The Tigers limp into Atlanta on a two-game losing streak for a New Year's Eve scrape with the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl. Auburn has done this dance before, as recently as 1997, and will find plenty of home-field-like support among Atlanta bowl-goers. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the last two times Auburn has played in a dome, the Tigers have lost badly, to Syracuse this season, and to Florida last year. In fact, Auburn has lost two out of three in the Georgia Dome, barely beating hapless Clemson in the ‘97 Peach Bowl. Last year's SEC Championship game against Florida was forgettable as well, with the Gators claiming a 28-6 victory.
As if the venue isn't enough to worry about, Auburn will be facing a very physical Tar Heel defense, led by All-American defensive end Julius Peppers, perhaps the college game's best defensive lineman. The 7-5 Heels started the season with a thud against heavyweight competition, losing to Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas, which turned out to be no disgrace. North Carolina then picked it up at home with a shocking 41-9 smashing of Florida State. Since then, the Heels have played well under Coach John Bunting, thrashing Clemson (38-3) and Duke, while losing almost accidentally to Wake Forest (32-31) and Georgia Tech.
Senior QB Ronald Curry alternates with freshman Darian Durant to give UNC a powerful one-two behind center, but the loss of wide receiver Bosley Allen to a disciplinary suspension could hurt the passing game. Allen also returns punts for the Heels and he will be missed.
Fortunately for AU, North Carolina is not a great running team, averaging just over three yards a carry. This should allow the Tigers to get a grip on this game defensively. The real trouble for Auburn could come with the continued stagnation of its once-promising offense. If redshirt freshman Jason Campbell doesn't get help from the running game then the Tigers are out of luck and will finish with the same season record as, gulp, Alabama. AUBURN 20, North Carolina 17.
New Year's Day kicks off early in Dallas when the Arkansas Razorpigs square off against last year's National Champion Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. That alone is a bad sign for Houston Nutt's resurgent Razors, who, after stumbling out of the blocks this season, caught fire late to cruise in at 7-4.
The Sooners flirted with a National Championship repeat this season before flaming out against Nebraska in Lincoln. Oklahoma then finished the season with a whimper at home, losing to rival Oklahoma State 16-13 in what may have been the most embarrassing home loss in college football this year. That's probably something most Auburn fans didn't realize, and maybe they have other opinions on the matter, anyway.
So will Bob Stoops' vaunted Sooner defense return to form on New Year's Day and atone for sins of the recent past? Or will Arkansas freshman QB Matt Jones continue to amaze his opponents with deceptive skill and competent play-making, even in Dallas against the Sooners? My opinion is that this game will be a Boomer for the Sooners. But my opinion has been, on more than one occasion, wrong. OKLAHOMA 30, ARKANSAS 10.
Breakfast in Tampa will be supplemented by this rematch of last year's Ohio State-South Carolina bowl battle. Lou Holtz has done the impossible throughout his career, but has been nothing short of Houdini in Columbia, dragging the Gamecock program out of the depths of despair and into the light of triumph over the past two seasons. The Golden Age of South Carolina Football has finally arrived, and nobody predicted it when Holtz took the job three years ago.
After last year's inspiring turnaround, many predicted the Cocks would deflate a smidgen in 2001. Not so. Holtz and company kept it going with a sterling 8-3 record this season, including brilliant season-opening wins at Georgia and Mississippi State. Only a November blowout home loss to Florida marred this second consecutive excellent South Carolina season. How did they do it? I'm still shaking my head.
First year head coach Jim Tressel has re-fired the football furnace at Ohio State this season as well, pulling the Buckeyes together for a big upset of hated rival Michigan in Ann Arbor at season's end. Hope for Ohio State's future hasn't been this bright in some time, despite the fact that the record is barely average at 7-4. There's just something about beating the Wolverines that makes all things right in Columbus.
