Predicting College Football's 2019-20 Bowl Games
There's one final hurdle we need to clear before the 2019 college football season can get underway: projected pairings for all 40 bowl games.
Will Alabama and Clemson meet in the College Football Playoff for a fifth consecutive year?
Will the Big Ten, the Pac-12 or both conferences get into the playoff after being left out in each of the last two seasons?
Can anyone stop UCF from representing the Group of Five in the New Year's Six yet again?
We'll address those questions and plenty of others throughout the six tiers of this year's bowl games. Some commentary will be provided after each tier. And at the end, there's a breakdown of bowl representatives by conference.
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas Bowl: Buffalo vs. Southern Miss
Frisco Bowl: Florida Atlantic vs. SMU
New Mexico Bowl: North Texas vs. Utah State
Cure Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Tulane
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl: Navy vs. Western Michigan
Camellia Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Northern Illinois
R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Florida International vs. Troy
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: Marshall vs. South Florida
Hawaii Bowl: BYU vs. Cincinnati
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Louisiana vs. San Diego State
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Air Force vs. Toledo
Mobile Alabama Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Ohio
Utah State played North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl last year, but we want a do-over. UNT's quarterback Mason Fine suffered a leg injury early on in what quickly devolved into a blowout. At least Jordan Love held up his end of the deal in what was supposed to be a duel between two of the best Group of Five quarterbacks.
That isn't the only juicy QB combo in this bunch, though. The Mobile Bowl projection of Appalachian State and Ohio would be quite the battle between dual-threat stars Zac Thomas and Nathan Rourke. Both quarterbacks finished the 2018 campaign with at least 2,000 passing yards and a passer efficiency rating north of 150, and they also each rushed for at least 500 yards and 10 touchdowns. The only other players who matched those numbers in 2018 are Kyler Murray and Houston's D'Eriq King.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of excitement on offense, the Hawaii Bowl between BYU and Cincinnati would probably be the lowest-scoring game of the entire bowl season. Both squads held opponents below 325 yards per game last season, and they both get back the majority of the key contributors on defense.
Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21): Boise State vs. USC
Walk-On's Independence Bowl (Dec. 26): Houston vs. Wake Forest
Military Bowl (Dec. 27): Memphis vs. Pittsburgh
Servpro First Responder Bowl (Dec. 30): Texas Tech vs. UAB
Jared Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 2): Army* vs. Temple
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Jan. 4): Indiana vs. Fresno State
*Army takes a spot the SEC is unable to fill
No casual fan of college football wakes up the morning of Selection Sunday and thinks, "Man, I cannot WAIT to find out who's squaring off in this year's Birmingham Bowl!" But these battles between the best Group of Five teams and the worst bowl-eligible Power Five teams often end up being the most entertaining affairs.
Take the Las Vegas Bowl, for example. In 10 of the past 13 years, it has been the Mountain West champion against the fifth- or sixth-best team from the Pac-12. The Mountain West has won that game seven times, including Fresno State's come-from-behind victory over Arizona State last year. In both 2007 and 2012, the Las Vegas Bowl was one of the most dramatic contests of the month.
And the Birmingham Bowl has been an incredible offensive explosion in each of the past three seasons, with Wake Forest edging Memphis 37-34 last year, South Florida toppling Texas Tech in 2017 and South Florida outlasting South Carolina 46-39 in overtime the previous year. All three games had more than 900 total yards of offense.
So do yourself a favor and carve out some time to catch these low-profile games. The Las Vegas Bowl might be your last chance to see Clay Helton on the USC sideline. The First Responder Bowl might set a record for passing yards in a good old-fashioned shootout between Alan Bowman and Tyler Johnston III. And it's just a good idea to watch Houston's D'Eriq King as often as you can.
