As usual, the SEC had the most teams of any conference receive bowl bids, as 12 of the 14 league teams will go bowling. Only Ole Miss and Missouri are left out, and teams range from Mississippi State, who snuck into a postseason game at 5-7, to Alabama, who will be playing in the College Football Playoff Semifinal game. Here we will give a short preview for each team’s bowl match up.
(SEC team listed first, not indicative of home/away team, rankings according to final CFP poll.)
Mississippi State (5-7) vs. Miami (OH.) (6-6)
St. Petersburg Bowl; Tropicana Field, Saint Petersburg, FL.
Monday, Dec. 26, 11 a.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
Both of these teams appeared to be dead in the water in October, yet strong finishes (and a little luck, Bulldogs) allowed them to sneak into the postseason. Miami (OH.) won their last six games to get to a .500 record and earn a berth, and Mississippi State went 3-2 in their final five and were graced with a bid due to their Academic Progress Rate because there were not enough 6-6 teams to fill the bowl slots, despite a 5-7 finish. How they got here, though, no longer matters, as they turn their attention to the Redhawks out of the MAC. Sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has been a bright spot in a shaky season, leading the team in rushing to go along with nearly 2,300 yards passing and scoring 35 total touchdowns. He ranks 20th in total offense per game, and will look to continue his tear against a team that seems to be in over their head in terms of the match up. Look for him to target receiver Fred Ross, much like he has all year, early and often, and if he sees a running lane he will be sure to take off. The Redhawks had a memorable run to finish the season and earn their first bowl bid since 2010, but the co-MAC East Division champions will have a very hard time in this game. A win for them, however, would be huge for not only Miami but also the MAC as a whole, as it isn’t often that a school from the conference can compete with, let alone beat an SEC team.
Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. NC State (6-6)
Camping World Independence Bowl; Independence Stadium, Shreveport, LA.
Monday, Dec. 26, 5 p.m. EST; ESPN2 and WatchESPN
Both teams used late-season surges to gain bowl eligibility. NC State beat rival North Carolina to bring their record to 6-6 in the last week of the regular season, and Vanderbilt surprised many with their final two victories – 38-17 over Ole Miss and a 45-34 upset over in-state rival Tennessee. Before those two games, Vanderbilt had not scored more than 20 points in a conference game all year – a sign of the Commodores’ determination to finish out strong. These teams are awfully similar, and it should be a very physical game. The key battle will be between the Wolfpack’s defensive front and Commodores running back Ralph Webb. Webb, a junior, holds the Vanderbilt career rushing yardage record and is 22 yards away from breaking the single-season record – a feat he will look to achieve against a tough defensive unit. On the flip side, NC State junior defensive end Bradley Chubb leads the FBS with 21 tackles for loss. If the Commodores hope to move the ball, they will need to break holes in this defensive front for Webb, who needs to have a big game to take pressure off of his young quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who was truly matured over the course of the season and is a sign of good things to come for this football program.
Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Kansas State (8-4)
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl; NRG Stadium, Houston, TX.
Wednesday, Dec. 28, 9 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
The Aggies looked to be the only SEC team other than Alabama with a chance to make it into the College Football Playoff early in the season. However, after falling to the Tide, Texas A&M never seemed to be able to bounce back. They lost three of their final five games, finishing their season with a blowout loss to LSU. Kansas State, on the other hand, won five of their last six and will look to sink the Aggies season for good. These teams were once rivals in the Big 12, last playing each other in 2011 – the season before Texas A&M left for the SEC. The connections don’t end there, however, as Aggies quarterback Trevor Knight, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, has faced the Wildcats three times in his career. After dealing with a shoulder injury, Knight returned to face LSU in the finale but was unable to finish the regular season on a high note. Now, he hopes to use his familiarity with K-State to his advantage and salvage a disappointing season with a bowl win. The Wildcats have been susceptible to big plays this year, which, combined with the game being played indoors, should favor an Aggie passing attack that features the explosive duo of Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds. The key for A&M, however, will be Knight’s ability to run against a defense that ranks 11th nationally against the rush.
South Carolina (6-6) vs. South Florida (10-2)
Birmingham Bowl; Legion Field, Birmingham, AL.
