Monday, February 26, 2024

Ranking all 41 college football bowl games for 2023-24: Rose shines as all-timer with Orange, Sun intriguing

It can be controversial to love college football bowl games in this day and age. But if you don’t enjoy bowl games, you aren’t a college football fan. At least that’s my opinion. You might be a fan of a school, but you don’t care about the sport as a whole.

Bowl games are college football games, after all. Maybe some have lost importance in the College Football Playoff era — and I fear that expansion to 12 teams next season could lead to drastic changes to the system — but they’re here now, and I plan to watch every single one, if possible.

Every bowl season, I go through the (sometimes painstaking) process of ranking each bowl game before and after they’re played. That’s how much I love them. It’s a highly scientific process that involves evaluating a matchup and saying, “Oooh! That should be fun!” or “Oooh, that might not so fun!”

While there’s no real science to these rankings, let me stress that I do not consider possible opt-outs too extensively. It’s not difficult to guess which players are more likely to sit the games out than others, but it’s impossible to know for sure, so I try to avoid working myself into knots in an attempt to figure out the significance of their impact. 

Besides, every player sitting out provides us an opportunity to be introduced to the game’s next star, and that’s a good way to approach bowl season as a whole. Don’t think of these games as an end to the 2023 season but rather a sneak preview of 2024.

All times Eastern

41. Famous Toastery Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Old Dominion

Monday, Dec. 18, 2:30 p.m. — I once had a piece of toast with a burn mark that looked like Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know whether that would qualify as a Famous Toastery. Either way, we welcome the Famous Toastery Bowl to the rotation, but I’m not overly enthused with the matchup. From what I’ve seen of Western Kentucky, it’s a squad that can put together strong performances against weaker teams but can be very frustrating to watch against better teams. What does Old Dominion qualify as? I have no idea! Seemingly every game the Monarchs play is a one-score game, so if nothing else, this one will probably be close.

40. Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota vs. Bowling Green

Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2 p.m. — There are 82 teams playing this Bowl Season, and only one of them lost more games than it won. Congratulations, Minnesota, you got the call. Unfortunately, I hold my bowl games to a higher standard, and I simply cannot — will not! — rank this game higher than any others featuring teams that managed to win half their games! I will rank you ahead of the Famous Toastery Bowl, though, because I have no idea what to make of that game. 

This game features a 5-7 team that’s seen its starting QB enter the transfer portal squaring off against a Bowling Green team that did manage to beat Georgia Tech this season. So, this is one of those rare chances for a MAC team to pick up two wins over Power Five teams. Don’t rule it out. The Falcons’ losses this season have come to Liberty (Conference USA champ), Michigan (Big Ten champ, CFP participant), Miami (Ohio) (MAC champ), Toledo (MAC runner-up) and a 9-3 Ohio team.

39. First Responder Bowl: Texas State vs. Rice

Tuesday, Dec. 26, 5:30 p.m. — Putting two Texas teams in a bowl game played in Dallas should help fill the stadium, which is great. I’m not sure how great it is for those of us watching at home on television, though. Texas State is a high-variance team. The Bobcats could score 70 points or just as easily allow 70. The winning team in their 12 games this year averaged 42.9 points. The Owls have that same vibe, but QB J.T. Daniels announced after the team’s 24-21 win over FAU in the regular-season finale that he was retiring due to concussion issues. He won’t play in this game, and the Owls weren’t as good when A.J. Padgett played this year.

38. Fenway Bowl: No. 24 SMU vs. Boston College

Thursday, Dec. 28, 11 a.m. — Our first glimpse of SMU in the ACC! If you told me before the season SMU would win the AAC, it wouldn’t have been all that shocking. Now, had you told me the Ponies would win the league because they had an incredible defense, I’d have done a double take. This SMU defense is no joke, and will prove to be a complex puzzle for Boston College. Of course, most defenses have been complex for BC. While 25 points per game would’ve been enough to save Brian Ferentz’s job at Iowa, that doesn’t mean it’s impressive. We can’t totally discount the Eagles, though, because QB Thomas Castellanos can cook with his legs if given the chance.

