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SEC New Year’s Day Bowl Primer

By Matt Smith
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New Year’s Day 2018 is a loaded one for the SEC, as more than half of the conference’s bowl teams will play in games running from noon until midnight.

New Year’s Day 2018 is a loaded one for the SEC, as more than half of the conference’s bowl teams will play in games running from noon until midnight. The quintet, of course, includes the two College Football Playoff semifinals, featuring league champion Georgia against Oklahoma, and Alabama taking on defending national champion Clemson.

In non-playoff games, South Carolina, LSU and Auburn will be trying to reach nine, ten and eleven wins respectively. All three of those teams would achieve their highest win totals since 2013.

Let’s dive into a busy kickoff to 2018 in the SEC.                             

The Vitals

Mon. Jan. 1
Outback Bowl (at Tampa): Michigan vs. South Carolina, Noon. ET (ESPN2)
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (at Atlanta): (12) UCF vs. (7) Auburn, 12:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Overton’s Citrus Bowl (at Orlando): (14) Notre Dame vs. (17) LSU, 1 p.m. ET (ABC)
CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl: (3) Georgia vs. (2) Oklahoma, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)
CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl: (4) Alabama vs. (1) Clemson, 8:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)

5 Things I Want To Know

1.   Can South Carolina move the ball at all?

The Gamecocks’ 8-4 record is largely void of quality performances. The Missouri win looks good now, but that was while the Tigers were sputtering through September. The lack of meat on the bone raises some concern heading into the contest with a stout Michigan defense. The Wolverines have struggled as much as South Carolina offensively, but the defense finished No. 7 nationally in yards per play. Couple that with the Gamecocks offense finishing No. 82 in that category, and it’s hard to see South Carolina getting to 20 points against the maize and blue.

2.   Will Auburn be fully engaged?

Group of Five teams are 2-1 in New Year’s Six bowls. Not to take away from the quality of 2014 Boise State and 2015 Houston, but how fired up were Arizona and Florida State to play those teams? That’s the same question facing Auburn heading into its game with unbeaten UCF. The Knights being 12-0 could help with Auburn’s motivation, but UCF still lacks the cache of a Penn State, Ohio State or USC.

3.   Whose personnel losses in the Citrus Bowl will be more significant?

LSU is down star pass rusher Arden Key and starting linebackers Donnie Alexander and Corey Thompson. Notre Dame will be without three key pass-catchers from an already anemic aerial attack. That makes the matchup when the Fighting Irish have the ball nearly impossible to predict. Will Notre Dame’s diverse rushing attack be too much for a thin LSU front? Or can the Tigers stack the box and force struggling quarterback Brandon Wimbush to overcome his late-season yips in the passing game?

4.  Can Georgia do to Baker Mayfield what Florida did to Sam Bradford?

The 2008 Oklahoma offense was the best offense I’ve seen this century, scoring 702 points in 13 games coming into the BCS National Championship Game against Florida. That Sooners team was held to just 14 points against the Gators, as an overly athletic Gators defense limited Oklahoma to just 363 yards in a 24-14 victory. The 2017 Sooners are averaging 45 points per game, but can the fantastic Georgia defense do to Baker Mayfield what their bitter rivals did to Sam Bradford nine years ago? Great offenses vs. great defenses in recent bowl games have tended to go the way of the latter, so advantage Georgia.

5.   Will Clemson’s defensive line overwhelm Alabama’s offensive line?

Clemson enters the College Football Playoff with a nation-high 44 sacks. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offensive line has struggled more than any Crimson Tide front in the Nick Saban era. If there’s one matchup that seemingly could tilt this rubber match in favor of the Tigers, it’s their defensive front against Alabama’s offensive line. Yes, Alabama ran for over 200 yards against Auburn, but the Crimson Tide aren’t wearing opposing defenses down this season like they have in the past. With the passing game out of sorts for most of the season, if Alabama can’t impose its will on the ground, can it figure out a way to sustain drives against one of the nation’s best defenses?

Trivia Time (answers below)

1. What two future first-round NFL Draft picks scored touchdowns in the 2014 Music City Bowl between Notre Dame and LSU?
2. How many consecutive points has No. 2 scored in CFP semifinal games since the last time No. 3 scored?
3. Prior to Alabama and Clemson, who were the last pair of opponents to meet three consecutive times with both teams ranked in the top five?


South Carolina vs. Michigan (-8):

The Gamecocks have the advantage under center with Jake Bentley, but the sophomore cooled off after a hot start to the season. While 8-4 is considered a disappointment by most in Ann Arbor, all of Michigan’s losses came to teams ranked No. 16 or higher. This could be a statement win for South Carolina, but even with the Wolverines less than enthused about playing in Tampa, I expect them to play well and end the season on a high note by swarming an overmatched Gamecocks offense.

Pick: Michigan 24, South Carolina 13

UCF vs. Auburn (-9.5):

UCF has a new head coach in Josh Heupel, but Scott Frost and his staff will coach the Knights one last time before permanently transitioning to Nebraska. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting, but Auburn’s defense isn’t Memphis’ or USF’s. The Tigers offense will be sloppy after the four-week layoff, but the defense will rise up and frustrate Milton to prevent an upset.

Pick: Auburn 28, UCF 21

Notre Dame vs. LSU (-3):

Even with the brand of Notre Dame, LSU wasn’t all that fired up for the Music City Bowl three years ago, and the Irish upset the Tigers. The Tigers senior class wants to avoid a repeat of how their freshman season ended. Quarterback Danny Etling might have had the best game of his career in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, but will have a challenge against an Irish defense that is now rested after looking worn down in November. It will be another nail-biter just like three years ago, but this one will go the way of the purple and gold.

Pick: LSU 24, Notre Dame 23

Georgia (-1.5) vs. Oklahoma:

I was leaning towards Oklahoma when the matchup was first announced, but I can’t get over the history of elite quarterbacks facing elite defenses in bowl games. Deshaun Watson did it a year ago against Alabama, but he had the aid of a great defense on his side. Baker Mayfield doesn’t have that luxury. Jake Fromm has avoided the freshman wall for the Bulldogs, so I have little doubt that the Rose Bowl stage won’t be too bright for him.

Pick: Georgia 34, Oklahoma 24

Alabama (-3) vs. Clemson:

It’s incredibly rare for Alabama to come into a game without having the advantage at the line of scrimmage, but that’s reality for the Sugar Bowl. Clemson is flat out better than Alabama in the trenches. The key will be which passing game can hit some big plays to complement the running threats of Jalen Hurts and Kelly Bryant. It scares me to ever pick against Nick Saban, but Clemson is the better team, and as the underdog, is the clear play.

Pick: Clemson 26, Alabama 17

Trivia Answers:

1. Will Fuller and Leonard Fournette
2. 103 (Clemson def. Ohio State 31-0, Alabama def. Michigan State 38-0, Oregon scored final 34 points vs. Florida State)
3. Alabama and LSU (2011 regular season, 2012 BCS Championship Game, 2012 regular season)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.