Non-Playoff Bowl Games with the Most Entertainment Value
The College Football Playoff gets all the attention throughout the season, but there are quite a few bowl games without national championship implications that are well worth your time.
Three of the four non-playoff New Year's Six games were obvious choices for this list. The Cotton Bowl is where we find the intriguing annual showdown between the best Group of Five team and one of the 10 best Power Five teams. The Sugar Bowl could be quite the disturbing flashback to last year for Georgia. And the Rose Bowl is always a must-watch affair. (Sorry, Orange Bowl.)
But there are a handful of "lesser" bowls that should provide fireworks, too.
Last year's Cheez-It Bowl (TCU vs. California) was a 17-total-points car crash that we couldn't turn away from, but this year's Cheez-It Bowl (Air Force vs. Washington State) might set a bowl record for most yards and points. The Las Vegas Bowl will pit a retiring coach against his former team. And if you don't already have a two-screen setup in place, here's your warning that you'll want one when the Citrus and Outback Bowls both kick off at the same time.
Spoiler alert: Jan. 1 is going to feature an incredible 12 hours of college football. Plan your New Year's Eve festivities accordingly.
The following seven games are listed in chronological order.
Las Vegas Bowl
The Matchup: No. 19 Boise State vs. Washington, 7:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 21
(Extreme Jerry Seinfeld voice) What's the deal with Washington playing in bowl games that are emotional finales for a head coach?
Last year, the Huskies were in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State a month after Urban Meyer announced he would be retiring following that contest. This year, it's the Huskies head coach, Chris Petersen, who decided a few weeks ago that this would be his final hurrah before stepping away from football (at least temporarily) to recharge.
And Washington's opponent for the "Petersen Bowl" couldn't have been any more of a made-for-TV matchup, as it was his eight-year run of wild success at Boise State that paved the way for him to go to Seattle and lead the Huskies to the 2016 College Football Playoff.
Even if you don't care about the coaching sideshow, the Las Vegas Bowl should be an entertaining battle between two of the best programs west of the Rocky Mountains.
Both Washington and Boise State went through complete face lifts this past offseason, each losing a four-year starter at quarterback, one of the best running backs in program history and a bunch of key starters on defense—more so Washington than Boise State, but the Broncos also lost their top two receivers to keep pace with everything the Huskies lost. Yet, somehow, Boise State almost went undefeated, and Washington only suffered five losses by an average margin of 5.2 points.
Both defenses rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed per game, and both offenses have eclipsed 50 points multiple times this season.
Will Washington win Petersen's final game, or will Boise State improve to 5-0 in this annual battle between the Mountain West champion and a middling team from the Pac-12? Our guess is the Huskies prevail in a low-scoring thriller.
Prediction: Washington 23, Boise State 21
The Matchup: Air Force vs. Washington State, 10:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 27
If ever there was a bowl game liable to devolve into a #Pac12AfterDark extravaganza, this is the one—Air Force's ground attack against the air raid offense of Washington State.
Air Force ranked third in the nation in rushing offense this season, averaging 292.5 yards per game. Business as usual for the triple-option military academy, which has now averaged at least 260 rushing yards for 13 consecutive seasons.
The Falcons do occasionally throw the ball and actually had the highest passer efficiency rating this season. In a recent win over New Mexico, Donald Hammond III went 9-of-10 for 327 yards with four touchdowns. His 496.7 PER in that game was by far the highest of the past two decades by any player attempting at least 10 passes. So even though we shouldn't expect to see many pass attempts by Air Force, look for big gains on the few it does try.
And then there's Washington State, which is the exact opposite.
Mike Leach's patented pass-heavy offense averaged 55.7 pass attempts per game (11.4 more than the next-closest team) and 16.8 rush attempts per game (8.8 fewer than the next-closest team). Anthony Gordon is 48 completions and 606 yards away from breaking FBS records that were set during Leach's previous stint with Texas Tech, and he just might get there. Against Oregon State, he had 50 completions for 606 yards.
Like Air Force, when Wazzu goes against the grain and attempts a run, the results have been impressive. Max Borghi has averaged 6.5 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns on only 121 totes. There may be a few draw plays where he catches Air Force napping.
Best of all, neither defense is that good. Air Force's secondary ranks 95th in completion percentage allowed (62.7), while Washington State's front seven is 104th in yards per carry (4.87). Both offenses should be able to thrive in a game that could A) eclipse 100 total points and B) end around 2 a.m. on a Friday night/Saturday morning on the East Coast. Stock up on Cheez-Its and settle in for a fun one.
