For the eighth consecutive year, a representative from the Southeastern Conference will be playing for a national title. Auburn and new head coach Gus Malzahn hope to make it eight straight wins for the SEC.
Nine other SEC teams will be joining the Tigers in the postseason, the most since 2010, with a bowl lineup that features two league teams in the BCS lineup for the eighth season as well.
This, in short, should be a hell of a bowl season for the SEC. If history repeats itself, it should be one that brings its share of wins, too. Only one league team is picked to lose by the Vegas experts, though that would be Auburn in the postseason's most important game, and the average margin is over five points. That's a sizeable advantage over a field of theoretically similar non-conference opponents.
The action starts on December 30th with the Music City Bowl and stretches a span of eight all-important days. It's time to review each of the bowls and take a stab at predicting just how happy SEC commissioner Mike Slive will be come January.
The Teams: Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC) vs. Georgia Tech (7-5, 5-3 ACC)
Date/Time: Dec. 30, 2013 at 3:15 p.m. ET
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Line: Ole Miss (-3)
Despite his eye-catching performance on the recruiting trail, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has put together back-to-back seven-win seasons and is headed to another lower-tier bowl.
Don't let that fool you, though. The Rebels have knocked off LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas already this season and have shown that their top-25 offense can hang with most anyone (when that team isn't Alabama.) Georgia Tech's only quality win came in a 38-14 smashing of eventual divisional champion Duke back in September and the Yellowjackets have lost two of their last three.
The recent past hasn't been kind to Ole Miss either. The Rebs failed to surpass ten points in their final two games of the regular season, losing to rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving.
Good news comes from the Rebel defensive front. A Georgia Tech team that averages 311.7 yards per game on the ground will face a defense that hasn't allowed that number this entire season, including against the nation's top running game in Auburn and a minus 13-yard rushing performance against Troy.
If Ole Miss can withstand the option ground game from Georgia Tech, quarterback Bo Wallace's arm and the talent in the receiving corps will hand the league its first win of the bowl season.
Prediction: Ole Miss, 27-17
The Teams: Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC) vs. Rice (10-3, 7-1 CUSA)
Date/Time: Dec. 31, 2013 at 4 p.m. ET
Location: Memphis, Tenn.
Line: Mississippi State (-7)
What a wild ride for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs nearly upset eventual SEC champion Auburn and Texas A&M, competed well against Alabama and Oklahoma State and nearly lost to Bowling Green and Kentucky.
For what it's worth, MSU is on a two-game winning streak, featuring an Egg Bowl upset of archrival Ole Miss, and is making a fourth consecutive postseason appearance. Beginning the season as the starting quarterback, senior Tyler Russell is out due to shoulder surgery, but backup junior Dak Prescott has impressed with his versatility.
Rice has the look and feel of a traditional Conference USA squad. Its best win came in the league championship game against Marshall, having feasted for the majority of the season on a plethora of cupcakes. That Marshall win, though, was a 41-24 shellacking, and the Owls rank among the nation's top-25 defenses.
Expect a stout MSU defense to lock down Rice, a sloppy offense to struggle at first, and the Bulldogs to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Mississippi State, 34-13
The Teams: No. 21 Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. No. 24 Duke (10-3, 6-2 ACC)
Date/Time: Dec. 31, 2013 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
Line: Texas A&M (-12.5)
The year 2013 was a bit of a letdown for the Aggies.
This season wasn't the two-loss, Alabama-beating, Heisman Trophy season of a year ago. Still, Manziel was a finalist for the Heisman for the second consecutive year, A&M's losses all came to elite teams and head coach Kevin Sumlin's squad ranks fourth nationally in total offense.
The story is very different for Duke. Competing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history, the Blue Devils claimed the ACC Coastal Division title and recorded its first-ever 10-win season. Head coach David Cutcliffe received the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award, and there is more football buzz in Durham than perhaps ever before.
A weak ACC schedule is the main issue at hand for Duke. The Blue Devils haven't beaten a single team that is currently ranked, with its only game versus a Top 25 opponent coming in a 45-7 embarrassing loss to top-ranked Florida State in the ACC championship game. Conversely, Texas A&M has faced four ranked opponents—but lost to each of them.
