SEC takes center stage in bowl games starting Tuesday

Photo: Walt Beazley,

The college football bowl season kicked into high gear last Saturday with six games, but the Southeastern Conference doesn’t take the stage until the final game of Tuesday’s four-game bowl slate when LSU faces Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl.

From that point on, the SEC becomes a major bowl player with 10 teams in games that stretch from Tuesday through Saturday when the Arkansas Razorbacks face Kansas State at 2:20 p.m. in the Liberty Bowl.

Eight of the 10 games will be on ESPN with one, the Outback Bowl, on ESPN2 and another, the Citrus Bowl, on ABC. If you don’t think ESPN has become the major player in the college game, particularly from an SEC perspective, you’re not paying attention.

ESPN is setting game times for all but the CBS televised games each week of the regular season, it has a hand in setting the SEC team’s schedules and through the opinion-making efforts of its SEC Network plays the largest role in setting the news agenda for the league. That’s what the money generated by the SEC Network buys, a great amount of influence.

I’m not saying it’s bad for fans of the SEC programs. Actually, it’s been very good for them so far, but the SEC has ceded a ton of power to ESPN. Let’s just hope “The Worldwide Sports Leader” uses that power wisely and evenly. The greatness of the SEC stems from the willingness of the institution to share profits evenly across the board.

Certainly various SEC programs have an advantage over others, but the TV money is dispersed evenly among the 14 schools with the conference office also taking a share. It’s not that way in every conference, but I digress.

As for the bowls, I love to watch them. They make for great entertainment as we transition from one year to the next, but unlike some who think we can learn a great deal about teams and the relative strength of conferences from watching them, I totally disagree.

With as much as six weeks between the end of the regular season and the bowl games being played, it’s almost like playing another season opener. The teams are not the same. Momentum is different. Motivation is different. Head coaches and assistants have exited programs for various reasons, and players have left teams for a variety of reasons. The squads have practiced, but practice isn’t like playing a game. It does take time for offenses and defenses to adjust to the speed of the game after not playing at that level of intensity for so long.

Basically, the games are crapshoots. It should be no surprise if favored teams lose or blowouts happen.

I do believe some coaches handle bowl games better than others, but then again I don’t think a coach’s bowl record is the greatest indicator of how well he does his job.

However, bowl games are the last impressions that a team and a coach makes going into the offseason, and since football is never far from the hearts and minds of SEC fans, what happens in bowls are very important. A case in point is Arkansas’ 31-7 blowout of Texas last season in the Texas Bowl.

That victory coupled with the Hogs’ upsets of nationally ranked Ole Miss and LSU had expectations high for the Razorbacks going into this season. While those expectations didn’t come to fruition, the spring and summer was so much more fun for Hogs fans because of those high hopes.

Of course, four squads — Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma — have a lot more on the line as they play in the semifinals of the second College Football Playoff. While I still believe every game is important in and of itself, the prevailing feeling today is that sports are played to win championships.

That makes the semifinals on New Year’s Eve the two biggest games of the season to date. With a championship being the litmus test today, if the SEC is going to be considered by everyone but ESPN analyst Danny Kanell — he lives for being a burr in every SEC fan’s sandal — to be the nation’s preeminent college football conference, Alabama not only needs to beat Michigan State on Friday, but also either Oklahoma or Clemson on Jan. 12.

SEC Bowl Games

Texas Bowl — No. 20 LSU vs. Texas Tech, 8 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN
This game is very interesting not only because of the contrasting styles of the teams, but also to see how well the Tigers will play considering the failed coup to oust Les Miles from the head coaching spot by LSU’s athletics administration. Many feel Miles will be replaced after the 2016 season. The players love Miles, but they are in a tough situation. Do they rally around him or do they treat him as a lame duck? LSU does have speed on defense, but Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes is a handful as the Hogs learned in an unexpected, 35-24 Week 3 loss, but I’m guessing Leonard Fournette will lead the Tigers to victory. LSU 38, Texas Tech 31

Birmingham Bowl — Auburn vs. Memphis, 11 a.m. Wednesday, ESPN
Auburn traditionally has one of the shortest coaching leashes in college football, and the seat on the Gus Bus is already more than warm. If Auburn loses this game, it will be sizzling, but don’t expect that to happen. If Virginia Tech had not already poached former Memphis coach Justin Fuente to replace the retiring Frank Beamer as its head coach, I might have walked out on a limb on this pick. But not today, I fully expect Gus Malzahn to have the Tigers primed to make a statement. Auburn 41, Memphis 38

