It's not often you get to say ahead of time that something historic is about to happen and not be using the slightest bit of hyperbole. That's especially true in sports, where the "hot takes" syndrome has so pervaded every discussion and debate to the point that it's sometimes difficult to know whether writers or talking heads are trying convince you or convince themselves that what they're saying is true.
But we are truly on the verge of something historic today. For the first time ever, two teams will meet in a semi-final game at the highest level of college football. A playoff will begin. It's a rather small playoff -- which is just how some of us like it -- but it's a bracket that has the teams that win each game advancing to the next round. It won't settle all the arguments, in fact it seems to have just intensified some of them, but it should give most people at least a little more comfort in the outcome. And it gives us another college football game, which is generally not a bad thing.
The playoff is not the only football action today, though. There are three other games to serve as appetizers, if you will, with two of them involving SEC teams. Ten ranked teams will take the field today -- the first time that's happened on a single day in this bowl season -- and even the ones who don't have a playoff berth seem to have something on the line. Even a bracket skeptic like myself has to admit that maybe the more moderate reformers were right. Maybe we can have the best of both worlds.
1Outback Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Wisconsin Badgers, Noon ET, ESPN2. If you like your football games to be brief and physical, this is the one for you. It feels almost stupid to point this out, but: Wisconsin has a running back who is named Melvin Gordon and is good at football. This is about all you need to know about the Badgers. Gordon had 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns on 309 carries. He was held to fewer than 100 yards in a game just twice during the 2014 season: Against Ohio State in the B1G Championship Game and against Western Illinois. (I have no idea about the last one; Gordon had 17 carries for 38 yards.) Between the season-opening loss to LSU and the season-ending loss to Ohio State, the Badgers won every game except a trip to Northwestern. But Gary Anderson bolted for Oregon State, because reasons, and so Barry Alvarez is climbing into the saddle on an interim basis (again). And if you're a regular reader of this site, you know about Auburn's rushing attack, and probably the fact that the Tigers have lost their last three games against FBS competition.
2Cotton Bowl: Michigan State Spartans vs. Baylor Bears, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. It might not quite be the possible Alabama-Oregon clash that is just two games away from being a reality, but this is not a bad second place in terms of a defense-vs.-offense slugfest. It's not that Michigan State can't score; the Spartans average 43.1 points a game, though that total is skewed by things like scoring 73 on Eastern Michigan and 56 on Wyoming. But they allow just 19.9 points and 293.5 yards a game and are giving up a respectable 4.8 yards a play. And it's not like Baylor's defense is a sieve; they rank 40th in the FBS in total defense, allowing opponents 367.7 yards a game. On offense, though, Baylor is a machine that fell just 24 yards short of churning out a 7,000-yard season. The Bears averaged 581.3 yards a game this season and would almost certainly have made the playoff had it not been for the loss to West Virginia. What kind of game this is can probably tell you who's winning.
3Citrus Bowl: Missouri Tigers vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers, 1 p.m. ET, ABC. Anyone who told you before the season that this would be a New Year's Day bowl match-up is either a wizard or uses copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. Minnesota was tabbed near the bottom of the Big Ten West by most forecasters, and Missouri was seen as a middle-of-the-road team in the SEC East. But the Tigers put together a 10-3 season to win the SEC East while Minnesota rang up an 8-4 record, so they'll meet in Orlando for the third fruit-themed bowl in two days. In any case, both teams had something of a MacGyver quality to them this year. The Gophers won eight games while completing less than 50 percent of their passes, largely by running the ball, on average, more than 47 times a game. The ground attack is headlined by David Cobb, who comes into this game with 293 carries for 1,545 yards and 13 touchdowns. Missouri did manage to complete more than half of its passes (52.8 percent), but relied on a variety of players to step up from time to time to back up the more consistent contributors; no Tiger broke the 1,000-yard mark in rushing or receiving.
