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Bowl Season Is Here: The Games to Watch

After an exciting season of last-second heroics, upsets, and incredible performances, college football's post-season is upon us.

Bowl season begins with six games on Saturday. This year's schedule of 41 games, as usual, includes many that rank below cleaning out the sox drawer or walking the dog on the excitement meter, not to mention some crazy new names, including the Famous Toastery Bowl, the Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl, the Scooter's Coffee Frisco Bowl and the Pop Tarts Bowl. 

This year's bowl field includes 20 teams with 6-6 records and one with a 5-7 mark. Think how much better the schedule would look if a 7-5 record was required to reach the post-season,.

In addition to the proliferation of 6-6 teams, three other factors have contributed to diminishing the post-season landscape--players entering the transfer portal, coaches heading to new jobs and stars sitting out to prepare for the NFL Draft. 

Consider that starting or part-time starting quarterbacks from Oregon State, Utah, UCLA, North Carolina State, Kansas State, Minnesota, James Madison and Coastal Carolina have entered the portal and won't be playing in their teams' bowl games. All of which makes it harder to evaluate the "games to watch."

Despite those caveats, there are quite a few compelling matchups. As a service to our readers, we present our annual "bowl viewing guide" with a list of the games that merit your attention. All times Pacific.

Saturday, Dec. 16

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl--Jacksonville State vs. Louisiana, 11:15 am, ESPN

Former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez did a terrific job in Jacksonville State's first season as an FBS team, directing the Gamecocks to a 8-4 record. His running back Malik Jackson is an exciting breakaway threat, having averaged 6.5 yards per carry this year. 

Isleta New Mexico Bowl--New Mexico State vs. Fresno State, 2:45 pm, ESPN

This game not only features two fine teams, but it matches two head coaches that have both done excellent jobs at more than one school and have suffered from serious health problems. NM State's Jerry Kill worked wonders at Minnesota before retiring due to health issues in 2015, then returned as interim coach at TCU before taking over in New Mexico two years ago. This year his team went 10-4 and upset Auburn. Fresno coach Jeff Tedford, of course, was the highly successful head man at Cal and then at Fresno, before resigning in 2019 for health reasons. He returned to Fresno last year and posted a 10-4 record, then 8-4 this year, stepping away again earlier this month. Aggie quarterback Diego Pavia passed for 2915, rushed for 851 and accounted for 32 TD's this season.

LA Bowl Hosted by Gronk--UCLA vs. Boise State, 4:30 ABC

This bowl was called the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl last year. Now it's hosted by Rob Gronkowski. Next year, I'm expecting it to be the Taylor Swift Bowl. Anyway, Boise won three straight and the Mountain West Championship to finish an 8-5 season, which earned interim coach Spencer Danielson the permanent job. Chip Kelly survived a disappointing 7-5 season, despite having one of the nation's best defenses and three talented quarterbacks, largely on the basis of thumping USC. He'll be without 5-star QB Dante Moore, who entered the portal, and defensive coordinator D'Anton Lynn, who was poached by SC.

Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl--Cal vs. Texas Tech, 6:15 pm, ESPN

This game features two 6-6 teams that finished strong. Cal beat Washington State, Stanford and UCLA to become bowl eligible, led by star running back Jadyn Ott and redshirt freshman quarterback Fernando Mendoza. Tech beat Kansas and UCF and has its own top running back in Tahj Brooks.  Ott rushed for 1260 yards this year and Brooks gained 1443.

Saturday, Dec. 23

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl--James Madison vs. Air Force, 12:30, ABC

James Madison was initially denied an opportunity to play in a bowl because of an obsolete NCAA rule requiring a school to play at the FBS level for three years before being eligible for the post-season. Oops! When there was a shortage of eligible teams, the powers-that-be allowed James Madison and Jacksonville State, along with 5-7 Minnesota, to fill out the field. This game features, in my mind, the two best teams in the Group of Five conferences, The 11-1 Dukes, led by quarterback Jordan McCloud (3400 passing yards) vs. the 8-4 Falcons, who feature a formidable running attack. 

