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Bowl season is here, and once again the SEC is well-represented with 10 of the 12 SEC teams participating in postseason play. Here's how I rank the bowls involving SEC teams, starting with No. 10.
10) BBVA Compass Bowl – Pittsburgh vs. Kentucky
Talk about a snooze-fest. After starting 3-0, Kentucky stumbled down the stretch (or, pretty much the whole season), losing six of its last nine games, including its 26th straight loss to Tennessee to close out the season. To make matters worse, starting quarterback Mike Hartline has been suspended for the bowl game by head coach Joker Phillips for a recent arrest for alcohol intoxication and disorderly conduct. Pitt running back Dion Lewis closed out the season with 261 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Cincinnati, and Kentucky ranks next-to-last in the SEC in rush defense. Uh oh.
9) AutoZone Liberty Bowl – Central Florida vs. Georgia
After starting 1-4 and losing on the road at Colorado, it appeared that Georgia's season was spiraling out of control. A soft schedule to close out the season really benefited the Bulldogs, but their reward is less than inspiring. A trip to Memphis to play a team from Conference USA is hardly the reward that Dawg Nation expected in the preseason. But, let's be honest, the game itself is merely an afterthought. Georgia desperately needed these extra bowl practices, and that's what's important. Neither Georgia's season perception nor Mark Richt's job status will be affected by the outcome of the Liberty Bowl – no matter what the outcome is.
8) Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl – North Carolina vs. Tennessee
Much like Georgia, Tennessee should just be thankful that it gets to have bowl practices. The Vols evolved from second half pushover to worthy competitor as the season progressed thanks in large part to Tyler Bray, who took over as starting quarterback in early November. As a reward, Tennessee gets to play in front of the home crowd in Nashville, against a North Carolina team that has had one of the most turbulent seasons in recent memory. An ACC vs. SEC bowl matchup always is fun, even if it involves two middle-of-the-road teams.
7) Outback Bowl – Penn State vs. Florida
The Outback Bowl is usually (not always) reserved for the best SEC East after the Capital One Bowl makes its selection. I'll bet the Outback Bowl committee was excited to get the Florida Gators in the game, which is played in Tampa, Fla. But aside from it being Urban Meyer's last game, the intrigue in this one is lacking. Both of these teams have been mediocre on offense all year long, and with Florida switching to a pro-style offense under new head coach Will Muschamp, there's really no need for the Gators to establish an offensive identity now.
6) Progressive Gator Bowl – Michigan vs. Mississippi State
After a two-year absence, Michigan returns to the postseason to take on a Mississippi State team that has been one of the biggest surprises in college football this year. Mississippi State boasts the SEC's third-best rush defense, so Michigan's do-everything quarterback Denard Robinson will have his hands full against the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs have surprised a lot of people this year, but didn't win any of their games against tough opponents. That won't change on New Year's Day even if the Bulldogs beat the Wolverines, but a nine-win season is a nine-win season any way you slice it. Mississippi State can get to nine wins on New Year's Day.
5) Capital One Bowl – Michigan State vs. Alabama
So Michigan State has enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history, is tri-champion of the Big Ten, has only lost one game…and is a double-digit underdog to a three-loss Alabama team. If that doesn't indicate the difference between the Big Ten and the SEC, I'm not sure what will. Motivation is always a factor in bowl games, and Alabama expected to be higher up the bowl food chain than it is. But, with this being the last game for senior quarterback Greg McElroy – and probably for juniors Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus – the Tide shouldn't have any problem sending some of its stars out as winners.
4) Chick-Fil-A Bowl – Florida State vs. South Carolina
Regardless of the matchup, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl always seems to be one of the best bowl games of the year. This year should be no different. South Carolina finally got the monkey off its back, winning the SEC East for the first time ever. Florida State finished second in the nation in sacks, so the Gamecock offensive line has some work to do. On the other side, the South Carolina pass defense is mediocre at best. If Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder can play, the Seminoles are capable of putting up big numbers on the scoreboard. Just a thought…I'd take the over, which will make New Year's Eve even more fun.
3) AT&T Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M vs. LSU
For the majority of the season, LSU skated by with minimal offense thanks to one of the best defenses in the country. But the last two games of the season vs. Ole Miss and Arkansas, the Tiger offense came alive and the defense went into hibernation. They might need both units clicking in Big D to take care of Texas A&M, which has won six straight games after being blown out at home by Missouri in mid-October. These two teams should be in contention for conference titles next year, so expect a good game in Jerry World.
2) Allstate Sugar Bowl – Ohio State vs. Arkansas
Aside from Auburn, Arkansas finished the regular season playing as well as any other team in the SEC, earning its first trip to the Sugar Bowl since 1980. As a reward, the Razorbacks draw perpetual SEC bowl punching bag Ohio State in New Orleans, in what's sure to be one of the best bowl games of the season. The Buckeyes are 0-9 all-time vs. the SEC in bowl games, and the pressure is on to avoid making it 10 straight. Ohio State boasts the nation's second-best defense, and Arkansas has been known to put up video game numbers on the scoreboard. Something's gotta give in the Superdome…and I'm guessing that it'll be the Buckeye D. Since Knile Davis took over as Arkansas' every-down running back, the Razorbacks have been fantastic.
1) Tostitos BCS National Championship Game – Oregon vs. Auburn
The BCS takes a lot of criticism, but its primary goal is to match the country's two best teams in a bowl game to determine a national champion. It accomplished its goal this year. Oregon and Auburn are both mirror images of each other – lots of offense and questionable defense. This game will be determined up front, particularly when the Tigers are on offense. Auburn's offensive line outweighs Oregon's defensive line by an average of 60 pounds, so I'd expect the Tigers to play an old school ground and pound style of football until the Ducks prove that they can stop it. That will wear Oregon's defense out and keep its explosive offense off the field.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
2010 Column Archive:
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam's Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Newton Scandal Is Full Of Questions – November 5, 2010
UNC's Problems Could Hurt Les Miles – August 31, 2010
Predicting The SEC – August 23, 2010
Top Five Games Inside The SEC – August 22, 2010
Ranking The SEC Out-Of-Conference Games – August 21, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part IV – August 10, 2010
SEC Teams In The Coaches Poll – August 7, 2010
Ranking The SEC Head Coaches – August 2, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 3 Recap – July 23, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 2 Recap – July 22, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 1 Recap – July 21, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part III – July 13, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part II – June 21, 2010
Auburn Gets The Last Laugh – June 10, 2010
Realignment – What Should The SEC Do? – June 9, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part I – June 7, 2010
Richt On The Hot Seat? – June 3, 2010
Auburn Dismisses Redshirt Freshman RB – May 21, 2010
SEC Hires of the Decade – The Bottom Five – May 14, 2010
Top 5 SEC Hires of the Decade – May 5, 2010
Georgia In A Gray Area – April 26, 2009
Taunting Rule Goes Too Far – April 16, 2009
Memorable SEC Press Conferences – February 20, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 2 – February 18, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 1 – February 16, 2009
Florida Reaches For DC – February 12, 2009
Vols Go West For New DC – February 3, 2009
Early 2010 SEC Predictions – January 31, 2010
Chizik Doing It Right – January 21, 2010
Georgia's DC Debacle – January 12, 2010
SEC Bloggers: Do Over – January 8, 2010
Trouble In Baton Rouge – January 2, 2010
Meyer Calls A Reverse – December 27, 2009
Urban Meyer's SEC Legacy – December 26, 2009
End Of The Season Accountability – December 26, 2009
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 18, 2009
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009