College Football Predictions: Forecasting Every Bowl Game for the 2011 Season
It's almost that time of the year. College football is upon us, and that means 120 teams will begin a mad scramble to reach a bowl game.
Some teams, such as Western Kentucky or New Mexico State, will be satisfied simply to make a bowl.
Other teams, such as Iowa or Clemson, expect to make a bowl.
And other teams, such as Notre Dame or Alabama, not only expect to make a bowl, but expect to compete for conference championships and/or BCS bowl bids every single season.
There are 35 bowls to go around, which some say is far too many and serves to award mediocrity. After all, with 35 bowls and thus, 70 "bowling" teams, more than half of the available pool of institutions go bowling. On the other hand, a bowl is a nice reward for a hard-working team and a loyal fan base, and who could have a problem with that?
Within those 35 bowls, there are only five BCS bowls. These five bowls are rarefied territory and these are what every institution and fan base strives for.
In the next 35 slides, I will give my picks as to who will be in each bowl. This not only takes into consideration the records of each team, but also how the bowls in question will pick.
From the New Mexico Bowl on December 17 to the BCS National Championship on January 9, this is what college football is all about.
New Mexico Bowl: San Diego State Aztecs vs. Arizona Wildcats
Where: Albuquerque, N.M.
When: December 17, 2011
Who: MWC No. 5 vs. Pac-12 No. 7
Why: San Diego State returns 13 players from a team that was 15 points away from being undefeated. Instead, they went 8-4 in the regular season, and capped it off with an impressive victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl; the Aztecs' first bowl win since 1969.
Unfortunately, success has its price, and they subsequently lost their coach, Brady Hoke, to Michigan. Complicating the matter, Hoke took his offensive coordinator, as well as three other position coaches with him.
The new man in charge is defense-minded Rocky Long, who has previous experience as a head coach, having led New Mexico for 11 years. He stepped down in 2008, saying he wanted the New Mexico program "to be on top," and he didn't "see it happening with [him] as a head coach."
Either he sees himself taking San Diego to greater heights than he would have taken New Mexico, or he is more willing to accept less-than-the-top from the Aztecs.
Either way, I have San Diego State going 8-4, with losses to Michigan, TCU, Air Force and Boise State.
On the other hand, I have Mike Stoops delivering another mediocre year in Tucson.
The Cats not only travel to Oklahoma State, Southern Cal, Washington and Arizona State, but they drew Oregon and Stanford from the northern division (though they do get them at home).
In the end, I have the Wildcats going 6-6 in what will be a competitive southern division in the Pac-12.
Certainly, 6-6 isn't awful, and it will be the fourth year in a row UA will go bowling. Nonetheless, Stoops wasn't hired to deliver mediocre teams, and six wins might spell the end of the Stoops era in Arizona.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio Bobcats vs. Nevada Wolfpack
Where: Boise, Idaho
When: December 17, 2011
Who: MAC No. 3 vs. WAC
Why: Nevada's out-of-conference will be as unfavorable as their conference slate will work in their favor.
Four straight road trips to begin the season will leave the Wolfpack at 1-3. However, while this team is not as good as last year's 12-1 squad, they are still the class of the WAC, particularly with Boise State now in the Mountain West Conference.
I have Nevada finishing at 9-3, with all three losses coming out-of-conference. In effect, they will get their second WAC championship in a row.
As for Ohio, I have the Bobcats also going 8-4, though they'll do it with three conference losses. With the MAC's fourth-best rushing offense returning every offensive lineman, head coach Frank Solich might have a chance at his first bowl win with Ohio.
New Orleans Bowl: Troy Trojans vs. Central Michigan Chippewas
Where: New Orleans, La.
When: December 17, 2011
Who: Sun Belt No. 1 vs. Conference USA
Why: The Troy Trojans have won at least a portion five Sun Belt conference championships in a row, and I see no reason to think they won't win their sixth.
Unlike last season, where the Trojans shared the championship with FIU, I have Troy winning the conference outright, and going 9-3 in the process.
The undisputed conference championship will secure them a bid to their fourth New Orleans bowl in six years.
Meanwhile, I have Conference USA failing to have a sixth team with bowl eligibility. In effect, the New Orleans Bowl will dig into the pool of available teams and come up with the Central Michigan Chippewas.
CMU will bounce back after a disappointing 2010 in which they went 3-9. They will do so on the backs of 14 returning starters, impressive depth and a full year in the system of second-year head coach Dan Enos.
Also, their schedule is somewhat favorable as they miss Temple and Miami (OH) and they get Northern Illinois at home.
In the end, I have the Chippewas going 7-5.
GoDaddy.com Bowl: Northern Illinois Huskies vs. FIU Golden Panthers
Where: Mobile, Ala.
Who: MAC No. 1 vs. Sun Belt No. 2
Why: Last year, Northern Illinois went into the MAC championship as the heavy favorite and came out on the losing end. This year, I think they will win it.
With 15 starters returning, including the MAC's top quarterback, Chandler Harnish, I have the Huskies going 10-3. I do have them losing two conference games, but that should still be good enough to get them to the championship.
FIU also has 15 starters back and are the reigning Sun Belt champions. With a home game at Troy, they are the favorites to repeat as conference champs, but I have them losing the Troy game, as well as two out-of-conference games.
Sun Belt championship or not, at 9-3, they will have a chance to win the bowl game and post their first-ever double-digit win season as an FBS team.
