Bowl games are rewards not just for the players and coaches, but for the fans too. For the true college football fan, the holiday season is more than simply a time to gather with friends and family; the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's would be empty without a trip to a bowl game.
As the 2011 regular season comes to a close, it's time to make our bowl projections. But rather than picking which team will be playing where, we're going to chart a slightly different course.
Here are our projections for the 2011-12 bowl games that will pack serious crowds into their respective stadiums.
This year's Capital One Bowl between the SEC and Big Ten will likely feature an SEC team that could have easily found its way to the BCS National Championship Game.
With the logjam of great teams at the top of the SEC, and with the BCS's two-team-per-conference limit, it's likely that whichever of the top three SEC West teams finds itself lowest in the final BCS rankings will be playing in Orlando.
LSU is likely a lock for a BCS game, so we're stuck between Arkansas and Alabama. Although Arkansas is hoping for a second consecutive BCS berth this season, a trip to the Capital One Bowl wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
Plus, the Capital One Bowl has the largest non-BCS payout of any bowl ($4.25 million).
The Big Ten opponent for the SEC contestant will likely be the top-ranked team from the conference not appearing in the BCS.
Right now, it looks as if the Michigan Wolverines are in prime position for a trip to the Capital One Bowl.
So how do these potential pairings equal a jam-packed stadium? First, Michigan travels well, and the state of Florida is a popular destination for Michigan retirees. It seems everyone who lives in Florida is either originally from Michigan, Pennsylvania or New York these days.
Either Alabama or Arkansas will have a far shorter distance to travel and should likewise be able to easily sell out its allotment of tickets in mere hours.
PROJECTION: Michigan vs. Arkansas
Here we have another SEC-Big Ten meeting, and this game is likely the destination for the Georgia Bulldogs this season.
Georgia captured the SEC East title and will face the daunting task of defeating LSU, Alabama or Arkansas in the SEC title game.
Should the Bulldogs pull off the impossible, Georgia will be headed for a BCS berth as SEC champions. But if the Bulldogs fail in the herculean task, it will not only end any hopes of a BCS berth, but the Bulldogs will also likely fall out of a position to play in the aforementioned Capital One Bowl.
Still, a $3.3 million payout should keep the grumbling to a minimum. The opponent in this opportunity for Georgia and the SEC to showcase their supposed dominance over the Big Ten will possibly be a Leaders Division loser of the Big Ten championship game (depending on how far it falls in the final BCS rankings).
PROJECTION: Georgia vs. Wisconsin
It seems there is no shortage of high-paying bowl games for the SEC, as the conference claims its third spot in the top three paying bowls (Capital One, Outback, Chick-fil-A).
Rather than squaring off against the Big Ten, the ACC is the opponent of choice for the annual Georgia Dome clash.
Regardless of which SEC team participates in this year's Chick-fil-A Bowl (South Carolina looks to have the inside track this season), the fans show up in droves. With the right ACC team selected, this season's bowl could be one of the most raucous crowds in years.
Depending on how the ACC championship game ends up, it's possible that Clemson could find its way into this bowl game should it not be selected to participate in the BCS (which would likely be the case with another loss, even in the ACC title game).
Clemson already has more appearances in the Chick-fil-A/Peach Bowl (seven) than any team other than NC State (also with seven), so Tigers fans should feel right at home in the Georgia Dome.
Another opportunity to play a ranked South Carolina team on top of it? Regular season rematches in bowl games aren't common, but they do happen. South Carolina is still searching for its first Chick-fil-A Bowl win (0-2), and what better way to do it than against a hated in-state rival like Clemson?
PROJECTION: Clemson vs. South Carolina
If it seems like we're focusing on a lot of SEC vs. Big Ten bowl games, it's probably because we are—but not by design.
It just happens that the Big Ten and SEC are the two conferences with the biggest bowl game draws, and those bowls also happen to be the biggest non-BCS bowls in the nation.
You really have to give the SEC and Big Ten credit. Those two conferences have done an excellent job with their bowl tie-in negotiations, and the college football public responds with constant sellouts and high television ratings—which is probably why these bowls are also the highest-paying non-BCS bowls in the nation.
