We’ll have plenty of time to dissect the bowl matchups in the coming weeks. But for an appetizer to that, SEC Country offers an expansive, tongue-in-cheek look at Sunday’s official bowl pairings.
5-MINUTE GUIDE TO MAKING INITIAL SENSE OF THE BOWL LINEUP
1. The Citrus Bowl has an attractive matchup of Michigan vs. Florida. But even sexy games, on paper, need a good subplot to reel in the casual fan. Something like …
The ‘D.J. Durkin, We Hardly Knew Ye’ Bowl
For those with short memories, Durkin — a prominent assistant to Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp before joining the Big Ten — served as Florida’s interim head coach in the 2014 season, guiding the Gators to a Birmingham Bowl victory over East Carolina.
For those with even shorter memories, the excitable Durkin (just 37 years old) has already moved on from Michigan, after one regular season as defensive coordinator. (The Youngstown, Ohio native was recently named head coach at Maryland.)
As such, it now makes sense to establish a fun “prop bet,” charting the number of on-air Durkin mentions/references during the Michigan-Florida telecast, with an over/under figure of 5.5.
2. From a ‘confidence’ standpoint, I have the greatest faith that Ole Miss (9-3 overall, second in the SEC West) will topple Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. The Rebels possess a victory over No. 2 Alabama, the SEC’s highest-scoring offense (40.3 points per game), most prolific passer (quarterback Chad Kelly — 3,740 yards), best receiver (Laquon Treadwell — 1,082 yards) and SEC’s top NFL prospect for 2016 (Treadwell, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche or offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil — take your pick).
Plus, Oklahoma State (second place in the Big 12) looked quite shaky in its final three games — narrowly beating Iowa State on the road … and then incurring double drubbings to Baylor and Oklahoma at home.
3. Arkansas (facing Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl) should also be a popular ‘confidence’ pick among bowl bettors. The Hogs have scored 50-plus points four times since mid-October (including a four-OT marathon against Auburn) … while the Wildcats were sitting at 0-6 in Big 12 play just a few weeks ago before rallying for three victories against Iowa State, Kansas and West Virginia.
Speaking of streaks … I believe Arkansas-Kansas State is the only bowl matchup featuring teams with skids of four-plus consecutive losses during the season.
4. The ticket scalpers at the Belk Bowl need to be realistic (read: extremely flexible) about the North Carolina State-Mississippi State matchup.
Of the Wolfpack’s three 2015 victories in ACC play (Wake Forest, Boston College, Syracuse), the opposition had a cumulative league record of 3-21.
And on the MSU side, most devoted “Hail State” fans will have to drive roughly 530 miles to see quarterback Dak Prescott’s final game in a Mississippi State uniform.
That said, I’ll be shocked if both clubs don’t notch at least 30 points apiece come game night. For no-pressure outings like this … it’s important to give the people what they want — highlight-reel efforts from passers Prescott (nearly 12,000 career yards, 110 total touchdowns) and N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett (5,509 career passing yards, 56 TDs).
5. Texas A&M sophomore Myles Garrett has spawned numerous comparisons to former South Carolina stud Jadeveon Clowney, in the realms of college production (SEC-high 12 sacks this season) and NFL upside (likely a top-5 pick in the 2017 draft).
But Clowney didn’t become a true overnight sensation — in terms of constant media coverage and social-media hysteria — until levying that monster hit on a Michigan ball-carrier in the 2012 Outback Bowl, the capper to Clowney’s sophomore season.
In essence, the pressure’s now on for Garrett to establish the tone with next year’s campaigns for the Outland and/or Heisman trophies. It’s also time for Garrett to begin fueling that hype train for the 2017 draft, making standout plays against Louisville in the Music City Bowl.
And that’s an eminently doable task: Louisville currently ranks 126th nationally in sacks allowed. Or put another way … in 2015, only Texas San-Antonio allowed more sacks than the Cardinals, who yielded 3.58 sacks per game.
6. There isn’t much history connecting Outback Bowl representatives Northwestern and Tennessee. But there is one nugget of interest: Peyton Manning’s final collegiate bowl victory occurred against the Wildcats (January 1997), the same season Northwestern stealthily knocked off Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The present-day tie-ins are fascinating: Of Northwestern’s nine games against teams which finished outside the College Football Playoff committee’s top 15, the Wildcats held the opposition to 21 points or less eight times. Also, they currently rank 12th nationally in red-zone defense.
Tennessee, in turn, finished 32nd nationally in scoring (34.3 ppg) and tallied at least 20 points in three of its four losses. Plus, the sterling duo of quarterback Joshua Dobbs (2,748 total yards, 25 total touchdowns) and tailback Jalen Hurd (1,158 rushing yards, 13 total TDs) were seldom marginalized by SEC competition.
In other words, something has to give here; and you’ve got to like the Vols’ chances of moving the offensive meter in the Outback Bowl. Citing the last 20 years (1995-2015), Tennessee has scored 40-plus points in bowl games just three times … but with all three occurrences against Big Ten foes (Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern).
