1. Major Applewhite, Texas
A lesser quarterback might have been shaken after throwing three interceptions in the opening half of his first start in 14 months, but Applewhite (right), who was subbing for the slumping Chris Simms, has never rattled easily. Washington led Texas 23-14 at halftime of the Holiday Bowl because it converted those three interceptions into 13 points. The Huskies increased their lead to 36-17 late in the third quarter. That's when Applewhite began to click. He completed nine of his last 10 passes and drove the Longhorns to three touchdowns. When tailback Ivan Williams scored on a three-yard run with :38 to play, Texas clinched a 47-43 victory and its first Top 10 finish since 1983.
2. Paul Pasqualoni, Syracuse
After the Orangemen started 0-2, the calls for the firing of Pasqualoni, who had won only eight of his last 17 games, got loud. With a dominating 26-3 victory over Kansas State in the lnsight.com Bowl, Syracuse won 10 games for only the sixth time in school history. Three of those seasons have come under Pasqualoni—and the fans are happy again.
3. Chris Rix, Florida State
After he called an audible and threw the 23-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker with 2:14 remaining that sealed the Seminoles' 30-17 Gator Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, Rix proved he had learned his lessons well during a trying freshman season. Although he completed only 12 of 25 passes against the Hokies, Rix withstood a heavy rush to find Walker for a 77-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that gave Florida State the lead for good.
1. New Orleans Bowl
Fans watching this inaugural NO Bowl couldn't help but wonder, How did 5-6 North Texas get here? The answer was simple: The Mean Green won the Sun Belt Conference. That led to another question: Why would a bowl grant a berth to a league so bad that a 5-6 team could win it, a league so bad that its members were a combined 5-31 against nonconference foes? Quite simply, the Sun Belt commissioner and the president of the bowl are the same man, Wright Waters. Last winter Waters rented the Superdome and then got the Mountain West Conference to agree to send its third-place team. The two leagues ponied up $600,000 each to go toward the $1.5 million guarantee, with the state of Louisiana kicking in the rest. In essence the two conferences paid themselves to play. About 27,000 tickets were sold, but 11,000 of them went unused, and the Sun Belt Conference just broke even. Oh, North Texas got drilled by Colorado State 45-20.
2. USC's offense
In the second game of the season the Trojans got only a touchdown in a 10-6 loss to Kansas State. In the Las Vegas Bowl they scored a touchdown and rushed for a net one yard in a 10-6 loss to Utah. The problem was twofold: An offensive line with four sophomore starters was learning on the job, and junior quarterback Carson Palmer, who's 6'5", 230 pounds and looks like an NFL prospect, is thought capable of doing things he cannot. Not even USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who groomed many a quarterback in his 27 years at Brigham Young, has been able to help Palmer make quicker, smarter decisions.
3. SEC West
Aside from LSU, which picked apart Illinois in a 47-34 Sugar Bowl win, the representatives of the SEC West set offensive football back decades. Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn combined to score 27 points, throw for 277 yards and rush for 218. Two days after the Tigers' 16-10 loss to North Carolina in the Peach Bowl, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville accepted the resignation of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who saw it coming. He'd begun sending out his resume two weeks earlier.