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College Capper: Picking the Bowls

Greg Vara

Vara is the lead golf writer at RotoWire. He was named the 2013 FSWA Golf Writer of the Year. In addition to producing the weekly preview and the bulk of the draft kit content, Vara participates in Yahoo!'s "Experts Picks" where he routinely dominates. He also picks college football games against the spread in his "College Capper" article.

It's the most wonderful time of the year ... is it possible to hear that song without visions of Capital One Bowl Week popping into your head?

OK, maybe I'm a little obsessed with this time of year, but I don't care. I'm that guy, who doesn't want anything about the bowl season to change - with the possible exception of a small playoff at the end. As for the other bowls, the ones everyone makes fun of? Well, those are awesome too! Right?

I have to guess that since you are here, you feel the same, so rather than making you skim the next couple paragraphs, I'm going to get to the good stuff.

Reminder, this preview is set up chronologically, so it will look a little different that the weekly preview. Instead of grouping the games by category, I'll group by the date, but I'll still indicate what level of confidence I have in each pick.

Since the final bowl game is more than three weeks from the time I am writing this, things may change, such as suspensions and injuries. If anything major happens and I need to change my pick, I'll let you know via Twitter. Follow @gregvara.

Before we get started, a quick look back at a great season.

Cream of the Crop:
Best of the Rest: 35-26-0
PASSing Thoughts: 28-28-3

89-70-3 (55.9 percent)

2013-14 Bowl Season


New Mexico Bowl
Colorado State vs. Washington State
Albuquerque, N.M.

Motivation should be high in this game as both teams have been strangers to bowls in recent years. Neither team brings much of a defense, but both teams can move the ball. CSU does it primarily on the ground while WSU uses the air attack. Both offenses should have their way, and rust shouldn't be a factor as this game is early in the bowl season.

Total: Over 66 (Cream of the Crop)

Las Vegas Bowl

Fresno State vs. USC
Las Vegas

We all remember the debacle that was USC's bowl performance last year, and just in case you don't, take my word for it, it was legendary. I have to assume the Trojans aren't destined to repeat that performance this year. Fresno State handled most of its competition this season, but there's no debating that the Bulldogs are stepping up in class here. Really, all this game comes down to is whether USC is prepared. Considering there are a bunch of kids on the roster looking to impress their new coach, I'm guessing the Trojans will be ready to play in this spot.

Side: USC -7 (Best of the Rest)

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Buffalo vs. San Diego State
Boise, Idaho

Tough call here; both teams played well within their conferences this season, but SDSU plays in a slightly better conference - edge SDSU. Buffalo has a decent offensive attack, which is based on a solid running game, SDSU has a top-20 rushing defense - advantage SDSU. Rumors floated around as late as the final Sunday of the season that the Aztecs were going to be shut out of the bowl season. In other words, they are elated to be playing anywhere - advantage SDSU. Maybe this game isn't as hard as I'd thought.

Side: SDSU +1 (BR)

New Orleans Bowl

Tulane vs. LA-Lafayette
New Orleans

Both teams are excited to be in a bowl game, and although both are from the area, neither will have much of an advantage as the crowd is likely to be sparse. This game is truly a coin-flip, so I'm going to look at the total. Under normal circumstances, this number would look a bit too small, but considering that both teams may be without their starting QBs, the under in looking like the best play.

Total: Under 49 (PASSing Thought)


Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl

East Carolina vs. Ohio
St. Petersburg, Fla.

East Carolina was rolling along until the Pirates ran into Marshall at the end of November. Ohio was rolling along until it ran into a halfway decent team. The Bobcats made a mess of their schedule after midseason, and although they finished in style, the fact remains that they failed every test over the final month of the schedule. Yes, the Bobcats beat the same Marshall team that destroyed East Carolina, but that was early in the season when those two teams were very different.

Side: East Carolina -14 (BR)


Hawaii Bowl

Boise State vs. Oregon State

This isn't the same Boise State team we've become accustomed to the last decade, but the Broncos are still fairly formidable. Oregon State had visions of challenging for a Pac-12 title early in the season, but somewhere along the line, the Beavers imploded. They managed to come up big and give Oregon all it could handle during the "Civil War," but don't expect a similar effort here as motivation will be lacking after such a disappointing season.

Side: Boise State +3 (CC)


Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh

Motivation could be pivotal as the last place any team wants to end up during bowl season is Detroit. The MAC teams are used to playing in the city, but for anyone outside the conference, it has to be quite a letdown to end up there. If that weren't enough, Bowling Green is actually pretty good this season. Heck, the Falcons dismantled Northern Illinois in the MAC championship. And while that will likely be the high point of the season, there's always the mid-major little-brother complex at play.

