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You’re Nuts: Which non-playoff bowl game are you most looking forward to?

We know which two games are the most important, but what other matchups could be intriguing?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Which non-playoff bowl game are you most looking forward to?

Josh’s Take: The Vrbo Citrus Bowl

Gene, at this point, I am just excited for any bowl game that will feature top-25 teams, with most of their roster(s) intact, and a quarterback who does not enter the transfer portal immediately following the final whistle. These games have turned into rec league football at this point, with teams rolling out whoever is interested in playing that day. If I can be “old man yelling at cloud” for a minute: What is the point? What happened to finishing out the year strong? I understand that more and more, players are opting out of these games to protect their investment (body), but it seems like the team is becoming less and less of a priority.

I wrote about Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and other Buckeyes potentially opting out, and not having an issue with it — I still don’t. I don’t want to come across as contradicting myself. It just seems like the opt outs are getting completely out of control. Wow, you’re a fifth-round guard prospect? You should definitely sit this one out and prepare for the NFL combine! I just think coaches and teammates would appreciate some of these guys sticking around and going into battle one more time with the men who fought alongside them.

As if the talent drain was not a big enough factor in these games, there is also this little thing called Covid. Covid sucks, plain and simple. I’m not here for a medical argument, I’m just pointing out that is has affected everyday life for close to two years now — Two. Years. Bowl games are being cancelled, Rutgers is getting an invite, and the virus has generally just added to the chaos of the season. Hopefully Ohio State, Utah, and the four playoff teams can each field a complete roster (or something close to it).

So which game am I most interested in? Obviously, I will be tuned in to the Buckeyes. OSU could be in a junk bowl, played in front of 100 fans in a parking lot, and I’m probably watching. However, we’ve mutually agreed to pick a different game. By default, I am going with the game that most of the country has identified as a must-watch. This is the big one. The Big Ten versus the SEC. A midwest megapower taking on a southern superteam. This is what college football is all about. I am of course talking about the other fruit-associated bowl game, THE Citrus Bowl.

On New Year’s Day, the Kentucky Wildcats will be taking on the Iowa Hawkeyes. I haven’t watched a ton of Wildcat football this season, but I have been impressed by the play of two transfers and former Big Ten players in Will Levis (Penn State) and Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska). I think Kentucky is team on the come-up, and Mark Stoops has them looking for an impressive fourth consecutive bowl victory.

On the other side, we have those pesky Hawkeyes. Scrappy, even. Masters of the fundamentals. I’ve professed my love for Kirk Ferentz many a time, so I have no doubt that this game will be a coaching clinic, similar to the Big Ten Championship — a game in which Ferentz’ team was aggressive, played to its strengths, and seemed genuinely prepared for the opponent... oh, wait. I now remember that Iowa can only play one style of offense, and their ability to cause turnovers on defense is equivalent to life or death for this football team. But this matchup is another battle in the war for conference supremacy (B1G vs. SEC), and I think the players on both teams actually care? Maybe?

Begrudgingly putting my sarcasm aside, this should be a good, physical matchup between teams firmly entrenched in the top half (top third?) of the two best conferences in college football. I mentioned that Kentucky is seeking a fourth-straight bowl victory, and the same goes for Iowa. Despite my criticism of Kirk Ferentz, they typically show up in big games — B1G Championship withstanding. Their opponent is seeking further validation as a viable threat in the SEC.

The Wildcats have the much better offense, but if the Hawkeyes can regain their early-season form on defense, they will have a clear edge on that side of the ball. This game, if both teams play up to their potential, should be a strength-on-strength matchup. Playing up to potential is the key term here, as we’ve seen both teams fall well short of that goal on multiple occasions this season.

On offense for Kentucky, they are led by the aforementioned Levis and Robinson. After a few years backing up Sean Clifford in Happy Valley, Levis has proven to be a legitimate dual-threat quarterback for the Wildcats. He is a bit “turnover happy” for my liking, but his ability to run is a real factor. He added nine rushing touchdowns in 12 games so far. Robinson left Nebraska after realizing his quarterback could not throw a forward pass, and all he’s done is come down with 94 receptions for nearly 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. Whereas Nebraska attempted to make him a gadget player, he has thrived as a wide receiver in the SEC. Don’t sleep on Wildcat RB Christopher Rodriguez Jr. either, as he added 1,300 yards on the ground.

