There are two ways to approach bowl season, which has been trimmed from 40 contests to 39 after the demise of the Poinsettia Bowl.
Two games — the national semifinals — have more big-picture meaning than the other 37 combined. That’s a given. But “relatively unimportant” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive, and there are some potential gems involving 6-6 and 7-5 teams.
On the surface, though, the best games of the bunch aren’t hard to identify. Picking out the best of the rest — as this 1-to-39 rundown attempts — is a bit more challenging.
1. Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs. Clemson, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
If past performance is any indication of future results, this should be fantastic. Alabama fended off Clemson for the national title two years ago, and Clemson returned the favor when it claimed last season’s championship in the closing seconds. This much is certain: No team is less intimidated by the Crimson Tide than Dabo Swinney’s top-seeded Tigers.
2. Rose Bowl (Georgia vs. Oklahoma, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
If Georgia’s defense can’t slow down Oklahoma QB (and Heisman favorite) Baker Mayfield, who exactly will? It might be the best offense-vs.-defense matchup of the postseason, though the other pairing — the run-heavy Georgia offense against Oklahoma’s occasionally vulnerable defense — isn’t quite as exciting.
3. Cotton Bowl (Ohio State vs. Southern California, Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Can’t beat tradition. The Big Ten and Pac-12 champs are meeting, just as they have for generations, except it is three days early and two time zones from Pasadena. You can’t have everything, though, so just take a pairing of arguably the two best teams not invited to the playoff.
4. Fiesta Bowl (Penn State vs. Washington, Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
Three months ago, this was a plausible semifinal or national title game possibility. As it stands, it should be an excellent game in the desert — so long as Washington doesn’t sputter as it did the last time it visited the Grand Canyon State, a 13-7 loss at Arizona State on Oct. 14.
5. Alamo Bowl (Stanford vs. Texas Christian, Dec. 28, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Here’s a vote for this matchup of conference runners-up more than living up to expectations. Stanford tailback Bryce Love will look to go over 2,000 yards for the season while facing the stingy Horned Frogs, who rank fourth nationally against the run.
6. Camping World Bowl (Oklahoma State vs. Virginia Tech, Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)
The stellar Mason Rudolph-James Washington combo close out their college careers against a Bud Foster defense. The Virginia Tech offense didn’t score more than 24 points in any of its past five games, but will need to if it is to leave Orlando with a trophy.
7. Peach Bowl (Auburn vs. Central Florida, Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
Nebraska-bound Scott Frost is sticking around to try to complete an undefeated season with Central Florida. McKenzie Milton and the Knights have a chance to do so, but they haven’t seen a defense this season quite at the level of Auburn’s. Then again, how eager are the Tigers to return to Atlanta four weeks after losing the SEC title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
8. Citrus Bowl (Louisiana State vs. Notre Dame, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC)
An unquestioned ratings winner. Ed Orgeron’s Tigers land in Orlando for the second consecutive season and will take on the Fighting Irish in a matchup of 9-3 teams. It’s the second bowl matchup in four seasons for these name-brand programs.
9. Orange Bowl (Miami vs. Wisconsin, Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
If there’s such a thing as a Reloading the Musket game in a bowl, this might be it. Miami dropped its past two after entering Thanksgiving undefeated and is now down its top rusher (Mark Walton), best deep threat (Ahmmon Richards) and a steady tight end (Chris Herndon IV). Wisconsin’s dreams of an undefeated playoff-bound team ended with a Big Ten title game loss to Ohio State.
10. Foster Farms Bowl (Arizona vs. Purdue, Dec. 27, 8:30 p.m., Fox)
There isn’t a bit of greater meaning here, just a potentially fun game between teams that figure to get better next year. Rich Rodriguez’s offense finally found a new pilot when Khalil Tate emerged as a Pat White clone in October, and Coach Jeff Brohm has done wonders in his first season in West Lafayette after the Boilermakers slumbered through the last decade.
11. TaxSlayer Bowl (Louisville vs. Mississippi State, Dec. 30, noon, ESPN)
Take a good, long look at Lamar Jackson because this will probably be the 2016 Heisman winner’s final game at Louisville before he takes his wares to the NFL. The matchup takes a mild hit with Coach Dan Mullen’s decision to leave Mississippi State for Florida. Coupled with an Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi and QB Nick Fitzgerald’s injury, the Bulldogs might not be themselves for this one. Freshman Keytaon Thompson is likely to start in Fitzgerald’s place.
