Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)Dec. 30, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: If not playing for a BCS championship, the Oklahoma Sooners probably figured their postseason destination would be Arizona. Just not in December, and not in Tempe at Sun Devil Stadium. And not as the undercard while their upstart rival Oklahoma State prepared for the Fiesta Bowl. There are various storylines -- and we all know how bowls love storylines -- including Bob Stoops coaching against his alma mater, the friendship of Stoops and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes' desire to send retiring defensive coordinator Norm Parker out with a win. But nothing is as compelling as the Sooners' fall from preseason No. 1 ... and our morbid curiosity as to whether they can get back up. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, lost three of their last five and will play without their leading rusher, but have won three straight bowl games.
Keep an eye on: Oklahoma's defense, which was very good in several important victories in the season's first half but gave up 1,683 yards and 130 points in three losses to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Most of the damage came through the air; Oklahoma has been good against the run, allowing only 139 yards a game. The Hawkeyes will be without leading rusher Marcus Coker -- a violation of, uh, team rules (it's ALWAYS those!). Coker accounted for 1,354 rushing yards (oddly, a year ago, Coker replaced leading rusher Adam Robinson, who had been suspended, and rushed for 219 yards in an Insight Bowl win over Missouri). Indications are the Hawkeyes will go with running back-by-committee, and the potential difficulty in running makes it harder for a pedestrian passing game (Iowa ranked 57th nationally) to exploit the Sooners' occasionally porous pass defense. Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg (26 touchdowns, six interceptions) is efficient, and receiver Marvin McNutt (78 catches, 1,269 yards, 12 touchdowns) is within reach of the school's single-season and career receptions records, needing five and eight catches, respectively. But Iowa allowed 26 sacks, and Oklahoma recorded 37. If the Hawkeyes can't run, things could get ugly -- but again, in the second half of the season, Oklahoma's opponents passed at will.
Did you know: When Iowa played in the Insight Bowl a year ago, Stoops and his wife Carol were spotted wearing Hawkeyes gear to the game. That shouldn't necessarily be a surprise, since they're alumni (Stoops played defensive back, Carol was a cheerleader). The connections run deep: Stoops recalled helping paint Ferentz's house 30 years ago, when Stoops was an Iowa graduate assistant and Ferentz was an assistant. In 1998, when he was the defensive coordinator at Florida, Stoops interviewed for the Iowa head-coaching vacancy, but chose Oklahoma instead. Ferentz was hired a few days later, and the coaches have remained close. This is their first meeting.
Final analysis: A 9-3 record might get some coaches a raise and a contract extension. Never mind that the Sooners lost All-America receiver Ryan Broyles and leading rusher Dominique Whaley to season-ending injuries, or that without Broyles, Landry Jones didn't throw a touchdown pass in the Sooners' last three games. In Norman, especially in a season with expectations of a national title run, the season felt like disaster. It's fair to be concerned about the Sooners' motivation, which is always a factor in bowl games. Ultimately, Oklahoma has too much talent, especially on the offensive side of the football, for an Iowa defense that struggled for much of the season to overcome. Ranking last in the Big Ten in pass defense is not a recipe for success against a future first-round pick like Jones, even without Broyles. Odds makers have Oklahoma favored by two touchdowns, which is about right.
The pick: Oklahoma 31, Iowa 17
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