College football bowl questions: Alabama vs. Michigan, Chris Petersen, the bowl bump and more

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Thursday, December 19, 2019

After a week to catch our breath (and watch Army-Navy), college football is already back in force -- on Friday, the 2019-20 bowl season begins.

If you're a "There are too many bowls" person, I don't know what to tell you. Just watch something else until the College Football Playoff starts next Saturday. If you actually like bonus football and the footballverse as a whole, the 38 non-CFP bowl games offer us infinite storylines and last-second opportunities to watch certain players, teams and/or coaches.

Here are some of the storylines that have me most fascinated as we embark upon our annual journey to places like Nassau, San Diego, Yankee Stadium and everywhere in between.

Has a bowl ever had more narrative potential than the Citrus Bowl?

We know the rap on Michigan's Jim Harbaugh pretty well by now. He has undoubtedly boosted the Wolverine football program back into "very good" territory, and depending on the result of Michigan's bowl game, he could end up posting his fourth AP top-15 finish in five years. (Michigan had four in the 12 years before his arrival.)

To critics, though, he is firmly ensconced in "can't win the big one" territory. He's 0-5 against Ohio State and 2-11 against top-10 teams. His Wolverines have made two New Year's Six bowls and gone 0-2. He's hit a roadblock in his quest to take UM from very good to elite, and it's too early to know if he's a Tom Osborne or a John Cooper.

One of two things could happen when Michigan meets Alabama in the Jan. 1 Vrbo Citrus Bowl.

1. Bama shows up with a point to prove, plays like the top-five team predictive rankings like SP+ and FPI think it is, and hands Michigan another loss to another elite team. (And maybe a pretty bad loss at that.)

2. Bama, disappointed about missing the College Football Playoff and prepping for the departure of quite a few stars, plays like it's the 2009 or 2014 Sugar Bowl, doesn't come ready for a fight, and hands Harbaugh an opportunity to beat the premier program of the 2010s.

It's safe to say we will overreact like crazy to either outcome, especially the second option. In that one, we get two meaty subplots: First, Harbaugh scores a huge win and likely earns his team serious (over)hype heading into 2020. Second, a Michigan win would further reinforce the "Bama's dynasty is dead" narrative that we push every time the Tide lose a game. It's a sports radio host's dream.

Who gets the Bowl Bump?

It's a bowl tradition as old as funky weather: Despite the fact that, deep down, we know and understand why we shouldn't overreact to bowl results -- they take place weeks after the regular season, the staff has spent as much time recruiting as preparing for the game, the players are dealing with more distractions than normal, etc. -- we still do it.

Texas' Sugar Bowl win over Georgia last season earned the Longhorns offseason national title hype even though the advanced stats provided reams of reasons for doubt. OU's Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama did the same in 2014. These results fester in our heads all offseason, and we end up dramatically overrating these teams (usually fallen blue bloods) in the next year's preseason polls, setting them up to inevitably disappoint.

Who are this year's prime Bowl Bump candidates?

  • Michigan:For the reasons referenced above.
  • Tennessee:Jeremy Pruitt's Vols won their last five regular-season games to go from 2-5 and 51st in SP+ to 7-5 and 32nd. This improvement is probably enough for UT to get ranked in the preseason polls next year despite key turnover. Add an unexpectedly easy win over Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 and who knows where they might end up?
  • USC:We don't tend to need many reasons to go all-in on the Trojans, and their offensive improvement this year -- with a first-year offensive coordinator (Graham Harrell) and true freshman quarterback (Kedon Slovis), no less -- both saved head coach Clay Helton's job and likely earned preseason hype. If they look the part in Dec. 27's San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl against Iowa, that hype increases.
  • Auburn:Per SP+, Auburn finished the season with the No. 1 strength of schedule ranking in the country but still went a solid 9-3 with a freshman QB (Bo Nix). A 10th win over a physical Minnesota team might earn a little bit of top-five hype for 2020 despite the Tigers facing a solid amount of defensive turnover.
  • Texas A&M:Jimbo Fisher's second season in College Station was a lost one in many ways. The Aggies faced an incredible schedule -- they played four of the top five teams, per SP+, and five of the top 10 -- but didn't put up as much of a fight as expected. But QB Kellen Mond and most of his skill corps are scheduled to return. We'll talk ourselves into the Ags all over again if they look great against Oklahoma State in the Dec. 27 Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl.

Who finds redemption in San Antonio?

The Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 31 pits two teams desperate to end the season on a happier note. Texas began the year with top-10 hype (aided by the bowl bump) but ended up having a 7-5 season almost exactly like the Debbie Downer advanced stats projected.

Head coach Tom Herman has already begun making big staff changes to rejuvenate the program, and an eighth win over a strong Utah team would certainly lighten the mood in Austin, at least temporarily.

