The best of the bowls: Ranking 1-40
Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
And the wait begins.
We won’t get to watch the College Football Playoff semifinals until New Year’s Eve, when No. 1 Clemson plays No. 4 Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl and No. 2 Alabama plays No. 3 Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Fortunately, we have to wait only 11 days for the 2015 postseason to kick off, with the inaugural Cure Bowl starting the bowl season on Dec. 19.
Here’s a look at 40 bowl games that will be played, ranked from first to last in terms of entertainment value:
All times Eastern.
Buckle up your chinstraps, as the SEC champions play the Big Ten champs with the winner advancing to the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T. MSU’s Mark Dantonio seems to relish the underdog role, and an upset in this game would be his biggest yet. Alabama’s Nick Saban can move one step closer to winning his fourth national title in seven years with a victory.
Two projected Heisman Trophy finalists, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, will play in South Florida with a spot in the national championship game on the line. It should be a high-scoring shootout. The Sooners should be more than motivated after the Tigers blew them out 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl last season.
The Buckeyes were perhaps one victory away from making the playoff; the Fighting Irish were perhaps two plays away from getting in. Instead, they’ll play for the first time in a decade in the Fiesta Bowl, which is where OSU beat Notre Dame 34-20 after the 2005 regular season. Can the Irish defense slow down OSU’s Ezekiel Elliott? He might get 50 carries against the country’s No. 62 run defense.
The Hawkeyes’ dreams of an undefeated season ended with a 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, but their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 25 years is a pretty nice consolation prize. Iowa hasn’t won the Rose Bowl since a 38-12 win over California in 1959. If you love old-fashioned football, this is going to be a fun game to watch. Plus, who doesn’t want to watch Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey play?
If Oregon’s Vernon Adams Jr. and TCU’s Trevone Boykin had remained healthy this season, they might have been facing each other in the playoff (and seeing each other in New York this weekend). Fortunately, both are expected to be fully healthy for the Alamo Bowl, which should be one of the most entertaining games to watch. The Ducks and Horned Frogs combined to score 84.9 points per game.
If Baylor gets quarterback Jarrett Stidham back before the bowl game, this might be an exciting, high-flying shootout. The Bears looked like a playoff team until they lost quarterbacks Seth Russell to a neck injury and then Stidham to a broken ankle. The Tar Heels gave Clemson a pretty good fight in the ACC championship game, and a victory over the Bears might silence some of their lingering doubters.
Who wouldn’t want to watch the Holy War being played in Sin City? The bitter instate rivals haven’t played since 2013, and the Las Vegas Bowl will be the first time they’ve played in the postseason and on a neutral field. The Utes lead the all-time series 57-34-4 and have won the last four games. Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall, who was hired at Virginia last week, will try to end the drought in his final game at BYU.
Can the Cougars slow down FSU tailback Dalvin Cook, who ran for 1,658 yards with 18 touchdowns this season? Houston’s defense allowed only 116 rushing yards per game, but they haven’t faced a runner as dynamic as Cook. For some reason, I think Texas and Texas A&M fans might have a keen interest in watching this game.
Both teams figure to have pretty sizable chips on their shoulders when they play in New Orleans. Ole Miss wants to erase the horrible memories of its last appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl, an ugly 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl last season. The Pokes were 10-0 this season, but then lost badly to Baylor and Oklahoma in their final two games. The game features two of the country’s best defensive linemen: OSU’s Emmanuel Ogbah and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche.
10. Holiday Bowl
The Badgers and Trojans haven’t played each other since 1966, and they haven’t played in a bowl game since 1963. Wisconsin had problems scoring at times this season, but that might not be an issue against USC, which fired most of its defensive coaching staff on Sunday.
11. Outback Bowl
Tennessee coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers are one of the best teams in the country and the best story in college football. OK, here’s a chance to prove it.
LSU tailback Leonard Fournette needs 259 yards to reach 2,000 for the season. There’s a good chance he might get them against Texas Tech’s porous defense.
It’s a matchup of two of the sport’s traditional powers and two of the country’s biggest surprises. Unfortunately, Florida’s offense might prevent it from putting up much of a fight. Who knows? After a couple of weeks of bowl practice, the Gators might have a dental student kicking and a law student playing quarterback.
14. TaxSlayer Bowl
This was supposed to be Christian Hackenberg‘s final game as Penn State’s quarterback and Mark Richt’s last game as Georgia’s coach. Hackenberg was once rated the No. 1 quarterback for next spring’s NFL draft, but now he might return to PSU for his senior season after a disappointing performance. Richt planned to coach the Bulldogs in a bowl game after he was fired, but then he was hired as Miami’s new coach.
15. Hyundai Sun Bowl
Washington State’s Mike Leach saved his job with an 8-4 season, which started terribly with a 24-17 loss to FCS foe Portland State. Miami’s Al Golden wasn’t as fortunate, and he was fired after seven games. It’s a great matchup of quarterbacks, especially if Luke Falk and Brad Kaaya are healthy after a few weeks of rest.
The coaching matchup is a clash of personalities, even though Arkansas’ Bret Bielema worked as Kansas State coach Bill Snyder’s co-defensive coordinator in 2002-03. You also might want to see Wildcats return specialist Morgan Burns, who tied a school and Big 12 record with four kickoff return touchdowns this season.
Both teams underachieved this season, but the Cardinals have been better down the stretch, having won five of their last six games. Louisville can finish with back-to-back wins over SEC opponents, a feat the Aggies accomplished only once this season.
18. Belk Bowl
Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott plays his last college game in what figures to be much like a home game for the Wolfpack. It sure seemed like this might be MSU coach Dan Mullen’s last game a week ago, too.
