Ranking All 39 College Football Bowls for 2014: From Must-See to Must-Miss

Athlon ranks the bowl games from No. 1-39.

College football’s regular season is over and the postseason and playoff matchups are set. The bowl season kicks off in New Orleans on Dec. 20 and concludes with the national championship in Arlington, Texas. 39 bowl games are slated for this year's schedule, and the slate will increase to 40 in 2015.


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. 1 to No. 39, 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-See


1. College Football National Championship 
Alabama/Ohio State vs. Oregon/Florida State

Jan. 12 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


The new four-team playoff has added a new layer of intrigue to college football’s postseason format. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State have a chance to advance to Arlington on Jan. 12 to play for the national championship. The Crimson Tide and the Ducks are the favorite to meet in Dallas, but it’s tough to count out the defending champions (Florida State) and a talented Ohio State team. Regardless of which teams make it to Arlington, this game is the No. 1 matchup to watch in the bowl season. 

2. Rose Bowl – Oregon (12-1) vs. Florida State (13-0)

Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN


Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston. Do we really need to add any additional reason to watch this game? Of course, there’s more at stake than impressing NFL scouts for the two quarterbacks, as a trip to Arlington for the national championship is on the line in the Rose Bowl. Florida State enters this matchup with a 29-game winning streak, while the Ducks cruised to a Pac-12 title after an early loss to Arizona in Eugene. With the offensive firepower on both sidelines, the defense that can make the most plays or generate the most stops will decide this matchup. Florida State has been hit hard by injuries on defense and battled youth on that side of the ball and faces its toughest test of the year against the Ducks. In addition to Mariota, Oregon has a 1,000-yard rusher in Royce Freeman and a handful of playmakers at receiver. This is the first meeting between these two programs – and it may end up being the most entertaining game of the postseason.  


3. Sugar Bowl – Alabama (12-1) vs. Ohio State (12-1)

Jan. 1 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


The first playoff game in the Rose Bowl is slightly more intriguing, but there are no shortage of storylines in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama hopes to add to Ohio State’s woes against SEC teams with a victory on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes are 1-5 in their last six bowl games against teams from the SEC, and coach Urban Meyer’s team is considered at least a touchdown underdog in the early lines from the Vegas oddsmakers. Quarterback Cardale Jones performed well in his first start in the Big Ten Championship, and Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman will have to work overtime to get the sophomore ready for all of the wrinkles coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will throw his way. But a bigger problem for Ohio State could be its defense, which has to find a way to slow down the Alabama ground attack, along with receiver Amari Cooper. This is only the fourth time Alabama and Ohio State met on the gridiron. And this is the first meeting between these two programs since 1995.


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4. Cotton Bowl – Michigan State (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-1)

Jan. 1 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


Much like its in-conference brethren and in-state rival TCU, Baylor’s motivation will play a huge role in how the Cotton Bowl is decided. Will the Bears play hungry after being left out of the playoff? Or will coach Art Briles’ team struggle against one of the nation’s top defensive teams? Michigan State isn’t quite as dominant as it was last year on defense, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi kept this unit near the top of the nation in points allowed and fewest yards per play. And even with the strength of the Spartans on defense, stopping Baylor’s offense is a tough assignment. Michigan State needs to get pressure on quarterback Bryce Petty to disrupt the timing of the offense and limit the big plays from receivers Antwan Goodley, Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. And the Spartans can help themselves on offense by establishing running back Jeremy Langford and controlling the time of possession and pace of the game. 


5. Peach Bowl – Ole Miss (9-3) vs. TCU (11-1)

Dec. 31 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


Which TCU team will Ole Miss get in the Peach Bowl? Is it a squad angry about being left out of the four-team playoff? Or will the Horned Frogs struggle to find motivation? Either way, this game should be one of the better postseason matchups in 2014. The Rebels led the SEC in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and forced turnovers (28). The pass defense was also stingy all season, limiting opponents to just eight passing scores in 12 games. TCU’s offense is one of the most-improved units in college football and averaged 46.8 points per game in the regular season. Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 30 touchdowns and added eight more scores on the ground. The matchup of TCU’s offense against the Ole Miss defense should be one of the better chess matches of the bowl season. When the Rebels have the ball, coach Hugh Freeze has to continue being creative due to injuries at receiver. Quarterback Bo Wallace has been up and down in his career but will have his opportunities for big plays against a TCU secondary that allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year.    


