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Our Annual Bowl Viewing Guide: The Games to Watch

Saturday marks the start of Bowl season, always an exciting time for fans who like to gorge on college football.

But no matter how big a fan you are, it’s impossible to watch all 40 post-season games. There are gifts to buy, presents to wrap, trees to decorate, parties to attend.

So, as a service to our subscribers, we’re going to help navigate the post-season lineup with our annual “Bowl Viewing Guide” for 2018-19.

First, a couple of quick observations.

Yes, there are too many bowls. But for those who like to criticize “meaningless” bowl games, let me assure you that these games aren’t meaningless to the athletes who participate in them. Trust me on this. I’ve spent a lot of time in the locker rooms of bowl teams.

The games also aren’t meaningless to the conferences and schools that reap the financial rewards. Last year bowl games generated a net profit of $559 million—after all team expenses were paid—which was distributed to the 10 conferences and member schools.

That’s not chump change.

Unfortunately, the recent trend of top players skipping bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft—and avoid possible injury—has continued this year. Among the high-profile defections: West Virginia QB Will Grier (which is why the Camping World Bowl won’t appear on our list of recommended games), Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry, and Houston defensive end Ed Oliver.

Sweet 16: Here are the 16 bowls worth watching, in our opinion, listed in chronological order for ease of planning, leading up to the national championship game Dec. 7 at Levi’s Stadium.

Dec. 15—New Mexico Bowl, North Texas (9-3) vs. Utah State (10-2), ESPN

Two of the top 20 offenses in the country—led by two of the best Group of Five quarterbacks—promise an explosive, high-scoring affair. Utah State’s Jordan Love and North Texas’ Mason Fine combined for 55 touchdown passes and only 10 INTs this year.

Dec. 15—Las Vegas Bowl, Fresno State (11-2) vs. Arizona State (7-5), ABC

Two years ago, former Cal coach Jeff Tedford (pictured above hoisting the Emerald Bowl trophy) inherited a 1-11 Fresno State team. He has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, leading the Bulldogs to 10-4 and 11-2 seasons. His defense will be tested trying to stop ASU running back Eno Benjamin and QB Manny Wilkins, although Harry’s absence will make the job a little easier. Kudos also to ASU coach Herm Edwards, who surprised a lot of people (me included) with a 7-5 record in his rookie year.

Dec. 18—Boca Raton Bowl, UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5), ESPN

One of only three matchups of conference champions, this game pits Conference USA's UAB against the MAC’s Northern Illinois. Coach Bill Clark has worked a miracle at UAB, bringing the program back after the school had dropped football for two years (2015-16).

Dec. 22—Birmingham Bowl, Memphis (8-5) vs. Wake Forest (6-6), ESPN

This one has shootout potential. Memphis averaged 43 points per game on the shoulders of running back Darrell Henderson, the nation’s No. 2 rusher with 1,909 yards and an 8.9 per carry average. Wake Forest became bowl eligible by scoring 59 points against Duke.

Dec. 22—Dollar General Bowl, Buffalo (10-3) vs. Troy (9-3), ESPN

This game features Buffalo’s impressive 6-7, 245 pound quarterback Tyree Jackson, along with two coaches who may soon catch the eye of Power Five programs. Neal Brown’s Trojans have beaten Nebraska and LSU the past two seasons, and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold won six national Division III titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater before producing his school’s first winning season since ’13.

Dec. 26—Cheez-It Bowl, Cal (7-5) vs. TCU (7-5), ESPN

Points will be at a premium in this matchup of top defenses and weak offenses. A bowl victory over a prominent Big 12 opponent (particularly one that beat Stanford in a post-season game last year) would be another big step forward for Cal coach Justin Wilcox.

Dec. 28—Music City Bowl, Purdue (6-6) vs. Auburn (7-5), ESPN

The Boilermakers and Tigers beat Rose Bowl participants Ohio State and Washington, respectively, so there’s some talent here. Purdue has a strong QB in Jeff Blough, and his freshman receiver Rondale Moore is one of the most exciting players in the country. Moore caught 103 passes for 1164 yards and 12 TDs this year and also ran for a 76-yard score.

