SEC Football: Grading Every SEC Bowl Matchup

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterDecember 9, 2013

SEC Football: Grading Every SEC Bowl Matchup

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    Alabama QB AJ McCarron
    Alabama QB AJ McCarronJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

    Bowl season is upon us, and the SEC's slate for the holiday season is littered with intriguing matchups with big-time stakes.

    Auburn will take on Florida State for the crystal football, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will play was could be his last collegiate game on New Year's Eve in the Georgia Dome and backup quarterbacks for LSU and Georgia will give fans a glimpse of the future in the sunshine state.

    Oh, and then there's the Liberty Bowl.

    How do the SEC's bowl matchups look?

    Our grades are in this slide show.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech

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    Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
    Ole Miss QB Bo WallaceSpruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Nashville, Tenn.—Monday, Dec. 30 at 3 p.m. ET

    Ole Miss will look to rebound from what was a disappointing close to the season with a win over the ACC's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

    After gaining more than 400 total yards in nine of its first 10 games, Ole Miss gained just 378 and 318 in its final two games—losses to Missouri and Mississippi State.

    Will the extended break kick-start that offense and, perhaps, force Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze to give Wallace more of the offense? The Rebels certainly hope so, because they are going to have quite a challenge slowing down the Jackets.

    The Rebels gave up 155.25 yards per game on the ground this season, and Paul Johnson's triple-option attack—even with time to prepare—is still difficult to defend. Ole Miss has the athletes, and they'll have to stay disciplined in this one.

    If Ole Miss' offense can get going, this game could be fun, but that's a big "if."

    Grade: C

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Rice

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    Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
    Mississippi State QB Dak PrescottSpruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Memphis, Tenn.—Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET

    While intra-state rival Ole Miss closed with a whimper, Mississippi State closed with a bang—reeling off back-to-back overtime wins to get to 6-6 and become bowl eligible for a school-record fourth straight season.

    What's the reward for the Bulldogs? A game on New Year's Even with the Rice Owls.

    Talk about getting the short end of the stick.

    The Bulldogs' defense has been hit or miss this season but did hold the potent Auburn rushing attack to 120 yards when the two met in September. I trust them to shut down a run-based attack more than their intrastate brethren.

    Quarterback Dak Prescott should be back to near 100 percent after the bowl layoff, which means head coach Dan Mullen will be able to unleash his full repertoire for the first time during the stretch run.

    It's a bowl game and it's football, so obviously it's must-see television. But this game will serve more as an opening act to Manziel-palooza, which will take place later that night.

    Grade: D Gator Bowl: Georgia vs. Nebraska

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    Jacksonville, Fla.—Wednesday, Jan. 1 at Noon ET

    This? Again?

    Georgia and Nebraska will meet in a bowl game for the second season, after the Bulldogs topped the Cornhuskers in a 45-31 shootout in the 2013 Capital One Bowl. Unfortunately for fans of both schools, they'll square off again—only this time Nebraska doesn't have an elite pass defense, and Georgia doesn't have its quarterback.

    But that doesn't mean this game is without intrigue.

    Junior quarterback Hutson Mason won his first game as a starter for the Bulldogs against Georgia Tech, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the process. Can he again handle the load as the starter? Bulldog fans will get another glimpse of the future in Jacksonville.

    If he performs well, that will give confidence to the coaching staff heading into the offseason. That's important, because Clemson and South Carolina loom during the first month of Georgia's 2014 season.

    Grade: B-

Chick-fil-A Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Duke

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    Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
    Texas A&M QB Johnny ManzielThomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

    Atlanta, Ga.—Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET

    Will this be Johnny Manziel's last game as Texas A&M's quarterback? All signs point to "yes," and closing the curtain under the big top at the Georgia Dome on New Year's Eve is a perfect place to do so.

    Well, other than Pasadena, of course.

    Manziel struggled down the stretch, but the time away will give him and his offensive line the chance to figure things out, so that this New Year's night showdown acts as a showcase to NFL scouts with the spotlight all on him.

    Plus, let's be honest, Duke isn't exactly bringing a ton of defense to the party. The Blue Devils rank 12th in the ACC in defense after giving up 408.5 yards per game this season. 

    They do, however, boast a formidable offense, which should light up an Aggies defense that's been mediocre at best this year.

    Can you say shootout?

    Duke doesn't exactly jump off the page as an exciting opponent, but this matchup should provide a nice backdrop for your New Year's Eve celebration.

    Grade: B+

Outback Bowl: LSU vs. Iowa

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    Tampa, Fla. - Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET

    Along the same lines of the Gator Bowl, LSU and Iowa will square off across the state in Tampa in another game that will give fans a glimpse of the future. 

    True freshman Anthony Jennings led LSU on a 99-yard game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to upend Arkansas in LSU's final game of the regular season, and Tiger fans will get their first glimpse of Jennings as a starting quarterback against the Hawkeyes.

