By Will Harris
Special to ESPN.com
Here are my picks, in order of confidence points, for this season's bowls. For more on the bowl picks, check out my podcast with Phil Steele .
35 points: Utah State over Toledo
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 15; Boise, Idaho)
Fast-starting Utah State has outscored its foes 244-54 in the first half and is the only team in the nation not to have allowed a first-quarter touchdown. The Aggies' explosive rushing offense matches up very well with Toledo defenders, and their top-20 defense is capable of handling the Rockets playmakers, especially since the early bowl slot means that backfield stars Terrance Owens and David Fluellen are not likely to be 100 percent healthy just yet. Utah State led this bowl the whole way last year before allowing a last-minute touchdown drive to fall to Ohio. A much better Aggies edition is determined to win it this time around.
Utah State 38, Toledo 17
34 points: Arizona State over Navy
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (Dec. 29; San Francisco)
The extra time that is always so valuable when facing an unfamiliar triple option team in the postseason will also help freshen up an Arizona State rush defense that was worn down by the end of the regular season. If the Sun Devils can get just a few stops, they could run away with this one, as a smallish Navy defense can neither exploit a suspect Arizona State offensive line nor slow the Devils' impressive array of backfield playmakers. Todd Graham's stellar bowl record is further cause for high confidence in this big favorite.
Arizona State 42, Navy 24
33 points: Oklahoma State over Purdue
Heart of Dallas Bowl (Jan. 1; Dallas)
Oklahoma State is the largest favorite of the bowl season, but given the Cowboys' precipitous drop to an undesirable bowl slot, there's an outside case for the streaking underdog. Mike Gundy's solid bowl track record is tough to ignore, though, especially in contrast to the postseason coaching chops of rapidly-promoted interim Boilermakers boss Patrick Higgins, a wide receivers coach who was just recently elevated to playcaller when coordinator Gary Nord suffered a back injury in November. The ostensibly rebuilding Pokes have used three novice signal-callers this year yet continue to churn out a healthy 45 points and 548 yards per game. That's likely more horsepower than Purdue can match, even if the Boilers catch something less than the favorite's best effort.
Oklahoma State 44, Purdue 28
32 points: Fresno State over SMU
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24; Honolulu)
SMU sports a solid rush defense and a decent ground game led by workhorse Zach Line and the increasingly mobile Garrett Gilbert under center, but the Mustangs rely too heavily on collecting turnovers (that their bowl opponent isn't prone to committing) and will have trouble keeping pace with the potent Fresno State attack. Even if SMU manages to contain 1,400-yard rusher Robbie Rouse, the balanced Bulldogs will just bomb away, as demonstrated in the season finale when Air Force held the Fresno ground game to under three yards per carry only to see quarterback Derek Carr light up the secondary for 479 yards in a runaway victory.
Fresno State 45, SMU 21
31 points: Florida over Louisville
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 2; New Orleans)
Florida hasn't moved the ball with anything other than painful deliberation very often this year, but Mike Gillislee and the Gators will find some room against an underachieving Louisville defense that's currently so banged up it's having trouble practicing effectively. Cardinals triggerman Teddy Bridgewater may be the best player on the field, but the Florida defense has few weaknesses and the SEC entrant enjoys a monstrous special teams edge as well.
Florida 31, Louisville 14
30 points: Louisiana-Lafayette over East Carolina
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 22; New Orleans)
Sun Belt juggernaut Louisiana-Lafayette's rush-first attack is both efficient and explosive, too much for an East Carolina team that's among the very weakest of this year's bowl entrants. The Pirates have rolled up some yards this year as well, but have done so against some truly awful outfits that are not the equal even of the Cajuns' modestly talented defense, a unit that at least generates a pass rush, avoids the big play and stands tall in the red zone. Mark Hudspeth's crew is easily the better team here, and it repeats as New Orleans Bowl champs in front of a partisan crowd.
