Most of the time, when you hear a commentator give the edge to a certain football team because he thinks "they just want it more," you're looking at a guy who doesn't actually know anything about either team and is just looking for something to say. When bowl season rolls around, though, "wanting it" takes on actual significance. In any given bowl you've got two teams who probably don't play each other much, they've had a month off since the regular season ended, and their so-called "reward" might or might not be as good as what they were shooting for when the season started. And when one team is significantly less excited to be there than the other, that's when big bowl upsets happen.
I call this the "K-State Effect" based on what happened to the Kansas State Wildcats in 1998. The Wildcats, formerly one of the doormattiest doormats in college football history, streaked to an 11-0 regular-season record and went into the Big XII championship game ranked No. 1 in the nation -- only to lose to Texas A&M in double OT. Because the once-downtrodden 'Cats had been to so few bowl games, nobody was sure their fans would travel, so K-State was passed over by bowl after bowl until they ended up in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. The bummed-out Wildcats came out flat, and the unranked Purdue Boilermakers, led by some sophomore named Drew Brees, pulled off the stunner of the bowl season by beating KSU 37-34.
This pattern has popped up at least a few times in every bowl season, so I thought I'd go through the SEC's bowl games to see if any SEC teams or their opponents might be vulnerable to the K-State Effect in 2011. And I've assigned a "K-State Factor" to each game, not as a prediction of who'll win but as an estimate of how much the motivation edge will be worth in terms of points.
Music City Bowl (Mississippi State vs. Wake Forest, 6:40 p.m. Friday): Both MSU and Wake used to be conference doormats, so you'd think a bowl of any kind would be a big deal for them. The difference is that Wake is coming off a 3-9 season and had no expectations coming into 2011, whereas State went 9-4 last year and led fans to think they'd finally turned the corner under Dan Mullen. Edge: Wake Forest (K-State Factor: 4 points)
Liberty Bowl (Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m. Saturday): This one's not even close -- Cincinnati won a share of the Big East title this year yet somehow managed to end up in a bowl to which their conference doesn't even have an official tie-in; Vandy, meanwhile, has already completely bought into James Franklin's system and looks like the kind of team that would play their tails off even if this were an exhibition game against a D-II program. Edge: Vanderbilt (K-State Factor: 10 points)
Chick-fil-A Bowl (Auburn vs. Virginia, 7:30 p.m. Saturday): About a year ago, the Tigers were preparing to have national championship rings fitted. Now they're 7-5, the star running back who was their offensive MVP in the title game has been suspended, and both their coordinators have bolted for jobs at non-BCS-conference schools. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are in a bowl for the first time in four years. Last year's national championship notwithstanding, which fan base do you think is having more fun right now? Edge: Virginia (K-State Factor: 8 points)
Outback Bowl (Georgia vs. Michigan State, 1 p.m. Monday): Both contestants lost their conference championship games, which could lead to a general sense of malaise on both sidelines. Georgia, though, still bounced back from an 0-2 start to save their coach's job; only the most blinkered Bulldog fan would call this a disappointing season. The Spartans came into 2011 aiming for the Rose Bowl but lost their chance on the ticky-tackiest of penalties in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. Edge: Georgia (K-State Factor: 3 points)
Capital One Bowl (South Carolina vs. Nebraska, 1 p.m. Monday): The Gamecocks may still be fuming that Georgia snaked their slot in the SEC title game, but this has still been probably the best season in program history. That's obviously not the case for the Cornhuskers, who fell from "shot at the Rose Bowl" to "third in their division" in the span of less than a month late in the season. Edge: South Carolina (K-State Factor: 2.5 points)
Gator Bowl (Florida vs. Ohio State, 1 p.m. Monday): It's safe to say that neither the Gators nor the Buckeyes are setting their Facebook walls ablaze with status updates about how excited they are to be playing in a bowl that has "TaxSlayer.com" as the title sponsor. (Hell, I couldn't tell you what TaxSlayer.com is if you put a gun to my head.) But the Buckeyes at least have a resurgence under Urban Meyer to look forward to, plus their juniors and seniors know this is their last bowl shot with NCAA sanctions kicking in next season. There's very little for Gator fans to get excited about right now, unless finally being rid of Charlie Weis counts. Edge: Ohio State (2.5 points)
Cotton Bowl (Arkansas vs. Kansas State, 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6): Both teams are ranked in the top 10, which means both are probably just a wee bit bummed to not be playing in BCS bowls. But whereas upper-tier bowl games (not to mention playing in Cowboys Stadium) have become old hat for the Razorbacks under Bobby Petrino, the Wildcats came out of nowhere in 2011 to claim their first January bowl bid in eight years -- meaning the K-State Effect might actually work in the Wildcats' favor this time. Edge: Kansas State (6.5 points)
BCS National Championship Game (LSU vs. Alabama, 8:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9): Hey, it's the national title game. If you have to worry about whether your team is motivated, you probably don't deserve to have a football program at all. But Alabama has the added motivation of seeking revenge against a team that squeaked by them in their own stadium a couple months ago. Which is not to say that LSU won't be fired up to claim their third national championship in the BCS era, but we all know Nick Saban neither forgets nor forgives. Edge: Alabama (3.5 points)