College football’s 2021 regular season is over. It went by quickly and included a lot of surprising results that I haven’t quite been able to wrap my head around yet. I mean, Cincinnati is in the College Football Playoff! The Bearcats were able to trod the path laid down before them by Group of Five greats like UCF, Boise State and TCU and reach the mountaintop. Of course, this isn’t because the College Football Playoff Selection Committee finally decided to do what was right. It was left with little choice.
We just finished one of the more unpredictable regular seasons we’ve seen in a while, and keep in mind they played in a pandemic last year. It’s not just that Cincinnati cracked the playoff, but that other surprising programs like Oklahoma State and Baylor were competing for a bid until the final weeks. Hell, things got so crazy that Michigan beat Ohio State. In football!
Of course, we also have two SEC teams in the playoff again, and they’re Alabama and Georgia, so the more things change, the more they stay the same. Either way, it was a fantastic regular season, and hopefully, the bowl season will bring even more chaos and unexpected results our way.
Things are already better because, after a limited slate of 28 bowl games last year, we’ve got 42 of these beauties to watch this winter. While you should watch every one of them, we here at CBS Sports understand that this might be impossible. While we’ve made advances as a species, we haven’t yet reached a level of consciousness to realize that nothing is more important than bowl games, and society still shuns ignoring your life and responsibilities to live bet bowl games.
That’s why, as I’ve been doing here for years, I’ve ranked every single bowl game for you. That’s right, all 42 of them, from the least appealing game to the most. Now, it’s not an entirely scientific process, but here’s how it works.
- Strength of the teams: Generally speaking, good teams will more often than not play better games.
- Matchup quality: If one team is a two-touchdown favorite over another, odds are the game won’t be that entertaining.
- Styles of play: Styles make fights, and every team has its style. Some may make for intriguing matchups, while others could lead to dull, boring games.
Then when things are close, I take a look at potential storylines. Maybe it’s a matchup that includes a quarterback facing the school from which he transferred, or the game is being played inside an abandoned mountain lair that once belonged to an evil supervillain who gave up their goal of world domination to try to get rich buying crypto instead. Whatever the situation, I just want to make sure you have all the pertinent information you need to decide with games are worth your time. As always, all times Eastern, all dates Gregorian.
42. Hawaii Bowl: Hawaii vs. Memphis
Dec. 24, 8 p.m. — All right, let’s get this out of the way right now. Just because you’re ranked 42nd of 42 bowls doesn’t mean you’re a bad bowl game. There are no bad bowl games. Any bowl game is better than the infomercial or useless debate show that would’ve been on if it didn’t exist, so we cherish all bowl games. Now, that said, some are more attractive than others, and the Hawaii Bowl happens to be the least attractive.
There are 84 teams playing in a bowl game this season, and Hawaii happens to be the only one with a losing record at 6-7. Memphis isn’t much better at 6-6, so this is a matchup between two teams that have collectively lost more games than they’ve won. The good news is that, while the teams aren’t great, they’re evenly matched, so it could be a good game.
41. Potato Bowl: Kent State vs. Wyoming
Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. — Now here’s a matchup that is an interesting conflict of styles. Kent State wants to do everything quickly. A play has barely ended before the Golden Flashes are lining up to run another one, which is part of the reason the Flashes have run 974 plays this season. Only three teams have run more. Then there’s Wyoming. The Cowboys are on the opposite end of the spectrum and approach snapping the ball like a moody teenager does that full garbage can.
It’s not until the referee asks them to snap the ball for the third time that they finally groan and do it, which is why the Cowboys rank 111th nationally with 776 plays. Yep, that’s right” Kent State ran 198 more plays than the Cowboys this season, which is a wide disparity even if Kent State played an extra game (the MAC Championship Game).
40. Myrtle Beach Bowl: Old Dominion vs. Tulsa
Dec. 20, 2:30 p.m. — Old Dominion is one of the better stories of the 2021 season. The Monarchs did not play in 2020 as they were one of a few FBS programs to opt-out entirely. It’s remarkable that the Monarchs can take a season off and then get to a bowl game the following year. What’s even more impressive is that Old Dominion won its final five games after starting the season 1-6 to get there. That certainly played a role in the Monarchs going 9-3 against the spread during the regular season.
As for Tulsa, this season hasn’t been as fun as last year. The Golden Hurricane nearly won an AAC title last season but needed to win their final three games to get to 6-6. So somebody’s winning streak has to end here.
39. Frisco Classic Bowl: Miami (OH) vs. North Texas
Dec. 23, TBA — Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with the Frisco Classic. It didn’t exist a week ago. Seriously, the NCAA and ESPN just whipped this thing up out of thin air when there were more bowl-eligible teams than bowl slots. It’s one of two games that will be played at Toyota Stadium. The other is the Frisco Bowl, which is not a classic, even though it’s older.
Anyway, as for this one, it’s an odd matchup. North Texas got off to a terrible start but won five straight to finish the regular season to get to 6-6. There seems to be a lot of that going around! The RedHawks are only 6-6 and lost their last game to Kent State, which cost them a division title and a chance to play for the MAC title. Only in the MAC can you nearly win the conference and barely reach a bowl game. I love the MAC so much.
38. Camellia Bowl: Ball State vs. Georgia State
Dec. 25, 2:30 p.m. — I’ve got a bone to pick with the Camellia Bowl. You see, I didn’t know what a camellia looked like; I just knew it was a flower. So I did a quick Wikipedia search and discovered that the camellia is a flower “found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia.” So why is a game played in Montgomery, Alabama, named after a flower from eastern and southern Asia? Are there no flowers in Montgomery worth having a bowl named after them? Does the Hydrangea Bowl not roll off the tongue well enough? What’s the story here?
