Power Ranking the SEC Bowl Games ... all 13 of them!
Bowl season is always bittersweet.
On the one hand, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. You have the holidays, which means family (usually a good thing), friends, great food, and a little break from the hustle and bustle of the work year. You also have 42 football games in a 19-day span, a celebration of the season that way. As an SEC fan, you get 13 (at least) college football games in 2 weeks — which means almost a third of all bowl games feature a team from the best conference in college football. What better to wash down a slice of pecan pie than a little SEC football?
Elitists like to complain about there being too many bowl games, or suggest the games are meaningless outside of the College Football Playoff. These people clearly hate fun, think Ebeneezer Scrooge didn’t need to be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, and should not be invited to your holiday party. They are also wrong.
Bowls matter. They matter to the players, who worked relentlessly all offseason, through the grind of two-a-days, and who, in many instances, will be playing organized football for the last time in their lives. They matter to coaches, who use bowls to generate offseason momentum and in some cases, earn incentive-based bonuses for staff. They also matter to fans. Don’t believe me? Consider that the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl, a game most people just associate with delicious snacks, drew 3.2 million viewers in 2020. Or that the 2019 Quick Lane Bowl, played the day after Christmas, drew 3.3 million eyeballs for a game between Pittsburgh and Eastern Michigan?
People care. You probably do, too!
This season, it will be hard not to, with 13 SEC teams involved. But let’s say you don’t have time or the easygoing spouse necessary to watch 13 college football games in the middle of the holiday season.
No worries. SDS has a simple set of power rankings for you that will help you decide when to carve out some quality couch time.
Here are the 13 SEC bowl games, ranked.
13. LSU vs. Kansas State (TaxAct Texas Bowl, Jan. 4)
Kansas State lost 5 games, including their final 2, against Baylor (OK) and Texas (woof). Head coach Chris Kleiman was so irritated with the final 2 losses, in which Kansas State mustered a total of 27 points, that he fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham before the bowl game and promoted Kansas State legend Colin Klein, an analyst who had been working with the quarterbacks, to offensive coordinator for the Texas Bowl.
Kansas State will have starting quarterback Skylar Thompson, who will start his school record 42nd game. But their offense has done next to nothing down the stretch and will face an LSU defense that has been splendid over the season’s past month.
Both teams will play the bowl game down multiple coaches; LSU offensive line coach Brad Davis will coach the bowl game for LSU.
We aren’t sure who will start at QB for LSU, either. Max Johnson is transferring. Garrett Nussmeier has played in 4 games. One more snap and he burns his redshirt.
This game will be low-scoring, boring, and with most eyes in LSU focused on Brian Kelly’s recruiting class, relatively meaningless.
It also falls on Jan. 4, after everyone has returned to work and most the universe is focused on the College Football Playoff championship game.
We’ll watch, because that’s what we do. But we get it if you skip this one.
12. Missouri vs. Army (Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 22)
The game that kicks off bowl season for the SEC will probably draw plenty of eyeballs from around the conference.
But it isn’t an appealing matchup and, making matters worse, the 7 p.m. kickoff time conflicts with Missouri basketball’s annual “Braggin’ Rights” rivalry game with Illinois.
Missouri fans may want to watch Cuonzo Martin’s team instead: the football team’s run defense is terrible, and Army is the best rushing offense in the country.
Tyler Badie is always worth a watch, but there’s not much of a draw here beyond that, unless you really enjoy watching the academies play football (it’s me!!).
11. Auburn vs. Houston (Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 28)
Bryan Harsin could really use a victory to build a bit of program momentum for the offseason, especially after Auburn’s late collapse in the Iron Bowl erased the chance Harsin had to assure he entered 2022 with the goodwill of the Auburn fan base.
Will Auburn be impacted by opt-outs? If Roger McCreary and the rest of his senior teammates who fought so valiantly against Alabama play, the Tigers will have a chance.
Of course, Auburn will need to score to win, and Houston’s defense, led by rising star coordinator Doug Belk, is one of the best units in the sport. Dana Holgerson’s team will be motivated playing an SEC foe, and while Auburn will have a homefield advantage, this is another defensive struggle type game that won’t be easy on the eyes.
