Post-Spring College Football Bowl Game Predictions for 2016-17 Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2016

Post-Spring College Football Bowl Game Predictions for 2016-17 Season

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    Lost in all the attention given to various NCAA rulings on satellite camps, text messaging of recruits and social-media usage was an edict from above that has a real impact on college football: no more new bowl games, at least for the foreseeable future.

    That means cities such as Austin, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have to wait a little while for their chance to join the bowl scene, one that took flack last season when a trio of 5-7 teams earned bids due to the lack of eligible options.

    Thankfully, we still have 40 bowl games—41, if you include the national championship in Tampa Bay, Florida—to look forward to. And to remind you how wonderful these mostly meaningless contests are, we've gone ahead and made some super-early predictions on who will face whom in each one.

    These projections fall mostly in line with the way the bowls are expected to select teams, starting with those included in the College Football Playoff and then trickling down, though some adjustments have been made to account for the annual swaps and back-door deals that tend to happen between lesser bowls.

    Last year, we managed to place nine teams in their correct bowls, including perfectly nailing the Camellia Bowl matchup between Appalachian State and Ohio.

    And at least from our numbers, none of the 80 bowl participants should enter these games with fewer than the six wins necessary to be bowl-eligible.

    NOTE: The New Year's Six and playoff-affiliated bowls are listed last. The rest are listed in chronological order, based on last year's spot on the schedule, unless a date has already been announced.

Cure Bowl

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    Florida International vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

    When: Dec. 17

    Where: Orlando, Florida

    Florida International's 12th season of FBS football will produce its third bowl bid—and first since 2011—but only because the American Athletic Conference won't be able to fill all its bowl slots. That will be twice in as many years since the Cure Bowl was created that the AAC didn't have enough eligible teams, but like in 2015, it's because it will be sending one to the New Year's Six.

    That's great news for the Golden Panthers, which were 1-11 in 2013 in Ron Turner's first season. That was followed by 3-9 and 5-7 campaigns, and the improvement will continue this fall.

    Louisiana-Lafayette makes a return to the bowl world after missing out in 2015, and for the first time since 1970, it will be bowling somewhere other than the New Orleans Bowl. It was 4-0 in those games from 2011-14.

    Winner: Louisiana-Lafayette

New Mexico Bowl

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    Louisiana Tech vs. Nevada

    When: Dec. 17

    Where: Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Geography has never mattered much to college sports, hence the 11 years that Louisiana Tech and Nevada—schools separated by two time zones—spent together in the now-defunct Western Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack met every year, with Nevada owning a 6-5 edge during that stretch.

    And now they'll be reunited on a neutral field, one that doesn't figure to draw many of each team's fans but should still make for a worthwhile bowl matchup. At least Nevada won't be facing a team from its current league, like it did in beating fellow Mountain West foe Colorado State in last year's inaugural Arizona Bowl.

    Nevada has appeared in a bowl in 10 of the previous 11 years, while Louisiana Tech will be making its third consecutive appearance. Nevada is 0-2 in New Mexico bowls, while Tech will be bowling west of Texas for only the third time in its history.

    Winner: Louisiana Tech

Las Vegas Bowl

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    San Diego State vs. Stanford

    When: Dec. 17

    Where: Las Vegas

    The earliest bowl game that features a team from a Power Five conference, the Las Vegas Bowl is considered a letdown for most Pac-12 teams that play there, but it's a destination for the Mountain West participant. San Diego State hasn't had the good fortune of bowling in Sin City since 1998, but as one of the favorites to win the MWC, in 2016 the Aztecs look like a good bet.

    Our pick of Stanford into what amounts to the Pac-12's sixth-best bowl slot is indicative of a team that features the top all-purpose player in the country (junior running back Christian McCaffrey) but not much experience beyond that.

    The Cardinal are one of three Pac-12 teams never to play in the Las Vegas Bowl—Colorado and Washington State are the others—and thus would be an enticing choice for the bowl organizers, especially if McCaffrey is faring well in the Heisman Trophy race after finishing second last year.

    SDSU enters 2016 on a 10-game win streak, second only to Alabama's 12 straight victories. It has the chance to begin and end the year with wins over Pac-12 schools from its own state, as the Aztecs host California in September.

    Winner: Stanford

Camellia Bowl

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    Georgia Southern vs. Northern Illinois

    When: Dec. 17

    Where: Montgomery, Alabama 

    The first two Camellia bowls have proven to be nail-biters, with Bowling Green edging South Alabama on a 78-yard touchdown with one minute, four seconds left in the 2014 edition and then Appalachian State claiming a 31-29 win last season over Ohio on a field goal at the buzzer.

    We can only hope the third Camellia is just as entertaining, and with the success that mid-major programs Georgia Southern and Northern Illinois have had of late, this seems quite possible.