37. Boca Raton Bowl: Syracuse vs. South Florida

Thursday, Dec. 21, 8 p.m. — Alex Golesh took over a South Florida team that went 4-29 over the three previous seasons and got them to a bowl in Year 1. I don’t care how you spin it, that’s impressive. We also shouldn’t forget one of those six losses was a 17-3 loss to Alabama that had people questioning if the Alabama dynasty was over. The problem for the Bulls is that their defensive performance against the Tide was an outlier compared to the rest of the season; they do tend to give up points in a hurry when things go poorly. QB Byrum Brown, a hidden gem at the position this season, helps them answer quickly, though. Syracuse likely won’t feel the same joy as USF to be here. The Orange fired coach Dino Babers during the season and lost six of their last eight games after a 4-0 start. Silver lining? They’ve won two of the last three to pick up some momentum heading into the postseason.

36. Potato Bowl: Georgia State vs. Utah State

Saturday, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m. — Utah State rallied with three wins in its final four games to get to a bowl game, but I have no idea about its QB situation. Cooper Legas, who began the year as the backup and took over the starting job, was replaced by Levi Williams in the season finale. Williams has since announced he’s leaving the team to join the Navy SEALs!  As for Georgia State, I know what to expect at QB with game-changer Darren Grainger. Even with him, it’s impossible to know which Georgia State team will show up. The Panthers began the year with six wins in their first seven games but lost their final five games by an average of 23.2 points per game.

35. Frisco Bowl: UTSA vs. Marshall

Tuesday, Dec. 19, 9 p.m. — If the UTSA team I know shows up, it won’t be close. That’s why I have this ranked so low. Few teams at the Group of Five level can keep pace with Frank Harris and the Roadrunners at full strength. They made the jump from Conference USA to the American this season and were a loss to Tulane in the final game of the season away from playing for a conference title. Marshall left Conference USA, too, but it moved to the Sun Belt and didn’t have as good a time as UTSA in its new league. After a 4-0 start to the season, the Thundering Herd ran off a cliff, losing five straight before recovering at the end of the year to get six wins. 

34. Las Vegas Bowl: Utah vs. Northwestern

Saturday, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m. — This will be ugly. Neither of these teams scored many points this year but were stout defensively. It’s hard to imagine we’ll see many points scored, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be bad.  Regardless, this is not a matchup I expected to see. While an 8-4 record is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s still disappointing year for a Utah team coming off consecutive Pac-12 titles. Northwestern is on the opposite end of the spectrum; nobody had the Wildcats going bowling this year. The school fired Pat Fitzgerald shortly before the regular season began, and it felt like the program was on the verge of mutiny. Instead, interim coach David Braun steadied the ship while earning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors before having the interim tag removed. 

33. 68 Ventures Bowl: South Alabama vs. Eastern Michigan

Saturday, Dec. 23, 7 p.m. — Another new bowl sponsor. Welcome to the family, 68 Ventures. This matchup isn’t going to turn many heads. Both teams are 6-6, but South Alabama is a better team than the record suggests. This team beat Oklahoma State 33-7 earlier this year, which was no fluke. The problem it’s had is maintaining that level every week. I don’t have the same level of confidence in Eastern Michigan. The combined record of the five FBS teams the Eagles beat this year is 13-47. When the Eagles played a team with a pulse, they lost, usually by multiple scores. It’s hard to justify ranking a bowl featuring two 6-6 teams with a high likelihood of being a blowout higher than this.

32. Texas Bowl: No. 20 Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 9 p.m. — A low-key bad matchup. A game with two decent-sized brands only carries so much weight. Though Texas A&M has already hired Mike Elko to replace Jimbo Fisher, it remains a program in flux as assistants and players move on from the program. Then there’s Oklahoma State, which is no stranger to laying an egg. Yes, the Cowboys reached the Big 12 Championship Game, but they didn’t put up much of a fight. That’s typically been the case with the Cowboys all season. So, at the very least, we should know early how worthwhile this game will be to watch. But for now, it’s hard for me to rank this game higher.

31. Military Bowl: Tulane vs. Virginia Tech

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2 p.m. — I’m skeptical we get full-strength Tulane here. Willie Fritz has left for Houston, while QB Michael Pratt is off to the NFL. Couple those losses with the AAC title game loss, and you have to question how motivated the Green Wave will be. On the other end of the vibes spectrum, we have the Hokies. They may only be 6-6, most Virginia Tech faithful are probably happy with that result. The Hokies took a noticeable step forward in Brent Pry’s second season, which featured a midseason QB change. They’re not juggernauts, but it’s hard to argue this team hasn’t been much better with Kyron Drones at QB. A win here to finish the season would have Hokies Nation buzzing about 2024.

