B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for 2020-21 Bowl Season
The 2020-21 college football bowl season will feature fewer games than usual, more sub-.500 teams than usual and a whole lot of intrigue to conclude what has been a most bizarre year.
What should we expect now that a lot of these teams are playing nonconference games for the first time this season?
A quick note before we go any further: If you're just looking for College Football Playoff predictions, you're going to be disappointed. We'll have a full panel dedicated to the playoff in a few days, but we're focused predominantly on the "other" bowls here.
There will be some playoff discussion in passing, though, as our college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—put forth their best guesses at the highest-scoring bowl, the lowest-scoring bowl, the top conference, the likelihood of any overtimes and more.
The Highest-Scoring Bowl Game Will Be...?
The obvious choice also happens to be the correct choice. And while I would love to dazzle you with a contrarian selection that will break the scoreboard, I cannot and will not divert from the Cotton Bowl.
It's the most interesting game outside the playoff. And it also could be football fireworks if it comes together as it should.
Florida's offense has been exceptional throughout most of the year. Oklahoma's, while not as potent, certainly feels like it could more than hang in a shootout.
The Gators will be without all-universe tight end Kyle Pitts, who announced he was declaring for the draft shortly after the SEC championship game. While that figures to have a negative impact on the offense, Florida still has enough playmakers in place. As long as quarterback Kyle Trask suits up, the Gators should be able to deliver plenty of big plays.
Oklahoma hasn't buried teams in points like we've seen over the past few years, but this is still an explosive group led by Spencer Rattler. And as we saw against Alabama in the SEC title game, the Florida defense has plenty of work to do.
Nothing is a sure thing in the bowl season. But this feels like it could be an absolute doozy.
It has to be Florida vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, right?
Although Pitts has opted out of the game, there's still a ton of offensive firepower taking the field in Dallas.
Both teams are averaging north of 41 points per game. Florida has put up at least 31 in every game this season. Oklahoma has been known to drop 50-plus on less-than-great defenses, which is certainly a fair description of Florida's defense. And in bowl games against SEC defenses over the past three seasons, Oklahoma did average 36.7 points (while the defense allowed 54.0).
It's hard to believe, but Oklahoma's defense might be the one thing keeping this one from approaching 80 total points. The Sooners struggled early in the season, but they've held their last six opponents to 16.5 points per game. But Florida's offense is better than any team Oklahoma has faced thus far this season, so I expect the Gators to hold up their end of the bargain in a shootout.
The Lowest-Scoring Bowl Game Will Be...?
Auburn vs. Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl.
Seven of Northwestern's eight opponents failed to crack 20 points, and the outlier (Michigan State) only did so because of four takeaways. Northwestern's defense has allowed only seven touchdowns in 25 red-zone possessions. That 28 percent touchdown rate is the second-best mark in the country, well ahead of the next-closest Power Five team (Iowa State at 45.5 percent). If the 'Cats can frustrate Ohio State, they can deal with Auburn.
However, they aren't exactly a scoring machine.
After putting 43 on Maryland in the opener, Northwestern averaged 20.6 points the rest of the way. Auburn has an average defense that Northwestern could steadily move the ball against, but that methodical brand of offense will limit scoring opportunities for both teams.
There are a handful of strong candidates in which points figure to come at a premium. But if any game is going to rival Louisiana Tech beating Miami 14-0 in last year's Independence Bowl, it's probably going to be the Citrus Bowl between Auburn and Northwestern.
Aside from its inability to slow down Trey Sermon in the second half of the Big Ten championship, Northwestern has had an outstanding defense this season. And even with Sermon rushing for more than 300 yards, Ohio State still managed to score only 22 points on the Wildcats. Meanwhile, Northwestern's offense has managed only 20.6 points over its last seven games, struggling to establish any semblance of a rushing attack in six of those contests. (The Wildcats did stomp a mudhole through Illinois, but that isn't saying much.)
Similar story for Auburn. The Tigers were solid on defense, especially against the SEC's low-octane offenses, and they struggled to move the ball against the league's better defenses. They held each of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State to 17 points or fewer, but they averaged only 13.0 points against Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M.
Put me down for a 13-10 snooze-fest in which we spend the entire second half checking the clock to see how much longer until we get to watch Alabama-Notre Dame.
Which Non-NY6 Game Will Be Most Entertaining?
I could make the case for more than a handful of games, but give me the Cure Bowl.
While part of me wishes that Liberty and Coastal Carolina were each getting a crack at a larger Power Five opponent, another part of me is thrilled to see these two offenses and coaches going head-to-head.
Coastal Carolina is 11-0. Liberty is 9-1. Hugh Freeze is hearing his name tied to all sort of jobs outside of the Liberty program. And Jamey Chadwell is the obvious choice for Coach of the Year across all of college football.
Those ingredients are why you should watch. But I also think all of the necessary pieces are in place for this game to be wildly entertaining.
While these offenses are unique, they will likely both give the opposing defenses problems. I thought long and hard about picking this game as the highest-scoring bowl. It could ultimately be close.
