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Dave Aranda and the Baylor Bears are carrying the torch for the conference when they face Lane Kiffin’s Rebels in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. Courtesy Baylor Athletics

Mercifully, we’re on the precipice of enjoying college football bowls from legitimately successful teams this season. Don’t misunderstand me. As much as I enjoy watching Tulsa beat Old Dominion in the Myrtle Beach Bowl presented by TaxAct or tuning into to see the Aztecs from San Diego State beat UTSA’s Roadrunners in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl (what!?) — which I picked correctly, but no big deal — we’re coming up on bowl games that don’t have rotating regional sponsors, and I’m excited.

Sadly, the more modern college football becomes — with the transfer portal and athletes pocketing serious shekels for their name, image, and likeness — the more bowl games in general are exposed for the frivolity that 95% of them are. More and more players are opting out for the NFL draft or simply choosing not to play. And there’s still COVID, which is undefeated. Texas A&M has already forfeited their Gator Bowl appearance against Wake Forest and has been replaced by a five-win Rutgers squad, and our Dallas neighbors will miss their second annual should-have-been bowl appearance because the Cavaliers are suffering an outbreak. The Military Bowl was also canceled. Big whoop. I wasn’t going to watch Boston College versus East Carolina anyway.

Big games still have potential to be affected. The playoff committee announced last week from their Irving headquarters that if any team is unable to appear in their playoff game, then the opponent will automatically advance to the title game. In the unlikely event that both teams are rendered unable to compete, a semifinal might become a de facto championship.

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The contingency exists for no champion to be crowned at all. For example, if Alabama and Michigan were to advance to the title game and both were hit with COVID outbreaks and couldn’t play the game on or sometime before Jan. 14, the title would simply be vacated for this season. Typical rules and bowl protocols have been changed to protect the teams. All media access is virtual, and little is compulsory in the way of events for staff or players. Customarily, a team would arrive in the bowl city five days ahead of the contest, but now only two days before kickoff are required. Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan have all been forthcoming that the overwhelming majority of their players are vaccinated, but Cincinnati has kept that information closer to the vest. All this said, I don’t believe any of the semifinals are in danger of being canceled — the four schools and the committee are very invested in the health and safety of these players, if you know what I mean. So, here are my predictions for the bowls worth watching.

 

Cotton Bowl Semifinal

No. 1 Alabama (12-1) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0)

2:30pm Fri (ESPN)

Easily the most intriguing matchup of this year or perhaps in the history of the College Football Playoff: David vs. Goliath, Rebels vs. The Empire, Beto vs. Any Republican. The Bearcats were rewarded for breaking the Power 5 glass ceiling with a first-round matchup against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. I’d love to pontificate that this will prove a Boise-past-Oklahoma game in which Cincy is able to finesse their way over Bama with trick plays and belief in themselves, but I just don’t see it. The Bearcats offense is based around the rush, Bama’s the pass. Both sides have excellent scoring offenses and defenses. Alabama defends the run better than the pass, but the startling statistic is the strength of schedule, as Bama has the best in the land. Watching what Saban and sons were able to accomplish against one of the best Georgia squads to ever play between the hedges should have been scary for every team in the country. Moreover, the Tide have appeared in six out seven possible playoff semifinals (in 2019, they lost two games by a combined eight points, one of which to the eventual national champion). Of the six semifinals Saban has coached, he lost the very first one only once, to eventual champion Ohio State. Despite losing the first, the combined score of those six contests is 197-103 in favor of Alabama. Cincinnati’s best hope is that the Heisman curse plagues Bama’s quarterback Bryce Young or the entire team tests positive for COVID and can’t play. Neither is likely.

