Athlon ranks the bowl games from No. 1-40.
College football’s regular season is over and the matchups for the 2016-17 bowl season are set. The bowl slate features 40 matchups and the national championship game to be played on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla. The postseason action starts on Dec. 17 with five matchups, including the New Mexico Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and New Orleans Bowl. Additionally, there are eight bowl contests before Christmas, with several big games slated for Dec., 29, Dec. 30, Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. The third College Football Playoff begins in Atlanta with the Peach Bowl between Washington and Alabama on Dec. 31, with Clemson and Ohio State meeting in the Fiesta Bowl later that night.
Watching all 40 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. 40 to No. 1, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.
Ranking All 40 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-Miss
40. Heart of Dallas Bowl - Army (6-5) vs. North Texas (5-7)
Dec. 27 – Noon ET, ESPN
The Heart of Dallas Bowl pairing between Army and North Texas is the only rematch of the bowl season. Helped by seven turnovers from the Black Knights, the Mean Green won 35-18 on Oct. 22. After a 1-11 record last year, North Texas took a big step forward with five wins under new coach Seth Littrell. Running back Jeffery Wilson needs just under 150 yards (145) to reach 1,000 yards and gashed Army’s defense for 160 yards in the first meeting. Similar to North Texas, the Black Knights are a program headed in the right direction. Army is making its first bowl trip since 2010 and won as many games (six) as it did from 2014-15. As expected, the Black Knights lean on the ground game, with Andy Davidson (818 yards) and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (646) the top options. If Army holds onto the ball, a North Texas rush defense that surrenders 219.5 yards per game is vulnerable to the option.
Early Prediction: Army
39. Arizona Bowl - Air Force (9-3) vs. South Alabama (6-6)
Dec. 30 – 5:30 p.m. ET, Campus Insiders
Davis-Monthan Air Force base is less than 15 miles away from Arizona Stadium, so the Falcons should have plenty of support on Dec. 30. This is just the second Arizona Bowl, as last year’s matchup featured two Mountain West teams (Nevada and Colorado State). South Alabama is making its second bowl appearance in program history, but the Jaguars will have their hands full on defense. The Falcons rank fourth nationally in rushing offense (322.8 ypg), and four players have eclipsed the 600-yard mark. Quarterback Arion Worthman has provided a spark for Air Force’s offense since taking over late in the season. South Alabama ranks 98th nationally against the run and held only one opponent to less than 150 yards on the ground. When the Jaguars are on offense, keep an eye on running back Xavier Johnson (787 yards) and tight end Gerald Everett (49 catches).
Early Prediction: Air Force
38. Quick Lane Bowl - Boston College (6-6) vs. Maryland (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Former ACC Atlantic foes Boston College and Maryland meet for the first time since 2013 in Detroit. Both teams experienced a three-game improvement in the win column after disappointing 3-9 campaigns last fall. New coach D.J. Durkin was a big reason why Maryland finished 6-6, and the bowl appearance is the first building block in helping the program take a step forward in the rugged Big Ten East. After struggling mightily with turnovers (-18 margin), the Terrapins improved that total to minus-five in 2016. The ground game is the strength of Maryland’s offense, with sophomore Ty Johnson (845 yards) leading the way. Boston College ranks last in the ACC in scoring (19.1 ppg), but coach Steve Addazio’s team is strong on defense once again. The Eagles allow only 5.1 yards per play and 24.6 points per contest. End Harold Landry (15 sacks) is an underrated star for the Eagles.
Early Prediction: Boston College
37. New Orleans Bowl - Southern Miss (6-6) vs. Louisiana (6-6)
Dec. 17 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
After a one-year absence, the Ragin’ Cajuns are back in the New Orleans Bowl. Under coach Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana has made four trips to the Superdome for this postseason matchup and won all four games. The Ragin’ Cajuns rank fourth in the Sun Belt in rushing (180.8 ypg), with running back Elijah McGuire (1,028 yards) and quarterback Anthony Jennings (322) carrying the offense. Southern Miss has been solid against the run, limiting opponents to 149.3 yards per game and ranking fourth in Conference USA in fewest points allowed (30.3) per game. First-year coach Jay Hopson had an up-and-down debut, as the Golden Eagles lost five out of six games after starting 4-1. However, the return of quarterback Nick Mullens from injury sparked Southern Miss to a 39-24 victory over Louisiana Tech in the regular season finale. Running back Ito Smith (1,774 yards) is another standout to watch.
Early Prediction: Southern Miss
36. Military Bowl - Temple (10-3) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Less than a month after defeating Navy for the American Athletic Conference title, Temple will return to Annapolis to take on Wake Forest in the Military Bowl. Coach Matt Rhule has Temple trending up with 20 wins over the last two years, and both sides of the ball will be a handful for the Demon Deacons. Quarterback Phillip Walker threw for 20 touchdowns in 2016, and the Owls have two running backs – Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead – that reached 918 yards. Despite losing a couple of key defenders from last year’s group, Temple’s defense remains one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks. The Owls limit opponents to just 17.2 points per game and 4.6 yards a play. Wake Forest took a big step forward in coach Dave Clawson’s third year, reaching 6-6 after back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. Clawson is a program builder and had a young roster through his first two seasons. However, the Demon Deacons turned a corner in 2016 and can lean on a defense that limits opponents to 21.8 points a game.
