LINCOLN — For the past decade or so as the number of bowl games balloons — and the quality of them seems to decline — it's been easy to poke fun at college football's postseason.
It lacks the rush of the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. It lacks a champion that truly earns its crown, like the College World Series victor, which must repeatedly prove its depth in the postseason.
It resembles a buffet from which you might select only a few items. But those few items are among your favorites, and they make for a tasty meal, even if you ignore all the salads with pimentos, beets and spinach.
Here are five bowl games in which Nebraska fans should take particular interest, not only for what they mean this bowl season but for trends and analytics they point to down the line.
>> Gator Bowl — Northwestern vs. Mississippi State: The Wildcats could be the Big Ten's best chance to save a little face in the bowl games, even if the program hasn't won a bowl game since 1949. The Bulldogs have the SEC affiliation, yes, but they lost four of their last five games by double digits. Mississippi State has a talent level Northwestern can legitimately match. That hasn't been the case in most Wildcat bowl games.
A game like this can be a springboard for a young Northwestern team that brings back most of its key talent for a murderer's row of a schedule in 2013. While coach Pat Fitzgerald may field his best team — especially on defense, where linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell come back — the Wildcats get Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders Division.
>> Outback Bowl — Michigan vs. South Carolina: After a Sugar Bowl win last year, the Wolverines carried the league's national title hopes on their shoulders in 2012. After Michigan fell flat in the season opener against Alabama — and subsequently lost the Legends Division by a game to Nebraska — some of the shine is off second-year coach Brady Hoke. Even if he does have a boffo recruiting class coming in.
In South Carolina, Michigan gets much the same team Nebraska did last year: A team full of great athletes just waiting for their turn to make a play. How the Wolverines respond to their second SEC foe of the year is a subplot that Nebraska has to face in its own way. Like NU, Michigan can't just roll the ball out there and expect to coast. So if it brings anything but its “A” game to Tampa, a rude awakening likely awaits.
>> Fiesta Bowl — Kansas State vs. Oregon: Bill Snyder and Chip Kelly follow their own visions, but this matchup remains an intriguing example of two guys doing it their way without the benefit of five NFL players on each side of the ball.
Snyder preaches discipline forged through hours of repetition, mixed with a quarterback-heavy offense that plods along until it knocks giant holes in the defense. Kelly uses the fastest no-huddle attack in college football to seduce opponents into a scoring contest and fast break them into submission. One is the old-fashioned, farm-to-table meal prepared from memory with a half-century-old recipe. The other is cutting-age fusion cuisine that even NFL chefs want to learn.
The lesson is the same: One way to win is to be steadfastly and uniquely different, and follow that personality as far as you can take it. Football is a game full of groupthink. The Fiesta Bowl features two 11-1 teams that fashionably act like outliers. Nebraska could take some notes — and some heart — from both approaches.
>> Cotton Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M: Jerry Jones and his Cowboys Stadium lucked into a terrific game here once the SEC rejected the Capital One Bowl's bid to draft the Aggies and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Manziel's particular brand of adventuresome brilliance makes this game interesting, but I'm more attracted to the coaching story.
One coach, A&M's Kevin Sumlin, is on the brink of the super-stardom that his former boss at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, enjoyed early in his career. You remember Stoops in the early 2000s, right? After taking advantage of John Blake's recruits to win a national title in 2000, he got every recruit he wanted, including Adrian Peterson out of Texas, while churning out prospective star coaches from his assistant pool. Stoops and his visor had a swagger, an aura. He was the coach of college football, and his reputation even had a positive effect on Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, one of his close friends.
Sumlin's the man in the visor now. He's the one with the Heisman Trophy winner, the breathtaking offense, the sudden reputation for creating a coaching tree. Whatever doubts there were about Sumlin after an opening loss to Florida disappeared after an upset of Alabama. And A&M finds itself in the en vogue league of the SEC.
The Cotton Bowl, thus, is a game about Southern football's recent past against its near future. Stoops' defenses no longer have the luster, and the Aggies could drop 50 on the Sooners in a blink. Or OU could show a little toughness and fortitude in beating back the upstarts.
>> BCS national championship game — Alabama vs. Notre Dame: Fans all over Nebraska will curl up with their favorite comfort food to deal with the indignity of watching yet another SEC team, Alabama, play Notre Dame, which still has a dedicated following in Omaha, but, well, much less than that outside the River City.
A Crimson Tide victory would represent the SEC's seventh straight national title, and that level of domination is never really good for any sport but Michael Jordan's NBA. Until recently, the SEC's taken advantage of relatively loose recruiting rules that allowed Alabama to load up on talent, then unceremoniously discard the pieces it didn't want like a glutton. Those rules — plus a region full of talent — are a key foundation of the league's success. Even if college football pundits want to couch most of it in mythology.
The idea of Notre Dame being a power college football program was entirely myth for the past 15 years until, suddenly, the Fighting Irish started making all the big plays and getting all the key breaks in 2012. This Notre Dame team is no doubt lucky — average Pittsburgh nearly busted the Golden Domers one month ago — but it's also tough, winning big road games at Oklahoma and USC.
Bama's shown its own toughness in comeback wins over LSU and Georgia. What both teams have shown is that tough, rugged offensive and defensive lines are the building blocks to great college teams. Both the Tide and Irish have solid quarterbacking — I'll take Alabama's A.J. McCarron — but their biggest strengths lie in the development, physicality and depth of those lines. If any team wants to run with the biggest boys in the SEC, it must match that trench prowess.
The Huskers haven't under Bo Pelini. Not yet. Maybe that makes NU fans want to grab the comfort food.
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