Mon Dec 05 02:49pm EST
A postseason primer.
Happiest Game: Cotton Bowl.
Organizers make no bones about the Cotton Bowl's bid for a call-up from the BCS — they've ditched New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl itself for a later date in Jerry Jones' $1 billion Holodeck in Arlington — and they've got a BCS-worthy matchup for their trouble: Arkansas and Kansas State are both 10-2, both finished in the top eight of the final BCS standings, and could have easily landed in one of the big-money games themselves if not for a) Finishing third in a division that also includes the two teams squaring off for the BCS championship, and b) Being inexplicably snubbed by the Sugar Bowl in favor of Virginia Tech, respectively.
Between them, three of the Razorbacks and Wildcats' four losses came at the hands of the top-three teams in every poll; the fourth came against then-No. 11 Oklahoma. The winner is likely headed for its best landing in the final polls in decades, and the Cotton gets to join the Fiesta, Rose and BCS Championship Game as the only games that will host two top-10 teams.
Most Depressing Game: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
This is supposed to be about genuine human uplift: The game itself is a culmination of Kraft's "Huddle to Fight Hunger" initiative, which aims to donate 25 million meals this year through Feeding America. And what worse way could there be to draw attention to the cause than by inviting Illinois and UCLA, two teams that combined to finish 12-13 and both just fired their head coaches? The Fighting Illini will arrive in San Francisco the losers of six straight after a 6-0 start, opposite a UCLA outfit that's dropped three of its last four and needed special permission from the NCAA just to play in a bowl with a losing (6-7) record.
At least the football configuration for AT&T Park doesn't require the teams to share the same sideline anymore, lest they agree to accompany each other into McCovey Cove, Madeliene Elster style.
Happiest Fans: Sugar Bowl.
Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003, clinched 10 wins for the first time since 2006 and now draw reeling Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, their best chance for a BCS win since a Tom Brady-led overtime win over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl. New Orleans hotels are happy, too: After four mostly miserable years, one of the largest, most loyal fan bases in the country should be out in force to see the Wolverines officially back among the national elite.
Most Depressed Fans: Insight Bowl.
Oklahoma isn't the first preseason No. 1 to lose three games — Alabama lost three last year — but it is the first to do it in spectacular enough fashion to drop as low as 19th in the Associated Press poll, the lowest any preseason frontrunner has fallen to end the regular season since the AP started holding the final vote after bowl games in the mid-'60s. With a Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl bid at stake Saturday night at Oklahoma State, the Sooners' latest implosion knocked them all the way back to the Insight Bowl, where 7-5 Iowa returns to shrugs from everyone involved.
Most Relentless Storyline: Gator Bowl.
Ready? It's Urban Meyer's old team against Urban Meyer's new team. Get used to it: Any game involving Florida and Ohio State — even 6-6 editions limping in at the end of a rocky transition year — is guaranteed to generate some heat, and Meyer's arrival at Ohio State last week gives everyone an excuse to talk about something other than a game neither side could care much less about save the extra practice time.
Best Bang for the Tie-In: TicketCity Bowl.
In its second year of existence, the TicketCity Bowl — aka the "Zombie Cotton Bowl," held in the actual Cotton Bowl stadium in downtown Dallas on New Year's Day — was supposed to be stuck with the dregs of the Big Ten against a random also-ran from Conference USA. Instead, it landed a relatively plum matchup between two ranked teams, Penn State and Houston, that offer vastly contrasting styles and were both playing for conference championships at the end of November. Barely 48 hours ago, in fact, Houston appeared to be a lock for the Sugar Bowl, until its undefeated season ran into a wall against Southern Miss.
Under normal circumstances, Penn State would have been selected much higher up the food chain, likely by the Gator or Insight bowls. Obviously, neither of those locales wanted anything to do with the Nittany Lions in the wake of the child sex scandal that's rocked the program and the university to the core over the last month, and there was some idle chatter that the Lions would forego a bowl altogether. Assuming they show up, the TicketCity will be one of only four non-BCS games — along with the Capital One, Cotton and Outback — featuring two ranked teams.