6. Outback Bowl – Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Auburn (8-4)

Jan. 1 – Noon ET, ESPN2


The Badgers and Tigers are two of the nation’s top rushing attacks and this Jan. 1 Big Ten-SEC showdown shouldn’t disappoint. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was held in check against Ohio State, but the junior still finished the regular season with 2,336 yards and 26 scores. And when Gordon needs a rest, backup Corey Clement is capable of providing some pop for the Wisconsin offense. Auburn has a different way of establishing its ground game, as running back Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482 yards) and quarterback Nick Marshall (780 yards) do most of their damage out of the shotgun and on read plays. Wisconsin’s offensive line should open up holes for Gordon against the Tigers’ struggling defense (4.1 ypc allowed, eighth in the SEC against the run), but how much can they get out of quarterback Joel Stave? If Auburn stacks the box, will Stave and his receivers have enough success to keep the Tigers honest?


7. Orange Bowl – Mississippi State (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (10-3)

Dec. 31 – 8 p.m., ESPN


This Orange Bowl matchup is an unlikely pairing, but both Mississippi State and Georgia Tech have exceeded preseason expectations and meet for an interesting battle of styles in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs soared to No. 1 in the first college football playoff standings behind quarterback Dak Prescott. Losses to Alabama and Ole Miss hurt Prescott’s Heisman hopes, but the junior is still one of the top signal-callers in college football. Prescott and running back Josh Robinson anchor an offense averaging 37.2 points per game in 2014 and will be a handful for Georgia Tech to stop after the Yellow Jackets allowed 6.2 yards per play this season. The option offense is tough to prepare for, and Georgia Tech’s passing has improved with quarterback Justin Thomas under center. Even though the Yellow Jackets are a difficult team to simulate in practice, Mississippi State has a month to prepare and ranked fourth in the SEC against the run.


8. Alamo Bowl – Kansas State (9-3) vs. UCLA (9-3)

Jan. 2 – 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN


These two teams were on the doorstep of playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl, but late losses pushed UCLA and Kansas State just out of the mix. While both programs would prefer to be in the Cotton or Fiesta, their meeting in the Alamo Bowl should be one of the better matchups outside of the playoff games. UCLA hopes to rebound after a disappointing loss to Stanford in the regular season finale, and this game is expected to be the last for quarterback Brett Hundley in a Bruins’ uniform. Hundley tossed only five picks this season and completed 70.4 percent of his throws. Kansas State’s Jake Waters doesn’t get the national recognition of Hundley, but the senior threw for 3,163 yards and 20 scores and added 471 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Waters needs to get the ball to dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett, as UCLA’s secondary allowed 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. 


9. Fiesta Bowl – Boise State (11-2) vs. Arizona (10-3)

Dec. 31 – 4 p.m., ESPN


Boise State is one of the big winners from the new format, as the Broncos claim the Group of 5 bowl spot and draw an intriguing matchup against Arizona. The Wildcats were easily handled by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team didn’t fall far in the rankings. Both teams feature high-scoring offenses and defenses that are relatively similar in terms of points allowed (26.5 for Boise State and 27.5 for Arizona). The Broncos lean on running back Jay Ajayi (1,689 yards) to jumpstart the offense, and quarterback Grant Hedrick led the Mountain West in completion percentage (70.9). Arizona hopes the month off will allow quarterback Anu Solomon to return to full strength after the freshman dealt with an ankle injury late in the year. In addition to Solomon, running back Nick Wilson needs a rebound performance after he was held to 26 yards against Oregon. The Wildcats should have the edge in fan support with a short trip to Tucson to University of Phoenix Stadium. However, Boise State won’t be intimidated by the big stage and has two previous wins in the Fiesta Bowl.


