The SEC wants to dominate, but as anyone in this conference will readily tell you, what matters most in this conference is raising a national championship banner. A close second: Winning the statement games which don’t diminish the league’s image.
Losing the bowl games between middle-of-the-pack 7-5 or 8-4 teams isn’t fun, but that’s not where the SEC’s reputation is ever decided or defined, be it internally or externally. What counts for the SEC is the collection of big-stage battles. That’s what history remembers, not the Belk Bowl.
With this in mind, there are three bowl games the SEC needs to win this bowl season, and in a specific order of priority and magnitude.
1) Alabama against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl
2) Georgia against Texas in the Sugar Bowl
3) LSU against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl
These are all New Year’s Six games, the first a playoff semifinal. Two come against blueblood programs, the other against the Group of Five outsider who went unbeaten last year and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, crying out for a game against Alabama to settle the national title. UCF never got that game, of course, but it sure got a lot of media mileage out of it. These three games are richly different even as they hold prominent places on the SEC’s target list.
Start with Alabama-Oklahoma, the big one. It’s the top two Heisman Trophy finishers — the order to be determined this upcoming Saturday in New York — and the two best offenses against elite competition. No, this isn’t a meeting of the two best teams in college football. Clemson is the No. 2 compared to Bama’s No. 1. However, the matchup of loaded offenses and Heisman superstars elicits a memory of the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC. That game also pitted the top two Heisman finishers against each other. The man snubbed — Vince Young — dramatically outplayed the winner (Reggie Bush). This makes one ask: Is it a good thing for Alabama if Kyler Murray wins the Heisman? Is it good for Oklahoma if Tua Tagovailoa wins?
Those questions will be the main points of intrigue in the game, but hardly the only ones.
Does Lincoln Riley want a member of Nick Saban’s staff to become his next defensive coordinator in Norman in 2019? If Jake Fromm could throw well against Bama in the SEC Championship Game, what is Murray capable of? Is Oklahoma’s offensive line ready for the challenge posed by Alabama’s defensive line? Will Tua (Bama) and especially Marquise Brown (OU) be fully healthy and ready to play their best? Will Lincoln Riley coach with less fear than he showed in last season’s playoff semifinal against the SEC champion (Georgia in the Rose Bowl)?
That is just a small sampling of the other questions involved. It is a first-rate showcase of talent and playmaking. Alabama, with four weeks of rest, will be expected to roll in the semifinals, which it has done each of the last three seasons. The Tide outscored its last three semifinal opponents — Michigan State in 2015, Washington in 2016, and Clemson in 2017 — by a combined score of 86-13. Alabama has no reason to expect anything less than dominance here.
That expectation flows through the other two priority bowls for the conference.
Georgia made three straight Sugar Bowls at the start of the 1980s. It made three Sugar Bowls in the first decade of this century. Being in the Sugar Bowl in the playoff era — when the Sugar isn’t a semifinal — feels like a disappointment to SEC elites, but the presence of Texas and Tom Herman should get Georgia’s attention. Texas is moving in the right direction, for one thing. Second, Herman knows what it is like to spring an upset of an SEC team in the Sugar Bowl. That’s what he did as Urban Meyer’s assistant in the first College Football Playoff back in the 2014 season. Ohio State’s offense roared in the second half to beat Saban and Bama in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
A certain Saban assistant was involved in that loss for Bama: Kirby Smart.
You think Kirby wants to get revenge against Herman?
Is the Pope Catholic? Does the sun rise in the east? Is it hard for Kentucky to win in Knoxville against Tennessee?
West Virginia or Washington State wouldn’t have been nearly as sexy, but Texas? Oh, Kirby will want this one badly. His players will need to play with similar hunger.
Then we turn to the Fiesta Bowl, earlier on New Year’s Day.
UCF made the SEC look bad by beating Auburn convincingly in the Peach Bowl last season. Everyone in and around the league will want LSU to shut up the Knights and their Group of Five insistence that they belonged in the playoff over Georgia and everyone else in the running for that No. 4 seed. LSU fans will expect to win big, but remember this: UCF was a 16.5-point underdog in its last Fiesta Bowl, the January 2014 game against Baylor. The Knights led by 17 late before winning by a comfortable 10 points, 52-42. LSU can’t take the Knights for granted. Assuming Ed Orgeron’s team approaches this game properly, though, it should be fine. Darriel Mack, Jr. has not played a live game against a defense anywhere near LSU’s level of quality.
Bama, Georgia and LSU — that’s where it’s at for the SEC this bowl season. Win those three, and it’s a good campaign.
If the SEC can clean up elsewhere as well, it will have a great bowl season.
Florida-Michigan in the Peach Bowl is a meeting of brand-name programs, but Michigan has all the pressure to win that game after the Wolverines got embarrassed by Ohio State. Florida winning there would be a bonus, not an expectation. Dan Mullen is coaching for the future as much as the present in that game.
Kentucky-Penn State in the Citrus Bowl is another game the SEC won’t be expected to win. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has not been 100 percent the past month-plus. He is expected to be healthy for this game, which might change the way the Nittany Lions’ offense functions. Kentucky’s offense will probably have to score in the mid-20s or higher, which is not something one should count on. This would also be a bonus for the SEC if it can get it.
Here are games the SEC ought to win: Texas A&M against North Carolina State in the Gator; Missouri in the Liberty against Oklahoma State; Mississippi State in the Outback against Iowa; Auburn in the Music City against Purdue; South Carolina in the Belk versus Virginia.
A&M should win because no one other than Clemson in the ACC was any good this year. Missouri has been inconsistent this season… but Oklahoma State was the most inconsistent Power Five conference team in America. The Tigers are clearly a better team, though not necessarily more talented. Mississippi State’s defense should throttle Iowa’s offense. Auburn has bigger, stronger athletes than Purdue does. South Carolina has far more playmaking skill than Virginia. The league has so many chances to gobble up wins.
Vanderbilt probably rates as a small to modest favorite against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Vanderbilt’s offense functioned extremely well against Tennessee’s defense in Game 12 of this season, and Baylor’s defense is not noticeably better than the Vols’ defense.
The table is set. The SEC has lots of matchups in which it ought to be able to feast. Bama, Georgia and LSU lead the way, but up and down the line, the conference has favorable bowl pairings. Now it just has to step through the portal and take advantage.