Belk Bowl — North Carolina State vs. Mississippi State, 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN
Boiling a game down to a quarterback battle can be too simplistic, but North Carolina State’s Jocoby Brissett and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott definitely make this game worth watching. Both can run and both can chunk it. Mississippi State 34. N.C. State 31

Music City Bowl — Texas A&M vs. Louisville, 6 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN
It seems the Aggies’ program is in a state of confusion at least on the offensive side of the football with quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen both bolting from the program earlier this month. Kevin Sumlin likely faces a make-or-break season next year. He could earn some brownie points with a victory over Louisville, but don’t expect Bobby Petrino and his Cardinals to allow that to happen. Louisville 34, Texas A&M 17

Outback Bowl — No. 13 Northwestern vs. No. 23 Tennessee, 11 a.m. Friday, ESPN2
Northwestern’ 10-2 regular season is one of the surprises of the season in the Big 10, with the Wildcats posting victories over traditional powers Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford and Wisconsin thanks to their standout defensive play. Tennessee won their final five games after losing four of their first seven to post a solid 8-4 season. However before you go betting the house on the Vols’ hot streak, consider that their final five wins came against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt, which have a combined 18-42 record. That’s less than four victories apiece on average. Northwestern 27, Tennessee 17

Citrus Bowl — No. 14 Michigan vs. No. 19 Florida, noon Friday, ABC
Florida has the defense to play with anyone, but the Gators’ offense is anemic. The Wolverines aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, but they do have more offensive firepower than the Gators. Michigan 24, Florida 17

Sugar Bowl — No. 15 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN
This very well could be the best matchup of any of the non-playoff bowl games involving an SEC team, and the winner could nab a top-10 finish in the polls. Ole Miss has the defensive quickness and talent to play with Oklahoma State’s high-octane offense. The Rebels own perhaps the most impressive victory of the season with their 43-37 victory at Alabama, and five forced turnovers were key. However, the Rebels don’t always come ready to play. I think this game will be a shootout, and in a shootout, it’s hard to pick against the Cowboys, but back-to-back losses to Baylor and Oklahoma have me questioning OSU’s 10-0 start. Ole Miss 38, Oklahoma State 35

TaxSlayer Bowl — Penn State vs. Georgia, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN
At first glance, this seems like a classic matchup between two storied programs, but when you consider, Georgia’s old head coach Mark Richt is making plans to resurrect the Miami Hurricanes program, and the Bulldogs’ new head coach Kirby Smart is working as the defensive coordinator for Alabama until the Crimson Tide’s quest for the national title is done, some of the gloss is lost. James Franklin’s Penn State squad didn’t post the kind of record Nittany Lions fans desire at 7-5. Penn State lost their final three games to Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. Georgia 28, Penn State 22

Liberty Bowl — Kansas State vs. Arkansas, 2:20 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
This contest pits Arkansas coach Bret Bielema against one of his mentors, legendary Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder. Bielema has already shown his emotions concerning Snyder more than once while promoting the ballgame. Hopefully for Razorbacks fans, he’s gotten all that out of his system. The Wildcats lost six consecutive games before winning their final three to become bowl eligible. The Razorbacks are 13-point favorites, and the Hogs should win. Arkansas 31, Kansas State 24

College Football Playoffs

Capital One Bowl — No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 Clemson, 3 p.m. Thursday, ESPN
Clemson is the only undefeated Power Five conference team, while Oklahoma has been the hottest team in the nation since suffering an unexplainable 24-17 loss to Texas. This game should supply plenty of fireworks. Quarterback Deshaun Watson tends to make key plays at key times for Clemson, while his Oklahoma quarterbacking counterpart Baker Mayfield has played just as well for the Sooners. It’s hard for me to pick against an undefeated team. Clemson 34, Oklahoma 31

Cotton Bowl — No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Alabama, 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN
This game should be an old-fashioned slobber-knocker of a ballgame. Both squads have great defenses and opportunistic offenses, but only the Crimson Tide have Heisman winner Derrick Henry. He’s been the difference for Alabama all season and will be again against the Spartans. Alabama 28, Michigan State 14