Commissioner’s Report: Big bowl game week for SEC

Friday, December 25, 2009 at 9:09pm

There’s a Christmas song that declares, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

I think a college football fan ought to agree with that sentiment. In the days BC (Before Cable) I used to carry two portable TVs over to my best friend’s house on New Year’s Day so that we could watch all the bowl games broadcast that day, from the Cotton (kickoff around 10:00 a.m.) to the Orange (final whistle at about 11:00 p.m.). We called it The High Holy Day.

The number of bowl games seems to creep up every year, and thanks to the BCS system, the bowl season now stretches well into January. This season, the SEC has a team playing in no fewer than 10 of the 34 post-season bowl games. And for the fourth consecutive year a conference team will be playing for the Big Crystal Football in the BCS Championship Game. I will have more to say about that game next week, but for now, let’s take a look at the other nine games in which SEC teams take on non-conference opponents in post-season play.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl (Dec. 31): Tennessee v. Virginia Tech

The post-season bowl games feature a contest sponsored by a tortilla chip, and one named for a pizzeria chain, but I do believe that this is the only college football post-season exhibition game to be named for a sandwich.

The Vols (7-5) take on the Hokies of Virginia Tech (9-3). The last two times that the Hokies visited the Georgia Dome, they came away losers. Can they turn that around?

From my personal observations of the Va. Tech fans on opening day, there is a good chance that a significant number who attended the Alabama game on Labor Day weekend will right about now have flattened their sentence for public drunkenness and will hit the streets just in time to tie another load on for the Hokies. After all, what would Hokie Football be without several thousand intoxicated, maroon-clad enthusiasts hopping up and down while jangling their car keys?

Tennessee ended up with a better season than play during the month of September promised. The Vols had quality wins over Georgia and South Carolina, and came within two blocked field goal attempts of beating the eventual SEC Champion. After being embarrassed by Ole Miss the Vols steadied themselves and finished the season with wins over perennial rivals, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Scandal has been lurking around the Tennessee program like a coyote just outside the chicken wire. Lane Kiffin’s verbal gaff-o-rama was followed by the botched armed robbery attempt that resulted in a pair of highly touted Kiffin recruits being kicked off the team and now the NCAA is looking into alleged extra-curricular activities in connection with recruiting efforts.

These distractions have not been helpful. Neither have defections from the coaching staff.

This game is not a good match-up for Tennessee. Virginia Tech has a balanced offense that runs the ball extremely well, a tough defense, and a very well coached kicking game. UT partisans greeted the invitation to play in the Chicken Sandwich Bowl with complaints that Auburn, which defeated Tennessee during the regular season, was invited to a “better” bowl. I hope the Vol players don’t have the same attitude. If they do, the Hokies are going to trounce them. The pick: Virginia Tech

The Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Auburn v. Northwestern

What two schools could possibly be more different than Auburn and Northwestern? One is a stately collection of neo-Gothic buildings, nestled in the Victorian ambiance of a lovely village that is world-famous for its academic rigor.

The other is Auburn.

One has a football program that is a perennial also-ran to its much more successful conference rivals. The other is… Well, come to think of it, Auburn and Northwestern do have some things in common. Although I cannot imagine Northwestern students rolling a tree with toilet paper in celebratory glee over winning a football game. My imagination, however limited, will not be taxed this year.

Auburn can score points on anyone and can play defense well enough to stymie the likes of Northwestern. The Wildcats finished the 2009 season ranked in the top three of the Big 10 Conference in eight statistical categories. The 2009 Tigers ranked in the top three of the SEC in ten statistical categories, including scoring offense, rushing offense and passing efficiency.

I ask you: would you rather finish as a statistical leader in the top tier of the SEC or of the Big 10? I thought so. The pick: Auburn

Capital One Bowl (Jan. 1): LSU v. Penn State

Just imagine the opposing sidelines at this game. On the Penn State side of the field there is the octogenarian Joe Paterno, wearing his horn-rimmed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, black high-topped easy-walker shoe, white shirt and skinny black tie. And over there on the LSU sideline is Les Miles wearing a dunce cap and a blank expression.

LSU will probably win this game, but only because the Tigers have more good athletes than the Nitany Lions. If the outcome of the game comes down to coaching, however, I would put my money on the cantankerous old geezer to beat the guy who does less with more than any other coach in his conference. The pick: LSU

Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Florida v. Cincinnati

In the first few days after the SEC Championship Game, I would have picked Cincinnati to beat the Gators. Florida’s players had seen their season get ground into pulp by Alabama and they were relegated to play in a consolation game against an angry opponent who could legitimately claim to have been the victim of bias in the selection process.

Since then, however, the Cincinnati coach has said “adios” to his team and packed off to South Bend. There is no way that Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and the rest of the Gators are going to let themselves lose to a team that has no coach. The pick: Florida

Papajohns.com Bowl (Jan. 2): South Carolina v. UConn

What’s up with this? Whose idea is it to name a bowl game after a Web site? And is there any bowl game in America that has a more ironic name than this one? I mean, think about it. This game is named after a pizza company that specializes in delivering pies to your door. But it is played at Legion Field, which is located in a part of Birmingham where you can’t get a pizza delivered after dark.

