This college football season has truly been one for the ages.
Fans witnessed the revival of traditional power Notre Dame, a team that’s fought for relevance for years despite not belonging to an athletic conference. The #1 Fighting Irish look to cap off a perfect season with a national championship, but it won’t be easy. #2 Alabama will be waiting for them, winners of an SEC that contained a whopping six teams in the Top-10 of the most recent BCS rankings. Although this title game will likely be the most compelling matchup of the bowl season, the rest of the BCS games feature an abundance of talent, dual-threat quarterbacks and fascinating storylines.
#6 Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5) Rose Bowl: January 1
The laughing-stock of the Pac-10 at the beginning of the 21st century, the Stanford Cardinal have qualified for a BCS bowl in each of the last three years.
Stanford struggled to put points on the board at times this year (they finished 71st in the country in points per game), scoring 21 points or fewer on six separate occasions. However, they are definitely peaking at the right time, recording seven straight wins, including four in a row against ranked opponents. They’ve beaten two teams that were ranked #2 in the country at the time of their matchup, defeating USC 21-14 on September 15 and Oregon 17-14 on November 17.
Freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan is as hot as any player in college football, completing at least 68 percent of his passes in all five games that he’s started. And senior running back Stepfan Taylor just broke the Stanford career rushing record in the team’s 27-24 victory over then-#16 UCLA on November 30.
On the other hand, Wisconsin has had a much less successful season despite their Rose Bowl bid. Many would argue that the Badgers aren’t worthy of playing in such a prestigious bowl with their mediocre record. This argument has merit; they only qualified for the Big-10 Championship game because both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play this season. However, they destroyed Nebraska in that Championship by a score of 70-31 to qualify the Rose Bowl.
The Badgers live and die by running back Montee Ball, a player who recently set the Division I record for most career rushing touchdowns. Their ground game averaged 237.8 yards per game, good for 12th in the country, whereas their aerial attack averaged an abysmal 162.6 yards per game, good for 115th. Ball will need another huge game to give his Badgers a chance of winning.
Although Wisconsin has to be riding high after such a huge win against Nebraska, Stanford is a much more complete team. The Badgers split their two games against ranked opponents, both against Nebraska, whereas Stanford is 5-1 against ranked competition.
Expect Taylor and Co. to roll over Wisconsin. Pick: Stanford
#12 Florida State (11-2) vs. #15 Northern Illinois (12-1) Orange Bowl: January 1
Florida State just finished its most successful season under third-year coach Jimbo Fisher, the successor to college football legend Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles only played two ranked opponents all year but performed as well as one might expect against inferior competition. Their defense limited teams to 15.1 points per game (seventh in the country), while their offense averaged 39.9 points (14th).
Quarterback EJ Manuel has played great all year, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season. Furthermore, the Seminoles were only one bad fourth quarter away from beating then-#4 Florida on November 24. Although the ACC has been in a bit of a rut as of late, FSU is clearly worthy of a BCS bid.
The same cannot be said about Northern Illinois. The Huskies are the first team ever to qualify for a BCS bowl from a non-Big Six conference with a less than perfect record. Although they’ve won 12 straight, any team that loses to Iowa (2-6 in the Big-10) has a hard time justifying a BCS bid. In addition, their only win against a ranked opponent was a 44-37 double overtime victory against fellow mid-major Kent State.
Jordan Lynch, who has recorded close to 3,000 passing yards on the season with a 24-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, leads NIU to its first BCS bowl appearance in school history. As great of a passer as he is, Lynch is most dangerous on the ground, running for 1771 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season.
Although Lynch is likely to make several jaw-dropping plays with both his arm and legs, Florida State should still handle Northern Illinois comfortably. The Huskies have had an incredible season, but they’ve yet to play a team that’s even close to FSU’s caliber. Pick: Florida State
#3 Florida (11-1) vs. #21 Louisville (10-2) Sugar Bowl: January 2
This season, Florida had the most difficult schedule of any team not named Notre Dame, Alabama, or Stanford. The Gators defeated four teams that were ranked when they played: #4 LSU, #7 South Carolina, #10 Florida State, and #23 Tennessee. Their defense was suffocating, only allowing 12.9 points per game-third in the country. This was necessary too, since their offense averaged a meager 26.8 points per game. In their only loss, a 17-9 to then-#10 Georgia, the Gators turned the ball over six times and registered only 15 first downs.
