B/R Experts Answer Biggest CFB Bowl Season Questions, Part 2
While we patiently await the 2021 College Football Playoff and national championship, the upcoming slate of games provides a delightful appetizer to the main course of bowl season.
Bleacher Report's expert crew—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—have convened again to provide insight on this next stretch of matchups. The games covered run from Thursday, Dec. 23, through Thursday, Dec. 30.
Topics include the not-so-friendly reunion of Mike Leach and Texas Tech, Oklahoma legend Bob Stoops returning to the sideline and a busy day for the Big Ten.
Oh, a quick note: If you have an extreme distaste for mayonnaise, maybe skip directly from the fourth section to the sixth.
Christmastime Is Here: Pick the Eve and Day Winners
I did Part 1 of our bowl picks this season, so lucky for me, my mind is already made up on both of these matchups.
First, we've got the Hawai'i Bowl on Christmas Eve between Memphis and Hawai'i. Although the Rainbow Warriors will benefit from not having to travel far like Memphis, I like the Tigers in this one. Memphis' offense puts up 30.1 points and 435.9 yards per game. Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan is 10th nationally in passing, having thrown for 3,322 yards and 25 touchdowns. I think he can have a big day against a defense that gives up 289.7 yards in the air per game, good for 127th in the country.
On Christmas Day in the Camellia Bowl, we'll get Georgia State vs. Ball State. For the Cardinals, this will be their second consecutive bowl appearance after they made history a year ago with their first-ever bowl win in the Arizona Bowl. Ball State will face a Georgia State team that has won its last three games, including an upset road win over Coastal Carolina on Nov. 13. I'd love to see Ball State make history again, but I like the Panthers and their late-season momentum in this one.
Christmas Eve feels like an easy choice. Hawai'i quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is transferring, and the defense likely won't offer much help. Hawai'i has ceded 465-plus yards in five of the last seven games, and the outliers—San Diego State and Wyoming—are among the nation's least efficient offenses anyway. Memphis wins.
Georgia State has rushed for 225.4 yards per game at a respectable 5.0 clip, and Ball State has struggled to defend the run for most of the year. Georgia State's secondary is vulnerable, but BSU's passing game ranks 94th. Give me Georgia State, please and thanks.
Mississippi State or Texas Tech in the Mike Leach Bowl?
More often than not, the Liberty Bowl goes right down to the wire. AutoZone has been the sponsor since 2004, and 14 of the 17 games since then have been decided by eight points or fewer.
But I suspect this year will be the exception to that rule with Mike Leach's current team putting a hurting on Mike Leach's former team.
Texas Tech's secondary was pretty awful this season, lowlighted by Oklahoma racking up 469 yards and seven touchdowns through the air right after Tech fired Matt Wells as head coach. Texas, Iowa State and West Virginia also passed the ball pretty much at will against the Red Raiders. They couldn't even do much to slow down Stephen F. Austin. And nobody attempted more passes heading into bowl season than Mississippi State, which averaged 385.8 yards, 3.0 touchdowns and 0.7 interceptions per game. The Bulldogs also lead the nation in completion percentage (74.7) and figure to march right down the field over and over again.
And with the exception of the 49-9 loss to Alabama, Mississippi State's defense was rock solid for most of the year. The Bulldogs should be able to stifle a Texas Tech offense that was held to 24 points or fewer in four of its final five games.
This won't be quite as ugly as Mississippi State's 44-7 win over Rice in the 2013 Liberty Bowl, but I like the Bulldogs by three scores.
Mike Leach is not over it. Right or wrong, considering his controversial exit from Texas Tech, is not for me to decide. But 12 years later, Leach is still fighting for money he believes he's owed.
Look, the postseason can be strange. Motivation is an unquantifiable factor yet seems to matter in these exhibitions. Texas Tech is finishing a season that included a coaching change and four losses in the last five contests. On the other side, Mississippi State has a coach who's undoubtedly motivated to win—and I'm guessing his players are feeling it, too.
That's enough for me to take the Bulldogs, like Kerry, in what I expect will be a pretty lopsided game.
O/U 4.5 Touchdowns in Cheez-It Bowl?
I'm going with the over here, for some odd reason. It seems every time this year I've thought the Iowa State defense would show up, it laid an egg, and when I thought Clemson simply couldn’t score, the Tigers showed signs of life.
The beginning of this season was rough to watch for coach Dabo Swinney's team. But the offense found its stride as the season progressed, scoring at least 30 points per game in a 5-0 spurt to end the season. Though they are playing without offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who left to become Virginia's next head coach, Swinney's continuity will pay off after he promoted quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter. That synchronicity between Streeter and D.J. Uiagalelei will spark the Tigers.