I mean, that’s like calling your school Ball State even though there isn’t a state named Ball. Speaking of Ball State, the Cardinals are led by quarterback Drew Plitt, who I believe has been at the school for the past decade. Together they face a Georgia State team going to a bowl game for the third straight season, the longest such streak in program history. And while you might not think that’s a big deal since Georgia State didn’t become an FBS school until 2013, I’d say three straight bowls and five in nine seasons of existence is pretty impressive.
37. Pinstripe Bowl: Maryland vs. Virginia Tech
Dec. 29, 2:15 p.m. — It’s an ACC reunion nine seasons in the making! The Hokies and Terrapins spent some time together in the ACC but have not met since a 27-24 Maryland win during the 2013 season. Of course, anybody who has ever gone to a high school reunion knows that they’re sometimes a lot more fun in theory than they are in practice.
I don’t have high hopes for this game. Virginia Tech fired Justin Fuente after a 6-6 season, and even though they’ve replaced him with Brent Pry, you can never be sure how teams under interim coaches will approach bowl games. As for Maryland, the Terps began the season 4-0 before collapsing down the stretch. This team does not lose well as its six defeats came by an average of 30.2 points.
36. Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo
Dec. 17, 12 p.m. — Middle Tennessee was one of my favorite teams this season because it’s chaotic. The Blue Raiders went 6-6 but played in only three one-score games and are just as capable of beating you by 50 as they are of losing to you by 50. Seriously, the average margin of their games this season — win or lose — was 20.6 points, so you generally have a good idea of what’s going to happen early.
They’ll be facing a Toledo team that finished strong but is as disappointed to be in this game as any reasonable human can be disappointed to be in the Bahamas. The Rockets were favorites to win the MAC but started 1-2 in conference play before winning in four of their last five. It’s their second trip to the Bahamas Bowl, as they played in the 2018 game, their last bowl appearance. The Rockets are hoping to end a three-game bowl losing streak (the last win was the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl). Middle Tennessee’s last bowl appearance was the 2018 New Orleans Bowl, and this is its second trip to the Bahamas Bowl, too, as the Blue Raiders lost the game to Western Michigan in 2015.
35. LendingTree Bowl: Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty
Dec. 18, 5:45 p.m. — At the very least, this will be an interesting game for any of you NFL Draftniks. Liberty enters the game on a three-game losing streak, but quarterback Malik Willis will likely be drafted next spring. The dual-threat threw for 2,626 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 820 yards and 11 scores. He’s not the most polished passer in the country, but he’s one of the most exciting players to watch as he’s capable of blowing a game open at any time.
This could make for an interesting matchup against an Eastern Michigan pass defense that was one of the better units in the MAC this season. This is Eastern Michigan’s fifth bowl appearance in program history, but it hasn’t won a bowl game since the 1987 California Bowl.
34. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina vs. South Carolina
Dec. 30, 11:30 a.m. — During the months leading up to the 2021 season, I watched so many of my colleagues celebrating all the free swag they got from the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. I did not receive anything. I did not get a free T-shirt (the best kind of T-shirt), nor did I get a sweet miniature helmet. I got nothing. Is that impacting the Mayo Bowl’s ranking? Possibly.
More seriously, I’m just not excited by this matchup. Sure, it’s a classic ACC-SEC game, and there’s the regional aspect to it, but North Carolina began the year ranked in the top 10 and finished 6-6. I don’t know how excited the Tar Heels will be to play in this game. On the other side, South Carolina is thrilled to be in this game as nobody expected it to win six games in Shane Beamer’s debut season, but the Gamecocks aren’t great. They were outscored by their opponents 291-256.
All that said, there’s a non-zero chance the winning coach will have a bucket of mayonnaise dumped on them in celebration. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl could be a big riser in the post-bowl rankings if it happens.
33. Military Bowl: Boston College vs. East Carolina
Dec. 27, 2:30 p.m. — This is a matchup of two coaches I’m high on who a lot of the country doesn’t seem to know about. Jeff Hafley took over Boston College last season, coming from Ohio State, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence the Buckeyes defense hasn’t been quite the same since. Then there’s Mike Houston at East Carolina, who I’m surprised was a bigger factor in the coaching searches at places like Virginia Tech. Though Virginia is open now, so I suppose there is still a chance the Pirates could have an interim coach by the time this game begins.
Anyway, this is an interesting clash of quarterbacks. Phil Jurkovec missed a lot of the season due to injury, but the Boston College offense is a lot more explosive when he’s healthy. Then there’s East Carolina’s Holton Ahlers, who could be playing in his final game. Ahlers has thrown for 3,129 yards this season, giving him 10,228 passing yards in his ECU career to move him past former Jacksonville Jaguars QB David Garrard. If Ahlers is somehow able to throw for 1,764 yards in this game, he’ll pass Shane Carden to become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards.
32. Armed Forces Bowl: Army vs. Missouri
Dec. 22, 8 p.m. — You have to ask yourself one critical question when you see an option team in a bowl game: How good is the other team’s rush defense? Well, you might want to bet the over on Army’s rushing total in this game because Missouri ranks 120th nationally in yards allowed per carry, 122nd in success rate against the run, and 123rd in defensive EPA against the run. These are all fancy numbers that mean Missouri cannot stop the run.
While Mizzou’s inability to stop the run is a concern for the competitiveness of this game, I can’t overlook the fact this is still an SEC team going against a service academy. Army is an excellent team, but Missouri is just as capable of lighting up their defense as Army. There’s just too much potential for this game to be a blowout in both directions for me to rank it any higher.
