Bowl rankings: Plenty of great matchups, but watch all 40 at own risk

My (almost) annual Ranking the Bowls column — a December tradition that dates back more than a decade — took a year’s hiatus in 2014. By the time it came back, “1 through 35” had become “1 through 40.” You have no idea how much harder it was to come up with those five extra paragraphs of snark.

The good news is, there’s a lot of great matchups outside of this year’s New Year’s Six bowls. The bad news is … there aren’t nearly 40 of them. I couldn’t snag any of Dana Holgorsen’s Red Bulls, so you might notice the capsules get loopier the deeper you go. You’ll find the same thing happen to yourself if you actually try to watch all 40 of these games.

1. Orange (Dec. 31): Clemson (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (11-1). While ESPN gave it the undercard treatment, I deem this the slightly more compelling semifinal matchup due to the star quarterbacks (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield) and the smaller point spread.

2. Cotton (Dec. 31): Alabama (12-1) vs. Michigan State (12-1). It’s football the way our grandfathers intended it, with epic clashes along the lines, a running back (Derrick Henry) who might carry it 49 times and two steel-faced coaches (Nick Saban and Mark Dantonio) on the sidelines.

3. Rose (Jan. 1): Iowa (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2). Desmond King and the Hawkeyes finally legitimized themselves with a dominant defensive performance against Michigan State; now they look to win over any remaining skeptics by corralling Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey. 

4. Fiesta (Jan. 1): Ohio State (11-1) vs. Notre Dame (10-2). It’s the end of an era for Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and a host of other NFL-bound Buckeyes, and the final chapter for Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and a host of other Notre Dame personalities that Showtime viewers know well.

5. Alamo (Jan. 2): TCU (10-2) vs. Oregon (9-3). If Josh Doctson returns from a wrist injury, Trevone Boykin and his favorite receiver could light up the Ducks’ woeful secondary. Oregon’s Vernon Adams Jr. and Royce Freeman shred every defense they face. The fun factor is off the charts.

6. Russell Athletic (Dec. 29): North Carolina (11-2) vs. Baylor (9-3). Hopefully QB Jarrett Stidham returns for Baylor, in which case the Bears offense you know and love will return to face the only offense averaging more yards per play. And hey, UNC could finally get that elusive Top 25 win.

7. Peach (Dec. 31): Houston (12-1) vs. Florida State (10-2). Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. is the most electrifying player most of the country has not watched. ’Noles RB Dalvin Cook is an electrifying player everybody’s watched but still does not fully appreciate. Start New Year’s Eve right.

8. Sugar (Jan. 1): Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Ole Miss (9-3). It’s been impossible to predict which version of which team will show up in a given week, so who could predict this result? Though I do feel fairly confident the Rebels will not lose a second straight New Year’s Six bowl 42-3.

9. Citrus (Jan. 1): Florida (10-3) vs. Michigan (9-3). Jim McElwain has four weeks to devise a way for QB Treon Harris to move the ball in a forward direction. Jim Harbaugh will have had an extra week to figure out where his once-formidable defense has been hiding since Halloween.

10. Outback (Jan. 1): Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4). The last time these schools met in a New Year’s Day bowl, Vols QB Peyton Manning shredded Wildcats LB Pat Fitzgerald’s defense. Nineteen years later, Fitzgerald looks to complete his school’s first-ever 11-win season.

11. Las Vegas (Dec. 19): Utah (9-3) vs. BYU (9-3). The resentment between the two fan bases is off the charts. Utah fans are furious they slipped to this bowl and/or think they’re too good for BYU; BYU fans are furious at Utah fans for feeling that way. Do a Twitter search during this one.

12. Texas (Dec. 29): LSU (8-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5). In a mismatch of epic proportions, the nation’s leading rusher, Leonard Fournette, goes against the 126th-ranked rushing defense. But Kliff Kingsbury’s team is also averaging nearly 600 yards per game. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

13. Holiday (Dec. 30): Wisconsin (9-3) vs. USC (8-5). Clay Helton is no longer USC’s interim coach, but he just fired half the staff, so one lucky fan will win a raffle for the chance to coach USC’s defense for a night. Helpful hint: This particular Wisconsin team actually throws the ball. Seriously.

