Predicting College Football's 2017 Bowl Games
The 2017 college football season is set to begin, so we're doing the logical thing and looking toward the end of it.
After all, the year's primary objective—the College Football Playoff—is found during bowl season. Only four teams reach the championship tournament, but 74 more schools will enjoy one final game before closing the book on the campaign.
Keeping the conference bowl procedures and stipulations might be overwhelming, especially for teams with uncertain bowl connections, but the end result is what matters most.
The non-playoff bowls are ordered based on chronology, not prestige. New Year's Six and CFP semifinals close the list.
New Orleans to Camellia Bowl
New Orleans Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Southern Miss
Appalachian State headed to the Camellia Bowl in 2015 and 2016, so it's time for the Sun Belt champions to experience a new location. Ito Smith and Southern Miss would present a formidable challenge for the Mountaineers, who also have a standout runner in Jalin Moore.
Cure Bowl: Temple vs. Georgia Southern
Geography affects where the American Athletic Conference sends its teams, so Temple could be anywhere from Florida to Hawaii. We'll keep them as nearby as possible (since Navy makes a bit of sense for the Military Bowl) and opposite a Georgia Southern team that should finish in the second tier of the Sun Belt.
Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State vs. UCLA
The Mountain West champion will take on a Pac-12 squad. Boise State has a reload on offense, but Brett Rypien can stabilize the Broncos from under center. Although UCLA is back on the national radar thanks to Josh Rosen's return from injury, the Bruins will lack the consistency to make a serious charge in the Pac-12.
New Mexico Bowl: UTSA vs. Colorado State
Geography plays the largest role in this clash, since only the Mountain West champion has a designated slot. UTSA is the westernmost Conference USA team in this projection, so the Roadrunners will make a return trip to the New Mexico Bowl. Colorado State should cruise to bowl eligibility behind a dynamic offense.
Camellia Bowl: Northern Illinois vs. South Alabama
Repeat the process for the Camellia Bowl, which features a MAC and Sun Belt school based on geography and matchups. Northern Illinois had a rare losing season in 2016, but a little more stability on offense should result in a six-win year. South Alabama has a higher ceiling of success, though a league title remains slightly out of reach.
Boca Raton to Idaho Potato Bowls
Boca Raton Bowl: Memphis vs. Middle Tennessee
Take the over. Both programs boast a prolific quarterback-receiver duo and shaky defenses. Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller are the stars of Memphis' attack, while southpaw Brent Stockstill and Richie James give Middle Tennessee a lethal connection. The prospect of this contest is evidence why the "best possible matchup" guideline exists.
Frisco Bowl: SMU vs. Arkansas State
Rematches in postseason play don't happen often, but it makes sense for the Frisco Bowl if proximity is the primary factor. SMU is located just 25 miles south of Frisco, while Arkansas State is the closest bowl-eligible Sun Belt team in this projection. The schools will meet on September 23 at SMU's campus.
Gasparilla Bowl: UCF vs. Old Dominion
Formerly known as the St. Petersburg Bowl, the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl has already won the hearts of many college football fans. And with a matchup that includes UCF's pesky defense and Old Dominion's quietly explosive offense, it should draw attention as an under-the-radar game to watch.
Bahamas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Western Michigan
Western Michigan should expect to regress in some manner following the departure of P.J. Fleck and a senior-filled offense. The dropoff won't be dramatic, though, and the Broncos will keep their program-record postseason streak alive under Tim Lester. Louisiana Tech will again be a key player in the Conference USA race, so the Bahamas ought to be the reward for a runner-up finish.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Miami (Ohio) vs. Wyoming
On the opposite side of the college football world, the blue turf in Boise, Idaho, will host a MAC and Mountain West school. Miami is the early favorite to emerge from the East Division, while Wyoming—led by potential first-round NFL draft pick Josh Allen—is a second-tier contender in the Mountain Division.
Birmingham to Heart of Dallas Bowls
Birmingham Bowl: South Carolina vs. Houston
Since the Birmingham Bowl gets the first choice of any remaining bowl-eligible SEC teams, the AAC will want to send a top non-champion to the game. Houston and Memphis are both sensible choices, especially since South Carolina shouldn't be viewed as a consolation prize. It's a quality program that may struggle because of a rocky schedule.
