The SEC is once again the top conference in college football heading into the bowl season, which means there is a target on its back. Much like the 2017 season, 11 SEC teams are playing in bowl games, but the collective fan base is hoping for a better outcome. Regardless of the wins and losses, the bowl selections offer some intriguing pairings against top teams from the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and AAC.
Last season, SEC teams went just 5-6 in the bowl games, although the conference did boast Alabama and Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Since the 2015 season, the Crimson Tide has been a part of the national title equation winning in '15 and last season and has a chance to go back-to-back if they win their semifinal showdown against No. 4 Oklahoma. Although favored by Vegas in nine of the 11 bowl games, the SEC will need to bring its A game in these matchups.
Tuning into any of the games will not be a letdown, but if you have to make a list of which to see and which to pass up, we’ve ranked the watchability of every 2018 SEC bowl game.
Note: All times are ET.
1. Orange Bowl — No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1)
Dec. 29 — 8 p.m., ESPN
In terms of blue blood college football programs squaring off in the postseason, it does not get any bigger than Alabama vs. Oklahoma. The Sooners take to the field with seven claimed national titles compared to Alabama's 17. While neither squad may have the appearance of teams from yesteryear, both take the stage with gunslinging quarterbacks capable of winning this semifinal on talent and grit alone.
Fans will tune in to see Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray take on Alabama’s Maxwell and Walter Camp Award winner Tua Tagovailoa. Murray electrified college football with 4,053 passing yards and 40 touchdowns while rushing for 892 yards with 11 more scores. Tagovailoa was equally impressive, throwing for 3,353 and 37 touchdowns leading the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season.
Which defense can step up will dictate the outcome of the most highly anticipated game on the bowl slate, at least until the national title game is set. The stakes are high with the victor carrying onto the national championship game for the right to play the winner of No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Clemson.
2. Fiesta Bowl — No. 11 LSU (9-3) vs. No. 8 UCF (12-0)
Jan. 1 — 1 p.m., ESPN
In 2017, the Knights shocked everyone by running the table and going 13-0, including a victory over No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl. With first-year head coach Josh Heupel now directing UCF, the results have been the same — another AAC championship and another opportunity to take down an SEC giant, this time in the Fiesta Bowl. LSU enters this game having already played six ranked teams, five in the top 10; so the Tigers will be ready for the Knights, who have won 25 in a row.
UCF is third in the FBS in offense at 545 yards per game. LSU puts more emphasis on ball control, running the ball and playing smash-mouth defense, so the contrasting styles should be fun to watch. Should UCF beat yet another SEC team in the postseason, expect a loud chant about back-to-back national champs coming out of Orlando.
3. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl — No. 10 Florida (9-3) vs. No. 7 Michigan (10-2)
Dec. 29 — 12 p.m., ESPN
The Big Ten's second-best team vs. the SEC's fourth, at least according to the win-loss column, may sound like a mismatch but the two teams should align evenly giving fans of both conferences an exciting game. The Wolverines will bring the nation's No. 1 defense (263 ypg) to Atlanta, but the Gators' is no slouch coming in ranked 27th. The offenses are statistically similar but both could struggle in this one. Michigan features standouts linebacker Devin Busch and end Chase Winovich on defense, while the Gators have end Jachai Polite, who does not live up to his namesake as it relates to opposing quarterbacks.
4. Sugar Bowl — No. 5 Georgia (11-2) vs. No. 15 Texas (9-4)
Jan. 1 — 8:45 p.m., ESPN
New Orleans will be rocking on New Year’s Day with a mass exodus of fans leaving the Lone Star State and the Peach State for a crowd-pleasing, SEC vs. Big 12 gridiron battle. Come kickoff, the Longhorn faithful may be the loudest, anticipating their team’s first double-digit win season since 2009. On the other side, the Bulldogs are seeking to prove they belonged in the College Football Playoff, even as a two-loss team.
On the field, Georgia’s 13th-ranked defense will try and slow down Texas’ offense that produces 416 yards per game on average and is led by QB Sam Ehlinger, while the Longhorns are tasked with going up against perhaps the best backfield duo in the nation in the Bulldogs' D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.
5. Liberty Bowl — No. 23 Missouri (8-4) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Dec. 31 — 3:45 p.m., ESPN
Missouri will be looking for a degree of redemption when it heads to Memphis in hopes of taking down an old Big 12 foe in Oklahoma State. The Tigers fell short of showing up former conference member Texas a year ago in the Texas Bowl, losing 33-16 while the Cowboys rolled to a 30-21 win over Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl.