From a purely psychological standpoint, the rematch should favor the loser of the first game. And South Carolina will be without the services of its All-American defensive end Kalimba Edwards, who was lost in the Florida game for the rest of the season. That hurts, and could make a significant difference. Edwards is a marquee talent. On the other hand, Buckeye QB Steve Bellisari is not a great passer, and the Gamecock secondary should make plenty of plays should OSU decide to go to the air. It's probably a safe bet, however, that RB Jonathan Wells will see the ball most of the morning and into the afternoon.
South Carolina can do many different things offensively, depending on the choice at quarterback. Senior Phil Petty is a decent passer and Corey Jenkins can run the option with deadly effectiveness. We'll probably see both. When all is said and done in Tampa, what we may see is the end of an era in college football. There is no talk of Holtz' retirement, but someday that will happen, and the Carolina faithful will be in mourning, along with all true college football fans. Until then, perhaps it's time for this heroic bunch of Gamecock seniors to win another one for the Gipper. SOUTH CAROLINA 27, Ohio State 26.
The Great Big Orange got squeezed by LSU in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta a few weeks back, and the weeping and wailing has not stopped in Tennessee. Orange T-flags are still at half staff, right next to Old Glory on most of the house-and-car-tops around the state, and the Vol Navy is still inconsolable, despite our country's recent military success in Afghanistan. Now this. Michigan. Would you believe this is the first football meeting between these two programs?
It was a wild year in the SEC this fall, but it was perhaps even wilder in the Big 10 whose conference champion turned out to be usually-mediocre Illinois. Michigan blew its chance at the BCS in East Lansing, getting flipped by rival Michigan State in a game that had fans calling for the heads of the officials. Sound familiar? Michigan then fell down at home against its most hated rival, Ohio State, to end its once-promising season on a very bitter note. Still sound familiar? Throw in an early-season bad-luck loss to Washington out on the West Coast, and you come up with 8-3. Not really bad for such a young Wolverine team, but nevertheless disappointing. Yep. Sounds familiar.
Tennessee's 10-2 season should have been cause for celebration, but, like Michigan and, say Oklahoma and Auburn, it's not how many you lost, but to whom you lost. It doesn't even matter whom you beat (Florida). This football is just no good anymore since we're not in Pasadena playing for number one. The "Fire Fulmer" flags are already out in the suburbs, threatening to spread out into the trailer parks if things don't get better in a hurry. And they may not.
If Vol Offensive Coordinator Randy Sanders can remember the importance of the running game, UT should be able to take advantage of a Michigan weakness in Orlando. If not, the Wolverines may run their record to 1-0 in 2002. TENNESSEE 34, Michigan 31.
For all the talk about the SEC and its too-many bowl representatives, I give you exhibit A regarding the arbitrariness of bowl matchups. This is the Sugar Bowl, for goodness sakes, and there is no Florida, no Florida State, no Ohio State, no Michigan, not even a Penn State or Notre Dame. There is only LSU and Illinois. And the real sick part of the argument is that both teams earned the right to be in New Orleans, when the real men of college football abdicated for less responsible positions in less prominent places. So much for the "class" system.
Illini QB Kurt Kittner is the real deal, as is LSU receiver Josh Reed, who probably deserved the Heisman Trophy this year. These guys might just put on the best show of the day right down there in the Superdome, just to prove a point. Illinois 34, LSU 30.
The Gator magic went up in smoke twice in 2001, and Auburn and Tennessee have several hangover losses between them to show for it. So, in a sense, Florida beat both Auburn and Tennessee this year after all. Only they have two losses themselves to show for that. So will Steve Spurrier be fired at season's end, or will he just resign under pressure? Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Maryland has pulled off a genuine dream season under first-year head coach Ralph Friedgen. 10-1, Maryland? Holy Cow! Who says Friedgen needs to lose weight? He'd been carrying the load at Georgia Tech since '96, and now this. If anything, it's time for the Coach of the Year voters to lighten up and give due credit to the hottest coach in the business. Move over, JoePA and granpappy Bowden. Ralph's on the rise. And don't be surprised if he orchestrates a few scoring drives against the talent-rich Gator defense on Wednesday night in Miami, with or without injured running back Bruce Perry. FLORIDA 38, Maryland 28.
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