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January 9, 2008

Plenty to be learned from bowl season

Rivals.com All-Bowl Team | Bowl Season in Photos | Regular Season Memorable Moments

The last piece of confetti hadn't fallen on the turf of the New Orleans Superdome before cries for a playoff resumed.

Georgia president Michael F. Adams sent a public letter to NCAA President Myles Brand with a proposal for an eight-team playoff Wednesday morning, just hours after LSU won its national championship.

Such is life in the BCS era. In a New Year's tradition on par with singing Auld Lang Syne and breaking resolutions, seasons end with more questions than answers.

For LSU and SEC fans: Can it get any better than this?

For Georgia, USC and Kansas: What about us?

For Illinois and Hawaii: Why were we playing on New Year's Day again?

The question lingering for anyone outside of Louisiana might be: Was LSU truly the best team in the nation?

Those questions will have to wait to be answered, if they're answered at all.

For now, here's what we learned after the 2007 bowl season.

Most impressive conference: SEC
Not only did the SEC claim the national title among its two BCS bowl wins, it won only one fewer bowl game than the Big Ten, Big East and ACC combined. The SEC's only losses came to Orange Bowl-snub Missouri (ranked fourth to finish the season) and Michigan (ranked 18th). The most convincing wins for the SEC came in the BCS, when LSU and Georgia beat one-loss Ohio State and undefeated Hawaii, respectively, by a combined 45 points.

Least impressive conference: MAC
Here's a sign bowl season didn't go so well: Central Michigan's 51-48 loss to Purdue was the league's shining moment as well as its best defensive performance. No MAC team allowed fewer than 51 points and 560 yards. Central Michigan, Ball State and Bowling Green combined to allow 166 points and 1,744 total yards. No surprise: The league was 0-3 in bowls.

Breakouts & Breakdowns

Breakout: LSU coach Les Miles hasn't quite been accepted into the coaching elite thanks to some of his quirkiness (Exhibit A: the "Wahoooo" at his post-bowl news conference). That might change now that he has a national championship under his belt. This season, Miles outdueled five coaches who previously had won national titles, with the fifth being Jim Tressel in the championship game.

Breakdown: Coaches who have won national titles were a combined 8-5 in bowls, and some of those losses were not kind to their legacies. Start with Tressel, who has been outscored 79-42 in his past two title-game appearances. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has lost four of his past five bowl games, including a 20-point loss to West Virginia this season.

Breakdown: The Heisman swoon in bowls spilled over to all of the Heisman finalists. Trophy winner Tim Tebow lost his bowl game, but he had the best day of any of the finalists. Darren McFadden (105 yards, one touchdown) and Chase Daniel (12 of 29, 136 yards) were outperformed in the Cotton Bowl by Missouri's Tony Temple. And Colt Brennan had the worst game of his career with 169 passing yards and three interceptions and that was when he could get a pass off.

Breakdown: The surprise of bowl season wasn't a single game, performance or upset. It was Michigan tailback Mike Hart's lack of sure hands. In his final game, he fumbled twice at the 1. Before his flubs against Florida, Hart had gone 1,004 consecutive touches without losing a fumble. No one looked more surprised about it than he did.

Breakout: Rich Rodriguez's first recruits at Michigan will have to be receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Once Lloyd Carr and Mike DeBord opened the playbook (and faced Florida's porous defense), the receivers showed what we knew all along that Michigan has some underutilized playmakers.

Breakout: Just when you gave up on California and Oregon thanks to unsettled quarterback play, Kevin Riley and Justin Roper proved you wrong. Riley, best known for his ill-advised last-play scramble in the loss to Oregon State, relieved Nate Longshore in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force when Cal trailed 21-0. Riley's new signature moment will be his 16-of-19 performance for 269 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-36 win. Oregon's offense struggled without Dennis Dixon over the final three games of the regular season, but the Ducks overwhelmed USF's defense in the Sun Bowl. Roper threw four touchdown passes.

Breakdown: If not for the MAC's futility, the ACC would have had the least impressive bowl season. Of the eight bowl teams from the league, only Boston College (over Michigan State) and Wake Forest (over Connecticut) won their games. With Virginia Tech's loss to Kansas in the Orange Bowl, the ACC now is 1-9 in BCS games; the lone win came against a team that now is in the ACC (Florida State over Virginia Tech for the 1999 national championship).

Breakout: Which team in Florida will enter 2008 with the most momentum? How about Florida Atlantic, the only one of five teams from the Sunshine State to win its bowl. The Owls clinched a bowl bid by defeating Sun Belt co-champ Troy on the last day of the season, then beat Memphis 44-27 in the New Orleans Bowl in its first bowl appearance. Sophomore Rusty Smith, who passed for 336 yards and five touchdowns against the Tigers, will likely be the preseason favorite for Sun Belt Player of the Year.

