Bleacher Report Expert Predictions 2018-19 College Football Bowl Season
Though the College Football Playoff gets the vast majority of the national attention in college football, there are 37 other bowl games at our collective doorstep.
And we've got some burning questions about all of the action.
There will be a full CFP predictions piece a little closer to the national semifinals on Dec. 29, but Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Ian Wharton—will be offering up prognostications on the full slate of affairs over the next three weeks, including:
- Which conference ends up "winning" bowl season and which one "loses" it?
- Which player has the best individual performance?
- What's the most entertaining game aside from the CFP?
- And can UCF best another SEC team?
Our experts are on the case.
Which Conference Has the Best Overall Showing in Bowl Season?
David Kenyon (Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR)
SEC! SEC! Seriously, the SEC has a handful of favorable matchups. Of the 11 in a bowl, nine are favored. Vanderbilt (vs. Baylor), Auburn (vs. Purdue) and South Carolina (vs. Virginia) are basically in toss-up games, so a 2-1 showing in those should give the SEC at least seven and potentially eight wins. FYI: The Mountain West is my No. 2 choice.
Adam Kramer (Twitter: @KegsnEggs)
To me, this question really depends on how you grade a conference's success in the bowl season—something we love to overreact to on a yearly basis. To me, if you win the national championship, your conference has done something right.
With that, it feels like the SEC is in line to have a really good run. Alabama as a national champion (spoiler alert) is where to begin, but Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Texas A&M and maybe even a few more games feel like winners.
So, yeah. Get ready for the chanting. That might be good news for some; bad news for others. Either way, it should be a quality holiday season for the SEC.
Kerry Miller (Twitter: @kerrancejames)
It has to be the SEC, right? Alabama is supposed to win the title—or at the very least beat up on Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Georgia should crush Texas in the Sugar Bowl. LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri are each favored by around a touchdown in their respective games. And even the league's two underdogs (Florida vs. Michigan; Kentucky vs. Penn State) are capable of winning those games.
I don't imagine it'll go 12-0 through bowl season, but it'd be a surprise if the SEC doesn't win at least seven games.
Brad Shepard (Twitter: @Brad_Shepard)
The SEC, of course. All the haters say the league is down every year, when, in actuality, the member programs just beat up on one another. They normally prove their prowess in the bowl season, and I see that again this year.
I expect the SEC to go 9-3 in the bowl season with wins from Alabama (two), Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU and Georgia. Kentucky should lose to Penn State, Michigan will edge Florida, and Auburn will lose to Purdue. That LSU-UCF game is a toss-up, though. But even if the SEC went 8-4, it would still be the best slate.
Ian Wharton (Twitter: @NFLFilmStudy)
The two that stand out to me with favorable matchups are the Pac-12 and the SEC. I'll go with the Pac-12 to perform well in their seven bowl games, though I do expect Ohio State to beat Washington and Fresno State to beat Arizona State.
Even if the league drops both of those matchups, the other five games should go their way. Cal and Washington State have great defenses that can thwart TCU and Iowa State, respectively. Oregon and Utah are facing benign offenses in Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively. And Stanford-Pittsburgh is close to a toss-up. I can see a 5-2 record out of that for a winning percentage of 71.4 that could be the best among all conferences.
Which Conference Has the Worst Overall Showing in Bowl Season?
Oklahoma is a huge underdog against Alabama, but there's no feeling bad for a CFP qualifier. The rest of the Big 12 caught some bad luck. Texas will face Georgia, the top non-CFP team. West Virginia will be without Will Grier (wisely). I like Iowa State against Washington State, but Oklahoma State and Baylor are underdogs for good reason. Although TCU might actually provide one of the only victories, Cal is a pretty gross matchup for the Horned Frogs on paper.
It probably won't be a complete shutout, but it's not unreasonable to fathom the possibility of the Big 12 going winless in bowl season. Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are more-than-a-touchdown underdog. Iowa State and Baylor are slight underdogs. West Virginia is without Will Grier against Syracuse, and the Cal-TCU game feels like a coin flip.
A win or two seems likely, but it would an accomplishment for the Big 12 to finish the bowl season with a .500 record. Just tough matchups all around.
The Big 12 legitimately might not win a single game. Both Texas (vs. Georgia) and Oklahoma (vs. Alabama) are huge underdogs in their New Year's Six bowls. Oklahoma State is probably going to get smoked by Missouri in the Liberty Bowl. Iowa State has to try to slow down Gardner Minshew II, and both Baylor and TCU are playing in coin-flip games. I would've picked West Virginia over Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl, but not with Grier sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft. I'll say the league goes 1-6.
