Dashing through the bowl season
Sit down to a game of Bowl-der-Dash, as we jaunt from San Diego to Detroit to Birmingham to Toronto and, finally, to Arizona, for 32 games in 20 days ("I Miss The Cherry Bowl " T-shirts sold separately):
Before we get down to picking every game, The Dash has some words for the assembled postseason participants.
Welcome to bowl season, men. Enjoy your complimentary watches, sweat suits, meals and trips to local zoos, museums and amusement parks. And, for those dispatched to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl, enjoy the complimentary blight.
There are 64 lucky teams still playing, which means just 55 didn't make the cut. That also means many of you out there aren't very good. If your team is 6-6 or 7-5, just smile and thank a system that rewards mediocrity.
In order to maximize the enjoyment of your bowl experience, The Dash would like to offer a couple of fashion-and-comportment tips: Leave the camo at home (Miami, 1986); don't publicly rip your own school (Maurice Clarett, 2002); avoid pregame, in-game or postgame brawling (LSU-Miami, last year); don't stomp on your opponents (Marcus Vick, last year); and for you Sugar Bowlers, make sure curfew defeats Bourbon Street (Sebastian Janikowski, 1999).
Now, here are a couple of talking points to remember when the media visits:
Stick with that line, even if the real answer is: "This place is Dullsville, USA. I'm in college; do you really think I want to go watch a parade? Don't you have even one decent bar in this town?"
When the hometown media arrives and asks about the team's preparations, here is your response: "We're totally focused. We really haven't seen much outside our hotel and the practice field, which is fine with us. All our energy is directed to this game."
The real answer: "What choice do we have with our control-freak coach and his 11 p.m. curfew? We know we're going to win by two touchdowns and we'd love to go party and meet some of the local ladies, but the coaching staff has turned the hotel into a medium-security prison."
If you are a star junior and are being asked about turning pro, your answer is: "I really haven't given it any thought. I'm just been concentrating on this bowl game. After that, I'll sit down with my family and my coaches and make the decision that's best for me."
The real answer: "My dad's been meeting with agents all this week, and I'll be wearing Versace by next week. I am so outta here."
Now, on with the picks. Dashette Veronica Becerra (2) was asking for help with her bowl pool, so The Dash gallantly has come to the rescue -- for her, and the rest of you schleps. Go with the following mortal locks, and don't forget to send a share of your winning proceeds this way:
Poinsettia Bowl (3)
TCU vs. Northern Illinois
The important information: Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe (4) is the nation's leading rusher at 158 yards per game -- but the Horned Frogs haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 19 games. The useless information: Huskies arrived in San Diego in coat and tie. Frogs wore sweats. Score one for NIU in the class department.
The pick: TCU 31, Northern Illinois 17.
BYU vs. Oregon
The important information: Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall is his own defensive coordinator, and he'll be matching wits with his former boss at BYU, Gary Crowton, now the offensive coordinator of the Ducks. BYU is 16th nationally in scoring defense and Oregon is 17th in scoring offense.
The useless information: You might think Mormons and Sin City would be a bad mix. You'd be wrong. Last year an estimated 25,000 BYU fans attended the Las Vegas Bowl, and the bowl's organizers were all too happy to have the Cougars back this December.
The pick: BYU 38, Oregon 31.
Rice vs. Troy
The important information: Both teams come in hot. Owls have won six straight, Trojans have won six of seven. But Rice is seventh nationally in turnover margin and Troy is 107th, with a proclivity for throwing interceptions.
The useless information: There are only three Division I-A schools with one-syllable names, and two of them meet here. (Duke is the third.) Analysis gets no better than that.
The pick: Rice 35, Troy 33.
South Florida vs. East Carolina
The important information: Big East against Conference USA equals mismatch. This will be the first of a five-game bowl sweep for Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese's league.
The useless information: Both teams are encouraged to eat as many meals as possible at Dreamland, the preeminent 'cue joint in the universe. The original is down the road in Tuscaloosa, but there is a more gentrified spinoff in The 'Ham. A slab of ribs, a stack of white bread, a cup of sauce and you're in gustatory heaven.
The pick: South Florida 24, East Carolina 16.
New Mexico vs. San Jose State
The important information: New Mexico running back Rodney Ferguson (8) led the Mountain West Conference in rushing and blew up for 348 yards in the Lobos' last two games. He'll be running through a defense that has allowed six 100-yard rushers this season.
The useless information: Be the first on your block to own a New Mexico Bowl long-sleeved T-shirt ($20) or New Mexico Bowl hat ($18). The Dash has to admit, the logo is pretty cool. And it's only a matter of time before all the cool kids are wearing them.
