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This Week’s College Football Bowl Games: What to Watch For

Heisman winner Johnny Manziel leads Texas A&M into the Cotton Bowl.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

As we come down the homestretch of this college football season, there are lots of great games on tap in the next week. Many of the nation’s top players—including Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel—will be on display for the last time this year.

We will have separate previews of all the BCS games posted soon, but in the meantime, here are the highlights of all the other remaining college bowl games.

[All times Eastern.]

BELL HELICOPTER ARMED FORCES BOWL: Rice (6-6) vs. Air Force (6-6)

[Saturday, December 29, at 11:45 a.m. on ESPN]

Although both teams enter the game with .500 records, these are two squads heading in opposite directions. After starting the season 1-5, Rice won five of its last six, including the last four in a row. Air Force, meanwhile, got off to a 5-3 start (including 4-1 in Mountain West play) before dropping three of its last four by an average of 24 points per game. The key in this game could be the ability of Rice’s defense, which ranks 94th nationally in rush defense, to slow down the Falcon’s potent rushing attack. Air Force ranks 2nd in the country behind senior running back Cody Getz, who has rushed for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns this year despite missing two games with an ankle injury. Air Force has won five of six all-time against the Owls, but the two have not met since 1998.

NEW ERA PINSTRIPE BOWL: West Virginia (7-5) vs. Syracuse (7-5)

[Saturday, Dec. 29, at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN]

Geno Smith holds virtually all of West Virginia’s passing records. Now he’ll look to cap his record-breaking career with a bowl win against a Syracuse squad that beat the Mountaineers 49-23 a year ago. West Virginia ranks eighth nationally in total offense and seventh in scoring, but has the ninth-worst scoring defense. Syracuse will try to take advantage of that behind senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who has thrown for a school record 3,619 yards this year. The Mountaineers come into the game on a two-game winning streak after dropping five in a row in Big 12 play. The Orange closed the season on a three-game winning streak to claim a share of the Big East title.

KRAFT FIGHT HUNGER BOWL: Navy (7-4) vs. Arizona State (7-5)

[Saturday, Dec. 29, at 4 p.m. on ESPN2]

The Sun Devils got a wild fourth-quarter win over archrival Arizona to secure the school’s first winning season in five years. Now, they’ll look to close out coach Todd Graham’s first season with a bowl win against a talented Navy squad that won seven of its last eight games. The Midshipmen’s triple-option attack ranks sixth nationally in rushing and will go against a Sun Devils defense that allowed four of its last six opponents to rush for 200+ yards. Arizona State, however, can counter with a balanced offense featuring four players who have all rushed for 400+ yards this season and six more with 300+ receiving.

VALERO ALAMO BOWL: #23 Texas (8-4) vs. #13 Oregon State (9-3)

[Saturday, Dec. 29, at 6:45 p.m. on ESPN]

Texas limps into this contest after dropping its last two games, but should benefit from a solid home field advantage in this south Texas bowl. Longhorns coach Mack Brown announced that quarterback David Ash, who was benched in the Thanksgiving loss to TCU and was held out of the final game against Kansas State with an injury, will be under center. The bigger question mark for Texas may be a defense that ranks 72nd nationally in scoring. They will need to slow down a Beavers passing attack that ranks 15th nationally in passing. After winning just three games last year, Oregon State won seven of its first eight games en route to a 9-3 mark this year, the biggest turnaround in the FBS.

BUFFALO WILD WINGS BOWL: Texas Christian (7-5) vs. Michigan State (6-6)

[Saturday, Dec. 29, at 10:15 p.m. on ESPN]

Points could be at a premium in this matchup between two of the nation’s premier defenses. The Spartans rank fourth nationally in total defense, but rank just 112th in scoring offense despite 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns from bruising running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell is coming off a career-best 266 yards in the regular season finale against Minnesota, but should face a tougher task against a Horned Frogs defense that ranks 10th nationally against the run. Both teams are hoping to end the season on a positive note after they each lost four of their last six games.

FRANKLIN AMERICAN MORTGAGE MUSIC CITY BOWL: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4)

[Monday, Dec. 31, at 12 p.m. on ESPN]

After starting the season 2-4, Vanderbilt closed the season on a tear with a six-game winning streak to advance to its second consecutive bowl game, the first time in school history the Commodores have made the postseason in back-to-back years. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, limps in after a disappointing season that cost coach Tom O’Brien his job. NC State started the year 5-2, including an upset of then #3 Florida State, before dropping three of its last five games. The key here could be the matchup between NC State quarterback Mike Glennon (3,648 yards—tops in the ACC—and 30 touchdowns this year) against a Commodores defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in both passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed.

