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New Year's Eve bowl rundown

Looking ahead to all of Saturday's action. Dave Miller

Print This December 31, 2011, 05:30 AM EST

Liberty: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6) at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC

The Bearcats bounced back from Butch Jones’ 4-8 debut season, winning seven of their first eight games to start the year. And the turnaround was surprisingly in large part because of their defense. They were solid against the run and were able to generate pressure on the quarterback with 44 sacks and 106.5 tackles for loss. However, the ankle injury to quarterback Zach Collaros took away the team’s leader, and Cincy lost to West Virginia and Rutgers, prompting it to lose control of its grasp on the Big East. Of course, the team still shared the league title, but it had to settle for a spot against a 6-6 Vanderbilt squad that exceeded expectations in James Franklin’s first season.

Jordan RodgersICONJordan Rodgers and the Commodores are headed to just their fifth bowl game in program history.

The Commodores are headed to just their fifth bowl game in program history, and they made it to the postseason because of their veteran defense, a unit that intercepted 17 passes — tied for second in the SEC — and the development of quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who took over the starting job around midseason. He was aided by junior running back Zac Stacy setting a school record with 1,136 rushing yards behind a cohesive offensive line. And sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews emerged as one of the best offensive players in the SEC. Vandy made a statement in its last game of the regular season, beating bowl-bound Wake Forest 41-7. And keep in mind the Commodores took Tennessee to overtime and lost close games to Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. Containing Bearcats running back Isaiah Pead will be key in this contest, as he recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Keep an eye on: Turnover margin. Last season, Cincy was last in the Big East at minus-15 in turnover margin. This year, the Bearcats led the Big East at plus-11. Collaros is expected to play because his recovery is ahead of schedule, but he likely will be a game-time decision. If Collaros is unable to play, sophomore Munchie Legaux will get the nod. In the final four games, he threw for 688 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. He is talented, but Collaros gives Cincy the best chance to win and to avoid costly turnovers.

Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7) at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

Both head coaches have been fired. Player suspensions and disgruntled coaches followed. Yes, this matchup between two teams with a combined record of 12-13 became even uglier since the game was announced. But the Illini want to be here, and a big part of that is because of defensive coordinator/interim head coach Vic Koenning, who will leave for North Carolina after the game to run new Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora’s defense. They’ll have to compete without leading rusher Jason Ford, however, as he’ll miss the game because of academics. Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young will pick up the slack, though, and Illinois still has a stout defense to rely on, anchored by end Whitney Mercilus and linebacker Jonathan Brown. The Illini rank seventh nationally in total defense, and Mercilus led the country in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9) while Brown finished second in tackles for loss (19).

The Bruins, meanwhile, enter the game with at least five players out because of recent injuries or suspensions as well as the fact that Kevin Prince continues to provide uneven play at the quarterback position. Worse yet, Mercilus will likely be matched up at times against junior tackle Brett Downey, a former walk-on making his first career start. Sophomore guard Alberto Cid will also miss the game because he's academically ineligible, while Chris Ward and Wade Yandall are out with injuries.

Keep an eye on: UCLA’s special teams. The Bruins have a very good punter in Jeff Locke, who placed 41 percent of his kicks inside the 20-yard line. But what about at kicker? The Bruins lost two players to injury at the position and saw that Locke wasn’t the answer, so the team promoted Tyler Gonzalez, who was a student manager on the soccer team. Seriously. He went 7-of-10 on field-goal attempts, but can he continue his success against the Illini?

Chick-fil-A: Auburn (7-5) vs. Virginia (8-4) at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

The Tigers have certainly had a tumultuous period between the regular season and their bowl game, losing both coordinators as well as leading rusher Mike Dyer, who is suspended for disciplinary reasons. The offensive line really struggled with its inexperience this fall, and none of the three quarterbacks given a chance to run with the job took advantage of the opportunity.

Onterio McCalebbICONOnterio McCalebb will be leaned on with Mike Dyer being out due to suspension.

In the Tigers’ final four SEC games, they averaged less than 20 points per contest and only found the end zone twice. Granted, it was against the top-notch defenses of LSU, Georgia and Alabama. But it was a struggle throughout conference play. They ended the season ranked ninth in the SEC in scoring and 10th in total offense, so it’s tough to imagine Auburn having much success with junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason trying to pick up the slack in the absence of Dyer, especially against a Cavaliers unit that ranks 33rd nationally in rushing defense. If they can get solid production, though, the pressure will be alleviated a bit for quarterback Clint Moseley. But look for athletic quarterback Kiehl Frazier to get a healthy amount of snaps.

Defensively, the youthful Tigers endured a lot of growing pains implementing so many new starters. They are athletic, however, and they match up well with the Cavaliers. Sophomore end Corey Lemonier is a star to build around after finishing second in the league in sacks with 9.5. They will have to be patient against a Cavaliers offense that is balanced.

ACC coach of the year Mike London, whose contract was extended, took the Cavaliers back to a bowl game a year after a 4-8 debut campaign. They were a win away from the ACC Coastal division crown after winning four straight heading into their loss to Virginia Tech in the regular season finale, and they played well in close contests all season. Their veteran front seven is the strength of the defense, and they’ll make it difficult for Auburn to move the football — especially if the Tigers become one-dimensional. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco can’t win a game by himself for the Cavs, but he could lose it if he isn’t careful with the football. That’s why the Hoos have relied on junior Perry Jones and freshman Kevin Parks to pace a productive rushing attack.

Keep an eye on: Special teams. Auburn led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.3), and Mason ranked 19th nationally in that category. The Tigers also ranked 19th in net punting at 39 yards per attempt. The Tigers’ special teams advantage could come into play in a close game.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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