30. Camellia Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois

Saturday, Dec. 23, 12 p.m. — Arkansas State has been one of the season’s more pleasant surprises despite not getting the national attention. Butch Jones entered the year on the hot seat after going 5-19 in his first two seasons, and it looked like he wouldn’t last long after the Wolves began with losses to Oklahoma and Memphis by a combined score of 110-3. But Jaylen Raynor stepping in at QB turned the season around as the Red Wolves go bowling for the first time since 2019. They’ll face a Northern Illinois team that isn’t flashy but has proved to be one of the most steady programs in the MAC. The Huskies return to a bowl game under Thomas Hammock after stumbling to a 3-9 record last year. Keep an eye out for Huskies running back Antario Brown, who led the team with 1,164 yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry with 10 rushing touchdowns.

29. Pinstripe Bowl: Miami vs. Rutgers

Thursday, Dec. 28, 2:15 p.m. — I feel bad for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are 6-6, their winningest season since 2014, and their reward is a game at Yankee Stadium. Sure, it’s nice that Knights fans don’t have to travel far, but it’s still December in New York! Also, while this is only the sixth time Rutgers has gone to a bowl game in the last 13 seasons, it will be the team’s third appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl. The only silver lining is the Scarlet Knights can play a marquee opponent. Odds are Miami feels worse about having to travel to New York in December for a bowl game than Rutgers. But if the good version of Miami shows up, the Canes should win. Unfortunately, consistency and Miami football do not go together too often. 

28. Gasparilla Bowl: UCF vs. Georgia Tech

Friday, Dec. 22, 6:30 p.m. — Folks, I like to call them the Georgia Tech Strait Jackets ‘cuz this team is crazy. Let me explain the awful dad joke. There was a four-game stretch where Tech lost to Bowling Green at home, beat Miami on the road, came back home to lose to Boston College and then beat North Carolina. It makes no sense. Then, it only lost to Georgia by eight points! These crazy bees will take on a UCF team led by a coach who was molded in the fires of insanity that is Auburn football: Gus Malzahn. UCF found its first season in the Big 12 to be a little more challenging than AAC life but recovered from a five-game losing streak that could’ve derailed the year to win three of its last four.

27. Myrtle Beach Bowl: Ohio vs. Georgia Southern

Saturday, Dec. 16, 11 a.m. — I have a conspiracy theory to share. Georgia Southern began the season with a 6-2 record with losses to Wisconsin and James Madison. It then lost four straight to finish the season with two of those losses coming to Marshall and Old Dominion. Those losses were pivotal because they gave Marshall and Old Dominion enough wins to go bowling. As a result, the Sun Belt finished the season with 12 bowl-eligible teams in a 14-team league. Did Georgia Southern lose on purpose to help the Sun Belt? Probably not, but it’s more fun to pretend it did. Could be a regrettable decision, though, because now it’s getting a good Ohio team from the MAC. Though, I suppose there are much worse places to spend a December weekend than Myrtle Beach.

26. New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana vs. Jacksonville State

Saturday, Dec. 16, 2:15 p.m. – What an incredible first FBS season for Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks made the jump to the FBS level this season, and did so with a familiar name on the sidelines — Rich Rodriguez. This isn’t your typical RichRod team, however. While creative offensively, this team rode its defense to an 8-4 record and bowl bid. They’ll square off against a Ragin’ Cajuns squad with home-field advantage in New Orleans that needed a win on the final weekend against rival ULM to become bowl eligible. That may not have been the case if not for an injury to starting QB Zeon Chriss, who missed the final three games of the season after suffering a leg injury. So early on the bowl schedule, odds are Chriss will not be back in time to play, which is a big blow to the Cajuns’ offense.

