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Bowl Picks 2016-2017: Liberty Bowl to TaxSlayer Bowl

Stephen Johnson, Kentucky
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (December 30th)
Georgia Bulldogs (7-5) vs. TCU Horned Frogs (6-6)

Kirby Smart's first season away from being Alabama defensive coordinator didn't exactly go according to plan. The Bulldogs won their opener over a tough North Carolina team before a tough stretch in the middle of the season. A 7-5 regular season record was not terrible, but it wasn't quite what many Georgia fans were hoping for after plenty of success under former head coach Mark Richt. Smart can end the year on a high note, however, against a TCU team that struggled as they moved away from the Trevone Boykin era. Georgia leans heavily on their ground attack, which has a two-headed monster in powerful Nick Chubb and underrated Sony Michel. Despite the fact he suffered a horrific knee injury midway through 2015, Chubb has returned and played very well, with 988 yards and seven scores. True freshman Jacob Eason had some growing pains at quarterback, and turnovers continue to be an issue. Even so, the youthful talent could look to have a big day against a TCU secondary that struggled to stop anyone in the pass-happy Big 12. Defense is still Smart's bread and butter, and the 'Dawgs are talented on that side. They will be in store for a tough battle against the explosive Horned Frogs. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill has played well in his first season with TCU, passing for 3,062 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, mistakes are still an issue, and he struggles to fit the ball into tight windows. If Georgia's secondary is well-prepared and plays smart, they should be able to have a good day. Running back Kyle Hicks (12 touchdowns) and receiver Taj Williams give the Horned Frogs plenty of options, but the offense has really missed the versatile KaVontae Turpin, who has an injured knee. The explosive Turpin did it all for this offense, and without him, TCU has been terribly inconsistent. Neither of these teams were extremely happy with how 2016 went and while a bowl victory won't completely erase that, it would at least end the year on a high note. TCU should be able to put up a fight, but the Bulldogs are my pick in this one. They are more physical in the trenches and have enough versatility offensively to get the job done.
Georgia, 27 TCU, 21

Hyundai Sun Bowl (December 30th)
UNC Tar Heels (8-4) vs. Stanford Cardinal (9-3)

After a remarkable 11-3 mark last season, UNC has followed it up with a quality showing in 2016, proving this program has staying power as contenders in the ACC. Beating a strong program like Stanford in a bowl game (after struggling mightily in a loss to Baylor last season), would help prove the Tar Heels are rising. UNC QB Mitch Trubisky has gotten plenty of love from NFL scouts (many now view the junior as a first-round pick this next spring), but will get quite the test from the Cardinal defense. The group isn't quite as stingy as in 2015, but Stanford still prides themselves on defense and the back seven has plenty of experience and range. Trubisky will not have his usual backfield mate, Elijah Hood, to help take some pressure off him. Hood has had a great junior season but is out for this one (although he has confirmed he will be back in 2017). That will likely push veteran T.J. Logan into the starting role. He could be in store for a tough game, as Stanford's bulk and power up front makes running against them very difficult. While Stanford's defense is still very good, it is not unbeatable, as Washington proved when they dropped 44 points against them. The key for Stanford in this one will be putting up enough points. The offense still has do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey, but McCaffrey announced he will not play in this one and instead prepare for the NFL Draft. That will likely leave David Shaw to turn to Bryce Love to carry the load at running back. Love has played well in a reserve role and will be pumped up to show what he can do. He will also have the advantage of facing a weak Tar Heels' rush defense. While Gene Chizik has received plenty of credit for helping improve UNC defensively, the rush defense is still pretty poor. The Cardinal passing attack has been inconsistent. Senior Ryan Burns started the year off as the starter, but soon gave way to junior Keller Chryst. Chryst has had some moments, but still struggles, and UNC has some quality cornerbacks. This should be a very good game, with each team having different strengths and weaknesses. If McCaffrey were going to play my pick would be Stanford, but I actually like UNC to win this one. Trubisky should still be able to do plenty of damage, and dangerous receiver Ryan Switzer could do some serious damage in special teams.
North Carolina, 34 Stanford, 30

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (December 30th)
Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3) vs. Tennessee Volunteers (8-4)

