It’s New Year’s Day, the one day on the calendar where it’s perfectly acceptable — nay, darn near mandatory — to sit on the couch for hours upon end watching almost entirely meaningless college football games. The low-stakes level of these exhibitions has ramped up in recent years, as some of the nation’s top players have come to the realization that it’s probably smarter to preserve themselves for their NFL careers rather than risk injury in exchange for a bag full of junk with an NCAA-mandated maximum value of $550.
With all that in mind, this preview will focus on the players who won’t be on the field Tuesday, along with an estimated measure of each team’s give-a-darn level.
All times Eastern. Point spreads taken from Monday morning. Check VegasInsider.com for updated lines.
Mississippi State vs. Iowa
Time, TV: Noon, ESPN2.
Line: Mississippi State by 5.
Missing persons report: Noah Fant, Iowa’s all-time leader in touchdowns by a tight end, who’s considered by many to be the nation’s top NFL prospect at the position, will sit things out to protect his draft status. But it’ll be okay: The Hawkeyes also feature sophomore T.J. Hockenson, who merely won this season’s John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Mississippi State will be at full strength even after their Egg Bowl brawl against Mississippi to end the regular season. Three Bulldogs players were ejected, which normally would result in some sort of suspension, but the SEC decided not to sanction any of the players, in part because the league ruled that the wrong Mississippi State players had gotten tossed out of the game.
Motivation?: Iowa played in this game just two years ago, getting its doors blown off by Florida. It also was in this spot after the 2013 regular season. And after 2008. And after 2005. And after 2003. Obviously, not all of the current Hawkeyes have Bloomin’ Onion malaise, but some might, and their fans might be getting a little sick of spending New Year’s Eve in Tampa and then waking up for New Year’s Day’s earliest bowl game. The Bulldogs are bowling for the ninth straight season and have won four of their last five contests, so motivation seemingly hasn’t been an issue of late (though all of those previous games were under Dan Mullen and not current coach Joe Moorhead, who’s coaching in his first bowl game). And yes, Mississippi State’s fans will be allowed to bring their beloved/reviled cowbells into the stadium.
Kentucky vs. Penn State
Time, TV: 1 p.m., ABC.
Line: Penn State by 4.
Missing persons report: Penn State backup quarterback Tommy Stevens is something of a surprise no-show after Coach James Franklin announced last week that he had surgery of some kind after the end of the regular season. Stevens was used as an all-purpose threat in the team’s “Lion” package, though that was less effective this season than last, when he accounted for nine touchdowns (four rushing, three passing, two receiving). An early-season foot injury might have had something to do with that. Kentucky senior linebacker Jordan Jones, who has 33 career starts, was mysteriously declared ineligible for the game in mid-December.
Motivation?: The 9-3 Nittany Lions are gunning for their third straight season with double-digit wins, something that hasn’t happened in Happy Valley since 1980-82. The similarly 9-3 Wildcats, meanwhile, haven’t won 10 games since 1977 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2008, so there’s plenty of motivation on that side, too.
LSU vs. Central Florida
Time, TV: 1 p.m., ESPN
Line: LSU by 8.
Missing persons report: The Tigers will be particularly shorthanded. Starting cornerbacks Greedy Williams (NFL draft prep) and Kristian Fulton (ankle surgery) both won’t play along with starting defensive tackle Ed Alexander (NFL draft prep). Neither will freshman cornerback Kelvin Joseph and freshman offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal (both suspended) and junior outside linebacker Travez Moore (sitting out for personal reasons). Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the team’s second-leading rusher, and reserve linebacker Jared Small will play for LSU even though one of them fatally shot a would-be armed robber in mid-December. Baton Rouge police are saying it was an act of self-defense in an electronics sale gone very wrong. The Knights will be without quarterback McKenzie Milton, who suffered a bad leg injury in the regular season finale, but backup Darriel Mack Jr. has performed well in his absence and now has had a month to prepare.
Motivation?: Central Florida, the perpetually slighted “defending national champion,” which hasn’t lost a game since December 2016? The program that may single-handedly drag the College Football Playoff into an eight-team format? How can the Knights not be motivated to slay another SEC dragon in a New Year’s Six bowl? They might be too motivated, if we’re being honest. LSU probably is just happy not be playing in another Citrus Bowl, which has hosted the Tigers the last two seasons.
Washington vs. Ohio State
Time, TV: 5 p.m., ESPN.
Line: Ohio State by 5½.
Missing persons report: Neither team will be particularly hampered by absences, though Ohio State’s offensive line may take a hit without right guard Demetrius Knox (out with a Lisfranc injury suffered in the regular season finale against Michigan) and perhaps starting left tackle Thayer Munford, who sat out bowl practice with an undisclosed injury. Washington doesn’t have any notable players sitting out.
Motivation?: This will be Urban Meyer’s last game as Ohio State’s coach and one has to think the Buckeyes will want to send him out with a victory in his first and perhaps only Rose Bowl (he called it “a dream come true and a bucket-list item that I wanted to someday accomplish”). Washington may be playing for conference pride more than anything else: Pac-12 teams went a historically bad 1-8 in their 2017 bowl games and started this year’s slate of postseason exhibitions with two losses in three attempts. It’s also the Huskies’ first Rose Bowl appearance since after the 2000 regular season.
Texas vs. Georgia
Time, TV: 8:45 p.m., ESPN.
Line: Georgia by 11.
Missing persons report: Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker, this year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, will sit out the game to protect himself for his professional career. He had 40 tackles, 2 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season.
Motivation?: Someone has to be the first team left out of the playoff every year and this season it’s the fifth-ranked Bulldogs, who came close to toppling Alabama in the SEC title game but couldn’t quite get it done. The previous four No. 5s in the CFP era have gone 1-3 in their bowl games — 2-2 against the spread, if that aspect matters to you — with Ohio State the lone straight-up winner, covering the spread as a 10-point favorite against USC last season. The Longhorns (9-4) haven’t posted double-digit victories since 2009 and haven’t won a New Year’s Six bowl game since the season before that, so they’ll be looking to confirm their rise under second-year coach Tom Herman. Oh, and Herman’s teams have gone 10-2-1 against the spread as underdogs, winning seven of those games outright. Motivation doesn’t seem like it’s ever an issue.
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