Monday, December 16, 2019

Four Bowl Matchups Worth Watching

By Steve Brenna

Another college football season has all but passed us by, and its now time to go bowling. Perhaps I'm just getting older and more crotchety, but it feels like each year I scroll through the lengthy list of completely useless bowl games, I get increasingly agitated.

Certainly there is some humor to be found in the absurdity of the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, and I personally get a jolly out of Notre Dame getting a coveted bid in the Camping World Bowl. But even making fun of obscure sponsors and the fact the state of Florida will host eight bowl games is starting to get old. Smugly pointing out that Orlando isn't an exotic destination just doesn't provide the snarky satisfaction it once did.

So I needed to dig a little deeper this year and see beyond the disillusionment to find a quartet of games that actually seem intriguing, albeit for various reasons. The CFP playoff games are theoretically intriguing by default, but I included one in this list because there are some interesting dynamics at play.

Here you have it, four bowl matchups you may actually want to pay attention to, rather than flip on because, what the hell else are you doing on a Wednesday evening?

Outback Bowl: Minnesota vs. Auburn, New Year's Day

Minnesota put themselves in position for their first Rose Bowl appearance in nearly 60 years before falling back to earth in decisive fashion with a home loss to rival Wisconsin in the final week of the regular season. As a result, they tumbled to No. 16 in the final AP poll, and No. 18 in the final CFP rankings.

They'll matchup with a formidable Auburn squad whose three losses all came against teams that finished in the top six in the AP poll (LSU, Georgia, Florida), coming off a thrilling victory over arch nemesis Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

The deck will be stacked against the Golden Gophers, but as my favorite Cinderella contender of the season, it will be interesting to see if they will rise to the occasion and play like the national power their 10-2 record suggests. It can be argued that they've lost two of the three games they've played against higher level opponents (Iowa, Wisconsin), with their signature victory coming against Penn State in week nine.

Will the pride of the Twin Cities fold against the mighty SEC? Maybe. But it should be better than the Belk Bowl.

Sugar Bowl: Georgia vs. Baylor, New Year's Day

AKA "The Bridesmaids Bowl," this is the most intriguing of the selection committee bowl games. Ranked No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, in the final AP poll, the matchup between the second best teams in the SEC and Big 12 will be a clash of the Bulldogs elite defense against a Baylor offense that put up over 35 points/game, good for 17th best in FBS.

Similar to the Outback Bowl, this game appears to be the big bad SEC's to lose. Georgia is fresh off of two consecutive CFP appearances, barely missing the cut this season, and is 35-7 over the past three seasons. Baylor, on the other hand, is just returning to prominence after falling flat on their face as a program in the aftermath of program scandal and the Art Briles fallout.

One might notice a pattern in that I'm primarily looking for any opportunity for a non-SEC Power 5 team to win a major bowl game. The SEC and upper end of the Big Ten (AKA Ohio State) have established a stranglehold over the college football landscape, and its always fun to see the most pompous conference in all the land get taken down by the "also-rans."

Citrus Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan, New Year's Day

The only reason to include this game in the mix is the big name programs, and also another opportunity to be snarky and make fun of those who will hype this up to be a big matchup. If we've learned anything over the Harbaugh era in Ann Arbor, its that the Wolverines are perpetually over-ranked, and consistently lose every big game they play in. They've lost three or more games every season, lose to the Buckeyes every season, and have lost three consecutive bowl games, including getting their faces caved in by 26 points against Florida in the Peach Bowl last season.

It'll be four straight when the Mac Jones led Crimson Tide, fresh off a bitter loss to Auburn and their first time missing the CFP, roll the Wolverines by 15+ points. The bell will be sounded for the end of Jim Harbaugh's tenure with Big Blue, but nothing will change because the university still owes Harbaugh millions through 2021.

But its sure to be a showdown that will draw advertisers, and isn't that what the season is really about anyway?

Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson, 12/28/19

Last, but certainly not least, I included one of the CFP semifinal matchups for one reason only. Can Clemson, coming off a season in which they were the unstoppable juggernaut, play the role of the underdog and take down an Ohio State Buckeyes squad that has looked virtually unbeatable this season?

Yes, Clemson is once again undefeated going into the postseason, and the Tigers have won a gaudy 28 straight games. And Caesars currently has Clemson as a narrow favorite in the betting line.

But if we're looking at the body of work this season, Ohio State leads the nation with 48.7 points/game on offense, and is third in the nation yielding just 12.5 points/game. They've put up 50 or more points six times, and their 9-point victory over rival powerhouse Penn State in Week 11 is the only game they've failed to win by double-digits. They've boat-raced ranked teams in Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and have embarrassed every team on their schedule that one would expect them to blowout.

That's not to say Clemson hasn't handled every team on their schedule, but the Tigers did not face a ranked team beyond week three up until the ACC title game, in which they faced the entirely overmatched No. 22 Virginia Cavaliers. And there is the matter of their well-documented narrow escape against North Carolina, a 1-point victory that could have completely altered the playoff landscape.

So while it seems absurd that the undefeated defending national champions, winners of three of the past four national titles are underdogs, it really feels that way going into this semifinal. And that makes this a far more intriguing matchup than the likely pasting Oklahoma will take against LSU.

There you have it. My completely unqualified top matchups to watch heading into this bowl season. Will my predictions come to pass? Probably. But maybe not at all. I suppose that's why they play the game, or like, some other cliché or whatever. Anyway, enjoy the Boca Raton Bowl. That's my sleeper.

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