Happy bowl season, readers. In this column, we'll be rolling through our bowl confidence picks, starting at 1 (least confident) and rolling up to 40 (most confident). Strap in and enjoy!
1. Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl: Saturday, Dec. 21 -- SMU (10-2) vs. FAU (10-3)
Just how much will the Owls end up missing Lane Kiffin, we’re curious. Because this is a team which lost one game after Week 2 -- OSU and UCF started them out 0-2. The offense, in particular, has been clicking, topping 30 points in every game since Oct. 12 and dropping at least 40 points in four of their final five games, including their 49-6 disintegration of UAB in the C-USA title game. SMU is being coached by an established Power Five mind in Sonny Dykes, has not lost a game by more than seven points this year and notched an upset of TCU during the regular season. That the Mustangs couldn’t quite parlay their early season success into a conference title showing, we like Shane Buechele and the boys to finish things off against an Owls team of uncertain mindset.
The pick: SMU
2. Walk-ons Independence Bowl: Thursday, Dec. 26 -- Louisiana Tech (9-3) vs. Miami (6-6)
Once again, we have had a false call of The U being back, with the optimism around Manny Diaz’s offseason taking over for the retired Mark Richt quickly running aground after the season got underway. The Hurricanes stumbled through the season with multiple faceplants, including an overtime loss to a rebuilding -- like from the ground up -- Georgia Tech team. And when Miami finally had an encouraging showing with a 52-27 win over Louisville (QB Jarren Williams threw a school-best six touchdown passes in that game), they followed it up with back-to-back losses to FIU and Duke to close out the regular season. As Kevin McCallister would say, woof.
Miami can’t run -- last in the ACC on the ground -- and, here’s a shocker, their offensive line is bad. Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, has a back who could top 1,000 yards rushing for the season in Justin Henderson, a receiver who went over 1,000 yards in 2018 in Adrian Hardy (who, granted, will come into the Independence Bowl with just 525 receiving yards for 2019) and a quarterback in J’Mar Smith who is playing at the best level of his full-time-starting career in terms of completion percentage (65.8) and YPA (8.3). He’s also cut back on interceptions from a year ago, when he tossed 10. Just four in 2019. Miami has more theoretical talent. But we’ll take actuality over theory, here. One last parting fact -- Louisiana Tech has won five straight bowls, tied with Wisconsin for the longest current FBS win streak.
The pick: Louisiana Tech
3. Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Saturday, Dec. 28 -- Penn State (10-2) vs. Memphis (12-1)
When first running through the matchup slate, this one stuck out to us as a sticky spot. The Nittany Lions’ season deflated like a balloon with down-the-stretch losses to Minnesota and Ohio State. Their November finale against Rutgers ended with a shrug of a 27-6 home win. The Nits could be without KJ Hamler depending on his draft decision. Memphis, meanwhile, might have lost Mike Norvell to Florida State, but their promotion of Ryan Silverfield should help keep team stability for a crew which just won the AAC. A motivated Penn State team probably wins this game. We don’t know if we’re getting that.
The pick: Memphis
4. Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl: Friday, Dec. 20 -- Utah State (7-5) vs. Kent State (6-6)
This will be Aggies QB Jordan Love’s final chance to impress scouts after turning in an ultra-disappointing 2019 in which his both his completion percentage and YPA dropped off considerably. One aspect of his game did spike, though. His turnovers. He owns just a 17/16 TD/INT ratio on the year. This will be just Kent State’s fourth bowl in school history and first in seven years. Golden Flashes QB Dustin Crum is anathema to Love in that he almost never turns it over -- just two picks this season -- and that he plays with pick-you-apart deficiency. Kent State is simply sturdier, even if they lack the name brand quarterback.
The pick: Kent State
5. New Mexico Bowl: Saturday, Dec. 21 -- Central Michigan (8-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)
We’re all about a good football redemption story and you’ve got that with CMU HC Jim McElwain, who flailed about like a grounded shark at Florida, spent one year with Michigan’s go-nowhere offense in 2018 then resurfaced to bring the 1-11 team which he inherited at Central Michigan all the way to the MAC title game. They didn’t win that title game, alas for the narrative. As much as we love what McElwain has done in Year 1 with the Chippewas, Rocky Long’s defensive unit at San Diego State plays like a muggy midsummer day, enveloping the opposition with a humid oppression. SDSU’s defense allowed more than 20 points twice, all season. Utah State got ‘em for 23 on Sept. 7 and Wyoming nicked ‘em for 22 on Oct. 12. That’s it. That San Diego State has a 9-3 record despite ranking 119th in the country in scoring tells you just how dominant that defense has been this fall.
The pick: San Diego State
6. CFP National Championship: Monday, Jan. 13 -- Clemson (theoretically 14-0) vs. LSU (theoretically 14-0)
Get ready for the Trevor Lawrence repeat.
The pick: Clemson
7. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Saturday, Jan. 4 -- Southern Miss (7-5) vs. Tulane (6-6)
A good ol’ strength-on-strength matchup, here, as Tulane boasts a top-15 rushing offense nationally led by QB Justin McMillan, who has accounted for 26 total touchdowns, with 704 rushing yards to his credit. Southern Miss, though? Kinda awesome against the run, ranking 18th nationally on a per-game average. We think Southern Miss frustrates what the Green Wave do best. Look for them to coax an interception or two out of McMillan if they can gunk up the works -- McMillan threw 10 picks during the regular season.
The pick: Southern Miss
8. Camellia Bowl: Saturday, Dec. 21 -- FIU (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-5)
We understand that making picks with our hearts, rather than our minds, can be problematic. But you have to believe in something, and we choose to believe that an Arkansas State season which began with Georgia fans wearing pink in tribute to the late Wendy Anderson is going to end with Anderson pointing to the sky after his kids take out Florida International. Is that a rational explanation? No. FIU got its signature win, against Miami on Nov. 23, before losing to Marshall in overtime to close the regular season.
The pick: Arkansas State
9. Capital One Orange Bowl: Monday, Dec. 30 -- Florida (10-2) vs. Virginia (9-4)
There are limitations a-plenty in Florida’s offense, but boy howdy, that defense is death’s pale white horse. The only team to put up more than 30 on Florida was LSU, which, well, you know. We love ourselves UVA QB Bryce Perkins, but in the two games this season in which Virginia has played a top-caliber defense -- Notre Dame and Clemson -- the Cavaliers scored a combined 37 points. We’ll boil this down to a simple equation, one which we think bears out: If the Gators score more than 24 points they win. 21 might be the rubicon, here. Blackjack, baby.
The pick: Florida
10. Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: Monday, Dec. 23 -- UCF (9-3) vs. Marshall (8-4)
The Knights will be without OC Jeff Lebby -- heading to Florida State -- in this one, but we don’t think that matters. UCF’s offense is a level above even without Lebby. While this isn’t quite the quasi-Playoff contender version of the Knights that we saw the last two seasons -- vulnerable enough to lose to Tulsa, for instance -- the offense remains hot lava when it’s clicking, capable of scoring in a heartbeat thanks to a menagerie of options at running back, the stylings of future NFL wideout Gabriel Davis and wunderkid QB Dillon Gabriel.
The pick: UCF