10. Belk Bowl – Georgia (9-3) vs. Louisville (9-3)

Dec. 30 – 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


Georgia and Louisville have never met on the gridiron, but there’s plenty of familiarity between the two programs. Todd Grantham spent four seasons as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and joined coach Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville prior to the 2014 season. Grantham has helped to mold a Cardinals defense that quickly adapted to his 3-4 approach and limited opponents to 4.6 yards per play. Louisville’s defensive prowess will be put to the test on Dec. 30, as Georgia led the SEC by averaging 41.7 points per game. The Bulldogs lost running back Todd Gurley to a season-ending ACL tear against Auburn. However, freshman Nick Chubb has been outstanding over the second half of 2014, and quarterback Hutson Mason tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. The Cardinals led the ACC in rush defense but allowed three out of their last four opponents to record at least 150 rushing yards. There’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville after Reggie Bonnafon suffered a knee injury in the finale against Kentucky. If Bonnafon can’t start, Kyle Bolin will get his first start under center.


11. Music City Bowl – LSU (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)

Dec. 30 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN


The Music City Bowl is one of the big winners in the new SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten tie-in system. Even though both programs are fringe top 25 teams this year, in terms of name value, it doesn’t get much better for the Nashville bowl to have LSU and Notre Dame. While the name value is critical to the bowls, the matchup on the field may not live up to the hype. The Fighting Irish has allowed at least 30 points in seven consecutive games, and the rush defense is giving up 161.7 yards per contest. That’s a bad sign against the Tigers, as coach Les Miles’ team averages 219.5 yards per game on the ground, led by true freshman Leonard Fournette. LSU has struggled with its passing attack all season, but it may not matter if Notre Dame’s defense struggles at the point of attack. The Fighting Irish also need quarterback Everett Golson to regain his early-season form, as the junior has tossed seven picks over the last four games.


12. Texas Bowl – Arkansas (6-6) vs. Texas (6-6)

Dec. 29 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN


The combined records of Arkansas and Texas is just 12-12, but there’s plenty of intrigue and momentum behind both programs to propel this matchup into the must-see category for bowl season. The battle in the trenches is worth the price of admission, as the Razorbacks own one of the top offensive lines in the SEC, while the Longhorns counter with an active defensive front that features standout tackle Malcom Brown. Neither team is prolific with the forward pass, but Arkansas has made improvement in its passing offense with quarterback Brandon Allen’s second year under center. These two teams are old rivals from the Southwest Conference and a low-scoring, hard-hitting game in Houston should be anticipated. Regardless of the outcome of this matchup, the arrow for both programs is clearly pointed up headed in 2015. 


13. Holiday Bowl – Nebraska (9-3) vs. USC (8-4)

Dec. 27 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN


In terms of name value and brands, it doesn’t get much better than Nebraska and USC. The Holiday Bowl is known for high-scoring games, so there’s some potential for this matchup to be one of the must-see pre-Jan. 1 contests. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty for Nebraska, as the program is in transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley. Will the Cornhuskers be ready to play under interim coach Barney Cotton? The Trojans were up and down in 2014, losing three games by a touchdown or less and suffering a blowout at the hands of rival UCLA. USC’s offense is explosive (35.1 ppg) behind quarterback Cody Kessler and receiver Nelson Agholor. This is the Trojans’ first trip to the Holiday Bowl. 


14. Liberty Bowl – Texas A&M (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)

Dec. 29 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN


If you like offense, this game should be high on the must-watch list for bowl season. West Virginia and Texas A&M run a version of the Air Raid offense, with both programs averaging over 30 points a game in 2014. The Aggies finished the season by losing their last two games, and the defensive struggles cost coordinator Mark Snyder his job. Mark Hagan will serve as the interim play-caller for this game. The Mountaineers should have quarterback Clint Trickett back under center after he missed the season finale due to a concussion. Trickett and receiver Kevin White will be a tough matchup for a Texas A&M defense that allowed 30 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014. But the Mountaineers will also have their hands full on defense, as the Aggies led the SEC with 306.4 passing yards per game. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen previously worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston.  


