Bowl season runs emotional gamut

The Tostitos BCS National Championship Game concluded the bowl season and condensed the stories of the 34 bowls that preceded it. Auburn and Oregon illustrated the importance of motivation, the inevitability of rust and the sheer excitement generated by a bowl game decided in the final seconds.

We saw that in one of the first bowls of the season, when Florida International's Jack Griffin kicked a 34-yard field goal as time expired to defeat Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesars Bowl. We saw it again Monday night, when Wes Byrum made the 19-yard kick as time expired to provide the victory margin in the Tigers' 22-19 defeat of the Ducks.

If nothing else, the bowls reminded us of the outsized importance of motivation in college football's postseason. Outsized, because let's face it, at the end of a long, grueling season, the specter of as many as five more weeks of practice and video study demands that a team want to tackle it.

The Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl provided an example on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Washington wanted a second chance against Nebraska, which went to Seattle and humiliated the Huskies 56-21 in September. The Huskers preferred not to make a repeat performance in San Diego against a repeat opponent.

The result: Washington won, 19-7. Nebraska suffered a little humiliation of its own. The Huskers lost three of their last four games, scoring a total of 33 points in the losses.

Alabama's 49-7 rout of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl showed what a talented team can do when it wants to prove itself. The Crimson Tide responded to the humiliation of blowing a 24-0 lead to archrival Auburn, not by going through the motions but by handing out a little humiliation themselves.

Maryland wanted to send a pointed message to athletic director Kevin Anderson, who fired the head coach, Ralph Friedgen, eight days before the Military Bowl. The Terps' 51-20 blowout of East Carolina verified how they felt about "the Fridge."

In and of themselves, bowls are one-game rewards for a season well played, or these days, at least a mediocre one. But bowls can set the tone for the way a team approaches its preparation for next season.

In that sense, Stanford, LSU and Notre Dame propelled themselves into the 2011 season with their most complete performances of the 2010 season. The No. 4 Cardinal, after a 40-12 defeat of Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl, finished in the top five for the first time in 70 years. Though head coach Jim Harbaugh left to coach the San Francisco 49ers, Stanford put down a security deposit on the top five in the opening polls next August.

There's the eight-game winning streak and the return of junior quarterback Andrew Luck, both of which should make the debut of the Cardinal's new head coach a lot easier than most.

The No. 8 LSU Tigers must feel excited about 2011. Not only did head coach Les Miles spurn Michigan, his alma mater, for the second time in four years, but long-beleaguered quarterback Jordan Jefferson blossomed in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Jefferson threw for three touchdowns in the 41-24 defeat of Texas A&M.

When Notre Dame burst out of the locker room and took a 27-0 lead over Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the Fighting Irish served notice that they will be relevant next season. Notre Dame cruised to a 33-17 victory, its fourth consecutive win.

The bowls also highlighted a few items for the agendas of some NCAA committees. The football rules group must look at the finish of the Music City Bowl, when North Carolina's penalty for having too many men on the field with :01 to play actually allowed the Tar Heels a chance to win a game against Tennessee that otherwise they would have lost.

The football rules group should also figure out a way to administer the celebration rule with evenhandedness and common sense, two qualities missing from the penalty issued to Kansas State receiver Adrian Hilburn in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The penalty forced the Wildcats to attempt a game-tying two-point conversion after moving back 15 yards. It also took away focus from the outcome of the game, which Syracuse won, 36-34.

The NCAA ought to look at closing the "unique opportunity" loophole through which Ohio State's "Tattooed Six" escaped to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The message it sent is not one that any parent would recognize. You do the crime, you don't do the time when it's convenient. You should just do the time.

No rules controversies spoiled the ending of the Auburn-Oregon game. Auburn won. Oregon ran out of time. Those are also legacies of the 2010 bowl season.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.