10 bowl matchups we're looking forward to watching
SEC fans aren’t the only ones that will be glued to flat-screen TVs starting Dec. 29.
The 10 games featuring teams from college football’s most passionate conference include a wealth of future NFL players. Pro scouts will be scouring game film from some of these high-profile contests trying to piece together final evaluations on top-ranked players.
If you’re more than a casual fan, some of the juiciest matchups you’ll watch all season will take place in these 10 bowl games.
You want to watch two top 15 NFL draft picks go 1-on-1? Watch the Sugar Bowl. Want to see two of the country’s elite lines clash? Watch the Cotton Bowl.
The list rolls on, but here are the 10 individual or unit matchups we’re most looking forward to watching during bowl season:
10. Georgia secondary vs. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
The Bulldogs boast one of the nation’s best pass defenses. It’s a veteran group that has produced numbers similar to Alabama in 2015. Opposing quarterbacks have completed less than 52 percent of their passes with more interceptions than touchdowns. That said, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and a number of other coaches are gone, and this game means more — probably a lot more — to Penn State.
Hackenberg may or may not be ready for the NFL. He’s regressed since a terrific freshman season, and he could take a chance before his stock bottoms out. He’s been sacked 82 times in the last two years, James Franklin’s offense doesn’t fit him and his offensive line has been atrocious. Still, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is better than 3-to-1. He’s completed a pass for at least 30 yards in every game this year. And Penn State will be gunning for an upset, so expect the Nittany Lions to take some shots downfield.
9. Florida QB Treon Harris vs. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers
Peppers is one of the best young players in the country. He’s questionable due to an arm injury, but expect him to play.
Notice I didn’t list a position in front of his name. That’s because he is a force in all three phases. He got 26 offensive touches and was a solid punt returner. But at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, his future is as an NFL safety.
Florida just announced that quarterback Will Grier intends to transfer rather than waiting out his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, which carries into the middle of next season. Harris will be competing with true freshman Feleipe Franks and former Alabama and Oregon State quarterback Luke Del Rio. He needs to show some development after three weeks of bowl practice.
The Gators won’t win the Citrus Bowl without some semblance of a passing game. And assuming he plays, Peppers is a menace that Harris will have to overcome.
8. Alabama LB Reggie Ragland vs. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
The Tide and Spartans are going to have to make some plays in the passing game, as both run defenses are outstanding. Surely Cook will take a few shots down the middle of the field to Aaron Burbridge, who leads the Big Ten with 1,219 receiving yards.
Underneath, Ragland may have to help in coverage against R.J. Shelton, who stretches the field laterally. That’s a formula that has worked against Alabama’s defense in the past — forcing big, lumbering linebackers into coverage on short and intermediate routes. Shelton averages just 11.8 yards per catch but could be critical for Michigan State, especially if the Spartans want to control the ball and use all areas of the field.
NFL teams already are sold on Ragland as a run-stopper. If he can prove his versatility as a pass rusher or in coverage against an opponent like Cook, he could solidify himself as a first-round draft choice.
7. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch vs. Auburn DE Carl Lawson
OK, so these two players won’t go head-to-head, exactly. But Lynch will be competing with Cal’s Jared Goff to become the first quarterback taken in this year’s NFL draft, likely high in the first round. At 6-foot-7, he’s a physical marvel, and he’s thrown 28 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions.
Lawson missed all of last season with a torn ACL and then missed six more games this season. But he still could enter the NFL draft and become a high-round pick due to his athletic upside. And we’ve seen how much different this Auburn defense has been when he’s in the game.
Both of these players are trying to impress NFL scouts, and if Lawson can get to Lynch a few times, it could have a dramatic impact on the outcome of this game.
6. Northwestern’s front seven vs. Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
The Wildcats are ranked No. 12 in the country mostly due to a defense allowing 16.4 points per game. Anthony Walker and Dean Lowry have combined for 33 tackles for loss. Oh, and Walker is a 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore from Miami. He could be a bit undersized as an NFL prospect, but he’s one of the surest tacklers in the country.