Prediction: Air Force 54, Washington State 48
The Matchup: No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 17 Memphis, noon ET on Dec. 28
Before we look at this year's matchup, here are two fun facts about the recent history of the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowls:
1. The "little guys" have won four of the last six games. UCF beat Baylor in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl and defeated Auburn in the 2017 Peach Bowl, Boise State knocked off Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, and Houston beat Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. Even the two losses—Wisconsin over Western Michigan in 2016 Cotton Bowl and LSU over UCF in 2018 Fiesta Bowl—were both decided by eight points.
2. In each of the past three years, the winner of this game went on to win at least its first 12 games of the following season. 2017 Wisconsin went 13-1 with a competitive loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, 2018 UCF went 12-1 with a competitive loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, and 2019 LSU is 13-0 and headed to the College Football Playoff.
Memphis has one of the most entertaining young players in the nation in redshirt freshman Kenneth Gainwell. He has 1,425 rushing yards and 532 receiving yards, which makes him the first player with at least 1,000 rushing and 500 receiving since...Penn State's Saquon Barkley two years ago. Gainwell is on his way to 2,000 yards from scrimmage, which you almost never see from a freshman.
To get there, however, he'll need to contend with the best rushing defense.
Penn State held opponents to 2.60 yards per carry, the stingiest mark in the country this season. The combination of Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons and Shaka Toney has been every bit as dominant as we were anticipating before the year began. Memphis hasn't been held below 28 points in a game since August, but the Nittany Lions might be up to the task.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State will be trying to figure out if Will Levis is the answer at quarterback moving forward. He provided a spark when he came in for Sean Clifford in the second half against Ohio State, and then it was his show the following week against Rutgers. Look for the redshirt freshman dual-threat QB to be the difference—one way or the other.
Prediction: Memphis 24, Penn State 21
The Matchup: No. 13 Alabama vs. No. 14 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 1
It wasn't the season either of these teams wanted.
If Alabama wasn't a unanimous preseason pick to reach the College Football Playoff, it was darn close. Michigan was also a trendy pick to contend for a national championship with a new offensive coordinator, a senior quarterback and a home game against an Ohio State team breaking in a new quarterback and a new coach. If ever there was a year for Jim Harbaugh to get the Wolverines into the playoff, this was it.
Instead, both teams suffered multiple losses and dropped out of the New Year's Six picture altogether.
However, these are the two winningest programs in NCAA history. Michigan is No. 1 with 936 victories, but Alabama is closing fast at 929. Considering Alabama won at least four more games than Michigan in each of the previous seven seasons, it should only be a matter of two or three more years before the Crimson Tide take over that top spot.
Michigan could delay the seemingly inevitable by winning the Citrus Bowl, though. And while every team-ranking metric under the sun suggests that Alabama is the better team, it's fair to wonder if Nick Saban will be able to convince his guys to get up for this game.
This is just the second time since the start of the 2011 season that Alabama will be playing a game without national championship implications, and in the previous one, the Crimson Tide gave up 45 points to Trevor Knight and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 campaign. But for Michigan, this is easily the most important non-Ohio State game in Harbaugh's five seasons there.
Shea Patterson will be desperate for some revenge, too. During his sophomore season at Ole Miss, he threw two interceptions in a 66-3 loss to the Crimson Tide. He has been on fire lately, though, throwing for at least 300 yards in each of his last three games—after not reaching that mark in any of his first 22 games with the Maize & Blue. Plus, the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2016 class is looking to capitalize on one last opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Alabama 27
The Matchup: No. 12 Auburn vs. No. 18 Minnesota, 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 1
It's a damn shame this game kicks off at the same time as the higher-profile Citrus Bowl between Alabama and Michigan, because Auburn and Minnesota deserve to have the spotlight to themselves for a few hours.
Auburn went 9-3 against what had to have been the toughest schedule in the nation. The Tigers beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, won a neutral-site game against Pac-12 champion Oregon and won a road game against Texas A&M. They also played well in losses to Florida, Georgia and LSU and were the only team to even remotely slow down Heisman winner Joe Burrow.
Impressive stuff for a team led by a true freshman quarterback, but defense was Auburn's bread and butter. You wouldn't know that if you only watched the 48-45 Iron Bowl, but the Tigers held each of their first 11 opponents to 24 points or fewer. LSU and Alabama were the only teams to eclipse 400 yards of total offense against Auburn, as Derrick Brown and Co. imposed their will time and again.
Minnesota might be able to break through that defense, though.