Power Five Bowls with Potential
Quick Lane Bowl: NC State vs. Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College vs. Minnesota
Academy Sports and Outdoors Texas Bowl: Baylor vs. Mississippi State
Cheez-It Bowl: Arizona vs. West Virginia
Redbox Bowl: Iowa vs. Stanford
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
Belk Bowl: South Carolina vs. Virginia
Sun Bowl: Florida State vs. Washington State
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Missouri* vs. TCU
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin
*Missouri is currently banned from postseason play, but it has an appeal pending. Until there is concrete news to the contrary, we'll entertain the possibility of the Tigers in a bowl game.
This is the tier where fans inevitably start to get upset.
These are the bowls generally reserved for teams who win six to eight games, but there are several teams from the back half of the preseason AP Top 25 on this list. Fans of those teams expect nine-plus wins and have reserved but tangible aspirations for a perfect season. It's hard to swallow the idea of an Auburn, Iowa, Stanford or Wisconsin losing four or more games when they're all currently undefeated.
It's bound to happen to a few teams, though. Last year, preseason AP No. 15 USC and No. 19 Florida State both failed to qualify for a bowl game while No. 16 TCU and No. 20 Virginia Tech just barely made the cut with six wins. No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 8 Miami and No. 9 Auburn each went 7-5. And last year was less chaotic than most.
That said, there's a nice blend of excitement and optimism in this group. In Arizona's Khalil Tate, Virginia's Bryce Perkins and Missouri's Kelly Bryant, three of the best dual-threat quarterbacks are projected here—assuming Tate is actually still a dual-threat quarterback. We've also got some of the top returning running backs in Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Arizona's J.J. Taylor and Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim.
The best pairing from an individual player perspective is the Redbox Bowl. Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (DE) and Stanford's Paulson Adebo (CB) should both be preseason first-team All-Americans, and they'll be looking to terrorize quality quarterbacks in Iowa's Nathan Stanley and Stanford's K.J. Costello. It wouldn't be the highest-scoring game, but it would be a highly entertaining chess match.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27): Nebraska vs. Oregon
Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28): Oklahoma State vs. Syracuse
Valero Alamo Bowl (Dec. 31): Iowa State vs. Utah
VRBO Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Florida vs. Michigan State
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Penn State vs. Texas A&M
While they don't quite have the allure of the coveted New Year's Six bowls, it's likely that all 10 teams in this tier will be ranked in the Nos. 12-25 range of the final CFP Top 25. The lone exception in each of the past two seasons was the Outback Bowl, which was a tilt between 8-4 teams from the Big Ten and SEC each year.
The Citrus Bowl is the big one and might as well be an honorary seventh member of the NY6. It pits the top Big Ten team not selected for an NY6 bowl against the top SEC team of the same description. Last season, it was No. 12 Penn State against No. 14 Kentucky, marking the fourth consecutive year with a Top 20 showdown.
The Alamo Bowl is also typically a gem, as it is the Big 12 and Pac-12 equivalent of the Citrus Bowl. At least one Top 15 team has played in the Alamo Bowl in eight consecutive years, including a four-year stretch from 2014 to '17 in which both participants were ranked in the Nos. 11-15 range. Moreover, four of the last five Alamo Bowls were decided by six points or fewer. If we end up getting Iowa State and Utah in that one, that trend would seem likely to continue in a 14-10 type of grind-it-out defensive war.
But if these are the five matchups and I can only watch one of them for some unjustifiable reason, give me that Holiday Bowl quarterback clash between Nebraska's Adrian Martinez and Oregon's Justin Herbert. Although, given Herbert's draft stock and the growing trend in recent years, he'd probably sit that one out anyway. One can dream, though.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Goodyear Cotton Bowl (Dec. 28): UCF vs. Notre Dame
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. UCF has been the Group of Five's New Year's Six representative in each of the past two seasons, and it should be the cream of the crop once again. Expecting another undefeated season might be a bit much with a home game against Stanford and road games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh on the docket, but it's feasible.
