New Year's Day Bowl preview

There’s really no introduction needed here. January 1, New Year’s Day, college football.

Enough said. Let’s take a look at what’s on the schedule, from the good games to the best matchups on the card.

TicketCity Bowl: Northwestern (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) vs. Texas Tech (7-5, 3-5 Big 12)

Pat FitzgeraldICONPat Fitzgerald hopes to give NU its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

No Dan Persa is a big problem for NU: I had the privilege of seeing more than half of Dan Persa’s starts this season, and I would argue that he was the best quarterback and most valuable player in the Big Ten. But the quarterback will be sidelined until next season, so life goes on for NU with Evan Watkins under center. The redshirt freshman struggled mightily in his two starts at the end of the regular season, but he has had five weeks to prepare for this game. While he obviously has to take better care of the football and find his top playmakers — Sidney Stewart, Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore — underneath in the spread offense, the Wildcats lost their best rusher with Persa being sidelined. That was the real “X-factor” that he provided. The Red Raiders don’t have an imposing defense and they’ll be without coordinator James Willis, so Watkins should be able to move the ball. And if he doesn’t, head coach Pat Fitzgerald will look to true freshman Kain Colter to do so.

The Red Raiders want to…run the ball?: Well, first-year head coach Tommy Tuberville indeed wants his team to run the football more — and more effectively — in 2011. But for now, expect quarterback Taylor Potts to try to move the ball downfield through the air. The signal caller completed over 65 percent of his throws and finished the regular season with 3,357 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to helping the Red Raiders average 32.1 points per game. Sixteen different players caught at least one pass this season, but Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong are the main weapons. Lewis finished the season with a team-best 79 receptions, while Leong earned All-Big 12 second team honors after catching an incredible 17 touchdowns.

Texas Tech has actually been successful running the ball with Baron Batch lead the way. The team averaged 137.8 yards per game as Batch recorded 805 yards and five touchdowns. But their 408 carries were the fewest in the Big 12, and their 1,654 rushing yards were only 39 more yards than last-place Kansas. That will change in 2011 — but not in this game.

NU has struggled to consistently tackle in their back seven, and it started to become a real problem starting in the second half of the Penn State loss. That was an issue worked heavily on in bowl prep. Because of the way Texas Tech operates offensively, tackling in space is crucial. The Wildcats won’t be able to win a shootout, so it’ll be up to the defense to keep them in this contest and give them a chance to win their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Gator: Michigan (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) vs. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4)

Denard RobinsonICONA healthy Denard Robinson will give the Mississippi State defense fits in the Gator Bowl.

“Shoelace” vs. Manny Diaz: About the only benefit of having played against Cam Newton this season is that it provided Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz with one of the toughest challenges of his career. Thus, facing Michigan’s Denard Robinson, although perhaps equally as difficult a task, at least won’t surprise the coordinator and his Bulldogs defense. After nearly a month of rest, Robinson is healthy and is poised to return to the early-season form that landed him atop of the Heisman Watch. However, he will go up against a defense that held Newton to his lowest total offense output this season — 206 yards.

In their three-point loss on Sept. 9, the Bulldogs held Auburn to a season-low 17 points. Pernell McPhee proclaimed Newton as the best player he’s ever seen play college football. “So if we can stop him we can stop anybody,” the defensive end said.

The Bulldogs have faced the spread offense against Auburn, UAB, Florida and Houston this season. And while those teams run variations of the attack, the Bulldogs won’t be heading into this matchup unprepared against a guy who legitimately was most responsible for the Wolverines winning seven games this season. Robinson broke the single-season FBS mark for quarterback rushing yards (1,643) and became the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 pass yards and 1,500 rush yards in a season. Of course, his numbers declined as the competition level increased. But his maturity as a passer was amazing nonetheless, and his declining health didn’t help matters against good teams.

Can the Wolverines make any stops on defense?: Defensively, the Wolverines did everything they could to give games away. Coordinator Greg Robinson absorbed much of the blame, but Michigan is still rebuilding its roster on that side of the ball. Excuses aside, it’s a unit that should have played better. They’ll face an offense that loves to run out of its spread with quarterback Chris Relf and running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins. The big question coming into the season was who would replace Anthony Dixon in the backfield. Certainly, Ballard caught everyone by surprise in tying the school record for rushing touchdowns in a season (16). With the Wolverines ranked No. 94 in the nation in rushing defense, having allowed 17 runs of 20 yards or more this season, it could be a long day for Robinson’s unit.

