After nearly a month of games impacted by transfers, opt-outs and coaching changes, bowl season reaches its end Monday with the final four games. After that, there is only one game left in the college football season: the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 9.
No. 22 Mississippi State (-3) vs. Illinois
Over/under total: 46
This game will be played under a somber shadow after the death of Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach on Dec. 12. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was promoted to head coach after Leach’s death and will lead the 8-4 Bulldogs here. Illinois (8-4), which entered the top 25 for the first time in 11 years before losing three of four to end the season, allowed a national-best 12.3 points per game and was second in yards allowed per game at 263.8.
Key personnel losses: Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left to take the head coaching job at Purdue, and Coach Bret Bielema promoted defensive backs coach Aaron Henry to replace him. The Illini will be thin in the secondary after defensive backs Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown opted out (both were named first-team all-Big Ten, and Witherspoon was a consensus all-American and probably will be a first-round NFL draft pick). Illinois also will be without running back Chase Brown, who opted out after leading all Power Five conference running backs with 1,643 rushing yards. Mississippi State wide receiver Rara Thomas (team-high 626 receiving yards) and running back Dillon Johnson (team-high 5.5 yards per carry) have transferred.
Pick: Mississippi State -3. Losing two star defensive backs is hardly ideal when going against a team such as Mississippi State, which passed the ball 68.6 percent of the time this season, by far the nation’s highest percentage. Throw in the loss of one of the nation’s most productive running backs, and it might be hard for the Illini to keep up.
No. 17 LSU (-15.5) vs. Purdue
Over/under total: 54.5
1 p.m., ABC
After Purdue (8-5) emerged from the middling Big Ten West and lost to Michigan in the Big Ten title game, Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm left to take the top job at Louisville, so offensive coordinator Brian Brohm (his brother) will lead the team in the bowl game. Coach Brian Kelly exceeded expectations in his first season with LSU (9-4), beating Alabama and advancing to the SEC championship game before falling to Georgia.
Key personnel losses: Several Boilermakers starters have followed Brohm out the door: Quarterback Aidan O’Connell (second-team all-Big Ten), wide receiver Charlie Jones (national-best 110 receptions), tight end Payne Durham (second-team all-Big Ten), guard Spencer Holstege and cornerback Cory Trice all have opted out or are transferring. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels played on an ankle injury late in the season but probably will play in the bowl game, but his receiving corps took a hit from transfers, opt-outs and injuries (departing/injured wide receivers Jack Bech, Kyren Lacy, Jaray Jenkins and Chris Hilton Jr. combined for 72 catches). Three of LSU’s four starters on the defensive line — edge rushers B.J. Ojulari and Ali Gaye and tackle Jaquelin Roy — have opted out along with starting cornerbacks Jay Ward and Mekhi Garner.
Pick: Under 54.5. Purdue’s offense lost a ton of production and the Boilermakers could struggle to score, even against an LSU defense that will be missing at least five starters.
In Arlington, Tex.
No. 10 USC (-2) vs. No. 16 Tulane
Over/under total: 64
The Trojans (11-2) were on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff until the Pac-12 title game, when Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams got hurt and USC lost to Utah for the second time this season. USC beat everyone else on its schedule, however, despite having one of the nation’s worst defenses (it ranks 119th in defensive success rate). Tulane went from 2-10 in 2021 to 11-2 this season, earning its first national ranking since 1998 and its first appearance in a major bowl game since the 1939 Sugar Bowl.
Key personnel losses: Tulane has no departures of note. Williams has said he will play in the bowl game for USC if the hamstring injury he suffered in the Pac-12 title game has healed sufficiently. But first-team all-American guard Andrew Vorhees (opt-out), third-team all-American center Brett Neilon (knee injury) and wide receiver Jordan Addison (opted out after a team-high 59 receptions) won’t play. Leading rusher Travis Dye also will miss the game because of the knee injury he suffered in November.
Pick: Over 64 (assuming Williams plays). No one has shown they can stop USC from scoring, and the talent gap between the Trojans and the Green Wave should be vast. Likewise, USC hasn’t proven it can stop anyone, and Tulane Coach Willie Fritz will take advantage of that.
In Pasadena, Calif.
No. 8 Utah (-1.5) vs. No. 11 Penn State
Over/under total: 52.5
5 p.m., ESPN
In the Rose Bowl for a second straight season, Utah (10-3) enters with three losses by a combined 16 points. The Utes’ depth on offense is apparent in their statistics: Five players rushed for at least 360 yards, and six had at least 280 receiving yards. Plus, quarterback Cameron Rising has emerged as one of the nation’s steadiest quarterbacks. Penn State’s two losses came to CFP participants Ohio State and Michigan, and the Nittany Lions (10-2) led the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter before faltering. Penn State true freshman running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen have combined for 1,771 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns this season, but the Nittany Lions’ running game as a whole ranked 110th in success rate and was almost entirely reliant on explosive plays. If they’re not there, the offense stalls. Utah’s defense ranks 92nd in rushing explosiveness allowed, though.
Key personnel losses: Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington (46 catches) and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (second-team all-American) have opted out. Left tackle Olumuyiwa Fashanu, who surprisingly announced he is returning next season, missed the last four games with an injury and his status for the bowl game is unclear. Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (the Utes’ leading receiver), leading rusher Tavion Thomas and starting cornerback Clark Phillips III (a unanimous all-American) have opted out.
Pick: Over 52.5. Both teams’ pass defenses took a hit with opt-outs from secondary players who both will be high NFL draft picks. Penn State scored at least 30 points in its final six games, and Utah scored at least 42 points in four of its last five.