Your College Football Bowl Viewing Guide
Bowl season is upon us, with a feast of 39 games in 16 days—commencing this Saturday and concluding on New Year’s Day—followed by the College Football Playoff Championship a week later.
The onset of the post-season is always accompanied by a torrent of articles in the media criticizing the over-abundance of “meaningless” bowl games. Obviously, I’m prejudiced, as the co-founder and former executive of a bowl game, but permit me to offer a few observations.
1) These games are anything but meaningless to the athletes who participate in them. Trust me on this. I spent a lot of time in the locker rooms of bowl teams for 15 years.
2) These games aren’t meaningless to the conferences and schools who reap the financial rewards. Last year’s bowl games generated a net profit of $517 million—after all team expenses were paid—which was distributed to the 10 conferences. That’s not chump change.
3) There are a lot of folks who think watching a football game is more fun than shopping at the mall, reading the president’s tweets, or cleaning out the garage. If you think there are too many games, or the matchups aren’t attractive enough, just don’t turn on the TV.
Having said that, out of 39 games, there are bound to be a few clunkers. So, as a service to our readers, we’re going to help navigate the post-season and present our annual “Bowl Viewing Guide” for 2017-18.
Worst Bowl Names
This comes from a guy who used to run the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl, so I have some expertise in this area. Nothing can top the old Poulan Weed-eater Bowl, but there are some strong candidates new to the post-season lineup this year. Consider the Walk On’s Bistreaux & Bar Independence Bowl. Better yet, the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Or my personal favorite, the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl.
Worst Bowl Team
We’ve commented in a previous post on the scheduling schemes that permit ACC and SEC teams to play only eight league games and then schedule late-season matchups with non-conference cupcakes. Florida State, the country’s No. 3 ranked team going into the season, took advantage of that formula to sneak into the aforementioned Bistreaux & Bar Bowl with a 3-5 league record. The once-proud Seminoles, whose conference resume featured a 37-3 loss to Boston College, became bowl eligible by squeaking past Delaware State, 77-6, and Louisiana Monroe, 42-10, at the end of the season. Somehow, that didn’t stop coach Jimbo Fisher from getting a 10-year, $75 million contract at Texas A&M. If justice is served, a perfectly capable Southern Miss team (8-4) will prevail.
Sweet Sixteen: Here are the 16 bowls worth watching, in our opinion, listed in chronological order for ease of planning:
Dec. 16—Las Vegas Bowl, No. 25 Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5), ABC.
Mountain West champ Boise State always relishes a chance to topple a team from the Pac-12. Oregon will be playing its first game under new coach Mario Cristobal, elevated from departed Willie Taggart’s staff. Cristobal has star quarterback Justin Herbert, back from injury, who'll be a Heisman contender in '18.
Dec. 23—Armed Forces Bowl, San Diego State (10-2) vs. Army (9-3), ESPN.
Coach Jeff Monken has done a terrific job since arriving at West Point from Georgia Southern four years ago. This season Army won nine games for the first time since 1996. San Diego State, with one of the country’s best running backs in Rashaad Penny, upset Stanford and Arizona State. With both teams relying almost exclusively on the run, this could be the shortest bowl game of the year.
Dec. 23—Dollar General Bowl, Appalachian State (8-4) vs. Toledo (11-2), ESPN.
Our pick for the best non-Power Five Conference matchup. MAC champ Toledo and Sun Belt co-champ Appalachian State met last year in the Camellia Bowl and staged an entertaining dogfight, won 31-28 by App State. Expect another quality game this year. Quarterbacks Logan Woodside (Toledo) and Taylor Lamb (App State) passed for 55 touchdowns between them. Toledo coach Jason Candle will be at a Power Five school before long.
Dec. 24—Hawaii Bowl, Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4), ESPN.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head man, returned to his alma mater and took a team that went 1-11 last year to the Mountain West championship game. His Bulldogs will have to contend with one of the country’s best defensive players, Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver.
Dec. 27—Foster Farms Bowl, Arizona (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6), Fox.
Of course, I’m a little biased here, but two story lines make this one interesting. 1) First-year coach Jeff Brohm has turned the Purdue program around. The Boilermakers had gone 9-39 the previous four seasons. 2) Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is one of the most exciting players in the country. He alone is worth the price of admission.
Dec. 28—Camping World Bowl, No. 19 Oklahoma St. (9-3) vs. No. 22 Va. Tech (9-3), ESPN.
