PEACH BOWL -- FLORIDA STATE vs HOUSTON (12/31 NOON, ESPN)
The Seminoles have now appeared in a New Year’s Six bowl for the second straight season after remaining ahead of North Carolina in the final Committee Rankings. Despite losing one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history, the stockpiled talent in Tallahassee was able to coast to a fourth straight 10-win season. A strong running game and a physical defense led the way as Dalvin Cook rushed for 150 yards per game and DC Charles Kelly saw his group improve from 50th to 5th in the FBS scoring defense rankings. Demarcus Walker has been vital in the defensive resurgence, providing a pass rush that has been missing since Timmy Jernigan left in 2013. On the back end, the difference maker has been 5-star recruit and true freshman Derwin James, who has become one of the most physical presences in the nation at safety. James sets the tone for this defense and will be its leader once All-American Jalen Ramsey goes pro.
Houston has a much different story. While Tom Herman is currently recruiting like a madman, the Cougars aren’t chock-full of elite recruits at every position. However, they have one of the most electrifying players in the country at quarterback in Greg Ward Jr., who has passed for over 2,500 yards and rushed for over 1,000. Houston is undefeated in games he has played in as he barely played in their one loss to UConn. While the critics will argue that Houston’s dynamic offense has been propped up by weak AAC defenses, the Cougars have played and beaten Louisville, Vanderbilt, and Temple this year. Louisville, the 14th best defense in the country, held #1 Clemson to 51 fewer yards the week after playing Houston.
If Florida State players think they can sleepwalk against Houston, they had better think again. Florida State is already without Everette Golson—and while there isn’t much of a difference between Golson and Sean Maguire, it is nice to have both players on the sideline in case of an injury. Golson will not be present due to a death in his family, leaving freshman J.J. Cosentino to backup Maguire. Regardless, if Florida State’s defense doesn’t show up, its offense hasn’t proven to be consistent enough for me to pick them in any type of shootout. However, I believe that this game will be a preview of what is to come in 2016 as the ultra-talented Seminoles gear up for another National Title run.
FLORIDA STATE 33 HOUSTON 23
FIESTA BOWL -- NOTRE DAME VS OHIO State (1/1 1:00ET, ESPN)
My first reaction to this game was: “Where will each team’s head be at?” For Ohio State, this season has been a disappointment. It was National Title or bust, and the Buckeyes are not in the Playoff. Now that we are in a new Playoff era, the Buckeyes can’t even hope for the elusive AP National Championship. And while Notre Dame came into this season with Playoff/Championship aspirations of their own—and even played its last game with those same hopes—the Irish have had a successful season considering key injuries and the improvements made from 2014. Beating the defending champs in a New Year’s Six Bowl would be about 50 cherries on top.
Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer has played very well in his first season as the starter. He has performed in the clutch moments of games as he led a comeback in his first appearance at Virginia, went toe-to-toe with Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson in one of the year’s best games at Clemson, and engineered a game-winning drive at Stanford, only to be dashed by Brian VanGorder’s helpless prevent defense in the final seconds of the game. Kizer may be without one of the best all-around running backs in the nation in C.J. Prosise who is questionable with an ankle injury, but will have his go-to target in Will Fuller. Ohio State has given up a 50+ yard passing play six times this year, which is tied for 27th worst nationally; this is not a good category to be in when trying to defend Fuller. I expect Kizer and the Notre Dame offense to move the ball against this Ohio State defense, which will be without both starting DTs Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, leaving one of the best defensive fronts in the nation shorthanded.
Of course, Joey Bosa—perhaps the best player in the country—will be playing. And while Notre Dame OT Ronnie Stanley is probably a top ten draft pick as well, Ohio State will have the luxury of picking matchups with Bosa by putting him in different positions along the line. But it will be Ohio State’s offense, led by the two-headed rushing attack of Ezekiel Elliott and JT Barrett that win the Buckeyes this game. Notre Dame’s defensive front is nothing the Buckeye’s haven’t seen this year after playing Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan. And without CB KeiVarae Russell playing, expect Ohio State to hit just enough big plays off of play action to outscore the Irish in a closer-than-anticipated Fiesta Bowl.
