Complete Preseason 2014 Bowl and College Football Playoff Predictions
It's never too early to start talking about bowl games, right?
The 2014 college football season is almost here, and once the first kickoff is made the clock starts on teams trying to gain eligibility for what will be 76 bowl slots in December and January. There are actually 39 postseason games, but the last one will pit the winners of the Rose and Sugar bowls, which are doubling as the semifinals for the first College Football Playoff.
New games have popped up in Alabama, Florida (twice) and the Bahamas, while others have been renamed and many sport new tie-ins with different conferences. It's frankly far too much to try to sort out before the season has even started, but that's what we're here for.
Each game is projected based on its affiliation with different conferences, many of which will slot teams into certain bowls for matchup purposes and not necessarily in order of finish in their league. For games where a tied-in conference cannot meet its commitment, we have slotted in a projected bowl-eligible team from another league that had extra qualifiers to spare.
Take a look at Bleacher Report's complete predictions for every 2014-15 bowl game matchup, along with our projection of the College Football Playoff games and who will win the first FBS title determined through an actual tournament.
New Orleans Bowl
When: Dec. 20, 11 a.m. ET
Where: New Orleans
Projected matchup: Western Michigan vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Since 2006, this bowl game has been sponsored by R+L Carriers, an Ohio-based shipping company. With Louisiana-Lafayette making its fourth straight appearance in the contest, the school might want to look into officially changing its name to the "Ragin' Cajuns Bowl."
ULL gets in after winning the Sun Belt yet again. Though this will be the first bowl of the 2014 season, that won't take away from the excitement the Cajuns will get from playing so close to home. A huge crowd was on hand last season to watch them beat New Orleans-based Tulane, and while attendance won't be nearly as strong this time it will still be sizable.
And Western Michigan might bring its entire fanbase, since that group had to suffer through a 1-11 season in 2013 and last went to a bowl in 2011. The Broncos will have finished above .500 despite one of the youngest lineups in the country, and in 2015 could contend for the Mid-American title.
Projected winner: Louisiana-Lafayette
New Mexico Bowl
When: Dec. 20, 2:20 p.m. ET
Where: Albuquerque, N.M.
Projected matchup: Rice vs. Colorado State
The New Mexico Bowl got the 2013 bowl season off to a rousing start when Colorado State pulled off a massive comeback in the final minutes to top Washington State. Like a well-crafted pilot episode, it sold us on strapping in for an entire season of games even though many of the ones that followed couldn't live up to the excitement.
"This matchup of two unheard-of programs created more drama in one minute of play than the 2013 National Championship Game did in four quarters," wrote Devin O'Barr of Rant Sports last December.
This year's matchup in Albuquerque won't be the opener, but again should be a fun one pitting teams that are just happy to get to play another game. The Pac-12 has been replaced by Conference USA as the league opposite the Mountain West, and C-USA will send a Rice team that won't be as good as the one that took the conference crown in 2013 but should still be solid.
Colorado State again represents the Mountain West and will again win, but won't need nearly the kind of last-second heroics to do so.
Projected winner: Colorado State
Las Vegas Bowl
When: Dec. 20, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Las Vegas
Projected matchup: Boise State vs. Washington
Chris Petersen turned Boise State into a mid-major powerhouse, but when there was nothing left for him to do on the blue turf he made the jump to the Pac-12 and Washington. And after a successful first season in Seattle his reward is a bowl game against...his old employer.
The Las Vegas Bowl annually features the Mountain West champion, unless that team got scooped up by the BCS or in 2014 the College Football Playoff selection committee. Boise will take the title, but losses to Ole Miss and at least one in conference play will keep the Broncos from ranking high enough for a bigger invite.
Instead, Boise's players who remain from 2013 will get a chance to show their old coach what he left behind. And Petersen's former assistant, Bryan Harsin, gets an opportunity to have the student top the master. But just like when these teams met to start the 2013 season, it will be the Pac-12 team coming out on top.
Projected winner: Washington
When: Dec. 20, 5:45 p.m.
Where: Boise, Idaho
Projected matchup: Northern Illinois vs. Nevada
After a two-year run where it rubbed elbows briefly with the big boys in the power conferences—we miss you already, Jordan Lynch—Northern Illinois has fallen back to Earth and is just another one of the decent teams that come out of the Mid-American Conference. That means getting sent to one of several far-off destinations for a bowl game, and this time around the Huskies get tabbed to bite the bullet and play in Boise like it did back in 2010.
