The entire SEC -- not just Alabama -- has plenty left to prove this bowl season
Ten storylines I’m most interested in seeing this bowl season from the best conference in America:
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
LSU vs. Texas Tech
Dec. 29, NRG Stadium (Houston)
Few teams in the country had a more violent rise and fall this season than LSU, which went from No. 14 in the preseason polls to No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff standings to unranked following a three-game losing streak in November.
Despite coach Les Miles managing to survive a coup attempt, that doesn’t change the fact that his passing attack ranks 111th nationally — between Charlotte and Nevada. Running back Leonard Fournette can’t be the entire offense — even against a run defense that ranks 126th — so it’s time for quarterback Brandon Harris to make more plays in the passing game downfield to receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural.
There’s no better time to let it fly, as Texas Tech will arrive in Houston with the No. 115 pass defense in the nation.
Auburn vs. Memphis
Dec. 30, Legion Field (Birmingham)
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn can’t afford to drop this game and end the 2015 campaign with a losing record, not with his institution’s reputation for having a quick hook for even its most successful employees (see: Chizik, Gene).
Will Muschamp was scooped up after his failure at Florida to turn the Tigers around on defense, but they finished 91st nationally in yards allowed and gave up an average of 32 points in their six losses — somehow, Muschamp landed the South Carolina job as a result. Memphis comes to the Yellowhammer State with the No. 13 offense in the country, thanks mostly to the right arm of quarterback Paxton Lynch.
Lynch has thrown a grand total of 3 interceptions this season, but Auburn is tied for 38th in the nation with 13 picks.
Mississippi State vs. N.C. State
Dec. 30, Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
While quarterback Dak Prescott was sensational for the Bulldogs all season and maybe the single most indispensable player in the SEC, his swan song comes prior to New Year’s Eve against unranked N.C. State.
Dak Prescott and Tony Hughes said goodbye to MSU's players on Saturday. Here's what they said after practice: https://t.co/9s9oJrvYa9
— Michael Bonner (@MikeBBonner) December 19, 2015
The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder will have one last opportunity to put a quality performance on tape for NFL scouts, as the Wolfpack are 22nd nationally defending the pass. Whether he likes it not, because of the way he plays — and for coach Dan Mullen, the former Florida offensive coordinator — Prescott continues to be compared to Tim Tebow, who was special in college but couldn’t translate his skills to the NFL.
Hail State’s system won’t help him very much, as it hardly resembles what he’ll be asked to do when suiting up on Sundays, so Prescott would be wise to put as much pure arm talent on display as possible.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Texas A&M vs. Louisville
Dec. 30, Nissan Stadium (Nashville)
In the time you’ve been reading this story, it’s a distinct possibility that the Aggies have lost yet another quarterback to a transfer.
It’s been a rough December for coach Kevin Sumlin, as former five-star recruits Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray announced that they were leaving in the span of six days, so the game’s most important position is completely up for grabs in College Station next season. If new starter Jake Hubenak wants a leg up on the competition — and possibly quiet down those Trevor Knight rumors — he’ll have to do it against Louisville’s 41st-ranked pass D.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has played sparingly in 2015, completing 12 of 27 passes for 92 yards with 1 touchdown and no interceptions.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium (Arlington)
Finally, a game that matters: The Crimson Tide and Spartans will battle for the right to play the winner of the other College Football Playoff semifinal — Clemson vs. Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl — in the national championship game.
This matchup pits strength against strength, as Alabama and Michigan State are the No. 1 and No. 7 rushing defense in the country, respectively. Tide coach Nick Saban has shown he has no problem giving the ball to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry 40-plus times, but Sparty features a committee-type approach with LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London all getting between 108 and 140 carries this season.
Holmes is the smallest of those three backs at 6-foot and 216 pounds, so it will be interesting to see if that trio can wear down the country’s best front seven in the second half.
Tennessee vs. Northwestern
Jan. 1, Raymond James Stadium (Tampa)
While the Volunteers finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, those victories came over Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt — combined record, 18-42.
Now they face an unfamiliar foe that’s easy to overlook, as Northwestern will never be able to fill its roster with four- and five-star talent in that part of the country and with those high admission standards. Still, coach Pat Fitzgerald and Co. finished seventh nationally in scoring D, which is doubly impressive as the Big Ten had a strong year and the Wildcats’ non-conference slate was headlined by Stanford.
The Wildcats were 13th defending the run and 25th defending the pass, so Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs has his hands full on the ground and through the air.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
Florida vs. Michigan
Jan. 1, Florida Citrus Bowl (Orlando)
Another SEC program with all kinds of problems under center, Florida lost its supposed savior at quarterback for next season with the recent announcement that Will Grier has joined the tranfer derby.
The embattled Treon Harris will face a Wolverines D that ranks fourth nationally in fewest total yards allowed per game — including No. 3 against the pass. That doesn’t bode well for the Miami native, who has completed more than 50 percent of his passes just twice in seven starts since taking over for the suspended Grier at LSU on Oct. 17.
The Gators have a dominating defense of their own, ranking eighth in the country surrendering points, but they keep wearing down in the second half because their offense can’t stay on the field.
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State
Jan. 1, Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
One of the better matchups of the bowl season, espect to see a lot of points put up by two offenses that can be downright explosive when operating at full capacity.
Led by quarterback Chad Kelly and his devil-may-care attitude, the Rebels have the No. 10 passing offense in the country and arguably the most dangerous wide receiver at the FBS level — Laquon Treadwell went five consecutive games this season with 100-plus yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys are seventh nationally through the air in the pass-happy Big 12, with Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh combining for 34 TD tosses.
Ole Miss will learn what it’s like to play defense minus the services of Robert Nkemdiche, as the future millionaire has been suspended and won’t play.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 20, 2015
Georgia vs. Penn State
Jan. 2, EverBank Field (Jacksonville)
While it will probably take 40-plus points to win the Sugar Bowl, 20 or so likely gets it done in the Artist Formerly Known as the Gator Bowl.
Georgia is 84th in the country scoring points, which is understandable since running back Nick Chubb was the straw that stirred the drink between the hedges offensively — the Bulldogs just weren’t the same team after he wrecked his knee Oct. 10 at Tennessee. Penn State is even worse at 101st, as quarterback Christian Hackenberg did his NFL stock no favors by only throwing for 2,386 yards and 16 touchdowns in 12 games.
Bet the over for Ole Miss-Oklahoma State in New Orleans, and then come back and bet the under for Georgia-Penn State in Jacksonville.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Arkansas vs. Kansas State
Jan. 2, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis)
Like Tennessee in the SEC East, Arkansas got over some early disappointments — and some unrealistic expectations — to finish feeling good about itself in the SEC West.
It’s difficult to find something that Kansas State truly does well, as the Wildcats are 108th nationally in total offense and 101st in total defense. Among their rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense and passing defense, none rank better than 54th, with their ability to stop the pass (120th) being especially weak.
Hogs quarterback Brandon Allen went over 400 yards passing three times this year, so the stage is set for a fourth.