The pick: Home Team 21, Visitors 17. (Lobos have the luxury of playing in their home stadium. When in doubt, go with the home team -- even if the home team isn't very good.)
Tulsa vs. Utah
The important information: Utes quarterback Brett Ratliff (10) finished the season strong (11 touchdowns and one interception in his last five games). But he's facing the No. 1 defense in Conference USA -- and he still ranks behind Tulsa QB Paul Smith (11), who is No. 26 nationally in pass efficiency.
The useless information: Utah has won five straight bowl games under three different coaches.
The pick: Tulsa 28, Utah 27.
Arizona State vs. Hawaii
The important information: Arizona State has a lame-duck coach and is playing a true road game against a quality opponent -- not an ideal recipe for success. Warriors are averaging 48 points per game at home this year.
The useless information: On the school Web site, Arizona State puts on the bluster in describing itself and its academic mission: "ASU is a vanguard knowledge and discovery enterprise advancing transdisciplinary teaching and research focused on the major questions of our time and the most pressing challenges that confront global society." It's also a helluva party school.
The pick: Hawaii 45, Arizona State 34.
Middle Tennessee vs. Central Michigan
The important information: CMU's Chippewas have won seven of their last eight games, all of them by double digits, and will be playing in front of a home-state crowd -- um, throng -- um, gathering. Blue Raiders have lost their last two.
The useless information: Blue Raiders defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (14) is a former ESPN production staffer who asked Bill Parcells to get him into coaching. Who says the media doesn't know anything about how the game is played?
The pick: Central Michigan 27, Middle Tennessee State 21.
Florida State vs. UCLA
The important information: For the Seminoles, it's a long way from Tallahassee to San Francisco to end a lousy season in a bowl game that does not galvanize your fan base. For the Bruins, it's a chance to stay in-state, close the season with four straight wins and follow the upset of USC with another victory over a blue-blooded opponent. Motivational edge goes to the guys in powder blue and gold.
The useless information: Teams will tour Alcatraz on Saturday. (Insert your own Criminoles joke here.)
The pick: UCLA 17, Florida State 13.
Oklahoma State vs. Alabama
The important information: Cowboys are 5-0 against non-bowl teams and 1-6 against teams playing in the postseason. Crimson Tide is 5-1 and 1-5, respectively. So somebody might prove something by winning this game. Matchup of the nation's No. 16 total offense (OSU) against the nation's No. 18 total defense (Bama).
The useless information: The I-Bowl will never have another game like the 2000 matchup between Mississippi State and Texas A&M, played in that rarest of Louisiana weather phenomena, a blizzard. The Dash completely disconnected from a New Year's Eve party to watch the two teams tussle around in the snow. Mississippi State won 43-41.
The pick: Oklahoma State 24, Alabama 21.
California vs. Texas A&M
The important information: This is an intriguing game between two teams looking for a springboard to a potentially big season in 2007. A&M coach Dennis Franchione got his credibility boost by upsetting Texas to end the regular season. Cal is still looking for one.
The useless information: One of the events the Holiday Bowl helps sponsor is the annual Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals -- a series of races for dachshunds. The San Diego wiener dog qualifying race in September was won by a low-slung pooch named Pringle Chip Rice. According to the Holiday Bowl Web site, "The one-year-old 14-inch, 11-pound dachshund set a track record by completing the 51-foot course in 2.78 seconds."
The pick: Cal 30, Texas A&M 26.
Rutgers vs. Kansas State
The important information: Nobody fell farther and harder than the Scarlet Knights, from just missing the BCS to this game on a network most New Jersey residents cannot get on their cable package. But catching Rutgers sulking is K-State's only chance.
The useless information: Before Bill Snyder got to Kansas State, the Wildcats had been to one bowl in their history. Before Greg Schiano got to Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights had been to one bowl also.
The pick: Rutgers 28, Kansas State 13.
Clemson vs. Kentucky
The important information: Kentucky fans are excited and will flock across the border south to Nashville -- but this won't be pretty if Clemson avoids turnovers. The Tigers have the nation's No. 13 offense. The Wildcats have the nation's No. 118 defense. Mismatch, anyone?
The useless information: Clemson is a football school, but the Tigers' basketball team is ranked 15 spots higher in the Sagarin Ratings (9th hoops, 24th grid). Kentucky is a basketball school, but the Wildcats' football team is only two spots behind the basketball team (40th hoops, 42nd grid).
The pick: Clemson 42, Kentucky 27.
Oregon State vs. Missouri
The important information: Tigers ended the season in a swoon, losing four of their last six. Beavers ended it on a tear, winning seven of their last eight. Go with the hot team.