Nevada won't be as disappointed with the destination, though, not after missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2004 last season. The Wolf Pack will go from 4-8 in 2013 to finishing second in the Mountain West's West Division, riding the arm and legs of a healthy Cody Fajardo.
The Wolf Pack have won only four of 13 all-time bowl games, but will take this tilt.
Projected winner: Nevada
When: Dec. 20, 9:15 p.m. ET
Where: Montgomery, Ala.
Projected matchup: Toledo vs. Arkansas State
The first of four new bowl games added for 2014, the Camellia Bowl takes on a name that was previously used for bowl games in Louisiana in the 1940s and for lower-division playoff games played in Sacramento in the 1960s and 1970s. This version was created by the Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences to help those leagues get more of their teams into bowls, because in 2013 they combined to have seven schools finish at .500 or better but fail to earn an invite.
Toledo was one of those, finishing 7-5 in the MAC, but was passed over after losing its final two games. The Rockets will battle for the East Division title this fall. After facing a schedule that features Cincinnati, Iowa State and Missouri—we predict they'll take at least one of those games, if not two—they get a trip to Alabama.
Arkansas State, under the guidance of its fifth coach in as many years in Blake Anderson (who, amazingly, won't bolt to a bigger program after one year like his three predecessors), will again finish high enough in the Sun Belt to get an invite. After going to the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile for three straight Januaries, a slight change of scenery will be welcomed by the Red Wolves.
Projected winner: Toledo
Miami Beach Bowl
When: Dec. 22, 2 p.m. ET
Projected matchup: BYU vs. Cincinnati
BYU's foray into independence has relegated it to a second-tier program, at least in the eyes of the ACC and SEC. Yet the American Athletic Conference seems to have no problem with the Cougars, as three of its schools are on BYU's 2014 schedule and this would be the fourth.
BYU locked up this bowl slot before the season began, similar to how Army and Navy try to do so as not to get shut out by conference tie-ins. And while it will be the team's first bowl game in Florida since the 1985 Citrus, it will be the Cougars' second trip to the state this season after visiting UCF in October.
Cincinnati, one of just three teams in the American that were in the league as recently as three years ago (when it was still the Big East), could be a contender for the College Football Playoff at-large spot but faces far too tough a schedule for that to happen. Instead, the Bearcats get to return to Miami for the first time since losing to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl.
Projected winner: Cincinnati
Boca Raton Bowl
When: Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET
Where: Boca Raton, Fla.
Projected matchup: Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan
Admit it, most of you only know about Boca Raton because of Seinfeld. But there's more to this suburb of Miami and Fort Lauderdale than the Del Boca Vista condos where Jerry's parents live. It's also the site of another new bowl game and the only one to be played on the campus of an FBS team.
Held at FAU Stadium—which on Sept. 13 will be called Howard Schnellenberger Field, in honor of the coach who helped start the football program in the late 1990s—the game will pit teams from Conference USA and the Mid-American. It's one of two new bowls that matches these leagues together, along with the Bahamas Bowl, though this one doesn't require going through customs.
FAU has played in only two bowl games, winning both, but hasn't earned an invite since 2008 despite going 6-6 last season. Central Michigan, which was also 6-6 and left home a year ago, will make its sixth bowl appearance since 2006.
Projected winner: Florida Atlantic
When: Dec. 23, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: San Diego
Projected matchup: Navy vs. Fresno State
Certain cities are so desirable for tourism and major events that they warrant two bowl games. San Diego might be one that could sustain five or six thanks to its weather and non-football attractions, but the reason Navy keeps inking deals to play there is because of the region's strong military presence.
The Midshipmen are contracted to play in the Poinsettia Bowl if it's eligible and doesn't somehow manage to get selected by the College Football Playoff committee. They face Notre Dame and Ohio State, and with wins in both could get consideration with an 11-1 record or better, but knowing they have a fallback plan is also nice.
The Mountain West is a regular entrant in this game, and that league is 2-1 against Navy in past meetings. Fresno State hasn't been there before, though, and hasn't played a bowl in its home state since a four-year run hosting the Silicon Valley Classic from 2000 to 2003.
Projected winner: Navy
When: Dec. 24, noon ET
Where: Nassau, Bahamas
Projected matchup: UTSA vs. Ball State
With Tuesday's announcement that the inaugural bowl game in the Bahamas would be sponsored by Popeye's, this otherwise meaningless contest between Conference USA and the Mid-American has two very notable things going for it: a mouth-watering underwriter and having the distinction of being the only current bowl that requires players, coaches and fans to get passports.