Beef O'Bradys Bowl: Tulsa Golden Hurricane vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla.
When: December 20, 2011
Who: Big East No. 6 vs. Conference USA
Why: Though I have Tulsa going 7-5 and qualifying for a bowl, it is a decided step down from last year's 10-3 record.
With 18 starters returning, hopes are very high heading into this season. Nevertheless, the loss of head coach Todd Graham to Pittsburgh coupled with a vicious out-of-conference schedule will leave the Golden Hurricane a bit less impressive than fans might have hoped.
RU went to a bowl every year from 2005-09. This was after a bowl drought of almost 30 years. Then the Scarlet Knights went 4-8 last season.
With nine offensive starters returning, I have Greg Schiano's team posting a 6-6 record in 2011, thereby taking Rutgers back to a bowl after last season's disappointing campaign.
Pointesettia Bowl: ULM Warhawks vs. Boise State Broncos
Where: San Diego, Calif.
When: December 21, 2011
Who: Mountain West No. 2 vs. WAC
Why: I admit I'm not Boise State's biggest fan. Still, they have proven that they can compete with any team in the country in any given week. I just have my doubts about whether they can do it in a competitive division and win week-after-week.
This season, though the MWC is hardly the SEC, it is a few steps up from the WAC.
With 14 starters returning, including quarterback Kellen Moore, I have BSU winning their opening showcase against Georgia. However, I have them losing to TCU in a game that will essentially decide the conference championship.
On the other side of the field, I have the WAC failing to qualify enough teams to fill their contract bowls. In effect, I have the Poinsettia taking 7-5 Louisiana-Monroe from the Sun Belt.
ULM has been just shy of bowl eligibility (or a winning record) in four of the last six seasons. This year, they will turn it around on the backs of 17 returning starters.
They will have to do it despite a grueling out-of-conference that includes Florida State, TCU and Iowa. Nonetheless, I have ULM going 7-5 and going to the first bowl in the history of the program.
Needless to say, if this game comes to pass, it will arguably be the most unanticipated game of the bowl season (for everybody but ULM fans).
Maaco Bowl: TCU Horned Frogs vs. Utah Utes
Where: Las Vegas, Nev.
When: December 22, 2011
Who: Mountain West Conference No.1 vs. Pac-12 No. 5
Why: I have the Utes going 6-6 in their first season in the Pac-12.
The Utes left the Mountain West Conference following the 2010 season. In effect, they have a recent history with the Horned Frogs, having played them every year between 2005-10. In that time, the teams were 3-3 against each other.
As for TCU, they joined the MWC in 2005, but this will be their last season, as they will be joining the Big East in 2012. Yes, nothing says "east" like an institution located in Ft. Worth, Texas.
That being as it were, in the MWC, the Frogs are and have been in a position where it's do-or-die. Either they go undefeated and earn a BCS bowl invitation, or they lose one game or more, and it's off to a lower-tier bowl.
This year, I have them going 11-1 with a loss to BYU. That means no BCS, but one last MWC title, which will land them squarely in Vegas before the move east.
Hawai'i Bowl: SMU Mustangs vs. Hawaii Warriors
Where: Honolulu, Hawai'i
When: December 24, 2010
Who: WAC vs. Conference USA
Why: In 2012, Hawai'i will be leaving the WAC and joining the MWC. However, their final year in the WAC will be a tough one.
They only have three starters returning from 2010's 10th-ranked scoring offense. The good news is that one of them is quarterback Bryant Moniz.
I have the Warriors going 9-4 with two conference losses.
With 18 starters returning, the Mustangs will be in a good position to challenge for the Conference USA championship. The problem is Conference USA is very strong this season, with Houston, Tulsa, Southern Mississippi and Central Florida also returning a ton of experience from very good teams.
SMU will play every one of those teams with three of them on the road. They also have Texas A&M and TCU out-of-conference. At the end of the season, don't be surprised if SMU's schedule is considered one of the toughest in the nation.
I have SMU going 7-5 (5-3 in conference). Jones' lifetime record in the Hawai'i Bowl is 4-1, and in this scenario, he should have a good chance to get win No. 5, as the Mustangs will be better than their potential 7-5 record indicates.
Independence Bowl: Air Force Falcons vs. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Where: Shreveport, La.
When: December 26, 2011
Who: MWC No. 3 vs. ACC No. 7
Why: Troy Calhoun was hired as the Air Force head coach following the retirement of Fisher DeBerry. That was in 2006, at which time the Falcons had failed to receive a bowl bid the previous four years. They also hadn't had a winning season for three years.
In Calhoun's first season, Air Force went 9-3 and went to the Armed Forced Bowl, which they lost. The next three years saw the Falcons go 8-4 every season, with bowl games each year. How's that for military precision?
Not to be one that would question a trend, I have Air Force once again going 8-4 in 2011.
On the other hand, due to the mercurial idiocy of the NCAA, Georgia Tech still hasn't officially had sole ownership of an ACC championship for over 20 years, and I don't think they'll win one in 2011.
Head coach Paul Johnson, who is is 0-3 in bowls with the Yellow Jackets, will have to adjust to the loss of his three-year signal caller, Josh Nesbitt, and his top rusher, Anthony Allen. In effect, I have Georgia Tech going 6-6 (3-5 in conference).
