2023 Gator Bowl, Sun Bowl, Liberty Bowl and Cotton Bowl Preview

December 29, 2023

The Thursday lineup of bowl games certainly did not disappoint.

The Boston locals received a nice surprise for their support in the rain at Fenway, while Rutgers provided a similar treat to the Scarlet Knights fans that made the relatively short trip to the Big Apple. The nightcap wasn’t bad, either, with Arizona and Oklahoma trading punches until the final minutes in San Antonio.

However, one storyline shone more brightly than all the others – the introduction, and subsequent sacrifice, of the hero we needed but didn’t deserve – the Pop-Tarts Bowl mascot.

If you haven’t heard about this yet, do yourself a favor and watch this video – then get on your social media feed of choice and search #PopTartsBowl for a gift that nearly 24 hours later continues to give.

In Bowl Mania, my brother Kevin has overcome a rough patch right around Christmas to regain the Von Hugendong group lead. Let me tell you, the text messages from him over the past 48 hours are proof that these games matter.

Let’s take a quick look at the bowl slate for Friday.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

#22 Clemson vs. Kentucky (Friday, 12 PM ET – ESPN)

Though a pre-New Year’s bowl game isn’t where Clemson expected or hoped to end up in 2023, Dabo Swinney’s team did a nice job of preventing the wheels from falling off entirely this season after starting the year 2-2. Kentucky’s expectations for itself likely began to rise after a 5-0 start, but the Wildcats limped to the finish, ending on a 2-5 stretch in which its defense was exposed on the ground and through the air at various points.

While Clemson should have ample opportunity to gash Kentucky with its potent run game, the Wildcats may do the same without Tigers’ leading tackler Jeremiah Trotter leading the offense both with his play and vocally. The Wildcats also have a slight edge at quarterback with Devin Leary, who while erratic at times can take advantage of a depleted Clemson secondary. Expect a lot of points in this one, with a late drive potentially shifting the tide.

Around The Corn’s Pick: 37-31 Clemson

Bowl Mania Confidence: 38 points

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl

#19 Oregon State vs. #16 Notre Dame (Friday, 2 PM ET – CBS)

The Sun Bowl represents the unfortunate side of the transfer portal and opt outs better than most, with a boatload of players on both sides sitting out the game in El Paso. Featured amongst the long list is Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman, tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, Oregon State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and running back Damian Martinez. To add to the challenge, Jonathan Smith left his post as Oregon State’s head coach for the same position at Michigan State.

Marcus Freeman, a defensive guy himself, will be with most of his playmakers on that side of the ball, which could make for tough sledding for a Beavers offense that will mostly be glued together with odd parts. Oregon State will have a more experienced quarterback in Ben Gulbranson than the Fighting Irish (Steve Angeli), but the lack of continuity within the program at this time is going to be tough to overcome. Neither team is likely to be entirely representative of what they were during the regular season, but Notre Dame at least has a clear direction for the future.

Around The Corn’s Pick: 24-16 Notre Dame

Bowl Mania Confidence: 41 points

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Memphis vs. Iowa State (Friday, 3:30 PM ET – ESPN)

The Tigers will literally be playing a home game for the holidays when they take on the Cyclones in Memphis on Friday afternoon. Ryan Silverfield’s squad will look to become the fourth team in Memphis program history to win at least 10 games, and the third team to do so in the last decade, a testament to its recent consistency. Iowa State navigated a difficult Big 12 schedule and a slow start on the offensive side of the ball to become bowl eligible in 2023 and is seeking its third bowl victory under Matt Campbell. This figures to be a classic battle between potent offense (Memphis) and strong defense (Iowa State).

Though Iowa State’s statistical numbers would suggest otherwise, the Cyclones have improved dramatically on offense as redshirt freshman Rocco Becht has matured throughout the season. Five of his eight interceptions on the year occurred during the team’s first five contests. This maturation has resulted in a very different Iowa State offense (421 YPG in its last three games vs. 270 YPG in its first three) which should challenge a Memphis defense that has been suspect this season. If Becht goes toe to toe with Seth Henigan through the air, this will be a fun one.

Around The Corn’s Pick: 31-27 Memphis

Bowl Mania Confidence: 5 points

Goodyear Cotton Bowl

#9 Missouri vs. #7 Ohio State (Friday, 8 PM ET – ESPN)

The Cotton Bowl would have been a welcomed destination for Missouri at the beginning of the season, but lack of motivation shouldn’t be an issue for the Buckeyes, either. What was the Big Ten’s top offense during the regular season (425 YPG) is without its starting quarterback and parts of its running back and receiving corps that contributed largely to that statistic. The Buckeyes do have a junior class that has already voiced its collective intention (by way of defensive leadership) to stick around for another year and a bevy of talented backups looking for a chance to solidify their spots for 2024. The Tigers are seeking just their fourth 11-win season in program history and their first in almost a decade.

The stout Buckeyes defense must contain a trio of talented playmakers for Missouri that have become household names over the course of this season. Quarterback Brady Cook, running back Cody Schrader and wideout Luther Burden III are all near the top of the SEC in major offensive statistical categories. In particular, Ohio State will need to find a way to contain Cook, who is elusive with his legs and a fine complement in the running game to Schrader, who led the SEC in rushing yards this season with nearly 1,500 yards on the ground. The Buckeyes haven’t made any noise in the transfer portal at the quarterback position, suggesting that the combination of Devin Brown (who will start this game), Lincoln Kienholz and incoming freshman Air Noland is enough for the coaching staff to work with in the offseason. Brown can make a statement about that battle with a strong performance in this game, but if things go South quickly, don’t be shocked if Kienholz makes an appearance in Arlington.

Around The Corn’s Pick: 28-24 Ohio State

Bowl Mania Confidence: 29 points

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