The main event is finally here. This is how the system is supposed to work, with all other bowls leading to College Football Playoff semifinal games on New Year's Day.
We'll naturally come back to this in due course, but as any promoter will tell you, it's also important to have a good undercard. We'll officially kick off 2024 with three first games happening more or less simultaneously, so hopefully at least one of them will catch our attention. Then the stage will be cleared for the four teams who will play for the sport's ultimate prize.
Here is the complete schedule for Bank Holiday Monday.
The traditional January 1 Sunshine State pairing of SEC vs. Big Ten contests begins with this meeting of the high-scoring Tigers and the defensive-minded Badgers. The game loses a little of its luster with LSU Heisman-winning QB Jayden Daniels as expected but nonetheless unfortunately sitting with the NFL Draft looming. The Tigers' offense should be in good hands, however, with Garrett Nussmeier at the helm. The best news for him is that standout WR Malik Nabers will play, meaning the talented receiving corps will be largely intact. Nabers will likely have the attention of Wisconsin DB Ricardo Hallman, who has half of the Badgers' 12 interceptions and a 95-yard pick-six against Rutgers to his credit. Things probably won't be as interesting when Wisconsin has the ball. LSU's defense was far from reliable this season, but the Badgers may not be able to take advantage. Their main weapon, RB Braelon Allen, is also selected. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai will play, but he has to watch out for versatile Tigers LB Harold Perkins Jr.
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The second part of the day's unofficial Big Ten/SEC challenge has a similar vibe as the Hawkeyes' even more impressive defense looks to take the air out of the Volunteers' passing attack. Tennessee QB Joe Milton is missing from the game, but many Vols fans aren't unhappy about it as they await the debut of dynamic freshman Nico Iamaleava. The absence of RB Jabari Small, also NFL-bound, might be more significant, but either way, Iowa LBs Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson aren't getting much on the field. Iowa QB Deacon Hill's best weapon is still RB Leshon Williams, but LB Elijah Herring and his friends in Tennessee's front seven are aware of that as well.
The non-playoff portion of the big bowls concludes with the Ducks, who have played everyone in the Pac-12 not named Washington, taking on the Flames, who will be fully engaged as they look to prove they belong at the table big ones. . Still, this is Liberty's first meeting with a so-called Power Five conference team, so the talent differential will be noticeable even if the Oregon players leave. Ducks quarterback Bo Nix will play, as will top RB Bucky Irving. But Liberty won't mind a big score. The Flames' high-octane offense is led by quarterback Kaidon Salter, who has amassed 3,814 total yards of offense while accounting for 43 touchdowns, including 12 on the ground. His top aerial target is WR CJ Daniels, and RB Quinton Cooley adds another 1,322 rushing yards and 16 scores to the ledger.
This is arguably the most anticipated semi-final given the big-name programs involved, not to mention the various controversies. But this shouldn't be considered a de facto championship match, even though the winner will likely be named favorite in next week's final. This isn't the dominant Alabama team of recent vintage, say 2020, but the fact is that the Crimson Tide have had postseason success and the Wolverines, despite making their third straight appearance, haven't. not done. Michigan will need QB JJ McCarthy and RB Blake Corum to lead productive drives early on to build confidence against LB Dallas Turner and the Tide's hard-hitting defense. Michigan can also defend a bit; the group consisting of LBs Junior Colson and Michael Barrett backed by DB Mike Sainristil only allowed 14 touchdowns all year. They will test the improved accuracy of Tide QB Jalen Milroe, who has better utilized WRs Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond as well as TE Amari Niblack as the season has progressed.
The semi-final nightcap might actually have more entertainment potential. The Huskies, after all, seem incapable of playing anything other than a nail-biting game, and the Longhorns have been part of one themselves. The winner shouldn't be ruled out outright for next week either – Texas already has a win over the Crimson Tide as we know, and Washington will have found a way to beat everyone on its schedule if the Huskies l took away. Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has the chance to continue the tradition of Heisman finalists using the playoffs to demonstrate why they should have won. His exceptional group of pass catchers led by Rome Odunze and Ja'Lynn Polk can help him do just that against a Longhorns secondary that is anything but airtight. The Huskies can also run it if necessary with RB Dillon Johnson leading the way, but rushing yards are a little harder to come by against LB Jaylan Ford and the Texas front. Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers is more than capable of keeping pace in a shootout, although top WR Xavier Worthy will be playing with a sore ankle and might not be at full speed. WR Adonai Mitchell and TE Ja'Tavion Sanders are also great options, and the Huskies can give up their share of yards through the air as well. Picture a busy night for Washington DB Dominique Hampton, often the last line of defense in the secondary.