It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.
With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 SEC bowls preview!
2021 SEC Bowls Preview
Armed Forces Bowl (December 22, 8:00 p.m., ESPN)
Mizzou vs Army
Head-to-head: Mizzou 3-1 Army
Mizzou bowl record: 15-18
Kicking off 13 2021 SEC bowls is Missouri as they take on the triple-option-wielding Army. The Tigers went 5-6 against their FBS foes and 2-6 against bowl-bound programs. All in all, 2021 was not kind to Mizzou and the SEC certainly isn’t sending its best in this game.
Of the two playmakers on offense, neither Connor Bazelak nor Tyler Badie will appear in this game. Bazelak, in his second season with significant experience, improved on his 2020 numbers. At 2,540 yards and 16 touchdowns, Mizzou faithful can be optimistic about his progress and can hope for a solid 2022, but Brady Cook will be the man in this game. Where the offense will take a hit will be the fact that All-SEC first-team running back Badie has elected to sit out and prepare for the NFL. Badie led the SEC in yards with 1,612 as well as touchdowns with 14.
This Tigers defense struggled this year. Not a single one of the Missouri defenders earned so much as a second-team All-SEC honor. Missouri allowed at least 160 yards on the ground 10 times. The worst performance by the unit came in a loss to Tennessee where they were gashed for 458 yards on the ground alone.
A team that fails to stop the run just might struggle against a service academy. That will likely be the case here. Army is too good this year and they will be able to gash the Missouri defense to drop the 2021 SEC bowls mark to 0-1.
Gasparilla Bowl (December 23, 7:00 p.m., ESPN)
Florida vs UCF
Head-to-head: Florida 2-0 UCF
Florida bowl record: 24-22
Before the season, “who is going to unseat Alabama?” was often answered with this Florida team. Fast-forward to today, they are playing in the Gasparilla Bowl against UCF. Dan Mullen is fired. Emory Jones (after the game), Jacob Copeland, and Mohamoud Diabate are transferring. The Gators posted a 5-6 record against FBS foes and had a stretch of six games with five losses…and a 70-52 win over an elite Samford team. 4-7 FCS Samford.
The quarterback situation at Florida was a mess all year. Emory Jones started the year and subsequently led the team in all passing categories…and rushing yards and attempts. There has been heavy speculation that he will be entering the Transfer Portal after the game. Anthony Richardson seemed to be a bright spot, but even he fell back down to Earth. Next year, Ohio State transfer Jack Miller will join the fray and compete for the starting spot.
As was the case with Missouri, not a single Florida Gator defender was mentioned in All-SEC. Potential first-round draft pick Kaiir Elam is an elite cover corner. Unfortunately, his unit is the 73rd-ranked scoring defense, allowing 26.6 points per game.
With the news over the summer that Florida and UCF couldn’t agree to a regular-season series since UF wanted to play three games and two at home, it’s only fitting the two meet in a bowl game. UCF isn’t as it was for its 2017 National Championship* season, so Florida wins on sheer talent alone.
Birmingham Bowl (December 28, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
Auburn vs Houston
Head-to-head: Auburn 5-1 Houston
Auburn bowl record: 24-19-2
Game number three of the 2021 SEC bowls pits Auburn against AAC runner-up Houston. Losers of its final four games, Auburn posted a 5-6 record against FBS foes in 2021. The high of the season was a surprise victory over Ole Miss, but choked away a victory against rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Consistently artificially inflated, Auburn’s peak ranking on the season was at 12…then they dropped those four games.
With Bo Nix deciding to jump ship and take his talents to Eugene, Oregon, this offense (which already struggled to score) will turn to sophomore LSU transfer TJ Finley and his 600 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Tank Bigsby may have missed out on the All-SEC list but he’s a first-team All-Names list. He was going to transfer, but was talked back from the ledge and Auburn will have his 1,003-yard, 10-touchdown effort in this one.
The one Auburn player on either side of the ball who earned the respect of the coaches and media was defensive back, Roger McCreary. His stat sheet doesn’t light up the page, but the senior recorded a pair of interceptions, one of which he took to the house.
