Monday Down South SEC Bowl Primer: Sizing up new-look Oklahoma, short-handed North Carolina and the rest of the postseason slate
The least you need to know about the 2020-21 SEC bowl lineup.
Cotton Bowl: Florida (-3) vs. Oklahoma
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Wednesday, ESPN.
Make no mistake: In all the most important ways Oklahoma’s offense is still Oklahoma’s offense. The Sooners led the Big 12 in yards and points per game, averaging 41.1 ppg in conference play, up slightly from last year in a league that isn’t nearly as wide-open these days as its freewheeling reputation implies. In their 2 biggest games of the regular season, they put up 53 points in a double-OT win over Texas and 41 in a blowout win over Oklahoma State. Redshirt freshman QB Spencer Rattler was easily the Big 12’s most productive passer, pacing the conference in completion percentage (68.0%), yards per attempt (9.5), touchdowns (25) and overall efficiency (170.9), while flashing elite play-making skills on the move and largely curbing his early interception issues as the year wore on.
Highest-graded QBs outside the pocket:
1. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma – 93.3
2. Zach Wilson, BYU – 87.9
3. Kyle Trask, Florida – 82.6
4. Dillon Gabriel, UCF – 82.3 pic.twitter.com/9fnk5utDO6
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 18, 2020
Still, relatively speaking it was a shadow of the machine that defined Lincoln Riley’s first 3 years as head coach. The Sooners’ average gain per play in Big 12 games (6.4 yards) was their worst mark in that category since 2013, coming in more than a full yard below last year’s number and more than 2 yards below their record-setting pace in 2018.
Rattler’s stat line, while generally outstanding — especially for a first-year starter — was a significant step down from the gonzo production that made Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts Heisman winners or contenders and coveted pro prospects. At the skill positions, 6 players finished with between 400 and 700 yards from scrimmage with none of them separating from the pack, ending a run of 5 consecutive seasons at OU with a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver.
And the offense ended the regular season at low ebb, managing just 27 points in back-to-back wins over Baylor and Iowa State in the Big 12 title game — the 2 lowest-scoring outings of Riley’s tenure against Big 12 opponents.
The flip side is a defense that made strides under second-year coordinator Alex Grinch, allowing its fewest points per game (21.9) in a decade and holding 5 of the Sooners’ last 6 opponents to 21 or less. The leap was most obvious on the back end, where Oklahoma led the conference in pass efficiency D after years of watching its secondary set on fire on a regular basis. But the front line played its part in that number, too, leading the Big 12 and ranking 4th nationally in sacks behind the edge-rushing trio of Isaiah Thomas (8 sacks), Nik Bonitto (7.5) and Ronnie Perkins (5.5). That’s as good a group off the edge, if not better, as any current SEC front, going up against a Florida o-line that’s allowed 9 sacks — including a couple of costly strip-sacks, both at the expense of beleaguered RT Jean DeLance – in its last 2 games.
Admittedly, it’s a little unsettling to be writing about a Big 12-SEC matchup in which the SEC team is the one banking on its high-octane passing game to carry the day in a likely shootout, but here we are. Despite the pounding he’s taken over the past few weeks, prolific Florida QB Kyle Trask is almost certainly playing (“most likely 100 percent,” in his own words) in what will presumably be his final game as a Gator. His top target, freak show TE Kyle Pitts, is not, having already called it a career in Gainesville with an eye toward the draft. Ditto Oklahoma’s top cover corner, Tre Brown, who opted out last week. Pitts would have been the best player on the field, as usual, but given Florida’s unmatched depth at receiver, Brown’s absence may turn out to be the bigger loss.
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Florida 37, Oklahoma 31
Armed Forces Bowl: Mississippi State (+2.5) vs. Tulsa
Kickoff: 12:00 p.m., Thursday, ESPN.
Mississippi State (3-7) came full circle from September, opening on the high of an upset win at LSU, immediately bottoming out for most of October and November, and finally stabilizing over the past few weeks behind true freshman QB Will Rogers. Last week’s 51-32 win over Missouri snapped a 7-game losing against teams that aren’t Vanderbilt – and frankly the Bulldogs were lucky to beat Vanderbilt – while pointing toward a light at the end of the tunnel.
Tulsa (6-2) had almost exactly the opposite season, ripping off 6 straight wins in between a pair of close losses to the 2 best teams it played, Oklahoma State in the season-opener and Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game. The Golden Hurricane earned a reputation for resilience along the way, rallying from double-digit deficits in wins over UCF (from 18 points down), East Carolina (14), SMU (21) and Tulane (14).