Early Prediction: Temple
35. New Mexico Bowl - UTSA (6-6) vs. New Mexico (8-4)
Dec. 17 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first game of the 2016-17 bowl season features two of the nation’s top under-the-radar coaching jobs this year. UTSA is led by first-year coach Frank Wilson, who guided the Roadrunners to six wins and the first bowl appearance in program history. New Mexico is making its second consecutive bowl trip and the eight wins recorded in 2016 are the highest for this program since 2007. Coach Bob Davie has helped this program take a step forward recently, increasing the win total in three consecutive seasons. The Lobos rank No. 1 nationally in rushing offense, but UTSA’s rush defense limits opponents to 4.4 yards per carry. When the Roadrunners are on offense, the one-two combination of Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes at running back figures to test a New Mexico defense ranked third in the Mountain West against the run.
Early Prediction: New Mexico
34. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Idaho (8-4) vs. Colorado State (7-5)
Dec. 22 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Thanks to some swapping of tie-ins, Idaho stays close to home for the postseason instead of making a trip to Tucson for the Arizona Bowl. The Vandals are moving to the FCS level in 2018 but that hasn’t slowed the progress of this program under coach Paul Petrino. After winning just two games from 2013-14, Idaho went 4-8 in 2015 and finished 8-4 this year – the program’s highest win total since 2009. Quarterback Matt Linehan has quietly produced a steady 2016 campaign (15 TDs, 2,803 yards), and the Vandals have been opportunistic (+8) to help win four games decided by one score or less. After a 3-4 start, Colorado State finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the Mountain West. The Rams won four out of their last five games, including a 63-31 blowout over San Diego State. Quarterback Nick Stevens returned to the starting lineup after an injury to Collin Hill and finished the year with 14 touchdowns and 1,491 yards. Receiver Michael Gallup emerged as one of the top targets in the Mountain West, catching 70 passes for 1,164 yards and 11 scores this fall.
Early Prediction: Colorado State
33. Hawaii Bowl - Hawaii (6-7) vs. MTSU (8-4)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Hawaii Bowl is the only college game on Dec. 24, so this is your best excuse if you need a trip away from the in-laws on Christmas Eve. Under the direction of first-year coach Nick Rolovich, Hawaii is back in the postseason for the first time since 2010. Rolovich – a former Hawaii quarterback – helped the Rainbow Warriors earn a three-game improvement in the win column this season. Hawaii’s offense won’t bring back memories of the June Jones era just yet, but this group improved its per-game average by nearly 10 points. The Rainbow Warriors will have their hands full on defense against MTSU’s high-powered attack. Of course, there’s an asterisk by the Blue Raiders’ offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill suffered a collarbone injury in early November and missed the rest of the 2016 campaign. Stockstill’s status for this game is uncertain. If Stockstill can’t go, freshman John Urzua will start, with the MTSU offense leaning heavily on running back I’Tavius Mathers (2,093 total yards) and receiver Richie James (160.8 total yards per game). In terms of bowl selections, MTSU has the market cornered on the best destinations over the last two seasons. After playing in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015, the Blue Raiders are headed to Honolulu this year.
Early Prediction: MTSU
32. Cactus Bowl - Baylor (6-6) vs. Boise State (10-2)
Dec. 27 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Boise State is no stranger to postseason trips to Arizona, as the Broncos have played in the Fiesta Bowl three times since 2006. This is Baylor’s seventh consecutive bowl appearance, but the Bears ended the year with six consecutive losses and lost starting quarterback Seth Russell to a season-ending leg injury. Freshman Zach Smith is a promising passer for Baylor and the late-season starts will ease his transition into the full-time role in 2017. Smith has a talented group of skill players at his disposal, including KD Cannon (73 catches) and running backs Terence Williams (945 yards) and Shock Linwood (751 yards). The Broncos have struggled to stop ground attacks (179.8 ypg allowed), so Linwood and Williams could have plenty of room to run. When Boise State has the ball, Baylor is going to have its hands full trying to slow down quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols. Expect plenty of fireworks on offense between these two teams. However, the Broncos should be a heavy favorite after the Bears finished the season with six consecutive losses.
Early Prediction: Boise State
31. Bahamas Bowl - Old Dominion (9-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 23 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
The two previous matchups in the Bahamas Bowl produced plenty of points and entertaining games. In 2014, WKU held off Central Michigan in a 49-48 shootout, while Western Michigan won 45-31 over MTSU last year. This season’s matchup features an Old Dominion team making its first bowl trip in program history, and an Eastern Michigan program earning its first bowl appearance since 1987. The Monarchs have a dynamic offense, averaging 36 points a game behind quarterback David Washington and running back Ray Lawry. Coach Chris Creighton has brought marked improvement to Eastern Michigan in just three years, taking the Eagles from 1-11 last season to 7-5 in 2016. Quarterback Brogan Roback leads an EMU attack that ranks second in the MAC in passing offense.
