After posting a 9-2 bowl record last year — and adding yet another national championship to its resume — the SEC appeared to be far and away the best conference in college football. It wasn't just the fact that last year's nine bowl wins set an NCAA record for any conference; it was the way the SEC won. In seven of the 11 total bowl games, SEC teams won by at least 21 points. It was about as impressive as one conference could be in a bowl season.
Fast-forward to the start of the 2016 bowl season and every SEC team not named Alabama has at least four losses. Of course, any SEC homer would tell you that's because the conference is so good that it cannibalizes itself. But to an outside spectator, all those 8-4 records look like a steaming pile of mediocrity. Adding to that, the SEC is only 6-8 against Power Five non-conference competition this season. This bowl season is big for the SEC because it provides a good measuring stick for just how good the conference still is — or isn't.
This year's bowl slate includes plenty of attractive matchups and plenty of opportunities against stiff competition from the Power Five.
Note: All times are ET.
1. Peach Bowl — Alabama (13-0) vs. Washington (12-1)
Dec. 31 — 3 p.m., ESPN
This one is undoubtedly the most highly-anticipated bowl game involving an SEC team — mainly because of what's at stake. The winner will play Ohio State or Clemson for a national title. But this game is attractive on another level because of the contrast in styles. Washington possesses the nation's No. 4 scoring offense and quarterback Jake Browning has been superb through the air this season. On the other side of the ball will be Alabama's NFL player-filled defense, which ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring, rushing and total defense. A common opponent between these teams is USC. The Trojans beat Washington 26-13. They lost to Alabama 52-6.
2. Sugar Bowl — Auburn (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
Jan. 2 — 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Another great contrast in styles — Auburn has the nation's No. 5 scoring defense, allowing only 16 points per game. Oklahoma has the nation's No. 3 scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game. Something will have to give when these teams meet in New Orleans. Since losing to Ohio State in week three, Oklahoma has looked nearly unstoppable, easily disposing of most every Big 12 challenger it met. Auburn didn't finish the season quite as well, dropping a game to Georgia in Athens and getting pummeled by Alabama in the Iron Bowl. With plenty of time to prepare, it will be interesting to see how Auburn defends the high-powered Sooners.
3. Citrus Bowl — LSU (7-4) vs. Louisville (9-3)
Dec. 31 — 11 a.m., ABC
Think back to Johnny Manziel's college days. As electrifying as Manziel was, the one team that always had an answer for him was LSU. Those were totally different times with totally different teams. But this game feels kind of similar. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is coming off a historic Heisman Trophy-winning season that saw him rack up nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. But Jackson seemed to lose a bit of his luster in the last two games of the regular season. His team got blown out by Houston and then lost to Kentucky. Jackson threw three interceptions against the Wildcats. LSU gives up only 16 points per game and the Tigers have as much talent on defense as they've ever had. This could be a tough matchup for the Cardinals.
4. Music City Bowl — Tennessee (8-4) vs. Nebraska (9-3)
Dec. 30 — 3:30 p.m., ESPN
The Music City Bowl will host two historic programs that both were ranked in the top 10 at one time or another this season. Both sort of faded away down the stretch but nonetheless had some bright moments. Neither team finished well. Tennessee lost to lowly South Carolina and Vanderbilt late in the season, while Nebraska got beaten down 62-3 on national television against Ohio State and then lost 40-10 to Iowa to finish the regular season. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs could be a potential matchup nightmare for the Cornhuskers' defense but on the other hand, Nebraska likely will be able to run at will against Tennessee's depleted defense. This should be a close game in Nashville.
5. Outback Bowl — Florida (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Jan. 2 — 1 p.m., ABC
The Outback Bowl will feature two of the nation's worst offenses, as the Hawkeyes and Gators both rank 115th or worse in total yardage. Scoring has been an issue for both too, with Iowa around 27 points per game, Florida 23. After upsetting LSU to clinch the SEC East, the Gators have been blown out by rival Florida State and Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The Hawkeyes finished stronger with three consecutive wins against Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska. Like most teams in America, inconsistency is a theme here. But it should be a physical, old-school kind of football game.