OHIO STATE 38 NOTRE DAME 34
ROSE BOWL -- STANFORD vs IOWA (1/1 5:00ET, ESPN)
Back in August, if you had told us that the final two remaining undefeated teams would be Clemson and Iowa, after laughing in your face, the assumption would be that Deshaun Watson carried the Tigers. But for the other team, Iowa, there would have been no logical explanation. After a string of stale seasons, Kirk Ferentz rallied the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 regular season and was 27 seconds away from winning the Big Ten. In just the second week, Iowa was tied 17-17 with rival Iowa State in the closing minutes. Two late Beathard touchdowns secured the Cy-Hawk Trophy, and the momentum carried into the next game, an overtime win over Pitt. The Cinderella season had its roots, and the close wins continued all the way into November. Thanks to its stout front seven, the defense finished in the Top 15 for most major statistical categories, while Desmond King added playmaking ability from the secondary. But perhaps the biggest change from the usual Ferentz Iowa teams was its identity under center. Beathard is more of a gunslinger, more mobile than his predecessors, and brings creativity and the ability to extend plays that were missing for almost a decade here.
But this 12-0 march was faced by a large faction of doubters, mainly because Iowa avoided the top four teams of the stronger Big Ten East Division. A relevant counterpoint: Iowa destroyed #13 Northwestern, 40-10 in Evanston -- the same Northwestern team that BEAT Stanford.
4-year starter Kevin Hogan is no stranger to the spotlight, as his 3 conference championships can attest to. He is not a "stat guy" but his leadership, poise, mobility, and timely play has led to a 35-10 career. This 2015 Stanford season was made special by the versatile Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey. Many labeled Derrick Henry as the "workhorse" running back, but keep in mind that McCaffrey only trailed Henry by 139 rushing yards - plus he adds in 1700+ additional yardage receiving, returning, and even passing! Behind an elite offensive line, I see McCaffrey piecing together another masterful performance with a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked in the Heisman vote.
For Iowa, the Big Ten title game was arguably the biggest game in school history, with this Rose Bowl almost eclipsing it. For Stanford, this is pretty standard, and a national stage too familiar for Hogan and Shaw. I think Iowa gets lost in the spotlight, and Stanford rolls to another Rose Bowl victory.
STANFORD 26 IOWA 17
SUGAR BOWL -- OKLAHOMA STATE vs OLE MISS (1/1 8:30ET, ESPN)
If it weren’t for the miracle 4th & 25 conversion by Arkansas, Ole Miss would have gotten a rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship Game – and who knows how the Committee would have handled a 1-loss Alabama team that would have been sitting at home watching the 10-2 Rebels and Gators fight for the crown. Of course, it was Ole Miss that humbled Alabama in Tuscaloosa in mid-September. With Chad Kelly at the helm, Ole Miss actually led the nation in scoring offense until the loss in the Swamp. The ‘Landshark’ defense took some steps back from the elite levels seen in 2014, and now has a major distraction from the legal issues of the Nkemdiche brothers. Still, I think Huge Freeze is a master motivator, and will have full (or near-full) attention this bowl season, thanks to the chance at redemption after the 42-3 NY6 embarrassment last year.
Oklahoma State finished with 10 wins. But after a closer look, is that win/loss record a true reflection of this team’s talent level? The non-conference slate is laughable, and 4 of OSU’s Big 12 wins were by a score or less. The Texas game was basically a less extreme edition of the infamous Michigan punter fiasco. Lowly Iowa State led the 'Pokes for most of the game. But then once the high-powered offenses in Baylor and Oklahoma came to town the defense was exposed, allowing a combined 103 points in 2 games. Was the TCU win impressive? Yes, but even that win saw key injuries derail the Frogs offense. Given the defensive collapses towards the end of the season against strong passing attacks, it is hard to trust Gundy’s squad. Ole Miss ranks 10th nationally in passing offense (334 per game), and I expect Kelly to torch the Cowboy secondary.
