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Holiday guide to the top 10 bowl games you'll see this season

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Christmas season means lots of things to lots of people. Usually, it means friends and family gather for festive meals, shopping, presents, and a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

But for diehard college football fans, it's our final chance to see our teams this season. The college bowl season is upon us and below is a guide to the top 10 games you'll see this year.

No. 10 The Russel Athletic Bowl

Virginia Tech (6-6, 4-4 ACC) vs. Rutgers (9-3, 5-2 Big East)

Dec. 28, 2012; 4:30 p.m.

Before the start of the 2012 college football season, few analysts would have predicted the Rutgers Scarlett Knights to post a 9-3 overall campaign with a 5-2 track record in the Big East.

This game pits two heavy hitters from two beleaguered conferences who didn't fare well at all in the regular season.

Both the ACC and Big East had down years, but both have had teams post quality wins at times throughout the season.

For the Knights, quarterback Gary Nova has thrown the ball for 2,566 yards for 22 TDs and 15 INTs. In addition to a mediocre pass game, the Rutgers run game has been spurred by Jawan Jamison, who has over 1,000 yards rushing on 242 carries.

Notable wins for Rutgers include Syracuse (23-15), Cincinnati (10-3), and UConn (19-3). Rutgers nearly beat Big East Champion Louisville, but was defeated 20-17.

Virginia Tech on the other hand had a much more modest campaign. The Hokies went 6-6 overall and managed just four conference wins over Duke (41-20), Boston College (30-23), Georgia Tech (20-17), and a pivotal win over Virginia (17-14) to become bowl eligible.

With such an up and down year for the Hokies and a surprise showing by the Scarlett Knights, this game could be a relatively surprising good showing.

Watch for key runs Jamison for the Knights, as well as junior Hokie QB Logan Thomas to provide thrills for Tech fans.

No. 9 The Holiday Bowl

Baylor (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) vs. UCLA (9-4, 6-3 Pac 12)

Dec. 27, 2012; 8:45 p.m.

This match up between the Baylor Bears and the UCLA Bruins could be a high-scoring, high octane thriller that comes down to whoever is holding the ball last.

Baylor was a victim of a Big 12 conference that essentially cannibalized itself with a solid lineup of teams from top to bottom.

The Bears ranked third overall among FBS teams in passing yards and they scored the fifth most points as a team. That's saying a lot for a team that only went 4-5 in conference play.

The heir apparent to the QB role that saw Robert Griffin III win the Heisman trophy last year, Nick Florence has been nothing short of spectacular this year.

He's thrown for over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Terrance Williams has been Florence's favorite target this year, hauling in 95 receptions for 1,764 yards.

The Bears have had a solid run game as well, with Lache Seastrunk accumulating nearly 900 total yards on the ground.

Florence has been a dual threat as well, being the team's third-highest rusher with over 500 yards to his credit.

Baylor's downfall, though, has been on defense. The Bears rank near the bottom in every major defensive statistic and could be a factor for the Bruins to pick apart if they can get a pass game going.

The key for a Bruins win will lie with quarterback Brett Hundley, who has hurled the pigskin for nearly 3,500 yards.

UCLA secured a 17th overall ranking in the final AP and BCS rankings, which was rightfully earned considering the Bruins knocked off teams like USC and Arizona. The Bruins had to face Stanford twice, and nearly beat the Cardinal the in the second meeting of the year in the Pac-12 championship game, but was defeated 27-24.

Watch for this game to be a high-scoring thriller.

No. 8 The Alamo Bowl

Texas (8-4, 5-4 Big 12) vs. Oregon State (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12)

Dec. 29, 2012; 5:45 p.m.

This game could be an interesting one. With Texas having a "down" year, but still finishing 5-4 in a Big 12 conference full of the top offenses in the nation, shouldn't be overlooked.

Just like Texas shouldn't be overlooked, Oregon State proved this year it is a program on the rise.

The Beavers finished the season ranked 13th overall in the BCS standings, and went 9-3 overall this year.

Oregon State had trouble against rival Washington, Stanford, and Oregon, but escaped the rest of the season unscathed.

The biggest win the Beavers pinned to their schedule this year was a week-two win over then ranked No. 13 Wisconsin.

But Texas had big wins as well. And Texas' wins came against much-higher powered offenses than Oregon State faced throughout the year.

Whereas the Beavers faced teams like Stanford, Oregon, and Washington, Texas faced a much more brutal schedule against the likes of Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia, and Kansas State.