Early Prediction: Old Dominion
30. St. Petersburg Bowl - Mississippi State (5-7) vs. Miami Ohio (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
The St. Petersburg Bowl may not rank too high on this list, but there’s some intrigue between the two teams meeting in the home of the Tampa Bay Rays (Tropicana Field). Thanks to a high APR, Mississippi State makes the postseason with a 5-7 record, and Miami (Ohio) started 0-6 and finished the year with six consecutive victories. The Bulldogs feature a rising star in quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who recorded at least 365 total yards in four out of the team’s final five contests. A similar storyline took place on the RedHawks’ sideline, as Gus Ragland returned from a knee injury to throw for 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions during the six-game winning streak. Ragland and receivers should be able to find room to make plays, as Mississippi State has surrendered 31 passing scores this year. Miami (Ohio) ranks third in the MAC in scoring defense, but this unit’s ability to stop the run will be tested against Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams.
Early Prediction: Mississippi State
29. Dollar General Bowl - Ohio (8-5) vs. Troy (9-3)
Dec. 23 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Troy was quietly one of the nation’s most-improved teams this year. After a 4-8 debut under coach Neal Brown in 2015, the Trojans finished 9-3 and just missed on claiming a share of the Sun Belt title. At 36 years old, Brown is one of the youngest head coaches at the FBS level and is a rising star to watch over the next couple of years. Troy’s offense led the Sun Belt by averaging 34.2 points per game, with quarterback Brandon Silvers (22 TDs) and running back Jordan Chunn (1,232 yards) leading the way. Silvers and Chunn face a tough Ohio defense, a group that ranks second in the MAC by holding opponents to 22.2 points per game. The Bobcats ranked near the bottom of the MAC (eighth) in offense, and there’s some uncertainty at quarterback after Greg Windham replaced Quinton Maxwell against Western Michigan in the conference title game. Ohio must lean on its defense to knock off the Trojans.
Early Prediction: Troy
28. AutoNation Cure Bowl - UCF (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-5)
Dec. 17 – 5:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
The second edition of the AutoNation Cure Bowl is a home game for UCF. The Knights were one of the nation’s most-improved teams this fall, as new coach Scott Frost sparked a six-game improvement in the win column after an 0-12 record in 2015. Frost is known for his background on offense, but UCF is still working out some of the kinks on that side of the ball. Freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton (9 TDs) is promising and leads an attack averaging 30.1 points per game. However, the strength of this team is a defense limiting opponents to 24.1 points a contest. Arkansas State started 0-4 but rebounded to win seven out of the last eight games to claim a share of the Sun Belt title. The Red Wolves aren’t as explosive on offense as in recent years, but coach Blake Anderson’s team is led by a solid defense. Arkansas State ranks third in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (22.2 ppg) and holds offenses to 5.2 yards per play. Defensive lineman Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is one of the nation’s most underrated players, recording 18 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks in 2016.
Early Prediction: Arkansas State
27. Foster Farms Bowl - Utah (8-4) vs. Indiana (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Considering what transpired in early December, Indiana might be one of the most intriguing teams to watch during bowl season. Kevin Wilson resigned as the program’s head coach, and defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted to take his spot. Allen made a big difference on Indiana’s defense this year but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach. What tweaks will Allen implement with a month to prepare? In addition to the coaching turnover, the Hoosiers are going to have their hands full with Utah. The Utes have posted three consecutive winning records in Pac-12 play and were in the mix to win the South Division late into November. Running back Joe Williams returned from an early-season retirement to rush for 1,185 yards, and quarterback Troy Williams has provided more of a big-play element for the passing game. Utah is also strong on the line of scrimmage, with left tackle Garett Bolles clearing the way on offense, and end Hunter Dimick and tackle Lowell Lotulelei headlining the defensive front.
Early Prediction: Utah
26. Independence Bowl - Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. NC State (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Vanderbilt and NC State visit Shreveport, La. with momentum on their side. Both programs scored huge victories over their in-state rival in Week 13, which earned the all-important sixth victory and clinched bowl eligibility. The Commodores have showed steady improvement in coach Derek Mason’s three seasons in Nashville. Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on defense in 2015 paid big dividends, and the offense showed signs of life at the end of the 2016 campaign thanks to the emergence of quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The sophomore’s development has helped to ease some of the pressure on running back Ralph Webb (1,172 yards). The junior could find limited running room against a standout Wolfpack line, which ranked first in the ACC against the run. When NC State has the ball, the Wolfpack will have to keep tabs on Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. The junior is one of – if not the best – defender in the SEC. Cunningham will be tasked with containing running back Matt Dayes (1,119 yards) and versatile tight end Jaylen Samuels (704 total yards).