31. Gasparilla Bowl: Florida vs. UCF
Dec. 23, 7 p.m. — This game would’ve been a lot cooler a few years ago when UCF was going undefeated and talking all that trash about how schools like Florida were afraid to schedule it. Since then, the Knights have lost two coaches to Power Five programs and poached their own Power Five coach in Gus Malzahn. Also, these two schools just announced a three-game series that will begin in 2024, which strips this game of some of its natural appeal.
And then there are the Gators. Florida fired Dan Mullen last month, and although it has already hired his replacement in Billy Napier, how excited is this team going to be to face UCF in Tampa? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised and both teams will show up and ball out, but it isn’t likely.
30. Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech
Dec. 28, 6:45 p.m. — I just mentioned that Florida fired Mullen, and I feel obliged to point out what Mullen helped accomplish at Mississippi State. This Liberty Bowl appearance will be the 12th consecutive appearance in a bowl game for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State played in 13 bowl games from 1902 to 2008 before Mullen showed up. Granted, there are a lot more bowl games now than there used to be, but it’s still a remarkable turnaround for a program that wasn’t exactly draped in success.
Mike Leach has kept it going, but the Bulldogs might be slightly disappointed to be here. They finished the season 7-5 but spent a few weeks ranked in the College Football Playoff Rankings, and their five losses came against teams that went a combined 42-19, so they’re better than their record suggests. Now Leach will be facing the program where he became a household name, Texas Tech, which enters the game with a 6-6 record. There are a lot of questions about what we can expect from the Raiders. Tech fired coach Matt Wells during the season, but while Sonny Cumbie finished as interim coach, he’s has since accepted the Louisiana Tech job. He’s going to coach the team in this game, but there’s always a certain level of mystery in these situations.
29. Arizona Bowl: Boise State vs. Central Michigan
Dec. 31, 2 p.m. — This game features one of my favorite players in the country in CMU QB Daniel Richardson. Now, its official site lists Richardson at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, but I think the school is being generous. Whatever Richardson’s actual measurements, he’s built like a fire hydrant, and he’s fun to watch. He’s thrown for 2,374 yards and 23 touchdowns to only five interceptions this season, leading a Central Michigan offense that was one of the most potent units in the MAC.
Richardson and the Chippewas will be facing a Boise State team coming off one of its most disappointing seasons in a while. The Broncos are 7-5 and missed out on the Mountain West Championship Game. It’s the first time the Broncos have failed to win their division since the 2016 season and the first time they’ve lost five games in a season since going 8-5 in 2013. That was Chris Petersen’s last season in Boise before he left to take over Washington.
28. New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State vs. UTEP
Dec. 18, 2:15 p.m. — This game could’ve been great, but coaching changes and transfers have sucked a lot of the fun out of it. Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer has left to take the Washington job, and it looks like he’s taking quarterback and human crash test dummy Jake Haener with him. That means the Fresno team that will play in this game is a shell of the team we saw during the regular season.
This is unfortunate because UTEP is a great story, and they’re why I have this game ranked this high. The New Mexico Bowl will be UTEP’s first bowl appearance since the 2014 New Mexico Bowl, but the drought alone doesn’t tell the entire story. From 2016-20, the Miners went 9-47, and four of those nine wins came in 2016. It’s been a long time since this program had something to feel good about.
27. Texas Bowl: Kansas State vs. LSU
Jan. 4, 9 p.m. — This will be the final bowl game of the season before the national title game, meaning it will have the country all to itself. Too bad it doesn’t have a more exciting matchup than this. Kansas State is an interesting team with an exhilarating player in running back Deuce Vaughn. Vaughn rushed for 1,258 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and he’s a threat in the passing game too, as he caught 47 passes for 471 yards and another three scores. The question here is the status of Wildcats QB Skylar Thompson, who missed State’s finale against Texas. The Wildcats are a much better team when he’s playing.
Of course, it might not matter because we don’t know what LSU will show up. While Ed Orgeron finished the regular season as LSU’s coach, he will not be coaching in the bowl game, and there’s a good chance the Tigers will have players with NFL futures opting out of this game.
26. Quick Lane Bowl: Nevada vs. Western Michigan
Dec. 27, 11 a.m. — This could be the biggest wild card of all the bowl games this season. Nevada has an NFL QB in Carson Strong, who might be one of the first players off the board in the spring’s NFL Draft. Strong is at the head of an explosive offense. He’s thrown for 4,175 yards and 36 touchdowns this season with his favorite target being Romeo Doubs, who enters the game with 1,109 yards receiving with 11 touchdowns. His teammate, Cole Turner, has caught 10 touchdowns from the tight end position. It’s one of the more dangerous passing attacks in the country, and it’s going against a volatile Western Michigan team.
You might remember Western Michigan as that team that beat Pitt 44-41 this season in one of the most head-scratching results of the regular season, but that’s a great example of what Western is all about. One week it’s beating the team that goes on to win the ACC; the next, it’s losing 45-20 to Ball State. The Broncos are a team that scored at least 30 points in eight of their 12 games and allowed at least 30 in four of them. They are a roller coaster worth standing in line for. Just know that it could cause nausea.
25. Fenway Bowl: SMU vs. Virginia
Dec. 29, 11 a.m. — I won’t lie: The venue plays a prominent role in this game’s ranking. I’m a sucker for football games in baseball stadiums because it makes no sense, and this one has the added value of The Green Monster looming over the field. Seriously, each team should have the option of kicking a super field goal worth 10 points over the Green Monster from the logo at midfield. Just think of the added value and strategy behind such a move.
