Athlon ranks the bowl games from worst to first
College football’s regular season is over and the matchups for the 2019-20 bowl season are set. In the CFB Playoff, Oklahoma meets LSU in the Peach Bowl, with an anticipated showdown between Clemson and Ohio State on tap in the Fiesta Bowl. The winner of those two games will square off in New Orleans on Jan. 13 for the national championship. It's no secret the semifinal playoff games are must-see matchups, but there's also no shortage of quality bowl contests outside of the four-team playoff. The New Year's Six slate features interesting matchups between Baylor and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Wisconsin-Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Penn State-Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. Outside of the New Year's Six, the Citrus Bowl (Alabama-Michigan) and Outback Bowl (Auburn-Minnesota) are two must-see matchups. The bowl season officially kicks off on Dec. 20 with two games, with six on tap for Saturday, Dec. 21.
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 – Nevada (7-5) vs. Ohio (6-6)
Jan. 3 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is usually one of the first bowl games, but the matchup moved to Jan. 3 this year. A high-scoring battle wouldn’t be a surprise on the blue turf. Nevada’s defense finished the regular season ranked 10th in the Mountain West in points allowed and figures to have its hands full against Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke (32 total touchdowns). The Wolf Pack averaged only 21.3 points a game, as inopportune turnovers (22) held coach Jay Norvell’s group back at times.
Early Pick: Ohio 34, Nevada 27
38. Quick Lane Bowl – Eastern Michigan (6-6) vs. Pitt (7-5)
Dec. 26 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Chris Creighton doesn’t get enough national credit for the job he’s done at Eastern Michigan. Coaching at one of the nation’s toughest jobs, Creighton has guided the Eagles to three bowl games over the last four years. With Detroit being less than 40 miles from campus, Eastern Michigan won’t have to travel far to try and knock off its second Power 5 opponent after beating Illinois early in the 2019 campaign. Pitt’s defense ranked as one of the best in the ACC this fall, holding teams to just 21.8 points a game and leading the conference with 49 sacks. Eastern Michigan has a talented passing game behind quarterback Mike Glass (291.2 total yards a game), but the Panthers’ ability to get to the quarterback and cover make this a tough matchup. A year after ranking near the top of the ACC in rushing offense, Pitt slipped to 14th in 2019. However, with a generous Eastern Michigan defense up next, quarterback Kenny Pickett and a solid group of receivers may not have too much trouble moving the ball.
Early Pick: Pitt 34, Eastern Michigan 17
37. Arizona Bowl – Wyoming (7-5) vs. Georgia State (7-5)
Dec. 31 – 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
The last two editions of the Arizona Bowl have gone into overtime. Another close matchup wouldn’t be a surprise in 2019, as Wyoming and Georgia State bring identical 7-5 records to Tuscon. The Cowboys have punished teams with a physical, run-first approach on offense. With quarterback Sean Chambers out for the year due to injury, running back Xazavian Valladay (1,061 yards) anchors a Wyoming ground game ranked second in the Mountain West. Valladay could have a huge game against Georgia State’s rush defense, which enters the bowl season allowing 211.6 yards a game. The Cowboys are also giving up just 17.8 points a contest. That’s a tough draw for Georgia State, which enters the bowl season averaging 32.4 points a game. Despite suffering a torn ACL in November, quarterback Dan Ellington continues to tough it out. The Panthers have a much-improved ground game compared to last season, averaging 245.2 yards a game behind Tra Barnett and Destin Coates.
Early Pick: Wyoming 27, Georgia State 24
36. Frisco Bowl – Utah State (7-5) vs. Kent State (6-6)
Dec. 20 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Kent State was one of the Group of 5’s biggest surprises this season. Sean Lewis is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, guiding the Golden Flashes to six victories in his second year at the helm. Both sides of the ball showed improvement for Kent State, with the offense taking a big step forward behind quarterback Dustin Crum (23 total TDs). Quarterback play is a strength on the other sideline, as Utah State’s Jordan Love is a potential early entrant into the NFL Draft. Love had an uneven 2019 (17 TDs to 16 INTs), and the offense regressed from leading the Mountain West in scoring with 47.5 points per game in 2018 to a little more than half of that (28.3 ppg) this season. With Crum and Love, along with both teams bringing plenty of skill talent to Frisco, this game shouldn’t lack for points.