15. Sun Bowl – Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)

Dec. 27 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS


Duke’s remarkable improvement under coach David Cutcliffe continued with a solid 9-3 record this season. The Blue Devils fell short of reaching the conference title game again, but the trip to El Paso is the program’s third consecutive bowl appearance. Cutcliffe has done a lot of good things for Duke football over the last seven years, but the Blue Devils are still looking for their first postseason win since 1961. Arizona State is a tough matchup for Duke, as the Sun Devils feature an attacking defense and an explosive offense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly never seemed to regain his mobility after a foot injury suffered in September, but the month off should help the senior return to full strength. The Sun Devils are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including standout receiver Jaelen Strong (75 catches) and running back D.J. Foster (1,648 total yards). And the Arizona State defense is aggressive around the line of scrimmage, recording 97 tackles for a loss in 12 games. This is the first meeting between these two programs. 


16. Russell Athletic Bowl – Oklahoma (8-4) vs. Clemson (9-3)

Dec. 29 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


Both Oklahoma and Clemson enter the bowl season with question marks surrounding their offense. The Sooners played the last three games without starting quarterback Trevor Knight, and it’s uncertain if the sophomore will return to the lineup by bowl season. In addition to Knight’s status, running back Samaje Perine suffered an ankle injury against Oklahoma State and it’s uncertain if he will be limited in any capacity prior to the game. On the Clemson side, the offense has new co-coordinators on offense after Chad Morris left for SMU. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted to replace Morris, with Scott listed as the play-caller. Losing Morris is a blow to Clemson’s offense, but there’s no shortage of talent. Despite playing with a torn ACL, Watson threw for 269 yards and two scores against South Carolina. Watson is joined by fellow freshmen Wayne Gallman and Artavis Scott as key pieces in the offensive attack. The Tigers also boast one of the nation’s top defensive lines and recorded 44 sacks during the regular season. This game also features some familiarity between the two schools, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables worked at Oklahoma from 1999-2011.


17. Boca Raton Bowl – Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)

Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN


Marshall and Northern Illinois missed out on the Group of 5 bowl spot that went to Boise State, but this meeting between conference champions in the Boca Raton Bowl is the most intriguing non-Power 5 postseason matchup. The Thundering Herd has a balanced attack on offense, led by standout senior quarterback Rakeem Cato and running back Devon Johnson. While Marshall’s offense garners most of the attention nationally, its defense led C-USA by limiting opponents to 4.7 yards per play. Northern Illinois has been a model of consistency as the MAC’s top program recently, recording at least 10 wins in each of the last five seasons. The Huskies led the MAC by averaging 252.9 rushing yards per game this year, but their defense has been opportunistic (30 sacks and 24 forced turnovers). This is the first meeting between Marshall and Northern Illinois since 2001.


18. Citrus Bowl – Missouri (10-3) vs. Minnesota (8-4)

Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC


This matchup features two of the nation’s most underrated coaches in Minnesota’s Jerry Kill and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, and this is a good landing spot for two programs that are coming off successful seasons. The Tigers won the SEC’s East Division for the second consecutive year, while the Golden Gophers were a victory against Wisconsin away from playing Ohio State in Indianapolis. The battle in the trenches will be critical on Jan. 1, as Missouri’s defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and Minnesota wants to establish running back David Cobb to take the pressure off of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Cobb averages 129 yards per game, and it’s critical for the senior to get on track with Minnesota struggling to establish a consistent passing game. Missouri’s offense ranked 11th in the SEC by averaging 5.3 yards per play, but this unit plays to its strength (defense), doesn’t make a lot of mistakes (14 turnovers) and has playmakers at running back and receiver to help quarterback Maty Mauk.