On the flip side, it's going to be difficult for the Cyclones to churn out points without star running back Breece Hall, who is skipping the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. With that happening, Iowa State will open the offense up a little, and quarterback Brock Purdy will be forced to throw it around more.
Because of that, I see the Tigers getting in the end zone three times and Iowa State twice, and I'll pick Clemson to win the game 30-20.
Few developments, if any, surprised me more in 2021 than Clemson's offense looking like a total non-factor. Although the rushing attack surged in late November, the Tigers mustered just 5.3 yards per snap overall this season. This isn't a great matchup, either.
Iowa State has ceded only 3.6 yards per carry. Clemson won't have top receiver Justyn Ross (injury/opt-out), so don't expect a mediocre passing attack to suddenly break out.
The challenge for Iowa State is Clemson ranks No. 5 in the FBS with a meager 4.4 yards allowed per snap. Hall opting out leaves Purdy to meet a feisty Clemson defense without the aid of a consistent ground game. Not great for the Cyclones.
Turnovers can swing it, but I'll take the under in a slugfest.
Oregon or Oklahoma in Bob Stoops' Return?
I'm not going to lie, the fact that Oklahoma will have legendary former head coach Bob Stoops for this game is so awesome. Stoops will be on the sidelines for the first time since he retired from Oklahoma in June 2017 as the winningest head coach in program history.
Stoops was named the interim head coach on Nov. 28, so he's had plenty of time to prepare for Oregon leading up to the Alamo Bowl against on Dec. 29.
Both teams will be missing some stars on defense. Oregon, which will be playing under an interim of its own in passing game coordinator and receivers coach Bryan McClendon, will also be without its star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux as he prepares for the NFL draft. OU, meanwhile, won't have defensive linemen Nik Bonitto and Perrion Winfrey.
Still, it's incredibly hard for me to pick against a coach who has won 190 games in his Oklahoma career. I'm going to have to go with QB Caleb Williams and the Sooners in this one, especially with Thibodeaux not playing.
We'll remember this game as the Interim Bowl, right? What a strange situation for Oklahoma and Oregon.
It's pretty neat to have Stoops pull a Barry Alvarez and come back to the sideline. But to have it happen after Oregon lost Mario Cristobal to Miami is wild. If only Oregon would've allowed Mike Bellotti a shot at revenge for the 2005 Holiday Bowl. Alas.
Oklahoma would've landed an uncomfortable nod from me because of Caleb Williams holding an edge on Oregon's QB situation. Three key absences for Oregon's defense only solidified that opinion. Along with Thibodeaux, cornerback Mykael Wright opted out, and cornerback DJ James hit the portal. For good measure, leading receiver Devon Williams opted out too. That's a pretty major list.
Stoops improves to 3-1 against the Ducks.
Which Coach Receives the Mayo Bath?
It will be Mack Brown, and it will be glorious.
And before I talk about why I believe UNC will win, I want to highlight that it is possible we see a head coach actually have a cooler full of mayo dumped on his head. I love that there is a charitable component to this. I also love that both coaches seem perfectly cool with the idea.
But Brown will indeed get his mayo bath (at least we hope). The fact that quarterback Sam Howell is set to play rather than opt out is a big deal, especially when you consider how other top players at the position are treating this decision.
South Carolina has been scrappy all season, and it wouldn't shock me to see the Gamecocks keep this game tight. But Howell and the UNC offense will likely be too much for South Carolina to deal with.
And then there will be mayo.
When someone tells you there are too many bowl games, tell them otherwise. No sport can embrace absurdity quite like this one.
I'm choosing to believe Howell is sticking around for the Mayo Bowl for the sole purpose of Mack Brown receiving this dreadful, hilarious, awful, incredible victory celebration.
North Carolina should be able to sustain a handful of long drives, especially since South Carolina is down edge-rusher Kingsley Enagbare. The team's leader in tackles for loss and sacks, he's among the ranks of the understandable opt-outs.
However, a runaway win is unlikely; UNC's defense puts up about as much resistance as mayonnaise does to a knife. Even a pretty mediocre South Carolina ground game should find some running lanes.
But it all ends in majestic fashion: Brown covered in mayonnaise, and at least $10,000 to charity.
How Does the Big Ten Fare on Dec. 30?
I'll go with 2-1.
Had you asked about Purdue-Tennessee before Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis and receiver David Bell opted out of the bowl game, it would have been extremely close, even in what is a virtual home game for the Vols in Nashville. But without those two key players, the Boilermakers don't have the firepower to hang with Josh Heupel's explosive offense.