Overall, this was not a good year for Auburn. Add in the fact that its star quarterback is leaving for greener pastures and Auburn is going to come into this game “unmotivated.” Houston will be motivated and will be ready. The future Big 12 program will take this one for the AAC and drop the 2021 bowls record to 1-2.
Liberty Bowl (December 28, 6:45 p.m., ESPN)
Mississippi State vs Texas Tech
Head-to-head: Miss State 4-2-1 Texas Tech
Miss State bowl record: 14-10
The second game on December 28th pits Mississippi State against the Big 12 foe, Texas Tech. At 6-5 against FBS teams, Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense faltered against nearly every team they faced with a pulse, including the AAC team, Memphis. The Bulldogs did manage to upset the artificially hyped Texas A&M team, but not much else to hang their hats on.
Quarterback Will Rogers is this offense. He leads the SEC in attempts (630), completions (473), and passing yards (4449). Plus, Rogers leads the nation in completion percentage for both this year (75.1 %) and his entire career (73%). When you play in Leach’s crazy pass-happy offense, you better dominate the stat pages. Overall, the 649 total pass attempts over the season are more than twice as many total rush attempts by any Bulldog, which is a combined 246.
All-SEC second-teamer defensive back Emmanuel Forbes leads this defense that is at the very least decent. It is difficult to establish the run against Mississippi State, given the fact that they held opponents under 100 yards six times. In a win over Kentucky, MSU forced four turnovers en route to a 31-17 win over the then-12th-ranked Wildcats.
The fun thing about bowl matchups and the 2021 SEC bowls is the pairing of two seemingly even teams when in reality one team is very poor at stopping the one thing the other team does well. Mississippi State throws the ball and can move the ball. Texas Tech cannot stop passing offenses. The Bulldogs even up the 2021 SEC Bowls record at 2-2 before the most crucial matchup of them all.
Duke’s Mayo Bowl (December 30, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
South Carolina vs North Carolina
Head-to-head: South Carolina 19-35-4 North Carolina
South Carolina bowl record: 9-14
And that matchup is here! The Duke’s Mayo Bowl aka the war of the Carolinas. To start, each coach has okay’d the possibility of getting mayonnaise dumped on them ala fries in the Potato Bowl or Cheez-Its in the Cheez-It Bowl. 2021 was a bit of a mess for South Carolina. They finished 5-6 against FBS teams and 2-6 against bowl-bound teams.
To date, three quarterbacks have significant playing time as signal-caller. Luke Doty, Jason Brown, and Zeb Noland all had their opportunity this year to make a difference. Brown has entered the Transfer Portal, Doty injured his foot and has been out since October, so it’ll be Noland in likely his final start thanks to the arrival of Spencer Rattler in 2022.
Jaylan Foster is by and large the man for this defense. He leads the team with 71 tackles, five interceptions, and two forced fumbles. The Gamecocks defense averaged more than two turnovers per game and would likely have more wins if the offense didn’t give the ball up just as frequently.
If you said that these two teams would meet in a bowl game, I would have thought South Carolina had an unreal season because there were plenty of CFP projections for UNC. As it is, neither of these teams is all that good. North Carolina has a first-round quarterback in Sam Howell. If he doesn’t opt-out, he’ll end his Tar Heel the way he started it: with a win over South Carolina.
Music City Bowl (December 30, 3:00 p.m., ESPN)
Tennessee vs Purdue
Head-to-head: Tennessee 0-1 Purdue
Tennessee bowl record: 29-24
A trip three hours west is in store for the Tennessee Volunteers as they take on the Purdue Boilermakers. Tennessee, in 11 games against FBS opponents, went 6-5 and three of those wins were against Bowling Green, South Alabama, and Vanderbilt. So they went 3-5 against teams with the slightest pulse. The Vols moved on from Jeremy Pruitt but they’re still Tennessee: way too much hype and talk in August, then playing in a “click away bowl” in December. But hey, they chased off Greg Schiano!
