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Ranking All 42 College Football Bowl Games: From Must-See to Must-Miss

Bryce Young, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

College football’s regular season is over and the 42 matchups for the 2020-21 bowl season are set. The CFB Playoff begins on Dec. 31 with Cincinnati and Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, followed by Georgia and Michigan in the Orange Bowl. The winner of those two games will square off in Indianapolis on Jan. 10 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 entertaining matchups between Notre Dame and Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Utah-Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Michigan State-Pitt in the Peach Bowl. Outside of the New Year's Six, the Outback Bowl (Arkansas-Penn State) and Cheez-It Bowl (Clemson-Iowa State) are two must-see matchups. The bowl season officially kicks off on Dec. 17 with two games, with six on tap for Saturday, Dec. 18.

Watching all 42 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. 42 to No. 1, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.

Ranking All 42 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-Miss

42. Frisco Football Classic – North Texas (6-6) vs. Miami, Ohio (6-6)
Dec. 23 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Frisco Football Classic was created to ensure all teams with six victories made a bowl in 2021. It’s a short trek from Denton to Frisco, so a Mean Green team that finished on a five-game winning streak should have a home-field edge in this matchup. The ground game fueled the run to the postseason for North Texas, but it’s the passing attack that carried the offense for Miami. Quarterback Brett Gabbert tossed 24 touchdowns to only six picks and threw for 350 or more yards in three out of the last four matchups.
Early Pick: Miami (Ohio)

41. Camellia Bowl – Ball State (6-6) vs. Georgia State (7-5)
Dec. 25 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

If you need a break from the Christmas festivities, the Camellia Bowl will provide a short respite on Dec. 25. After a 1-4 start, Georgia State finished with six wins over its final seven contests, including an upset over Coastal Carolina. The Panthers lean on the ground game (221.9 yards a contest), which is bad news for a Ball State defense giving up 169.5 yards a game versus the run. The Cardinals have a plethora of key seniors playing in their final game here, including quarterback Drew Plitt, so there will be an incentive to end their career on a high note.
Early Pick: Georgia State

40. Myrtle Beach Bowl – Tulsa (6-6) vs. Old Dominion (6-6)
Dec. 20 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Old Dominion was quietly one of college football’s best stories in 2021. After not playing a game last year, the Monarchs won their last five matchups to reach bowl eligibility under new coach Ricky Rahne. Tulsa also found its groove later in the season, winning five out of the last seven games to reach the postseason for the fourth time under coach Philip Montgomery. The Monarchs should test the Golden Hurricane defense with running back Blake Watson (1,044 yards), but ODU’s secondary will have to contend with Tulsa’s big-play weapons at receiver and running back Shamari Brooks.
Early Pick: Tulsa

39. Bahamas Bowl – Toledo (7-5) vs. Middle Tennessee (6-6)
Dec. 17 – Noon ET, ESPN

The Bahamas Bowl wasn’t played last season, so it’s only appropriate the 2021-22 slate kicks off with this matchup. Toledo finished 7-5 this year but four of those five defeats came by one score, including a 32-29 defeat at Notre Dame. Middle Tennessee needed a win over FAU in the season finale to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2018. Toledo running back Bryant Koback (1,274 yards) faces off against a Blue Raiders defense that limited the last six opponents to 100 rushing yards or less.
Early Pick: Toledo

38. LendingTree Bowl – Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs. Liberty (7-5)
Dec. 18 – 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Bowl games have become a regular occurrence for Eastern Michigan under coach Chris Creighton. Although the job is one of the toughest in the nation, the Eagles have made four bowls in six years but are looking for their first postseason victory since 1987. Liberty has won two postseason contests in a row under coach Hugh Freeze, but this season’s team heads to Mobile on a three-game losing streak. Both teams average more than 30 points a game, but Eastern Michigan’s defense will have its hands full against Liberty quarterback Malik Willis.
Early Pick: Liberty