The Big 12 had a nice season overall, but this does not look like a great set of matchups for the conference in the postseason.
The ACC pulled a brutal schedule of opponents. Clemson is a clear favorite against Notre Dame and could win the national championship, but the rest of the league's games are toss-ups, at best. Foes like Memphis (for Wake Forest), Texas A&M (NC State), Boise State (Boston College), South Carolina (Virginia) and Cincinnati (Virginia Tech) are teams with extreme strengths. It's possible the conference pulls out the toss-up games, but on paper, the ACC appears to have received the toughest draw.
Which Player Posts the Most Ridiculous Stat Line?
The Camping World Bowl pits Syracuse against a Will Grier-less West Virginia. I'd like to submit my name for consideration as engineer of the Jack Allison 2019 Hype Train, but the 2018 finale should belong to Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey. WVU's defense struggled to contain dual-threat options as the season wore on, so Dungey should have a massive stat line in a clash of fast-paced offenses.
If he's healthy, it will be Tua Tagovailoa in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma has the second-worst pass defense in the nation (out of 129 FBS teams in passing yards per game), and this is a miserable matchup with Alabama's plethora of weapons. But, Tagovailoa is coming off an ankle injury that could take time to heal.
If he's not healthy, I'll take the quarterback on the other side. While Oklahoma will certainly give up points, Kyler Murray is going to be asked to do a ton. Even if it comes in a loss, he should have a monster game.
If he's able to play through an ankle injury, give me Temple's Ryquell Armstead against Duke in the Independence Bowl.
Over the final five weeks of the season, Duke's defense allowed 329.4 rushing yards and 3.2 touchdowns per game. Believe it or not, Clemson was the only team the Blue Devils held below 300 yards during that stretch. All five of those opponents averaged at least 5.7 yards per carry. And Armstead had a 171-yard, four-TD game against Boston College as well as a 210-yard, six-TD game against Houston.
If Armstead is limited, though, I'll amend my pick to Tagovailoa against the "defense" of Oklahoma.
Darrell Henderson has made a living on ridiculous stat lines, and now he gets to go up against the nation's 91st-ranked run defense in Wake Forest. Though the Demon Deacons easily could wind up beating Memphis, it's not going to be without a highlight-reel performance from Henderson. He should eclipse 200 rushing yards, and look for him to rip off four-plus touchdowns.
(Note: Henderson announced Wednesday that he will skip his senior season for the NFL draft, but it's unclear whether he intends to play in the Birmingham Bowl.)
Missouri Tigers wide receiver Emanuel Hall. Sure, Hall has only 756 yards on the season, but he's one of the best deep threats in the country, and his matchup against Oklahoma State couldn't be better. I expect quarterback Drew Lock to be aggressive downfield in his final game before the NFL draft, meaning Hall should be targeted often. Plus, this should be a barnburner, so it'll be a necessity for the Tigers to find the end zone often.
What Will Be the Most Entertaining Non-Playoff Bowl Game?
Here's my hand-picked buffet just for you. Does your heart belong to defense? Cheez-It Bowl between TCU and Cal. Do points tickle your fancy? Bahamas Bowl with FIU and Toledo, or Birmingham Bowl featuring Memphis and Wake Forest. Love regret? Check out Northwestern and Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Personally, I'll take the matchup of Ohio State's surging offense with Washington's lockdown defense in the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl. First and foremost, maybe outside The Masters, there is no better high-definition television experience than this one. It is just such an easy watch, no matter the teams involved. The fact that we have two fun, different teams will make it that much more compelling.
I cannot wait to watch Washington's fabulous secondary chase Ohio State's wideouts around the field. It is a great schematic game, and I think it should be close.
Plus...IT'S THE ROSE BOWL. Easy answer.
I enjoy points, so I'll take the Liberty Bowl.
Oklahoma State and Missouri combined to average 579.5 passing yards per game and threw for 54 touchdowns. Of equal importance for entertainment purposes, both of these defenses ranked outside the top 100 in passing yards allowed per game, giving up 45 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions.
If defense is more your thing, though, Northern Illinois vs. UAB in the Boca Raton Bowl has the potential to be the rare watchable college football game with fewer than 30 points scored.
