Bowl season is in full swing, with the usual assemblage of blowouts, thrillers, and last-second heroics. Of the first 17 games, 10 have been decided in the last minute.
Now it’s time for the games that really matter, locally and nationally.
Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 28, Levi’s Stadium—Indiana vs. Utah
Both teams have something to prove. Indiana’s new coach, Tom Allen, wants to establish himself as the head man and unify his team after the abrupt departure of Kevin Wilson under a cloud of player mistreatment rumors. Based on early impressions, Allen seems to have the command and big-picture ability to succeed. Utah, which finished on a downer (three losses in its last four games), wants to end the year on an up-note and springboard into 2017. Utah is a seven-point favorite, but we think the Hoosiers may surprise.
Sun Bowl, Dec. 30, El Paso—Stanford vs. North Carolina
The big story, as articulated here last week, was Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey’s decision to skip the game and prepare for the NFL Draft. Translation: “Let’s not risk an injury in a non-playoff bowl.” But McCaffrey’s absence provides a great opportunity for sophomore Bryce Love to establish himself as The Man. Love gained 664 yards this year as a backup and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He’s the real deal, and North Carolina’s porous defense will afford him plenty of space to maneuver. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a top pro prospect, will keep the Tar Heels in the game for awhile, but the Cardinal should win this one easily.
College Football Playoffs—the Coaches
Though we would have preferred an eight-team field including Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State and USC, four teams is still better than the old BCS two-team arrangement. One distinction this year is the quality of the four head coaches. If you were to rank the best coaches in college football, certainly Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer would be at the very top of the list. All Saban has done is win four national championships in the last seven years at Alabama; he previously won one at LSU. Meyer has also captured national titles at two different schools—Florida and Ohio State.
In our book, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Washington’s Chris Peterson would also rank among the top dozen coaches nationally along with Saban, Meyer, Stanford’s David Shaw, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, San Diego State’s Rocky Long, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Miami’s Mark Richt. Swinney took over a program that had a reputation for choking in big games and built a powerhouse. In the last five years, his Tigers have posted a 58-9 record, won three ACC titles, and lost a heart-breaker to Alabama in last year’s national championship game. Peterson produced miracles at Boise State, including the famous Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007, and has the Huskies in the playoffs in only his third year in Seattle. He and Shaw will have some great battles going forward.
Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, Atlanta—No. 4 Washington vs. No. 1 Alabama
The Crimson Tide are heavy favorites to trounce the Huskies in the first semi-final game in Atlanta, and deservedly so. They dispatched 13 straight opponents this year, often without breaking a sweat. Their defense and special teams outscored many of the offenses in college football. Washington has an excellent, under-appreciated quarterback in Jake Browning, a great receiver in John Ross Jr., and a solid running game with All Pac-12 back Myles Gaskin. On defense, their secondary is among the nation’s best. But this game will be won and lost in the trenches, where Alabama is as talented as some NFL teams. Look for ‘Bama to wear down the Huskies in a closer-than-anticipated win for Saban’s crew.
Fiesta Bowl, Dec. 31, Glendale, AZ—No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson
The second semi-final features two very evenly matched teams. Ohio State is favored largely on the basis of Meyer’s pedigree. He’s more experienced in these types of games than Swinney, and that gives the Buckeyes a slight edge. Both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks —Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Watson is more accurate than Barrett and has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after finishing third in the Heisman balloting a year ago and second this season. If Watson can avoid a costly turnover, the Tigers will win this one.