This bowl is also one of three New Year's Day bowls featuring the SEC vs. Big Ten formula in addition to any potential BCS matchups.
The Gator Bowl is yet another of these meetings between the two traditional powerhouse conferences, and even though the selection committee for the Gator Bowl usually doesn't have the pick of top teams from either conference, it always manages to find a pair of combatants to provide a very entertaining game.
There are still several teams in each conference that could strengthen their position for a Gator Bowl berth this season, and that picture likely won't be cleared up until after the final games have been played this weekend.
Still, with yet another Southern bowl with an SEC tie-in, you can bet that whichever team from the SEC finds itself headed for Jacksonville will have an impressive following of fans in tow.
The Big 12 had an agreement with the Gator Bowl for several years, and Nebraska made an appearance in this particular bowl in 2009. With their defeat at the hands of Michigan last week, it looks as if the Cornhuskers may have a chance to add another Gator Bowl trophy to the case in Lincoln.
Should Nebraska earn a berth in the Gator Bowl this season, you can expect to see a lot of red in Jacksonville on New Year's Day, as Nebraska has quickly established itself as one of the Big Ten's best in terms of fan travel.
PROJECTION: Nebraska vs. Auburn
When Texas is selected to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic, you know you're going to have a sellout on your hands.
With Texas' loss to Kansas State, the Longhorns all but removed themselves from consideration, especially after the comments made by Cotton Bowl Classic president Rick Baker.
While Texas is one of the biggest draws in the Cotton Bowl for obvious reasons, you can't discount the excitement from a team of dedicated and diehard fans such as those from Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners have some crazy losses this season (Texas Tech and Baylor) but are still a very good team and an attractive draw for the selection committee.
The Cotton Bowl Classic also features a team from the SEC. This season, the bowl committee may have a difficult task picking a team it believes is worthy of playing in such a high-profile bowl.
One of the side effects of having so many teams in the conference ranked so highly is that the Cotton Bowl Classic will be left with selecting a team with more losses on its record than usual. The 2011 season is an obvious example of this unfortunate situation.
Similar to the K-State situation, though, the chance to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic will whip any fanbase into a frenzy, especially if the Florida Gators find themselves invited to Cowboys Stadium in January.
PROJECTION: Oklahoma vs. Florida
It may take some getting used to, but the Fiesta Bowl isn't going to be featuring two usual BCS participants.
Don't think that doesn't mean the place won't be packed and noisy.
Although Oklahoma State watched its BCS championship dreams vanish with an overtime loss to unranked Iowa State, the BCS is still a likely destination for the Cowboys, and a win over Oklahoma will give Oklahoma State a clear shot to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl as Big 12 champs.
For its opponent, the BCS will once again open up the Fiesta Bowl to a non-AQ qualifier. This year, it appears that Houston will be the likely opponent for the Cowboys, as it has been running roughshod over everyone in its path.
Of course, Case Keenum and company haven't faced much opposition, and it will be very interesting to see how a Houston team can perform against an offense as prolific as its own.
Expect these two new BCS participants to pack University of Phoenix Stadium to its limits. If you like a lot of points, make sure you set the DVR, as this game won't disappoint.
PROJECTION: Oklahoma State vs. Houston
Unfortunately, the BCS is forced to accept the Big East champion each and every year (although that's likely to change very soon).
Last season, we were treated to a mediocre Connecticut team taking on a powerhouse Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. This season, the Big East mess at the top will likely give us West Virginia, as the Big East championship will be shared by four teams (there is currently a five-way tie, with only one head-to-head amongst those teams remaining).
At this point, you might as well pick a name out of a hat, but West Virginia has the inside track with the highest ranking amongst the plethora of Big East would-be co-champions.
Luckily, the ACC is a much, much better conference, and we have the benefit of a bona fide champion at season's end.
Virginia Tech and Clemson will meet in the 2011 ACC championship game, and although Clemson got the best of the Hokies earlier this season, it's very difficult to beat a good team like Virginia Tech twice. Based on that oversimplified logic, we're going to go with Virginia Tech as our ACC reps in the Orange Bowl.