In a year where Group of Five teams were completely snubbed by the College Football Playoff committee, this one has a chance to deliver. And while it won't tell us how Coastal Carolina might have fared against a more traditional power in a New Year's Six game, it should deliver nonetheless.
While I would have loved to watch a Group of Five championship between undefeated Cincinnati and undefeated Coastal Carolina, the 11-0 Chanticleers against 9-1 Liberty in the Cure Bowl is a mighty fine alternative.
This game was supposed to be played during the regular season. You might recall it was only because of a COVID-19 outbreak on Liberty's roster that we were treated to that scheduled-at-the-last-minute, came-down-to-the-final-yard gem between BYU and Coastal Carolina. But it's cool that we were able to get this game back on the schedule, since Liberty is one of the few Group of Five teams capable of giving Coastal Carolina a real fight.
Grayson McCall and CJ Marable did an incredible job leading the Chanticleers through an unforgettable campaign, but former Auburn transfer Malik Willis led quite a potent offense of his own. Excluding the game against North Alabama that Willis missed because of an injury, Liberty averaged 39.4 points and 498 total yards per game—this in spite of the inexplicable 15-14 mutual dud against NC State late in the year.
But Liberty's defense isn't anything special, which is why we expect to see Coastal Carolina prevail in a 38-31 type of game. It should be a lot of fun, and I'm excited for both of these teams to finally get the "main screen" treatment.
Will All 5 Undefeated Teams Win Their Bowl Games?
Alabama is going to steamroll Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, but the other four undefeated teams are far from a lock to come out on top in their bowl games.
Without 331 rushing yards from Trey Sermon, Ohio State wouldn't have won the Big Ten title game. Justin Fields completed only 12-of-27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions, and he's been inconsistent this season. He'll be asked to do a lot against a Clemson defense allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry, and that's a recipe for disaster. Clemson advances to face Alabama in the national championship.
The Georgia offense has looked better with JT Daniels under center, but he hasn't faced anything close to the Cincinnati defense in his three starts. The Bearcats will show why they deserved a shot at the national championship with a dominant showing against a talented SEC opponent.
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis will be a handful for the Coastal Carolina defense, but the Flames haven't played since Nov. 27, when they skated to victory against UMass. That rust will be evident as the Chanticleers put the finishing touches on a dream season.
After Ball State beat Buffalo and held star running back Jaret Patterson to 47 rushing yards on 18 carries in the MAC championship game, it has to be taken seriously against San Jose State. However, senior quarterback Nick Starkel will lead the Spartans to victory through the air to close out an 8-0 campaign.
All told, that's a 4-1 record for the undefeated teams.
Short answer: No.
Of the five, I'm most confident that Alabama will beat Notre Dame. It's kind of funny that we spend all this time every year fussing over who deserves the No. 4 seed, and then three seconds after the final Top Four is announced, we just shift gears to "Oh, that team is going to get destroyed anyway." The No. 4 seed has won the national championship twice, but it lost to the No. 1 seed by double digits in each of the other four years. I'm definitely expecting the latter.
I'm also reasonably confident that Coastal Carolina will finish off a perfect season by beating Liberty.
But Cincinnati vs. Georgia, San Jose State vs. Ball State and Ohio State vs. Clemson are toss-ups, at best. I like San Jose State to polish off an 8-0 season with an Arizona Bowl victory, but I think both Cincinnati and Ohio State will taste defeat. I might change my tune on Cincinnati-Georgia after we get a final tally of how many Bulldogs are opting out of the game, but I'm definitely not budging on my Clemson pick. That means at least one of the five will lose.
Which Conference Will Have the Best Winning Percentage During Bowl Season?
It's the Fun Belt's time to shine!
Appalachian State kicked off bowl season with a dominant win over North Texas. I also have Coastal Carolina beating Liberty in the Cure Bowl. (I'm also very excited for that matchup.) Louisiana should comfortably handle UTSA in the First Responder Bowl, too.
The toss-ups are Georgia Southern taking on Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl and Georgia State against Western Kentucky in the LendingTree Bowl. As long as either Georgia school wins, though, a 4-1 record for the Sun Belt will be difficult to beat.
This is a much weirder year than usual for this question, what with the SEC playing in 11 bowls while the MAC and Pac-12 only play two each.
But it won't be any of those three leagues. The SEC has far too many bad teams in bowls, and the MAC and Pac-12 may well go a combined 0-4, with Buffalo vs. Marshall in the Camellia Bowl as the only probable victory.
The Big 12 might go 6-0, which would be a comical conclusion to three consecutive months of us complaining about how bad that league is. Texas and Iowa State get to face the two Pac-12 teams while TCU and West Virginia drew 3-7 teams from the SEC. That should be four wins, and then Oklahoma vs. Florida and Oklahoma State vs. Miami are both toss-ups.
However, I think the Hurricanes will win the Cheez-It Bowl, opening the door for the Sun Belt to "win" bowl season with a 5-0 record. Appalachian State already crushed North Texas. Louisiana ought to smoke UTSA. Georgia Southern might triple-option Louisiana Tech to death. Coastal Carolina should beat Liberty. And while I wouldn't say I'm supremely confident in Georgia State vs. Western Kentucky, the Panthers are understandably favored against the sub-.500 Hilltoppers.