This pairing is what makes the bowl season so much fun. Both offenses are among the best in the nation with Oklahoma State chewing up 500 yards per game to Mizzou’s 469. Both defenses better come prepared for a track meet. Make no mistake, this game is all about Tigers’ quarterback Drew Lock vs. Cowboys’ gunslinger Taylor Cornelius.
6. Citrus Bowl — No. 14 Kentucky (9-3) vs. No. 12 Penn State (9-3)
Jan. 1 — 1 p.m., ABC
A tough defense in Kentucky against a prolific offense in Penn State, SEC vs. Big Ten — who could ask for anything more? The Wildcats’ defense has an overwhelming task taking on dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley and 1,200-yard rusher Miles Sanders. The Nittany Lions’ defense better bring its hard hat as well, squaring off against All-SEC tailback Benny Snell Jr. and a physical offensive line led by All-American guard Bunchy Stallings.
This is a must-see game for fans of either program as it does not happen often. The last pairing on the gridiron was in 1999, a 26-14 win for Penn State.
7. Music City Bowl — Auburn (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
Dec. 28 — 1:30 p.m., ESPN
Auburn played four teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense during the regular season, going 2-2, and now must find a way to slow down Purdue, who ranks 24th. Boilermakers quarterback David Blough can spin it as well as anyone, entering this game with 3,521 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. The Tigers' defense has held up pretty well this season, holding teams to 363 yards per game.
Purdue has been susceptible on defense (442 ypg, 103rd in FBS), but can Auburn's inconsistent offense (374 ypg) take advantage? It may come down to whichever team's weaker side of the ball can rise to the occasion.
8. Gator Bowl — No. 19 Texas A&M (8-4) vs. NC State (9-3)
Dec. 31 — 7:30 p.m., ESPN
The last time Jimbo Fisher took on NC State he was the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles. Fisher probably hasn't forgotten that he lost that game (27-21) as he looks to finish his first season with the Aggies on a winning note. That task, however, will not be an easy one. The Wolfpack are led by All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley, who led his conference with 3,789 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's complemented by 1,000-yard tailback Reggie Gallaspy.
Dave Doeren has faced Fisher-coached offenses before, but A&M offers plenty of balance with dual-threat Kellen Mond at quarterback and second-team All-American Trayveon Williams at running back. Williams paced the SEC with 1,524 rushing yards and 15 scores while Mond has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards with 23 touchdowns and has added another six scores on the ground. The Aggies' defense is better than advertised and could use the primetime spotlight to prove it.
9. Outback Bowl — No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Jan. 1 — 12 p.m., ESPN 2
If you like three yards and a cloud of dust, this throwback style game is for you. Another matchup of teams looking to ground-and-pound the other into submission over the course of four quarters. Both offenses are fairly evenly matched with Mississippi State holding a slight edge in yards per game (402-390). Neither defense is willing to give an inch. The Bulldogs are ranked third in the nation (268 ypg) with the Hawkeyes close behind at No. 7 (290).
The in-game matchup to watch is Iowa All-American tight end T.J. Hockenson against Mississippi State's All-American defensive end Montez Sweat.
10. Belk Bowl — South Carolina (7-5) vs. Virginia (7-5)
Dec. 29 — 12 p.m., ABC
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp is looking for back-to-back bowl wins after the Gamecocks defeated Michigan 26-19 in last season's Outback Bowl. On the other sideline, head coach Bronco Mendenhall is hoping to lead Virginia to its first bowl victory since the 2005 season when Al Groh was calling the shots. Both coaches are attempting to turn the proverbial corner with their programs, and a bowl win would only add to the momentum.
The Cavaliers are led by the backfield of dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins and running back Jordan Ellis. The Gamecocks have Jake Bentley at the helm and his top target, explosive wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Both defenses will be challenged in Charlotte.
11. Texas Bowl — Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. Baylor (6-6)
Dec. 27 — 9 p.m., ESPN
From the ashes of a 1-11 campaign in 2017 rise the Baylor Bears. In his second season in Waco, head coach Matt Rhule has the Bears trending back towards the winning days of Art Briles (2008-15). Baylor can score, averaging 28 points per game behind an offense that averages 442 yards per game. Vanderbilt is one of those teams that no one wants to play. The Commodores are middle-of-the-road statistically on both sides of the ball but play teams tough. They closed the season by winning three of four. Vanderbilt's defense will have its hands full against the Bears' emerging sophomore quarterback, Charlie Brewer.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.