Side: Bowling Green -5 (CC)

Poinsettia Bowl

Northern Illinois vs. Utah State
San Diego

Interestingly, NIU gets crushed in the MAC championship, which sends Bowling Green to Detroit while NIU gets a trip to San Diego. I think NIU got the better end of that deal. As for this game, NIU is undoubtedly looking for respect, as the Huskies have dropped their two most recent statement games, the MAC championship this year and their BCS bowl game last year. Motivation will not be a problem for Utah State either, as the Aggies have been trying to prove to the nation that they are more than just all-everything QB Chuckie Keeton. The Aggies have played exceptionally well since losing their star QB, and they nearly pulled off a big upset over Fresno State in the MWC Championship game. The difference in this game will be Utah State's rushing defense, which allows less than three yards per carry. Considering NIU's offense is geared entirely around Jordan Lynch's ability to run the ball, this game could end up looking a lot like the MAC championship.

Side: Utah State +1 (CC)


Military Bowl

Marshall vs. Maryland
Annapolis, Mary.

Marshall looked pretty good toward season's end, and Maryland did not, but this is a case where we have to remember the conferences in which these teams play. While there isn't necessarily a huge difference between the ACC and C-USA, there is still some separation. That comes in handy this time of year as it looks like Marshall has more talent because of a big-name QB, but as we saw in the game against Rice, Marshall has plenty of holes - especially on defense.

Side: Maryland +2.5 (PT)

Texas Bowl

Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Syracuse finished the season 6-6, 4-4. That conference is the ACC, which, already discussed, is not that good. The Orange have a lot of problems, but most notably, they can't score. Minnesota has a solid defense and should have no problem shutting them down. While the Gophers have their own issues on offense, they won't need many points to cover this number. The under also looks like a good play as well.

Side: Minnesota -4 (CC)

Fight Hunger Bowl

BYU vs. Washington
San Francisco

Interesting matchup as both teams looked really good in spots this season, but neither could keep up the pace in the end. Washington has more talent; it's just a matter of motivation. Considering that the Huskies will be auditioning for new coach Chris Peterson, expect a good effort.

Side: Washington -3 (BR)


Pinstripe Bowl

Notre Dame vs. Rutgers
New York

Let me start by clarifying something - Rutgers is playing in a bowl game. Let that sink in for a moment. The team that went 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference and lost to Connecticut is playing in a bowl. Notre Dame is by no means a power house, and the line is awfully large, but as long as the Fighting Irish show up, they'll cover with ease.

Side: Notre Dame -15 (BR)

Belk Bowl

Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
Charlotte, N.C.

There are a handful of teams that are impossible to peg each bowl season. Fortunately, we have two in the same game. Instead of having trouble with two games, I'll just have to struggle with one game. I'm giving a slight edge to North Carolina because the Tar Heels finished the season well. The location of the game could make a difference as well, but will North Carolina bring enough fans to actually make a difference?

Side: North Carolina -3 (PT)

Russell Athletic Bowl

Louisville vs. Miami
Orlando, Fla.

Miami's season seemed to end the night it lost to FSU. Since that game, the ‘Canes have looked like a middle-of-the-road ACC team, which isn't good news come bowl season. Louisville hasn't looked much better as the Cardinals struggled far too often this season against poor competition. That being said, Louisville came up huge in its bowl game last year and if the Cardinals can flip the switch again this year, they should win this game.

Side: Louisville -3.5 (BR)

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Kansas State vs. Michigan
Tempe, Ariz.

KSU played above its head this year, and Michigan played well below expectations. This game could well come down to which Michigan team shows up. If we get the version that nearly beat Ohio State, then that team should win. But if we get the version that played the second half of the season, then KSU will win. I'm worried that a slow start by the Wolverines will lead to Michigan players checking out in this game. Even at their best, the Wolverines defense is poor, so whatever the case, there should be plenty of points.

Total: Over 55.5 (CC)


Armed Forces Bowl

Middle Tennessee vs. Navy
Fort Worth, Texas

I don't know a lot about Middle Tennessee, but one look at its wins this season and I'm left wondering how good this team is. I don't see one decent win on the entire schedule. Navy can't boast a much better resume, but we know what we are getting with Navy. I decided to make my call on this game based on MTSU's rush defense, which ranks 85th in YPG this season. That's simply not good enough in this spot.

Side: Navy -6

Music City Bowl

Georgia Tech vs. Ole Miss

Another matchup that's tough to get a read on, but I will say that I properly pegged Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Again in this matchup, a lot will depend on how well the Rebels defend the run. They rank 53rd, which is pretty good. That, and the extra time to prepare for the unique Yellow Jackets offense, and we're looking at a Rebel win.

