SEC Bowl Projections: Marquee Spots Up For Grabs

The SEC might be up against it in terms of the national championship picture, but the conference still has one of the most compelling bowl races as come to the regular season’s final two weeks, and it’s league championship game on December 1 in Atlanta. Between the quality of its team, the tightly packed nature of the race and the marquee caliber of most of its bowls, there’s a lot of SEC intrigue, as we contemplate the games we’ll be picking for bowl pools in a few weeks. From top to bottom, we’ll sort out the race and make our SEC bowl projections…

At the very least, the top and the bottom are straightforward. So long as Alabama beats Auburn on November 24, the Tide will play Georgia for the SEC title. At minimum there’s a Sugar Bowl bid on the line, with the ‘Bama-Georgia winner first in line if the national title chase opens up to one-loss teams. At the bottom, Kentucky and Auburn are out.

The SEC will also get a second team into a BCS game. Lately that’s been the Sugar Bowl, as they’ve chosen a replacement for the league champion, which was in the top game. For now we’ll presume the chalk holds at the top nationally, and that the SEC champion will take its natural place in New Orleans. That likely means the Fiesta Bowl would choose.

Earlier in the week, TheSportsNotebook’s BCS bowl projections had Texas A&M getting that nod, but it’s a very fluid situation, and if we were a political campaign we would say this race is still within the margin of error. The Fiesta could also take Florida, and based strictly on record, two-loss teams in LSU and South Carolina await.

We might add that the loser of the SEC title game is also in this mix, but conference championship game losers are at a disadvantage in this process. Their fans have already traveled once and spent money in a tough economy. That logic won’t apply to Georgia this year, but it will to Alabama and in either case, there’s a second fact—by definition, this team is coming off a nationally televised loss and lost a bit of its marquee juice. When there’s so many other good candidates available, the guess is that the SEC runner-up slips out of the BCS.

In this conference slipping out of the BCS is no disaster though, because we go immediately to three fairly high-profile games that are lined up. The Capital One Bowl gets the first pick after the major bowls have had their say. The Cotton Bowl takes a team from the Western Division, while the Outback gets its pick, usually going East. The Cap One/Outback is part of three January 1 games that feature the SEC against the Big Ten. The Cotton goes the Friday night after New Year’s and has the top non-BCS team from the Big 12 as the prize. Here’s some possible scenarios…

Capital One: The Orlando-based game that has the highest payout of any non-BCS game would surely like to avoid Alabama, a circumstance made easier if the Tide win the conference. The reason is that the most logical choice out of the Big Ten will be Michigan, and if there’s a national groundswell to see a rematch of the Tide-Wolverines game from September, I’ve missed it. South Carolina played here last year and while it’s not unheard of for a team to go back-to-back, bowls like this prefer to avoid it—better to attract a new fan base looking forward to New Year’s in Orlando. Presuming Florida doesn’t make the BCS, they probably end up here.

Cotton: Since the Dallas bowl game chooses from the SEC West this will be very straightforward if Alabama wins the SEC and A&M goes BCS at-large. LSU would simply have to beat Ole Miss & Arkansas to finish 10-2 and get the nod. The best guess for opponent here is Texas, so however it shakes out, the Cotton is going to get a great game. The safe pick here is LSU-Texas.

Outback: It’s either Georgia as SEC runner-up here, or South Carolina for this spot. Although there is one wild-card—if Alabama loses the SEC title and somehow gets passed over by both the BCS & Cotton (an unlikely triple play to be sure), the Outback’s desire for an East team is only a preference, not a rule and I’m sure the availability of the Tide would alter preferences.  The Outback has the next Big Ten pick after the Capital One. Ideally, the Outback would like either Nebraska to fall short in their pursuit of the Big Ten title, or for Wisconsin to at least win eight games and be a credible opponent. The best guess for this spot though, would be Northwestern, likely to end the season 9-3 with all three losses coming late.

Up next is the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, based in Atlanta and played on New Year’s Eve night and the Gator, the third of the Big Ten/SEC matchups on New Year’s Day.  The opponent in the Chick-Fil-A  the best non-BCS team from the ACC, creating another good postseason opportunity for the SEC.  The Gator’s Big Ten pick comes right after the Outback.

