By Adam Hoge–

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… sort of.

I will never be a full supporter of the bowl system, at least not until there is some sort of playoff mixed in with the bowls. The players love bowl games, mainly because they get a week-long vacation and a really nice bowl gift (these range from watches to iPods to digital cameras), but I contend those gifts are merely just a bribe to keep the players from calling for a playoff themselves.

But once again here we are, 35 bowl games are on tap starting Dec. 18 with the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. From there we’ll be able to watch a number of exciting games including the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl, the Little Ceasar’s Pizza Bowl, and the Bowl. All three will feature half-empty stadiums with all six participating schools losing money while the bowl executives make six-figures off a meaningless game played on just one of 365 days a year.

Luckily, not all bowl games are like that. Most of the eight Big Ten schools headed to bowl games will see packed houses and good competition. Let’s break it down:

Insight Bowl
Iowa (7-5) vs. No. 12 Missouri (10-2) – Dec. 28, 9 p.m.

It was a very disappointing end to a disappointing regular season for the Hawkeyes, but if they haven’t given up, this should be a great game. Mizzou’s season peaked when they upset No. 1 Oklahoma at home Oct. 23. But that was also the day Iowa’s season took a turn for the worst. The Hawkeyes suffered a crushing 31-30 loss in the final minute to Wisconsin. It would be the first of four losses in their final six games. Now on a three-game losing streak and headed to a bowl in Tempe that usually doesn’t have a big crowd, the likelihood is that Iowa doesn’t show up with enough intensity to beat a good Missouri team.

Early pick: Missouri

Texas Bowl

Illinois (6-6) vs. Baylor (7-5) – Dec. 29, 5 p.m.

This is a matchup of two of the most surprising teams in college football… well, at least they were in October. After getting off to a 5-3 start, Illinois lost three of their last four games, including last Friday’s tough loss at Fresno State, which is no easy place to play. Baylor was off to an even better start, sitting at 7-2 after winning at Texas Oct. 30. The Bears then lost their final three games, all to ranked opponents. Still, both teams surprised a lot of people this season and should have some excitement leading up to the inaugural game in Houston. Considering Baylor’s proximity to Houston (Waco, Texas is just three and half hours away) and the fact the it hasn’t played in a bowl game since 1994, this should be a home game for Bears.

Early pick: Baylor

TicketCity Bowl

Northwestern (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (7-5) – Jan. 1, 11 a.m.

The meaning of playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game continues to dissipate every year as the TicketCity Bowl is actually the lowest on the Big Ten pecking order outside of the Little Ceasar’s Pizza Bowl, which the Big Ten did not have a team eligible to compete in this season. Yes, that means Northwestern went from a 5-0 team to the last Big Ten team selected to play in a bowl game. Still, outside of Wisconsin and Ohio State, which will be playing in BCS bowls, if there is one other Big Ten team I can guarantee will come to play in their bowl game it’s Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since the 1948 Rose Bowl and it would mean a lot for a team that suffered a horrible ending to their season after losing quarterback Dan Persa for the rest of the year. Still, that doesn’t explain why the defense disappeared after losing Persa. The Cats gave up 118 points in their last two games combined. The good news is that the Red Raiders aren’t very good and I have a feeling Pat Fitzgerald will have his team ready after a month to prepare.

Early pick: Northwestern

Outback Bowl

Penn State (7-5)  vs. Florida (7-5) – Jan. 1, Noon

Usually 7-5 isn’t a good enough record to reach the Outback Bowl and these are certainly two powerhouses that are used to having more success than they did this season. Florida’s future looks a little brighter than Penn State’s as the Nittany Lions’ young talent is a little questionable and some think the program is in a holding pattern until Joe Paterno retires. We’ve seen that movie before, however and the Lions always bounce back with success. This looks like one of those bowl games that can be used to build momentum toward next season, something I believe bowls can actually do.

Early pick: Penn State

Capital One Bowl

No. 9 Michigan State (11-1) vs. No. 16 Alabama (9-3) – Jan. 1, Noon

This is at least the third best matchup involving a Big Ten team and some would argue it is better than Arkansas and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama is probably the best three loss team in the country, with their losses coming to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn. But Michigan State only has one loss and while it wasn’t pretty — a 37-6 loss at Iowa — the Spartans also beat Wisconsin to start the Big Ten season. A bogus rule that only allows two teams from one conference to reach the BCS kept MSU from a major bowl, but the Capital One is widely considered the top non-BCS game and this year is no exception. A win in this game would legitimize a lot of the Spartans’ arguments, much like it did in 2006 when the same rule kept an 11-1 Wisconsin team out of the BCS.

Early pick: Alabama

Gator Bowl

Michigan (7-5) vs. No. 21 Mississippi State (8-4) – Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m.

Don’t let the four losses fool you, the Bulldogs are a good football team. Those four losses came against Auburn, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, all of which are in the Top 16 in the final BCS standings. Michigan also lost to good teams, but the losses to Iowa and Penn State certainly don’t compare to Mississippi State’s. The Wolverines 7-3 record was exposed by Wisconsin and Ohio State and I don’t think their defense will be able to keep them in this game.

Early pick: Mississippi State

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

No. 5 Wisconsin (11-1) vs. No. 3 TCU (12-0) – Jan. 1, 4 p.m.

This is undoubtedly the best bowl game outside of the BCS National Championship Game. It features two top five teams that are very similar. Both teams averaged exactly 43.3 points per game this season and while TCU’s defense is better statistically, the quality of their opponents comes into question. Will TCU be able to stop Wisconsin’s three-headed rushing attack? The Horned Frogs can prove that they belong with the nation’s elite by beating Wisconsin and the matchup between Wisconisn’s offensive line and TCU’s defensive line will be fun to watch.

Early pick: Wisconsin

Allstate Sugar Bowl

No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 8 Arkansas (10-2) – Jan. 4, 6:30 p.m.

This won’t be the first time Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett has faced Ohio State. He threw three passes in a 14-3 loss to the Buckeyes in 2007 when he was backing up Chad Henne at Michigan. That was a long time ago, however, and Mallett is now one of the hottest NFL prospects going into this year’s draft. But this will be another tough test against Ohio State which won at least a share of the Big Ten title for the sixth straight year this season. The Buckeyes’ only slip-up came at Wisconsin, while Arkansas lost to Auburn and Alabama, but the Razorbacks come into this game riding a six-game win streak. This is a great matchup and one of the harder games to predict.

Early pick: Ohio State

(Note: All rankings used are final BCS rankings.)

Be sure to follow Adam on Twitter @AdamHoge670 for more on all of this year’s bowl games.

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