Early Pick: Utah State 34, Kent State 27
35. Redbox Bowl – California (7-5) vs. Illinois (6-6)
Dec. 30 – 4 p.m. ET, FOX
A combined 13 points were scored in last year’s Redbox Bowl, and points could be at a premium once again in 2019. With standout linebacker Evan Weaver and a talented secondary leading the way, California’s defense has held teams to just 22.1 points a game. The Golden Bears finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (20.1), but those numbers are skewed a bit since quarterback Chase Garbers missed four full games due to injury. Lovie Smith delivered a breakthrough season in his fourth year at the helm in Champaign. The Fighting Illini finished 6-6 after winning just six combined contests the previous two years. Illinois ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten on offense, but the defense took a big step forward and was helped by a plus-11 turnover margin.
Early Pick: California 24, Illinois 13
34. Camellia Bowl – Arkansas State (7-5) vs. FIU (6-6)
Dec. 21 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Arkansas State is making its ninth consecutive postseason appearance, and this marks the second time the program has played in Montgomery over the last three years. The Red Wolves had to navigate some significant injuries on defense and lost quarterback Logan Bonner early in the year. Despite those obstacles, coach Blake Anderson kept the program on track. Quarterback Layne Hatcher tossed 23 touchdowns in relief of Bonner, with All-America candidate Omar Bayless (84 catches) headlining a talented receiving corps. FIU had hopes of contending for the Conference USA title but finished 6-6. However, the Panthers peaked at the end with a win over Miami in Marlins Park to clinch a bowl trip. FIU leads C-USA in pass efficiency defense, with quarterback James Morgan (13 TDs) directing an offense that averaged 26.5 points a game.
Early Pick: Arkansas State 31, FIU 30
33. Cure Bowl – Liberty (7-5) vs. Georgia Southern (7-5)
Dec. 21 – 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
An interesting contrast of styles is on tap for this year’s Cure Bowl. Georgia Southern ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, with Liberty ranking No. 21 in passing offense. This game also marks the first bowl trip in program history for the Flames, which also comes under new coach Hugh Freeze. Receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (74 catches for 1,333 yards) is one of the nation’s most underrated players. The Eagles have three players – J.D. King, Wesley Kennedy III and Shai Werts – with more than 680 rushing yards this season. That’s a tough assignment for a Liberty defense giving up close to 200 (192.7 ypg) a game on the ground.
Early Pick: Georgia Southern 27, Liberty 24
32. LendingTree Bowl – Louisiana (10-3) vs. Miami (Ohio) (8-5)
Jan. 6 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Sun Belt has won the last four matchups against the MAC in this bowl game. Louisiana has a good shot at extending that streak to five behind a punishing ground game (265.3 ypg) and efficient quarterback play from Levi Lewis. The Ragin’ Cajuns gave up 45 points in the Sun Belt title game against Appalachian State, but the defense made progress in 2019. Miami was one of the MAC’s top surprises this year, winning the program’s first conference title since 2010. The RedHawks have a solid defense (28.2 ppg allowed), and a promising freshman quarterback in Brett Gabbert (2,163 yards and 11 TDs). Miami averages 24.7 points a game, so coach Chuck Martin’s group will have to keep the Ragin’ Cajuns in check to have a shot at the upset.
Early Pick: Louisiana 34, Miami (Ohio) 20
31. Gasparilla Bowl – UCF (9-3) vs. Marshall (8-4)
Dec. 23 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
UCF and Marshall haven’t played since 2012 when both teams were members of Conference USA. The Knights aren’t in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time since the 2017 season, but all three of their team’s losses came by three points or less. As usual, UCF’s offense is among the nation’s best. The Knights average 43 points a game behind the big-play connection of quarterback Dillon Gabriel and receiver Gabriel Davis. Marshall has leaned on its defense (23.1 ppg allowed), as the offense is averaging only 5.8 yards per play. The Thundering Herd will need a strong effort from running back Brenden Knox (1,284 yards) to slow down the flow of the game and keep UCF’s offense on the sidelines.
