2010 Bowl Matchups: The 10 Best Storylines To Watch This Bowl Season

Eric FelkeyAnalyst IDecember 6, 2010

2010 Bowl Matchups: The 10 Best Storylines To Watch This Bowl Season

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    Now that the greatest annual regular season in all of sports has come to a completion, we can turn our attention to one of the most entertaining stretches of the calendar year: bowl season.

    The BCS and college bowl games were all officially set last night with no real surprises.

    Auburn and Oregon, the top two teams for a majority of the second half of the season, will be squaring off for the national title.

    In anticlimactic announcements, TCU and Wisconsin will be paired in the Rose Bowl while Arkansas and quarterback Ryan Mallett get their shot at Big Ten co-champion Ohio State.

    Virginia Tech-Stanford in the Orange Bowl and Oklahoma-UConn in the Fiesta Bowl round out the BCS. But there is still plenty of intrigue floating around other games, with enticing matchups like South Carolina-Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Boise State-Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, Alabama-Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl and Miami-Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.

    Fans and analysts will have plenty of information to break down and discuss between now and Dec. 18, when a fantastic three weeks of college football commences. Until then, here are 10 storylines to keep your eye on as you eagerly anticipate the kickoff between BYU and UTEP...

The Ultimate Contrast of Styles (San Diego State vs. Navy)

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    I pinpointed this game last week as a possible matchup that won't probably get a lot of attention nationally but still has some interesting subplots.

    For starters, you'll be hard-pressed to find a bowl game between two teams that have such contrasting styles on offense, not just this year, but perhaps in the last decade.

    San Diego State loves to air the ball out on offense. Ryan Lindley finished sixth in the nation with 3,554 passing yards and added 26 touchdowns through the air, as the Aztecs led the Mountain West in passing yards.

    On the other side, Navy finished sixth in the country in overall rushing yards. But it is not a traditional, line-it-up and run it right at you team—it loves the triple option and will run it repeatedly.

    For the year, Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs attempted just 124 passes. Lindley had 398.

    And both schools have a bit of a contrast when it comes to college football prestige. Navy isn't known as a perennial top-10 school, but it has won eight games again this season and it has made a bowl in seven of the last eight years.

    San Diego State averaged just four victories a season since 2004 before Brady Hoke arrived and the Aztecs haven't made a bowl appearance since 1998.

Nick Saban Faces Off Against His Former Team (Alabama vs. Michigan State)

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    Before coaching at Alabama, Miami (in the NFL) or LSU, Saban was the head man at Michigan State from 1995-1999, leading the Spartans to four bowl games in five years.

    In his final season, he led MSU to a 9-2 record and a top 10 ranking, including wins over Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State, before leaving to become the head coach at LSU.

    But there will be a bit more to this game than just that.

    When Alabama lost in the 2008 SEC championship to Florida, it looked disinterested with the Sugar Bowl invite and got thumped by an eager Utah team ready to prove it belonged on a national stage.

    After coming into the season as defending national champions and with so much hype surrounding them, how will they respond after losing three games, including that gut-wrenching game against Auburn when they blew a 24-0 lead?

    Michigan State will have a chip on its shoulder as well. The Spartans went 11-1, were co-champions of the Big Ten and thumped Wisconsin, the team representing the conference in the Rose Bowl.

    They didn't play Ohio State and the Buckeyes were selected as a Big Ten at-large to play in the Sugar Bowl.

    One team is slighted about their season, the other about their bowl selection. How will both teams respond?

Is Rich Rodriguez's Job on the Line? (Michigan vs. Mississippi State)

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    Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said he would wait until after the bowl game to evaluate Rich Rodriguez's season and determine whether or not he is the right man for the head-coaching job going forward.

    Like they did last year, the Wolverines started the season strong before eventually succumbing to the wear-and-tear of a physical Big Ten season.

    Denard Robinson gave the nation something positive to talk about when discussing the maize-and-blue, but its defense was beyond atrocious, getting torched for 30-or-more points in eight games this season and ranking No. 102 in the country.

    The Wolverines will get their chance to end the season on a positive note against Mississippi State. While most people might initially think the Wolverines should be able to throw a lot of points in the board, the Bulldogs will have other plans.

    They finished No. 3 in the SEC, giving up just 20.3 points per game. And they're a very stingy run defense that has seen a lot of spread offenses that are somewhat similar to what Michigan runs.

    If the Wolverines don't find a way to win, it may be Rodriguez's last game as head coach in Ann Arbor.

