The Bowl Championship Series era of college football has been fruitful for the Southeastern Conference and downright glorious for the state of Alabama.
Alabama and Auburn have combined to make five consecutive appearances in BCS title games, with the Crimson Tide winning titles in 2009, 2011 and again last season. The Tigers won it all in 2010 and are back this season, but they are decided underdogs to top-ranked Florida State despite having rushed for 1,164 yards their last three games against Georgia, Alabama and Missouri.
"I think if you look at our entire schedule, I would like to think we are battle-tested," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said at a news conference last week. "We've been in some true dogfight games. We've been in some games where the pressure was on on the road, at home, and our guys have responded. In big games I know they are not going to panic, so I've got to believe that will help us moving forward."
Florida State played in the first three BCS title games, losing the inaugural event to Tennessee but winning the next one over Virginia Tech and quarterback Michael Vick. The Seminoles fell from the national elite after losing the BCS championship to Oklahoma after the 2000 season, a slide that coincided with offensive coordinator Mark Richt leaving to become Georgia's head coach.
FSU is back behind fourth-year coach Jimbo Fisher and Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston, but there are 16 other bowl games worth dissecting before the Jan. 6 showdown in Pasadena:
PINSTRIPE (Dec. 28)
Notre Dame vs. Rutgers
A year after entering the BCS championship game as the nation's top-ranked team, the 8-4 Irish can't be overly motivated to play the Scarlet Knights in the Bronx. Notre Dame will encounter a team that went 3-5 in American Athletic Conference play, with all five losses by double digits. Irish 30, Scarlet Knights 13.
Louisville vs. Miami
These two former Big East members have combined for 20 wins, though all of them came against teams that finished the regular season unranked. Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has thrown for 3,523 yards with 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and he has yet to announce whether he will be leaving early for the NFL. The Hurricanes were never elite this season, even when they had their entire offensive arsenal, but winning a 10th game would help show that Al Golden is taking this program out of a mediocre decade better known for NCAA sanctions. Cardinals 24, Hurricanes 22.
MTSU vs. Navy
Neither team backed into this one, with the Midshipmen having won four straight to close the regular season and the Blue Raiders having won five in a row. Long layoffs often factor into bowl games, but this will be only a 16-day break for Navy, which whipped rival Army on Dec. 14. Midshipmen 35, Blue Raiders 26.
MUSIC CITY (Dec. 30)
Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
The first of 10 SEC bowl participants makes its appearance in this pairing of 7-5 teams coming off losses to their state rivals, neither of which ended in regulation. Ole Miss lost a three-point lead in the Egg Bowl and fumbled away its overtime possession, and the Yellow Jackets blew a 20-0 lead in a double-overtime loss to Georgia. Which team can get off the mat is the key to this one, as is Ole Miss's desire to stop the Tech triple-option. Yellow Jackets 27, Rebels 24.
ALAMO (Dec. 30)
Oregon vs. Texas
Had this game been played in September, the Ducks would have been picked to win 56-7. Much has changed since then, most notably Mack Brown's decision to step down after 16 seasons of guiding the Longhorns. That will lead to a lot of inspiration against Oregon, which fell off sharply in November but should be the stronger team in San Antonio with a healthier Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Ducks 31, Longhorns 29.
LIBERTY (Dec. 31)
Rice vs. Mississippi State
Mississippi State was 4-6 with two weeks left in the regular season but won overtime games over Arkansas and Ole Miss to clinch a school-record fourth consecutive bowl bid. Rice already is a 10-game winner and the Conference USA champion, so there won't be any moping around in this one. Bulldogs 20, Owls 17.
CHICK-FIL-A (Dec. 31)
Duke vs. Texas A&M
Ten wins were expected from Texas A&M before the season, but instead it was Duke accomplishing the feat under David Cutcliffe, who was won multiple coach of the year honors. This is likely it for Texas A&M redshirt sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel, who is a projected first-round selection in May's NFL draft. The Aggies have been atrocious this season defensively, but Manziel has been Manziel, which should be more than enough to get his team past the Blue Devils. Aggies 45, Blue Devils 28.
GATOR (Jan. 1)
Georgia vs. Nebraska
A rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl isn't exactly what either of these fan bases wanted, and both quarterbacks from Georgia's 45-31 win in Orlando are out for this one. There is still the tailback pairing of Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who has rushed for 1,568 yards, and Georgia's Todd Gurley, who when healthy is as good as it gets. Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said after his last game, "If they want to fire me, go ahead." Mark Richt said nothing of the sort. Bulldogs 41, Cornhuksers 24.