This could be one of the most intriguing matchups of the bowl season. Oklahoma State has one of the best pass-catch combos in college football with quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. Virginia Tech has its typical stout defense under legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
Dec. 28—Alamo Bowl, No. 13 Stanford (9-4) vs. No. 15 TCU (10-3), ESPN.
This one might be called the “runner-up bowl,” but without any of the negative connotations. Stanford and TCU are coming off excellent seasons; both lost in their conference championship games. And the Cardinal’s brilliant running back, Bryce Love, was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. The always-tough TCU defense will have its hands full trying to stop Love, whose gimpy ankle may be fully healed.
Dec. 28—Holiday Bowl, No. 18 Washington St. (9-3) vs. No. 16 Michigan St. (9-3), Fox.
It will be strength against strength with a defensive specialist (Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio) vs. an offensive guru (WSU’s Mike Leach). Dantonio fashioned a nice comeback this year after finishing 3-9 in 2016. WSU will be looking to erase the bad taste of its Apple Cup embarrassment.
Dec. 29—Cotton Bowl, No. 8 USC (11-2) vs. No. 5 Ohio State (11-2), CBS.
Under normal circumstances this game would take place in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, but with the Rose Bowl hosting a playoff semi-final, the Pac-12 and Big Ten champs will meet in the Cotton instead. Don’t miss it. Elite quarterbacks Sam Darnold (USC) and J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) lead the two best teams not in the playoff.
Dec. 30—TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville (8-4) vs. Mississippi State (8-4), ESPN.
Despite Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen’s departure for Florida, this one is still worth watching because it’s most likely 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s last game at Louisville. The dual threat quarterback is good for a few “can you believe that?” moments in every game.
Dec. 30—Fiesta Bowl, No. 11 Washington (10-2) vs. No. 9 Penn State (10-2), ESPN.
A matchup of two very talented teams that rivals USC-Ohio State for the best non-playoff bowl game. Penn State has the country’s most versatile running back in Saquon Barkley and a fearless quarterback in Trace McSorley. Washington has top-flight QB Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Donte Pettis, also the best punt returner in the universe. The defenses aren’t bad, either.
Dec. 30—Orange Bowl, No. 10 Miami (10-2) vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1), ESPN.
Both teams were undefeated through Thanksgiving but finished on a down note. Wisconsin’s playoff hopes ended with a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game; Miami was 10-0 before dropping its last two. Miami lives off turnovers. Wisconsin has its typical punishing ground game, built around freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.
Jan. 1—Peach Bowl, No 7 Auburn (10-3) vs. No. 12 UCF (12-0), ESPN.
The Cinderella Story in college football this year was UCF’s rise from the ashes. Coach Scott Frost inherited an 0-12 team two years ago and turned it into an unbeaten, New Year’s Six Bowl team in two years. For his efforts he was named the new coach at his alma mater, Nebraska. But Frost will coach UCF in the bowl and is determined to prove that his team can beat a top Power Five squad. The Knights may be more motivated than an Auburn team that has to return to the same stadium where it lost the SEC championship game.
Jan. 1—Citrus Bowl, No. 14 Notre Dame (9-3) vs. No. 17 LSU (9-3), ABC.
Two of the iconic brands in college football meet in a bowl game for the second time in the last four years. Last time (2014), the Irish won 31-28 in Music City. Both teams fell a little short of their goals this season and would love to get to double digit wins. The TV ratings should dwarf the Peach Bowl, which will be played at the same time, even though Auburn-UCF will be more interesting.
Jan. 1—Rose Bowl, No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (12-1), ESPN.
This playoff semi-final pits Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and his aerial circus vs. the best running attack in college football. Two dynamic young head coaches will also square off—Georgia’s Kirby Smart, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama, vs. Lincoln Riley, the Oklahoma offensive strategist elevated to head coach with Bob Stoops’ retirement. A dream matchup.
Jan. 1—Sugar Bowl, No. 1 Clemson (12-1) vs. No. 4 Alabama (11-1), ESPN.
The last two meetings between these teams, in the College Football Championship Game, were classics. Alabama won the first one, 45-40; Clemson turned the tables last year, 35-31. This year’s rubber-match will take place in the semi-finals rather than the final. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant has ably stepped in for Deshaun Watson, and Jalen Hurts is still making people miss for Alabama. Expect another tight game, perhaps not as high-scoring as the previous meetings.