It’s bowl season again, with 40 games wedged into 17 days before college football crowns its national champion a week after that.
Contrary to the commercials, it isn’t the most wonderful time of the year, though random weekday afternoon games are hardly a bad development. Thing is, with so many games and so little time, there’s bound to be some duds — okay, a fair number of duds — mixed in.
It’s tough to know exactly who will be just happy to be there. It’s easier to guess who might want nothing to do with an extra game as a disappointing finish to the season (and the nominees include … Baylor).
One absolute certainty is that there will be complaints from hither and yon about how there are too many bowl games.
If the argument is that reaching a bowl is less of an accomplishment than ever, that is accurate. Of the 128 FBS teams, 80 will participate in the postseason. That 62.5-percent rate dwarfs the 19.4 percent of Division I men’s college basketball teams invited to the NCAA tournament. Three more teams with losing records (Hawaii, Mississippi State and North Texas) are playing on this year.
But who is it hurting? Perhaps the schools’ bottom line, but bowl invitations can be declined. The sprawling system provides extra television inventory for ESPN (the primary purpose of quite a few games), creates a few extra jobs (never a bad thing) and allows a full 1-to-40 rundown of the most interesting options to watch. And here it is:
1. Fiesta Bowl (Clemson vs. Ohio State, Dec. 31, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Both teams are in their second playoff appearance, with Clemson making back-to-back trips. Both lost one-possession games and flirted with danger at other times but managed to navigate the season with just one setback. It looks like an even matchup. For the sake of college football fans, here’s hoping it turns out that way.
2. Rose Bowl (Penn State vs. Southern California, Jan. 2, 5 p.m., ESPN)
If the season began in October, these teams would join Alabama and somebody else (Oklahoma, probably) in the national semifinals. Alas, that first month counts, too, but the upshot is an excellent Rose Bowl featuring two quarterbacks (Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold) who got better as the year progressed.
3. Peach Bowl (Alabama vs. Washington, Dec. 31, 3 p.m., ESPN)
It’s this far up the list because of its national-title implications, but it’s also incredibly easy to envision things going off the rails in a hurry if the Crimson Tide defense devours the most efficient offense it has yet encountered like it has so many others.
4. Citrus Bowl (Louisiana State vs. Louisville, Dec. 31, 11 a.m., ABC)
Lamar Jackson vs. the LSU defense? Yes, please.
5. Alamo Bowl (Colorado vs. Oklahoma State, Dec. 29, 9 p.m., ESPN)
An old Big 12 rivalry is renewed, and its features a Pacific-12 division champ (Colorado) and an Oklahoma State bunch looking to secure a 10-win season with QB Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. The Alamo Bowl was compelling theater last year (TCU-Oregon) and should be again this month.
6. Orange Bowl (Florida State vs. Michigan, Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
No playoff bid for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, but they do get a chance to collect a high-profile victory to cap a successful season. Rugged redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois will receive perhaps his toughest test yet against Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan defense.
7. Sugar Bowl (Oklahoma vs. Auburn, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Another chance to see Baker Mayfield-to-Dede Westbrook fireworks? Not if the Tigers have a say in it. Oklahoma enters on a nine-game winning streak and will try to claim the Sugar Bowl for the second time in four years.
8. Las Vegas Bowl (Houston vs. San Diego State, Dec. 17, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
This is a nifty matchup, with Greg Ward Jr. and the well-regarded Cougars heading west to face San Diego State and TB Donnell Pumphrey. Entering the final games of his career, Pumphrey needs 108 rushing yards to pass Ron Dayne as the FBS career leading rusher.
9. Cotton Bowl (Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin, Jan. 2, 1 p.m., ESPN)
So, how good is Western Michigan? We’re about to find out as the undefeated Broncos try to row their boats against a Wisconsin defense that was torn up by Penn State in the Big Ten title game. If Western Michigan wins, it’ll be 3-0 against the Big Ten West.
10. Boca Raton Bowl (Memphis vs. Western Kentucky, Dec. 20, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Conference USA champ Western Kentucky rolls in on a seven-game winning streak and has scored at least 45 points in each of those games. Memphis isn’t a slouch offensively, either, and should pair with the Hilltoppers to play an entertaining (though not defense-oriented) game.
11. Poinsettia Bowl (Brigham Young vs. Wyoming, Dec. 21, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Bring back the WAC! Anything that evokes memories of that eminently watchable league receives a bump on principle. Wyoming enjoying a breakout year helps, too. To prepare, enjoy the full game between the schools from Ty Detmer’s Heisman-winning season.
