This is what New Year’s Day has left us this season: no championship games, not even College Football Playoff semifinals. Just some really tasty major bowl games involving teams ranked among the top 20 in the nation.
Yes, the playoff has tended to overshadow the postseason. That doesn’t mean we can’t camp our eyeballs out for an all-day intake of four major bowl games.
What’s at stake?
The Rising:ForMinnesota,BaylorandOregon, continued ascension in their conferences and in the national consciousness. All three programs forced us to consider them as national contenders this season.
Coaching changes:This might be the last game at Baylor for Matt Rhule (see below).Michiganisn’t firing Jim Harbaugh, but a loss toAlabamain the Citrus Bowl won’t sit well with fans. The Wolverines finishedthirdthis season in the Big Ten East.
Old-fashioned pride:Georgiaexpected to play for it all. Beating Baylor after falling back to the Sugar Bowl for the second straight season will require more than mental toughness. The same goes for Alabama, which lost (in order) to LSU, its quarterback and then toAuburn. The Crimson Tide are 2-2 under Nick Saban in postseason games that don’t involve the BCS/CFP.
The Rose Bowl:I don’t know about you, but I could watch a flag football game between FedEx delivery drivers and still get the warm and fuzzies about the Rose. Sun setting over the San Gabriels, the immaculate setting in Pasadena. Even if the game is out of the championship loop in the CFP era, it still matters. Here’s hoping Oregon andWisconsindo the it proud.
Citrus Bowl: No. 13 Alabama vs. No. 14 Michigan
Alabama:Which way is this program headed? We won’t know until at least Jan. 20 whenTua Tagovailoawill have to decide whether he will return or head to theNFL. Until then, a raft of other draft-eligible juniors will put on maybe one final show. The Tide traditionally phone it in during postseason games that are not involved in playing for the national title. With or without Tua, this game begins the starting quarterback competition for 2020.Mac Joneshas proved capable. Californian Bryce Young comes in the latest recruiting class.
Michigan:After five seasons, Harbaugh has lost traction. Even though this could be his fourth 10-win season,Ohio Stateis head and shoulders above everyone in the Big Ten in terms of talent. But would anyone be surprised if Michigan won this one, making it arguably Harbaugh’s biggest win with the Wolverines?
Outback Bowl: No. 12 Auburn vs No. 18 Minnesota
Auburn:The Tigers are a New Year’s Six team relegated to Outback status because of their schedule, one of the toughest in the country. Minnesota will have a tough time dealing with All-America defensive linemanDerrick Brown, who is enthusiastically embracing his last game before going to the NFL. Watch for some trick-play hijinks from Gus Malzahn, who can afford some fun after posting nine wins and beating Bama.
Minnesota:P.J. Fleck’s breakthrough season was so impressive the Gophers entered the final week of the year controlling their destiny for the playoff. Minnesota is a sum of its parts. If you have to concentrate on one area, watch receiversRashod BatemanandTyler Johnson, 1-2 in Big Ten in receiving. Fleck continues to impress. The last time Minnesota (10-2) won more than 10 games was 1903.
Rose Bowl: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Oregon:The Rose Bowl has lost some of its sizzle in non-playoff years. Not this time. The Ducks are back in Pasadena for the first time since 2015. With the Pac-12 out of the playoff again, it would help to beat a physical Wisconsin from the Big Ten to set the tone for 2020. Mario Cristobal has built a program that poundedUtahin the Pac-12 title game and has established itself as possibly the best on the West Coast. This sounds weird, but quarterbackJustin Herbertneeds to get some more film after a so-so finish. Let’s get this straight: The Ducks were knocked out of the playoff race because they lost toArizona Stateon Nov. 23, not because they blew a 15-point lead to Auburn in the season opener.
Wisconsin:The Badgers got back to being the class of the Big Ten West, reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2012. There are no secrets with the Badgers. They will pound withJonathan Taylor, who is most likely playing his last game. If so, the record-breaking junior tailback and two-time All-American will make one of the most impressive exits of any skill player in recent history. If you want to dream: Taylor needs 326 yards to become the game’s all-time leading rusher.
Sugar Bowl: No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Baylor
Georgia:The embarrassment factor is high. A win over Baylor is not only expected but demanded at this point. However, between injuries and players skipping the bowl before the draft, at least 13 Dawgs will miss the Sugar Bowl. That after being pushed around byTexasin last year’s game. This is already a net loss season for the Dawgs. They were expected to compete for a national championship. Instead, they lost toSouth Carolinaand were blown out byLSUin the SEC Championship Game. How motivated will Georgia be without its best running back (D’Andre Swift), wide receiver (Lawrence Cager) and offensive lineman (Andrew Thomas), among others?
Baylor:The Sugar Bowl has the very real possibility of becoming the best win in Baylor history. The best comparison is beating No. 2Tennesseein the 1957 Sugar Bowl. There is both angst and joy involved here. Rhule is interviewing again withNFL teams. He told his team as much this week. While his departure would be a huge loss, the Bears will challenge for the Big 12 and possibly a playoff spot in 2020. Thirteen starters return. Watch Big 12 defensive player of the yearJames Lynchin Baylor’s 3-4 scheme against Georgia’s depleted offensive line.
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