Notable wins for the Longhorns include Oklahoma State (41-36), Texas Tech (31-22), and Baylor (56-50).

Texas should have no problem scoring points, but getting a stop on defense will be key for the Longhorns to win the Alamo Bowl.

Conversely, the Beavers will have to match the Longhorns point for point on the offensive side of the ball in order to be in position to win.

Like the Holiday Bowl, this game could come down to whoever has possession at the end of the game.

No. 7 New Era Pinstripe Bowl

West Virginia (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) vs. Syracuse (7-5, 5-2 Big East)

Dec. 29, 2012; 2:15

Saying WVU didn't live up to it's preseason hype is a bit of an understatement. WVU boasted the best passing offense in the "Air Raid" attack under second year head coach Dana Holgersen.

As the season progressed, it quickly became clear that scoring points wasn't the Mountaineers' problem. No, that problem was the defense that was undoubtedly the worst against the pass in the nation.

The 2012 Pinstripe Bowl pits the former Big East Rivals in a game that was supposed to have been nothing more than a memory after WVU jumped ship to the Big 12.

Still, the Mountaineers were able to shake a five-game losing streak and finish their inaugural year in their new conference with a 4-5 record.

Not bad.

Syracuse also went 4-5 against the Big East competition, but suffered some of the same woes West Virginia did with a spotty defense.

Still, both teams have the offensive firepower to provide what could be a thriller between the former rivals.

While the Ben Schwartzwalder trophy isn't up for grabs to the winner, Geno Smith will look to close his career in Morgantown on a high note. The senior signal caller was nothing short of spectacular in the first part of the season, but hit a skid during the five-game losing streak. He threw for over 4,000 yards and had 40 touchdowns to his credit with only six INTs. Following the skid, WVU found success in its run game with the likes of Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston, as well as all-purpose player Tavon Austin's ability to run, catch, return, and basically anything else on the field.

Syracuse also has a high-powered arm in Ryan Nassib, who threw for over 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions.

The Orange also have a potent run game with stud RB Jerome Smith, who has over 1,000 yards rushing on 198 carries.

With neither team having much ability to stop the ball, this game will be a high-scoring shootout, with the winner being able to make that one key stop and turn it into points on the board.

No. 6 BCS National Championship

Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. Notre Dame (12-0)

Jan. 7 2013; 7:30 p.m.

Now I know what you're thinking -- "this game should be No. 1 on the list." Well, not so much. We know what we're getting from Notre Dame and Alabama.

The Fighting Irish proved they can contend for a national championship with a 12-0 record on the season, while Alabama survived the year in SEC play.

With the only blemish being a 29-24 loss to Johnny Football and the Texas A&M Aggies on Nov. 10, Bama was pushed to the brink (once again) by Georgia in the SEC Championship game.

While the Tide secured a trip to the national championship with that win over Georgia, questions began to swirl about how the Irish would stack up against the Tide's defense, which ranks second among FBS schools.

In reality, the question should be "How will the Tide's offense stack up against Notre Dame's defense?"

Notre Dame currently boasts the top-ranking defense in the land, allowing a mere 10.3 points per game.

Some of Notre Dame's wins, however, have been against less than stellar competition.

Most notably was a 3OT game against the lowly Pittsburgh Panthers, where Notre Dame finally emerged with a slim 29-26 win.

Other key wins the Irish picked up throughout the year include Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC.

That impressive resume of wins undoubtedly was key in providing the independent school a chance to play for a national title.

Alabama, meanwhile, took care of business as usual in the SEC, basically rolling through the schedule uncontested until a Nov. 3 meeting against LSU in a rematch of last year's national championship game.

Still, Bama advanced and picked up the win, before dropping the lone game to Texas A&M.

The key players to watch will be Alabama QB AJ McCarron and how well he handles the pass rush the Irish Bring.

For Notre Dame, keep an eye out for Heisman finalist Mante T'eo and what he will attempt to do to disrupt the Tide's offense.

No. 5 Music City Bowl

NC State (7-5, 4-4 ACC) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4, 5-3 SEC)

Dec. 31, 2012; 11 a.m.

The Music City Bowl is fifth? Yep. No. 5 on the countdown is the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. This game should be an interesting match up.

In what is essentially a home game for the Commodores, the Music City Bowl promises to be a pretty good game.

Neither team is near the upper echelon of their respective conferences, but both have had decent years with big wins.