We think there's no doubt that the players on UTSA will be showing their excitement in those passport photos, especially since this will be the program's first bowl appearance in just its third year of FBS football. The Roadrunners are on a meteoric rise after not even existing six years ago, and under former Miami coach Larry Coker they'll win the West Division but fall to Marshall in the C-USA final.
Ball State will be hard-pressed to continue the upward trend it's been on since 2009, going from 2-10 that year to 10-3 in 2013. But the Cardinals will still be good enough to finish high enough in the MAC to ensure a school-record third straight bowl bid.
Projected winner: UTSA
When: Dec. 24, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
Projected matchup: Western Kentucky vs. San Diego State
In an ideal world, the Hawaii Bowl would pit the state's lone FBS program against an opponent that has a lot of well-heeled fans who are more than willing to spend Christmas in the tropics. But the Rainbow Warriors are one of the country's worst teams right now, and according to its athletic director could disappear soon because of budget issues.
Hawaii has been the Mountain West representative in six of the previous 12 bowls, but this time it will be San Diego State going as the unofficial "next-closest team" and because it will finish second in its division. The Aztecs have never bowled in Honolulu, but after going to Boise last year it's hard to complain about this trip.
Western Kentucky has a strong following in its region, but who knows how many Hilltoppers will make the trip out for this one. Those who do will no doubt note that the move from the Sun Belt—where WKU went 8-4 last season and didn't get a bowl invite—to Conference USA was definitely the right decision, travel costs be darned.
Projected winner: San Diego State
Heart of Dallas Bowl
When: Dec. 26, 1 p.m. ET
Projected matchup: Utah vs. North Texas
The Heart of Dallas Bowl is one of five bowl games that, because of scheduling tweaks, will be played twice in 2014. But none has been shifted so dramatically on the schedule as this one, going from an odd placement on New Year's Day to the day after Christmas.
Despite the change, it will have at least one thing consistent from last time to this one: the presence of nearby entrant North Texas helping to beef up attendance numbers. The Mean Green ended an eight-season bowl drought last January when they crushed UNLV, and with another solid finish in Conference USA this program will get a return invitation to the old Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Utah's appearance will come as a result of the Big Ten Conference again failing to meet its commitment to send a team for the second straight year. But considering the league lost the 2011-13 games maybe that's not such a bad thing. Instead, it will be the Pac-12 filling the slot with a ninth eligible team, and in the Utes it will be one that hasn't bowled since 2011 and brings with it a very impressive 13-4 all-time record in bowl games.
Projected winner: Utah
Quick Lane Bowl
When: Dec. 26, 4:30 p.m. ET
Projected matchup: Indiana vs. Georgia Tech
While not as salivating as Popeye's signing on to sponsor the Bahamas Bowl, the game in Detroit also picked up a presenter on Tuesday in the form of Quick Lane, a Michigan-based auto maintenance franchise. Sure, it's not flashy, but it's better than calling this game—which is technically a new bowl, replacing the defunct Little Caesars Bowl, though still played at Ford Field—the Detroit Lions Bowl like it was earmarked as.
The Big Ten has been aligned with this game for a while, but several times (including in 2012 and 2013) the conference failed to have enough eligible teams to send one to Detroit. But Indiana is projected to get the requisite six wins this season, sending the Hoosiers bowling for the first time since 2007 and just the second time since 1993.
Georgia Tech will grab the ACC's bid, which means the Yellow Jackets will finish in the bottom half of the conference yet still make their 18th straight bowl appearance. Tech has won only one of its last nine bowl games, though, beating USC in the 2012 Sun Bowl.
Projected winner: Indiana
St. Petersburg Bowl
When: Dec. 26, 8 p.m. ET
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla.
Projected matchup: Syracuse vs. UCF
Online payment processing company Bitcoin took over sponsorship of this game—so long, Beef O'Brady's—but as of the writing of this article the game hasn't managed to convert enough bitcoins into cash in order to build an official game website.
The ACC and American will send teams to St. Petersburg. While an all-Florida matchup would be the most ideal for marketing purposes, it's more likely the ACC will end up sending one of its northern-based teams to Florida for the winter. Our pick is Syracuse, which went to Texas last year and is 1-5 all time in bowls played in the Sunshine State.
UCF is projected to represent the American, a far cry from last season when it steamrolled through the league and then past Big 12 power Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. But at least it's not a far drive from Orlando for the Knights and their fans.
Projected winner: UCF
When: Dec. 27, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Annapolis, Md.
Projected matchup: Virginia Tech vs. Houston
The ACC and American play each other seven times during the regular season, and as fate (i.e., TV scheduling) would have it, their two bowl matchups happen on consecutive days. The ACC is projected to send a team a long distance to get to the game played the night before in Florida, so it's only fair that our predictions have the American forcing a member to go far north and east for a game in Maryland.