Can Two Once-Proud Programs Restore Their Prestige? (Miami vs. Notre Dame)

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    Twenty years ago, this would have been a bowl game that would have had the entire country captivated and glued in for three-and-a-half hours.

    Even 10 years ago it would have carried significance, just because of the names on the front of their jerseys.

    Today, they're relegated to the Sun Bowl. Parity in college football has not been kind to these once-proud institutions.

    Miami went to back-to-back national championship games in the early 2000s and played in the 2004 Orange Bowl, but it hasn't been back to a BCS game since. After Butch Davis, who led the 'Canes to the '01 national title, bolted for the NFL, Miami struggled under Larry Coker and replaced him with Randy Shannon.

    Things looked promising for Miami, but back-to-back bowl losses and a disappointing season with high expectations ended in his termination a few weeks ago.

    It's not that much better for Notre Dame. Until a 2008 win in the Hawaii Bowl, the Irish had gone 15 years without a postseason victory and had gotten thumped on the biggest of stages (41-9 loss in '01 Fiesta Bowl, 34-20 loss in '06 Fiesta Bowl, 41-14 loss in '07 Fiesta Bowl). Like Miami, they've gone through three coaches in this decade as well.

    So which of these two programs can get back on the right track and start competing on a relevant national stage again? The winner of this game will definitely be feeling better about itself heading into 2011.

A Matchup of Two Dominant "Mid-Majors" (Boise State vs. Utah)

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    The quotes around the "mid-majors" are used because, while most of the country views them as strong schools playing in lesser conferences, they've accomplished more in the last decade than several of the prominent power-conference teams.

    But both Boise State and Utah were looking for a little bit more this season.

    The Broncos were undefeated through mid-November and had their sights set on a Rose Bowl appearance. At worst, they would have gotten an at-large bid to the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl.

    Instead, they were upset by Nevada on Nov. 26 and their dreams of a BCS bowl (and an outside shot at a national championship) died.

    Utah was looking to make itself a contender in the Mountain West and dethrone defending champion TCU. The Utes were ranked No. 6 in the country heading into their showdown with the Horned Frogs but were absolutely demoralized at home.

    They followed that up with another bad loss on the road to Notre Dame. In a two-week span, they were outscored 75-10. They did bounce back to win two straight games to finish the season and win 10 games overall, earning them a spot against Boise State.

    These are two non-power conference schools that have combined for four BCS wins in the last six years. It should be a great matchup on Dec. 22.

Just How Good Are the Hokies? (Virginia Tech vs. Stanford)

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    Obviously Virginia Tech is a good team—the Hokies went undefeated in the ACC and won their fourth conference title in the last seven years.

    They finished No. 1 in the conference in points per game and were second in points allowed. They're a very balanced offensive team (finished the season with 2,716 rushing yards and 2,628 passing yards) and their defense played strong at the end of the year—they gave up just 14.1 points per game in conference play.

    As Frank Beamer's teams typically do, the Hokies just kept improving as the season progressed.

    But nationally, not much attention was paid to Virginia Tech after a tough opening-game loss to Boise State and the embarrassing 21-16 home loss at the hands of James Madison. Many people wrote the Hokies off after that and didn't give them credit for running the table against a weakened ACC.

    However, only two other teams went undefeated in their conference this season: Auburn and Oregon. Pretty good company to keep.

    Virginia Tech will get its chance to show the country that it's a better team than the one that lost to Boise State on Sept. 6 when it faces Stanford in the Orange Bowl.

    The Cardinal have one of the hottest coaches (Jim Harbaugh) and quarterbacks (Andrew Luck) in the country and have opened up as a three-point favorite. But for once, all the pressure will be on Stanford—it's the Hokies that will get a chance to fly under the radar, play in a familiar environment and get a chance to upset a highly-respected Pac-10 team.

Can Ohio State Finally Beat an SEC Team? (Ohio State vs. Arkansas)

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    Ohio State became the first Big Ten team to win 10-or-more games in six consecutive seasons when it came back to beat Iowa. Then it laid its claim on a sixth-straight Big Ten championship with a 37-7 thumping of arch-rival Michigan in the season finale.

    As a reward, the Buckeyes get their sixth straight BCS appearance—a date in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, which is making its first BCS appearance.

    The Buckeyes are viewed nationally as a team that flops on the big stage, but other than the loss to Florida in 2007, they've represented themselves well.