19. Independence Bowl – Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)

Dec. 27 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC


If anyone would have mentioned Miami and South Carolina meeting in a postseason game in August, it’s likely most would have predicted these two teams would matchup in a bowl in Orlando, Jacksonville or Charlotte. But Shreveport for the Independence Bowl? Likely very low in the list of guesses. It’s been a disappointing year for both programs, and motivation will play a key role in which team wins on Dec. 27. South Carolina’s rush defense (allowing 214.4 ypg) has been problematic all year and faces a tough assignment in stopping Miami running back Duke Johnson. The junior is likely playing in his last college game and finished with 1,520 yards and 10 scores in the regular season. True freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya led the ACC in quarterback rating (148.2) but could be without tight end Clive Walford due to a knee injury. The Hurricanes made strides on defense this year, and linebacker Denzel Perryman is one of the best in the nation. Miami’s improvement will be put to the test, as South Carolina averages 6.1 yards per play and features a 3,000-yard passer (Dylan Thompson) and a talented running back in Mike Davis.


20. Las Vegas Bowl – Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2)

Dec. 20 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC


Two old Mountain West rivals meet in Las Vegas in perhaps the best matchup on the first Saturday of bowl action. Colorado State is under the direction of an interim coach in Dave Baldwin, as Jim McElwain left for Florida in early December. Utah capped its best season since joining the Pac-12 with an 8-4 record and lost two games by three points or less. The strength of coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is a strong defense, as end Nate Orchard anchors a pass rush that led the nation with 52 sacks in 2014. Colorado State will test Utah’s defense with a balanced attack. Running back Dee Hart (and Alabama transfer) averaged 6.7 yards per carry this year and recorded 16 rushing scores. Receiver Rashard Higgins (89 catches for 1,640 yards) had an All-America caliber season, and quarterback Garrett Grayson was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. These two programs have not met since 2010, and the Utes hold a 55-21-1 series edge over the Rams.


21. TaxSlayer Bowl – Tennessee (6-6) vs. Iowa (7-5)

Jan. 2 – 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN


Tennessee is back in the postseason after a three-year absence. The Volunteers are headed in the right direction under coach Butch Jones, yet this program still has a lot of work to do in order to contend for the SEC East title next season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a promising sophomore, but he struggled against Vanderbilt and Missouri after accounting for nine total touchdowns in wins over Kentucky and South Carolina. Having a mobile quarterback like Dobbs is critical for Tennessee, as its offensive line has struggled to protect all season and faces a tough challenge from a formidable Iowa defensive front. The Hawkeyes had a favorable schedule but finished 7-5 after an overtime loss to Nebraska to close out the regular season. Iowa’s offense starts with its rushing attack, but quarterback Jake Rudock has been efficient (5 INTs on 337 attempts) this year. 


22. Pinstripe Bowl – Penn State (6-6) vs. Boston College (7-5)

Dec. 27 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


Points could be at a premium in Yankee Stadium. Boston College averages 25.9 points per game, while Penn State ranked last in the Big Ten with 19.8 per contest. The Nittany Lions struggled to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and allowed 42 sacks this season. Those numbers have to be appealing to Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown, as the Eagles ranked fourth in the ACC by recording 84 tackles for a loss in 2014. Penn State’s defense carried the team to a bowl bid and limited opponents to just 17.7 points per game. The Nittany Lions stingy rush defense will be a good matchup for the Boston College rushing attack and dual-threat quarterback Tyler Murphy. 


23. Miami Beach Bowl – BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)

Dec. 22 – 2 p.m., ESPN


The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl game lands an intriguing matchup between BYU and Memphis. The Cougars had to overcome a lot this year, as the offense lost quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams to season-ending injuries. Despite losing Hill and Williams, BYU won its final four games to finish 8-4. Christian Stewart filled in admirably for Hill under center, throwing for 14 touchdowns and just one interception over his last four contests. Memphis has made significant progress under coach Justin Fuente, and the Tigers shared the American Athletic Conference after finishing 7-1 in league play this year. After averaging only 19.5 points per game last season, Memphis’ offense has made significant progress and ranked third in the conference by recording 34.7 points per contest in 2014. However, the strength of the Tigers is on defense, as coordinator Barry Odom has developed a group that limits opponents to 4.8 yards per play.