14. TaxSlayer (Jan. 2): Georgia (9-3) vs. Penn State (7-5). It’s no longer Miami coach Mark Richt’s sendoff game, but it probably is Christian Hackenberg’s. Penn State’s quarterback would gladly eschew the traditional bowl gift for some protection and an open receiver.

15. Boca Raton (Dec. 22): Temple (10-3) vs. Toledo (9-2). Two teams good enough to make appearances in the playoff rankings end their seasons  playing on a Tuesday night in a 30,000-seat Conference USA stadium. Temple should get to trade spots with Penn State, Toledo with Arkansas.

16. Sun (Dec. 26): Miami (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4). Here’s hoping the dreaded El Paso wind does not grace this year’s game, because Cougars QB Luke Falk attempts nearly 54 passes per game. And he’s surely going to want to keep that up against the ’Canes’ 92nd-ranked defense.

17. Belk (Dec. 30): Mississippi State (8-4) vs. NC State (7-5). The 2015 season began in Charlotte in a game played so long ago that Steve Spurrier coached in it. Four months later, Dak Prescott and Jacoby Brissett descend on the same stadium to say their own farewells.

18. Music City (Dec. 30): Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Louisville (7-5). My preseason predicted SEC and ACC Atlantic champions ended up just a bit outside the New Year’s Six. The Aggies and Cardinals clash in Nashville to determine which one I’ll grossly overestimate to start next season.

19. Military (Dec. 28): Navy (9-2) vs. Pittsburgh (8-4). Panthers fans aren’t thrilled about their bowl selection, but Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s face likely lit up at the prospect of scheming for the triple-option. Navy legend-to-be Keenan Reynolds gets to make his final start in front of his home crowd.

20. Liberty (Jan. 2): Arkansas (7-5) vs. Kansas State (6-6). It now seems impossible that Bret Bielema was ever Bill Snyder’s co-defensive coordinator. What on earth were those staff meetings like? And what do you suppose their banquet conversations will be about in Memphis?

21. Birmingham (Dec. 30): Memphis (9-3) vs. Auburn (6-6). Combined with its previous victory over Ole Miss, Memphis has a shot to earn its second SEC win of the season – the same number as its SEC opponent. In hindsight, maybe we should have picked the Tigers to win the West.

22. Foster Farms (Dec. 26): UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7). Two guarantees: Despite the 5-7 grousing, this Saturday night clash of brand names will draw a higher TV rating than all but one or two college basketball games this season, and also, Nebraska will lose in soul-crushing fashion.

23. Pinstripe (Dec. 26): Duke (7-5) vs. Indiana (6-6). The New York/New Jersey area is teeming with rabid Duke fans, though it’s unclear whether their passion extends to football. There are also oodles of East Coast Indiana alums. It’s unclear whether they know football exists.

24. Cactus (Jan. 2): West Virginia (7-5) vs. Arizona State (6-6). Motel 6 is now this bowl’s title sponsor, but presumably the hometown Sun Devils can sleep in their own beds. Todd Graham coached at West Virginia from 2001-02, which, in Graham years, was roughly 13 coaching stops ago.

25. Armed Forces (Dec. 29): Air Force (8-5) vs. Cal (7-5). Bears QB Jared Goff gets to play in his first bowl before heading to the NFL. Presumably Sonny Dykes will also coach in it, but you never know. There are a lot of colleges in the DFW Metroplex. Maybe one of them will be hiring.

26. Heart of Dallas (Dec. 26): Southern Miss (9-4) vs. Washington (6-6). Todd Monken’s Eagles finally buried the stench of that one-year Ellis Johnson debacle and will make their first bowl trip in four years. Beating a Pac-12 opponent in the Cotton Bowl (stadium) would make it that much sweeter.

