B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Playoff and NY6 Bowl Questions
Every bowl game is meaningful. Still, it's reasonable to acknowledge the College Football Playoff and remaining New Year's Six matchups are the headliners of the postseason.
Get those couches ready, folks. The time has arrived.
In preparation for these heralded games, B/R's college football panel—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—is ready to drop knowledge bombs. We've answered questions about the NY6 games, offered predictions for the CFP semifinals and a little bit more.
Before discussing what we'll see, however, first up is a wistful conversation about a few players who we won't.
Which Opt-Out Player Will You Miss Most?
It has only been five years since Christian McCaffrey's skipping the Sun Bowl was a gigantic controversy, and now around a dozen guys are opting out of New Year's Six bowls. To be clear, I have no problem with it. Protect those soon-to-be multimillion-dollar ACLs.
However, I do wish we could watch Ohio State's Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson one last time in the Rose Bowl. That duo of potential first-round wide receivers combined for 26 touchdowns and more than 2,000 total yards from scrimmage this season, leading the most potent offense in the nation.
Then again, it will be nice to get an early glimpse at what will still be a loaded receiving corps in 2022. Let's see what Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr. can do in the Granddaddy of Them All.
Ohio State's receiver tandem of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson decided not to play in the Rose Bowl against Utah. As with nearly every opt-out choice, makes sense!
However, I am a number nerd. And the Buckeyes had a chance for a statistical rarity had Olave played one final game.
Entering the Rose Bowl, Jaxon Smith-Njigba leads OSU with 1,259 receiving yards. Wilson has collected 1,058 yards, and Olave is just 64 yards from the four-figure threshold. Only five times in FBS history has a team produced three 1,000-yard receivers—most recently, a Davante Adams-led trio at Fresno State in 2013—and Ohio State had a strong opportunity to become the sixth.
Unfortunately, it's not meant to be.
What's the Best Storyline in the NY6 Bowls?
We're not going to tackle the playoff games, because that's too easy. Winning a championship this time of year is the best storyline, but the beauty of the bowl season is everything else.
I could go a handful of ways with this. Watching Matt Corral appear in his final game at Ole Miss against a really good Baylor defense will be a delight—assuming Corral plays as expected and the Sugar Bowl goes on as scheduled.
But watching Marcus Freeman make his head coaching debut for Notre Dame against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl is the most interesting. Freeman has been unbelievably impressive since taking over, and I am curious to see how the Irish respond despite dealing with a handful of key opt-outs.
When you consider how much success Brian Kelly had in recent years, this feels like a moment. The expectations for Notre Dame are still enormous. While we won't be able to decipher much from a bowl game littered with disruptions, seeing Notre Dame begin this new era will be fascinating.
I went the non-CFP route too. We'll cover the Cotton and Orange Bowls in greater detail later.
Instead, my eyes are wandering toward Pasadena. USC (34) and Michigan (20) are the only programs with more Rose Bowl appearances than Ohio State (16), which is tied with Michigan (eight) for the second-most victories in the game.
Utah, on the other hand, is making its debut. The program crashed the BCS party with undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008 but played in the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls, respectively. Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011 and has become a consistent nine-win team, but a trip to the Granddaddy of Them All had eluded the Utes.
Winning the Rose Bowl would be a tremendous finish to a historic season for the first-time Pac-12 champions.
Can Pitt Topple MSU Without Kenny Pickett?
Let's take a moment to appreciate how ridiculous this question would have seemed four months ago. Kenny Pickett was the definition of an average quarterback for his first four seasons, and Michigan State had gone 16-17 over the past three years. Lo and behold, Pickett turned into a Heisman candidate and Sparty almost won the Big Ten.
But Pickett or no Pickett, I like Pitt in the Peach Bowl for two reasons.
No. 1 is that Kenneth Walker III has also opted out, and he was pretty much MSU's entire offense. Against a respectable Pitt D, I can't see how the Spartans score more than 24 points without their brightest star.
No. 2 is that it doesn't take a Heisman finalist to throw against the Spartans secondary. Jordan Addison will still be running routes, and Nick Patti can throw a football. That should be enough for the Panthers to win.
If there's ever a time for Nick Patti to step into the starting role against a successful power-conference team, it's probably opposite a Michigan State defense that ranks 130th nationally—in other words, absolute last—in passing yards allowed per game.