Dec. 28—Alamo Bowl, Washington State (10-2) vs. Iowa State (8-4), ESPN

Mike Leach’s Cougars should’ve been in a New Year’s Six Bowl, but the Pac-12 gets no respect, so he had to settle for the Alamo. The game will cap a Cinderella season for WSU senior quarterback Gardner Minshew II. Iowa State has a top QB of its own in true freshman Brock Purdy, who’d love nothing better than to upstage Minshew.

Dec. 29—National Semi-Final

Cotton Bowl—Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Clemson (13-0), ESPN

What’s not to like? A matchup of two unbeatens with a berth in the national championship game on the line. There are many similarities between the teams. Both replaced established starting quarterbacks with younger studs who have higher ceilings—the Irish’s Ian Book and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. And both have outstanding defensive lines full of NFL prospects. Clemson running back Travis Etienne, the ACC Player of the Year, and the Tigers’ playoff experience may decide this one.

Dec. 29—National Semi-Final

Orange Bowl—Alabama (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1), ESPN

For the first time since the classic Reggie Bush vs. Vince Young confrontation in 2005, a Heisman Trophy winner (Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray) will be matched against the runner-up (Alabama QB Tua Tagovaioloa). The lightning quick Murray will give Nick Saban’s defense fits, but the question is, given Oklahoma’s porous defense, will Alabama ever have to punt in the game?

Dec. 31—Sun Bowl, Stanford (8-4) vs. Pittsburgh (7-6), CBS

A clash between two teams that love to run the football. But Stanford’s David Shaw switched to a more pass-oriented approach at mid-season, and it paid off. It was telling that conference coaches voted Stanford’s K.J. Costello second team All-Pac-12 QB, ahead of Washington’s Jake Browning, the all-time Pac-12 passing leader, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, a sure NFL No. 1 pick. If Stanford stays with the aerial game, this shouldn’t be close.

Dec. 31—Redbox Bowl, Oregon (8-4) vs. Michigan State (7-5), Fox

This was just the type of matchup we envisioned way back in 2012, when our bowl game (then known as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) signed contracts with the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Two iconic programs hopefully will attract the Bay Area’s college football crowd. Lots of pro scouts will also be on hand to see how the afore-mentioned Herbert fares against Coach Mark Dantonio’s stout Michigan State defense.

Dec. 31—Holiday Bowl, Utah (9-4) vs. Northwestern (8-5)

This game features the losers of the Pac-12 and Big Ten title games, but these teams are anything but losers. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald are two of the best coaches in the country. The Utes won the Pac-12 South despite losing their QB and top running back, and the Wildcats rebounded from an early season loss to Akron to claim the Big Ten West. Expect a close, intense, low-scoring affair decided by special teams.

Jan. 1—Fiesta Bowl, LSU (9-3) vs. UCF (12-0), ESPN

Perhaps the most intriguing matchup on the docket, as unbeaten UCF, once again snubbed by the playoff after a perfect season, tries to prove its mettle against the SEC’s LSU Tigers. Last year UCF beat Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl. It’ll be tougher for the Knights without injured quarterback McKenzie Milton, but his replacement, Darriel Mack Jr., produced six touchdowns in the AAC title game.

Jan. 1—Rose Bowl, Ohio State (12-1) vs. Washington (10-3), ESPN

The Granddaddy of them all has another excellent game on tap pitting great offense (Ohio State) vs. great defense (Washington). Last month the Buckeyes scored 62 points against Michigan, one of the best defensive teams in the country. Can they do it again vs. the Huskies? Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be looking to improve his pro standing, while Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the year, will be looking to make his customary 20 tackles. And Buckeye coach Urban Meyer will be looking to win his final game (at least his final game at Ohio State, that is).

Jan. 1—Sugar Bowl, Texas (9-4) vs. Georgia (11-2), ESPN

Loads of talent in this one. Georgia outplayed Alabama for three quarters in the SEC Championship game and is convinced it should be in the playoff. Texas had an up and down season, including an early season loss to Maryland and two great games (one win, one loss) against Oklahoma. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger and receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey will make it interesting, but the Bulldogs should win handily if they don’t have a letdown.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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