25. Independence Bowl: Texas Tech vs. California

Saturday, Dec. 16, 9:15 p.m. — Let’s shout out Cal coach Justin Wilcox. Few Power Five jobs in the country more difficult to win at consistently, particularly in this age. The Bears reached bowl games in consecutive seasons under Wilcox in 2018 and 2019, and are now returning to the postseason after a three-year absence while playing in a daunting Pac-12. Wilcox deserves plenty of credit, as does running back Jaydn Ott, who can do a little bit of everything. Texas Tech is playing in a bowl game for the third straight season. It’s the first time the Red Raiders have done that since the Mike Leach era when they earned 11 straight postseason appearances. This program makes a habit of winning these games, too. They’re 11-4 in their last 15 bowl games.

24. Fiesta Bowl: No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 23 Liberty

Monday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. — How exciting for a deserving Liberty team. Jamey Chadwell and the Flames outclassed their opponents this season en route to the Conference USA title. The Flames not only went 9-0 in conference but won by an average of 16.1 points per game. QB Kaidon Salter is fun to watch, and is just as dangerous with his legs (1,064 yards, 12 TD) as his arm (2,750 yards, 31 TD). Still, I can’t rank this game higher because I don’t know how competitive it will be. Oregon lost to Washington twice this season but beat up nearly everyone else. It will be a great story if Liberty shocks the world here, but I wouldn’t count on it happening, especially after Ducks coach Dan Lanning confirmed Bo Nix will play. 

23. Pop-Tarts Bowl: No. 18 NC State vs. No. 25 Kansas State

Thursday, Dec. 28, 5:45 p.m. — The problem with the Pop-Tarts Bowl is that while the matchup is intriguing, I’m far more interested in what will happen post-game after it was announced an edible Pop-Tart mascot will be available for the winning team to eat. I have so many questions! As for the game, there’s a chance it could be pretty good. Kansas State had a solid season, and while starting QB Will Howard is in the portal, backup Avery Johnson played a role in that decision. On the other side, we’ve got an NC State team that benched its veteran transfer QB Brennan Armstrong for M.J. Morris, only to see Morris opt out of the rest of the season to preserve his redshirt status so he could transfer. The Wolfpack went back to Armstrong after benching him, and how did they respond to all this drama? By winning five straight to finish the season, including wins over Clemson, Miami and North Carolina. There’s a case to be made that if not for NC State winning those games, Florida State is in the CFP.

22. Liberty Bowl: Iowa State vs. Memphis

Friday, Dec. 29, 3:30 p.m. — College football is great for its variety, and this matchup is an excellent example. If you watched these teams play during the year, it probably felt like they were playing different sports. The average Memphis game featured an average of 68.7 points, which is even more remarkable considering rule changes led to slightly lower-scoring games overall.  Cyclones games, on the other hand, averaged only 47.9 points. Despite the difference, they had one thing in common: close games. Of the 24 games between them, only eight finished with a final margin of more than two scores. Let’s hope the Liberty Bowl isn’t a ninth.

21. Gator Bowl: No. 22 Clemson vs. Kentucky

Friday, Dec. 29, 12 p.m. — I can’t figure out the right spot for this game, so I essentially punted by putting it in the middle. I’ve seen plenty of both these teams, and that’s more than enough. Clemson has disappointed, but should cruise in this one if it plays to its potential. That wasn’t happening early this seasn, but the Tigers finished with four wins, including victories over Notre Dame and North Carolina. It’s a testament to the job Mark Stoops has done at Kentucky that a 7-5 regular season feels like a disappointment, but that doesn’t change the fact this was just that. The Wildcats started 5-0 before being blown to bits by Georgia. They never seemed to fully recover. What makes the game interesting is how is shapes the offseasons for both. A win has both teams feeling pretty good about themselves heading into 2024, but a loss would be bad for the vibes.

20. Birmingham Bowl: Troy vs. Duke

Saturday, Dec. 23, 12 p.m. — Let’s consider this scenario: Duke lost Elko to Texas A&M. That stinks because Elko’s a good coach who had a lot of success in a short amount of time. Now the Blue Devils are on the prowl for a replacement, and one of the names that should be at the top of their shortlist is Troy coach Jon Sumrall. Sumrall took over a Troy team that failed to make a bowl in three straight seasons and immediately went 12-2 with a Sun Belt title last season. This year, the Trojans went 11-2 with another conference title. Two seasons, two conference titles. That kind of resume should earn a coach consideration at the Power Five level. But does the fact Troy is facing Duke in a bowl game throw a wrench in the chances they’d hire Sumrall or that Sumrall would consider the job? Awkward, isn’t it?

