All the preliminaries have been completed. We've been to the pre-party, we've sampled the hors d'oeuvres, made small talk with weirdos, and stared at the vodka ice fountain, we've tipped the coat-check girl, found our place card, and taken our seat and now it's time. The banquet begins in earnest. Did you have plans this weekend? Did you think maybe you'd take the family on a nice drive in the country? Stop it! Don't be insane! Clear your schedule. Believe me, you're busy. No, it's not just the playoff semi-finals. It's Penn State-USC! It's Auburn-Oklahoma! Don't you realize Western Michigan is playing Wisconsin? Don’t you want to see if they go undefeated? Okay, deep breath. It's going to be okay. Don't blow a gasket Harbaugh-style. You've been training all year for this. The Horn Of Plenty is here. Lets get buckled up and ride this (Auburn, LSU, Clemson?) tiger home.
Friday 3:30 PM
Music City Bowl
Nebraska vs. #21 Tennessee
Two teams with a considerable amount in common will meet at the Music City Bowl as the SEC's up and down 8-4 Volunteers take on injury-plagued, Big 10 also-ran Nebraska. The Huskers began their season 7-0 and appeared to be a playoff contender before being brutally exposed by Ohio State in a 59-point loss. Since then it's been a mixed bag with wins over Minnesota and Maryland and a 30-point loss at Iowa. The Vols came into the season heavily thought of, but never looked exactly convincing, even during their five-game winning streak to start the season. Three consecutive bubble-bursting losses against Texas A&M, Alabama, and South Carolina put their playoff ambitions on ice, but they remain a dangerous side in any contest. Tennessee is a small favorite. Take Nebraska and the points.
Friday 8 PM
#6 Michigan vs. #11 Florida State
While the expanded four-team playoff is clearly an improvement over the brain-exploding practices of the BCS, it nevertheless continues to rankle the mind when you consider what kind of shop Jim Harbaugh's 10-2 Wolverines might wreck in an eight-team scenario. A last-second loss to Iowa and a possibly fraudulent 30-27 defeat at Ohio State doomed Michigan's playoff ambitions, but rest assured this is one of the 10 best teams in the nation. Over the course of an 8-3 campaign, the 2016 Seminoles had the feeling of an imperial power in patient wait of its next conquest. They won five of six to end the season, and Coach Jimbo Fisher's status as a genius recruiter in a talent-rich state guarantees they will be back in the national championship picture before long. This year, however, they don't quite have the horses to hang with the Wolverines.
Saturday 11 AM
#20 LSU vs. #13 Louisville
The Tigers' tumultuous campaign included an in-season firing of the wily, under-appreciated Les Miles followed by big wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M, and tough losses to Alabama and Florida. Having apparently stabilized their coaching situation by giving interim-man Ed Oregon the job long term, their talented, tenacious defense will provide a stiff challenge for Louisville's Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson was truly sensational this season, and deserving of the award, but after season-ending losses to Houston and Kentucky, there are legitimate questions as to whether the Cardinals can hang in with leather-tough LSU. Even with future NFL first-round running back Leonard Fournette taking the game off to protect against injury, I like the Tigers to slow the game to a crawl and dominate physically.
Saturday 11 AM
Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
I don't know if the Taxslayer Bowl is the best or worst bowl name ever conceived, but this year's edition features an entertaining matchup between two under-appreciated teams. Georgia Tech was a quietly impressive 8-4 this season, with quality wins over Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. With former Navy coach Paul Johnson at the helm, they run the ball a lot and extremely effectively, with QB Justin Thomas operating a triple-option attack that can be lethal at times. Kentucky was 7-5 under coach Mike Stoops, but outside of blowout losses to Florida and Alabama, the Wildcats never appeared out of their depth in the brutal SEC. They're capable, but a leaky defense bodes poorly against the Yellow Jackets' thundering ground game.
Saturday 3 PM
#4 Washington vs. #1 Alabama
Finally we get some answers! The first playoff semi-final pits the upstart Huskies against the implacable defending champion Crimson Tide. Chris Petersen's Washington team has been vastly impressive for most of the season, with athletic quarterback Jake Browning leading an inventive, explosive offense that scored 40 or more 10 times this season. That is unlikely to impress Nick Saban's rock-ribbed defense, which frequently made the cream of the SEC look ordinary during an unblemished 13-0 campaign. It is possible, maybe, to outscore an Alabama team that is not quite as talented on offense as they have been in recent years. Possible, but not likely. Those looking for clues to the outcome will be worried by the Huskies' one loss of the season, when they were bullied at home against USC. There is no bigger bully on the block then the Crimson Tide. Look for them to cover the two-touchdown spread.
