Previewing the six biggest bowls, including the College Football Playoff semifinals
By Rich Cirminiello
Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 9 Florida vs. No. 24 Virginia
Mon., Dec. 30, 8:00 p.m., ESPN, Miami Gardens, Fla.
The Gators are back in a New Year's Six bowl game for a second straight year, while the Cavaliers are here for the first time.
It's been a memorable season of firsts in Charlottesville - first Coastal Division crown and ACC title game appearance. First win over rival Virginia Tech in 15 years. And first major postseason game since the 1991 Sugar Bowl. Versatile QB Bryce Perkins and the sack-happy Virginia D will need to cool a hot Florida squad to earn their first 10-win season in three decades. The Gators routed their final three opponents, and only lost to SEC Championship Game participants LSU and Georgia. QB Kyle Trask has been a revelation since replacing injured Feleipe Franks, and Florida is also among the FBS leaders in sacks.
Key Matchup: Florida DE Jonathan Greenard vs. Virginia LT Bobby Haskins
While both teams have had issues in pass protection, it's been a particular problem for the Cavalier offense. Virginia has yielded 38 sacks to rank 120th in the country. With Greenard and Jabari Zuniga lining up on the edge, Perkins could be running for his life at Hard Rock Stadium. Greenard has far exceeded expectations since transferring from Louisville, leading the SEC with nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 17 Memphis
Sat., Dec. 28, 12:00 p.m., ESPN, Arlington, Tex.
For the fourth time in the last five years, an American program is representing the Group of Five in a major bowl game. For the first time, that program is Memphis.
The Tigers have ridden a balanced, 40-point-per-game offense to the Cotton Bowl, and haven't lost since Oct. 12. QB Brady White has thrown 33 TD passes, while the Kenneth Gainwell-led ground game is loaded. However, Memphis will be without its leader, Mike Norvell, who has the Florida State job. Penn State has won 10 games for the third time in the last four seasons. While the offense adjusted to a new backfield, the Lions leaned on a D that ranks among the nation's leaders in sacks, run defense and scoring defense.
Key Matchup: Penn State WR KJ Hamler vs. Memphis CB TJ Carter Memphis' only loss of the season came to Temple. If the Tigers are to avoid going 0-for-Pennsylvania this year Carter and his fellow DBs must contain Hamler. Memphis is flush with weapons, like Gainwell and receivers Antonio Gibson and Damonte Coxie. Penn State will counter with the shifty Hamler, who's an all-around gamebreaker on offense and special teams.
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Wed., Jan. 1, 5:00 p.m., ESPN, Pasadena, Calif.
The Big Ten vs. the Pac-12 in Pasadena. Not a bad way to kick off the New Year in college football.
The Ducks played their way into the Rose Bowl by wining the Pac-12 North and then upsetting playoff hopeful Utah in the Dec. 7 league championship game. This will be the final NFL audition for QB Justin Herbert, who returned to Eugene for his senior year to perform in exactly these types of settings. Both schools are led by underrated defenses and physical, veteran offensive lines. Oregon's O-line wants to protect Herbert and spring CJ Verdell, while Wisconsin hopes to unleash perennial All-American RB Jonathan Taylor in what will likely be his Badger finale.
Key Matchup: Wisconsin OLB Zack Baun vs. Oregon LT Penei Sewell
Sewell has arguably been the nation's most complete blocker this season, particularly according to the Pro Football Focus grading system. And as just a sophomore he'll be back on campus again in 2020. His biggest immediate concern at the Rose Bowl will be containing Baun off the edge. Baun emerged as one of the breakout defensive stars this fall, and ranks second to Bednarik Award winner Chase Young in Big Ten sacks and tackles for loss.
Allstate Sugar Bowl
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Baylor
Wed., Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN, New Orleans, La.
The Sugar Bowl pits two teams who came within a championship game win from possibly landing a playoff berth. So who'll be more motivated in New Orleans?
After losing last year's SEC title game to Alabama in a heartbreaker, the Bulldogs sauntered into the Sugar Bowl and were picked off by a more motivated Texas squad. If Georgia is flat this bowl season, it's liable to get upset once more by a Big 12 squad with a chip on its shoulder. Under Matt Rhule, Baylor has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in 2019, losing only to Oklahoma - twice. The game will feature two of the nation's premier defenses, with both schools allowing less than 20 points per game.
Key Matchup: The Georgia O-Line vs. The Baylor D-Line When the Bulldogs have the ball, the battle in the trenches will be among the most physical and entertaining this entire postseason. Both teams are flush in next-level linemen, such as Georgia's Andrew Thomas and Solomon Kindley and Baylor's James Lynch, Bravvion Roy and James Lockhart. If the Dawgs are unable to move the pile on the Bears, it could be another frustrating game for an offense that averaged just 23.6 points per game in SEC play.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Sat., Dec. 28, 4:00 p.m., ESPN, Atlanta, Ga.
With all due respect to the other 38 bowl games, no one is staging a better quarterback battle than the Peach Bowl.
The first of two playoff semifinal games features a pair of Maxwell Award finalists who accounted for at least 50 touchdowns during the regular season. Jalen Hurts, who won SEC titles while at Alabama and now a Big 12 crown as a Sooner, has a chance to add another chapter to his brilliant college career. He'll need to be heroic to outperform LSU's Joe Burrow, the 2019 Maxwell Award winner. Burrow has destroyed the Tiger and SEC record books this fall, while leading the country with 48 touchdown passes. Defensive stops could come at a premium in Atlanta.
Key Matchup: Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb vs. LSU CB Derek Stingley For the Sooners to have a legitimate shot of upsetting the nation's top-ranked team, they'll need to unleash Lamb, one of the game's most exciting open-field playmakers. However, the Tigers continue to earn their DBU distinction. LSU will counter with veteran CB Kristian Fulton, and star S Grant Delpit should be as healthy as he's been all year. Oh, and Stingley was the most talented freshman in college football this season. How talented? NFL scouts say he'd already be a top 5 overall pick if he was available in the 2020 draft.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson
Sat., Dec. 28, 8:00 p.m., ESPN, Glendale, Ariz.
The best semifinal game in College Football Playoff history? Wouldn't fault you for thinking it.
This is about as good as it gets prior to the national championship game. Both teams are undefeated, having steamrolled through their schedules. Both rank in the top 4 nationally in scoring offense... and scoring D. And the rosters are littered with next-level stars, like Bednarik Award winner Chase Young of Ohio State. The quarterback battle between Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields? Spectacular. Clemson has won eight straight games by at least 31 points, while the Buckeyes' average margin of victory is 36 points. The ingredients are in place for this to become an instant classic in Glendale.
Key Matchup: Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins vs. Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons
Fields has been incredible in his Buckeye debut, accounting for 50 touchdowns and just a single interception. But Dobbins has been every bit as electrifying-and important to Ryan Day's attack. After suffering through a sophomore slump in 2018, Dobbins has rebounded with 22 total touchdowns and almost 6.5 yards per carry. He'll draw the attention of Simmons, the versatile Bednarik Award finalist who's as impactful in coverage as he is at stuffing the run.
The Maxwell and Bednarik Awards are members of the National College Football Awards Association (NCFAA), which encompasses the most prestigious awards in college football. Founded in 1997, the NCFAA and its 25 awards now boast over 800 recipients, dating to 1935. Visit ncfaa.org to learn more about the association.
For more information about PFF, please visit: www.profootballfocus.com
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