Is this the last time we’ll see Rich Rodriguez roaming the Michigan sideline? It’s absurd that David Brandon would make that decision based on one game, so you have to think that the only way Rich-Rod goes is if the hottest commodity on the market — and former Wolverine — decided that he wants to make Ann Arbor his next destination.

Fiesta: Oklahoma (11-2, 6-2) vs. Connecticut (8-4, 5-2 Big East)

A new leader on offense: With Kevin Wilson set to take over as Indiana’s head coach, quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel will call the plays for Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Heupel, who was named co-coordinator with receivers coach Jay Norvell, will call plays from upstairs with Wilson sitting next to him. The former Sooners quarterback has maintained that the offense wouldn’t change — which is a good thing considering that unit has been the strength of the team under head coach Bob Stoops.

Landry JonesICONLandry Jones will be going up against a defense that is fifth in the nation in interceptions.

OU will look to have balance against UConn, mixing in power runs with various screens while always being able to rely on Landry Jones under center. The sophomore has thrown for nearly 4,300 yards on the season, adding 35 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. With a healthy DeMarco Murray and a receiver in Ryan Broyles who put up astronomical numbers this season — 118 catches for 1,452 yards and 13 scores — Connecticut’s stingy defense will be tested.

The heavy underdog: When Jones has struggled, particularly against Texas A&M and Missouri, the Sooners have faltered. The OU signal caller is still prone to throwing crucial interceptions, and UConn is fifth in the nation with 19 picks. The Huskies’ defensive front is an active group, and their linebacker corps is one of the best in the Big East. The biggest problem UConn will have is dealing with OU’s rhythm and fast tempo once the offense gets moving. Murray sometimes takes awhile to get going on the ground, often finding his rhythm out of the backfield in the passing game. Top backup Roy Finch will miss the game due to injury, so the Huskies will look to slow down Murray and force Jones into third-and-long situations.

Besides slowing down one of the best offense in the nation, UConn will need to rely on a heavy dose of Jordan Todman, who is the nation’s second-leading rusher with 1,574 yards. Oklahoma hasn’t been great against the run this year, giving up 151.8 yards per game to rank 63rd in the nation. They’ve surrendered 42 plays of over 15 yards on the ground, and only four teams in the nation have yielded more.

For all of the talk about UConn not belonging in the Fiesta Bowl, Randy Edsall’s squad merely did what it’s supposed to do: win a BCS conference and automatically qualify for a big payday. This is a tough bunch, fighting back from a 3-4 start to run off five straight wins and earn this opportunity. We’ve seen OU stumble in the Fiesta Bowl before to a heavy underdog? Can Edsall, one of the best coaches in the land, send Bon Stoops home from Glendale disappointed one more time?

Outback: Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) vs. Florida (7-5, 4-4 SEC)

The legend is walking away. And it’s not Joe Pa: For the second time in a year, Urban Meyer resigned from Florida. But this time, it’s for good. With Will Muschamp as the new leader of the Gators, Meyer will be coaching his last game at Florida. Meanwhile, the 84-year-old Paterno has had to deal with questions about his health and future — once again. But this time, it feels different. If I had to guess, Joe Pa will be back in 2011. But beyond? It’s hard to envision it. Both coaches have great postseason track records, as Meyer is 6-1 during his stints at Utah and Florida, including four BCS victories, while Paterno has a record 24 postseason wins.

The battle of sluggish offenses: As we saw on an almost weekly basis, these teams struggled to score points in 2010. Penn State must be able to establish a rushing attack with Evan Royster and Silas Redd against the Gators’ front line. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line played better late in the season, so All-Big Ten guard Stefen Wisniewski must lead the way. If quarterback Matt McGloin is put in third-and-manageable situations, like most signal callers he will be much more effective.