Thursday, Dec. 29, 2 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
South Carolina will have its hands full with the South Florida Bulls, who have been putting up ridiculous offensive numbers as of late. The key to their attack will be junior quarterback Quinton Flowers, who has accounted for a school-record 37 touchdowns this year. Flowers is also on of only three quarterbacks in the FBS (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald) to throw for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards. This game will give Flowers a chance to make an impression in the minds of Heisman voters for next year, as well as give new head coach Charlie Strong a chance to evaluate his team. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has emphasized stopping the run and accounting for the speed of the Bulls offense as points of emphasis to keep his team in the game against an offense that is on a nation-best 16-game streak of scoring 30+ points. If SC’s defense (10th nationally in turnovers gained) can slow the Bulls, true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley has a chance to keep them in the game, but if they cannot generate a few takeaways, this one could get ugly fast.
Arkansas (7-5) vs. No. 22 Virginia Tech (9-4)
Belk Bowl; Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC.
Thursday, Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
These two teams are coming off of opposite ends to the season. Arkansas dropped an embarrassing game to SEC bottom-dweller Missouri 28-24, while Virginia Tech had a realistic shot to knock off No. 3 Clemson, losing by just one touchdown. Now, the Razorbacks will look to use one of the nation’s best running back-quarterback duos to finish the season with a win over a ranked opponent in a bowl game. However, the Hokies traditionally have a very tough defense and their dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans, who leads the team in rushing, could present a problem for the Arkansas defense. Despite being two typically physical and gritty teams, this game could very well turn into a shootout. If it does, the Razorbacks have the edge in quarterback Austin Allen in terms of making plays down the stretch to come out on top.
Georgia (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)
Autozone Liberty Bowl; Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN.
Friday, Dec. 30, 12 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
These teams meet for the fourth time in their histories, with Georgia winning all three previous encounters. TCU is led by Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill, who pilots an offense averaging 32 points per game. This should create an interesting challenge for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart to scheme against, and will require a lot of packages featuring extra defensive backs and rely on generating a tough pass rush. Georgia, in turn, will look to establish the run with star backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. This game could also become high-scoring if Georgia is unable to slow down the Horned Frogs’ passing attack, as TCU has virtually no consistent defense. Smart said he’s hopeful to have sophomore linebacker Natrez Patrick back for this game, who ranks second on the team in tackles and has missed the past three games, and his return would bolster the Bulldogs’ defensive effort and give them a legitimate shot at winning.
No. 21 Tennessee (8-4) vs. Nebraska (9-3)
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl; Nissan Stadium, Nashville, TN.
Friday, Dec. 30, 3:30 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
Nebraska was looking like they could contend for the Big Ten championship at one point, and found themselves ranked inside the top-10. A few huge losses destroyed those dreams, and now the Cornhuskers find themselves unranked and facing a very talented Tennessee team. Despite their disappointing record this season, the Volunteers are still one of the most talented teams in the SEC and have the ability to explode in a hurry. As long as Tennessee can avoid a slow start and contain Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the Vols have a shot at running away with this one. However, if they start off sluggish against a strong opponent as they have in the past, they could be in for a wake-up call. Another possible storyline to watch is the status of Butch Jones’ job. After being a preseason pick to challenge Alabama for the SEC title, the disappointing way this season has developed coupled with player transfers and rumors could put more meaning on the outcome of this game.
No. 20 LSU (7-4) vs. No. 13 Louisville (9-3)
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl; Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL.
Saturday, Dec. 31, 11 a.m. EST; ABC and WatchESPN
LSU boasted one of the top defenses in the country, allowing the fewest touchdowns in the nation prior to their last game against Texas A&M. Now, “DBU” will look to stifle Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Louisville offense. In recent history, LSU has had success against dual-threat quarterbacks and even Heisman winning quarterbacks – the Tigers gave Johnny Manziel two of the worst performances of his career in 2012 and 2013. Jackson is a force to be reckoned with, but he has been shut down in his last two games – both losses – against Houston and Kentucky. Look for LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to draw a bit from those teams’ schemes when planning for Jackson, and as long as the Tigers remain disciplined, they have the talent to stop him. On offense, LSU will be without star running back Leonard Fournette, who continues to nurse an ankle injury and decided to sit this game out in order to rehab and prepare for the NFL Combine. Derrius Guice will be the lead running back, as he has been several times this season with Fournette dealing with injuries, and he has to continue his remarkable year by running all over the Cardinals to open up the field for quarterback Danny Etling. Look for LSU to contain Jackson on defense, not allowing the big plays, and get Guice going early and often on offense.