Chick-Fil-A:  would surely love for Clemson to be passed over by the BCS and be available as the ACC team here. The way for that to happen is for South Carolina to beat Clemson in the regular season finale.  This is a bowl that’s faced with a tough spot. The smart money says that South Carolina is the SEC team that falls to this spot and if Clemson is the ACC opponent, a rematch would be less than ideal. If Clemson is not the ACC opponent, it gets ugly on that side of the bracket, as the likely opponent would be N.C. State, currently 6-4. A South Carolina-N.C. State is the likeliest outcome here, though if the Gamecocks lose to Clemson, this game could be LSU’s firewall if they don’t at least make the Cotton.

Gator: If form holds in the Big Ten and Wisconsin loses its next two regular season games (Ohio State & Penn State), then loses to Nebraska  for the conference championship, the Badgers are the likely choice here, having never been to the Jacksonville-based game before. I think the Gator has the least intrigue of any SEC game—as long as 7-3 Mississippi State at least wins one more game (they play LSU & Ole Miss), the Bulldogs get the nod here. If Mississippi State loses twice, or if the Gator doesn’t want them for a second time in three years, Vanderbilt could beat Tennessee and Wake Forest, get to 8-4 and earn this spot. But I’m penciling in Mississippi State-Wisconsin.

Now we come to two bowls on equal footing and it’s the Music City and Liberty. The bowls work in harmony with the league office to get the best possible matchups. You can book Vanderbilt for one spot (or Mississippi State pending what happens with the Gator).

Beyond this point in the SEC we come to the two 5-5 teams that still need one more win to get eligible. It’s either Missouri (they host Syracuse and visit A&M) or Ole Miss (at LSU, vs. Miss State). Missouri should beat Syracuse and get eligible. I’m less optimistic about Ole Miss.

Then there’s the cases of Tennessee and Arkansas at 4-6 and needing to sweep to get a bid. The Razorbacks have virtually no shot, playing at Mississippi State and home against LSU. The Vols have a more realistic chance, going at Vanderbilt and home against Kentucky. While I have my doubts they’ll beat Vandy, this discussion ceases to become fun if we assume the worst even in winnable spots. So let’s say Tennessee gets in.

Music City: The sixth-place team in the ACC comes here, and with North Carolina on probation, this will be a less than ideal matchup. The SEC team is surely Vanderbilt if the Commodores are still on the board and the ACC team is either Duke or the Virginia-Virginia Tech winner. I’m going to cautiously say it’s the Dookies.

Liberty: Set up the Conference USA champ here and if Tennessee gets eligible, I’d think the Memphis-based game would prefer them over Missouri. The likely opponent is Tulsa. If the Vols aren’t eligible, the pick is Mizzou.

Compass Bowl: This will be on the Saturday afternoon after New Year’s, the appetizer for the first NFL playoff games that will start later in the day. Since we’ve presumed Tennessee’s eligibility and subsequent selection that leaves Missouri as the last team left. Should the Tigers end up in the Liberty, the SEC is out of teams and spots open for the mid-majors. The opponent here is Big East #5 (it’s also possible the Compass and Liberty could flip the C-USA champ). It doesn’t look the Big East will get five teams to eligibility, but Pitt or UConn are the ones with the best chance.

The SEC is also tied to the Independence Bowl, but unless both Arkansas and Tennessee play their way in, the league runs out of teams.

I’ve ran through all the scenarios. I included Tennessee in the picture, even though I don’t really think they’ll make it. Here’s how I personally see the matchups shaking out…

Sugar: Alabama-Clemson
Fiesta: Texas A&M-Oklahoma
Capital One: Florida-Michigan
Cotton: LSU-Texas
Outback: Georgia-Northwestern
Chick-Fil-A: South Carolina-N.C. State
Gator: Mississippi State-Wisconsin
Music City: Vanderbilt-Duke
Liberty: Missouri-Tulsa
Compass, Independence: No eligible teams