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl--Utah vs. Northwestern, 4:30 pm, ABC

Northwestern won four out of five to finish 7-5 under interim coach David Braun after a hazing scandal forced out Pat Fitzgerald. For his efforts Braun was named Big Ten Coach of the Year and got the permanent job. Utah's two-time defending Pac-12 champs were decimated by injuries thie year and will be down to their fourth-string quarterback in the bowl game. Star Cam Rising missed the entire season rehabbing from knee surgery. He recently announced plans to return next year, which led No. 2 and 3 QBs Bryson Barnes and Nate Jackson to enter the portal.

Easy Post Hawaii Bowl--Coastal Carolina vs. San Jose State, 7:30 pm, ESPN

San Jose State coach Brent Brennan has rebuilt the Spartan program and taken his team to bowls in three of the last four seasons. He's been runner-up for a lot of higher-level jobs recently, but his time will come. This year the Spartans finished in a three-way tie for the Mountain West title, but were kept out of the championship game by a computer tie-breaker. They have offensive firepower with quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (2558 passing yards) and running back Kairee Robinson (1127 rushing yards). Coastal Carolina's star QB Grayson McCall, three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year, has entered the portal, but his backups Jarrett Guest and Ethan Vasko saw considerable time this year.

Tuesday Dec. 26

Guaranteed Rate Bowl--Kansas vs UNLV, 6:00 pm, ESPN

Two of the game's rising young coaches, both of whom have orchestrated amazing turnarounds, will square off. Kansas coach Lance Leipold has resurrected a Jayhawk program that hadf won only nine games the previous six years. Quarterback Jason Bean stepped in after starter Jalon Daniels went down and led his team to an 8-4 mark. UNLV first-year coach Barry Odom won eight games after his predecessor Marcus Arroyo won seven in three years. UNLV has an explosive passing tandom in quarterback Jayden Maiava and receiver Ricky White. This should be a high-scoring donnybrook.

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Duke's Mayo Bowl--North Carolina vs. West Virginia, 2:30 pm, ESPN

This is another matchup that should keep the scoreboard operators busy, as both teams average over 30 points per game. NC quarterback Drake Maye is projected as a high first round draft pick and may opt out, but the Wolfpack also have a stud running back, Omarion Hampton, who rushed for over 1400 yards. West Virginia features a balanced attack with three backs who've gained over 700 yards this year.

Direct TV Holiday Bowl--No. 15 Louisville vs. USC, 5:00 pm, Fox

USC quarterback Caleb Williams will sit this one out, so it'll be interesting to get a look at backup Miller Moss. He may be the Trojans' quarterback of the future, or coach Lincoln Riley may go after one of the big names in the transfer portal. It'll also be fun to see Louisville go to town on USC's inept defense. Last year, the defenseless Trojans lost to Tulane, 46-45, in the Cotton Bowl.

Thursday, Dec . 28

Valero Alamo Bowl--No. 12 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Arizona, 6:15 pm, ESPN

I know I'm starting to sound repetitive, but this is another game that should feature tons of offense. One of the biggest stories on the West Coast was Arizona's freshman quarterback Noah Fifita, who took over in mid-season and led the Wildcats to six straight wins to finish the season at 9-3. He was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Oklahoma had its typical high-scoring offense and lackluster defense, but they did hand Texas its only loss.

