By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Eleven of the 14 schools from the SEC made bowl games, the most of any league in the country. The conference currently is 6-5 in bowl games this postseason, and Alabama has an opportunity to improve that record to 7-5 with a win over Clemson in the national title game on Monday, Jan. 7.
The Crimson Tide handled Oklahoma, 45-34, in the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs. Alabama jumped out to a 28-0 lead and dominated most of the first half. However, the Sooners settled in and battled back in the second half to make the game at least somewhat compelling. Nevertheless, Alabama was in control and Nick Saban has UA the championship game for the seventh time since 2009.
Auburn delivered perhaps the most dominating performance of any team in a 63-14 dismantling of Purdue in the Music City Bowl. The Tigers led 56-7 at the half and set the record for most points in a half in a bowl game. Jarrett Stidham threw for 373 yards and five touchdowns in his final game with the Tigers, while Darius Slayton caught three passes for 160 yards and three scores. Auburn finished the year at 8-5.
In addition to Alabama, three other SEC teams played in a New Year’s Six bowl. Georgia took on Texas in the Sugar Bowl, and the Bulldogs came out flat against the Longhorns. Texas led 28-7 late in the second half, and that deficit proved to be too much for the Bulldogs to overcome as they lost 28-21 to finish 11-3.
Florida faced Michigan in the Peach Bowl, with the Gators dominating the Wolverines to the tune of 41-15. Dan Mullen finished his first season in Gainesville with 10 wins.
LSU played undefeated Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers took on the Knights without over half of their starters on defense, while UCF was without starting quarterback McKenzie Milton. LSU held on for a 40-32 victory to finish 10-3 on the year.
Kentucky finished the season with 10 wins for the first time since 1977, as the Wildcats defeated Penn State, 27-24, in the Citrus Bowl. It was a remarkable season for Mark Stoops and the Wildcats.
Jimbo Fisher led Texas A&M to a nine-win season in his first year in College Station, and the Aggies capped off the year with a resounding 52-13 win over North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.
A poor third quarter ultimately doomed Missouri in a 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers were 9.5-point favorites but were outscored 21-3 in the third quarter and could not overcome the deficit. Missouri finished 8-5 on the season.
South Carolina had the worst showing of any SEC team, as the Gamecocks lost 28-0 to Virginia to fall to 7-6 on the season.
Derek Mason nearly earned his first bowl win as a head coach, but his Commodores narrowly lost to Baylor, 45-38, in the Texas Bowl. Vanderbilt ended the year with a 6-7 record.
Joe Moorhead’s first season at Mississippi State ended with a 27-22 loss to Iowa. The Bulldogs ended the year at 8-5.
National Championship Preview and Prediction
Clemson vs. Alabama (-6). These two programs have been the best in college football over the past four years, and are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth straight season. In 2015, Alabama edged Clemson for Nick Saban’s fourth national title with the Tide. A year later, Dabo Swinney and Deshaun Watson returned the favor for the Tigers’ first national championship in 35 years. Last year, Alabama knocked off Clemson in the semifinals en route to Saban’s fifth championship with Crimson Tide.
Both teams are perfect on the year, and the winner will emerge as the first 15-0 team in the playoff era. They’ve been the best teams in college football all year and both squads rolled through the semifinals to the championship game. Tua Tagovailoa and the Ala-bama offense have been essentially unstoppable and are going up against the best defensive line in the country. Clemson’s secondary is susceptible to big plays, so the UA offense should have success through the air.
Clemson’s offense is led by true freshman Trevor Lawrence, and the signal caller has the poise of a seasoned veteran. Lawrence has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including running back Travis Entienne and receivers Hunter Renfrow, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
The entire season has been building to the showdown between these two dominant powerhouses, and this matchup is shaping up to be another classic. It would be surprising to see Alabama lose to a true freshman quarterback, though Lawrence has proven he is among the best in the country. Alabama’s secondary could be the difference in the game, as they have the ability to control the Clemson passing attack. Prediction: Alabama 34, Clemson 27.