I can't wait to watch LSU and UCF, mainly because I believe in this Knights team, even after McKenzie Milton's season-ending injury.
The Tigers are going to be without All-American defensive back Greedy Williams, who is skipping the bowl to focus on the NFL draft. I think this evens the playing field a little more. And while everybody thought UCF's winning streak would be snapped against Auburn a year ago, it upset the Tigers. This is going to be a great game that matches an explosive offense against a volatile defense. It should be fun.
West Virginia-Syracuse should be a lot of fun, even with Will Grier and offensive lineman Yodny Cajuste sitting out for the Mountaineers. It'll be Eric Dungey's last game for the Orange, and the Mountaineers will be breaking in Jack Allison as their quarterback of the future, so there are compelling storylines to go along with what should be a high-scoring affair. Both teams average roughly 40 points on offense and allow about 27 points per game. Fun fact: If the Orange win, it'll be their first 10-win season since 2001.
Which Team Are You Most Confident in Picking to Win Outright?
Michigan in the Peach Bowl over Florida. Dan Mullen did a remarkable job in his first season, but I simply cannot trust the Gators to consistently move the ball against Michigan's defense. The nightmare performance during the loss to Ohio State is an outlier. While it won't be a blowout, this should feel like the Wolverines are in control from start to finish.
If Georgia doesn't completely mail in the game, it should handle Texas. That would be my most confident selection. (If Tua's ankle was completely healthy, I might go there instead.)
For as many positive strides as Texas has taken, Georgia is on another level athletically—at least for now. My only concern is that the Dawgs sleepwalk these next few weeks after missing out on the playoff and don't show up. I just don't see it, though. Even though it's not the game they want to be in, they should win comfortably.
Let me first state for the record that I hate this question. I want to be right, so I'm going to pick a team that's a double-digit favorite, which makes me look like a wimp. But double-digit favorites are only 10-3 outright over the past two bowl seasons, so there's about a one-in-four chance I also end up looking like an idiot by picking the wrong heavy favorite.
That said, give me Georgia over Texas in the Sugar Bowl. I love how far the Longhorns have already come under Tom Herman. But I don't trust this offense against an elite defense, and I really don't trust this defense against an elite offense. As long as Georgia shows up and plays like it has something to prove after getting snubbed from the playoff, this one should get ugly.
I'm extremely confident Clemson is going to beat Notre Dame, and the Tigers are already penciled into my national championship game. While it has been a storybook season for the Fighting Irish, Clemson has too many weapons on both sides of the ball. Trevor Lawrence is playing at a high level, and Clemson may have the best defense in the nation. I like the Tigers to win by double digits.
Ohio State over Washington. The Buckeyes have played well in recent games, and it'll be Urban Meyer's final game before he retires. The difference in speed will be evident on both sides of the ball. Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins could bolt for the NFL after this game, so there's no shortage of motivation for the team, while Jake Browning has often looked subpar against fast and lengthy defenses. I'm expecting a comfortable win for the Buckeyes.
If You Could Only Watch 1 Game on New Year's Day, It Would Be...?
Rose Bowl. Washington is a semi-disappointment, winning the Pac-12 but falling out of the national championship conversation in October. The defense wasn't to blame, though. That secondary is loaded with NFL-bound players, and they'll provide a massive test for Dwayne Haskins before he likely declares for the draft.
I already declared the Rose Bowl as the most compelling non-playoff game of the bowl season, so that is where I would go.
But let's spread the bowl wealth and pick another game. I can't help but be compelled by the Fiesta Bowl. Am I tired of the endless stream of UCF declarations? Yes. But I am still riveted at the thought of watching this team play against one of the most talented programs in the country, even if Central Florida will do so without its starting quarterback.
What will this result mean? Regardless of the outcome, we will have a strong reaction that will follow UCF next season.
Most of my colleagues will probably pick the Rose Bowl, but give me the Citrus Bowl between Kentucky and Penn State.
This is our last chance to watch Trace McSorley play college football. It may well be the last time Benny Snell Jr. suits up at the collegiate level as well. And I feel like I owe it to these teams to watch this game from start to finish, because they had outstanding seasons that we ended up just kind of ignoring since neither one was ever that close to the playoff picture.
We've already talked about that UCF-LSU game and how fun it's going to be, but the game that should be the most intriguing matchup—because the two teams never play each other—is Georgia and Texas.