Early Prediction: NC State
25. Birmingham Bowl - South Florida (10-2) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 29 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
South Carolina’s hire of Will Muschamp was met with plenty of skepticism, but the former Florida head coach deserves plenty of praise for his coaching job this year. The Gamecocks finished 6-6, showed improvement on defense and developed some promising playmakers for 2017 and beyond for the offense. Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley took over the starting job midway through the season and finished with 1,030 yards and six scores. He should benefit from the extra practices for bowl preparation, as South Carolina will need to score some points to keep up with South Florida’s dynamic offense. Willie Taggart is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks and guided the Bulls to an average of 43.6 points per game. However, Taggart left to take the coaching job at Oregon, leaving T.J. Weist to work as the program's interim coach. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is a dynamic dual-threat option, while running back Marlon Mack has posted three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Early Prediction: South Florida
24. Liberty Bowl - Georgia (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)
Dec. 30 – Noon ET, ESPN
Considering the preseason expectations for both teams, it’s a bit of a surprise Georgia and TCU enter this matchup with a combined 13-11 record. New coach Kirby Smart inherited a roster in need of more repair than some may have realized over the offseason and handed the keys to the offense to true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The future looks bright for the Bulldogs with Eason’s development, and this team lost three of its five games by three points or less. TCU’s win total (six) is probably the bigger surprise considering the Horned Frogs were pegged by some as a dark horse to win the Big 12. What went wrong this season? The offense struggled to replace quarterback Trevone Boykin, as Foster Sawyer and Kenny Hill combined to throw 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. The offense also struggled to produce big plays and surrendered 26 sacks after giving up only 18 in 2015. Additionally, TCU’s defense didn’t take a step forward as most expected with seven returning starters. Neither team will salvage its season with a win in Memphis, but a victory would ease some of the disappointment.
Early Prediction: Georgia
23. Poinsettia Bowl - BYU (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-5)
Dec. 21 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Two old WAC and Mountain West foes meet for the first time since 2010 in San Diego on Dec. 21. This is also BYU’s 12 consecutive bowl trip, while Wyoming is making its first bowl trip since 2011. The Cougars won’t have quarterback Taysom Hill for this game, as the senior suffered a season-ending arm injury in the finale against Utah State. Although Hill is a big loss, backup Tanner Mangum is a proven option, throwing for 3,377 yards and 23 scores in 2015. Running back Jamaal Williams capped a standout career in Provo with 1,165 rushing yards this season and is a tough matchup for a Wyoming rush defense allowing just over 200 yards per game. After a 6-18 start to his tenure in Laramie, Craig Bohl guided Wyoming to an 8-5 record and a Mountain Division title this fall. Brian Hill is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks, and quarterback Josh Allen has delivered a breakout year (26 TDs) in his first season as the starter.
Early Prediction: BYU
22. TaxSlayer Bowl - Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 31 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
Big victories against in-state rivals probably helped Georgia Tech and Kentucky move up in their conference bowl pecking order to land in Jacksonville. The Yellow Jackets knocked off Georgia 28-27 in Athens, while the Wildcats stunned Louisville 41-38 with a last-second field goal. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops appeared to be squarely on the hot seat after a 2-3 start, but the Wildcats finished the year by winning five out of their last seven games. Starting quarterback Drew Barker was lost for the season due to a back injury in September, yet the offense didn’t miss a beat with Stephen Johnson at the controls and a dynamic ground attack leading the way. Freshman Benny Snell was a breakout player for Stoops, rushing for 1,057 yards and 13 scores on just 179 carries. He’s joined by dynamic junior Boom Williams (7.1 ypc) in a backfield that ranked third in the SEC in rushing. Rushing and ground attacks are synonymous with Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets’ option scheme is tough to prepare for, with quarterback Justin Thomas the catalyst for an offense that averaged 257.4 rushing yards per game. Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled to stop the run (10th in the ACC) and will have its hands full against Snell and Williams. This is Kentucky’s first bowl trip since 2010 and the extra time to prepare could be enough to earn a slight advantage over Georgia Tech.
Early Prediction: Georgia Tech
21. Pinstripe Bowl - Pitt (8-4) vs. Northwestern (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The last two Pinstripe Bowl matchups went into overtime and another close game wouldn’t be a surprise on Dec. 28. Under the watch of new coordinator Matt Canada, Pitt quietly averaged 42.3 points a contest in 2016. Canada did a good job of mixing up the run with James Conner (1,060 yards) and utilizing a passing game with quarterback Nathan Peterman (26 TDs) with few proven weapons at receiver. Northwestern got off to a rough start, opening 1-3 with losses to Illinois State, Western Michigan and Nebraska. The Wildcats showed steady improvement in the second half of the season, largely due to the development of quarterback Clayton Thorson. Running back Justin Jackson has posted three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns and will test a Pitt run defense ranked third in the ACC. While the Panthers have been stout against the run, stopping the pass has been a huge issue this year. Can Thorson connect with receiver Austin Carr for a couple of big plays?
