With Mississippi State’s rout of Rice and Texas A&M’s come-from-behind victory over a game Duke squad, the SEC has moved to 3-0 this bowl season. While no hater of the SEC will mention it, Tuesday was a very, very good day for the conference. Arguably the 10th best team in the league (MSU) took apart the champions of Conference USA. Then the fifth or sixth best SEC team knocked off the #2 selection from the ACC. An impressive showing.
So do we think the SEC will go from 3-0 to 6-0 today? Read on…
Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl
#22 Georgia (8-4) vs Nebraska (8-4)
TV: 12pm ET on ESPN2
Opening Line: Georgia -10
Current Line: Georgia -9
Cool Factor: It’s a rematch from New Year’s Day 2013. The only thing cool about this one is the possibility that Bo Pelini might blow his top and say something really ugly, really stupid, or both if his team loses to Georgia again this year.
What’s At Stake: A quiet offseason for Mark Richt. Georgia came into the 2013 season with aspirations of a BCS bowl, perhaps a BCS title. Then a tsunami of injuries struck the Bulldogs, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. A once promising season turned into a mediocre season (by UGA’s standards). But here’s the thing — when a coach has been at a school for more than a decade and he finishes with five losses, fans tend to get angry. And angry fans don’t give a hoot in hell — “Patton,” great movie — about excuses. Even legitimate ones like all those injuries. Richt needs a win to keep the grumblers at bay.
Keep An Eye On: The quarterbacks. Both schools will be trotting out backups as starters Aaron Murray and Tyler Martinez are on the shelf with injuries. The Dawgs will start Hutson Mason, three years a Murray understudy. On the season — including a last game start over Georgia Tech — Mason has completed 46 of 71 passes for 648 yards, four TDs and two interceptions. Freshman Tommy Armstrong is expected to get the nod for the Cornhuskers. He’s completed 62 of 117 passes for 803 yards with seven touchdowns and — uh-oh — seven interceptions. Nebraska can’t afford to have their QB hurling picks on the morrow.
Hidden Tidbit: Nebraska has just two wins against teams that finished winning records (7-6 Michigan and 7-5 Penn State). Georgia went toe-to-toe with Clemson on the road, beat South Carolina, LSU and Georgia Tech, and lost to SEC champ Auburn on a last-minute deflected Hail Mary. Forget the usual stats. Georgia has played the better schedule. If the Huskers beat Georgia, it would be their first win in three tries against ranked opponents this season.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24
#16 LSU (9-3) vs Iowa (8-4)
TV: 1:00pm ET on ESPN
Opening Line: LSU -8
Current Line: LSU -8
Cool Factor: LSU is just the third SEC West team to land a bid to Tampa since the late-90s. Even though these teams met in the Capital One Bowl exactly nine years ago today (in Nick Saban’s last game as Tiger coach), this is still an unusual bowl matchup, which we like. All those January 1st Big Ten/SEC bowl games usually wind up being Big Ten versus SEC East games. So Big Ten versus SEC West is rather novel.
What’s At Stake: Momentum for LSU in 2014. Over the last seven seasons, the SEC West has been represented in Atlanta by either LSU or Alabama on five occasions (Auburn filled the other two slots). For that reason, the late-season showdown between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers has become one of the nation’s most hyped rivalries. But that could change. Gus Malzahn led AU to the BCS title game in his first year as head coach. Texas A&M is viewed as a program on the rise. If LSU drops to 9-4, some may begin to wonder if the Bayou Bengals are slipping. In our view they’re not, but we aren’t purple- and gold-clad fanatics. Fanatics want dominance every year despite youth and despite injuries. Like Richt, Miles wouldn’t be in any serious trouble if he lost today, but he would have to put up with some more moaning and groaning from within his fanbase.
Keep An Eye On: The LSU passing attack. Zach Mettenberger had the SEC’s best overall quarterback rating before he was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Freshman Anthony Jennings will get the starting nod after leading a late, game-winning drive against Arkansas in the Tigers’ season finale. On the year, Jennings is just 8-of-14 for 49 yards with the one touchdown pass to beat the Razorbacks. Though Jennings may be green, he will have two of the SEC’s best receivers to throw to in Jarvis Landry (1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Odell Beckham (1,117 yards and eight TDs). Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will likely call more run plays for Jeremy Hill this afternoon, but the Hawkeyes are 17th in the nation versus the run. LSU will need to find some amount of balance through the air (Iowa is #11 in the nation versus the pass) to keep the Hawkeyes honest. Jennings has his work cut out for him.
Hidden Tidbit: How well will LSU be able to convert on third down? The Tigers were the SEC’s best in that area this season, converting 58.5 percent of the time, which suggests the Tigers were typically able to gain enough on first and second downs to make third downs manageable. Iowa ranked fourth in a weak Big Ten in third-down conversion defense, allowing just 34.2% of third downs to be converted. If the Tigers can keep the chains moving with Jennings as they did with Mettenberger, they’ll be just fine.
Prediction: LSU 33, Iowa 20
Capital One Bowl
#8 South Carolina (10-2) vs # #19 Wisconsin (9-3)
TV: 1:00pm ET on ABC
Opening Line: Wisconsin -1
Current Line: Wisconsin -2
Cool Factor: Raise your hand if you said to yourself, “He’ll never be able to turn those guys around,” when South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier. If you’re being honest, there should be many a hand raised. The Gamecocks were a ne’er-do-well program and Spurrier was a 60-year-old NFL washout back in 2005. Now he’s going to be coaching Carolina in their sixth straight bowl game. A win over Wisconsin would give the school its third consecutive 11-2 season. In a word: Stunning. And watching USC go from a cellar dweller to perennial top 15 team has been pretty cool indeed.
What’s At Stake: As with the other two ballgames today, bragging rights are at stake. The SEC is off to a perfect start to the bowl season. The Big Ten? Not so much. Michigan and Minnesota have already lost to Kansas State and Syracuse, respectively. Heck, even the two schools scheduled to join the Big Ten next season — Maryland and Rutgers — have dropped their bowl games. You can be sure both Jim Delany and Mike Slive desperately want to win today’s three-game series.
Keep An Eye On: The defenses. You already know about Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles on the Cocks’ D-line. Carolina ranked #34 nationally against the run and #19 versus the pass. But Wisconsin’s defense put up even better numbers (albeit against a weaker schedule). The Badgers ranked 12th against the pass and fifth against the run. There’s one area, however, where USC holds a clear advantage. When it comes to turnover margin, the guys in garnet and black are plus-11 overall with 26 takeaways. Wisconsin was plus-three overall with 18 takeaways. Both defenses are good, but the Gamecocks force more turnovers.
Hidden Tidbit: This afternoon’s contest marks the final game for Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. Facing a stout UW defense without injured #2 wideout Damiere Byrd, a lot will fall on Shaw’s shoulders. The senior finished fifth in the SEC in passer rating and fourth among rushing quarterbacks (behind Nick Marshall, Dak Prescott, and Johnny Manziel). But Shaw’s greatest gift might be his leadership (which was on full display as he rallied Carolina for a big comeback win at Missouri). He leaves Columbia as the winningest starting quarterback in school history. He also brings a TD-to-INT ratio of 21-to-1 into today’s game. And, yes, you read that right. He’s thrown just one interception in 259 pass attempts this year. All things being equal, Shaw will be the difference in Orlando.
Prediction: South Carolina 28-24