While so much of the focus during college football’s bowl season is on the playoff (as it should be) what’s easy to forget is that 70-some other teams will be playing this postseason. And while everything from the TaxSlayer Bowl to the Quick Lane Bowl and beyond might feel like little more than something to watch during a slow holiday season to you and I, these games carry big implications for the teams involved.
Remember, with a bowl bid comes an extra few weeks of practice at the end of the year. An extra few weeks that many coaches like to remind fans are very helpful in developing young players, and in general building towards the following season.
So which young teams could use bowl season – and the extra practices that come with them – to springboard into 2017? Here are seven.
Kentucky Wildcats (TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Georgia Tech)
So yes, it was a season to remember at Kentucky, and things could be lining up to be even better in 2017. The Wildcats return starting quarterback Stephen Johnson (who took over the starting job midway through the year for the injured Drew Barker) with breakout freshman Benny Snell Jr. (and possibly Boom Williams) returning at running back as well. With most of the defense – led by Jordan Jones and Denzil Ware – returning as well, the Wildcats should improve on that seven-win total from this past season.
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Washington Huskies (College Football Playoff vs. Alabama)
Admittedly, it’s hard to say that a team that is already in the playoff can use bowl season to springboard into next year. At the same time, the Huskies were probably a year ahead of schedule in 2016 in winning the Pac-12 and making the playoff to begin with.
With quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and a big chunk of the defense returning, 2017 was supposed to be the year it all came together for Chris Petersen. It happened a season early, but after making the playoff this year, they should enter 2017 as one of the favorites to win it all, regardless of what happens against Alabama on New Year’s Eve.
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South Florida Bulls (Birmingham Bowl vs. South Carolina)
When Willie Taggart left for Oregon, the prevailing thought in college football circles was that the South Florida job was one of the best openings on the market this year. Not only is the school located in Florida (which always helps with recruiting) but the new coach would be walking into a treasure-trove of talent on his 2017 roster. Well, that new coach is Charlie Strong. And while he won’t be coaching the Bulls in their bowl game, he will have no shortage of tools to work with when he takes over full-time following the game.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers returns after passing for 2,500 yards and rushing for another 1,400 (with 37 combined touchdowns) and a talented defense will be led by linebacker Auggie Sanchez who finished with six sacks and had eight TFL’s this year. Add it up and South Florida should be the AAC favorite going into next year, which could set them up for a New Year’s Six bowl bid as well.
USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Georgia Bulldogs (Liberty Bowl vs. TCU)
It was a topsy-turvy year one for Kirby Smart in Athens, one which included losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, but also a win over rival Auburn that cost the Tigers a shot at the SEC West title. Now with a season under his belt, 2017 truly will be when we learn whether Smart is the right man for the job at Georgia or not.
To his credit, the first-year head coach didn’t hesitate to throw true freshman Jacob Eason into the fire at quarterback, and that should pay dividends next season. With several top receivers and key pieces on defense returning there’s no reason to think that the ‘Dawgs won’t be able to compete for an SEC East title.
And when you add Stidham in with other returnees like running back Kamryn Pettway and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, there’s reason to think that next year might finally be the year that the Tigers can get past Alabama in the SEC West.
USC Trojans (Rose Bowl vs. Penn State)
We all know the Trojans’ 2016 story, but it’s worth repeating here. After losing two of their first three games, USC made a quarterback switch and never looked back. With Sam Darnold under center they went 8-1 and were the proverbial "team no one wanted to face" by the end of the year. Although they didn’t win the Pac-12, by beating Washington the Trojans made a case that they are actually the league’s best team.
And by next year? They could be a national championship favorite. We know Darnold will be back and so will 1,000-yard rusher Ronald Jones. Not to mention the team’s two best defensive players, defensive lineman Porter Gustin (12 tackles for loss) and Cameron Smith. If they can somehow convince Thorpe Award winner Adoree' Jackson and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to return (something that the pair has hinted at) the Trojans will have as much returning talent as anyone in college football not named Alabama.
Penn State Nittany Lions (Rose Bowl vs. USC)
That’s right, folks, we’ve got a double-springboard game at the Rose Bowl this year! And if there’s one team that will benefit from bowl season even more than the Trojans, it just might be James Franklin’s club.
This team has already made leaps and bounds since the start of the season, winning nine games in a row after a 2-2 start. And with four more weeks to get guys like Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and a young offensive line reps, there is no reason to think that this team can’t enter 2017 as a true national championship favorite.