Athlon ranks the bowl games from worst to first
College football’s regular season is over and the matchups for the 2018-19 bowl season are set. In the CFB Playoff, Alabama takes on Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, with Clemson meeting Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The winner of those two games will square off in Santa Clara on Jan. 7 for the national championship. It's no secret those two games are must-see matchups, but there's also no shortage of quality bowl contests outside of the playoff. The New Year's Six slate features intriguing contests between Michigan and Florida in the Peach Bowl, Georgia-Texas in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State-Washington in the Rose Bowl. Outside of the New Year's Six, the Alamo Bowl (Washington State-Iowa State and Camping World Bowl (West Virginia-Syracuse) are two must-see matchups. The bowl season officially kicks off on Dec. 15 with five games, including an anticipated showdown between Utah State and North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl.
Watching all 39 bowl games isn’t impossible, but it can be difficult prioritizing which matchups are must-see television around the holidays.
Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid. From No. 39 to No. 1, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.
Ranking All 39 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-Miss
39. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – BYU (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 21 – 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Both BYU and Western Michigan missed out on the postseason last fall, so it’s fitting these two teams are set to meet on the blue turf. After a disappointing 4-9 mark in 2017, coach Kalani Sitake hit the reset button on his staff. The moves paid dividends, as the Cougars knocked off Arizona and Wisconsin and lost by less than a touchdown to California, Northern Illinois, Utah and Boise State. Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson (1,261 yards and 8 TDs) and a solid defense (allowing only 21.7 ppg) lead the way for Sitake’s 2018 team. Former Western Michigan quarterback Tim Lester is 13-11 in his first two years as the program’s head coach and a win over MAC champion Northern Illinois in the season finale clinched a bowl berth for this team. Starting quarterback Jon Wassink is sidelined due to injury, but freshman Kaleb Eleby has gained valuable experience over the last couple of games. The one-two punch of LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan has combined for 21 touchdowns and 1,874 yards and will test a BYU defense allowing 129.4 rushing yards a contest.
Early Prediction: BYU 31, Western Michigan 20
38. Camellia Bowl – Georgia Southern (9-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 15 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Georgia Southern is back in the postseason after a two-year absence, while Eastern Michigan earned its second trip to a bowl in three seasons. That may seem like a minor accomplishment with 39 bowls, but the Eagles had only one postseason trip prior to the 2016 campaign. The Eagles were one of the most-improved teams in the nation this fall, finishing 9-3 after a 2-10 mark in 2017. New coach Chad Lunsford and an improved rushing game sparked the nine-win season in 2018. Georgia Southern ranks ninth nationally in rushing offense and could find plenty of running room against an Eastern Michigan front giving up 192.9 rushing yards a game. Despite that, coach Chris Creighton’s team is only giving up 22 points a game. When the Eagles have the ball, quarterback Tyler Wiegers (11 TDs to 3 INTs) faces a Georgia Southern secondary ranked third in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Eastern Michigan also ranked second in the MAC with 17 plays of 40 yards or more in 2018. Of the Eagles' five losses, seven came by seven points or less.
Early Prediction: Georgia Southern 34, Eastern Michigan 24
37. Cure Bowl – Louisiana (7-6) vs. Tulane (6-6)
Dec. 15 – 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
It’s an all-Louisiana showdown in the Cure Bowl on Dec. 15. These two teams have played 28 previous times, with the Green Wave winning 22 matchups. Tulane has made steady progress under coach Willie Fritz and finished 2018 with a share of the American Athletic Conference West Division title. The Green Wave’s offense is led by a ground game that averages 208.3 yards a contest, with LSU transfer Justin McMillan emerging late in the season at quarterback. Louisiana is also trending up under first-year coach Billy Napier. The Ragin’ Cajuns won the Sun Belt West Division but fell short of an upset victory at Appalachian State (30-19) in the first-ever conference championship game. Similar to Tulane, Louisiana’s offense can lean on a strong ground attack (229.1 ypg). Sophomore Trey Ragas eclipsed 1,000 yards (1,141), with Elijah Mitchell posting 951. The big difference between these two teams comes on defense. Tulane is holding opponents to 27.8 points a game and 5.6 yards per play. Louisiana is giving up 6.4 yards a snap and 33.7 points a contest.
Early Prediction: Tulane 27, Louisiana 24
36. Gasparilla Bowl – USF (7-5) vs. Marshall (8-4)
Dec. 20 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
USF is staying home for the postseason, as the Gasparilla Bowl has moved from Tropicana Field to Raymond James Stadium (the Bulls' home field). After a 7-0 start, the Bulls finished the year with five straight losses, including a 38-10 defeat to UCF. Quarterback Blake Barnett was a big reason why coach Charlie Strong’s team got off to a fast start, but he missed two out of the last three games due to injury. His status for the bowl game is uncertain. If Barnett can’t go, Brett Kean or Chris Oladokun will get the nod under center. The one-two punch of Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford at running back is the strength of USF’s offense but running room could be limited against a Marshall defense ranked second in Conference USA versus the run. Coach Doc Holliday’s offense is averaging only 27.4 points a game, but there’s a promising core of talent in place, starting with quarterback Isaiah Green, running backs Tyler King and Brenden Knox and receiver Tyre Brady. The Thundering Herd are 5-0 in bowl games under Holliday.