Buck-it Prediction: Alabama 42, Cincinnati 20

 

Orange Bowl Semifinal

No. 2 Michigan (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (12-1)

6:30pm Fri (ESPN)

Statistically, Georgia is one of the most dominating teams in college football and has the most impressive and consistent resume of any playoff contender. Their only loss is a neutral-site game against another qualifier. Aside from a close opening-day win against Clemson, the Bulldogs steamrolled everything in their path before the SEC championship. The Dawgs simply bury opponents via their defense and are ranked in the top three in every major category. UGA’s offense isn’t as overtly impressive, but they haven’t needed to be. Georgia also, in my opinion, is advantaged from their loss in the SEC championship. Granted, playing in the 2-versus-3 matchup is not inherently an advantage, but the adversity is. Head coach Kirby Smart will be eager to prove the all-season hype was valid. Opposing them, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have already won their championship this season by beating Ohio State. Big Blue is amped to represent during their first playoff appearance, but it’s all just bonus money. I don’t anticipate the Michiganders scoring consistently against UGA. Both defenses are excellent, though Georgia is slightly better in most categories, but the Wolverines hold the statistical offensive advantage. Both teams have among the strongest schedules in the country. Whoever advances will likely find one more turnover or big play than their opponent, as these squads represent one of the more balanced semifinal matchups to ever be played.

Buck-it Prediction: Georgia 31, Michigan 28

 

Fiesta Bowl

Notre Dame (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State (11-2)

12pm Sat (ESPN)

The first of two Big 12 representatives in marquee bowls on New Year’s Day. The Cowboys proved during their conference championship game what aspiring pornstars already know: inches matter. OSU exorcized their demons this season by beating big brother Oklahoma during Bedlam in Stillwater. The Pokes suffered one agonizing stumble in Ames against the Cyclones by three points. Despite an impressive conference record, this team is difficult to figure out. Their nonconference slate was softer than a campaign promise, and the Cowboys survived all their cupcake competition by a combined 13 points. Offensively, they’re capable of fireworks, but more often, their defense has been the stalwart of their success. The Irish drag in a similarly unimpressive resume despite having lost only once, to playoff qualifier Cincinnati. Notre Dame is famously independent and free of poor-school problems like playing in a conference or having to regularly face good opponents or share television revenue. Even among the downtrodden ACC (where ND plays several games), their scores weren’t impressive unless it was against awful teams, and they played a few. Offensively, the Irish score more often and toss the ball with more consistency. Oklahoma State runs the ball more efficiently, but quarterback Spencer Sanders is like trying to domesticate a tiger to be a house pet: He might be an awesome companion, or he might just bite your arm clean off. The Pokes are slightly superior in scoring defense than the Irish but are leagues above in both rushing and passing defenses, even considering their superior strength of schedule rating. Marcus Freeman, the architect of the Irish’s opportunistic defense and coordinator, has been promoted to the head position in the wake of Brian Kelly’s departure for LSU. Mike Gundy aims to finally eclipse the hump that OSU has been climbing — seemingly forever — and their success will depend on the performance of Sanders. This one is anyone’s call, but I’m going to bet on coaching experience and defense and give the Pokes my nod in this game.

Buck-it Prediction: Oklahoma State 24, Notre Dame 20

 

Sugar Bowl

Ole Miss (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2) 

7:45pm Sat (ESPN)

The Bears have — for the second time in less than five years — made one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football. Ole Miss is essentially third in the combined SEC at 10-2 and is having one of their best seasons since Eli Manning played. Head coach Lane Kiffin is leading the Rebs with a high-powered passing offense led by Matt Corral, one of the nation’s most prolific passers. This is a classic strength-on-weakness matchup. Baylor runs the rock extremely well and plays shutdown red zone defense. The Rebels pass all day and have flexed their strength against stiff competition. Dave Aranda, Baylor’s head man, is known for defensive game planning and knows the SEC well. Sadly, for the Baptists, defending the pass is overwhelmingly their weakness. (Anyone who watched their stumble against TCU could tell you that.) Ole Miss isn’t near the top in any defensive category. Bowl games tend to start sloppily as teams work to recover their game rhythm after a significant layoff. For that reason, I’ll bet on the Bears’ superior defense and rushing game. Of course, it’s always possible Corral will instantly click with his receivers and blow Baylor’s doors off, but it’s less likely. Aranda will try to strangle the ball on offense against one of the worst rush defenses in the country, which seems like the better strategy, which makes sense, because he’ll be the better coach in this game.

Buck-it Prediction: Baylor 35, Ole Miss 31 

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