NCAA Football

Top 10 storylines for weekend’s biggest bowl games

Written by Andrew Kulha

The year 2016 is almost over — what a year it has been, right?. And college football is saying goodbye in a big way with a massive weekend of bowl games.

The New Year’s Six games are finally here, but so is the 2016-17 College Football Playoffs. These are the big-time matchups between some of the best teams in the nation, which means there’s going to be plenty to watch and plenty to talk about when all is said and done.

With that in mind, here are the top-10 storylines for what will end up being the biggest college football weekend of the season.

1. Stanford’s look without Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey’s college career is over, and no, he’s not injured. McCaffrey recently decided to sit out No. 18 Stanford’s Sun Bowl matchup with North Carolina in an effort to prepare for the NFL draft. It was a decision that didn’t come without criticism. But outside of a WWE-approved surprise, McCaffrey has played his last game with the Cardinal.

In three seasons, he rushed for well over 3,000 yards with 21 touchdowns while going over 1,000 yards through the air and was one of the most-dynamic special teams players in all of college football.

McCaffrey will truly go down as a college football legend, so how is Stanford going to respond to playing without him?

The good news for the Cardinal is that they do have a player ready to step up. Sophomore running back Bryce Love has played in relief of McCaffrey before, and this season he’s rushed 90 times for 664 yards and three touchdowns.

He has five touchdowns in his young Stanford career overall, but one has to wonder how he’ll actually respond to finally and officially being “the guy” for the Cardinal in the backfield.

2. Can Tennessee salvage a disappointing season?

The 2016 season was one that started out with much promise for Tennessee. The Vols started the season ranked No. 9 nationally and were expected to potentially be a CFP dark-horse contender.

Through five games, destiny looked to favor Butch Jones and the Volunteers, especially after Tennessee followed up a win over No. 19 Florida with a last-second win at No. 25 Georgia.

As has been the case in the Jones era at Tennessee, though, the Vols couldn’t continue living up to the hype, as they went on to drop three-straight games after the UGA win, and then they lost to Vanderbilt to end the season with an underwhelming 8-4 record.

Tennessee was still good enough to finish the season with the No. 21 ranking nationally, and the Vols are indeed good enough to beat a nine-win Nebraska team in the Music City Bowl.

Once again, one question remains: Can Tennessee meet or exceed expectations?

If so, the Vols may be able to salvage a disappointing season. Though, anything short of a SEC title is still a disappointing outing in Rocky Top.

3. Michigan (and Jim Harbaugh) looking to finish 2016 on a strong note

Speaking of disappointing, if No. 6 Michigan doesn’t find a way to end 2016 with an Orange Bowl win over No. 11 Florida State, Jim Harbaugh’s second season in Ann Arbor may end up getting that tag.

As a credit to Harbaugh’s ability as a coach and recruiter, Michigan was expected to be a CFP contender and even a national championship contender this season. Things looked good for the Wolverines until an upset loss in Iowa City to the Hawkeyes, and then Michigan finished the season losers of two-of-three after Ohio State ripped out its heart after a controversial fourth-down play in overtime.

Michigan will have a double-digit win season either way. But considering the expectations for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, a win over a very good FSU team (a recent national champion, mind you) is really the only acceptable outcome.

4. Lamar Jackson faces a Heisman-sized letdown

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy this season and even the harshest of critics would find the win hard to argue. Jackson passed for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. He really made his biggest impact as a dual-threat quarterback. Off the strength of 234 attempts, Jackson rushed for 1,538 and 21 touchdowns (6.6 yards per carry).

After such a tremendous regular season that resulted in the mountain top of the Heisman, one has to wonder if Jackson will be able to keep the momentum going against a very good LSU team. No. 13 Louisville takes on No. 20 LSU in the Citrus Bowl, a game in which Jackson will have to take on one of the best rush defenses in the country.

LSU finished the 2016 regular season with the No. 19 rushing defense in all of college football, a unit that gives up only 121.8 yards per game on the ground.

5. Derrius Guice ready to take the reigns at LSU

Leonard Fournette will go down as a great college football running back But in the same vein as McCaffrey, he’s decided to sit out the aforementioned Citrus Bowl in order to prepare for the NFL draft.

Derrius Guice, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound sophomore from Baton Rouge, got plenty of experience this season in relief of Fournette, who battled injuries. He’s now officially LSU’s No. 1 running back.

How will he respond?