37. New Mexico Bowl – UTEP (7-5) vs. Fresno State (9-3)
Dec. 18 – 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

The short trek to Albuquerque is a good way for UTEP to make its first bowl trip since 2014. The Miners are led by steady quarterback Gavin Hardison, and receiver Jacob Cowing (1,343 yards) might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. Uncertainty surrounds Fresno State going into the bowl season. Coach Kalen DeBoer left to take over at Washington, with assistant Lee Marks handling the interim duties. Also, quarterback Jake Haener departed as a transfer. Jaylon Henderson is expected to get the nod under center, and the Bulldogs still have plenty of firepower with running back Ronnie Rivers and receiver Jalen Cropper. UTEP’s defense gave up only 5.1 yards per play this season but will have its hands full with Fresno State – even with a backup quarterback.
Early Pick: Fresno State

36. Hawaii Bowl – Hawaii (6-7) vs. Memphis (6-6)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

It’s a chance to close out the 2021 season on a high note for both Hawaii and Memphis on Christmas Eve after both programs had an up-and-down year. The Rainbow Warriors’ bowl hopes were boosted after an added game ensured every team with six wins made a postseason trip, but coach Todd Graham’s team will be without quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who entered the transfer portal in early December. Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan was impressive for Memphis this year and faces an active (14 INTs) Hawaii secondary, with the status of top receiver Calvin Austin III uncertain due to injury.
Early Pick: Memphis

35. Military Bowl – Boston College (6-6) vs. East Carolina (7-5)
Dec. 27 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

East Carolina took a big step forward in coach Mike Houston’s third year, winning seven games in 2021 after posting seven combined in 2019-20. An improved defense was a key cog and the Pirates averaged 30.9 points a game in conference action behind quarterback Holton Ahlers and running back Keaton Mitchell. Boston College’s bowl hopes received a late boost down the stretch thanks to the return of quarterback Phil Jurkovec from injury. The Eagles allowed only 22.2 points a game in the regular season, so this won’t be an easy matchup for Ahlers and Mitchell.
Early Pick: Boston College

34. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Kent State (7-6) vs. Wyoming (6-6)
Dec. 21 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The blue turf in Boise features a fun contrast in styles between Kent State’s high-powered offense and the rugged ground game and defense of Wyoming. The Golden Flashes average 32.6 points a game, so the Cowboys will look to slow things down behind the one-two punch of running backs Xazavian Valladay and Titus Swen. Kent State allows 190.1 rushing yards a game, so whichever style wins out is likely to come out on top.
Early Pick: Kent State

33. Quick Lane Bowl – Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Nevada (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN

The first post-Christmas bowl could feature a pairing of high-scoring offenses and prolific quarterbacks. However, uncertainty surrounds the status of Nevada quarterback Carson Strong after an injury in the season finale versus Colorado State. Even if Strong doesn’t go, the Wolf Pack can keep the offense rolling behind backup quarterback Nate Cox and a cast of talented weapons. Western Michigan’s balanced and prolific offense is led by quarterback Kaleb Eleby, and there’s no shortage of skill talent with big-play receivers Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall, along with running back Sean Tyler (1,004 yards). This one could feature some points.
Early Pick: Nevada

32. Pinstripe Bowl – Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Maryland (6-6)
Dec. 29 – 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Both teams needed a victory in their regular-season finale to reach victories, but a trip to New York is a nice consolation prize. The Pinstripe Bowl is always a unique setting in Yankee Stadium, and the weather could be an issue in late December. The elements could be more of an issue for Maryland’s offense with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and receiver Rakim Jarrett. Virginia Tech’s ground game posted at least 227 rushing yards in five out of the last six contests and gets a favorable matchup against a Terrapins’ defense that finished 12th in the Big Ten against the run.
Early Pick: Virginia Tech

31. Armed Forces Bowl – Army (8-3) vs. Missouri (6-6)
Dec. 22 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

A matchup against Army’s prolific rushing attack wasn’t the ideal postseason contest for Missouri’s struggling run defense (229.3 yards a game allowed). However, having a couple of weeks to prepare should help coach Eli Drinkwitz’s squad. The Tigers averaged under 4.7 yards per play in three of their final four games. Could Missouri make a change at quarterback for the bowl?
Early Pick: Army