    Georgia Southern has gone 18-7 in its two years of FBS play, beating Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl in December. Northern Illinois was 8-6 last year, capped by a blowout loss to Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl, but the Huskies had won at least 11 games in their previous five seasons and appeared in a BCS bowl game in 2012-13.

    Winner: Georgia Southern

New Orleans Bowl

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    Appalachian State vs. Southern Miss

    When: Dec. 17

    Where: New Orleans 

    Appalachian State is making this FBS thing look easy. It went 7-5 in its first year of play in 2014, winning the final six games, then went 11-2 last season capped by a last-second victory over Ohio in the Camellia Bowl. This fall, the Mountaineers have a chance for their biggest win since shocking Michigan in 2007 when they host Miami (Florida).

    Southern Miss was 0-12 in 2012 and at one point lost 23 consecutive games, but Todd Monken rebuilt the program and got the Golden Eagles into the Conference USA championship last year. Then, after losing to Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, he skipped out for an NFL assistant job.

    But Monken left behind the most prolific quarterback in school history, senior Nick Mullens, who threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2015.

    Winner: Southern Miss

Miami Beach Bowl

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    Connecticut vs. Middle Tennessee

    When: Dec. 19

    Where: Miami

    The first two Miami Beach Bowls have featured 183 points, more than 2,100 yards and one rather unsettling postgame brawl (between BYU and Memphis after the 2014 game). Those are some lofty expectations for the third matchup to live up to, especially with offensively challenged Connecticut part of the projected matchup.

    The Huskies have only scored 30-plus points three times in Bob Diaco's first two seasons, yet in that stretch, he also beat the last two American Athletic Conference champs (including 13-1 Houston last year).

    Middle Tennessee will be making its sixth bowl appearance since 2006 and third in the past four years, losing 45-31 to Western Michigan last year in the Bahamas Bowl. Quarterback Brent Stockstill had 327 yards and three touchdowns in that loss, putting him over 4,000 yards in his freshman season.

    Winner: Middle Tennessee

Boca Raton Bowl

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    Memphis vs. Toledo

    When: Dec. 20

    Where: Boca Raton, Florida

    Toledo is the defending Boca Raton Bowl champions, beating Temple in December in Jason Candle's debut as head coach. The Rockets would probably like to go somewhere else this time around, such as the GoDaddy Bowl (where the Mid-American Conference champ is sent) or the Bahamas Bowl, but our projections didn't have this happening.

    Trying to knock off a second straight team from the American will have to suffice.

    Memphis will also be under the guidance of a first-year coach, though Mike Norvell didn't arrive until after the Tigers lost to Auburn in last season's Birmingham Bowl. He won't have first-round pick Paxton Lynch at quarterback but will be in good shape with former Tennessee passer Riley Ferguson running the offense. 

    Winner: Memphis

Poinsettia Bowl

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    BYU vs. Colorado State

    When: Dec. 21

    Where: San Diego

    San Diego hosts two bowls each December, along with the Holiday Bowl, and the first was one of the biggest blowouts in postseason history. Boise State scored early and often against Northern Illinois, which managed fewer yards (33) than there were letters (39) in the game's official San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl name.

    BYU was on pace to getting beat as badly in its bowl in 2015, falling behind, 35-0, to rival Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, but ended up losing only by seven. This time around, the independent Cougars are locked into the Poinsettia as part of a pre-arranged deal, assuming they don't make the playoffs.

    Colorado State will be making its fourth straight bowl appearance, having had the misfortune of being paired up with another Mountain West team (Nevada) in last winter's Arizona Bowl. The Rams and BYU used to be in the same league before BYU went independent, but they haven't played since 2010.

    Winner: BYU

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

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    Ohio vs. San Jose State

    When: Dec. 22

    Where: Boise, Idaho 

    Not every bowl destination is coveted, yet somehow the game in Boise (which was known from 1997-2010 as the Humanitarian Bowl) is entering its 20th year of play on the famed blue turf.

    Ohio has been the Mid-American Conference's designee once between claiming a 24-23 win over Utah State in 2011. That was the third of six bowl appearances in a seven-year span. (The Bobcats were eligible in 2014 but didn't earn an invite.) Nebraska fired Frank Solich despite 58 wins in six years, but with Ohio, his 80 wins from 2005-15 is third-most in school history.

    "Now 71, Solich has pulled off one of the more remarkable career second acts," SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote.

    San Jose State's Ron Caragher would love to still be coaching in 22 years when he's the age Solich is now. Being able to win a second straight bowl game—the Spartans claimed the first Cure Bowl, doing so with a 5-7 record—would help with that.