In all of those games, though, they boasted the best player on the field, junior LB Zaven Collins, an aspiring first-rounder who just took home the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defender at any position. That won’t be the case in Fort Worth: Collins has already opted out of the game with an eye toward the draft, leaving an enormous void at the second level that Mike Leach‘s system is specifically designed to exploit.
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Mississippi State 34, Tulsa 29
Texas Bowl: Arkansas (+4.5) vs. TCU
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Thursday, ESPN.
TCU (6-4) rebounded from a 1-3 start to win 5 of its last 6 vs. the weaker half of the schedule, largely by unlocking the ground game: From Halloween on, the Frogs averaged 259.5 yards on a robust 6.6 per carry, much of it coming on the legs of sophomore QB Max Duffy, a full-time running threat with more power and breakaway potential than you’d expect for a guy listed at 6-1, 201 pounds.
Even after subtracting for sacks, Duggan led the Frogs in rushing yards (526), touchdowns (10) and runs of 20+ yards (8). And his limitations as a passer, significant they are, haven’t stopped his budding rapport with blue-chip freshman WR Quentin Johnson, who’s averaged 30.8 yards on 8 receptions in the last 2 games. Between Duggan, Johnson and late-emerging freshman RB Zach Evans – the first 5-star recruit in school history – the Frogs have “preseason 2021 darlings” written all over them.
On the other side of the ball, watch for one of the postseason’s better 1-on-1 battles between Arkansas WR Treylon Burks (51 for 820 yards, 7 TDs) and TCU CB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson – LaDainian’s nephew – a first-team All-Big 12 pick who led the conference in passes defended and posted the best coverage grade of any FBS corner this season per PFF. At 5-9/177 pounds, Hodges-Tomlinson will be giving up somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 inches and 50 pounds across from the freakishly athletic Burks, which is either a sobering mismatch in the making or a golden opportunity to prove to NFL scouts his size doesn’t matter.
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TCU 30, Arkansas 24
Peach Bowl: Georgia (-7) vs. Cincinnati
Kickoff: 12 p.m., Friday, ESPN
The Group of 5 rep in the New Year’s 6 rotation is usually an up-tempo, high-flying outfit built to win shootouts. Cincinnati under 3rd-year coach Luke Fickell is built more like a stereotypical Big Ten team. The Bearcats finished in the top 10 nationally in both total and scoring defense, led the nation in yards per play allowed and ranked No. 2 in pass efficiency D. They held 2 of the AAC’s more high-octane offenses, SMU and Memphis, to a combined 23 points, and the prolific attack at UCF to its lowest regular-season output (359 yards) in the last 4 years. Opposing coaches voted 5 UC defenders first-team All-AAC representing all three levels.
The most prominent member of that group is sophomore CB Ahmad Gardner, who has put together back-to-back All-AAC campaigns in his first 2 seasons on campus, has yet to give up a touchdown, and is already being sized up as a potential first- or second-day draft pick in 2022. His snaps opposite streaky/freaky Georgia WR George Pickens will have NFL scouts’ full attention. But Cincy can get after the quarterback, too, particularly via Myjai Sanders, another future pro off the edge.
If UGA’s massive offensive line has its way, though, the passing game will be largely an afterthought. The Bulldogs closed the regular season with their 2 best performances of the year on the ground, by far, pounding South Carolina and Missouri for a combined 648 yards and 8 touchdowns on 7.1 per carry, even while splitting carries among 4 backs. (That in response to their worst rushing performance, an embarrassing, 8-yard outing vs. Mississippi State.) Holding up against Georgia’s overwhelming size up front and putting the game on JT Daniels‘ arm will be the Bearcats’ biggest challenge.
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Georgia 31, Cincinnati 20
Citrus Bowl: Auburn (+3.5) vs. Northwestern
Kickoff: 1 p.m., Friday, ABC
How badly does Auburn want to be here? The Tigers ended the regular season in high enough spirits, busting a move in celebration of a win at Mississippi State and a 6-4 record, only for Gus Malzahn to get the boot a few hours later. The subsequent search for his replacement was characterized (as these things tend to be) by public rumors, competing agendas and behind-the-scenes intrigue.
In the end, the hiring of Boise State’s Bryan Harsin seemed to satisfy everyone except the small-but-loud group of boosters backing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who (awkwardly) will remain in the interim role through the end of the week before (presumably) moving on in the new year. The incentives to play this game begin and end with “because it’s there.”
