Hello, Buffalo Bills fan. The game Sunday versus the New York Jets has become a meaningful finish to the season, and by all means, please focus on that. However, on Thursday and Friday, college football reigns supreme with the six massively important games, collectively known as the New Year’s Six. This series of games is in its second year and has a committee creating a four-team playoff plus appealing matchups for the other four games in the cabal not hosting semifinals.
Confession: the author is a massive college football fan, but also understands that not everyone is. So instead of a traditional preview, each team has Bills-specific storylines to check out. In fact, only three of the teams do not have a player that could be landed by Buffalo in the first round. Consider this a guide to start familiarizing yourself with potential draftees of the hometown club, and a reason to watch the two best days of the season for the sport. Cue the dramatic voice over guy…
CHICK-FIL-A PEACH BOWL
18. Houston Cougars (12-1, AAC Champions) vs. 9. Florida State Seminoles (2nd, ACC Atlantic)
12 p.m., December 31st, ESPN
Line: Florida State -7
Cougars Recap: New coach, new outlook. It’s rare that a mid-major like Houston fires a coach after a 7-5 season (with a bowl win), but out went Tony Levine and in came Tom Herman. Coming off a national championship with Ohio State as the offensive coordinator, Herman’s spread option attack ran roughshod over the American Athletic Conference, finishing with a 12-1 record and an AAC championship. They are the highest ranked team from a non-Power 5 conference and will be America’s darling in this matchup, because no one likes Florida State.
Seminoles Recap: When does a 10-2 season barely register on the national register? When the team in question went a combined 27-1 the previous two seasons and had a lightning rod at quarterback. Florida State lost to ACC foes Georgia Tech and Clemson in the span of three weeks back in October and November and was relegated to the back table. That said…it’s Florida State. The talent is noticeable, and this could be a launching pad to next year, when the team could be back in the playoff.
Cougar Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Adrian McDonald, S. Houston is fun and fast and has zero chance of anyone drafted on the first three days. So McDonald, a ball-hawking strong safety with 13 INTs, could be the priority free agent that could provide depth in the defensive backfield. Otherwise, there is little to be culled from this team, which is fine, because the Cougs are still fun.
Seminole Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Terrance Smith, LB. Linebackers are in desperate need of upgrading for the Bills, and Smith could be the guy. His 2015 hasn’t been as spectacular, but 52 tackles and an INT isn’t anything to sneeze at. His role on the team could be that of a quality backup who eventually can be groomed into a starter, a nice value in the middle rounds. BUT WAIT HERE’S A BONUS! As nice of a player as Smith is, the guy that would be most welcome for Buffalo would actually be Roberto Aguayo, who is a kicker. The redshirt junior has yet to declare, but if he decides to go pro, Aguayo could be a pick in rounds 3-5. Yes, it’s a mammoth price for the position, but have you seen Dan Carpenter? Aguayo has never missed an extra point, which is incredible for a college kicker even with the short distance, and is also perfect inside 40 yards. So yeah Smith, but wouldn’t it be nice to not worry about kicking for once?
Prediction: Florida State will eventually wear out the less talented Cougars, and the Cinderella story will end by the third quarter. 34-21 Seminoles.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF AT THE CAPITAL ONE ORANGE BOWL
4. Oklahoma Sooners (11-1, Big XII Champions) vs. 1. Clemson Tigers (13-0, ACC Champions)
4 p.m., December 31st, ESPN
Line: Oklahoma -3.5
Sooners Recap: Oklahoma was just rolling along when archrival Texas upset the Sooners 24-17 on October 10th. Sitting at 4-1 with a terrible loss in conference, it sure looked like there was no chance we’d be hearing Boomer Sooner 782 times in the playoff. Then the Sooners started killing fools, and got to play backup quarterbacks in wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State. That luck, combined with a Stanford upset loss at home to Oregon, meant the Pac-12 was going to produce a two-loss champion. And as a unanimous champion of the Big XII, we would like to welcome the hottest team in the country to the playoff, 11-1 Oklahoma.