Little Caesars Bowl: Miami (OH) Red Hawks vs. Northwestern Wildcats
Where: Detroit, Mich.
When: December 27, 2011
Who: MAC No. 2 vs. Big Ten No. 8
Why: Though I predicted Northwestern to go 6-6 (3-5 in conference), I also called them my Big Ten dark-horse pick.
They have the best quarterback in the conference, one of the best groups of receivers and the second-most experienced offensive line in the country. Unfortunately, I have some misgivings about the offensive line, as well as the defense and quarterback Dan Persa's health.
Nonetheless, I won't be surprised if they wind up in Pasadena instead of Detroit.
That said, I don't have the guts to say they'll win nine games. Instead, I have them going 6-6, though they might be the best 6-6 team in the country.
The Cats' opponents will be Miami (OH) under new coach Don Treadwell. Treadwell finds himself in a good situation as the Red Hawks have eight returning starters on offense and nine on defense.
However, the MAC should be fairly competitive this season, and I have Miami (OH) going 9-3 in the regular season with only one conference loss. This will get them to the conference championship game, where I have them losing to NIU, and bringing a 9-4 record to the Little Caesars Bowl.
Belk Bowl: South Florida Bulls vs. Maryland Terps
Where: Charlotte, N.C.
When: December 27, 2011
Who: Big East No. 3 vs. ACC No. 5
Why: Skip Holtz will have 11 returning starters in his second year in Tampa. He will also be the only returning coach of what most consider the top three teams in the conference: USF, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
It remains to be seen if continuity gives him an advantage over the Panthers and Mountaineers, but I have the Bulls going 9-3 next season. I have them losing to Pitt and Syracuse, beating West Virginia, and losing an out-of-conference game to Notre Dame.
This will give the Bulls their second appearance in a row in the Belk Bowl (the former Meineke Car Care Bowl).
As for Maryland, the ACC scheduling gods did Randy Edsall a favor in his first year as the head coach of the Terps. Maryland will miss both Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Unfortunately, they also miss Duke and get Florida State and North Carolina State on the road. Finally, they have tough out-of-conference games against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Temple.
With 14 returning starters, the transition from former coach Ralph Friedgen's rush-heavy offense to Randy Edsall's rush-heavy offense shouldn't be that tough.
In the end, I have Maryland going 6-6 (4-4 in conference), with the Belk picking the Terps over Clemson to avoid a repeat of last year's bowl game.
Military Bowl: Navy Midshipmen vs. Clemson Tigers
Where: Washington D.C.
When: December 28, 2011
Who: Navy vs. ACC No. 8
Why: A number of pundits are pointing to the loss of quarterback Ricky Dobbs as evidence that the Midshipmen will experience a tough season in 2011. However, Navy is currently riding a bowl run of eight years during which time they've had six different players under center.
Navy is a developmental program that thrives on precision and discipline, two elements that will not be lacking in 2011. In the end, the offense, which returns four of its five offensive linemen, should be fine.
On the other hand, the defense loses a boatload. Also, this will be a tougher schedule than the Midshipmen faced last year.
Overall, I have Navy going 8-4.
At Clemson, the seat is getting warm under Dabo Swinney.
After taking over mid-season for Tommy Bowden in 2008, he has gone 19-15. That's not bad, but it is decidedly mediocre. Complicate that with two losses in a row to arch-rival South Carolina (and one in Death Valley), and his position is, according to the folks at CoachesHotSeat.com, "on the edge of hot seat."
Unfortunately, despite returning nine on offense and five on defense, the scheduling gods did Swinney no favors. Clemson not only plays Auburn at home and South Carolina on the road out-of-conference, but in conference, the Tigers drew arguably the top two teams in the coastal division—Virginia Tech and North Carolina. About the only good news is they get Florida State at home.
In effect, I have Clemson going 7-5.
Holiday Bowl: Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Where: San Diego, Calif.
When: December 28, 2011
Who: Pac-12 No. 3 vs. Big 12 No. 5
Why: I would call Arizona State potentially the biggest surprise of 2011, but at this point, the cat's been let out of the bag.
Last season, ASU went 6-6, but they played three top-10 teams—Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin—and they lost four of their games by four points or less. They lost two of their games by one point.
They also had the third-best scoring offense in a conference with Oregon and Stanford, and the fifth-best scoring defense. In short, this team was way better than 6-6, and with 20 returning starters, they will prove it this season.
I have Arizona State going 10-2, with conference losses to Oregon and a home upset to in-state rival Arizona. I have them going to the conference championship and losing, leaving them at 10-3.
Tommy Tuberville will be in his second season in Lubbock. He has 15 starters back, including his entire offensive line. He should have a strong enough team to compete this year, despite the fact that the Big 12 is extremely top-heavy, and the top six teams will all be very good.
I have the Red Raiders going 9-3, with losses on the road at Oklahoma and Texas, and a home loss to Texas A&M.
Alamo Bowl: Stanford Cardinal vs. Texas Longhorns
Where: San Antonio, Texas
When: December 29, 2011
Who: Pac-12 No. 2 vs. Big 12 No. 3
Why: In my scenario, this is one of the most interesting non-BCS game matchups.
Firstly, though I have Stanford beating two teams that make the BCS, I have them losing to Arizona State and Southern Cal (both on the road). This leaves them at 10-2 and 7-2 in conference. Furthermore, this leaves them as one of, if not the best non-BCS bowl team in the country.
