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January 6, 2007

Bowl musings: Big East proves a point

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The Big East has proved it's a big-time conference.

Now it needs some big-time bowl tie-ins.

The Big East's season of redemption has carried over into the bowls. Cincinnati's 27-24 victory over Western Michigan in the International Bowl on Saturday gave the Big East a perfect 5-0 posteason mark.

No other Bowl Championship Series conference has a bowl record anywhere near that impressive. Then again, the other BCS leagues also had much tougher bowl matchups.

Every Big East team has entered its bowl game as the favorite. South Florida was the only Big East school favored by less than a touchdown.

The Bulls beat 4-point underdog East Carolina 24-7 in the PapaJohn's.com Bowl.

Rutgers easily covered the 7-point spread by burying Kansas State 37-10 in the Texas Bowl.

West Virginia entered the Gator Bowl as an 11-point favorite before rallying for a 38-35 victory over Georgia Tech.

Louisville knocked off 10-point underdog Wake Forest 24-13 in the Orange Bowl.

Cincinnati was favored by a touchdown over Western Michigan.

The Big East can't really be blamed for this.

After Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech left for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East had to scramble to find bowls willing to take a chance on a league in transition. Even the bowls that did agree to deals with the Big East also made partnerships with other schools or conferences.

For example, the Meineke Car Care Bowl chose Navy instead of a Big East team this year. The Gator Bowl had the option of taking a Big 12 team over West Virginia.

Those unfavorable bowl tie-ins caused a 10-win team such as Rutgers to face a Big 12 school with a .500 record in conference play. That's why Cincinnati has to leave the country to face a Mid-American Conference team that failed to win its division title.

And it also explains why Pittsburgh was left out of the postseason with a 6-6 record. Alabama, Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma State all reached bowl games with .500 marks because their conferences had enough bowl tie-ins to accommodate them.

The Big East has overcome its turnover and re-established itself as a legitimate BCS conference.

Now it needs the bowl tie-ins that a legitimate BCS league deserves.

The Big East's undefeated record represents just one of the top 25 stories to come out of the bowl season so far. Here's a look at some of the other major plotlines:

2. HOW HIGH DO THEY GO?: Boise State's perfect season leaves pollsters facing a major dilemma.

How high do you put the Broncos in the final rankings?

Boise State entered the Fiesta Bowl ninth in both polls and could end the year as the nation's lone unbeaten team.

If I had a vote, I'd put Boise State third behind Florida and Ohio State if Florida wins the BCS championship game. And I'd be tempted to have the Broncos second if Ohio State beats Florida.

But I'm guessing the Broncos will finish behind Louisiana State and Southern California in both polls to end up fifth.

3. UNDEFEATED AND UNREWARDED: Boise State will go down as the third team in as many years to go undefeated without winning the national title. The 2004 Utah and Auburn teams also belong to that fraternity.

We can only hope the rising amount of undefeated teams left out of a championship game also may increase the number of university presidents calling for a playoff system.

4. DON'T FORGET ABOUT US: Southern California was anointed as the 2007 national championship favorite as soon as it completed its 32-18 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

In the unlikely event that quarterback JaMarcus Russell and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey return for their senior seasons, LSU should join the Trojans atop the preseason polls.

LSU arguably had as much talent as any team in the nation this year, but the Tigers had to deal with a schedule that included road games against four teams ranked in the top 10 at the time (Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas).

Next season, nearly all of LSU's tough games (Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas) are at home. LSU's most difficult road games are Oct. 13 at Kentucky and an intriguing Nov. 3 reunion with former Tigers coach Nick Saban at Alabama.

5. HERE'S THE CATCH: It's easy to see why so many people believe Southern California will win the national title next year. The Trojans return loads of talent on defense as well as quarterback John David Booty, who threw four second-half touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl.

Now the Trojans just need to figure out who will catch Booty's passes.

Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and Chris McFoy combined for 66.5 percent of the Trojans' receiving yards and 76.7 percent of their touchdown catches this year. Smith and McFoy already have used up their eligibility, and Jarrett is expected to enter the NFL Draft instead of returning for his senior season.

Then again, the cupboard isn't exactly bare.

USC's receiving corps still includes two former five-star prospects (Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton) and a pair of former four-star players (David Ausberry and Jamere Holland).

6. FADING IRISH: Notre Dame's ninth consecutive bowl loss a 41-14 Sugar Bowl drubbing at the hands of LSU undoubtedly will lead to more criticism that the Fighting Irish didn't deserve a BCS appearance.

The problem with that logic is that no more than two teams from each conference can play in BCS bowls. That rule kept out Wisconsin and Auburn the only two teams that didn't play in BCS games despite being ranked ahead of Notre Dame in the final regular-season rankings.

Although it's easy to say in retrospect that the BCS should have given an at-large berth to West Virginia or Rutgers instead of Notre Dame, that decision didn't seem warranted at the end of the regular season.

West Virginia had lost to South Florida and Rutgers had fallen to Cincinnati in November. Notre Dame's regular-season losses had come against two of the top five teams in the most recent BCS standings Michigan and USC.