Utah, on the other hand, lived up to all expectations this season, but in the biggest moment -- the Pac-12 championship game, with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line -- the Utes wilted. They faltered in a series of short-yardage opportunities, then faded in a 37-15 loss to Oregon. Beating Texas would mean a 12-win season and likely top-10 finish. A solid consolation.

Who salvages a strange season (or at least keeps it from getting worse)?

A 6-6 record is maybe the blandest and most innocuous record possible. But two 6-6 teams had anything but bland seasons.

One of the numbers I regularly track is called postgame win expectancy -- it takes the key predictive stats from a given game, tosses them into the air, and says, "With these key stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time." Add up those percentages for each game, and you get what I call a second-order win total for each team. If you produce a 100% win expectancy for each of your 12 games, your second-order win total is 12; if you produce 50% in each game, it's six. (I wrote a Chalk piece about this back in October.)

This approach is pretty good for tracking who might be a little lucky or unlucky and who might be regressing toward the mean soon.

Second-order win totals suggest that both the Ohio Bobcats and Miami Hurricanes should have gone 8-4 or 9-3 this year. Instead, they were .500. Miami managed to lose four games with a postgame win expectancy of at least 70% (North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and FIU), and Ohio lost three with at least 77% (Northern Illinois, Miami-Ohio and Western Michigan). That is, needless to say, statistically unlikely.

Because of this, they both ended up with an SP+ ranking far higher than you'd think their record deserves -- Miami is 26th, Ohio 54th. And they're paired with teams that are, on paper, drastically inferior. Miami plays Louisiana Tech (67th in SP+) in Dec. 26's Walk-On's Independence Bowl, and Ohio plays Nevada (112th) in Jan. 3's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Might these teams find redemption, win their bowl in a blowout and head into the offseason on a much happier note? Or will they figure out ways to step on the rake one more time?

Is there anything more poetic than Chris Petersen finishing against Boise State?

Petersen's last game as Washington's head coach -- and his last game as a head coach, period, for now -- comes against the team he led to a 92-12 record and four top-10 finishes from 2006 to '13. Washington and Boise State will play in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21; it is the crown jewel of the first Saturday of bowl season.

I would love for bowl pairings to have more flexibility so that we can have more semi-poetic matchups like this, but I'm glad we got this one.

What will Lynn Bowden Jr. do for an encore?

I don't think we fully comprehend what Kentucky pulled off offensively this season.

Starting quarterback Terry Wilson suffered a season-ending patellar tendon injury in Week 2, and backup Sawyer Smith quickly suffered his own list of maladies. So head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran elected to lean on a strategy that high school coaches have lived on for decades: Let's just get the ball into our best playmaker's hands on every play. So receiver/return man Lynn Bowden Jr. became quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr.

The strategy didn't always work. Kentucky was shut out in a rainstorm at Georgia and dropped a 17-13 decision to Tennessee. But in the other five games with Bowden behind center (all wins), the Wildcats averaged 37 points. And after a 2-3 start, UK finished 7-5.

In seven games, Bowden rushed for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns, and thanks also to a trio of strong running backs, Kentucky ended up 14th in rushing SP+ despite, for obvious reasons, no passing game whatsoever.

Bowden won the Paul Hornung Award for versatility (if he hadn't, they should have just discontinued the award) and has already declared for the 2020 NFL draft. But we get one last chance to see him in action behind center, and it comes in Dec. 31's Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech and defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who is also in his last game. Watch this game for a solid feeling of finality, if nothing else.

Which interim-coached teams show up?

It's a cruel twist of the system: The best Group of 5 team in the country is rewarded for its efforts with a huge bowl opportunity, but it will probably take on that opportunity with either an interim head coach or a lame duck (or at best, amid swirling rumors of its coach's departure).

P.J. Fleck led Western Michigan to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in 2016 but left for Minnesota immediately thereafter. UCF beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl in 2017 but already knew it was losing Scott Frost to Nebraska when the game ended. Houston didn't lose Tom Herman after a 2015 Peach Bowl win but lost him to Texas just a year later.

Now it's Memphis' turn. The Tigers are 12-1, and with a Cotton Bowl win over Penn State on Dec. 28, would rack up their first AP top-15 finish in program history. But they'll be attempting to pull that off without the guy who led them there. Mike Norvell is Florida State's head man now and didn't think he could properly do double-duty, so successor Ryan Silverfield will lead the Tigers onto the field.

You never really know how an interim-led team is going to perform -- though the variability may not be as strong as we think -- but we'll be exposed to quite a few of them in the coming weeks. On Dec. 21, Florida Atlantic will face SMU in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl without new Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, and Appalachian State will face UAB in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl without Eliah Drinkwitz, now at Missouri. (Scott Clark, who was named interim coach when Drinkwitz left, has since been given the gig full time.) Rich Gunnell will lead Boston College (instead of the fired Steve Addazio) for the Eagles' Jan. 2 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl date with Cincinnati, and while Norvell is in Tallahassee, interim Odell Haggins is handling FSU's bowl prep for the Dec. 31 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl against Arizona State.

