Observer Roundtable 2020 college football preview: New Year’s Six picks
With every day we get closer to a college football season, we grow ever more hopeful that we will see it through to fruition. In that spirit, we continue our Observer Roundtable 2020 season preview with picks for the New Year’s Six bowl games. In this rendition of our season preview, we will take the BIG-10 and PAC-12’s cancellations into account. We will also be excluding the Rose and Sugar Bowls as they constitute this season’s college football playoff bowls, and those predictions will come next week as we conclude this series.
Although unsure which bowl game will be designated for a Group-of-5 bid this year, I feel confident that Memphis will make it back to the New Year’s 6. Brady White is one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks in the country, and he will lead an explosive Memphis offense in 2020. Their opponent? Give me Memphis getting a shot with the Texas A&M Aggies in the Peach Bowl, who will put up a solid 8-2 campaign in the SEC and earn a New Year’s Six berth at last.
Moving on to the Cotton Bowl, I would like Georgia to receive an opportunity here. I’m wavering slightly in my confidence in the Bulldogs after the opt-out of Jamie Newman, but I wasn’t ever too high on the Wake Forest transfer quarterback. Georgia still boasts the best defense in the country and should be good enough for eight or nine wins in SEC play. After coming up short in the SEC Championship, they’ll be relegated to the Cotton Bowl, where they will be taking on Oklahoma. This is just a juicy matchup, and with memories of their Rose Bowl classic from just a few years ago, this should be a bowl game everyone wants to see happen.
I’m going to put LSU in the Orange Bowl on a whim. They have been murdered by opt-outs and losses to the draft, but I still really like LSU to put up a good fight in the SEC, even if I don’t have them making out of the conference. I originally had picked LSU as my fourth playoff team, but losing Ja’Marr Chase knocks them down a peg. They’ll get the Orange Bowl slot against the Louisville Cardinals, a team who I think challenges for eight or nine wins in ACC play.
And finally, let’s pick the Fiesta Bowl. I’m giving the SEC another berth here. In a year with only three Power-5 conferences, the SEC’s depth will truly shine, as Florida will represent the conference in the Fiesta Bowl. Their opponent will be the resurgent Oklahoma State Cowboys, who will look to ride another huge rushing season from Chuba Hubbard and solid performances elsewhere to a top three finish in the Big 12. The Gators got essentially a free New Year’s 6 win last year in the Orange Bowl against the undeserving Virginia Cavaliers, and this year, they’ll face at least some stiffer competition.
With the bowl selection still so incredibly ambiguous, I hesitate to even allocate bids based on college. But here at Observer Sports, we don’t make excuses. To give credit where credit is due, I feel compelled to plug UCF as the AAC bid. After skidding to a full stop last season, UCF’s dominance should surge to an all-or-nothing AAC title game against Memphis in week four. Beyond the Tigers, no one stands in their way. Look for the Knights to represent the “Group of One” in the Fiesta Bowl against Baylor.
In light of restricted practiced schedules, minimized travel and intensive intra-conference scouting, team defenses will come into 2020 more prepared, rested and refined than opposing offenses. Oklahoma undoubtedly bears the burden of this projection, as I expect two early losses against Texas and Iowa State. Quick to recover, however, the Sooners will look to capture a Cotton Bowl championship against their bitter rivals: the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
The Orange Bowl presents a conundrum. As much as I’d love to edify our Fighting Irish as the ACC champions and bowl contenders, the Clemson Tigers carry too many weapons on both sides of the ball for any conference opponent to keep pace. Notre Dame will finish the season feeling snubbed out of a CFP spot and face the vastly depleted LSU Tigers in Hard Rock Stadium.
I withhold my ever-pivotal CFP predictions until next week as I round out this all too brief prediction set with the Peach Bowl. North Carolina deserves the most consideration for a bid, not only due to their inexplicably easy schedule but also on account of their raw young talent, a base that could trounce our Irish in Chapel Hill if we aren’t careful. Auburn will sneak out of the SEC West with two losses and face the Tar Heels in Atlanta.