Early Prediction: Marshall 30, USF 27
35. Cheez-It Bowl – TCU (6-6) vs. California (7-5)
Dec. 26 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
A defensive slugfest is on tap for this matchup in Phoenix. California is only allowing 21.3 points a contest, while TCU isn’t far behind at 24.4. The Horned Frogs had to navigate a handful of injuries on both sides of the ball this season and it’s uncertain what coach Gary Patterson’s depth chart will look like by Dec. 26. Regardless of who starts at quarterback for TCU, the staff has to find ways to get the ball to dynamic receiver Jalen Reagor (72 catches for 1,061 yards). The Golden Bears are led by one of the top defensive backfields in the Pac-12 and have allowed only nine plays of 40 yards or more. Similar to TCU, California had to deal with injuries on offense as well, but running back Patrick Laird (932 yards) is the focal point for coach Justin Wilcox. Turnovers will be crucial in a tight game and have been an issue for both teams. TCU is minus-six, and California is minus-two this season.
Early Prediction: TCU 20, California 17
34. Armed Forces Bowl – Army (9-2) vs. Houston (8-4)
Dec. 22 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
With a win against Navy on Dec. 8 or in the bowl game against Houston, Army would have back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories. The Black Knights rank second in the nation by averaging 303 rushing yards a game and figure to be a tough matchup for a Houston defense that will be without tackle Ed Oliver and allowing 197.5 rushing yards a game. Additionally, coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was dismissed after the regular season finale against Memphis. The Cougars are also shorthanded on offense after quarterback D’Eriq King suffered a season-ending knee injury against Tulane. Freshman Nathan Tune stepped into the starting lineup against Memphis and completed 18 of 43 passes for 256 yards and three passing touchdowns. The Cougars aren’t short on skill talent, but Army’s defense is only giving up 18.7 points a game. This game is all about style of play. Will Army’s ground game get on track and dominate the time of possession? Or will Houston’s high-powered offense jump to an early lead and force the Black Knights out of their comfort zone?
Early Prediction: Army 30, Houston 20
33. Hawaii Bowl – Hawaii (8-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (7-5)
Dec. 22 – 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The return of the Run and Shoot offense was a successful switch for Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors finished 3-9 last season but improved to 8-5 behind an offense that averaged 32.1 points a game. Quarterback Cole McDonald tossed 35 touchdowns, but freshman Chevan Cordeiro could play in this game and still preserve a redshirt. Coach Nick Rolovich’s offense is loaded with options at receiver, including John Ursua (89 catches) and Cedric Byrd (76). Louisiana Tech jumped out to a 6-2 start but stumbled down the stretch with a 1-3 finish. A stingy defense (23.8 ppg) led by end Jaylon Ferguson will be a good matchup for Hawaii’s offense. The Bulldogs need a big-time performance from quarterback J’Mar Smith (251.1 total yards a game) to win this one.
Early Prediction: Hawaii 34, Louisiana Tech 31
32. Quick Lane Bowl – Minnesota (6-6) vs. Georgia Tech (7-5)
Dec. 26 – 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Minnesota finished the regular season on a high note, beating rival Wisconsin for the first time since 2003, lifting coach P.J. Fleck’s team to a bowl game in his second year in Minneapolis. This will be the final game for Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who has decided to retire after the end of this season. The Yellow Jackets lead the nation in rushing offense (334.9 ypg) and present a tough matchup with their flexbone option attack. The additional time to prepare will help Fleck’s defense, which is allowing 170.7 rushing yards a game this fall. Minnesota isn’t as prolific on the ground, but Mohamed Ibrahim (936 yards) and Bryce Williams (500) form a solid one-two punch. Receiver Tyler Johnson might be one of the Big Ten’s most underrated players. Considering this is their head coach’s last game, Georgia Tech should be motivated.