The other two games, though, should shape up pretty well. The Peach Bowl matchup with Pittsburgh looked bleak for Michigan State before Kenny Pickett opted out. But without him, there's no telling how the Panthers will be throwing the ball, even against the nation's worst pass defense.
On the other side, Sparty must deal with running back Kenneth Walker III not playing. Seems like one of those games where it evens out some, and Michigan State is going to get a huge win to close the year.
Finally, in the Las Vegas Bowl, it really depends on which Wisconsin team shows up, but there's no way to trust Arizona State this year. Are the Sun Devils capable of beating the Badgers? Sure. But they've been so inconsistent—most notably, QB Jayden Daniels—it's hard to envision them doing enough against a stellar defense to win the game. I'll go with the Badgers in a sloppy, defensive-minded win.
Same record, same picks.
Purdue had a memorable season with two major upsets, but Bell is such a pivotal piece of that offense. Without him drawing extra attention, Milton Wright probably won't have one-on-one opportunities to test Tennessee's defense vertically. The Vols will instead make him their top priority to cover.
Pickett opting out is obviously a massive loss for Pitt, and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is off to Nebraska, too. Michigan State is better suited to absorb its star back's absence.
Wisconsin was ridiculously frustrating this season. While the defense allowed only 16.4 points per game, the offense stunk for six weeks. The unit improved substantially, then absolutely stunk again with a chance to make the Big Ten Championship Game anyway. Yet here I am once again, believing that defense can carry the Badgers opposite a shorthanded Arizona State team.
Which Bowl Brings the Largest Upset?
As of Wednesday, I'm seeing three games with an 8.5- to 9.5-point underdog: Hawai'i in the Hawai'i Bowl, Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl and South Carolina in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.
However, I don't think any of them will win.
Hawai'i has home-field advantage, but that is a program in turmoil that already lost Cordeiro and running back Dae Dae Hunter to the transfer portal. Howell is suiting up for North Carolina in the Duke's Mayo Bowl while South Carolina will be without one of its top weapons, running back ZaQuandre White. And I've already made my case for Mississippi State blasting Texas Tech.
So even though it's not as big of an upset, give me Arizona State (+6.5) as a touchdown dog against Wisconsin in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Sun Devils will be without two of their best running backs, Rachaad White (NFL draft) and DeaMonte Trayanum (transfer portal). But they still have Jayden Daniels at quarterback, they still have Daniyel Ngata in the backfield, and they still have a respectable defense. Plus, I think the 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff could be an issue for the Badgers.
Nevada (+6.5) should not make sense. The offense will be without NFL-bound QB Carson Strong and tight end Cole Turner. Head coach Jay Norvell bolted for Colorado State. The program is headed for a complete overhaul during the offseason.
But the Wolf Pack might've been a 6.5-point favorite before all of those departures. While the roster is fractured, it's not broken. I think. I hope? Probably the latter.
As long as Nevada's secondary—which is 17th nationally at 6.4 yards allowed per pass attempt—comes through, the Pack can steal a win over Western Michigan.
Which Matchup Will Be Most Entertaining?
I know there are opt-outs, but it still feels like the Music City Bowl will be a thriller.
Yes, Purdue stars Bell and Karlaftis are already preparing for the draft. Those two losses will certainly sting. But that Purdue offense still can move the ball, and the defense was plenty more than just its star defensive end, although Karlaftis was superb this year.
Tennessee, of course, will attempt to move the ball at breakneck pace, just like always. And while the Vols finished 7-5, they certainly put a scare into some really good teams.
In terms of entertainment, I want points and touchdowns in my bowl games. That should be a theme of all exhibitions, and I think it will be here. With a total hovering around 63 points—one of the largest in the bowl season—I expect there to be plenty of action on both sides.
Ultimately, I expect Tennessee to win. But Purdue will battle, just like it has all season. The end result will be wonderful football.
Adam and I share a definition of entertainment: points.
Given that knowledge, it might seem odd to choose the First Responder Bowl. But I believe there is sneaky upside in this clash of Air Force's option attack and Louisville's dynamic quarterback, Malik Cunningham.
Air Force has averaged 458.3 yards and 4.7 touchdowns on the ground in its last three games. Louisville, meanwhile, ranks 94th nationally in yards allowed per carry and just watched Kentucky slice the defense to the tune of 362 rushing yards and seven scores.
Sure, Air Force could control the clock, limit possessions and shorten the game. But I think they'll be too busy scoring touchdowns for that to happen, which then requires Cunningham to chase points in order to keep Louisville in the game.
And that is ideal! Cunningham is 266 passing and 32 rushing yards shy of joining the 3,000/1,000 club. He would be only the 11th individual in the FBS to ever accomplish that in a season.