Top 10 Bowl Games and Analysis
Senior handicapper Scott Steehn offers his analysis on our top 10 bowl games. If you are looking for all four handicappers' (Steehn, Ben Hayes, David Hess, and Chris King) selections on all 42 bowl games, click here.
1) Cotton Bowl-Cincinnati vs. Alabama
There are two big storylines in this National Semifinal game. Number one, how will the first Group of Five school to crash the party fare against the bluest of bluebloods, the Alabama Crimson Tide? And, secondly, which ‘Bama team will show up? Will it be the team that manhandled the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC title game? Or will it be the squad who stumbled through narrow wins against LSU and Auburn who lost a game to an unranked-at-the-time Texas A&M?
Against the ‘Dawgs, presumptive Heisman favorite, Bryce Young torched a lightly-tested Georgia secondary for 421 yards en route to a 41-24 Tide victory. They’ll be taking on a very good Bearcats defense who has given up more than 250 yards through the air just one time this season. That came when they surrendered 257 yards to Notre Dame as the Irish tried in vain to overcome a 17-0 halftime deficit. No doubt the Tide will miss wideout John Metchie III who was injured against Georgia. But the matchup I’m looking at is the Cincy O-Line against the defensive front of Alabama. The Bearcats big boys have struggled at times this season and if they aren’t able to figure out a way to run the ball and keep QB Desmond Ridder upright, it could be a long day for the party crashers.
2) Orange Bowl –Georgia vs. Michigan
This is a game between two teams who had very different results when it came to their coaches exorcizing their demons. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh picked up his first win against the dreaded Buckeyes, while Georgia’s Kirby Smart failed for the fourth straight time to vanquish his old boss, Nick Saban and Alabama. The Wolverines blasted Ohio State before staying focused in the Big Ten championship game and steamrolling Iowa to punch their playoff ticket. Meanwhile, Georgia was outplayed in every phase of the game by an Alabama squad who looked every bit as good as you’d expect this time of year.
The Wolverines have had success pounding running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins on the ground, averaging 6.6 yards per carry in their pair of games against Iowa and OSU. That will be critical to their success because, as we saw last week, if you can keep the ‘Dawgs guessing, their secondary can definitely be exploited. For Georgia, it’s all about keeping quarterback Stetson Bennett clean. He was sacked three times against Alabama and it won’t get any easier in this one. The Wolverines have 36 sacks on the season, with 25 of them coming from the best defensive ends in football, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Michigan has a ton of weapons on the offensive side of the ball and Georgia will need to put the ‘Bama game in the rearview mirror quickly or there will be no shot at a rematch for the National Championship.
3) Gator Bowl – Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest
This game features an A&M team that had four losses on the season but managed to slay the biggest dragon around when they held on for a 41-38 victory over Alabama. They had a nice comeback to take the lead against LSU, only to watch the Bayou Bengals complete an improbable drive that ended with a 28-yard game winning pass from Max Hohnson to Jaray Jenkins with just 20 seconds left. Meanwhile, the overachieving Demon Deacons are playing with house money after their improbable regular season culminated in a berth in the ACC championship game. Wake couldn’t get anything going on offense and their much-maligned defense was eventually worn down by Kenny Pickett and the Panthers offense. For the Deacons, to borrow a phrase from the Academy Awards, it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman has had a very nice season, throwing for over 3900 yards and leading his team to 10 wins and a first-place finish in the ACC Atlantic division. But we saw what happens when this Deacons O-Line, who gave up 2.6 sacks per game (88th in the nation), runs into a relentless pass rush like they did against Pitt. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t pretty. Four sacks and nine tackles for loss. A&M lacks the offensive firepower to go blow-for-blow with Wake and they will have to lean on their stellar defense that recorded the 10th-most sacks in the country. Tyree Johnson and DeMarvin Leal each recorded 8.5 sacks on the season and Wake Forest is going to have to account for them on every play or Sam Hartman is going to have a very long and uncomfortable day.
4) Rose Bowl – Utah vs. Ohio State
I think it’s fair to say that neither of these teams expected to be here before the season started. The Buckeyes held loftier aspirations and appeared to be one of the best teams in the country right up to the time they got run out of the Big House by Big Blue. Utah, meanwhile, started the season with a price of +1600 to win the Pac-12 and after a loss to Oregon State, looked like they might be staring down the barrel of a trip to the Tony the Tiger Bowl. Not GRRRRREATTTT. But the Utes rallied for six straight wins, including slapping Oregon around twice in the last three weeks of the season.
