The confetti from the New Year’s Eve party has been cleaned up and the resolutions have been made, so now it is time to settle in for kickoff on a day full of football and the first-ever college football playoff. With the new playoff bringing New Year’s Day back to prominence as one of the most important days of the season, we have what you need to know in each of today’s games.
Tampa, Fla./ Raymond James Stadium
January 1 – 11 a.m. – ESPN 2
Auburn vs. Wisconsin
What to watch for: If you like old-school, ground-and-pound football, this is the game you’ll want to watch. Auburn had a shot at a national title coming into the season, but the nation’s most brutal schedule was too much to overcome. Wisconsin, with the nation’s best running back in Melvin Gordon, was inexplicably AWOL for its Big Ten title tile with Ohio State. Auburn’s had trouble stopping people defensively and the Badgers average about seven yards per carry, and while Wisconsin’s defense was great statistically, it really struggled with the better teams on its schedule. Despite the disappointments on both sides, this should be one of the better bowl games.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Dallas, Texas/ AT&T Stadium
January 1 – 11:45 a.m. – ESPN
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Baylor
What to watch for: There may not be a better defensive coach in the country than MSU’s Mark Dantonio, and the same could be said about his Baylor counterpart, Art Briles, and his offensive genius. Both teams get a lot of attention for being great on those respective sides of the ball, but are very underrated on the other sides, too.
Orlando, Fla./ Florida Citrus Bowl
January 1 – Noon – ABC
Missouri vs. Minnesota
What to watch for: Perhaps no two teams were more underestimated, week-in and week-out, than these two. Missouri was written off for dead after losing in Week 4 to an Indiana team that ended its season 4-8, as Tiger quarterback Maty Mauk was positively dreadful during the middle of the season, but Mizzou chose the path less traveled in this era of offensive wizardry (that being defense and special teams) to shock everyone and win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division crown with a 7-1 league record. Meanwhile up in the frozen tundra, coach Jerry Kill quietly led what looked like an average Minnesota team to an 8-4 mark, which included road wins at Michigan and Nebraska. Speaking of coaches, I’ll bet you didn’t realize that Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, if he wins this one, will have averaged exactly 9.5 wins over his past eight seasons. You’ll have a tough time finding a bowl game matching two more underrated coaches than this one.
Pasadena, Calif./ Rose Bowl
January 1 – 4 p.m. – ESPN
Oregon vs. Florida State
What to watch for: The football gods must have been looking out for Florida State as much as the Tallahassee legal system has been looking out for quarterback Jameis Winston (evidently, he wears his red jersey off the practice field, too), as the Seminoles won seven games by six points or less. We can’t remember a team that had this whole “just win when it counts” thing more down pat than the ‘Noles do, but FSU isn’t nearly as good as last year, and Winston, last year’s Heisman winner, is light-years behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota when it comes to avoiding mistakes on the field, too (Mariota threw all of two interceptions this season). But here’s the thing that’s not being talked about: the Oregon defense, which struggled big-time earlier in the year, is now playing at an elite level the last three weeks, and that makes the Ducks a scary match for anyone.
New Orleans, La./ Mercedes-Benz Superdome
January 1 – 7:50 p.m. – ESPN
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
What to watch for: Okay, so it’s not the dominant Alabama team with the lock-down defense and an offensive line full of sure-fire NFL stars, but the Crimson Tide do have the best coach perhaps in the history of college football, and a wide receiver in Amari Cooper who, right now, is about as unstoppable as any wide receiver who ever played college football. The Crimson Tide will be favored against an Ohio State team that many feel doesn’t deserve to be here, but consider this: with a third-string quarterback leading the way, the Buckeyes just posted what may have been the most impressive victory that any college team posted this season in a 59-0 demolition of a good Wisconsin team. And if Saban’s the best coach in college football right now, then right behind him is OSU’s Urban Meyer, and we’ll get to see those two renew a rivalry that dates back to Meyer’s days at Florida. This being the playoff and all, it was already must-see TV anyway, but now, it’s potentially epic.