Ranking and predicting every SEC bowl game
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Obviously, I’m referring to bowl season, which begins for the SEC 2 days after Christmas when the skeleton of what was Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher takes the field one last time against Oklahoma State in the Texas Bowl in San Antonio.
If Charlie Brown was right when he lamented that Snoopy and Christmas had gone commercial, it doesn’t change the fact that the holidays are a special time. A time for family, for friends, for handshakes and, as my youngest daughter reminds me, Olaf-style warm hugs.
Bowl season “went commercial” long ago. Now, in the age of the College Football Playoff, it’s gone completely bonkers. Portal bound players who won’t play. Opt-outs from stars who make the business decision to not mortgage their future on one football game. Skeleton coaching staffs when coaches are fired or staffs leave for greener, though not necessarily better, pastures.
Some folks say all the change makes it hard to watch.
I say the uncertainty only increases the certainty that I’ll tune-in. Bowl season is a part of who we are, as essential to the Christmas season as terrible traffic, pumpkin pie, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” and every red-blooded American man’s bi-annual trip to the mall or Target (yes, I shudder even thinking about it).
Here at SDS, we felt a holiday gift for you would be Power Ranking — and predicting — every SEC bowl game, in order of intrigue and importance. Chaos was considered and, as always at bowl season, encouraged.
Here’s our list, gift-wrapped for you.
9. Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Maryland (Dec. 30, 2 pm Eastern, ABC)
Hugh Freeze and Auburn need a win to avoid joining Florida in the ignominious 3 consecutive losing season club. The Tigers have only suffered 3 consecutive losing campaigns in the SEC’s modern, post-integration era (1972-present) once — in the mid-1970s. Auburn shouldn’t be in this precarious position, but we won’t speak about 4th-and-31. Instead, we’ll look at the decision by Maryland star Taulia Tagovailoa to opt-out of the bowl game. (Did you know: Taulia not only threw for almost 4,000 more career yards than his decorated brother, Tua, but he also broke the Big Ten’s career mark with 11,256 yards?)
That makes this game “less watchable,” because Taulia Tagovailoa is fun, but his decision gives a slight edge to Auburn, even if the Tigers will be challenged against a Maryland defense that ranked 38th in rushing defense and 29th in rushing success rate defense.
SDS prediction: Auburn 24, Maryland 16
8. Texas Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 27, 9 pm, ESPN)
The Aggies will be a skeleton crew, thanks to opt outs and the coaching change. They’ll face Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma State, which may or may not feature the nation’s best running back, Doak Walker Award winner Ollie Gordon II. With Edgerrin Cooper opting out and several Aggies starters in the portal, this game seems to favor the more stable Cowboys. The Mullet (Mike Gundy) is also an excellent bowl game coach, with an 11-6 record that ranks among the best in the history of the sport. Weird stuff happens in bowls, and if Gordon elects to sit this one out, it will make things tougher, but…
SDS prediction: Oklahoma State 31, Texas A&M 21
7. Citrus Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa (Jan. 1, 1 pm, ABC)
If you have a behemoth headache after a big night out on New Year’s Eve, perhaps this game deserves a higher ranking. The snoozability factor is high, thanks to Iowa’s brand of smashmouth defense with an offensive scheme straight out of an early Tecmo Bowl game. I suppose you could view the game as a classic battle of contrasts, what with Tennessee’s electric offense (16th nationally in yards per play) that is at its best when it is high-tempo. As long as Joe Milton avoids mistakes, the styles favor the Vols, even without portal bound Tyler Baron, one of the team’s best pass rushers, and a handful of other players who apparently felt the urge to hit the portal despite another largely successful year for Heupel and the Volunteers.
SDS prediction: Tennessee 21, Iowa 10
6. ReliaQuest Bowl: LSU vs. Wisconsin (Jan. 1, noon, ESPN 2)
Real ones know this will always be the Outback Bowl.
It will also be the first time a Heisman Trophy winner elects not to play in a bowl game. Do I understand Jayden Daniels’ decision? Of course. Do I agree with it? Yes. Does it disappoint me? Absolutely.
Garrett Nussmeier is a good quarterback, though, and while he isn’t Daniels, he’ll have plenty of firepower to work with given the decisions of Malik Nabers, who received my Biletnikoff vote, and Brian Thomas Jr., who was in and out of my “List” of the 10 best players in the SEC all season.
LSU isn’t good on defense, but Wisconsin has beaten as many opponents with winning records as the staff of Saturday Down South, and that trend isn’t ending in Tampa.
SDS prediction: LSU 35, Wisconsin 23
5. Gator Bowl: Kentucky vs. Clemson (Dec. 29, noon, ESPN)
Shout out to Kentucky fan Melissa Boykin, who sent me a message during Kentucky’s thrilling win over North Carolina in basketball on Saturday and advised me that you can buy a DVD of Kentucky’s win over Clemson in the 2006 Music City Bowl at Costco or Wal-Mart. Pick your poison. If you are still shopping for a Big Blue fan out there, you are welcome.
This game kind of rules, though. Clemson’s defense is marvelous and hasn’t really been sullied by opt outs, aside from safety Andrew Mukuba. Clemson’s offense is not good, and if Dabo Swinney elects to showcase departing running back Will Shipley in this game, it becomes something less than ordinary.