12. Russell Athletic Bowl (Miami vs. West Virginia, Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
The folks in Orlando could have arranged a Backyard Brawl reunion with Pittsburgh. Alas, we must settle for a different renewal of an old Big East rivalry. It should be interesting so long as Miami doesn’t continue its trend of good month-bad month after winning four games in November.
13. Outback Bowl (Florida vs. Iowa, Jan. 2, 1 p.m., ABC)
Lovers of defense, unite. This is your game this bowl season, with two splendid defenses (Florida ranks sixth in total yards allowed, while Iowa is 24th) contending with two middling offenses (Florida is 115th in total yardage, Iowa 120th). Cherish and embrace the inevitable 17-16 outcome.
14. Sun Bowl (North Carolina vs. Stanford, Dec. 30, 2 p.m., CBS)
Two teams heading in opposite directions, but the entertainment value here is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey getting a crack at the Tar Heels’ No. 113 rushing defense. With a month to get ready, expect Stanford to be more than prepared to shred North Carolina on the ground.
15. Music City Bowl (Nebraska vs. Tennessee, Dec. 30, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
It’s third meeting between the programs, all in bowl games. Nebraska won the first two (after the 1997 and 1999 seasons), and can clinch a 10-win season at the expense of the Champions of Life.
16. Belk Bowl (Arkansas vs. Virginia Tech, Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
It all depends on which Arkansas team shows up. If it’s the good Razorbacks, this could be fun. If not, it could be a full-fledged rout. This placement splits the difference. Expect a good showing from the Hokies in front of a large gathering of orange-and-maroon-clad fans in Charlotte.
17. Camelia Bowl (Appalachian State vs. Toledo, Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
The co-champions of the Sun Belt (Appalachian State) and the best of the non-Western Michigan teams in the Mid-American (Toledo) tangle in Montgomery. Toledo QB Logan Woodside (43 TDs, nine INTs) paces the nation’s No. 2 pass-efficiency offense, while App State is sixth in pass-efficiency defense.
18. Birmingham Bowl (South Carolina vs. South Florida, Dec. 29, 2 p.m., ESPN)
This is a strangely compelling pairing, with South Florida’s stellar offense led by Quinton Flowers taking on South Carolina’s respectable defense. Meanwhile, the Bulls are 120th in total defense and the Gamecocks 117th in total offense, ensuring a stoppable force/movable object matchup when South Carolina has the ball.
19. Pinstripe Bowl (Northwestern vs. Pittsburgh, Dec. 28, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Lots of wideouts have turned in monster days against Pittsburgh’s secondary; Northwestern’s WR Austin Carr will be the latest. But the Panthers’ offense has more than compensated for those struggles, and Pat Narduzzi’s team will look to wrap up its first nine-win season since 2009.
20. Texas Bowl (Kansas State vs. Texas A&M, Dec. 28, 9 p.m., ESPN)
This year’s winner in the category of a matchup that could most easily be imagined as a quickly forgotten 8-9 game in the NCAA basketball tournament. Honorable mentions: Colorado-Oklahoma State and N.C. State-Vanderbilt. Appropriately, this game gets ranked right in the middle.
21. Holiday Bowl (Minnesota vs. Washington State, Dec. 27, 7 p.m., ESPN)
It has the benefit of being a contrast in styles — Luke Falk and the prolific Washington State passing game against a methodical Minnesota bunch content to play like a, well, traditional Big Ten team. Fearless forecast: The Golden Gophers will have the greater time of possession.
22. Military Bowl (Temple vs. Wake Forest, Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
The champions of the American Athletic Conference return to Annapolis to take on a Wake Forest bunch making its first bowl trip in five years. The Owls, No. 3 in total defense, face a Demon Deacon offense ranked 125th in total yards.
23. Armed Forces Bowl (Louisiana Tech vs. Navy, Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
It’s anyone’s guess how injury-riddled Navy will respond as it turns to its third-string quarterback. Then again, it got a tremendous performance from former backup Will Worth until he suffered a broken foot in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game.
24. Foster Farms Bowl (Indiana vs. Utah, Dec. 28, 8:30 p.m., Fox)
Utah didn’t make it to the Pac-12 title game, but it still earned a trip to the Bay Area in December. The Utes and pulled-out-of-retirement tailback Joe Williams will face an Indiana bunch making its debut under Coach Tom Allen.
25. TaxSlayer Bowl (Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky, Dec. 31, 11 a.m., ESPN)
More like ForwardPassSlayer Bowl. Both teams run a ton, with Georgia Tech utilizing the triple-option and Kentucky rolling with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell. It’s the early favorite for shortest time of game this bowl season.
26. Liberty Bowl (Georgia vs. Texas Christian, Dec. 30, Noon, ESPN)
Give me liberty, or give me New Year’s Eve-party shopping.
