Gauging a team’s motivation to win is always a tricky proposition – and it’s especially so in bowl season.
What will a team look like after a one-month layoff, where losing continuity is not only understandable, it’s expected?
Finding a motivational element to point a team in one direction is useful this time of year. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the non-playoff SEC teams and project their motivation levels entering bowl season:
1. Ole Miss: This is as much about last year as it is about today. Ole Miss played in a rare top-tier bowl last year and got destroyed by TCU. The Rebels are back in the New Year’s Six – this time playing in the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 46 years – and they’d like to prove they belong there. They’ll have to beat No. 16 Oklahoma State to do so.
2. Tennessee: Butch Jones has already led Tennessee to its best record in nearly a decade. It could have been even better if not for a handful of fourth-quarter meltdowns. That said, a victory over No. 13 Northwestern would easily rank as Tennessee’s best win of the season, and the 9-4 record that would accompany it would set the Vols up nicely for an offseason where they’ll likely rank as the favorite to win the SEC East in 2016.
3. Auburn: Although Gus Malzahn’s Tigers are slight favorites over Memphis, would you even consider it an upset if Auburn loses this Birmingham Bowl? Anybody who watched Memphis handle Ole Miss wouldn’t. That’s why Auburn should be motivated here. Malzahn’s team is by no means a strong favorite despite playing a lower-division team – and playing in its home state, no less.
4. Florida: Jim McElwain’s banner rookie season lost some of its luster with the Gators’ late fade. The offense was a disaster for most of the second half of the season, and the Gators next must face a Michigan team that ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense. Florida is one of two SEC teams that are underdogs in their bowl game (Texas A&M is the other). That should provide plenty of motivation for a team that played for a conference championship.
5. Mississippi State: This is the last time we’ll see Dak Prescott – arguably the best player in program history – in a Mississippi State uniform. Same for Taveze Calhoun, Ryan Brown, Will Redmond, Justin Malone and other veterans who helped the Bulldogs become prominent players in the SEC West in the last two years. The Belk Bowl matchup against NC State is not particularly interesting, but the Bulldogs want to send Prescott and Co. out on a positive note.
6. LSU: The Tigers finally ended their November meltdown by beating Texas A&M in the final regular-season game, but the season still will end in disappointment. This was a team ranked in the initial College Football Playoff top four before a three-game losing streak left Les Miles’ job in jeopardy and LSU in a largely meaningless bowl game. The matchup itself is interesting, as Texas Tech and LSU play wildly different styles of football. That should make it a fun game to watch, but ending with a win is the only true source of motivation for the Tigers.
7. Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s team enjoyed a nice second half of the season, going 5-1 after their open date to reach bowl eligibility. However, a game that pits a 7-5 Arkansas against a 6-6 Kansas State is not exactly one that football fans will clamor to watch. Both of these teams played their conference’s top teams close before fading at the end – see Alabama-Arkansas or Kansas State versus Baylor, TCU or Oklahoma State – so they’re better than their records. In the end, though, this is still a matchup between also-rans.
8. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s program seems to be in disarray lately. With quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both transferring, we’ll likely see Jake Hubenak run the offense against Louisville. Maybe that will be a good thing since A&M scored 10 points or less in three of its last six games with the other two quarterbacks handling the vast majority of the snaps. Regardless, the Aggies likely just want to get this season over with in light of their steep drop-off following a 5-0 start.
9. Georgia: The Bulldogs enter the matchup with Penn State without their head coach – athletic director Greg McGarity fired Mark Richt shortly after the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech – and without coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Jeremy Pruitt. Capable Richt assistant Bryan McClendon will be a fine interim coach, but of course some upheaval accompanies that much turnover on the coaching staff and the transition to the Kirby Smart regime. No doubt the talking point around Athens is how the Bulldogs will play for each other in this final contest.