College Bowl Season: Cotton Bowl Leads Weekend Trio

The major bowls are past us, and the BCS National Championship Game awaits on Monday. In between there’s still a brief spurt of three more games this college bowl season, and it starts Friday night with the Cotton Bowl battle between Texas A&M and Oklahoma. We’ll look at that game, plus a brief check on the two weekend wrap-around games. Pitt-Ole Miss on Saturday (1 PM ET, ESPN) and Arkansas State-Kent State on Sunday (9 PM ET, ESPN) are wrapped around the four NFL first-round playoff games.

Texas A&M-Oklahoma: The Aggies have the Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. The Sooners are the team that feels like they should have been in the BCS rather than Northern Illinois. Each team has 10 wins and just one year ago this a heated rivalry between two Big 12 teams in the same division. Now they go head-to-head in Dallas.

A&M’s only losses were to LSU and Florida and they were by a combined eight points. The latter game came early, before the freshman Manziel was really locked in. Texas A&M made its reputation this season—and won their quarterback the Heisman with a November 10 upset at Alabama, and then mixed in wins over bowl-bound Mississippi State, Ole Miss, SMU and Louisiana Tech.

The flip side to this is that we don’t really know how good the SEC is—for all the rhetoric and the past national championships, the conference is only 3-3 in bowl games. Certainly if the Aggies win Friday, Ole Miss wins Saturday and ‘Bama wins the national championship, everything  looks much better. And Texas A&M’s defense has had some less than ideal moments—notably giving up 57 points to Louisiana Tech, even if Manziel did steal a 59-57 victory.

Oklahoma, like A&M, lost both its games at home, but to good teams. The defeats came to Kansas State in September and Notre Dame in October. The Sooners took care of their business against the rest of the Big 12, although looking at the arc of their season, you wonder if they peaked a little early. In September and October, they beat Texas Tech by three touchdowns, decisively beat Iowa State and destroyed Texas 63-21.

Then in November, they barely survived Baylor (42-34), West Virginia (50-49), Oklahoma State (51-48, OT) and TCU (24-17). You might also look at those scores and notice that the Sooners seem defensively challenged. I don’t want to lose perspective—those are all good teams, in varying degrees and if you win all four, you’re doing something right. But doing something right and playing like an elite team are two different things and in that same timeframe, Texas A&M began to look like an elite team. And that’s the standard we’re measuring Oklahoma against right now.

OU quarterback Landry Jones led an offense that rang up 40 points a game, even having to go without a running game for good chunks of the year. If Damien Williams can get going on Friday night, it would make Jones’ life a lot easier. His career has been one of a Fantasy owner’s dream, with the boxscore-stuffing numbers, but games like this one have been an issue.

In the case of Manziel, he also leads his team in rushing. We’ve already seen two quarterbacks like that struggle in BCS games, Jordan Lynch for Northern Illinois and Kansas State’s Collin Klein. But since Manziel has already gotten done in Alabama, it seems safe to assume he’ll be the exception to the rule. That’s not to say a good game from running back Ben Malena wouldn’t help, but if Klein could beat Oklahoma, so could Manziel.

I’ve been high on the Big 12 all year, but the bowl season has been a mixed bag, with a 4-4 record. It seems a little simplistic to reduce the nuanced debate over conference strength to one game, but when it comes to bragging rights, I don’t think it’s unfair to say Texas A&M and Oklahoma decide whether the Big 12 or SEC had a better year. And even though I’ve been a Big 12 fan, I think the Sooners come up short here. A&M gets the win.

Outright Winner: Texas A&M
Pointspread Winner: Texas A&M (-3)
Totals Line: Under 74


Ole Miss-Pitt: Both teams won tough games in the final couple weeks to get bowl-eligible. It’s a little strange to say the SEC is out for revenge on the Big East, but after the way Louisville demolished Florida in the Sugar Bowl, that’s the case here. In my podcast on Monday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network, I picked Ole Miss. But after Louisville made the Big East 3-1 in bowl games, I’m going to shift gears and pick Pitt. Besides, I used to live in Pittsburgh and as a Wisconsin fan, I’m cheering on our former assistant Paul Chryst in his head coaching endeavors.

Outright Winner: Pitt
Pointspread Winner: Pitt (+3.5)
Totals Line: Under 53

Kent State-Arkansas State: Both teams lose their head coaches, with Kent’s Darrell Hazel going to Purdue and Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn on his way to Auburn. Both teams finished the season strong, with Kent only losing in double overtime to Northern Illinois, and Arkansas State surging to the Sun Belt title after a slow start. The difference in this game? Hazel, in a rare move, will coach his team in the bowl game. Based on that, I’m on Kent.

Outright Winner: Kent
Pointspread Winner: Arkansas State (-4)
Totals Line: Over 62.5

Outright Winners: 16-14
Pointspread Winners: 12-17-1
Totals Line: 16-14
*Did not pick Rose Bowl, due to fan bias towards Wisconsin