While the Spartans are a more palatable 61st in yards per attempt, they've surrendered 26 touchdowns through the air with only nine interceptions. This is a favorable matchup for Patti.
However, the combination of Pickett's absence and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's departure is a tough outlook. Pitt's offense won't be the prolific unit we saw all season.
Pitt should stay close and lean on the defense to make it a relatively low-scoring game, but I'll take MSU.
Does Cincinnati Pull Off the Impossible?
It would be a great story, a continuation of the most exciting narrative since the advent of the College Football Playoff, if little ol' Group of Five team Cincinnati pulled off the unthinkable and upset the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide on their quest for the next leg of their dynasty.
But Nick Saban wipes his feet on storybooks, flosses his teeth with hope and washes dreams down the garbage disposal. He's the greatest coach ever.
Yes, Alabama is young and nowhere near as dominant as a season ago. But the Tide have the best offensive player (Bryce Young) and defensive player (Will Anderson Jr.) in college football, as well as a cast of capable youngsters good enough to start for anybody else. It's difficult to see how the Bearcats wind up winning.
The good thing is they've got the best defensive backfield Alabama has faced by far this year. But while Desmond Ridder and former Tide running back Jerome Ford can make plays, it's hard to believe they can sustain enough drives to match points with Young and Co. Can they get enough pressure on the Heisman Trophy winner to force him into uncomfortable moments? Can Cincy's offensive line keep Ridder's pocket clean?
This game will be won with Young's arm and—most importantly—in the trenches. That's where Alabama is much better than the Bearcats. And shockingly, if you listen to Anderson, Saban has the Tide believing they're underdogs rather than two-touchdown favorites.
That's vintage Nick Saban.
This team feels disrespected, and that's not good news for Cinderella. Alabama will cover and win 41-23.
During the Peach Bowl last season, Cincinnati did a solid job of controlling Georgia's defense until an ejection shook up the offensive line. After that, Georgia created a game-changing sack/fumble and racked up eight of its 12 tackles for loss.
If the Bearcats can mimic that first-half performance for all 60 minutes, they have a shot. The secondary, led by All-American corners Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, is fantastic.
But—you probably knew that was coming—this is a see-it-to-believe-it situation. Saban has understandably brainwashed his players into embracing the underdog role, and it seems likely the Tide's talent wins out in the second half.
Georgia vs. Michigan: Who You Got?
This will be a gem of a game, and it'll come down to which so-called "game manager" quarterback can handle his business.
Will Georgia's Stetson Bennett rebound from the SEC championship game loss to Alabama? Can Cade McNamara elevate his game yet again so Michigan doesn't have to rely on the run against a stingy Bulldogs defense?
Both of these teams have terrific defenses, and they've spent nearly a month preparing for each other. While Michigan has a better rushing attack, UGA's outstanding defense could neutralize that aspect of the game and put it on McNamara's shoulders. If that happens, he must make plays against a susceptible secondary.
Maybe the Wolverines can do the same because UGA hasn't shown a propensity for big plays through the air. Kirby Smart, Todd Monken and Co. keep saying the Dawgs are good enough to win a championship with Bennett under center, and it's nice of them to say. But Bennett has to prove it.
I've gone back and forth on this game, but I'm beginning to believe the Bulldogs have enough weapons in the receiving game to get it done. Look for George Pickens—who has missed virtually all season recovering from a knee injury—and tight end Brock Bowers to contribute enough key plays as UGA wins a slugfest.
I'll take Georgia winning 27-23 and earning the rematch with Alabama in the national championship game.
Brad explained my thoughts well.
Neither quarterback inspires much confidence in a pass-heavy game, so whichever team runs the ball more efficiently has a major advantage. Despite the dominance of Michigan's offensive line and Georgia's subpar SEC championship game showing, I'm inclined to side with the Dawgs.
Pickens' return in late November is a huge positive for UGA. If the offense only had Bowers, Ladd McConkey and Jermaine Burton, I'd be more hesitant. Pickens has surely taken advantage of another month to get closer to full strength, and he's an elite wideout when healthy.
Michigan covers, but Georgia wins.
Will Marcus Freeman Begin His Notre Dame Tenure with a W?
It's hard not to root for the Fighting Irish given the excitement surrounding Marcus Freeman's elevation to the head coaching job. The video of his players' reaction to the news of Freeman's hiring is enough to make you root for ND.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the Irish will be without key players who are preparing for the NFL draft. Star safety Kyle Hamilton and leading rusher Kyren Williams will both not play Saturday.