27. Miami Beach (Dec. 21): Western Kentucky (11-2) vs. USF (8-4). Hilltoppers QB Brandon Doughty has thrown for a mere 4,597 yards, 45 TDs and seven INTs. And the sixth-year senior will finish his career playing against … his former coach, Willie Taggart, now at USF.

28. Hawaii (Dec. 24): San Diego State (10-3) vs. Cincinnati (7-5). Rocky Long’s Aztecs are coming off a Mountain West championship win but will find a more attentive audience here. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch Tommy Tuberville coach donning a Hawaiian shirt?


29. New Mexico (Dec. 19): New Mexico (7-5) vs. Arizona (6-6). Bob Davie, now the coach of the Lobos, is back on your television to ring in the bowl season. He’ll face off with Rich Rodriguez, who turned down South Carolina but would never pass up a free trip to Albuquerque.

30. Independence (Dec. 26): Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Tulsa (6-6). For his last game, Frank Beamer returns to the site where the Hokies began their 23-year bowl streak. Set your DVR to start recording three hours late so you can catch the only part you care about — his carry-off.

31. GoDaddy (Dec. 23): Bowling Green (10-3) vs. Georgia Southern (8-4). Dino Babers is gone to Syracuse, but his Baylor-style offense remains at Bowling Green. QB Matt Johnson and his national-best 4,700 yards head to Mobile for a clash with Georgia Southern’s option-heavy offense.

32. Poinsettia (Dec. 23): Boise State (8-4) vs. NIU (8-5). Two of the most successful Group of 5 programs of the past decade trot out two of their worst teams of the past decade. In NIU’s defense, it lost multiple quarterbacks. In Boise’s defense, it’s played very little defense.

33. Camellia (Dec. 19): Appalachian State (10-2) vs. Ohio (8-4). Appalachian State reached a bowl in just its second season of FBS membership and can now become the Sun Belt’s first-ever 11-win team. But first, it must figure out what the heck the Camellia Bowl is and in what city it’s played.

34. New Orleans (Dec. 19): Arkansas State (9-3) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4). Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze Gus Malzahn Bryan Harsin Blake Anderson led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt title. His team tries to stop Tech RB Kenneth Dixon from scoring an NCAA-record 84th touchdown.

35. St. Petersburg (Dec. 26): Marshall (9-3) vs. Connecticut (6-6). Remember when UConn played in the Fiesta Bowl? This is actually the Huskies’ first bowl appearance since then. The tailgate lots at Tropicana Field figure to be filled by the dozens for an 11 a.m. kickoff the day after Christmas.


36. Bahamas (Dec. 24): Middle Tennessee (7-5) vs. Western Michigan (7-5). So all this time, you’re telling me that Broncos coach P.J. Fleck’s patented “Row The Boat” motto referred to a future bowl game on a tropical island? Man, that’s more disappointing than half the answers we got on “LOST.”

37. Quick Lane (Dec. 28): Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Minnesota (5-7). If there’s one thing college football is not lacking for, it’s games between mid-level Big Ten teams and their MAC opponents. In fact, I could have sworn I saw this exact game on ESPNU on a Saturday in September.

38. Idaho Potato (Dec. 22) Akron (7-5) vs. Utah State (6-6). Terry Bowden leads the Zips on to the blue turf for their first bowl trip in a decade. It may seem like Chuckie Keeton has been Utah State’s quarterback for a decade, but in fact it’s been six seasons — spanning three Potato Bowls.

39. Cure (Dec. 19): Georgia State (6-6) vs. San Jose State (5-7). Flight from San Jose to Orlando: $682. Hotel: $250. Game ticket: $35. Flying seven hours back home after watching your team finish the year 5-8: Priceless … so long as you’ve horded three years’ worth of Southwest drink coupons.

40. Arizona (Dec. 29): Colorado State (7-5) vs. Nevada (6-6). Two bad Mountain West teams face off on a Tuesday night in a Pac-12 stadium for a broadcast of the American Sports Network. What a time to be alive.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to