One thing that should get the Tigers’ juices on offense is the prospect of lining up against a run defense that was just steamrolled for 399 yards on 9.1 per carry by Ohio State. Northwestern (6-2) has excelled against the pass, finishing No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency D and limiting Justin Fields to the worst game of his OSU career. All-Big Ten DB Brandon Joseph is an interception machine with 6 in just 8 games, tied for the national lead. But once OSU finally made up its mind to load up and run right at the Wildcats in the second half there was nothing they could do about it. Auburn’s o-line isn’t Ohio State’s, by a long shot, but if the Tigers can ride Tank Bigsby to even half of the Buckeyes’ success on the ground it will have the luxury of treating the passing game as an afterthought.
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Northwestern 23, Auburn 20
Playoff semifinal: Alabama (-20) vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: 4 p.m., Friday, ESPN
A full semifinal preview — it’s, uh, a little unclear whether we’re still calling it the Rose Bowl now that the game itself has been relocated to Texas — is coming later in the week. In the meantime, here are 3 reasons to take Notre Dame seriously:
The offensive line is legit. The starting 5 is one of the most veteran fronts in the country, boasting a collective 159 career starts, and also one of the most formidable, coming in as the nation’s best offensive front over the course of the season according to Pro Football Focus. The Fighting Irish accounted for 3/5s of the All-ACC o-line according to opposing coaches and 4 of the top 15 o-line slots on PFF’s All-America team. Factor in the tight ends, who have played prominent roles as blockers in the Irish’s multiple-TE sets, and you’re looking at a lot of big dudes who are collectively very good at their jobs.
Kyren Williams is a game-changer. Williams, a redshirt freshman who barely saw the field in 2019, has been a clear upgrade at running back, accounting for 1,343 scrimmage yards in 11 games — already the second-best total for any player in the Brian Kelly era. (Trailing only Josh Adams’ 1,531 yards in 2017.) More importantly, when he finds a crease, he’s a proven home-run hitter in the open field.
Williams finished with 140 yards rushing in the Irish’s November upset over Clemson, easily the most by any opposing back against the Tigers this year. The only opposing backs to post a bigger rushing number vs. Clemson in the past 6 years: J.K. Dobbins, Lamar Jackson and Dalvin Cook.
Ian Book is better than his numbers. Well, depending on which numbers you’re looking at. Notre Dame’s run-oriented attack doesn’t give him a lot of opportunities to rack up yards and touchdowns, and he’s firmly in the good-not-great range in terms of completion percentage (64.0%), yards per attempt (8.3) and overall efficiency (148.1). On the other hand, he doesn’t put the ball at risk (just 2 interceptions in 314 attempts), and his athleticism is a major asset both as a runner (548 yards excluding sacks, 8 TDs) and a scrambler under pressure. He ranks 9th nationally according to ESPN’s Total QBR metric, just a hair behind Trevor Lawrence, and 8th in its most important factor, Expected Points Added.
Elevating Book into the top 10 in Heisman voting was probably going overboard based on ND’s brand and record, but respecting him as a dangerous QB who’s capable of delivering in big games is not.
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Gator Bowl: Kentucky (-2.5) vs. NC State
Kickoff: 12 p.m., Saturday, ESPN
NC State bounced back from a 4-8 debacle in 2019 to put together one of the quietest 8-3 seasons you’ll ever see from a Power 5 outfit: Altogether, the Wolfpack outscored opponents by less than 2 points per game with only 1 win (a 30-29 decision over 6-5 Pitt) at the expense of a winning team. They finished somewhere between 6th and 10th in the ACC in almost every major statistical category and landed just 2 players (DT Alim McNeill and LB Payton Wilson) on the postseason All-ACC team as voted by league coaches. By all appearances, they’re a solidly nondescript unit whose main strength is having no verifiable weaknesses.
The main attractions on both sides here are the running backs – Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. for NC State (1,371 yards, 13 TDs combined), Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Asim Rose Jr. for Kentucky (1,219 yards, 11 TDs). The difference: NC State boasts a semblance of a downfield passing game behind Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman, who has served as a steady presence behind center with a 141.8 passer rating in his first season as a full-time starter. It’s been years since anyone could say the same for Kentucky, the main reason the Wildcats are determined to overhaul the offense in 2021.