Armed Forces Bowl: Army vs. Nebraska
As long as Army records six wins, Jeff Monken's team is going to Fort Worth. The Black Knights return a majority of their production and starters, so another postseason trip is likely. Nebraska, meanwhile, is getting dangerously close to the "Mike Riley Hot Seat" era. Massive turnover on offense means a rebuilding season in Year 3 of Riley's tenure, and the probable result won't be welcomed in Lincoln.
Dollar General Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
If both of these teams match their expectation, the Dollar General Bowl would be the featured game between Group of Five schools. Toledo has a legitimate shot at a New Year's Six berth, but the AAC's champion is the current favorite. And while Troy has Sun Belt-winning talent, App State's conference schedule is more favorable.
Hawaii Bowl: Tulsa vs. Hawaii
A bowl-eligible Hawaii team has little reason to play somewhere other than Aloha Stadium. After all, 2007—when the Warriors reached the Sugar Bowl—was the only time in this millennium that wasn't the case. No AAC team is located near Hawaii, so Tulsa's inclusion would make this Christmas Eve clash an enjoyable offense-heavy showdown.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. BYU
BYU should attain postseason eligibility, but the Cougars aren't connected to any bowl. But, if two Big 12 programs nab a New Year's Six game, the league may be unable to send a program to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. No matter what happens on that front, Conference USA's champion can pick its destination. Western Kentucky should be content with facing a traditional program such as BYU.
Quick Lane to Foster Farms Bowls
Quick Lane Bowl: Indiana vs. Central Michigan
The ACC is tied to the Quick Lane Bowl, so Duke, Syracuse or Wake Forest would be first in line. However, with all three teams projected to finish 5-7, the MAC provides a replacement. Central Michigan is an obvious choice thanks to proximity, while Indiana has a small group of postseason possibilities since it has recently appeared in the New Era and Foster Farms Bowls and isn't a top-tier team.
Cactus Bowl: Baylor vs. Utah
Utah is a perennial bowl team, but the schedule does the Utes no favors in 2017. They can slide into the Pac-12's final postseason slot, which should be opposite a decent Big 12 squad even if the conference sends a pair of programs to NY6 games. Baylor won't push for a league crown, but a soft nonconference slate will buoy the Bears.
Independence Bowl: Mississippi State vs. North Carolina
Both the SEC and ACC separate their postseason selections into multiple tiers. The Independence Bowl shouldn't be disappointed with Nick Fitzgerald squaring off with North Carolina. The Tar Heels aren't a lock for six wins, but their rebuild is somewhat promising thanks to the returning experience on defense.
Pinstripe Bowl: NC State vs. Maryland
Notre Dame can have a considerable effect on where NC State wraps up its campaign. The in-state Belk Bowl is an ideal spot for the Wolfpack, but a Notre Dame/SEC matchup would draw more eyeballs. Plus, NC State and Maryland have an established history, since the latter spent 51 years in the ACC. The all-time series is locked at 33-33-4 anyway. We demand a resolution.
Foster Farms Bowl: Minnesota vs. Washington State
Looks familiar, huh? These programs met in the postseason last year. However, Minnesota won't quite have the clout for a game in Florida, Maryland is closer to the Pinstripe Bowl and the Gophers likely won't return to the Holiday Bowl. Washington State is soundly a top-five Pac-12 team, but an eight- or nine-win year presumably sends them to Santa Clara if the Holiday Bowl prefers a bounce-back Oregon squad.
Texas to Alamo Bowls
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
Texas A&M was just here in 2016, but could the bowl really pass up an opportunity to pit the Aggies against TCU? Although the programs have met 92 times—and A&M holds an impressive 24-game winning streak that remains active—the schools haven't played since 2001. This needs to happen.
Military Bowl: Pitt vs. Navy
Navy's inclusion is obvious: The school hosts the Military Bowl. Pitt is a wild card because of Max Browne. The USC transfer played poorly in 2016, lost his job and transferred. Will he fare better in the ACC? If not substantially, Pitt may be relegated to a second-tier ACC game. Should the conference struggle to fill its allotment, the Panthers might have little choice but to prepare for a rematch of the 2015 Military Bowl.