6. Belk Bowl — Arkansas (7-5) vs. Virginia Tech (9-4)
Dec. 29 — 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Virginia Tech has looked like a top-10 team at times this season. But the Hokies have had some weird slip-ups, including a home loss to Georgia Tech and a severe beating on the road at Syracuse. Still, they finished the season well and gave Clemson all it wanted in the ACC Championship Game. Arkansas has had plenty of ups and downs. The Razorbacks embodied the definition of inconsistency this year, beating the likes of Florida and TCU but also losing 56-3 to Auburn and ending the season with a loss to Missouri, the SEC's worst team. This will be the first-ever meeting between these programs.
7. Texas Bowl — Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Kansas State (8-4)
Dec. 28 — 9 p.m., ESPN
Texas A&M and Kansas State have the same record but how they got to 8-4 is much different. Kevin Sumlin finds himself on the brink of another 9-4 or 8-5 season and many are starting to question exactly where the Aggies' ceiling lies. It doesn't appear to be in the double-digit win region. The Aggies have started hot the past three seasons then faded down the stretch. Legendary Bill Snyder and his Wildcats, on the other hand, finished 2016 strong. The 'Cats have won five of their last six games, defeating Baylor, Texas and TCU. Kansas State’s only loss during this stretch was to Oklahoma State.
8. Liberty Bowl — Georgia (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)
Dec. 30 — 12 p.m., ESPN
After winning at least 10 games in four of the past five seasons, the Georgia Bulldogs seem to have taken a step back this year — posting a 7-5 record. But the 'Dawgs did finish the year fairly well, winning three of their last four games. TCU was average at best in the Big 12. While the Horned Frogs did hammer Baylor and Texas, they also lost to Oklahoma State and Kansas State by a combined score of 61-12. It will be interesting to see how Georgia's 18th-ranked secondary matches up with TCU's top-25 passing offense led by former SEC quarterback Kenny Hill.
9. TaxSlayer Bowl — Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 31 — 11 a.m., ESPN
Kentucky finally made its way to a bowl game under head coach Mark Stoops after winning its last two games against Austin Peay and — surprisingly — Louisville. The Wildcats have a chance to get to eight wins for the first time since 2007 but they'll be up against a Georgia Tech team that has been on fire in its last six games, winning all but one of those. The Yellow Jackets ended the regular season with road wins against both Virginia Tech and Georgia and also beat Vanderbilt 38-7 earlier in the year.
10. Independence Bowl — Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. NC State (6-6)
Dec. 26 — 5 p.m., ESPN2
Vanderbilt is in a bowl game for the first time since 2013 when James Franklin was head coach. The Commodores had to earn
it — knocking off Ole Miss and Tennessee in the final two weeks of the season with an offense that it seemingly found out of nowhere. Vanderbilt will need that offense once again to win this game. NC State has one of the nation's better defenses, allowing a little more than 350 yards per game. Yards will be tough to come by for Ralph Webb and company.
11. Birmingham Bowl — South Carolina (6-6) vs. South Florida (10-2)
Dec. 29 — 2 p.m., ESPN
South Carolina turned its season around somewhat by beating Tennessee on Oct. 29, which ended a four-game losing streak in SEC play. The Gamecocks then beat Missouri and Western Carolina to become bowl eligible. South Florida has been stout all season. In fact, the Bulls may be one of the nation's most underrated teams. This is a team that beat Navy and Memphis in consecutive weeks and its only two losses are to Florida State and Temple. The Gamecocks will have their work cut out for them in Birmingham.
12. St. Petersburg Bowl — Mississippi State (5-7) vs. Miami (Ohio) (6-6)
Dec. 26 — 11 a.m., ESPN
Honestly, this one just isn't very appealing in terms of an SEC bowl game. Because there are so many bowl slots to fill, teams with losing records get in. Mississippi State is not deserving of a bowl game at 5-7. Its only highlight this season was an upset win over Texas A&M. State's opponent is Miami (Ohio) — a team that started the year 0-6 but to its credit finished with six straight wins. Will the RedHawks make it seven? Probably.
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.