As for the Longhorns, I have them going 9-3 with losses to Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas A&M. Perhaps this is not up to the standards Mack Brown has established over the last decade, but it is a huge step up from last season's disaster.
If Texas can indeed bring nine wins into the bowl game, they have a shot at a double-digit win season, which will hopefully quell any lingering doubts that Horn fans have.
On the other hand, a win here would be a nice ending to Andrew Luck's impressive college career, should he decide to turn pro in 2012.
Champs Sports Bowl: Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Boston College Golden Eagles
Where: Orlando, Fla.
When: December 29, 2011
Who: Big East No. 2 vs. ACC No. 3
Why: BC has a lot of things going their way in 2011, including nine returning starters on offense, and the return of Mr. All-Everything on defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The schedule, while not favorable, is not bad.
I have the Eagles opening up 6-0, before an away date at Virginia Tech begins a slide that sees them finish the season 3-3. That leads to a respectable 9-3 season, which extends their bowl streak to 13 years.
On the other side of the field, my alma mater has ditched the Wanstache for Todd Graham. It might be a substantial adjustment for the Panthers to switch from their former pro-style, defense-first mentality to Graham's uptempo, multiple style. Fortunately, Graham has some talented pieces in place to make the move.
It will begin with returning junior quarterback Tino Sunseri. He will be surrounded by five other returning offensive starters. Meanwhile, though Graham is not known for coaching up defenses, he will have eight returning starters, including six of his front seven and all-conference free safety Jarred Holley.
I have the Panthers losing to Iowa and Notre Dame out-of-conference, and going undefeated in-conference until they lose an away game at West Virginia, which moves them out of the driver's seat for the conference championship.
In effect, the Panthers will also be 9-3 when they line up against the Eagles. These two teams faced each other 29 times since 1959, but they haven't squared off since 2004, when BC left the Big East for the ACC.
Music City Bowl: Miami (FL) Hurricanes vs. Tennessee Volunteers
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
When: December 30, 2011
Who: ACC No. 6 vs. SEC No. 7
Why: When one looks at the failures of Hurricane football over the last few years, there is one glaring element that pops out: quarterback play. It just hasn't been there like it was in the '80s and '90s, and that, as much as anything, has been the big difference.
That said, new head coach Al Golden is not known for the work he does with quarterbacks. Rather, he is a defensive specialist whose offense begins and ends with the running game.
With that in mind, he will inherit a Miami (FL) team that returns a solid running back in Lamar Miller, a substantial portion of its offensive line and seven starters on defense.
On the other hand, the schedule isn't favorable, as the Canes will have to travel to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State, to go along with out-of-conference home games against Ohio State and Southern Florida.
In the end, I have them going 7-5. I have them winning the OSU game, but losing to USF. I also have them losing to Maryland, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and FSU.
Meanwhile, Derek Dooley is in his second season with the Vols. He might get them back to their former greatness, but I don't see it happening this season.
On the bright side, Tennessee has 13 returning starters, and the second highest percentage of returning lettermen in the SEC. This includes returning sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray. Also, the Vols were decimated by injuries last season. That will bode well for depth this season.
On the negative side, UT drew LSU, Alabama and Arkansas from the SEC West, with the latter two on the road. However, they do have a reasonable out-of-conference.
I have the Vols going 7-5 (3-5 in conference) with an upset win over Georgia.
Insight Bowl: Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. Ohio State Buckeyes
Where: Tempe, Ariz.
When: December 30, 2011
Who: Big Ten No. 4 vs. Big 12 No. 4
Why: Oklahoma State will begin the year on a lot of short lists to win the Big 12 and go to the national championship game. I don't have them doing either.
Though the Cowboys return 10 on offense including all-conference quarterback Brandon Weeden and All-American receiver Justin Blackmon, there are still a lot of questions to answer for the Big 12's sixth-ranked scoring defense. That defense, by the way, returns six players, though only three in the front seven.
Due to a top-heavy Big 12, as well as a schedule that has them traveling to Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech, I have OSU going 9-3 with losses to the Aggies, the Longhorns and the Tigers.
As for the other OSU, they have had some problems this offseason.
With the posse on his rear, their quarterback declared for the NFL. Their head coach unexpectedly resigned, which forced them to promote an interim head coach who may or may not be ready. Also, three probable offensive starters will be suspended for the first five games, and they only have four returning starters on each side of the ball.
Throw in roadies at Miami (Fl), Nebraska and Michigan; and home games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State.
If Jim Tressel were still the coach, I might have the Bucks as the repeating Big Ten champion despite all the issues. But he is not, and I have OSU going 8-4, with losses to Miami (FL), Michigan State, Nebraska and (gasp) Michigan.
That last loss will solidify Luke Fickell's status as an interim head coach, thereby leaving the Insight Bowl as his last game as the head coach of the Bucks.
Armed Forced Bowl: Brigham Young Cougars vs. Houston Cougars
Where: Ft. Worth, Texas
When: December 30, 2011
Who: BYU vs. Conference USA
Why: One of the most interesting matchups of my predictions pits 11-1 BYU against 12-1 Houston—the Battle of the Cougars and the battle of almost-BCS teams.
I have the Houston Cougars going 12-0 through the season, then losing in the conference championship game, thereby knocking them out of the running for a BCS bowl.