Unfortunately, this game will feature two teams under interim coaches. Sonny Dykes left SMU for TCU, making him an unpopular figure in many parts of the Dallas Metroplex. Then there’s Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who unexpectedly stepped down from his role. And it stinks for us (and I guess the players, too) because these were two of the more enjoyable offenses to watch in the country! SMU runs the same kind of Air Raid offense you’ve seen a lot of, but it’s good at it. Virginia runs an offense unlike many I’ve ever seen before, and I’m not sure what to call it, but it feels like you just chugged a liter of Mountain Dew when you watch it. There’s a chance this game could get nuts, but there’s just as much of a shot at it being a bust.
24. Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Minnesota vs. West Virginia
Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. — OK, so this game probably isn’t going to be high-scoring, but it should be close, and sometimes that’s good enough. While they go about it in different ways — Minnesota runs the ball so frequently you might confuse it for an option team — the result is the same. Both teams average 2.25 points per drive, just above the national average of 2.22.
And you know what the matchup reminds me of? Go back to when this game was called the Cheez-It Bowl (not to be confused with the Cheez-It Bowl), and TCU and California played in a 10-7 thriller that needed overtime to find a winner. It was the worst-played great game of all time and will live on forever in the Bad Bowl Game Hall of Fame. While it’s an impossible standard to meet, I think we could see history repeat itself here. Oh, and it’s played in a baseball stadium. So much potential for stupid here.
23. First Responder Bowl: Air Force vs. Louisville
Dec. 28, 3:15 p.m. — Again, the biggest question when it comes to an option team in a bowl game is the opposing team’s run defense. While Louisville’s isn’t as bad as that of Missouri, it’s not great! That’s going to be a problem for the Cardinals against Air Force, which ran the ball 87.5% of the time this season (only Army rushed it more often at 88.2%). But a guy named Malik Cunningham should keep this game interesting for all involved.
The Louisville QB is one of the more exciting players in the country, and as he goes, so go the Cardinals. Cunningham threw for 2,734 yards and 18 touchdowns this season while rushing for 968 yards and 19 touchdowns. If he throws for 266 yards and rushes for 32 yards in this game, he’ll be the first Louisville player to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since some guy named Lamar Jackson. Whatever happened to that guy?
22. L.A. Bowl: Oregon State vs. Utah State
Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. — How much money do you think they spent to come up with such a creative name for a bowl game to be played in Los Angeles? Seriously, all of the things you could have called this game, and you go with the L.A. Bowl. No wonder Hollywood pumps out nothing but superhero movies these days. It’s all out of ideas.
This is a battle of teams that are happy to be free of Gary Andersen, who had a lot of success at Utah State in his first stint with the school but left to take the Wisconsin job before suddenly leaving Wisconsin to take the Oregon State job. He lasted three seasons with the Beavers before returning to Utah State in 2019 and only lasted 16 games before getting fired. Jonathan Smith replaced him in Corvallis and has the Beavers in their first bowl game since the 2013 Hawaii Bowl.
The best story, however, is easily Utah State, one that could easily be made into a movie. Anderson’s wife Wendy passed away due to breast cancer just before the 2019 season began, and a big reason he left Arkansas State after last year was to get a fresh start elsewhere. He found one in Logan, where he led an Aggies team that went 1-5 last season to its first Mountain West title and first conference title anywhere since winning the WAC in 2021. And who was Utah State’s coach that season? Yep, Gary Andersen. It all comes full circle. It’s just too bad this terrific story has such a boring title like the L.A. Bowl.
21. Alamo Bowl: (14) Oregon vs. (16) Oklahoma
Dec. 29, 9:15 p.m. — Not long ago, this was a potential College Football Playoff matchup. Oregon started the year well, beating Ohio State on the road, and spent a few weeks in the top four of the rankings. Oklahoma was on the periphery while the world waited for it to kick its offense into overdrive and steam toward an eventual Big 12 title. Alas, it was not meant to be.
The Ducks ran into a buzzsaw named Utah and were cut in half. Unfortunately, the half with the legs managed to stand up and walk right back into the Utah buzzsaw last week, costing Oregon a Pac-12 title and a New Year’s Six berth. The Ducks will also be playing under an interim coach with Mario Cristobal off to Miami. But at least they made their conference title game?
That’s more than the Sooners can say about the Big 12. Oklahoma lost to rival Oklahoma State for the first time since 2014, and it started a mass exodus in Norman. The next day, Lincoln Riley left to take the USC job, and he’s taken a lot of assistants with him. Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will lead the team into this game as the interim, and I suspect new coach Brent Venables will be there. Just look for a guy in a skybox being held back by a strength coach.
In the end, both teams’ late-season disappointment and uncertainty around the coaching situations make it hard to include this game in the top 20. There should be plenty of offense and inconsistent defense, which could make for a shootout.
20. Sun Bowl: Miami vs. Washington State
Dec. 31, 12 p.m. — Just like the season, the offseason has already been filled with drama for the Canes, who fired coach Manny Diaz on Monday and are bringing in Cristobal to serve as their coach starting next season. Maybe Miami can bring some of its drama to the field for this game because, on the surface, it’s a damn good matchup. Miami was only 7-5 this season but finished strong thanks to QB Tyler Van Dyke. In late September, Van Dyke became the starter, and Miami’s offense improved considerably, even if they only went 5-3 in his eight starts. He threw for 2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns and is a reason for Canes fans to be optimistic.
UM will face a Washington State team that faced the kind of adversity few teams have ever dealt with. During the season, coach Nick Rolovich was fired because he refused to get a vaccine for COVID-19, and state law mandated all public employees get one. Rolovich was one of several coaches the school was forced to let go, but the Cougars still finished the season with six wins in their last eight games, including their first win over Washington since 2012. The performance was more than enough to remove the interim tag from Jake Dickert’s name and earn him the job permanently.