The fantastic part of this projected matchup is that Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush is almost certainly going to be UCF's starting quarterback with McKenzie Milton expected to miss the entire season following last year's gruesome knee injury and with Darriel Mack Jr. out indefinitely due to a broken ankle. It would be poetic justice for Wimbush to finish out his career with a statement win over the coaching staff who decided (rightly so) that it was better off with Ian Book at quarterback.
Capital One Orange Bowl (Dec. 30): LSU vs. Miami
Here's a not-that-bold prediction for you: No 2019 bowl game will have a wider spread in Vegas than the Orange Bowl. That's due to the combination of the fact that it will be the top non-CFP team from the ACC against either Notre Dame or the second-best non-CFP team from the SEC and the assumption that the only good team from the ACC (Clemson) will be in the CFP Top Four.
Maybe it ends up being Georgia or Texas A&M instead of LSU, or perhaps it's Syracuse or Virginia Tech instead of Miami. Either way, you're looking at one of the projected eight best teams in the nation against an opponent right on the preseason Top 25 cut line.
Of course, Georgia was supposed to blow out Texas in last year's Sugar Bowl, and that didn't happen. Speaking of which...
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Georgia vs. Texas
Leaving Georgia out of the playoff picture is probably the most controversial projection, but allow me to explain.
If 12-0 Georgia faces 12-0 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, the winner would get the No. 1 seed and the loser would almost certainly get in as either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed—maybe even No. 2 if Clemson slips up somewhere along the way. Even if Alabama is 11-1 and beats a 12-0 Georgia, it's probably the same outcome.
However, with a schedule that includes a road game against Auburn, a neutral-site game against Florida and home games against Notre Dame and Texas A&M, 12-0 isn't particularly likely. Case in point, ESPN's FPI rates Georgia as the third-best team but only projects the Bulldogs for 9.9 wins and gives them a less than 6 percent chance of reaching the SEC Championship Game with an unblemished record.
And if they go 11-1 before losing to Alabama in said conference championship game, it'll be deja vu all over again, finishing just outside the Top Four and drawing Big 12 runner-up Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Ohio State vs. Washington
On the subject of deja vu, might we be headed for a repeat of the Rose Bowl, too? If so, it would be the first time since Washington and Michigan squared off at the end of both the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
After losing a combined 17 draft picks—plus one other huge loss in undrafted Washington QB Jake Browning—both of these teams have a lot of personnel changes to figure out. The good news is they each have relatively easy nonconference schedules to work out any kinks that may arise while breaking in their new quarterbacks who transferred in from Georgia.
Jacob Eason is presumably taking the reins at Washington and has had more than 18 months to learn that offense after sitting out this past season. Given how well he played as a true freshman back in 2017, he should be able to hit the ground running. If so, the Huskies will be the team to beat in the Pac-12.
Justin Fields is the more talented (and more versatile) quarterback for Ohio State and is arguably the biggest X-factor of this entire season. If he's able to come anywhere close to the ridiculously high ceiling that recruiting experts gave him, the Buckeyes may match Clemson's 15-0 feat from last year.
With a new quarterback learning a new offense under a new head coach, though, it might not be until 2020 that Ohio State fulfills its potential. We're projecting the Buckeyes to lose the season finale at Michigan, narrowly missing out on both the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff.
College Football Playoff
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Playstation Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan
National Championship: No. 1 Alabama over No. 2 Clemson
Aside from the aforementioned note about Georgia and the assumption that Jim Harbaugh will finally win a game against Ohio State, not exactly going out on a limb here. The boldest prediction of all is that the No. 1 seed will finally win it all after the first five CFP championships went to three No. 2 seeds and a pair of No. 4 seeds.
No doubt you're already tired of hearing about it, but all signs point to Alabama and Clemson duking it out for the fifth straight year.
The Tigers bring back pretty much their entire offense aside from No. 4 receiver Hunter Renfrow and a pair of offensive linemen, and they only play one game against a preseason Top 20 team—a Week 2 home game against Texas A&M. They're likely going to enter the playoff with a 13-0 record for the third time in five years.