Kentucky is always a tough out in bowl games, largely because they’ve had less portal attrition than any SEC program in the past 5 seasons and they tend to play solid, fundamental football. The Cats’ run defense ranks 26th nationally and corner Maxwell Hairston gives Kentucky a dude they can line up against Tyler Brown, the lone Tigers receiver who scares anyone with Beaux Collins off to the portal.
Clemson played beautiful football down the stretch, which explained the opening line of -7.5, but you can see the money shifting towards Kentucky and there’s a reason for that. I like Clemson, but love the 5.5 points.
SDS prediction: Clemson 21, Kentucky 17
4. Orange Bowl: Georgia vs. Florida State (Dec. 30, 4 pm, ESPN)
Opts-outs and a lack of motivation diminish the intrigue of one of the sport’s most storied bowl games.
Unpopular take: Florida State was absolutely hosed by the Playoff Selection Committee. Jordan Travis’ injury changed things, of course, but the Seminoles still won their final 2 games by multiple scores, including a conference title game against No. 14 Louisville. There’s a reason that no Power 5 league champion had ever been unbeaten and left out of the Playoff, and you’ll never convince me that letting in an Alabama team that needed a 4th-and-31 miracle to win on the same field where New Mexico State dominated a week prior was better over the course of 13 games than Florida State. Predictive competitiveness is not a criteria for Playoff selection, and the final year of the 4-team format wasn’t the right time to change the rules. That’s unfair to Florida State’s players and coaches and it’s a miscarriage of justice. Florida State belongs in the Playoff because all 13 games matter. Sorry I’m not sorry.
I’m also not sorry to say that FSU, with star receivers Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman and star running back Trey Benson opting out, backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker making just his second career start, and “flip a coin” motivation, won’t beat a tremendous Georgia team that, while disappointed to be in South Florida and potentially impacted by key opt-outs, too, will do enough offensively to outlast a great Seminoles defense.
SDS prediction: Georgia 24, Florida State 7
3. Cotton Bowl: Missouri vs. Ohio State (Dec. 29, 8 pm, ESPN)
What is Ohio State’s motivation level after losing The Game, which left them on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoff? Will Marvin Harrison Jr. play? Kyle McCord isn’t, which means Ohio State is playing with a quarterback (Devin Brown) who hasn’t thrown a pass since October. Brown will also be without wide receiver Julian Fleming and running back Chip Trayanum (portal). That’s a lot of attrition, but the Buckeyes are among the nation’s most talented rosters (3rd in the 247 Talent Composite) and they will bring a “next man up” mentality to Dallas.
Meanwhile, Missouri is playing in a New Year’s 6 bowl game for the first time (the Cotton Bowl wasn’t part of the NY6 rotation in 2013) and with a win, the Tigers will close 11-2 and make a statement that this season was no fluke. Running back Cody Schrader, the SEC’s leading rusher and the best story in college football this season, will close a made for movies career in this game, and Luther Burden III will be the best receiver Ohio State has faced this season. The Buckeyes are 2-12 against the SEC in bowl games, and are now tasked with beating an excellent one — without their starting quarterback.
SDS prediction: Missouri 28, Ohio State 20
2. Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Penn State (Dec. 30, noon, ESPN)
Two coaches who are great at winning games but bad at winning championships meet in Atlanta for a fun Peach Bowl that could see 10-2 Ole Miss break the program’s single-season win record.
Styles make fights, and Ole Miss, with its high-tempo offense, is often viewed as a finesse group when in reality, Lane Kiffin wants to pound the rock. His best teams have always grinded you, and Quinshon Judkins (1,052 yards, 15 TD rushing) does just that. The Rebels rank 39th in the country in rushing offense, and they’ll try to replicate Michigan’s formula against the Nittany Lions, which was to pound the ball inside to the tune of 227 rushing yards.
Of course, Penn State wants to run the ball too, and they’ll face an Ole Miss defense that ranked 69th in the country against the run and 72nd in rushing defense success rate. Advantage, James Frankin, but this should be a fantastic football game.
SDS prediction: Penn State 27, Ole Miss 24
1. Rose Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan (Jan. 1, 5 pm, ESPN)
The Granddaddy of Them All features the Crimson Tide, gift-wrapped a Playoff spot thanks to Jordan Travis’ injury, and unbeaten Michigan, which has stolen the role of “Evil Empire” from Alabama thanks to Connor Stalions and the sign-stealing scandal.
The formula to beat Alabama this season has been to disrupt the Tide’s offensive line up front and then run the football effectively. Michigan does one of these things — run the ball — quite well. They aren’t a twitchy, disruptive defensive front, though. While Michigan ranks 6th in rushing defense and 5th in rushing defense success rate, they rank just 50th in tackles for loss and 48th in quarterback pressures, per Stats Solutions. Jalen Milroe negates pressure with his legs. Can Michigan produce enough negative plays to keep Milroe and the Crimson Tide behind the sticks? That’ll be a key.
When the Wolverines have the ball, it’s strength on strength: Blake Corum and his 24 touchdowns and the mission he’s on after missing the Playoff a season ago against SEC Defensive Player of the Year Dallas Turner and a disruptive Bama front that ranked 31st in rushing defense, 9th in sacks, 26th in tackles for loss, and 7th in quarterback pressures this season.
History says Alabama will win because that’s what the SEC does in the College Football Playoff.
A hunch tells me this game bucks that history.
SDS prediction: Michigan 30, Alabama 24