Bowling for normalcy

By Ryan S. Pugh

CLARION NEWS Sports Editor

Before I get started with my annual magnum opus prediction column for the 2020-2021 college football bowl season, let me just say that this column will look a lot different than my columns of the past because of, you guessed it, COVID-19.

Many bowl-eligible teams' players decided to sit out this year's bowl season. In most cases, it was the players who voted for the team to decline the bowl invitation.

I can't say as I blame them. If your team is having an 11-1 or a 9-2 season and is invited to play in a traditional New Year's Day bowl, I would question a refusal to play. However, if the team is 6-5 and scheduled to play in a bowls with Gasparilla in its name, I can see saying, "thanks but no thanks" to that particular bowl committee.

I can't imagine it would be enjoyable to spend a week or so at a bowl site without getting any of the parties or activities which go along with playing in a bowl due to COVID-19 safety protocols. As it's been said, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

We are midway through the 2020-21 bowl season so you're not going to get picks for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl.

The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is played in Boise, Idaho, and the bowl has been around for almost 30 years. It has always boggled my mind that someone thought Boise would make a good bowl site. I have never been to Boise and I am sure it is a fine town but I can't imagine Boise in December is a fun place to be for a college kid. I mean, the nearest warm weather beach is around 800 miles away. Boise hosting a bowl game in December is the equivalent of Pittsburgh hosting a bowl game in December. Now that I have offended the residents of both Boise and Pittsburgh, let's get to the picks.

Dec. 29

Cheez-It Bowl

Oklahoma State (7-3) vs. Miami (Fla.) (8-2)

Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Florida), 5:30 p.m.

This is could easily be called the "what might have been" bowl as Oklahoma State started the season 4-0 while Miami opened 2020 at 3-0 and both programs had New Year's Day bowl games in their mind. But the Cowboys lost three of its next five after its hot start while Miami saw its championship hopes dashed when the Hurricanes got crushed by Clemson in week four.

Oklahoma State will be without its leading rusher Chuba Hubbard as Hubbard opted to leave the program in early December to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Miami's last game was a loss to North Carolina which saw the Hurricanes allow 62 points. I think Miami desperately needs a win in this bowl game to wash the bad taste of 62 points out of their mouths. That and a couple of handfuls of the complimentary Cheez-Its should do the trick.

Miami 37, Oklahoma State 21

Valero Alamo Bowl

Texas (6-3) vs. Colorado (4-1)

Alamodome (San Antonio), 9 p.m.

The question around college football in recent years has been "is Texas back?" It seems every time the Longhorns have a win of any significance, Texas supporters and media pundits opine as to whether said win will kick start the program's return to its glory days of the mid-2000s when the Longhorns and quarterback Vince Young beat USC for the national title in maybe the greatest game in the history of college football. But if the Longhorns are playing in the Valero Alamo Bowl, they ain't back.

Poor Colorado had an abbreviated season because of the Pac-12's hemming and hawing as to whether or not have a season for the better part of two months. It wasn't until all of the other Power Five conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference) decided to play. I have not watched any of Colorado's games this year so I am kind of in the dark when it comes to the Buffaloes (to be honest, I didn't see too many of the other teams in this year's bowl field).

I think Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger will be the difference maker in this game. Ehlinger has 25 touchdown passes and five interceptions this year.

Texas 42, Colorado 24

Dec. 30

Duke's Mayo Bowl

Wake Forest (4-4) vs. Wisconsin (3-3)

Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, North Carolina), Noon

You know bowl game naming has hit the wall when the naming rights are going to a mayonnaise manufacturer.

COVID-19 wrecked Wisconsin's schedule as the Badgers saw two of its games get cancelled due to the virus. Things have not went well for the Badgers on the field either as Wisconsin suffered through a three-game losing streak which saw the Badgers score a total of 20 points in those games. Wisconsin is one of those teams people thinks is really good because the Badgers wipe out a slew of cupcakes in their non-conference slate early in the year and run roughshod over the normally weak Big Ten western division. But when Wisconsin faces teams with pedigree like Ohio State or Penn State, the Badgers usually get their doors blown off.

Wake Forest beat up on some middle of the road ACC schools and voila, the Demon Deacons are in a bowl. Wake Forest is nothing special.

Wisconsin 30, Wake Forest 22

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Oklahoma (8-2) vs. Florida (8-3)

AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas), 8 p.m.

I'm just not that big into the Cotton Bowl since they moved the game out of the Cotton Bowl and into Jerry Jones' monolith of a stadium. I also want the Cotton Bowl to be played on New Year's Day in the elements. The great thing about the Cotton Bowl played at the old stadium was weather was a factor. The greatest Cotton Bowl might have been the 1979 game when Notre Dame's Joe Montana fought through a case of the flu to lead the Fighting Irish to a 35-34 comeback win over Houston in an ice storm. They don't make games like that anymore.