At 38.8 points per game, the Tennessee offense is 9th-best in the nation. Going into the year, it seemed like Michigan transfer Joe Milton would be the man but Hendon Hooker earned his spot. He threw for 2,567 yards and 26 touchdowns, plus added a team-leading 561 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite target, Cedric Tillman, just barely missed out on 1,000 yards. Second-leading running back Tiyon Evans will be unavailable for this game as he has entered the Portal.
Where the offense does well, the defense is less-than-ideal. The first six games came with four games under 100 yards allowed on the ground. The final six games? Five over 100…with four over 200. Overall, offenses have been able to regularly gash the Volunteer defense to the tune of 404 yards a game. Running back turned linebacker Jeremy Banks is the leader of this defense with his 108 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.
The Music City Bowl is not the most exciting game on paper. Each Tennessee and Purdue have their issues. In a battle of mediocre Power 5 programs, it’s a coin flip. Tennessee brings the 2021 SEC bowls record back up to 3-3.
Gator Bowl (December 31, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Texas A&M vs Wake Forest
Head-to-head: Texas A&M 0-1 Wake Forest
Texas A&M bowl record: 20-22
The 2021 Gator Bowl is in jeopardy of cancelation because of a COVID outbreak at Texas A&M. At this time, it is unclear if the game will be played at all.
CFP Semi-Final Cotton Bowl (December 31, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Alabama vs Cincinnati
Head-to-head: Alabama 5-0 Cincinnati
Alabama bowl record: 44-25-3
Here we go. One of two CFP bowls featuring SEC programs and this one is a doozy. The king, the GOAT, the dynasty vs the newcomer. At 11-1 against FBS teams, Alabama seemed beatable all year and Texas A&M delivered the ever-elusive fluke victory. Bama’s CFP hopes were on thin ice until they kicked Georgia back down to second-tier. Does Cincinnati even have a chance?
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young has taken the CFB world by storm and for good reason. In high school, Young was a superstar. 43 touchdowns off of 4,322 yards later and Alabama is the best team in the nation. It helps to have a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in John Metchie and former Ohio State WR4 Jameson Williams. Metchie did tear his ACL in the SEC Title game, so the focus will be on whomever can step up to be the number two behind Williams.
Running back Brian Robinson, Jr. is just the latest in a long line of stud Alabama running backs, posting a 1,064-yard, 14-touchdown season. The fifth-year senior has only one guaranteed game left and he’ll make the most of it against a somewhat disappointing rush defense in Cincinnati.
The latest victim of Alabama fatigue is EDGE Will Anderson, Jr. Despite leading the nation in tackles for loss (29) and sacks (15.5), Anderson was passed up in Heisman voting. Recency bias is a hell of a drug. Overall, this defense isn’t what we are accustomed to…but it’s still strong. Only in five games did an opponent gain more than 300 yards.
Cincinnati is home of likely the best cornerback duo in Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. Alabama hasn’t faced a defense like Cincinnati’s, even if we were fed Georgia all year. This is the largest David vs Goliath matchup we’ve seen in forever. The last time Alabama was already crowned the title and had to play a team that “didn’t belong” resulted in a loss.
History repeats itself. With Cincinnati being able to focus on containing Jameson Williams, it frees up Coach Luke Fickell to be creative. The largest upset of the 2021 SEC bowls slate? Not to mention the fact that the Tide has been dealing with a COVID outbreak…
CFP Semi-Final Orange Bowl (December 31, 7:30 p.m., ESPN)
Georgia vs Michigan
Head-to-head: Georgia 1-1 Michigan
Georgia bowl record: 33-21-3
The second SEC CFP game pits a pair of programs that haven’t won a full National Title in generations. Georgia’s 11-1 mark against FBS teams was done in dominating fashion…for the most part. The first time UGA faced a team with a semi-decent offense, the Bulldogs were smoked. Up until the Alabama loss, the best win Georgia had was a 10-3 win over the worst Clemson team in a decade. Georgia locked up the SEC East division crown in October. Do with that information what you will.
It wouldn’t be a Georgia football season without a little quarterback drama. First Jake Fromm and Justin Fields, now it’s Stetson Bennett vs JT Daniels. Daniels is no Fields, but UGA fans have clamored for him ever since he became healthy. Bennett’s favorite target is freshman tight end Brock Bowers, one of the tops at his position in the nation already.
