How critical is bowl win to each team's offseason momentum?
First football impressions are always important, on that opening Saturday in September. But to every program, some more than others, it’s that curtain-call performance in December (or early January) that can serve as the springboard to a stronger recruiting class in February, better spring practices in March and April and just a better overall feel during an entire offseason pushing through summer camp.
So a bowl victory can make all the difference to each of the record-tying 12 SEC schools who got to one — Mississippi State can thank the Egg Bowl blowout win and an equally powerful Academic Progress Rate score for its bowl bid at 5-7 — but each program is unique and has its own particular situation.
Fittingly, the Bulldogs kick off the SEC’s bowl schedule, Monday morning in St. Petersburg. Eleven more SEC teams will follow.
So we’re going to rate the importance of a bowl win to each SEC school under one of three classifications: crucial, mildly important or not really that important.
This is a tricky one, of course. The SEC king for the past decade now requires two bowl-season victories for a successful season, with the new College Football Playoff format. But Bama doesn’t need a bowl win (or two) for offseason momentum. The momentum has been and is there, regardless of what happens. It’s whether Nick Saban and Co. have added to their national title haul that explains if the offseason is spent as defending champion or trying to get back to the very top. There haven’t been many of those since 2009. So a bowl win (or wins) is only vital because it’s championship or bust. Again, a unique situation. Verdict? Crucial.
The Razorbacks had a very Arkansas-like season. Lots of high hopes. A few moments, like the early season victory over TCU, when it looked like it could be a special season in Fayetteville. And, unfortunately for the Hogs Faithful, a few more moments when the Razorbacks couldn’t stop anybody and that dynamic offense led by Austin Allen couldn’t outscore everybody. Add it all up and it produced a 7-5 regular season like too many others. Which means a Belk Bowl victory over ACC runner-up Virginia Tech would be huge for Bret Bielema’s program that could use a signature bowl win over a respected opponent to take into 2017. Verdict? Crucial.
Auburn’s roller-coaster of a season finishes in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl, against Big 12 champion Oklahoma. The Tigers proved they could overcome a slow start, after those home losses to Clemson and Texas A&M. They proved they could be solid enough defensively during their surge up the polls (except at the end against Alabama, of course). But here’s their chance, as a slight underdog in a big-time bowl game, to prove they can beat an elite program. A win over the Sooners would be a launching point as transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham joins the program to compete for the starting job in 2017. Verdict? Crucial.
Of course, the Gators would love to beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl and not duplicate last season’s ending, when they lost the rivalry game to Florida State, the SEC title game to Alabama and the bowl game to Michigan. They are two-thirds of the way toward repeating that awful fate, but this is going to be Austin Appleby’s first and last bowl game with the Gators, who will welcome Jake Allen into the QB mix next year to compete with the likes of Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. So while a Gators win would be nice, Florida already has a culture of winning in place. Verdict? Mildly important.
Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are coming back next season, and Jacob Eason won’t be a freshman against next season, so 2017 is already setting up well for the Bulldogs. Equally important is that Kirby Smart won’t be a first-year head coach anymore. Everything won’t be so new, which will allow for a brand new outlook and expectation. That means a Liberty Bowl date with a 6-6 TCU team won’t do much either way in affecting things in Athens. Verdict? Not that important.
It was a wonderful season of rebirth in Lexington, authored by Mark Stoops and that powerful running tandem of Stanley Williams and Benny Snell. Seven wins was great. But eight would be remarkable, and the Wildcats taking out a good Georgia Tech program in the TaxSlayer Bowl would put the stamp on a comeback 2016 for a program that lives in the shadow of John Calipari’s basketball team. Verdict? Crucial.
Ed Orgeron is now the guy in Baton Rouge. He’s not coaching for his job in the Citrus Bowl against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. So the Tigers can and should actually enjoy themselves now, after a stressful fall with injuries to Leonard Fournette, unexpected losses and an ordinary 7-4 record, not to mention that coaching change. Oh, and Fournette isn’t even playing in the bowl game, so losing to the Cardinals wouldn’t be earth-shattering. Verdict? Mildly important.
This is the ultimate gravy game for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs. The aforementioned 5-7 record that turned into a bowl bid because of strong work in the classroom, not on the field, means that Mississippi State should just be happy to be playing Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl. A loss here does no damage. A win would be a wonderful perk after a rocky season. Verdict? Mildly important.
Like Kentucky, the Gamecocks had a rebirth of sorts to get to six wins and a bowl bid in Will Muschamp’s first season in Columbia. But the Gamecocks already have the check mark next to their name. They got back to a bowl, ahead of schedule. They even found their quarterback for the next few years in Jake Bentley. So not beating a heavily favored South Florida team in the Birmingham Bowl is not going to pop their balloon at all. Muschamp already has things trending upward. Verdict? Mildly important.
The Vols had a weird season. The thrilling first half, with second-half comebacks galore, and even a Hail Mary. Then reality hit. Then came a galvanizing win over Kentucky. Then came the awful loss to rival Vanderbilt. Normally 8-4 seasons don’t need bowl wins attached to the end to validate or build momentum, but in this case Butch Jones could use a Music City Bowl win over a named program like Nebraska to get Volunteers fans off his case and start 2017 the right way. Verdict? Crucial.
Similar to Tennessee, the Aggies had an amazing start and were even No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings in early November before hitting a wall. The only teams Texas A&M beat after its 6-0 start? New Mexico State and Texas-San Antonio. The Texas Bowl against former Big 12 rival Kansas State provides that last chance for Kevin Sumlin, like Jones, to quiet his critics and make that strong lasting impression going into the new year. It also gives the electric Trayveon Williams a chance to show fans — and recruits — that the Aggies aren’t limping into 2017. Verdict? Crucial.
The Commodores have already showed they can win with a bowl trip on the line, capturing the final two games of the season, including the rousing win over Tennessee. Derek Mason has already shown that he has Vandy (for now) on an upward trend, and of course it doesn’t hurt to be able to showcase Ralph Webb. An Independence Bowl win over N.C. State would be a wonderful way to top things off, but Mason and Co. have already done enough — just ask Georgia and Tennessee, and even Florida and Auburn. Verdict? Mildly important.