24. St. Petersburg Bowl – NC State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)

Dec. 26 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN


UCF should have a strong contingent at Tropicana Field for this one, and the Knights will be looking to win their fourth consecutive postseason trip. NC State is back in the bowl scene after a one-year absence. The second season under coach Dave Doeren saw the Wolfpack improve their win total by four games, including a win over in-state rival North Carolina in the finale. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett ranked fourth in the ACC by averaging 236.8 total yards per game, and running back Shadrach Thornton averaged 5.5 yards per carry to rush for 811 yards in 2014. NC State’s offense will have its hands full against an active, speedy UCF defense. The Knights allow just 17.9 points per game and limit opponents to 4.3 yards per play. On offense, UCF isn’t as explosive as it was last season, but coach George O’Leary’s group scored at least 30 points in five out of their last six games. 


25. Birmingham Bowl – East Carolina (8-4) vs. Florida (6-5)

Jan. 3 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2


Motivation could be an issue for Florida, as interim coach D.J. Durkin will oversee a trip to Birmingham before the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville starts in 2015. If the Gators show up to play, they are a tough matchup for East Carolina’s offense. The Pirates average 37.2 points per game behind quarterback Shane Carden, but Florida’s athletic defensive line could be a problem for an East Carolina offensive line that allowed 28 sacks this year. The matchup between Pirates receiver Justin Hardy and Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III could be one of the best one-on-one battles of the bowl season. 


26. Poinsettia Bowl – Navy (6-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)

Dec. 23 – 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Navy is making its 11th consecutive bowl trip and the second visit to the Poinsettia Bowl four seasons. The Midshipmen still has one game remaining against Army on Dec. 13, and with a win in one of their final two matchups, Navy will clinch a winning record for the fourth consecutive season. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the catalyst for the offense, recording 51 rushing scores over the last two years. San Diego State is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and this is the third trip to the Poinsettia Bowl – its home stadium – in five years. The Aztecs’ rush defense will be tested against Navy’s option attack, but Rocky Long’s group held Air Force (another option team) to 140 yards in late November. San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey led the Mountain West with 1,761 rushing yards this season.


27. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Western Michigan (8-4) vs. Air Force (9-3)

Dec. 20 – 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN


What a difference a year makes. Last season, Western Michigan and Air Force combined for just three victories. In 2014, the Broncos and Falcons combined for 17 wins. Expect to see plenty of rushing attempts between these two teams, as Air Force ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, and Western Michigan is led by Jarvion Franklin (1,525 yards in 2014). Franklin’s emergence was a key reason for the Broncos’ turnaround, but quarterback Zach Terrell’s improvement (23 TDs, 10 INTs) shouldn’t be overlooked. Air Force won’t have running back and leading rusher Jacobi Owens (season-ending foot injury) for this game. However, quarterback Kale Pearson is expected to play after missing the season finale due to injury. Both teams also made major strides on defense this season, with Air Force limiting opponents to 24.2 points per game after allowing 40 per contest last season. This is the first meeting between these two programs.


28. Quick Lane Bowl – Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)

Dec. 26 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Quick Lane Bowl is essentially the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl rebooted with Power 5 conference tie-ins. Even though Rutgers averages only 25.6 points per game this year, it would not be a surprise to see this game feature plenty of offensive fireworks. North Carolina’s offense ranks third in the ACC with an average of 34.3 points per contest, and quarterback Marquise Williams closed the regular season by recording at least 300 total yards in two out of his last three games. It’s a good thing the Tar Heels can score, as their defense allowed 6.4 yards per play and 38.9 points per game. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has struggled with turnovers during his career, but the senior finished the year on a high note by tossing four touchdowns in a win over Maryland. Expect Nova and receiver Leonte Carroo to test a secondary that allowed 28 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.