On one hand, you've got a Bulldogs team that's as hot as any in the country, even coming off that close SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. On the other are the Longhorns, who desperately want a marquee win to prove that Tom Herman is getting them to the next level. The Longhorns are going to be up for this game, and UGA looks like the stronger team. It's going to be fun to watch that clash of titans.
The Sugar Bowl is the most interesting matchup to me.
Texas has a quality defense, but its two matchups with Oklahoma have shown it's not an elite defense. If the Longhorns can force Jake Fromm to win without a solid running game to ease the pressure on him, then they have a decent shot to win. For Georgia, can it continue to own the trenches and overcome a disappointing loss to Alabama? The Bulldogs need to avoid the letdown game and assert their physical dominance on both sides of the ball.
Will UCF Beat an SEC Team in a New Year's 6 Bowl Again?
Considering I've picked UCF to win every game this season, it feels wrong to take LSU. And if McKenzie Milton was healthy, this would be a tough choice. I anticipate LSU's defense will contain the running game, and that puts an unfair burden on freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. to save UCF.
I just don't see it, although I have wrongfully doubted UCF before. The absence of Milton is so significant in a game like this, though. While UCF showed against Memphis that it can still score without its best player, this is a much bigger ask against LSU.
If LSU's offense struggles, UCF certainly has a shot. And though I am picking the Tigers to win, I don’t see this as a blowout. LSU 31, UCF 20.
Mack was phenomenal against Memphis, but there's a huge difference between performing well against those Tigers and doing the same against these SEC Tigers. Even without Greedy Williams, LSU's defense is going to overwhelm the McKenzie Milton-less Knights. And I find it hard to believe that UCF's defense will be able to return the favor.
Nick Brossette needs 72 rushing yards to reach 1,000 in his senior season, and I wouldn't be surprised if he sets a career high (currently at 137) against this Knights front seven. LSU wins 27-13.
As mentioned before...no. LSU will make one more play and win the game. But the Knights belong in these big showdowns, and they'll prove once again—even in snapping the winning streak—that they deserve long, hard looks in this College Football Playoff conversation.
No. It's not even that I think LSU is that much better, but rather it's a tough ask for Mack to be anything less than overwhelmed against the Tigers' terrific defensive front seven. Mack's a dual-threat QB who can extend plays, but the margin for error without McKenzie Milton is almost zero. LSU has too much size and raw athleticism for UCF to pull this one off with a backup quarterback.
Last but Not Least: Who Beats Whom in the National Championship?
Before the season, I chose Clemson over Alabama because Trevor Lawrence would emerge as the starting quarterback and offer the much-needed aerial attack the Tigers lacked in last season's CFP clash. Can't change now, right?
It will be Alabama-Clemson once again, which I would not only accept but embrace. This would mark the fourth season in a row the two meet in the playoff, which says a lot about both, given the talent that has come through each program in that time.
Ultimately, however, I am picking Alabama. That isn't sexy. It's very chalky. But despite the questions surrounding Tua Tagovailoa's health, this is still the best team in the country. Clemson is a close and deserving second, though. And while I think both teams will get through their playoff games semi-comfortably, this could be an epic final—if health allows.
I'm going with chalk in the first round. Alabama and Clemson will both improve to 14-0—though I do think Notre Dame is going to give the Tigers a run for their money. And in the playoff rematch we've all been waiting for since the preseason, I'll stick with my preseason pick of Clemson in another instant classic.
Clemson's secondary has struggled against quality quarterbacks, and Alabama's run defense should be able to stifle Clemson's superb rushing attack. But I feel like Clemson is surging into the CFP more than Alabama is, and that could be the difference. Ask me again after the semifinals, though.
It's going to be Alabama and Clemson again. Ho-hum. Lather, rinse, repeat. By this time, we're all bored with it, but they're the two best college football teams in the country and they belong in the finale.
There have been a couple of classic playoff showdowns with these teams, and it's going to be tough to bet against the Crimson Tide and Nick Saban, especially with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa having time to heal. He's going to get hit by that big, aggressive Clemson defense, and it's going to be a good game. In the end, though, Alabama has too many weapons.
Alabama edges out Clemson for the national championship. I hate going chalk but if Tagovailoa is healthy for the playoff, the Tide are still the most balanced and physically overwhelming team in the country. Oklahoma will push them in the Orange Bowl, but the Sooners lack the playmakers on defense to get meaningful stops. Notre Dame will look slow against Clemson. That leaves a rematch of familiar foes, and we could see another exciting finish if they face each other again.