30. Cure Bowl – Coastal Carolina (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (9-4)
Dec. 17 – 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Coastal Carolina brings its high-powered offense led by quarterback Grayson McCall (40.4 points a game) back to the Cure Bowl after losing a 37-34 overtime thriller to Liberty last season. McCall was injured late in the year but returned to account for seven touchdowns over the Chanticleers’ last two games. Northern Illinois was one of the best storylines in the Group of 5 ranks in 2021. The Huskies went 0-6 last year but rebounded in a big way, as coach Thomas Hammock’s team won seven games behind one score and claimed the MAC title with a 41-23 win over Kent State. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi – a transfer from Michigan State – has been a key cog in the turnaround for NIU this year.
Early Pick: Coastal Carolina

29. Guaranteed Rate Bowl – West Virginia (6-6) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Finishing the year on a high note was the theme for both teams here. Minnesota beat rival Wisconsin to win Paul Bunyan Axe’s, and West Virginia won four out of its final six games. The Golden Gophers love to run the ball (45.8 attempts a game) behind a solid offensive line, but the Mountaineers held tough in Big 12 contests (138.9) versus opposing ground games. Minnesota’s defense is stingy (18.3 points a game allowed) and surrendered just 100.2 rushing yards per game. West Virginia’s offense needs to hold up in the trenches to give running back Leddie Brown and quarterback Jarret Doege a chance to put together consistent drives on Dec. 28.
Early Pick: Minnesota

28. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: South Carolina (6-6) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 30 – 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN

Bragging rights in the Carolinas is on the line in Charlotte. South Carolina’s Shane Beamer had one of the better debuts among new coaches by guiding the program to a 6-6 finish, and a win over North Carolina would give ensure the team’s third winning mark since 2015. The Tar Heels had aspirations of contending for the ACC title, and even though the offense delivered behind quarterback Sam Howell, the defense took a step back in a disappointing 6-6 campaign. It’s uncertain if Howell will play in this game, and his decision looms large in which team should be favored on Dec. 30.
Early Pick: North Carolina

27. Texas Bowl – LSU (6-6) vs. Kansas State (7-5)
Jan. 4 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Texas Bowl is the last postseason game prior to the national title contest, but that also means it’s a long time to wait for two programs dealing with offseason coaching turnover. Brian Kelly was hired by LSU in early December to replace Ed Orgeron, and the former Notre Dame coach will take over after this game. Offensive line coach Brad Davis is set to be the team’s interim coach for the Texas Bowl and has to keep the motivation high against a tough K-State program. Kansas State dismissed coordinator Courtney Messingham after the regular season, giving former star quarterback Collin Klein a chance as the interim play-caller. The status of quarterback Skylar Thompson is uncertain after he missed the finale against Texas with an injury. LSU played better on defense in the second half of the year, but this unit will have a tough time slowing down K-State running back Deuce Vaughn.
Early Pick: LSU

26. New Orleans Bowl – Louisiana (12-1) vs. Marshall (7-5)
Dec. 18 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

The New Orleans Bowl has become a second home for Louisiana, as this will be the program’s sixth appearance since 2011. The Ragin’ Cajuns clinched their highest win total in school history (12) with the Sun Belt Championship victory over Appalachian State, but the program will have a different leader for the bowl with Billy Napier off to Florida. Michael Desormeaux is expected to become the program’s new coach and will direct the Ragin’ Cajuns in the bowl. Marshall fell just short of a division title in coach Charles Huff’s first year, and the offensive firepower behind quarterback Grant Wells and running back Rasheen Ali is set for a good battle against Louisiana’s defense (18.3 ppg allowed).
Early Pick: Louisiana

25. Arizona Bowl – Boise State (7-5) vs. Central Michigan (8-4)
Dec. 31 – 2 p.m. ET

The Broncos got off to a slow start under new coach Andy Avalos but rallied to win four out of their last five games. Central Michigan matched Boise State’s late-season surge with six wins over its final seven contests. Running back Lew Nichols pounded opponents for 1,710 rushing yards and faces off against a defense that allowed 158.7 yards per game on the ground. The Chippewas were vulnerable to the pass in MAC play, so this could be an opportunity for quarterback Hank Bachmeier and receiver Khalil Shakir to close out the year on a high note for Boise State.
Early Pick: Boise State