Northwestern was the only team to hold Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Heisman runner-up, to less than 110 yards from scrimmage. Jalen Hurd could be the SEC’s next Derrick Henry in 2016 if the rest of the offense improves around him. He’s a big, brutish runner.
Don’t expect a high-speed chase in this throwback matchup. Expect a lot of loud pad-popping, grunting and bodies flying. If Hurd can deliver more blows than Northwestern gives him, the Vols will get an important bowl win.
5. Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett vs. Louisville offensive line
If you’re an Aggies fan, you can focus on a half-dozen horrible things happening with this team right now. Or you can sit back and watch Garrett torture the Louisville offensive line in the Music City Bowl.
The Cardinals did not have a single offensive linemen get mention in any of the All-ACC teams. Garrett enters the matchup with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Louisville has a surprisingly mediocre offense for a Bobby Petrino-coached team. Expect Garrett to show why he could be the most dominant defensive player in the country in 2016.
4. LSU WRs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural vs. Texas Tech secondary
Make no mistake, Leonard Fournette will be the focal point of this entire game. Texas Tech allows 271.8 rushing yards per game, which is better than two teams in the entire country. LSU needs to make changes on offense and possibly will fire coordinator Cam Cameron. And the focus beyond those two story lines is on quarterback Brandon Harris and whether this is his last start in Baton Rouge. The Tigers surely are shopping around for a quarterback upgrade.
Put aside all the noise. We haven’t had much chance to focus on this pair of receivers. They’re not Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. But this is one of the best receiver duos we’ve seen in Baton Rouge in the Les Miles era. Both of them are NFL-caliber players. Dural averages 19.0 yards per reception this year — the lowest total of his career, if you can believe that. Dupre has 602 receiving yards, in just 11 games, as a true sophomore, in LSU’s run-heavy offense. Both of them should have numerous chances to outflank the defense and hit on long receptions in the Texas Bowl.
3. Auburn RB Jovon Robinson vs. Memphis front seven
Robinson has rushed for 493 yards on 5.7 yards per carry since Auburn inserted him into the offense Oct. 31 against Ole Miss. He’ll already be a player everyone is talking about in the SEC entering the 2016 season, but especially so if he plays well against Memphis. Unless you’re an Auburn fan, chances are you haven’t paid much attention to Robinson. He had four carries in the team’s first seven games, and the team was irrelevant by that point.
But Robinson could be even more athletic than Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, both of whom are playing on Sundays now. The Memphis run defense is tied for 14th in the country, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry. This is the Birmingham Bowl, so there’s not a lot of excitement on the surface. But this is a gem of a matchup.
2. Alabama vs. Michigan State at the line of scrimmage
I’m not sure which side is more interesting. This game is going to be won by one of the quarterbacks. But watching each of these stout front sevens try to shut down elite personnel (Derrick Henry, Spartans offensive line) will be highly entertaining. SEC fans remember Fournette’s game against Alabama. Well, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott likely gets an invite to New York as a Heisman finalist if he had a decent game against the Spartans. But this defense — so disciplined in their run fits every year — held him to 12 carries for 33 yards.
If Michigan State can hold Henry to less than 100 yards, this game is going to be very interesting. Also, the Spartans offensive line is as good as any this Alabama front seven has faced all season. It’s one of the best pass rushes against one of the best pass protection units in the country. Strap on your helmets, boys.
1. Ole Miss LT Laremy Tunsil vs. Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah
You may not normally enjoy focusing on players “in the trenches,” but do yourself a favor and try it for at least one quarter during the Sugar Bowl. This is the single-most intriguing 1-on-1 matchup in any of the 40 bowl games. Ogbah is tied for second in the country with 13 sacks. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranks both players within the top 20 of his Big Board. NFL scouts are salivating at the thought of this one.