Texas, Wisconsin and Big East teams look to make a statement

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2004

Bowl games often define a team's season.

A win over a quality opponent to end the campaign can validate a successful year. Finishing off with a loss in a high-profile matchup can tarnish all that was accomplished to get there.

Several teams playing on the first few days of 2005 have much to prove, but none more than Texas.

The Longhorns meet Big Ten co-champion Michigan on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl. Rarely has a 10-win team received so much grief for earning a major bowl bid.

When the Longhorns slipped into the Bowl Championship Series ahead of California, they became this year's BCS villain. It wasn't necessarily fair, but Texas coach Mack Brown brought much of the criticism on himself by pleading for his team so publicly.

So the Longhorns either can quiet the critics and justify their first BCS bid with a win, or lose and be dismissed as unworthy of the lofty status.

Brown doesn't believe his lobbying has put any extra burden on the Longhorns.

''Not at all, our team's the fourth-best team in the country based on a combination of things, and I told them I didn't do anything, they deserved it, and they got in because they deserved it,'' Brown said ''All I did was ask people to look. Really and truly, I feel like we should have been in three of the last four years, and I wish I would have made people more aware then, too.''

Texas isn't alone in playing for its reputation.

Wisconsin followed its 9-0 start with two ugly, lopsided losses. The Badgers play Georgia in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, trying to avoid a three-game losing streak that will make a once-promising season seem like a huge disappointment.

Pittsburgh and West Virginia will be looking to repair the tattered image of the Big East.

The Panthers play Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. The unbeaten Utes are the first team from a non-BCS conference to reach one of the four big-money bowl games, but it's Pitt that comes in as more than a two-touchdown underdog.

''All I can say is, the Big East is a very competitive conference,'' said outgoing Pitt coach Walt Harris, who is headed to Stanford.

West Virginia plays Florida State in the Gator Bowl, also trying to snap a two-game losing streak. The Mountaineers entered the season ranked in the top 10 and heavily favored to win the watered-down Big East. Instead, they lost to Boston College and Pittsburgh and had to share the league crown.

The Seminoles (8-3), meanwhile, are coming off a loss and trying to avoid their third season in four years with at least four losses.

And of course, Auburn will try to complete a perfect season in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech, and give voters in the AP poll an alternative No. 1 to the winner of the Orange Bowl between Southern California and Oklahoma.

''We feel like national champs no matter what the polls say,'' Auburn All-American cornerback Carlos Rogers said. ''They can't take that away. We don't have to have the recognition from the polls.''

The picks:

Saturday, Jan. 1

Cotton Bowl

Tennessee (plus 3) vs. Texas A&M

Vols have lost last two bowl games by combined 57-17 ... TENNESSEE 33-28.

Outback Bowl

Wisconsin (plus 7) vs. Georgia

Bulldogs go for third straight double-digit win season ... GEORGIA 20-14.

Gator Bowl

Florida State (minus 8) vs. West Virginia

Rematch of 1982 Gator Bowl, won 31-12 by 'Noles ... FLORIDA STATE 24-10.

Capital One Bowl

Iowa (plus 6 1/2) vs. LSU

Nick Saban's last game as LSU coach? ... LSU 20-17.

Rose Bowl

Michigan (plus 6) vs. Texas

Wolverines' last Rose Bowl win was 1998 ... MICHIGAN 23-17.

Fiesta Bowl

Utah (minus 16 1/2) vs. Pittsburgh

Both coaches have new jobs waiting for them ... UTAH 48-28.

Monday, Jan. 3

Sugar Bowl

Auburn (plus 6 1/2) vs. Virginia Tech

Tigers do all they can against tough Hokies ... AUBURN 28-13.

Tuesday, Jan. 4

Orange Bowl

Southern California (minus 3) vs. Oklahoma

But Trojans look even better against Sooners ... USC 34-21.

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