Meanwhile, the BYU Cougars will go 11-1, with the lone loss coming in the second week of the season in a road game at Texas.
Aside from the obvious similarities, this will pit two of the best offenses and best passing attacks in the country against each other, and, if it comes to pass, should be one of the best bowl games of the year.
Pinstripe Bowl: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Toledo Rockets
Where: New York, N.Y.
When: December 30, 2011
Who: Big East No. 4 vs. Big 12 No. 7
Why: I have the Bearcats bouncing back after an unfortunate 2010 that saw them going 4-8 following three years in which they went a combined 33-7.
They will not be back at the double-digit win mark, but with their entire defense returning as well as an all-conference quarterback, they will go 7-5. This will be good enough to make a bowl game and get the program headed in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 is not only down to 10 teams, but it is also top-heavy. In effect, I have the conference failing to place a seventh team in a bowl.
This will open the at-large pool to the Pinstripe Bowl, and I have them picking up 7-5 (6-2 in conference) Toledo from the Mid-American Conference.
The Rockets will be better than their record indicates, but a vicious out-of-conference schedule plus a roadie at Temple to open the conference season will have them begin 2011 at 1-4.
Nonetheless, three straight wins to end the season—including two on the road—will secure postseason eligibility.
Texas Bowl: Michigan State Spartans vs. Missouri Tigers
Where: Houston, Texas
When: December 31, 2011
Who: Big Ten No. 6 vs. Big 12 No. 6
Why: Missouri finds itself in the unfortunate position of being moderately up in a year when its conference is substantially up. On top of that, the early departures to the NFL of quarterback Blaine Gabbert and defensive end Aldon Smith will hurt the Tigers.
Still, Mizzou has nine returning on offense and six on defense. Moreover, the schedule has Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech at home. On the other hand, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Baylor and an out-of-conference game against Arizona State are all on the road.
In the end, I have Missouri going 8-4 with losses to ASU, Oklahoma, TAMU and Texas Tech.
MSU will enter this season with a lot to prove. Last year, they went 11-2, but played a very easy schedule and got blown out in both of their losses, including a 7-49 trashing in the bowl game. This year, they will set out to prove they are the real deal.
However, it won't be easy. They will have a much tougher schedule than last season, they will have to rebuild their offensive line and they will be without two-time All-American linebacker Greg Jones.
On the bright side, almost every offensive skill position player returns, and they will have a formidable defensive front. Plus, they get a transitioning Michigan and an OSU sans suspended players early in the season.
I have the Spartans going 8-4, as I think they will really struggle with their offensive line.
Liberty Bowl: Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles vs. Mississippi Rebels
Where: Memphis, Tenn.
When: December 31, 2011
Who: Conference USA No. 1 vs. BE/SEC No. 8/9
Why: Last season, Southern Miss was two points away from 10 wins. This season, Larry Fedora's squad has seven returning starters on both sides of the ball, including all-conference quarterback Austin Davis.
He also has six of his defensive front seven returning, most of them seniors and multiple-year starters.
On top of that, Southern Miss has, without a doubt, the most favorable schedule in a competitive Conference USA this season. The Golden Eagles miss both Houston and Tulsa, and they get the other top conference teams—SMU and UCF—at home. Moreover, their toughest out-of-conference games—at Virginia and Navy—are winnable.
Southern Miss has a shot at going undefeated, but I have them going 10-2 and then beating Houston in the conference championship to earn the conference's automatic Liberty Bowl berth.
In the northern part of the Magnolia State, the Rebs will return nine on offense and five from the conference's worst defense. Given that the defense was so bad, maybe losing six players will give this group a fresh start.
Overall, I'm not expecting a huge turnaround for Houston Nutt, but last year, Ole Miss would have gone bowling if they hadn't choked against Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt. This season, I predict they don't choke in similar games and manage six wins.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: California Golden Bears vs. Temple Owls
Where: San Francisco, Calif.
When: December 31, 2011
Who: Pac-12 No. 6 vs. Army
Why: Cal coach Jeff Tedford is on a warm, if not hot, seat, after going 5-7 last year. This is complicated by arch-rival Stanford's current success, as well as the reality that Cal under Tedford will be competitive, but will probably never live up to the promise the the program showed early in Tedford's tenure.
Nevertheless, next season Cal returns a substantial portion of their (moribund) offense. Though they'll be breaking in a new quarterback, the quarterback in question—Brock Mansion—gained a good deal of experience last year due to injuries.
It is true he didn't look very good in the games in which he appeared, but consider he faced Oregon, Stanford and Washington, three of the four best teams in last year's Pac-10.
This season Cal plays arguably the toughest schedule in the conference with roadies at Washington, Oregon, Stanford and ASU; with USC at home.
Though I don't have Cal upsetting any of those teams, I do have them winning the games they're supposed to and finishing 7-5.
On the other hand, I don't have Army qualifying for a bowl, which will open things up for the Fight Hunger Bowl's backup agreement with the MAC.
As for the Owls, they return 12 starters overall, and have the eighth-most experienced offensive line in the country.
They also have a new coach in former Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. He will have huge shoes to fill, as Al Golden took the Owls from bad-enough-to-get-kicked-out-of-a-reeling-Big-East to MAC respectability.
In 2011, they will be the beneficiaries of a schedule that has them missing Northern Illinois; and both Central and Western Michigan. I have them going 8-4 in the regular season with two conference losses. One of the losses will be to Miami (OH), which will keep the Owls out of the conference championship game.