Again, with uncertainty comes brevity on my part — a novel idea, too; I love to talk! As more information surfaces, bids could shift due alongside eligibility changes.
It’s unclear which Bowl game the Group of 5 (a.k.a. the Group of 1 in 2020, the AAC) will receive this season, but I can’t help but feel this is a revenge tour year for UCF. They saw their regular season unbeaten streak come to an end in 2019 and Memphis snatched up their chance to play in last year’s Cotton Bowl, but I’m going to venture a guess that the self-proclaimed 2018 national champs will end up facing a two-loss Georgia in the Peach Bowl. As much talent as Jamie Newman and J.T. Daniels offer the Bulldogs at QB, I don’t think it will mesh well enough with the roster and Kirby Smarts coaching to earn another Playoff berth.
I also think that, in a college football season missing out on Big ten and Pac-12 teams, UCF isn’t the only AAC team in the New Year’s Six mix. I’ve got Memphis making yet another trip deep down into the heart of Texas in their return to the Cotton Bowl, where they’ll take on none other than the Texas Longhorns.
I see Florida having a solid record this year with a very fortuitous draw to their SEC slate, and as such I think they once more appear in the Orange Bowl. This time though, I have them facing off against North Carolina, the best ACC team that didn’t make the Playoff (let that sink in for a minute cause it probably gives away my CFP prediction).
And heading out west to the Fiesta Bowl, I’m going to make an incredibly bold prediction. I don’t see LSU breaking out of the SEC being both in the West division and with everything they lose, and I hold the same view of Auburn for similar reasons. With UGA and UF occupied, I do think that another SEC team makes it out, and I’m looking right at my good ol’ Kentucky Wildcats to shock the world — but it won’t shock me.
Look at everything they have in the trenches, the secondary, the QB room and in the backfield, and I like them heading out west to take on … the rival Louisville Cardinals of the ACC. The Cards had an amazing turnaround under Scott Satterfield last season, and while their defense is going to cost them this season, they miss out on Clemson, so I think their record and the hype both around their team in the preseason and a rivalry matchup like this will lead them to a New Year’s Six bid.
And if you don’t like these picks, hey, it’s what you get without the Big Ten or Pac-12. Don’t blame the writer, blame Kevin Warren.
The Bowl Selection Committee has yet to announce exactly which conferences will fill which bowl games, so this took a little bit of guesswork. The Orange Bowl, which is usually SEC vs ACC, should stay consistent. I think it is a near certainty that the SEC will have two playoff teams, and it will most likely be the teams that face off in the conference championship. I really like this Georgia team, but Florida has more experience. As the best non-playoff SEC team, Georgia will face UNC. The Tar Heels are really talented offensively, and Mack Brown knows how to coach a defense. They’ll finish second in the ACC and cement themselves as contenders. This would be a very exciting game to watch, but given Georgia’s prodigious defense, I give them a slight edge. Georgia wins in a nail-biter.
How exciting would it be to see two historic powerhouses from the same state renew their rivalry in an iconic college football venue? Well, that’s what we have here in the Cotton Bowl. Texas A&M and Baylor played every year from 1945-2011, before the Aggies moved to the SEC in 2012. I think this is the year Jimbo Fisher finally turns it around. I really like Kellen Mond, and he will have a breakout senior season. They do have a tough schedule, but if they have the talent win a couple big games. As for Baylor, it is more a reflection of my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the Big 12, rather than an endorsement of the Bears, but I do think they’re the second best team in the conference. Despite losing plenty of starters and their head coach to the NFL, they have enough experience where they will field a competitive team. This should be another exciting, evenly matched battle, but I’ll take the Aggies to prevail in a close one.
The group of five is incredibly tough to project because so many teams are playing conference-only schedules. There is likely to be multiple teams that are undefeated, but I’m going to pick a team with a more difficult schedule: SMU. They do have to face TCU on the road, to go along with matchups with Memphis and Houston at home. However, Shane Beuchele is one of the most talented passers in college football, and even if SMU loses a game, they might be given an advantage over an undefeated team with a weaker schedule. While I think Alabama will be very good this year, I expect them to drop at least one regular season game, and miss the SEC championship game. Alabama will take their frustration out on SMU, and win by at least three touchdowns.
