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COTTON BOWL :: FANCY MEETING YOU HERE
Ole Miss and Oklahoma State were expected at the beginning of the season to have at least a chance of playing each other in early January. You could even say SI called it. Of course, the magazine was naming each of the team's darkhorses to compete for the BCS National Championship and not contenders for a spot in the Cotton Bowl, but those are details.
Details that became clear pretty early on, when Houston defeated Oklahoma State on the second week of the season to all but end the other OSU's hopes of a national title while South Carolina vaporized Ole Miss' title dreams and Jevan Snead's Heisman campaign less than two weeks later in Columbia. Neither loss technically removed either from their conference races or made the BCS a pipe dream -- Oklahoma State would be in the running for the Fiesta Bowl until the last week -- but the talk of national titles ended.
Which was all but inevitable for both teams, as we later found out. Oklahoma State lost to both Texas and Oklahoma by 27 in their highest-profile Big XII games, while Ole Miss would add defeats by Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State(!) to the upset against the Gamecocks for a respectable record that was still not quite what Rebels fans were looking for in a "breakout season." So if the Cotton Bowl feels a bit like a consolation prize, it is. A storied and nice consolation prize, sure (your humble correspondent has never understood why the Dallas bowl isn't in the BCS), but not the target either team had its eyes on when the season started.
As for the contestants themselves, neither lived up to their billing as "explosive" or "dynamic" offenses. Sure, they had their moments, but both are pretty average nationally. Ole Miss' is significantly better statistically than Oklahoma State's, but neither are going down in the annals of college football history. The defenses are slightly better -- both in the top third of the NCAA -- which means this could be a very different game than SI or anyone else would have predicted back when the matchup was supposed to take place in Pasadena or New Orleans or Glendale.
And if defense is going to decide things, that's probably not the best news for Oklahoma State, which lost Perrish Cox for discplinary reasons over the protests of ineligible Dez Bryant. That said, offense should be a better picture for Mike Gundy's team, which gets Zac Robinson back. I'll go with the Rebels in a close one.
Ole Miss 27, Oklahoma State 24
PAPAJOHNS.COM BOWL :: IT'LL BE CLOSE
If there were ever two teams that could legitimately engage in a game of "coulda shoulda woulda," they are South Carolina and Connecticut. The Gamecocks, after all, came one play short of defeating Georgia and saw six feet make the difference between a first-down catch on a potentially game-winning drive against Florida and an interception that set up a Gator score essentially ending the contest. The difference between 7-5 and 9-3 feels like more than two games, doesn't it? As for the Huskies, they lost each of their five defeats by four or fewer points; 15 points made them 7-5 instead of 12-0.
But that's how they decide who's better in football -- wins and losses -- and so South Carolina and Connecticut will meet in lovely Birmingham for a bowl with all the tradition of Heroes. It's better than the alternative for two programs still trying to become consistent winners -- bowl practices can help a team more than playing in the game does. But no one is going to begin their recruiting pitch with, "Don't you want a chance to play in the Papajohns.com Bowl next year? Heck, with you helping us out, we might even get to Music City."
For all the close scores, though, there wasn't that much inconsistency in Connecticut's season. If an FBS team finished the year with seven or fewer wins, the Huskies defeated them; any more than that and Connecticut would end up losing. The Gamecocks' weren't quite so predictable, losing to and defeating seven-win teams and also winning against Ole Miss and Clemson, but as a general rule they won most of the easier games on the schedule and lost most of the more difficult ones.
It's hard to gauge this game, in part because of those close scores and in part because both teams saw in-season losing streaks during which neither looked impressive. Throw in the wild card of the emotional impact of Jasper Howard's death on Connecticut and you've got a recipe for a game that could go almost in any direction.
And while it seems a bit too superficial to look at West Virginia and Cincinnati's games Friday as a barometer of the strength of the Big East -- weighted as those games were with all manner of outside factors -- it's about as much as we have to go on before these two teams take the field. We can probably assume one thing: Neither is going to win this game by 20.
South Carolina 23, Connecticut 20
LIBERTY BOWL :: MORE THAN FOOTNOTES
Have you heard about East Carolina's season? No. Hmm. Well, what about Arkansas' campaign -- and the officiating controversy against Florida doesn't count. Really.
Both Arkansas and East Carolina had pretty good seasons largely overshadowed by the supposed giants in their leagues, even though East Carolina actually defeated Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game. (There go those details again.) In Arkansas' case, the game marks the return to the postseason after Bobby Petrino's first campaign ended with a 5-7 record. East Carolina went to this game last year and lost to Kentucky.
Meanwhile, the game has taken a bizarre twist of fate with the suspension of two East Carolina players for fighting over a dessert. You might think I'm making this up; I am not. Neither of the players is likely to make a huge difference in the outcome of the game, but you would think this worrisome for East Carolina nonetheless. The players will presumably eat before the game Saturday, and heaven forbid someone try to take Patrick Pinkney's slice of mince-meat pie, or there could be a new starting quarterback for ECU.
Arkansas' main issue is well-known and easily summed up: They don't play defense. This is only a slight exaggeration, with the Hogs giving up more than 400 yards a game in a league that is still -- how should we put this? -- developing its quarterbacks. As someone who has reluctantly come to the conclusion that Skip Holtz had a more advanced offensive scheme than Lou Holtz -- i.e., it was designed after the Nixon Administration -- I'll give the slight edge to East Carolina.
But while all of East Carolina's losses came to BCS teams going to bowls this year -- Arkansas is one of those, and unlike ECU has actually outgained its opponents on average. You might not remember this game, but Arkansas will win it.
Arkansas 43, East Carolina 37