Five weeks into the season it finally feels like we are starting to get a clearer picture of who’s who this season. Which is good considering that two weeks ago the season had me asking, “Who’s even good?” In a similar fashion, the mock matchups for this week’s New Year’s Six found several teams squaring off that have either seen each other frequently or in a past major bowl game, with one exception to prove that I’m not doctoring these to fit an agenda (take note CFB Selection Committee).
Sugar Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Clemson vs. Georgia
Some of you may not know this but Clemson and Georgia actually have a solid border rivalry with Clemson being just over the Georgia border into South Carolina. The two schools played every season, except two, from 1962-1987 but discontinued the annual meeting after that. They have played eight times since then though, including the memorable 2013 duel in Clemson where yours truly happened to be in attendance. That game cracks my top 5 all-time list, which also includes: the 2012 SEC Championship game, 2012 Georgia-Florida game, and the plays that shall not be named.
Going back to this year, Clemson added their third top 25 win of the season on Saturday night with a big win in Blacksburg. Based on that, I think it’s hard to put even Alabama ahead of them based strictly on what they have done to this point in the season. Georgia has surged up the top 25 in the last two weeks with big wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee by a combined scored of 72-3. The Dawgs have looked great on the defensive end and have not had to ask too much of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm has flashed the potential that made him one of the top recruits in the country, but has also made some typical freshman mistakes.
Rose Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Alabama vs. Oklahoma
This one isn’t so much a rivalry, but these two did meet in a memorable Sugar Bowl in 2014 where Oklahoma added some salt to the still fresh “Kick Six” wounds by taking down the Tide, which marked only the fourth time in Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama where the team lost two or more consecutive games. That game served as Trevor Knight’s coming out party, as well as AJ McCarron’s going away party.
Alabama’s offense looks like it’s clicking now and if it weren’t for the fact that Clemson’s strength of schedule is so much better than Alabama’s currently the Tide would probably be sitting at #1. Given the fact that the SEC looks weaker than usual, it may be November before Alabama is tested again. Oklahoma had a bye week last week, but their body of work to this point, mainly a double-digit win at Ohio State, is still enough to keep them in the #3 spot.
Orange Bowl- Miami vs. Penn State
This legendary bowl game was a little before my time, but thanks to the 30 for 30 series documentary “The U”, the memory of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl lives on. Miami and Penn State met in Tempe for the national championship game that year, and has garnered fame as “The Fatigue Game” because Michael Irvin and the rest of the Miami team got off of the plane in Arizona wearing fatigues. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes went on to lose that game which prompted the university administration to complain that the team’s antics on and off the field made the school look bad.
Outside of the playoff, this is probably the most interesting matchup of any of the other New Year’s Six games on this list. Miami has only played three games thanks to Hurricane Irma, but what the Canes lack in quantity they have made up for in quality with a three-touchdown victory over MAC favorite Toledo and a 25-point win over previously undefeated Duke on Friday night. Penn State handled their business against Indiana this weekend after a scare against Iowa. Saquon Barkley continues ripping through the rest of the Big Ten. This weekend he proved that he can score in almost every way imaginable with a passing and a return touchdown.
Fiesta Bowl- San Diego State vs. TCU
You may not remember this, but these two teams were actually in the same conference from 2005-2011. During that time the Horned Frogs were the class of the Mountain West, finishing in the Top 25 in six of those seven seasons and winning four conference titles. They also swept the Aztecs during that time who were in a dark time at the first part of that stretch (must…resist…Cortez…joke…whew I made it guys) but made bowl games in 2010 and 2011.
San Diego State has continued that positive momentum throughout this decade making a bowl game in every season and winning 11 games in each of the last two seasons. They did fall back to the proverbial Group of Five field some this past week though with a narrow win over Northern Illinois while USF and UCF are rising, so if they want to stay in the pole position they need to keep winning and doing so convincingly. TCU got what was probably a much needed bye week between last week’s upset over Oklahoma State and West Virginia coming to town next weekend. Gameday will also be in Fort Worth on Saturday giving the Horned Frogs a national stage to demonstrate their playoff worthiness.
Cotton Bowl- Washington vs. Michigan
This one is also a little bit before my time, but some of you might remember the 1992 and 1993 Rose Bowls. Washington and Michigan played against each other in both and split them, with the ’92 Rose Bowl helping the Huskies to get a share of that year’s title by being voted the champions by the Coaches’ Poll and the Wolverines getting revenge the following year in the ’93 Rose Bowl. This could be a potential rubber match of sorts, despite the obvious fact that none of the same people from the team’s then are with the team now, or at least not in the same role.