Early Prediction: Georgia Tech 27, Minnesota 24
31. Bahamas Bowl – FIU (8-4) vs. Toledo (7-5)
Dec. 21 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is only the fifth edition of the Bahamas Bowl, but this postseason game has produced some quality matchups, including the memorable WKU-Central Michigan contest in 2014 and ODU-Eastern Michigan in ’16. If you like offense, then this game should be a must-see on Dec. 21. Toledo ranks 11th nationally in scoring (41.1 ppg), with FIU averaging 34.6 a contest. The Rockets lost quarterback Mitchell Guadagni due to injury, but backup Eli Peters has ensured the offense hasn’t missed a beat. Additionally, coach Jason Candle’s group features one of the nation’s deepest receiving corps, headlined by Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson. The Panthers have quietly posted back-to-back eight-win seasons under coach Butch Davis and just missed out on Conference USA’s East Division title. In a matchup featuring two high-powered offenses, timely stops will be key. FIU has an edge on this side of the ball, allowing just 24.7 points a game and forcing 21 turnovers (third-most in C-USA). The Panthers have some insight on Toledo, as quarterback James Morgan spent the first three years of his career at Bowling Green.
Early Prediction: Toledo 38, FIU 34
30. Independence Bowl – Duke (7-5) vs. Temple (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is the first matchup between Duke and Temple on the gridiron. The Blue Devils are making their sixth bowl trip in seven years under coach David Cutcliffe, while the Owls have made back-to-back trips under Geoff Collins and four consecutive overall. Getting Duke’s offense back on track is the top priority for Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils managed only 13 points over their last two games. Quarterback Daniel Jones (17 TDs to 7 INTs) will have his hands full against a Temple pass defense ranked No. 1 in the AAC. The Owls started the year 0-2 but won eight out of their next 10 contests and pushed UCF (52-40) in Orlando. Duke’s run defense is giving up 222.3 yards a game and will have its hands full against Ryquell Armstead (1,098 yards). Quarterback Anthony Russo did not play in the season finale due to injury and his status is uncertain for the Owls.
Early Prediction: Temple 27, Duke 20
29. Frisco Bowl – Ohio (8-4) vs. San Diego State (7-5)
Dec. 19 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Coaching veterans in Ohio’s Frank Solich (163 career wins) and San Diego State’s Rocky Long (136) have guided their programs to another bowl bid. The Bobcats finished the regular season at 8-4, including a three-point loss to MAC champion Northern Illinois while defeating a 10-win Buffalo team. As usual, Solich’s team is led by a strong ground game. Running back A.J. Ouellette has eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second year in a row, while Maleek Irons and quarterback Nathan Rourke have each rushed for more than 800 yards. Ohio’s ground game will be tested by one of the nation’s top run defenses. San Diego State is allowing just 94.5 rushing yards a contest and limits offenses to just 2.8 yards a carry. Injuries took a toll on the Aztecs’ offense, as quarterback Christian Chapman and running back Juwan Washington were sidelined for a chunk of the season. Both players returned at the end of the year, but San Diego State finished 2018 by losing four out of its last five games. An Ohio defense ranked second in the MAC versus the run will be tested by Washington on Dec. 19.
Early Prediction: Ohio 28, San Diego State 20
28. Birmingham Bowl – Memphis (8-5) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)
Dec. 22 – Noon ET, ESPN
The Birmingham Bowl features two of college football’s most talented skill players in Memphis running back Darrell Henderson and Wake Forest receiver Greg Dortch. Henderson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The junior has recorded 1,909 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns with 10 runs of 50 yards or more. Stopping Henderson will be a challenge for a Demon Deacon defense giving up 191.3 rushing yards a contest. Wake Forest lost quarterback Sam Hartman to a season-ending injury but rallied with wins in two out of its final three games. Jamie Newman has been stellar in relief of Hartman, tossing four touchdown passes in the regular season finale against Duke to get bowl eligible. Dortch should see plenty of passes in his direction, as Memphis ranks seventh in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 7.8 yards per play in the conference title loss to UCF.
Early Prediction: Wake Forest 34, Memphis 31
27. Military Bowl – Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (10-2)
Dec. 31 – Noon ET, ESPN
The 2018 season was an up-and-down year for Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, but the Hokies secured back-to-back victories to extend their bowl streak to 26 consecutive seasons. Injuries and roster turnover hindered both sides of the ball, but there’s optimism for 2019 with a good chunk of the roster set to return. Cincinnati took a big step forward in coach Luke Fickell’s second year, as the Bearcats jumped from 4-8 to 10-2. Fickell’s background on defense has helped this unit show marked progress over the last two seasons. Cincinnati held opponents to just 16.1 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren were also a big part of the improvement in 2018 and will rank among the AAC’s top playmakers next fall.
Early Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 20
26. Texas Bowl – Baylor (6-6) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Baylor and Vanderbilt were two teams that needed to win in Week 13 to clinch a bowl berth, so it’s only fitting they meet in the postseason. The Bears jumped from 1-11 to 6-6 in coach Matt Rhule’s second year, and this program is poised to make another jump next fall. Quarterback Charlie Brewer and receivers Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims anchor an offense averaging 5.84 yards a play but face a defense only giving up 25.1 points a contest. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is known for his defensive background, but the Commodores quietly have a strong trio in place on offense. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur has tossed 23 touchdowns to only six picks, and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and receiver Kalija Lipscomb are two of the SEC’s top skill players.