Early Pick: UCF 38, Marshall 24
30. First Responder Bowl – WKU (8-4) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 30 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
A pair of "Western" teams are set for this matchup in Dallas, which shifts to SMU’s home stadium this year instead of the Cotton Bowl. WKU rebounded nicely after losing to FCS opponent Central Arkansas in the opener, finishing 8-4 under new coach Tyson Helton. The former Tennessee assistant was regarded for his work on the offensive side of the ball, but the Hilltoppers lead Conference USA in scoring defense (20.1 ppg). End DeAngelo Malone (11.5 sacks) is an underrated star at the Group of 5 level. Western Michigan has earned back-to-back bowl trips under former Bronco quarterback Tim Lester. The Broncos will test WKU’s defensive prowess, as Lester’s offense is averaging 34.2 points a game behind standout running back LeVante Bellamy and senior quarterback Jon Wassink.
Early Pick: WKU 34, Western Michigan 31
29. Bahamas Bowl – Charlotte (7-5) vs. Buffalo (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The bowl season officially begins with this battle of 7-5 teams in the Bahamas. New coach Will Healy was one of the offseason’s top hires and made an instant impact in Charlotte by leading the program to its first bowl trip. Led by quarterback Chris Reynolds and running back Benny LeMay, the 49ers boast one of the top offenses in Conference USA. Buffalo will counter with a defense that is holding teams to just 4.85 yards a snap and 22.3 points a game. The Bulls like to pound the rock on offense behind a standout line, with two 1,000-yard rushers in Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks taking aim against a Charlotte run defense that ranks 10th in Conference USA.
Early Pick: Buffalo 24, Charlotte 20
28. Independence Bowl – Miami (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (9-3)
Dec. 26 – 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
The bowl season resumes after Christmas with Louisiana Tech defending turf close to home with a matchup in Shreveport against Miami. There’s a little familiarity between these two teams, as Miami coach Manny Diaz coached under Skip Holtz in Ruston in 2014. Diaz’s first year in Coral Gables hasn’t gone according to plan. The Hurricanes have been up-and-down all season and finished with disappointing losses to FIU and Duke in November. Defense hasn’t been a problem (20.8 ppg allowed), but Miami’s offense has struggled up front and is averaging only 5.8 yards per snap. With a win, Louisiana Tech will reach 10 victories for the first time in program history. Quarterback J’Mar Smith missed two games due to suspension but quickly shook off the rust by torching UTSA for 331 yards and three scores in the regular-season finale. With the 10-win goal in mind, along with a home crowd likely in place, the Bulldogs might have a little more motivation to win this one.
Early Pick: Louisiana Tech 24, Miami 20
27. Birmingham Bowl – Cincinnati (10-3) vs. Boston College (6-6)
Jan. 2 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
Boston College running back AJ Dillon ranks fourth in the nation in rushing yards (1,685) but running room could be limited against a Cincinnati defense that's holding teams to 3.7 yards per carry. If the Bearcats keep Dillon in check, the Eagles will have trouble moving the ball, especially since the passing game has been limited ever since quarterback Anthony Brown was lost for the season due to injury. Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren anchor an offense that finished seventh in the AAC in scoring this year. The Bearcats just missed out on a trip to a New Year’s Six game, and a victory here could provide a springboard to that goal in 2020.
Early Pick: Cincinnati 31, Boston College 20
26. Pinstripe Bowl – Wake Forest (8-4) vs. Michigan State (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Injuries took a toll on Wake Forest late in the season, but the time off should help coach Dave Clawson’s team recover a bit for the bowl. A win over Michigan State would give the Demon Deacons four consecutive bowl victories and earn the program’s best mark (nine wins) under Clawson’s watch. Quarterback Jamie Newman was banged up in the loss at Syracuse, and if he can’t go, sophomore Sam Hartman will get the call under center. Regardless of who starts for the Demon Deacons, it won’t be an easy matchup against Michigan State’s rugged defense. The Spartans held teams to just 22.7 points a game this season and feature one of the Big Ten’s top linemen (Kenny Willekes) and cornerbacks (Josiah Scott). While the defense has been solid as usual in East Lansing, it’s been a struggle once again on offense. Michigan State averaged only 22 points a game and failed to score more than 20 points in five out of the last seven contests.
Early Pick: Wake Forest 30, Michigan State 20
25. Armed Forces Bowl – Tulane (6-6) vs. Southern Miss (7-5)
Jan. 4 – 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN
It’s a renewal of an old Conference USA rivalry with the Green Wave and Eagles set to meet in Fort Worth. This is the first time Tulane has made bowl games in back-to-back seasons – a clear sign the program is on the right track under coach Willie Fritz. An improved offense helped the Green Wave hit six victories, as new play-caller Will Hall jumpstarted the attack to average 6.2 yards a play. Southern Miss struggled with turnovers (24 lost), but the firepower is there behind quarterback Jack Abraham, all-purpose threat De’Michael Harris and receiver Quez Watkins to score on a Tulane defense giving up just 27.4 points a game.