Meanwhile, before the Gators shift to a more pro-style attack, we will see more of the three-headed monster of John Brantley, Trey Burton and Jordan Reed — who collectively give the offense different looks. If Brantley gets into a rhythm, it will likely be because Penn State couldn’t generate any semblance of a pass rush. The Nittany Lions ranked ninth in the Big Ten in sacks with 16, so Brantley could excel if given time. The Gators also will have a healthy Jeff Demps, so that will help.

Urban MeyerICONUrban Meyer will be coaching his last game at Florida against the legendary Joe Paterno.

Florida certainly wants to forget about its 31-7 loss to Florida State in the regular-season finale, and perhaps the team will be excited to send Meyer out a winner and get ready for the new regime. But the Gators ranked last in the SEC in red zone offense, scoring on just 69.8 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Will this trend continue? Well, it will help that Penn State ranked last in the Big Ten in red zone defense, allowing scores on 30 of 32 opportunities. It’s hard to go against Paterno in a bowl game, especially after LSU fell victim to Penn State last postseason. But I like the vibe coming out of Gainesville, and I’m not sure McGloin and Royster can produce enough offense against the defense, even with Janoris Jenkins on the sideline.

Capital One: Alabama (9-3, 5-3 SEC) vs. Michigan State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten)

Will the Tide be motivated?: A lot of discussion has centered on how focused Alabama will be after suffering three losses and being shut out of the BCS party following its crushing loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Some have argued that the team will overlook the Spartans, as last year’s national champions are unable to defend their title. But this feels like a bad spot for the Spartans, and as good of a season as they have had I can’t help but think back to the debacle in Iowa City when they were crushed by Iowa. Head coach Mark Dantonio certainly has had a memorable season, dealing with a health issue off the field and making two of the gutsiest calls of the season with the “Little Giants” play against Notre Dame and “Mousetrap” trick against Northwestern. Like its coach, MSU overcame a lot of adversity this season, so they should give the Tide a great effort. But I have a sneaky suspicion that ‘Bama head coach Nick Saban wants this game. Real bad.

Which offense is more balanced?: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins is very good in the play-action game — and he’ll meet his match in Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. The Spartans will look to establish the run with Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, and then Cousins will take his shots down the field. MSU’s rushing attack tapered off as the season neared its end, but it seemed to find its groove again in the regular-season finale against Penn State. It will be essential to stay balanced, though, against this Tide defense, which is still very good despite not being quite in 2009 form.

Meanwhile, Alabama does such a great job mixing in running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson both on the ground and in the screen game. Ingram will also take snaps out of the Wildcat. Once the ground game is established, McElroy is so great at play-action, and Julio Jones and Marquis Maze are often on the receiving end. The Tide’s veteran offensive playmakers will certainly be a real test for Greg Jones, Eric Gordon and the Spartans defenders.

Rose: Wisconsin (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) vs. TCU (12-0, 8-0 MWC)

Jeremy KerleyICONJeremy Kerley could be the X-factor against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

The nation’s other unbeaten team, TCU, takes center stage in The Granddaddy of Them All — the Rose Bowl. It would have been great to see the Horned Frogs get a shot at either Auburn or Oregon, but Wisconsin may be the best one-loss team in the nation. And the Badgers boast a balanced offense that will pose problems for Gary Patterson’s bunch.

As great as the Badgers have been on the ground, quarterback Scott Tolzien made huge strides under center in 2010. He led the nation with a 74.3 completion percentage and ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency rating. And his play-action game was perhaps second only to Alabama’s Greg McElroy.

As good as Tolzien has been, TCU is talented enough defensively to contain Wisconsin’s balanced offense — only if it isn’t worn down first by the three-headed rushing attack of the Badgers. Tolzien played well in the team's biggest games, but the Horned Frogs can give you some funky looks on defense. If TCU can win on first down, that puts the defense in an even more advantageous position.

Keep an eye on special-tea ms play. The Horned Frogs have a dynamic return man in Jeremy Kerley. In a close game, one big return could be the difference.

Wisconsin seeks its fourth consecutive victory in the Rose Bowl after capturing titles in 1994, 1999 and 2000.

For more on all of the day's games, check out the latest On the Quad podcast.

Email or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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