Iowa’s offense... starts 11 players. I don’t have much for you. And life will be made even more difficult by RB Tyler Goodson opting out. The Hawkeyes have to hope they score 17. But offense is not how Iowa will win this game. They need to create chaos and turnovers on defense, which they are perfectly capable of doing. Riley Moss, Dane Belton, and all the guys in the front seven will likely have a bad taste in their mouth after the TTUN game. They are a veteran bunch, and one that caused 29 turnovers in 13 games. Levis is not impervious to interceptions, of which Iowa had 24! A few bad decisions could lead to points via defense for the Hawkeyes.

Will this game be pretty? Probably not. Hell, I don’t even know if it will be competitive after what I saw from Iowa in Indianapolis. But if most or all players are available, I expect the Hawkeyes to bounce back. They are a veteran group with a lot of pride on the defensive side of the ball. Kentucky is an up-and-comer in the SEC, one with a lot of skill on offense. Their defense isn’t too shabby either. As opposed to some of the games we’ve seen during bowl season so far – ones played in front of hundreds of fans – this should be a physical, hard-hitting matchup between teams with something to prove... I hope. Daddy needs a well-played college football game!

Gene’s Take: The Valero Alamo Bowl

I want to start this out by saying there are a number of exciting bowl games this season — at least that haven’t been cancelled or otherwise bogged down by opt outs — and I think the New Years Six slate has some especially juicy matchups. Obviously including Ohio State vs. Utah in the Rose Bowl, I believe showdowns between Penn State and Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame, Iowa and Kentucky as well as Baylor and Ole Miss should provide an entraining slate, and I wouldn’t want to ring in 2022 any other way than with some quality college football games.

However, like Josh, I want to go a bit more off-script. My original choice for this debate was going to be the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, where Michigan State will take on Pitt. On paper this could have been an incredible matchup, with a pair of Heisman finalists in Kenny Picket and Kenneth Walker III squaring off one final time before making the leap to the NFL. Instead, both players have opted out of this Dec. 30 clash, and while I will still likely tune in to watch Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison put up numbers regardless of who is throwing him the ball against a Spartan secondary that uhhh... could use help, this game no longer carries the same weight without its top two prize fighters.

Instead, I am forced to go even further off-script than originally intended. I was tempted to go with the Cheez-It Bowl between Clemson and Iowa State to see how far the Tigers will fall after losing basically their entire coaching staff besides Dabo Swinney — and to see the game-ending Cheez-It bath — but it didn’t quite make the cut. The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl also nearly earned my vote, as I am incredibly intrigued to see what a 5-7 Rutgers team can do on short notice against a high-flying Wake Forest offense, but I have a feeling that game will get ugly pretty fast. Alas, I wound up with one of the biggest question-mark filled bowl games of the entire postseason: The Valero Alamo Bowl.

Kicking off at 9:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, the matchup between Oregon and Oklahoma features two schools playing without the head coaches that led them each to 10 wins during the season. Lincoln Riley took over as the headman for the Sooners in 2017, amassing a 55-10 record before jumping ship to USC this offseason. Mario Cristobal’s coaching tenure with the Ducks also began in 2017, and he finished his time in Eugene with a 35-13 record before leaving this offseason to coach at Miami, his alma mater. Longtime former OU head coach Bob Stoops will lead Oklahoma in this game, while Bryan McClendon — the previously the Ducks’ pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach — will lead Oregon.

Unfortunately, this game is not without its opt-outs, as the Ducks’ star pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux has already declared for the NFL Draft, among others. However, Ohio State fans will remember that Oregon defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus without Thibodeaux earlier this season, so while they will miss the uber-talented defensive end, it isn’t the end-all, be-all. Oregon still has a number of great defensive players, including All-Pac 12 First Team selections in linebacker Noah Sewell and safety Verone McKinley III, and an efficient offense spearheaded by running back Travis Dye. The Ducks’ offense wasn’t the best at times this season, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare with Joe Moorhead off to Akron.

Oklahoma will be without the quarterback they began the season with, but that is by choice. Spencer Rattler started the season as a Heisman hopeful for the Sooners, only to be benched in favor of freshman Caleb Williams, with Rattler since having transferred to South Carolina bringing tight end Austin Stogner with him. OU began the season 9-0, but dropped two of its final three games with losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State to miss out on the Big 12 title game. The Sooners will look to rally behind Coach Stoops one more time before former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables takes over in Norman to begin next season.

This game is full of storylines. Neither team will be at full strength as a result of opt-outs, but who really is at full-strength in non-playoff bowl games these days? I think it will still make for a pretty good matchup. I mean, it’s not like there's much else better to do at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night, so it can’t hurt to tune in either way!