Now we’re to the games that really matter. With all due respect to the Potato Bowl, TaxSlayer Bowl, and the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the vast majority of people don’t truly care about bowl games until New Year’s Eve. Well, they’ve finally arrived.
As you may note, the Playoff semifinals are missing from this list. That’s because the Playoffs don’t deserved to be shoved into a massive column of other bowls, skimmed over just like the Sun Bowl. They’ll have their own page, coming shortly.
Autozone Liberty Bowl – Georgia vs. TCU
Preseason polls are almost always wrong. Outside of rare occasions, like Alabama this year, preseason polls are full of teams that should never even sniff the rankings. I mean, even this year, some AP voter in the preseason poll felt that LSU was a better team than Alabama. And there’s always a bowl game or two each year that embodies just how wrong the preseason polls were. This year, the Liberty Bowl carries on that tradition. Georgia and TCU were 18th and 13th in the AP preseason poll, respectively, to start the season. Now, their respective records are 7-5 and 6-6. In short, the Kenny Hill experiment failed at TCU while Georgia’s Kirby Smart era hasn’t exactly launched yet. Therein lies my perceived path of this game.
A team under a new coach is bound to progress and improve as the season moves along. Schemes and plays become more familiar with actual playing time and the coaches themselves learn more about what their players do and don’t do well and cater their gameplans accordingly. While Georgia and TCU are both exceedingly mediocre, Georgia is more mired in a rebuilding type of mediocre. TCU is more of the fall-flat-on-your-face variety. Kenny ‘Trill’ Hill, the former Texas A&M standout, was supposed to come in and completely fill the void left by Trevone Boykin. He has eclipsed 3,000 yards on the season… but has only thrown 15 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. As expected, the offense saw a major drop-off, dropping from eighth in the country in 2015 for points per game down to 50th this season. Red zone struggles have plagued the unit all year, as the Horned Frogs have scored only 81.7 percent of red zone trips. Aside from Kaj Williams and his 702 yards receiving, no receiver has topped 450 yards on the season. RB Kyle Hicks will probably eclipse the 1,000 yard mark in this game, but the offense still hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations set by previous TCU teams. That’s not to say that the offense is bad, it’s just not good enough to overcome a defense that’s fallen off the proverbial table over the past several years. Remember those incredible TCU defenses of recent memory that carried the Horned Frogs to an undefeated season and the Rose Bowl? The current version doesn’t compare. The Frogs rank in the middle of the FBS pack of nearly every major defensive statistic, while giving up a horrendous 90 percent red zone defensive percentage on the season. In short, both offensive and defensively, this team’s about as mediocre as you can get. Hence, the mediocre 6-6 record.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend like Georgia has become a rock-solid team over the course of the season, because they haven’t. This game will be decided by how well the Bulldogs’ offense will fare against TCU’s defense. On defense, Georgia poses probably the best unit in this game. Georgia ranks 16th in the country in total defense. The red zone is the weakness of this defense, as Georgia posts a worse mark than TCU there, allowing a score on 94.6 percent of opponents’ red zone trips. But the Bulldogs force an impressive amount of turnovers and defend both the run and pass exceptionally. Seven separate players have intercepted at least two passes on the season. If Hill makes more of the same mistakes he’s made throughout the season, Georgia’s offensive burden shouldn’t be an issue. The Bulldogs start freshman QB Jacob Eason, and as such, rely heavily on the run game. RB Nick Chubb is more than capable of handling that workload, but being one year removed from a severe leg injury and with most defenses able to key in on the run, Chubb hasn’t been able to carry the offense. His 988 yards rushing lead the team, and fellow RB Sony Michel has also rushed 753 yards on the season. But the coaching staff has brought Eason along slowly, and his 2,266 yards passing haven’t been enough to pose a threat to opposing defenses. But the QB was ranked as the no. 2 QB coming out of high school for a reason; the potential is there for Eason to be the next great Bulldog QB.
Ideally, though, the Bulldogs don’t want to have to rely on Eason to win this game. The hope is for Chubb to have a good enough game on the ground against the 72nd best rush defense in the country. The defense should hold against one of the lesser TCU offenses in recent history. Force a few mistakes from Hill and Georgia should be sitting pretty by the end of this one.
