Playoff, bowls filled with intrigue

I could go on for hours about the four-team College Football Playoff and how the Big 12 Conference was snubbed. The Las Vegas bookmakers agree.

Baylor and Texas Christian are out, Ohio State is in, and we’ll see how it all plays out. The 14-team Big Ten has 10 teams in bowl games and all are underdogs, including the Buckeyes.

Top-ranked Alabama opened as a 9½-point favorite over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, and I think everyone’s immediate reaction was “Roll Tide.” That was my reaction, anyway.

Nick Saban against Urban Meyer makes for an electric coaching matchup in that semifinal.

Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones is getting just his second start of the season. In his first start, he helped Ohio State embarrass Wisconsin 59-0. He’s what makes this game such a coin flip.

Alabama has a dynamic offense behind quarterback Blake Sims. If the Crimson Tide can establish a running attack, the Buckeyes are likely to fall.

In the Rose Bowl, the other semifinal, Oregon is a 9-point favorite over Florida State. This probably will be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season.

It seems like for the better part of 2013 and all of 2014, Florida State has been the most hated team in the nation. Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota will win the Heisman Trophy, while last year’s winner, Jameis Winston, must manage to keep himself out of trouble for the next month. This is the first time since 2011 the Seminoles have been underdogs. It appears on paper that Mariota and the Oregon offense might be too much for Florida State.

Here are my top 10 matchups from the other 36 bowls:

■ Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 20, Utah (-4½) vs. Colorado State: The Rams boast the No. 8 passing offense behind Garrett Grayson, who threw for 32 touchdowns. But Jim McElwain has left for Florida, and the absence of the coach is my only concern about backing Colorado State. The Utes showed some promise by beating UCLA and Southern California.

■ Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 23, Marshall (-10) vs. Northern Illinois: With a combined 23-3 record, these teams have earned a little respect in my book. The Thundering Herd rolled on undefeated until they slipped up against Western Kentucky on Nov. 28. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato operates a high-powered offense. This is Marshall’s chance to prove its season was not a fluke.

■ Holiday Bowl, Dec. 27, Southern California (-6) vs. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers ditched coach Bo Pelini after a 9-3 season. Ameer Abdullah is a phenomenal running back with 1,523 yards and 18 touchdowns, but the Nebraska offense has little else. Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler should put up enough points to outlast the Cornhuskers.

■ Texas Bowl, Dec. 29, Arkansas (-6) vs. Texas: This might not seem like an exciting matchup on the surface, but prepare for a good game between old rivals. Arkansas’ power running offense will test Texas’ under-the-radar defense. The Longhorns somehow managed to become bowl eligible during a rebuilding year for coach Charlie Strong. The Razorbacks have been at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference West since former coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle. But after shutout wins against Louisiana State and Mississippi, Arkansas reached a bowl for the first time since 2011.

■ Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, TCU (-3½) vs. Mississippi: Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson is out for blood. After being snubbed by the playoff committee, he has a point to prove (not that it will matter).

■ Fiesta Bowl, Dec. 31, Arizona (-3) vs. Boise State: The Wildcats came out on top in the Pac-12 South only to be embarrassed by the Ducks. Broncos coach Bryan Harsin went 11-2 and won the Mountain West in his first season. Boise State fans travel well, so it’s not quite a home game for Arizona.

■ Orange Bowl, Dec. 31, Mississippi State (-7) vs. Georgia Tech: The Bulldogs were the SEC’s team to beat for part of the season, and the Yellow Jackets quietly dominated their division in the Atlantic Coast Conference. While quarterback Dak Prescott proved he has what it takes to get Mississippi State to the top of the SEC, he couldn’t keep them there. Georgia Tech is 5-1 as an underdog, and don’t be surprised if its option offense gives the Bulldogs problems.

■ Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1, Baylor (-3) vs. Michigan State: This matches the Big Ten’s real No. 2 team versus Baylor, the team I thought should have made the playoffs. We saw early in the season how the Spartans matched up with a high-powered offense. They hung with Oregon for three quarters, but that was about it. I expect the same here. Bears coach Art Briles might be the most ticked-off guy in college football. Don’t be surprised when he doesn’t call off the dogs against a Big Ten opponent.

■ Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1, Missouri (-5½) vs. Minnesota: Don’t laugh, but I’m excited for this game. The Gophers are 5-1 against the spread this season as underdogs, which might explain my fondness for them, though they need to get over their six-game bowl losing streak.

■ Alamo Bowl, Jan. 2, Kansas State (-1) vs. UCLA: To start the season, I think everyone but me thought UCLA was going to be in the playoff hunt and Brett Hundley would be in the Heisman race. And I might have been the only person who thought Kansas State would win nine games. Wildcats quarterback Jake Waters has dynamic wide receivers in Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton. I anticipate a high-scoring game. Both offenses average more than 33 points, and neither defense is great at stopping the pass.

Then there are some rather dull bowls.

Who wants to see Fresno State-Rice in the Hawaii Bowl or Penn State-Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl? I could go on and on.

But each bowl is a betting opportunity, so I’ll be handicapping them all.

Kelly Stewart of Kellyinvegas.com can be reached at Askkelly@reviewjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kellyinvegas.

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