The useless information: It's not the granddaddy of them all, but the hardy old Sun Bowl is at least deserving of recognition as the crazy uncle. It's been around every year since 1934 -- same as the Sugar and Orange -- and was a January bowl game for its first 24 years. It's been the bowl destination of Hardin-Simmons, Villanova, Georgetown, George Washington, Denver, Pacific and Drake.
The pick: Oregon State 35, Missouri 28.
Houston vs. South Carolina
The important information: The Cougars have the nation's active career passing leader in Kevin Kolb (12,578 yards). Gamecocks have Steve Spurrier (31 points per game in 13 bowls as a coach). That combination guarantees fireworks.
The useless information: The MVP of the 1967 Liberty Bowl was a North Carolina State quarterback by the name of Jim Donnan (22).
The pick: South Carolina 34, Houston 27.
Texas Tech vs. Minnesota
The important information: Red Raiders are third in the nation in passing offense, going against the nation's No. 115 pass defense. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach might not call a single handoff all game.
The useless information: This is a game with an offensive history. Twelve of the last 14 winners of the Insight have scored at least 31 points, and the last four have scored at least 38 points.
The pick: Texas Tech 41, Minnesota 32.
Purdue vs. Maryland
The important information: Maryland might be the most unimpressive 8-4 team in the country -- perhaps ever. The Terps have been outscored on the year and rank 65th or worse in every major offensive and defensive statistical category. The Boilermakers are no prize (especially defensively) but they might be the most attractive underdog pick on the board.
The useless information: Maryland has somehow avoided playing a Big Ten team for 13 years. Last time: Penn State in 1993. Nittany Lions nipped the Terps 70-7.
The pick: Purdue 28, Maryland 26.
Navy vs. Boston College
The important information: One school kept its coach after serial flirtations with other jobs (that's Navy). The other didn't and will be coached by an interim guy (that's BC).
The useless information: Meineke Car Care Centers' Web site features an animated mechanic named Joe, who gives you a tour of the working parts of a car. Fascinating stuff.
The pick: Navy 23, Boston College 20.
Texas vs. Iowa
The important information: Hawkeyes have been America's most overrated team the last two years. If the Longhorns aren't completely uninterested after blowing the Big 12 South title, they'll kill Iowa.
The useless information: Iowa quarterback Drew Tate, a native Texan, flushed a 178-yard 6-iron for a hole-in-one in June at a charity golf event that could have entitled him to $25,000 toward the purchase of a new car. Except that accepting the award would have violated NCAA amateurism rules. Which were written in the 16th century.
The pick: Texas 38, Iowa 10.
Georgia vs. Virginia Tech
The important information: Hokies finished the year with six straight wins, allowing just 29 points in that time. Georgia's balky offense (77th nationally) doesn't look good when compared to the nation's No. 1 total D.
The useless information: So much for exotic locales. This will be Georgia's second consecutive in-state bowl and sixth consecutive bowl in the South. The Bulldogs have been outside Dixie only once to go bowling in the last 21 years.
The pick: Virginia Tech 19, Georgia 7.
Miami vs. Nevada
The important information: If lame duck Larry Coker gets the Hurricanes ready to play a cold-weather game all the way across the country after the nightmare season Miami has endured, it would be a shock. The Canes are averaging just 13.4 points per game against opponents that made bowl games; the Wolf Pack are surrendering 43.7 points per game to bowl opponents.
The useless information: Nevada was an unlikely wellspring of integration in college football when future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Marion Motley (29) starred there during 1940-42.
The pick: Nevada 29, Miami 28.
Tennessee vs. Penn State
The important information: The Nittany Lions were largely unimpressive this year offensively, in no small part because they failed to turn loose multipurpose man Derrick Williams. In 2005, the prep All-American had four touchdowns on 57 touches as a freshman before breaking his arm around midseason. This year he had three TDs on 98 touches, playing in all 12 games.
The useless information: Joe Paterno is 2-0 against Tennessee in bowl games, outscoring the Volunteers by a combined 73-30.
The pick: Tennessee 21, Penn State 18.
Auburn vs. Nebraska
The important information: The Dash's gut instinct says to dismiss anybody and everybody from the Big 12 North, but consider: In Auburn's last seven games against teams from BCS conferences, the Tigers have been cumulatively outscored 133-128. Maybe this time the SEC team is overrated.
The useless information: Since the Cotton Bowl began matching up SEC and Big 12 teams eight years ago, the series is tied 4-4. The SEC has won the past three, after a three-year run by the Big 12. The pick: Nebraska 23, Auburn 22.