Side: Mississippi -3 (PT)

Alamo Bowl

Oregon vs. Texas
San Antonio, Texas

So what can we expect from Oregon in this game? National title dreams were extinguished a while back, and Pac-12 title dreams were put out weeks later. The Ducks also looked mortal in their battle against Oregon State to close the season. On a positive note, Marcus Mariota is returning next year, and that could make all the difference in this game. Instead of this game being the end of a disappointing season, it could be the start of next season. Texas, on the other hand, will close out the Mack Brown era, which is bound to help its cause as the players will be pumped. It might not matter, though, if the real Oregon shows up. The game is in Texas, which helps the Longhorns, but it's also indoors on turf, and we know who that helps.

Side: Oregon -13.5 (BR)

Holiday Bowl

Arizona State vs. Texas Tech
San Diego

ASU got better as the season wore on, and Texas Tech got worse. Texas Tech actually finished below .500 in conference, while ASU was 8-1 in what was a strong Pac-12 this year. ASU has the talent in the right spots to not only win this game, but win it handily. That said, the line is just a bit too high for my liking, which is why it's listed at a "Passing Thought" play.

Side: ASU -14 (PT)

AdvoCare V100 Bowl

Arizona vs. Boston College
Shreveport, La.

We know BC can run the ball, and we know Arizona has trouble stopping just about everyone. Arizona, though, has a pretty potent offensive attack, and BC has struggled on defense all year. Arizona is laying more than a touchdown, and that seems a bit too much. But I can't take a one-dimensional BC team, so I'm going to look at the total. The number is reasonable, and the only reason it won't go over is if Arizona somehow figures out a way to slow BC's rushing attack.

Total: Over 57 (BR)


Sun Bowl
UCLA vs. Virginia Tech
El Paso, Texas

If you've watched Virginia Tech this season, you know the Hokies can be absolutely maddening. They've got the tools, but for some reason or another, they always mess it up. The defense has done its part this season, but the offense has struggled at key times. UCLA is a well-rounded team, and as long as the Bruins don't turn the ball over, like the Hokies are bound to, they'll come out on top.

Side: UCLA -7 (PT)

Liberty Bowl

Mississippi State vs. Rice

Both teams are happy to be here. Rice is coming off a nice win over Marshall in the C-USA championship, and Mississippi State scored a dramatic win over rival Ole Miss to become bowl eligible. Rice is legit, the Owls are the best team in their conference, but is that good enough to beat the last bowl eligible team from the SEC? I'm not sure they'll win, but getting seven points sure is nice. I'll take my chances with the team from the lesser conference that knows how to win.

Side: Rice +7 (BR)

Chick-fil-A Bowl
Duke vs. Texas A&M

There's clearly a motivational edge in this game as I'm sure Texas A&M thought it would be elsewhere when the season started. Duke, on the other hand, probably had no idea that it would end up in a bowl game against one of the better teams from the SEC. I've backed Duke on a few occasions this year and I like what the Blue Devils have done, but I think they're in trouble here. I just don't see the Blue Devils stopping Johnny Manziel. As such, the over is also a good play, as A&M's defense still has issues.

Side: Texas A&M -12.5 (BR)
Total: Over 74.5 (CC)


Gator Bowl

Georgia vs. Nebraska
Jacksonville, Fla.

Oh boy, this looks like a good one. Jeez, what were the folks in charge of this bowl thinking? Georgia is without its star QB and Nebraska is, well, not exactly the draw it used to be. Nevertheless, we have a game to play, and I think you know where I'm heading. Georgia took about three quarters to adjust to life without Aaron Murray, but after the Bulldogs figured things out, they were pretty tough to stop on offense. The defense still has issues, but I'm not sure Nebraska can take advantage. If Georgia shows up for this one mentally, the Bulldogs should route the Huskers.

Side: Georgia -9 (CC)

Heart of Dallas Bowl
North Texas vs. UNLV

This is a coin flip. Both teams are happy to be bowling, but neither has much on the resume. North Texas will be near home, which could help. The Mean Green have also won six of their last seven. I don't see any clear advantage, though, which means 6.5 points seems like too much.

Side: UNLV +6.5 (PT)

Capital One Bowl

South Carolina vs. Wisconsin

This one is set up perfectly. Wisconsin is coming off a crushing loss, but the Badgers are usually well prepared for bowl games. As for South Carolina, I can't put my finger on it, but I've not been terribly impressed with the Gamecocks this year. Maybe it was the gift they received at Missouri or that they barely got by a brutal Florida team, but something just bugs me about them.

Side: Wisconsin -1.5 (CC)

Outback Bowl

Iowa vs. LSU

Yet another Big Ten team that shouldn't be playing on Jan. 1, but that's what happens when you run out of good teams in a top conference. Iowa had a decent season, but you expect higher quality teams to be suiting up on New Year's Day. LSU is not the powerhouse that it's been for much of the past decade, but it's still much stronger than a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. Zach Mettenberger is out, and that will hurt, but the Tigers have a month to prepare without him - they'll be fine.

