Which SEC teams will be most motivated in bowl season? Start with the one looking to make history
Bowl performances are often about motivation.
Is your team excited to be there or disappointed based on a less-than-stellar season? Are you building something or are you no longer able to achieve the goals you were building toward?
Those factors often determine who comes to play and who plays out the string.
Based on where they are in their program development and their season, here are the SEC bowl teams, ranked by who we think will be the most motivated in their bowl games:
1. Alabama (vs. Washington in the Peach Bowl): What better motivation can one have than a chance at a national championship?
How about a chance to make history? At 13-0, the top-ranked and defending national champion Tide have outscored opponents 527-153, numbers that suggest one of the great teams, maybe the best, in school history.
And if you’re the best team in Alabama history, that makes you one of the great teams of all-time, period. You can’t have a much greater motivation than playing to be considered maybe the best team ever.
2. Auburn (vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl): Getting to the Sugar Bowl had to feel somewhat like winning the lottery for Auburn. At 8-4, the Tigers got in more for not having bad losses — two are against College Football Playoff teams and all four are to teams 8-4 or better — than having quality wins. Nobody the Tigers beat was better than 7-4 in the regular season.
Yet, here they sit with a chance to get that elusive win over an elite team in a New Year’s Six bowl. And make no mistake, the rest of the SEC will be pulling for the Tigers to carry the conference banner and refute the notion that the league was Alabama and a lot of mediocrity.
3. LSU (vs. Louisville in the Citrus Bowl): The Tigers have plenty of reasons to feel good right now. They have their coach in Ed Orgeron, who will coach his first game without an “interim” title since he was at Ole Miss.
They also have the SEC’s No. 3 bowl slot, pretty good for a 7-4 team, and “DBU” will get matched up with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Lamar Jackson.
This gives LSU a chance to be validated at so many levels: The DBU reputation vs. Jackson, the wisdom of the hiring of Orgeron, the SEC’s reputation (much like Auburn), and the early expectations the Tigers were never able to live up to in the regular season.
If all that doesn’t motivate the Tigers, it’s hard to imagine what would.
4. Kentucky (vs. Georgia Tech in the Tax Slayer Bowl): Where some programs are trying to establish a spot among college football’s top programs, others are trying to establish their chops as programs on the rise.
Kentucky is among those teams. Mark Stoops was on the coaching hot seat early, but his Wildcats won five of their last seven, most notably a 41-38 upset of Louisville to close the season. A win over a good Georgia Tech team — the 8-4 Yellow Jackets beat Georgia, have won three straight and five of six — will have the Wildcats on the short list of up-and-coming teams to watch in 2017.
The TaxSlayer Bowl is also a pretty good landing spot for a program that considers making a bowl a win. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the Wildcats to sink their teeth into.
5. Vanderbilt (vs. N.C. State in the Independence Bowl): The narrative around Vandy was that Commodores’ relevance left with James Franklin’s departure to Penn State.
The Commodores have changed that down the stretch with impressive wins over Ole Miss and in-state rival Tennessee to get to bowl eligibility (6-6) and they can carry a lot of momentum into the offseason with a win over a beatable Wolfpack team.
The still-young Commodores (there are only five senior starters and six on the two-deep) can really set up some higher program expectations for 2017 — a year with as many 11 returning senior starters — as a year where the ‘Dores can contend for a major bowl.
6. Florida (vs. Iowa in the Outback Bowl): If redemption is motivation, then the Gators will be plenty fired up. The 8-4 Gators headed into the regular season finale at 8-2, but were blasted by Florida State, then destroyed by Alabama in the SEC championship team.
In two weeks, they went from a team that could still make the College Football Playoff to a team that didn’t look like it belonged among college football’s better teams. It’s reminding many of last season’s finish.
Iowa, on the other hand, is an 8-4 team that has looked good late in the season with wins over Michigan and Nebraska during a three-game win streak. The Gators could save face in front of home-state fans, or things could get ugly pretty quickly for a UF team that continues a late-season tailspin.
7. Tennessee (vs. Nebraska in the Music City Bowl): This is a pretty good bowl matchup, but one has to feel that both teams are a little disappointed to end up in Nashville.
Tennessee started the season talking about playing in Tampa, of winning the East and challenging Alabama. Instead, the Vols ended 8-4 and couldn’t beat Vanderbilt at the end. And Nebraska had its chances to break into the Big Ten elite, but was beaten back emphatically in key losses to Ohio State and Iowa.
So Nebraska, as a 9-3 Big Ten contender that could have been a little more, represents for Tennessee an opportunity for a little redemption in front of a home state crowd. If avoiding complete and utter disappointment in a season is motivation, consider Tennessee motivated.
This game is also critical for the SEC-vs.-Big Ten debate.
8. Texas A&M (vs. Kansas State in the Texas Bowl): If Texas A&M could eliminate November, it would have an elite program.
Instead, A&M comes into its bowl game having lost four consecutive SEC games with only wins over New Mexico State and Texas-San Antonio keeping a 2-4 finish from being worse. It’s become a dubious tradition under Kevin Sumlin.
So the Aggies may be motivated to try to not make the late season a total loss in front of a rather local crowd in Houston. And, in 8-4 Kansas State, the Aggies have a quality opponent to impress against — and one that has struggled in recent bowls (1-7 in its last eight).
T9. Mississippi State (vs. Miami-Ohio in the St. Petersburg Bowl): Playing at 10 a.m. (on their body clocks, anyway) against a .500 MAC team has many thinking the Bulldogs will be one of the least motivated teams out there this bowl season.
MSU was a team left for dead by most after Dak Prescott graduated, but really changed some perceptions when it went to 5-7 with a resounding Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss. Even how MSU qualified for a bowl — through a high APR score — added to the perception that Dan Mullen’s sometimes overachieving program does things the right way.
A good performance here can give the program even more momentum going into the offseason.
Miami (Ohio) is a team MSU should beat and there’s reason for the Bulldogs to come out playing hard.
T9. South Carolina (vs. South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl): For South Florida, the Birmingham Bowl is a nice reward for a good season in the AAC, finishing 10-2. For South Carolina, any bowl is a reward after being picked to finish last in the SEC East.
The Gamecocks overachieved this season, particularly after switching to Jake Bentley. That led to a 4-2 second-half of the season.
South Florida has an explosive offense but won’t have head coach Willie Taggart, who took the Oregon job. The Gamecocks could use this to propel themselves into next season, where they certainly won’t be picked to finish last in the East again.
11. Arkansas (vs. Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl): Arkansas had a habit of alternating strong performances with horrible ones. If that continues, maybe the Razorbacks come out swinging in Charlotte, N.C.
They were destroyed by Auburn 56-3, then beat Florida 31-10, then lost to LSU 38-10, then beat Mississippi State 58-42, then lost to Missouri in the finale.
The Razorbacks can’t seem to stand prosperity, nor do they go into a full-blown slide.
The net result of such middling results is a trip to ACC country to play a good Virginia Tech team far from home but a relatively easy drive down I-77 from Blacksburg, Va. Will the Razorbacks come to play or roll over?
12. Georgia (vs. TCU in the Liberty Bowl): Georgia was on its way to a pretty solid finish — the Bulldogs’ win over Auburn was a nice turn-around game for the season — before stubbing its toe against Georgia Tech in the season finale.
Now the 7-5 Bulldogs stumble into the Liberty Bowl to face a 6-6 TCU team that struggled down the stretch, losing four of its last six, including a 30-6 beatdown by Kansas State in the regular-season finale. The Georgia Tech loss cost Georgia a better bowl and put it up against a less-than-sexy opponent.