Most Marketable Matchup That's Actually Kind of Terrible: Champs Sports Bowl.
According to the Chicago Tribune, any game between Notre Dame and Florida State instantly "conjures memories" of the classic 1 vs. 2 game in South Bend in 1993, which may be the case for media types desperate to have something to say about the 2011 edition. For anyone tuning into the game, they're going to get two 8-4 outfits that combined to go 2-6 against teams with winning records — one of which was Air Force.
Take heart, scribes: After the game, you'll have a perfect opportunity to get a head start on inflated expectations for the winner in 2012.
Least Marketable Matchup That's Actually Pretty Good: GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Arkansas State and Northern Illinois aren't going to do much for the GoDaddy.com Bowl's Q rating — not nearly as much as having Danica Patrick around, anyway — but it is a matchup of newly minted, long-suffering conference champions who are capable of scoring a lot of points. It will take you a full quarter to distinguish one black-and-red side from the other, but no one here is going to be taking the trip or the opportunity to play on national television for granted, I promise.
Most Lopsided Matchup: Las Vegas Bowl.
Last year, Boise State was snubbed by the BCS, landed in Vegas instead and blew the doors off Utah, 26-3. This year, the Broncos were snubbed by the BCS, landed in Vegas instead and got stuck with 6-6 Arizona State, fresh from an 0-4 November and a ritual sacrifice of the head coach, Dennis Erickson. Lines aren't out yet, but when you've just dropped four straight to the likes of UCLA, Washington State, Arizona and Cal, your odds against the No. 6 team in the nation aren't very optimistic.
Best Fit: Military Bowl.
Air Force wanted into the Military Bowl, the Military Bowl wanted Air Force, and both got their wish in the end despite a few obstacles. After the bowl's contract with Navy fell through (at 4-7, the Midshipmen are ineligible for a bowl, as is Army), it naturally turned its attention to the only eligible service academy left standing. Before it could invite Air Force, though, two other bowls with Mountain West tie-ins — the Independence and New Mexico bowls — had to pass on Air Force, which as of last week seemed unlikely. In the end, the New Mexico Bowl wound up tapping Wyoming while the Independence held out for a Big 12 free agent Missouri, freeing the Falcons to accept the bid against Toledo in Washington, D.C.
Weirdest Fit: Hawai'i Bowl.
The Conference USA champion is contractually obligated to the Liberty Bowl, and has fulfilled that obligation in 14 of the 15 years the conference has been in existence. Southern Miss hasn't been to the Liberty as C-USA champ since 2003. On the heels of their poll-shaking upset at Houston, though, the Golden Eagles opted instead for a Hawai'i Bowl date with the runner-up from the WAC, Nevada. If Honolulu sounds like a better vacation than Memphis, you're probably right. But ask yourself: Compared to the number of Southern Miss fans willing to make the relatively short drive to Memphis on Dec. 31, how many will be willing to divert their holiday plans to fly to Hawaii for a game on Christmas Eve?
Most Superfluous: Music City Bowl.
I defy you to produce anyone, anywhere who wants to see 6-6 Mississippi State square off against 6-6 Wake Forest on Dec. 30, including Mississippi State and Wake Forest fans. The Demon Deacons dropped four of their last five, capped by a 41-7 collapse against Vanderbilt in the season finale; the Bulldogs struggled through a 2-6 disappointment in SEC play and count an overtime escape against Louisiana Tech as their best win of the year. More than any other, this game exists entirely for the sake of its own existence.
Most Snubbed: Western Kentucky.
In their first two seasons as a full-fledged I-A/FCS program, the Hilltoppers won a grand total of two games, finished back-to-back seasons in the Sun Belt cellar and fired a head coach. In their third season, they started out 0-4. Since, they've ripped off seven wins in their last eight — the only loss coming at LSU — including wins over SBC rivals Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Still, when the invitations were handed out, it was FIU (to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.) and ULL (to the New Orleans Bowl) that earned the nods out of geographic convenience. Not to begrudge the Panthers and Ragin' Cajuns their own long-in-coming success, but if WKU wants to join the party, it looks like it's going to have to get the Bluegrass Bowl off the ground, pronto.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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