Though the inaugural College Football Playoff will not be played out in Florida, there are intriguing storylines to entertain fans around the Sunshine State during bowl season. Three of the eight bowls feature matchups between ranked opponents. There's also the novelty of two new bowls: the Boca Raton Bowl and Miami Beach Bowl. The latter will be played at Marlins Park, home to Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins.
This will be the first meeting between these programs since 1987, when the Volunteers won 23-22. Both teams finished fourth in their conference divisions in 2014. Iowa's first bowl in Florida came in Jacksonville in 1983, when it was referred to as the Gator Bowl. Tennessee will make its sixth appearance in this bowl but first since 1994. The Hawkeyes (7-5) dropped three of their final four games, but two of them came against ranked opponents in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Senior Brandon Scherff, named the Outland Trophy winner for the nation's outstanding interior lineman, leads a unit that helped former walk-on Mark Weisman rush for over 2,500 yards in his career. The Volunteers (6-6) won three of their final four, and they lost by just one score to SEC East champion Missouri.
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7. Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl -- NC State vs. UCF (8 p.m., Dec. 26, St. Petersburg)
The Wolfpack (7-5) dropped four in a row midseason but bounced back by winning three of their last four for the second-best improvement of any team in Power 5 conferences. Former Florida quarterback Jacoby Brissett threw for 2,344 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five picks in his first year with NC State. After dropping their first two games, the Knights (9-3) rattled off wins in nine of their final 10 to finish with a share of the American Athletic Conference championship. The program has won three straight bowls and will play for a large contingent making a short drive from Orlando. Sophomore cornerback Jacoby Glenn was voted Co-Defensive Player of the Year for his seven interceptions (third in nation) and 18 passes defended (third).
This inaugural bowl will be held at Marlins Park, home to MLB's Miami Marlins. It will mark the first meeting between these programs. The Cougars (8-4) bounced back from a four-game skid in October to win their final four en route to their 10th straight bowl appearance. The American Athletic Conference's Tigers (9-3) enter on a six-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 214-80 during that stretch. They earned a share of their first conference title since 1971 and first bowl berth since 2008. A win would tie the school's single-season record set in 1938. The defense, led by senior linebacker Tank Jakes, allows just 17.1 points per game -- fifth in the nation. Jakes, who recorded 83 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, was named co-Defensive Player of the Year.
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5. Russell Athletic Bowl -- No. 17 Clemson vs. Oklahoma (5:30 p.m., Dec. 29, Orlando)
Of the seven combined losses between the two teams, six came against ranked opponents. Clemson boasts the top defense in the nation, allowing just 259.6 yards per game. Senior Vic Beasley, the Atlantic Coast Conference's Defensive Player of the Year, leads all FBS players with 32 career sacks. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson will have knee surgery and miss the game. The Sooners (8-4) will be making their first appearance in this bowl and first against an ACC opponent since the 2000 Orange Bowl (national title over FSU). Freshman running back Samaje Perine (1,579 yards, 21 TDs), junior linebacker Eric Striker (56 tackles, 14 TFL, 7.5 sacks) and redshirt sophomore cornerback Zack Sanchez (6 INTs) each made the All-Big 12 First Team.
This will be the first meeting between the schools since 1970. Missouri (10-3) reached the Southeastern Conference title game. Minnesota (8-4) dropped three games to ranked teams. A win would give them nine for the second time in 109 years. The Tigers placed a league-leading seven guys on the All-SEC Team, including Defensive Player of the Year Shane Ray. Ray, a redshirt junior, set the school record with 14 sacks (third in nation) and 21 tackles for loss (sixth). Redshirt senior Marcus Murphy was the only player in the country to score a touchdown via rush, kickoff return, punt return and receiving. Minnesota sophomore Maxx Williams, a finalist for the John Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end, has 29 catches for 471 yards and seven touchdowns.
It's the battle of the underdogs in this inaugural bowl. The Thundering Herd (12-1), the Conference USA Champion, fell short of a perfect season in their second-to-last game, a 67-66 shootout with Western Kentucky. Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, from Miami Central High, won C-USA Offensive Player of the Year for the second straight season after throwing for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns. He added 457 rushing yards and six scores. Senior linebacker Neville Hewitt, the Defensive Player of the Year, recorded 114 tackles. The Huskies (11-2) closed with seven straight victories, capturing the MAC championship for the third time in the past four years. NIU ranks 17th in the country in rushing offense, while allowing just nine sacks (second in nation).
This matchup showcases a pair of top-20 teams. It marks the fourth meeting between the programs. Badgers junior running back Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy finalist, will be playing his final game for Wisconsin (10-3) after announcing he will enter the NFL draft. Gordon leads the nation with 2,336 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. Auburn (8-4) lost three of its past four games, but three of its four overall defeats came against top-25 teams. Senior Quan Bray has returned two punts for touchdowns. Senior quarterback Nick Marshall, a semifinalist for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien awards, became just the third player in Auburn history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for another 1,000.
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1. Orange Bowl -- No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech (8 p.m., Dec. 31, Miami Gardens)
This Southeastern Conference vs. Atlantic Coast Conference matchup features two teams that came close to league titles. The Bulldogs (10-2) were the top-ranked team in the country until losing to Alabama on Nov. 15. The Yellow Jackets (10-3) stuck with Florida State into the fourth quarter of the ACC championship. With a victory, MSU would have its first 11-win season in program history fueled by the ninth-best total offense (506.2 yards per game). Junior quarterback Dak Prescott, a semifinalist for several national awards, has a single-season school record 35 touchdowns (23 passing, 12 running) in 2014 and the career mark of 66 scores (37 pass, 29 rush). After a two-game skid in the middle of the season, Georgia Tech finished with wins in five of the last six.