The Huskies have been playing on emotion ever since cornerback and star punt-return specialist, Jasper Howard, was murdered on campus back in October. For the Connecticut players, any kind of post-season game is a partial vindication of their traumatic season.

For the Fighting Chickens, on the other hand, I cannot imagine why they would possibly care about this game. The Roosters compiled a record of 5-1 in the first half of the season including wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss.

A narrow, might-have-been, loss to Georgia was the only blemish on the South Carolina record prior to their Oct. 17 trip to Tuscaloosa. After Alabama beat them by two touchdowns, the only SEC team that South Carolina managed to defeat the rest of the way was hapless Vanderbilt. After an open date, the Yard Birds whipped Clemson 34-17 to conclude a 7-5 season.

Maybe that last game tells us more about Clemson than it does South Carolina. The only other teams the Gamecocks beat as badly as they did the Tigers were S.C. State and Florida Atlantic.

The last time the Cocks were in the State of Alabama the wheels came off their season. Even though I can find no reason whatsoever for the Birds to be fired up about playing a bowl game in Birmingham, especially against a team with an emotional chip on its shoulder, it is hard for me to pick against a team from the SEC in a game against the Big East. Plus, the Old Ball Coach has had four weeks to get his team ready to play. Shoot, that’s enough time for Steve Spurrier to play golf and still get a lot of coaching done. The pick: South Carolina

The Cotton Bowl (Jan. 2): Ole Miss v. Oklahoma State

In last year’s Cotton Bowl, Ole Miss whipped Texas Tech 47-34. That upset bowl win did as much as anything to contribute to the pre-season expectations for the Rebs in 2009.

To say the Rebs failed to live up to expectations is like saying Tiger Woods failed to honor his marriage vows. A record of 9-3, with a win over LSU would have been OK, but on the last day of the regular season Ole Miss managed to lose to Mississippi State. And the Rebs didn’t just lose. They were crushed 41-27 with the Bulldogs owning the fourth quarter. The Rebels were never routed that badly in the War Between the States.

Oklahoma State (9-3) opened its season by beating Georgia, and lost only to Houston, Texas and Oklahoma. Teams from the Big 12 aren’t known for their punishing defenses — with the exception of Nebraska. But Ole Miss isn’t playing Nebraska. It’s playing a team that has allowed opponents to average 330 yards of total offense per game.

If Dexter McCluster can have the kind of day he had against Tennessee, then Ole Miss should win this one easily. If the Cowboys manage to make the Rebs one dimensional, then Ole Miss will have a very tough time. Something tells me Dexter will have a big day. The pick: Ole Miss

The Autozone Liberty Bowl (Jan. 2): Arkansas v. East Carolina

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never quite gotten the charm of Memphis. Nashville has better music. New Orleans has better food. Even Birmingham has better barbeque. And for whatever reason, big-time football has never been able to take root in the Bluff City. Remember the Memphis Showboats? No?

Well, certainly you remember the dreadful year that the Tennessee Oilers played their “home” games in the Liberty Bowl stadium. The citizens of Memphis were so mad because Nashville had a pro football team land in its lap that they practically boycotted the games when they were played in their city. Not even Bud Adams exhortation that “we are all Memphenites” was enough to entice Memphians to support the team.

The one exception to the long, dreary history of Memphis football failure is the Liberty Bowl. For 50 years, some of college football finest players and coaches have appeared in this post-season exhibition game. Bo Jackson (Auburn ’84), Lawrence Taylor (North Carolina ’77) and Archie Manning (Ole Miss ’68) played in the Liberty Bowl. Joe Paterno, Tom Osborne and Lou Holtz coached Penn State, N.C. State and Oklahoma in the Liberty. Paul Bryant made four appearances in the Liberty Bowl with Alabama including his final game as a head football coach on Dec. 29, 1982.

The 2010 Liberty Bowl features the Hogs and the East Carolina Pirates. ECU (9-4) has already paid a visit to West Tennessee earlier this season when it beat the University of Memphis 38-19 in a game where the Pirates gained nearly 500 yards of total offense.

Arkansas finished the regular season with a record of 7-5, but each of its losses was to an opponent in the SEC; against non-conference opposition, the Hogs were unbeaten and the loss to LSU was in overtime. Quarterback Ryan Mallett has thrown for 29 touchdowns this season and has averaged 285 yards per game through the air. His completion percentage and yards gained passing would be lots higher if he didn’t throw the ball so hard. I don’t think any quarterback in the league suffered from more dropped passes than did Mallett.

I think that ECU is going to be a scrappy opponent who will give the Hogs a scare. In the end, however, Arkansas has better athletes and more of them. The SEC has a Liberty Bowl record of 13-5 against non-conference opponents. The Hogs should add another one in the “W” column on Jan. 2. The Pick: Arkansas

The Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl (Dec. 27):

The Commish's pick: Clemson
Final score: Clemson 21, Kentucky 13

The Independence Bowl (Dec. 28): Georgia v. Texas A&M

The Commish's pick: Georgia
Final score: Georgia 44, Texas A&M 20