DEC. 27, 1 P.M. ET, NAVY-MARINE CORPS MEMORIAL STADIUM, ANNAPOLIS, MD. (ESPN)
Season highlights: Cincinnati's season started two weeks later than most, but it still had plenty of fireworks. The Bearcats debuted Sept. 12 with a 58-34 win against Toledo behind quarterback Gunner Kiel's 418 yards and six touchdown passes in the highly touted redshirt sophomore's collegiate opener after transferring from Notre Dame. Cincinnati's 54-46 home win against East Carolina on Nov. 13 was its most impressive victory of the season.
Season lowlights: There is no shame in losing to Ohio State, but Cincinnati certainly expected more than its 50-28 showing Sept. 27 in Columbus. The Bearcats entered the contest undefeated and were hoping to make a national statement as an elite Group of 5 team. They spiraled from there, losing 41-14 the following week to Memphis before getting routed 55-34 at Miami a week later.
Player to watch: Kiel has been the player to watch for years, before he was even playing. Now that he finally is, he has put up some pretty nice numbers for the Bearcats. He has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,010 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 208-pounder has added 136 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground.
Motivation factor: There is no shortage of motivation when playing in the American Athletic Conference, which saw its major-conference label disappear this season. Maybe no program embodies that overlooked nature the way Cincinnati does, as the Bearcats were the last team standing after the music stopped on conference realignment two years ago. Still, this program is as consistent as they come, as it has won eight or more games in eight of the past nine seasons. Every game, especially a bowl game on national TV, is a chance to make a mark.
-- Matt Fortuna
VIRGINIA TECH BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: The Hokies looked on track to regain control of the ACC Coastal Division early in the season. Virginia Tech traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for a prime-time showdown with national title contender Ohio State. Despite losing quarterback Braxton Miller, many felt the Buckeyes would cruise to a win in The Horseshoe. The Hokies controlled the game from the outset, though, and never trailed. Quarterback Michael Brewer played his best game of the season, and the defense was reminiscent of the Bud Foster units that wreaked havoc for years in Blacksburg.
Season lowlights: The lowlights began a week after the Ohio State highlight. East Carolina upset Virginia Tech, which fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. After clawing back to tie the game with 1:20 left, the Hokies allowed a three-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. That loss put Virginia Tech on a path to mediocrity, and the Hokies hit rock bottom in a 6-3 double-overtime loss to Wake Forest, a game that was scoreless at the end of regulation. Virginia Tech needed to beat rival Virginia in the finale to become bowl eligible.
Player to watch: The Hokies will go only as far as Brewer will take them, but it is often best to divert your eyes when Virginia Tech’s offense has the ball. Tune in when the defense, specifically sophomore defensive back Kendall Fuller, takes the field. The brother of current and former NFL players Vincent, Corey and Kyle Fuller, Kendall has quickly made it clear he will also be playing on Sunday. Fuller ranks tied for seventh nationally with 14 pass breakups.
Motivation factor: There is unrest at Virginia Tech with the program’s current direction. With a third straight subpar season, Frank Beamer’s seat will be significantly warmer in 2015. The motivation for the Hokies during bowl practices and the game should be improving enough to make a division title run next season to quiet Beamer’s critics and potentially save his job.
-- Jared Shanker