7. QUINN CAN'T WIN: After losing the final two games of his college career, Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn suddenly isn't the certain top pick in the NFL Draft.

Although Quinn set 36 school records in his college career, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite completed just 47.7 percent of his passes in Notre Dame's three losses this year. He certainly got outplayed in the Sugar Bowl by LSU's JaMarcus Russell, who torched Notre Dame for 332 passing yards.

But it also wouldn't be fair to write Quinn off as the next Rick Mirer.

Notre Dame fell way behind and was forced into obvious passing situations in those losses, which didn't help Quinn's accuracy. It would have been interesting to see how he might have fared against the Irish's overmatched secondary.

8. RUNNING ON EMPTY: Boise State running back Ian Johnson enjoyed a New Year's Day for the ages by rushing for 100 yards, scoring the winning touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl and getting engaged all in one evening.

Most of the nation's other top running backs haven't had nearly as much fun.

The bowl season featured seven running backs who had gained at least 1,500 yards: Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, Rutgers' Ray Rice, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Michigan's Mike Hart and Arkansas' Darren McFadden.

Rice and Johnson were the lone players from that group to rush for at least 100 yards in their bowl games. McFadden was the only other guy on the list to reach the 50-yard mark.

9. WASHINGTON'S WORRIES: The Sugar Bowl fiasco and Notre Dame's graduation losses on offense should turn up the heat on Irish coach Charlie Weis next fall.

Weis' predecessor may have an even tougher time.

Washington coach Tyrone Willingham's team faces Fiesta Bowl champion Boise State, top-ranked Ohio State, Rose Bowl champion Southern California and Holiday Bowl champion California in a five-week span during the first half of the season. The only game breaking up that Murderer's Row is a road trip to UCLA.

10. MISTAKE-FREE MORELLI: Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli's performance in an Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee gave Nittany Lions fans reason for hope.

Morelli went 14-of-25 for 197 yards with one touchdown in the 20-10 victory. While those numbers might not seem particularly special, the much-maligned quarterback at least proved he could win a big game and avoided the mistakes that haunted him against top-flight opponents during the regular season.

Although he may never live up to the hype that accompanied the five-star prospect's arrival on campus, Morelli still has one more year to reach his potential. Consider the Outback Bowl a step in the right direction.

11. TAYLOR MADE: Georgia Tech fans finally discovered what could happen when the nation's best receiver has an accurate passer throwing to him.

Too bad they didn't get a chance to see this earlier.

After academic problems ended Reggie Ball's inconsistent career one game early, Taylor Bennett stepped in and went 19-of-29 for 326 yards with three touchdown passes in a 38-35 Gator Bowl loss to heavily favored West Virginia. That's a higher completion rate than Ball had in any of his 12 starts this year.

Johnson caught nine passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns from Bennett.

The Biletnikoff Award winner now has to decide whether to turn pro or play alongside Bennett for one more season. Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com rates Johnson as the No. 2 overall prospect behind only Quinn in the upcoming draft class.

12. THEY'RE NO TWO-MAN TEAM: Pat White and Steve Slaton undoubtedly are West Virginia's most valuable players, but the Mountaineers' last two victories have shown that neither guy is indispensable.

West Virginia defeated Rutgers in its regular-season finale even though White sat out the game with a sprained ankle. The Mountaineers outlasted Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl despite not getting much of a contribution from Slaton, who carried the ball just three times before leaving the game with a thigh bruise.

13. NOT SHOWING MUCH INSIGHT: Minnesota had a history of late-game collapses in the Glen Mason era even before blowing a 31-point lead in an Insight Bowl overtime loss to Texas Tech.

But we still think the Golden Gophers made a rash move by firing Mason in the wake of the biggest comeback in bowl history.

Mason went 123-121 and led Minnesota to seven bowl appearances in his 10-year tenure. The Gophers had endured six consecutive losing seasons before his arrival.

Assuming they aren't able to pry away Minnesota alum Tony Dungy from the NFL he has already said he isn't interested in the job it's tough to imagine this middle-of-the-road Big Ten program hiring a better coach than Mason.

14. BOOKER'S BIG NIGHT: In the final game of his college career, Florida State running back Lorenzo Booker finally got a chance to show why he was such a highly touted recruit.

Booker never rushed for 1,000 yards at Florida State while splitting carries first with Leon Washington and later with Antone Smith. But the former five-star prospect lit up UCLA's highly regarded defense in the Emerald Bowl. Booker had six catches for 117 yards and also ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns.

Washington followed up a relatively disappointing senior season by making an impact in the NFL his rookie season with the New York Jets. That Emerald Bowl performance offered a hint that Booker may follow the same path.

15. UNEXPECTED SCORING: Speaking of the Emerald Bowl, go ahead and mark it down as the most unpredictable postseason game so far.

Florida State's victory was only a mild surprise, but the real shocker was that 44-27 final score.

The same UCLA team that shut down Southern California in its regular-season finale and ranked among the nation's top defenses all year couldn't stop a Florida State offense that struggled all season.

UCLA hadn't allowed 44 points in a game all season and hadn't scored 27 points in a game since Oct. 7.

