35 Bowls in 24 Days: Day 15

Preparations for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl continued late into the week (AP Photo/Justin A. Shaw)

These, my friends, are the final football games of 2011. This is also my final blog post of the year, so I just want to take the time to thank each and every one of you who spent time reading BreslinSports.com, no matter how often you visited. It has been a banner year for the site, and I fully expect next year to be even better! Hopefully this site has allowed me to become a better writer while giving you stories and opinions that you find relevant. I thank everyone who interacts with my posts and tells me what they like and don’t like … I take every suggestion to heart and use it to make this site better!

If you haven’t done so yet, be sure to check out my Images of the Year. Now, let’s get to the final three bowl games of 2011!

More: See the other bowl games

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3, 5-2 Big East) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6, 2-6 SEC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. [ABC]

If I were a betting man, this would be one of the bowls I’d assign the least confidence points to, because I have no idea which way this game will go. I’d like to believe Cincy will finish out a strong season with a bowl win against a decent opponent, but I’m afraid that Vandy is actually better than their record suggests.

Senior quarterback Zach Collaros should be back from a broken ankle for one last game in his college career, and that will be a huge boost for the Bearcats offense. He was the second-best passer in the Big East in 2011, completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 1,860 yards and 14 touchdowns. His presence on the field is crucial, and it should flow nicely from offense to a defense that allows only 20 points per game.

But Vandy has been much-improved recently, and this will be a very well-coached game from both sides. James Franklin is making his first bowl appearance as head coach of the Commodores, but it’s the team’s second bowl game in four years — impressive because Vanderbilt has only played in five total bowl games in the long history of the program.

The Bearcats are also well-coached, led by Butch Jones. After going 4-8 in 2010, Jones led his team to a 9-3 record in the 2011 regular season, and I think he’s going to coach them to a big win over a rallying (and favored) SEC squad on Saturday.

My prediction: Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7, 5-4 Pac-12), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. [ESPN]

Things get mighty sticky when you start 6-0 and then rattle off six consecutive losses to end the year.

That’s what happened with Illinois, and head coach Ron Zook was fired as a result of the meltdown. At UCLA, a 6-7 season concluded, shockingly, with a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game. Head coach Rick Neuheisel was also terminated, but stayed on to coach their 49-31 loss in the conference title game. Now, he’s gone and so is Zook. Should be a thrilling football game!

At least Illinois outscored their opponents; UCLA was outscored, on average, by nearly 10 points per game. They are a putrid 1-6 away from home. So even though Illinois has to make a cross-country trip for this San Francisco bowl and UCLA will stay in-state, I have to believe the Illini will win this game. But it’s going to be an ugly football game.

My prediction: Illinois 20, UCLA 7

Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Auburn Tigers (7-5, 4-4 SEC) vs. Virginia Cavaliers (8-4, 5-3 ACC), Saturday, 7:30 p.m. [ESPN]

The annual New Year’s Eve ballgame that takes us right up to midnight should yet again be a thriller of an ACC-SEC showdown. In what should be a pro-Auburn Georgia Dome, the Tigers and Cavs meet in a game where the two teams went in opposite directions in 2011.

Auburn had nowhere to go but down after winning the 2010 national title, but they lost several key playmakers and will now lose both defensive coordinator Ted Roof and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to head coaching jobs elsewhere. There isn’t another national championship in the near future for Auburn, and this season didn’t really live up to expectations with a 7-5 record that honestly could have been much worse.

Virginia is one of the up-and-comers, thanks to head coach Mike London. Their 8-4 record was a huge turnaround from their 4-8 campaign in 2010, a sign that the culture has changed in Charlottesville. They had a shot at the ACC Title game until rival Virginia Tech beat them up and down the field in the final game of the regular season, a 38-0 blowout that reminded the world who continues to run the state of Virginia, even though the Cavs are improving.

The question I have about UVA is whether that beatdown at the hands of the Hokies will allow them to focus on Saturday night’s bowl game and finish the year on a high note, or was it a discouraging loss that will stick with the players into their game against Auburn?

I think London will have his kids focused and ready to play tonight, and who knows where everyone’s mind will be on the Auburn sideline, with coaches departing in every direction. A big War Eagle contingent will keep the game close, but the Cavaliers look like the better team.

My prediction: Virginia 30, Auburn 27

Past Days: Day 14 | Day 13 | Day 12 | Day 11 | Day 10 | Day 9 | Day 8 | Day 7 | Day 6 | Day 5 | Day 4 | Day 3 | Day 2 | Day 1

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