    Winner: San Jose State

Bahamas Bowl

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    Bowling Green vs. Tulsa

    When: Dec. 23

    Where: Nassau, Bahamas

    There are no losers when it comes to being a part of the Bahamas Bowl, a game that was on Christmas Eve in its first two versions but is moved up a day this winter. It's sponsored by a fried chicken chain, Popeye's, and most importantly, the teams get to play in the Bahamas.

    It's also been a win-win for those who use the game as background noise while doing some last-minute present wrapping, as the first two games have included 173 points, more than 2,300 yards and one of the wildest final plays in bowl history. The 2014 game, won by Western Kentucky over Central Michigan, saw CMU execute a lateral-filled touchdown as time expired but then miss a two-point conversion that would have won it.

    Last year saw Western Michigan win its first-ever bowl game. What will Bowling Green and Tulsa, teams that combined to average 79.4 points and 1,054.2 yards per game in 2015, have in store for us this time?

    Winner: Tulsa

Armed Forces Bowl

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    Navy vs. Nebraska

    When: Dec. 23

    Where: Fort Worth, Texas

    Navy joined a football conference for the first time ever in 2015, but before that happened, it had arranged to play in various future bowl games, including the Armed Forces Bowl this season. If the Midshipmen aren't eligible, that spot goes to someone else in the American Athletic Conference, but we're confident coach Ken Niumatalolo will pilot them to a fifth straight bowl game.

    The other spot is supposed to go to the Big 12, which rotates each year with the Big Ten. But this game is at the bottom of the Big 12's bowl list, and it won't have anyone left to send. The Big Ten should have an excess this year, so that means Nebraska will get the call. (And this time, it will have the requisite six win—unlike in 2015).

    Decades of independent play pitted Navy against dozens of power-conference teams, though Nebraska isn't one of them. All told, the Midshipmen are 53-63-4 against current Big Ten schools. 

    Winner: Nebraska

GoDaddy Bowl

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    Arkansas State vs. Western Michigan

    When: Dec. 23

    Where: Mobile, Alabama

    Arkansas State is quite familiar with the GoDaddy Bowl, having played in it following the 2011-14 seasons with two wins and two losses. The Red Wolves played in the New Orleans Bowl last year, losing to Louisiana Tech by 19 and have allowed a combined 110 points in their last two bowls.

    Western Michigan "rowed the boat," as coach P.J. Fleck would say, to its first-ever bowl victory on Christmas Eve in 2015. The Broncos beat Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl to cap a second straight eight-win season, but there are still loftier goals on the board.

    The Mid-American title is one of them, and that champion gets to play in Mobile.

    Winner: Western Michigan

Hawaii Bowl

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    Boise State vs. Old Dominion

    When: Dec. 24

    Where: Honolulu

    Before the Bahamas Bowl stole its thunder, getting to play on Christmas Eve in Hawaii was the ultimate destination for any team outside of the power conferences. The Hawaii Bowl has lost some of its luster over the years, and with the Rainbow Warriors not appearing in the game since 2010, attendance has been dropping.

    Yet the winners of the last few Hawaii Bowls certainly haven't complained, because in many cases, those victories have been quite significant. San Diego State's 42-7 win over Cincinnati last year was its 10th straight, and wins by Oregon State in 2013 and SMU in 2012 were among their most significant in recent memory.

    Boise State lost to Oregon State in the 2013 Hawaii Bowl but has since recorded a big win in the Fiesta Bowl (over Arizona) and last year's 55-7 drubbing of Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. Old Dominion, on the other hand, has never gone bowling.

    Winner: Boise State

St. Petersburg Bowl

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    South Florida vs. Western Kentucky

    When: Dec. 26

    Where: St. Petersburg, Florida 

    South Florida and Western Kentucky gave us an entertaining four hours of otherwise meaningless college football played in a baseball stadium last year, why not do it again in another non-football facility?

    After combining for 80 points and 1,211 yards in last December's Miami Beach Bowl, won by Western Kentucky, these schools with a common bond will meet again at the home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

    South Florida coach Willie Taggart, who previously coached at Western Kentucky, wasn't able to top his old employer (and alma mater) the first time, but now he's got the better team and one that could end up in the American Athletic Conference title game.

    The St. Petersburg Bowl, which has been around since 2008 and has had sponsorships from a regional pub chain (Beef O'Brady's) and a form of e-commerce (Bitcoin), has on averaged produced some of the least exciting bowl games each year. Maybe that will change with a rematch on the docket.

    Winner: South Florida

Quick Lane Bowl

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    Buffalo vs. Illinois

    When: Dec. 26

    Where: Detroit

    The ACC and Big Ten are supposed to meet each year in the Quick Lane Bowl, but that only happened in the first version in 2014. This will be the second straight time the ACC can't meet its obligation, but the Mid-American will be glad to offer up an extra eligible team like it did in 2015 with Central Michigan.