Early Prediction: Vanderbilt 31, Baylor 27
25. Arizona Bowl – Arkansas State (8-4) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Dec. 29 – 1:15 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
Last season’s Arizona Bowl was one of the top postseason games after New Mexico State edged Utah State 26-20 in overtime. Another entertaining game is on tap for 2018, as Arkansas State and Nevada rank among the top 25 teams in passing offense. Justice Hansen threw for 3,172 yards and 27 touchdowns and added 396 yards and six more scores on the ground for the Red Wolves. On the Wolf Pack sideline, Ty Gangi passed for 23 touchdowns to 11 picks and will lean on Kaleb Fossum (69 catches) and Romeo Doubs (43) as his top receiving targets. Nevada’s defense also made big strides this fall. This unit gave up 6.1 yards per play in 2017 but cut that total to 5.2 in ’18. Expect plenty of points between two teams with high-octane offenses.
Early Prediction: Arkansas State 38, Nevada 35
24. Sun Bowl – Pitt (7-6) vs. Stanford (8-4)
Dec. 31 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
The 2018 Sun Bowl is the first time Pitt and Stanford have met since the 1932 season. The Panthers were the surprise champion of the ACC’s Coastal Division, leaning on a strong rushing attack and a timely passing game to earn a trip to Charlotte. Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison lead the way for coach Pat Narduzzi’s ground game, and this one-two punch will be a handful for a Stanford defense allowing 140.9 rushing yards a game. The rushing attack is usually the strength for the Cardinal’s offense under coach David Shaw. However, injuries along the offensive line and to running back Bryce Love shifted the focus to quarterback K.J. Costello. The sophomore tossed 29 touchdowns to 11 picks and connected on 66.4 percent of his throws, with several of those passes going to JJ Arcega-Whiteside and tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson.
Early Prediction: Stanford 28, Pitt 20
23. First Responder Bowl – Boise State (10-3) vs. Boston College (7-5)
Dec. 26 – 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Broncos fell short of a Mountain West title after losing in overtime to Fresno State, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team still has a chance to win 11 games for the second time in three years. On the other sideline, Boston College will be looking to break out of a late-season slump. The Eagles lost their final three games after a 7-2 start. This matchup features two of college football’s top running backs, and both teams are strong on defense. Boston College’s AJ Dillon battled an ankle injury for a chunk of the 2018 season, yet finished with 1,108 yards and 10 scores. Boise State’s Alexander Mattison posted 200 yards in the Mountain West title game and finished the year with 1,415 yards and 17 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Brett Rypien and a solid group of receivers will test a Boston College secondary ranked fourth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense.
Early Prediction: Boise State 31, Boston College 24
22. Pinstripe Bowl – Wisconsin (7-5) vs. Miami (7-5)
Dec. 27 – 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
For the second consecutive year, Wisconsin and Miami are set to meet in a bowl game. The Badgers got the best of the Hurricanes last season, winning 34-24 in the Orange Bowl. The setting is a little different this time around, as the two teams traded South Beach for Yankee Stadium. While Wisconsin and Miami can’t complain too much about a trip to New York, both programs certainly had higher expectations after beginning 2018 among the top 10-15 teams in preseason polls. An injury to quarterback Alex Hornibrook hindered the Badgers’ offense at times this fall, but this unit still has one of the nation’s top lines and running backs (Jonathan Taylor). Miami’s run defense is only giving up 127.5 yards a game, so this should be a strength on strength battle. The bowl practices should be a valuable session for quarterback N’Kosi Perry and coach Mark Richt. The Hurricanes averaged only 24.9 points a game and 5.4 yards a play in ACC contests. Points will be limited in this one.
Early Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Miami 20
21. Belk Bowl – South Carolina (7-5) vs. Virginia (7-5)
Dec. 29 – Noon ET, ABC
A South Carolina passing game that averaged 277.4 yards a contest drew a tough matchup in the Belk Bowl. Quarterback Jake Bentley and receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards are set to square off against a Virginia secondary that ranked second in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Bryce Hall and safety Juan Thornhill led the way for a unit that allowed only 12 TD passes all year. The Cavaliers also finished third in the ACC by holding opponents to 21.8 points a game. Quarterback Bryce Perkins was one of the conference’s top breakout performers, as he accounted for 31 touchdowns for coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team. The Gamecocks were hit hard by injuries on defense this year and gave up 27.2 points a contest.