19. Cure Bowl: Coastal Carolina vs. Northern Illinois
Dec. 17, 6 p.m. — This is one of my favorite kinds of bowl matchups. Two Group of Five teams with unique identities that don’t get a lot of national attention squaring off. Coastal Carolina was one of the darlings of the 2020 season, and it put on an encore performance this season, going 10-2 behind QB Grayson McCall. Coach Jamey Chadwell’s offense can be described as an option offense on its eighth cup of coffee today.
Then there’s Northern Illinois, which went from 0-6 in 2020 to MAC champions in 2021. The Huskies rely on a solid ground game led by freshman Jay Ducker (1,038 yards), senior Clint Ratkovich (12 touchdowns), and transfer QB Rocky Lombardi, who struggled with Michigan State but has found a home in DeKalb. He threw for 2,416 yards, rushed for 406 and was responsible for 21 touchdowns this season. The worst thing about this game is that it might fly by, as neither team throws the ball often.
18. Birmingham Bowl: (20) Houston vs. Auburn
Dec. 28, 12 p.m. — Houston is the best 11-win team in the country nearly nobody paid attention to, and it’ll be squaring off with an Auburn team that seems to be going through an identity crisis. Bryan Harsin finished his first season with the Tigers by firing his offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. It also had to replace starting QB Bo Nix with T.J. Finley after he suffered an ankle injury, and the feeling is we’re going to see a lot of change with the Tigers this offseason. We don’t know how that will impact them heading into this game.
Now, you might be wondering why I rank this game this highly if there’s a chance Auburn could be without a lot of players, and it’s a great question. History suggests Houston could no-show this one as well. Houston’s Dana Holgorsen has gone 2-6 in bowl games straight up and only 1-7 against the spread during his career as a coach. Not because he’s a bad coach but because coaches have different approaches to bowl games. Some view them as another game you have to win, while others view them as an excellent way to prepare for next season. Holgo falls in that latter category, which sets up the possibility of this game being a delightful mess on both sides.
17. Boca Raton Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Western Kentucky
Dec. 18, 11 a.m. — Are you ready to watch one of the most exciting offenses in the country? While Western Kentucky fell short of winning Conference USA, it can’t blame its offense. The Hilltoppers are second in the country, scoring 43.1 points per game and are led by the deadly combination of Bailey Zappe and Jerreth Sterns. Zappe has thrown for 5,545 yards and 56 touchdowns this season, which is 1,094 more yards than Mississippi State’s Will Rogers and 13 more touchdowns than Alabama’s Bryce Young. Zappe is 288 yards passing from surpassing Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons for most in a single season (5,833, 2003) and five touchdowns from breaking Joe Burrow’s record of 60 set in 2019. To get there, he’ll rely on Sterns like he has all season long. Sterns leads the world with 137 receptions and 1,718 receiving yards.
But they’ll have to get past an Appalachian State defense that finished 16th nationally in yards allowed per game (321.6) and 16th in points allowed per game (19.3). Like the Hilltoppers, the Mountaineers reached their conference title game but fell short, losing to Louisiana, 24-16.
16. Music City Bowl: Purdue vs. Tennessee
Dec. 30, 3 p.m. — Cross your fingers and hope that Purdue WR David Bell and DE George Karlaftis play in this game. Both will be heading to the NFL no matter what, but they’re two key players for the Boilermakers, who will be much worse off without them. If they do play, this game has all the potential in the world. While Bell doesn’t have eye-popping numbers, he’s one of the most reliable receiving threats in the nation. He managed to catch 92 passes for 1,286 yards and six touchdowns despite being the one player every opponent focuses on stopping every week. As for Karlaftis, he’s one of the best pass-rushers in the nation (five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss) and will come in handy for a Purdue defense tasked with stopping an explosive Tennessee offense.
When the Volunteers switched from Joe Milton to Hendon Hooker at QB, their season changed. The Virginia Tech transfer threw for 2,567 yards and 26 touchdowns while also rushing for 561 yards and five more touchdowns. He was the engine of an offense that scored 38.8 points per game this season, ranking ninth nationally.
15. New Orleans Bowl: (23) Louisiana vs. Marshall
Dec. 18, 9:15 p.m. — Louisiana just wrapped up its second-consecutive Sun Belt title, but it cost the Ragin Cajuns their coach as Napier has left to take the Florida job. Still, while Napier is gone, this veteran-laden roster provides its own leadership, which gives us reason to believe it will be business as usual in the bowl games. That’s potentially great news for us because this is a fun matchup. While it’s a contrast in styles (Louisiana is run-heavy while Marshall is more pass-first), both of these offenses are effective.
Louisiana ranks seventh nationally in success rate and 40th in points per possession, while Marshall is 14th in success rate and 39th in points per possession. While the Cajuns are likely to have a homefield advantage in New Orleans, do not underestimate a rabid Marshall fan base that should fit in just fine on Bourbon Street if they decide to make the trip.
14. Citrus Bowl: (15) Iowa vs. (22) Kentucky
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. — A matchup only a mother or a college football degenerate could love. Mark Stoops and his Wildcats head face his’ alma mater Hawkeyes. The last we saw of Iowa, it was getting absolutely mollywhopped by Michigan, 42-3 in the Big Ten title game. Fortunately, I expect the Hawkeyes will put forth a more vigorous effort in this game, or at the very least, keep it much closer. The Hawkeyes are 10-3 and won the Big Ten West despite scoring only 20.38 points per game on offense (109th nationally). Iowa’s strength is on defense, where it has consistently been one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers. The Hawkeyes have intercepted 24 passes this season, which is five more than anybody else, and when they force them, they win games.
