As promised, here are the rest of my picks for the 2021 Bowl Game slate. I am saving my national championship pick for closer to the actual game so make sure to come back and check that out in a few weeks.
Holiday Bowl: NC State vs UCLA
UCLA has a ton of offensive firepower, which is no surprise to people that know anything about Chip Kelly. The Bruins will have their hands full going up against the NC State defense that ranks 17th in the country in points allowed. They are led by all-conference linebacker Drake Thomas who led the team in tackles, TFLs, sacks, and interceptions. Will he have enough help to slow down UCLA’s quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet, and wide receiver Kyle Phillips. Their offense is equally as good as NC State’s defense so this is predictably a very close matchup on paper. But what is the famous saying? Defense wins bowl games. (side note: if you are an NFL fan that wants to watch for draft prospects, NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu has the potential to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft).
Pick: NC State -1
Player to watch: UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (2,409 yards, 21 touchdowns passing, 611 yards, 9 touchdowns rushing)
Guaranteed Rate Bowl: West Virginia vs Minnesota
Both of these teams have had much more success in past seasons than they had this year, but each team will be hungry for a win in this game. Minnesota still has quarterback Tanner Morgan from its top-10 team from a few years ago but also had to go through losing about 57 different running backs for the season. West Virginia is a few years removed from being at the top of the conference but at least its star running back is still healthy. Running back Leddie Brown had 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns as well as another 217 yards and one touchdown receiving. Somebody unexpected will probably be the reason one of these teams win and there are plenty of candidates on each team. With that said, I am still going to lean on Leddie Brown and West Virginia because he will probably be the best player on the field.
Pick: West Virginia +5
Player to watch: West Virginia RB Leddie Brown
Fenway Bowl: Virginia vs SMU
This is my favorite type of bowl game that happens every year. The 6-6 power-5 team against the group of five team with a winning record always seems to produce fireworks. This game will certainly light up the scoreboard because both of these offenses are very impressive. SMU finished 10th in the country in scoring offense and Virginia finished just behind them at 22nd. This game might end up looking like the epitome of a defense-optional game. There are plenty of talented skill players on each team but this will all whittle down to the two quarterbacks. Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong is second in passing yards and SMU’s Tanner Mordecai is 10th. Expect a ton of points and yards in this game. Virginia is the slight favorite in this game but I think SMU will be able to keep it close and possibly even pull off the upset.
Pick: SMU +2.5
Player to watch: Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong (4,444 yards, 31 touchdowns passing, 9 touchdowns rushing)
Pinstripe Bowl: Virginia Tech vs Maryland
This isn’t the most exciting bowl game matchup, both of these teams are 6-6, but it could still turn out to be an exciting game. Each team is led by its quarterback but Virginia Tech’s quarterback Braxton Burmeister has entered the transfer portal. Maryland will still have its record-breaking quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa though. I would have given Maryland the edge even with both of those guys playing, but with Virginia Tech having to go without Burmeister, I can’t see Maryland losing this game.
Pick: Maryland -3
Player to watch: Maryland WR Rakim Jarrett (56 catches, 769 yards, 5 touchdowns)
Cheez-It Bowl: Iowa State vs Clemson
If someone told you in August that these two teams were going to be playing in bowl season you probably would have assumed it was in the playoff and not the Cheez-It Bowl. Both teams came into the season ranked in the top 10 and had seasons that were not what they were hoping for. Although the records aren’t the best, the talent in this game (if the players choose to play) is still top tier. Obviously, it starts at the quarterback position with Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy. These guys were a bit underwhelming statistically but have the ability to play like one of the best quarterbacks in their conferences. While quarterback has been an issue for the Tigers, quarterback of the defense has been a strength. Clemson linebacker James Skalski, the leader of the Tigers’ defense, has played in 58 games in his Clemson career, going back to 2016, and has racked up over 250 total tackles. The issue for Clemson will be how many of their draft-eligible players will be playing in this game. I think a few early-round draft prospects will opt out of the game, which can really swing a game that is as close as this one (each team has the same odds to win the game).
Pick: Iowa State pick ‘em
Player to watch: Clemson RB Will Shipley (678 yards, 10 touchdowns)
Alamo Bowl: Oregon vs Oklahoma
Below you will find a checklist to illustrate how similar these two teams are right now:
- Playing under interim coach after head coach shockingly left
- Name starts with an “O” and has an uncreative logo
- Had preseason favorite to be number one overall pick in the draft (although it certainly played out differently for the two players)
- Won a big game early in the season and never reached those heights again
- Had a quarterback as its second-leading rusher and no receivers over 1,000 yards
- Failed to win conference despite being in position to make the playoff at one time
- Has multiple players not participating in a bowl game due to draft or transfer portal
I’m not sure either of these teams will care too much in this game since it is such a letdown to be appearing in this game. Because of that, I am going to go with the team that lost the least amount of players following the coaching change.