I was very close to not giving Notre Dame a New Year’s Six berth, but reason (or optimism) prevailed. The Irish won’t make the ACC championship game, but a 2-loss ACC team should make a New Year’s Six game. Their opponent will be yet another SEC team. I know I’ve picked a lot already, but the SEC is as strong as it’s ever been. I think LSU is one of the more overrated teams this year, but I trust coach Ed Orgereon, despite having to replace so many starters their defense will remain elite, and they’ll be in contention for the SEC title. The Irish prevailed the last time they faced the Tigers in the 2018 Citrus Bowl, and I think they’ll do it again. The offensive experience prevails, and the Irish win on a late fourth quarter drive.
The bowl schedule for the 2020 season might be one of the strangest of all time with the Big Ten and Pac-12 out of the picture. This should open the door for the other power three conferences to each get multiple teams in the New Year’s six bowl games. In the SEC alone, I anticipate there being multiple teams in the New Year’s six picture by the end of the season. Originally I would have picked Georgia to make the playoffs, but with Jamie Newman’s decision not to play this season, I see the Bulldogs ending up in the Orange Bowl. Along with Georgia, I expect Auburn to make a New Year’s Six bowl as well. The Tigers showed their potential last year with an upset of Alabama, and a New Year’s Six bowl definitely seems on the table for them. I’ll take the Tigers to go to the Peach Bowl. I am expecting Alabama and Florida to make the playoffs, so they aren’t mentioned here.
The ACC will also be able to make a splash in the New Year’s six bowls this year as well. I like Clemson to make the playoffs, so I will keep them out of the conversation, but I anticipate Notre Dame and North Carolina to qualify for a New Year’s Six game. The Tar Heels arguably have the easiest schedule in the country with their only ranked game coming against Notre Dame in November. I don’t see the Tar Heels losing when favored, and I definitely think they have a shot at beating the Irish as well. I will take the Tar Heels to face Georgia in the Orange Bowl. For Notre Dame, their two biggest games on their schedule come in November against Clemson and North Carolina. If the Irish can win at least one of them, I think they are a lock for a New Year’s Six. I’ll take the Irish to go to the Cotton Bowl.
As for the Big 12, I anticipate them getting two teams into a New Year’s Six bowl as well with Oklahoma making the playoffs. Without crossover games this year, I think it’s likely each conference has about equal representation in the New Year’s Six games. I really like Texas to make a New Year’s six game again. While I don’t think Sam Ehlinger is good enough to propel the Longhorns to the playoffs, he is definitely good enough to lead the Horns to a Cotton Bowl showdown against Notre Dame. I also really like Oklahoma State to make a New Year’s Six game. The Big 12 looks like it might be a bit down this year, and I think the Cowboys could possibly finish the season with only one loss. Oklahoma State to the Fiesta Bowl.
Lastly, the non-power five conferences. Typically there is only one group of six team to make the playoffs, but I think two teams can make it this year because of the bizarre nature of the season. I will take Cincinnati and UCF out of the AAC to qualify. Both of these teams have made big bowl games before, and I don’t see 2020 being any different. I’ll take UCF in the Fiesta Bowl and the Bearcats in the Peach Bowl.
There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to deciding which conference will be placed into what bowl, but the possibilities for other potential power conference teams to receive bids into a New Year’s Six bowl game is exciting to think about. For the Orange Bowl, I think that a Georgia vs. North Carolina game is a very realistic pick. North Carolina is a talented team no doubt with Mack Brown and Sam Howell leading the charge for the Tar Heels. While Georgia has the potential to make the playoffs, I think they are missing a few key pieces to make that push in and will end up next best as a NY6 contender.