Early Prediction: South Carolina 31, Virginia 24
20. Holiday Bowl – Northwestern (8-5) vs. Utah (9-4)
Dec. 31 – 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Points could be at a premium in this one. Utah ended the regular season by scoring only three points in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and coach Kyle Whittingham’s offense has been hit hard by injuries. Quarterback Tyler Huntley suffered a broken collarbone against Arizona State, and running back Zack Moss was lost for the year due to a knee injury. Huntley could return for the bowl game, but if not, Jason Shelley has garnered valuable experience over the last few weeks. Despite the loss of Huntley and Moss, Whittingham and a strong defense still guided the Utes to a Pac-12 South title. Northwestern was one of the Big Ten’s top surprise teams in 2018. The Wildcats claimed the West Division title, led by the steady play of quarterback Clayton Thorson and a defense that held opponents to just 23.5 points a game. A stat to remember: Utah has won five consecutive bowl games.
Early Prediction: Utah 20, Northwestern 17
19. New Orleans Bowl – Appalachian State (10-2) vs. Middle Tennessee (8-5)
Dec. 15 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Appalachian State continued to stake its claim as one of the top Group of 5 programs in the nation with a solid 10-2 season and a victory over Louisiana in the Sun Belt title game. The Mountaineers have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four years and have claimed three consecutive victories in bowl matchups. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team leads the Sun Belt by holding opponents to just 15.7 points a game and only two opponents (Georgia Southern and Penn State) have managed more than 20 points against this unit. Taylor Lamb left big shoes to fill at quarterback, but Zac Thomas threw for 1,862 yards and 18 touchdowns and added 476 yards and 10 scores on the ground for the Mountaineers. This offense lost top running back Jalin Moore to a season-ending leg injury in early October, but Darrynton Evans and Marcus Williams are a steady one-two punch. This is Middle Tennessee's first trip to the New Orleans Bowl since 2009. Quarterback Brent Stockstill guided the Blue Raiders to the Conference USA title game this season and is just two touchdowns (28) away from tossing 30 for the third time in his career. Middle Tennessee is giving up only 25.3 points a game and led Conference USA with a plus-nine turnover margin in league play this fall.
Early Prediction: Appalachian State 27, MTSU 20
18. Boca Raton Bowl – UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
Dec. 18 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Just three bowl games feature matchups between conference champions, and the Boca Raton is one of them, as UAB comes to Florida after beating Middle Tennessee in the Conference USA Championship Game, and Northern Illinois knocked off Buffalo in the MAC title game. The Blazers' path to a conference title and a 10-win season is a remarkable one. The program was disbanded following the 2013 season and returned to the gridiron last fall. Coach Bill Clark is a big reason why UAB has found immediate success and inked a long-term extension with the program prior to the C-USA Championship Game. These two teams will bring a similar formula to Boca: Run the ball and play defense. UAB averages 208.9 yards a game on the ground, with Northern Illinois checking in at 171.5. The Blazers rank ninth nationally in fewest points allowed a game (17.3), while the Huskies allow only 21.3 a contest. Northern Illinois’ Sutton Smith (15 sacks) and UAB’s Jamell Garcia-Williams (9.5) are two of the top sack specialists in the nation. Points will be tough to come by this one. The Huskies average only 20.7 points a game but found a spark in the MAC title victory over Buffalo. UAB has been better in this department (29.3) but have scored less than 30 points in six out of its last seven games.
Early Prediction: UAB 24, Northern Illinois 20
17. Las Vegas Bowl – Fresno State (11-2) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
Dec. 15 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Fresno State capped an impressive two-year turnaround under coach Jeff Tedford by beating Boise State in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 1. The Bulldogs are 21-6 over the last two years and both of their losses in 2018 came by seven points. Tedford has a strong track record of producing successful offenses, and quarterback Marcus McMaryion is one of the best in the Mountain West. However, the strength of Fresno State’s team is a defense that is limiting opponents to just 13.7 points a game and 4.76 yards a play. Arizona State was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. Low expectations surrounded new coach Herm Edwards, but the Sun Devils finished 7-5 and second in the Pac-12 South. Quarterback Manny Wilkins had a terrific senior year (2,986 yards and 19 TDs to 4 INTs), with running back Eno Benjamin pacing the Pac-12 with 1,524 rushing yards. Top receiver N’Keal Harry declared for the NFL draft and it’s uncertain if he will play on Dec. 15. The Sun Devils showed marked improvement on defense under new coordinator Danny Gonzales. This unit allowed 32.8 points a game in 2017 but cut that total to 25.1 in ’18. Freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson is a rising star for Edwards to build his defense around.
Early Prediction: Fresno State 24, Arizona State 20
16. Music City Bowl – Auburn (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The bowl season hasn’t kicked off yet, but Purdue has already scored a big victory. Coach Jeff Brohm turned down his alma mater (Louisville) to stay in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers got off to a slow start in 2018 but knocked off Ohio State and rallied to finish with six victories. Senior quarterback David Blough tossed 25 touchdowns to only eight picks to anchor an offense that averaged 31.9 points a game. Dynamic freshman Rondale Moore will be a handful for an Auburn defense that ranked among the best in the SEC. Coach Gus Malzahn’s team entered the year with high expectations but slipped to 7-5 due to a struggling offense. The Tigers had to break in a couple of new starters in the trenches and never got their ground game on track. If he has time to throw, quarterback Jarrett Stidham and a group of athletic playmakers could find plenty of holes in a Purdue secondary ranked 11th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense.