Tigers Recap: Have you heard of this concept called Clemsoning? It’s a phrase used in college football when a team has lofty expectations and takes a dumb loss somewhere in a semi-big game. Sadly, the name is now outdated. Clemson is the only team to enter bowl season undefeated, having won the ACC while beating top 10 teams Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina along the way. They also forced Miami to fire their coach after a 58-0 demolition that was a horrific, real-time car crash. Clemson runs fast on offense, dominates on defense and has earned the right to be called the number one team in the country.
Sooner Who Could Be A Bill in 2016: Sterling Shepard, WR. Sammy Watkins does everything. Robert Woods is fantastic in possession receiving. Charles Clay gives you the big target then can go up the middle. So why not bring in an undersized but straight line speedster to plug into the slot? Taylor throws a good deep ball, and Shepard is also able to return kicks as a bonus. Could be the perfect luxury pick in the second round, with the biggest knock against him being the super ambiguous “size.”
Tiger Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Shaq Lawson, DE. Depth was destroyed on the defensive line this year, and with the probability of Mario Williams not coming back, the Bills will need someone to get after the QB. Lawson can, with 53 tackles and 9.5 sacks, and the skill set that allows for him to play in both run and pass situations. Plus, we need to make Sammy feel more comfortable, and slapping another big paw print on the roster would qualify.
Prediction: Clemson has thrived on being doubted all year, and now the number 1 ranked Tigers are more than field goal underdogs? Dabo Swinney has knocked off Ohio State, LSU and…wait a second, look at this…Oklahoma in consecutive bowl seasons! Here’s the fourth straight. DeShaun Watson shreds the Sooner defense, and shut down Baker Mayfield long enough to coast make the National Championship Game. 35-27 Tigers.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF AT THE GOODYEAR COTTON BOWL CLASSIC
3. Michigan State Spartans (12-1, Big Ten Champions) vs. 2. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, SEC Champions)
8 p.m., December 31st, ESPN
Line: Alabama -9.5
Spartans Recap: It’s never really pretty, but it isn’t supposed to be with Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio. Sparty beat four Top 15 teams (vs. Oregon, @ Michigan, @ Ohio State, vs. Iowa) by a combined 13 points, which no one else can come close to matching. Especially impressive, the Michigan and Ohio State wins came on the final play of each game, in which the Spartans never led until the end. So why are they only 3rd? A perplexing loss to a mediocre Nebraska team, plus struggles against Purdue, Rutgers and Indiana offer plenty for doubters to glom onto. But this is a team with three NFL first round prospects and the winningest senior class in school history, with two Big Ten titles and wins in the Rose and Cotton Bowls the last two years. Unsexy with spectacular results sums it up nicely, so doubt Michigan State at your own peril.
Crimson Tide Recap: When Ole Miss swept into Tuscaloosa in September and swept away the Tide, several media outlets immediately went to their columnists and demanded “Death to the Alabama Dynasty!” articles. Three and a half months later, Nick Saban’s college football Patriots won their 4th SEC title in seven years and will have an opportunity for a 4th National Championship in the same time. Oh well, try again next year, it appears. This time last year, Alabama was upset by plucky Big Ten champions Ohio State. It’s déjà vu all over again, with Michigan State in the competitor’s role this time around. The goal for the Crimson Tide this time should be handing the ball to Heisman winner Derrick Henry as many times as humanly possible. The 6’3”, 245-pound wrecking ball is the best opportunity for a victory, and hopefully Lane Kiffin remembers this this time around.
Spartan Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Jack Conklin, OT. Here is a massive (6’6”, 325 lbs.), steady tackle who doesn't make mistakes, protects Connor Cook's blindside, but seems to be versatile enough to play either side, depending on what happens with Cordy Glenn. What else is there to say? The multi-time All-American would be a great selection in the mid-teens.