Prediction: Georgia 34 – TCU 24
Hyundai Sun Bowl – No. 18 Stanford vs. North Carolina
For the record, I completely side with Christian McCaffrey. Regardless of whether or not you believe a scholarship counts as ‘payment’ for a college athlete, there is no payment for a bowl game. The scholarship counts with or without a trip to the Sun Bowl. For a player like McCaffrey, who has struggled with injuries this season, playing in a relatively meaningless bowl game is a legitimate risk worth possible millions. For anyone complaining about that, stop it. There’s plenty more serious problems in this world than worrying about a player trying to protect and possibly lengthen a career that may last only 10 years at best at the professional level. McCaffrey’s decision is the smart one, whether you like it or not. The downside of that decision is that it feels like this game is already decided. While that may irk some people, remember, it’s just the Sun Bowl. It doesn’t really matter anyways. But there’s still plenty of other reasons to watch this game, though, including an NFL prospect that may be selected before McCaffrey this April.
I don’t really feel like there’s an college quarterback that’s worth selecting in the top of the first round that will be available in the NFL draft this year. There probably will be someone like Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott who is selected that turns into a franchise QB, but based on potential alone, it’s tough to see anyone with legitimate top-10 talent. If there is a QB with that talent, though, it’s probably UNC’s Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is built like an NFL QB, standing at 6-foot-3 at 220 lbs. He’s amassed 3,468 yards on the season with 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He’s completed over 68 percent of passes this year. He’s accurate, has great arm strength, and a good IQ. He’s also an Ohio native and grew up as a Cleveland Browns fan. In other words, there’s a good chance this game will be the last college showcase for the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft. Trubisky has been excellent in and of himself this year, but he also has plenty of help set up around him. WR Ryan Switzer has already gone over 1,000 yards receiving on the year and projects as a mid-round pick in the NFL draft. Fellow WR Bug Howard has totaled 768 yards receiving and also may be drafted come April. The O-line allows only 1.5 sacks per game with three linemen projecting as draft picks. In other words, there’s a lot of NFL talent on this offense. Stanford’s defense is one of the best they’ll have seen this year, as the Cardinal allow only 20 points per game and only 365 yards of offense, but this Tar Heel offense should still be able to find success in this game.
The real issue for the Cardinal is going to be moving the ball without McCaffrey (duh). But that problem is even more pronounced than you might think. Stanford ranks 99th in the country in total offense at 374.1 yards per game. 215.6 of those yards come on the ground. 145.7 of those yards come from McCaffrey. It is going to be incredibly difficult for Stanford’s offense to find any success in this game. Look at the 5-game winning streak the Cardinal closed the season out on. In those five games, the offense gained 2,395 yards. 1,121 of those yards were attributed to McCaffrey. To put it this way, Stanford just lost 46.8 percent of their offense with McCaffrey choosing to sit out the Sun Bowl. QB Keller Chryst is an improvement in the passing game, and his being inserted into the starting lineup is directly correlated to their 5-game winning streak. But without McCaffrey, there’s nothing to fear in this offense. UNC’s defense isn’t dominant by any stretch of the imagination; they allow 418.5 yardsand 24.9 points per game. But they should handle a toothless Stanford offense enough for the Tar Heels to come away with this one.
In summary, you have two reasons to watch the Sun Bowl. One, to see Trubisky, who might be the next no. 1 overal pick in the NFL Draft. And two, to see how good McCaffrey is by seeing how bad Stanford is without him.
Prediction: North Carolina 38 – Stanford 20
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl – Nebraska vs. No. 21 Tennessee
How is Tennessee still ranked? I mean, I know it doesn’t matter, but how? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially if you’re not going to have Nebraska in there. The Cornhuskers are 9-3 on the season, with losses to only Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Tennessee is 8-4 with losses to Alabama, Texas A&M (okay, not bad), South Carolina, and Vanderbilt (okay, bad). It makes no sense to me. But that’s just me. In terms of the product on the field, this should actually be a pretty good game. Whichever way you think this game will go probably depends on whether you value offense or defense more than the other.