Running back Mike Gillislee powers this offense, rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season and allowing coach Will Muschamp to avoid passing with his 118th-ranked aerial attack.
On paper, Louisville isn’t nearly as impressive. The Cardinals didn’t play a ranked opponent all year, losing two straight games to Syracuse and Connecticut late in the season. They only beat Florida International by a touchdown, and FIU was the eighth best team in the Sun Belt Conference. Furthermore, neither their offense nor defense is statistically all that spectacular. (They were 48th in the country in points scored and 37th in points allowed.)
Although quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is just as awesome as his name would suggest (throwing for almost 3,500 yards!), he’ll have his work cut out against the best defense he’ll play all year.
Quite frankly, Louisville has no business being in a BCS bowl. The Big East hasn’t been good since the Rich Rodriguez days at West Virginia. The Gators should beat the Cardinals, and it likely won’t be close. Pick: Florida
#4 Oregon (11-1) vs. #5 Kansas State (11-1) Fiesta Bowl: January 3
If no games were played on November 17, these two teams would have likely met in the national championship game. However, on that fateful autumn Saturday, then-#1 Kansas State was blown out 52-24 at Baylor and then-#2 Oregon lost a heartbreaker 17-14 to Stanford in overtime.
The Ducks have an incredible offense that starts with quarterback Marcus Mariota, a freshman who threw for over 2,500 yards on the season and rushed for another 690 yards. In addition, running back Kenjon Barner ran for 1,625 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards a carry en route to making dozens of SportsCenter-worthy plays.
That said, he might not be the best running back on his own team. De’Anthony Thomas, a player who is listed at RB but also plays a considerable amount of wide receiver, scored 11 rushing touchdowns on only 90 attempts. Many consider him to be the most dynamic player in college football.
Although Oregon gets the most credit for its offense, its defense is pretty solid too, limiting teams to an average of 22.0 points per game (26th in the country).
That said, Kansas State is no pushover. The Wildcats are led by Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, who is just as much of a dual-threat quarterback as Mariota. Klein recorded 22 touchdowns rushing and added another 15 via the air. Klein carried the ball a whopping 194 times this season, leading his team in that category. Furthermore, KSU registered wins against five teams that were ranked in the top-25 when they played, defeating then-#6 Oklahoma on the road 24-19 on September 22.
The team is also more well-rounded than the Ducks, finishing 10th in the country in total offense and 24th in total defense. In the end, Oregon should win in a shootout. Their offense is unlike anythi ng KSU has seen this season and their defense will do just enough to limit Klein’s impact on the game. Pick: Oregon
#1 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. #2 Alabama (12-1) National Championship Game: January 7
Notre Dame looks to win its first national championship since 1988, which is incredible when one considers that the team was unranked at the start of the season. Third-year coach Brian Kelly has done wonders rebuilding the program after the disaster that was the 35-27 Charlie Weis era.
Quarterback Everett Golson has had a solid year, although the true star of the team is Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o, a linebacker who has 103 tackles and 7 interceptions on the season. Led by Te’o, the Notre Dame defense is ranked first in the country, allowing a miniscule 10.3 points per game. The Fighting Irish have been challenged on many occasions, including overtime wins over Stanford and Pittsburgh, but thus far their record has remained perfect. They’ve beaten four ranked teams this year, including two road wins against then-#10 Michigan State and then-#8 Oklahoma.
However, Alabama, fresh off of a 32-28 win against then-#3 Georgia on December 1, looks to be their toughest competition yet. The Crimson Tide are the pride of the SEC, once again the nation’s toughest conference by a large margin.
Quarterback AJ McCarron, a junior who’s thrown for over 2,500 yards and has a sparkling 26-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio this year, leads Alabama’s #15 ranked offense. Bama also has two 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon; the pair has combined for 29 touchdowns this year.
However, the real reason Alabama made it through the SEC (almost) unscathed is their defense, which has allowed 10.7 points per game (second in the country, behind Notre Dame). They shut out teams four times this year, holding teams to a touchdown on two other occasions.
Considering that the two teams involved are #1 and #2 in scoring defense, the cliché “defense wins championships” is definitely applicable in this fight for the national title. Both offenses are likely going to struggle moving the ball. In the end, as is often the case with low scoring games, the turnover differential will likely decide the victor. Alabama had a +1.2 per game edge to Notre Dame’s +.8, with McCarron in particular doing an incredible job protecting the ball. Expect Alabama to win a squeaker, with neither team likely to score more than 20 points. Pick: Alabama