29. Cactus Bowl – Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)

Jan. 2 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN


Oklahoma State’s upset over Oklahoma extended the Cowboys’ bowl streak to nine consecutive seasons. And coach Mike Gundy’s team should benefit from the extra practices, especially with true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph expected to earn another start in this matchup. Washington finished its first season under coach Chris Petersen at 8-5, but two losses came by a touchdown or less. The offense is still finding its rhythm under coordinator Jonathan Smith and scored at least 30 points in back-to-back games to close out the regular season. The defense is Washington’s strength, as the Huskies limit opponents to 24.4 points per game and ranked second in the Pac-12 by recording 49 sacks. These two teams have not met since 1985.

30. Foster Farms Bowl – Stanford (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5)

Dec. 30 – 10 p.m. ET, ESPN


Expect a low-scoring affair when Maryland and Stanford meet on Dec. 30. The Cardinal opened 2014 with high expectations, but the program slipped to 7-5 and salvaged part of their season by defeating UCLA in late November to avoid a 6-6 mark. The Terrapins’ Big Ten debut wasn’t bad, as coach Randy Edsall’s team won seven games, including victories at Michigan and Penn State. Both teams average under 30 points a contest and have struggled to develop a consistent passing attack this season. Maryland is expected to have star receiver Stefon Diggs back in the mix after a lacerated kidney forced him to miss the final three games. However, Diggs and the Terrapins offense will find little room to maneuver against a Stanford defense that limited opponents to 16 points a game.  


31. GoDaddy Bowl – Arkansas State (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4)

Jan. 4 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN


Arkansas State is making its fourth straight trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. But unlike previous years, the Red Wolves will play in this game with no uncertainty at head coach. First-year coach Blake Anderson was the fourth Arkansas State coach in four years and guided the program to its fourth consecutive winning record in 2014. The Red Wolves ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 36.1 points per game, and quarterback Fredi Knighten led the conference with 304.1 total yards per game. Toledo is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Rockets tied for the MAC West title. The offense leads the way for coach Matt Campbell’s team, as running back Kareem Hunt (151.1 ypg) might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. 


32. New Orleans Bowl – UL Lafayette (8-4) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN


This will be UL Lafayette’s fourth consecutive trip to the New Orleans Bowl under coach Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 3-0 in three previous trips to the Big Easy. ULL’s four losses came against teams with winning records, including Ole Miss and Boise State. Nevada is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Wolf Pack is led by dynamic senior quarterback Cody Fajardo. Fajardo averages 280.9 total yards per game and leads the team in rushing (997 yards). Nevada’s rush defense (allowing 179.1 yards per game) will be tested by the Ragin’ Cajuns one-two punch of Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris. 


33. Armed Forces Bowl – Houston (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)

Jan. 2 – Noon ET, ESPN


Thanks to its Week 14 upset win over Miami, Pittsburgh sneaks into the postseason with an at-large berth in the Armed Forces Bowl. And with a win over Houston, the Panthers will match their win total from last year (seven) and build momentum for a team that returns a good chunk of the depth chart in 2015. The Cougars are one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defensive teams in the regular season and have specialized in forcing takeaways over the last two years. But this unit will have its hands full against Pittsburgh’s offense. Running back James Conner earned ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 139.6 yards per game and finishing with 24 rushing scores. Houston’s offense enters the bowl game with three consecutive games of at least 30 points scored. Quarterback Greg Ward is a playmaker with dual-threat ability, and receiver Deontay Greenberry is an intriguing NFL talent.


34. Military Bowl – Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)

Dec. 27 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN


The Military Bowl features an intriguing contrast in styles. Cincinnati’s offense averages 35.4 points per game, while Virginia Tech’s defense ranked second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 20.4 points a contest. The Hokies have been prone to allowing big plays in the passing game (38 plays allowed of 20 yards or more), which is a concern against the Bearcats’ passing offense. Quarterback Gunner Kiel led the American Athletic Conference with 30 passing scores, and six receivers caught at least 20 passes this year. While Cincinnati has no trouble putting points on the board, defense has been an issue for coach Tommy Tuberville. However, the Bearcats are facing an offense that scored just 23.3 points a game and was hit hard by injuries at the running back position. 


