Reporter’s Notebook: Bold bowl predictions, part III

In this third and (mercifully) final set of bowl predictions, we get to the “nitty gritty” of the bowl season, including the famed New Year’s Day events such as the Rose, Sugar and Citrus bowls, and — of course — the semi-finals and championship of the College Football Playoff.

It’s the home stretch, so dig in to your couch/recliner/bean bag/futon, grab some snacks and get bowlin’.

Saturday, Dec. 29

• Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga.)

Match-up: (10) Florida vs. (7) Michigan

Time, channel: 9 a.m., ESPN

The skinny: The Florida Gators (9-3) have a pair of impressive wins this year, knocking off Mississippi State in week five and LSU a week later. But they have an ugly loss to Missouri and struggled to beat South Carolina. Michigan (10-2), on the other hand, has just two losses, both to top 10 teams (Notre Dame, Ohio State). I’m no fan of the Michigan Maize, but the Wolverines are too balanced to fall to the Gators.

My pick: Michigan 33, Florida 23.

• Belk Bowl (ABC at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC)

Match-up: South Carolina vs. Virginia

Time, channel: 9 a.m., ABC

The skinny: Talk about a brutal schedule: SC’s Gamecocks (7-5) played five ranked teams, including a pair of top-three squads in Georgia and Clemson — and lost all of them, though they didn’t get truly blown out. They’ve got a top-flight QB in Jake Bentley, who nearly threw for 3,000 yards but had 12 interceptions on the year. Virginia (7-5) din’t have nearly as tough of a schedule and are coming off two heart-breaking overtime losses to technical institutes (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech). The Cavaliers don’t impress on paper, though they keep it close.

My pick: South Carolina 33, Virginia 30.

• NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl (Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.)

Match-up: Arkansas State vs. Nevada

Time, channel: 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

The skinny: Wolves, wolves, wolves. In a rare instance in which bowl contenders have a common opponent. the Arkansas State (8-4) Red Wolves topped UNLV in week four while the Nevada (7-5) Wolf Pack fell to UNLV in the final week in a close game. The Red Wolves, however, played a fairly easy schedule while Nevada’s Wolf Pack earned good wins over Hawai’i and San Diego State, and nearly upset Boise State. Expect plenty of action on the scoreboard, as QBs Ty Gangi and Justice Hansen have about 6,300 yards and 50 TDs between them.

My pick: Nevada 45, Arkansas State 42

• College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)

Match-up: (3) Notre Dame vs. (2) Clemson

Time, channel: 1 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: How do you pick against the Fighting Irish (12-0)? If one wants to make it case, perhaps the seven-point win over a mediocre USC team wasn’t impressive. That ND’s win over Michigan came in week one, when teams are still pretty raw. That their only top-10 win came against what turned out to be an over-rated Stanford club. Ian Book and Dexter Williams give the conference-independent Irish a great 1-2 punch. But Clemson (13-0) is just plain scary. The ACC champs have their own 1-2 punch in freshman QB Trevor Lawrence and sophomore RB Travis Etienne (1,463 yards!). They have 10 wins against bowl-eligible teams this year, including South Carolina, Pitt, Boston College, NC State, Syracuse and Texas A&M. Beware the orange.

My pick: Clemson 37, Notre Dame 31.

• College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla.)

Match-up: (4) Oklahoma vs. (1) Alabama

Time, channel: 5 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: The other semi-final is bound to be insane — because that’s the only type of game Oklahoma (12-1) plays. The Big 12 champ Sooners survived multiple upsets to some good teams (West Virginia, Iowa State) and some OK ones (Army, OK State) and, behind 2018 Heisman champ Kyler Murray (4,053 passing yards, 40 TDs, just 7 interceptions), shrugged off their lone loss to Texas on Oct. 6 with a 39-27 win on Dec. 1. SEC champ Alabama (13-0) survived a scare to Georgia in the SEC title game but ran roughshod over everyone else. The Crimson Tide shut out ranked teams (LSU and Mississippi State, back to back) and made good teams look pedestrian. You want points? Oklahoma posted 10 games of 40 points or more, Alabama nine. Whomever Alabama chooses to start or end the game with at QB, Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts, they edge out Oklahoma by a hair.