Early Prediction: Pitt
20. Miami Beach Bowl - Tulsa (9-3) vs. Central Michigan (6-6)
Dec. 19 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you like offense, there’s a good chance you will enjoy this showdown in Marlins Park on Dec. 19. The first Miami Beach Bowl in 2014 featured a combined 103 points between Memphis and BYU, while WKU and USF went back-and-forth in a 45-35 victory by the Hilltoppers last season. Tulsa features one of the nation’s most-balanced attacks on offense, averaging 260.8 yards per game through the air and 261.8 on the ground. Quarterback Dane Evans has passed for 27 scores, while running backs James Flanders (1,529 yards) and D’Angelo Brewer (1,330) each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Central Michigan is led by senior quarterback Cooper Rush (23 TDs), but the Chippewas have struggled in pass protection and ranked last in the MAC in rushing offense. However, Central Michigan is still averaging nearly 30 points a game (27.7). The Golden Hurricane ranks near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense (31.5), so this one shouldn’t be short on fireworks.
Early Prediction: Tulsa
19. Holiday Bowl - Washington State (8-4) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
An interesting contrast of styles is set to meet in San Diego on Dec. 27. Washington State ranks third in the nation in passing attempts, with quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks connecting as one of the top pass-catch combinations in the nation. The Cougars aren’t just an aerial show, as coach Mike Leach’s team has three capable running backs and a big offensive line to provide protection. Minnesota doesn’t possess the high-powered attack that Washington State will bring to San Diego, but the Golden Gophers can lean on a ball-control offense to keep the Cougars on the sidelines. Rodney Smith (1,084 yards) leads the team in rushing, with Shannon Brooks (599) and quarterback Mitch Leidner (340) chipping in. Which team will dictate its style of play?
Early Prediction: Washington State
18. Armed Forces Bowl - Louisiana Tech (8-5) vs. Navy (9-3)
Dec. 23 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Armed Forces Bowl was originally slated to be Navy versus a Big 12 programs, but the conference fell short of eligible teams, opening the door for an at-large appearance by Louisiana Tech. Both the Midshipmen and Bulldogs lost their conference championship game, but there shouldn’t be much of a hangover effect when these two teams meet on Dec. 23. Despite a stark contrast in styles, these two teams rank among the top 20 in scoring offense. Navy’s option attack averages 39.1 points per game, while Louisiana Tech averages 44 per contest. The Bulldogs feature a prolific passing attack, headlined by quarterback Ryan Higgins (37 TDs) and two standout receivers (Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson). The Midshipmen counter with one of the nation’s top ground attacks (327.5 ypg), but quarterback Will Worth was lost for the season due to an injury suffered against Temple in the American Athletic Conference title game. With Worth out for the year, sophomore Zach Abey will step into the starting role. Expect a lot of points between these two teams on Dec. 23.
Early Prediction: Louisiana Tech
17. Belk Bowl - Virginia Tech (9-4) vs. Arkansas (7-5)
Dec. 29 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is the first time the Hokies and Razorbacks have met on the gridiron, and this matchup in the Belk Bowl could feature plenty of fireworks. Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen was arguably the SEC’s best player on offense through the first half of the season. However, the junior suffered a knee injury suffered against Auburn and tossed six interceptions over his final five games. With a month to get healthy, Allen should be near full strength, which is good news for an Arkansas attack that also features running back Rawleigh Williams and talented tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. The Razorbacks need a big game from Allen and Williams to win this one, especially considering the problems on defense stopping mobile quarterbacks in 2016. Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans passed for 3,309 yards and 27 scores in his first year on campus and also led the team with 759 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Arkansas ranks 10th in the SEC in scoring defense and is giving up just over 200 yards (209.3) on the ground per game. The Hokies - led by first-year coach Justin Fuente - are a tough matchup for the Razorbacks.
Early Prediction: Virginia Tech
16. Camellia Bowl - Appalachian State (9-3) vs. Toledo (9-3)
Dec. 17 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Two of the nation’s rising stars in the Group of 5 head coaching ranks meet in Montgomery, Ala. on the first Saturday of bowl action. Jason Candle was promoted to head coach after Matt Campbell left to take the head-coaching job at Iowa State. The Rockets didn’t miss a beat with Candle at the controls, finishing 9-3 and averaging 38.8 points a game with an explosive offense. Running back Kareem Hunt rushed for 1,355 yards behind a standout line, while quarterback Logan Woodside threw for 43 touchdowns and 3,882 yards in his first full season as the starter. There’s no shortage of targets for Woodside in the passing game, as the Rockets have four receivers with at least 38 catches. On the other sideline, Appalachian State is back in Montgomery for the second consecutive year after finishing 9-3 behind coach Scott Satterfield. The former Appalachian State quarterback has helped this program through a quick transition to the FBS level and claimed 20 wins over the last two years. Junior Taylor Lamb (2,162 yards) is a steady leader at quarterback, while the one-two punch of Jalin Moore and Marcus Cox will test a Toledo defense that has allowed 165.7 rushing yards per game in 2016. Appalachian State has a big edge on defense, ranking first in the Sun Belt in scoring (17 ppg) and yards per play (4.86 ypp).
