Bowl season heats up on Saturday, December 29 for the stretch run to the National Championship game. Among the five games to be played are the semifinal contests between Clemson and Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas, and the Orange Bowl semi in Miami between Alabama and Oklahoma. The other contests are the Belk, Peach and Arizona Bowls to lead off the day.
No 'regular; bowl is dumb enough to put itself opposite of the playoff so the Balk Bowl (ABC) and Peach Bowl (ESPN) start at Noon ET while the Arizona Bowl (CBSSN) kicks of at 1:15 p.m. ET.
The Belk Bowl, as usual, is an ACC-SEC clash which this year pits No. 41 South Carolina (7-5, 4-4 SEC East) against No. 52 Virginia (7-5, 4-4 ACC Coastal). The Gamecocks were the computer's (Congrove Computer Rankings at CollegeFootballPoll.com) preseason pick to win their division. On the field, South Carolina couldn't find a groove and found itself in a close battle nearly every week. From October 6 to November 10, South Carolina's five games were all decided by 4 points or less with narrow wins over Missouri and Tennessee, and Ole Miss, but also close losses to Texas A&M and Florida. Not only did Virginia overachieve the computer's projection of a 4-8 mark, they came within 4 points or less of winning 3 other contests. Most disheartening for Cavalier fans was a season-ending 34-31 overtime loss at Virginia Tech for their 15th straight defeat at the hands of the Hokies. These teams were founding members of the ACC and conference rivals from 1953 to 1970, but the Gamecocks left to become an independent in 1971 and later joined the SEC in 1992. Virginia was 8-21 in the first 10 games these teams ever played from 1912 to 1951, but South Carolina has dominated the series from 1952 to1981 by going 17-2. They've only 4 times since then with each team winning a pair and the last meeting occurring in 2003. Virginia is just 7-12 all-time in bowl games and is 0-3 since its last bowl win in 2005. South Carolina is 4-1 in its last 5 bowl games to improve its over-all record to 9-13. The Gamecocks are a 6.38-point computer favorite to win another this year in the Belk Bowl.
The Peach Bowl is generally one of the better 'New Year's 6' bowls (Peach, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, Sugar and Rose) but lays a bit of an egg in this year's ho-hum matchup of No. 6 Michigan and No. 19 Florida. The computer has Michigan favored by 15.45 points for the largest spread, by far, of all of the bowl games. Oddsmakers have the Wolverines favored by a more conservative 7 to 7-1/2. However, upsets can happen as Auburn discovered last year when the Tigers lost 34-27 to UCF after entering the game as an 8.43-point favorite. This year's edition of the Gators - in their first season under Dan Mullen - went 9-3 overall but just 5-3 in the SEC. The Gators also haven't defeated a good opponent since the end of September and early October when they knocked off Mississippi State and LSU on consecutive weekends. They were vastly outplayed in losses to Georgia and Missouri in games 8 and 9. Michigan got embarrassed by Ohio State in its final game, and that just seems to be a Michigan thing - especially under Jim Harbaugh. But Florida played the 60th-ranked scheduled while Michigan faced the 5th-ranked schedule and Michigan still finished the regular season with a better record (10-2 vs. 9-3), a defense ranked 1st vs. Florida's 27th, and offense stats that are basically even. The computer trend line has the Wolverines favored by 10.72 to beat Florida for their first bowl win since the last time they played Florida in a bowl game (2015 Citrus). In fact, Michigan is 4-0 all-time vs. Florida with 3 bowl wins. (NOTE: Michigan RB Karan Higdon declared for the NFL Draft and will not play, joining DL Rashan Gary and LB Devin Bush).
The Arizona Bowl is one of the newest kids on the block, having begun in 2015. If this bowl didn't exist last year, New Mexico State might still be waiting for its first bowl bid since 1960. As it turned out, the all-Aggies matchup with Utah State saw NMSU prevail 26-20 in overtime. This year's game pits No. 60 Arkansas State (8-4, 5-3 Sun Belt West) against No. 72 Nevada (7-5, 5-3 MWC West). These schools have met five times previously with the Wolf Pack holding a 3-2 advantage, but this is their first get-together since both were members of the Big West in 1999. Arkansas State was the total offense leader of the Sun Belt in 2018 and ranks 20th nationally. Nevada was 3rd in that category in the Mountain West and ranks 34th nationally. These teams are statistically even on defense. The computer has this as as the 4th-closest spread of all the bowl games as it favors the Red Wolves by 1.27.
Now we get to the big stuff as the Cotton Bowl gets underway at 4:00 p.m. ET with the computer's top-ranked team, Clemson (13-0, 8-0 ACC Atlantic), facing the computer's 3rd-ranked team, Notre Dame (12-0 Independent) and the Tigers favored by 7.93. The Irish have been embarrassed in big postseason events for the last couple of decades, including a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 season BCS Championship game. Most recently, they were bashed 44-28 by Ohio State in the 2015 season Fiesta Bowl. Brian Kelly is 4-3 in bowl games at Notre Dame. His counterpart, Dabo Swinney, has guided Clemson to the Final Four in each of the past four seasons, including a win over Alabama in the 2016 Championship game and a loss to the Tide in 2015 game. These teams have only met three times and two of those meetings were in the 1970's. But they finally met again in the regular season in 2015 with Clemson prevailing 24-22 in Death Valley as Notre Dame's rally from a 24-9 fourth quarter deficit fell short when the Tigers forced a DeShone Kizer fumble on a two-point conversion run attempt with 7 seconds left. For this game, Clemson brings the nation's 5th-most potent offense to the gridrion and the 4th-stingiest defense. Notre Dame ranks 28th on offense and 22nd on defense.
The night cap on December is the Orange Bowl (8:00 p.m. ET) with the computer's second-ranked team, Alabama (13-0, 8-0 SEC West), facing the computer's 5th-ranked team, Oklahoma (12-1, 8-1 Big 12). Oklahoma lost 54-48 in OT to Georgia last year in a Final Four Playoff game at the Rose Bowl in Lincoln Riley's inaugural season as head coach. Riley has his troops back in the hunt with a second consecutive Heisman-winning QB as future MLB baseball player Kyler Murray has already broken Baker Mayfield's record for total offense in a season, and his passer rating of 205.72 tops Mayfield's FBS record of 198.90. If the Sooners weren't so bad on defense, we might be looking at a legitimate shot for them to beat Alabama and advance to the championship game. But Oklahoma ranks 108th on 'D' while 'Bama ranks 10th. Of course, Alabama has the Heisman runner-up in QB Tua Tagovailoa who has a passer rating of 202.30 which also tops Mayfield's record. We don't usually put a score on a game but can't resist giving this one a shot. We'll go with 52-42, Alabama. The computer favors the Tide by only 4.47 which is well under the Vegas line of 14.