While the 2012 college football bowl season began in mid-December, SEC play began just yesterday on New Year's Eve. Five teams have now played their bowl games, and with another four games remaining over the next week it seems a good time to assess the SEC's bowl performances so far. Let's start the Rundown!
Vanderbilt 38, NC State 24
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, TN
Vanderbilt's post-season success just keeps coming. First, the Commodores got a significant win in December by hanging on to second-year coach James Franklin, who has led Vandy to its best back-to-back seasons since the 1920s and its first nine-win season since 1915. Franklin seems to be serious about making the Commodores a contender in the SEC East, which seems ludicrous until you see what he has already done. Compare Franklin's body of work to, say, Dan Mullen's at Mississippi State, and it's hard not to like what is happening in Nashville. In the Music City Bowl, the Commodores faced a NC State team with a lame-duck coaching staff and that is rarely a good formula for a bowl victory. While the Wolfpack outgained the Commodores by almost a two-to-one margin (424 yards to 225), five turnovers gave Vanderbilt all the help they needed to pull off the win.
(14) Clemson 25, (8) LSU 24
Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Atlanta, GA
Les Miles has won a national title, two SEC championships and more than 80 percent of his games at LSU, so it would be fair to say that he is a very good coach, perhaps even a great one. Miles, however, has perhaps the worst reputation for game and clock management of anyone in the conference, if not the country, and it is well-deserved. The Fighting Tigers went up 14-7 early in the second quarter of the game and did not relinquish that lead until the last play, but the play calling in the late minutes, and perhaps the entire offensive game plan, seemed designed to keep Clemson in the game. Freshman running back Jeremy Hill had 124 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but only carried the ball 12 times, none of which came in the fourth quarter. The Tigers nursed a 24-22 lead with 2:47 on the game clock, but elected to pass three straight times instead of trying to run out the clock or force Clemson to use its timeouts. Clemson scored on its last three drives of the game including the game-winning field goal as time expired. Zach Mettenberger threw for a mediocre 120 yards and was sacked six times, as LSU's pass protection was abysmal against the lightly-rated Clemson defense (74th nationally in total defense).
(20) Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20
Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL
I don't know if it's fair to say that Dan Mullen will be on the hot seat in 2013. After all, Mullen has a 37-26 record at MSU and has taken the Bulldogs to three straight bowl games. Even as the bowl pairings were announced, this game had the look of the best (worst?) opportunity for the SEC to lose a bowl game. But after starting 7-0 in 2012, the Bulldogs lost five of their last six games. Quarterback Tyler Russell, who was incredibly efficient during the regular season, throwing only six interceptions on 366 sttempts, threw four picks against the Wildcats, including one of the worst decisions I have seen this season - an up-for-grabs hurl on third and five in the fourth quarter that basically gave Northwestern their final deciding touchdown. The late-season collapse and Russell's deterioration in the last two games don't really speak well for Mullen's ability to coach his best players up to the next level. Set aside Nick Saban and Les Miles in the SEC West and just compare Mullen to Kevin Sumlin, Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn, and Hugh Freeze. I think its fair to say that Mullen is, at best, in the middle of that group, and at worst might be the bottom. The inability to overcome a middling Northwestern team doesn't speak well for the Bulldogs' future under Mullen.
(10) South Carolina 33, (18) Michigan 28
Outback Bowl, Tampa, FL
The back and forth finale of the Outback Bowl was perhaps the most compelling football of the 2012 bowl season. The game turned on one particular sequence that was so extraordinary, I called my entire family in to watch the replay. Michigan had clawed its way back into the game after falling behind 21-10, while Carolina had missed two field goals and fumbled the ball to Michigan in between. The Wolverines led 22-21 with 9:58 remaining in the game and faced a fourth and four to go at their own 37 yard line. Faking a punt, Michigan ran the upback Floyd Simmons close to the first down marker, and the officials measured the spot and inexplicably awarded the first down to Michigan even though the ball was clearly short of the first down pole. Steve Spurrier and the rest of the South Carolina bench went nuts on the sideline and Spurrier asked for a review of the spot. However, the called stood, and it appeared that South Carolina might be on the ropes. Then, the very next play, this happened. Jadaveon Clowney, the Gamecocks' all-American defensive end, shot through the offensive line unblocked and delivered a bone-crushing hit to Vincent Smith, who had not even had time to fully receive the handoff yet. Smith lost both his helmet and the ball, and Clowney recovered the fumble with one hand. It was one of the single best defensive plays I have ever seen. The Gamecocks, in textbook Spurrier fashion, threw for the endzone on the ensuing play, and Connor Shaw hit Ace Sanders for a touchdown. Michigan would score again on its next drive, forcing a heroic effort by both South Carolina quarterbacks on the final drive to score the game-winning TD with 11 seconds remaining, but Clowney's play got the Gamecocks and their fans back into the game when things started to go sideways.
(7) Georgia 45, (16) Nebraska 31
Capital One Bowl, Orlando, FL
Georgia's Aaron Murray threw for five touchdowns and 427 yards, both school bowl records, against the nation's top passing defense to rally the Bulldogs to a victory in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska's moved the ball well at times against the Bulldogs, amassing 443 yards of offense, but Georgia forced three turnovers and sacked Taylor Martinez five times. After falling behind 31-23 early in the third quarter, the Bulldogs defense didn't allow the Huskers past the Georgia 39, forcing a fumble, two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs on their final five drives. The big question for the Bulldogs in the off-season will turn to Aaron Murray. Murray has passed for 3000+ yards in each of his three seasons at the helm in Athens, something no other SEC quarterback has ever done. His entire offensive line returns in 2013 along with most of his skill position players. Even with a defense that will lose several stars to the NFL, the Bulldogs will be strong contenders to repeat as SEC East champions if Murray returns.
First Half Bowl Summary
So far, with the Rose Bowl in progress and Orange Bowl on the way, the bowl breakdown by conference looks like this:
CONFERENCE WINS LOSSES PCT GAMES PENDING
WAC 2 0 1.000 None
C-USA 4 1 .800 None
Big East 2 1 .667 Two
ACC 3 2 .600 One
SEC 3 2 .600 Four
Big 12 4 3 .571 Two
Independent 1 1 .500 One
MAC 2 3 .400 Two
Pac-12 2 4 .333 Two
Sun Belt 1 2 .333 One
Big Ten 2 4 .333 One
Mountain West 1 4 .200 None
So, while the SEC hasn't been as successful as one might hope, it's doing fairly well compared to the major conferences, with an opportunity to turn in a really stellar performance with wins in the last four games. Meanwhile, the Big Ten is having yet another terrible postseason, and the Pac-12 can do no better than .500.