Louisiana-Lafayette 45, East Carolina 31
29 points: Alabama over Notre Dame
Discover BCS National Championship (Jan. 7; Miami)
The championship game should live up to the hype, as Notre Dame is an extremely well-coached outfit with a rock-solid front seven that won't allow the Tide anywhere near the 350 rushing yards it hung on Georgia in the SEC title game. Alabama may have a few more horses overall, but quarterbacks as mobile as Everett Golson have hurt Nick Saban's defenses in the past and Notre Dame's offensive brain trust can manufacture enough yardage to make this a closely-contested affair. The Tide isn't the most vulnerable of this bowl season's bumper crop of double-digit favorites, but it certainly isn't the safest.
Alabama 17, Notre Dame 13
28 points: Florida State over Northern Illinois
Discover Orange Bowl (Jan. 1; Miami)
The Seminoles are one of the bowl season's largest favorites and have a huge talent advantage over a Northern Illinois team that played a much softer schedule and will be missing departed head coach Dave Doeren, who left for North Carolina State. Still, while there's no question that Jordan Lynch and the Huskies' high-powered offense won't zoom up and down the field on New Year's Day the way they did on most of their MAC brethren, it wouldn't be surprising to see the defense make this a four-quarter game. The Florida State offense is a heavily-penalized, turnover-riddled group that has a hard time protecting its passer and just getting out of its own way. The second-half goose egg in the ACC championship game was the cap on a really ugly two-game stretch for 'Noles quarterback EJ Manuel, who has managed just 316 total passing yards while committing six turnovers in his past two games. The Northern defense is an opportunistic group that notched 40 sacks and 15 interceptions, and we don't entirely trust an error-prone favorite that's lost a few coaches of its own.
Florida State 24, Northern Illinois 13
27 points: Northwestern over Mississippi State
Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl (Jan. 1; Jacksonville, Fla.)
Mississippi State's rush defense has slipped steadily since its 2010 trip to the Gator Bowl. Sans former coordinator Manny Diaz and first-round defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, this has become a unit that permits foes to steadily drive the length of the field, relying on takeaways and red zone stops to turn the opposition away. Northwestern is eminently capable of methodical rushing drives just like the ones the Bulldogs tend to allow, and the Wildcats have the ball security and drive-finishing profile to seal the deal. Quarterback Tyler Russell and ace wideout Chad Bumphis will surely gash the porous Northwestern pass defense for a few big strikes, but we'll side with the hungrier underdog with the more efficient offense.
Northwestern 31, Mississippi State 24
26 points: USC over Georgia Tech
Hyundai Sun Bowl (Dec. 31; El Paso, Texas)
The Yellow Jackets are certainly more fired up about this matchup than the Trojans, and it's very hard to see defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's charges suddenly springing to life with what would be one of the first good performances of his tenure against a non-traditional offense. Tech will surely move the ball, and that would seem to give an underdog that's more enthusiastic about its bowl assignment a puncher's chance at an upset. We therefore won't entrust a ranking in the thirties to these Trojans, but the favorite does have some serious edges of its own. The Georgia Tech defense has shown no sign that it can keep up with the USC receivers, and that's as true in the return game for the Jackets' abysmal coverage units as it is for the Tech defense when Matt Barkley is bombing away.
USC 38, Georgia Tech 28
25 points: Mississippi over Pittsburgh
BBVA Compass Bowl (Jan. 5; Birmingham, Ala.)
The Panthers -- with the support of maybe dozens of fans -- are making their third postseason trip to Birmingham in as many years. A decidedly partisan crowd will root on the Rebels in a game they're far more excited about than the repeat Big East entrant. The favorite probably won't disappoint, as the Ole Miss defensive line, which ranks No. 13 nationally in sacks and No. 6 in tackles for loss, has a big edge over a Panthers offensive front that neither protects its quarterback well nor consistently opens holes for workhorse Ray Graham.