West Virginia vs. Georgia Tech
The important information: The nation's No. 2 rushing offense (Mountaineers) meets the nation's No. 11 rushing defense (Yellow Jackets). WVU coach Rich Rodriguez's spread running game against Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's attack-oriented defense should be worth the price of admission alone.
The useless information: West Virginia is 0-4 in the Gator Bowl and has lost its last six bowl games against ACC opponents. Last time it beat an ACC team in the postseason, Bobby Bowden was coach of the Mountaineers (13-10 over North Carolina State in the 1975 Peach Bowl).
The pick: West Virginia 28, Georgia Tech 21.
Arkansas vs. Wisconsin
The important information: Interesting matchup of the nation's best sophomore running back (Razorbacks' Darren McFadden) against the nation's best freshman running back (Badgers' P.J. Hill). Hogs are in trouble if they have to throw, but Wisconsin remains an unconvincing 11-1.
The useless information: Neither Arkansas coach Houston Nutt nor Wisconsin's Bret Bielema is the BMOC at his own school. Athletic directors Frank Broyles and Barry Alvarez are the best coaches in their schools' respective histories.
The pick: Arkansas 24, Wisconsin 20.
USC vs. Michigan
The important information: Not a bad Granddaddy, even if both teams were hoping for bigger and better right up to the last weekend of the regular season. Wolverines can still hold out slim hope for an AP national championship. USC must hold out hope that its offensive line can protect quarterback John David Booty better than it did against UCLA.
The useless information: Twenty-seven years later, it was still a fumble when Charles White went over the pile for the "winning" touchdown against the Wolverines in the '79 Rose Bowl.
The pick: Michigan 23, USC 17.
Boise State vs. Oklahoma
The important information: Yes, Virginia, there is a second unbeaten team out there. It's the Broncos, who play their first BCS game against one of the all-time blue bloods of the sport. On the field, Adrian Peterson vs. Ian Johnson is even better than McFadden vs. Hill. In fact, it's the marquee RB matchup of bowl season.
The useless information: Actually, this isn't quite so useless. The average weight of the Boise State defensive starters is 36 pounds less per man than the average Oklahoma offensive starter. And they're going to stop Peterson?
The pick: Oklahoma 41, Boise State 29.
Louisville vs. Wake Forest
The important information: The Demon Deacons are a wonderful story. They're also in completely over their heads here. Wake Forest, with the nation's No. 98 offense, cannot keep up with the high-octane Cardinals.
The useless information: Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm's brothers, Jeff and Greg, were members of the only other Cardinals team to play in (and win) a January bowl game. Greg was a receiver and Jeff was a backup quarterback when Louisville routed Alabama 34-7 in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl -- the game that started the program on its improbable trek to top-10 status.
The pick: Louisville 35, Wake Forest 17.
Notre Dame vs. LSU
The important information: Speaking of being in over their heads -- the Fighting Irish have no discernible means of matching up in the secondary with LSU speedster receivers Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet.
The useless information: The Dungeon, The Dash's favorite French Quarter death-metal bar, opens at midnight. Earplugs are advised and flash photography could get you killed.
The pick: LSU 37, Notre Dame 21.
Cincinnati vs. Western Michigan
The important information: Cincinnati is being coached by a complete stranger (Brian Kelly) who already coached another team (Central Michigan) past the Broncos. Confused? The Bearcats will be, too.
The useless information: Toronto is one of The Dash's favorite cities -- although, really, January is not ideal visiting time. Hopefully the first bowl game north of the border doesn't conflict with any junior hockey games.
The pick: Western Michigan 14, Cincinnati 13.
Ohio vs. Southern Mississippi
The important information: If you're looking for an aerial circus, skip this game. Ohio's Bobcats are 115th nationally in passing offense and the Golden Eagles are 97th. If you like handoffs, tune in.
The useless information: This could end the annual scoreboard assault at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The last five winners of the GMAC have all scored at least 38 points and have averaged 49.6 points.
The pick: Southern Miss 27, Ohio 16.
Florida vs. Ohio State
The important information: The Buckeyes rank in the top 10 in the three categories that matter most: scoring offense, scoring defense and turnover margin. And when it's all said and done and this college football season is in the books, they'll have the only ranking that matters: No. 1.
The useless information: The higher-ranked team has won 19 of the last 21 Fiesta Bowls. The only exceptions should hearten the underdog, second-ranked Gators: No. 2 Ohio State upset No. 1 Miami in 2003, and No. 2 Penn State upset No. 1 Miami in 1987.
The pick: Ohio State 30, Florida 20.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.