Pick: Oregon +4.5
Player to watch: Oregon S Verone McKinley III (71 tackles, 5 INTs)
Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina vs South Carolina
Shout to the football gods for this battle of the Carolinas in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. These two teams being the same record is very surprising. North Carolina started the season ranked number 10 and has now sunk to the depths of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. South Carolina somehow was able to scrape together a bowl-eligible season despite starting a graduate assistant at quarterback at one point. With all that being said, the Tar Heels have a huge advantage in the talent department even if some of their best players don’t play.
Pick: North Carolina -9
Player to watch: North Carolina WR Josh Downs (98 catches, 1,273 yards, 8 touchdowns)
Music City Bowl: Tennessee vs Purdue
This is the closest game for me to predict out of all of the bowl games. Purdue played spoiler in the Big Ten this year with the ability to beat any team at any given time. Tennessee had a surprisingly good year, actually showing life under head coach Josh Heupel. The deciding factor for me is the Boilermakers losing their two best players as they prepare for the draft. Defensive end George Karlaftis and wide receiver David Bell are both not playing in the bowl game which is a huge loss for Purdue. Meanwhile, Tennessee will have quarterback Hendon Hooker who was a transfer portal revelation for the Volunteers. Wide receiver Velus Jones will be there to help him out, having earned first-team All-SEC honors at both return specialist and all-purpose player.
Pick: Tennessee -4.5
Player to watch: Tennessee WR Velus Jones (52 catches, 722 yards, 6 touchdowns, 28.1 yards per kick return, 1 KR touchdown)
Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin vs Arizona State
Las Vegas is one of the most exciting venues out of all these bowls but this game may not be as exciting. Both teams are top 25 rushing offenses with Wisconsin at 14 and Arizona State at 25. Both teams are also very good at stopping the run, with Wisconsin averaging a nation-best 65.2 yards allowed per game and Arizona State allowing 129 yards per game (32nd in the country). The deciding factor in me picking Wisconsin in this one is that the Sun Devils will be without their top two running backs. There seem to always be a lot of questions about Wisconsin’s offense, especially through the air, but its defense is at its usual Wisconsin-level so that is enough to inspire confidence. ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels has the potential to put the team on his back and lead them to an upset victory but I don’t foresee that happening.
Pick: Wisconsin -7
Player to watch: Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen (1,109 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Sun Bowl: Miami vs Washington State
This game will look much different than we expected when it was first announced. First, Miami is battling a COVID outbreak right now that not only could leave countless players unable to suit up for the game, but also has the game itself in jeopardy (as we have seen with the Gator Bowl). WSU, on the other hand, will be without some of their best players as running back Max Borghi, right tackle Abraham Lucas, and cornerback Jaylen Watson have all opted out of playing in the game. On the field, the storyline will be two young quarterbacks dueling it out. Both Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke and WSU’s Jayden de Laura not only are part of the three-name gang but won their respective conference’s offensive freshman of the year award. With the uncertainty surrounding Miami’s COVID situation, I think WSU gets the edge in this matchup. Even with some of their top players out, the Cougars still have plenty of talent ready to play in the game including running back Deon McIntosh who stepped up huge in Borghi’s absence last year.
Pick: Washington State -1
Player to watch: Washington State WR Calvin Jackson Jr. (63 catches, 955 yards, 7 touchdowns, one Catch of the Year candidate)
Arizona Bowl: Boise State vs Central Michigan
Boise State is one of those teams that you always want to believe in come bowl season. This year is no different despite a down year from the Broncos. They still have a dynamic quarterback in Hank Bachmeier and a big-play wide receiver in Khalil Shakir. Boise State will surely be able to score against Central Michigan, the question will be whether they can stop the Chippewas on the ground. The nation’s leading rusher will be playing in this game (no, Kenneth Walker is not transferring again) and will provide a challenge for the Broncos. Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols racked up 1,708 yards and 15 touchdowns and will obviously be the key for both teams. The two games Nichols did not reach the end zone were both Chippewa losses. He also managed just 39 yards n the ground in those two contests. This seems like a pretty clear line for this game. If Boise State can contain Nichols they win. If they can’t, they lose. I think the talent that the Broncos have will be enough to secure the victory.