If history is any indicator, Guice does have the potential to fill Fournette’s massive shoes. He played in every game for the Tigers, with multiple starts, and ended the season with 1,249 yards and 14 touchdowns. Guice had four multiple touchdown games, including a three-touchdown performance against Missouri and a four-touchdown outing at Texas A&M.

6. Mark Stoops looking to pick up one more statement win

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops entered the 2016 season on the hot seat. And halfway through, it looked like his firing was inevitable. Kentucky started the season losing three of its first five, including the season opener to Southern Mississippi. The Wildcats also lost two in a row in early November.

Kentucky then salvaged the 2016 season by winning two in a row, including a 41-38 win over No. 11 Louisville on the road.

Stoops and Kentucky (7-5) play an 8-4 Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl. A win would be Stoops’ first bowl win at Kentucky, and perhaps it could be the win that gives him one more year as head coach for the Wildcats.

7. What kind of team is Florida?

Florida outlasted a tough SEC East and was rewarded with a 54-16 spanking by No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

Jim McElwain’s Gators will play a surging Iowa team in the Outback Bowl, and a win could be the difference between a 9-4 season with a bowl win, and an 8-5 season that ended on a three-game losing streak. Remember, Florida lost to FSU to end the regular season, 31-13.

The Gators have been a strong team at times this season — beating No. 16 LSU on the road, for instance — but they’ve also struggled at times. Florida lost on the road to both Tennessee and Arkansas. We’ll find out what kind of team the Gators are against a challenging Iowa team.

8. Western Michigan Broncos looking to go perfect 

Western Michigan head coach P. J. Fleck is one of the hottest coaching names in college football. He’s been tearing it up on the recruiting trail — landing impressive commitments for a MAC school — and he has Western Michigan on the cusp on an undefeated season.

The No. 15 Broncos are 13-0 after running the table in the regular season and winning the MAC.

The sledding is going to be much tougher in the Cotton Bowl, though, going up against the Big Ten’s Wisconsin, which is ranked No. 8 nationally. The Badgers lost to Penn State in the B1G Title game, but they still had a great season that saw them hang with No. 4 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State in two tough losses, while beating top-10 teams, LSU, Michigan State and Nebraska.

The Badgers are the real deal, but Fleck is trying to prove his program is as well. Even if they don’t win, the Broncos will be one of college football’s hottest teams, but an undefeated season with a Cotton Bowl win would be extremely special for the team from Kalamazoo.

9. Can Deshaun Watson outplay Ohio State’s defense?

In last season’s National Championship game, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson proved that he was one of college football’s elite players, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns (one interception), while also rushing 20 times for 73 yards.

Clemson ultimately fell short. But in this season’s CFP, Watson gets a second chance. He’ll have to go through Ohio State’s defense first, which is much easier said than done.

Alabama was able to slow down Watson in the title game, but even the Tide’s defense couldn’t stop him. OSU’s defense is just as good as that Alabama defense, so Watson and the Tigers will have to be on top of their game to even have a chance at one more CFP title shot.

OSU ranked No. 3 in total defense (14.2 points per game), only behind Alabama and Michigan. The Buckeyes gave up only 117.1 yards per game on the ground in 2016 (five touchdowns) and they were a top-five team in passing defense. Ohio State’s defense picked off quarterbacks 19 times this season, taking 10 of those back to the house for touchdowns.

Watson could end up having a very long day against the Buckeyes. Or, he can prove, once again, that he can play with the best of the best college football has to offer defensively.

10. Is Jake Browning ready for Alabama?

Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning led No. 4 Washington to a 12-1 record and a win in the Pac-12 championship. He was one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and easily could have been a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Browning finished the season with 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns (seven interceptions) and he also rushed for four scores. He had two six-touchdown performances (against Oregon and Cal) and threw for 118 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions) against No. 8 Colorado in a 41-10 Pac-12 title win.

In only his second season for Washington, Browning is proving to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the game of football. He hasn’t seen a defense anywhere near the caliber of Alabama’s though, so the rubber is truly going to meet the road for the 6-foot-2, 209 pound signal-caller from Folsom, Calif.

Alabama finished 2016 No. 1 in total defense (247.8 yards given up per game), No. 15 in passing defense (184.5 yards per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (only 63.38 yards given up per game) and No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing only 11.8 points per game.

A stout Crimson Tide front seven will be coming after Washington’s star running back, Myles Gaskin, so the Huskies’ hopes for a CFP win will likely lie on Browning.

Is he ready for prime-time? We’re about to find out.

About the author

Andrew Kulha