Duke's allowing over 400 yards per game, which could spell bloodbath with Manziel headed to Atlanta.
Prediction: Texas A&M, 55-21
The Teams: No. 22 Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC) vs. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten)
Date/Time: Jan. 1, 2014 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
Line: Georgia (-9)
Injuries to key players have derailed the Bulldogs' season.
Down to a third-string freshman running back at one point, star quarterback Aaron Murray has had to carry the team on his shoulders for much of the season. Well, his shoulders aren't available now due to a torn ACL. The reins now fall to junior Hutson Mason, who's managed solid numbers in his three games this year.
Just how well Mason adapts to a big stage will play a big role in UGA's success against Nebraska. Expect more of the offense to be handed to sophomore phenom running back Todd Gurley, who likely would have contended for the Heisman Trophy if not for a midseason ankle injury.
Nebraska has dropped two games to unranked teams and both games versus ranked opponents. Relying on a decent defense, particularly against the rush, the Huskers come into the bowl having lost two of their previous three.
If Mason can pose enough of a threat on offense to allow Gurley to exploit some holes in Nebraska's defensive front, this game could be Georgia's for the taking.
Prediction: Georgia, 30-21
The Teams: No. 9 South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten)
Date/Time: Jan. 1, 2014 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Orlando, Fla.
Winning ten games in the nation's most difficult conference ain't easy. Doing it three times in a row is substantially more difficult still.
That's exactly what famed head coach Steve Spurrier has done, as South Carolina now faces a very talented Wisconsin team in an effort to make it 11.
Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw is among the most underrated in the nation. He's completing 61.1 percent of his passes, has thrown 21 touchdowns against a single interception and is the team's second-leading rusher with 511 yards on the ground. Comparatively untouched by injury issues, South Carolina ranks in the nation's top 35 in both offense and defense. This comes against the nation's 15th toughest schedule.
This is where the pleasantries end.
Wisconsin ranks among the nation's top 20 in both offense and and defense, averaging almost 500 yards a game and allowing fewer than 300. Similarly, the Badgers aren't facing serious injury issues and are led by a very talented quarterback/running back tandem.
This game will be physical, well coached and competitive. If you're looking for a marquee, dramatic bowl game, look no further.
Prediction: South Carolina, 27-24
The Teams: No. 16 LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC) vs. Iowa (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten)
Date/Time: Jan. 1, 2014 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Tampa, Fla.
Line: LSU (-7.5)
Head coach Les Miles has taken LSU to new heights, winning a national championship in 2007 and playing for another in 2011.
The problem with success, of course, is that it raises expectations. Most teams would love to be where LSU currently finds itself: going for a tenth win, being ranked in the Top 25 and appearing in a mid-tier bowl. Tiger fans, though, are likely a bit disappointed.
On paper, this Outback Bowl looks ugly. Iowa has lost by an average of 13.7 points to ranked opponents, and LSU got through its gauntlet of a schedule with few losses. Injuries, though, could make this one interesting.
Hugely successful LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, one of the league's premier leaders, is out of the bowl game with a torn ACL. Combine that with 1,000-yard receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s nagging hip injury and suddenly Miles has himself some issues.
Backup quarterback Anthony Jennings has seen minimal playing time this year and rarely been trusted to pass the ball when he has. He'll be asked to be reliable enough to help free up some space for 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Hill, who should have a monster game.
Iowa ranks 17th nationally in rush defense, allowing just 120 yards per game and will rely heavily on quarterback Jake Rudock and a stable of talented receivers. Though the Tiger defense has been spotty at times, its nine interceptions show an aggressiveness that might take advantage of a less-than-accurate Hawkeye QB.
The talent advantage easily goes to LSU here. Keep an eye on Jennings and the LSU secondary; they will decide the game.
Prediction: LSU, 20-14
The Teams: No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12)
Date/Time: Jan. 2, 2014 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: New Orleans, La.