After an early bobble, Oklahoma has come on strong stringing together seven-straight wins after opening the season 1-2. Sooners' freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler (talk about a great name) has been a big part of Oklahoma's resurgence. Rattler has thrown for 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.

Florida was in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff but a late season home loss to LSU put the kibosh on the Gators chances. The Gators gave their all against Alabama in the SEC Championship game but I don't know if Florida can get up for this game against the Sooners.

Oklahoma 50, Florida 31

Dec. 31

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

Tulsa (6-2) vs. Mississippi State (3-7)

Amon G. Carter Stadium (Fort Worth, Texas), Noon

Mississippi State looked like world beaters when the Bulldogs took down defending national champion LSU in week one but then we saw LSU wasn't the same LSU and Mississippi State went on to lose its next four in a row. The Bulldogs limped into this bowl game and are only in it because of opt outs and a relaxing of the rules.

Tulsa is good and I think they are going to let everyone know how good it is on a national stage by manhandling Mississippi State.

Tulsa 45, Mississippi State 35

Offerpad Arizona Bowl

Ball State (6-1) vs. San Jose State (7-0), 2 p.m.

Arizona Stadium (Tucson, Arizona)

This would have normally been the time and date when the Sun Bowl was played but due to COVID-19 concerns, the Sun Bowl decided to cancel.

My biggest question is; what is Offerpad? Is it like some sort of iPad rip-off made by Sorny (Simpsons fans know)? (Actually, Offerpad is a service which lets you list your home for sale online. Thanks Google, you're a real life saver).

This the best season San Jose State has seen in a long time posting a 7-0 record including a 34-20 win over traditional Mountain West power Boise State. A big reason for the Spartans' success has been the play of senior quarterback Nick Starkle who has 16 TD passes and just four interceptions.

Ball State has also had a good season as the Cardinals won their first MidAmerican Conference championship since 1996. Ball State won its last six in a row. This should be an entertaining game but I have to give the edge to San Jose State.

San Jose State 31, Ball State 27

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

West Virginia (5-4) vs. Army (9-2)

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis, Tennessee), 4 p.m.

Originally, Army was supposed to play in the Independence Bowl but that game got cancelled due to the pandemic so the Black Knights were scrambling for an opponent. But Army then was able to take Tennessee's spot in the Liberty Bowl when the Volunteers' program saw a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Watching Army is like watching the Oklahoma and Nebraska teams of my youth. There is a lot of option rushing with little or no passing.

West Virginia will have its hands full against the Black Knights rushing attack.

Army 24, West Virginia 21

Mercari Texas Bowl

Arkansas (3-7) vs. TCU (6-4)

NRG Stadium (Houston), 8 p.m.

Is it me or have bowl organizers gotten really lazy when it comes to naming bowls? This is the second bowl in the lineup named after a state. At least the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl had some zip in its name back in the day.

However, I guess this bland name is perfect for this bland matchup.

I give TCU the edge because they have actually beaten some teams of consequence. The Razorbacks gave up 102 points in its last two games.

TCU 55, Arkansas 10

Jan. 1

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Cincinnati (9-0) vs. Georgia (7-2)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta), Noon

The Peach Bowl is the bowl which moved up a tier and nobody really noticed. When I was a kid, teams like East Carolina and NC State got invited to the Peach Bowl. Now the game is part of the "New Year's Six" and is in the rotation for the College Football Playoff.

This might be the game to watch on New Year's Day (I don't think either of the College Football Playoff games are going to be as good as this matchup but more on that later).

Cincinnati has not played the powerhouse schedule Georgia has had to play but the Bearcats beat everyone in front of them. Cincinnati's defense is the Bearcats bread and butter as Cincinnati allows just 16 points per game.

Georgia's defense is no slouch either as the Bulldogs are only allowing 19.9 ppg. Georgia's only two losses came at the hands of Alabama and Florida.

I know it has been a dream season for the Bearcats but I think Georgia's bonafides will be too much for the Bearcats. Look for Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels spark the Bulldogs' offense. Daniels has led the Bulldogs to three-straight wins since taking over the starting job.

Georgia 27, Cincinnati 24

Vrbo Citrus Bowl

Auburn (6-4) vs. Northwestern (6-2)

Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Florida), 1 p.m.

For some programs, a 6-4 record is an accomplishment but at Auburn, it gets you fired. Auburn fired head coach Gus Malzahn was fired after putting together a 6-4 mark. Life is hard in the SEC.