Early Prediction: Toledo
15. Las Vegas Bowl - Houston (9-3) vs. San Diego State (10-3)
Dec. 17 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Las Vegas Bowl doesn’t have its traditional Mountain West vs. Pac-12 matchup, but this year’s game features two of the top Group of 5 teams. Houston suffered three losses in league play but defeated Louisville and Oklahoma in non-conference action. With Tom Herman taking the job at Texas, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was promoted to interim coach for this game. Orlando won’t tweak too much, as the Cougars lean heavily on quarterback Greg Ward (349.6 ypg) and a defense limiting opponents to 22.6 points a game. San Diego State earned its second consecutive Mountain West title with a 27-24 victory over Wyoming. The Aztecs rank No. 7 in the nation in rushing offense, featuring running back Donnel Pumphrey (2,018 yards). Pumphrey needs just over 100 yards (108) to surpass Ron Dayne for the FBS career mark. Houston leads the American Athletic Conference in rush defense (97.9 ypg), so this will be a tough challenge for Pumphrey and the San Diego State offensive line.
Early Prediction: Houston
14. Boca Raton Bowl - WKU (10-3) vs. Memphis (8-4)
Dec. 20 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Like offense? Be sure to check out this matchup in Boca Raton. WKU averages 45.3 points a game, while Memphis isn’t far behind at 39.5 This matchup was slated to feature Jeff Brohm (WKU) and Mike Norvell (Memphis) – two rising stars in the head coaching ranks. However, Brohm accepted the head coaching position at Purdue and defensive coordinator Nick Holt will lead the Hilltoppers in this game. WKU closed the season on a seven-game winning streak and scored at least 44 points in every contest during that run. Quarterback Mike White successfully replaced Brandon Doughty this year, throwing for 4,027 yards and 34 scores. He’s supported by standout running back Anthony Wales and two dynamic receivers (Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris). Quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,326 yards and 28 TDs) frequently targets Anthony Miller (84 catches), and the Tigers have three players with at least 460 rushing yards. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
Early Prediction: WKU
13. Texas Bowl - Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Kansas State (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
This will be the first meeting between these two teams since Texas A&M departed for the SEC after the 2011 season. The matchup between the Wildcats and Aggies should be an intriguing one for the Texas Bowl, which has witnessed back-to-back blowouts by the SEC team (Arkansas and LSU) over a Big 12 opponent (Texas and Texas Tech). Kansas State isn’t flashy on offense, but coach Bill Snyder’s team averages 232.9 rushing yards per game and will test a Texas A&M defense that struggled to stop the run and tackle in the second half of the season. Quarterback Trevor Knight returned from a shoulder injury and played in the Aggies’ Thanksgiving night loss to LSU. Knight should be at full strength for this game, and the time off should also benefit end Myles Garrett, who was also banged up throughout the 2016 season. The Wildcats led the Big 12 in scoring defense but were vulnerable to the pass. Will Texas A&M’s offense control the tempo and jump out to an early lead? Or will K-State dictate the pace of the game by a strong ground attack, which controls the line of scrimmage and keeps the Aggies on the sidelines.
Early Prediction: Texas A&M
12. Outback Bowl - Florida (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Jan. 2 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Points could be at a premium in Tampa on Jan. 2. Both teams have experienced their share of issues on offense this season, as Florida ranks 110th in scoring and Iowa checks in at No. 77. However, while both teams are limited on offense, these are two of the top defenses in the nation. The Gators and Hawkeyes are tied for 10th nationally in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 17.9 points a contest. Florida was hit hard by injuries on defense late in the year and the time off could help this group get closer to full strength. Quarterback play is also under the microscope for coach Jim McElwain. Could freshman Feleipe Franks have his redshirt removed in time for this game? These two teams have played three previous times, including two matchups in the Outback Bowl (2004 and 2006). Expect a low-scoring, defensive affair in the Outback Bowl.
Early Prediction: Florida
11. Music City Bowl - Nebraska (9-3) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
Dec. 30 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of name value and brands in college football, it doesn’t get much better than this matchup in Nashville. Nebraska and Tennessee meet on Dec. 30 for the first time since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, and both teams are looking to close the year out on a high note after suffering disappointing losses in November. The Cornhuskers improved their win total by three after a 6-7 record in Mike Riley’s first year in 2015. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong did a better job of minimizing the turnovers this season, which helped Nebraska win three games by seven points or less after struggling to win close games in 2015. Armstrong was suffering from a hamstring injury late in the 2016 campaign and the time off should allow the senior to utilize his legs more in the bowl. Tennessee was a heavy favorite to win the SEC East, but coach Butch Jones’ team fell short. Injuries ravaged the defense, which slumped to ninth in the SEC in points allowed (29.3 ppg). While the defense struggled in 2016, the Volunteers possessed one of the SEC’s top offenses. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Alvin Kamara guided the offense to an average of 36.3 points a contest. Don’t be surprised if this one is a shootout.
