The 2011 bowl season is nearly upon us, and the next couple of weeks will be filled with practices, predictions and punditry about the 35 bowl games we're going to enjoy in weeks that follow.
Among the interesting team pairings are some intriguing player versus player matchups as well. In some cases, these matchups only heighten the anticipation for a game, like the LaMichael James vs. Montee Ball meeting in the Rose Bowl.
In other cases, you may want to tune into a game you would otherwise skip over to check out these individual battles.
Here are our picks for the best player versus player matchups of the 2011 bowl season.
It's safe to say that neither of the teams in this season's Champs Sports Bowl lives up to expectations. Florida State was a preseason favorite to win the ACC, and the Seminoles were even mentioned as a potential national championship contender.
Boy, was everyone wrong on that one.
The Seminoles started just 2-3 in 2011, and despite going 6-1 the rest of the way, were never really a threat in the ACC.
On the flip side, Notre Dame had its sights set squarely on the BCS in head coach Brian Kelly's second season. But after some mind-numbing miscues over the first few weeks of the season, Kelly found himself benching starter Dayne Crist in favor of backup Tommy Rees.
It's clear that Rees matured a lot this season as the Irish starter, and Notre Dame was able to right the ship (for the most part) down the stretch. After losses to South Florida and Michigan, however, the Irish saw their BCS hopes vanish with a mid-season loss to USC before finishing 8-4.
For the Seminoles, EJ Manuel is still the clear starter, and he's been fairly efficient in his role this season. Manuel has completed more than 65 percent of his passes, but his 16 passing touchdowns are a little underwhelming. Combined with eight interceptions on the season, it's clear that he didn't quite turn out to be the Seminole great as so many in Tallahassee had hoped.
So which quarterback will be able to finish strong? The real issue isn't so much achieving greatness at this point; it's all about ending 2011 on a high note, salvaging a small amount of success, and holding your head high when you walk off the field.
The 9-3 Nittany Lions will take on the 12-1 Cougars in the 2012 TicketCity Bowl at the Cotton Bowl on January 2.
This game is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Houston had expected to find its way into the BCS this season, but in the Cougars' only game against a ranked opponent, they were absolutely undressed.
The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles ruined the BCS chances for Houston with a dominating performance, and there are now some legitimate questions about how good this Houston team really is.
Are the Cougars really a fraud?
Unfortunately, the opponent drawn to face the Cougars isn't the best team we've ever seen come out of the Big Ten.
In fact, this year's Penn State team is amazingly offensively-challenged—a facet of the game where Houston excels. It will be fascinating to see if Penn State can score enough points to keep up with Case Keenum.
Penn State's only chance is to put that 10th-ranked defense in the FBS to good use. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still (Sr., DT) finished the 2011 regular season with 55 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble. While not sky-high numbers, Still's real impact is in his ability to really annoy and harass opposing quarterbacks.
As we saw in the Conference USA Championship Game, Keenum doesn't always respond well under pressure. It's going to be interesting if Houston can rebound for a deflating blow-out loss to beat a team from the Big Ten.
Youth versus experience.
Mobile versus pocket.
SEC versus Big Ten.
South versus North.
No matter how you slice it, the 2012 Outback Bowl has to be one of the best non-BCS games of the upcoming bowl season.
SEC-East Champion Georgia will take on Big Ten-Legends Champion Michigan State this year, and it will definitely be the battle of two contrasting style of teams and quarterbacks.
For Georgia, young Aaron Murray is certainly showing the signs of becoming the next great SEC quarterback. When the season began, there weren't many picking the Bulldogs to win the SEC-East. After all, Georgia was coming off a 6-7 season and head coach Mark Richt was on the hot seat—at least in the court of public opinion.
But after 2,861 passing yards and 33 aerial touchdowns, Murray has shown that last season was an aberration for the Bulldogs.
His Spartan counterpart, Kirk Cousins, is at the other end of his college career, as the Outback Bowl will be the final time the senior suits up for MSU. Kirk Cousins may be part of a dying breed, even in the Big Ten. He is the quintessential pocket passer: calm, patient, accurate and reluctant to carry the ball himself unless absolutely necessary.
With the transition in college football to the spread—something Big Ten teams have resisted for the most part—quarterbacks like Cousins may become increasingly rare. Gone perhaps are the days of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Elvis Grbac and Joe Germaine...and Kirk Cousins.