The Bruins lost this game when it was called the Emerald Bowl and when it was the Kraft Fighting Hunger Bowl. It will be an ugly trifecta of nuts, cheese and chicken if they lose to a 5-7 Nebraska team in the Foster Farms Bowl.
The Owls and Rockets were two of the best teams from the Group of 5 conferences this season. Toledo will be without Matt Campbell, who was named Iowa State’s new coach. Hopefully, the other 1000 Temple fans that didn’t attend the AAC championship game were saving their money to purchase bowl tickets.
The Poinsettia Bowl is another good game featuring big names from the Group of 5 leagues, although neither the Broncos nor Huskies reached their lofty standards of the recent past. Boise State freshman quarterback Brett Rypien is fun to watch and is a budding star.
22. Miami Beach Bowl
It probably won’t top the intensity of the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl, in which BYU and Memphis brawled at the end, but the Hilltoppers and Bulls are very familiar with each other. Bulls coach Willie Taggart left WKU for USF after the 2012 season. It’s also your last chance to see Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty, one of the country’s best passers.
Talk about a contrast in style. Air Force completed 80 passes this season; Cal completed 327. It’s probably our last chance to see Bears quarterback Jared Goffplay in a college game, too.
Bronx, New York | Yankee Stadium
Dec. 26, 3:30 p.m. on ABC
Sure, two basketball-loving schools are going to play in a baseball stadium in the Bronx. But neither team has been playing much defense lately, so it should be an up-and-down game that’s fun to watch.
25. Birmingham Bowl
ESPN NFL draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay project that Memphis star Paxton Lynch might be the No. 1 quarterback off the board in next spring’s NFL draft. Even after 12 games, Auburn still doesn’t know who is going to be its quarterback.
There’s plenty of motivation on both sides. Pittsburgh got the short end of the stick in the ACC’s bowl selection process. Navy feels like quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been slighted in the Heisman Trophy race.
This should feel like a Big 12 regular-season game for the Mountaineers, who have to travel across the country to play in somebody else’s stadium. West Virginia had won four games in a row before losing to Kansas State 24-23 in its regular-season finale, and the Sun Devils dropped four of their last six.
New Orleans will host two of the country’s hottest teams. The Red Wolves won their last eight games after starting 1-3; the Bulldogs have won seven of their last nine. If Florida fans really want to feel bad about the Gators’ offense, they can check out former quarterback Jeff Driskel, who passed for 3,575 yards and scored 29 total touchdowns for the Bulldogs.
The Golden Eagles were one of the most improved teams in the country, going 9-4 after winning only four games combined in coach Todd Monken’s first two seasons. The Huskies are hoping a bowl win ignites a similar turnaround in coach Chris Petersen’s third season in 2016.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer’s fantastic career ends where his 23-year bowl streak began — in Shreveport, Louisiana. Beamer will coach the Hokies for the final time, before turning his program over to former Memphis coach Justin Fuente.
31. Hawai’i Bowl
You can spend Christmas Eve watching the Aztecs, one of the country’s more underrated teams. San Diego State won the Mountain West Conference, its first outright league title since 1986, and can finish the season with a 10-game winning streak. To do it, it’ll have to slow down former Notre Dame quarterbackGunner Kiel, who threw for 2,777 yards with 19 touchdowns for Cincinnati.
The inaugural Arizona Bowl in Tuscon features two Mountain West teams, which is odd, but at least the Rams and Wolf Pack didn’t meet during the regular season. After a 2-4 start, Colorado State has a chance to finish 8-5 in coach Mike Bobo’s first season.
33. GoDaddy Bowl
The Eagles will be playing in their first bowl game, and the Falcons will playing without coach Dino Babers, who was named Syracuse’s new coach. Georgia Southern will have to figure out a way to slow down Bowling Green quarterbackMatt Johnson, after its defense was torched in a 34-7 loss to Georgia State in its regular-season finale.
New Mexico’s Bob Davie did one of the more unheralded coaching jobs this season, leading the Lobos to a 7-5 record, which included wins over Utah State, Boise State and Air Force in their last four games. His reward: a home game against Arizona, which dropped four of its last five.
Huskies coach Bob Diaco, a former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, has quietly built one of the AAC’s better defenses. But UConn will have its hands full with the Thundering Herd, who averaged 32.6 points per game. Keep your eye on Huskies cornerback Jamar Summers, who had seven interceptions in the last eight games.
The Blue Raiders and Broncos flew under the radar after slow starts, but both ended up being pretty good teams. Middle Tennessee knocked off Marshall 27-24, which was the first of four straight wins to end the regular season. Western Michigan stunned Toledo 35-30 in its finale.
37. Quick Lane Bowl
It was an emotional season for both of these teams. The Chippewas started the season with coach John Bonamego finishing his treatment for cancer. The Gophers lost coach Jerry Kill because of health reasons after seven games.
Talk about a wait. The Zips will be playing in only their second bowl game and first since 2005. Akron coach Terry Bowden returns to the FBS postseason for the first time since guiding Auburn to the 1997 Peach Bowl.
The Mountaineers, who won three straight FCS national championships from 2005-07, are making their postseason debut in only their second season in FBS. Their only losses came against No. 1 Clemson and Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State.
40. Cure Bowl
Sure, it’s not the sexiest matchup of the postseason, but don’t tell that to the Panthers. Georgia State won its last four games, including a 27-point rout of Georgia Southern, to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible. It’s a heck of a turnaround for Panthers coach Trent Miles, who went 1-23 in his first two seasons.