Early Pick: Tulane 30, Southern Miss 27
24. New Mexico Bowl – San Diego State (9-3) vs. Central Michigan (8-5)
Dec. 21 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
San Diego State coach Rocky Long is no stranger to Albuquerque, as he coached at New Mexico (his alma mater) from 1998-2008. The Aztecs will face one of the nation’s most-improved teams this season in Central Michigan. The Chippewas won only one game last fall but improved to 8-5 and claimed the MAC West title in 2019. San Diego State averages only 19 points a game, but Long’s defense is holding opponents to just 12.8 a contest. Former Tennessee and Houston signal-caller Quinten Dormady (2,148 yards) and the one-two punch of Kobe Lewis and Jonathan Ward headline a Central Michigan attack that averages 31.9 points a game. But points could be at a premium in this one.
Early Pick: San Diego State 24, Central Michigan 17
23. Military Bowl – North Carolina (6-6) vs. Temple (8-4)
Dec. 27 – Noon ET, ESPN
Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill was a success, and the Tar Heels can cap the year with the program’s first bowl win since 2013. A big reason for North Carolina’s jump to six wins was the arrival of freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 35 touchdowns and 3,347 yards over 12 games. Temple’s defense is one of the best in the AAC, holding teams to just 4.8 yards a snap and ranking second in pass efficiency defense. This will be Temple’s fifth consecutive bowl trip, which is a remarkable feat considering this program had just two from 1930-2014.
Early Pick: North Carolina 27, Temple 20
22. Music City – Louisville (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (6-6)
Dec. 30 – 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
These two teams met in the 2017 Gator Bowl, with Mississippi State edging Louisville 31-27. Another close game is likely on tap in the Music City. Louisville was the biggest surprise in the ACC this year, improving its win total by five games under new coach Scott Satterfield. The Cardinals ranked third in the ACC in scoring (32.7) behind the dynamic trio of quarterback Micale Cunningham, receiver Tutu Atwell, and running back Javian Hawkins (1,420 yards). While Satterfield immediately provided a spark for the offense, Louisville’s defense is a work in progress. The Cardinals gave up over 200 yards a game on the ground this fall – a bad sign against Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill (1,347 yards) up next. Whichever team can win the battle up front should come out on top.
Early Pick: Mississippi State 27, Louisville 24
21. Sun Bowl – Florida State (6-6) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
Dec. 31 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
The Pac-12 has won five out of the last six against the ACC in this matchup. That run is likely to continue on Dec. 31, as more certainty surrounds Arizona State than Florida State. The Seminoles are a team in transition with Mike Norvell set to take over after the bowl game. Additionally, it’s uncertain if star running back Cam Akers will play in this matchup or begin preparation for the NFL Draft. The Sun Devils have made back-to-back bowl games under coach Herm Edwards, but this program is also dealing with a little bit of change after offensive coordinator Rob Likens was let go in early December. The future looks bright for Arizona State with Jayden Daniels at the helm, and a stingy Sun Devils defense won’t make life easy for the Seminoles in El Paso.
Early Pick: Arizona State 31, Florida State 24
20. New Orleans Bowl – Appalachian State (12-1) vs. UAB (9-4)
Dec. 21 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Appalachian State is back in New Orleans for the postseason after winning the Sun Belt title. And the Mountaineers are also under the direction of an interim coach for the second year in a row, as Eli Drinkwitz is off to Missouri. Appalachian State dominated Middle Tennessee 45-13 in this game last season, and there’s a good chance a similar outcome happens once again. The combination of running back Darrynton Evans (1,323 yards) and quarterback Zac Thomas (26 TDs) leads the Sun Belt’s best offense (39.4 ppg). The Mountaineers hold teams to just 20.2 points a contest – a tough matchup for a UAB offense that has been held under 27 points a game in five out of the last six matchups. The time off could help quarterback Tyler Johnston get back to full strength after suffering a knee injury in the Blazers’ defeat at Tennessee.
