This is my fifth year ranking the viewing interest of all 32 bowl games. The past couple of years, I must confess, my eyes started glazing over (and my jokes started getting more sarcastic) earlier and earlier on the list. This year, however, you'll notice the drop-off doesn't come for a quite a bit. While unprecedented parity left us with a relatively weak set of teams at the top of the polls, the upside is the overall number of quality teams runs deeper.
And that makes for some good non-BCS bowl games.
Take, for instance, the Cotton Bowl. For years, this once-prestigious New Year's game had seen its profile sink lower and lower. It's been a long time since the Cotton Bowl truly made for must-see TV. This year, however, thanks in part to the Orange Bowl's puzzling selection of Big 12 North runner-up Kansas, the Dallas game gets a highly intriguing matchup between a pair of exciting teams -- Arkansas and Missouri -- led by likely Heisman finalists.
The Cotton Bowl checks in higher this year than it ever has on this list -- higher, in fact, than several BCS games.
1. BCS National Championship Game (Jan. 7): Ohio State (11-1) vs. LSU (11-2). Different year, same storyline: Big Ten brawn vs. SEC speed. It's a safe bet Jim Tressel will have the Buckeyes better prepared this time. The question is, will that be enough?
2. Sugar (Jan. 1): Hawaii (12-0) vs. Georgia (10-2). In his last game against Washington, Hawaii QB Colt Brennan went 42-of-50 for 442 yards, five touchdowns. Can he do it against an SEC defense, away from the islands? Can't wait to find out.
3. Cotton (Jan. 1): Missouri (11-2) vs. Arkansas (8-4). In this corner we have Chase Daniel, 4,000-yard passer. In the other corner, we've got Darren McFadden, in what will likely be his last college game. Sit back and enjoy -- there's going to be some offense.
4. Fiesta (Jan. 2): Oklahoma (11-2) vs. West Virginia (10-2). Two years ago, West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton burst onto the national scene with their Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. This time they need a win over the Sooners just to regain their mojo.
5. Rose: (Jan. 1): USC (10-2) vs. Illinois (9-3). He took the recruiting world by storm. He's righted Illinois' program in a major way. But can Ron Zook really beat both Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll in the same season? This could really be the apocalypse.
6. Orange (Jan. 3): Kansas (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2). Kansas QB Todd Reesing likes to scramble around and sling it. Virginia Tech's defense likes to sit back and pick it. Either way, someone's going to get burned.
7. Gator (Jan. 1): Virginia (9-3) vs. Texas Tech (8-4). Graham Harrell, meet Chris Long. He wears No. 91 for Virginia, but you won't have trouble recognizing him. He'll be the guy coming after you every time you attempt a pass -- and you attempt a lot of them.
8. Holiday (Dec. 27): Arizona State (10-2) vs. Texas (9-3). It's been four long years since the Longhorns last visited San Diego -- the longest Holiday Bowl drought of the Mack Brown era. He should still remember it well enough to give ASU coach Dennis Erickson a tour.
9. Capital One (Jan. 1): Florida (9-3) vs. Michigan (8-4). Is this a cruel joke? Seriously? It's Lloyd Carr's last game as Michigan's coach. His biggest headache the past 13 seasons has been mobile quarterbacks. So who does he get as a going-away present? Tim Tebow.
10. Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31): Clemson (9-3) vs. Auburn (8-4). My, oh my -- that's going to be a lot of orange. It's also going to be a clash between one of the nation's most dynamic offenses (Clemson) and one of its stingiest defenses (Auburn). But mostly a lot of orange.
11. Outback (Jan. 1): Wisconsin (9-3) vs. Tennessee (9-4). Look what we have here. It's another one of those lightning-rod Big Ten-SEC bowl matchups ... which SEC fans will conveniently ignore if the result doesn't go their way.
12. Sun (Dec. 31): USF (9-3) vs. Oregon (8-4). In their last game against Oregon State, the Ducks finally found themselves a healthy, functioning quarterback (redshirt freshman Justin Roper). But is his mohawk as cool as Bulls QB Matt Grothe's?
13. Liberty (Dec. 29): UCF (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (7-5). World, say hello to Kevin Smith. At 2,448 yards, the Golden Knights running back needs 181 more to break Barry Sanders' single-season record. But he's going to have to do it against a top 30 defense.
14. Las Vegas (Dec. 22): BYU (10-2) vs. UCLA (6-6). Despite winning their second straight Mountain West title, the Cougars have struggled to gain respect -- in large part because they lost to the Karl Dorrell-coached Bruins. They get a chance to avenge that.
15. Champs Sports (Dec. 28): Boston College (10-3) vs. Michigan State (7-5). Poor Eagles. Every year, without fail, the big-name bowls avoid them like they've got a disease. To BC's credit, it hasn't shown any disappointment in its seven-game bowl winning streak.
