4-Down Territory: A New Year's Weekend of Exciting Football
With all the opt-outs in the bowl games, many of these games have taken on the feel of exhibitions. With the number of starting quarterbacks opting out, some of these bowls have the feel of spring games where the fans and coaches get a first look at a new quarterback. No one took greater advantage of that than USC quarterback Miller Moss who made a start in the Holiday Bowl against #15 Louisville. All he did was hit 23 of 33 passes for 372 yards and 6 touchdowns. That will be something to watch as you see a lot of new players taking the field to play for guys who opted out. But in the major bowl games there will be some heavyweight battles that are sure to close out the bowl era before next year's 12-team playoff begins a new world of college football.
First Down: The Undercards: Friday: #19 Oregon State (8-4) vs #16 Notre Dame (9-3) The Sun Bowl Friday 2:00 CBS: Both teams’ starting quarterbacks opted out of this bowl game. Notre Dame needs this win to signal that they are on an upward trajectory as a program. This is not a major bowl game, but there is a telling stat for the state of Notre Dame football. The last win in a major bowl for Notre Dame was in January 1994 when they beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl…….Monday: January 1st Wisconsin (7-5) vs #13 LSU (9-3) The Reliaquest Bowl 12:00 ESPN2: LSU QB and Heisman Trophy Winner Jayden Daniels opted out after rushing for 1134 yards this year to go along with his great passing. His replacement Garrett Nussmeier has 1133 yards less on the ground…..Saturday: #6 Georgia (12-1) vs #5 Florida State (13-0) The Orange Bowl 4:00 ESPN: Will the last FSU player to leave before the bowl game please turn off the lights? Back-up FSU QB Tate Rodemaker started against Florida after Jordan Travis got hurt. He was scheduled to start the Orange Bowl before he surprised everyone by entering the transfer portal. He’s not the only one. On offense the three leading rushers and top five players in receptions are out too. Georgia will look to make a statement for the SEC, but it will have a massive asterisk next to it……..Monday: #23 Liberty (13-0) vs #8 Oregon (11-2) The Fiesta Bowl 1:00 ESPN: Salute to Oregon QB Bo Nix who IS playing in this game. He gives the Ducks a big advantage over a Liberty team that has not played a power-5 opponent all year. Oregon can make a statement as they head to the Big Ten next year when they replace Bo Nix with Oklahoma QB transfer Dillon Gabriel. As for Liberty, this would be a big statement win for them and their conference.
Second Down: New Year’s Six Bouts: Friday: #9 Missouri (10-2) vs #7 Ohio State (11-1) The Cotton Bowl 8:00 ESPN: Tune in early to see who is playing for Ohio State. RB TreyVeon Henderson and TE Cade Stover have said they are playing. WR Marvin Harrison has been coy. QB Devin Brown is a more versatile runner than QB Kyle McCord who has transferred to Syracuse. The OSU defense will be the key in this one as they face a potent Mizzou trio of RB Cory Schrader, QB Brady Cook and WR Luther Burden…..Saturday: #11 Ole Miss (10-2) vs #10 Penn State (10-2) The Peach Bowl 12:00 ESPN: Statistically this is the best offense Penn State has played this year. Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart has three talented WRs and a TE that are legitimate pass threats in an offense that pushes the ball down the field. If you overplay the pass, then RB Quinshon Judkins is a tough guy to tackle with almost 800 of his 1052 yards coming after contact. And after long layoffs between the regular season and bowl games tackling often suffers early in these games. Watch the match-up between Ole Miss DBs and the PSU WRs. The top 6 DBs for Ole Miss have 128 combined starts and have played in 253 games. They've made 11 of the 12 Ole Miss INTs this year. If Ole Miss can cover the PSU WRs one on one, their safeties can help the Ole Miss LBs cover the PSU tight ends. PSU will look to establish the run game and control the time of possession. That may include using the run threat of back-up QB Beau Pribula. Controlling the pace of the game keeps the Ole Miss offense off the field. Since coming to Ole Miss in 2020, Lane Kiffin’s offense has averaged around 495 yards a game, second in the country over that span. Penn State likes to substitute a lot of players and for a lot of situations. That may mean that Ole Miss runs a lot of up-tempo, no-huddle offense to keep PSU from substitutions.
Third Down: Heavyweight Bout #2: Monday #2 Washington (13-0) vs #3 Texas (12-1) The Sugar Bowl 8:15 ESPN: Washington’s offense has some eye-popping numbers. QB Michael Penix has thrown for 4218 yards, RB Dillon Johnson has rushed for 1,113 yards and WRs Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk have 1428 and 1000 yards receiving. That ability to make big plays presents a nightmare for any defense. But Texas has a good front led by massive defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat who checks in at 6-4 and weighs 362 pounds. Texas is 3rd in run defense and is a top 25 defense. But against Oklahoma they showed some vulnerability against teams that can throw the ball. The other Texas weakness has been in the Red Zone. They score TDs less than 50% of the time they get inside the 20-yard-line. They will need TDs when they get there to win this one. As for the Texas offense, QB Quinn Ewers has been very good. He has big-time threats in WR Xavier Worthy and two 6-4 targets in WR Adonai Mitchell and TE Ja’Tavion Sanders. Sanders averages an impressive 15.6 yards per catch—a big number for a tight end. Quinn Ewers has been sacked twenty-five times and the Longhorns will have to protect him. Washington’s offense has allowed a lot of yards this year, but they have been good against the pass and are 8th in the country nabbing 16 INTs this season.
Fourth Down: Heavyweight Bout #1: Monday: #1 Michigan (13-0) vs #4 Alabama (12-1) The Rose Bowl 5:00 ESPN: No matter what happens in the first half stay tuned for the second half. Michigan has outscored opponents 223-51 in the second half. Part of that is their strategy of patiently wearing teams down with a physical style that allows them to deliver knock-out punches in the second half. Not to be outdone, five times this season Alabama has trailed or been tied at halftime and has roared back to outscore those opponents 96-10 in the second half. That is a product of Nick Saban’s philosophy in 2023. He made everything simpler to give his less experienced team better understanding of the schemes. That allows them to make better adjustments in real time on game day. Michigan is a Top-5 defense and Alabama is a Top 20 defense. Those defenses are the backbone of two teams who want to be sound in all then key phases of the game. They both want to run the ball. Michigan RB Blake Corum is a punishing runner, while Alabama QB Jalen Milroe is a wildcard who can make plays with his feet. Both Milroe and Michigan QB JJ McCarthy are among the top 15 rated passers in the country. McCarthy is the only QB with playoff experience. Will that be the edge the Wolverines need to win this one? It’s hard to say who needs this win more—Michigan for the Big Ten or Alabama to justify the playoff committee’s decision to roll with the Tide instead of FSU.