And the Crimson Tide could be even better than they were last year, given their expected improvement on defense and the return of what might be the greatest passing attack ever assembled.
Considering the respective strengths of schedule, Alabama would be the No. 1 seed if both teams run the table.
Let's not go writing off the Sooners or Wolverines, though. That Lincoln Riley offense has been a thing of beauty over the past few years, and Michigan could be special now that senior quarterback Shea Patterson actually has an offensive coordinator.
Last year's semifinals weren't particularly competitive, but either one of these teams could throw a wrench into the plans for a rubber match in the five-game series between Alabama and Clemson.
Bowl Games by Conference
Here is the full breakdown of bowl projections, listed alphabetically by conference. New Year's Six games have been italicized and underlined to help those of you who just scrolled to the bottom to find the marquee games.
American (9 teams): Cincinnati (Hawaii Bowl), Houston (Independence Bowl), Memphis (Military Bowl), Navy (Boca Raton Bowl), SMU (Frisco Bowl), South Florida (Gasparilla Bowl), Temple (Birmingham Bowl), Tulane (Cure Bowl), UCF (Cotton Bowl)
ACC (10 teams): Boston College (Pinstripe Bowl), Clemson (Fiesta Bowl), Florida State (Sun Bowl), Miami (Orange Bowl), NC State (Quick Lane Bowl), Pittsburgh (Military Bowl), Syracuse (Camping World Bowl), Virginia (Belk Bowl), Virginia Tech (Music City Bowl), Wake Forest (Independence Bowl)
Big 12 (8 teams): Baylor (Texas Bowl), Iowa State (Alamo Bowl), Oklahoma (Peach Bowl), Oklahoma State (Camping World Bowl), TCU (Liberty Bowl), Texas (Sugar Bowl), Texas Tech (First Responder Bowl), West Virginia (Cheez-It Bowl)
Big Ten (10 teams): Indiana (Armed Forces Bowl), Iowa (Redbox Bowl), Michigan (Fiesta Bowl), Michigan State (Citrus Bowl), Minnesota (Pinstripe Bowl), Nebraska (Holiday Bowl), Northwestern (Quick Lane Bowl), Ohio State (Rose Bowl), Penn State (Outback Bowl), Wisconsin (Gator Bowl)
Conference USA (6 teams): Florida Atlantic (Frisco Bowl), Florida International (New Orleans Bowl), Marshall (Gasparilla Bowl), North Texas (New Mexico Bowl), Southern Miss (Bahamas Bowl), UAB (First Responder Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Birmingham Bowl), BYU (Hawaii Bowl), Notre Dame (Cotton Bowl)
Mid-American (5 teams): Buffalo (Bahamas Bowl), Northern Illinois (Camellia Bowl), Ohio (Mobile Bowl), Toledo (Idaho Potato Bowl), Western Michigan (Boca Raton Bowl)
Mountain West (5 teams): Air Force (Idaho Potato Bowl), Boise State (Las Vegas Bowl), Fresno State (Armed Forces Bowl), San Diego State (Arizona Bowl), Utah State (New Mexico Bowl)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Arizona (Cheez-It Bowl), Oregon (Holiday Bowl), Stanford (Redbox Bowl), USC (Las Vegas Bowl), Utah (Alamo Bowl), Washington (Rose Bowl), Washington State (Sun Bowl)
SEC (10 teams): Alabama (Peach Bowl), Auburn (Gator Bowl), Florida (Citrus Bowl), Georgia (Sugar Bowl), LSU (Orange Bowl), Mississippi State (Texas Bowl), Missouri (Liberty Bowl), South Carolina (Belk Bowl), Tennessee (Music City Bowl), Texas A&M (Outback Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Mobile Bowl), Arkansas State (Cure Bowl), Georgia Southern (Camellia Bowl), Louisiana (Arizona Bowl), Troy (New Orleans Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.