Tennessee sports a top 30 offense, averaging 36.3 points per game. Nebraska poses a top 30 defense, averaging 22.8 points allowed per game. While each team does have one elite unit, each of their counterparts is fairly unremarkable. Nebraska senior QB Tommy Armstrong never fully realized the potential he’s oft displayed throughout his four-year career. His 2,180 yards passing are less than both of his junior and sophomore seasons, and he’s completing passes at the lowest rate of his entire career. Only Jordan Westerkamp has over 500 yards receiving on the year, and he’s only at 526. RB Terrell Newby leads the team with 864 rushing yards, but has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark in two games this year. For the Volunteers, defensively, DE Derek Barnett has been the lone bright spot. The projected first-round pick has 12 sacks on the season to go along with 18 tackles for loss. CB Cameron Sutton is an NFL-caliber cornerback and has four pass break-ups and one interception on the year. The rest of the defense, however, hasn’t been NFL-caliber to say the least. The Vols defense, as alluded to earlier, isn’t terrible. But at 29.3 points allowed per game, they’re far from spectacular.
Nebraska’s defense relies a lot on an opportunistic defensive secondary. The Huskers have intercepted the 14th most passes in all of FBS this year, led by S Kieron Williams and DB Nathan Gerry, who have five and four INTs, respectively. No one player really stands out on this unit, but as a whole, the Huskers have posted impressive numbers on the defensive side of the ball in most categories, as the Huskers rank in the top 50 in the country for both passing and rushing defense. This has been a fundamentally sound unit for much of the season, but it isn’t unbeatable. 62 points allowed against Ohio State speak to that, but allowing 40 to Iowa in the last game of the season is much more alarming for Nebraska. There’s a chink in the armor if Tennessee’s offense can reach it.
Tennessee’s offense is much more remembered for RB Jalen Hurd essentially quitting the team midseason than it is for being pretty effective, even without him. The Vols’ best stretch may have been over the final month of the season, where the offense posted 55, 49, 63, and 34 points. While no team they faced during that span fielded as good of a defense as Nebraska, it’s still a positive indication for the Vols to be firing on all cylinders heading into bowl season. Over that four-game stretch, the Vols have averaged almost 550 yards per game and only turned the ball over five times during the span, a marked difference from the first eight games of the season. But while the offense was exploding, the defense was imploding, as the defense allowed 36, 37, and 45 points to Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt respectively to close out the season.
In all likelihood, this game comes down to which middling unit has an above-average game, whether that’s Nebraska’s offense or Tennessee’s defense. Predicting that is a fool’s errand, so I’ll go with the team with more to play for. Nebraska’s entire season has been spent remembering kicker Sam Foltz, who passed away in a car accident last offseason. Capping off an almost dedicatory season with a bowl win is assuredly high on the Cornhuskers’ priority list.
Prediction: Nebraska 31 – Tennessee 27
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl – South Alabama vs. Air Force
Someone should tell the Arizona Bowl that just because they play their game late in the bowl season, it doesn’t make their bowl a marquee game. This feels like a major dropoff from the Music City Bowl before you get to the Orange Bowl that same night. It feels that way because it is. One of the final ‘meh’ bowls of the year, South Alabama and Air Force won’t provide the same allure as one of the larger money bowls, but it does provide its fair share of intrigue.
Air Force should have been in contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Falcons finished the season at 9-3, with all three losses coming in succession in the middle of the season. A loss at Wyoming is forgivable, but the Falcons followed that up with one-score losses at home to both New Mexico and Hawaii. It’s a huge game of what-if, but had the Falcons won those two games they’d be standing at 11-1 and could have leaped over Western Michigan with a conference championship victory.
South Alabama had their own fair share of missed chances. The Jaguars had two of the best nonconference victories of any Group of 5 team. Victories over Mississippi State and San Diego State should have spelled dominance over the rest of the Sun Belt. But South Alabama somehow managed to finish 2-6 in conference play. It remains one of the biggest mysteries of this college football season; how South Alabama managed to hand SDSU its only out-of-conference loss but then turn around and lose to Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Monroe.
Imma keep this one pretty short, and here’s my reason. With Air Force, the result of a game comes down to whether or not they can run the ball. When Air Force has eclipsed 300 yards rushing in a game this year, they’re 6-1. That sole loss was to Hawaii, where they turned the ball over three times. South Alabama ranks 98th in the country in rush defense, giving up 212.1 yards per game. They’re also not adept at forcing turnovers, as they’ve only tallied 20 takeaways on the year.
