BOWL STORIES: Finales, contrasts in style, coaching carousel
The Alabama invitational, um, College Football Playoff is set, along with 38 other bowl games big and small.
From coaching intrigue to record-setting runs there should be plenty of story lines to follow.
Top-ranked Alabama and Nick Saban are attempting to win an unprecedented fifth national title in eight seasons, including back-to-back for a second time, and add to what can already be considered the greatest run in the history of college football.
The Peach Bowl semifinal between the Tide and No. 4 Washington it will also be the first meeting of Saban and Washington coach Chris Petersen, who has an .826 winning percentage since he first became a head coach with Boise State in 2006.
Petersen's Boise teams were known for upsets. Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite.
The Fiesta Bowl semifinal between No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State is a rematch of the 2014 Orange Bowl won by Clemson 40-35. That game completed a late-season meltdown of Ohio State's defense that led coach Urban Meyer to make staff and scheme changes that have helped the Buckeyes have one of the top defenses in the country three years running.
RUSHING TOWARD A RECORD
San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey needs 108 yards in his final college game against Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 17 to break the FBS career record held by former Wisconsin star and Heisman winner Ron Dayne.
The Cougars, led by star freshman defensive lineman Ed Oliver, have one of the best run defenses in the country, allowing 97 yards per game and 2.87 per carry.
Pumphrey is the nation's second-leading rusher at 155 yards per game.
Houston will go into its bowl game with an interim coach after Tom Herman left for Texas and a few other schools could be in similar situations.
- No. 12 Western Michigan is on its way to the biggest bowl game in school history, a matchup with No. 8 Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, but coach P.J. Fleck has been the subject of much speculation with regards to openings at Purdue and Oregon.
- Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm has been tied to Purdue and Baylor openings. The Hilltoppers, who have won two straight Conference USA titles, face Memphis on Dec. 20 in the Boca Raton Bowl.
- Boise State and Baylor meet Dec. 27 at Cactus Bowl in Phoenix. It will be the last game for Jim Grobe, Baylor's acting head coach who took over on short notice after Art Briles was fired in the summer.
Broncos coach Bryan Harsin is being mentioned as candidate for Oregon.
The best bowls are often the ones between teams that take very different approaches to offense.
- Navy will bring its triple-option (averaging 327 yards rushing per game) to the Armed Forces Bowl to face Louisiana Tech, which averages 360 yards passing per game behind quarterback Ryan Higgins.
- Minnesota faces Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, but only the Cougars have the pedigree to live up to the bowl's high-scoring tradition. Minnesota has thrown eight touchdown passes, tied for 124th in the nation. The Cougars have 39 touchdown passes.
- North Carolina's up-tempo offense matches Stanford's plodding, traditional pro-style in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30.
IN NEED OF A STRONG FINISH
The Music City Bowl in Nashville was definitely not what Tennessee (8-4) and coach Butch Jones had in mind this season after the Volunteers beat Florida in September. But here the Vols are facing No. 24 Nebraska (9-3).
Not only did the Vols blow a chance to win the SEC East by losing to South Carolina, but they blew a chance to back into the Sugar Bowl by losing to Vanderbilt.
On the other side, No. 24 Nebraska's second season under coach Mike Riley was a huge step forward from five wins to nine. But the Cornhuskers were a top-10 team in late October and their best victory of the season was against Minnesota. Getting to 10 wins against a big brand like Tennessee would make a huge difference to how this season is viewed.
A great group of junior running backs could all be playing their final college games.
- Christian McCaffrey at Stanford should find some room to run against a North Carolina defense that had trouble stopping teams on the ground late in the season.
- No. 19 LSU's Leonard Fournette faces No. 15 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31. Fournette has been hampered by an ankle injury but it would be nice to get one more look at him running for the Tigers.
And, oh by the way, the Heisman Trophy winner might be on the other side of the field. Cardinal quarterback Lamar Jackson is still the front-runner and would be the first Heisman winner since Johnny Manziel in 2012 to not play in either the playoff or the BCS championship.
- No. 10 Florida State against No. 6 Michigan in the Orange Bowl is one of the best bowls outside the playoff and a big part of that is Seminoles star Dalvin Cook.
- Pitt's James Conner has been one of the best stories in college football, returning from cancer treatment to run for 1,060 yards and score 20 touchdowns. He and the 22nd-ranked Panthers face Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twittre.com/ralphDrussoAP
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