Early Prediction: Purdue 34, Auburn 31
15. Redbox Bowl – Oregon (8-4) vs. Michigan State (7-5)
Dec. 31 – 3 p.m. ET, FOX
The bowl season always has a few intriguing games featuring teams with contrasting styles, and the Redbox Bowl certainly fits that mold this year. Oregon’s high-powered offense enters the postseason averaging 37.3 points a game. Quarterback Justin Herbert was banged up in the win over Oregon State but all signs point to a return for the bowl game. The Ducks also feature an effective one-two punch at running back with CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, and the ground game could have a little help in the trenches with the expected return of tackle Penei Sewell from injury. Michigan State can counter with a defense that allowed only 16 points over its final two games and surrendered more than 30 points (Utah State) just once in the regular season. Defense is the unquestioned strength for coach Mark Dantonio, but the Spartans are averaging only 4.7 yards a play on offense. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was injured late in the year, forcing Rocky Lombardi into the starting lineup. It’s uncertain which player will start the bowl game. Will the power of the Big Ten win out over Oregon’s speed? Or will the Ducks’ offense simply be too much?
Prediction: Oregon 27, Michigan State 24
14. New Mexico Bowl – Utah State (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-3)
Dec. 15 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The New Mexico Bowl officially kicks off the FBS postseason on Dec. 15, and there’s no shortage of intrigue for this matchup in Albuquerque. Points should be aplenty in this one, as Utah State ranks third nationally (47.2 ppg) with North Texas recording 36.4 per contest. These two offenses are led by standout quarterbacks, as Jordan Love anchors the Aggies’ attack, with Mason Fine directing the Mean Green. While both teams will have no trouble lighting up the scoreboard, these two programs are solid on defense. Utah State is holding opponents to 5.01 yards a play, while North Texas is just a step behind at 5.19. Co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile is set to serve as the Aggies’ head coach for this game after Matt Wells left for Texas Tech. How well Utah State can navigate the coaching situation will play a huge role in the outcome of this matchup.
Early Prediction: North Texas 38, Utah State 34
13. Dollar General Bowl – Troy (9-3) vs. Buffalo (10-3)
Dec. 22 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Troy’s standout defense will try to contain Buffalo’s high-powered offense in an intriguing matchup between two of the top Group of 5 teams. Quarterback Tyree Jackson (27 TDs) directs the Bulls’ offense for coach Lance Leipold, with big-play receiver Anthony Johnson (11 TDs) his favorite target. Buffalo also has one of the top offensive lines in the nation, and the one-two punch of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks have combined for 25 rushing scores this fall. The Trojans have not allowed an opponent to reach 30 points in each of their last 11 games and have limited teams to just 4.3 yards a play. Starting quarterback Kaleb Baker was lost for the year due to injury, but backup Sawyer Smith has tossed 10 touchdowns and connected on 61.1 percent of his throws in 2018. Running back B.J. Smith (1,093 yards) will test a Buffalo defense (and standout linebacker Khalil Hodge) giving up 164.9 rushing yards a contest. Both teams recorded wins over Power 5 programs this season and are led by rising star head coaches (Leipold and Neal Brown). This should be a good one.
Early Prediction: Troy 27, Buffalo 24
12. Liberty Bowl – Missouri (8-4) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Dec. 31 – 3:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
As old Big 12 foes, there’s no shortage of familiarity between Missouri and Oklahoma State. And considering the firepower on both offenses, a high-scoring game should be anticipated on Dec. 31. Behind quarterback Drew Lock and big-play receiver Emanuel Hall, the Tigers are averaging 36.9 points a contest. The Cowboys are a tick higher at 38.4 and scored 38 points to beat Texas, 47 in a loss to Oklahoma, and 45 in a win over West Virginia. Senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius and receiver Tylan Wallace produced plenty of big plays this fall and should find plenty of room to operate against a Missouri secondary ranked ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Oklahoma State’s pass rush (39) sacks will need a big effort to slow down Lock and running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree.