While many believe the shift in the NFL towards towards the spread is because of the talented spread quarterbacks coming out of college, perhaps it's because so few traditional pocket passers remain at the top of the FBS.
But we'll save that discussion for another article.
A few months ago, one of these players was a Heisman favorite, and one of them was not. That's still the case today, but the roles have switched.
LaMichael James led the FBS in rushing in 2010, and was an early favorite to win the award this season. With some missed time due to injury and the Ducks inability to run the table again this regular season, James' stock seemed to fall just enough to keep him off most Heisman radar screens as the season wore on and others rose.
One of those other players was Montee Ball.
The Big Ten has always been known as a conference that produces some tough runners, but what Ball has done this season is ridiculous.
Ball has amassed 1,759 rushing yards (leads the FBS), 32 rushing touchdowns (leads the FBS) and averages 6.4 yards per carry (4th in the FBS for players with 150 or more rush attempts).
Add in his six receiving touchdowns and Ball is tantalizingly close to that magical number of 40 offensive touchdowns.
Heck, Ball is even 2-of-2 passing for 57 yards and one touchdown.
Oregon fields the 46th-best rush defense in the nation. If Ball could rack up 137 yards and three touchdowns against MSU, which is ranked 12th in rushing defense, will the Ducks be able to find a way to slow down the one-man wrecking crew?
When Brandon Weeden takes the field against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, it's hard to imagine him being able to completely escape the moment.
After all, it is not only his first ever BCS game, it's the first ever BCS game in the history of the Oklahoma State football program. But the real key will be to shake off any sense of playing in a game viewed as a consolation prize when the Cowboys really would rather be in New Orleans a week later.
His counterpart, Andrew Luck, has been here before. The BCS should be old hat to him by now, right?
Maybe not. First, there's the potential "Heisman hangover" to deal with should Luck win the coveted award. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), Oklahoma State isn't quite Virginia Tech from 2010.
We all know Oklahoma State can score, and score in bunches. Will Luck and company be able to keep pace?
There hasn't really been anyone this season that can claim much success in stopping the Cowboys' offensive attack. However, history has also shown us that only the best defenses in the nation can hope to slow down the Luck-led Cardinal—and Oklahoma State certainly doesn't qualify as one of the nation's best on defense.
If you like scoring, this is the game for which you'll want to free up some DVR space. We're going to see some fireworks.
In the end, the game out west will come down to the two gunslingers. The quarterback that blinks first could find his team in an early hole.
It's not terribly unusual to have two Heisman candidates facing off in the national championship game.
It is unusual to a Heisman finalist from LSU. Tyrann Mathieu is not only a primarily defensive player making a rare trip to New York City, he's the first player from LSU to be named a finalist since 1977.
What makes this matchup with Trent Richardson so intriguing is that not only will these two finalists' teams square off in the BCS National Championship Game on January 9, but Mathieu and Richardson will be opposing each other on the field at the same time.
We all know why Trent Richarson is headed to the Big Apple. He's been solid, if not dominating for much of the season coming out of the Crimson Tide's backfield.
Whether he's running between the tackles plowing over linemen and through linebackers or running around the tackles and past corners, Richardson has been as close to unstoppable since the last Alabama running back to win the Heisman...which was just two years ago.
When it comes to Mathieu, we have to face facts: he's a finalist not because of his stellar defensive performance (although he is unquestionably a terrific cornerback). As good as he's been this season (70 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, seven passes broken up, two interceptions, et cetera, et cetera) even die-hard Tigers fans will admit that the Honey Badger's plane ticket to New York was secured with his dynamite ability to return kicks.
Mathieu averages better than 16.1 yards per punt return and has two touchdowns. A Mathieu return almost guarantees LSU good field position, and when you add his special teams performance to his impressive defensive stats, it's possible we could have our first defensive Heisman winner since Michigan's Charles Woodson won the award in 1997 (still the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman).
It's too bad the trophy isn't awarded after the bowl season, because this game could go a long way to determining which one of these to players deserves recognition.
Because the BCS National Championship features two Heisman finalists, and because we'll have the rare opportunity to see them oppose one another on the field at the same time, Mathieu vs. Richardson gets our nod as the top player vs. player matchup of the bowl season.