College Football Bowl Preview: Breaking Down New Year's Matchups

College football bowl season is underway, and we have plenty of good (and not so good) matchups ahead of us. Dave Shook breaks down all the action.

New Year's is typically a big event for fans of football, and with New Years Day falling on a Sunday this year, it's even bigger thanks to the presence of a full slate of NFL games. Under normal circumstances though, college football rules this particular holiday and this year will be no exception.

Five bowl games will grace your TV screens on Saturday night taking you almost right up until that magical hour on the east coast where the clock will strike midnight and ring in 2012. Then, on Monday, the first college football games of the new calendar year will take place, with the first of six bowl games kicking off at noon.

If you're one of the casual fans who typically doesn't watch much college football until this weekend, fear not. What follows is a ranking of the bowl games that you can catch over the long holiday weekend rated from "downright horrendous and unwatchable" to "absolutely must see TV".

Have a safe and happy holiday everyone!

All times listed are EST.

WHY ARE THESE TEAMS IN BOWL GAMES?

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7) -- Sat. 12/31 @ 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

If ever there was an argument to be made that there are just simply too many bowl games, this is it. Start with the most obvious fact that BOTH of these teams fired their head coaches after the regular season and then move on to the fact that UCLA has a LOSING record right now. Neither of these teams deserved to be rewarded for their efforts this year with a trip to a post season game. Illinois hasn't won a football game in over three months (that's not a typo) after winning their first six games through a broad variety of smoke and mirrors, never once scoring more than 17 points during that process. UCLA has been similarly inept throughout the season. Their seven losses this season were by an average of 27 points per game. This is a game that only parents, fans, and people with absolutely nothing better to do should be watching.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

Ohio St. Buckeyes (6-6) vs. Florida Gators (6-6) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 1:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

The Gator Bowl was once considered one of the more prestigious New Years Day bowl games. Often pitting highly ranked teams against each other, there was a real sense that the game had real meaning. However, as has been the case with a number of other bowl games in the last few years, it's become all about matching up fanbases rather than good football teams. Thus, this years game will be hailed as a massive success when the rabid Gator fans and the equally rabid Buckeye fans pack the stadium in Jacksonville to watch two of the more unwatchable offenses in the sport this year. The game will certainly display some outstanding talent in the form of Gators running back Chris Rainey and Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller, but by and large, these are two teams that played bad football the second half of the season. The Gators lost six of their last eight, while the Buckeyes lost their last three. Creative chanting in the stands is the only reason to watch this abomination.

BAD, BUT POSSIBLY ENTERTAINING

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

Texas A&M Aggies (6-6) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (6-6) -- Sat. 12/31 @ 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Once ranked as high as No. 8 in the country the Aggies found incredible, almost unfathomable ways to lose football games despite holding huge leads at the half. In fact, it's fair to wonder whether or not the Aggies would be playing in the National Championship Game if the games were only two quarters long. This is of course where the entertainment factor comes in for this particular bowl game. Ryan Tannehill, Cyrus Gray, and Christine Michael provide far more firepower than Northwestern can match and should result in the same double digit first half lead that has been so common for this team. However, behind quarterback Dan Persa, expect the Wildcats to rally and make for a fun shootout in the second half. The Wildcats aren't overly talented, but they have shown that they can be feisty, thanks to a road win over Nebraska. This should be fairly entertaining if not overly well played. A good game to have on in the background while you're cleaning the house or getting ready for your New Years Eve activities.

Chic-Fil-A Bowl

Virginia Cavaliers (8-4) vs. No. 25 Auburn Tigers (7-5) -- Sat. 12/31 @ 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Why Auburn is ranked is completely beyond me as this has not been a particularly good football team most of the year. The defending national champions proved to be something of a one-hit wonder, having absolutely nobody to replace even a portion of the production that Cam Newton provided. Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley tried valiantly to give them something in the passing game, but were largely ineffective. As a result, they focused almost entirely on the run game with Michael Dyer. The trouble for Auburn in this one is that Dyer will not be playing thanks to a violation of team rules. Where Auburn will find offense in this game is the big subplot of this one. On the other side Virginia was one of the surprises of the season. After a slow start, they won six of their last seven before falling on their face in the finale against rival Virginia Tech. Second year coach Mike London's team played a slew of tight, entertaining games this year, and this should be no different.

WELL, AT LEAST IT'S BETTER THAN EATING LEFTOVER FRUIT CAKE

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6) -- Sat. 12/31 @ 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

First year coach James Franklin has the Commodores in a bowl game. That in and of it self is stunning enough, but in addition, his team did it with a couple of nice wins, including the season finale against Wake Forest. They even represented themselves well in conference with tight losses to Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas. This is by no means an elite team, but against a weaker schedule, it stands to reason this might have been an eight or nine win group. For Cincinnati, this game is very important. The Big East has rightfully taken a lot of dings and insults about the quality of play in the conference. and a loss here will not help matters at all. The Bearcats need this win as much for conference credibility as for their own pride. Quarterback Zach Collaros is back for Cincy, which will provide a big lift. This should be a hard hitting football game, and it'll be an interesting test of the depth of the SEC.

Hyundai Sun Bowl

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (8-4) vs. Utah Utes (7-5) -- Sat. 12/31 @ 2:00 p.m. (CBS)

Two of the more schizophrenic teams in college football this year should make for an interesting game. Utah has nice wins over Pitt and BYU, but also has a dreadful loss to Colorado to go along with several blowouts at the hands of peer opponents Arizona St., Washington, and Cal. Georgia Tech has been no different. They hammered previously unbeaten Clemson in Atlanta but were also absolutely dominated by the likes of Miami and Virginia. As for the game itself, it's very much a battle of the irresistible force and the immovable object. Georgia Tech's offense, as always, was one of the most efficient in the country. They racked up over 316 yards a game on the ground and 34 points a game. Utah's defense was fairly dominant as well, surrendering just 19 points per game and being especially tough against the run over the last six weeks. Assuming both teams bring their "A" games to El Paso, this one could be fun.