CLIP N’ SAVE
Just calling my shot here.
The LSU-Texas Tech matchup has future significance in one regard: In time, it will be a clash of the Tigers’ current head coach (Les Miles) … and their future head coach (Kliff Kingsbury).
Just don’t expect the Kingsbury pilgrimage to Baton Rouge, La. to take place anytime soon. When Miles (the program’s most successful coach in the modern era) leaves LSU … it’ll be on his terms.
In fact, given the fallout to the ill-conceived, poorly executed coup attempt to boot the longtime head coach from his LSU post, Miles is apparently more popular and more powerful than ever.
It’s been a year of change in the SEC, with South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia dealing with the high-profile exits of coaches Steve Spurrier, Gary Pinkel and Mark Richt. But only the Bulldogs must endure that awkward position of attacking a bowl game with an interim head coach (Bryan McClendon).
Which begs the question: What’s the success rate of interim head coaches during bowl action?
Well, the good people at BangTheBook.com (trust me, it’s not a dirty site) have done the research: From 2003-13, spanning 11 seasons, interim head coaches had an overall bowl record of 22-24.
And for those keeping score at home … the same interim coaches had a 20-25-1 record against the point spread.
(The listing of interim coaches during that 11-year span now reads like a Who’s Who in college football — featuring the likes of Dabo Swinney, Barry Alvarez, Charlie Strong, Ruffin McNeill, Bo Pelini, Clay Helton and Brian Kelly.)
CONFIDENCE PICKS: SEC
Charting only the SEC-affiliated bowls, here’s a ‘confidence’ countdown of straight-up picks (no point spreads involved), ranging from “most confident” … to “least confident”:
Ole Miss over Oklahoma State (Sugar Bowl)
Arkansas over Kansas State (Liberty Bowl)
LSU over Texas Tech (Texas Bowl)
Texas A&M over Louisville (Music City Bowl)
Mississippi State over North Carolina State (Belk Bowl)
Michigan over Florida (Citrus Bowl)
Alabama over Michigan State (Cotton Bowl — national semifinal)
Penn State over UGA (Tax Slayer Bowl)
Tennessee over Northwestern (Outback Bowl)
Memphis over Auburn (Birmingham Bowl)
From 1991-2015, only seven SEC schools — Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn, UGA, Tennessee, Arkansas — represented the conference in the Sugar Bowl.
From 1971-1990, only six SEC schools — Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn, UGA, Tennessee — represented the conference in the Sugar Bowl; and it would have been seven … if Arkansas (which fell to the Crimson Tide in the 1980 Sugar) wasn’t 12-plus years away from joining the SEC.
1. This one’s just too good to pass up: Take the ‘over’ for TCU versus Oregon on Jan. 2 (Alamo Bowl) — regardless of the combined number.
Oregon and TCU respectively rank sixth and eighth nationally in scoring offense. The Ducks and Horned Frogs also boast top-10 rankings with total offense, combining for more than 1,100 yards per game.
2. The Sun Bowl represents one of college football’s most storied New Year’s Eve traditions, dating back to 1958.
But with the College Football Playoff semifinals (Clemson-Oklahoma and Alabama-Michigan State) commanding the full spotlight on that celebration-filled day … the El Paso-based bowl has been temporarily moved to Dec. 26 — the busiest day of the bowl season (six games).
3. By extension, the second-busiest day of the bowl season (Dec. 19 — New Orleans Bowl, Camellia Bowl, Royal Purple Bowl, New Mexico Bowl, Cure Bowl) has prompted my favorite sign-of-the-times Tweet from Sunday:
@ATL_JayClemons there are more bowls on December 19th than there are on New Years Day. I’m not even sure how to feel about that
— Lee Welsh (@lazyislander) December 6, 2015
4. Do you remember the so-called national outcry of 5-7 teams potentially making a mockery of the bowl system? Well, only three under-.500 schools — Minnesota, Nebraska, San Jose State — received invitations to bowl games, meaning last week’s faux outrage was more bluster than substance.
And if anything, it should give the football-loving public a reason to clamor for one more bowl game, pitting a pair of prominent 5-7 programs that were either snubbed or warranted “un-vitations” to the dance — Texas vs. Missouri.
Bowl-free Kentucky also toiled through a 5-7 campaign, a porous season which didn’t even include Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss or Arkansas on the schedule. But it’s hard to justify a bowl snub, after being humbled by four annual rivals — Tennessee, Louisville, Vanderbilt, UGA — at a composite final score of 138-65. Ouch.
5. It’s no accident the Bahamas Bowl (Middle Tennessee versus Western Michigan) and Hawaii Bowl (Cincinnati versus San Diego State) both take place on Dec. 24.
Christmas Eve is the proverbial ‘dead zone’ for sports entertainment across America; and the TV networks know that only a tropical-setting bowl — based in Nassau or Honolulu — could lure the casual sports fan away from their families for an hour or two.
This experience might even motivate the same casual sports fan to spend next year in Hawaii or The Bahamas — preferably away from their families for a week or two.
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.