Houston hasn't been in a bowl game this far east since 1980, and that Garden City Bowl was the last time the Cougars won a bowl not played in Texas. For Virginia Tech, heading up to Maryland is nothing compared to going to El Paso in 2013, where it was crushed by 30 points by UCLA.
Projected winner: Virginia Tech
When: Dec. 27, 2 p.m. ET
Where: El Paso, Texas
Projected matchup: Miami (Fla.) vs. Arizona
When trying to find something appealing to say about certain bowl games, you sometimes have to reach. More often than not that is the case with the Sun Bowl, which has a storied history but after more than 75 years has become rather long in the tooth.
One of the biggest wins in Arizona's football history came against Miami, as well as one of the Wildcats' biggest near misses. Arizona crushed the Hurricanes in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl, while the season before it lost 8-7 on the road against a Miami team that would go on to play for a national title (but lose to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl).
Arizona hasn't been in the Sun Bowl since 1992, while Miami would be headed to the banks of the Rio Grande for the second time in five years.
Projected winner: Arizona
When: Dec. 27, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Shreveport, La.
Projected matchup: Pittsburgh vs. Louisiana-Monroe
The good folks at Duck Dynasty have taken over as sponsor of this game, thus keeping us all from another year of having to figure out what AdvoCare V100 is. But as the bowl that gets the absolute last pick of eligible SEC teams, we are projecting that league will fail to send a team to Shreveport for the third time since aligning with it.
But the next best thing is having a team from Louisiana in the game, and we're projecting Louisiana-Monroe to fit that bill for the second time since 2012. The Warhawks went 6-6 last season but didn't get an invite anywhere, and would likely get left out again this time if not for openings such as this even after a season that will start with a win over the ACC's Wake Forest.
That would mean ULM has a chance to begin and end 2014 with victories over the ACC, but projected opponent Pittsburgh is a lot stronger than Wake Forest.
Projected winner: Pittsburgh
When: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bronx, N.Y.
Projected matchup: Notre Dame vs. Maryland
The Big Ten's reach into the New York City market involves more than having Rutgers join the Midwest-based conference. It also means adding this bowl game to its lineup, which would pit its entrant against an ACC team in most years.
But with Notre Dame serving as a de facto ACC member thanks to its scheduling agreement with the conference, the Fighting Irish are eligible to be picked by most of the ACC-aligned bowls, as was the case in 2013. Notre Dame rolled past Rutgers last December, and the possibility is there for a bowl rematch.
Instead it will be the other new Big Ten team, Maryland, jumping into the fray. The Terrapins haven't faced a power-conference team (or Notre Dame) in a bowl since 2007, and haven't beaten one since 2006. The latter of those droughts will continue.
Projected winner: Notre Dame
When: Dec. 27, 8 p.m. ET
Where: San Diego
Projected matchup: Nebraska vs. USC
The Holiday Bowl will not feature a Big 12 team for the first time since 1994, replacing that conference with the Big Ten in a move to spice up the Big Ten's bowl trips and breath new life into what's traditionally been one of the better pre-New Year's bowl games over the years.
Sure enough, though, the Big Ten's first entrant in the game will be an old Big 12 member, Nebraska, which shut out Arizona here in 2009 and then lost to Washington a year later.
USC is one of four Pac-12 teams (including recent addition Utah) never to play in the game, but with a strong fanbase throughout Southern California the Trojans should make for a great draw. Nebraska travels well no matter where it goes, and for the third time in Bo Pelini's seven seasons the Cornhuskers can try to pick up their traditional fourth loss or ninth or 10th win in San Diego.
Projected winner: USC
When: Dec. 29, 2 p.m. ET
Where: Memphis, Tenn.
Projected matchup: Texas Tech vs. Ole Miss
After several years of being one of the bowl games giving the little guys a chance to knock off a power-conference team (as Tulsa did against Iowa State in 2012 and UCF against Georgia in 2010), the Liberty Bowl has gotten an upgrade of potential talent by pairing the Big 12 and SEC. And for this first foray into power vs. power, we get a pair of teams that are on the lower end of their respective leagues but are hoping to move up.
Ole Miss and Texas Tech last met in 2009 in the Cotton Bowl, with Ole Miss winning 47-34. Both had strong bowl efforts last year, with Tech cruising past Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl and the Rebels downing Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl.
Ole Miss is riding a six-game bowl win streak, while Tech has claimed its last four bowl appearances. Something's gotta give in Memphis on a Monday afternoon.