Early Prediction: Tennessee
10. Russell Athletic Bowl - West Virginia (10-2) vs. Miami (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
An old Big East rivalry will resume on Dec. 28 with West Virginia and Miami meeting in Orlando. These two teams have not played since 2003, and the Mountaineers have lost six in a row in their all-time series against the Hurricanes. West Virginia heavily recruits the state of Florida, so an appearance in this game against Miami is a good showcase for coach Dana Holgorsen’s program. The Mountaineers are coming off their best win total (10) since joining the Big 12, and Holgorsen was inked to a long-term contract following the regular season finale against Baylor. Quarterback Skyler Howard (26 TDs) took a step forward in his development, but the Mountaineers also have a solid collection of running backs – led by Justin Crawford (1,168 yards) and a standout offensive line. Mark Richt’s return to his alma mater was a much-needed stabilizing force for Miami and better days are ahead for this program. Quarterback Brad Kaaya and running back Mark Walton will test a West Virginia defense that limits opponents to 5.6 yards per play. Keep an eye on the turnover battle. In two losses this year, the Mountaineers were minus-six in margin. Miami was plus-eight for the season and finished the year with positive or even turnover margins in five straight games.
Early Prediction: West Virginia
9. Sun Bowl - North Carolina (8-4) vs. Stanford (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
The Sun Bowl took an interesting turn in mid-December, as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey announced he would pursue NFL Draft training instead of participating in this game. And on the other sideline, North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky is rising on draft boards as a potential first-round pick after a standout 2016 season. Trubisky has completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards and 28 scores and added 270 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The junior has plenty of help in the supporting cast, as he’s joined by standout running back Elijah Hood (858 yards) and dynamic receiver Ryan Switzer (91 catches). Stanford’s hopes of earning another Pac-12 title were derailed after three losses in the middle of the season, but coach David Shaw’s team rebounded by winning its last five games. The Cardinal didn’t beat a team with a winning record during that stretch. However, quarterback Keller Chryst played well (837 yards and 9 TDs) in his first extended action, and the defense finished second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 20.2 points a game. While Chryst’s progress is worth monitoring, it’s no secret the offense performs at its best with a strong ground game, and sophomore Bryce Love should be a tough matchup for a North Carolina defense surrendering 235.5 rushing yards per contest.
Early Prediction: Stanford
8. Alamo Bowl - Colorado (10-3) vs. Oklahoma State (9-3)
Dec. 29 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Buffaloes and Cowboys are former Big 12 rivals, but due to divisions in the old 12-team format, these two programs have not played since 2009. The Alamo Bowl landed an intriguing matchup with Colorado and Oklahoma State meeting in San Antonio, as both teams were on the doorstep of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Buffaloes are one of the best stories from the 2016 college football season. After winning just 10 games from 2013-15, coach Mike MacIntyre elevated Colorado to a 10-win season and a Pac-12 South title. The Buffaloes are led by a stingy defense, especially in the secondary with underrated cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has made plenty of headlines due to his hairstyle choices this year, but the former quarterback is on the verge of his third 10-win season over the last four years. The pass-catch combination of Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington is a good test for Colorado’s secondary, while freshman Justice Hill and senior Chris Carson provide some punch on the ground. Expect a close (and entertaining game) in the Alamodome on Dec. 29.
Early Prediction: Colorado
7. Cotton Bowl - Western Michigan (13-0) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
Jan. 2 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Behind coach P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan will row the boat from Kalamazoo to the biggest bowl game in program history. The Broncos capped a perfect regular season with a 29-23 victory over Ohio to secure the program’s first conference championship since 1988. A balanced attack leads the way for Western Michigan’s offense, as quarterback Zach Terrell is one of the nation’s most efficient passers (70.8% and 32 TDs) and running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan combined for 2,165 yards on the ground. Receiver Corey Davis (91 catches) should be an All-American and is on the radar as a high pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. And here’s a stat that has to give Western Michigan some confidence: Group of 5 teams are 2-0 in New Year’s Six bowl games. However, the Broncos’ offense will have their hands full against Wisconsin’s defense, which is holding opponents to 15.5 points a game. The Badgers feature an active front seven around the line of scrimmage and a secondary that has allowed only 12 passing scores in 2016. As usual for a Wisconsin team, coach Paul Chryst’s offense is led by its ground attack. Running back Corey Clement will test a Western Michigan defense allowing 151.2 rushing yards a game.
Early Prediction: Wisconsin
6. Sugar Bowl - Auburn (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
Jan. 2 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Auburn could be the team that benefits the most from the time off from the regular season finale until Jan. 2. The Tigers offense was hit hard by injuries in November, as quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway were less than 100 percent over the last couple of games. With a month to heal, White and Pettway should be closer to full strength, helping an offense that scored at least 38 points in four consecutive games in October return to form. Assuming Pettway is 100 percent, he’s a nightmare matchup for an Oklahoma defense giving up 160.8 rushing yards per game. Stopping the run is essential for the Sooners, but coach Bob Stoops’ team can also take Auburn out of its element by forcing it to play from behind. Oklahoma’s offense averages 44.7 points per game behind quarterback Baker Mayfield, running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and receiver Dede Westbrook. Getting ahead and forcing Auburn to throw will help alleviate some of the concerns about the Sooners’ defense.