OUTBACK (Jan. 1)
Iowa vs. LSU
This is a tricky one considering the Tigers have the substantial talent advantage but will be without quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU coach Les Miles won his first four bowls with the Tigers but has lost three of four bowls since, and the Hawkeyes likely will be the more motivated team coming off their rout of Nebraska in Lincoln. Always expect the unexpected with Miles, who still has a stable of dangerous tailbacks. Tigers 24, Hawkeyes 20.
CAPITAL ONE (Jan. 1)
Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will be hard-pressed to top the highlight hit he provided in last season's Outback Bowl at the expense of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith, but Clowney showed earlier this month on the South Carolina interstate that he can come at you at 110 mph. South Carolina is coming off a fifth consecutive win over Clemson and is seeking a third consecutive 11-2 season, but the Badgers have been a thorn for SEC teams in the land of Disney. Badgers 23, Gamecocks 19.
ROSE (Jan. 1)
Stanford vs. Michigan State
There could be several high-scoring games at the turn of the new year, but this should not be among them. The Cardinal allow 18.6 points per game, and the Spartans have been even more impressive, yielding 12.7. This, however, is Stanford's second straight trip to Pasadena, while the Spartans could be wide-eyed in their first trek since the 1987 season. Stanford 24, Michigan State 14.
FIESTA (Jan. 1)
Baylor vs. Central Florida
This is the biggest game in the history of the American Athletic Conference, which doesn't have much of a history to this point, nor will it on New Year's night. The Bears will have a decided crowd advantage, just as they did when they beat Oklahoma and Texas by a combined 49 points. Bears 44, Central Florida 21.
SUGAR (Jan. 2)
Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Only two previous times since 2008 has Alabama gone to a bowl that didn't have the national title at stake, and the Crimson Tide experienced mixed results. They fell behind Utah 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl after the '08 season and lost 31-17, but they massacred Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl after the 2010 season. A 12-win season and a No. 2 final ranking are at stake for Alabama, and while that wasn't the goal in August, the trip to New Orleans could serve as a springboard to more prosperity in 2014. Crimson Tide 35, Sooners 14.
COTTON (Jan. 3)
Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
Missouri was pummeled so severely by Auburn's running game in the SEC championship that defensive coordinator Dave Steckel won't answer questions about it. The Cowboys come in with even more heartbreak after losing the Big 12 title in the worst way, blowing a late lead at home against rival Oklahoma. The Cowboys owned the Tigers during their last few Big 12 meetings, but this has all the makings of a high-scoring affair that stays tight. Tigers 34, Cowboys 31.
ORANGE (Jan. 3)
Clemson vs. Ohio State
This is going head to head with the Cotton Bowl -- yet the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl gets its own time slot -- and also contains two teams coming off disappointing setbacks. This is Clemson's first trip to the Orange Bowl since giving up 70 points to West Virginia two seasons ago, and it's the first Clemson-Ohio State pairing since legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes struck Tigers noseguard Charlie Bauman after Bauman intercepted Art Schlichter to seal Clemson's 17-15 win in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Buckeyes 31, Tigers 24.
COMPASS (Jan. 4)
Vanderbilt vs. Houston
Technically this is the first January bowl game in Vanderbilt history, so take that for what it's worth. There are plenty in the Commodore Nation who are irritated that a second consecutive 8-4 regular season, which included the first sweeping of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in program history, resulted in a destination that had the last pick this season of SEC bowl-eligible teams. At least the Commodores don't have to face Pittsburgh, who had its 2010, '11 and '12 seasons end at Legion Field. Commodores 17, Cougars 16.
BCS TITLE GAME (Jan. 6)
Florida State vs. Auburn
Then there is this final matchup of the undefeated Seminoles and the once-beaten Tigers, who had a closing run that contained two of the most memorable plays the sport has ever produced. Auburn followed its frenetic November by claiming a 59-42 track meet over Missouri for the SEC title. Had this game been a week after the conference championships, the Tigers likely would have continued their surge, but the thought here is that the 30-day layoff will result in Auburn struggling to replicate the dominance it displayed down the stretch. Seminoles 26, Tigers 23.