The Big 12 has a chance to make a serious statement this bowl season, with seven of its ten teams (70%) competing in the postseason. Whether that statement will be a good or a bad one, though, is anyone’s guess. Five of the conference’s teams are outright underdogs in this game, including two of the biggest underdogs in all bowl games (and those are in the conference’s two biggest games, to boot). A few upset wins will go a long way towards the Big 12’s reputation, but if games go according to the point spreads, the conference could be looking at a long offseason of soul-searching.
College Football Playoff
No. 4 Oklahoma vs No. 1 Alabama (Saturday, Dec. 29, 8 PM, ESPN)
Line: Oklahoma +14
The primetime semifinal could be one heck of a game, or it could be a pretty boring one. The point spread is clear. I think, on some level, we’re hyping this game up because we want it to be great, not because we expect it to be. Still, anything can happen, and this is certainly a tougher matchup than anything Alabama has seen all year.
Key matchup: How many stops can the Oklahoma defense get? The offense and Kyler Murray will score points. It probably won’t be 50, but the Sooners will put up a good number of points. They won’t score on every drive, though, that’s for sure. So the entire question of this game will be just how many times the Oklahoma defense can stop the Alabama offense. The Tide attack has been one of the best all season, and Oklahoma’s defense has been one of the worst. Can Oklahoma get stops? And if not, can they get enough turnovers or lucky bounces to give the offense a chance?
New Year’s Six
Sugar Bowl: No. 14 Texas vs No. 6 Georgia (Tuesday, Jan. 1, 8:45 PM, ESPN)
Line: Texas +12
Texas has a lot of talent, and Tom Herman is a great coach. Georgia, though, also has a great coach- and the Bulldogs have more talent than Texas. Being in the Sugar Bowl instead of the CFP is probably quite the bitter pill for Georgia, despite Kirby Smart’s statements otherwise. Texas had a great season, no doubt, but this is the biggest difference in ranking in any of the NY6 Bowls for a reason.
Key matchup: Georgia’s motivation. The Bulldogs are talented enough to keep it close and give themselves a chance even if they come out flat, but it’s hard to see Texas staying in this game if Georgia comes out sharp. The Longhorns do have a better quarterback (Sam Ehlinger) than Georgia really has faced this year, and Texas has strength in the trenches. Expecting a blowout might be an overstatement because of that, but Georgia should still be a pretty solid favorite.
Other Bowl Games
Cheez-It Bowl: TCU vs California (Wednesday, Dec. 26, 9:00 PM, ESPN)
Here we are. It’s the Big 12’s one “pick ’em” game. TCU underperformed tremendously in the middle of the season, but the Horned Frogs came back strong to close it out and make a bowl game. Cal’s results might be better on the year, but TCU is a more talented team, and Gary Patterson will want his team coming out of this game with a winning record.
Key matchup: TCU struggled offensively all season. The Horned Frogs did well against Ohio State, but other than that game (and the two tune-up openers), the offense never really found a rhythm. There’s a ton of talent on that side of the ball, so how the TCU offense performs will probably determine this game. If the Horned Frogs can light up the scoreboard like they’re capable of, then Cal won’t be able to keep pace. But if the TCU offense sputters like it did during the final ten weeks of the season, expect a close one here.
Texas Bowl: Baylor vs Vanderbilt (Thursday, Dec. 27, 9:00 PM, ESPN)
Line: Baylor +3.5
The Baylor Bears are bowling again. It’s hard to like (or even feel for) a program that went through what Baylor did, but it’s also really hard to not like Matt Rhule. He’s rebuilding Baylor in his own image, and the program is better off for it. A bowl win might not rehabilitate anything, but doing things the right way for years to come will be.
Key matchup: Jalen Hurd’s return to Vanderbilt. The former Tennessee running back has found a new home — and new position — at Baylor. The once-standout tailback is now on the verge of becoming a 1,000-yard receiver. Hurd has not faced another SEC school since leaving Tennessee, but he racked up 155 total yards against the Commodores in 2015. Not only will this matchup be Baylor’s best chance at exploiting the Vanderbilt defense, but expect some jawing both ways involving Hurd during this game.
Camping World Bowl: No. 15 West Virginia vs No. 17 Syracuse (Friday, Dec. 28, 5:15 PM, ESPN)
Line: West Virginia -1.5
This should, very quietly, be one of the better games this bowl season. Yes, this West Virginia offense isn’t quite whole without Will Grier, and that will hurt. In some ways, though, I think this will make it a better game. The Mountaineers will have had a month to get the new offense prepared, which will certainly help for next season. They’ll also still be able to score on Syracuse, though they’ll certainly be less prolific.
Key matchup: Eric Dungey against this West Virginia defense. The Syracuse offense may not have been the focus of many highlight reels this year, but it can move. The West Virginia defense, meanwhile (ignoring the final two weeks of the season), has been pretty stout. Will the Mountaineers be able to consistently stop Dungey in his final college game? Can they bait him into making mistakes? Those questions — not the ones about West Virginia’s offense — will be what determines the winner.
Alamo Bowl: No. 25 Iowa State vs No. 12 Washington State (Friday, Dec. 28, 9:00 PM, ESPN)
Line: Iowa State +3.5
This should be one of the better games of bowl season. Don’t let Iowa State’s record fool you; this is a really good football team. The Cyclones have one of the best defenses in the Pac 12, and the offense has been pretty solid since Brock Purdy took over. Don’t be fooled by the disturbingly close season-ending game against Drake. Iowa State is a good team- and so is Washington State, so we should get a great game.
Key Matchup: Brock Purdy vs the Washington State defensive backs. The Cougars defensive line will get pressure, but Iowa State will chances to push the ball down the field. Usually with Mike Leach, it’s the offense that gets all the talk- and Gardner Minshew certainly has earned his attention. Washington State will score some points, but it’s not the air raid juggernaut we sometimes expect- and Iowa State has the defense to stop it even if it was. This game will hinge on what Purdy can do with his legs, and downfield. And that means him beating the linebackers when scrambling, or finding the right throws down the field, will be what determines who wins this game.
Liberty Bowl: Oklahoma State vs No. 24 Missouri (Monday, Dec. 31, 3:45 PM, ESPN)
Line: Oklahoma State +9.5
Don’t ask me how Missouri is ranked. Yeah, the Tigers impressed against Florida, but other than a decent non-conference win over Purdue, there’s really nothing here. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, was one of the better teams in the country- when it played well. The Cowboys were one of the most difficult teams in the country to judge this year, precisely because they were all over the place.
Key matchup: Which Oklahoma State team shows up? Will we see the team that blew out Boise State, beat Texas and West Virginia, and came inches from upsetting Oklahoma? Or will we see the team that got blown out by Texas Tech and Kansas State? The offense — led by the incredibly talented Taylor Cornelius — failed to do much of anything in those games. Oklahoma State’s defense isn’t good, but it can make some plays. It’s the offense that determines these games, though. When the offense clicks, the Cowboys can beat anyone. When it doesn’t, they can lose to anyone.