Perhaps the Jaguars can hatch a gameplan to stop the option attack of Falcons. It was certainly a surprise for South Alabama to beat Mississippi State and San Diego State. But Air Force has four rushers who have topped 600 yards rushing on the season in RBs Jacobi Owens, Timothy McVey, D.J. Johnson, and QB Arion Worthman. The Jaguars just gave up 353 yards rushing to New Mexico State. The defense won’t stop the option and the offense isn’t good enough to keep pace. Air Force should handle their business easily.
Prediction: Air Force 38 – South Alabama 28
Capital One Orange Bowl – No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 Florida State
I think that Michigan should have been in the Playoff ahead of Washington. Not because I think Washington is a bad team; let me make that clear. Washington is a great team, but I think Michigan is better. The Wolverines were a consensus top-four team heading into their game against Ohio State, but then were downgraded several spots after a double-overtime loss at the second-best team in the country? I don’t see the reasoning behind all of that. The Playoff should be the best four teams in the country, yet it seems that most people only care about the win-loss columns without looking at any of the context of those games. Wins and losses are extremely important in judging a team, yes, and please don’t go all hyperbole on me by saying that freaking Rutgers should a championship contender because ‘they played well at times’. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that Michigan’s performance at Ohio State was one of the best we’ve seen all season, and yet it’s the reason they’re not in the Playoff. That doesn’t sit right with me. In other words, I don’t count Michigan’s loss at Ohio State as a normal loss, like Clemson losing to Pitt or Oklahoma losing to Houston. Wins and losses are not created equally, and I feel a close loss to a highly ranked team like Ohio State shouldn’t be the reason for excluding a team from the Playoff. Yes, it gave the Wolverines two losses compared to Clemson’s and Washington’s one. But I find it a difficult pill to swallow that we’re, in essence, saying that losing a close game at Ohio State is a worse showing than barely beating Arizona or NC State by a score. That’s just my opinion. Please don’t at me.
I bring this up because this is undoubtedly what head coach Jim Harbaugh has been saying since the final Playoff rankings were released. Michigan knows it was good enough to make the Playoff, and I have a feeling they’re going to take it out on Florida State here. Outside of Tuscaloosa, Michigan has the country’s best defense. Here is a list of defensive statistics where Michigan ranks in the top five in all of FBS: total defense, scoring defense, passing yards allowed, red zone defense, team passing efficiency defense, team sacks, team tackles for loss, first downs allowed, and third down defense. The only major statistical categories where they aren’t top-five are in turnovers forced, where they’re a far more pedestrian 83rd in the country, and in rushing yards allowed, where they’re still an elite 13th. The Wolverines have seven defenders projected to be selected in the upcoming April draft, with another four who will likely sign with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. In layman terms, this defense is pretty freaking good. Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Chris Wormley. You know these guys and how freaking good they are. I expect a dominating effort out of them.
Which isn’t to say I don’t think that Florida State won’t keep this somewhat close. Dalvin Cook is one of the only running backs in the country that I feel can actually inflict some damage on this Michigan defense. The Seminoles also sport a quality defense of their own while fielding a better offense. It’s not out of line to assume that Florida State could come away with a victory in this game; I’d just be very surprised if it happened. Deondre Francois is a quality QB, but as a freshman, I don’t think he’s had the experience to yet be able to handle a defense as good as the Wolverines, especially with as few weapons as the Seminoles currently have around him. Outside of Cook, only WR Travis Rudolph has topped 500 yards rushing or receiving. For the Seminoles to pull off the upset here, several players are going to have to emerge from the woodwork to make some big plays. I expect Cook to have a successful game, at least relative to how other RBs have fared against Michigan, but that alone isn’t enough.
I can’t say it enough: Michigan’s defense is ridiculously good, and they’ll carry them for much of the way in this game. That combined with a healthier Wilton Speight at the QB position for the Wolverines should be plenty to win this game. Not a classic blowout, but Michigan should handle Florida State without much drama.