16. WINNING WITHOUT RUNNING: Conventional wisdom states you must establish a rushing attack to win consistently. The Capital One Bowl disproved that theory.

Arkansas rushed for 232 yards on 34 carries while holding Wisconsin to minus-5 yards on 28 attempts. Wisconsin still won the game 17-14 despite getting outgained 368-201.

17. CHANGE IN ATTACK?: You have to wonder if those complaints by unhappy parents wanting Arkansas to throw the ball more had any impact on the Razorbacks' game plan in the Capital One Bowl.

Arkansas matched a season high with 32 pass attempts against Wisconsin. The Razorbacks threw the ball almost 50 percent of the time even though they completed less than half their passes and averaged 6.8 yards per carry.

18. THEY DESERVED BETTER: Too bad Texas Christian and Rutgers couldn't have squared off in a bowl game.

It certainly would have turned out better than the mismatches these two upstarts played instead. Texas Christian whipped Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl and Rutgers overwhelmed Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.

Texas Christian and Rutgers may rank among the top dozen teams in the country. It's a shame they didn't get a chance to prove it during bowl season.

19. FRIEDGEN'S FINISH: Maryland's 24-7 whipping of Purdue in the Champs Sports Bowl capped a brilliant season by Ralph Friedgen in one of the year's most underrated coaching performances.

Maryland was ranked 88th in the nation in total offense and 84th in total defense as of Dec. 30, yet the Terrapins still found a way to go 9-4 after back-to-back losing seasons. The Terps went 6-1 in games decided by six or fewer points.

Friedgen took over the offense this year and helped rejuvenate quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who was named the Champs Sports Bowl's MVP after throwing two touchdown passes with no interceptions.

20. BAD HOKIES SHOW UP: Virginia Tech is college football's version of the little girl with a curl.

When they're good, they're very good. When they're bad, forget about it.

Both versions of the Hokies showed up in a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Georgia. Virginia Tech looked like a top-five team with the nation's best defense in the first half. In the second half, the Hokies showed why they failed to reach the ACC championship game.

In the process, Virginia Tech's Sean Glennon may have struggled enough to re-open the quarterback competition next year.

21. CLEMSON'S COLLAPSE: This was supposed to be the season that took Clemson coach Tommy Bowden off the hot seat for good. He instead figures to enter next season under plenty of pressure after the Tigers imploded at the end of the year.

Clemson boasted one of the nation's most explosive offenses for much of the season and appeared poised for a top-five finish after a 31-7 demolition of Georgia Tech. The Tigers instead lost four of their last five games and could fall out of the final rankings entirely.

Clemson will hope to deliver better results with less talent next year. James Davis and C.J. Spiller return to the backfield, but the Tigers must retool their offensive line and decide on a starting quarterback.

22. MORE THAN A SYSTEM GUY: Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan's late-season performance should put to rest any notions that he's merely a product of June Jones' system.

Brennan completed 73.6 percent of his passes for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions in regular-season games against Purdue, Oregon State and a Hawaii Bowl victory over Arizona State. He finished the season with an NCAA-record 58 touchdown passes.

Sure, just about any quarterback (remember Timmy Chang?) will throw for a ton of yards in Hawaii's pass-happy system. But how many of them would lead the nation in passing efficiency the way Brennan has this season?

Brennan's ability to remain accurate and avoid mistakes makes him a much better pro prospect than the typical Hawaii quarterback.

23. RIVERS RUNS THROUGH THEM: Brennan also has received plenty of help from playing on a talent-laden offense. The Hawaii Bowl illustrated the depth of the Warriors' receiving corps.

Jason Rivers was the Warriors' third-leading receiver behind Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen during the regular season. That didn't stop him from tying a school record with 14 catches in the Hawaii Bowl.

Rivers also broke a school record with 308 receiving yards, the most in a bowl game since at least 1937. NCAA records don't go back any further.

24. SHOWING SOME PRIDE: Second-tier bowls often come down to which team cares the most about winning a game. That's why Miami, Florida State and Iowa three of the nation's most disappointing teams this season deserve credit for the way they responded in the postseason.

Miami went up to Idaho and edged Nevada in front of a hostile crowd. Florida State delivered arguably its best game of the season to beat UCLA. Iowa went to the Lone Star State and gave heavily favored Texas all it could handle in the Alamo Bowl before falling 26-24.

They represented a nice contrast to Oregon, which seemed ready to pack it in for the season during an uninspired 38-8 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Brigham Young.

25. CHAMPIONSHIP INDICATORS: Florida and Ohio State both have reason for optimism after watching the other bowl games.

The SEC's 5-3 bowl record including upset victories by Georgia in the Chick-fil-A and Kentucky in the Music City should support the Gators' belief that they should give Ohio State all they can handle after playing the nation's toughest schedule.

But the SEC also lost two head-to-head meetings with the Big Ten when Tennessee fell to Penn State in the Outback and Wisconsin knocked off Arkansas in the Capital One.

Moreover, the SEC team was favored in both those bowl matchups. That doesn't bode well for an SEC underdog trying to knock off a Big Ten program in the championship game.

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