By the way, when a 8-4 team is left without an automatic bowl tie-in, the MAC really needs to work on its bowl contracts.
Sun Bowl: North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Washington Huskies
Where: El Paso, Texas
When: December 31, 2011
Who: ACC No. 4 vs. PAC-12 No. 4
Why: At Washington, Steve Sarkisian has taken positive, if moderate steps forward in each of his first two seasons. In his first season, he was 5-7, which was a huge improvement from the 0-12 team he inherited. Then, he went 7-6 last season, which some viewed as a disappointment, but again, it was a moderate step forward.
This season, with 15 returning starters (though a new quarterback), a schedule that skips Arizona State (which is a good thing this season) and gets Oregon in Seattle, Sarkisian's Huskies will once again take a moderately positive step forward.
I have them finishing 8-4 with losses to Nebraska, Oregon, Stanford and Southern Cal, all of whom will finish the season ranked in the top 25.
Meanwhile, UNC is embroiled in a mess. On July 27, just days before the beginning of fall camp, it was announced that head coach Butch Davis had been fired. It's hard to understand the timing of the firing, but it is due to the slew of allegations that the North Carolina program is currently facing.
At this point, it's impossible to say who will be suspended, who will play and what will happen to the program. Nevertheless, if interim coach Everett Withers can rally his team, there is more than enough talent to challenge for the ACC championship.
The problem is, this will be the second "rally" year in a row following last season's plague of accusations and suspensions.
In effect, despite 10 returning starters on a very good defense, I have the Tar Heels bending under the strain. On the other hand, a favorable schedule will help them maintain.
In closing, I have a beleaguered UNC finishing 7-5.
Chick-Fil-a Bowl: North Carolina State Wolfpack vs. Arkansas Razorbacks
Where: Atlanta, Ga.
When: December 31, 2011
Who: ACC No. 2 vs. SEC No. 5
Why: NC State will have a tough time duplicating last season's third-ranked conference scoring offense, as they only have five returning starters.
They had four returning offensive linemen, but recently, the offensive line has taken a few hits in a row. The good news is the players in question will only miss the beginning of the season, which is decidedly winnable.
Other good news is that eight returning defensive starters give the Wolfpack a chance to improve upon their sixth-ranked scoring defense.
I have North Carolina State going 9-3, with losses to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Boston College.
As for the Hogs, I was much higher on them before the season-ending injury to star tailback Knile Davis. The Razorbacks have experienced players to take his place. Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that when Davis started to get the bulk of the carries last season, the Arkansas running game noticeably improved.
Couple the Davis injury with a reworked offensive line, and the running game gives me pause, especially with road games at Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU on the docket.
I have Arkansas going a disappointing 8-4, with losses to 'Bama, LSU and Mississippi State, as well as an upset against Auburn.
TicketCity Bowl: UCF Golden Knights vs. Purdue Boilermakers
Where: Dallas, Texas
When: January 2, 2012
Who: Big Ten No. 7 vs. Conference USA
Why: Last year, UCF went 11-3, won their conference and beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. It was the second double-digit win season in the program's history and in George O'Leary's tenure with the team.
This season, despite being a "hot" pick to win Conference USA, I don't expect them to do quite as well.
The Golden Knights only return 11 starters. This includes a gutting of their receiving corps and only five returning starters on defense. Also, the schedule misses Houston, but has UCF traveling to Southern Miss and SMU to go along with a home game against Tulsa. There are also out-of-conference games at BYU and against Boston College.
Nonetheless, C-USA's best 2010 defense should be able to regroup somewhat, and there are enough returning pieces to have a formidable offense.
In effect, I have the Knights going 7-5.
Purdue has not made a bowl since 2007. Danny Hope's record as the Boiler coach is 9-15. Nonetheless, I have the Boilermakers turning it around this season.
Purdue will return eight returning starters on offense. This includes almost the entire offensive line, two experienced quarterbacks and Ralph Bolden at running back, who was lost for 2010 due to an ACL tear. This will help bolster the Big Ten's worst scoring offense.
Meanwhile, though the defense will miss Ryan Kerrigan, almost everybody else of note returns.
The Boilers have a tough schedule that begins with an out-of-conference game against Notre Dame. In conference, Purdue has roadies at Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, to go along with home games against Iowa and Ohio State.
Despite this, I have the Boilermakers going 7-5.
Gator Bowl: Florida Gators vs. Iowa Hawkeyes
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
When: January 2, 2012
Who: Big Ten No. 5 vs. SEC
Why: The last time these teams met was arguably the worst refereeing job I have ever seen in my 30-plus years of watching both the pro and college versions of the sport. This season, if this scenario comes to fruition, hopefully it won't turn out as badly.
Iowa will be returning the fewest starters in the Big Ten in 2011, but a favorable schedule, a "down" conference and a strong offensive line work in their favor.
I have the Hawks going 8-4 on the back of a powerful rushing game and an opportunistic defense.
Meanwhile, there will be a new coach in Gainesville and he is former Texas and Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. It is also notable that his offensive coordinator is former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. Given Weis' history, OC is probably a much better fit for him than head coach.
The Gators return eight on offense including almost all of their skill players. As was recently pointed out to me, about the only players Weis did a good job of developing at Notre Dame were quarterbacks and receivers, but he did an exceptional job in this capacity. This bodes well for 2011.