Mississippi 31, Pittsburgh 21
24 points: Louisiana-Monroe over Ohio
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl (Dec. 28; Shreveport, La.)
Quarterback Kolton Browning and a talented set of receivers operate an up-tempo passing assault that produces right around 300 yards per game. An Ohio defense that's been thinned by injuries will have trouble countering the Warhawks' speed. Defensively, Monroe has been susceptible to big-play vertical passing attacks, but that's not the Bobcats' forte; none of Ohio's top seven pass-catchers average better than 12 yards per reception. The Warhawks undoubtedly would have preferred a matchup with Louisiana Tech, but they are still playing close to home in the school's first-ever bowl game against a program with a scant record of postseason success.
Louisiana-Monroe 38, Ohio 27
23 points: Oregon State over Texas
Valero Alamo Bowl (Dec. 29; San Antonio, Texas)
Mike Riley's 5-1 bowl record has us leaning with the Beavers, a complete team with few glaring weaknesses. Oregon State is both more efficient and more consistent than the opposing Longhorns, who have yet to settle on a starting quarterback and just lost offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Arkansas State. It's true that the Beavers prefer to move the ball via air and that Texas' defensive deficiencies have been more exposed by the run, but the 'Horns have few quality wins and were outgained in most of those.
Oregon State 31, Texas 24
22 points: Western Kentucky over Central Michigan
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Dec. 26; Detroit)
This game would've ranked substantially higher had Willie Taggart not bolted for South Florida, but the favorite is still the only side worth having despite the obvious advantages in geography and fan support for the Chippewas. Central Michigan is 2012's weakest bowl team. Outgained in 10 games, the Chips have played a soft schedule yet have allowed opponents to exceed their average net yardage margins by nearly 100 yards per game, worst among bowl squads. Even without Taggart, the Hilltoppers will be amped for the program's first-ever bowl appearance, and they have the defense to slow Central star Zurlon Tipton while the MAC entrant won't be able to contain Western's all-purpose ace Antonio Andrews.
Western Kentucky 38, Central Michigan 27
21 points: Boise State over Washington
MAACO Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 22; Las Vegas)
Washington quarterback Keith Price has been on the run from opposing pass rushers all year, and it's doubtful that the beleaguered Huskies offensive line can hold a stout Broncos front at bay. That mismatch in the trenches is the critical trial in a game likely to be dominated by the defenses on both sides. It's hard to see an uncharacteristically pedestrian Boise State offense moving the chains much either, but the Broncs are more likely than error-prone Washington to make the one timely play -- or avoid the one key turnover -- that will decide the outcome of this closely-contested tilt.
Boise State 17, Washington 10
20 points: San Jose State over Bowling Green
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman (Dec. 27; Washington, D.C.)
The Bowling Green defense is very good, but it's not as good as its numbers suggest as the Falcons have faced what may be the weakest slate of opposing offenses in the nation. This team has seen nothing even remotely like the David Fales and Noel Grigsby -led passing attack the Spartans possess, and the Falcons' own ham 'n' egg offense doesn't have the weapons to keep pace, especially if workhorse tailback Anthon Samuel can't make it back to 100 percent health by gametime. We'd rank this game higher if San Jose State wasn't sporting an interim coach, but even with the loss of Mike MacIntyre, the Spartans look like a legitimate favorite.
San Jose State 30, Bowling Green 17
19 points: Texas Tech over Minnesota
Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl (Dec. 28; Houston) PickCenter Matchup
Texas Tech is one of the biggest favorites of the bowl season, but given the circumstances, a wide range of outcomes are possible and we can't let the Red Raiders ascend too far up the list just yet. Minnesota's pass defense has been the best-looking part of its team for most of the year, so in a sense the Gophers match up pretty well, but Seth Doege and Co. are vastly more talented than a Minnesota offense that's managed just 272 yards and 18 first downs in its past two games combined and can't claim a receiver with even 20 catches. Tech, though, is not likely to be too excited about another trip to a third-tier in-state bowl to face another heavy underdog from the lower half of the Big Ten standings. The departure of head coach Tommy Tuberville -- along with that of playcaller Neal Brown -- makes this a messy game to predict.
Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 24
18 points: Duke over Cincinnati
Belk Bowl (Dec. 27; Charlotte)
Duke hasn't won since clinching bowl eligibility with a victory over rival North Carolina way back on Oct. 20, but a Cincinnati team whose staff is departing en masse for Knoxville will be easier prey than the who's who of the ACC the Devils faced down the stretch. The trying schedule wore down a Duke defense that had played fairly well earlier in the year, and we'll side with an underdog who not only rates as the hungrier team in this matchup, but also the one for which a long break to heal and freshen up provides the most benefit.
Duke 34, Cincinnati 31
17 points: Michigan over South Carolina
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1; Tampa)
Great red zone defenses collide in what should be a competitive low-scoring game, though a few factors have me leaning with the underdog. It's hard to see South Carolina moving the chains much. The Gamecocks' rushing game is not dynamic and the Wolverines haven't allowed 200 yards through the air all season, a remarkable feat despite the modest slate of opposing passers. Michigan won't score much either, but coordinator Al Borges does have the element of surprise, as it will be difficult for Carolina to game plan without knowing how its Big Ten foe will use quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner.
Michigan 24, South Carolina 17
16 points: Clemson over LSU
Chick-fil-A Bowl (Dec. 31; Atlanta)
Several edges have me leaning with an underdog Clemson team that has dramatically outperformed LSU in the red zone on both sides of the ball this year. A much-improved offensive line can stand up to LSU's tough defensive front in a way that past Clemson teams could not, while an LSU pass defense with fine season-long numbers has wilted down the stretch. A Clemson defense that is actually very effective on the majority of snaps has been hurt principally by the big play, and explosiveness is not the Bayou Bengals' forte this year. LSU had its sights set on a January bowl, and the ACC Tigers are far more excited about an opportunity for redemption against the SEC.
Clemson 27, LSU 24
15 points: Georgia over Nebraska
Capital One Bowl (Jan. 1; Orlando, Fla.)
We're loath to trust a Nebraska team whose latest debacle against Wisconsin was the ninth outright loss as a favorite under Bo Pelini, the eighth blowout by at least three scores and the 12th consecutive game with at least two turnovers committed. Still, we won't have Georgia too high up this year's list, as the senior-laden Huskers are bound to play better in search of redemption while the Bulldogs poured their soul into the SEC title game only to come up a play short.
Georgia 35, Nebraska 28
14 points: Texas A&M over Oklahoma
AT&T Cotton Bowl (Jan. 4; Arlington, Texas)
Both defenses figure to take the worst of it, as the Aggies are no match in the back end for the precision of Landry Jones and his excellent receivers, while Mike Stoops' charges are shockingly under-talented at linebacker and have been searching vainly for an identity all season. Oklahoma has played a considerably more difficult schedule, but the Sooners have taken one of this season's steepest 11th-hour bowl falls, and the postseason history of teams jilted by the BCS is very grim.
Texas A&M 38, Oklahoma 34
13 points: Ball State over Central Florida
Beef O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl (Dec. 21; St. Petersburg, Fla.)
We'd move this game down the list some if star quarterback Keith Wenning isn't cleared to suit up for Ball State, and we might even change sides if capable backup Kelly Page remains sidelined as well. But if Wenning is leading the troops, it's full steam ahead on this underdog despite a lack of bowl experience. Ball State is a rising MAC power coached by Pete Lembo, and this year the Cardinals have three losses to teams that combined for a 32-4 record in the regular season. Central Florida is the more talented team, but it's one that can't seem to play well on both sides of the ball in the same game, and the part of the season the Knights truly cared about ended two weeks ago with a controversial loss in the Conference USA title game.