Early Pick: Appalachian State 34, UAB 20
19. Hawaii Bowl – BYU (7-5) vs. Hawaii (9-5)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The only bowl matchup on Christmas Eve is a renewal of an old WAC rivalry. Hawaii’s high-powered offense is always tough to stop at home, but BYU’s physical defense is only giving up 24.4 points a game. The Cougars finished the regular season by scoring just three points in a loss at San Diego State. The time off to prepare should help this group, especially as quarterback Zach Wilson works his way back to full strength after missing four games in the middle of the season due to injury. Hawaii has lost its last three trips to the bowl game in its own stadium, but a win over BYU would give Nick Rolovich’s program double-digit victories for the first time since 2010.
Early Pick: BYU 34, Hawaii 31
18. Boca Raton Bowl – SMU (10-2) vs. FAU (10-3)
Dec. 21 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
FAU is staying home for the bowl season, getting a chance to take on one of the nation’s biggest surprises in its home stadium. The Owls closed out the regular season with a dominant win over UAB to win its second Conference USA title in three years. Quarterback Chris Robison was one of C-USA's most-improved signal-callers in 2019, finishing the year with 3,396 yards and 26 scores to just six picks. Tight end Harrison Bryant (65 catches for 1,004 yards and seven scores) is also quietly having a strong season. However, FAU won’t have coach Lane Kiffin for this game, as he left for the Ole Miss job. Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer will serve as the interim coach for this game. SMU improved its win total by five games from last season. The arrival of transfer quarterback Shane Buechele is a big reason why, and the Mustangs have a deep collection of talent on offense, including receiver James Proche and running back Xavier Jones that will be tough for the Owls to contain. A stat to watch: FAU ranks first nationally in turnover margin at plus-20.
Early Pick: SMU 38, FAU 30
17. Gator Bowl – Tennessee (7-5) vs. Indiana (8-4)
Jan. 2 – 7 p.m. ET – ESPN
After an 0-2 start that included losses to Georgia State and BYU, a January bowl game in Florida didn’t seem like a strong possibility for Tennessee. Fast-forward to December, and the Volunteers rallied to a 7-5 mark under second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee seems to be on the right track, and a victory over the Hoosiers would give this program a nice boost going into the offseason. The Volunteers are getting better play up front, which has allowed quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to target big-play receivers Jauan Jennings (57 rec.) and Marquez Callaway (29) downfield. Indiana’s eight wins marked the program’s best since posting that same amount in 1993. Despite losing quarterback Michael Penix to a season-ending injury, the Hoosiers have thrived on offense behind new play-caller Kalen DeBoer. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey has been an effective distributor under center, with receiver Whop Philyor and tight end Peyton Hendershot the main targets. Tennessee’s defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in each of its last five games. However, Indiana’s offense is better than any of the groups faced in that span.
Early Pick: Tennessee 34, Indiana 31
16. Texas Bowl – Oklahoma State (8-4) vs. Texas A&M (7-5)
Dec. 27 – 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last year’s Texas Bowl was an entertaining 45-38 back-and-forth affair between Baylor and Vanderbilt, and there’s a good chance Oklahoma State-Texas A&M ranks just as high in entertainment value. These old Big 12 rivals both average more than 30 points a game and allow nearly that same amount against Power 5 teams this season. Injuries hit the Cowboys hard in 2019, as No. 1 receiver Tylan Wallace was lost due to a knee injury suffered in practice in late October, and quarterback Spencer Sanders has missed the last two contests due to a thumb injury. Sanders could return in time for this matchup. Whether it’s Sanders or Dru Brown under center for coach Mike Gundy, look for a heavy dose of running back Chuba Hubbard (1,936 yards) against a tough Texas A&M front (129.1 rushing yards allowed). Opposing quarterbacks are completing 60 percent of their passes against Oklahoma State’s defense this year. That’s good news for Kellen Mond, as the Texas A&M signal-caller battled through a brutal schedule to throw for 19 touchdowns and 2,802 yards.