24. First Responder Bowl – Air Force (9-3) vs. Louisville (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Air Force was just a couple of plays away from double-digit victories, as all three of the team’s defeat – Utah State, Army and San Diego State – came by seven points or less. The Falcons bring the No. 1 rushing offense into the postseason (342 yards a game) and should have the upper hand against a Louisville defense that surrendered 362 rushing yards to Kentucky. Air Force’s defense ranked among the best in the Mountain West but hasn’t played a dynamic quarterback like Malik Cunningham (308.5 total yards a game) this year.
Early Pick: Air Force

23. Gasparilla Bowl – UCF (8-4) vs. Florida (6-6)
Dec. 23 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

An all-Florida showdown in the Gasparilla Bowl won’t lack for intrigue in the Sunshine State. Florida hired Billy Napier to replace Dan Mullen, but the program will still be under the direction of interim coach Greg Knox for the bowl. Despite losing starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel and a couple of skill players for large chunks of the season, UCF still managed to finish 8-4 under new coach Gus Malzahn.
Early Pick: Florida

22. Independence Bowl – BYU (10-2) vs. UAB (8-4)
Dec. 18 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

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Two underrated coaches in Bill Clark (UAB) and Kalani Sitake (BYU) guide their programs to an interesting battle in Shreveport. This is also the first all-time meeting between both programs. UAB’s standout rush defense (No. 1 in C-USA) faces a tough assignment versus BYU running back Tyler Allgeier (1,414 yards), while quarterback Jaren Hall (289 total yards a game) could make it difficult for Clark’s team to keep pace. However, the Blazers' strong ground attack – even if DeWayne McBride is out – will test a BYU defense allowing 151.6 rushing yards a contest.
Early Pick: BYU

21. Birmingham Bowl – Houston (11-2) vs. Auburn (6-6)
Dec. 28 – Noon ET, ESPN

Auburn won’t have to travel too far for this game, but coach Bryan Harsin’s squad is going to have its hands full against an improving Houston squad. A good battle in the trenches is on tap here, as the Tigers want to get running back Tank Bigsby going, but Houston is limiting teams to 106.9 rushing yards a contest. The Cougars have plenty of firepower behind quarterback Clayton Tune, running back Alton McCaskill and receiver Nathaniel Dell, but the offensive line could have trouble holding up against Auburn’s front after allowing eight sacks against Cincinnati.
Early Pick: Houston

20. Fenway Bowl – Virginia (6-6) vs. SMU (8-4)
Dec. 29 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN

Virginia will aim to send coach Bronco Mendenhall out a winner after he decided to step down after this contest in early December. The coaching carousel also dominated SMU this offseason. Sonny Dykes left after the loss against Tulsa to take the top spot at TCU, and Miami coordinator Rhett Lashlee was hired shortly after to take over in 2022. If you like offense, then this game should have plenty of fireworks with both teams averaging more than 30 points a contest. Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong ranks second nationally in total offense (427.3 yards a game), while the Mustangs are led by Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai (39 passing TDs) and a deep collection of skill talent boosted by additions through the transfer portal in recent years.
Early Pick: Virginia

19. Los Angeles Bowl – Oregon State (7-5) vs. Utah State (10-3)
Dec. 18 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Utah State’s drastic improvement under first-year coach Blake Anderson is one of the best storylines in the Group of 5 ranks. After a 1-5 finish last year, the Aggies used a couple of key transfers – including quarterback Logan Bonner – to improve significantly on both sides of the ball. Oregon State reached its first bowl bid under coach Jonathan Smith behind a powerful ground game (217.3 rushing yards a contest) and the steady play of quarterback Chance Nolan. Utah State’s defense delivered a strong performance in the Mountain West title game, but this unit will be tested by the Beavers’ ground game and standout offensive line.
Early Pick: Oregon State

18. Las Vegas Bowl – Wisconsin (8-4) vs. Arizona State (8-4)
Dec. 30 – 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

A revamped tie-in and a new stadium boosted the Las Vegas Bowl up the postseason pecking order for 2021 and beyond. As a result of those factors, a compelling matchup between Wisconsin and Arizona State is on tap on Dec. 30. It’s no secret the Badgers want to run the ball behind freshman standout Braelon Allen, but the Sun Devils don’t rank too far behind in terms of per-game rushing production (215.4 to 204.4). Arizona State won’t have Rachaad White (preparing for the NFL Draft), adding more pressure on quarterback Jayden Daniels and opening the door for Daniyel Ngata to handle the bulk of the production on the ground.
Early Pick: Wisconsin