Neither Virginia Tech nor West Virginia is a stranger to the BCS, and fans of these two programs know how to book their travel plans well in advance. Expect to see a jam-packed stadium in Miami as these two East Coast teams do battle for a bowl full of oranges.
PROJECTION: Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia
Did anyone pick Kansas State to be a BCS contender back in August?
Didn't think so. But here we are at the end of November, and the Wildcats are right in the thick of things in the Big 12. Depending on the results of Bedlam in Stillwater, the Wildcats could find themselves in a tie atop the Big 12 at season's end.
While the Wildcats were defeated by both the Sooners and Cowboys, the Wildcats were able to avoid any embarrassments to teams like Texas Tech or Iowa State.
With only a modest boost in rankings, the Wildcats could easily find themselves headed for New Orleans to play in the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
Unfortunately for K-State fans, the opponent is going to be one of the very best teams in the nation.
Usually the SEC champion appears in the Sugar Bowl, except when playing in the BCS title game. Since that's happened for the last handful of years, we usually see the SEC runner-up in the Sugar Bowl. Wrong again, at least for this season.
As distasteful as it is, the BCS rankings will likely put two SEC teams against one another in a déja vu contest. It's nothing to whet the appetite of college football fans across the nation that a sloppy field-goal-fest was the warm-up game to the national championship.
But that leaves us with a second at-large team for the Sugar Bowl and the second selection for the Pac-12.
The Stanford Cardinal have spend the entire season floating around the Top 10 in the polls, and while never really impressing the world like last season, the Andrew Luck-led team has been unswervingly solid in its play for most of the year.
The Pac-12 North will come down to the head-to-head tiebreaker between Oregon and Stanford, so the Cardinal will miss out on a chance to play in the first-ever Pac-12 title game, but that doesn't mean their repeat BCS hopes are gone.
Quite the contrary. Andrew Luck is one of the very best players in the nation, and any BCS bowl would be glad to have him playing on its field. The Sugar Bowl will be lucky enough to host Luck's final game in the Stanford uniform.
PROJECTION: Stanford vs. Kansas State
After reality has set in that neither the Big Ten nor the Pac-12 will have an opportunity to play for a BCS title this season, the focus has shifted to the Granddaddy of Them All—the Rose Bowl.
While the Rose Bowl is almost a guaranteed sellout every season, a potential participant this year has the chance to really blow the doors off of the place.
Michigan State hasn't reached the Rose Bowl since the end of the 1987 season, when the Spartans beat USC 20-17 in the 1988 Rose Bowl.
The Spartans have been waiting a long time to return to Pasadena, and they'll have their shot on December 3 in the Big Ten championship game.
Michigan State has also proven itself as a program that can attract a crowd on the West Coast, and there will be plenty of green and white in the stands on January 2.
There will probably be a lot of green in the stands, considering the likely opponent for the Spartans in the Oregon Ducks.
After a shocking upset loss to USC last week, the Ducks' chance at a repeat appearance in the BCS title game is gone. As disappointed as Oregon fans were after the USC loss, the fact that a Rose Bowl trip is still within their grasp will energize the fanbase before too long.
PROJECTION: Michigan State vs. Oregon
As we mentioned earlier, who really wants to see a rematch in the BCS title game?
Other than fans in Tuscaloosa, no one. Although LSU is being very diplomatic about the whole situation, you know the Tigers are really thinking, “These guys again? Really?”
Well, LSU has beaten everyone else this season while taking on one of the most difficult schedules we've seen in a very long time, so we don't expect the Tigers to be losing any time soon. But even if—shockingly—LSU were to lose to Arkansas, the loss likely wouldn't be enough to throw LSU out of title game consideration.
Alas, Oklahoma State's inability to fend off a feisty Iowa State team means we're going to be stuck with an all-SEC championship, and no one is really happy about it.
As long as Alabama can take care of business against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, the Crimson Tide will back their way into the title game, even without having an opportunity to play for their own conference title.
What a world we live in.
Still, this game is taking place in the heart of SEC country between two teams with the most dedicated and rabid fans in the nation. The Louisiana Superdome will be packed, and with the noise LSU and Alabama fans will be making, the roof may simply fly off the joint.
PROJECTION: LSU vs. Alabama