    They dominated Notre Dame in the '05 Fiesta Bowl and controlled the high-powered Oregon Ducks in last year's Rose Bowl. They lost a heartbreaker to Texas in the '08 Fiesta Bowl on a last-minute touchdown and were simply outmatched by a better LSU team the year before—after all, it wasn't Ohio State's fault that six teams lost in the final two weeks and allowed the Buckeyes to backdoor themselves into the title game.

    Still, you can't argue about the SEC's dominance of the Buckeyes that dates back to the '90s.

    As previously mentioned, the Buckeyes lost the two national title games to two SEC teams. They also lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl in both '01 and '02 and fell to Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia in bowl games as well.

    They haven't played an SEC team in a regular season game in quite some time, so to find an Ohio State win, you have to go back to...never.

    That's right, the Buckeyes have never won a game against an SEC team, 0-9 all-time.

    Jim Tressel has accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish at Ohio State. The first-ever win against a Southeastern Conference school would be icing on the cake.

Will TCU Be Able To Hang with a Team from a Power Conference? (TCU Vs Wisconsin)

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    TCU just capped off a second-consecutive undefeated regular season and Mountain West Conference championship.

    The Horned Frogs are going to their second-straight BCS bowl and making their first-ever appearance in the Rose Bowl.

    They demanded respect all season and dominated in their biggest games, particularly a 40-point blowout at Utah when College GameDay was filmed on location.

    They felt like they deserved a shot at a national championship. And who knows, maybe they do.

    But to prove themselves, much like Boise State did in '07 with their Fiesta Bowl win against Oklahoma, they're going to have to knock off a power conference school in a BCS bowl to earn more national respect.

    Wisconsin has a large, physical offensive line that knocks opponents backwards and creates plenty of rushing lanes for John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. The Badgers are tied for fourth (along with TCU) nationally in points per game and the offense is clicking on all cylinders, putting up 70-or-more points in two of their final three games.

    TCU has some great athletes on defense, but it's never matched up with anyone that has the size and strength of Wisconsin's front five. How effective it is at stopping the run will be the key to the game.

    And if the Horned Frogs can upset the Badgers, then they've earned the right to be considered one of college football's elite.

Can the SEC Continue Its Dominance Over College Football?

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    We all know the drill at this point. The national championship game has been dubbed by media pundits as "The SEC versus any challengers."

    The conference will be going for its fifth consecutive national champion and sixth since the BCS was put into place in 1998.

    For the second straight season, the SEC had 10 bowl-eligible teams. Last season, the conference went 6-4.

    The year before, with eight bowl-eligible teams, it was 6-2. And in 2007, it went 7-2.

    In the past four years, the SEC has a 25-11 record in bowl games to go along with four national champions. Other conferences are making strides but they still haven't caught up to the SEC's level yet.

    College football is cyclical so the conference's dominance won't last forever. But can it sustain another year?

Is Oregon Battle-Tested Enough To Win the Championship? (Oregon vs. Auburn)

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    I hate when announcers and commentators use an adage like "don't get up to go to the bathroom or you might miss a big play!" when talking about a game.

    But in this case, you might want to pause the DVR every time you blink—both teams have unbelievable athletes that can turn the smallest sliver into a game-changing play.

    Both offenses are so dynamic—it's hard to say one is definitively better than the other since, while they both operate out of the spread, they approach their offensive gameplan in different manners.

    And both defenses are lost in the shuffle because of how good the offenses are. They're not two lockdown defenses by any stretch of the imagination but they're athletic, force turnovers and always seem to get the big stops or big plays they need in close games.

    I only have one fear for the Ducks: did they go through enough in the regular season to hang with Auburn?

    They fought back from a big deficit to beat Stanford. They beat California on the road when they definitely weren't playing their best game.

    Other than those two games, they pretty much dominated everyone.

    On the other side, Auburn went through plenty of close calls this season. The Tigers won their second game of the season by three points at Mississippi State and had to rally for an overtime win against Clemson at home the following week.

    They came back from deficits at home to beat South Carolina and Arkansas. They had to hang on against Kentucky and LSU. And they saved their best comeback for last when they rallied from 24-0 to upset rival Alabama (yes, it was an upset—the Tide were 4.5-point favorites).

    They played in a better conference and they know how to win close games.

    It's unfair to say we know how Oregon will react based off last year's Rose Bowl—this is a different team that's learned from that game. But will its lack of experience in close games help or hurt them as they try to bring the national championship back to the West Coast?