Camping World Bowl: Kansas State vs. Louisville
The Big 12's selection order favors flashier teams, but Kansas State is a steady winner—and West Virginia appeared in this bowl (formerly Russell Athletic) last season. Louisville, of course, will provide the highlight-reel potential with Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. This would be a fascinating clash of styles.
Holiday Bowl: Iowa vs. Oregon
Iowa is limited in postseason possibilities because it cannot or likely won't return to the TaxSlayer and Outback Bowls, respectively. If a Big Ten team automatically qualifies for the Orange Bowl, the Citrus Bowl is out, too. The Holiday Bowl is the next best thing. Similar to the above game, it would feature a slow-paced offense (Iowa) against an up-tempo attack (Oregon).
Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Stanford
Tom Herman's coaching history suggests he will spark Texas. And since the Alamo Bowl has the first choice of Big 12 programs not in a New Year's Six game, the Longhorns will likely be priority No. 1. That guideline also applies to the Pac-12, where Stanford will battle USC and Washington for a more prestigious game. No matter which team comes up short, the Alamo Bowl will flaunt a superb matchup.
Belk to TaxSlayer Bowls
Belk Bowl: Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame is poised for a return to the postseason after a stunning absence in 2016. An eight-win campaign would put the Irish in a favorable spot for being selected to a first-tier ACC game. Tennessee ought to qualify for a bowl, though it might be a roller coaster to get there. Since the Vols appeared in the Music City Bowl last year, they should embark on the program's first journey to Charlotte.
Sun Bowl: Colorado vs. Georgia Tech
The preseason narrative for both schools is generally the same: solid but not trustworthy. While there are obvious replacements for graduated quarterbacks, execution is a lingering worry. Georgia Tech made consecutive trips to El Paso in 2011 and 2012, but the four-year gap should be a long enough stretch between appearances. It would be Colorado's first experience in the Sun Bowl.
Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech
By virtue of more recent appearances in the Sun Bowl by both Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech gets the Music City Bowl. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson will lead a potentially inconsistent Hokies offense, yet the defense will help VT navigate most of the Coastal Division anyway. Kentucky has little room for error, but it'll snatch a sixth win in November.
Arizona Bowl: San Diego State vs. Idaho
San Diego State is a real contender in the Mountain West, but falling short of a repeat championship should place the Aztecs in the closest bowl. Idaho has the roster to close its FBS era in style, which is a bittersweet sentence for what is an improving program. Tucson is the shortest trip for the Vandals.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Florida vs. Northwestern
Since Iowa cannot be picked again, the battle for the TaxSlayer Bowl is likely between Northwestern and Minnesota. To avoid a rematch for the latter, the Gophers make sense here, too. But we're giving the edge to a Wildcats team expected to record one more victory, and Florida is a no-brainer for the nearby bowl.
Liberty to Citrus Bowls
Liberty Bowl: Arkansas vs. West Virginia
Don't be surprised if Arkansas has a rematch of some kind during bowl season. The Razorbacks might need some multi-conference cooperation to avoid a recent matchup. West Virginia is one of the most likely outliers, given the probability Oklahoma and Oklahoma State create separation in the Big 12. NFL scouts would be closely watching this contest for quarterbacks Austin Allen and Will Grier.
Outback Bowl: Georgia vs. Penn State
Behold, the prediction that could go horribly, terribly wrong. Or maybe it's the unpopular truth. Georgia isn't as much of a shocker, since Alabama, Auburn and LSU all could be above the Dawgs in the College Football Playoff poll. But Penn State? Well, falling to Michigan and Ohio State eliminates the Lions' room for error as a NY6 invitee. One more loss and Wisconsin may hop Penn State in that discussion.
Citrus Bowl: LSU vs. Miami
Auburn and Clemson will impact the placement of LSU and Miami, respectively. Either (or both) of these programs may finish the campaign ranked higher than their conference counterpart, which would lead to a much-desired New Year's Six berth. More interestingly, though, the Tigers and Hurricanes will open the 2018 regular season with a showdown in Arlington. Ding ding, here's Round 1.