Which Individual Player Will Have the Best Performance in a December Bowl?
Well, Appalachian State running back Camerun Peoples already set the bar outrageously high with his 317 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. While it'll be tough for anyone to beat that, let's at least search for the next-best showing.
That's going to come from San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel, who is taking on a Ball State defense allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game. The Cardinals were able to key on the run and shut down Jaret Patterson and Buffalo in the MAC championship game, but stopping the Spartans' undefeated offense is another story.
Starkel and Co. have been clicking, and now they're going against a team that hasn't been able to slow anybody down through the air this year. With the way the Spartans fling the ball around, this could be a long day for Ball State and a big day for Starkel.
Look for the two-time SEC transfer to eclipse 350 passing yards and throw four or five touchdowns in a big game between two conference champions. San Jose State will finish the year with its spotless record intact.
My pick was going to be UAB's Spencer Brown against South Carolina in the Gasparilla Bowl, but that game isn't happening now. It'll be a shame if the Conference USA champion doesn't even get to play in a bowl, but that's the current situation.
In Brown's stead, give me TCU's Max Duggan against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.
On the pro-Duggan side of things, he's one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. The sophomore was one of only three players to both pass and run for at least 10 touchdowns this season. He led the Horned Frogs to victory in five of their final six games. TCU could be a sneaky Big 12 contender next season with this guy back at the helm.
And on the anti-Arkansas side of things, the Razorbacks allowed 41.2 points over their final six games, including hemorrhaging at least 50 in three of their final four games. I loved this team early in the season, but they limped to the finish line like no other.
Duggan goes for a combined total of 375 yards and four touchdowns, scoring the final one just a few minutes before 2021 begins on the East Coast.
Over/Under 0.5 Bowls That Go to Overtime?
I'll take the over and say that one bowl game goes to overtime this year.
Which one? Let's go with Marshall vs. Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl.
This has all the makings of a grind-it-out game with workhorse running backs on both sides in the Thundering Herd's Brenden Knox (20.6 carries per game) and the Bulls' Jaret Patterson (23.5 carries per game).
The Marshall defense ranked second in the nation with only 88.9 rushing yards allowed per game, and Ball State just shut Patterson down in the MAC championship game. So there's a chance the Thundering Herd could run away with this one if those trends continue. However, I expect a big bounce-back performance from Patterson as the junior looks to further boost his draft stock.
We'll say things are knotted up at 28-28 after four quarters and it takes three overtime periods before Marshall finally comes out on top in one of the most entertaining bowl games of the year.
There were no overtime games last bowl season. There were at least two overtime games in each of the previous five seasons. But there are significantly fewer bowl games than usual.
So, I'm going to say...yes?
A lot of these games are coin flips. Marshall-Buffalo could go either way. Same goes for Florida-Oklahoma, Iowa State-Oregon, Auburn-Northwestern and—perhaps the biggest "Who the heck knows?" of all—Mississippi State vs. Tulsa.
I will say that I don't expect to see any situation where a team goes for two or foregoes a game-tying field goal simply in the name of ending the game either way. The vast majority of the 56 teams that accepted bowl invitations actually want to be here and want to win, and if that necessitates an extra untimed possession or two, so be it.
And my hope is that it will be the Camellia Bowl, because avoiding family to watch football on Christmas Day will be a lot easier to justify if it's actually a good game between Buffalo and Marshall.
How Many Sub-.500 Teams Will Win a Bowl Game?
I'll go with two. I'm leaning toward three, but TCU is playing good football lately. I believe the Horned Frogs get it done against Sam Pittman's Razorbacks, who ran out of steam as the year progressed.
Houston vs. Hawaii is going to be a fun matchup full of points and excitement, but I like Clayton Tune to post bigger numbers and the Cougars to finish a tough year with a win. Never sleep on the pesky Mountain West team that also can throw up points, but Dana Holgorsen's group will get it done.
Finally, in what may look like one of the bowl season's biggest upsets, Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss Rebels are going to hand Indiana its second loss of the season in the Outback Bowl. This has been a phenomenal year for the Hoosiers, and betting against Tom Allen isn't smart. But the Rebels have too many offensive weapons, even with Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah sitting out. I'm not sure the Hoosiers can match them point for point with Michael Penix Jr. out.
North Texas getting throttled by Appalachian State was not a promising start for the sub-.500 brigade, and I don't see things getting much better.
I'm pretty confident Kentucky will lose to NC State and that Arkansas will lose to TCU. Kentucky didn't even come close to beating a team with a winning record this year, and Arkansas crashed and burned after its impressive 3-3 start.
I think Indiana will defeat Ole Miss, though it wouldn't shock me if Lane Kiffin gadget-plays his way to victory against the Michael Penix Jr.-less Hoosiers. The same goes for Tulsa against Mississippi State. The Golden Hurricane have a great secondary, but Mike Leach's air-raid offense might finally feast a bit against a non-SEC defense.
The only spot where I actually expect the sub-.500 team to win is 3-4 Houston against 4-4 Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl. But my official guess is two sub-.500 victories: Houston and some TBD SEC team that pulls off an upset.