There are several signs that, for me, are pretty telling as they pertain to a teams performance in bowl games. Location, Motivation and Interest are the biggest factors. Not necessarily in any particular order as each has played a role in a teams losses but rather dependent on which is your teams biggest hot button.
This season there are several teams that would raise a red flag for at least one of these reasons. Who and why should teams be on the look out to avoid getting embarrassed in their season finale?
There are two sides to this coin; the first side is the obvious "far away" game. This applies to teams from the north generally who travel to play games that are essentially home contests for their opponents. Probably the least worrisome of all the reasons to be concerned as teams like Utah (Sugar Bowl), West Virginia (Meineke Car Care Bowl) and Michigan (Capital One Bowl) have rebuffed this ideal in recent years.
The biggest ordeal concerning location is the sense of complacency and familiarity that comes with games closer to home. That is right, while fans love the "home game" atmosphere that comes with playing bowls on the home turf it can be a teams worst enemy. Folks often forget that when you're 18-23 being in your "old stomping grounds" can fast become a recipe for loss of focus.
Your friends from high school are home. You want to show your boys on the team your home town. You parents have the guys over for a free home cooked meal. Your girlfriend or high school "hook up" wants to hang out. The list goes on and on when you're playing a game at or near your homesite. As any college student knows, when you go out of town you're more likely to stick together, make smart decisions and be safe. On your home turf the attitude is "screw it" this is our town, we know this place and nothing can happen to us here.
The same can be said for coaches in this situation. It is a lot easier for Paul Johnson to control the Jackets outside of Atlanta. It is easier for Les Miles when they get away from Louisiana. The list goes on and on as the newer the area the fewer distractions. This is why a "home game" type atmosphere for a team is a red flag for me.
Not very many teams that fall into this category this year but here are three to watch on this front: UNC (Meineke Car Care), UCF (St. Petersburg Bowl), Southern Miss (New Orleans Bowl)
This, to me, is separate from interest. Motivation in this vein simply means, does the team want to be in this game or not. We've seen it happen twice, very prevalently recently; Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl (twice) and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Both teams experienced off the field incidents leading up to the game, both teams were shooting for the national title game not just a BCS Bowl, both teams lost to an inferior opponent.
When a team feels the bowl is "beneath them" or that they got shafted they handle it two ways. We just outlined the first way, coming into the game with no fire, underprepared mentally and the game ending in getting their doors blown off by a team they should handle. The second way to handle this has been personified by the USC Trojans of 2005-2008.
They missed out on the national title game, bummer. But instead of sulking the way OU and Bama did they nutted up and blew the doors off of the crap that the Big 10 sent out to the Rose Bowl. Their closest game was a 14 route of Penn State. Texas took this same "chip on the shoulder" approach when they beat Texas in last season's Fiesta Bowl.
Motivation is key, if a team doesn't want to be in the game there is no amount of game planning that the coach can do to make them come out and play with fire. On the flipside when a team feels disrespected or as if they have something to prove they are bringing a gun to a knife fight. Teams like Utah and Boise State carry that fire with them into the contest and thus have been successful on the big stage.
Here's my picks for teams coming into the games with a lack of motivation as a possibility:
Florida (Sugar Bowl), Oklahoma (Sun Bowl), Virginia Tech (Chic-Fil-A Bowl), Georgia (Independence Bowl), Houston (Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl), Pittsburgh (Meineke Car Care Bowl) and USC (Emerald Bowl)
On the flipside teams that will enter the games with a chip on their shoulders:
Boise State and TCU (Fiesta Bowl), Cincinnati (Sugar Bowl), South Carolina (PapaJohns.com Bowl), Clemson (Music City Bowl) and Northern Illinois (International Bowl)
This simply refers to the teams level of interest in the bowl game. Not their motivation for playing in the game but rather what is their split of business vs pleasure regarding the trip to the bowl game. I'll make this one short and sweet; teams where the bulk of the players have never been to a bowl game are no-no's. They're in for a week of enjoying things a little too much and practicing a little too light. Young or not a team like Stanford, playing their first bowl game since '01 is going to be in trouble against a team that goes to bowls every year.
There are too many dinners, luncheons, activities, auxilary contests, ticket requests, parties, SWAG and too much per dieme money to spend out on the town for teams without experience to focus. True, it can be done but my money is on the team where the bowl game is old hat.
Interest is a tough one to call Stanford (Sun Bowl) is the major team that sticks out to me as a team that may be overwhelmed playing in their first bowl game since 2001. To take a stab at possibly disinterested teams I'd have to list Texas Tech (Alamo Bowl), Arkansas (Independence Bowl) and Ole Miss (Cotton Bowl) based upon expectations, opponent and for Ole Miss, the fact that they were just in Dallas a season ago.