19. LA Bowl: UCLA vs. Boise State

Saturday, Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m. — UCLA, located in Los Angeles, will play in the LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium. It doesn’t mean anything; it just amuses me, as does this matchup. UCLA has been a tough team to get a read as the Bruins have been forced to play a different QB seemingly every week. But the one thing you can count on is a suffocating defense. On the other sideline, they’ll find a Boise State team that fired its coach during the season and went on to win the Mountain West anyway. It’s not the traditional path, but this team plays on blue turf, so traditional has never been its bag. I don’t know if Broncos RB Ashton Jeanty will play in the game, but I hope he does because he’s a big play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball.

18. Arizona Bowl: Toledo vs. Wyoming

Saturday, Dec. 30, 4:30 p.m. — I’m never entirely sure what to make of Toledo. It’s one of the premier programs in the MAC. The problem is the Rockets always seem to come up a little short or leave you with the feeling they can do more. This season felt different, though. Their only regular season loss was a two-point road defeat to Illinois, and they cruised through conference play without a loss before coming up short in the MAC Championship Game. If the Rockets show up, they are a talented, fun and exciting team. They’ll have to be at their best to pick up a win against Wyoming. The Pokes came up short of their goals in Mountain West play but are a tough team that will pound you into submission if you bring anything less than 100%. This matchup might be the embodiment of “who wants it more?”

17. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina vs. West Virginia

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 5:30 p.m. — The odds of Drake Maye playing in this game for the Tar Heels are slim. That hurts the game’s overall potential, but don’t overlook Tar Heels running back Omarion Hampton. Hampton rushed for 1,442 yards and 15 touchdowns, so even if Maye sits, this Heels offense still has juice. Not to mention, Mack Brown’s teams have always taken bowl games seriously in his career. West Virginia has been one of the more pleasant surprises this season. Neal Brown came into the season on one of the hottest seats in the country, but after a loss to Penn State in the season opener, the Mountaineers reeled off four straight wins and carried that momentum throughout conference play. While they came up short against the league’s elite teams, they were a cut above the bottom half of the league. A win in this game would give the program its first nine-win season since going 10-3 in 2016.

16. New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State vs. New Mexico State

Saturday, Dec. 16, 5:45 p.m. — This would’ve been a matchup between two of my favorite coaches. Unfortunately, Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford will not lead the Bulldogs as he’s taking time away with health issues. First and foremost, I hope Tedford gets better and is back on the sideline next season. New Mexico State is led by Jerry Kill, who does nothing but win football games everywhere he goes, and QB Diego Pavia. If you haven’t seen Pavia play, the most apt way I can think of describing him is to imagine if you had a refrigerator that could play quarterback that’s also angry. I love him. The highlight of the Aggies’ 2023 season was going on the road to upset Auburn. Yes, the same Auburn that nearly knocked off Alabama. They’re not big-time programs, but they’re solid teams worth your time on a Saturday evening in December.

15. Cure Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Miami (OH)

Saturday, Dec. 16, 3:30 p.m. — One of my favorite parts of bowl season is when we get a matchup of two Group of Five teams that were never in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl but make for an interesting pairing. There’s a real chance we get a close, entertaining game here, even if you don’t know the names of every player. Appalachian State struggled in nonconference play this year but played well enough in the Sun Belt to finish 6-2 and earn a berth in the Sun Belt title game (James Madison was ineligible). The Mountaineers won their final five games of the season (including a 26-23 win at James Madison) before falling to Troy in the title game.

Miami did not lose its title game. The RedHawks took down Toledo to claim their second MAC title under Chuck Martin, who routinely gets the most out of his teams. The RedHawks overcame an injury to veteran QB Brett Gabbert along the way, too, so we know they can deal with adversity. The key was a defense that has flustered everybody it’s gone against. The RedHawks have an uncanny ability to get a free rusher on seemingly every snap. You’d swear they’re playing with 12 guys out there. This game will be a great way to start bowl season.

14. Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Kansas vs. UNLV

Tuesday, Dec. 26, 9 p.m. — We’ve got a matchup of two of my pet programs. Last year, I fell in love with Kansas as it overcame years of ineptitude to become one of the most exciting teams in the country in Lance Leipold’s first season. This year, it was UNLV’s turn to catch my eye. The Rebels didn’t have high expectations coming into the season, but ironically enough, it was during a 35-7 loss to Michigan that I first thought there might be some juice to this team. The following week, they beat Vanderbilt and never looked back, reaching the Mountain West title game. Of course, the Rebels didn’t win once they got there, but don’t discount them in this spot. The Jayhawks will be good-sized favorites and should be, but the Rebels can make this game interesting. At the very least, there’s a good chance it’ll be high-scoring and feature big plays.

13. Hawaii Bowl: Coastal Carolina vs. San Jose State

Saturday, Dec. 23, 10:30 p.m. — We’re dealing with two 7-5 teams with slightly misleading records. Both got off to slow starts but have been better teams over the second half of the season. An argument could be made that San Jose State was the best team in the Mountain West as the season ended. The Spartans began the year with nonconference losses to USC and Oregon State before starting conference play with losses to Boise State and Air Force. It’s been six straight wins since. As for Coastal, the Chanticleers needed time to adjust to a new coaching staff and figured things out in the heart of Sun Belt play. Still, they do come into this game on a two-game losing streak. Long-time QB Grayson McCall has announced he’s entering the transfer portal, so he won’t play, but both backups Jarrett Guest and Ethan Vasko saw considerable time this season and played pretty well.

12. ReliaQuest Bowl: No. 13 LSU vs. Wisconsin

Monday, Jan. 1, 12 p.m. — The Heisman Trophy has not been awarded as of publication, but I’d be shocked if LSU’s Jayden Daniels doesn’t win the award. I will be slightly surprised if he plays in this game, but the odds could be higher than I think. I’ve watched Daniels refuse to slide and willingly throw himself into oncoming traffic for years, so what’s one more game before moving on to NFL Draft prep? I hope Daniels plays, but if he doesn’t, the Tigers are high on backup Garrett Nussmeier, so at least we’ll get a chance to see him get extended run. They’ll face a Badgers team that didn’t live up to the preseason hype of the new Dairy Raid offense, but if I’ve learned anything this season, it’s that there’s nothing that fixes an ailing offense better than the LSU defense. They can give up yards and points to anybody. As a result, almost every LSU game is entertaining, and no lead feels safe.

11. Citrus Bowl: No. 17 Iowa vs. No. 21 Tennessee

Monday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. — I cannot stop chuckling at the absurdity of this matchup. On one side, we’ve got a Tennessee team that may not have been as potent offensively as the team we saw last year but still managed to score 31.5 points per game. Then there’s an Iowa team that usually needs a month to score 31.5 points. I’m only half joking! Iowa played three games in October and scored 45 points. And it finished the season with a 10-3 record! This game will be like an MMA fight between a fighter with all the coolest ninja moves going and wrestler simply trying to get you on the ground so they can sit on your face for the entire round. I have no idea who wins. Though, now that I think about it, I’d love to see an MMA fight between Tennessee’s Joe Milton and Iowa’s Deacon Hill. Hill’s got the weight advantage, but Milton’s got the reach. It’s anybody’s fight.

10. Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Maryland

Saturday, Dec. 30, 2 p.m. — There certainly isn’t a shortage of bowl matchups between the Big Ten and SEC this year, and this is one of them! Maybe that sounds mean, but I do find this matchup to be interesting regardless of the records these teams bring with them into the game. When Maryland is good, Taulia Tagovailoa and company can put up points. Tagovailoa didn’t become the Big Ten’s new all-time leader in passing yardage because he can’t fill up a box score. We’ve also got a team led by Hugh Freeze that wants to get the taste of a disappointing Iron Bowl out of its mouth and head into the offseason with positive feelings. This is one of those times when I think we see two motivated teams. I’m officially declaring this game as “sneaky good.” Print it!