My pick: Alabama 43, Oklahoma 41.

Monday, Dec. 31

• Military Bowl Presented By Northrop Grumman (Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.)

Match-up: Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech

Time, channel: 9 a.m., ESPN

The skinny: With just two losses on the season, the Cincinnati Bearcats (10-2) were rarely challenged in 2018, playing just one ranked team (a loss to Central Florida). But they have an impressive back in Michael Warren II, who had 1,163 yards and 17 TDs for the Bearcats. Virginia Tech (6-6) went 2-2 against ranked teams, but neither team they beat (Duke, Florida State) stayed ranked. Ugly losses to Pitt and Miami mar an otherwise decent season for the Hokies, who will need junior QB Ryan Willis to keep them close.

My pick: Cincinnati 33, Virginia Tech 24.

• Hyundai Sun Bowl (Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas)

Match-up: Stanford vs. Pittsburgh

Time, channel: 11 a.m., CBS

The skinny: The best Stanford (8-4) looked this season was in two losses, actually — back-to-back defeats to WSU and UW in weeks eight and nine. Since then it’s been a relatively weak schedule with Oregon State, UCLA and Cal. Bryce Love, a Heisman darling coming into the year, battled injuries and finished with less than 800 yards and just six scores. Pittsburg (7-6) may not have a ton of wins, getting drubbed several times (by 45 to Penn State, by 32 to Clemson, by 31 to UCF). The Panthers also had one of the stranger stat lines of the season, passing for eight — eight! — yards in a loss to Clemson in the ACC title game. Yikes.

My pick: Stanford 24, Pittsburgh 17.

• Redbox Bowl (Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.)

Match-up: Oregon vs. Michigan State

Time, channel: Noon, Fox

The skinny: The question used to be, “In what uniforms will the Oregon Ducks show up?” Now it’s, “What Ducks team will show up?” The one that beat Cal and Washington in back-to-back weeks, or the one that lost by nearly 30 to non-bowler Arizona? The Ducks (8-4) still have 6-6 NFL prospect Justin Herbert at QB (2,985 yards, 28 TDs) and a decent offense, but as always the defense is shaky. Michigan State (7-5) scored just 26 points in their final three games combined and have had quarterback health issues.

My pick: Oregon 34, Michigan State 28.

• AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn.)

Match-up: (23) Missouri vs. Oklahoma State

Time, channel: 12:45 p.m, ESPN

The skinny: How can you figure Oklahoma State (6-6)? Good wins over Boise State, Texas and West Virginia plus a one-point loss to Oklahoma, the Cowboys’ season is marred by losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State and Baylor. QB Taylor Cornelius is impressive in the air (3,642 passing yards, 28 TDs) and the ground (10 rushing scores). By benefit of playing in the SEC, Missouri (8-4) is battle-tested with Alabama and Georgia on the schedule. The Tigers’ signature win was a 21 drubbing of Florida on the road in week nine, the first of four consecutive wins. Missouri seems a safer bet here.

My pick: Missouri 38, Oklahoma State 35.

• San Diego Credit Union Holiday Bowl (SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif.)

Match-up: (22) Northwestern vs. (17) Utah

Time, channel: 4 p.m., FS1

The skinny: The Big Ten West champ Northwestern squad has the most losses of any top-25 team (five), somehow going 3-4 at home and 5-0 on the road. The Wildcats have looked good in close losses to Michigan and Notre Dame, and their bad losses (Duke, Akron) came early. Utah (9-4) brought their A game defense-wise to win the Pac-12 South, losing only to UW (twice), WSU and Arizona State. The Utes aren’t sure who will play at quarterback, with starter Tyler Huntley looking to return after breaking his collarbone on Nov. 3.

My pick: Utah 27, Northwestern 24

• TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.)

