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SMQ Bowl Blitz: The Texas

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The least you should know about the Texas Bowl...
There is no title sponsor – the game is not funded by the taxpayers of the great state of Texas, at least not officially – despite the projections of Mark Hildreth, former corporate development manager for Lone Star Sports and Entertainment (a division of the Houston Texans franchise - see below) who told me last year the event-planning group expected a title sponsor for this year’s game. No such luck: the sponsorship remains a solid grab bag of local mainstays, but entirely below the board.
Location Inquisitor
This is the one in:

a) Fort Worth
b) Dallas
c) Houston
d) El Paso
e) San Antonio

If you said c) Houston, you're right! Yes, the bit about the Texans gave it away, you brilliant inferrer, you. Houston, for someone who has to drive through it a couple times a year now, is known primarily for its devastating traffic. That's how I know it, anyway, aside from its distinction a few years ago as the "fattest city in America," which may or may not still stand (I don’t care) and its status as a major I-10 drug smuggling hub. If it came down to being known for traffic, blow or girth, I’d take traffic. But then, I’m the patient type.

The Venue
Hulking 25th Century goliath Reliant Stadium, 56,000,000 square feet* and 250,000 tons* of monolithic space age steel that dares you to breathe within range of its awesome gravitational pull. Mortals are cautioned to deny its capacity for eternal reign as the only rodeo and NFL indoor/outdoor retractable roof, natural grass stadium that can be configured to utilize a 125,000 square foot space for general sessions, catered functions, exhibits, concerts, and much more at their own peril.

(* Mild estimates)

Formerly Known As...
The Texas Bowl's location should give it away as the latest guise of the less ambitious Houston Bowl, created in 2000 and remaining until its conversion to represent the entire state was announced last year by new sponsor Lone Star Sports and Entertainment, a division of the Houston Texans - hence its spot on the NFL Network, at least "theoretically," according to Hildreth, who said last year that "this bowl wouldn't have happened if the NFL Network hadn't bought the rights." The Texas Bowl Board of Directors is headed by Texans chairman and CEO Bob McNair and Texans vice-chairman Philip Burguieres.
Past Winners Include...
Rutgers took the only official Texas Bowl game to date with a predictable, mismatched smackdown of Kansas State last December. In the days of the long, lost Houston Bowl, a rotation of slumming Big 12 middleweights (Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Colorado) delivered annual spankings to C-USA foes, though TCU exacted revenge over Iowa State in its first season in the Mountain West in 2005. There are no multiple winners.

The tenth edition of an ongoing public service to enlighten readers of their bowl viewing options...

Details: TCU (7-5) vs. Houston (8-4)• 8 p.m. ET, NFL Network. Be there or be regretting your shortsighted choice in cable package, square.

Tune in for: TCU spent the first half of 2007 grappling with Nebraska and Louisville as the most disappointing non-golden-domed team in the country, fading quickly from unanimous Mountain West frontrunner/BCS buster to 4-4 also-ran missing its star player under mysterious circumstances after enduring losses to Air Force and Wyoming. The Frogs spent November cleaning that up, winning three of four, obliterating bowl-bound New Mexico with pass rush fiend Tommy Blake back in the lineup and taking new MWC overlord BYU to the wire in Provo. After a four-game absence, Blake logged a sack in each of the last three games, opponents' yards per carry plummeted to familiar levels at ful strength the defense was closer to the one portrayed in fawning summer forecasts.

"Just about everybody who knows Anthony Alridge insists[he] was destined for stardom of some kind."
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That still doesn't make it nearly as impressive as Houston's offense, which bid sayanora to all-time everything leader Kevin Kolb at quarterback and immediately shamed its predecessors, with more balance than Kolb-led units ever had - the Cougars went for 400 yards in total offense in every game but one and topped 500 yards seven times, including the opener at Oregon, when UH galloped for 315 on the ground alone, and a ridiculous 748-yard effort against Rice. They did this without a settled quarterback - freshman Case Keenum took most of the snaps, but Blake Joseph played significantly in almost every game, with virtually identical efficiency - mainly by getting the ball often to shockingly anonymous Anthony "Quick" Alridge, a converted track star/receiver who took over the top tailback spot as a senior and dominated from the first snap with 325 all-purpose yards at Oregon, adding another pair of 200-yard rushing games in C-USA and a 211-yard all-purpose show at Alabama. Alridge quietly finished the season with 181 total yards per game, a little better than the 147 produced by receiver Donnie Avery - the only teammates in the top 30 nationally besides Darren McFadden and Felix Jones - and it seems almost no one knows their names.

By Conference USA standards, because Tulsa and Central Florida were even more prolific offensively, Houston was actually better on defense, in which it led the league in total yards allowed, but this is only by default in a conference shamefully devoid of coverage or tackling or any other defense-like traits - the Cougars were one of four teams in the country that averaged 500 yards every time out, and they bring it from every angle on the field.