9. Holiday Bowl: No. 15 Louisville vs. USC

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 8 p.m. — Sometimes you have to rank these games on their ceiling if everything goes well, and this game has a high ceiling. It also has a low floor, but this could be a banger. I’ll be shocked if Caleb Williams plays, but it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a matchup of two of the best offensive minds in the sport with USC’s Lincoln Riley and Louisville’s Jeff Brohm. Yes, Louisville’s offense looked like trash against Florida State in the ACC title game, but that had a lot more to do with FSU’s defense than the Cardinal’s offense. USC’s defense? Yeah, it ain’t FSU. The Cardinals will have more success in this game, and even without Williams, USC has plenty of talent on offense. If these teams show up ready to play this game will be incredible. If they don’t, I’ll look like an idiot, but I’m used to that. It’s not a big deal.

8. Sun Bowl: No. 16 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Oregon State

Friday, Dec. 29, 2 p.m. — You know the Spiderman meme with the two identical versions of Spiderman pointing at one another? That’s this game. Notre Dame and Oregon State are basically the same team, even down to the fact neither plays in a conference. Both feature transfer QBs from the ACC with offenses led by strong run games and workhorse running backs behind a powerful offensive line. Defensively, I have to give the edge to Notre Dame, but it’s not as if the Beavers are abysmal on that side of the ball.

That this game should be fun. These are two competent football teams that aren’t likely to pull too far away from the other. Also, there’s a revenge factor here. Maybe you forgot the 2001 Fiesta Bowl that saw Jonathan Smith (yep, the same one who just left for the Michigan State job), Chad Johnson (a.k.a. Ochocinco) and T.J. Houshmanzadeh clown the Fighting Irish, 41-9, but you know who hasn’t? Notre Dame fans. They’ve been waiting over 20 years to finally have the chance to prove they’re better than the Beavers.

7. Armed Forces Bowl: James Madison vs. Air Force

Saturday, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m. — Obsolete rules kept James Madison from the chance to play for a Sun Belt title, and they nearly kept the Dukes from a bowl game, too. Thankfully, the football gods believe in justice, and JMU received a bowl bid (along with Jacksonville State). While Curt Cignetti leaving James Madison for Indiana will impact this game, it’s still a battle between two of the best Group of Five teams we saw this year.  There was a while there where it looked like Air Force had a legit shot at winning the Mountain West and getting a New Year’s Six berth. Those hopes faded a bit thanks to injuries as the Falcons have lost their last four games after starting the year 8-0. Still, when they’re at their best, this Falcons team is very good and a lot of fun to watch. 

6. Cotton Bowl: No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Missouri

Friday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. — While opt-outs could change things if you like awesome wide receivers, this game is for you. Ohio State has a possible top-five draft pick in Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Missouri has Luther Burden and Theo Wease. The last thing I want to be in this game is a defensive back. Being a linebacker won’t be a lot of fun, either, as there are also two great running backs to watch in Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson and Missouri’s Cody Schrader. 

My early read on this one is points, points and then a few more points. Yes, Ohio State’s got a great defense, but if you give The Alpha Nerd Eli Drinkwitz a few weeks to prepare for you, he’s going to come up with ways to move the ball. I’m optimistic both teams will be motivated to play, too. Missouri isn’t going to take the chance to pick up a win against Ohio State for granted, and if you’re Ohio State, you’re salty following another loss to Michigan. There’s no way you want to finish the season with consecutive losses.

5. Alamo Bowl: No. 12 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Arizona

Thursday, Dec. 28, 9:15 p.m. — Arizona was one of my favorite teams to watch this season. Early in the year, the Wildcats were forced to turn to backup QB Noah Fifita, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened to them as Fifita has been one of the best players in the country since. He’s been the driving force behind leading the Wildcats to their best season since 2014. They’ll face an Oklahoma team that’s been up and down this year. The Sooners are 10-2, but the offense tends to disappear at times, and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby just left for the Mississippi State job. Still, my initial reaction to seeing this matchup is that it has the potential to be a thriller, which would be nothing new for an Alamo Bowl.

If you’re not familiar with our beloved Alamo Bowl’s history, it’s traditionally been a high-scoring game. The last 14 games have averaged 66.2 points with the winning team averaging 40.3. Both of these teams are more than capable of living up to the game’s past.

4. Peach Bowl: No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss

Saturday, Dec. 30, 12 p.m. — A fascinating matchup. Ole Miss is undoubtedly a team that should be considered “offense first” in its philosophy, as even coach Lane Kiffin has admitted he’s more comfortable coaching in a shootout than he is in a low-scoring rock fight. We could see some opt-outs with the Rebels, but if not, we’ve got a lot of offensive weapons here. Jaxson Dart is a true dual-threat at the QB spot, while Quinshon Judkins rushed for 1,052 yards. Tre Harris transferred in from Louisiana Tech and fit right in, catching 47 passes for 851 yards and eight touchdowns.