Early Prediction: Auburn
5. Citrus Bowl - Louisville (9-3) vs. LSU (7-4)
Dec. 31 – 11 a.m. ET, ABC
It doesn’t get much better than Lamar Jackson taking on one of the nation’s best defenses in Orlando. Although Louisville fell out of the playoff picture with losses to Houston and Kentucky, Jackson is still the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after a prolific 2016 campaign. The sophomore showed marked improvement as a passer, accounted for 410.7 total yards per game and reached the end zone 51 times. Jackson has rarely been contained in 2016, so a LSU defense limiting opponents to just 16.4 points a game will present a tough challenge. Coordinator Dave Aranda coordinates a standout attack, which is headlined by a strong front seven and a secondary that has allowed only nine passing scores. New coach Ed Orgeron promised to spice up the offense when he replaced Les Miles in late September. Interim play-caller Steve Ensminger has guided the offense to at least 38 points in five out of the last seven games. Running back Leonard Fournette (843 yards) won't play due to injury, but LSU's ground attack is in good shape with sophomore Derrius Guice (1,249 yards).
Early Prediction: LSU
4. Capital One Orange Bowl - Michigan (10-2) vs. Florida State (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook versus Michigan’s defense is one of the top one-on-one matchups of the bowl season. Cook finished 2016 as the school’s all-time leading rusher, recording 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns (6.04 ypc). However, the junior faces a Wolverines’ defense limiting opponents to just 3.1 yards per carry. In addition to stopping the run, Michigan’s front seven is one of the best in the nation at getting to the quarterback, recording 44 sacks through 12 games. The Wolverines’ front seven should be a huge test for Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois and an offensive line that has surrendered 34 sacks in 2016. On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles could get a key reinforcement if safety Derwin James returns after missing most of the 2016 season due to a knee injury. The month to prepare should help Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, who was dealing with a shoulder injury at the end of the regular season. The Wolverines will also have their hands full in the trenches against a Florida State defense ranked No. 1 in the nation in sacks (47).
Early Prediction: Michigan
3. Rose Bowl - Penn State (11-2) vs. USC (9-3)
Jan. 2 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Penn State and USC were two of the nation’s hottest teams at the end of the regular season, so it’s appropriate they meet in Pasadena on Jan. 2 for the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions finished No. 5 in the CFB Playoff selection committee top 25 rankings after winning nine consecutive games to end the season. The biggest reason for Penn State’s improvement? Offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley thrived under new coordinator Joe Moorhead, and running back Saquon Barkley finished second among Big Ten rushers with 1,302 yards. Similar to the Nittany Lions, USC started slow with a 1-3 record through its first four games. However, the Trojans won eight in a row, largely due to the emergence of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold at quarterback. In addition to Darnold’s play, USC’s defense – a concern in the preseason – limited opponents to just 22.2 points a game. These two teams have played just once since 2001, with the only matchup taking place in the 2009 Rose Bowl.
Early Prediction: USC
2. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (National Semifinal) - Alabama (13-0) vs. Washington (12-1)
Dec. 31 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Peach Bowl kicks off the third College Football Playoff, and there’s an interesting contrast in the two teams traveling to Atlanta. Alabama hopes to win its fifth national title in eight seasons, while Washington is making its first playoff appearance. Under coach Chris Petersen’s direction, the Huskies have experienced a quick rise back into national prominence. The Huskies feature a dynamic offense, headlined by quarterback Jake Browning and receiver John Ross, while running back Myles Gaskin eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. Washington’s defense is also one of the best in the nation and is headlined by a standout secondary. While the Huskies are a team on the rise, Petersen’s team is going to have its hands full. Alabama features the nation’s best collection of talent, No. 1 defense and a dynamic freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts.
Early Prediction: Alabama
1. Fiesta Bowl (National Semifinal) - Clemson (12-1) vs. Ohio State (11-1)
Dec. 31 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is by far the most intriguing matchup of the bowl season. There’s no guarantee Alabama beats Washington, but the Crimson Tide are a heavy favorite over the Huskies. So which team – Ohio State or Clemson – gives Alabama the toughest matchup? Clemson fell short in its national title hopes last season, but coach Dabo Swinney’s team is just 60 minutes away from a potential rematch against Alabama in the CFB Playoff title game. The Tigers are once again loaded with firepower on offense, starting with quarterback Deshaun Watson. The junior accounted for 341.8 total yards per game this season and guided the Clemson offense to an average of 40.2 points a contest. Clemson’s defense suffered a handful of key personnel losses in the offseason but quickly reloaded behind coordinator Brent Venables. Ohio State returns to the Fiesta Bowl for the second year in a row. However, the stakes are much higher this season. The Buckeyes returned only six starters in 2016, but as expected under coach Urban Meyer, this team quickly reloaded. The passing offense behind quarterback J.T. Barrett is a work in progress, but playmakers Curtis Samuel (WR) and running back Mike Weber will provide a tough test for a Clemson defense ranked first in the ACC in fewest points allowed (18.4 ppg). The biggest question in this matchup: Which team wins the battle in the trenches? First impression: There’s a slight edge to Clemson in that department.
Early Prediction: Clemson