17. Sun Bowl – Miami (7-5) vs. Washington State (7-5)
Dec. 31 – Noon ET, CBS

These two teams have plenty of experience in overcoming adversity during the regular season, and the postseason meeting in El Paso could feature plenty of points. Jake Dickert earned the full-time job at Washington State after guiding the program to a 7-5 record that was capped by a blowout win over rival Washington on Black Friday. Quarterback Jayden de Laura (258.5 total yards a game) is the catalyst for Wazzu’s offense and figures to make life difficult for Miami’s struggling defense. The Cougars have made strides on defense with Dickert’s scheme over the last two years, but the ‘Canes scored 31 or more points in six out of the last seven games behind quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who stepped up once D’Eriq King was lost due to injury. How each team handles coaching transition will determine which program comes out on top on Dec. 31.
Early Pick: Miami

16. Boca Raton Bowl – WKU (8-5) vs. Appalachian State (10-2)
Dec. 18 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN

This one should be entertaining and might be one of the more competitive matchups of the postseason. Behind quarterback Bailey Zappe (56 passing TDs) and receiver Jerreth Sterns (137 catches), WKU’s high-powered offense averages 43.1 points a game and 7.1 yards per play. Appalachian State isn’t as explosive on offense, but coach Shawn Clark’s group is plenty productive, and the ground game is a tough matchup for a WKU defense that allowed 304 rushing yards to UTSA in the C-USA Championship Game. Also, the Mountaineers have allowed just 12 passing scores all year and did not surrender more than 295 yards through the air to an opponent in 2021.
Early Pick: Appalachian State

15. Liberty Bowl – Mississippi State (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Mike Leach's Mississippi State taking on one of his former teams is one of the more intriguing storylines of the bowl season. However, the intrigue in this matchup may not last too long. The Bulldogs’ Air Raid attack found its footing this year with quarterback Will Rogers (35 TDs), and Texas Tech’s defense allowed 28 passing scores in the regular season. It’s uncertain if the Red Raiders will get quarterback Tyler Shough back from a collarbone injury, but Donovan Smith showed promise in starts versus Texas Tech and Iowa State late in the year.
Early Pick: Mississippi State

14. Frisco Bowl – UTSA (12-1) vs. San Diego State (11-2)
Dec. 21 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

A meeting of two of the top Group of 5 programs is a big-time matchup for the Frisco Bowl. It’s a de facto home game for UTSA, but the Aztecs will be hungry to get back on track after losing the Mountain West title game to Utah State. UTSA running back Sincere McCormick (1,479 yards) meets a San Diego State defense ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West against the run, but coach Brady Hoke’s group will also have to contend with dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris (266.6 yards a game). The Aztecs can use the bowl prep to sort out a few things on offense after a rough performance against Utah State.
Early Pick: UTSA

13. Holiday Bowl – NC State (9-3) vs. UCLA (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 8 p.m. ET, FOX

UCLA’s trip to the Holiday Bowl marks the program’s first postseason trip under coach Chip Kelly. The Bruins’ rushing attack (215.1 yards a game) will test an NC State defense holding teams to just 123.3 yards a game on the ground. Quarterback Devin Leary (35 TDs) was quietly one of the ACC’s top signal-callers this season and distributed the ball effectively (seven players with at least 16 receptions). Stopping the pass was an issue for UCLA in the regular season, and on paper, Leary and the Wolfpack playmakers should be able to take advantage on Dec. 28.
Early Pick: NC State

12. Gator Bowl – Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Wake Forest (10-3)
Dec. 31 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN

A dynamic offense (Wake Forest) meets a standout defense (Texas A&M) in Jacksonville, Florida. Behind quarterback Sam Hartman and a cast of talented weapons at receiver, the Demon Deacons reached double-digit victories for the second time in school history. But coach Dave Clawson’s team struggled with defensive fronts in matchups against Pitt and Clemson, so Texas A&M’s deep line – even with DeMarvin Leal not expected to play – will be a challenge. Also, Wake Forest’s suspect run defense (202.1 rushing yards a game allowed) has a tough matchup ahead against an Aggies ground game led by running backs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane.
Early Pick: Texas A&M

