EVEN THE most avid college football fan might have trouble keeping up with a bowl season that has a record 34 games over a 20-day stretch. Here are three trends worth watching:
BIG TEN'S WOES ONLY START WITH OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes were harshly criticized for failing to put up much of a challenge in the last two national championship games, but their conference brethren didn't fare much better on smaller stages in the same period (5--8, including 0--2 in BCS matchups). So there should have been little surprise when then--No. 3 Penn State immediately fell out of the discussion for a BCS title-game berth following its 24--23 loss to Iowa on Nov. 8. Indeed, six other one-loss teams finished ahead of the Nittany Lions in the final BCS rankings—including Rose Bowl opponent USC, whose only defeat came against the same Oregon State team that Penn State routed 45--14. When the bowl season started last Saturday, five teams were double-digit underdogs in the 34 bowls, and three of them were Big Ten programs: the Nittany Lions, Northwestern (plays Missouri in the Alamo) and Minnesota (meets Kansas in the Insight). Of the seven Big Ten teams in the postseason only 8--4 Iowa was favored, against 7--5 South Carolina in the Outback.
A lack of respect? Most certainly. But with five of its seven opponents from the powerhouse Big 12 and SEC combined, the Big Ten has an opportunity to win back some prestige this bowl season. While the conference is unlikely to win four or more of those games, a high-profile upset isn't out of the question. In additon to its vaunted Spread HD attack, Penn State—the only Big Ten school to win its bowl game each of the last two years—sends the conference's best defense against a Trojans offense that is notoriously streaky.
PRESSURE'S ON BIG 12 DEFENSES
Six schools from the Big 12 ranked among the nation's top 12 in total offense, but as Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was quick to point out after his team had earned the spot opposite Oklahoma in the BCS title game: He'd like to see what kind of stats he would put up against a Big 12 defense. Seven Big 12 teams ranked in the bottom 25 in total defense, leaving skeptics wondering just how formidable those high-powered offenses really were. The answer will start arriving on Jan. 1, when Nebraska (12th in total offense) faces Clemson (17th in total defense) in the Gator Bowl. The following day Texas Tech's fourth-ranked offense meets Ole Miss's No. 15 defense in the Cotton Bowl, and on Jan. 5 Texas (No. 9 offense) takes on Ohio State (No. 8 defense) in the Fiesta.
ROOTING FOR A MID-MAJOR? GOOD LUCK
Last year mid-majors were 2--6 against BCS teams (including Georgia's 41--10 whipping of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl), and they got off to a slow start this year when Navy lost to Wake Forest and Memphis was beaten by South Florida in the EagleBank and St. Petersburg bowls, respectively, last Saturday. The big question is whether seventh-ranked Utah can hang with No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar. The Tide's offensive line and third-ranked defense are sure to be the most physical groups the undefeated Utes have faced all season, but don't expect another trouncing by the SEC team in its home bowl.