The defense is elite, there is no denying. Even if they played the juggernaut that they played in the second-to-last-week of the season every week (FCS Charleston Southern), it’s impressive to hold opponents to 9.5 points per game. Jordan Davis, a defensive lineman, is an absolute unit. While he did not light up the stat sheet, his presence is felt every play. He will be the latest in a long line of big UGA d-linemen to hear his name called on Day 1 of the NFL Draft.
These two programs are swinging in opposite directions. Georgia started hot and was just humbled. Michigan hasn’t flown this high since the Truman administration. The difference in this game will be Georgia’s elite defense against a skilled Michigan offense that bullied Ohio State. This physically pains me, but Michigan gets the win and advances to take on Cincinnati in the CFP National Championship Game.
Outback Bowl (January 1, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2)
Arkansas vs Penn State
Arkansas bowl record: 15-24-3
The most important game on the 2021 SEC Bowls slate: The Outback bowl to decide if fans will get a free Bloomin’ Onion or Coconut Shrimp! All jokes aside, Going 7-4 against FBS teams, Arkansas looked to be a new force in the SEC. Upsetting Texas (who is still not back) in Week 2 was exciting and catalyzed the best Arkansas season in six years.
The potential first wide receiver taken in the 2022 NFL Draft is Treylon Burks. Unfortunately, his 1,123 yards and 11 touchdowns off of 67 receptions will be missed as he elected to opt-out to focus on his next steps. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson is a playmaker for the Razorbacks. He added 554 yards and five touchdowns on the ground to go with his 2,578 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Razorbacks are decent, but their strength is against the pass. Arkansas held opponents to 151 or fewer yards six times. That 559 yards allowed to Alabama is a nasty outlier, but the game dictated it as it was a high-scoring affair. Linebacker and second-team All-SEC selection Bumper Pool is the leader of this defense and posted his second consecutive 100+ tackle season.
Arkansas gets to face off against an underachieving Penn State squad looking to send off its seniors the right way. Arkansas is a solid defense and will likely give Penn State everything they can. Depending on if the playmaker for the Nittany Lions suits up, it will dictate how close this one will be. The first game of 2022 on the 2021 SEC bowls slate will result in another loss for the conference.
Citrus Bowl (January 1, 1:00 p.m., ABC)
Kentucky vs Iowa
Kentucky bowl record: 11-9
One of the most surprising teams in the nation is the Kentucky Wildcats who posted an 8-3 record against FBS teams. With nine wins overall, this is just the second time since 1984 that Kentucky finished with as many wins. If they can pull the victory, it’ll be the second time since 1977. That other season with a high win total was in 2018, which culminated in a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State.
A duo of transfers lead this Kentucky offense that scores 33.3 points per game. The quarterback by way of Penn State, Will Levis, has found success both on the ground and through the air. In total, Levis was responsible for 2,980 yards and 32 touchdowns. His favorite target is Nebraska transfer, Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson was productive at Nebraska and it was a surprise that he left, but that Kentucky bluegrass is greener. His 1,164 yards and seven touchdowns off of 94 receptions were far and away best on this team.
Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. has been a great running back for this team. Off of 205 carries, Rodriguez went off for 1,271 yards and nine touchdowns. The redshirt junior is riding a four-game streak of over 100 yards on the ground, so look for him to get it started against a strong Iowa rush defense.
This Kentucky defense has been a big reason for the Wildcats success. On four occasions, Kentucky stifled the run under 100 yards. Plus, the Wildcats held opponents to 181 yards or less five times. Where they could improve is in the turnover department. They’ve only forced nine all year.
Each of these teams looked to be on a collision course for an NY6 bowl. Both Kentucky and Iowa got off to strong starts and it only fits that these two meet in the Citrus Bowl. Apples and oranges, but Levis did not play well in his only game against Iowa and there isn’t much reason to believe he will here. The Hawkeyes get the win, despite being the “fake ID of college football.”