Motivation is going to be a key element in this one. On paper, the Buckeyes would appear to have the advantage in talent, depth, and tradition, but how motivated will Ohio State be in a game that quite possibly, despite being the “Granddaddy of them All,” may very well feel like a consolation game? Opt-outs are always a big factor when blue chip programs head to the postseason and we absolutely need to keep our eyes on this one to see if the Buckeyes will be at full strength. This Utah team is playing with a ton of confidence right now, with their defense humming, and the offense playing efficient, mistake-free football. Ohio State would do well to not overlook this Utah team who isn’t afraid of anyone and will make the Buckeyes absolutely earn every yard they gain.
5) Peach Bowl – Pittsburgh vs. Michigan State
The Panthers were able to do what no other team had done for the last six years. Namely, they become the first team besides Clemson to win the ACC since Florida State did it in 2015. The Panthers did it behind Heisman Finalist Kenny Pickett and just enough defense to shut down the other high octane offenses in the ACC. In the Big Ten, the Spartans had a clear path to the playoffs after upending Michigan on October 30th. Unfortunately, the defense took the rest of the year off as the Spartans gave up 36 ppg over their last four games and thudded back to Earth with a 2-2 record.
If I’m Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton, I’m definitely laying awake at night thinking about ways to stop this Panthers offense that posted 37 ppg in conference play. The Pitt offense isn’t just the Kenny Pickett Show. They’re actually a pretty well-balanced offense that usually ran about two more pass plays per game versus running plays on the season and features a trio of solid running back options in Abanikanda, Davis, and Hammond. Without some major improvements to a struggling Sparty defense, it’s hard to imagine the Michigan State offense being able to win in a shootout. One final note: Pitt OC Mark Whipple resigned December 7th. He was Pickett’s mentor and that announcement was followed shortly by word that Pickett is “on the fence” about competing in the Peach Bowl. Please watch this space for further updates.
6) Sugar Bowl – Baylor vs. Ole Miss
The winner of the Big-12 squares off against the third-best team in the SEC. It’s rare you have a game where both teams are playing with house money after punching way above their class all season long but, here we are. The Rebels feature NFL prospect Matt Corral at quarterback and a fast moving offense that played some of the most entertaining games of the year. The Baylor Bears, on the other hand, are a bit of a throwback. They want to run the ball, play defense, control the clock, and limit the opportunities of the opposing offense.
If you haven’t watched much Ole Miss football this season, you might assume that this offense was all about Matt Corral and his passing ability. But, look closer and you’ll see an offense that is actually very run-heavy. They feature three running backs who average 5 ypc or more and they work very hard to out-scheme opposing defenses and exploit their weaknesses. Baylor has seen this movie before as their defense held the three best offenses they saw in Texas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State (twice) to just 19.5 points per game. To have any shot in this one, the Bears will have to put forth a similar effort against the Rebs. Win the time of possession battle and Baylor should have a real shot at the win, but if they can’t get off the field against Corral and Co., there will be a ton of disappointed Cowboys fans riding off into the sunset.
7) Outback Bowl – Arkansas vs. Penn State
The Razorbacks, after a few lean years, make their first Bowl appearance since the 2016 Belk Bowl. After going 3-7 in his initial season, Coach Sam Pittman guided the Hogs to an 8-4 mark in 2021, including big wins over Texas, Texas A&M, and a one-point loss to Ole Miss in what might have been the most entertaining game of the season. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions finished a disappointing 7-5 on the year. Penn State beat who they were supposed to beat but struggled mightily against good squads, going 0-4 against ranked teams, plus a mind-bending 20-18 loss to Illinois in nine overtimes.
If the Razorbacks are going to get it done against a tough Nittany Lions defense, they’re going to have to do it without one of their top weapons. Wide receiver Treylon Burks, who accounted for over 1100 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns, has decided to forgo this game (and his senior season) to prepare for the NFL draft. That is a huge blow since no other receiver has more than 305 yards or 21 catches. That’s a huge plus for Penn State, which can now focus more of its efforts on stopping a very potent Arkansas running attack. But this game will likely come down to an underwhelming Lions offense against a porous Hogs defense. Penn State hasn’t been a big running team but if they can have some success on the ground and keep the Arkansas offense off the field, it could be a happy ending for the folks in Happy Valley.
