Penn State (9-3) vs. Houston (12-1)Jan. 2, Noon (ESPNU)
Reason to watch: Houston quarterback Case Keenum will wrap up the best six-year college career since Van Wilder against the best defense he'll see this season. If the Penn State players haven't totally checked out -- and could you blame them if they have? -- the bowl should be a fascinating case study of a relentless, pass-happy, huddle-free offense against a stout defense that has only shown fissures against smashmouth, run-first teams (Alabama, Wisconsin). Also, neither team will be coached by the man who started the season in the head coach's office. Houston already has named Tony Levine to replace Kevin Sumlin. At Penn State, Tom Bradley is trying to replace Joe Paterno on a permanent basis, but there may be too much baggage post-scandal for the Nittany Lions to elevate a longtime Paterno assistant. Meanwhile, Penn State has quarterback issues. Starter Matt McGloin, who suffered a seizure and a concussion after his head hit the floor during a post-practice scuffle with receiver Curtis Drake, might not be able to play against Houston. If McGloin is out, Penn State would have to turn to Rob Bolden, whose five-finger discount for a Gatorade and two bags of chips -- which will cost him $293.67 in fines and court costs -- will be handled with internal discipline.
Keep an eye on: Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, who was a finalist for three major national awards (Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland), but got shut out on the rubber chicken circuit. The nation's best defensive tackle can show voters how wrong they were by wreaking havoc on Houston's passing game. Still has an excellent motor, and he routinely beats double-teams. Against Houston, Still's ability to occupy blockers will keep pressure on Keenum while allowing the Nittany Lions the freedom to use all their linebackers in pass coverage more often.
Did you know: Penn State players held a meeting after learning they had fallen to the TicketCity Bowl, which gets the seventh choice of Big Ten teams. Some players, feeling disrespected by the selection process, suggested the Nittany Lions skip the bowl in protest. After all, Penn State was in the race for the Leaders Division title until the final week of the regular season. The Nittany Lions certainly were not the seventh-best team in the Big Ten. Veteran players calmed down their younger counterparts, and the Nittany Lions decided to play in the game. The first look at Houston on video probably convinced Penn State players that while they had been stiffed by the bowl selection process, they wound up with a tougher opponent than they would have seen in several more prestigious bowls.
Final analysis: The key to beating Keenum, the NCAA's all-time leading passer in every major category, is getting pressure on him using only the front four. If Houston's five offensive linemen can't block your four defensive linemen, you're going to beat the Cougars. (SEC defensive coordinators should keep this in mind when they face former Houston coach Sumlin's Texas A&M team next year.) That was the case in Houston's Conference USA title game loss to Southern Miss, and it could be the case against Penn State. But if Keenum gets any time to throw, he will carve up an opposing defense -- especially a defense that may not be entirely thrilled to be at the game in the first place.
The pick: Houston 28, Penn State 24