Early Pick: Texas A&M 31, Oklahoma State 30
15. Belk Bowl – Virginia Tech (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 31 – Noon ET, ESPN
The two coaches in this game – Justin Fuente and Mark Stoops – quietly did outstanding work in 2019. After a 2-2 start, Fuente rallied Virginia Tech to an 8-4 finish and wins in six out of the last eight matchups. Kentucky lost starting quarterback Terry Wilson to injury in Week 2 but scrapped its way to seven victories with receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback. Bowden accumulated over 2,000 total yards this season and anchors a Wildcats’ ground game averaging 274.4 yards a game. This will be the final game for Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster, so the defense will look to send the long-time play-caller out on a high note. The Hokies allowed less than 125 yards a game on the ground, so Bowden and the Kentucky rushing attack will be a good test for Foster’s group. The emergence of Hendon Hooker helped jumpstart Virginia Tech’s offense this season, with big-play threats Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner averaging over 16 yards a catch on the outside. Kentucky’s defense is holding teams to just 18.4 points a game, so points will be at a premium in this one.
Early Pick: Virginia Tech 23, Kentucky 20
14. Liberty Bowl – Kansas State (8-4) vs. Navy (9-2)
Dec. 31 – 3:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Both Kansas State and Navy went through a lot of changes last offseason, so it only makes sense these two teams will meet in the Liberty Bowl. After an uncharacteristic 3-10 season in 2018, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo made a handful of staff changes, including hiring a new play-caller on defense. The tweaks paid big-time dividends. The Midshipmen finished fourth in the AAC in scoring defense, while the offense took a big step forward on the stat sheet behind quarterback Malcolm Perry. The Tennessee native will close out his collegiate career in his home state, but Kansas State is bringing one of the Big 12’s toughest defenses to Memphis. The Wildcats also prefer to lean on their ground game, with quarterback Skylar Thompson directing a group that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes (13 turnovers) and led the Big 12 in time of possession.
Early Pick: Kansas State 28, Navy 24
13. Holiday Bowl – USC (8-4) vs. Iowa (9-3)
Dec. 27 – 8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
The Holiday Bowl has seen its share of good matchups over the years, and the 2019 version has plenty of intrigue. The hire of Graham Harrell as play-caller, along with the emergence of freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, helped to jumpstart USC’s offense this fall. The Trojans have one of the deepest receiving corps in the nation, which will challenge an Iowa secondary that allowed only 12 passing scores all year. Protecting Slovis from end A.J. Epenesa will be a priority for USC on Dec. 27. Iowa’s offense averaged only 23.8 points a game this fall, but the emergence of running back Tyler Goodson late in the year, and the steady play of senior quarterback Nate Stanley, won’t be an easy out for a USC defense that had its share of up-and-down moments in 2019. The Hawkeyes should bring a good crowd to San Diego, as this is the program’s first appearance in this bowl since 1991.
Early Pick: Iowa 27, USC 24
12. Cheez-It Bowl – Air Force (10-2) vs. Washington State (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
How’s this for a contrast of styles? Air Force ranks third nationally in rushing offense (292.5 ypg), while Washington State is first in passing (444.3). While those areas are certainly the specialty for both teams, Falcons quarterback Donald Hammond is averaging a whopping 24.7 yards per completion, and Cougars running back Max Borghi has the most rushing yards (790) of a player under Mike Leach’s tenure in Pullman. Defensively, Air Force has been better than Washington State this season, holding teams to just 19.8 points a game. Watching these two teams try to dictate their style of play will be worth tuning into on Dec. 27.
Early Pick: Washington State 38, Air Force 34
11. Orange Bowl – Virginia (9-4) vs. Florida (10-2)
Dec. 30 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Virginia has been on a steady climb under coach Bronco Mendenhall, and a victory over Florida would give the program its first double-digit win total since 1989. As the case has been all year with the Cavaliers, quarterback Bryce Perkins has to deliver a huge performance in order to beat Florida. The senior led the ACC with an average of 304.6 total yards per game and accounted for 29 overall scores. Perkins’ mobility is critical against a Florida pass rush that’s generated 46 sacks this season and was instrumental in the defense holding teams to 14.4 points a game. Even though starting quarterback Feleipe Franks was lost to an injury early in the 2019 campaign, Florida’s offense didn’t miss a beat behind Kyle Trask. A revamped offensive line didn’t clear many running lanes, but coach Dan Mullen maximized the offense behind Trask and a deep group of receivers. The Cavaliers entered the year with one of the ACC’s top defensive backfields but injuries pushed this group to ninth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense.