35. Bahamas Bowl – Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)

Dec. 24 – Noon ET, ESPN


In terms of destination bowl trips, it doesn’t get much better than this game. The Hilltoppers and Chippewas meet in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl and for the second time in three years in a postseason game. Central Michigan defeated Western Kentucky 24-21 in the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl. This season’s matchup could feature more points, as the Hilltoppers average 44 points a game behind senior quarterback Brandon Doughty. The Chippewas led the MAC in total defense, and the secondary is limiting opponents to just 211.4 yards per game through the air. Running back Thomas Rawls leads the way for Central Michigan’s offense (122.6 ypg), but the offense has had trouble holding onto the ball this season (26 turnovers).


36. New Mexico Bowl – Utah State (9-4) vs. UTEP (7-5)

Dec. 20 – 2:20 p.m. ET, ESPN


The last two versions of the New Mexico Bowl featured over 90 points scored. While bowl games are unpredictable, it’s probably a safe bet UTEP and Utah State won’t combine for 90 points on Dec. 20. The Miners average 28.3 points per game on the strength of their rushing attack. Quarterback Jameill Showers – a Texas A&M transfer – and running backs Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery headline an offense that averages 212.7 rushing yards per game. UTEP may have to open it up to get its ground game on track, as Utah State leads the Mountain West (129.3) in rush defense. The Aggies had to overcome another season of injuries at quarterback, as true freshman Kent Myers is the fourth signal-caller to play this year. This game is also a matchup of two second-year coaches doing a good job at their alma mater (Matt Wells (Utah State) and Sean Kugler (UTEP).


37. Heart of Dallas Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)

Dec. 26 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN


Louisiana Tech and Illinois weren’t picked by many to reach the postseason, but both programs rebounded into a bowl after each won just four games last season. The Fighting Illini’s 6-6 record was enough for coach Tim Beckman to return in 2015, and the staff hopes to use this game as a way to build momentum for next year. Quarterback Wes Lunt was injured midway through the season and never appeared to be at full strength after he returned from a leg injury. The month off should help Lunt return to 100 percent. Louisiana Tech’s defense made significant progress under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, limiting opponents to 25.2 points per game and forcing 40 takeaways. The Bulldogs will present some challenges for Illinois’ defense, which allowed 33.9 points per contest. Running back Kenneth Dixon led C-USA with 21 rushing scores and averages 5.2 yards per carry.


38. Camellia Bowl – South Alabama (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (7-6)

Dec. 20 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN


South Alabama’s football program is only six years old, and coach Joey Jones has done a good job of getting the Jaguars competitive in a short amount of time. This is not only the inaugural Camellia Bowl, but this game marks South Alabama’s first trip to a postseason game. The Jaguars lost four out of their last five games to close out the regular season but played a tough schedule late, including matchups against UL Lafayette, Arkansas State, Texas State, South Carolina and Navy. Bowling Green also struggled late, winning only two out of its last six games. The Falcons lost their starting quarterback (Matt Johnson) after the season opener and backups James Knapke and Cody Callaway combined for 14 touchdowns and 13 picks. With the passing game struggling, Bowling Green needs to lean on its ground attack, which is led by junior Travis Greene (908 yards). This is the first meeting between these two programs.


39. Hawaii Bowl – Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)

Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET – ESPN


Fresno State is the only team in the bowl season with a losing record, but coach Tim DeRuyter’s squad makes a postseason trip to Hawaii after winning the West Division and playing in the Mountain West title game. The Bulldogs are reloading after losing quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams, and DeRuyter’s team is looking for its first postseason win since 2007. Rice has quietly won 24 games over the last three seasons and is led by a rushing offense averaging 170.3 yards per game. Fresno State has won all six previous meetings between these two teams.

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