Unfortunately, Florida loses much of their offensive line, and returns five on defense, including only three in the front seven.
Due to this, a substantial scheme change and a typically tough schedule that includes Florida State, as well as the usual litany of SEC powerhouses, I have the Gators starting 4-0, but finishing 7-5.
Outback Bowl: Michigan Wolverines vs. Georgia Bulldogs
Where: Tampa, Fla.
When: January 2, 2012
Who: Big Ten No. 3 vs. SEC
Why: Georgia was the hot pick to win the SEC East, primarily because of sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and eight returning starters on defense.
Then the offensive linemen began to fall off the map, and now there is a real possibility that more than one true freshman will be one injury away from starting. That is not good news for a team that is looking to reestablish a running game that has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher since 2008.
Due to a favorable schedule that has the Dawgs miss Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, and sees them face South Carolina and Mississippi State at home, I still think highly of UGA, but not as highly as I did a few months ago.
I have them going 8-4, with an opening day loss to Boise State and conference losses to Ole Miss, Tennessee and (ugh) Florida. With a win over South Carolina, I have them winning the East, but losing in the conference championship game.
On the other side of the field, Michigan will be in a transition year, moving away from Rich Rodriguez's spread option and abortive 3-3-5 defense and towards Brady Hoke's more traditional Big Ten smash-mouth football.
After some early season growing pains, I have the Wolverines settling in and finishing with a respectable 8-4 record, including a win against that team down south.
Capital One Bowl: Penn State Nittany Lions vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
Where: Orlando, Fla.
When: January 2, 2012
Who: Big Ten No. 2 vs. SEC
Why: The Penn State season will hinge on how quickly they figure out their quarterback situation. Last year, PSU went to the Outback Bowl and that quarterback situation arguably bit them on the rear, as they gave up five interceptions. Furthermore, last year's defense was as down as any Nittany Lion D in recent memory has been.
This season, I have the defense turning around and the offense settling on a quarterback and pulling together. Under those circumstances, Penn State has a realistic shot at winning their division and conference. Nevertheless, I have them going 9-3 with an out-of-conference loss to Alabama and Big Ten losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The incumbent SEC East champions return seven on offense and six on defense. This includes their quarterback Stephen Garcia, Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore, and possibly the best receiver in the country in Alshon Jeffery.
The good news is they miss LSU and Alabama. The bad news is all of their toughest games are on the road. They travel to Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.
With a rebuilt offensive line and defensive front seven, I have the Gamecocks going 9-3, with losses to Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia. The UGA loss will keep them from repeating as SEC East champions, but they'll still have the better record than the Dawgs and go to the more prestigious bowl.
Cotton Bowl: Texas A&M Aggies vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Where: Dallas, Texas
When: January 6, 2012
Who: Big 12 No. 2 vs. SEC
Why: Mississippi State returns seven from the SEC's third-ranked scoring defense. They return three up front and four in the backfield. They will have to replace all three linebackers, but there is plenty of talent in the cupboard.
In order to be successful, the SEC's 10th-ranked scoring offense will have to step it up. But eight returning starters, including all of the Bulldogs' skill position players should keep opposing teams on their toes.
They are in the SEC West, so their schedule is daunting, but have a favorable out-of-conference slate, and they get LSU, Bama, South Carolina and Ole Miss at home.
I have MSU going 9-3 with losses to LSU and Bama, along with a road loss to Georgia.
Texas A&M will begin the season as one of three favorites to win the Big 12. Of course, only one team can win it, and I don't think it will be the Aggies.
Almost the entire offense returns, but that offense was iffy against better defenses. This season, they might bring it all together, but I have my doubts.
Meanwhile, the TAMU defense was fairly consistent last season, and it returns eight. The problem is it will have to replace All-American linebacker Von Miller.
The schedule has the Aggies with an out-of-conference, neutral-site game against Arkansas, as well as roadies at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
I have them losing the Arkansas and Oklahoma games, en route to a 10-2 season.
BBVA Compass Bowl: Syracuse Orange vs. Auburn Tigers
Where: Birmingham, Ala.
When: January 7, 2012
Who: Big East No. 5 vs. SEC No. 8
Why: The defending national champions return four starters on each side of the ball. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and the Lombardi Trophy winner both declared for the NFL draft. The Tigers also lost an All-American offensive tackle and an all-conference center.
And they have a schedule that includes an out-of-conference game at Clemson, and conference games at South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Plus home games against Mississippi State, Florida, Ole Miss and 'Bama.
In effect, it will take a lot just for AU to reach bowl eligibility. Nonetheless, that is what I have them doing. With six wins, they will reach the BBVA Compass Bowl for a glorified home game in Birmingham.
The Orange will look to build on last year's 8-5 season, their first bowl appearance since 2004 and their first bowl win since 2001. This will be tough to do, as they only return five from the Big East's third best scoring defense, including three in the front seven.
On the other hand, they return seven on an underachieving offense, including their senior quarterback, Ryan Nassib. If the offense can take steps forward, the Orange could vie for the Big East title.
Unfortunately, I don't have them taking those strides, but I still have them gaining bowl eligibility at 6-6.
Rose Bowl: Wisconsin Badgers vs. Oregon Ducks
Where: Pasadena, Calif.