Early Pick: Florida 31, Virginia 20
10. Las Vegas Bowl – Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (12-1)
Dec. 21 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Las Vegas Bowl takes the top spot in terms of bowl storylines. Chris Petersen’s final game at Washington will take place against his old team in Boise State. The Huskies underachieved relative to preseason expectations, but Petersen’s last game should bring out the best in this team. Points should be at a premium in this matchup. Boise State is holding teams to 20.6 points a game, while Washington is allowing only 20.4 a contest. The Broncos started three different quarterbacks, with Jaylon Henderson finishing the year as the starter. Henderson and a talented Boise State receiving corps will be a good matchup for a standout Washington secondary (third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense). On the other sideline, this could be the final game for Huskies quarterback Jacob Eason. The junior is pondering a jump to the NFL, and a good performance would certainly weigh into that decision.
Early Pick: Washington 27, Boise State 24
9. Alamo Bowl – Texas (7-5) vs. Utah (11-2)
Dec. 31 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Four out of the last five Alamo Bowl matchups have been decided by six points or less. Another close one should be on tap for Dec. 31. Both teams in this game have something to prove. For Texas, coach Tom Herman has already shuffled his staff after a 7-5 mark. A win would allow the Longhorns to end the year on a high note and build a little momentum for 2020. Utah was on the cusp of a trip to the CFB Playoff but lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Both quarterbacks in this matchup – Tyler Huntley and Sam Ehlinger – will be tough for the defenses to contain. However, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is 10-2 in bowl games since 2005. Combine Whittingham’s postseason record, along with a standout defense, and the Utes should be a slight favorite in this game.
Early Pick: Utah 27, Texas 24
8. Camping World Bowl – Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Iowa State (7-5)
Dec. 28 – Noon ET, ABC
The CFB Playoff starts earlier this year on Dec. 28, so the Camping World Bowl is essentially the appetizer to the main dish that night. In addition to kicking off a huge Saturday of games, this matchup has plenty of appeal on its own. There’s an intriguing quarterback duel between Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and Notre Dame’s Ian Book, along with two of the nation’s top tight ends in Cole Kmet (Notre Dame) and Charlie Kolar (Iowa State). The skill talent continues with a rising star at running back in Iowa State’s Breece Hall, and Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool (12 TD catches). Points could be at a premium between two teams holding opponents to under 26 a contest. All five of Iowa State’s losses came by 10 points or less this season, while Notre Dame lost to Michigan and Georgia – a combined 20-5 in 2019.
Early Pick: Notre Dame 24, Iowa State 20
7. Outback Bowl – Auburn (9-3) vs. Minnesota (10-2)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET – ESPN
Row the Boat versus War Eagle in Tampa is a nice way to ring in the new year. The emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan and a talented trio of receivers helped the Golden Gophers make a run at the Big Ten West Division title this fall. However, Minnesota’s offensive line gave up 30 sacks and figures to have its hands full against Auburn’s standout front, which features likely first-team All-American Derrick Brown. The Tigers finished out the regular season on a high note by beating Alabama 48-45 in dramatic fashion. The extra bowl practices should help quarterback Bo Nix continue to develop under Gus Malzahn, while the ground game will test a Minnesota defense that ranked seventh in the Big Ten against the run.
Early Pick: Auburn 31, Minnesota 24
6. Cotton Bowl – Memphis (12-1) vs. Penn State (10-2)
Dec. 28 – Noon ET, ESPN
The American Athletic Conference has claimed the Group of 5's bowl spot in the New Year’s Six for the third consecutive year. And just like UCF the past two seasons, Memphis will be a tough out for Penn State. Mike Norvell is leaving for Florida State but may coach the Tigers in this game. Regardless of who roams the sideline for Memphis, this program is bringing plenty of firepower to Arlington. Freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell posted 1,425 yards, with Patrick Taylor (300 yards) also in the mix after an early injury. Quarterback Brady White (3,560 yards and 33 TDs) and receivers Damonte Coxie (68 catches) and Antonio Gibson (32) will make plays against Penn State’s secondary – provided the offensive line holds up against a pass rush that has generated 39 sacks in 2019. The time off should benefit the Nittany Lions, as quarterback Sean Clifford missed the finale due to injury.