Crimson Tide (?) Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Reggie Ragland, LB. Right here, we have the best combination of fit for Buffalo and realistic availability. A mid-1st projected monster, this would be the best LB since the days of Poz. 90 tackles and 2.5 sacks, plus if Nick Saban says this guy is a defensive leader, well…that should be enough of a recommendation for anyone looks to shore up the linebacking corp.
Prediction: It is baffling how Michigan State can be this big of an underdog. A low-scoring showdown appears imminent that reasonable minds can predict will be close in the 4th quarter. It feels like Alabama will eventually prevail, but Sparty should be able to cover. 23-17 Crimson Tide.
BATTLEFROG FIESTA BOWL
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-2 Independent) vs. 7. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1, 2nd Big Ten East)
1 p.m., January 1st, ESPN
Line: Ohio State -6.5
Fighting Irish Recap: Oh, what could have been…Notre Dame went 10-2, with the only losses being two-point, last-minute road defeats at Clemson and Stanford. They survived a season-ending injury to quarterback Malik Zaire and many other starters, and yet…it feels like a boring year overall for the Fighting Irish. The big games against name brands (Texas, Georgia Tech, USC) were duds, the best wins were over two AAC teams (Navy, @ Temple), and the NFL could finally come calling for head man Brian Kelly at the end of the season. A win here would go a long way towards making those empty feelings full.
Buckeyes Recap: Oh, what could have been as well…the defending National Champions, with three potential Heisman candidates and a fourth that won back-to-back Big Ten player of the year awards? Surely this season was just a dress rehearsal for the title defense in the playoffs. But Ohio State still had to play the season. And…well, yeah…ugly victories over Northern Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota were forewarns to the 17-14 home loss to Michigan State. The unanimous preseason number one team and the Buckeyes did not even win the Big Ten East division. A win here would go a long way towards making those empty feelings full here too.
Fighting Irish (?) Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Nick Martin, C. Another prospect that can be had in the second round, this allows Eric Wood to either stay or shift over to guard, as Martin can play either position. Either way, it feels like another upgrade, and allows John Miller to become a swing man on the line or immediately plug in if Incognito isn't re-signed. The more talent you add to the line, the better things will be for Shady, Tyrod & Co.
Buckeye Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Taylor Decker, OT. You want a run-based offense? Here's a masher who was the best blocker for Zeke Elliott this season. While Decker will need a bit of refinement in the passing game, he projects to be a starter from day one, and can absolutely could play on either side of the line.
Prediction: Motivation shouldn’t actually be a problem here, as both teams look to push forward towards a positive move for 2016. The pick here is Ohio State, who did end the year crushing rival Michigan and will be as strong as the Clemson and Stanford teams that Notre Dame lost to. 27-20 Buckeyes.
ROSE BOWL PRESENTED BY NORTHWESTERN MUTUAL
6. Stanford Cardinal (11-2, Pac-12 Champions) vs. 5. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-1, 1st Big Ten West)
5 p.m., January 1st, ESPN
Line: Stanford -6.5
Cardinal Recap: College football fans got to learn about body clocks and the human condition in 2015 thanks to the Stanford Cardinal. A 16-6 loss with an 11 a.m. Central kickoff to Northwestern was often cited as a reason for why Stanford was constantly cited as a team still in playoff contention despite the early loss to the Wildcats. You see, the Stanford team felt like it was 9 a.m. and therefore received a built-in excuse for the loss. However, another defeat to Oregon in the constant ping ponging of the Pac-12 North division championship ended up costing the Card a shot. So although we focus here on the negative, the truth is that Stanford won 9 games by double digits and do-everything player Christian McCaffrey probably should have won the Heisman. A nice bounce-back season for David Shaw and friends, to be certain, and a third Rose Bowl in 4 years is a wonderful “consolation” prize.