Prediction: Michigan 27 – Florida State 14
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl – No. 20 LSU vs. No. 13 Louisville
Another game where a star running back sitting out the game has a major impact on how the game will be played. Just as with McCaffrey, I side with Leonard Fournette here, too. Fournette’s a top-10 draft pick come April, even though he’s struggled with several injuries throughout the year. It’s much more prudent to sit this out and focus on achieving full health before the NFL Combine and LSU’s pro day. However, here is an interesting tidbit: Fournette is not LSU’s leading rusher this season. That honor belongs to Derrius Guice, and it’s not particularly close. Guice has 1,249 yards rushing to Fournette’s 843. Much of that is due to Fournette’s missing games due to injury (all the more reason to skip the bowl game), but a lot of it is also due to Guice being a more than capable replacement. In fact, LSU has not lost a game this year in which Fournette did NOT play in, including their 54-39 victory over Texas A&M to close out the regular season. Unlike Stanford without McCaffrey, LSU can hold its own without Fournette.
Much of the reason for Les Miles’ firing from LSU this season was due to an anemic offense. Just this year, the Tigers averaged only 21 points per game under Miles. That mark would have ranked 115th in the country this year. Contrast that to the post-Miles era with Ed Orgeron. In seven games, LSU averaged 32.4 points per game. That’s including a 10-0 defeat at the hands of Alabama and 16-10 loss to Florida. Remove those two games and the Tigers have been scoring 43.4 points per game over five games, all wins. It really has been a drastic change in offensive success with Miles gone. The Tigers averaged just 339 yards per game in the first four games of the year under Miles. That jumped 536 in October. LSU’s defense has always been a strong unit. If the offense is starting to come around, then LSU might be Alabama’s best challenge over the next few years in the SEC. The defense has more or less remained just as incredible during this offensive overhaul. In fact, during that same three-game stretch in October, LSU allowed only 339 yards per game. The talent is undeniable and is all over the field. S Jamal Adams projects as a first-round pick in the NFL. CB Tre-Davious White and LB Kendell Beckwith were both named to the Coaches All-SEC first team, while DT Arden Key was named to the second team along with Adams.
LSU fields a good offense and a good defense, so this game falls down to whether Louisville’s two-game losing streak to Houston and Kentucky is an aberration or a sign of more troubling concerns for the Cardinals. Frankly, it might be more towards the latter. QB Lamar Jackson was playing out of his mind to start the season, and his play covered up several other holes among the rest of the roster. Those are tiny holes, but holes nonetheless. The Cardinals have four WRs who have at least 590 yards receiving on the year in James Quick, Cole Hikutini, Jaylen Smith, and Jamari Staples, but none of them have topped 700 yards. Jackson is the team’s leading rusher with 1,538 yards and the next closest rusher is Brandon Radcliff with 877. Gameplanning for the Cardinals’ offense is fairly simple: contain Jackson. There’s not enough playmaking elsewhere for teams to have to overly worry about them beating you. Jackson is still so freaking good that he can still beat defenses even with 11 sets of eyes on him, but it’s not a terrific way to make a living as an offense. The defense has somewhat slipped over the course of the season, allowing 60 more yards per game in November than it was in September. Louisville will need that September defense to show up again here. The Cardinals will need some playmaking from anyone not named Lamar Jackson, and the defense has the capability to provide some spark. CB Jaire Alexander has five interceptions and eight pass deflections on the season. S Chucky Williams has been steady all season and has produced a phenomenal stat line: nine TFLs, three interceptions, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. Williams and Alexander have provided some huge plays for the Cardinals throughout the season, and a few more in the Citrus Bowl could turn the tide in their favor.
With Fournette out, Louisville undoubtedly has the best player on either team with Jackson. LSU arguably has the better overall unit with their defense. As a team, the two are pretty even from what I see. This will be an incredible game to watch, I think. Jackson should return to the captivating form we saw for the first several weeks of the season, especially with several weeks to heal and prepare. But with LSU showcasing an improved offense of their own to partner with their already impressive defense, I’m not sure that’s going to be quite enough.
Prediction: LSU 42 – Louisville 38
TaxSlayer Bowl – Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
Are we sure this is a bowl game and not some out-of-conference ESPN filler that was actually played in Week 3 on a Friday night? This game just lacks a lot of shine, so to speak. Georgia Tech had a very quiet 8-4 season in the ACC. And while Kentucky received their first bowl invite since 2010, this still isn’t a fantastically intriguing draw in this game. Maybe that’s because it’s sandwiched amidst a slew of premier bowl games on New Year’s Eve. It’s tough to appear as a marquee match-up when you’re playing at the same time at LSU-Louisville and mere hours before the Playoff semifinals.