Ball State 35, Central Florida 28
12 points: West Virginia over Syracuse
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 29; New York)
Both teams finished the season hot, especially offensively, and this certainly has the look of one of those high-scoring, "last-team-with-the-ball-wins" kind of affairs. Syracuse does have a greater tendency to self-destruct, so we'll lean with a West Virginia squad that's displayed better ball security,which is always key in games where the defenses can't get many stops without benefit of turnovers. The Mountaineers are also playing their last game with Geno Smith and several other key seniors, which could provide some motivation to offset a disappointing tumble to a less desirable bowl slot than expected.
West Virginia 45, Syracuse 38
11 points: Iowa State over Tulsa
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31; Memphis)
This meeting of two well-coached teams that play above their talent level is the 2012 bowl season's only rematch. Iowa State took round one 38-23 in the season lid-lifter and are a slight choice to do so again in what shapes up as a defensive struggle. Neither side can claim many clear edges in this tossup, but the Cyclones sport the better special teams and have been battle-tested by a much tougher schedule.
Iowa State 20, Tulsa 17
10 points: Virginia Tech over Rutgers
Russell Athletic Bowl (Dec. 28; Orlando, Fla.)
Both teams feature excellent defenses and inefficient, self-destructive offenses. It's hard to see either side managing even 15 first downs, so we'll opt for the team with positive momentum and a coaching advantage. The Hokies ended the regular season by topping rival Virginia to keep Tech's 20-year bowl streak alive, while Rutgers choked away the biggest game in school history last time out.
Virginia Tech 21, Rutgers 10
9 points: UCLA over Baylor
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27; San Diego)
A definite candidate for the bowl season's highest-scoring game, this tilt features two offenses loaded with playmakers. Both offenses turn the ball over, both defenses take it away and both teams rack up penalties by the handful in all three phases. However, UCLA has a clear defensive edge, and while the current Bruins' staff has never prepared for a bowl before, we'll take that uncertainty over Art Briles' 1-4 postseason record.
UCLA 48, Baylor 42
8 points: Air Force over Rice
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 29; Fort Worth, Texas)
The Falcons have topped 400 yards just once in the past six games, but backfield stars Connor Dietz and Cody Getz were banged up down the stretch and should be much more effective runners after the long layoff. The Air Force rush defense improved dramatically late in the year, and in a game where both sides will move the chains consistently, the Falcons should be able to get an extra stop against a capable Rice offense that struggles in the red zone.
Air Force 34, Rice 30
7 points: BYU over San Diego State
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl (Dec. 20; San Diego)
San Diego State has thrived on a power rushing attack led by the one-two punch of Adam Muema and Walter Kazee. The passing game is adequate but lacks explosion, consistency and sufficient protection from the line. With Kazee out with an injury suffered in the season finale, Muema has to carry the team, and it's not certain he'll be able to get his yards against a BYU defense that's held all but one opponent to 118 yards or fewer on the ground this year. BYU isn't sure whether oft-injured veteran Riley Nelson or little-used senior James Lark will take most of the snaps at quarterback, but either way the Cougars' pedestrian offense figures to have trouble moving the ball against a capable Aztecs defense, especially since San Diego State can assign superstar cornerback Leon McFadden to primary receiving threat Cody Hoffman, whose 90 catches are more than the next three BYU receivers combined. This is a low-scoring tossup game that has us barely siding with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his 5-2 bowl record.
BYU 17, San Diego State 14
6 points: Kansas State over Oregon
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 3; Glendale, Ariz.)
If the Oregon offense has any weaknesses, it is youth, fumbles, penalties, lack of physicality and a dearth of long pass plays, each of which plays right into the Wildcats' hands. The Oregon defense is the best of the Chip Kelly era, but the Ducks do allow long, clock-eating drives to physical rushing teams. The Quackers have logged more takeaways than any other team, but they're unlikely to get any from a Kansas State squad that's not as talented as the favorite but matches up very well.