That’s why this game should stay close because, while the Wildcats have a vastly superior offense, they’ve turned the ball over 22 times this season (108th). So it’s far more likely than not that this game will come down to turnovers. If Kentucky manages to protect the football and win, it will finish the season with 10 wins for the second time under Stoops following its 10-3 finish in 2018. Before that, the Wildcats hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1977. Another factor to consider here is that these programs take their bowl games seriously, so we should see a good game.
13. Independence Bowl: (13) BYU vs. UAB
Dec. 18, 3:30 p.m. — Listen, any time you can watch BYU, you should do it. If life were fair, the Cougars would be in the Rose Bowl because they went 5-0 against the Pac-12 this season, including a 26-17 win over Pac-12 champion Utah. Instead, the Cougars must settle for the Independence Bowl, but the good news is that UAB provides an intriguing matchup for them.
The Blazers have been one of the better C-USA programs for years, and this year was no exception. While UAB failed to win the West for the first time since 2017, it wasn’t because they weren’t good enough, just that UTSA was better. The Blazers have a strong defense led by linebackers Noah Wilder (86 tackles) and Alex Wright (six sacks, 8.5 TFL), and it will be up to both of them to rein in BYU running back Tyler Allgeier, who rushed for 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
12. Outback Bowl: (20) Arkansas vs. Penn State
Jan. 1, 12 p.m. — Did Jimmy Sexton set up this matchup? Earlier this season, Penn State coach James Franklin hired Sexton as his agent, which quickly led to speculation about the USC and LSU jobs, and this week it’s Arkansas’ Sam Pittman did the same. It feels like both of these teams played the same season. Penn State started the year 5-0 with wins over ranked opponents in Wisconsin and Auburn. Arkansas started 4-0 with wins over Texas and Texas A&M. They then followed up those hot starts with three-game losing streaks that quickly erased dreams of grandeur.
Arkansas would recover better, however, winning four of its last five and hanging tough with Alabama in a 42-35 loss. The Nittany Lions split their final four games with two blowout wins over Maryland and Rutgers plus close losses to Michigan and Michigan State. All of which tells me we’re in line for a good one. What remains to be seen is how the Penn State defense will perform now that defensive coordinator Brent Pry has left to take over the Virginia Tech job.
11. Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona State vs. Wisconsin
Dec. 30, 10:30 p.m. — The Las Vegas Bowl has done an excellent job of getting good matchups for years, and that hasn’t changed now that it has been added to the Big Ten’s roster of bowl games. I don’t know what the total is on this game, but I’ll be taking the under. Both of these teams are more than happy to punch their opponent in the face for three hours and try to find some points along the way. It’s going to be physical, and it’s going to be close.
The one player you’ll want to keep an eye on is Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen. He’s the giant 17-year-old who took over as Wisconsin’s featured back about halfway through the season and has been bowling over linebacker since. Allen rushed for 1,109 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging just over 7 yards per carry and 100 yards per game. At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, he’s bigger than most of the defenders trying to tackle him, and he was a linebacker in high school. I can’t wait to watch the battle between Allen and Arizona State linebackers Kyle Soelle, Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson. Whoever wins that matchup probably wins this game.
10. Cheez-It Bowl: (19) Clemson vs. Iowa State
Dec. 29, 5:45 p.m. — I WOKE UP FEELING THE CHEESIEST, COACH! This is a matchup of two teams who had much higher expectations than the Cheez-It Bowl coming into the season, but at least we benefit from their disappointment by getting this game. Clemson failed to win the ACC and reach the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014, but don’t get it twisted. While this might not be a national title contending Clemson team, it’s still good, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. It’s also a team that has won five straight and seven of its last eight games with all three of its losses coming to teams ranked by the committee.
Iowa State was hoping to compete for a Big 12 title this season but instead sputtered to a 7-5 mark. Still, those five losses came by an average of 5.8 points, and this Cyclones team beat Oklahoma State, which nearly won the Big 12. While they’re not as good as the Cyclones we saw last season, it still has Breece Hall (1,472 yards rushing, 20 touchdowns), and you shouldn’t count it out against anybody. After all, since Matt Campbell came to Iowa State in 2016, the Cyclones have gone 19-10 against the spread as underdogs. Keep that little factoid in mind when it comes time to place your bet.
9. Gator Bowl: (17) Wake Forest vs. (25) Texas A&M
Dec. 31, 11 a.m. — I considered docking this one a few fictional points because it’s a rematch of the 2017 Belk Bowl, but then I remembered that game was awesome as the Demon Deacons beat the Aggies 55-52 in a ridiculously entertaining game. Who wouldn’t want to see it again? It’s like any time a “Fast & Furious” movie is on, you’ve got to watch it.
What’s better is that Wake Forest games haven’t changed much since. The Deacons fell one win shy of an ACC title but are 10-3 and scored 41.2 points per game (fifth nationally) while allowing 30.3 (94th). Wake QB Sam Hartman has already set the school’s single-season passing records for yards (3,924) and touchdowns (36), and he’s only 800 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (Riley Skinner, 9,762). OK, that record is out of reach, but at least he already set the career mark for passing touchdowns with 69.
However, Hartman and the Deacs will face one of the best defenses in the country as the Aggies allowed only 15.9 points per game this season. Only Georgia and Clemson allowed fewer, but while the Texas A&M offense lags behind, it has its moments. Moments like in October when it scored 41 points against Alabama in a 41-38 win. Given the way Wake’s defense has performed this season, we should see another excellent offensive performance from the Aggies here, and while I don’t think we can count on another 107-point outburst, it could get close.
