Broncos would have been a major statement to the rest of the country that they are just as deserving as TCU to be considered for a national championship berth, if Oregon or Auburn were to lose.
They looked good, leading 17-0 in the first half, and appeared to be on their way to another blowout conference win.
But a missed 26-yard field goal with no time left and another miss in overtime wound up costing them dearly. Instead of playing in a BCS game, they're more than likely headed to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against a mid-level Pac 10 or ACC team.
And the estimated losses in earnings for the program because of the loss is over $4 million. A tough pill to swallow.
Mallett had a fantastic season for the Razorbacks, leading them to 10 wins (including a 6-2 conference record) while throwing for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns.
He exceeded 300 yards in nine games this year and had three or more touchdowns eight times. He scored at least one TD in every game and Arkansas finished the year on fire with six straight wins, capped off in the finale with a win over rival LSU.
He'll more than likely get a chance to showcase his game in a BCS bowl, with the most probable destination being the Sugar Bowl. The projected opponent is The Ohio State University, a team that boasts a top-five defense and is second in the nation in yards allowed.
Mallett has already made himself a first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft if he chooses to vacate his senior season and a strong performance in a bowl game could easily vault him into the top 10.
All of the speculation that Jake Locker may have been the best quarterback of the Locker-Mallett-Andrew Luck trio was quickly dismissed early in the season when he put up an atrocious 4-of-20 passing game for 75 yards with two interceptions in a 35-point home loss to Nebraska.
He battled injuries for a majority of the season and never got in a rhythm, ultimately failing to live up to the hype from his 2,800 yard, 21 touchdown campaign in '09.
Now he has to lead Washington to a victory in Pullman against rival Washington State in the last game of the season this weekend in order for the Huskies to become bowl eligible.
If they do win, they're more than likely headed to the Holiday Bowl, where they would face Oklahoma State or the loser of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game—an incredibly difficult game for an average-at-best team.
Not long ago, San Diego State was the punching bag not just for out-of-conference opponents from the Big 10, SEC, and Pac 10, but in the Mountain West as well.
From 2002-2009 they were averaging just four wins a season and never qualified for a bowl game. But that changed this season when the Hoke-led Aztecs won eight games (four losses by a combined 16 points, including a five-point loss to No. 3 TCU) and appear ready for a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl against Navy.
Hoke has instituted a dynamic passing attack led by Ryan Lindley, who is sixth in the country in passing yards (3,554) to go along with 26 touchdowns.
Hoke's name has been mentioned in rumors regarding the vacant Indiana and Minnesota head coaching jobs but it doesn't appear like he'll take either position. Still, it seems like it's only a matter of time before he's coaching in a power conference.
Even though Rodriguez finally has Michigan back in a bowl game for the first time since the 2008 Capital One Bowl, all is not well in Ann Arbor.
Rich Rod's variation of the spread offense brought to the all-time winningest program in college football has yielded mixed results this year. There have been moments where the offense has clicked but the crushing hits and physical play in the Big 10 has injured several of his smaller athletes, most notably quarterback Denard Robinson who missed at least a series or two in almost every Big 10 game.
And the defense has been a nightmare, ranking No. 102 nationally and has given up 30 or more points eight times.
Michigan may sneak into the Gator Bowl where they could meet Florida. But if they're blown out in the bowl game, it's possible that Rodriguez has coached his last game for the maize-and-blue.
Even if we get undefeated Auburn and Oregon in the finale and we finish with a 14-0 national champion, those grumbling for a playoff will still have plenty of points to present.
What about No. 4 Stanford, who is playing their best football of the season right now?
No. 6 Ohio State looks ten times better than they did in their lone of the season to Wisconsin.
Speaking of the Badgers, could anybody in the country slow down their three-headed rushing attack and offense that's put up 70 points in two of their final three games?
And what about TCU and Boise State?
As long as the bowl games are played at high level and they're competitive, the playoff proponents will always win. With the amount of parody that's prevalent in college football, almost any team can beat any other team on any given day.
That's what the playoff pushers will point to.