Northwestern was one half of football away from shaking the College Football Playoff to its core but the Wildcats upset bid of Ohio State withered in the second half of Northwestern's 22-10 loss to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game. If the Wildcats win that game, they have a legitimate case for a College Football Playoff bid but it was for naught.

Northwestern is a good team and could be a player in the Big Ten Western Division for years to come.

Northwestern 24, Auburn 20

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game

Alabama (11-0) vs Notre Dame (10-1)

AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas), 4 p.m.

This game was originally scheduled to be played in the Rose Bowl but a spike in COVID-19 cases in southern California forced the game to be moved to Arlington, Texas.

They could play this game on Mars and it wouldn't matter. Alabama is going to run roughshod over the Fighting Irish. Remember back in the 2013 BCS National Championship game (also known as the Lennay Kakua Classic) when Notre Dame came into the game against the Crimson Tide with all the momentum in the world and the echoes were about to be woken up, etc? Yeah, the game was competitive for about six minutes. I don't think this year's game will be even that close. The Crimson Tide offense goes up and down the field with alacrity as Alabama is averaging 49.7 ppg, in the SEC. Let that sink in.

The Fighting Irish faithful better hit up grotto a couple of extra times before this one.

Alabama 52, Notre Dame 14

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl

Clemson (10-1) vs. Ohio State (6-0)

Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans), 8 p.m.

As much of a bloodbath the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup has the potential to be, this one might get uglier.

I have watched Ohio State a couple of times this season and in my opinion, the Buckeyes just aren't that good. Well, they're not as good as they have been in the recent past.

Clemson has righted the ship after a midseason bobble at Notre Dame when the Tigers were without quarterback (and future Jacksonville Jaguar) Trevor Lawrence.

Clemson squeaked by Ohio State in last year's College Football Playoff semifinal. Look for the spread in this one to be a little broader.

Clemson 45, Ohio State 27

Jan. 2

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

NC State (8-3) vs Kentucky (4-6)

TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Florida), Noon

The post New Year's Day bowls are always kind of a letdown to me. But a full slate of bowls after New Year's Day is a relatively new phenomenon. Call me an old grump but I liked when there were seven or eight bowls on New Year's Day and I could flip back and forth between games. Now, if a game becomes boring, there's no other game I can turn to and I end up binge-watching episodes of M*A*S*H (I could also spend that time reading but who are we kidding here?)

NC State has been under the radar all season and the Wolfpack looked good in the games I saw them in. they have some big wide receivers who can wreak havoc on any secondary. I think Kentucky is overmatched.

NC State 36, Kentucky 16

Outback Bowl

Ole Miss (4-5) vs. Indiana (6-1)

Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Florida), 12:30 p.m.

Indiana has had a marvelous season and it all began with missed call. When Indiana shocked Penn State in the opening week of the Big Ten season, Hoosiers' quarterback Michael Pennix Jr. ran for the game-winning two-point conversion but his effort came up short as the ball hit the turf before hitting the pylon. Sorry, Pennix Jr. should have been whistled down and game over but the officials didn't see it that way and the Hoosiers won 36-35. And I am not trying to take anything away from Indiana; the Hoosiers have had a great season.

Look for Ole Miss to keep it tight but I think Indian caps off a fabulous season with a win.

Indiana 34, Ole Miss 31

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

Oregon (4-2) vs. Iowa State (8-3)

State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Arizona), 4 p.m.

Oregon got a spot in a New Year's Six bowl by beating Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Championship game. Actually, Oregon wasn't even supposed to play in the Pac-12 Championship, but the Pac-12 North champ Washington had a COVID-19 outbreak and Oregon took the Huskies spot in the championship game.

I really don't know what to make of Iowa State. The Cyclones have a respectable 8-3 record but they haven't really beaten any team of significance.

Oregon 27, Iowa State 24

Capital One Orange Bowl

Texas A&M (8-1) vs. North Carolina (8-2)

Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Florida), 8 p.m.

There is a case to be made that Texas A&M should have a spot in the College Football Playoff over Notre Dame or Ohio State. However, it is my contention that Texas A&M doesn't have the name recognition of Ohio State or Notre Dame so casual fans are less likely to tune in if it's the Aggies taking on Clemson instead of the Buckeyes. Sorry, but that's how I feel.

North Carolina opened the season 3-0 and it looked like the Tar Heels might challenge for a spot in the ACC Championship game or more but an inexplicable loss to a bad Florida State team derailed North Carolina's chances.

Texas A&M wants to prove it belongs with the big boys and the Orange Bowl is the perfect stage to make it known.

Texas A&M 31, North Carolina 21