4Rose Bowl: Oregon Ducks vs. Florida State Seminoles, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN. The Grandaddy of Them All, or some such, will be the first semifinal game in the inaugural College Football Playoff. And it will feature one of the most prolific offenses in college football this year. Oregon churned out 7,101 yards in the regular season and during the Pac-12 title game, in part by average 7.4 yards a play. The center of it all was Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who was 254-of-372 passing for 3,783 yards, 38 touchdowns and two -- TWO! -- interceptions. Mariota also ran for 669 yards and 14 touchdowns on 117 carries. But for a narrow loss to Arizona, the Ducks would have been undefeated. Florida State is undefeated, though it sometimes seems like the Seminoles got their by the seats of their collective pants. FSU won seven of its games, including each of its last four, by a single possession, and had other close calls along the way. Jameis Winston was far less consistent in his second season than in his Heisman campaign; Winston was 276-of-422 passing for 3,559 yards, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Rashad Greene has 93 catches for 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns.
5Sugar Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Ohio State Buckeyes, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. This one has so many fascinating narratives that ESPN would gorge itself on the storylines if it didn't have other games to cover. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, Round 4. The SEC vs. the B1G. More specifically, the SEC vs. Ohio State. But there's also some compelling stuff that will happen on the field. That includes Cardale Jones, a third-string quarterback starting his second game for Ohio State. It might seem unfair to ask a third-stringer to face a Nick Saban-Kirby Smart defense with a chance at the national title on the line, but consider this: Saban didn't have that much game film to watch. Jones has only attempted 34 passes this year. And the Ohio State quarterback certainly didn't look lost against Wisconsin in the B1G Championship Game. Of course, we all know that there are some pretty good players on both sides of the ball on the Alabama sideline. But before you go thinking that Alabama has a huge edge on defense: The Tide allowed 4.7 yards a play, which is less than Ohio State. The Buckeyes allowed 4.8.
THREE TO WATCH
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: It's been awhile since Artis-Payne was not the SEC leader in rushing yardage for the season, but Nick Chubb's monster day against Louisville temporarily displaced the Auburn back. All Artis-Payne has, you see, is a total of 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns on 227 carries. That puts him 65 yards behind Chubb, which alone makes his day worth watching for future sports trivia contests. If the fact that he has eight 100-yard games and is one of the more underrated running backs in college football isn't enough for you.
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Heisman Trophy finalist, Biletnikoff Award winner and one of the most potent offensive weapons in college football. Cooper ended the year with an SEC-record 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those kinds of numbers would seem ridiculous if we hadn't been talking about the stats Cooper is putting up for so long. Lane Kiffin will find a way to get him involved for the Crimson Tide; the question is whether Ohio State can limit the damage once Cooper has the ball.
Markus Golden and Shane Ray, DEs, Missouri: A combined 22.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss makes this one of the more fearsome tandems in the country. Golden has the more modest of those numbers (8.5 sacks, 16.0 TFL), but also has two forced fumbles and nine quarterback hurries. Ray has also forced a pair of fumbles, but has "just" five quarterback hurries to go with his 14.0 sacks and 21.0 TFL. The key question might be whether Minnesota's lack of a passing offense might actually neutralize the advantage Golden and Ray give Mizzou.
The Outback Bowl could be the best game of the day -- could be -- but for me it comes down to which team has its actual coach and which one has its athletics director pretending to be the coach. Give me a high-scoring game. Auburn 44, Wisconsin 40. I'm one of those who believe that motivation does make a difference in bowl games, and Baylor has even more motive now to win the Cotton Bowl than it did before TCU blew the doors off Ole Miss. The Bears won't do that to Michigan State, but they'll score just enough to win. Baylor 37, Michigan State 30. As for the Citrus Bowl -- no one has gotten much mileage out of doubting Missouri this year. Minnesota should make it close, but the Tigers pull out the win. Missouri 28, Minnesota 24. No one who follows me on Twitter should be surprised by my Rose Bowl pick; I've said for weeks that if Florida State tries to pull its comeback routine against Oregon, it won't work. And that's precisely what I think happens. Oregon 37, Florida State 23. And the grand finale in the Sugar Bowl: Urban Meyer has yet to beat Nick Saban without Dan Mullen, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin to help him do it. You will note that none of those guys are coaches or players for Ohio STate. Alabama 35, Ohio State 20.