NY6 Sugar Bowl (January 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
Ole Miss vs Baylor
Head-to-head: Ole Miss 0-1 Baylor
Ole Miss bowl record: 25-13
The third NY6 game of the 2021 SEC bowls pits Ole Miss against Baylor for just the second time in history. At 9-2 against FBS teams (10 wins overall), it’s the best season since 2015. Oddly enough, that 2015 season is the only season between 2010 and 2016 that wasn’t vacated and it ended with a Sugar Bowl victory in a blowout of Oklahoma State.
If there’s one thing that Lane Kiffin knows, it’s offense. As a unit, the Rebel offense averages over 506 yards per game and nearly 36 points. The guy who leads this offense is going to play, despite the fact that he has a chance to be a top quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, Matt Corral. His 2020 season was legendary and he, unfortunately, did not quite live up to that expectation. He passed for four fewer yards (3,337 to 3,333) and nine fewer touchdowns (29 to 20) in two more games. The positive is the fact that he took care of the ball and threw only four interceptions as compared to 14 last year.
Senior Sam Williams was a force this year for Ole Miss. As a defense, the unit allowed plenty of yards and points per game, but Williams took over when needed. He recorded 14 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks to go with an impressive four forced fumbles. His efforts earned him All-SEC first-team honors.
Both Ole Miss and Baylor have offenses that can move the ball and score. They both have dynamic playmakers that will dictate the flow of the game. The biggest difference is on the defensive side of the ball. Baylor’s defense is the best defense they’ve played aside from Texas A&M where they came out on top 29-19. Regardless, the Bears get the win and the 2021 SEC bowls tailspin is in full tilt.
Texas Bowl (January 4, 9:00 p.m., ESPN)
LSU vs Kansas State
Head-to-head: LSU 1-0 Kansas State
LSU bowl record: 28-23-1
The final (guaranteed) SEC appearance in the bowl season pits LSU against Kansas State in the Texas Bowl. At 5-6 against FBS programs, LSU has yet to get back to its 2019 greatness, almost like it was lightning in a bottle. Eli Ricks is gone. Max Johnson is gone. Myles Brennan was ALMOST gone. Coach Ed Orgeron is gone. Can a Brian Kelley who has never won a big game or significant bowl game in his career turn around a program that many believe elite?
This is not a good LSU team despite having talent everywhere. There are only two “good” wins on this team’s resume: an over-inflated Texas A&M, and Florida, a year after the old “cleat yeet.” Honestly, it’s unclear who will be quarterback for this game. Brennan is the only one with legitimate experience, but he hasn’t played a down all year. Garrett Nussmeier played in four games, so will the Tigers burn his redshirt?
Tyrion Davis-Price is a legit 1,000-yard rusher and Kayshon Boutte is looking like a 2023 NFL Draft first-round talent. A player to keep an eye out for is freshman running back Corey Kiner, Already, he’s made a name for himself and will likely be a bigger part of the offense moving forward.
For every yard this offense gains, its defense gives it back. Literally. 373.6 gained, 373.7 allowed. Ricks and Derek Stingley were an elite duo, but Ricks is at Alabama now and Stingley only appeared in three games before having season-ending surgery. Damone Clark, however, is the leader of this defense with his 135 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, interception, and two forced fumbles. The senior linebacker was everywhere this year.
This is going to be an ugly matchup. A moveable object vs a stoppable force. LSU is in shambles thinking it’s elite. Kansas State is just happy to be there. The Purple Wildcats take down the Bayou Bengals in this one based solely on the fact that nobody knows who will be quarterback.
Changing of the Guard?
A 2021 SEC bowls record of 4-8 doesn’t look like this is the best conference in the nation. Of course, anything can happen and I’ve often been wrong. This conference could post a winless bowl season and nothing would change. Next year, we will be graced with 14 SEC teams ranked in the top 25 and when the East is locked up in October yet again, it’ll just show “it’s so tough, they beat up on themselves.”
The SEC is home to some of the most talented teams, that’s for certain. But when multiple teams get top recruiting classes year in and year out, only one team dominates. It’s Alabama and everyone else.
Up next, the most disappointing P5 conference, the ACC!