11. Music City Bowl – Tennessee (7-5) vs. Purdue (8-4)
Dec. 30 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

Get ready for fireworks in the Music City. Tennessee averaged 38.8 points in the regular season under new coach Josh Heupel, while Purdue ranked second in the Big Ten in passing offense (340.2 yards per game). These two teams have combined for 29 completions of 40-plus yards, and with both teams bringing prolific quarterbacks (Aidan O’Connell and Hendon Hooker) and plenty of receiving talent, this might be one of the highest-scoring games of the bowl season.
Early Pick: Tennessee

10. Citrus Bowl – Iowa (10-3) vs. Kentucky (9-3)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC

Kentucky and Iowa have never met on the gridiron, but the first meeting between these two teams features an interesting storyline with Kentucky coach Mark Stoops facing off against his alma mater. The Hawkeyes have been stingy on defense all year (4.7 yards per play allowed), and a tough test awaits in Orlando with the Wildcats' talented trio of quarterback Will Levis, running back Christopher Rodriguez and receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Iowa’s offense is only churning out 4.6 yards per play, but Kentucky’s issues with turnovers (22 lost) could play right into coach Kirk Ferentz’s team strength (+14 in turnover margin).
Early Pick: Kentucky

9. Alamo Bowl – Oregon (10-3) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
Dec. 29 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

The last meeting between these two teams in 2006 was a memorable one, and the Sooners are dipping into their past for a familiar face to lead the team in San Antonio. With Lincoln Riley off to USC, former coach Bob Stoops will man the sidelines on Dec. 29. How the Sooners replace Riley’s play-calling remains unsettled, but the key playmakers – quarterback Caleb Williams and running back Kennedy Brooks – are still in place. Oregon ended the year on a down note with a 38-10 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game and will have to play significantly better along the line of scrimmage to win this one.
Early Pick: Oklahoma

8. Cheez-It Bowl – Iowa State (7-5) vs. Clemson (9-3)
Dec. 29 – 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Clemson and Iowa State didn’t quite meet preseason expectations, but a matchup in the Cheez-It Bowl is a good way to end the year on a high note. And if motivation isn’t an issue for either squad, this could be one of the better pre-New Year’s Six bowl games. With Clemson struggling to find its footing on offense all year, coach Dabo Swinney’s team leaned on a standout defense to end the year on a five-game winning streak. Although coordinator Brent Venables is off to Norman to take over as the Oklahoma head coach, and uncertainty remains over who will call plays in this game, this unit will be a good matchup for an Iowa State offense that averaged 32.8 points a game behind quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall. The Cyclones held teams to 5.1 yards per play, so points could be at a premium with two standout defenses in Orlando.
Early Pick: Clemson

7. Outback Bowl – Penn State (7-5) vs. Arkansas (8-4)
Jan. 1 – Noon ET, ESPN2

Arkansas and Penn State have never met on the gridiron, and with a relatively even matchup on paper, this should be a good battle in Tampa on Jan. 1. The Razorbacks feature one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks in K.J. Jefferson (261 total yards a game), and receiver Treylon Burks (16.7 yards per catch) will be a handful on the outside for Penn State’s secondary. The Nittany Lions have struggled to run the ball successfully and had issues in pass protection this year, but if quarterback Sean Clifford has time, the team has a strong group of receivers on the outside – including Jahan Dotson (91 catches) and Parker Washington (57) – to test the Hogs secondary.
Early Pick: Arkansas

6. Fiesta Bowl – Notre Dame (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State (11-2)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Points could be at a premium with Notre Dame and Oklahoma State bringing top-10 defenses to the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. Great defense isn’t the biggest storyline here, as this will be the Fighting Irish’s first game under new coach Marcus Freeman after Brian Kelly left for LSU. Freeman’s work on the defensive side in just one year earned a promotion to head coach, with Tommy Rees staying on as offensive coordinator. The Cowboys fell just short of a Big 12 title, but an 11-2 record and a New Year’s Six bowl is still a strong year from coach Mike Gundy’s squad.
Early Pick: Notre Dame