16. Insight (Dec. 31): Indiana (7-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6). Is this the world's greatest matchup? No. But it's a heck of a story. The late Terry Hoeppner's wife, Jane, is expected to be in attendance to watch the Hoosiers fulfill their beloved coach's goal of "playing 13."
17. Alamo (Dec. 29): Penn State (8-4) vs. Texas A&M (7-5). Recent Hall of Fame inductee Joe Paterno will coach his 500th career game in San Antonio. Too bad Dennis Franchione didn't bother sticking around for it -- anything to help Joe get a "W" on his special day.
18. Meineke (Dec. 29): UConn (9-3) vs. Wake Forest (8-4). These two upstarts met last season in East Hartford, with Wake prevailing 24-13. That game, played before either team's rise to prominence, went untelevised. This one's on national TV and for a trophy.
19. Emerald (Dec. 28): Oregon State (8-4) vs. Maryland (6-6). The stakes are high for Mike Riley and Ralph Friedgen. Why? The past two coaches to lose an Emerald Bowl, Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey (2005) and UCLA's Karl Dorrell (2006), were recently fired.
20. Music City (Dec. 31): Kentucky (7-5) vs. Florida State (7-5). It's been a fine two-year run for Andre Woodson and the Wildcats. Presumably, next year, Kentucky will return to irrelevance. Of course, we also assumed FSU would have become relevant again by now.
21. Hawaii (Dec. 23): Boise State (10-2) vs. East Carolina (7-5). This trip will undoubtedly take on special meaning for newlyweds Ian Johnson and the former Chrissy Popadics, who first met in Hawaii two years ago. The fact that I know that is slightly disturbing.
22. New Orleans (Dec. 21): Florida Atlantic (7-5) vs. Memphis (7-5). This is the under-the-radar game of the year. Howard Schnellenberger's Owls are a team on the rise, while Memphis has two of the best receivers (Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton) you've never seen.
23. Armed Forces (Dec. 31): Air Force (9-3) vs. Cal (6-6). I'm not one to choose sides, however -- wouldn't it be kind of wrong for Air Force not to win the Armed Forces Bowl? And to lose to a bunch of hippies from Berkeley at that? I'm sorry ... this simply cannot happen.
24. Independence (Dec. 30): Alabama (6-6) vs. Colorado (6-6). If I could have just one wish this Holiday season -- it would be for ESPN to let Eric Cartman introduce the Buffs' lineups again for this game. Because let's be honest: There's not a lot of other incentive to watch.
25. PapaJohns.com (Dec. 22): Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Southern Miss (7-5). Yes, the Bearcats play in the Big East now. No, this is not a regular-season Conference USA game. And yes, Southern Miss really did force out longtime-coach Jeff Bower. No, I cannot explain why.
26. Poinsettia (Dec. 20): Utah (8-4) vs. Navy (8-4). The best thing we can say about the very first game of this bowl season is ... there are at least six others less compelling. Get used to seeing Navy in this game, by the way: The Midshipmen have their own contract with the bowl.
27. Humanitarian (Dec. 31): Fresno State (8-4) vs. Georgia Tech (7-5). Fresno State coach Pat Hill says often his team will play "anyone, anytime, anywhere." He must really mean it -- because even Boise State itself begged to get out of this game.
28. Texas (Dec. 28): Houston (8-4) vs. TCU (7-5). Well I'll be danged -- them boys know how to put the "Texas" in Texas Bowl, don't they? A little Houston, a little Fort Worth -- throw a giant cowboy hat atop the Reliant roof and you've got yourselves a real, live Texas hoedown.
29. Motor City (Dec. 26): Central Michigan (8-5) vs. Purdue (7-5). Generally, bowl games try to avoid regular-season rematches -- particularly when the score of the first meeting was 45-22, Purdue. Ah -- but the Chippewas were just lulling them to sleep for this one!
30. International (Jan. 5): Rutgers (7-5) vs. Ball State (7-5). I'm sorry, but I must be hallucinating. The calendar says it's January 5, not September 5. Yet for some reason Rutgers is playing another MAC team. In Canada. Nurse -- more Demerol, please.
31. GMAC: (Jan. 6): Tulsa (9-4) vs. Bowling Green (8-4). A day before LSU and Ohio State tee it up in New Orleans, a nation of hungry football fans will gather around their televisions and watch ... well, the NFL playoffs. But this will be on, too.
32. New Mexico (Dec. 22): New Mexico (8-4) vs. Nevada (6-6). We've got a lot of problems to solve in this country -- education, unemployment, a mortgage crisis, rising gas prices. But at least we can all go to bed tonight knowing New Mexico will never be left out of a bowl game again.