Finding tasty dishes among the bowls

If you like neat endings, with clear-cut winners and losers, then root for the Miami Hurricanes next Thursday. With one more win, at the Rose Bowl Jan. 3 in Pasadena, Calif., Miami will finish the season undefeated and be the consensus national champion of college football. Case closed.

But if you're the type who loves confusion, controversy, and seasons that end with an asterisk beside them, then put on a red Cornhusker sweater, turn on the TV, and scream your lungs out for Nebraska. If the Huskers beat Miami, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) will be thrown upside down. We might have a split national championship for the first time since 1997, when Nebraska and Michigan shared the honor.

The two teams waiting in the wings - should Nebraska win - are Colorado and Oregon, who meet each other in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Jan. 1. Because both are ranked higher than Nebraska in the major polls, the winner would presumably be the choice of the coaches and press as national champion. Nebraska, meanwhile, would be the champion of the much maligned BCS.

Controversy aside, this bowl season will showcase an excellent group of quarterbacks: The big and brawny and the fleet of foot, the pure passers and the runners of the option. They have all grabbed headlines in 2001, and many of them are likely to wind up in the NFL. Not surprisingly, the four finalists for this year's Heisman Trophy, given to the year's best college football player, were all quarterbacks.

The winner, Eric Crouch, a Nebraska senior, is a phenomenal runner and leader who can also sling the ball when necessary. Ken Dorsey of Miami flat out wins games, while Rex Grossman of Florida was the nation's most efficient passer.

Oregon, Illinois, Clemson, and LSU also have great quarterbacks, but the best of them all might be David Carr of Fresno State. As it should be, the fates of most of the country's top teams rest on their shoulders.

Now, a rundown of the bowl games:

**** Miami (11-0) v. Nebraska (11-1) (Rose Bowl presented by AT&T, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 3, 8 p.m. ABC)

Player to watch: QB Eric Crouch.

This is the game that will determine the national champion. At first glance Miami, arguably the most talented team in the country, seems like a heavy favorite. But top dogs have been dropping one after another this season, and this could be time for the Canes to fall.

Miami has a balanced offense that features quarterback Dorsey and running back Clinton Portis. Though highly touted, Dorsey sometimes throws a wobbly ball, which could come back to sting Miami. On the other hand, the Canes have so much talent that someone else could easily pick up the slack and lead them to victory should he falter.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has the nation's top running game and Crouch, the quarterback, fits into it perfectly. The Huskers also have a bruising offensive line, which will be a key matchup with the strong Miami defense, ranked sixth in the country.

Nebraska might have a slight edge in motivation. Since its controversial selection to the BCS championship game, it's been abused by the press and coaches who think it doesn't deserve a shot at the Canes. This would be the perfect time for the Huskers to prove everyone wrong - and sneak out of the party with the Sears Trophy under a jersey.

**** Colorado (10-2) v. Oregon (10-1) (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Tempe, Ariz., Jan. 1, 4:30 p.m., ABC)

Players to watch: QB Joey Harrington and RB Chris Brown.

These two teams both think that they should be playing for the national championship, so the competition here should be fierce. The winner could end up No. 1 in the major polls if Nebraska beats Miami.

It's hard to deny that right now Colorado is the hottest team in college football, having knocked off Nebraska and highly ranked Texas near the end of the season. Whatever problems the Buffaloes were having earlier in the year, when they lost two games, have been fixed. Running back Chris Brown and a powerful offensive line move the ball like a team of bulldozers, and the defense has been just good enough to get by.

Oregon has a fantastic offense too, led by QB Joey Harrington, who threw for 23 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions. The Ducks also have a potent ground attack featuring 1,000-yard rusher Onterrio Smith. It seems unlikely that either defense can stop either offense, so this games figures to be high scoring.

*** Maryland (10-1) v. Florida (9-2) (FedEx Orange Bowl, Miami, Jan. 2, 8 p.m., ABC)

Player to watch: WR Jabar Gaffney.

If you like underdogs, you've gotta love the Maryland Terrapins. A year ago they were 5-6 and at the bottom of the ACC conference. Then they got a new coach, Ralph Friedgen, and immediately began an ascent to the upper echelon of Division I football.

Their opponent, the Florida Gators, is almost the exact opposite. They receive a top ranking every year by birthright. But this year they have seemingly done everything they could to keep themselves out of the national championship game - especially a shocking home loss to SEC rival Tennessee.

When firing on all cylinders, the Gators have the best passing game in the country, and it's hard to imagine that Maryland's defense - even with bruising linebacker E.J. Henderson - can stop them. Florida wide receiver Jabar Gaffney is simply too good, and quarterback Grossman knows how to find him.

The Maryland offense can also put up some big numbers, led running back Bruce Perry and option quarterback Shaun Hill. But in the end the game will be up to Florida - to win if they come in hungry, or lose if they underestimate the Terps.

*** Illinois (10-1) v. Louisiana State (9-3) (Nokia Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m., ABC)

Player to watch: Josh Reed.

These are two teams that no one expected to be in the college football elite. Most notably, LSU upset Tennessee in the SEC championship game to knock the Volunteers out of national championship contention. And LSU did it without its starting quarterback, Rohan Davey, who is big, fast, and a great team leader.

Davey is back for this game and will be looking to increase his NFL stock. His main target, Josh Reed, is one of the most exciting players in the college game. He runs like a bull after he catches the ball, tacking on extra yards. Illinois is led by QB Kurt Kittner, who likes to hook up with WR Brandon Lloyd. It's hard to predict how the somewhat untested Illini will fare against the battle-hardened LSU Tigers.

In other bowl games:

Washington (8-3) plays Texas (10-2) tonight in the Culligan Holiday Bowl (ESPN, **). Texas QB Major Applewhite lost his starting job to Chris Simms earlier but won it back when Simms folded in a loss to Colorado.

The Dec. 31 Humanitarian Bowl (**) between Clemson (6-5) and Louisiana Tech (7-4), on ESPN features electrifying Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, who this year passed for 2,000 yards and ran for 1,000.

David Carr, perhaps the most dangerous college passer in the land, leads Fresno State (11-2) against Michigan State (6-5) in the Dec. 31 Silicon Valley Bowl (Fox Sports Network, **).

Oklahoma (10-2) takes on Arkansas (7-4) in the SBC Cotton Bowl (**) Jan. 1 on Fox. Watch this one for the Oklahoma defense, which features Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rocky Calmus and high-flying cornerback Roy Williams.

In the Capital One Florida Citrus Bowl (**), Jan. 1 on ABC, it's Michigan (8-3) against Tennessee (10-2). Awesome Tennessee RB Travis Stephens ran for almost 1,500 yards this season.

Finally, there's the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl (*), matching North Carolina (7-5) and Auburn (7-4) on ESPN Dec. 31. The bowl's name is intriguing, the matchup less so.

Bowl-rating guide

**** Must see. Chain yourself to the couch.

*** A good game, but don't leave dinner early for it.

** Ideal when mixed with a book or a nap.

* For alums only.

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