Breakdown: Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman can at least be thankful that message boards, blogs and MySpace.com weren't so prevalent when his interference with a foul ball coincided with the Cubs' collapse in the 2003 NLCS. Texas staffer Chris Jessee can be thankful the Longhorns didn't lose the Holiday Bowl. Jessee, a member of Texas' football operations staff and coincidentally Mack Brown's stepson, cost the Longhorns a fumble recovery when he was called for touching the ball from the sideline. Arizona State kept the ball after the penalty and scored on the following play. By the next morning, photos from Jessee's MySpace page could be found on sports blogs.

Breakout: Off-field distractions were overrated. Start with Florida State. Despite the Seminoles' litany of suspensions and injuries, Florida State kept up with Kentucky, going to halftime tied at 14 before losing 35-28. West Virginia, despite its coaching turmoil and a messy breakup with former coach Rich Rodriguez, rallied behind interim coach Bill Stewart for a 48-28 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Michigan carried its outgoing coach off the field after a bowl win. And despite coaching uncertainty and continued injuries to its quarterbacks, UCLA came within a blocked field goal of defeating BYU.

Breakdown: Given how many off-field problems there were during bowl season, some teams were bound to beat the odds with a good showing. Florida State suspended around two dozen players as a result of an academic cheating scandal. Oklahoma defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger was sent home from the Fiesta Bowl after he was arrested for shoplifting in Tempe, Ariz. A Texas A&M "Yell Leader" put the words " Joe Paterno," "death bed" and "casket" into the same sentence. Arkansas looked into accusations that Darren McFadden received a Cadillac Escalade from an agent. There also seemed to be unusually high number of impact players academically ineligible for bowls. And a few days after the Sun Bowl, the estranged wife of star USF linebacker Ben Moffitt told Tampa-area newspapers that she wrote papers and took online tests for him.

Breakout: UCF running back Kevin Smith fell short in his bid for Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record, but some of his Conference USA compatriots found their way into the record books. East Carolina running back Chris Johnson set a bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards (223 rushing yards, 32 receiving yards and 153 return yards) in an upset of Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith became the first quarterback to pass for 300 yards in 14 consecutive games in a victory over Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl. Tulsa also became the first team in NCAA history with a 5,000-yard passer (Smith), a 1,000-yard rusher (Tarrion Adams) and three 1,000-yard receivers (Brennan Marion, Trae Johnson and Charles Clay) in a season.

Breakout: Broadcasters made a big deal of the poor record for interim coaches in the bowls this year (1-5). Coordinators in transition had better results. Auburn's Tony Franklin, who took over for Al Borges after the regular season, led his offense to a 23-20 win over Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Outgoing Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe helped the Vols to a 21-17 win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl before leaving for Duke. And the most convincing performance came from Bo Pelini, whose LSU defense largely shut down Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game. Nebraska fans hope that will carry over into his first head-coaching job.

List 'O Rama

Top individual plays
1. Michigan wide receiver Adrian Arrington makes a juggling one-handed catch along the sideline against Florida in the Capital One Bowl.
2. On one memorable play, Georgia defensive end Marcus Howard bursts through the Hawaii offensive line for a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.
3. Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's 83-yard touchdown run against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
4. USF quarterback Matt Grothe fights through a would-be Oregon sack to get off a 21-touchdown pass to Taurus Johnson in the Sun Bowl.
5. Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson runs 96 yards for a touchdown against Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl for the longest touchdown run by a running back in bowl history.

Conference bowl records
SEC 7-2, 2-0 BCS
Big 12 5-3, 1-1 BCS
Mountain West 4-1
Pac-10 4-2, 1-0 BCS
Big East 3-2, 1-0 BCS
Conference USA 3-2
Big Ten 3-5, 0-2 BCS
Sun Belt 1-0
WAC 1-3, 0-1 BCS
Independents 0-1
MAC 0-3
Bowl breakouts
1. Joe McKnight, USC: His 206 total yards against Illinois are a big reason USC will be a preseason national-title contender.
2. Noel Devine, West Virginia: His 108-yard, two-touchdown rushing day shows West Virginia will be in good hands if Steve Slaton bolts for the NFL.
3. Ricky Jean-Francois, LSU: After his defensive MVP performance in the championship game, which included a key blocked field goal in the second quarter, LSU is looking forward to a full season from the sophomore defensive tackle. He was suspended for the first 12 games this season.
4. Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State: Bryant caught nine passes for 117 yards and two TDs against Indiana in the Insight Bowl, showing that the Cowboys' passing attack shouldn't miss a beat with star Adarius Bowman gone.
5. DeAngelo Smith, Cincinnati: Three interceptions against Southern Miss has the Bearcats optimistic that their secondary again will be strong next season.

