Saving face: 5 bowl games the SEC cannot afford to lose
From the outside, the SEC hasn’t looked so big and bad this season. While the Big Ten went into championship week with four teams vying for spots in the College Football Playoff, the SEC outside of Alabama was a bunch of seemingly mediocre teams with at least four losses each.
If SEC teams care collectively about the conference’s reputation, there is work to be done this bowl season.
With 12 of the league’s 14 teams in bowls, the SEC has the chance to prove this season is more anomaly than trend. Here are five games that will go a long way to making a case, one way or the other:
St. Petersburg Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Miami (Ohio): The Bulldogs made it to a bowl in Florida with but five wins and face a Redhawks team that swept its last six game to gain bowl eligibility.
Similar teams? Not really. Mississippi State has some close losses and some bad losses, but also wins over South Carolina, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, the latter a season-ending 55-20 trouncing of its rival. Sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was a truck in the Egg Bowl, ran for 389 yards and six touchdowns in the past two games.
Miami is seemingly equipped to combat that. The Redhawks finished second in the MAC against the rush, allowing 139 yards per game. If Fitzgerald and back Aeris Williams have trouble finding room to run, the Bulldogs could be in trouble.
The caveat, of course, is that the Redhawks’ success came against the MAC, and they didn’t play undefeated Western Michigan, the only standout team in the conference this season.
For its own sake going into the offseason and for SEC pride, Mississippi State needs to win this one.
Texas Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Kansas State: The Aggies were primed for a Playoff run until they went 0-2 against the state of Mississippi. Instead of the Playoff, they are in a battle of eight-win teams in the Texas Bowl against Kansas State.
Trevor Knight may or may not be back but regardless the bulls-eye is on the SEC team. Kansas State offensive lineman Dalton Risner has already expressed his team’s desire to beat an SEC team. A loss, a double-digit one especially, would take down the only other SEC team that had a realistic Playoff shot late in the season.
Top tier SEC teams don’t lose to fourth-place teams in a down Big 12. On the surface, it wouldn’t look like a bad loss; the Wildcats’ four losses came to ranked teams – Stanford, West Virginia (unranked at the time), Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They finished fourth in the Big 12. Still, Texas A&M needs to save some face for itself and its conference.
Liberty Bowl: Georgia vs. TCU: The Bulldogs haven’t exactly had a memorable season. They finished 7-5, but 4-4 in the SEC East with a loss to Vanderbilt on the resume. A loss to TCU in the Liberty Bowl wouldn’t be worse but wouldn’t be good.
The Horned Frogs are limping into Memphis following two losses in their final three games, thrashings by a combined 61-12 against Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Georgia is supposed to be a face of the East. With the West sending only Alabama to the Playoff, the SEC East needs to step up and help the conference maintain its stranglehold as the best in the country. It would hurt the SEC if the Bulldogs lose to a team that went 4-5 in a conference in which everyone lost at least twice and Texas and Baylor went a combined 11-13.
Music City Bowl: Tennessee vs. Nebraska: The wheels slowly came off the Tennessee train. The Vols have a chance to protect home state turf in the Music City Bowl against Nebraska.
The Huskers’ nine wins come with four against sub-.500 teams and aren’t as glossy after considering the back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and 62-3 at Ohio State. Tennessee was supposed to be back after reaching 5-0 including wins over Virginia Tech, Florida and Georgia.
Even after three losses by a touchdown average at Texas A&M, at South Carolina and at Vanderbilt, the Vols are carrying a torch as the second-best team in the East. Both teams have bad losses but Tennessee’s wins are better than Nebraska’s. The Big Ten is seen as superior this season. A Tennessee loss to Nebraska would fuel that fire against the SEC.
Peach Bowl (semifinal): Alabama vs. Washington: Chances of the Crimson Tide losing to Washington are pretty slim. Alabama’s defensive numbers make it impossible to focus on many other aspects of this game.
Bama allowed 63.4 rushing yards per game, a minuscule 2.03 yards per carry and only three rushing touchdowns all season. Jake Browning has been amazing for the Huskies – 3,280 passing yards, 42 touchdowns against seven picks. Alabama’s run defense was good for first in the SEC. Its passing defense was second after allowing only 185 passing yards per game. Browning hasn’t seen that. If he found a way to beat it, it would be the upset of the season, if not the decade, and the SEC would have no leg to stand on in defending its rep.