HYUNDAI SUN BOWL: USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7)

[Monday, Dec. 31, at 2 p.m. on CBS]

After beginning the season ranked #1, USC will look to cap off a disappointing season on a high note with a bowl win. However, they’ll do it without star quarterback Matt Barkley, who will miss the game with a shoulder injury. But backup Max Wittek proved capable in a season-ending loss to Notre Dame and is supported by the nation’s best receiving duo in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods (2,493 yards and 25 touchdowns combined this year). They’ll face a 6-7 Georgia Tech squad that needed a waiver from the NCAA to get into a bowl game but boasts the nation’s fourth-best rushing offense. The Yellow Jackets are making their 16th straight bowl appearance, while USC is appearing in its first bowl game since being banned by the NCAA last year.

AUTOZONE LIBERTY BOWL: Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)

[Monday, Dec. 31, at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN]

Iowa State lost five of its last seven games, but is still in a position to finish with its first winning record in three years. To do so, however, they’ll have to win a second game this year against Conference USA champion Tulsa, which can match the school record for wins in a season with a bowl victory. Iowa State will be starting its third quarterback this season, freshman Sam Richardson (412 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two games). Tulsa ranks 11th nationally in rushing offense behind a stable of running backs that includes leading rusher Trey Watts (son of former Oklahoma quarterback and U.S. congressman J.C. Watts) and Alex Singleton, the school record-holder for total touchdowns (41). The Cyclones will have to stop that running attack without team captain linebacker Jake Knott, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. This is a rematch of the teams’ season opener, which Iowa State won 38-23 in Ames.

CHICK-FIL-A BOWL: #8 Louisiana State (10-2) vs. #14 Clemson (10-2)

[Monday, Dec. 31, at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN]

This could be one of the more exciting bowl games of the season, pitting two highly ranked teams with contrasting styles. Clemson boasts a potent offense that ranks ninth nationally in total offense and sixth in scoring. The Tigers were held to just 17 points in a season-ending loss to archrival South Carolina, but averaged 46.5 points per game in the previous 10. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd ranks eighth nationally in total offense and tied an ACC record with 34 touchdown passes this season. However, he’ll have a tough challenge against an LSU defense that ranks eighth nationally in total defense and that held 10 of 12 opponents this year to 21 or fewer points. The key in this one could be how a struggling Clemson defense handles a Bayou Bengal offense that, after tripping over itself early in the year, has rallied to average more than 400 yards and 30 points in its last four games. Clemson is seeking its first 11-win season since going 12-0 and winning the national title in 1981. LSU is 9-1 all-time in the Georgia Dome and 5-0 in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL: Mississippi State (8-4) vs. #20 Northwestern (9-3)

[Tuesday, January 1, at 12 p.m. on ESPN]

Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949, but all that could change this year thanks to a powerful rushing offense that is averaging almost 231 yards per game (14th nationally). Junior running back Venric Mark has rushed for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and ranks ninth nationally in all-purpose yardage. He’ll go against a Mississippi State defense that was phenomenal during the Bulldogs’ 7-0 start, but gave up an average of almost 34 points per game while closing the season 1-4. Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Wilson (2,791 yards and 22 touchdowns this year) is expected to start, but could be limited after suffering an ankle injury in a season-ending loss to Ole Miss. This is the first meeting of the two schools.

HEART OF DALLAS BOWL: Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5)

[Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 12 p.m. on ESPNU]

Oklahoma State lost back-to-back shootouts to close a disappointing season, but with an offense that ranks fifth in total yards, seventh in passing and third in scoring, the Cowboys should have little trouble with a Purdue defense that ranks 71st in both scoring and total defense. Following a five-game losing streak, the Boilermakers won their final three games to make a bowl game, but it wasn’t enough to save coach Danny Hope’s job. Oklahoma State has used three different quarterbacks this year, and Cowboys coach Mike Gundy has announced that junior Clint Chelf, who started the season as the third-stringer, will start his fifth straight game.