    This time it will be Buffalo, which has bowled only twice before since moving into FBS in 1999. The Bulls went to Toronto in 2009 and Boise in 2013, losing both times, but now get to play on the same field where the MAC hosts its conference title game each year.

    Illinois' trip will be its second bowl appearance in three years but with different coaches—and one in between those two. Tim Beckman took the Fighting Illini to the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014, but he was fired a week before the 2015 season and replaced by Bill Cubit on an interim basis.

    Cubit was named the permanent coach near the end of 2015, only to be fired in the spring by new athletic director Josh Whitman in favor of ex-Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith.

    Winner: Illinois

Independence Bowl

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    Georgia Tech vs. Missouri

    When: Dec. 26

    Where: Shreveport, Louisiana

    At 58 years old, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is probably a long way from turning in his headset and triple-option playbook. But if his Yellow Jackets do end up playing in the Independence Bowl, as we're projecting, and end up winning it, he'd had to buck recent history to stay on the job.

    The winners of the last two bowls in Shreveport were coached by men who would end up retiring not long after. Steve Spurrier, whose South Carolina team beat Miami (Florida) in the 2014 Independence Bowl, stepped down midway through the 2015 season, then last year's game served as the swan song for longtime Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.

    Missouri's Barry Odom is entering his first season as a head coach, so there's no need to wonder about his future if the Tigers were to come out on top. Just making a bowl appearance would be a strong first step in getting the program turned around after 2015's offensively challenged campaign.

    Winner: Georgia Tech

Foster Farms Bowl

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    Indiana vs. Oregon

    When: TBD

    Where: Santa Clara, California

    This is the third year the Big Ten has been affiliated with three West Coast bowl games, along with the Rose Bowl and the Holiday Bowl, and there's no question what the pecking order is among that trio. The trip to Pasadena or San Diego seems much more worthwhile, both for the team and its fans, than being in the Bay Area.

    But Indiana won't be complaining, not when it means it will be making consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1990-91. So what if the trip comes with a matchup against Oregon and its power-packed offense.

    The Ducks are used to playing in more prestigious games than this one, appearing in three Rose Bowls and two national title games since the 2009 season, so this could feel like a major step down. The same might have been the case last year, though Oregon came out on fire in the Alamo Bowl and led TCU, 31-0...only to lose in triple overtime in one of the biggest collapses in bowl history.

    Winner: Oregon

Heart of Dallas Bowl

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    Arizona State vs. Marshall

    When: Dec. 27

    Where: Dallas

    Our projections have four bowl slots where an affiliated conference isn't able to meet all of its obligations. In this case, the Big 12 won't be sending anyone. That leaves a spot open for the Pac-12's Arizona State, who otherwise might have had its streak of consecutive bowl appearances end at five.

    Marshall is our pick for Conference USA's designee, and it would mark the Thundering Herd's second trip to Texas for a bowl (the other was the 2004 Fort Worth Bowl, which it lost to Cincinnati). That was also the last time they lost a bowl game, having won their last five.

    Arizona State is 3-1-1 in bowls in the Lone Star State, though all of those previous ones were in El Paso's Sun Bowl, including in 2014 when the Sun Devils edged Duke, 36-31.

    Winner: Arizona State

Military Bowl

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    Temple vs. Virginia Tech

    When: Dec. 27

    Where: Annapolis, Maryland

    Virginia Tech made a bowl game in each of Frank Beamer's final 23 seasons, the second-longest active streak behind Florida State's run of 34 in a row from 1982-2015. New coach Justin Fuente won't let that streak end in 2016, getting at least to six wins in his first season but probably not much further.

    That's not all bad, because it means the Hokies will end up playing quite close to their Roanoke, Virginia, campus—much like in 2014, when they beat Cincinnati in the Military Bowl. That game drew more than 34,000 fans, the third-largest crowd in the game's eight-year history and the largest of any Military Bowl that didn't feature Navy or Maryland.

    Temple, which lost to Toledo in last year's Boca Raton Bowl, has never made consecutive bowl appearances. The Owls only have five bowl games in their history, and it's an easy drive from Philadelphia for their supporters as well. 

    Winner: Temple

Holiday Bowl

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    Northwestern vs. UCLA

    When: Dec. 27

    Where: San Diego

    Aside from the playoffs, the ultimate goal of every Big Ten and Pac-12 school is to make the Rose Bowl. That won't be in the cards this season for Northwestern and UCLA, but San Diego isn't too bad of a consolation prize.

    Northwestern's first two bowl games were the Rose, both in 1949 and then not again until 1996. The Wildcats have played in 10 more since then but none have been west of Texas, and their 2013 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State is their only bowl victory in the last 67 years.

    UCLA has appeared in pretty much every California-based bowl game that's existed but has only gone to the Holiday Bowl once, losing 49-26 to Baylor in 2012.