They’ll all face a test here because it’s not going to be easy to move the ball against a Penn State defense that’s been one of the best in the country all season. There are NFL players all over the Penn State D, and it’ll be hard not to notice guys like Chop Robinson and Abdul Carter. Penn State’s offense has had trouble putting up points when it’s faced elite defenses like Ohio State and Michigan but has had a good amount of success in other games. This game will depend on whichever version of the Penn State offense shows up. If we get the good version, we have a potential classic on our hands. If not, you’ll probably keep the remote nearby.

3. Orange Bowl: No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 6 Georgia

Saturday, Dec. 30, 4 p.m. — Dearest reader, what we have here is the chance for a split national championship, something that was supposed to be eliminated when we created the College Football Playoff! Remember way back in the day when we had to get rid of the BCS because it sometimes left out an undefeated conference champion? Surely that would never happen with a playoff! 

Seriously, this is a great chance for Florida State to shock the world, and if the Seminoles beat the Bulldogs, I guarantee they will claim a national title. Depending who wins the playoff, one of the human polls may agree. Still, it’s going to be tough because Georgia is still Georgia. The Dawgs have lost one game in the last three seasons. I doubt they plan to finish the season with a two-game losing streak.

As for possible fears about Florida State’s offense without Jordan Travis, the biggest question mark will be the status of guys like Keon Coleman, Johnny Wilson and Trey Benson. If those three play, the Seminoles will be dangerous. It’s one thing to depend on a second- or third-string QB on a week’s notice. With nearly a month to prepare, whether it’s Tate Rodemaker or Brock Glenn, I’d expect either to be in better position to compete in this game than they were against Florida or Louisville. But again, they’re facing Georgia. It might not matter.

2. Sugar Bowl: No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas

Monday, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. — Steve Sarkisian revenge game? Let’s not overlook that Sark’s first coaching job was at Washington, which he eventually left to take the USC job. He was replaced by Chris Petersen, who led the Huskies to their first playoff appearance while Sark lost his job at USC before eventually ending up at Texas and leading the Longhorns to their first playoff. So many connecting dots! (Well, at least one connecting dot.)

Anyway, while it’s not the No. 1 game, if I had to choose one of the CFP semifinals to be a cotton candy game with a billion points, it’d be this one. Two incredible offensive minds given a month to get ready with a wealth of weapons at their disposal. We’re going to finish the first day of 2024 in style. Everybody who follows the sport is familiar with the quarterbacks. Michael Penix Jr. and Quinn Ewers will be pivotal to this game, but they’re not the only superstars. Both teams have outstanding weapons in the passing and run games on offense, and while Texas has the more recognizable names on the defensive line with T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy, ask Oregon’s offensive line if the Washington defensive front should be taken lightly. I cannot wait to watch this game.

1. Rose Bowl: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama

Monday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. — I mean, you can’t ask for much more than this, can you? Do your best to ignore the controversy of Alabama getting in and Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal. Just look at the matchup. Two of the most historic programs in the sport’s history will battle. Michigan is the only college football program in history with 1,000 wins to its credit, while Alabama is the only program with roughly 1,000 national titles. And it’ll all take place in our greatest college football setting: the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

It’s also a matchup that’s foundational to the sport because there are so many fans out there who won’t want either team to win, and hatred of others will always be a key component of college football’s appeal. The world loves an underdog, and absolutely nothing about these two programs suggests underdog. No matter what happens here, a huge portion of the country is going to be ticked off about it. Like I said, we’ve got everything here.

As for the matchup on the field, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more confident about two teams while simultaneously feeling like I have no idea who they are. Yes, Alabama beat Georgia to finish the season, but it’s also a team that needed a miracle to get past Auburn and struggled to beat Arkansas. But we’ve also seen it play incredible football against some of the toughest teams on its schedule. As for Michigan, it has two huge wins over Ohio State and Penn State, but it hasn’t looked dominant in any of its last four games. All I know is that we’ve got two elite defenses in play, which I’m never sad to see.

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