Projected winner: Texas Tech
Russell Athletic Bowl
When: Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Projected matchup: Clemson vs. Oklahoma State
One of the bowl games that used to be played in Orlando was known as the Citrus Bowl, which changed to the Capital One Bowl in 2003 and ended the era of two Florida-based games named after fruits.
Yet with the similarly bright-hued uniforms of Clemson and Oklahoma State projected to pair up for this year's Russell Athletic Bowl, it's almost like a newfangled version of the Orange Bowl. But more like the Highlighter Orange Bowl.
Clemson won last year's Orange Bowl over Ohio State, avenging a blowout loss to West Virginia in that game two years earlier. Oklahoma State hasn't played a bowl game in Florida since 1985, when it lost to Florida State in the Gator Bowl a year after beating South Carolina in the same bowl.
Projected winner: Clemson
When: Dec. 29, 9 p.m. ET
Projected matchup: Texas vs. Texas A&M
We can dream, can't we?
The end of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry was one of the most significant casualties of the mass realignment that has hit college football over the past decade. The teams last met on Thanksgiving 2011, and ever since we've been hoping for some way for them to get together on the field.
And if the schools themselves won't do it on their own, then why not their respective conferences? Both the Big 12 and SEC intend to dole out bowl invitations to most of their eligible teams based on matchups, and what better pairing could there be than this one? (Sure, Kansas and Missouri resuming their Border War in a bowl, but that would require Kansas being good.)
Not only would a Longhorns-Aggies game make for great TV, it would also help further the ongoing battle between the schools for in-state recruiting supremacy. We can imagine countless potential recruits watching this game and having their decisions affected by the outcome.
Projected winner: Texas A&M
Music City Bowl
When: Dec. 30, 3 p.m. ET
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
Projected matchup: Michigan vs. LSU
The ACC and Big Ten have entered into a bowl-sharing agreement that includes both the Music City Bowl and the one in Jacksonville, which is no longer the Gator Bowl (see future slides). We are projecting the Big Ten will send a team to Tennessee, while the ACC will provide a participant for the Florida game.
Michigan gets the nod from the Big Ten, and that also means getting lined up against LSU now that the SEC has moved the Music City Bowl up on its bowl hierarchy. A 7-5 Ole Miss team was the representative last year, while the Tigers project to win nine or more games in 2014.
The Wolverines have lost their last two bowl games against SEC opponents, falling to South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl and Mississippi State in the 2011 Gator Bowl. LSU is 4-3 all time against the Big Ten in bowls, including January's victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl and over Ohio State to win the 2008 BCS national title game.
Projected winner: LSU
When: Dec. 30, 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Charlotte, N.C.
Projected matchup: Duke vs. Mississippi State
The slogan for bowl sponsor Belk, a North Carolina-based department store chain, is "Modern. Southern. Style." And for the first time since the bowl was formed in 2002 it will feature teams from the two primary Southern conferences, the ACC and SEC.
Duke and Mississippi State have never met, and the Blue Devils have never played a team from the state of Mississippi in its football history; the Blue Devils' last bowl game was against an SEC foe, losing to Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December.
MSU has played in 16 bowl games all time, but only in five states and never in North Carolina. This would be a school-best fifth straight year getting an invite after never previously going bowling after more than three consecutive seasons.
Projected winner: Mississippi State
San Francisco Bowl
When: Dec. 30, 10 p.m. ET
Where: Santa Clara, Calif.
Projected matchup: Minnesota vs. Arizona State
This Bay Area bowl game is going through a couple of major changes for 2014. First off, it's finally going to be played in an actual football stadium—the new Levi's Stadium—after spending 12 years taking up space in the outfield of AT&T Park, home of baseball's San Francisco Giants. The game also is currently without a sponsor, after being backed by some sort of food company (Emerald Nuts from 2004-09 and then Kraft the last four years) for the past decade.
Oh, you probably want to know about the matchup. The Big Ten has added this game to its lineup, which in the past has pit the Pac-12 against teams from the ACC, a service academy or in last year's case BYU. Now this will make for two games in California between the leagues, joining the Holiday.
Minnesota won't contend for a division title in the Big Ten, but should go bowling for the third straight year and will try to end a six-game skid in postseason contests. Arizona State has won only once in five bowls since 2006, and that came in 2012 over Navy in this game.
Projected winner: Arizona State
Capital One Bowl
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Projected matchup: Wisconsin vs. Georgia
The new College Football Playoff system has more or less monopolized New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, putting both of its semifinals and all of the other affiliated bowls on those two dates. That doesn't leave room for much else, but some traditions will carry on, including the Capital One Bowl's spot on Jan. 1.
