Maryland-East Carolina (2:30 ET, ESPN): Played at the Redskins' FedEx Field it will be a virtual home game for Maryland, although the hard-core Terps fans I know here in the Baltimore area aren't making the trip. An afternoon start time on a workday doesn't do a lot for attendance, so I'm curious to see if the crowd will end up a factor here. One thing that will be a factor is offense. East Carolina has played games with scores like 51-49, 44-43, 49-35, 54-43, 62-38 and a pair of 49-27's. And lest I forget they gave up 76 points to Navy. When you can't play defense it eventually catches up to you and the Pirates lost four of their last five games to fade from the Conference USA race. The entire burden will fall on quarterback Dominique Davis, an excellent passer who can run just enough to keep you honest, to keep ECU in the game. Maryland's offense is also built around the passing game, with freshman Danny O'Brien at the helm. They're a little more balanced though and they closed the season with an impressive win over N.C. State, when the Wolfpack were still pushing for the ACC's Atlantic Division title. And State looked pretty good last night in beating West Virginia. The Terps are playing their last game under Ralph Friedgen, fired after being named conference coach of the year, and I expect a strong showing. Maryland wins this one 52-30.
Illinois-Baylor (6 ET, ESPN): This one's in Houston although I'm not sure if that will bring a homecrowd advantage to the Bears, given how many teams there are in the state of Texas. Both of these teams finished the season on a down note, combining to lose seven of eight down the stretch. Baylor's losing streak was more a quirk of the schedule though--their final three just happened to be against the top three teams in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Therefore we shouldn't see them as a fading team, just one that's not championship-level. Illinois, on the other hand, was fading. They lost three of four, including Minnesota and Fresno State, the former being under an interim coach, the latter a team who just got buried by Northern Illinois in their bowl game. One facet of the Illini program that wasn't fading though was the running game, as Mikel Leshoure played some of his best football of the year in November. The issue is the defense, which began to crumble and they will be challenged tonight. Baylor's Robert Griffin is an immensely talented dual-threat quarterback and the Bears also have a good conventional running game in Robert Griffin. Illinois has to get a more defensive-oriented game to have a chance, as their freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is more a runner than a passer. Am I the only one who sees a problem with needing a defensive-oriented game when you have a collapsing defense? Before we completely dismiss Illinois' chances, let's consider that the D might have suffered fatigue in November and has had to recharge their batteries. That's something to watch for early on, but in the end Baylor's got too many weapons and wins this one 38-16.
Oklahoma State-Arizona (9:15 ET, ESPN): We come to the end of the night in San Antonio. Oklahoma State is the better team, having finished the season 10-2 to Arizona's 7-5. The Wildcats are another team that came apart in November, losing four straight. While two of them were to Oregon and Stanford, there are also home losses to USC and Arizona State mixed in there. But before handing this game to the Cowboys, we need to consider a couple things. The first is an intangible--they missed a chance to win the Big 12 with a home loss to rival Oklahoma in the finale. How excited are they going to be about playing in this game? The second is more substantive, and it's pass defense. Okie State's two losses--Nebraska being the other--saw their secondary badly exposed and they never really played well against a truly good passing offense. They'll see one tonight, with Nic Foles at the helm and Juron Criner at receiver. I'm still picking the Cowboys to win for these reasons--intangibles are too tough to guess, and it didn't stop Boise State from cleaning up on Utah. This one can cut either way, and since I have no idea the mindset of the locker room I'm not using at as a factor in making a pick. The second is that even if Arizona puts up numbers in the passing game, Oklahoma State is more than capable of doing the same. Brandon Weeden has been excellent all year at quarterback and Justin Blackmon is one of the best receivers in the nation. They are supported by Kendall Hunter in the running game, as good a back as there is. Arizona has the capacity to cause some disruption with pressure from their defensive ends, Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, enough that this is an interesting game. But in the end, the Cowboys are the better team and they win, 38-31.
Turnovers were a big story in Monday and Tuesday's bowl games. Georgia Tech fumbled three times and had a pass intercepted, while Air Force had zero giveaways in a 14-7 win on Monday. The Falcons also got a little bit of a passing game in this battle of option offenses, with Tim Jefferson throwing for 117 yards. Last night, N.C. State won the turnover battle 5-1 in dispatching West Virginia 23-7. The Mountaineers did a good job in keeping Russell Wilson mostly underneath in the passing game, but the turnovers were too much to overcome. One game were turnovers weren't the deciding factor was Iowa-Missouri. The Hawkeyes pulled a 27-24 upset, thanks to a huge game from freshman running back Marcus Coker, who rushed for 219 yards. Coker was in the lineup because starter Adam Robinson was arrested for marijuana possession. Here's hoping Ohio State takes note that sometimes you can be rewarded for just suspending players and going with their backups. Coker's heroics overshadowed a terrific performance from Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who threw for 434 yards, and receiver T.J. Moe, who lit it up with 15 catches for 152 yards. Nonetheless, a very disappointing loss for Missouri. And Iowa's win was a case of a team that played poorly in November and turned it around in a bowl game. We'll see if that phenomena continues today.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball. and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.