8) Fiesta Bowl – Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State
It’s a tired cliche that “football is a game of inches.” But every once in a while, it turns out to be the case. And sometimes, it’s even less than that. We saw that in action last week as Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders tried to channel his inner Michael Pennix, but came up just short on his 4th down dive for the pylon against Baylor in the Big 12 Championship game. They will take on a Fighting Irish team who had just one blemish on the season, a tough home loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats. The Golden Domers didn’t know it at the time, but that game was a de facto elimination game for the playoffs. Through no fault of their own, the Irish ended up playing a weak schedule, simply because it was a down year for many of their opponents. Va Tech, Virginia, Stanford, Wisconsin, and Florida State all had underwhelming campaigns and severely hurt the chances of a one-loss Notre Dame team being considered for the playoffs.
Despite finishing with a pair of 300-yard passing games, this Notre Dame offense works best when they are running the football. Expect them to lean heavily on sophomore running back Kyren Williams. The 5’9” Williams rushed for over 1000 yards this season, averaging 4.9 ypc and accounting for 17 touchdowns. The Irish sport the 22nd-best rushing defense in the country and they will be tested against a Cowboys team that would love to see Spencer Sanders running the ball instead of passing it. As for their defense, State did a nice job of shutting down Baylor in the 2nd half of their game and they will absolutely need that unit to show up in this one. Notre Dame will start the Marcus Freeman era, as he makes his coaching debut, replacing Brian Kelly, who departed abruptly for the big bayou bucks at LSU. The players love Freeman and lobbied hard for him to get the job. I don’t expect to see any dropoff in motivation at all.
9) Citrus Bowl –Kentucky vs. Iowa
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will take Kentucky to Florida to take on Stoops alma mater for the first time. He played defensive back for the Hawkeyes before starting his coaching career as a grad assistant for Hayden Fry in 1990. His Wildcats team is very solid and no doubt would be better known if they competed outside of the SEC. They finished 9-3 on the year and will be taking on an Iowa team that recorded a 10-3 record and were the surprising winner of the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes weren’t quite ready for primetime, however, as they dropped the championship game to Michigan by a one-sided tally of 42-3.
This should be an interesting contest between two very good defenses and two inconsistent offenses. The Hawkeyes defense got more acclaim this year, but the Wildcats defense was very comparable in many ways. Iowa was 13th in scoring defense while Kentucky was 30th and the Hawkeyes checked in at number 14 in total defense while the Wildcats were 19th. The bigger difference in this one would appear to be on the offensive side. Kentucky put up 437.8 yards per game while Spencer Petras and the Iowa offense managed just 297 yards per contest. Both of these teams will want to ground and pound as much as possible and this game will likely be won in the trenches. Whichever set of big uglies can impose their will, are going to give their team an excellent chance to leave Orlando with a victory.
10) Las Vegas Bowl – Arizona State vs. Wisconsin
Both of these teams had wins over ranked teams this year but too many confounding losses doomed them to a postseason matchup in Las Vegas instead of Pasadena. Both teams finished the regular season unranked but both spent a substantial amount of the season in the Top-25. The Badgers were able to rally the troops after starting the season 1-3, which included one-sided losses to Michigan and Notre Dame. They finished strong, reeling off victories in seven of their last eight. The Sun Devils also reached a crossroads with consecutive losses to Utah and Washington State. But Coach Herm Edwards managed to lead his team to a strong finish, winning three of their last four.
The Badgers turned their season around when they started putting less responsibility on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz. After averaging just over 101 yards rushing in those first three losses, the Badgers put up 269 yards per game in their seven-game winning streak. The Sun Devils will need a big game from their rush defense that ranked 37th in the nation, surrendering 135.8 ypg on the ground. Wisconsin will have to contend with one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Jayden Daniels. The junior from San Bernardino threw for 2221 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding another 670 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. The Devils will likely have to open the offense up a bit because, even though they feature a very strong running game, the Badgers feature the top rushing defense in the country. Both of these offenses are likely to struggle a bit running the football. The successful team will be the squad that can change gears successfully and keeps the opposing defense back on their heels.