    This would be the teams' first meeting since 2005, when UCLA scored a 50-39 win in the Sun Bowl.

    Winner: UCLA

Cactus Bowl

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    Arizona vs. Minnesota

    When: Dec. 27

    Where: Phoenix

    Arizona has appeared in two previous versions of the Cactus Bowl, which originated in Tucson in 1989 as the Copper Bowl but has gone through several name changes, including the Insight Bowl. Since the game was move to the Phoenix area, the Wildcats haven't gotten an invite, which might have been weird had they played in it between 2006-13 when it was held at rival Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium.

    Temporarily in Chase Field—home of the Arizona Diamondbacks—while Sun Devil Stadium is being renovated, the game was been home to plenty of wild results regardless of the venue. Last year's was no different, with West Virginia securing a 43-42 win over Arizona State in a contest that ended after 2 a.m. back in Morgantown.

    It won't be as late in Minneapolis for Minnesota fans who watch the next edition from home, but at 10:15 p.m. ET it's still going to be one that goes late into the night. The Golden Gophers will be earning this bid by virtue of the Big 12 not having enough eligible teams. Though this time, they won't slip in at 5-7 like a year ago when they beat Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. 

    Winner: Arizona

Pinstripe Bowl

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    Louisville vs. Penn State

    When: Dec. 28

    Where: Bronx, New York 

    The last two Pinstripe Bowls have gone to overtime, including in 2014 when Penn State forced the extra session with a field goal in the final seconds of regulation and then pulled out a 31-30 win over Boston College thanks to a missed extra point. That win came in James Franklin's first season with the Nittany Lions, one that began with them still under a postseason ban that was lifted midway through.

    Louisville has played bowl games all over the country, but this will be its first in New York, though it will be the Cardinals' second game of 2016 in that state along with a Sept. 9 trip to Syracuse in ACC play. Louisville has bowled every year since 2010, winning four of those, including last year's triumph over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.

    This would be just the third meeting between the teams, with Penn State sweeping a pair in 1996-97. 

    Winner: Louisville

Russell Athletic Bowl

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    Miami (Florida) vs. Oklahoma State

    When: Dec. 28

    Where: Orlando

    Clemson and Oklahoma met in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, and though it wasn't much of a game—Clemson cruised to a 40-6 win—it was a result that propelled each team into the postseason, where they tinkered and tweaked and ended up meeting each other in the playoffs a year later.

    Maybe that means Baylor and North Carolina, last year's Russell Athletic participants, are headed for this season's semifinals? And if so, should fans of Miami and Oklahoma State start browsing for hotel rates in New Orleans and Los Angeles for after the 2017 season?

    Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's hope for an entertaining game between teams run by well-respected coaches (12th-year OK State coach Mike Gundy, first-year Miami coach Mark Richt). Anything more than that is just gravy.

    Winner: Miami (Florida)

Texas Bowl

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    Texas vs. Texas A&M

    When: Dec. 28

    Where: Houston

    A college football fan dream, can't he?

    It seems like everyone in the world other than those who make the decisions at Texas and Texas A&M want to see this rivalry be renewed, but it just hasn't happened and probably won't for a long time. At least not without some poking and prodding, such as through bowl tie-ins that are capable of being massaged and manipulated into the best possible matchups.

    The Big 12 considers the Texas Bowl as its fourth-best bowl slot, while for the SEC, it's part of a cluster of six games that all fight for the same pool of available teams. The last two games—Arkansas vs. Texas in 2014, LSU vs. Texas Tech in 2015—both drew 71,000-plus to NRG Stadium, and a Texas/A&M game would likely sell out the 72,220-seat venue within minutes of being officially announced.

    Make it happen, bowl people. Fox brought back The X-Files, and Netflix revived Full House—so anything is possible.

    Winner: Texas

Arizona Bowl

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    Air Force vs. UTEP

    When: TBD

    Where: Tucson, Arizona

    The Arizona Bowl didn't become official until midway through the 2015 season, and according to Deadspin's Timothy Burke, it was the first bowl not to be shown on national television since 1994. Then the fledgling bowl got an all-Mountain West Conference matchup, with Colorado State and Nevada essentially playing a ninth league game.

    "It is a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation," MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said in a statement December. "Clearly, the system is broken."

    This game, along with the inclusion of 5-7 teams in last year's bowl lineup, ultimately led to the NCAA's three-year moratorium on new bowl games. Not exactly the best way to get started.

    The Mountain West has six bowl tie-ins, which just so happens to be the number of eligible teams we project for 2016. So that means only one Arizona Bowl entrant will be from that league, while Conference USA will be wise to go with its westernmost school for its representative.