Prediction: Auburn vs. Oklahoma State
Two at-large, highly ranked teams will square off in the Cotton Bowl.
Auburn has a collective vision of dethroning Alabama, and Jarrett Stidham's arrival moves the dream one step closer to reality. That doesn't mean it's going to happen, but a loss to the Tide doesn't equate to an unsuccessful season, either.
The background story is basically the same for Oklahoma State, which has watched Oklahoma win the last two Big 12 crowns. This year, the in-state rivals seem destined for a season-defining shootout in the first Big 12 Championship Game since 2010—but we'll take Baker Mayfield and the Sooners to emerge with a victory.
Both Auburn and OSU would be disappointed about missing the CFP, but the watchability of this defense-optional tilt is 11/10.
Prediction: Wisconsin vs. Washington
The Fiesta Bowl should be loving the outlook of 2017.
Either Washington or USC will likely represent the Pac-12 in this clash between at-large programs. Our projection leans toward the Dawgs, but their defense will be a complete nightmare to face if the secondary performs as it has during the offseason. Don't underestimate UW and its home-heavy schedule in 2017.
Although the Pac-12 isn't officially tied to the Fiesta Bowl, it's a probable result because of proximity. The opponent will likely come from the ACC or Big Ten unless a Mountain West team secures the Group of Five's bid to a NY6 game.
Miami, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin are all reasonable guesses at this point, but we'll give the Big Ten runner-up a nod. Wisconsin should cruise to a West Division crown and potentially an 11-1 record during the regular season.
Prediction: Florida State vs. Michigan
A rematch? You bet. The Orange Bowl might not have much of an actual choice, though the administration probably wouldn't complain.
Provided the ACC champion is not heading to the College Football Playoff, the conference winner heads to Miami Gardens. Florida State is the early favorite to emerge, but a suspect offensive line could be the downfall of the Seminoles.
Then, the highest-ranked team from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame is automatically the opponent. Jim Harbaugh's team is replacing a hefty majority of its production from 2016, but the schedule is favorable as long as Michigan dispatches Florida right away.
A season-ending loss to Ohio State won't cause the Wolverines to plummet in the rankings. They'll edge Auburn for the spot.
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Prediction: South Florida vs. Clemson
The College Football Playoff committee has catered to the location of the non-power conference representative as best as possible.
For USF, the closest at-large game is the Peach Bowl because the Orange Bowl has direct tie-ins. Quinton Flowers will spearhead a versatile offense that should guide the Bulls through the pesky AAC.
Clemson, on the other hand, has a question mark at quarterback and a whole lot of answers elsewhere. Head coach Dabo Swinney recently named Kelly Bryant the starter, but inconsistency at the position will stop the Tigers from defending their title.
Still, another major bowl appearance after losing a program legend in Deshaun Watson? That's a quality season for Clemson.
Prediction: (3) USC vs. (2) Ohio State
The Rose Bowl will feature two of the sport's best programs anyway, but this would be a classic Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup.
USC will be tested immediately with Stanford and Texas on the docket in September. However, the Trojans would have plenty of time to atone for one loss, especially since they avoid Washington in crossover action. Knocking off the Dawgs in the Pac-12 Championship Game would atone for an early misstep.
Ohio State is eyeing a third College Football Playoff berth in four years, and it sure feels likely. Although the Buckeyes' closing stretch is tough, their experience is hard to pick against.
Sam Darnold versus Ohio State's defensive line is an enticing thought—and one that could define his draft stock, too.
Prediction: (4) Oklahoma vs. (1) Alabama
Alabama begins the season with a neutral-site showcase against Florida State. But if the 'Noles can't quell the Tide, who will?
Jalen Hurts will line up behind an improved offensive line, and Alabama should face little resistance when running the ball in 2017. Even when a premier opponent such as Florida State and LSU makes it difficult, the Crimson Tide can counter with a dominant defense.
Oklahoma's point-stopping unit won't be at the same level, but it's easily the most promising defense in the Big 12. Tethered with the firepower of the Mayfield-led offense, the Sooners have a balanced team worthy of a Sugar Bowl bid.
The result is an appealing matchup in a national semifinal.