Well, bowl game season is here – including the College Football Playoff semifinals this weekend – and I find myself looking forward to today’s games. At least two of the three.
I’ll be honest: I’m not all that fired up about a Cotton Bowl pitting an overrated Penn State team against a Memphis team who’s head coach flew the coop for Florida State right after the Tigers finished up the regular season.
I’m a little more fired up about the two playoff games today: LSU and Oklahoma meet at 3 p.m., then Ohio State and Clemson in the nightcap. I’d probably feel better about those two games if it was, say, Ohio State and OU in one semifinal, and LSU-Clemson in the other. More on that later.
I promised you guys a preview of every major bowl game a couple of weeks ago, and so far, there’s been nothing major. That supposedly changes Saturday morning, when the big bowls start arriving, with…
THE COTTON BOWL, Penn State (10-2) vs. Memphis (12-1), AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas. Today, 11 a.m., ESPN
Doesn’t it feel like both of these teams should have done something more? This is the first meeting ever between Memphis and one-time traditional power Penn State, whose current coach, James Franklin, can be correctly referred to as the Man Who Won at Vanderbilt.
Franklin has been a winner for the Nittany Lions, but he just can’t seem to win that big game: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have turned into Franklin’s white whale of sorts, and he’ll have to wait another year to see if he can take them down and get Penn State to the next step: the Big 10 Championship.
For now, he’s tasked with a no-win situation: he needs this win. If he loses to Memphis, he loses a game that, in the eyes of many, the Lions should win going away. If he wins, then he was supposed to win.
On the other side, Memphis will be coached by the recently-promoted Ryan Silverfield. Your guess is as good as mine how the Tigers will play this one: they really should probably be favored, given the fact that they have one of the top 10 offenses, statistically, in the NCAA. But in the minds of many, the bigger name by far is Penn State, and so they become, in effect, the favorite.
Memphis averages 40 points and 480 yards a game, one of just eight D-I teams to average 40 points a game. That’s going to be hard for Penn State to slow down. Quarterback Brady White has thrown for 3,560 yards, 33 touchdowns and just nine interceptions all year.
Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne left for another position after the season, so the Lions’ offense will try to roll on without him. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns in this game from an injury.
I’m going with a (mild) upset here. MEMPHIS 38, PENN STATE 35.
THE PEACH BOWL, LSU (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1), Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga., 3 p.m., ESPN.
This one is easy: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow – who threw for a staggering 4,715 yards and 48 touchdowns and just six interceptions – against a OU defense that is used to facing high-powered Big 12 offenses similar to what LSU runs.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have LSU as a two-touchdown underdog in this game, but I’m not so sure. LSU’s defense hasn’t been very LSU-like this year; it improved down the stretch in games against Texas A&M and Georgia.
The key to this game might very well be OU quarterback Jalen Hurts, who finished runner-up to Burrow in the Heisman race, and has had big-game experience before, having played in two national title games with Alabama and what seems like a half-dozen conference championship games. Pun intended: if Hurts can avoid turnovers, the Sooners might put the Hurt(s) on the Tigers and advance in the playoff to the national championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 13.
As much as I like picking upsets, I just don’t think I can this time. LSU is awfully strong. It will take a magnificent effort from OU to knock them off. If Sooners receiver CeeDee Lamb and Hurts can hook up a few times on some big pass plays and open up the run, the Sooners have a puncher’s chance. I think this one may also be high-scoring.
Right now, I’d say… LSU 41, OKLAHOMA 34.
THE FIESTA BOWL, Ohio State (13-0) vs. Clemson (13-0), State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., 7 p.m., ESPN
Here’s the one the college football purists like me are probably looking forward to: the defending national champion, Clemson, against an Ohio State team many have been touting as the nation’s best for some time.
Well, now the Buckeyes can try and prove it.
These teams are a combined 26-0 for a reason: they have top-shelf talent, and neither of them has played what you would refer to as a difficult schedule. The Buckeyes took on Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State and very little else; Clemson played Texas A&M in a non-conference game, and the weakest conference schedule in the nation in the ACC – think if Carthage could play 2A teams the entire year. That’s what that’s like.
The last time these two teams met was in the College Football Playoff at the end of the 2016 season, and Clemson embarrassed Ohio State, 31-0 (and it was really that bad).
When Clemson is on offense, they’ll have sophomore Trevor Lawrence, who lit up my Alabama Crimson Tide last year in the title game and has been impressive again this year. Lawrence’s offensive line will have to protect him from Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, a young man I believe will be the number one pick in the NFL Draft in April. He’s got 16 ½ sacks, best in the country.
Ohio State’s offense led the nation at 48 points a game; Clemson’s was right behind (46 a game). Both teams average over 530 total yards a game. And both have elite runners (Ohio State has J.K. Dobbins, who has 1,829 yards and 20 scores, and Clemson has Travis Etienne, with 1,500 yards and 17 scores).
Let’s call it. I’m seeing lower-scoring than today’s other games. I’ll go with… CLEMSON 24, OHIO STATE 20.
That means an LSU-Clemson national title game Jan. 13. We’ll find out tonight if I got it right.