Pick: Boise State -7.5
Player to watch: Central Michigan RB Lew Nichols
Outback Bowl: Arkansas vs Penn State
Each of these teams has one of the best wide receivers in the nation but their respective status is uncertain. Arkansas’s Treylon Burks has already declared for the draft and won’t play in the game and fans are awaiting a decision from Penn State’s Jahan Dotson. The Razorbacks have been one of the truly surprising teams this season with head coach Sam Pittman orchestrating a huge turnaround, winning more games this year (8) than the past three combined. Both offenses have the capability of putting points on the board but it will be the defenses that decide this game. Each squad is filled with talent on the defensive side of the ball. Even with linebacker Brandon Smith going to the draft, Penn State still has the bigger names on defense with guys such as defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and safety JaQuan Brisker. Arkansas doesn’t have the notable names that Penn State has but the talent is undeniable. One of the most underrated linebacker duos in the country play for the Razorbacks: Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry. Arkansas also has big-hitting safety Jalen Catalon who will play a huge role in stopping Penn State’s run game.
Pick: Arkansas +1.5
Player to watch: Arkansas S Jalen Catalon (46 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 INTs)
Citrus Bowl: Kentucky vs Iowa
Kentucky has turned itself into one of the most consistent teams in the SEC, going to a bowl game in each of the last six seasons. Head coach Mark Stoops as this team firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball and has been greatly helped out by transfers quarterback Will Levis and wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Iowa came one game short of winning the Big Ten championship, a blowout loss to Michigan, once again on the strength of its stifling defense. The Hawkeyes hadn’t let a team score over 27 points until Michigan and were tied for third in the country with 29 turnovers this season. It is hard to overlook the outcome of Iowa’s last game, combined with the firepower of Kentucky’s offense. Iowa certainly has the playmakers on defense to turn the tide in its favor but I think Kentucky will still be able to outscore Iowa’s struggling offense.
Pick: Kentucky -3
Player to watch: Iowa DB Riley Moss (36 tackles, 4 INTs, 2 touchdowns)
Texas Bowl: Kansas State vs LSU
This may seem like a huge letdown for an LSU team that won a national championship just two years ago but it is also a huge accomplishment for this team to even make a bowl game after firing head coach Ed Orgeron in the middle of the season (but letting him coach the remainder of the season). The motivations of this Tigers team are unknown. How many players that likely had dreams of the CFP will really go all out for the Texas Bowl? Kansas State on the other hand will not have those same issues. The Wildcats have been a pesky team in the Big 12 for a few years, always with the possibility to play spoiler. They are favored in this matchup but a lot of people still will be surprised when the Wildcats topple the once mighty Tigers.
Pick: Kansas State -3.5
Player to watch: Kansas State RB Deuce Vaughn (1,246 yards, 15 touchdowns rushing, 471 yards, 3 touchdowns receiving)
New Years Six Bowls
Peach Bowl: Michigan State vs Pittsburgh
What an exciting matchup between two players who were considered Heisman Trophy front runners at one time or another. Oh, wait. Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III won’t play in the game in order to prepare for the draft. This puts a lot of pressure on Spartan quarterback Payton Thorne to win this game and I don’t know if he can manage it. Pittsburgh is one of the highest-scoring offenses, averaging 43 points per game which is third in the country. The Panthers scored over 40 points in eight games this season, and even their worst offensive performance was still 27 points. Meanwhile, Michigan State has allowed the most passing yards per game in the country. Luckily for them, Pickett will not be running the Panthers’ offense but the pass defense is still a glaring weakness for the Spartans. On the other side of the matchup, Pitt has one of the best run defenses in the country, allowing a sixth-best in the nation mark of just 91.8 yards per game on the ground. Obviously, they never had to face anyone like Walker, but they won;y have to deal with him in this game either. I don’t want to seel this Michigan State team short because I do believe they are a very good team, but I just think that Pittsburgh is the more complete unit. Both teams will have to deal with the absence of their best player, which is something Pitt is better set up to do.