Side: LSU -7 (CC)

Rose Bowl

Michigan State vs. Stanford
Pasadena, Calif.

Michigan State surprised many in the Big Ten championship, including me. The question that has to be asked, though, is just how good is Ohio State? However you answer that question will determine which way you go here. I am of the opinion that the Big Ten was pretty bad this year and as such, even the best from that conference are no match for the top teams from the Pac-12 or SEC. In case you were wondering, Stanford is from the Pac-12. The Cardinal slipped up in a couple of questionable spots this year, but that won't happen again.

Side: Stanford -4.5 (BR)

Fiesta Bowl

Baylor vs. UCF
Glendale, Ariz.

I was excited to see this matchup when the BCS games were announced because I wanted a quality team to face UCF. Don't get me wrong, UCF's had a solid season, but I didn't like the way the Knights played down the stretch. In three of its final four games, UCF's margin of victory was three points. The competition was Temple, South Florida and SMU. Baylor enters this game with something to prove as the nation pretty much wrote the Bears off as frauds after they lost to Oklahoma State. Look for the Bears to have some fun in this game and put UCF back in its place.

Side: Baylor -16.5 (BR)


Sugar Bowl

Alabama vs. Oklahoma
New Orleans

A lot of big lines this year, and while some may not be justified, I think this one is. Contrary to popular opinion, I think Alabama is still one of the two best teams in the country. The Tide can flex their muscle here or they can come out flat. Considering they did just that against Utah a few years back, I don't see them coming in ill-prepared again. Oklahoma shouldn't be in a BCS bowl game this season, but again, there just weren't enough high-quality teams from which to choose. Roll Tide.

Side: Alabama -15 (CC)


Cotton Bowl

Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
Arlington, Texas

This should be one of the better BCS games this year. Both teams finished on a sour note, but both have a lot to be proud of this season. While Missouri looked hideous on defense in the SEC championship, the Tigers do actually have a formidable front. OSU should have handled Oklahoma at home to season's end, but for whatever reason, it didn't work out. OSU is also a well-rounded team, and the Cowboys will be highly-motivated to get the bitter taste of the Sooner defeat out of their mouths. In the end, I think Missouri has a bit more on each side of the ball, and the Tigers will come out on top.

Side: Missouri -1 (BR)

Orange Bowl
Clemson vs. Ohio State

These two teams had high aspirations this year, and while Clemson's dreams were crushed a couple months ago, Ohio State waited until the last minute to exit the national championship discussion. This should be one of the more exciting BCS games this year, but not because there is quality on all sides of the ball, but because it could be an incredible shootout if everyone shows up. Ohio State simply can't stop anybody, and Clemson is better than just about anyone the Buckeyes faced this year. Clemson has been all over the map on defense this year, and the Tigers certainly aren't equipped to stop Braxton Miller.

Total: Over 67 (CC)


Compass Bowl
Houston vs. Vanderbilt
Birmingham, Ala.

When in doubt, take the SEC team? I don't usually go strictly on conference affiliation, but when you have two conferences that are so far apart, I think it's wise to take the team from the dominant conference. Vanderbilt is no slouch. The Commodores have played well this season and should be able to stop the gimmick offense that Houston runs.

Side: Vanderbilt -2.5 (BR)


GoDaddy Bowl

rkansas State vs. Ball State
Mobile, Ala.

I like what I've seen from Ball State this season, and the Cardinals might be the best team from a decent MAC conference this year. Arkansas State, on the other hand, hasn't accomplished much outside beating up on some Sun Belt teams this year. It's not a Cream of the Crop game, though, because the line is so high.

Side: Ball State -9 (PT)


BCS National Championship Game

Florida State vs. Auburn
Pasadena, Calif.

And here we go, the meeting we wanted all year. Ah, the meeting some people wanted after the Iron Bowl, but the rest of us only wanted after it was apparent that Ohio State wasn't as good as advertised. Yes, that game is finally here. If you've followed me at all over the years, you know I don't put much stock into teams that can't play defense, and ladies and gentlemen, Auburn cannot play defense. The Tigers were shredded by Missouri in the SEC championship, and if they think it's going to get any easier in this game, they are mistaken. The question is whether FSU slow Auburn's rushing attack. Given time to prepare, I think they'll slow it enough, and I still haven't seen enough from Auburn through the air to make me think the Tigers can keep Florida State honest on defense. It's a lot of points here, but this is for all the marbles, and teams just don't let up in situations like this. I expect FSU to hold a small lead entering the half, then to pull away in the third and hang on for a double-digit victory.

Side: FSU -8.5 (BR)