Sticking with the trend of the SEC, I think that Auburn could fit into the Peach Bowl. Bo Nix will look to impress and with the prospect of an overhauled offense, I think they will have an improved season despite the tougher schedule. Facing off against the Tigers will be the Baylor Bears. The loss of Matt Rhule may have some negative effects on the Bears but Rhule built a very strong program during his tenure there at Baylor. I don’t see them losing too much of a step but I also don’t see them making the playoffs which puts them right here in the Peach Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl is an interesting set of picks to think about. While Texas has shown some promise to find their big break with Tom Herman, they will most likely need to beat Oklahoma twice in the season to do so. One for the Red River Shootout and the other at the Big 12 title game. In football, it is very difficult to beat a team twice in a season. I think that Texas will steal the first one off Oklahoma but fall in the title game, putting them here in the Cotton Bowl. I think facing them will be Notre Dame. As much as I want to see both Notre Dame and Texas in the playoffs, I just can’t see either getting over the humps that are Clemson and Oklahoma. On the bright side, the media exposure and the marketing for this game will be unreal. Two traditional blue blood programs going at it always produce viewers.
Finally, in the Fiesta Bowl I have LSU facing off against SMU. Shane Buchele has found his stride in Dallas after a rough tenure at Texas. Sometimes a change of scenery and leadership makes all the difference. SMU impressed last season and I think they will be looking to build off of that. As far as LSU goes, they will not be the team they were last year there is no doubt about that. But I don’t think they will be quite as down as people think. A NY6 bowl game appearance will be almost a moral victory for the Tigers if you will as that championship team of last year will seem like a distant memory when play begins and the championship hangover commences.
With the BIG-10 and PAC-12 out of the picture, the SEC will most likely land two non-playoff New Year’s Six berths. Clearly, Georgia is not as talented as in the past due to Jamie Newman opting out, and it will show in the standings. Losing such a key player would be a complete disaster for most programs, but Kirby Smart should still be able to salvage the season and contend in the SEC. However, I am pretty high on Florida this year, so I think that the Bulldogs will have to settle for the Peach Bowl after failing to win the East Division. Their opponent will be Cincinnati, a program that is seeking redemption after two straight losses against Memphis derailed their AAC championship hopes in 2019. The Bearcats may have found a new formidable rushing threat in Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, and Cincinnati’s bountiful supply of offensive line talent should allow him to elevate his game to the next level. Unfortunately, it will not be enough against Georgia, who should easily win this matchup.
The other SEC team represented will be Auburn in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers will narrowly edge out LSU, whose roster has been decimated by opt outs and NFL departures. Auburn’s biggest strength will be their defensive line led by Markaviest Bryant, who should drastically improve his 16-sack total from last year. As all three starting linebackers are also returning, the Tigers defense is stacked with proven veterans that have the ability to cause trouble against even the most formidable offensive units. Bo Nix should continue to improve after winning the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2019 and may be considered a top three quarterback within his conference by the end of the season. The Tigers will face off against Notre Dame for the first time in history once the Irish finish as runners-up in the ACC. Liam Eichenberg headlines a stacked offensive line, which should be able to somewhat neutralize Auburn’s defensive pressure. We have seen Notre Dame struggle on the big stage, but, after being tested by Clemson twice, I think that the Irish will be more than prepared to defeat the Tigers.
Due to a surprisingly great season from Texas, I think that Oklahoma will fail to reach the CFP for the first time since 2017. The Sooners will land in the Cotton Bowl and will be met by the Miami Hurricanes. A lot of people are overlooking D’Eriq King’s explosive talent at the quarterback position, and I genuinely believe that King will perform spectacularly in his final college season. In Dallas, he will have to duel against Spencer Rattler, a younger quarterback with significantly higher pressure to perform well due to his program’s recent success. However, Rattler looks very talented, and Lincoln Riley’s playoff experience will give the Sooners the edge in a high scoring affair.
In a rematch of last year’s postseason contest, Texas A&M will play Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. After disappointing their fans over the past couple seasons, Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies are due for some increased success. I think that they will find it in a year with significantly less competition for New Year’s Six berths. However, the Aggies have a very weak offensive line, and Oklahoma State may hold the advantage in this matchup with superstar running back Chubba Hubbard on the roster. Hubbard shocked the world with 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and I believe that he will lead the Cowboys to an avenging victory over Texas A&M.