CAPITAL ONE BOWL: #7 Georgia (11-2) vs. #16 Nebraska (10-3)

[Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 1 p.m. on ABC]

Both teams come into the game looking to end the season on a positive note after suffering disappointing losses in their respective conference championship games. Nebraska leads the nation in pass defense and should be able to slow down Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (3,466 yards and 31 touchdowns). But that may not matter much if they can’t fix a run defense that was torched for a school record 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in the Big Ten title game loss to Wisconsin. Georgia running back Todd Gurley led the SEC in rushing and averages 6.3 yards per carry. However, Nebraska could be able to find some success on the ground as well. Behind quarterback Taylor Martinez, the school’s all-time career yardage leader, the Cornhuskers rank eighth nationally in rushing and will face a Georgia defense that ranks 79th nationally in rush defense and gave up 6.9 yards per carry in the SEC title-game loss to Alabama.

OUTBACK BOWL: #10 South Carolina (10-2) vs. #18 Michigan (8-4)

[Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 1 p.m. on ESPN]

Michigan’s Denard Robinson suffered an elbow injury in a late October loss to Nebraska that has limited his ability to pass. But he has still been effective for the Wolverines, rushing for 220 yards in two games while lining up at running back. If Robinson still can’t be under center, Michigan could be in good hands as backup Devin Gardner has thrown for 1,005 yards and eight touchdowns while also rushing for seven scores. The key in this game could be the ability of the Wolverines’ offensive line, which gave up a Big Ten-low 15 sacks, to protect Robinson or Gardner from South Carolina’s Jadaveon Clowney, the SEC defensive player of the year who set school records for sacks (13) and tackles for loss (21 ½) this season. On offense, the Gamecocks face the same quarterback quandary as Michigan. Starter Connor Shaw is expected to be recovered from a foot injury that kept him out the season-ending win over then-#12 Clemson. But backup Dylan Thompson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in that game and, as of press time, coach Steve Spurrier has not announced who will be under center for South Carolina. Michigan ranks second nationally in pass defense, but will be without starting cornerback J.T. Floyd, one of three Wolverines who have been suspended for this game.

AT&T COTTON BOWL: #9 Texas A&M (10-2) vs. #11 Oklahoma (10-2)

[Friday, Jan. 4, at 8 p.m. on Fox]

This could be one of the more exciting bowl games this year, as both teams rank in the top 10 in total offense and average more than 40 points per game. Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel will lead the Aggies into their first bowl game as a member of the SEC. He was the first freshman and just fifth player ever to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He could be in for a big game, as Oklahoma ranks just 82nd in rush defense and has been prone to giving up big plays. The Sooners feature a prolific quarterback of their own, as Landry Jones will be starting his final collegiate game. The senior holds most Big 12 passing records and leaves Oklahoma as the school’s all-time leader in passing attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. He is the only FBS player in history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in four seasons. Sooners players and fans have made no secret of their disappointment at not getting a BCS at-large bid, but they will have to put that behind them and focus on the tough task at hand to tie a school record with a fourth straight bowl win. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was an assistant at OU from 2003-2007.

BBVA COMPASS BOWL: Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Mississippi (6-6)

[Saturday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m. on ESPN]

Ole Miss needed an upset win over archrival Mississippi State in the final week of the regular season to advance to its first bowl game in three years. In that win, they held the Bulldogs to just 30 rushing yards. But they’ll face a tougher test this week against Pitt’s Ray Graham, who rushed for 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns this year. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns this year. But he’s also tossed 15 interceptions and he could have problems against a Panthers defense that ranks 24th nationally in pass defense and has recorded 13 interceptions while giving up just 12 passing touchdowns. Pitt is playing in this game for the third straight year, but it is the first time they’ll do so without an interim coach (Dave Wannstedt was fired two years ago and Todd Graham left for Arizona State this time last year).

GODADDY.COM BOWL: #25 Kent State (11-2) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)

[Sunday, Jan. 6, at 9 p.m. on ESPN]

Kent State fell just short of its goal of a MAC championship and a BCS bid, but there is still a lot riding on this game as the Golden Flashes play in their first bowl game since 1972. Kent State ranks 16th nationally in rushing offense behind the running back duo of Dri Archer and Traylon Durham that has rushed for 2,600 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. Arkansas State, however, features a potent offense of its own that ranks 17th nationally in total offense and 21st in scoring. Quarterback Ryan Aplin is the Sun Belt Conference’s all-time leading passer and has thrown 23 touchdowns this year to just four interceptions. The Red Wolves started the season 2-3 before closing with a seven-game winning streak. Kent State coach Darrell Hazell has accepted the head job at Purdue, but will be coaching the Golden Flashes in this game. The Red Wolves, however, will be without coach Gus Malzahn who has left for the Auburn job. This is the fifth straight year at least one team in this game will play with an interim coach.

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