Time to prep, extra motivation could allow teams to defy the odds
The worst place to be this college football season was the favorite's seat.
It started back on Sept. 1 when Appalachian State shocked Michigan and only escalated from there. Every weekend, there was one of those games that just sort of caused you to go, "Huh?"
Take a minute to sort through all the upheaval this season: Stanford beating USC, Colorado beating Oklahoma, Kansas State beating Texas, Arizona beating Oregon, Navy beating Notre Dame, Louisiana-Monroe beating Alabama and Pittsburgh beating West Virginia.
LSU twice lost as the No. 1 team in the polls, both times in triple overtime, to Kentucky and then to Arkansas, but will play for the BCS national championship.
And for a while there, the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings might as well have been cursed. Just ask South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas or West Virginia.
Missouri was the No. 1 team in the BCS standings going into the final weekend of the regular season, but the Tigers aren't even playing in a BCS bowl.
It was that kind of season.
Hopefully the bowl season can provide half as much drama. Here's a stab at some potential upsets to watch for during your holiday football smorgasbord:
Pacific Life Holiday Bowl: Arizona State over Texas
It wasn't the most impressive finish to the season for the Longhorns. They flirted with disaster in narrow wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma State before taking a gut punch in the finale, a bitter 38-30 loss to Texas A&M. The defense was shaky the entire last month of the season, which should be inviting for Arizona State. The Sun Devils scored points in bunches this season and tied USC for the best record in the Pac-10. But they had their own slump toward the end of the season, scoring 24 or fewer points in their final four games and losing to Oregon and USC. Here's betting Texas' defense will be a sight for sore Sun Devils eyes.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State over Central Florida
It wasn't too long ago that Central Florida went 0-11 -- the 2004 season to be exact. But here the Golden Knights are as Conference USA champions, gunning for 11 wins and playing in a bowl game. Forget about résumé-gate. George O'Leary knows how to coach football. Central Florida tailback Kevin Smith has been the essence of consistency all season, but Mississippi State's defense is fast and nasty. The Bulldogs are accustomed to seeing talented backs in the SEC and won't be caught off guard by Smith's blend of power, speed and vision. The other thing the Bulldogs have going for them is fourth-year coach Sylvester Croom, who, like O'Leary, has done wonders for the program. He has one more trick up his sleeve -- a bowl victory.
Valero Alamo Bowl: Texas A&M over Penn State
The ageless Joe Paterno will be coaching this game from the sideline, unlike a year ago, when he was in the coaches' booth for the Outback Bowl. Paterno has said he would like to have one more "great" football team before he retires. Well, this isn't it. The Nittany Lions' best win this season was a 38-7 pasting of Wisconsin. Otherwise, they were pretty average with an offense that wasn't very imaginative. The Aggies will be led in the bowl game by interim coach Gary Darnell and are coming off a 38-30 upset of Texas. This is a chance for Texas A&M to continue that momentum into the offseason with new coach Mike Sherman coming aboard. It's also a chance to put a forgettable 2007 to rest for good.
PetroSun Independence Bowl: Colorado over Alabama
Talk about a bowl game where both teams backed their way into the postseason. Colorado lost four of its last six games, and Alabama lost four straight -- including an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe. OK, enough with the jokes about having to go through Monroe to get to Shreveport. Alabama wasn't especially talented, but the Tide were sitting there at 6-2 after an impressive 41-17 rout of Tennessee on Oct. 20 and played valiantly in a 41-34 loss to then-No. 3 LSU two weeks later. The Tide were never the same after that, and there's no reason to think anything will change for the bowl game.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force over California
There probably wasn't a bigger disappointment in college football this season than California, which moved all the way up to No. 2 in the polls only to lose six of its last seven games and just barely slip into a bowl. The Bears limped to a 3-6 record in Pac-10 play and couldn't stop anybody on defense. Wait until they get a taste of Air Force's no-huddle attack, which is a pain to stop for even the most disciplined defenses. Chad Hall, who splits his time between running back and receiver, was the only Division I-A player in the country to lead his team in rushing yards (1,415), receiving yards (488) and all-purpose yards (2,504). Watch those numbers soar against the Cal defense.
Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl: Florida State over Kentucky
The first upset here is that Kentucky is actually favored. And, no, we're not talking basketball. It tells you a little something about the job that Rich Brooks has done in building up the Kentucky program and also tells you just how far Florida State's program has slipped in the past few years. Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson is a terrific passer who can make all the throws. He'll spread the ball around and use the whole field. Unfortunately for him, the Seminoles still know how to play defense, and even though their offense has served up blanks all season, they'll make just enough plays on defense to win.
Insight Bowl: Indiana over Oklahoma State
Go ahead and admit it. Mike Gundy's "I'm a man. I'm 40!" postgame meltdown is the first thing you think about when you hear Oklahoma State. He was sticking up for his quarterback, Bobby Reid, but the irony is that Oklahoma State really didn't start playing its best football until Zac Robinson stepped in at quarterback. The Cowboys lost three of their last four games and were torched on defense. Indiana was one of the feel-good stories of the season. Inspired by the memory of their late coach, Terry Hoeppner, who died last June from complications of a brain tumor, the Hoosiers completed their most successful regular season in 14 years.
Chick-fil-A Bowl: Auburn over Clemson
It's fitting that Auburn and Clemson are getting together again for a bowl game. They're spitting images of each other as college campuses. In fact, Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard once cracked that Clemson was Auburn "with a lake." It was a good season for Clemson and bordered on being a great season, had it not been for a gut-wrenching home loss to Boston College that cost the Tigers a trip to the ACC championship game. Auburn weathered perhaps the toughest schedule in the country and was a play or two away from winning 10 games and playing in a BCS bowl. Tommy Tuberville's Tigers will have to settle for all the Chick-fil-A sandwiches they could ever eat and a New Year's Eve win.
Outback Bowl: Wisconsin over Tennessee
Wisconsin enters the game with injury concerns. Starting cornerback Aaron Henry tore his ACL and won't be able to play. Leading rusher P.J. Hill is also nursing a leg injury and iffy for the game. But there's just something about the Florida sunshine and bowl games that brings out the best in the Badgers, who are 9-3 in their last 12 bowl trips. It's just the opposite for Tennessee, which is 2-5 in bowl games (including a few stinkers) since the 1998 national championship season. The Vols will also have to wade through the distraction of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe leaving for Duke after the game and likely taking some assistants with him. Until the Vols win another bowl game, it's hard to pick them.
Orange Bowl: Kansas over Virginia Tech
Think the Jayhawks feel they have something to prove? You bet they do. All they've heard to this point is how they didn't beat anybody and don't deserve to be in a BCS bowl. Here's their chance to vent a little bit. Quarterback Todd Reesing threw a school-record 32 touchdown passes, but the real story was the transformation of the Jayhawks' defense after ranking 94th nationally in total defense in 2006. The ACC champion Hokies and coach Frank Beamer are tough to beat when they've got this much time to prepare, and they proved their resiliency by winning their last five games after a disheartening home loss to Boston College. Their defense is outstanding, but the Jayhawks' offense will be just a little bit better.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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