Five Bowl Games Saturday

Bowl Week hits its apex on Saturday, with five games. The Notebook offers a look at all five…

Texas A&M-Northwestern (Noon ET, ESPN):  The Aggies have endured close loss after close loss, turning a season with BCS hopes into a 6-6 campaign that got Mike Sherman fired. The reason was poor pass defense and quarterback Ryan Tannehill turning interception-prone in the losses. In the six defeats—all to quality Big 12 opposition—the quarterback threw 12 picks. In the three notable wins, including Baylor, he only threw one. A corollary to his interception tendencies is that when A&M runs the ball well, the picks go down. I would expect a lot of points to be flying today, because Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa and wide receiver Jeremy Ebert should have a field day against a porous Aggie secondary. A&M is without running back Christine Michael, but another back, Cyrus Gray, looks ready to go after enduring some shoulder problems in November. There’s no dropoff from one to another, so A&M will get their running game, reduce mistakes and move the ball. It’s coming down to the wire with both teams in the 40s, and the lean here is to Northwestern. If there’s one thing Texas A&M has mastered this year, it’s the art of dropping heartbreakers.

Georgia Tech-Utah (2 PM ET, CBS): There’s been clear pattern that emerged for Utah this season. When they win the battle of running games consistently they win (see BYU, Pitt, UCLA). When they’re beaten on the ground they lose (USC, Washington, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado). Therefore it’s difficult to fathom a worse bowl matchup then a program that runs the triple option. On the positive side for the Utes, this isn’t a dominant Georgia Tech running game. The numbers to keep an eye on are 100 and 300. Quarterback Tevin Washington might not pass a lot, but he needs to clear 100 yards. And with a team like Georgia Tech, they aren’t really running the ball well unless they break the 300-yard barrier. Regardless of what Washington does in the air, if Utah can hold Tech below that figure I believe they’ll win. Will they do it? Well, I don’t believe that. A team that loses at home to Colorado and blows a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game doesn’t inspire confidence.

Illinois-UCLA (3:30 ET, ESPN): is this the ugliest bowl matchup of all time? The teams have a combined record of 12-13. Both head coaches got fired. And if you want to dredge up memories of great matchups in the past you have to look to their game in the 1983 Rose Bowl when UCLA won 45-9, with Rick Neuheisel at quarterback. If they just brought the school’s basketball teams in and had them play a game in their stead, I can’t imagine anyone would complain. But they will play football, and the key will be whether the Bruin running game with Jonathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman can get it going. The teams that beat Illinois this year were able to run the ball, and I like UCLA’s chances of getting it done. A player to watch on the outside is Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins. The Illini aren’t a great passing team overall, but Jenkins is the one who does make plays, and while I lean UCLA to win this one, Jenkins is the X-factor who would turn it the other way.

Cincinnati-Vanderbilt (3:30 ET, ABC): This is a very underrated game on the card, and in fact the best game of the day. Cincy went 9-3 and would have won the Big East had Zach Collaros not been injured. The quarterback has been green-lighted for today, and along with running back Isaiah Pead, the Bearcats offensive attack is back at full go. But Vanderbilt has a very solid secondary under first-year coach James Franklin and they run the ball very well behind Zac Stacy. Both teams had one common opponent in Tennessee—Cincy lost big, while Vandy went to overtime. That sounds like the SEC factor at work to me, and why I’m picking Vanderbilt to win a good one.

Virginia-Auburn (7:30 ET, ESPN): Whether it’s called the Chick-fil-A-Bowl or the Peach Bowl, this Atlanta-based game has been the New Year’s Eve recreation of choice for those of us who gave up partying on amateur’s night. Mike London brings his Cinderella Cavs into the Georgia Dome tonight to face an Auburn team that has suspended running back Michael Ryder. While I think the Tiger program is deep enough to say “next man up” and still put together a running game, Ryder does offer a game-breaking quality that’s not easy for anyone to match. It’s a break for Virginia, who plays tough defense, but is missing game breakers offensively. The Cavs need to run the ball with Perry Jones and Kevin Parks and avoid putting too much pressure on quarterback Michael Rocco. I can see UVA winning this game—get the running game going, get a couple big pass plays to Kris Hurd and then play good defense. But that whole SEC-ACC thing is just looming too large. Gotta go with the Tigers.