Friday, Dec. 29

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl--No. 16 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Oregon State, 11:00 am, CBS

This game has lost some of its luster because OSU's head coach, Jonathan Smith, left for Michigan State and its two top quarterbacks, DJ Uiagalelei and Aidan Chiles, have both entered the transfer portal due to the uncertainty surrounding the program's future in the Pac-2. Notre Dame had a solid 9-3 season and has a great, but underpublicized running back in Audric Estime. Ironically, the teams played each other in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl and the same Jonathan Smith led the Beavs to a 41-9 win.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl--No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Missouri, 5:00 pm, ESPN

This is an excellent matchup of two very good teams. Ohio State is led by All-American receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. Missouri has one of the best running backs in the country in Cody Schrader, who led the SEC in rushing. The Tigers also have two fine receivers in Luther Burden and Theo Wease. OSU doesn't want to end with two straight losses, while Missouri sees this as a big chance to take down one of the country's iconic programs. It may come down to coaching, and I like Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz to out-coach OSU's Ryan Day.

Saturday, Dec. 30

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl--No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss, 9:00 am, ESPN

Another terrific matchup of two of the nation's best teams. Unfortunately, coaches Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss and James Franklin of Penn State can't seem to win the big ones against Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State. But they consistently field interesting, talented teams. This one matches Kiffin's creativity against Franklin's defense. I like the Rebels to win behind quarterback Jaxson Dart (formerly of USC) and running back Quinshon Judkins.

Capital One Orange Bowl--No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 6 Georgia, 1:00 pm, ESPN

A virtual College Football Playoff game between the team that should've been in the Final Four, Florida State, against the team that won the last two national championships and 29 straight games, but was denied by a three-point loss to Alabama. FSU hopes to score a big upset and claim it should be crowned national champion with a 14-0 record and wins over Florida, Louisville and Georgia with backup quarterbacks. It won't be easy against the uber-talented Bulldogs, unless they have a letdown after being left out of the CFP.

Monday, January 1

Reliaquest Bowl--No. 13 LSU vs. Wisconsin, 9:00 am, ESPN2

The big question is whether Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels decides to play. LSU's coaches are high on his backup, Garrett Nussmeier. Wisconsin is not a high scoring team but may feast on the LSU defense, which is almost as bad as USC's.

VRBO Fiesta Bowl--No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 23 Liberty, 10:00 am, ESPN

Oregon's Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Bo Nix will play, which is good news for the bowl game and bad news for unbeaten Liberty, which fashioned a perfect season while playing the easiest schedule in all of college football. Liberty QB Kaiden Salter is no slouch, passing for 2750 yards and 31 TDs, running for 1000 yards and another 12 scores, but he was playing mostly against the Little Sisters of the Poor. If Oregon shows up, they'll kill Jerry Falwell's school, and won't that be fun?

Rose Bowl--No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama (CFP Semi-Final), 2:00 pm, ESPN

Two iconic programs. Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh. What's not to like? The Wolverines claimed the No. 1 ranking with a win over Ohio State and then a 26-0 whitewash of overmatched Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Bama got in by edging Georgia in the SEC title game. This will also be an interesting matchup between the two quarterbacks--the Wolverines JJ McCarthy, who often takes a back seat to an overpowering running game led by Blake Corum, and Alabama's Jalen Millroe, who rose from being benched to being celebrated for a game-winning Hail Mary against Auburn and several clutch plays vs. Georgia. I like the Wolverines in this one, 23-17.

Allstate Sugar Bowl--No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas (CFP Semi-Final), 5:45 pm, ESPN

These two teams met in last year's Alamo Bowl, with Washington winning 27-20, but the stakes are much higher this time around. The Huskies are led by the player who should've won the Heisman Trophy, quarterback Michael Penix, Jr., a victim of the same East Coast/SEC bias that befell several other deserving candidates from the West Coast--John Elway, Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, and Christian McCaffrey, to name a few. Both Penix and Texas QB Quinn Ewers capped their season with MVP performances in their conference championship games. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has resurrected his career after the USC debacle. Washington's Kalen DeBoer is 24-2 at Washington and two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year. I look for Texas to jump out early before Penix, WR Rome Odunze and RB Dillon Johnson bring the Huskies back to a 34-31 win.


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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