Early Prediction: Missouri 41, Oklahoma State 34
11. Gator Bowl – NC State (9-3) vs. Texas A&M (8-4)
Dec. 31 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Jimbo Fisher’s first year in College Station was a successful one, as he guided the Aggies to an 8-4 finish and a trip to a Florida bowl. Fisher is no stranger to playing NC State, as he took on the Wolfpack on an annual basis as Florida State’s head coach. Both teams are holding opponents under 27 points a game but don’t be surprised if the offenses control the pace of this matchup. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond showed big-time progress under Fisher’s direction, and running back Trayveon Williams rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns. NC State senior quarterback Ryan Finley tossed 24 touchdowns and completed 67.9 percent of his throws this fall. With two 1,000-yard receivers on the outside, NC State’s passing game will be a handful for a Texas A&M secondary ranked 13th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Early Prediction: Texas A&M 31, NC State 30
10. Outback Bowl – Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Jan. 1 – Noon ET, ESPN2
If you like watching talented defensive linemen chase after quarterbacks, then the Outback Bowl is the game to not miss on Jan. 1. This matchup features some of the nation’s best talent in the trenches, including Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa and Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. Under new coach Joe Moorhead, the Bulldogs finished 8-4 but are a work in progress on offense (29.1 ppg). Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s mobility will be a handful for an Iowa defense holding teams to just 17.4 points a contest. When the Hawkeyes have the ball, quarterback Nate Stanley faces the SEC’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense and a pass rush that generated 36 sacks in 2018.
Early Prediction: Iowa 20, Mississippi State 17
9. Citrus Bowl – Kentucky (9-3) vs. Penn State (9-3)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Kentucky and Penn State just missed out on trips to a New Year’s Six bowl this season, but a matchup in the Citrus Bowl should provide plenty of intrigue. Coach Mark Stoops has checked off quite a list of accomplishments during his tenure in the Bluegrass State, and the nine wins are the highest for this program since 1984. Stoops’ team leans on a core group of upperclassmen, including All-America candidate end/linebacker Josh Allen and running back Benny Snell. The Wildcats rank third in the SEC in scoring defense, with only one opponent (Georgia) generating more than 30 points. With a win over Kentucky, Penn State coach James Franklin will hit double-digit victories in each of his last three years in Happy Valley. The month to prepare should be a huge lift to quarterback Trace McSorley, as the senior was banged up at the end of the regular season. With two standout defenses coming to Orlando, one or two plays on offense could decide this one.
Early Prediction: Penn State 21, Kentucky 20
8. Chick-fil-A Bowl – Michigan (10-2) vs. Florida (9-3)
Dec. 29 – Noon ET, ESPN
The regular season certainly didn’t end the way Michigan fans wanted, but a win over Florida and a Peach Bowl title is a good year for coach Jim Harbaugh’s program. On the other sideline, the Gators were one of the most-improved teams in the nation in coach Dan Mullen’s first year. Florida’s offense is still a work in progress, but there was noticeable improvement this fall. The Gators averaged only 22.1 points a game in 2017 and increased that total to 34.5 in ’18. Which Michigan defense will show up? Is it the group that ranked among the nation’s best most of the season? Or the unit that was shredded for 62 points against Ohio State? When the Wolverines have the ball, the offensive line will be tested by a fast and athletic Gator defense – similar to the one that gave this unit trouble against Ohio State. Points will be tough to come by, but a slight edge goes to the team with the better quarterback (Michigan – Shea Patterson).
Early Prediction: Michigan 24, Florida 17
7. Alamo Bowl – Iowa State (8-4) vs. Washington State (10-2)
Dec. 28 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Alamo Bowl features one of the most interesting battles of bowl season, Washington State’s high-powered offense meets Iowa State’s rugged defense. The Cougars were held in check in the Apple Cup loss to Washington, but quarterback Gardner Minshew still finished the regular season with 36 touchdowns to nine picks. The Cyclones are good at generating pressure (31 sacks) and rank third in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense, so coach Matt Campbell’s group has the right formula in place to slow down Mike Leach’s offense. In addition to promising quarterback Brock Purdy and receiver Hakeem Butler, Washington State’s defense can expect to see a lot of running back David Montgomery.
Early Prediction: Iowa State 31, Washington State 30
6. Fiesta Bowl – UCF (12-0) vs. LSU (9-3)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Can UCF make history for the second year in a row? The Knights finished 2017 undefeated and knocked off a team from the SEC (Auburn) in the Peach Bowl. The circumstances are similar in 2018, as new coach Josh Heupel has kept the program firing on all cylinders. UCF lost starting quarterback McKenzie Milton to a season-ending knee injury in the win over USF, but backup Darriel Mack Jr. recorded six total touchdowns to lift the Knights to a win over Memphis in the AAC title game. LSU’s defense will be the best unit UCF has faced all year, but coach Ed Orgeron’s group won’t have cornerbacks Greedy Williams (NFL) and Kristian Fulton (injury). The Tigers don’t want to turn this into a shootout, so expect to see a heavy dose of Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire against a Knights’ run defense allowing just over 225 yards a game. Quarterback Joe Burrow was steady in his first year as the starter and capped the regular season by scoring six total touchdowns against Texas A&M. This is a tossup.