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NC State 27, Kentucky 22
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss (+6.5) vs. Indiana
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m., Saturday, ABC
Most of the angst over the weekly Playoff committee rankings has been focused, for good reason, on the committee’s refusal to take undefeated Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina seriously compared to Power 5 teams with weaker résumés. Strictly in terms of bowl destinations, though, arguably no team got a rawer deal from the process than Indiana, an outfit that finished 6-1, played Ohio State within a touchdown in its only loss, and still wound up on the outside of the New Year’s 6 rotation in favor of 8-3 Iowa State.
Instead of playing in their first major bowl game since 1967, the Hoosiers will cap one of the best seasons in modern school history against a marginal Ole Miss outfit that went 0-4 vs. opponents that finished .500 or better.
The Rebels are not good, but at least they are interesting, which all that really counts in a second-tier bowl game. The offense, a balanced attack that revolves around volatile sophomore QB Matt Corral, set the single-season SEC record for total offense in conference play (562.4 yards per game), passing 2019 LSU. The defense, meanwhile, came up less than a yard per game short of setting the SEC record for most yards allowed in conference play (535.7, just shy of the 536.0 ypg allowed by Tennessee in 2016). Final scoring margin on the year: Ole Miss 366, Opponents 363 in just 9 games.
Even without ace WR Elijah Moore, who opted out following the Egg Bowl, the offense lit up LSU its last time out to the tune of 558 yards on 7.4 per play, taking the Tigers to the wire in a wild, 53-48 loss despite committing 6 turnovers. The defense was reduced to ashes in Baton Rouge by a couple of true freshmen, QB Max Johnson and WR Kayshon Boutte, who connected 14 times for 308 yards, a single-game record for an SEC wideout vs. any opponent.
Indiana’s passing game has waned a bit in the aftermath of a season-ending injury to dynamic QB Michael Penix Jr., but not nearly to the point that All-B1G receivers Ty Fryfogle (a Mississippi native) and Mister “Whop” Philyor are about to be contained by one of the nation’s most flammable secondaries. As usual, the pressure is going to be on the Rebels’ offense to come out scoring early and often.
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Indiana 38, Ole Miss 34
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M (-7.5) vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Saturday, ESPN
North Carolina QB Sam Howell is the headliner, and justifiably so after finishing in the top 10 nationally in yards per attempt, touchdowns and pass efficiency as a sophomore. He has a huge arm, good mobility and already projects as the most coveted 2022 QB prospect by a mile.
Sam Howell is the best Quarterbacks that we’ve seen at UNC in some time. His deep throwing ability is the best in college football. For example, this throw. He knows he’s going to get hit, delivers a strike 35 yards down the field. Howell throws the deep ball like Russell Wilson pic.twitter.com/J5IZ3XC3pP
— Sidelines UNC (@SidelinesUNC) December 18, 2020
Still, it’s impossible to know exactly what to expect offensively from a lineup whose star skill players — the 1-2 RB punch of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, as well as All-ACC wideout Dyami Brown — have opted out of the game, taking nearly 2/3s of the Tar Heels’ total output with them.
At full strength, UNC is one of the most balanced, explosive attacks in the country: In addition to Howell’s arm, Carter and Williams combined for nearly 3,000 scrimmage yards, 33 touchdowns, and the 2 of the 3 highest invididual RB grades in the country according to PFF. Their last time out, a 62-26 romp over Miami, they combined for more rushing yards (544) than any other pair of teammates in the same game in D-I history. The remaining backs on the roster logged a grand total of 42 touches, most of them in garbage time.
Waiting across the line is an A&M D that led the SEC in total defense and ranked 4th nationally against the run – albeit with a couple of lapses along the way against Arkansas (222 yards rushing on 5.3 per carry) and Auburn (196 on 6.5 per carry). The d-line rotation led by Bobby Brown III and DeMarvin Leal is capable of making Howell’s life much more difficult than their raw sack numbers suggest. The main challenge to the secondary with Brown on ice is senior Dazz Newsome, who’s accounted for 1,634 yards and 15 TDs the last two years but doesn’t pose nearly the same deep threat as Brown.
A&M’s offense can do its part by doing what it does best: Controlling the ball. The Aggies committed fewer turnovers (8) than any other SEC team this season, ranked 2nd nationally in 3rd-down conversions and racked up a 10-minute advantage per game in time of possession, 3rd-best nationally. Their last time out, a 34-13 win over Tennessee, they held the ball for more than 44 minutes and limited the Vols to a grand total of 37 offensive snaps. For an attack lacking in big-play pop, that’s close to a perfect game.
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Texas A&M 31, North Carolina 26