The Wolfpack's biggest win undoubtedly came on Oct. 6 when the Pack knocked off then, third ranked Florida State 17-16 in what could have been the biggest upset of the year.

Besides the Florida State win, NC State sputtered through the conference games and only finished .500. State played the Clemson Tigers tough, but couldn't match the offense.

Senior quarterback Mike Glennon has been solid, throwing for over 3,600 yards and piling up 30 touchdowns.

But Vanderbilt is a much different team than fans have been accustomed to in years' past.

The Commodores posted their best record in years with the only losses being to Florida (31-17), South Carolina (17-13), and Northwester (23-13).

The biggest win for Vandy came on Nov. 17 in a 41-18 thrashing of Tennessee.

Under coach James Franklin's guidance, the Commodores have become relevant again--and rightfully so.

While he hasn't had a standout year, senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers will look to complete his career in a black and gold uniform on a high note.

Be sure to watch Rodgers and Glennon as the two players that could sway the game's outcome one way or the other.

No 4. Chick-fil-A Bowl

LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC)

Dec. 31, 2012; 6:30 p.m.

This bowl game gives a whole new meaning to the term cat fight. The Clemson Tigers are on a mission to recover from a 70-33 trashing in last year's Orange Bowl and the LSU Tigers are bent on rebounding from an embarrassment in last year's BCS national championship.

It's no secret Clemson has emerged as one of the top programs in the ACC in the last few years, mostly thanks to coach Dabo Sweeney and the athletic Tajh Boyd at QB.

In the 2012 season, Boyd has shown his dual threat ability with over 3,500 yards passing this year and an impressive 34 TDs against 13 INTs.

He also has run for nearly 500 yards as well.

But the real bread and butter of Clemson's run game is from Andre Ellington, who has over 1,000 yards rushing and eight TDs.

And Clemson's arsenal of weapons doesn't end with its run game. The Tigers also have a pair of top-notch receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Hopkins has over 1,200 yards receiving on 69 catches this year for 16 TDs.

Offensively speaking, LSU doesn't have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with Clemson in a shootout. With QB Zach Mettenberger's modest year, he's thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and only 11 TDs against six INTs.

LSU also doesn't have a single player, rushing or receiving, over 1,000 yards on the season.

No, LSU will rely on it's defense to try and win the game.

And they'll have to, ranking average at best in most offensive categories, including points scored. LSU's defense ranks 11th best in the nation, only allowing an average of 17 points per game.

In fact, the most points given up by the Bayou Bengals all year came against Ole Miss on Nov. 17 where LSU gave up 35, and narrowly avoided a loss.

Still, this game could be one of the best of the bowl season for the simple fact you have Clemon's high-powered offense against LSU's stellar defense. What happens when you stack an unstoppable force against an immovable object? Tune in to find out.

No. 3 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

TCU (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) vs. Michigan State (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)

Dec. 29, 2012; 9:15 p.m.

At No. 3 on the list, we've got a pair of teams that had average years in conferences that did fairly well during the regular season.

TCU, in it's inaugural year in the Big 12, went 7-5 overall and 4-5 in conference play. Michigan State post a .500 record, but struggled against the Big Ten competition.

So why in the world would this game be ranked at No .3?

It's pretty simple. Both of these teams need to close the season with a big win and salvage what was an average year.

TCU was one of four teams to finish 4-5 in Big 12 play. In essence, the Horned Frogs showed they can play with the big boys of a major football conference and picked up key wins over Baylor, West Virginia, and Texas. All that was surprising considering QB Casey Pachall was benched after being arrested on drunk driving charges.

So really it stood to reason TCU would just be a scrub for the remainder of the season. What teams didn't account for was Trevone Boykin stepping in and doing a pretty good job for a freshman. He threw for 1,850 yards and found the end zone 15 times while only being picked off nine times.

The Spartans also had to deal with replacing a quarterback when Kirk Cousins graduated last year and entered the NFL draft.

Junior Andrew Maxwell took over for MSU and did fairly well in his first year at the helm. He posted similar numbers to Boykin, throwing for over 2,500 yards and 13 TDs against nine INTs.

This game has the potential to come down to the wire with two young quarterbacks trying to make a statement in two of the premier college football leagues in the nation.

Whoever can make one or two big plays at the quarterback position gets the win.

No. 2 Cotton Bowl

Oklahoma (10-2, 8-1 Big 12) vs. Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

Jan. 4, 2013; 7 p.m.