What a difference a few weeks make. Halfway through the year, Nebraska was undefeated and a dark horse Playoff contender, while Tennessee was riding the magic of some magical wins over Georgia and Florida. Now, the two collide in the Music City Bowl eager to rid themselves of the poor showings they have had in the season's second half. Nebraska has had injuries, but still doesn't feel good about falling to 9-3, while the Volunteers have nearly fallen apart as they have faltered to 8-4, which included the transfer of star back Jalen Hurd. Talent-wise Tennessee has all the tools to be dominant, but it hasn't all come together for them this season. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs has had his moments and is a proven runner, but has struggled to make the big gains as a passer this team needs. Hurd was great as a runner but struggled with injuries, opening the door for Alvin Kamara and John Kelly to take over as running back. Also, the offensive line has plenty of talent and experience, but has been wildly inconsistent and will face an aggressive Nebraska pass rush. Even with some of the issues the offense has had, Tennessee does have some reason for confidence, as they have put up 34 points or more in their last four games. With that in mind, the defense has to show their stuff against the 'Huskers. The unit has struggled mightily at times, despite also being loaded with potential. The group should be in store for an interesting battle against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have been able to also light up the scoreboard at times, but have also faced injuries. Senior QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. has dealt with injuries over the past few weeks, including a scary concussive hit against Ohio State. Armstrong is a dual threat that works well with these receivers, but if he can't go Nebraska will turn to backup Ryker Fyfe, who has been okay taking over. Powerful running back Terrell Newby and sure-handed veteran wide out Jordan Westerkamp will hope to help Fyfe out. Westerkamp has also dealt with injuries, but is one of the Big Ten's premier receivers when healthy. Going up against star Volunteer cornerback Cam Sutton will be an interesting battle, and should have a large impact on who wins this one. Overall, the game should be intriguing, and will not be meaningless at all. Both Butch Jones and Mike Riley could be considered on the hot seat, and a loss would only warm it up. Tennessee is coming off a bad loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt, but seems to be playing better football. If they can come together and the defense plays well, they should lock this one down.
Tennessee, 35 Nebraska, 23

Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl (December 30th)
Air Force Falcons (9-3) vs. South Alabama Jaguars (6-6)

They don't quite get the credit they deserve, but Air Force has developed into one of the most consistent programs not just in the Mountain West, but the Non-Power Five in general. They went 9-3 on the year, but should have done even better if not for a tough mid-season stretch where all those losses occurred. They could further impress by taking down a sneaky South Alabama team, who barely qualified for a bowl bid. Like all the other service academies, Air Force will run the triple-option, and they have plenty of speed and playmakers to do it well. QB Nate Romine is versatile and brings great awareness and the Falcons' wide array of backs will open up the game (Jacobi Owens, Timothy McVey and D.J. Johnson). Air Force doesn't pass a ton, but when they do, receiver Jalen Robinette has proven he is their go-to guy, with 835 yards. He will hope to shred a pretty weak Jaguars' back seven. Romine's status for this game is relatively worrying, however. He has missed the last two games due to injury, and his status is murky entering this game. South Alabama will look to do some damage against a pretty good Falcons' defense. The Jaguars are led by solid signal-caller Dallas Davis and some quality weapons at receiver. Receiver Josh Magee has proven he can make plenty of big plays, and there are a number of others eager to step up. South Alabama has had a good run of tight ends over the years, and Gerald Everett definitely fits that mold. Everett has recorded 49 receptions for 717 yards and four touchdowns. His big, athletic frame has led to a great 2016 and also garnered some attention from NFL scouts. He will have to have a huge day, because South Alabamas ground game is not exactly dominant, and Air Force has zeroed in on stopping it. Thinking the Jaguars will just roll over in this one is foolish, they have proven they can contend with and beat quality opponents (Mississippi State), but they will have tough sledding in this game. Unless the defense defends the triple-option beautifully and also manages to force some turnovers, Air Force should reach double-digit victories.
Air Force, 38 South Alabama, 24

Capital One Orange Bowl (December 30th)
Michigan Wolverines (10-2) vs. Florida State Seminoles (9-3)