OLE MISS 41 OKLAHOMA STATE 30
PLAYOFF SEMIFINAL -- #1 CLEMSON vs #4 OKLAHOMA (12/31 4:00, ESPN)
Clemson had pieced together an impressive string of seasons under Dabo Swinney, but looked to take a few more steps forward: win the state, win the league, earn a Playoff bid. We knew last November that QB Deshaun Watson was a special talent, as he defeated the rival Gamecocks with a torn ACL. But it took until early October, in a rain-soaked Death Valley until we learned that his surrounding cast, those other 21 starters, were a Playoff-caliber unit. As Notre Dame’s 2-point conversion attempt was stuffed (and Ben Boulware front flipped in jubilation), Clemson officially entered the Playoff discussion. And there has been no turning back. Clemson has looked like the most complete team, both offensively AND defensively. Even the offense displays great balance behind the dynamic Watson, but also a rushing attack that ranks 22nd nationally. Wayne Gallman (1332, 10 TD) is an strong runner whose up-right running style, and mix of power and shiftiness reminds me of old Nebraska I-Back Lawrence Phillips (strictly on-field comparison).
Oklahoma can make the argument offensively, as they rank 2nd nationally in points scored per game (45.8) and feature a dual-threat playmaker of their own in Baker Mayfield. His creativity and ability to extend plays are two features that draw Manziel comparisons – even with the brash on-field attitude. Like Gallman, OU has strong runners behind their leader. Samaje Perine broke the all-time rushing record in a single game with his 427 yards against Kansas last season. And since the midseason loss to Texas, his per carry output jumped from 4.4 to 7.2 yards per carry. He is complemented by Joe Mixon, who gets another 10 touches per game. Also like Clemson, OU has a stable of star receivers that add another element to the attack.
While the offenses are near counterparts, Clemson appears to have the edge on the defensive side of the ball. This Tiger defense is a veteran bunch, and is littered with future NFL stars such as Shaq Lawson, Jayron Kearse, Ben Boulware, and Mackensie Alexander. The latter is the focal point of this secondary and pass defense, which makes the difference in this Playoff Semifinal. Clemson’s pass defense ranks 5th nationally, and will be able to lock down coverage long enough to get some heat on Mayfield. Houdini may escape a few times, but the magic can’t last 60 minutes against this elite Tiger D. I don’t completely trust the quality of the Big 12, and think that some of these ‘big wins’ for OU are smoke in mirrors. And, as mentioned above, we feel that Clemson is the most complete team in the bracket – both offensively, defensively, on the ground, and in the air. Dabo will fire up his B.Y.O.G. Tigers and push this dream season into mid-January.
CLEMSON 40 OKLAHOMA 34
PLAYOFF SEMIFINAL -- #2 ALABAMA vs #4 MICHIGAN STATE (12/31 8:00, ESPN)
Alabama finds itself in a familiar position: National Semifinal against a Big Ten opponent. Last year, Nick Saban cited the timing of NFL feedback to his draft-eligible players as one of the reasons his team was not mentally prepared to play Ohio State, a team comprised mostly of underclassmen not eligible for the draft, and thus not distracted. Once again, Alabama will be sending a litter of players to the NFL, and those same distractions could be a concern for Saban. However, Michigan State has 18 starters that will be eligible for the 2016 NFL draft, so he cannot use the same excuse this time around. Regardless, Saban has made a point to address this problem, and will do everything in his power to counter the distraction.
These two teams have similar mentalities and identities. They are both top-10 rushing defenses (Alabama is number 1), and above average offenses. Alabama is led by its elite front seven and Heisman Trophy winning running back Derrick Henry, while Michigan State is led by its very good front seven, elite offensive line, and quarterback Connor Cook.
So what does Alabama need to do to win? Avoid turnovers, don’t get beat for big plays, run the ball effectively. If that sounded generic, it was intended to be. Alabama is a more talented version of Michigan State. If they do not beat themselves, they have a strong likelihood of winning.
And if Michigan State were to win, the narrative would begin and end with Cook. Alabama has only lost seven games in the past five seasons. And in five of those losses, the opposing quarterback has thrown for an average of 289.8 yards, 2.8 touchdowns, and 0.4 interceptions. Considering those numbers came against the defensive juggernaut Alabama has been under Saban, it’s safe to say that these quarterbacks played out of their minds. The other two losses came against Auburn in 2013 (miraculous kick-six) and LSU in 2011 (remember that defense?). So if Cook can elevate his play on New Year’s Eve, there is a good chance he will be carrying his team to the National Championship, and himself into the first round of the NFL Draft. It could be a great night for Mr. Cook.
However, I cannot bet on Cook playing that type of game, especially when Saban gets a month to prepare for him.
ALABAMA 30 MICHIGAN STATE 20