Pick: Pittsburgh +2.5
Player to watch: Pittsburgh WR Jordan Addison (93 catches, 1,479 yards, 17 touchdowns)
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame vs Oklahoma State
This can basically be renamed the “Oh So Close” Bowl because Notre Dame finished one spot short of the CFP and Oklahoma State finished one inch short of possibly earning its spot in the postseason. Now Notre Dame will attempt to finally win a New Years Six Bowl without the head coach that led them to its 11-1 record. The Fighting Irish will also be without arguably their best player on each side of the ball as safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams will forego the game for the draft. That will lead to running backs Chris Tyree and Tyler Buchner stepping up to fill some very big shoes. Notre Dame needs to lean on tight end Michael Mayer to take pressure off the run game and quarterback Jack Coan, who has struggled at times. Oklahoma State does not seem to have the same issues of missing players unless something drastic happens between then and now. The Cowboys defied typical Big 12 standards and won this season on the strength of their defense. Even though the offense had studs like quarterback Spencer Sanders, running back Jaylen Warren, and wide receiver Tay Martin, the defense is this team’s calling card (finished eighth in the nation in points allowed per game). Led by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (21st in the country in solo tackles) and defensive end Collin Oliver (12th in the nation in sacks). Despite the skill level of the Cowboys, I view this as the Fighting Irish’s game to lose. This seems like the year that Notre Dame finally plays like Notre Dame in a big bowl game. And what a better way to start new head coach Marcus Freeman’s tenure in South Bend than with a huge win.
Pick: Notre Dame -2.5
Player to watch: Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer (64 catches, 768 yards, 5 touchdowns)
Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs Utah
Keep the Utah secondary in your prayers in the lead-up to this game because going against the Ohio State wide receivers is an absolute nightmare. The wide receiver trio of Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba combined for 3,253 yards and 31 touchdowns, and the craziest thing about them is that there might be two players better than them on the same offense. Quarterback CJ Stroud was a Heisman Trophy finalist as a redshirt freshman and running back TreVeyon Henderson ran for 1,172 and 15 touchdowns as a true freshman. But enough about the Buckeyes because the storylines here are all about the Utes. For the first time since joining the Pac-12, Utah will be playing in the Rose Bowl. This game inherently will mean more to them than Ohio State due to that which could create a disparity in effort in this game. Utah may not even need that because they have been on a scorching hot streak lately. The Utes have rattled off six straight wins, including two over Oregon, and have averaged 39.7 points per game in that stretch. Kyle Whittingham’s team has always been known for its defense, which is still very strong, but this offensive surge has elevated this team into a legit threat to almost anyone in the nation. Once quarterback Cam Rising found his footing and running back Tavion Thomas started finding the end zone like crazy (14 in that aforementioned six-game stretch and 20 overall) the Utes became as much of a threat to score the ball as stopping the other team. This seems like a feel-good moment in the works for Utah and I don’t think Ohio State will be able to get in the way of that, no matter how talented the Buckeyes are.
Pick: Utah +6.5
Player to watch: Utah LB Devin Lloyd (107 tackles, 22 TFLs, 7 sacks, 4 INTs, 2 touchdowns)
Sugar Bowl: Baylor vs Ole Miss
If you are a fan of elite quarterbacks facing stifling defenses then you will be really let down by what could have been in this game. Ole Miss’s electric dual-threat quarterback Matt Corral won’t be playing in this game because he opted out for the draft, robbing fans of a truly great matchup. Baylor is in the same mold as Oklahoma State where it is succeeding in the offense-heavy Big 12 by way of its incredible defense. That defense, led by All-American safety Jalen Pitre, was probably the biggest reason head coach Dave Aranda was able to take this team from two wins last year to two losses this year. There is only one way for Ole Miss to win this game, get to 30 points. The one time Baylor allowed a team to score 30 points, they lost. Ole Miss hit that mark in eight of its games but now will attempt to do so without its star quarterback. Former four-star quarterback Luke Altmyer will likely get the start in this matchup, which will be a huge moment for the freshman. He will have great talent around him in wide receiver Dontario Drummond running back Jerrion Ealy and running back Snoop Conner, but I think the moment will be too much for him. If this game was happening with Corral under center then we would have a much different conversation surrounding this game but under these circumstances, Baylor’s elite defense will hold Ole Miss below 30 points and get the win.
