Bill Trocchi
Wednesday December 23rd, 2009

No. 23 Utah (9-3) vs. Cal (8-4) Dec. 23, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Reason to watch: For the second straight night, the Mountain West gets a chance to prove just how much the gap has narrowed between itself and the Pac-10. With TCU one win from matching Utah's 2008 feat of an undefeated season and BYU demolishing one-time Rose Bowl hopeful Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Poinsettia provides one more chance for the league to best its Western neighbor and prove it's on par with the BCS conferences. Unfortunately, the bowl will not offer what would have been one of its biggest draws, as Cal running back Jahvid Best still has not recovered from the frightening concussion he suffered against Oregon State. The electric Best rates among the best backs in college football, so his absence knocks this contest down a peg one the Must-See TV scale.

Keep an eye on: The former backup running backs. Cal's Shane Vereen stepped in for Best and averaged 147.7 yards and five yards per carry in Cal's final three games, including a 193-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over Stanford. The sophomore has filled Best's shoes admirably and will be called on often against a Utah defense that is more vulnerable to the run than the pass. Utah has its own backup back story, as Eddie Wide replaced starter Matt Asiata after the latter's season-ending injury in Week 4 and wound up leading the MWC in rushing with 1,032 yards. Wide recorded seven 100-yard games and led the MWC in touchdowns with 13.

Did you know: Utah's eight-game winning streak in bowl games is the nation's longest and three short of Florida State's all-time record of 11. Utah has beaten USC, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Alabama during the streak and has won five of its last six by at least 12 points. Cal's postseason play hasn't been too shabby, either, as the Bears boast an 8-2 bowl record since 1990 and four straight wins.

Final analysis: Cal has been wildly inconsistent this season, with its four losses coming by an average of 28.8 points and its eight wins by an average of 21.5 points. When the Bear -- specifically QB Kevin Riley -- show up, they can be very tough. However, motivation is a factor in this one, and the Bears didn't have San Diego on their minds when they began this season with such hype. Utah, though, will have no trouble gearing up to notch its 10th win in a "rebuilding" year. Plus, there's always the conference pride factor, which constantly drives the Mountain West. Utah's stellar pass defense will give Riley fits, and the Utes will extend the nation's longest bowl streak.

The pick: Utah 34, Cal 23

Click here for more bowl previews.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.