27. Cure Bowl (Arkansas State vs. Central Florida, Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
After a messy start (including a loss to an FCS school), Arkansas State turned things around to once again contend in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves will take on a Central Florida bunch that won’t have to travel far after improving from 0-12 to 6-6 in Scott Frost’s first season in charge.
28. Idaho Potato Bowl (Colorado State vs. Idaho, Dec. 22, 7 p.m., ESPN)
The best part of this game has probably already come to pass. Idaho, which is dropping back down to the FCS in a couple years, cranked out an 8-4 season before getting booted from the Sun Belt. This might be the Vandals’ last chance to shine in a bowl game.
29. Bahamas Bowl (Eastern Michigan vs. Old Dominion, Dec. 23, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Eastern Michigan makes its first bowl trip since 1987, while Old Dominion heads to its first bowl ever. The Bahamas Bowl has now hosted all three FBS-playing directional Michigan schools in its three-year existence.
30. Dollar General Bowl (Ohio vs. Troy, Dec. 23, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Your annual reminder (if you didn’t watch the MAC title game) that Frank Solich is still coaching and still taking Ohio to bowl games. Troy enjoyed a fine 9-3 season but dropped two of its last three.
31. Independence Bowl (N.C. State vs. Vanderbilt, Dec. 26, 5 p.m., ESPN2)
Three James Franklin facts tied to this pairing of 6-6 teams: One, he was named Maryland’s head coach in waiting by Debbie Yow, who is now the AD at N.C. State; two, he spent three years at Vanderbilt as its head coach; three, he probably won’t be anywhere near Shreveport when this game is played.
32. Cactus Bowl (Baylor vs. Boise State, Dec. 27, 10:15 p.m., ESPN)
The Broncos didn’t win the Mountain West despite a solid 10-2 season, but they should get a trophy to cap the year thanks to this matchup against a Baylor bunch that’s dropped six in a row.
33. St. Petersburg Bowl (Miami of Ohio vs. Mississippi State, Dec. 26, 11 a.m., ESPN)
Miami of Ohio is a 6-6 team … but won its last six games. Mississippi State is 5-7 … but beat Texas A&M and walloped Mississippi down the stretch as QB Nick Fitzgerald hit his stride. It won’t be national title game-caliber, but at least both teams come into the postseason playing well.
34. Hawaii Bowl (Middle Tennessee at Hawaii, Dec. 24, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Losing team alert! Hawaii is here with a 6-7 record, but at least the Rainbow Warriors will ensure a healthier-than-usual crowd for the Christmas Eve tussle.
35. Quick Lane Bowl (Boston College vs. Maryland, Dec. 26, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
This matchup should elicit about as much excitement in Detroit as it did when these teams met annually from 2005 to 2013 as conference members. Which is to say, not a whole lot. Maryland’s magic number is 22; the Eagles haven’t scored that many points against a Power Five foe in the past two seasons.
36. New Mexico Bowl (Texas-San Antonio at New Mexico, Dec. 17, 2 p.m., ESPN)
The opening act of bowl season sends a first-time postseason participant on the road to tangle with Bob Davie’s run-heavy Lobos. New Mexico is one of two teams to play its bowl game on its home field this year; Hawaii is the other.
37. New Orleans Bowl (Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Southern Mississippi, Dec. 17, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Perhaps not a ton of mass appeal with these two 6-6 participants, but at least it’s a regional matchup with fan bases that can make it to the Big Easy without much fuss.
38. Miami Beach Bowl (Central Michigan vs. Tulsa, Dec. 19, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
On paper, this doesn’t look promising. Tulsa impressed throughout its 9-3 season, averaging 41.4 points while falling only to Houston, Navy and Ohio State. Central Michigan dropped four of its last five and finished 6-6, though its penchant for tight contests (five of its past seven decided by one possession) is promising.
39. Arizona Bowl (Air Force vs. South Alabama, Dec. 30, 5:30 p.m., American Sports Network)
South Alabama beat a pair of FCS teams en route to its 6-6 record, though it did knock off Mississippi State early in the season. At least this second-year game wasn’t stuck with two teams from the same conference like last season.
40. Heart of Dallas Bowl (Army vs. North Texas, Dec. 27, Noon, ESPN)
These teams have combined for eight victories over FBS teams, and it’s also a rematch of an Oct. 22 game (North Texas won, 35-18, in West Point). The Mean Green dropped four of five since, but its APR score got it into a bowl at 5-7. It’s easy to say “pass,” but the teams shouldn’t take that suggestion literally; they rank 117th and 118th nationally in pass efficiency.