Pick: Baylor +1.5
Player to watch: Baylor S Jalen Pitre (70 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 2 INTs)
Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs Cincinnati
There have been some David versus Goliath games in the history of this sport, but this one might take the cake. Alabama is the college football juggernaut, winning three of the seven installments of the College Football Playoff. Cincinnati is the ultimate underdog, the first non-power 5 team to make it into the elusive four-team field. Everybody without ties to Tuscaloosa will be rooting for the Bearcats in this one, hoping to see something miraculous happen. Ther is certainly a way for Cincinnati to pull off the upset. Obviously, the number one way to stop the Crimson Tide is to stop quarterback Bryce Young. The Heisman Trophy winner had an insane year, throwing for 4,322 yards, 43 touchdowns, and just four interceptions. He won’t have one of his favorite targets in this game as wide receiver John Metchie will miss the game due to injury. Wide receiver Jameson Williams and running back Brian Robinson will be there to help out Young, so he won’t be without weapons. Cincinnati is not the prototypical group of five powerhouse that overachieves due to a gimmicky offense. The Bearcats have legitimate power-five talent on that roster, especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant were named first- and second-team All-Americans, respectively, with Bryant also winning the Thorpe Award for the best defensive back in college football. Cincinnati’s defense ranks second in the country in fewest passing yards allowed and fourth in the nation in points allowed. We all saw Young and Alabama carve up Georgia’s elite defense in the SEC Championship Game, but the weakness of Georgia’s defense was its secondary. Cincinnati certainly does not have that same problem. Assuming Bama’s offense and Cincy’s defense battle to somewhat close to a stalemate, all the pressure will be on Cincinnati’s star quarterback: Desmond Ridder. This has to be the moment Ridder was dreaming of when he came back for his senior season. He will definitely have his toughest test of the season against this Alabam defense led by linebacker Will Anderson. Despite all the incredible talent on that side of the ball for the Crimson Tide, it is by no means an impenetrable defense. Texas A&M and Arkansas scored 41 and 35 points against them, respectively. Those teams are good but not at Cincinnati’s level. Other than Ridder, the Bearcats have studs such as running back Jerome Ford and wide receiver Alec Pierce. I don’t know if it is my hopeless optimism or desire for a movie-type moment to play out in real-time, but something about this Cincinnati team is calling to me. Even if they don’t win, I think they can keep this game much closer than most of the other semifinal matchups, but I also think it is possible for the Bearcats to actually emerge from this game victorious.
Pick: Cincinnati +14
Player to watch: Alabama LB Will Anderson (91 tackles, 29 TFLs, 15.5 sacks)
Orange Bowl: Michigan vs Georgia
Sometimes a matchup that is juicy on paper actually comes to fruition on the field and this is an example of that. Seeing the 10th-best rushing offense facing the 3rd-best rushing defense is a greater gift than anything that can b physically wrapped and put under the Christmas tree. Before the SEC Championship game, Georgia was looking like the unquestioned future national champion but now they look mortal and beatable. Michigan became the first team in the playoff era to start the season unranked and make the final field of four after turning around a 2-4 season in 2020 to this year’s 12-1 record. So basically what I’m saying is this was an incredibly unlikely matchup at one point in the season but now we are getting it as one of the most important games of the season. This also might be the playoff game with the least inspiring quarterback play. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and Michigan’s Cade McNamara have been great game managers this season but are not the types of signal-callers that can win games on their own. Luckily for them, they don’t have to. Bennett has an all-world level defense to rely on with the ability to clean up any mistakes he might make, of which there are not many. I could name about 20 players on the Bulldogs’ defense and still have more impact players to get to so I am going to keep it simple and just mention the All-Americans. Linebacker Nakobe Dean might be the most athletic and rangy middle linebacker in the country while defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt make it nearly impossible to run against them. If any team will be able to run on this Bulldogs’ front seven it will be the Wolverines. Running backs Hassan Haskins (you might remember him from dominating Ohio State) and Blake Corum are the perfect pair to take the pressure off McNamara. They combined for 2,227 yards and 31 touchdowns, making Michigan one of the rare teams that can win a game completely on the ground. Bennett also has a cast of players to rely on. The best of which is true freshman tight end Brock Bowers, who earned All-American honors this year. The secret weapon for Bennett and the Bulldogs (side note: Bennett and the Bulldogs sounds like a pretty good name for a band) will be wide receiver George Pickens. His name doesn’t stand out on the stat sheet because he missed almost the entire season with an injury before returning in the SEC Championship game. If he has had the time to fully recover and play up to his immense potential then Bennett will have one more weapon at his disposal, which he will need against this very good Michigan defense. The Wolverines are tied for fourth in fewest points allowed this season, led by not-so-secret weapon defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. The Heisman Trophy runner-up put together an incredible season with 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 14 sacks (including three against Ohio State). Hutchinson also has some help surrounding him, specifically from fellow defensive end David Ojabo and defensive back Daxton Hill. There are a ton of talented players in this matchup all with the ability to take over the game. Whichever player manages to do that, whether it is Hutchinson, Bowers, Haskins, Dean, or a litany of other options, will likely be on the winning side of this semifinal. I am putting my faith in Georgia because I think they have a bit more talent.
Pick: Georgia -7.5
Player to watch: Georgia TE Brock Bowers (47 catches, 791 yards, 11 touchdowns)