Setting The Stage For The New Year’s Six

The curtain goes up on college football’s biggest stage, the six major bowl games that constitute “The New Year’s Six” over Thursday and Friday. Below is nine thoughts on the December 31-January 1 run as a whole. Over the next two days, TheSportsNotebook will be back with more specific looks at the two Playoff semifinals that go on Thursday, along with the attractive Notre Dame-Ohio State matchup of Friday. But right here, let’s set the stage with the overarching look at all six…

*For three teams, a major bowl win has been a long time coming. Houston hasn’t won a bowl of this magnitude since backup quarterback Terry Elton led a last-minute drive to beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl following the 1979 season. For Ole Miss, it’s been even longer—the Sugar Bowl following 1969 (the Rebels’ three Cotton Bowl wins in the ‘00s were when the Dallas-based game was exiled from the main stage). And the third? None other than Notre Dame, who hasn’t won a big-time bowl since staking its claim to the 1993 national championship in the Cotton Bowl.

*On the flip side, Michigan State is quietly looking to become a bowl dynasty. The Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl two years ago, rallied to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl last season and now take on Alabama. Meanwhile, the proud Crimson Tide have been beaten in two straight Sugar Bowls—to Oklahoma and Ohio State. Those stakes pale in comparision to the status of the Michigan State-Alabama game being a semifinal, but a Spartan win would continue a surprising trend.

*The Peach Bowl kicks off the New Year’s Six on Thursday at noon ET and the Houston-Florida State matchup is interesting The Cougars are in the Top 25 in both scoring offense and defense, while Florida State plays with one-dimensional backup quarterback Sean Maguire and hasn’t really looked like “Florida State” all year. The flip side? The FSU defense has been outstanding and Houston is heavily reliant on quarterback Greg Ward Jr., not just to throw, but to lead in rushing. I could see the Cougars hanging in the game, but wonder if they’ll move the ball with any consistency.

*The first Playoff game is next, with Oklahoma-Clemson in the Orange Bowl at 4 PM ET. The statistical performance of Sooner quarterback Baker Mayfield is absolutely dazzling, starting with his 35/5 TD-INT ratio. What I’m wondering is how much of this is about the wide-open defenseless football played in the Big 12? Clemson will hit OU in a way the Sooners’ conference foes did not. Oklahoma’s a three-point favorite and I understand why, but how they handle getting smacked in the mouth is something to watch in the early going.

*Michigan State-Alabama in the Cotton Bowl is the prime-time show on New Year’s Eve at 8 PM ET. It’s all about the health of Spartan quarterback Connor Cook. Michigan State won’t run the ball on Alabama—nobody does. But Cook and talented wide receiver Aaron Burbridge can make some plays in the passing game and the Michigan State defense can stop ‘Bama if they’re not left on the field constantly. The health of Cook’s shoulder has a national title game spot riding on it.

*New Year’s Day starts with Ohio State-Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl at 1 PM ET, a relatively early 11 AM local start. I hate these start times and living in the state of Wisconsin we get stuck with them all the time at Camp Randall. Who wakes up first could be an X-factor. More than anything though, Ohio State needs this game to validate themselves. They’ve underachieved most of the year before showing what they could be against Michigan. Stepping up and winning this game would give the season a nice ending for the Buckeyes.

*I love watching Stanford play football, with their old-style smashmouth combined with a classic pro-style passing game. And watching the Cardinal play Iowa, with their own physical front seven promises to be even better. The battle of Stanford’s running game, led by Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey against the Iowa rush defense is big. But the decisive factor will probably be whether the great Hawkeye corner Desmond King can dominate the Stanford passing game or if Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan can loosen things up. Kickoff is at 5 PM ET.

*The Sugar Bowl, with Oklahoma State and Ole Miss at 8:30 PM ET feels like the dry game here, with the Rebels having lost three games. But Okie State finished 10-2 and decisively beat TCU. The Cowboys can pressure the quarterback by just rushing four, and that promises to be an interesting battle as Ole Miss tries to get time for the Chad Kelly-Laquon Treadwell tandem to make some big plays. And Treadwell is the feel-good story of the New Year’s Six—he broke his leg in a terrible injury at the goal line last year against Auburn and has made it all the way back to have a big year.

*And the New Year’s fun doesn’t stop with the six major bowl games. Michigan-Florida should be a good game and there’s reasonably high stakes for this one. As much progress as both teams under first-year coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain, both teams ended the season with embarrassing losses—Michigan to Ohio State and Florida to both FSU and Alabama. The loser goes into the offseason with question marks. The winner feels good about their progress.

And hey, don’t forget the New Year’s Classic in hockey. A great rivalry, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will play at the Patriots’ stadium in Foxboro. The B’s and Canadiens are both having good years, but the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference are packed and neither can even be assured of a playoff spot. It might be a stretch to ever call a regular season hockey game “big”, but this one gets closer than most.