Kentucky (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4)
Taxslayer Bowl; EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL.
Saturday, Dec. 31, 11 a.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
Kentucky may be the most under-the-radar team in the SEC this season, finishing 7-5 and boasting the most effective running back duo in the conference in Stanley Williams and Benny Snell Jr. The Wildcats are coming off of a huge upset victory over in-state rival Louisville and Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson, and will look to continue their offensive success against ACC foe Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have had impressive victories of their own, beating Virginia Tech and Georgia in their final three-game winning streak, but will have their hands full with the Wildcats’ rushing attack. Both teams will look to establish themselves on the ground, and this could end up being a very physical battle won in the trenches. The edge might go to Kentucky and quarterback Stephen Johnson’s ability to throw the ball (338 yards and three touchdowns in the upset over Louisville) when needed to balance the attack.
No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs. No. 4 Washington (12-1)
Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and CFP Semifinal; Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA.
Saturday, Dec. 31, 3 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has made a point to make sure everyone is aware of just how good Washington is. He has said that they are easily the best team Bama will have faced all season on several occasions, and he’s not lying. For people who may not have watched the Huskies because they play in the PAC-12, or may have not believed the hype for the same exact reason, I advise getting very familiar with this team very fast, or you’ll be in for a shocker come New Year’s Eve. Washington’s defense is generating the most takeaways in the FBS, something that could spell doom for true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts – who has proven to be prone to mistakes as of late. In addition to a stingy defense, their offense is explosive beyond belief. They did not score less than 30 points in any of their wins, and have scored over 40 ten times. Their lone loss came to USC, who was perhaps the hottest team in the entire country down the stretch, The Huskies have perhaps the best receiving core in the nation, and are led by sophomore sensation Jake Browning at quarterback. Browning has accounted for 46 total touchdowns this season, with just seven interceptions. He has thrown six touchdowns in a game on two separate occasions this year, including an eight-touchdown (six passing, two rushing) performance in a win over Oregon in which the Huskies scored 70 points. They are far from one-dimensional however, as Myles Gaskin is a 1,000-yard rusher who has run for ten touchdowns himself. Alabama cannot afford to underestimate their opponent, as Washington is hungry for an upset over the Tide and they have all the tools necessary to pull one off.
No. 17 Florida (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Outback Bowl; Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL.
Monday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m. EST; ABC and WatchESPN
Iowa is a sneaky good team, and Florida will have to be careful not to overlook them. The Hawkeyes upset Michigan 14-13 and also blew out Nebraska by 30 points, who was ranked 16th at the time. They are sound fundamentally, have a physical run game – led by senior LeShun Daniels Jr., who has over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on less than 200 carries – and have an experienced quarterback in senior C.J. Beathard. The Hawkeyes’ experience, combined with Florida’s injury-ridden defense, could spell trouble for the Gators, who also have seemingly no identity offensively. This looks to be a low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game, and Florida will absolutely need big plays from their star-studded secondary if they hope to escape with a win.
No. 14 Auburn (8-4) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (10-2)
AllState Sugar Bowl; Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA.
Monday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. EST; ESPN and WatchESPN
Auburn looked to have turned their season around for the better, and some considered them a threat to de-throne Alabama, until an embarrassing 13-7 loss against Georgia and a thrashing in the Iron Bowl. Now, thanks to LSU losing a messy game to Florida at home, Auburn finds themselves second in the SEC standings and in the Sugar Bowl against a dynamic Oklahoma squad. After two early losses, the Sooners have been on an absolute tear offensively. They are led by two players that received Heisman talk – quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Auburn will have to be on their absolute best defensively, and hope that their rushing attack can do enough to keep up with the high-scoring Sooners. Honestly, this game could turn very ugly very fast if Auburn does not play with the highest possible amount of discipline and determination, as Oklahoma is undoubtedly the more talented team.