STORYLINES GALORE

Ticketcity Bowl

No. 19 Houston Cougars (12-1) vs. No. 22 Penn St. Nittany Lions (9-3) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU)

One of the more intriguing games of the bowl season kicks off the day when Houston tangles with Penn State. This game might be more about the storylines than it is about the actual play on the field. Obviously, Penn State is still embroiled in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the entire team from the coaches on down have been under siege with questions surrounding that rather than the game at hand. On the field, the question of who is playing quarterback is still unanswered thanks to a locker room fight involving starter Matt McGloin. On the other side, Houston is hoping to put a nice bow on the greatest season in school history. Quarterback Case Keenum will (finally) say goodbye after this one, as will head coach Kevin Sumlin. The Cougars would also like to wash away the misery that was the C-USA title game against Southern Miss, a game that cost the Cougs a chance to play in the Sugar Bowl. Houston's high powered passing attack, against the Nittany Lions defense will be the story on the field.

FINE HOLIDAY FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

Outback Bowl

No. 17 Michigan St. Spartans (10-3) vs. No. 16 Georgia Bulldogs (10-3) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 1:00 p.m. (ABC)

Now here is where the fun really begins. Fans of the Big 10 and their refusal to acknowledge the general superiority of the SEC as a football conference is one of the more entertaining yearly aspects of bowl season. The fans expect to win every game they play against the SEC, and brush off each successive loss with a "well, they're cheating". This could be another of those types. The Spartans were utterly humiliated last year by Alabama and are back for more, though not against quite the same caliber of opponent. Georgia dominated within its division of the SEC after a very rocky start that saw them lose their first two games. The Bulldogs have been very strong defensively, and while they didn't play well against LSU in the title game...who did? Sparty on the other hand has improved from last season thanks to a similarly stout defense. The reason I worry for Michigan St. and Big 10 fans in general is that they struggled mightily against the run throughout the year. Georgia has the ability and the wherewithal to pound the ball behind Isiah Crowell to open things up for Aaron Murray. If Kirk Cousins can't find a way to score points for his team in this one, it could get dicey.

Capital One Bowl

No. 20 Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3) vs. No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 1:00 p.m. (ESPN)

It's a shame that Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore will be unable to participate in this game, as it would have made this one of the more intriguing bowl games on the slate. However, quarterback Conor Shaw has continued to progress under coach Steve Spurrier, and while not as explosive as Lattimore is, Brandon Wilds stepped in and did just fine. Nebraska meanwhile had an up and down inaugural season with the Big 10. They put together strong wins over Penn St., Michigan St., and Iowa, but also really struggled in games where Taylor Martinez was unable to run the ball. In a sense, not much changed from last year to this one for the Huskers, only the opponents. You have to believe that Nebraska is going to have REAL problems generating points in this one thanks to the terrifying defensive line of South Carolina, particularly freshman Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded six sacks and requires a double team on almost every play. If Nebraska can't block up front, this could be a very long afternoon for the Cornhuskers.

LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, BUT...

Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio

No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (11-2) vs. No. 5 Oregon Ducks (11-2) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 5:00 p.m. (ABC)

A game that has long outlived it's purpose as a cornerstone of college football, but still holds a great deal of weight with aging fans and historical purists, the Rose Bowl, it can be argued, has been the biggest road block toward a true college football playoff. Both conference commissioners and the folks who handle this game have fought tooth and nail to preserve this game as is. And, while this game looks terrific on paper, it stands to reason that this is a game Wisconsin is going to dominate. Over the past few years, the indisputable truth has been that a strong defensive line can disrupt the Ducks potent offense (fueled by its running attack), and Wisconsin certainly possesses that. Further, the Pac-12 has taken a BEATING this year in bowl games, primarily because of the lack of defensive awareness. Oregon's undersized defense is not exactly what I'd call elite, and Wisconsin's offense can be downright terrifying at times. Unless something dramatically has changed over the past four weeks or so, I wonder whether Russell Wilson and Montee Ball will turn this game into an absolute laugher. Oregon can score points with the best of them behind LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, but they've struggled against teams like this over the last three years (LSU, USC, Boise St., Ohio St., Auburn) and it's hard to change your stripes overnight.

ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE TV

No. 4 Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma St. Cowboys (11-1) -- Mon. 1/2 @ 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

A fascinating match-up on just about every level. Neither team has what would be described as a top shelf defense. Both have top flight quarterbacks and explosive offenses, and both feel wronged about being in this particular game. Both felt like they belonged in the National Championship Game against LSU rather than Alabama, and there is the slimmest of possibilities that if one or the other dominates in this football game they could be rewarded with a split national championship (only if Alabama beats LSU though). Stanford has seen some high powered offenses this season (and hasn't stopped any of them), but they've yet to see the likes of receiver Justin Blackmon yet. Unquestionably the best receiver in college football this year, Blackmon is going to be a nightmare for a Stanford secondary that is painfully slow and is going to be forced to give him a ton of room to operate. As a result, it's highly likely that the Cowboys will be able to put up some big numbers in this one behind Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden. That's fine with the Cardinal though who have a similarly powerful, though more balanced attack behind all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor. I'd expect Stanford to try and control the pace of this game by utilizing Taylor as much as possible and not allowing the Cowboys offense on the field. If they can do that, they'll have a good chance to make a game of this. But, if they get drawn into a shootout, the 'Pokes might throw up 50 in this one. A fascinating game to close the day.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED - COLLEGE FOOTBALL LINKS

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