Other than twice when the first of the year fell on a Sunday, and thus coincided with the final week of the NFL regular season, this game has been on New Year's Day ever year since 1987, when it was still called the Florida Citrus Bowl. And like it's been since the early 1990s, it will feature strong teams from the Big Ten and SEC.
Projected entrants Georgia and Wisconsin have met twice before in the Outback, with Georgia winning both in 1998 and 2005. The Bulldogs have also won four of their last five games in the Orlando bowl, while Wisconsin is 2-1 there and lost to South Carolina in last season's matchup.
Projected winner: Georgia
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Tampa, Fla.
Projected matchup: Iowa vs. Missouri
Like the Capital One Bowl, the Outback has been a New Year's Day staple for more than 25 years. That wasn't going to change no matter what the College Football Playoff people ended up doing, as tradition has called for this game to once again kick off at the same time as its sister game in Orlando.
Projected Big Ten entrant Iowa would be making its fifth appearance in the game and second consecutive, falling to LSU last January. Missouri has never been to Tampa, and is 3-5 all time in bowls played in Florida but hasn't been there for one since beating Southern Mississippi in the 1981 Tangerine Bowl.
Despite being less than 250 miles from each other, these schools from bordering states have met only once in recent history. That was in 2010, with Iowa knocking off the Tigers 27-24 in the Insight Bowl in Arizona. Before that, it was a rousing 5-0 win for Mizzou way back in 1910.
Projected winner: Missouri
Armed Forces Bowl
When: Jan. 2, noon ET
Where: Fort Worth, Texas
Projected matchup: Middle Tennessee vs. SMU
Ending the season in a different year than it began isn't just for power-conference teams or mid-majors who have breakout seasons. With the College Football Playoff rejiggering a lot of the schedule this year, several games jumped from the week between Christmas and New Year's into the first week of January to get a good TV slot.
First on that list is the Armed Forces Bowl, which is played in TCU's stadium and for just the second time since 2006 isn't likely to end up with a service academy in the game. Army is signed to play in it if the Black Knights can win six games, and if that doesn't happen the Big 12 would provide a team as a backup.
They'll have to go to Plan C, though, which means grabbing an eligible team from elsewhere to face one from the American. Middle Tennessee, from Conference USA, is our pick to fill that open slot, giving the Blue Raiders a chance to avenge last year's loss there to Navy. SMU, from nearby Dallas, would make for a nice draw as the American's entrant.
Projected winner: SMU
When: Jan. 2, 3:20 p.m. ET
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
Projected matchup: Louisville vs. Florida
No longer content to just sponsor the game, online tax software company TaxSlayer has now put its own name on the bowl and eliminated Gator from the title. We wonder if that decision will get brought up by the IRS during its audit of the bowl game, as reported back in March by CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler.
The average college football fan won't really care about any of that, they just want to see a good matchup. And the one we're projecting should be good, especially if Florida is able to rebound from 2013's horrible result to not only get back into a bowl but to one not far from campus.
Florida and Louisville met the last time the Gators went bowling, in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, with the Cardinals winning 33-23. Louisville has knocked off Florida-based teams for its last two bowl triumphs, crushing Miami last December in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Projected winner: Florida
When: Jan. 2, 6:45 p.m. ET
Where: San Antonio, Texas
Projected matchup: Kansas State vs. Stanford
In what can only be described as a scheduling quirk, the Alamo Bowl will pit the best teams from the Big 12 and Pac-12 that aren't selected to a College Football Playoff semifinal or side game but have them play after those conferences' higher-rated teams have already competed.
We're projecting multiple teams from both leagues to make those big games, so this game would in effect match the third-place teams from each in a game that had been dominated by the Big 12 before Oregon knocked off Texas last year.
K-State and Stanford will be major players in determining who from their conferences get a shot at the playoffs, but neither will be able to overcome tough schedules in order to get in themselves. Instead, they'll meet up for what should be a fun old-school game.
Projected winner: Stanford
When: Jan. 2, 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: Tempe, Ariz.
Projected matchup: TCU vs. Oregon State
Buffalo Wild Wings dropped out of sponsoring this game after last year's edition, won by Kansas State over Michigan. The game also lost its affiliation with the Big Ten but picked up the Pac-12 in a pretty favorable trade. This means that one of the Pac-12's two in-state teams could play close to home, and if that were Arizona State it would mean doing so on its home field.