    Winner: Air Force

Birmingham Bowl

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    Cincinnati vs. Kentucky

    When: Dec. 29

    Where: Birmingham, Alabama 

    They're separated by less than 100 miles, but Cincinnati and Kentucky haven't played since 1996, and there are no set plans for them to meet again anytime soon. Tom Groeschen of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in July 2014 that the schools were "discussing future [football] games," but apparently nothing came of that.

    Maybe it'll be more likely if Cincinnati ends up landing a spot in the Big 12. Until then, we'll have to settle for the only bowl the SEC is affiliated with in which the opponent doesn't come from another power conference.

    Kentucky hasn't been to a bowl since the 2010 season, losing to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, which is what the Birmingham Bowl was called until two years ago. The only SEC team not to go bowling at least once in the past three years, the Wildcats (and hot-seat coach Mark Stoops) will take what they can get.

    Winner: Kentucky

Belk Bowl

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    Auburn vs. Duke

    When: Dec. 29

    Where: Charlotte

    Part of the bowl lineup since 2002, two things have made this one of the better second-tier games: switching the tie-ins in 2014 to have the ACC and SEC meet, and signing Belk as title sponsor. Even though the SEC has won its two appearances by 23 points apiece, the good folks who run the Belk Bowl Twitter page have been great at distracting us from the blowout.

    They also rock the fire tweets all year long, such as their attempt to start a feud with the Russell Athletic Bowl.

    The Auburn/Duke game might not end up being one for the record books, but somehow, their first meeting since 1980 (and second in 80-plus years) will still end up being memorable.

    Winner: Auburn

Alamo Bowl

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    TCU vs. USC

    When: Dec. 29

    Where: San Antonio

    TCU coach Gary Patterson was so fed up with his team at halftime of last season's Alamo Bowl that he switched polo shirts. The Horned Frogs ended up rallying from a 31-0 deficit to win in triple overtime, prompting him to say, "I will never wear black again."

    Expect this odd anecdote to get overtold in the lead-up to a second consecutive Alamo appearance for TCU, which has won four of its last five bowls with a one-point loss to Michigan State wedged in there. The Frogs are 6-9-1 in bowls played in Texas, with two of those defeats coming on their home field in Fort Worth.

    USC hasn't played in San Antonio, one of five Pac-12 teams yet to appear in this game. The Trojans' last three Texas-based bowls have been the Sun in El Paso, most recently in 2012, and all were losses. 

    Winner: TCU

Liberty Bowl

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    Mississippi State vs. West Virginia

    When: Dec. 30

    Where: Memphis 

    Mississippi State would be better off if it only played bowl games in the state of Tennessee. The Bulldogs are 11-8 all time in bowls, with four of those victories (in five attempts) coming in either the Liberty or Music City Bowls. The same can't be said for West Virginia, which is 1-2 in such scenarios and has lost both bowls in Memphis, including the 2014 Liberty Bowl to Texas A&M.

    The Mountaineers haven't beat an SEC team since knocking off Auburn in 2008, but this year, it could do so twice. They open at home against Missouri, which is coming off a 5-7 season and breaking in a new coach, while this matchup against MSU could prove favorable as well.

    Mississippi State last played an SEC team in 2013, opening with a 21-3 loss to Oklahoma State in Houston.

    Winner: West Virginia

Sun Bowl

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    Pittsburgh vs. Washington

    When: Dec. 30

    Where: El Paso, Texas

    The Sun Bowl is one of the four oldest bowl games in the country but one that's never had the kind of allure that the Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls hold. And based on how one of its conference affiliations has changed several times in the last two decades, that's not surprising.

    The Pac-12 has sent a team there all but once since 1995, while the other spot has gone to teams from the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and (since 2010) the ACC. And none of those participants ever seem to thrilled to be sent to El Paso—as anyone who watched last year's game saw—a place that's capable of having 70-degree temperatures or snow at that time of year.

    Both Pittsburgh and Washington are accustomed to inclement weather late in the season, which probably means the 2016 came will be sunny and clear for these teams' first meeting since 1979.

    Winner: Washington

Music City Bowl

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    Arkansas vs. Wisconsin

    When: Dec. 30

    Where: Nashville

    It's still a little hard to believe Bret Bielema left such a good thing as what he had in Wisconsin to take the Arkansas job after the 2012 season. Maybe less so after seeing his replacement, Gary Andersen, skip out for Oregon State only two years later, and the move has paid off with Bielema getting the Razorbacks into the mix in the SEC.

    With so many Big Ten/SEC bowl matchups, though, it was only inevitable before he'd end up facing his old school. We're pegging this year as the reunion, with Nashville as the backdrop.

    Current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was Bielema's offensive coordinator from 2006-11 before he left to coach Pittsburgh, returning to Madison last year. He'll have the chance to begin and end the 2016 season with wins over the SEC, as the Badgers face LSU in Green Bay on Labor Day weekend.

