The focus of the SEC this bowl season is on Alabama, as they battle Texas for the BCS National Championship. But nine other SEC teams also find themselves in action this bowl season. This is how I rank the bowl games involving SEC teams in terms of intrigue and national relevance.
10. East Carolina vs. Arkansas - AutoZone Liberty Bowl
In what will likely be the Arkansas swan song of quarterback Ryan Mallett, the Razorbacks get to travel across the Mississippi River to Memphis, Tenn., to take on the East Carolina Pirates out of Conference USA. Out of all the teams qualified for a bowl game, Mallett may not have been able to hand pick a better team to showcase his talents to the NFL. The Pirates rank 57th in the nation in pass defense at 218 yards per game. That puts them behind defensive juggernauts North Texas, Louisiana-Lafayette and Middle Tennessee. Arkansas may not be able to stop anyone, but in this game, they may not have to. Take the over.
9. Connecticut vs. South Carolina – Papajohns.com Bowl
The Connecticut Huskies have gone through an awful lot this year on the field and off the field. Aside from coping with the tragic death of cornerback Jasper Howard, the Huskies' five losses have been by a grand total of 15 points. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have been about par for the course this year when compared to Gamecock teams from the recent past. South Carolina brings a solid defense to Birmingham, ranked 15th in the nation in total defense, but an offense that's spotty at best. This game will probably be competitive, but nothing about this game is overly compelling other than watching South Carolina LB Eric Norwood for the last time in a Gamecock uniform.
8. Penn State vs. LSU – Capital One Bowl
The Capital One Bowl is usually reserved for the best non-BCS SEC team. The problem is, the best non-BCS SEC team isn't that good this year. Statistically speaking, LSU is the worst offense among the SEC bowl qualifiers. Kind of hard to imagine considering they have two stud wide receivers, Terrance Toliver and Brandon LaFell, and the highest paid offensive coordinator in the conference. Penn State has been hanging around the top 10 all year, and, as always, is ranked near the top of the nation in total defense (8th). Granted, that's largely against Big 10 offenses, which you, me and my dog could probably keep out of the end zone. But honestly, is LSU's offense any different?
7. Northwestern vs. Auburn – Outback Bowl
The offense that isn't present in Orlando at the Capital One Bowl will probably find it's way to Tampa, when Auburn and Northwestern square off in the Outback Bowl. Of all the seven-win teams, Auburn wound up with the most prestigious bowl. Unfortunately, the bowl match-up isn't the greatest. The Tigers are coming off of their best defensive performance of the year, in the 26-21 Iron Bowl loss to Alabama. Match that, and the Tigers win going away. But something tells me that the Northwestern offense, which is averaging 25 points per game, will give Auburn all they can handle. Expect a shootout and some bad defense as you work off your New Years Eve hangover.
6. Kentucky vs. Clemson – Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl
The main to watch this game is C.J. Spiller. The Clemson running back will be making his Tiger finale in Nashville, after being snubbed for a much-deserved trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Wildcat wide receiver Randall Cobb, probably the best player that you've never heard of, will be returning to his home state, which is mildly intriguing. But there isn't much reason other than Spiller to make this appointment television. The job Rich Brooks has done in Lexington is commendable, but that still doesn't make this game very interesting unless you're wearing blue and white or orange and purple.
5. Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss – AT&T Cotton Bowl
Ole Miss returns to Dallas for its second straight Cotton Bowl, and will play in the inaugural bowl game inside Jerry World against Oklahoma State. The Rebels are coming off a tough upset loss to intra-state rival Mississippi State, in a game that saw their defense give up 412 yards to the Bulldogs – not exactly an offensive juggernaut. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are looking to rebound from the 27-0 shutout loss to Oklahoma, in a game that saw them gain only 109 yards for the entire game. Both of these teams had conference title aspirations, but never could match the hype that was generated pre-season. This game does provide a chance to salvage a decent season in 2009, and build some momentum towards 2010.
4. Florida vs. Cincinnati – Allstate Sugar Bowl
Yeah, this game may pit two of the top five teams in the nation, but there's a reason that the Vegas Strip lists it as the largest point spread (UF -10.5) of any game this bowl season. And when Vegas says "no contest," you're supposed to listen. Florida picked the worst possible time to play their worst game of the season. They were physically whipped in every aspect of the game in their SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. They will get their redemption in the Sugar Bowl. Cincinnati hasn't seen a defense like the Gators...well...ever. Bearcat quarterback Tony Pike isn't ready for Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden. (Look, an entire paragraph without mentioning Tim Tebow's last game. See CBS, it's possible.)
3. Texas A&M vs. Georgia – Advocare V100 Independence Bowl
This game isn't too intriguing from a talent point-of-view. Neither the Aggies nor the Bulldogs have much of a defense to speak of, and both have the play-makers that either aren't eligible or coming off injuries. What I'm most interested in is watching how Georgia's defense plays against Aggie quarterback Jerrod Johnson, running back Christine Michael and that vaunted offense. The Bulldogs are playing minus three defensive coaches, including former defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line Coach/Recruiting Guru Rodney Garner will be coaching the defense in the bowl game. Garner will likely be auditioning for a defensive coordinator position either with Georgia or elsewhere, so expect him to pull out all the stops.
2. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech – Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Tennessee safety Eric Berry, who's one of the best players in the conference, will likely be making his final appearance in a Vol uniform in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and he will be doing it in his own home town. I wonder if we'll get a 12-hour, two-network love fest celebrating his career? Probably not. Nonetheless, this game is still intriguing. Both squads boast defenses that rank in the top five of their respective conferences, and have running backs (Tennessee's Montario Hardesty and Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams) that will be playing on Sunday's. Plus, we all know Vols head coach Lane Kiffin is a bit crazy. This being his first bowl game as a head coach, you just never know what he's going to do.
1. Alabama vs. Texas – Citi BCS National Championship Game
Is there really any other option for the best SEC bowl game? Alabama looks to take home the fourth straight crystal football for the SEC, and the fifth in the last seven years. Had the conference championship games not been played, Texas would probably be the favorite. But after Texas waited till the very last second to stave off upset-minded Nebraska and Alabama laid the whippin' on No. 1 Florida, the Crimson Tide travels west as the consensus favorite. My initial reaction to this game was that Alabama would win by four...touchdowns. But Vegas sees it a lot closer than that, so I'm inclined to follow the money. With a month to prepare (which is ridiculous that we have to wait that long), the Longhorns have plenty of time to figure out how to handle the duo of Tide defensive tackle Terrance Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain. This one comes down to a Leigh Tiffin field goal attempt late, in a game that comes close to matching the last title game played in Pasadena.
Don't like my rankings? E-mail me.
Auburn wide receiver Tim Hawthorne is graduating and has decided not to return for the 2010 season.