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SEC Pre-New Year’s Bowl Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Let’s dive into the Texas, Belk, TaxSlayer and Music City Bowls.

The SEC bowl slate is slightly lighter than in previous years, as four SEC East teams are home for the holidays with losing records, while Ole Miss is serving the first of its two-year postseason ban for NCAA violations.

Making up for having only nine bowls teams is that the SEC has two College Football Playoff teams for the first time ever. We’ll touch on Alabama and Georgia in out next bowl preview installment, with this story focusing on the four games being played prior to the calendar turning to 2018.

The pre-New Year’s Day slate isn’t terrible, as two of the four opponents are Louisville, featuring 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in what will probably be his final college game, and Texas. Northwestern and Wake Forest don’t move the meter much in SEC country, but both are formidable foes.

Let’s dive into the Texas, Belk, TaxSlayer and Music City Bowls.

The Vitals

Wed. Dec. 27
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl (at Houston): Missouri vs. Texas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
 
Fri Dec. 29
Belk Bowl (at Charlotte): Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (at Nashville): Kentucky vs. (21) Northwestern, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Sat Dec. 30
TaxSlayer Bowl (at Jacksonville): Louisville vs. (23) Mississippi State, Noon ET (ESPN)

5 Things I Want To Know

1.   Can Drew Lock stay hot against a good defense?

Lock finished the season as perhaps the hottest quarterback in college football, throwing 33 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions in the final eight games of the season, as Missouri reached the 45-point mark in each of its final six contests. Now comes a big challenge against a Texas defense that finished second in the Big 12 in yards per game and yards per play. The Longhorns held Sam Darnold and USC to 27 points and Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma to 29 points, so they won’t be intimated by Lock and the Tigers offense.

2.   Will Texas A&M play multiple quarterbacks?

With a coaching transition underway, how the Aggies handle the quarterback position against Wake Forest won’t be indicative of how 2018 will look, but it will nevertheless be interesting to see how snaps are split, if at all, between Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel. Mond took over for an injured Starkel in the season opener and played in the next nine games. Starkel returned in late October, with the duo splitting time for three weeks before Starkel played the whole game in the final two. Starkel should start, but it’s a glorified exhibition, and both quarterbacks are healthy, so why not give them both some work?

3.   Can Kentucky’s offense find its footing?

13 points against Georgia isn’t a great showing, but the Bulldogs have an elite defense. 17 points at home against Louisville? That’s a problem. After completing 32 of 41 passes against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Stephen Johnson regressed in the final two weeks, completing fewer than 50 percent of his attempts against the ‘Dawgs and Cardinals. In six games against bowl teams this season, Kentucky only topped 24 points against one opponent (Missouri). Northwestern’s defense has been quite salty, allowing 13 points or less in four of its final six games. Can Johnson and the (blue and white) Wildcats attack break out of their slump?

4.  Will Mississippi State have anything for Lamar Jackson?

Unlike last year when he won the Heisman Trophy, Jackson is playing his best football of the year at season’s end. Jackson had nine touchdown passes to just one interception in Louisville’s final five games, and ran for at least 140 yards in four of the five games, as the Cardinals finished 4-1. The Bulldogs have lost head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Florida, which doesn’t bode well for preparations for perhaps the most dangerous player in the country.

5.   How will a month of preparation time help Keytaon Thompson?

Thompson relieved an injured Nick Fitzgerald in Mississippi State’s Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss, completing just 13 of 27 pass attempts. There are 37 days between that game and the TaxSlayer Bowl, so Thompson should be much more comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback. The problem, of course, is, like the defense, his head coach and coordinators are now at Florida. There’s not an opportunity for system development with Thompson, but the mental growth from having played nearly a full game could be an asset for Thompson and Mississippi State.

Trivia Time (answers below)

1. Of the nine Big 12 meetings between Missouri and Texas, how many did the Tigers win?
2. What two national powers did Kentucky defeat in its two Music City Bowl victories?
3. Who is the last Heisman Trophy winner to defeat an SEC opponent in his final college game?

Predictions

Missouri (-2.5) vs. Texas:

This should be a fun one. Texas could be without star linebacker Malik Jefferson, whose status is uncertain while he deals with turf toe. The absence of Jefferson would be a huge advantage for the Tigers. Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger is fun to watch, as he makes every play look like his last with his effort and recklessness. Texas will be aiming for its first winning season since 2013, but the Tigers offense will make just enough plays to outlast their former Big 12 rivals.

Pick: Missouri 38, Texas 34

Wake Forest (-3) vs. Texas A&M:

There’s a significant talent gap between these two teams in favor of the Aggies, but there’s also a significant stability gap in favor of the Demon Deacons, who will be playing just down the road from home in Charlotte. Which do you put more stock in? I’ll still side with talent, but Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford is a difficult matchup for any defense, particularly one that was picked apart by LSU’s Danny Etling in the final regular season game.

Pick: Texas A&M 30, Wake Forest 27

Kentucky vs. Northwestern (-7.5):

It’s a battle of Wildcats in Nashville, although the blue and white ‘Cats should have a sizable crowd advantage over the purple and white variety. Northwestern will be looking for its eighth straight win and second 10-win season of the Pat Fitzgerald era. The Northwestern defense finished 1then in the nation in yards per carry, so Kentucky running back Benny Snell, despite promising a win in this game, will have difficulty expanding on his 1,318-yard, 18-touchdown season. Northwestern stays hot against a Kentucky team that enters the game on a downturn.

Pick: Northwestern 26, Kentucky 17

Louisville (-6.5) vs. Mississippi State:

Lamar Jackson was embarrassed in last year’s bowl game against an SEC team, as LSU held the Cardinals to just nine points. The Bulldogs have some elite athletes on defense, but not nearly the number of last year’s LSU squad. Without Nick Fitzgerald and most of the coaching staff, it’s difficult to see the Bulldogs overcoming both the mental and physical challenges that come with preparing for this game. Jackson will close his college career with a big win.

Pick: Louisville 34, Mississippi State 24

Trivia Answers:

1. Two (1997, 2011)
2. Clemson (2006) and Florida State (2007)
3. Ricky Williams (Texas def. Mississippi State in 1999 Cotton Bowl)

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.