Kansas State 31, Oregon 30
5 points: Nevada over Arizona
Gildan New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 15; Albuquerque, N.M.)
Both defenses figure to be at the mercy of the offenses, but the favorite is vulnerable as the Arizona defense is a banged-up bunch of undersized, inexperienced freshmen, walk-ons and underclassmen playing new positions in a yet-to-be mastered 3-3-5 scheme. Weather and altitude favor the underdog, as does an early time slot that provides just two weeks for the Arizona defense to prepare for Nevada's unique Pistol attack but allows that red-hot offense to stay in rhythm coming off its best half of the season. A probable shootout could come down to which team stops itself, and fumble-prone Arizona has had trouble finishing drives in the red zone all year. An outright upset is certainly possible, and Arizona backers should slide this heavy favorite way down the list.
Nevada 45, Arizona 42
4 points: Vanderbilt over North Carolina State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Dec. 31; Nashville)
Deposed Wolfpack boss Tom O'Brien was a sterling 8-2 in bowls, but it's hard to say how much of that culture of postseason emphasis has rubbed off on interim coach Dana Bible and his charges. The Pack defense -- like the Vanderbilt offense -- is good but not great, and the game will probably be decided on the other side of the ball. State hasn't gotten much from its running game, offensive line or most of its receivers, but triggerman Mike Glennon is a seasoned NFL talent, and he'll be firing into a Vanderbilt secondary that's seen one passing game with a pulse all year and is not nearly as sporty as its numbers suggest. O'Brien is gone, and the Commodores have the backing of the locals, but we'll leave this favorite near the bottom of the stack.
Vanderbilt 28, North Carolina State 24
3 points: Wisconsin over Stanford
Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio (Jan. 1; Pasadena, Calif.)
The Rose is a game of many obvious similarities, with both teams earning conference titles on the strength of punishing downhill rushing attacks led by all-star workhorse tailbacks. Both also feature stingy defensive front sevens and quarterbacks who made their first career starts on Nov. 10 of this year. Stanford gets props for its superior special teams, but Wisconsin has the lone gamebreaking wideout on either side in Jared Abbrederis, while Hall of Famer and three-time Rose Bowl winner Barry Alvarez might just be the difference-maker.
Wisconsin 14, Stanford 13
2 points: Arkansas State over Kent State
GoDaddy.com Bowl (Jan. 6; Mobile, Ala.)
Kent State's Darrell Hazell is thus far the only departing head coach who will actually coach his soon-to-be-former charges in their bowl. Arkansas State, meanwhile, is one of at least eight schools led by interim coaches. In command of the Red Wolves is defensive coordinator John Thompson, who boasts just one career win over a team other than Army in 23 games as a head coach (while at East Carolina) -- and that was a two-point home escape over a Tulane squad that hadn't beaten an FBS opponent that year. The Wolves do at least temporarily retain the playcalling services of Gus Malzahn understudy Rhett Lashlee, which means that seasoned triggerman Ryan Aplin will probably still be comfortable guiding what has been a very potent offense against a Kent State defense that has struggled with no-huddle tempo attacks. Kent has weapons of its own in speedster Dri Archer and bruiser Trayion Durham, but what narrowly tips the scales in favor of the Wolves is a solid rush defense that's held its past five opponents under 100 yards and matches up well with the Flashes' one-dimensional ground attack.
Arkansas State 28 Kent State 27
1 point: TCU over Michigan State
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Dec. 29; Tempe, Ariz.)
This defensive struggle seems one of the most difficult games to call, as neither team should be able to crack 300 yards or 15 first downs against the opposing defense. Games like this often come down to turnovers, but Michigan State has better offensive ball security while the Frogs defense garners more takeaways. Neither side will be able to sustain drives, and TCU does own more big-play athletes at the skill positions and in the return game.
TCU 10, Michigan State 9