    Iowa boasts the Big Ten's second-best defense at 182.4 yards per game, so Jennings will certainly have his work cut out for him. 

    This game is for the old-school fans out there. The fans who like run-first, power football with downfield passing coming off of play-action. Should be fun.

    Grade: B

Capital One Bowl: South Carolina vs. Wisconsin

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    South Carolina QB Connor Shaw
    South Carolina QB Connor ShawJeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

    Orlando, Fla.—Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET

    The careers of South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will come to a close in Orlando against a Wisconsin team that, had it not been for a loss to Penn State to close the season, could be playing in a BCS game.

    This matchup will feature the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, as Gamecock running back Mike Davis, who averaged 103.9 yards per game this year, will square off against the Big Ten's second-best rush defense (101.33 yards per game).

    Davis' success on the ground allows those windows to open up for Shaw, and when they do, he routinely exploits them.

    This isn't a matchup that will headline the bowl season, and both teams make a habit of winning ugly at times. But it should be a fun one to take in as you zone out on your couch on New Year's Day.

    Grade: B-

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Oklahoma

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    New Orleans, La.—Thursday, Jan. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET

    Alabama's season will conclude in a BCS bowl, but not the one its fans planned on three weeks ago. 

    The Crimson Tide will square off against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, in a game that might have been a little more intriguing had it been Oregon or Ohio State squaring off with the Crimson Tide.

    Oklahoma's quarterback situation is fluid at the moment, while Alabama's quarterback—senior AJ McCarron—will look to close out his career on a high note.

    Before everybody starts comparing this Sugar Bowl appearance to the one after the 2008 season when the Tide sleepwalked through a loss to Utah...just stop. That was Saban's second team in Tuscaloosa, and if there's anything we've learned about Alabama since then it's that head coach Nick Saban's players have taken on the process-oriented persona of their head coach more than any other team in the country.

    This game will be over by halftime.

    Grade: C

AT&T Cotton Bowl: Missouri vs. Oklahoma State

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    Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham
    Missouri WR Dorial Green-BeckhamKevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    Arlington, Texas—Friday, Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. ET

    Missouri and Oklahoma State on a Friday night in Texas? Now we're talking.

    Missouri's potent offense will square off with an Oklahoma State defense that's giving up 245.6 yards per game through the air but racks up 440.5 yards per game on offense.

    Points will be plentiful.

    But while the statistics scream shootout, watching 6'6", 225-pound Tiger wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham go up against Cowboy cornerback Justin Gilbert—who led the Big 12 in interceptions—will be one of the most intriguing individual matchups of the bowl season.

    The no-huddle pace and lack of defense will make traditionalists cringe, but bowl games are supposed to be entertaining exhibitions. This one should live up that expectation.

    Grade: A-

BBVA Compass Bowl: Vanderbilt vs. Houston

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    Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews
    Vanderbilt WR Jordan MatthewsDon McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

    Birmingham, Ala.—Saturday, Jan. 4 at 1 p.m. ET

    Vanderbilt has made a bowl game for a school-record third straight season, but for the first time in the James Franklin era, it will be making that bowl appearance outside of the state of Tennessee.

    The Commodores will travel south to Birmingham to take on a Houston Cougars team that jumped out to a 5-0 start but sputtered down the stretch, losing three of their final four.

    Vanderbilt's offense sputtered down the stretch, but the defense picked up the slack to lead the Commodores to an undefeated November. The good news for the 'Dores is that Houston is giving up 420.0 yards per game and 276.2 yards through the air, which means senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews will be in prime position to go out with a bang.

    Pitt isn't in Birmingham, which may seem odd considering they've been in the last three Compass Bowls. That alone makes this slightly more watchable. But only slightly.

    Grade: C

Vizio BCS National Championship Game

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    Pasadena, Calif.—Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET

    It wasn't the matchup everybody expected, but make no mistake, the BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State will provide a riveting matchup.

    Florida State has steamrolled to a 13-0 record and the No. 1 ranking, winning games by an average margin of 42.3 points. Simply put, the Seminoles proved time and time again that they're the best team in college football and absolutely deserve to be in position for a title.

    Standing in their way, though, is Auburn—the hottest team in college football. The Tigers averaged 420.5 rushing yards per game on the ground over its last two games—both of which were over Top Five teams that boasted stout rush defenses before the Tigers got a hold of them.

    Florida State chimes in with the 14th-best defense in the country (116.54 yards per game), but I'm not sure that matters to Auburn. Sure, a month to prepare will help the Seminoles, but it also gives Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn time to work up a creative game plan.

    Coaching, strengths, surprises, storylines, the SEC's seven-year winning streak...the BCS National Championship Game has it all.

    Grade: A+