What this game does offer is two premier rushing offenses. Georgia Tech’s option attack is well known, and the Yellow Jackets kept the trend this year by averaging 257.4 yards per game on the ground. Kentucky wasn’t too far behind, though, as the Wildcats averaged 241.3 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets, like most option teams, feature a stable of runners in place of one workhorse. RBs Marcus Marshall and Dedrick Mills have both topped 600 yards on the season while QB Justin Thomas added 562 yards of his own. At 5.52 yards per carry, Georgia Tech poses a versatile rushing attack that, despite opponents knowing the option is coming, is very difficult to contain. Kentucky, however, relies on two workhorses in the backfield, both of whom have eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing on the season. Stanley Williams and Benny Snell Jr, a sophomore and freshman, respectively, have been most responsible for Kentucky’s offense this season, as the two have combined for 42.6 percent of the Wildcats’ total offensive output.
With two elite rushing offenses, the most important facet of the game for either team will be rushing defense. Georgia Tech ranks 65th in the country at 174.2 yards allowed per game. Kentucky’s tied for 107th at 225 yards allowed per game. Point for the Yellow Jackets. But the Wildcats do have LB Jordan Jones at their leisure. Jones tallied 100 tackles on the year en route to receiving All-SEC second team honors. The Yellow Jackets placed exactly zero players on any of the three All-ACC teams this year, though DT Patrick Gamble did receive honorable mention. Point for the Wildcats. Neither team is dominant at stopping the run, and both the Yellow Jackets and Wildcats should be able to run fairly easily in this game. Where this game could really turn, though, is on turnovers. Kentucky was one of the worst teams in all of FBS at protecting the ball this year, turning the ball 27 times. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech was one of the country’s best, with only 15 turnovers on the year.
Expect a lot of ground game in this one. If either team fails to run the ball consistently, they’ll be at a severe disadvantage here. I don’t expect that, though. These are two elite rushing units facing two less-than-stellar defenses. But in the end, Kentucky’s propensity for mistakes will give this game to the Yellow Jackets.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 35 – Kentucky 27
Outback Bowl – No. 17 Florida vs. Iowa
Florida easily, right? Eh, not quite. Were it not for the stigma which comes from losing to an FCS team, Iowa would probably be ranked quite near Florida’s no. 17 spot right now. Plus, that FCS team was North Dakota State, which is one of the best non-power 5 teams in all of college football, FBS or FCS. Since that loss, Iowa has only lost to Wisconsin and Penn State, the two division winners in the Big Ten. This is going to be a tough game for two very similar teams.
Both the Hawkeyes and the Gators field impressive defenses that make up for the lack of offensive firepower. Florida is one of six teams in the country to hold teams below 300 yards per game. The Hawkeyes allow a slightly more normal 352.8 yards per game, though that’s still good for 26th in the country. Scoring defense, astoundingly, is completely equal, as both teams allow 17.9 points per game. Each defense has surrendered exactly 27 touchdowns, 26 extra points, and nine field goals. Florida holds a definitive edge in both passing and rushing defense, but the fact remains that these are both two immensely talented and productive units.
Florida’s secondary is immaculate, with future first-round pick Jalen Tabor leading the way. The junior has three INTs on the year and five pass deflections and projects as one of the first defensive backs off the board come April. A slew of All-SEC second team selections backs up Tabor in DL Caleb Brantley, Jarrad Davis, and Quincy Wilson. On the opposite sideline, Iowa is led by two All-Big Ten first team honorees in DL Jaleel Johnson and DB Desmond King. The pair have wreaked havoc over opposing offenses all season long. Johnson racked up 10 TFLs and 7.5 sacks while King two INTs to go with seve pass deflections to anchor the back end of the defense.
Offensively, both teams rank in the bottom 20 of the FBS for total offense. Iowa, however, maintains its physicality, featuring a fairly effective running game that’s within 34 yards of netting the program it’s first dual 1,000-yard rushers in one season. LeShun Daniels Jr. leads the Hawkeyes with 1,013 yards while fellow RB Akrum Wadley has totaled 966 yards so far on the season. QB CJ Beathard has simply been a game-manager for Iowa, but he’s performed admirably enough in such a role, throwing 17 touchdowns and only seven interceptions on the season. Beathard’s been a decent QB for Iowa, but the gameplan for the Hawkeyes will be to fully utilize their dual running back threat to its fullest.