Williams is Notre Dame's top playmaker with 1,002 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, and Oklahoma State ranks third nationally in total defense and fifth in rushing defense.
Expect sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who has 204 yards and a touchdown as Williams' backup, to handle the load for the Irish. ND will still have quarterback Jack Coan, who's thrown for 2,641 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions. OK State's defense allows just 187.2 passing yards per game, but Coan will have to air it out more without Williams in his backfield.
It might be an unwise pick, but I like Notre Dame in this one, even without Williams and Hamilton. The positive momentum of Freeman's hiring will give Notre Dame extra motivation too.
The first of many victories at Notre Dame for Freeman, yes.
During his tenure, Notre Dame is set to become an even greater force on the recruiting trail. While the importance of a bowl win can be overstated, knocking off Oklahoma State won't hurt what Freeman and his staff will be pitching.
Notre Dame is the more complete team, and the departure of Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is another valuable edge for the Irish.
Superb year for Oklahoma State, but Freeman and Notre Dame earn the Fiesta Bowl celebration.
Baylor or Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl?
This year's Sugar Bowl should be a great matchup, featuring the high-powered Ole Miss offense against a Baylor defense that's given up 19.2 points per game.
With quarterback Matt Corral suiting up to play one last time in a Rebels uniform, it's impossible for me to pick against Ole Miss. Corral, who should have earned a Heisman invite, will get to cap an incredible career against the Bears. His 2021 season has been his best yet in Oxford, having thrown for 3,339 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. That's a huge improvement from his 14-interception season a year ago.
Baylor's secondary ranks 70th nationally in passing defense, ceding 231.4 yards per game. Corral will have leading receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders, as well as backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner.
In an era when protecting draft stock is becoming more important than playing in non-playoff bowl games, Ole Miss doesn't have any opt-outs. The Rebels will even have offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who will join Brent Venables' staff in Oklahoma after the game.
This should be an entertaining game, but I like the Rebels. If Ole Miss wins, it'll be the first 11-win season in school history.
If you're an old-school purist who believes it is the children who are wrong, I hope you've circled the Sugar Bowl on your wall-hanging calendar. As of this writing, no player from Baylor or Ole Miss has announced a decision to opt out.
Hey, we'll take a full-strength game!
From a hype perspective, I'd like to see Ole Miss finish with a victory. Lane Kiffin has restored his reputation, and an 11-win campaign—as Morgan noted—would both be historic for the program and a fitting conclusion to a breakout year.
However, it's probably time I stop saying nice things about Dave Aranda and picking against him anyway. I keep getting burned on that. That ends now, so expect an Ole Miss win since I'm taking Baylor.
Which Matchup Will Be Most Entertaining?
While points are often the key ingredients when it comes to entertainment, they don't have to be. That is my introduction to announce Georgia-Michigan, the second semifinal game Friday, as the most compelling game on the schedule.
The total in this game is only 45. With two of the nation's top four scoring defenses going head-to-head, that happens sometimes. But the talent in this game has the potential to be superb.
You have the best player in the sport, Aidan Hutchinson, going up against the best defense CFB has seen in some time. (Well, outside of the last game.)
You have Jim Harbaugh trying to break through more than he already has, going up against a program that has been looking to finally win a national title after an assortment of close calls.
You have NFL talent all over the field playing with tremendous stakes. And the game is likely to be extremely competitive—played at a high level.
Plus, it will be played on New Year's Eve. Gather 'round the television, grab the snacks, secure the beverage of choice and enjoy. While many playoff games have fallen flat in recent years, this one has the chance to deliver.
Adam and I often launch into a monologue about an expected high-scoring game, but we're on the same wavelength. I'm very excited for the storylines in the Orange Bowl.
Four seasons ago, Georgia lost the national title to Alabama in devastating fashion. Since then, the Dawgs have clawed to return. From 2018 to 2020, they posted a strong 31-7 record. Multiple losses in each season kept UGA out of the CFP, though. This is the program's—and Kirby Smart's—first official shot at redemption.
On the opposite side, it's Harbaugh. If you follow the sport closely, you know the details. If you need a refresher, here's a little shameless self-promotion about his journey in Ann Arbor.
For both programs, this is a massive #narrative game.