Where: Houston, Texas.
When: 11 a.m., December 31, ESPN.
Why to watch: Northwestern makes a return bowl trip to Texas looking to win its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl game. Under the helm of Pat Fitzgerald the team is 0-fer in bowl games but they have each been close (two have gone to overtime). Last year the Cats lost a thrilling 45 to 38 final against Texas Tech, roaring back multiple times in the 2nd half to keep it interesting. This year the 6-6 Wildcats will face off against another Lone Star State foe, Texas A&M in an almost-home game for the 6-6 Aggies.
How many of the 12th Men (and women) will make the trip is an unknown. This will be the first time the schools will have met, so there appears to be no real draw for either school other than perhaps a newness or curiosity factor. The game is short 90 minute drive away from College Station, so it’s not too long of hike for pre-New Year’s Eve fun.
Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman generally underwhelmed everyone at A&M and was fired at the end of this season. Sherman has been replaced by former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin (fresh off a marvelous 12-1 season for the Cougars). He will have his work cut out for him as the Aggies bid farewell to the Big 12 and readies for the world of hurt the joining the SEC will provide. Will this encourage some haters from the B12 to show up at Reliant Stadium to cheer on Northwestern?
Who to watch: The two-headed monster quarterback position of Dan Persa and Kain Colter (the star of last year’s TicketCity Bowl while Persa-strong was recovering from achilles injury) provide a sizable pass/run threat—22 throwing TDs and 9 rushing. Stud wide receiver Jeremy Ebert and future NFL tight end Drake Dunsmore also rack up the yards and touchdowns for the Wildcats. Two notable seniors on the defensive side of the ball will be missing the game due to injury: cornerback Jordan Mabin and defensive tackle Niko Mafuli.
On the A&M side, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw the rock to wide receiver Ryan Swope for 1,100 yds and 11 touchdowns. Starting running back Cyrus Gray has a stress fracture in his right shoulder and may not play—he sat out the final game of the year, a loss against Texas—so this could be the X factor. Oh, and kicker Randy Bullock won the Lou Grozo award as the nation’s best kicker. This could play big considering the importance of kicking in bowl games. Northwestern knows the value of a good kicker (or lack thereof) all too well with the kicking disasters that occurred vs Auburn at the 2010 Outback Bowl. This year’s Wildcat kicker, Jeff Budzien, is pretty solid, though.
Prediction: This will be a shootout with two high-powered offenses against two weaker defenses. Northwestern always seems to be involved in wild games (think last year’s TicketCity Bowl and the 2008 Alamo and 2010 Outback bowls). This time, Northwestern will be hungrier and A&M is already thinking about the SEC, so I see the Cats overcoming its bowl-game blues and pulling the upset (A&M is 10-point favorites) with the final score of 38-35. The Cats will then be able to pop the cork early on NYE 2011/12.