8. Holiday Bowl: (18) NC State vs. UCLA
Dec. 28, 8 p.m. — Have you ever really liked a band or a musician that few others know existed? You always talk them up in conversations with friends and even some strangers, trying to spread the good word, but it never makes a difference, and the band continues to toil in anonymity. That’s how I feel about NC State sometimes. The Wolfpack are 9-3 and have gone 39-23 over the last five seasons but rarely garner attention. A win here against UCLA would give NC State its first 10-win season since it went 11-3 in 2002 with Philip Rivers. Devin Leary isn’t quite Rivers, but he’s been outstanding this year and has already broken Rivers’ single-season mark for touchdown passes with 35. Leary’s name could be all over NC State’s record books when he leaves, and it’s not like State hasn’t produced plenty of NFL QBs in its time.
UCLA will head south to San Diego with a record of 8-4 and has an excellent QB itself in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. There are two things a player can do to be known by their initials: They have to be very good or have a long name. DTR meets both criteria as he’s thrown for 2,409 yards and 21 touchdowns to go along with 609 yards rushing and nine more scores. With 8,724 yards rushing and passing in his career, DTR is already fourth in total offense for his career at UCLA and would pass Drew Olson for third if he manages 464 yards in this game.
7. Frisco Bowl: (24) San Diego State vs. UTSA
Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m. — Can we call this The Original Frisco Bowl? It only seems fair now that The Frisco Classic has muscled its way into the rotation and watered down the overall Frisco-ness of the Frisco Bowl. What cannot be watered down, however, is this matchup. I know a lot of college football fans prefer to see the top Group of Five teams matched up against Power Five teams in bowl games, but I find games between top Group of Five teams are a lot more fun, and this game is one of my favorites on the slate.
UTSA has been one of my favorite teams to watch all season long, and not just because I bet on them to win Conference USA before the season began and they came through. They’re just a fun team to watch with QB Frank Harris (3,502 total yards, 32 total touchdowns), RB Sincere McCormick (1,663 total yards, 15 TD) and WR Zakhari Franklin (73 receptions, 938 yards, 11 TD). All three will go against one of the more formidable defenses in the country.
San Diego State reached the Mountain West Championship Game but lost to Utah State. It was an uncharacteristically lousy performance by the Aztecs as they allowed 46 points in the game, which is 18.2% of the points they’ve given up all season long (253). This team is led by its defense and its punter. Yes, I said its punter. Matt Araiza is a phenomenon capable of booming the ball incredible distances. Not only did he lead the nation with an average of 51.37 yards per punt, but he’s not just leg strength. Araiza has excellent accuracy and can pin opponents inside the 20 regularly. Seriously, he’s a weapon and must-watch television.
6. Fiesta Bowl: (5) Notre Dame vs. (9) Oklahoma State
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. — You’ll have to forgive Notre Dame fans if they’re a bit nervous about this game. Not because it will be Marcus Freeman’s first game in charge since he replaced Brian Kelly, but because going to the Fiesta Bowl to face a team in orange and black with the initials “OSU” has gone wrong for the Irish before. Both of these teams were close to reaching the College Football Playoff. If Oklahoma State had beaten Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game, there’s a legitimate chance that it could’ve overtaken Cincinnati for the No. 4 seed despite the Bearcats being 13-0. However, the Cowboys lost, which gave Notre Dame a glimmer of hope as it sat home and watched. It’s just that ND needed a Cincinnati loss, too, and that never came.
Still, this is a much better Notre Dame team now than the one we saw to start the season. A young offensive line gained experience and improved as the season went along, and it made a huge difference in how the offense performed. That offensive line will face a difficult task in this game, though, as Oklahoma State’s defense has been outstanding. The Cowboys allowed only 16.8 points per game this season, which was good enough to finish seventh, just ahead of Notre Dame at 18.3 points per game. The defense has led the way for the Cowboys for a few years now, but it still catches people by surprise because most think of Mike Gundy’s older teams that lit up scoreboards. Well, that’s not this team. Don’t go into this game expecting a lot of points to be scored, but it should be close, competitive, and well-played.
5. Sugar Bowl: (7) Baylor vs. (8) Ole Miss
Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. — If you like entertaining offenses, this is going to be one of your favorite games. Ole Miss has one of the most exciting offenses in the country, led by Matt Corral, who looks like every quarterback you’ve seen in a movie about high schoolers. Corral threw for 3,339 yards, rushed for 597 and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. Perhaps the best thing about him (or worst, depending on your perspective) is that he doesn’t mind sticking his face into the fan. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby have repeatedly asked Corral to slide more when he takes off running, but Corral rarely listens. Corral is keeping that same attitude for this game, too, as he’s said he’s not going to opt-out of Ole Miss’ bowl game to get ready for the NFL Draft.
While Baylor doesn’t have a Corral, it’s still a team that scored 32.5 points per game and won the Big 12. The Bears offense doesn’t have many household names, but offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes helped turn Zach Wilson into the No. 2 pick in last year’s NFL Draft at BYU before coming to Waco this season. His arrival paid immediate dividends, as the Bears improved from 2-7 last season. Baylor coach Dave Aranda is one of the more analytical coaches you’ll come across in this sport and deserves a lot of credit for identifying his team’s weaknesses last week and immediately strengthening them. This one should be what the kids often refer to as a banger … if the kids are still using that word. Are kids still using that word? If you’re a kid, let me know, would you?
4. Peach Bowl: (10) Michigan State vs. (12) Pitt
Dec. 30, 7 p.m. — Little did we know that there was more in the line in the ACC Championship Game than just a conference title. If Wake Forest had won the game, this would be the Kenneth Walker III Bowl between Walker’s old team and his current team. Instead, Pitt won, so now it’s the Pat Narduzzi Bowl, as the Pitt coach goes against the Michigan State team where he spent eight seasons as defensive coordinator before taking the Panthers job in 2015.
