College Bowl Season: SEC Steps Into The Spotlight

There are nineteen games in the books for this college bowl season but none of them have involved the SEC. The nation’s most highly regarded conference now swings into action, with teams in five of the eight games that will take place from New Year’s Eve on Monday through the first part of New Year’s Day on Tuesday. Three of those involve SEC teams currently ranked in the Top 10 and likely playing to stay there.

It’s those games—involving South Carolina, Georgia and LSU that will lead our preview of what we’ll dramatically call the New Year’s Octave, the sequence of eight games that starts at noon ET on Monday and leads up to the Rose Bowl at 5 PM ET on Tuesday.

As has been the case throughout the bowl season, TheSportsNotebook will pick the winner, both outright and against the Las Vegas spread, along with the Over/Under totals line. At the end of the column my full disclosure record is posted (the ATS record is killing me, while the totals have been better). And since I’m reviewing these games out of their chronological sequence, the TV schedule is also listed at the bottom.

Georgia-Nebraska (Tuesday, 1 PM ET, ABC): The Bulldogs are ranked #7 and were just one play from playing for the national championship, a play that was denied them by some horrific clock management on the part of Georgia coach Mark Richt in the SEC Championship Game. On the other side, Nebraska was a mere forty points from going to the Rose Bowl, as a blowout loss to Wisconsin cost them the Big Ten title.

This game is really about playing amateur psychologist. How fired up are the Dawgs going to be about this game after being so close to the top prize? I understand the logic that says Georgia will be sleepwalking, but let’s keep in mind that Georgia has lost two straight bowl games—to Michigan State and Central Florida—and with Richt constantly on the hot seat, a loss here would stick in the craw of alumni for the next time the coach got vulnerable. I think Nebraska’s psyche is far harder to grasp—did the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin demoralize them, or will it be a motivator?

Nebraska has the offensive weapons, with a versatile quarterback in Taylor Martinez, a good wideout in Kenny Bell and the running of Ameer Abdullah, combined with Martinez, gives the Cornhusker ground game a versatility that’s hard to defend. I expect them to move the ball.

The issue is going to be what happens when Georgia has the ball. Nebraska has given up 133 points in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, plus 36 in a September loss to UCLA, who was just breaking in a freshman quarterback. What happens against Aaron Murray, whose numbers are outstanding in all facets of the passing game—he completes a good percentage, gets the ball downfield and steers clear of mistakes. The Dawgs have a two-pronged attack on the ground, with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Unless you think they’re not going to be emotionally into the game, there’s no rational argument to suggest Nebraska could stop Georgia.

Since I think Georgia will be ready, I’m not hesitating to pick Murray to light up the Husker secondary and win this one going away.

Outright Winner: Georgia
Pointspread Winner: Georgia (-9)
Totals Line: Over 61

South Carolina-Michigan (Tuesday, 1 PM ET, ESPN): A brutal schedule cost South Carolina a fair shot at the SEC title, as the league lined up for three straight weeks with games against Georgia, LSU and Florida, the latter two on the road. Can you imagine the league doing that to Alabama? I digress. The Gamecocks blew out Georgia, lost a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge and then got hammered in Gainesville. But Steve Spurrier’s team got 10 wins with a  big win in Clemson in the season finale.

South Carolina does it with defense, a unit that ranks 12th in the country in points allowed—and considering the caliber of the offenses they face in the SEC, that means they’re really much higher in quality. Michigan has done nothing offensively whenever they’ve had to face a good team. The Wolverines’ offense was overmatched in losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, and even played poorly against Nebraska, whose defensive woes were just documented

Michigan’s problem is their offense has no balance. Denard Robinson is versatile, as is Devin Gardner, who stepped in when Robinson was hurt. But they don’t have a running back who can run the ball, nor do they have quality receivers. The whole idea of spreading the field and letting the quarterback run around looks nice against a slow team from the mid-to-lower echelons of the Big Ten. It looks positively pathetic against a defense with players who are fast and a coaching staff that knows what its doing.

What Spurrier does have to be concerned about is his own offense. It was never the team’s strength and the devastating late October knee injury to Marcus Lattimore took away their one big playmaker. Starting quarterback Connor Shaw is back from injury, although even if he struggles, backup Dylan Thompson is capable. There are just not enough skill players to really open the field up the way SEC teams have usually been able to do against the Big Ten in these January 1 games.

Thus, I have no hesitation about picking South Carolina, nor projecting a low-scoring game. But I can see Michigan hanging around, and that makes a five-point spread a little concerning. Michigan played a similar team, Notre Dame, to a seven-point margin on the road, even though the flow of play heavily favored the Irish the whole way. I see the same type of result here, and on a neutral site, I’m not comfortable giving five.

Outright Winner: South Carolina
Pointspread Winner: Michigan (+5)
Totals Line: Under 48

LSU-Clemson (Friday, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN): There are two schools of thought on this game. The first school since this is a classic offense vs. defense showdown that makes a bowl game exciting. LSU brings a defense almost as good as the one that took them to the national championship game last year. The Tigers rank 11th in scoring defense, which as noted with South Carolina, suggests a real ranking that’s much higher. Clemson ranks 6th in scoring offense and does everything well. They can run the ball with Andre Ellington and you can’t lock in on one receiver—DeAndre Hopkins is the best, but quarterback Tajh Boyd also has Sammy Watkins at his disposable and in general Boyd is skilled at spreading the ball around. The clash of an elite defense and elite offense would make this final game of calendar year of 2012 more than just one of the best non-BCS games—it would be one of the best two or three bowl games period.