Bowl no-shows
1. Hawaii's offense: Eight sacks allowed, six turnovers and 306 total yards.
2. Arizona State defense: The Sun Devils allowed Texas to roll up 474 yards and 52 points. Colt McCoy rushed for 84 yards.
3. Florida defense: The Gators scored 35 points and lost. If Appalachian State played defense like the Gators did in the Capital One Bowl, the season would not have opened with a monumental upset.
4. George Selvie: USF's defensive end led the nation in tackles for losses but managed only one assisted tackle against Oregon.
5. Georgia Tech's defense: Even with coordinator Jon Tenuta serving as interim head coach, the Yellow Jackets allowed Fresno State to put up 571 yards in a 40-28 loss.

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs can use the rout of Hawaii as a springboard to a national-title run.
2. West Virginia: No RichRod? No problem.
3. BYU: Defeating UCLA and finishing 11-2 could be a precursor for a BCS run in '08.
4. Alabama: At 7-6, Alabama at least ends the season with a winning record under Nick Saban.
5. Auburn: New coordinator Tony Franklin and quarterback Kodi Burns could be a nice match.

Momentum lost
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes recovered from one title-game rout, but what about doing it yet again?
2. Hawaii: What's worse than losing the Sugar Bowl 41-10? Losing Colt Brennan and June Jones
3. Florida: The defensive collapse against Michigan has to cause some apprehension about the possibility of an '08 title run.
4. Oklahoma: A whipping in the Fiesta Bowl is bad enough. When you add in the possibility of numerous underclassmen leaving for the NFL, you have to wonder if the Sooners will be the best team in the Big 12 next season.
5. Nevada: Late surges by Colin Kaepernick and Luke Lippincott raised the bar. A shutout against New Mexico lowered it.

A look at the top statistical producers from bowl season:
1. Curtis Painter, Purdue
The numbers: 35-of-54, 546 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions in 51-48 win over Central Michigan The Boilermakers needed every yard in their rematch with the Chippewas.
2. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
The numbers: 44-of-69, 407 yards, three touchdowns in 31-28 win over Virginia The Red Raiders rallied for their victory, and Harrell dinked-and-dunked the Cavs to death.
3. Chad Henne, Michigan
The numbers: 25-of-39, 373 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions in 41-35 win over Florida. Finally, a bowl win for the Wolverines' seniors.
4. Erik Ainge, Tennessee
The numbers: 25-of-43, 365 yards, two touchdowns in 21-17 win over Wisconsin Ainge gets a win in his second trip to the Outback Bowl.
5. Andre' Woodson, Kentucky
The numbers: 32-of-50, 358 yards, four touchdowns, an interception in 35-28 win over Florida State The Wildcats may have overlooked undermanned FSU but still came out with a win.
1. Tony Temple, Missouri
The numbers: 24 carries, 281 yards, four touchdowns in 38-7 win over Arkansas Be honest: This was not the running back you expected to have a big day in the Cotton Bowl.
2. Ray Rice, Rutgers
The numbers: 35 carries, 280 yards, four touchdowns in 52-30 win over Ball State Rice's big day in the International Bowl turned out to be his last at Rutgers.
3. Jonathan Stewart, Oregon
The numbers: 23 carries, 253 yards, touchdown in 56-21 win over USF Stewart picked up the slack in the absence of Dennis Dixon in the Sun Bowl.
4. Chris Johnson, East Carolina
The numbers: 28 carries, 223 yards, touchdown in 41-38 win over Hawaii. One of the biggest upsets of bowl season included a record day from Johnson.
5. Yvenson Bernard, Oregon State
The numbers: 38 carries, 181 yards, touchdown in 21-14 win over Maryland. Bernard turned in one more workhorse effort before he left Corvallis.
1. Adrian Arrington, Michigan
The numbers: Nine receptions, 153 yards, two touchdowns in 41-35 win over Florida His one-handed catch along the sideline was one of the highlights of bowl season.
2. Dustin Keller, Purdue
The numbers: Seven receptions, 150 yards, touchdown in 51-48 win over Central Michigan The tight end was one of three 100-yard receivers for Purdue.
3. Robert Jordan, California
The numbers: Six receptions, 148 yards, touchdown in 42-36 win over Air Force Kevin Riley and Jordan made sure Cal avoided a losing record.
4. Rich Gunnell, Boston College
The numbers: Six receptions, 138 yards, two touchdowns in 24-21 win over Michigan State Gunnell made sure Matt Ryan went out a winner.
5. Greg Orton, Purdue
The numbers: Nine catches, 136 yards, touchdown in 51-48 win over Central Michigan He was one part of the offensive onslaught against MAC defenses in the postseason.

Rivals.com All-Bowl Team | Bowl Season in Photos | Regular Season Memorable Moments

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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