Hawkeyes Recap: At no point in September or October did anyone really think Iowa would go 12-0 in the regular season. But Kirk Ferentz finally justified his massive paycheck with the best season in over a decade for the Hawkeyes. Wins over Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Northwestern showed the team was legit, and by the time the Big Ten title game rolled around, this really was the number 4 team in the country. Yes, the 16-13 loss to Michigan State stings. But of all the teams in the New Year’s Six, this is the most surprising.
Cardinal Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Kyle Murphy, OT. Already a RT, there would be almost no adjustment. Given the talented backfield, here is a guy who can handle both the run and pass, although better suited at this point for the latter. If you are sensing the theme that the offensive line needs upgrading, then circle does indeed get the square.
Hawkeye Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Desmond King, CB. Talent oftentimes will trump limitations. Here is an extreme case. The 2015 Jim Thorpe winner for best defensive back, the biggest thing against King is he’s 5’11”. That said, not only would he be a monster nickel corner, he can contribute immediately on special teams as well. With 67 tackles, 8 INTs, 12 passes defended, this would be a legit value if the Bills could get him in the second round. Remember, you cannot have enough corners in today’s NFL. And we can all stop yelling about Leodis McKelvin.
Prediction: It feels like a blowout should be happening here. In terms of advanced metrics and eye tests and logic and all that jazz, Stanford is much better than Iowa, plain and simple. But weird things happen in bowl games. Sometimes underdogs get feisty and play with a chip on the shoulder. But before we go full Phil Simms here…Stanford’s gonna kill Iowa. 41-24 Cardinal.
ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL
16. Oklahoma State Cowboys (10-2, T2nd Big XII) vs. 12. Ole Miss Rebels (9-3, 2nd SEC West)
8:30 p.m., January 1st, ESPN
Line: Ole Miss -7
Cowboys Recap: Oklahoma State started the season 8-0 and no one cared. When your best win is either an overtime win at West Virginia or a 70-53 what the hell is this win over Texas Tech, well…you bring that on yourself. But then TCU came to town and the Pokes crushed them by 20. Followed up by a road win at Iowa State, the Cowboys were 10-0 and numero four-o (not great at Spanish). Reality then finally struck, as home losses to Baylor and archrival Oklahoma ended the season on a two game slide. Still, given coach Mike Gundy (now 47) was about to be fired at the end of last year, a trip to New Orleans in a major win for a program that is slowly but surely becoming a regular contender in the Big XII.
Rebels Recap: Ole Miss, you are so confusing. The Rebels beat Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State. They also gave up 38 points to offensively challenged Florida, lost to (very good) mid-major Memphis, and gave up one of the three dumbest plays of the year in a home loss to Arkansas. Since this is Buffalo, here is where we give thanks to head coach Hugh Freeze for finally focusing Chad Kelly long enough to play a whole season. Chad is Jim Kelly’s nephew, and you know Jim Kelly as the spokesman for ECMC.
Cowboy Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Emmanuel Ogbah, DE. You want the sacks back? Ogbah is a monster, recording a combined 24 over the past two seasons. Even better, he can play on either side, is willing to drop back into pass coverage. He has speed and strength, so the ability to attack defenders at their weakness should not be questioned either. He will probably be gone when the Bills pick, but John Legend should sprint to the stand to take Ogbah if available.
Rebel Who Could Be a Bill in 2016: Robert Nkemdiche, DT. Two months ago, this was a top five pick. So why could he fall? Well he literally fell 15 feet out a hotel window and happened to have marijuana in the room him at the time. So yes, we are cheating since he is not playing in the Sugar Bowl due to suspension. But surely there will be a time when the highlight reel will roll, and when motivated, this is the single most dominant interior tackle in college football.
Prediction: Sure would be nice if we get advanced warning of which Ole Miss is going to show up here. Let’s just assume the good Rebels show up. This is very bad news for Okie State. 48-24 Rebels.