There might be more by the time bowls actually kick off. These will probably be particularly volatile games to figure out for your bowl pool picks.

Which bowl is this year's Honorary Cheez-It Bowl (aka the Points Optional Bowl)?

The 2018 Cheez-It Bowl was among the most ... memorable of the bowl season, as California and TCU put on one of the most defensively impressive (or offensively incompetent, your call) performances you'll ever see. The teams combined for six interceptions in the first half alone and nine for the game. Neither team topped 4.2 yards per play, and the game was tied at 7-7 before TCU won in OT on a field goal and, yes, a pick. If you have a strong sense of pure morbid curiosity, this was one of the most exciting games you'll ever see.

We can't expect to be Cheez-It'd in this way every year, but if we're going to witness another defensive masterpiece (I'm trying to be positive with the framing here), it's likely to be one of these games:

  • New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 21): Central Michigan vs. San Diego State (the early betting market puts the combined point total around 41)
  • New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 21): UAB vs. Appalachian State (47.5)
  • Redbox Bowl (Dec. 30): Illinois vs. Cal (43)
  • Belk Bowl (Dec. 31): Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech (48)
  • Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Baylor vs. Georgia (41.5)

A New Year's Six Cheez-It between Georgia and Baylor? We can only dream.

And which is the honorary Appalled Chris Spielman Bowl?

One of the cruelest things this company has ever done is ask veteran announcer and former all-world linebacker Chris Spielman to do color commentary for the 2011 Alamo Bowl between Baylor and Washington. Baylor eventually won 67-56 in an utterly astounding game that featured 123 combined points and 1,397 combined yards.

Spielman's frustration with the quality of defensive play was visceral. You could feel it through the television. At any moment, it seemed like he was about to march downstairs, put on a uniform and try to stop these offenses himself.

If we're going to have a points explosion this year, the most likely candidate might be ... ironically enough ... the Cheez-It Bowl!

  • Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl (Dec. 20): Kent State vs. Utah State (the early betting market puts the combined point total around 65)
  • Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 21): SMU vs. Florida Atlantic (70.5)
  • SoFi Hawai'i Bowl (Dec. 24): BYU vs. Hawaii (64)
  • Cheez-It Bowl (Dec. 27): Washington State vs. Air Force (67)
  • Peach Bowl (Dec. 28): Oklahoma vs. LSU (76)
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Dec. 30): Mississippi State vs. Louisville (62.5)

It's like I don't even know you anymore, Cheez-It.

Has there ever been a more enjoyable contrast-of-styles bowl matchup than Air Force vs. Wazzu, by the way?

I think not. After we pass a constitutional amendment that requires Greg Roman to be Lamar Jackson's permanent offensive coordinator, can we pass one that says we need at least one "team that rushes 80% of the time vs. team that passes 80% of the time" bowl game per year?

Is this the year Alcorn prevails?

The fifth Celebration Bowl kicks off in Atlanta on Saturday. The MEAC leads the SWAC in the overall series 3-1, and by "the MEAC," I mean North Carolina A&T. The Aggies beat Alcorn State in 2015, Grambling in 2017 and Alcorn again in 2018, and the only time they didn't qualify for the game (NC Central beat them in 2016) was the only time the MEAC lost.

New blood in this game would probably be nice at some point -- a Southern vs. Florida A&M game, for instance, would break the "most beautiful combined uniform color combinations in a bowl" scale (and get two more spectacular bands involved) -- but Alcorn gets a third shot at the HBCU kings. The Braves won the SWAC, while A&T qualified from the MEAC because conference champion Florida A&M was banned from the postseason.

A late run of solid form pushed Alcorn ahead of A&T in my FCS SP+ ratings -- the Braves are 17th, the Aggies 20th. SP+ gives Alcorn a 0.6-point advantage, while Vegas has marked A&T as a slight favorite. This is a toss-up, in other words, which makes sense: Every Celebration Bowl so far has been decided by a touchdown or less. It has quickly become one of the most surefire great games on the bowl slate.

Who's just happy to be there?

As is customary, we've got a few games involving either first-time or first-time-in-a-while bowlers. Charlotte's first bowl experience also kicks off bowl season -- Will Healy's 49ers face Lance Leipold's Buffalo Bulls (who are still looking for their first bowl win) in Friday's Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. On Friday evening, Kent State plays in its first bowl in seven years, and only its fourth ever, against Utah State in the Frisco Bowl.

On Saturday, Liberty's first bowl experience comes against Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl. On Dec. 30, Illinois plays in its first bowl in five years, facing Cal in the potentially Cheez-It-like Redbox Bowl.

Bowls are unpredictable beasts to begin with, but when you have a team that's really, really happy to have qualified at all, they become even more unpredictable. Do they play the whole game in fifth gear? Did they check out two weeks ago? Regardless, if you're looking for extra rooting interests this bowl season, these teams aren't a bad place to start.

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