Florida’s offense has frankly been a mess this year. Fluctuating between two QBs in Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby, the Gators have struggled to find a rhythym all year, and hasn’t scored more than 30 points since playing Missouri in mid-October. Antonio Callaway is the only WR to eclipse 400 yards receiving, as the sophomore wideout has 666 yards on the season (bad omen, for sure). The running game has never launched off the pad, as the Gators rank an abysmal 113th for rushing yards per game at 129.8. Whereas Iowa at least holds a serviceable run game in their ground-and-pound system, there is no such saving grace for the Gator offense.
Low, low scoring game here with two great defenses facing offenses that don’t run light up the scoreboard to begin with. Iowa finds enough success with its backfield to just outpace the Gators.
Prediction: Iowa 17 – Florida 10
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic – No. 15 Western Michigan vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Row the freaking boat.
Group of 5 teams have won their match-up with a Power-5 team in each of the last two New Year’s Six bowls that featured that match-up. There is a really good chance for a third straight, though this may be the toughest test yet for a Group of 5 champion in the Playoff era. Wisconsin is a terrific team that’s only lost to three teams all ranked in the top six of the Playoff rankings. But if there is a team that can pull off a win here, it’s Western Michigan.
First of all, props to PJ Fleck, head coach for the Broncos. Fleck took over a middling directional Michigan school after the team went 4-8 in 2012. After a 1-11 season in his first year, the team went 8-5 the next two years before this magical undefeated year we’ve seen in 2016. The bonus for Broncos fans is that he also hasn’t yet run off to another school, even with offers flooding in. The job Fleck has done at Western Michigan is nothing short of miraculous. The Broncos ranked in the top 15 for both scoring offense and defense this year. They’ve turned the ball over an FBS-low seven times ALL YEAR while also forcing 26 turnovers from their opponents. They’ve feasted on MAC competition, yes, but it’s still be impressive. The Broncos dominated the All-MAC conference teams, as 14 players were selected among the three teams. WR Corey Davis received Player of the Year honors in the MAC for totaling 1,427 yards receiving. QB Zach Terrell completed over 70 percent of his passes while throwing for over 3,300 yards with 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Jarvarion Franklin eclipsed 1,300 yards rushing on the season, as well. Defensively, the Broncos ranked in the top 50 in the country for both passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. There just isn’t that many holes on this team. They’re fundamentally sound, and well-rounded on both offense and defense.
They’re kind of like Wisconsin. Wisconsin has long been the steady, fundamentally sound, tough team in the Big Ten. They claim a defense that’s top-10 in the country. They’re penalized the second-fewest times in the nation, as well. They don’t have the same high-flying offense the Broncos do, averaging only 28.7 points per game to the Broncos’ 43.5, but the Badgers hold opponents to a ridiculously low 15.5 points per game (Western Michigan is only slightly behind, allowing 19.5 points per contest). J.J. Watt’s brother, T.J., has continued in the Watt tradition at Wisconsin and has totaled 10.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs in his junior season. LB Vince Biegel and DL Conor Sheehy team with Watt to form a front seven that’s allowed the second fewest rushing yards per game in the country. Make no mistake about it, this is the best defense and team that Western Michigan will face all year.
But there’s just something about that boat, man.
Prediction: Western Michigan 28 – Wisconsin 23
Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual – No. 9 USC vs. No. 5 Penn State
I miss the days when this was simply known as the Rose Bowl. Simpler times. Alas, money speaks. Speaking of the game, though, there might not be another game I’m more excited about outside of the Playoff. These are the two hottest teams in the country right now, excluding Alabama, which is pretty much the sun at this point. Both teams last lost on September 24, which is insane. Penn State was supposed to be a middle-tier Big Ten team. USC was written off by about halftime against Alabama, and then buried after losing to Utah to fall to 1-3. Now? They provide a terrific Rose Bowl match-up.