Saturday 7 PM
#3 Ohio State vs. #2 Clemson
Conventional wisdom has had the Buckeyes as the team most likely to pose a threat to Alabama in the playoffs, but it has arguably been last year's runner-up Clemson who has played better football down the stretch. They've been dominant in their last three games, and are a sloppy one-point loss against Pitt from a perfect 13-0 season. One-loss Ohio State is clearly loaded with talent, and in Urban Meyer they possess the best head coach in the game not named Saban. Having said that, they were fortunate to win their last two games against Michigan State and Michigan and have looked extremely shaky at times with quarterback JT Barrett struggling for long stretches. Meyer has been a sterling 10-2 in postseason games, and the Buckeyes are slight favorites, but I like Clemson to pull off the upset behind all-world QB Deshaun Watson.
Monday 1 PM
#17 Florida vs. Iowa
The good news for the Gators season is that they made the SEC championship game. The bad news is that they looked so soft in doing so that they came into that game three-touchdown underdogs against Alabama and didn't come close to covering. They had been previously throttled by Florida State and Arkansas, and the only truly impressive win on their resume was a close triumph at LSU. They are better on defense than offense, but not elite on either side of the ball. Iowa acquitted themselves well against a nasty second half schedule, beating Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska, and giving Wisconsin a struggle. They are smart, well-coached, and seemingly catching Florida on a downward trajectory. The Gators are a slight favorite, but this looks like the Hawkeyes' day.
Monday 1 PM
#15 Western Michigan vs. #8 Wisconsin
The 13-0 MAC champion Broncos wanted to test themselves against the Power 5 conferences, and they'll get all they can handle against the double-tough Badgers. Western Michigan handled both Northwestern and Illinois earlier in the season, so we know they can line up and beat Big Ten competitors. They are efficient on offense with quarterback Zach Terrell completing 70 percent of his passes and bruising Jarvion Franklin providing a power run game. Wisconsin was outstanding all year, and held a big lead over Penn State in the Big 10 title game before a late collapse. They prefer brute force on both sides of the ball, and will look to impose their will over a mid-major lacking the same sort of depth. It would be fun to see Western Michigan prove their mettle against big time competition, but this is an extremely rough spot.
Monday 5 PM
#9 USC vs. #5 Penn State
Two storied programs who began their season in disarray have completely managed to turn around their fortunes, with both likely believing they would have a real shot at making noise in the four-team playoff. Instead, they'll meet one another in what figures to be a fascinating Rose Bowl with a throwback feel. Big Ten champs Penn State have a right to feel annoyed at missing out on the playoffs. All they've done is won nine straight, the conference championship, and beaten the Ohio State team that made it in instead of them. The Nittany Lions have evolved an uptempo attack featuring gifted multi-purpose back Saquon Barkley. As proven in their stirring comeback win against Wisconsin in the conference championship game, they can score quickly and rally from big deficits. The Trojans were atrocious at the start of their season, losing three of four and being absolutely humiliated at Alabama. Since then, they've been brilliant, with eight straight wins including a thrashing of four-team finalist Washington. They've always had top-tier talent and their outstanding defense would pose a challenge to any team in the nation at this point. Considering it is practically a home game in Pasadena, lean towards the Trojans in what figures to be a fun and competitive affair.
Monday 8:30 PM
#14 Auburn vs. #7 Oklahoma
Two outstanding teams who played brutal schedules find themselves with one more tough game on their 2016 slate. Auburn has losses to playoff finalists Alabama and Clemson on their resume, but also impressive wins against Arkansas and LSU. Tough and sturdy on defense and streaky week to week on offense, they'll need the version of the team that hung up 56 against the Razorbacks to keep up with the high-flying Sooners. Oklahoma's early season struggles included a disappointing loss at Houston and a blowout defeat at home by Ohio State. But man, they have been sensational since then. Led by gifted quarterback Baker Mayfield, they've won nine straight, frequently laying waste to top-flight talent like Kansas State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State. The defense is merely adequate, but the offense is almost impossible to stop. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn would dearly love to provide a Sugar Bowl victory for his demanding fan base, but it's hard to imagine the Sooners losing here.