The other school of thought says this is a classic SEC vs. ACC showdown that makes a bowl game boring. The Saturday after Thanksgiving said it all—in four games where the two conferences squared off, the SEC not only won all four, but they won all four decisively. It included Clemson blowing their shot at a BCS game when they lost at home to South Carolina—by ten points, in spite of the Gamecocks committing double-digit penalties.

Then let’s look at each team’s body of work—Clemson lost its two notable tests, South Carolina and Florida State. The Tigers have beaten five bowl teams, but three of them were against .500 teams—Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech & Duke, one was against 7-5 N.C. State and the other was against Ball State. This is the long-winded way of saying that the ability of the Tigers to beat genuinely good teams is purely theoretical right now.

LSU may not have had the year people were anticipating when they were the preseason #1, but the only losses were close games to Florida and Alabama. The first was on the road, the second was a game the Tigers seemed to have until the final two minutes. LSU has a road win over Texas A&M, a victory that came in October when eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel was comfortably locked in. The Tigers won on the road over the Aggies in spite of a sloppy double-digit penalty game.

Therefore, I see little reason not to pick LSU. The caveat would be motivation—we know Clemson is going to be hungry for some type of signature win, especially after they gave up 70 points to West Virginia in last year’s Orange Bowl humiliation. Will the Tigers be similarly jacked up? And on the more subtle notes, LSU has suspended All-American punter Brad Wing. A team that relies on defense and field position to win might miss an elite punter more than most.

But in the end, those are cautionary concerns, not reasons to pick Clemson. I do have the same concerns about the pointspread—it’s LSU (-5.5) that I had with South Carolina, but I just have no confidence in Clemson’s defense to keep it low-scoring enough to cover that number in a loss. I see a 31-20 kind of game unfolding on Friday night in Atlanta.

Outright Winner: LSU
Pointspread Winner: LSU (-5.5)
Totals Line: Under 60


N.C. State-Vanderbilt (Friday, Noon ET, ESPN): It’s another SEC-ACC mismatch showdown. On that aforementioned Thanksgiving Saturday, Vandy hammered Wake Forest, a team not that much worse than N.C. State. The Wolfpack are going through a coaching transition, while the Commodores play solid defense and should coast home.
Outright Winner: Vanderbilt
Pointspread Winner: Vanderbilt (-7.5)
Totals Line: Under 51.5

Mississippi State-Northwestern (Tuesday, Noon ET, ESPN2): While most of the Big Ten embarrassed themselves in non-conference play, Northwestern actually showed up and beat Vanderbilt, and also knocked off Syracuse. On the flip side, Mississippi State started 7-0 against the soft part of the schedule and when it toughened up, they began getting blown out. As far as motivation, how about this—Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl since 1948 and the media won’t let them stop hearing about it. Pat Fitzgerald gets that monkey off his back with a win in Jacksonville.

Outright Winner: Northwestern
Pointspread Winner: Northwestern (-1)
Totals Line: Under 53


USC-Georgia Tech (2 PM ET, CBS): The injury that sidelined Matt Barkley for the end of the season will keep him out of this game, so the Max Witten era can begin in earnest—at least if Witten can prove he’s worthy of the job. The desire of the freshman quarterback to prove himself for next season might make him the one Trojan player who’s motivated for this game in El Paso. Witten and Marqise Lee will hook up on some big plays and win, but Georgia Tech will compete—just like they did in a closer-than-it-was-supposed-to-be loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship and keep this game competitive. And between USC’s passing game and Georgia Tech’s triple option, the points should be flowing.

Outright Winner: USC
Pointspread Winner: Georgia Tech (-7.5)
Totals Line: Over 62

Iowa State-Tulsa (3:30 PM ET, ESPN): Iowa State has played good defense and ran the ball well under Paul Rhoads, but never had a quarterback. With the late-season insertion of freshman Sam Richardson into the lineup, it looks like the Cyclones have the last piece of the puzzle. The one question would be how much this program—now consistent in reaching postseason play—will be for a Liberty Bowl date with Tulsa. I’m leery about it, but Iowa State is much better and the line is a virtual pick-‘em.

Outright Winner: Iowa State
Pointspread Winner: Iowa State (-1)
Totals Line: Under 51

Purdue-Oklahoma State (Tuesday, Noon ET, ESPNU): This is an appalling matchup, with Oklahoma State’s quality running game, led by Joseph Randle and improving passing game, with freshman quarterback J.W. Walsh. Purdue only went 6-6 in a mediocre Big Ten. Even if Okie State isn’t interested, they’ll still win. The problem is that the line of (-17) is ridiculous. To give the Boilermakers some credit, they played competitively at Notre Dame and nearly won at Ohio State. For Oklahoma State to cover that number, they’d need to completely jacked and stay that way for four quarters. I’m not buying they’ll be that into playing Purdue, so the dog gets a cover in a game where only the pointspread is in doubt.

Outright Winner: Oklahoma State
Pointspread Winner: Purdue (+17)
Totals Line: Under 70


Monday: N.C. State-Vanderbilt (Noon ET, ESPN), USC-Georgia Tech (2 PM ET, CBS), Iowa State-Tulsa (3:30 PM ET, ESPN), LSU-Clemson (7:30 PM ET, ESPN)

Tuesday: Mississippi State-Northwestern (Noon ET, ESPN2), Oklahoma State-Purdue (Noon ET, ESPNU), South Carolina-Michigan (1 PM ET, ESPN), Georgia-Nebraska (1 PM ET, ABC)

A BCS doubleheader starts at 5 PM ET, with the Rose Bowl, followed by the Orange Bowl. TheSportsNotebook previews of both games will be up early Tuesday morning.


Outright Winners: 9-10
Pointspread Winners: 7-12
Totals Line: 12-7