Following a slow start in the season opener against South Dakota State, the Golden Gophers gained at least 370 yards in each of their final 11 games, averaging 34.3 points per game for the year. And they did it with impeccable balance, producing a 1,000-yard rusher and a pair of a 1,100-yard receivers.
Granted, Minnesota's schedule wasn't anywhere near as onerous as Auburn's, but P.J. Fleck's guys rowed the boat to a 9-0 start, punctuated by a program-defining win over Penn State and a subsequent strong showing in a loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium—where even Ohio State and Michigan have gotten embarrassed on occasion in recent years. The Golden Gophers will be ready for this challenge, as it's another major opportunity to prove they're for real.
Auburn's multifaceted rushing attack will likely be the difference, though. Elite defenses have stifled the Tigers, but average ones have not. Given how well Penn State and Wisconsin were able to run against the Golden Gophers, Auburn will likely do the same, grinding out a 10th victory.
Prediction: Auburn 31, Minnesota 24
The Matchup: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 1
The granddaddy of them all should be an incredible game, per usual. Seven of the last nine Rose Bowls were decided by seven points or fewer, including the double-overtime Georgia-Oklahoma game two years ago, USC's fourth-quarter comeback against Penn State three years ago and Oregon's 45-38 win over Wisconsin in January 2012.
Can the Badgers return the favor in a battle between a quarterback likely to be drafted in the first round and one of the greatest running backs in college football history?
For Oregon's Justin Herbert, the past three weeks have been a struggle. Against both Utah and Oregon State, he was held below 200 yards with just one touchdown. And in the loss to Arizona State, he padded his stats on three late touchdown drives, but interceptions on his first two pass attempts of the fourth quarter effectively eliminated the Ducks from the playoff race. He completed just 56.5 percent of his passes in those three contests, and he needs to show the NFL scouts he hasn't lost his touch.
It's a different story for Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for 900 yards and six touchdowns over his last five games, including an impressive performance against a stout Ohio State defense in the Big Ten championship. The junior has now eclipsed 6,000 rushing yards in his career, and he could move ahead of both Charles White and Ricky Williams into fourth place on the FBS all-time leaderboard with a 200-yard Rose Bowl.
Both stars will need to work their magic against elite defenses.
Opponents completed just 50.8 percent of their pass attempts against Wisconsin, the fifth-lowest rate in the nation. Justin Fields finally got rolling in the second half of the Big Ten title game, but the Badgers had him all out of sorts for the first two quarters. With nearly a month to prepare for this game, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is going to draw up schemes to fluster Herbert.
Running the ball against Oregon is even tougher than throwing it against Wisconsin. Washington's Salvon Ahmed (140 yards) was the only player this season to rush for at least 115 yards against the Ducks. They also only allowed four rushing touchdowns all season. Can Taylor be the guy to solve that D?
It will be an intriguing battle of respective strengths, but Wisconsin should have a slight overall advantage.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Oregon 20
The Matchup: No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Baylor, 8:45 p.m. ET on Jan. 1
For the second consecutive year, Georgia entered conference championship weekend at No. 4 in the CFP Top 25, lost to a superior opponent from the SEC West, got bypassed by Oklahoma, finished at No. 5 and will be heavily favored in the Sugar Bowl against the second-best team from the Big 12.
Of course, that didn't work out so well for the Bulldogs last year. Texas jumped out to an early 17-0 lead en route to a 28-21 victory in which Sam Ehlinger rushed for three touchdowns and became one of the top way-too-early candidates for the Heisman.
Could Baylor's Charlie Brewer do the same?
The Bears QB was quietly one of just three Power Five players to throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 10 more this season, joining Heisman finalists Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields on that short list. He is currently in concussion protocol after a hit he took in the first half of the Big 12 championship game, but he could cause some issues for Georgia's stout defense if he's able to play.
If he can't go, though, backup Gerry Bohanon (42 carries, 267 yards) has even more mobility, and third-stringer Jacob Zeno showed off his cannon of an arm in the Big 12 championship, completing two passes for 159 yards. Even if Brewer is healthy, Matt Rhule might use a combination of all three guys to try to solve Georgia's D that was outstanding against all opponents who didn't have Joe Burrow.
Meanwhile, Baylor has a fine defense in its own right, and Georgia is far from an offensive juggernaut. The Dawgs were held to 27 points or fewer in seven of their final eight games, and the Bears only gave up 19.3 points per game.
Points will come at a premium in what may well be the lowest scoring bowl game. Should be a good one, but you've got to like the SEC team's chances of beating the Big 12 team in any defensive duel.
Prediction: Georgia 21, Baylor 17
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.