Ranking the SEC bowl games, from Texas Bowl to mayonnaise to Cotton Bowl | Toppmeyer
Compelling matchups abound as a record 13 league teams will participate in postseason games.
Fans annually gripe that there are too many bowls. Apparently, some fans find the thought of a 6-6 bowl qualifier so offensive they’d rather bicker with family members about politics or watch Hallmark Christmas movies that feature a familiar cast of actors, a PG-rated love story and a hokey plot involving a small-town mini-crisis that threatens to derail Christmas.
No thanks. Give me two .500 teams over microbudget films.
Here’s how I rank the bowls involving SEC teams, from least compelling to most compelling.
13. Texas Bowl
(8 p.m. CT, Jan. 4, ESPN; Houston, Texas)
LSU (6-6) vs. Kansas State (7-5)
Consider this game a pizza roll, because it serves as a mediocre appetizer as the final bowl before the national championship. The farewell tour of lame-duck coach Ed Orgeron offered compelling theater throughout November. His absence from this game dilutes the intrigue.
12. Liberty Bowl
(5:45 p.m. CT, Dec. 28, ESPN)
Mississippi State (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (6-6)
MSU coach Mike Leach will face his former team, but that narrative doesn’t interest me considering Tech fired Leach more than a decade ago, in 2009. I expect the Bulldogs to roll the struggling Red Raiders behind quarterback Will Rogers, who leads a wave of talented players set return in 2022 for what could be a big season in Starkville.
11. Music City Bowl
(2 p.m. CT, Dec. 30, ESPN)
Tennessee (7-5) vs. Purdue (8-4)
The Nashville bowl game is an easy trip for Vols fans, but this is a lackluster matchup to culminate coach Josh Heupel’s debut season, which exceeded most expectations. These teams have just one prior meeting. Cornerback Alontae Taylor, one of Tennessee’s top NFL prospects, won’t play in the game. It remains unclear whether Purdue's leading receiver David Bell or sacks leader George Karlaftis, a pair of stars bound for the NFL, will play.
10. Citrus Bowl
(Noon CT, Jan. 1, ABC)
Kentucky (9-3) vs. Iowa (10-3)
If you like defense and teams that aren’t as good as their records indicate, this one is for you. Iowa allows 19.2 points per game. Kentucky surrenders 22.1. Handoffs and punts highlight what should be a competitive matchup.
9. Duke’s Mayo Bowl
(10:30 CT, Dec. 30, ESPN)
South Carolina (6-6) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
This game is a case in point for having enough bowls to admit 6-6 teams. Elite football? No. But the next-best thing: border rivals. SEC vs. ACC. North Carolina’s future NFL quarterback Sam Howell vs. South Carolina’s respectable defense. Plus, bowl officials have offered to donate $10,000 to charity if the winning side dumps mayonnaise on its coach.
8. Gasparilla Bowl
(6:30 p.m. CT, Dec. 23, ABC)
Florida (6-6) vs. Central Florida (8-4)
Another example of matchmaker wizardry. On the surface, who wants to watch an underperforming Florida team under an interim coach? Plus, UCF will be without quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who bolted for the transfer portal. That’s the tired outlook. The wired outlook: Florida will try to fend off an instate foe that should be hungry to face the Gators.
7. Birmingham Bowl
(11 a.m. CT, Dec. 28, ESPN)
Auburn (6-6) vs. Houston (11-2)
If you think first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin is feeling heat after four straight November losses, wait and see how high the temperature gets if Auburn loses to a Group of Five team. Harsin’s predecessor, Gus Malzahn, never had a losing season. The Tigers will rely on backup quarterback T.J. Finley as they try to avoid their first losing season since 2012.
6. Armed Forces Bowl
(7 p.m. CT, Dec. 22, ESPN)
Missouri (6-6) vs. Army (8-3)
Why do I have a bowl involving six-win Missouri ranked so high? Because of the opponent. Any chance to watch the service academies operate the triple option is a treat. This is Missouri's nightmare matchup. Army ranks No. 2 nationally in rushing offense, and Missouri has one of the nation’s worst run defenses (but also one of the nation’s most unheralded stars, running back Tyler Badie).
5. Gator Bowl
(10 a.m. CT, Dec. 31, ESPN)
Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Wake Forest (10-3)
Grab a mimosa and get your New Year’s Eve started early with this matchup of opposites. Texas A&M thrives in pass rush and in coverage. The Aggies will try to contain Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, who averages more than 300 yards passing.
4. Outback Bowl
(11 a.m. CT, Jan. 1, ESPN2)
Penn State (7-5) vs. Arkansas (8-4)
The Outback Bowl usually offers compelling drama. The past four installments have been decided by a touchdown or less. Arkansas fans should pour into Tampa, Florida, for the program's first bowl appearance since the 2016 season. The game lost a star when Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. Penn State has a first-round talent of its own in wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who hasn't announced his bowl intentions.
3. Sugar Bowl
(7:45 p.m. CT, Jan. 1, ESPN)
Ole Miss (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2)
The final chance to appreciate Ole Miss’ sensational dual-threat quarterback Matt Corral will come on the New Year’s Six stage against a hot Baylor team that boasts one of the nation’s best defenses. Ole Miss has never won 11 games in a season, offering a chance for a Sugar-sweet finish.
2. Orange Bowl
(6:30. p.m. CT, Dec. 31, ESPN)
Georgia (12-1) vs. Michigan (12-1)
Did Georgia's 41-24 SEC Championship loss to Alabama expose the Bulldogs as a fraud, or does it serve as extra motivation for the playoff? Michigan enters as one of the nation’s hottest teams. Elite defenders litter these rosters, highlighted by defensive end Aiden Hutchinson, Michigan’s Heisman Trophy finalist, and Georgia’s defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean, a pair of All-America candidates.
1. Cotton Bowl
(2:30 p.m. CT, Dec. 31, ESPN)
Alabama (12-1) vs. Cincinnati (13-0)
Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite, but ignore the betting line and embrace the moment. A Group of Five underdog finally earned a playoff opportunity. Better yet, its proving ground comes against the sport’s greatest dynasty. This isn’t Nick Saban’s best team, but it boasts some of his greatest stars. Quarterback Bryce Young is unflappable. Wide receiver Jameson Williams is a cheetah on turf. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is a menace. David meets Goliath. This is why we love sports.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.