Everything was gold for the Cowboys. They were 6-1 in the Big 12, winners of four straight, possessed one of the top passing and scoring offenses in the country, and were one win away from going to their first ever conference championship game.
To make matters sweeter, all they had to do was knock off arch-rival Oklahoma, a team that had beaten them so many times in the past, and a possible BCS berth would have been that much better.
Instead, the Sooners once again got the better of their in-state rivals and now Oklahoma State once again is left on the outside of the BCS picture.
With the Cotton Bowl already extending an invitation to Texas A&M, the Cowboys went from a possible 12-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance to most likely having to settle for the Alamo or Holiday Bowl.
Overall it was a fine year in Stillwater, but the bitter taste left in their mouths from the Oklahoma loss won't be going away anytime soon.
Quick, how many of you knew the Orange were bowl eligible?
Despite dropping their last two games (not a pleasant way to end the season), the 'Cuse still managed to finish 7-5 with a 4-3 conference record and earn their first postseason game since 2004 when they were crushed in the Champs Sports Bowl by Georgia Tech.
Led by a stout defense that gave up just 18.1 points per game and only allowed 20 or more points in four games, Doug Marrione's team won as many games as they did from 2005-2007 and in '08 and '09 combined.
And even though it is one of the weaker power conferences this year, the Big East is still primed to get six bowl bids.
Tough to think that a team that won 10 games overall and six in the toughest conference in college football could be grouped in the "losers" category, but unfortunately that's the case for the Bayou Bengals.
When the Tigers dropped the Oct. 23 meeting to the other Tigers (Auburn), it made it nearly impossible for them to get a spot in the SEC Championship game. They would have needed Auburn to lose twice and that wasn't happening with the way Cam Newton was playing.
They crept up to No. 5 heading into last weekend's game against Arkansas but, as previously mentioned, even if Auburn lost to Alabama they still couldn't get into the title game. And even if chaos broke out and three teams ahead of them lost, they more than likely still weren't getting into the national championship game—it's hard to believe a team that didn't make the conference championship would get a spot.
The loss to Arkansas was the real backbreaker, though, because LSU still had the inside track to the Sugar Bowl, a virtual home game for them.
Instead, they're now more than likely looking at a Cotton Bowl appearance against the Big 12's fourth placed team, Texas A&M.
College football is cyclical and the SEC won't be the best conference forever, but it's stranglehold on the rest of the country didn't loosen up any at all this season.
Defending national champion Alabama suffered three conference losses...two came by a combined four points.
Auburn came out of nowhere to finish 12-0, earn a spot in the SEC championship game, and have a berth to the national title on the line.
Perennial SEC East favorites Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee all struggled, but South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Arkansas all came out of nowhere to have great seasons.
In the end, ten...that's right, ten...SEC teams are bowl eligible. And if the current projections are accurate, they'll more than likely have the favorites in a majority of these games (LSU over Texas A&M, Florida over Michigan, Alabama over Michigan State, South Carolina over Penn State...).
Finally, they'll have a chance for a fifth straight BCS national championship. Overall, another dominant year from college football's premier conference.
Oregon and Stanford were hands down the class of the Pac 10 this season—no one else was really close.
After them, it was all downhill.
USC wasn't bowl eligible at the beginning of the season because of NCAA violations but they still weren't nearly as competitive as some thought they could be. Back-to-back losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame were as ugly as Trojan football has been in quite some time.
Arizona looked like they were ready to make the leap this season after a huge victory in September over Iowa, but immediately fell flat on their face against Oregon State and are on a current three-game losing streak.
If Oregon State loses to Oregon and Washington loses to Washington State this weekend, the Pac 10 will only have four teams above .500 and just three teams will play in a bowl game. This was not a good season for a conference that was supposed to be on the rise.
Thirty-eight bowl games in 19 days capped off with some of the best cross-conference matchups of the season and a potential national championship game with LaMichael James and Cam Newton as the headliners?
Because of the debate, the intrigue, and the pique of interest across the country, this time of the year the fans are always winners.