    We're guessing Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez would get more enjoyment out of winning this one than against LSU.

    Winner: Arkansas

Citrus Bowl

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    Iowa vs. Tennessee

    When: Dec. 31

    Where: Orlando

    Life has been mostly good for Iowa and Tennessee since they last met on a football field in Florida. The 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl saw the Volunteers roll to a 45-28 win over the Hawkeyes, with each team finishing the 2014 season at 7-6.

    Iowa went on to win its next 12 games, claim the Big Ten's West Division title and reach its first Rose Bowl in 25 years. Tennessee went 9-4, its most wins since 2007, taking a six-game win streak into this season.

    This would be the Volunteers' sixth time in the Citrus Bowl, tying fellow SEC schools Florida and Georgia for most all time, and they're 4-1 there but haven't played in Orlando since 2002. Iowa's only appearance in the game was in 2005, when it beat LSU.

    Winner: Tennessee

TaxSlayer Bowl

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    LSU vs. North Carolina

    When: Dec. 31

    Where: Jacksonville, Florida

    North Carolina allowed a bowl-record 645 rushing yards to Baylor in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl, which followed a narrow defeat to Clemson in the ACC title game. We're not projecting the Tar Heels to win the ACC's Coastal Division again in 2016, but if they don't get that run defense shored up, some more records could get broken.

    LSU's Leonard Fournette will almost certainly be playing his final college game before declaring for the NFL draft, and the Tigers will want him to go out with a bang. His two previous bowl performances resulted in 264 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns as a freshman against Notre Dame and then 256 all-purpose yards (including 212 rushing yards) and four scores last year against Texas Tech.

    North Carolina has played in the TaxSlayer (nee Gator) Bowl seven times, going 5-2 overall, but its last appearance was in 1998. LSU's only trip to Jacksonville for a bowl was the 1987 edition, when it beat South Carolina.

    Winner: LSU

Outback Bowl

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    Florida vs. Michigan State

    When: Jan. 2

    Where: Tampa 

    The Outback Bowl and the Orlando-based Citrus Bowl are basically mirror images, each pitting teams from the upper tier of the Big Ten and SEC who just missed out on the New Year's Six bowls (or the BCS before that). As a result, there are a lot of repeat participants, and often a team that was in one game one year is in the other the next.

    That's the boat Florida will be in, though it will hope for a better result than the 41-7 drubbing Michigan handed it in last season's Citrus Bowl. The Gators have played in the Outback Bowl four other times, most recently in 2011, when they beat Penn State to improve to 2-2 in that game.

    Michigan State's only Outback appearance came the following January, edging Georgia in overtime, and the season before that, the Spartans played in the Citrus Bowl.

     Winner: Michigan State

Orange Bowl

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    Alabama vs. Florida State

    When: Dec. 30

    Where: Miami Gardens, Florida

    The Orange Bowl was a playoff site in 2015-16 and last hosted a national championship in 2012. Alabama was a part of that final title game in Miami, beating Notre Dame for what would be its second consecutive title and third of now four championships under Nick Saban.

    But this time around, the Orange is just a sideshow to the bigger bowls, and because of tweaks to the New Year's Six lineup this winter, it will be held in December for just the third time (on Dec. 30 for the first time ever). Alabama hasn't played a bowl that early since 2007, Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide, when they beat Colorado in the Independence Bowl.

    Our projections have the Tide falling short of being able to defend this latest national championship but keeping alive a streak of what will now be seven straight BCS- or New Year's Six-affiliated games. Whether they'll be as motivated for it as ones where a title is at stake remains to be seen.

    This game figures to mean much more for Florida State, which last appeared in the Orange in 2013. That win over Northern Illinois served as the springboard for the 2014 title team and was part of the Seminoles' 29-game win streak.

    Winner: Alabama

Rose Bowl

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    Michigan vs. Washington State

    When: Jan. 2

    Where: Pasadena, California

    Jim Harbaugh's lightning-quick turnaround of his foundering alma mater produced 10 wins and a Citrus Bowl victory in his first season. What will he have in store for the second go around? Not enough to get the Wolverines into the playoffs, but an appearance in the Grandaddy of Them All isn't too shabby.

    Michigan hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since 2007, when USC won, 32-18. Its last Rose win came in 1998, against the same Washington State team that will represent the Pac-12 this time around.

    The Cougars are our pick to claim that conference in 2016, though like with Stanford a year ago, that won't earn them a playoff bid. The Pac-12 might not be as good as last season, but it's still deep, and the nine-game league schedule doesn't do its best teams any favors.

    Michigan's ironclad defense against WSU's pass-happy attack will make for a fun clash of styles, but the entertainment will start long before the game when Harbaugh and fellow quotesmith Mike Leach square off in pre-bowl press conferences.