5. Sugar Bowl – Ole Miss (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2)
Jan. 1 – 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Ole Miss’ high-scoring offense (35.9 points a game) meets a standout Baylor defense (19.2 allowed) in New Orleans. The Jan. 1 showdown is the last game for quarterback Matt Corral in a Rebels’ uniform, and a win over the Bears would mark the first time the program has won more than 10 games in a season. Needless to say, there won’t be a shortage of motivation for coach Lane Kiffin’s squad. After going 2-7 last year, Baylor capped coach Dave Aranda’s second season in Waco with a thrilling Big 12 title victory over Oklahoma State. The Bears won 11 games on the strength of a standout defense, but an improved offensive line and ground game propelled the offense to an average of 32.5 points a game. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon missed the last two contests due to a hamstring jury but could return for this contest.
Early Pick: Ole Miss

4. Peach Bowl – Michigan State (10-2) vs. Pitt (11-2)
Dec. 30 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Stopping the pass has been an issue for Michigan State this year, so getting Pitt’s offense and a matchup against quarterback Kenny Pickett wasn’t the best bowl draw for coach Mel Tucker’s team. Pickett has passed for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns and should close out his career on a high note against a secondary that has allowed 26 passing scores this fall. Also, this game is a reunion of sorts for Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. He spent from 2007-14 in East Lansing as the program’s defensive coordinator. To counter Pickett, the Spartans need a huge game from running back Kenneth Walker against a Pitt defense ranked No. 1 in the ACC against the run.
Early Pick: Pitt

3. Rose Bowl – Utah (10-3) vs. Ohio State (10-2)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Rose Bowl setting and a battle of a high-powered Ohio State offense against Utah’s physical defense and ground game should be an excellent pairing in Pasadena. The Buckeyes averaged 45.5 points a game behind quarterback C.J. Stroud and receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but the Utes will counter with a defense holding teams to just 20.6 points a contest. Expect coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad to replicate the formula Michigan used against Ohio State a few weeks ago with a strong ground game to control the clock and a pass rush to disrupt Stroud’s timing. Will Ohio State’s flash and speed win out? Or will Utah’s physicality pull off the upset in the program’s first trip to Pasadena?
Early Pick: Ohio State

2. Cotton Bowl – Alabama (12-1) vs. Cincinnati (13-0)
Dec. 31 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

A David vs. Goliath matchup starts the CFB Playoff on Dec. 31. On the strength of a huge performance from quarterback Bryce Young, Alabama roared in the playoff with a 41-24 victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. But the victory was costly, as receiver John Metchie III was lost for the year with a torn ACL. The extended prep time should help coach Nick Saban’s staff get a couple of receivers ready to help take the pressure off of Jameson Williams. Cincinnati is the first Group of 5 team to reach the playoff, with a veteran and talented core – quarterback Desmond Ridder, end Myjai Sanders and cornerback Ahmad Gardner – that won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
Early Pick: Alabama

1. Orange Bowl – Michigan (12-1) vs. Georgia (12-1)
Dec. 31 – 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

There’s no lack of intrigue in the Orange Bowl with a spot in the national championship game on the line between two of college football’s top programs. Michigan wasn’t projected to be in the playoff after a 2-4 record last year, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s offseason reset paid off in a big way. The Wolverines tweaked their defense and leaned on ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to hold teams to 16.1 points a game. On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s offensive line and ground game set the tone for a much-improved unit. Georgia appeared to be the No. 1 team in the nation for most of 2021, but coach Kirby Smart’s squad fell 41-24 to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Despite the loss, the Bulldogs still have a dominant defense. Smart isn’t changing quarterbacks after Stetson Bennett tossed two picks versus the Crimson Tide, but a slow start against Michigan’s defense could prompt an appearance by JT Daniels. The early line favors Georgia by a touchdown. However, if Michigan’s defense can win the battle up front, we might see a rarity in the CFB Playoff – a close game deep into the fourth quarter.
Early Pick: Georgia

Podcast: Instant Reaction to the Top Four and Early CFB Playoff Predictions