Monday December 8th, 2003

A year after one of the most unmemorable bowl seasons in history, this season's postseason lineup -- at least on paper -- has the potential for quite a few intriguing matchups.

Then again, there are also some real stinkers.

Instead of ranking teams this week (let's face it -- it's been done), here now are my rankings of the 28 upcoming bowl games:

1) Sugar (Jan. 4): Oklahoma (12-1) vs. LSU (12-1). Rest assured, regular season Oklahoma -- not Big 12 title game Oklahoma -- will show up for this one. The question is, will it make a difference against LSU?

2) Rose (Jan. 1): USC (11-1) vs. Michigan (10-2). You know it will be sunny and gorgeous in Pasadena, though USC's Mike Williams is likely to rain on the parade for the Wolverines' secondary.

3) Fiesta (Jan. 2): Kansas State (11-3) vs. Ohio State (10-2). After making mincemeat out of Oklahoma's vaunted D, what better challenge for Darren Sproles than facing the nation's top-ranked rushing defense?

4) Orange (Jan. 1): Miami (10-2) vs. Florida State (10-2). On the one hand, it's a rematch of an ugly, one-sided regular-season game. On the other hand, it's Miami and FSU -- something wild's gonna happen.

5) Holiday (Dec. 30): Texas (10-2) vs. Washington State (9-3). If this goes anything like Texas' last two trips to San Diego -- a 47-43 win over Washington, a 35-30 loss to Oregon -- expect to be entertained.

6) Fort Worth (Dec. 23): Boise State (12-1) vs. TCU (11-1). Not a bad way to break in a new bowl game. The hometown Horned Frogs finally face a worthy adversary against the high-flying, highly legit Broncos.

7) Outback (Jan. 1): Iowa (9-3) vs. Florida (8-4). Exactly the kind of intersectional matchup you'd only see in a bowl game, as SEC speed -- not to mention freshman QB Chris Leak -- collides with Big Ten brawn.

8) Cotton (Jan. 2): Oklahoma State (9-3) vs. Ole Miss (9-3). Two teams making their first trip to Dallas in a half-century, along with a new exclusive time slot, are sure to put some pep back in the aged classic.

9) Capital One (Jan. 1): Georgia (10-3) vs. Purdue (9-3). A rematch of the 2000 Outback Bowl, when the Boilers built a 25-0 halftime lead only to watch Quincy Carter and the Dawgs rally for a 28-25 victory.

10) Gator (Jan. 1): Maryland (9-3) vs. West Virginia (8-4). Wasn't much of a contest when the Terps beat the Mountaineers 34-7, but that was before Quincy Wilson and Co. rolled off seven straight W's to end the season.

11) Houston (Dec. 30): Navy (8-4) vs. Texas Tech (7-5). The ultimate contrast of styles: The Midshipmen and their triple-option offense against Red Raiders QB B.J. Symons and his 5,000-plus passing yards.

12) Continental Tire (Dec. 27): Pittsburgh (8-4) vs. Virginia (7-5). The teams aren't all that compelling, but the game has at least one element for excitement the other 27 lack: Panthers receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

13) GMAC (Dec. 18): Miami of Ohio (12-1) vs. Louisville (9-3). Probably your last chance to see standout RedHawks QB Ben Roethlisberger before he becomes your favorite NFL team's first-round pick next April.

14) Independence (Dec. 31): Missouri (8-4) vs. Arkansas (8-4). It's a good chance for electrifying Mizzou QB Brad Smith to launch his 2004 Heisman campaign -- that is, if Hogs QB Matt Jones doesn't get the upper hand.

15) Alamo (Dec. 29): Nebraska (9-3) vs. Michigan State (8-4). It's a down year for the Alamo, which usually gets a more invigorating matchup than a team that just fired its coach against a team that's lost three of its last four.

16) Tangerine (Dec. 22): N.C. State (7-5) vs. Kansas (6-6). Two big-time quarterbacks (N.C. State's Philip Rivers, Kansas' Bill Whittemore) plus two pretty darn bad defenses equal lots of points, lots of big plays. So fun.

17) Liberty (Dec. 31): Utah (9-2) vs. Southern Miss (9-3). Urban Meyer's Utes are an exciting team that won its conference. The Eagles are a fairly boring team but, to their credit, also won their conference. A rarity in bowls.

18) Peach (Jan. 2): Tennessee (10-2) vs. Clemson (8-4). The overachieving Vols couldn't be any less thrilled to be here. The overachieving Tigers are tickled pink (well, orange). What that will mean, I have not the foggiest.

19) Sun (Dec. 31): Minnesota (9-3) vs. Oregon (8-4). OK, this is the part of the list where it starts to get pretty rough. Haven't we seen this game already? Does anyone actually watch the Sun Bowl? Most people are still at work.

20) Insight (Dec. 26): Virginia Tech (8-4) vs. Cal (7-6). Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the only team to beat No. 1 USC this season, Cal, and one of only two teams to beat Miami, the Hokies. Too bad they lost to everyone else.

21) Music City (Dec. 31): Auburn (7-5) vs. Wisconsin (7-5). This is only about, oh, five rungs lower than Tigers fans were expecting back in August, and you know the Badgers had grander visions after they knocked off Ohio State.

22) Hawaii (Dec. 25): Hawaii (8-4) vs. Houston (7-5). The best freshman in the country you've never heard of is Cougars QB Kevin Kolb. He'll match wits with much-touted Warriors QB Timmy Chang, who can barely hold his job.

23) Las Vegas (Dec. 24): New Mexico (8-4) vs. Oregon State (7-5). Two great running backs, the Lobos' DonTrell Moore and the Beavers' Steven Jackson, try to fill the void that Sin City's felt ever since that tiger attacked Roy.

24) Humanitarian (Jan. 3): Tulsa (8-4) vs. Georgia Tech (6-6). Congratulations, Tulsa. You've pulled off the biggest turnaround in I-A. Your reward: A trip to Boise in January to play a mediocre ACC team on blue turf.

25) New Orleans (Dec. 16): North Texas (9-3) vs. Memphis (8-4). USC might not be going to the Big Easy, but the Mean Green seem to go every year. The Tigers are just happy to be bowling for the first time since '71.

26) San Francisco (Dec. 31): Colorado State (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5). Why go out for New Year's when you can stay home and watch a third-place Mountain West team play a fifth-place Big East team?

27) Motor City (Dec. 26): Bowling Green (10-3) vs. Northwestern (6-6). Think about this: If these teams played in September, it probably wouldn't even make ESPN Plus.

28) Silicon Valley (Dec. 30): Fresno State (8-5) vs. UCLA (6-6). Fresno is playing Washington to open next season so bowl organizers went with the Bruins, despite the fact they haven't won a game since October.

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