Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With bowl season upon us, college football fans are given the holiday gift of 35 bowl games to enjoy over the course of three weeks.
Most of the recognition goes to the BCS bowls, and rightly so. They carry the most prestige and feature the best teams in the country, but there are plenty of quality matchups to go around this season outside of the BCS, and here's five of the best.
Las Vegas Bowl: Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4), Dec. 21
The bowl schedule wastes no time in ramping up the intrigue, as Fresno State and USC highlight a four-game opener on Saturday, Dec. 21. The Bulldogs, undefeated after 10 games, appeared destined for a BCS bowl bid prior to their Nov. 29 loss at San Jose State. They redeemed themselves somewhat in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game, however, by defeating Utah State (24-17), and this matchup will mark one last game for star quarterback Derek Carr (.701, 4,866 yards, 48 TDs, seven INTs), who expects to be a first-round pick in next spring's NFL Draft. As for the Trojans, many people wrote them off early in the season after firing Lane Kiffin, but they managed to string together a five-game win streak under Ed Orgeron to jump back on the national radar. USC made a splash last week by bringing aboard Steve Sarkisian as its new head coach, although offensive coordinator Clay Helton will act as the interim coach for the Las Vegas Bowl.
Alamo Bowl: Oregon (10-2) vs. Texas (8-4), Dec. 30
While this matchup may ultimately be a disappointing one for the respective teams involved, each of which had high hopes for a BCS bid during the regular season, it will certainly be a treat for the fans. The Ducks not only fell short of their national-championship aspirations, but they failed to win the Pac-12 Conference for the second straight year after suffering losses to Stanford (26-20) and Arizona (42-16). The Longhorns had an opportunity to clinch the Big 12 Conference title on the final day of the season before losing to Baylor, 30-10, and they have made headlines off the field recently with news surfacing of Mack Brown's reign as head coach coming to end. All the drama aside, this contest boasts plenty of high-caliber offensive talent on both sidelines, and it will be interesting to see if Texas can go toe-to-toe with Oregon's third-ranked scoring offense after failing to keep pace with Baylor's top-ranked unit earlier this month.
Chick-fil-A Bowl: Duke (10-3) vs. Texas A&M (8-4), Dec. 31
Few stories in the FBS this season can match what the Blue Devils have accomplished in David Cutcliffe's sixth season as head coach. They won the ACC Coastal Division and have qualified for a bowl game for the second straight season for the first time in school history, and their 10-win campaign is a program record for a team that last had a winning season in 1994. Duke's impressive defensive unit will be put to the test on New Year's Eve when it squares off against the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and 2013 finalist had nearly as good a season as he did a year ago, posting eye-popping numbers across the board (3,732 passing yards, 686 rushing yards, 41 total TDs), although he did see his interception total increase to 13. This could be one final showcase performance for Johnny Football, who's made just as many headlines off the field as he has on it over the past year, as he's expected to declare himself eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2), Jan. 1
Very quietly, Wisconsin has been one of the nation's most consistent teams in recent years, as it won the Big Ten title every season from 2010-12, which resulted in three straight Rose Bowl appearances. Although the Badgers were shut out of the BCS in Gary Andersen's first year as head coach, the campaign was hardly a letdown at 9-3, which included a six-game win streak, and they stand out as having one of the nation's best scoring defenses (14.8 ppg) as well as an elite rushing attack anchored by the dynamic duo of Melvin Gordon (1,466 yards, 12 TDs) and James White (1,337, 13 TDs). South Carolina was also a silent killer this season. After falling out of favor in the national polls early on with a 41-30 loss at Georgia, the Gamecocks stayed the course with wins in nine of their last 10 to close out the year, including victories over UCF (28-25), Missouri (27-24 in 2OT) and Clemson (31-17). Connor Shaw was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country this season with 21 touchdowns against only one interception, but all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney, who will look to make good on a disappointing season (3.0 sacks) in what is more than likely his final collegiate game.
Cotton Bowl: Missouri (11-2) vs. Oklahoma State (10-2), Jan. 3
Arguably the most prestigious of the non-BCS bowl games, and without a doubt a showdown of high-octane offenses that is sure to make college football fans salivate, the Cotton Bowl is destined to bring us one of the best matchups of the season after both the Tigers and Cowboys missed out on the BCS on the final day of the regular season. The fall for Missouri was a mighty one, as it likely would have played in the national championship game had it defeated Auburn in the SEC title tilt, and while disappointment has surely set in for the Tigers, their outstanding 11-2 campaign, their fourth of 10 or more victories in the past seven years, cannot be overlooked. Oklahoma State controlled its own destiny in its quest for the Big 12 title, although it too faltered when the spotlight was brightest, losing at home to Oklahoma (33-24) in the season finale to make room for Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Talent is abound in this bout between former conference rivals, especially when it comes to their respective dual-threat quarterbacks. The Tigers' James Franklin (2,255 passing yards, 474 rushing yards, 23 TDs) shined despite missing four games with a shoulder injury, and the Cowboys' turning point this season came when they handed the reins on a full-time basis to Clint Chelf (1,792 passing yards, 321 rushing yards, 21 TDs).
Five other games to keep an eye on -- Outback Bowl, LSU (9-3) vs. Iowa (8-4); TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia (8-4) vs. Nebraska (8-4); Russell Athletic Bowl, Louisville (11-1) vs. Miami (9-3), Hyundai Sun Bowl, UCLA (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4); National University Holiday Bowl, Arizona State (10-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)