    Winner: Michigan

Sugar Bowl

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    Baylor vs. Ole Miss

    When: Jan. 2

    Where: New Orleans 

    Included in the new playoff system was an agreement to have the Big 12 and SEC champions meet in the Sugar Bowl whenever possible. However, neither champ could earn a semifinal bid, and the Sugar couldn't host to such a game.

    The Sugar was a semifinal in 2014-15, and both Alabama and Oklahoma made the 2015-16 playoffs, so the "new championship tradition" envisioned by former SEC commissioner Mike Slive a few years ago hasn't manifested yet.

    It won't again after the 2016 season, but that won't make the Baylor-Ole Miss matchup any less intriguing.

    Baylor set a bowl record with 645 rushing yards last year in the Russell Athletic win over North Carolina, as it was forced to go almost exclusively to the run with so many injured quarterbacks. This time around, the Bears could be challenging Sugar Bowl passing records, though Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly figures to have something to say about that.

    Kelly threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in last year's Sugar win over Oklahoma State, leading the Rebels to their first win in that game since 1970. Baylor's only bowl appearance in New Orleans came in 1957, when it beat Tennessee, 13-7.

    Winner: Ole Miss

Cotton Bowl

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Houston vs. Georgia

    When: Jan. 2

    Where: Arlington, Texas

    The Cotton Bowl will be the recipient of this year's "Group of Five" participant, which for the second season in a row, will be Houston. Aside from an in-state Big 12 school, there's no other team this bowl would like as it rotates from being a semifinal contest in 2015-16 to just another bowl game.

    Houston, which knocked off Florida State in last season's Peach Bowl, will be making its first appearance in the Cotton since losing to Boston College in 1985. Georgia's last appearance came in 1984, a 10-9 win over Texas, keeping the Longhorns from winning the national title.

    Some of the main intrigue from this game will involve whether the Cougars are being led by the same coach as they began the season with. Tom Herman was a hot name on the coaching carousel last winter but opted to remain with Houston for 2016. But if the right job opens up elsewhere, he might not be around when this game is played.

    The same can't be said for first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who by getting the Bulldogs into their first top-tier bowl since the 2008 Sugar will have already justified the move to part ways with Richt after 15 years.

    Winner: Georgia

Peach Bowl (Semifinal)

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    Clemson vs. Ohio State

    When: Dec. 31

    Where: Atlanta

    Our projections have Clemson finishing as the No. 1 overall seed and thus getting to play its semifinal as close to home as possible. This year, that means going to Atlanta, where the Peach Bowl makes its playoff debut and will feature Ohio State for the first time.

    A Big Ten school hasn't played in the Peach Bowl since Indiana lost to Auburn in 1990, but that game featured teams who entered with a combined 13-7-2 record. Both Clemson and Ohio State could each have 13 victories after winning their respective divisions and then claiming conference title games, earning each their second playoff bid in three seasons.

    It will be a repeat trip for the Tigers, who lost to Alabama in last year's national title game and finished 14-1. Ohio State missed out on a chance to defend its national championship because of one home loss to Michigan State in 2015, but this time around, the Buckeyes will get in despite a regular-season blemish on their record.

    Clemson and Ohio State met in the 2014 Orange Bowl, with Clemson scoring a 40-35 win. Few players are left on either side from that game, but coaches Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer remain. And each has another loaded lineup that will give us a heck of a semifinal clash.

    Winner: Clemson

Fiesta Bowl (Semifinal)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma

    When: Dec. 31

    Where: Glendale, Arizona

    Bowls much prefer to feature different teams each year, but in the case of Notre Dame, most will gladly make an exception. And the Fighting Irish sure won't mind a return trip to the Fiesta Bowl, since this time it will be for a spot in the national title game and not against an Ohio State team that would go on to have 12 of its players drafted a few months later.

    The Fighting Irish will become the first independent team to make the playoffs, navigating a schedule that only features a few potential pitfalls. They might slip up once along the way, but the notoriety that comes with facing nine power-conference opponents will enable them to overcome one loss to remain among the top four teams in the final playoff rankings.

    Oklahoma, too, figures to make the playoffs despite a loss because of an incredible strength-of-schedule rating. The Sooners' non-league slate features two opponents (Houston and Ohio State) that we've projected as New Year's Six bowl qualifiers, followed by the nine-game gauntlet through a strong Big 12. 

    That figures to make for a tougher overall schedule than in 2015, when Oklahoma lost in early October to Texas and still made the semifinals.

    These teams are a combined 3-7 in Fiesta Bowls, with Notre Dame's lone win coming against West Virginia in 1989, while Oklahoma won its last appearance in 2011 against Connecticut.

    Winner: Notre Dame

    Statistics courtesy of or, unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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