Instead, we're projecting Oregon State for this game, as it's the last one on the pecking order in the conference and both Arizona and ASU are projected to get snapped up sooner. It's also on the bottom rung for the Big 12, but after TCU failed to make a bowl for the first time in nine years in 2013 it will take whatever it can get.
Projected winner: Oregon State
When: Jan. 3, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Birmingham, Ala.
Projected matchup: Vanderbilt vs. East Carolina
The game previously known as the BBVA Compass Bowl (that's a European-based banking institution, by the way) doesn't currently have a sponsor, but that probably won't be the case by the time the matchup is announced thanks to the presence of the SEC in the contest. If all else fails, the ESPN-owned game could always name it the Paul Finebaum Bowl.
Vanderbilt won this game a year ago, beating Houston in the swan song for coach James Franklin before he jumped to Penn State. He led the Commodores to three straight bowl appearances, a school record, and thanks to an ultra-soft nonconference schedule they can (and will) get eligible even with a 2-6 league mark like they did in 2011.
Though one of the lowest-rated SEC teams will end up in Birmingham, it will be opposed by the presumptive top pick from the American outside of anyone selected for the College Football Playoff. That's projected to be East Carolina, a newcomer from Conference USA who may struggle against tough nonleague competition but should be good enough to still finish first.
Projected winner: East Carolina
When: Jan. 4, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Mobile, Ala.
Projected matchup: Bowling Green vs. South Alabama
Bowling Green will win the Mid-American title for the second straight year, making the departure of coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest an afterthought thanks to how new coach Dino Babers performs in his first season. The Falcons won't contend for the CFP at-large slot, though, after losing at least twice in the regular season.
South Alabama, in its third year of FBS play, continues its swift rise from 2-11 in 2012 to second place in the Sun Belt this season. And while that league remains the bottom feeder of major college football, the Jaguars won't exactly be green behind the ears as far as big games go after hosting Mississippi State and Navy and visiting South Carolina in 2014.
With the game being played in USA's Ladd Peebles Stadium, it's hard to pick against the Jaguars.
Projected winner: South Alabama
When: Dec. 31, 1 p.m. ET
Projected matchup: South Carolina vs. Marshall
After coming up just short during the final three years of the BCS era, the Head Ball Coach finally will get South Carolina into one of the elite bowl games. But unfortunately for South Carolina and Steve Spurrier, it will be a bittersweet invite as we've projected the Peach Bowl will be the CFP-affiliated contest that gets to feature the token invite to a non-power conference team.
Our choice for the outsider choice is Marshall, which will come in with a 13-0 record after breezing through a very watered-down Conference USA and then knocking off upstart UTSA in the league championship game. The Thundering Herd won't get much credit for their schedule strength, but with no other team from the American, C-USA, Mid-American, Mountain West or Sun Belt having fewer than two losses the selection committee will choose untested perfection over other options.
Spurrier fired a shot at the power conferences earlier this year when he said mid-majors like East Carolina were stronger than bottom-rung teams in the Big Ten, and he'll try to be diplomatic about the pairing with Marshall. But he'll also give off plenty of scowls and disgusted smirks on the Georgia Dome sidelines when Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato throws all over his secondary.
Projected winner: Marshall
When: Dec. 31, 5 p.m. ET
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Projected matchup: UCLA vs. Michigan State
Since the Rose Bowl has been co-opted by the College Football Playoff as a national semifinal, unless Big Ten and Pac-12 teams finish second/third or first/fourth in the selection committee's rankings then we'll be robbed of that traditional bowl matchup. No bother, as the Fiesta will step in and take the Big Ten champions and the second-best team from the Pac-12.
These teams haven't met in 40 years, but for MSU it will be its third game against a Pac-12 squad in less than 12 months. The Spartans beat Stanford in last season's Rose Bowl, but will have lost at Oregon in one of the year's best nonconference games. This game will mark yet another venture to Pac-12 territory for the Spartans, but riding an 11-game win streak they'll be the favorites.
UCLA, the Pac-12's South Division winners, would have made the semifinals if not for a pair of losses to Oregon, one in the regular season and another in the conference title game. The Bruins will be the country's best two-loss team, and finish 2014 with only two setbacks.
Projected winner: UCLA
When: Dec. 31, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Miami Gardens, Fla.
Projected matchup: North Carolina vs. Auburn
The Orange Bowl is contracted to take the top-rated team from the ACC, and with Florida State getting chosen for a semifinal game (see future slides) that means the next-best club from that league gets an invitation to South Florida no matter where it sits in the selection committee's rankings. North Carolina is our projected second-best ACC team, having won the Coastal Division, so the Tar Heels get the invite.