As a disclaimer, let me say I am super high on USC QB Sam Darnold. Dude can ball. And USC has certainly responded to his being inserted into the lineup. In what’s amounted to nine games of playing time, Darnold has 2,633 yards passing with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s a freshman. I repeat, he’s the direct cause of USC saving their season, and he’s a freshman. If you don’t like USC playing well, this guy’s your worst nightmare. Combine him with a plethora of offensive talent like WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and RB Ronald Jones II and you see why the offense has averaged 37.1 points per game with him at the helm. The defense has always been there, with the Trojans allowin only 22.2 points per game on the season. CB Adoree Jackson is one of the best defenders in the country (and one of the best Twitter follows, as well). The scaries part might be that the bulk of this team could return next year. Jackson and Smith-Schuster, both eligible for the draft, have publicly spoken about coming back ‘to win the ‘natty’, reference the National Championship. If they do, I’d be hard-pressed to say they wouldn’t… you know, if it weren’t for Alabama.
Penn State has been the surprise of the season. By far. The Nittany Lions were picked to finish fourth in their division with the Big Ten. Not a single voter placed them in the championship game. Yet, here they are, representing the Big Ten in “the Granddaddy of them all”. The Lions feature a very balanced team, as the team ranks 22nd and 33rd in the country for scoring offense and defense, respectively. RB Saquon Barkley received the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award, as the sophomore rushed for 1,302 yards while hauling in another 347 receiving. QB Trace McSorley surprised the entire conference and was named to the All-Big Ten second team. WR Chris Godwin is a possible NFL draft pick, and the junior is mere yards away from eclipsing 800 yards receiving on the season. The defense has also made a major improvement this year. DE Garrett Sickels has 13 TFLs this year to go with 6.5 sacks. LB Jason Cabinda and DL Evan Schwan were both named to the All-Big Ten third team.
These are two programs that have both fallen completely off the table due to scandals and allegations over the past decade. With no reason to assume those disgusting allegations and scandals are ongoing, it’s should be an authentic joy to watch these teams try to reclaim their spots at the top of the college football world. A win here for either team is a statement to the rest of the natoin that the Trojans or Nittany Lions are officially ‘back’.
USC is officially back.
Prediction: USC 27 – Penn State 20
Allstate Sugar Bowl – No. 14 Auburn vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
The final bowl game before the national championship. And the last preview on our slate. I almost just want to give a prediction and be done with it. Writing 41 bowl previews is ful, but holy shoot is it a lot of work. But let’s give a few reasons as to why Oklahoma is winning this game.
Auburn is 8-4.
Oklahoma hasn’t lost since September and has two players that were invited to the Heisman ceremony in WR Dede Westbrook and QB Baker Mayfield.
Auburn does pose a challenging defense for the Sooners, one they surely haven’t seen in Big 12 play. Auburn has an excellend red zone defense, plus they allow only 15.6 points per game. But Oklahoma hasn’t scored fewer than 30 points since playing Ohio State. They’re rolling offensively, and Westbrook and Mayfield is hands-down the best QB-WR duo in the country. The pair have combined for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. It looks like RB Joe Mixon will be playing in the game, despite video of his assault from several years ago being released. That’s bad news for justice, but pretty good news for the Sooners. Mixon has 1,183 yards rushing on the season. Fellow RB Samarje Perine is more than capable, though, rushing for 974 yards on the season. Oklahoma’s defense isn’t much to write home about, as they allow 29.7 points per game. But with that killer offense, tackling dummies might be enough in some cases.
The way Auburn’s offense has been trending of late, the Sooner defense may be able to hold up quite well. In their last two SEC games, Auburn was held to seven points by Georgia, and to 12 points by Alabama. Granted, those are two great defenses, but it’s not a comforting notion for the Tigers to think they haven’t broken 20 points in their past eight quarters against FBS competition. The defense will have to keep the Tigers in this one. All-SEC first team member DL Carl Lawson will need to be stout in the trenches. The junior has 9.5 sacks on the season with 13 TFLs, though he may need several of each to disrupt the Sooner offense. Teammate and fellow DL Montravious Adams will also need to be a menace. The Sooners, however, had five offensive linemen who received All-Big 12 recognitions.
Last of all, Oklahoma’s just been consistent. They caught Houston in the first game of the season when Houston played arguably their best, most complete game of the season. And not many teams have much of a shot against Ohio State. Apart from that, the Sooners have come out and displayed offensive superiority and just enough defense to come out unscathed. The Tigers, on the other hand, have been a grab-bag of mystery for much of the season. I can’t fully rely on them to come through in this game. They’ll keep it close against a lackluster Sooner defense, but Mayfield and Westbrook should cap off their incredible season with another fantastic performance.
Prediction: Oklahoma 41 – Auburn 28