JACKSONVILLE - With the college football bowl games in full-tilt-go mode and two championship game playoff spots now set with No. 1 LSU pounding No. 4 Oklahoma 63-28 in their semifinal and No. 3 Clemson getting a win over No. 4 Ohio State, Clay Today sports editor Randy Lefko and Clay Today sportswriter Doug Deters will be going back-to-back football bowl coverage with Lefko going to his treasured Alabama against Michigan on Wed., Jan. 1 in Orlando's VRBO Citrus Bowl then returning to Jacksonville to join Deters and his beloved University of Tennessee Volunteers in the Thurs., Jan. 2 Taxslayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville's TIAA Bank Field.
Alabama, for the first time since 2014, will play in a non-playoff bowl game under coach Nick Saban, who lost to Clemson in last year's national championship game. The 13th ranked Tide (10-2) lost key games to LSU and Auburn to get bumped out of the playoff picture.
Michigan, 9-3, has never been in the college playoff since its inception in 2014 and has won only won bowl game. Jim Harbaugh is the coach.
The Citrus Bowl is only the fifth time the two teams have faced off with the slate at 2-2 making the game a tiebreaker.
The Tennessee Volunteers, who beat Iowa 45-28 in 2015's Taxslayer Gator Bowl, come back to Jacksonville as one of the hottest teams in the Southeastern Conference. The Vols are riding a five game winning streak and six of their last seven games with their lone loss on the road at then number one ranked Alabama. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was second in SEC Coach of the Year voting behind the obvious choice of LSU's Ed Orgeron.
The Volunteers started their season 1-4 with losses against Georgia State (Yes, I said Georgia STATE), BYU and were then outscored by a combined 77-17 in losses to Florida and Georgia. It seemed Tennessee was destined for another losing season and another likely coaching search. After the loss at Florida, head coach Jeremy Pruitt called a team meeting after they landed in Knoxville following a 34-3 beatdown by the Gators.
"The message was if you are here, are you really going to be here for us?" Tennessee senior defensive back Nigel Warrior recalls. "It really turned our season around. We came together. We became one."
The Volunteers changed quarterbacks from redshirt Junior Jarrett Gaurantano to true freshman Brian Mauer. The Vols lost big to the third ranked Georgia Bulldogs but actually held a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter before falling 43-14 and showing some flashes of potential. The confidence gained helped springboard the Volunteers resurrection in 2019. The next week Tennessee defeated Mississippi State 20-10 in what most felt was a must win game. The Volunteers also woke up defensively, especially their defensive line recording 10 sacks in the win.
Tennessee traveled to play number one ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa and went toe to toe with the Tide until a costly late game turnover turned a likely one possession game midway through the fourth quarter to a three possession game (It's too painful for me to put in print what transpired so you will have to google it or contact our Sport Director Randy Lefko who probably has the play call as his ringtone).
That would be the last loss in 2019 for Tennessee as they would go on a five game winning streak starting with a 42-21 win over South Carolina, then a 30-7 non-conference win over UAB.
The Hoosiers of Indiana are 8-4 and playing in their first ever bowl in Florida while the Volunteers are looking to extend their bowl winning streak to four games with a win in Jacksonville and their first post season game since a 2016 Music City Bowl win over Nebraska.
In two other bowl games, Oakleaf High linebacker Shaquille Quarterman played in his final game as starting middle linebacker for the University of Miami in a 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Walk-Ons Independence Bowl in Shreveport. Quarterman started in his new NCAA record 52nd straight football game for Miami. Miami finished at 6-7. Quarterman had 11 tackles against Tech.
"It was a closing of a chapter of my life," said Quarterman, at a post game press conference. "I will be a Cane all my life. I liked finishing with my guys."
In New York's Yankee Stadium, Fleming Island High linebacker Ryan Smenda was a starter for the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons who lost 27-21 to Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl. Smenda had nine tackles and an interception. Wake Forest finished 8-5 with their fourth straight bowl appearance.