Early Pick: Penn State 34, Memphis 30
5. Sugar Bowl – Georgia (11-2) vs. Baylor (11-2)
Jan. 1 – 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
These two teams were on the doorstep of a trip to the CFB Playoff, so after losses on Championship Saturday, the Sugar Bowl represents an opportunity to end the 2019 season on a high note. Georgia found itself in this scenario last year and was upset by Texas. Coach Kirby Smart will be aiming for a different result this time around, but question marks remain about a sluggish offense and the passing attack after injuries late in the year at receiver. Baylor won just one matchup in Matt Rhule’s first year (2017) but finished enters this game 11-2 and played for the Big 12 title. The Bears are dealing with a couple of injuries at quarterback, so it’s uncertain who will start under center on Jan. 1. Regardless of who gets the nod, Baylor’s offense has a tough matchup on tap against Georgia’s defense, which still finished the year No. 1 in the SEC in fewest points allowed after giving up 37 to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
Early Pick: Georgia 27, Baylor 20
4. Citrus Bowl – Alabama (10-2) vs. Michigan (9-3)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Michigan, Alabama, Jim Harbaugh, and Nick Saban. Do we really need anything else? This game features two iconic brands in college football, and two teams looking to rebound after disappointing losses in rivalry games. Mac Jones played well in relief of Tua Tagovailoa against Auburn, but it’s uncertain how much of his supporting cast will play in the bowl game due to NFL considerations. Injuries and youth took a toll on Alabama’s defense this season, but the time off between the Iron Bowl and will help Saban and coordinator Pete Golding work with some of the young players to build for 2020. Michigan’s offense took a step forward under new play-caller Josh Gattis this season and a deep group of receivers could create some problems for Saban’s defense. A win by the Wolverines would give Harbaugh 10 victories in four out of five seasons in Ann Arbor.
Early Pick: Alabama 34, Michigan 24
3. Rose Bowl – Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you like physical play in the trenches, then this game is a must-see matchup. Oregon returns to Pasadena for the first time since a trip to this game to play in the CFB Playoff during the 2014 season. The Ducks closed out the regular season on a high note with a dominant 37-15 victory over Utah to win the Pac-12 championship. This will be the final game for quarterback Justin Herbert, but the Ducks are also one of the Pac-12’s top running teams behind a standout offensive line – anchored by left tackle Penei Sewell. Strong play in the trenches is an annual strength for Wisconsin, and this group has cleared the way for running back Jonathan Taylor to run for 1,909 yards this year. Quarterback Jack Coan played well late in the season, and the Badgers have a defense that ranks among the best in the Big Ten (16.1 ppg allowed) once again.
Early Pick: Wisconsin 27, Oregon 24
2. Peach Bowl – LSU (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1)
Dec. 28 – 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ed Orgeron has pushed all of the right buttons since taking over as the full-time coach in Baton Rouge, and the Tigers are two wins away from a national championship. The hire of Joe Brady to help Steve Ensminger modernize the offense, along with the rise of quarterback Joe Burrow – the likely Heisman winner – boosted LSU to the program’s first SEC title since 2011. No defense has found a way to completely stop Burrow and his receivers, and that’s the big challenge facing an improved Oklahoma defense. While this group is getting better under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch, a thin secondary is a major concern against the LSU passing game. Oklahoma’s offense leads the nation in yards per play (8.2), but coach Lincoln Riley’s group is accumulating its stats a little different this year. Quarterback Jalen Hurts – making his fourth appearance the CFB Playoff – and running back Kennedy Brooks leads the way for an offense that might have to lean more on the run to win this one.
Early Pick: LSU 45, Oklahoma 30
1. Fiesta Bowl – Ohio State (13-0) vs. Clemson (13-0)
Dec. 28 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is the sixth year of the College Football Playoff, and it’s probably safe to assume this matchup might be one of the most anticipated semifinal games. The last meeting between the Buckeyes and Tigers in Glendale resulted in a Clemson 31-0 victory. A repeat of that would be a major surprise, as this game features some of the most intriguing player matchups of the bowl season. Ohio State end Chase Young and a standout secondary will battle Clemson running back Travis Etienne, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and receivers Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers. As usual, Clemson’s defense has been one of the best in college football this season. But Ohio State will present the toughest challenge this group has faced in 2019. Quarterback Justin Fields has accounted for 3,424 yards and 50 touchdowns and should benefit from the time off to heal an injured knee. Running back J.K. Dobbins has eclipsed 100 or more yards eight times this season. However, Clemson is only giving up 2.97 yards per carry.
Early Pick: Clemson 34, Ohio State 31