Match-up: NC State vs. (19) Texas A&M

Time, channel: 4:30 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: The Aggies of Texas A&M (8-4) are likely recovered from their 74-72 overtime win over LSU. QB Kellen Mond (2,967 yards passing, 23 TDs) and tailback Trayveon Williams (1,524 rushing yards, 15 TDs) have put up huge numbers all year. NC State (9-3), despite some ridiculous numbers from senior QB Ryan Finley (3,789 yards passing) and RB Reggie Gallaspy II (19 total TDs), played three teams with a combined record of 7-28 to close the season. Aggies will prevail.

My pick: Texas A&M 42, NC State 27.

Tuesday, Jan. 1

• Outback Bowl (Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.)

Match-up: (18) Mississippi St. vs. Iowa

Time, ch: 9 a.m., ESPN2

The skinny: Iowa (8-4) started the year strong but dropped three straight to drop out of the top 25, finishing with wins against bad Illinois and Nebraska squads. The Bulldogs of Mississippi State (8-4) struggled at times with their tough SEC schedule but had good wins over Auburn and Texas A&M. Mr Do Everything Nick Fitzgerald led the Bulldogs in rushing (1,018 yards) and passing (1,615 yards, 15 TDs), and he gives his team an edge over the Hawkeyes.

My pick: Mississippi St. 23, Iowa 20.

• VRBO Citrus Bowl (Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.)

Match-up: (14) Kentucky vs. (12) Penn State

Time, channel: 11 a.m., ABC

The skinny: No matter how hard I try, I still see Kentucky (9-3) as a basketball school. The Wildcats played Georgia and Texas A&M close in losses, and have wins over Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri. But I can’t shake the idea that Penn State (9-3) will romp in this one behind a balanced attack and defense that gave up 20 total points in its final three games.

My pick: Penn State 21, Kentucky 10.

• PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.)

Match-up: (11) LSU vs. (8) UCF

Time, channel: 11 a.m., ESPN

The skinny: It’s hard not to pull for the University of Central Florida (12-0), who haven’t lost a game since Dec. 17, 2016 — and yet are not really in playoff conversations. They’ve scored at least 30 points in every game this year and were only really threatened by a decent Memphis squad mid-year, then topped Memphis in a rematch to close out the season. But LSU (9-3) has the SEC pedigree, a signature win over Georgia and a balanced offense that can put up big numbers. Tigers have the edge here.

My pick: LSU 30, UCF 27.

• Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual (Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.)

Match-up: (9) Washington vs. (6) Ohio State

Time, channel: 2 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: I like the Huskies. I just don’t trust them. QB Jake Browning is fantastic … and then sometimes isn’t. A healthy Miles Gaskin (1,147 rushing yards in just 11 games) means Pac-12 champ Washington (10-3) will be in it until the end as the famed Rose Bowl. But Ohio State (12-1) is too tough. QB Dwayne Haskins is putting up video game numbers (4,580 yards passing, 47 touchdowns) while J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber (nearly 1,900 yards rushing combined) give the Buckeyes a vaunted offense that an impressive UW defense won’t be able to contain for four quarters. Like last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Washington runs out of gas (and Gaskin) in the end.

My pick: Ohio State 35, Washington 31.

• Allstate Sugar Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.)

Match-up: (15) Texas vs. (5) Georgia

Time, channel: 5:45 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: A fascinating season from Texas (9-4), who went from five wins two seasons ago to seven last year and, with any decent luck could have been 12-1. The Longhorns went 1-1 against Oklahoma and had solid wins against USC, TCU and Iowa State. But their magic runs out against a Georgia team (11-2) seething after missing a chance to knock off Alabama in the SEC title game and get into the College Football Playoff. With sophomore QB Jake Fromm (27 TDs, 5 Ints), the Bulldogs win big.

My pick: Georgia 41, Texas 24.

Monday, Jan. 7

• College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.)

Match-up: (2) Clemson vs. (1) Alabama

Time, channel: 5 p.m., ESPN

The skinny: Coin flip, anyone? This one comes down to the wire in a somewhat surprising, low-scoring affair.

My pick: Alabama 26, Clemson 23.

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