Auburn fits a similar role, since the Orange also must take the top-rated team from the Big Ten and SEC (or Notre Dame) that's left over after those leagues send teams to the semifinals. After playing for the championship, this berth will likely feel like a major letdown for the Tigers, but don't expect Gus Malzahn's team to throw in the orange-and-blue towel.
North Carolina will be way overmatched in this game, making it possibly the most lopsided of the College Football Playoff's seven affiliated contests.
Projected winner: Auburn
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Arlington, Texas
Projected matchup: Baylor vs. Ohio State
Baylor will make a big-level bowl for the second straight year, but unlike the previous season it won't be getting in as a conference champion. The Bears will finish second in the Big 12, but still get rated high enough by the selection committee (weak nonconference scheduled be darned) to earn a CFP host bowl invite and a de facto home game not far from Waco.
Ohio State won't win the Big Ten, something that was almost set in stone before quarterback Braxton Miller got injured in the preseason and was lost for the year. But the Buckeyes are still talented enough to win 10 games, and with an upgraded schedule they'll be the second Big Ten team into the CFP field.
OSU hasn't played a game in Texas since beating Oklahoma State in the 2004 Alamo Bowl, while Baylor will get its first matchup with a Big Ten foe since losing to Illinois in the 2009 Texas Bowl. The edge in this one will go to the Lone Star State representatives, though this already sold-out game will have strong representation from both schools' fans.
Projected winner: Baylor
Rose Bowl (CFP Semifinal)
When: Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET
Where: Pasadena, Calif.
Projected matchup: Oregon vs. Alabama
For most of the first two months of the 2013 season, an Alabama-Oregon matchup was one of the most sought-after things for college football fans both casual and diehard, the latter including Oregon fans who started buying up "We Want Bama" shirts by the truckload. Then Oregon lost twice in three games and those shirts disappeared, probably ending up in the same place as the 40-0 shirts that Kentucky basketball fans were so excited about last November.
Oregon will come in riding a two-game losing streak against SEC teams, dating back to the last-second loss to Auburn in the BCS title game in January 2011 and then a season-opening defeat to LSU eight months later. Alabama will be playing a Pac-12 team for the first time since 2001, unless you count pre-realignment Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl (and Crimson Tide fans would prefer that game just disappeared from written history).
Nick Saban won the last time he coached in the Rose Bowl, back in the 2010 BCS championship game. But this is Pac-12 territory, and the Ducks will soar into the final.
Projected winner: Oregon
Sugar Bowl (CFP Semifinal)
When: Jan. 1, 8 p.m. ET
Where: New Orleans
Projected matchup: Florida State vs. Oklahoma
Florida State will finish the season as the No. 1 team in the country in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee, and therefore get preferential treatment when being placed in a semifinal. The Sugar Bowl is far better for Seminoles fans than the Rose, so FSU ends up in New Orleans. But that's also where No. 4 seed Oklahoma got started on its run of high-level play last January, when it knocked off Alabama.
This will be the fifth time these programs will have met in a bowl game, but the first since the Orange Bowl following the 2000 season. That game pitted defending champion Florida State against a Sooners team in its second year under the guidance of hot young coach Bob Stoops, who would win the game and bring a national title back to Norman.
No such repeating of history this time out, though, as FSU comfortably gets past Oklahoma and into another title game.
Projected winner: Florida State
College Football Championship Game
When: Jan. 12, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Arlington, Texas
Projected matchup: Florida State vs. Oregon
Yes, you're reading that right. For the first time since the 2005 season the national championship game in college football will not include a team from the SEC. That also means it will be two years without an SEC champion, which last happened in 2004-05.
Oregon will have navigated all of the nation's best teams out west, along with Big Ten champion Michigan State during the regular season and then SEC winner Alabama in the semifinals to make its second title game appearance in five years. The Ducks then get the opportunity to prevent a repeat, not to mention put an end to Florida State's 28-game win streak.
Florida State will have battled through a season of adversity, include a few close calls and plenty of criticisms that the Seminoles weren't playing like defending champs (which is what coach Jimbo Fisher has said all along, noting back in February that "we're not defending anything, because they can't take that away"). Jameis Winston will not have repeated as Heisman, instead finishing second to the quarterback he'll be battling against in this final, Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
The game will go down in history for more than the first one to ever crown an FBS champion through a playoff, as the Ducks and Seminoles will need overtime to determine a winner. And in that extra period the Pac-12 will collect its first national championship since USC in 2004.
Projected winner: Oregon
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.