10. Kentucky vs. Iowa (Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1)
I am quite certain this game, which features a great Iowa defense (4th in SP+ defensive efficiency) and a tremendous Kentucky run game (22nd in the country in rushing offense), might appeal to old-school football fans who like 3 yards and a cloud of dust punt-fests. And before you think I’m being mean, yes, it is true that Kentucky wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, the best player on either team, is a human highlight reel and appointment television and he is probably playing his last game for Kentucky.
Running out of adjectives for Wan'Dale Robinson after the catch. Just an electric player with a smooth and deadly brand of shiftiness.
Has his hips on a swivel, and is always a tough match for defenders with his twitch. This play is a great example.pic.twitter.com/FJ0WEoOtqg
— Ian Cummings (@ian_cummings_9) December 3, 2021
The problem for this game is that it is at 1 p.m., on New Year’s Day, when there are other bowl games, including one involving an SEC team, that is less likely to involve hours of punting and field position football.
Kentucky fans won’t care. They’ll watch to see if their program can win 10 football games in a season for the 2nd time in 4 years.
But other SEC fans might not notice.
9. Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest (Gator Bowl, Dec. 31)
A College Football Playoff appetizer, this game pits Mike Elko, who was Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator from 2014-2016, against his old boss Dave Clawson’s high octane offense. (Unless, of course, Elko is poached to become a head coach somewhere.)
That seems appealing on paper, but the Aggies already have a big time opt-out in defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, and they had their sights on a much bigger bowl game after upsetting Alabama.
Even if the Aggies are shorthanded and irked to be in Jacksonville, they have a huge overall talent advantage over Wake Forest and this game likely won’t be too competitive. Jimbo Fisher is 8-2 in bowl games and his rushing offense will overwhelm a Wake Forest defense that ranks 87th in success rate against the run.
8. Arkansas vs. Penn State (Outback Bowl, Jan. 1)
There wasn’t a more fun 8-4 team in America than Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks, who were led by wide receiver Treylon Burks, one of the most explosive wide receivers in college football. Unfortunately, Burks opted out of the bowl game and will focus on the NFL Draft. His absence will impact the Hogs’ offense against a Penn State team that has a tremendous defense (6th SP+ defensive efficiency) but struggles to score.
Regardless, KJ Jefferson is one of the best young quarterbacks in the sport and Penn State is down a key assistant, having lost primary defensive coordinator Brent Pry to Virginia Tech, and could be down another if Ja’Juan Seider, State’s running backs coach, leaves for Florida as expected.
It’s just not a great matchup for the Nittany Lions, and unless you like punts and incomplete passes, it won’t be an epic game.
7. Tennessee vs. Purdue (Music City Bowl, Dec. 30)
We begin to get into watchable games with this matchup between two outstanding offenses. Hendon Hooker was my 3rd-team All-SEC quarterback selection and he’s a huge reason Josh Heupel’s Vols were the SEC’s biggest surprise in 2021. Aidan O’Connell and David Bell formed one of the most dynamic duos in all of college football in 2021, but Bell may opt-out of the bowl after declaring for the NFL Draft.
If he does, this game loses a bit of its luster.
Still, the Boilermakers have 2 great wins (Iowa, Michigan State) and won’t be intimidated by a road environment in Nashville. This game will have points and a great crowd, making it quality television.
6. South Carolina vs. North Carolina (Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Dec. 30)
The battle of the Carolinas in the city on the border. It’s a compelling storyline, even before you get to the great story that is Shane Beamer winning 6 games and getting bowl eligible in Year 1 in Columbia. Will UNC be interested in this game? The Tar Heels started the year in the top 10 and closed it 6-6, undone by an unfathomably bad defense (97th in SP+ defensive effiicency!) that even found a way to blow a 9-point lead with 3 minutes to go against rival NC State.
Sam Howell is going to play, which almost makes me think the Tar Heels will win.
But give me the hungry Gamecocks in a game that should be worth 3-4 hours of your time.
5. Florida vs. UCF (Gasparilla Bowl, Dec. 23)
UCF has spent the better part of 2 decades ducking matchups with the Gators, even paying Florida $100,000 to avoid a visit to The Swamp in 2007. The Knights can’t opt out of this game, however, and will play their in-state big brother in Tampa in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Florida will play with a lame duck, skeleton staff, but the Gators, who have already defeated in-state foes Florida Atlantic, South Florida and FSU this season, should be plenty motivated to win a school record 4th game in one season against in-state opposition. Florida’s senior leadership, led by Zachary Carter and Dameon Pierce, also have been very vocal about wanting to go out winners.
Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn took the helm at UCF and immediately adopted the UCF mentality of refusing to buy into the “Big 3” (Miami, Florida State, Florida) narrative. UCF wants to show it is one of the big four in the state of Florida, and the Knights, led by a potent run game that ranks 19th nationally in yards per rush and rushing success rate, will be highly motivated.
A “quasi-rivalry” game between players who grew up playing with and against each other? That’s a fun bowl.
4. Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech (Liberty Bowl, Dec. 28)
Miss State and Mike Leach head to the Liberty Bowl to face Texas Tech, the institution that fired Mike Leach for allegedly being a bully to Craig James’ son. Leach is suing Texas Tech for millions of dollars — still, as a result — and last year, Leach, a lawyer by trade, said he’d “fight until he dies.”
I don’t even care about the football game with that backdrop.
The big question for me is whether Miss State, the better team and one playing without an interim coach, runs up the score. My guess?
It’s not revenge Mike Leach will be after. It’s a reckoning.
3. Alabama vs. Cincinnati (College Football Playoff Semifinal, Cotton Bowl, Dec. 31)
Cincinnati’s reward for shattering the Group of 5 College Football Playoff ceiling?
A date with the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport. Oof.
That said, which Alabama will we get with no “yummy rat poison” for the Crimson Tide to slurp up?
The Bearcats are good. They pushed what became the centerpiece of this year’s Georgia team in last year’s Peach Bowl and Luke Fickell has been around programs that have bested Nick Saban’s Alabama in the past. Cincinnati won’t be intimidated.
They also should be able to stretch the field in ways Georgia couldn’t thanks to spectacular quarterback Desmond Ridder.
This game will be interesting in the second half, and it is a College Football Playoff game, so it has to be in the top 5.
2. Ole Miss vs. Baylor (Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1)
As long as Matt Corral plays, this is the best New Year’s 6 bowl by some distance.
Corral and Lane Kiffin’s high-flying offense and Dave Aranda’s swarming, tenacious Big 12 champion defense facing off with the history, pageantry and fun of the Sugar Bowl as the backdrop.
Can Lane Kiffin keep his team off Bourbon Street and focused on the Bears in the buildup? Ole Miss will bring a huge contingent to what is just the program’s 2nd Sugar Bowl since the SEC fully integrated. The Rebels can win 11 games with a victory in the process.
Meanwhile, Aranda was the perfect hire for a Baylor team that never gets outschemed and isn’t at a huge talent deficit with Ole Miss. The chess match will be one of the most interesting of bowl season and the game should be one of the bowl season’s most compelling.
1. Georgia vs. Michigan (College Football Playoff Semifinal, Orange Bowl, Jan. 1)
Two titanic defenses, both led by Heisman caliber defensive freaks of nature in Georgia’s Jordan Davis and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, for a spot in the national championship game. That’s as good as it gets, and that’s before you consider it’s been a quarter of a century since Michigan played for a national championship and even longer since Georgia won one.
The stakes are immense and both programs have men at the helm who played in these uniforms. They grasp and deeply care about the history and culture of their respective programs. One will leave Miami a hero; the other feeling like they’ve missed a huge opportunity.
The matchup is very even. Michigan’s defense is dynamic, its offensive line is the most capable one Georgia will have played, and like Georgia, it is led by an unheralded but steady quarterback in Cade McNamara who quite simply isn’t going to get the Wolverines beat.
The past 2 seasons, of course, suggest that you need a game-changer at quarterback to beat Georgia, whether it’s Kyle Trask or Mac Jones or Bryce Young. Michigan certainly doesn’t have that, and for that reason, the smart money is … on Kirby Smart.
But Michigan didn’t need a superb quarterback to eviscerate Ohio State, which is as talented as Georgia, and the Wolverines are playing their best football at the best time.
This should be the rare College Football Playoff semifinal that we remember for many years. Just like the last time Georgia played in a College Football Playoff semifinal.