It’s time to dust off the Crystal Ball and venture into the uncertain world of trying to pick the SEC bowl games. The Crystal Ball had a good regular season with an 86-25 record, good for a .775 winning percentage. Bowl games are sometimes decided more on which team wants to be there instead of talent, and that makes picking them tricky.
This week we will tackle all the bowls and do it in the order in which they will be played.
The SEC bowls open with two games on Dec. 31. The first is the Music City Bowl, which pits Vanderbilt against NC State. That will be followed by LSU and Clemson playing that night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Vanderbilt will be playing in back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. Statistically, the Commodores score more than the Wolfpack and they give up less. When you look at the numbers you can draw only one conclusion—Vanderbilt will win this one.
Vanderbilt’s offense came to life late in the season behind quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy. If it comes down to field goals, Carey Spear was 19 of 22 this season as he set a new single-season Vanderbilt scoring record. If the Commodores can contain NC State quarterback Mike Glennon even a little, it won’t be close. The Crystal Ball says Vanderbilt 35-21.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl will feature a power team from the SEC (LSU) against a power team from the ACC (Clemson). Clemson brings in a dangerous passing attack behind quarterback Tajh Boyd and sensational pass catcher Sammie Watkins. The pair helped Clemson average 42 points and 518 yards of total offense per game. It will be interesting to see how the Tigers’ passing attack matches up with an LSU defense that only allowed 103 yards per game. Whoever wins this matchup will win the war, which means it will be up to defensive end Sam Montgomery, linebacker Kevin Minter and safety Eric Reid to lead LSU’s victory. The Crystal Ball says LSU 34-20.
On New Year’s Day, three more SEC teams will be in action — Mississippi State will face Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, South Carolina will face Michigan in the Outback Bowl and Georgia will meet Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
Northwestern comes into the Gator Bowl seeking a 10th win on the season, while Mississippi State is bringing a five-game bowl winning streak into play. The Wildcats have a slight edge offensively — with a big edge in the rushing game — while the Bulldogs have a big edge throwing the ball behind Tyler Russell. These two teams are pretty even, so what this might come down to is motivation, and the Wildcats might have an edge there. The Crystal Ball says Northwestern 31-24.
South Carolina could have an edge in motivation when the Gamecocks meet Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Playing a Big Ten team always seems to fire up an SEC team. Where will Denard Robinson play in this one? Will he be the dual threat quarterback or the dangerous runner/wide receiver? No matter where he plays you can bet he will draw a lot of attention from Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. It all adds up to Michigan ending the season the same way the Wolverines opened the season—losing to an SEC team. The Crystal Ball says South Carolina 17-16.
Georgia and Nebraska meet in the Capital One Bowl on the night of Jan. 1 and picking this one is where it gets tricky. Talent-wise Georgia should have an edge over the Cornhuskers, but you have to wonder about motivation. Is Georgia disappointed to be in this game after coming so close to playing for a national championship? If the Bulldogs are, then it will be very hard to get motivated to play Nebraska. There should be no letdown for the Huskers, who will have ample motivation to knock off a team from the SEC. The Crystal Ball says Georgia 28-21.
When the Florida Gators line up in the Sugar Bowl to play Louisville, they will see a familiar face across the field in coach Charlie Strong. But the one they should be more concerned with is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Strong was a popular assistant coach in Gainesville and now he is a popular head coach with the Cardinals. Offensively, the Cardinals have an edge in stats, but the Gators have the edge when it comes to defense and that will have to be the way the Gators pull this one out if they are going to. Look for defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and defensive back Matt Elam to come up big for the Gators if they are to slow down Bridgewater and DeVante Parker, his favorite big-play receiver. This will be Florida’s 22nd bowl trip, which is tops in the SEC and second-best in the country. This is also the Gators seventh BCS bowl game, which is tied for the lead in the nation. A Florida win would give it that most BCS wins in history. The Crystal Ball says defense wins — Florida 38-34.
On January 4th one of the most interesting bowl games will take place in the Cotton Bowl when Texas A&M meets former Big 12 rival Oklahoma. The nation will be watching for the matchup of quarterbacks in Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones. It would be a nice finish for Manziel to complete a near perfect 2012, but for Jones it will be the final chance to come up with a big win. A&M’s most recent appearance in the Cotton Bowl was in 2011, when the Aggies were still in the Big 12 and they fell to LSU, 41-24. Six current Aggies – seniors Patrick Lewis, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Sean Porter and Ryan Swope and juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews – started against the Tigers and a total of 19 current players saw action in the game. This should be an offensive show in Dallas. The Crystal Ball says Texas A&M 31-21.
The next day in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Ole Miss will play Pittsburghin what will essentially be a home game for Mississippi. The Rebels have sold the most bowl tickets of any bowl team in the country at the close of the ticket office for the Christmas break. It will be the Rebels first bowl trip under coach Hugh Freeze while it is Pitt’s third consecutive trip to the Birmingham-based bowl. The Rebels, who started the season with a 14-game losing streak in conference play, will feature the passing combination of Bo Wallace to Donte Moncrief with a strong running game that makes the Rebels dangerous. Ray Graham, a 1,042-yard rusher, has scored 11 touchdowns, but Pitt relies mostly on quarterback Tino Sunseri and receiver Mike Shanahan. Here again, how bad does Pitt want this one after two previous trips to Birmingham? The Crystal Ball says Ole Miss 42-17.
Finally, the big one in Miamion January 7th as Alabama and Notre Dame play for the BCS national championship. While offenses get most of the headline, the defenses will likely settle this one. Can linebacker Manti Te’o and the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense slow down Alabama’s offense, which is the 15th leading scoring offense in the country? Or can Alabama’s defense, which is second behind Notre Dame in points allowed, stop the Irish’s No. 74-ranked offense? Te’o is the heart and soul of the Notre Dame defense but Alabama has won two of the last three national title games and they have the talent and experience to do it again. The Crystal Ball says Alabama 17-14.
The Crystal Ball predicts the SEC will go 8-1 this bowl season, which seems unrealistic on the surface, but the conference believes it plays the best football in the nation. If that’s true, then 8-1 should be within reach.