Two popular preseason Playoff picks collide in the Orange Bowl here, with still plenty left to play for. Michigan is trying to show they belonged in the Playoff despite their two losses, while Florida State wants to end the year on a high note and gain some momentum for what could be a special 2017. The Seminoles will be in for a tough game against the Wolverines, who are skilled, balanced and deep on both sides of the ball. On offense, Michigan will lean on junior QB Wilton Speight, who should be 100 percent. Speight suffered a collarbone injury in a loss to Iowa but came back for the Ohio State game and played well. He faces a Florida State secondary that has been beat up all season long but has still been respectable. Speight will be helped by a plethora of playmakers at running back and receiver, namely tight end Jake Butt, receiver Amara Darboh and tailback De'Veon Smith. He will also operate behind an O-Line that has gotten better as the season has pushed on, and should be ready for the 'Noles' aggressive blitz packages. For FSU, their offense has been plagued with inconsistency, but still has plenty of star talent as well. Redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois has been hit a ton this year, as the Florida State offensive line has struggled. Even so, the young quarterback has shown immense toughness and grit, and will look to end the season on a high note. Unfortunately, he will have to make some tough throws against a terrific Wolverines' secondary, which includes All-American corner Jourdan Lewis and the hard-hitting Delano Hill. The Wolverines will also bring some astounding talent to the equation on other places defensively, namely linebacker Jabrill Peppers and D-Linemen Taco Charlton and Rashan Gary. Peppers will play a huge role on defense but should also help on offense and special teams, and Charlton and Gary are sure to wreak havoc and get in Francois' face. They will also be tasked with stopping the powerful Dalvin Cook, who could be playing his final game in a Florida State uniform. Another important aspect to this game will be special teams, particularly the kicking game. True freshman Ricky Aguayo has a huge leg but still hasn't played in a lot of big games. Meanwhile, Michigan's Kenny Allen has struggled mightily at times. If the game is close, it is unclear who would gain the advantage there. This game is sure to be physical and tough, and will kick off the New Year's Six bowls in interesting fashion. I like Michigan to come out on top; they are more balanced on both sides of the ball and could be playing very hungry after the controversial loss to archrival Ohio State.
Michigan, 33 Florida State, 24

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl (December 31st)
Louisville Cardinals (9-3) vs. LSU Tigers (7-4)

After back-ending into the Heisman Trophy, Lamar Jackson is eager to show he is still the nation's best player against the hungry LSU Tigers. Jackson has put together a marvelous season, but recent struggles dropped Louisville out of the Playoff mix and left some doubt about whether he should win college football's most prestigious award. Jackson's athleticism and playmaking ability are off the charts and he hasn't just beat up on terrible teams; he was terrific against both Clemson and Florida State, so LSU won't scare him. Joining Jackson is a solid running back in Brandon Radcliff (877 yards) and plenty of help at receiver. LSU is very stout on defense, with talent at every level, especially the back, where future NFL stars Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White roam. Their battle against Jackson should be very much back-and-forth. The Tigers have struggled to put up points all season long, but did just dominate Texas A&M. Purdue transfer Danny Etling isn't great but he makes the right reads and does his job. With the talent LSU has at receiver and throughout the offense, that does the trick. LSU will be without star running back Leonard Fournette, who will be sitting this one as he prepares for the NFL Draft. While the Tigers will miss the bulldozing back, it is understandable that Fournette, who will most likely be drafted very high, doesn't want to risk any injury. His backup, Derrius Guice, has been wonderful taking over when Fournette has been injured. Guice is also an incredibly hard-runner and very difficult to bring down. With him still running away, Louisville will still have a tough time. The Cardinals' defense has been pretty good for much of the season, but struggled mightily against Kentucky in the season finale. Jaire Alexander and the rest of the hungry unit should be amped and ready for to redeem themselves. Jackson is sure to bring plenty of fireworks and highlights, but right now Louisville is not playing well. Unless they have figured things out over the past few weeks, LSU has enough to take them down.
LSU, 28 Louisville, 21

TaxSlayer Bowl (December 31st)
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (8-4) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (7-5)

It may be basketball season in Lexington, but that doesn't mean Kentucky fans will completely forgot about this team's bowl battle with Georgia Tech. The Wildcats ended the year playing very well, including a big victory over Louisville. Stanley "Boom" Williams has been their go-to playmaker, recording 1,135 yards, and shredding some impressive defenses. Williams is always a threat to break out a big run, and Georgia Tech was susceptible to big plays all 2016. Quarterback Stephen Johnson started the year off deep on UK's depth chart, but rose due to injuries and poor play. He finished the year playing as well as anybody, and should play a big role in this game. The Yellow Jackets improved from a disappointing 3-9 to go 8-4 this year. Much of that has been because they have been able to win close games and played better defense. Veteran QB Justin Thomas is an electric playmaker that runs the GT triple-option to near perfection. He is aided by a deep group of running backs, which includes Marcus Marshall and Clinton Lynch. The Wildcats are a solid defensive team, using an experienced and powerful D-Line to win plenty of games this year. That group will have to be prepared and ready to go against the Yellow Jackets, as they probably haven't faced an offense quite like GT's this year. It has been a very successful year for Kentucky, and they will be ready to keep the momentum going. Those four weeks have given them a chance to prepare for the Yellow Jackets, and it should guide them to a win here, particularly if Williams and Johnson help put up plenty of points.
Kentucky, 27 Georgia Tech, 20

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