College News & Analysis

Previewing the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl games

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) celebrates a touchdown with teammates at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

• Previewing the four non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl games: TennesseeClemson, AlabamaKansas State, USCTulane and UtahPenn State

Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. cap their Alabama careers: Despite being top prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft, both Young and Anderson will play in the Sugar Bowl versus No. 9 Kansas State.

• Can Tulane finish off a historic season?: The Green Wave are playing in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time in 83 years, taking on No. 10 USC in the Cotton Bowl. 

Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins

There are 41 bowl games, but six stand out above the rest: the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl.

Dubbed “The New Year’s Six,” they feature the top teams in college football that season. Starting in 2014, two of those six games rotate as the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl games. 

No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 7 Clemson Tigers (Orange Bowl)

How to watch: 8 p.m. EST on ESPN (Friday, Dec. 30)

Storyline to know: Can Tennessee cap a magical season with an Orange Bowl victory?

It’s been an unbelievable season for the Volunteers. After starting the year unranked, Tennessee reached No. 1 in the initial College Football Playoff ranking. The last time Rocky Top was, well, on top of a ranking was in 1998, when the Volunteers won their most recent national championship. 

Now at No. 6, Tennessee will play in its first New Year’s Six bowl in 18 years. 

Matchup to watch: The future under center for both programs?

Both Tennessee and Clemson will feature different quarterbacks than their usual starters.

The Volunteers will be starting redshirt senior Joe Milton III after Hendon Hooker tore his ACL a month ago. Milton actually began last season as Tennessee’s starter before Hooker took over in the third game. This season, the strong-armed Michigan transfer has an impressive 84.8 grade on 134 snaps. He’ll look to impress in the Orange Bowl in an attempt to fend off Nico Iamaleava for the starting job next year — a five-star and top-10 overall recruit in the 2023 class.

With DJ Uiagalelei transferring to Oregon State, true freshman Cade Klubnik will receive his first career start for the Tigers in the Orange Bowl. The top quarterback recruit in the 2022 class was pinpoint accurate in the ACC championship game against North Carolina. The former five-star finished with a 91.3% adjusted completion percentage, one of the best marks PFF has seen from a Clemson quarterback.

Highest single-game adjusted completion rate by a Clemson QB in PFF College era (since 2014, min. 25 dropbacks)
Name Year Week Opponent Adjusted Completion %
Kelly Bryant 2017 ACC Championship Miami (FL) 92.3%
Trevor Lawrence 2018 6 Wake Forest 91.7%
Cade Klubnik 2022 ACC Championship North Carolina 91.3%

Prediction: Clemson 34, Tennessee 28

Klubnik outduels Milton and should have Clemson fans ecstatic for next season.

Clemson (-5.5) vs. Tennessee -110
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No. 5 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 9 Kansas State Wildcats (Sugar Bowl)

How to watch: 12 p.m. EST on ESPN (Saturday, Dec. 31)

Storyline to know: Wait … they’re playing?!

In an age where most top prospects are opting out of non-playoff bowl games, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and edge defender Will Anderson Jr. announced they will play in the Sugar Bowl.

Not only are they top prospects, they’re arguably the top prospects. In PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board, Young is at the top followed by Anderson in second. They’ll try to finish their careers on top (and healthy) against ninth-ranked Kansas State on Saturday.

Matchup to watch: Deuce Vaughn vs. Alabama’s run defense

Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn has been one of the best running backs in the country since his true freshman season in 2020. The junior has 99 runs of 10-plus yards over the past three years, more than any other player in college football. Vaughn’s 3,481 rushing yards in that span are the most in the Power Five, while his 90.1 receiving grade ranks third among running backs.

Meanwhile, Alabama has the highest team run-defense grade in the country this season (93.1). Will Anderson Jr.’s 12 tackles for loss or no gain are tied for the most among Power Five edge defenders.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Kansas State 24

Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. wrap up their legendary Alabama careers with a Sugar Bowl victory.

Alabama (-6.5) vs. Kansas State -110
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No. 10 USC Trojans vs. No. 16 Tulane Green Wave (Cotton Bowl)

How to watch: 1 p.m. EST on ESPN (Monday, Jan. 2)

Storyline to know: Can Tulane put a bow on a historic season?

The Green Wave are in the midst of a historic season. They’re currently ranked and won their conference championship, the first time either has happened since 1998.

You have to go back much further to find the last time Tulane played in a New Year’s Six bowl game. That would be 1939, when the Green Wave played in the SEC and the final year of the Great Depression. Now, Tulane will try to claim its first NY6 bowl victory in 88 years against No. 10 USC.

Matchup to watch: USC’s passing game vs. Tulane’s pass-defense

For Tulane to pull off the upset, it’ll have to slow down Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the USC offense. Williams thrives outside of the original play design. The sophomore’s 658 passing yards outside of structure were over 200 more than the next-closest FBS quarterback. He’ll be operating shorthanded, though, as wide receiver Jordan Addison and offensive guard Andrew Vorhees won’t play in the Cotton Bowl due to injuries. They’re both top-45 prospects on PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board.

On the other side, Tulane’s 89.6 coverage grade is tied for fifth among Group of Five teams this season. The Green Wave have allowed only 4.92 yards per passing play this season, the lowest mark among that same group.

Prediction: USC 31, Tulane 28

Tulane puts up a valiant effort, but Caleb Williams proves too much to handle.

USC (-2.5) vs. Tulane -110
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No. 8 Utah Utes vs. No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions (Rose Bowl)

How to watch: 5 p.m. EST on ESPN (Monday, Jan. 2)

Storyline to know: Sean Clifford’s last hurrah

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is wrapping up his career at the Rose Bowl, where he told me his love of football first began.

Clifford is the Nittany Lions’ all-time leading passer in terms of yards and touchdowns and is the program’s first four-year starter in nearly two decades. He’ll look to finish his six-year career with a storybook ending in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

Matchup to watch: Utah’s run game vs. Penn State’s run defense

The Utes boast one of the best rushing attacks in the nation this season. Utah’s 94.6 team rushing grade trails only Texas and Michigan among FBS schools. While the Wolverines and Longhorns have the highest-graded running backs in the country leading the way in Blake Corum and Bijan Robinson, respectively, the Utes have employed a committee approach this season. Five different players have 60-plus carries: running backs Tavion Thomas, Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover, Ja’Quinden Jackson and quarterback Cameron Rising. Altogether, the Utes have 1,705 rushing yards after contact this year, the fourth most in the Power Five.

Penn State’s average depth of tackle on run plays this season is just 3.65 yards, the fifth-lowest mark in the Power Five. The Nittany Lions have missed 19% of their tackle attempts, though, the third-highest rate in the Power Five. If Penn State fails to bring down Utah’s backs, it could spell a long day for the Nittany Lions’ defense.

Prediction: Penn State 27, Utah 24

In what should be another classic Rose Bowl, Sean Clifford rides off into the sunset with a Rose Bowl victory.

Penn State to beat Utah +110
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