Line: Alabama (-15)
Rarely does a BCS bowl see a point spread of 15. One freak field-goal return for a touchdown and Alabama would be facing Florida State for the national title in a classic power program showdown.
Instead, the Tide are the SEC's second BCS invitee and are expected to blow out an arguably overrated Oklahoma team.
What isn't there to say about Alabama? Top-ranked recruiting classes and superior coaching have led to a dominant program that will not win the national title for the first time in three years. The Tide's offense ranks 16th nationally, its defense is second and it's beaten three Top 25 teams.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, has seen only two ranked opponents and beaten just one. The Sooners are barely in the nation's top half in offense, managing just 12 points against an unimpressive Baylor defense.
Expect the Tide to dismantle OU in this one.
Prediction: Alabama, 48-17
The Teams: No. 8 Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2 Big 12)
Date/Time: Jan. 3, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Arlington, Tx.
Line: Missouri (-1)
Few can imagine the torment of a Missouri football fan after a devastating loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. A team that has never seen a BCS bowl, much less played for a national championship, was down just three points in the fourth quarter and needed a win to play for it all.
Those points didn't come for a team that won just five games a season ago, and now it finds itself facing a potent Oklahoma State team in a bowl game that has the potential to break the postseason combined points record.
Despite a midseason shoulder separation, Missouri quarterback James Franklin played at an elite level in 2013, totaling 19 touchdowns and over 2,200 yards through the air and 474 more on the ground. The Tigers have surpassed 40 points in seven of their 13 games and rank 15th nationally on offense. Oklahoma State's attack is more balanced and comes in at 14th nationally.
As is usually the case, the SEC team's schedule has been more difficult but both teams have registered quality wins. The defensive edge, and thus that of the game, goes to Missouri, but this should be a shootout for the record books.
Prediction: Missouri, 48-45
The Teams: Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Houston (8-4, 5-3 American)
Date/Time: Jan. 4, 2014 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Birmingham, Ala.
Line: Vanderbilt (-3)
Head coach James Franklin has turned fortunes around in Nashville. For the second consecutive year, Vanderbilt has won eight regular-season games and has won 15 of its previous 19 games. Much of that success can be traced back to quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, whose 2,200-plus yards passing and 68.7 percent completion rate are among the best in the nation.
The 'Dores, though, will be facing Houston without him.
Carta-Samuels recently had knee surgery and is not expected to play against the Cougars, meaning sophomore Patton Robinette will take the snaps. His two TDs and three interceptions in limited play this year aren't exactly inspiring, but there aren't a whole lot of options after him.
Houston's task will be to shut down Vanderbilt's standout wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who leads the SEC in receiving yards. If Matthews is a non-factor, Vandy's offense, especially without Carta-Samuels at the helm, could struggle.
Houston's lost three of its last four, though, and its best win came against Rice. This isn't an altogether impressive club.
With its injuries, Vanderbilt might barely have an edge, but look for the Commodores to pull this one out.
Prediction: Vanderbilt, 21-20
The Teams: No. 2 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC)
Date/Time: Jan. 6, 2014 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Pasadena, Ca.
Line: Florida State (-8.5)
The stories are well documented. Auburn won just three games a year ago, are led by first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and have pulled off two miracle last-second wins to finish off the season with an SEC championship and potentially even more.
Auburn's rushing attack, averaging 335.7 yards per game, is tops in the nation. It'll face a Florida State offense that ranks 14th nationally in passing. Auburn has needed trick plays and luck to lose just one game; Florida State is walloping opponents by an average of 46.7 points per game.
Tre Mason, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, will lead the Tiger attack on the ground. Mason has racked up 1,621 rushing yard on just 283 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per pop. Auburn's defense has been questionable, though, and it'll line up against this year's Heisman Trophy winner, freshman QB Jameis Winston. Winston is completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,820 yards and counting.
Auburn is one of the biggest Cinderella stories college football has seen in quite some time. Its magic will need to come up bigger than ever against Florida State for the SEC to claim its eighth consecutive national title.
Prediction: Florida State, 48-38