Here are three detailed revelations to ponder during this brief period of SEC inactivity, as the conference ramps up for next week’s four-day, 10-bowl explosion (Dec. 29 to Jan. 2):
1. Derrick Henry shouldn’t live in fear of Michigan State’s pledge of hitting “harder than we’ve ever hit anyone else”
Here’s Exhibit A as to why pre-game quotes should not warrant heated snap reactions, at least before digesting everything in full context.
As the walk-up to MSU’s Cotton Bowl clash with Alabama — the second national semifinal on New Year’s Eve — Spartans defender Jon Reschke offered this reality-based statement about containing Henry, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner (1,968 rushing yards, 23 TDs).
“We are going to have to hit him harder — harder than we’ve ever hit anyone else,” Reschke recently told 247Sports.com. “It’s a challenge we are accepting.”
That prompted another effusive, but vague comment from Michigan State defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.
“We need to prepare for a 15-round fight and we need to prepare to take blows and deliver blows right up to the very end,” Tressel said. “That has to be our mindset. It has to be our mindset that we are going to need to want to tackle and want to tackle physical every single snap.”
Moving forward, the football-office interns at Alabama will probably use the relatively tame comments as bulletin-board material for the Cotton Bowl — even though the 12-1 Crimson Tide (SEC champions) shouldn’t require any external motivation against the Spartans (Big Ten champs).
(For the season, Michigan State’s defense has allowed three outings of 150-plus team rushing yards and five games of multiple rushing touchdowns.)
In the two-year history of the College Football Playoff, Alabama stands as the only program to reach both semifinals. By extension, Nick Saban was the only head coach to field ‘Playoff disappointment’-themed questions two weeks ago in Atlanta, in advance of a year-end-awards event at the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I think it was our first time to go to a bowl game that was really a ‘playoff‘ game. So, maybe that experience will now help us a little bit in the future. Be able to do a little better job with our players,” said Saban on Dec. 11, while flanked with the other Playoff coaches — Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State).
“It’s really my responsibility, and all of us in the (Alabama) organization who affect the players, to try to get them to play as well as they can play in a game. I think, if you don’t feel that your team plays great, you always feel like you need to do a better job as a coach, and that’s certainly how we felt last year,” added Saban.
Translation: Don’t expect a repeat of Alabama’s nightmare finish from last season.
A week after Ohio State knocked off top-ranked Alabama in last year’s semis (rallying from a 21-6 deficit), the Buckeyes then stifled a high-octane Oregon club (starring Heisman winner Marcus Mariota) in the championship game, justifying their hotly contested inclusion into the four-team Playoff.
It was a devastating setback for last year’s ‘Bama squad; but that letdown has likely served a purpose for this championship go-round, which might explain why Saban hasn’t been busy organizing stadium-sized pizza parties or amusement-park rentals for his players in the last few weeks.
In Saban’s world, Alabama has entered into an all-or-nothing proposition to capture a national title. With or without the need to find extra motivation from vague, and not necessarily leading comments from the opposition.
2. Jacob Eason’s reaffirmed commitment to UGA could have a desultory effect on the Bulldogs’ bowl prospects
It would be easy to characterize UGA’s bowl matchup with Penn State (TaxSlayer Bowl) as a throwaway game.
No Mark Richt to lead the club.
No exotic locale for traveling purposes (hello, Jacksonville … again).
No prime-time kickoff on the TV side (12 noon EST on Jan. 2).
No sexy matchup with a Big Ten power (Penn State’s biggest seasonal victory … Illinois).
No immediate, career-altering consequences for interim head coach Bryan McClendon, should the Bulldogs collect a bowl triumph.
Plus, whichever Bulldogs quarterback emerges as the go-to source during bowl action — either Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey — they’ll do so knowing their days as UGA’s long-term starter could be numbered.
And that’s because of Jacob Eason, the 5-star quarterbacking stud from Washington state, who recently went public in his support of new UGA head coach Kirby Smart, after momentarily waffling on his decision to sign with the Bulldogs — after the program severed ties with Richt.
(After his “mutual parting” with UGA, Richt quickly took over the reins at Miami of Florida — his alma mater.)
Put it all together, and it may be difficult for UGA to justify its standing as seven-point favorites against Penn State — given the Nittany Lions’ stability at head coach (James Franklin), quarterback (Christian Hackenberg, a potential first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft) and along the defensive side of the ball (top-30 rankings with total defense and scoring defense).
Historical precedent doesn’t entirely support McClendon’s shot at coaching glory, either.
Courtesy of BangTheBook.com: From 2003-13, spanning 11 seasons, interim head coaches had an overall bowl record of 22-24. Furthermore, the same interim coaches had a 20-25-1 record against the point spread.
3. Tennessee’s curious status as a large Outback Bowl favorite actually has merit
Some Vegas insiders have the Volunteers installed as 8 1/2-point favorites; others are willing to stretch that figure a half-point higher.
Either way, it’s fair to wonder if the seismic gap between an 8-4 club (as the favorite) and a 10-2 squad doesn’t entail an SEC or Big Ten bias … but more of a national condemnation of Northwestern?
Yes, the Wildcats stealthily rank seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in total defense and 12th in red-zone defense. However, their two seasonal losses to Michigan and Iowa (on consecutive Saturdays) had a composite score of 78-10.
Plus, for this century, Northwestern has a woeful 1-7 record in bowl action, with only two defeats featuring a spread of six or fewer points.
Here’s another reason to believe the Vegas number-crunchers: Of Tennessee’s six regular-season opponents currently listed in the top 30 for scoring defense — Alabama, Missouri, Florida, UGA, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt — the Volunteers impressively averaged 29.2 points per game.
Now, compare that 29.2 to Northwestern reaching the 30-point barrier only twice this season … and perhaps Tennessee should be favored by double digits?
Of course, an ardent Wildcats supporter would cite their school’s crucial victories over Stanford, Duke, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin as tangible proof of a bowl celebration.
They might also ask, with a hint of derision, What has Tennessee done of great consequence this season — aside from squandering late leads to Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama … and rallying to beat an under-whelming UGA team?
The golden rule: When in doubt with unfamiliar foes, always follow the team that knows how to score.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.