Washington started off a little shakily against Rutgers, but has really come on lately. They still have yet to face a true challenge though. That’s the main reason why they haven’t been able to crack into my projected playoff yet. They do have the inside track in the Pac-12 right now along with in-state rival Washington State and Utah. Michigan was off this weekend and if they want to stay unbeaten then they should have used it tightening the screws on offense. The Wolverines still haven’t really managed to get things going on that side of the ball yet, and with the meat of their schedule still ahead of them that could be a potential problem. That defense is unreal though so if the offense can get any kind of improvement it might be enough to make them a playoff team.
Peach Bowl- Washington State vs. Wisconsin
This is the one game that doesn’t have either a rich history or one memorable game to look back upon. The Badgers and Cougars have played twice, once in 1976 and once in 2007, and Wisconsin won both games.
Wisconsin struggled more than they should have against Northwestern, but they did manage to get the victory. The defense was the difference maker with a pick six and a game-sealing safety ending up giving the Badgers the nine-point differential. Jonathan Taylor, sans the Thomas, also managed to punch in two touchdowns on the ground. Washington State may have had the biggest win of the weekend with the 3-point upset of USC on Friday night. For USC, this felt like the game we’d been waiting for for a few weeks now where they finally couldn’t manage to turn it on enough in the fourth quarter to get the job done. The Cougars’ front seven was very impressive and running back Jamal Morrow made a name for himself with a monster night including two touchdowns. Like I said in the Washington section, Wazzu has an inside track on the Pac-12 now and all they have to do is keep winning, easy right?
**Bonus Bowl** Outback Bowl- Ohio State vs. Florida
These two met in the inaugural BCS National Championship game in 2007. You may remember that season as the year of controversy where Florida jumped Michigan in the polls at the last second. The Gators also had help with a #2 ranked USC falling to UCLA on the last week of the season. Michigan was off that weekend and sitting at #3 with Florida right behind at #4. Florida beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship game and was subsequently voted ahead of Michigan, which some people assumed was to avoid a re-match between Ohio State and Michigan for the national championship game. Well, the game rolled around and many assumed the Buckeyes would roll a Florida team that most people though shouldn’t even be there….Florida won 41-14 in a game that started a long run of consecutive national titles for the SEC.
This game would probably not have as much at stake this season and would hopefully have much less controversy, but as it stands both of these teams are actually not out of the playoff hunt despite early season slip-ups. We all know that teams often get a benefit out of timing their losses early in the season to give the loss time to grow stale in the minds of the selection committee (#recencybias), and both of the losses are what college football pundits would deem “good losses”. Having watched these two teams, Ohio State seems like the only one that might have legitimate playoff aspirations, but if Florida can take down Georgia in Jacksonville at the end of October then there is a strong chance they will end up in Atlanta for the SEC title game and at least give themselves a shot.
1. Bradley Chubb is a pass rushing menace and probably a future first-round draft. He needs to hamper Lamar Jackson on Thursday night if the Wolfpack are to get a big win over Louisville on Thursday night.
2. Will Grier is off to a great start in his first season in Morgantown, and will need to keep it going if the Mountaineers want to knock off TCU next Saturday.
3. Mark Walton hurt his ankle in the victory over Duke last weekend, but the breakout running back is all set to play against the Seminoles next week according to Mark Richt. Last week, I highlighted Malik Rosier and he didn’t disappoint. Let’s hope that Walton can keep that trend going for the Hurricanes.
4. Derrius Guice didn’t play against Troy on Saturday night and it was clear that LSU needed him badly. The Tigers got upset on Saturday night and the offensive woes had been evident well before then. If LSU is going to get the ship righted in Gainesville, then a big day from Guice is probably an imperative.
5. Kellen Mond replaced Nick Starkel after Starkel broke his ankle in the season opener against UCLA. The offense proceeded to stall out and blow a 34-point lead and lose that game, but the Aggies haven’t lost since. With the Tide coming to town this weekend, it would be nice for Texas A&M if Mond could revive the “Spirit of Johnny”.
6. L.J. Scott makes the third running back on this week’s “Pick Six” and he will lead the Spartans into the “Big House” on Saturday looking for a big win. Michigan’s defense is stellar, so establishing balance offensively will be critical for the Spartans’ chances. That starts with Scott.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Sports Illustrated