Now, Narduzzi and his defense need to figure out a way to slow down Walker, who was one of the best running backs in the country this season. The transfer led Michigan State with 1,636 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. Only Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols III (note to coaches: recruit running backs who are the third of their name) rushed for more. Walker is a big play waiting to happen, and as he goes, so go the Spartans.
Of course, Pitt has plenty of big plays of its own. QB Kenny Pickett has had a monster season. He ranks fifth in the nation in passing yards (4,319) and third in passing touchdowns (42). His name is all over the Pitt record books. He set a school record with 519 yards passing in a game against Miami earlier this season, and his 4,319 yards passing this year are the most in a single season by a Pitt QB and were enough to give him the school record for career passing yardage, too (12,303). Keep in mind Dan Marino played at Pitt. Oh, and Pickett just beat some of his records, too, as his two touchdown passes in the ACC Championship Game gave him 81 for his career, two more than Marino.
3. Rose Bowl: (6) Ohio State vs. (11) Utah
Jan. 1, 5 p.m. — This is, and always will be, one of my favorite bowl games no matter who is playing in it. Honestly, at times the game almost seems secondary to the game’s atmosphere. It’s one of the most beautiful settings in college football, and there’s nothing quite like watching the sunset over the horizon from inside the Rose Bowl. Luckily, if you aren’t into all the beauty and pageantry of the game, we’ve got a fantastic matchup to watch.
You know how in the NFL they’re always talking about that one team “nobody wants to meet in the playoffs”? Well, if college football had an expanded playoff field, Utah would be that team. The Utes began the season 1-2 with losses to BYU and San Diego State but tore through the Pac-12, going 8-1 in conference play. Over the final month and a half of the season, they beat UCLA by 20, Stanford by 45 and outscored Oregon 76-17 across two games. Kyle Whittingham’s team is peaking at the right time and capable of hanging with anybody.
The Utes will face an Ohio State team with an incredible collection of talent on the offensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes have one of the best QBs in the country in C.J. Stroud, and he has an embarrassment of riches at playmaking positions. The receiver trio of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave combined for 215 catches, 3,253 yards and 31 touchdowns. If Olave finishes with 64 yards receiving in this game, all three will finish the season with at least 1,000 yards. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned TreVeyon Henderson yet. The freshman phenom has 1,172 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns this season with people around the program already whispering he might be one of the best running backs in Ohio State history.
2. Cotton Bowl semifinal: (1) Alabama vs. (4) Cincinnati
Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. — Anybody in the mood for a classic battle of David vs. Goliath? Our first College Football Playoff semifinal features one of the greatest dynasties in history. Nick Saban looks to win his seventh national title at Alabama and the eighth of his coaching career. To do it, he’ll first have to get past a Cincinnati team that broke the glass ceiling of the CFP, becoming the first program from outside the Power Five conferences to be chosen. And all it had to do was go 22-1 over the last two seasons! Now, if you think there’s no way the Bearcats can hang with Mighty Alabama, keep in mind their lone loss the last two years was a 24-21 defeat against Georgia in last year’s Peach Bowl. Nobody thought they’d be able to hang in that game, either.
While he won’t be slinging rocks at the Tide, Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder can sling a football. Ridder threw for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. Earlier this season, he set a program record for career touchdown passes and extended the mark to 87. His 10,095 career passing yards are the second-most in program history, but while he receives most of the attention, the Bearcats have other stars. Running back Jerome Ford will have friends on the other sideline, as he transferred to Cincinnati from Alabama before rushing for 1,243 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. Defensively, the Bearcats have two of the best corners in the country with Coby Bryant and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. Up front, they have a host of disruptors capable of blowing up a play before it begins. As a team, Cincinnati has 95 tackles for loss (eighth nationally), and it will need to be at their disruptive best against the high-powered Alabama offense.
There’s a strong chance Alabama QB Bryce Young will win the Heisman Trophy. He’s thrown for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns this year and just lit up a Georgia defense that many said might be the best college defense of all time for 421 yards and three touchdowns. His most dangerous target has been Jameson Williams, who has 68 catches for 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns. Williams has the kind of speed that makes you shake your head in disbelief as you watch him blow past people in the open field. however, the Tide will be without WR John Metchie III, who seriously injured his knee in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama also has its own disruptive force defensively in linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who leads the nation with 15.5 sacks and an astounding 31.5 tackles for loss.
1. Orange Bowl semifinal: (2) Michigan vs. (3) Georgia
Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. — Listen, it wasn’t easy to decide which playoff game I was going to rank No. 1. In the end, I went with the Orange Bowl not because it has two big brand names in Michigan and Georgia but because there’s a smaller potential for a blowout. These are two similar football teams, even if one garnered a hell of a lot more attention than the other during the regular season.
Georgia was easily the most dominant team in the country this season. Not only did it win its first 12 games, but it never allowed more than 17 points and won by an average of 33.8 points. That changed quickly in its 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game. Still, if we start judging teams solely by how they fare against Alabama, everybody will suck sooner rather than later. Thanks to a defense bursting at the seams with NFL talent, the Dawgs are still very much threats to win the national title.
Michigan flew as far under the radar as a program this big can throughout the season. While the Wolverines played well, most took a cautious approach and wait to see how they fared against Ohio State. Well. They fared well, beating the Buckeyes 42-27 and following it up with a 42-3 decimation of Iowa in the Big Ten title game. Michigan has two of the best pass-rushers in the country in Aidan Hutchinson (14 sacks, 15.5 TFL) and David Ojabo (11 sacks, 12 TFL), and like Georgia, it has plenty more NFL talent strewn about its defensive depth chart. This game has all the potential in the world to be a classic.