Early Prediction: LSU 38, UCF 34
5. Camping World Bowl – West Virginia (8-3) vs. Syracuse (9-3)
Dec. 28 – 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Get ready for fireworks when these old Big East rivals meet in Orlando on Dec. 28. Led by quarterback Will Grier and senior receiver David Sills, the Mountaineers rank ninth nationally by averaging 42.3 points a game. Syracuse coach Dino Babers has this program trending up, with quarterback Eric Dungey anchoring an offense averaging 40.8 points a game. The Orange have recorded three consecutive victories over the Mountaineers, including a 38-14 win in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl. With offensive firepower all over the field, timely stops and turnovers on defense will decide this one.
Early Prediction: West Virginia 41, Syracuse 38
RELATED: Bowl Game Predictions
4. Sugar Bowl – Texas (9-4) vs. Georgia (11-2)
Jan. 1 – 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Considering the young talent in place on both teams, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Texas and Georgia meet in a New Year’s Six bowl or playoff game next fall. The Longhorns took a big step forward in coach Tom Herman’s second season by winning nine games and earning a trip to the Big 12 title game. The emergence of quarterback Sam Ehlinger played a huge role in Texas’ improvement this fall, and his ability to make plays on the run will be an interesting matchup against Georgia’s athletic and speedy defense. The Bulldogs just missed out on a playoff bid in 2018, but coach Kirby Smart has this team poised for a run at it all in ’19. Quarterback Jake Fromm is one of the most efficient passers in the nation, and Georgia is never hurting for talent at running back. The Bulldogs entered the year with a revamped defense but finished 2018 by holding opponents to 18.5 points a game. Texas is improving, but Georgia is clearly a step ahead in its overall program development. Herman needs a big game from Ehlinger to pull off the upset.
Early Prediction: Georgia 38, Texas 27
3. Rose Bowl – Washington (10-3) vs. Ohio State (12-1)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
In addition to being one of the best settings for any college football game, the Rose Bowl features one of the must-see matchups of the postseason. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins (4,580 yards and 47 TDs) takes on a Washington secondary loaded with talent and finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. Just how good is this defensive backfield? The Huskies limited Washington State to 152 passing yards in the Apple Cup, allowed only nine passing scores in 2018 and held 12 of their opponents under 300 yards through the air. Haskins finished the regular season on a tear, tossing 11 scores over the last two contests. Ohio State’s defense has allowed too many big plays this fall but faces a Washington offense averaging only 26.6 points a game. The Huskies are led by the senior duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, but this offense has generated only 12 plays of 40 yards or more. These two teams have not played each other since 2007. This is Washington’s first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2001. And interestingly enough, this will be Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s first chance to lead a team in the Rose Bowl.
Early Prediction: Ohio State 34, Washington 24
2. Cotton Bowl – Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Clemson (13-0)
Dec. 29 – 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Clemson is back in the CFB Playoff for the fourth season in a row, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is a double-digit favorite in this Cotton Bowl showdown against Notre Dame. In addition to a suffocating defense, the Tigers feature some of the best skill talent in the nation. Running back Travis Etienne gashed opponents for 8.3 yards per rush and 21 touchdowns this year. The receiving corps is led by steady senior Hunter Renfrow, but Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and Justyn Ross give Trevor Lawrence three big-time playmakers on the outside. Just two seasons ago, Notre Dame was 4-8 and coach Brian Kelly was on the hot seat. Fast-forward to 2018 and the Fighting Irish are undefeated and playing in the Cotton Bowl in their first appearance in the CFB Playoff. Kelly’s team might not have the high-end talent that Clemson brings to Dallas, but it’s hard to find a glaring weakness. Quarterback Ian Book has elevated the passing game, and running back Dexter Williams ran for 941 yards over the last four contests of 2018. Notre Dame’s offensive line will have its hands full against Clemson’s defensive front, which ranks as the best in college football. If an athletic front led by Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell wreak havoc against Book, it’s tough to find a path to victory for the Fighting Irish.
Early Prediction: Clemson 34, Notre Dame 24
1. Orange Bowl – Alabama (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1)
Dec. 29 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Kyler Murray vs. Tua Tagovailoa, the Sooners’ high-powered offense against Alabama’s defense, and Nick Saban versus Lincoln Riley. It doesn’t get much better in the Orange Bowl, as the winner of this matchup goes to play for the national championship in Santa Clara on Jan. 7. Tagovailoa and Murray are the Heisman front-runners after prolific seasons and could put on a show in Miami. Tagovailoa suffered an ankle injury in the win over Georgia, but Alabama is optimistic about a return. If he can’t go, backup (and former starter) Jalen Hurts is more than capable of directing this offense. It’s no secret how this game will be decided. The Crimson Tide own one of the nation’s top offenses, while Oklahoma’s defense has struggled all year. Can the Sooners get timely stops to get the ball back to Murray? On the flipside, Saban’s defense isn’t as strong as some of the previous versions that took the field in the CFB Playoff. Will Alabama find a way to contain Murray?
Early Prediction: Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34