When: January 2, 2012
Who: Big Ten Champion vs. Pac-12 Champion
Why: Wisconsin goes to their second Rose Bowl in a row, even though I don't think the 2011 incarnation of the Badgers is as quite as good as the 2010 version. Nonetheless, if North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson settles in at quarterback, they could be very close to the 2010 Badgers.
Either way, I have them riding a weak Big Ten, and an Ohio State that is embroiled in a scandalous mess.
All of this leaves an 12-1 team in Pasadena for the holidays.
As for the Ducks, I have them losing the first game of the year to LSU, as well as a conference game to Stanford. However, their 8-1 conference record puts them in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game against Arizona State.
They go on to win that game, which gives them three Pac-10/12 championships in a row.
Sugar Bowl: LSU Tigers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Where: New Orleans, La.
When: January 3, 2012
Who: SEC Champion vs. BCS
Why: With nine returning offensive starters to go along with seven returning defensive starters, LSU looks poised to run the table and go to the national championship. In truth, if their ninth-ranked SEC scoring offense can make substantial strides this season, man-for-man, they might be a better team than the SEC team I have in the national championship.
The problem is their schedule. Out-of-conference, they play Oregon and West Virginia, the latter away and the former in Arlington, Texas. In conference, they are in the SEC West, which is plenty on its own, but they have away games at Tennessee, 'Bama and Ole Miss, as well as home games against Auburn, Florida and Arkansas.
In the end, I have them going 11-1, with the lone loss coming to Alabama.
Meanwhile, I don't have any non-AQ teams going undefeated, though I have four coming very close.
In effect, I have the Sugar Bowl with a choice between four 10-win AQ teams—Florida State, Stanford, Texas A&M and Nebraska—or 11-win non-AQ BYU.
I have them choosing Nebraska and Big Red's traveling reputation over the 450 miles between College Station, Texas and New Orleans. On top of that, I expect the Sugar Bowl executives wouldn't want a repeat of last year's Cotton Bowl matchup.
As for Nebraska, I expect the Huskers' first season in the Big Ten to be successful. Unless the Big Ten poses that huge a transition from the Big 12, Nebraska should have the best defense in a "down" conference next season.
Couple that with a schedule that doesn't appear as treacherous as it did when it was first handed out six months ago, and I have Nebraska going 10-3, with two losses to Wisconsin (one in the conference championship) and a loss to Penn State.
Orange Bowl: West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Florida State Seminoles
Where: Miami, Fla.
When: January 4, 2012
Who: ACC Champion vs. BCS
Why: Notre Dame is one of the slew of one-loss teams that will vie for the national championship. In the end, I have them losing to Stanford in the last regular season game of the year, thereby getting knocked out of the championship picture.
Meanwhile, Florida State will lose to Oklahoma early in the season, but cruise through a favorable ACC slate en route to a meeting with Virginia Tech in the conference championship. They will lose, but as the only ACC team that has a shot of getting selected as an at-large BCS choice, they will pick up a nice consolation prize in an Orange Bowl bid.
They will play the 9-3 WVU Mountaineers, despite a late-season loss at South Florida. At 6-1 in conference, a win over Pitt will solidify their BCS berth before they even play USF.
The Mountaineers may not be an SEC foe, but they should present a tougher game than the last two Big East BCS bowl representatives—UConn and a Brian Kelly-less Cincinnati.
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma Sooners vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
When: January 5, 2012
Who: Big 12 Champion vs. BCS
Why: I have the Sooners losing their last game of the season at Oklahoma State. If the Big 12 still had a conference championship game, they might be able to crawl back into the national championship. However, without it, the late loss will push them out after going 11-0 and sitting in the No. 1 spot for the entire season.
Regardless, they'll still win the Big 12 and get the automatic conference bid.
Notre Dame is one of the slew of one-loss teams that will vie for the national championship. In the end, I have them losing to Stanford in the last regular season game of the year, thereby getting knocked out of the championship picture.
National Championship: Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
Where: New Orleans, La.
When: January 9, 2012
Who: BCS Nos. 1 and 2.
Why: The Hokies are arguably my most controversial pick. Furthermore, I don't feel they will be one of the five best teams in the country. In fact, they might not even be one of the 10 best teams. Nonetheless, their schedule is a cakewalk, and Frank Beamer's Hokies have won at least 10 games every year since joining the ACC. And that has been without cakewalk schedules.
There are four teams on the schedule that have a realistic chance of beating the Hokies (outside of major upsets), and all of those games are in Blacksburg. And the Hokies will be favored by at least six points in most of those games.
With a few breaks, they will cruise to the ACC championship undefeated. At that point, I have them beating FSU and finishing the season, along with 'Bama, as the only undefeated teams in the nation.
Despite being one of the only two undefeated teams in the nation, their schedule will cause a good deal of controversy and protest, particularly from Notre Dame and Oklahoma fans.
As for 'Bama, this team looks a lot like the 2009 national championship team.
They return almost everybody from a top-10 defense, almost the entire offensive line, a really good running back that has waited in the wings for a year; and a young, inexperienced quarterback.
Combine that with about as favorable a schedule as a team from the SEC West could ask for, and you've got a squad that has a date with destiny.
The only substantial missing piece is at receiver, but if they can find a way to replace Julio Jones, there are very few elements not to like about this team.
If this matchup does indeed come to pass, nine times out of 10, the SEC will once again bring home the national championship.