It’s Christmas again and as usual, college football fans can feast on a buffet of college football bowl games.
Bowl season gets underway on Dec. 17 and for nearly a month; there will be at least one college football game on TV almost every day. Here are some key matchups that are must-see games for the biggest of football fans.
Let’s begin with a look at the playoff semifinals on Saturday, Dec. 31.
First, Alabama (13-0 and the top seed) will take on Pac-12 Champion Washington in the Peach Bowl.
Chris Petersen (formerly a miracle worker as coach as Boise State) has turned things around for the Huskies (12-1) in Seattle. But Washington simply doesn’t have the depth to hang with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. The defending National Champions were only really tested once in 2016 and that was in a 10-0 win over SEC rival Louisiana State.
In the Fiesta Bowl, No. 2 Clemson (last year’s national runner-up) will take on Ohio State. The Tigers had some close calls this year on their way to another Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. Their lone loss came to Pittsburgh. But they won close ones against Auburn, Troy, North Carolina State and Louisville.
The Buckeyes (11-1) didn’t win a division or conference title thanks to a loss to Penn State (which won the Big Ten title). Ohio State’s body of work was enough to get it to the playoffs for the second time in three years. They won it all after the 2014 season as the No. 4 seed.
In the rest of the New Year’s Six Games: the Big Ten Champion Nittany Lions will take on the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena. James Franklin has worked miracles in Happy Valley and Trojans rookie head coach Clay Helton and his team overcame a sluggish start to go 9-3.
Penn State went 11-2 and Franklin, who put Vanderbilt on the map before heading north, continues to show why he’s one of the country’s top coaches.
In the Orange Bowl, Florida State (9-3) will play Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, one of college football most colorful and outspoken coaches.
The Wolverines will look to bounce back after a tough overtime loss to rival Ohio State.
Florida State rebounded to have a solid season after Bobby Petrino and Louisville handed the Seminoles their worst loss in school history.
The Cotton Bowl will feature Western Michigan against Wisconsin. The Broncos went 13-0 and won the Mid American Conference. Perhaps no coach (save Tennessee’s Butch Jones) gets more mileage out of the cliché than WMU’s P.J. Fleck. His ‘row the boat” philosophy has struck a chord with the team’s fanbase. The Broncos beat Northwestern and Illinois. But Western Michigan hasn’t played a team like the Badgers. Look for Fleck’s boat to sink.
In the Sugar Bowl, Auburn will take on Oklahoma. The Tigers finished last in the SEC West last season. But they again found respectability in 2016.
The Sooners went unbeaten in the Big XII after losses to Houston and Ohio State had OU fans calling for Bob Stoops’ head. A win would be huge for either team here.
The Southeastern Conference was down in 2016. Alabama successfully defended its conference championship and looks destined to win another National Title. But the Crimson Tide (the top team in the country) is the only Top-10 SEC team as we head toward the holidays.
Tennessee, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State all underachieved while Auburn lost some close games to tough teams. The Tigers were 8-4 and LSU (7-4) fired Les Miles before Ed Oregon saved the day for the Bayou Bengals.
Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss were all expected to compete for the SEC titles. The Tigers and Rebels all fell from grace early. Ole Miss (5-7) and Missouri (3-9) were the only conference teams not to receive bowl bids. The Volunteers, however, started fast with five consecutive dramatic wins before ending the regular season with a whimper and losing to Vanderbilt for the second time in four years.
Mississippi State made the St. Petersburg Bowl with a 5-7 record and that proves that there are simply now too many bowl games. The Bulldogs, however, have had some recent success under Dan Mullen (a premiere offensive mind and highly sought-after coach). He and the Bulldogs brought fans Dark Prescott (now in Dallas and a favorite to claim Rookie of the Year honors and/or MVP honors in the NFL.
The Bulldogs will play Miami (Ohio) at 11 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 26. The Red Hawks (6-6) were once led by Ben Roethlisberger but have endured nothing by struggles since Big Ben took his show to Pittsburgh and became an elite NFL quarterback.
The Commodores (6-6) will play in the Independence Bowl later that day. Vanderbilt achieved bowl eligibility when it all but ruined Tennessee’s season on Thanksgiving Weekend. The Commodores has a tough defense and they’ll take on North Carolina State (6-6). The Wolf Pack gave No. 2 Clemson a scare early this season.
On Dec. 29, South Carolina (6-6) will tangle with South Florida (10-2) in the Birmingham Bowl. The Gamecocks picked up a signature win over Tennessee while the Bulls enjoyed a resurgence under head coach Willie Taggart (who recently departed for Oregon). T.J. Wiest will coach the Bulls in the bowl game.
Arkansas (7-5) and Virginia Tech (9-4) will close out the day’s bowl action when they tangle at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. The Razorbacks had another solid season in the rough and tumble SEC West. The Hokies, meanwhile, enjoyed a nice season after losing to the Big Orange in the historic Battle at Bristol. Coach Justin Fuente (formerly of Memphis) replaced the legendary Frank Beamer and Tech continues to boast one of the country’s most competitive programs.
On Dec. 30, Tennessee will play Nebraska in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. The Vols had a disappointing 8-4 season. They won five straight to start the season but went 3-4 down the stretch. The Big Orange’s last trip to Nashville produced an embarrassing loss to the resident Commodores.
The Cornhuskers (9-3) started the season with a long winning streak. Nebraska won its first seven games before going 2-3 down the stretch. Tennessee opened with five consecutive wins before limping to the finish line.
Jones and the Vols must win this game to salvage a disappointing season but don’t look for the Huskers to roll over. The last bowl game in Nashville was a nightmare for Tennessee in 2009 and quite frankly may have sent Derek Dooley on his downward spiral. Not that he needed much help.
Also on Dec. 30, Georgia will take on Texas Christian University in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl. Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens has to be considered a disappointment. The Horned Frogs have had success under Gary Patterson but they took a small step back in 2016. Both teams desperately need this one.
On New Year’s Eve, LSU will collide with Louisville in a match-up of two teams headed in different directions. The Tigers got off to a slow start and that cost Les Miles his job. Ed O. took over and saved LSU from potential disaster. He will coach the Citrus Bowl as the Bayou Bengals’ new head coach.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, got off to a fast start and quarterback Lamar Jackson took the college football war by storm. Louisville closed out the season with losses to Houston Clemson and the hated wildcats.
But the Cardinals handed Florida State its worse loss in program history before things took a turn for the worst.
Also on Dec. 31, Kentucky (7-5) and Georgia Tech (8-4) will knock heads in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Coaches Mark Stoops (of the Wildcats) and Paul Johnson (the Yellow Jackets) orchestrated huge turnarounds at their respected institutions. The Yellow Jackets run the triple option and could give the Wildcats fits. But look for Stoops to have his Kentucky squad ready to go in Jacksonville as it looks for an eighth win after finishing in a second-place tie in the SEC East.
On Jan. 2, Florida and Iowa will clash in the Outback Bowl. The Gators made it to the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row despite an anemic offense. Iowa has again underachieved in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes and Florida are both 8-4 but Iowa lost to five-time defending FCS Champion North Dakota State at home in September.