The 2013 Cotton Bowl is going to be an all-out scrap. Pit Johnny Football against renown QB Landry Jones and this has the makings to be a fun game.

Johnny Football (Manziel) made history this year, being the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

Not only that, but Texas A&M made the headlines with an impressive debut year in the SEC, going 6-2 and shocking defending national champion Alabama, 29-24. The Aggies only other losses came to Florida (20-17) and LSU (24-19), both of whom were ranked opponents.

Led by Manziel, the Aggies have ranked third in the country for points scored, and finished near the top in most other offensive categories.

In a league dominated by superior defenses, those numbers are flat out impressive.

But on the flip side of the coin, Oklahoma had a pretty solid year as well.

Per usual, the Sooners finished near the top in most offensive categories, but were average, to sub-par in most defensive categories.

Jones had another good year and looks to close his college career on a high note. In the regular season, he threw 29 TDs and was only picked off 10 times. He also nearly had 4,000 yards passing.

Manziel on the other hand threw for 3,400 yards and had 24 TDs to his credit against just nine INTs.

Not bad for a rookie.

One has to think A&M would have an advantage after playing in a highly defensive league, but Oklahoma has a lot more offensive firepower than a good bit of the teams the Aggies have faced.

This game will be interesting to watch unfold. Can Manziel avoid any rookie mistakes and finish the season the way he's played much of the schedule--perfect? Or will Landry Jones finish his career in a Sooner uniform with a win? These two offensive titans will lay it all on the line and whoever can minimize the turnovers will take the win in Dallas.

No. 1 Fiesta Bowl

Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac 12) vs. Kansas State (11-1, 8-1 Big 12)

Jan. 3, 2013; 7:30 p.m.

The best game you'll find in this year's bowl season is the 2013 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. This game will without a doubt be jam packed with more offense than some conferences have seen all year long.

Kansas State rose to the ranks in Big 12 play this year and enjoyed a top-10 ranking throughout most of the season.

Led by Collin "Optimus" Klein, the Wildcats blazed through the schedule until they ran into a buzzsaw on Nov. 17 against Baylor where K-State suffered it's only loss on the season, 52-24.

With no shot at earning a berth in the national championship, the Wildcats rebounded the next week with an impressive 42-24 win over Texas to earn a share of the Big 12 Championship. They earned the BCS bowl berth due to a 24-19 win over Oklahoma back in Sept.

Much like the rest of the Big 12, the Wildcats had an emphasis on offense, but had an average year defensively.

In addition to having an accurate arm, Klein was also the team's second-highest rusher in the season, nearly hitting the 900 yard benchmark. He scored an eye-popping 22 rushing touchdowns on the season.

Offense hasn't been in short supply for the Oregon Ducks either.

Much like K-State, Oregon rolled through the bulk of the regular season and seemingly was going to earn a trip to the BCS national championship, but had one hiccup on Nov. 17 against Stanford.

The Cardinal dealt the Ducks a 17-14 OT loss and ended any dreams of Chip Kelley's chance at a national championship.

Oregon rebounded the next week with a 48-24 win over Oregon State to earn the trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

The Ducks boasted what could be the nation's best offense all season, ranking second in against all FBS teams in points for and third in average rushing yards per game.

In fact, there was only one game (the loss to Stanford) where the Ducks didn't score at least 40 points.

While QB Marcus Mariota had a good year, throwing for 2,500 yards and 30 TDs, the Ducks' run game was nothing short of remarkable.

Kenjon Barner eclipsed the 1,600 yard mark this season and had 21 rushing TDs.

De'Athony Thomas and Mariota both had their share of rushes as well, with both nearly running for 700 yards.

Thomas found the end zone 11 times while Mariota scored four more on rushes.

With the number of rushing threats, K-State will have to focus on slowing down the run, but not at the expense of underestimating Maritoa's arm.

Conversely, trying to stop Klein isn't an easy task to accomplish. He can run. He can throw. He can do it all.

This game will without a doubt be the single best bowl game of the season and is expected to shatter all sorts of bowl records.

Whoever can get one key stop or whoever has the ball last will likely pick up the win in this high-scoring shootout.

And there you have it. The top 10 bowl games not to miss. There are a couple of things that are great about the holidays. Sure, you get to meet up with family you haven't seen in a while, you get presents, you get lots of good food. But the must-have is good football to watch. Follow this guide to the top games, and you're sure to enjoy your holidays even more.