Turn away in disgust when: The maestro of all that offense, and of Houston's rise from the ashes in C-USA, generally, is Art Briles, who inscrutably bailed for certain doom at Baylor, foisting the interim coaching duties on cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond, a career secondary guru with no head coaching or coordinating experience above the high school level; Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin won't take over as boss in Houston until after the Sooners' date in the Fiesta Bowl. What this means for Briles' zig-zagging spread after a month off, against at least as fierce a defense as it saw at any point in the regular season, can't be positive - it's a finely-tuned system running with all its parts intact but missing its brain.

More than anything, TCU's ambitions were submarined by its own offensive failures, and specifically the inconsistency of redshirt freshman quarterback Andy Dalton, who without the benefit of a steady running game was genuinely dreadful in spots (most notably a four-interception disaster in the loss to Utah) and just mediocre in most others. Sophomore Joseph Turner added life to the backfield in the late wins over New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, but if Houston is any stiffer than those stiffs, Dalton hasn't yet proven himself the opportunistic sort in a shootout.

What Else is On
You have no life. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy these actual non-gridiron alternatives:

A&E • 8 p.m. ET • CSI: Miami - "Evidence of Things Unseen"
Horatio and his team investigate after a Russian immigrant is stabbed to death in a peep show booth. and the only witness to the crime is a stripper who was performing for him. Amy: Shelby Fanner. Victor: Pasha D. Lychnikoff. Rick: David Sutcliffe. Davis: Tomas Arana. Vadim: Boris Krutonog. Infante: J.C. MacKenzie. Laura: Salli Richardson-Whitfield. Tripp: Rex Linn. (TV-14; 60 mins.)

If you don't mind vegetarian phonies, that is.
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Discovery • 8 p.m. ET • Man vs. Wild: "Sahara"
Part 1 of 2. In the sun-scorched Sahara Desert, Bear Grylls uses survival tactics of the indigenous people, including eating a scorpion. Also: how to escape from quicksand. (TV-PG; 60 mins.)

Lifetime • 9 p.m. ET • She's Too Young
Marcia Gay Harden delivers a compelling performance as the caring and concerned mother of a 14-year-old girl who is faced with enormous pressure from friends to engage in sexual activity. Newcomer Alexis Dziena brings emotion and believability to the part of the daughter as she suffers from the consequences of giving up her virginity to the "campus Casanova." Mike Erwin. Dawn: Miriam McDonald. Becca: Megan Park. Tommy: Joe Dinicol. Bill: Gary Hudson. Directed by Tom McLoughlin. (TV-14; 120 mins. I have seen this movie! Highly recommended - ed.)

National Geographic • 9 p.m. ET • Dog Whisperer: "Cotton, Ricky & Jordan and Duke & Lila"
An American Eskimo named Cotton takes his role as watchdog too far; Ricky, a Shiba Inu is overprotective of his playmate Jordan; boxers Duke and Lila are overly aggressive. (TV-G; 60 mins.)

Also, like, the Emerald Bowl, enigmatically nominated for your eyeballs by Emerald Nuts on the Worldwide Leader (heh: enigma) and thereby guaranteed to crush the Lonestar State's offering despite being played on an enthusiasm-neutering baseball field in San Francisco. It ain't raht.
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SMQ Watchability Rating: All bowl games are rated on a scale of one TV ("Christmas gifts already returned for refunds? Think of stealing more and returning those if necessary.") to five ("Block out a few hours - and possibly the sun, if there's a glare - for this can't-miss classic.") based on completely subjective factors, up to and including potential cheerleader hotness/fulfillment of requisite nubile teen lust fantasies, which are so sadly lacking anywhere else on contemporary television or the Internet.

The Texas Bowl does get some props for delivering to old, in-state Southwest Conference rivals that rarely see each other these days, but none for delivering a retread of meaningless Conference USA games from the first half of the decade, which evens out to two lonely boxes, made lonelier by their remote banishment to a network received almost exclusively by pro-obsessed, urban Northeasterners who wouldn't know their Horned Frogs from a hootenanny. Exclusively mid-major matchups can't win for losin':

CAUTION: For obsessed, innoculated fans only.
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The Pick: TCU's defense is probably improved, but Houston was genuinely prolific all season and the Frogs still struggled late to slow BYU and San Diego State. Both strengths are somewhat inflated by context: Houston's offense looks a little better than it would otherwise because it played in a league filled with atrocious defenses, but at the same time, TCU's defense faced next to no offensive firepower in the Mountain West, certainly nothing of the level it will get with Alridge and Avery tonight. Adjust for the coaching transition, and the equation still leaves the Cougars slightly ahead.
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Houston 33 TCU 24