12. Las Vegas Bowl (Boise State vs. Oregon, Dec. 16, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Boise State is past prove-it games as a program, but a chance to knock off a Pac-12 team from the Northwest usually fires up the Broncos. Boise State is a combined 9-5 since 2004 against the Pac-12’s Oregon and Washington schools, including 2-0 against the Ducks. With RB Royce Freeman and a healthy Justin Herbert at quarterback, Oregon stands a chance to change that in Sin City.
13. Dollar General Bowl (Appalachian State vs. Toledo, Dec. 23, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: The Mountaineers and Rockets are playing a postseason game in Alabama. They did last year in a 31-28 Appalachian State victory in a Camellia Bowl that lived up to expectations. Here’s guessing the Sun Belt co-champs and Mid-American Conference winners produce another quality game.
14. Holiday Bowl (Michigan State vs. Washington State, Dec. 28, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
A perfectly solid pairing of 9-3 teams. Michigan State returns to the postseason after a one-year hiatus. Washington State returns to San Diego after laying one of the bigger eggs in last year’s bowl season, a 17-12 loss to a Minnesota program that faced a player mutiny only weeks earlier.
15. New Orleans Bowl (North Texas vs. Troy, Dec. 16, 1 p.m., ESPN)
The leadoff game to bowl season is actually a pretty strong matchup between the Conference USA runners-up (North Texas) and the Sun Belt co-champs (Troy). Remember the coaches in this one; the Mean Green’s Seth Littrell and the Trojans’ Neal Brown are destined for higher-profile gigs.
16. Armed Forces Bowl (Army vs. San Diego State, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Between Army’s triple option and San Diego State star tailback Rashaad Penny, the ball won’t spend much time in the air. That’s okay, because this promises to be one of the more entertaining pre-Christmas bowl games.
17. Liberty Bowl (Iowa State at Memphis, Dec. 30, 12:30 p.m., ABC)
The Liberty Bowl’s been played in Memphis since 1965. This is the Tigers’ first trip to their hometown game. Bank on a lively atmosphere — and a fair number of Iowa State fans making the trip for the Cyclones’ first bowl game since 2012.
18. Birmingham Bowl (South Florida vs. Texas Tech, Dec. 23, noon, ESPN)
South Florida is the new Pitt. Quinton Flowers and the Bulls make their second consecutive trip to Birmingham after last year’s 46-39 overtime barnburner over South Carolina. Texas Tech slipped into the postseason after beating Texas to close out the regular season.
19. Hawaii Bowl (Fresno State vs. Houston, Dec. 24, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
After inheriting a 1-11 mess, former California coach Jeff Tedford led Fresno State to a 9-4 mark and a trip to the Mountain West title game. The Bulldogs will spend Christmas in paradise, though it won’t be a vacation for an offensive line that must figure out how to deal with Houston DT Ed Oliver.
20. Texas Bowl (Missouri vs. Texas, Dec. 27, 9 p.m., ESPN)
An old Big 12 series (the Longhorns were 7-2 against Mizzou as conference rivals) is renewed in Houston in what has the potential to be a far better game than the respective records — Missouri at 7-5, Texas at 6-6 — indicate. The Tigers closed out the regular season on a six-game winning streak behind QB Drew Lock, while Texas was competitive with pretty much everyone it faced.
21. Bahamas Bowl (Ohio vs. UAB, Dec. 22, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
UAB’s Lazarus act — shut down as a program after the 2014 season, then resurrected before resuming play this fall — is the game’s big headline. But it’s also a matchup of 8-4 teams in a game in an exotic locale that hasn’t produced a complete dud in its first three iterations. Plus, it’s weekday afternoon football, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
22. Sun Bowl (Arizona State vs. N.C. State, Dec. 29, 3 p.m., CBS)
No truth to the rumor Herb Sendek — a former basketball coach at both schools — will handle the pregame coin toss. It’s the final game at Arizona State for fired coach Todd Graham, and N.C. State’s last contest with exceptional offensive chess piece Jaylen Samuels.
23. Military Bowl (Virginia at Navy, Dec. 28, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Let’s just call it the George Welsh Bowl in honor of Virginia’s career leader in coaching victories. The Navy graduate also ranks second in Midshipmen history in games won, behind only current Coach Ken Niumatalolo.
22. Outback Bowl (Michigan vs. South Carolina, Jan. 1, noon, ESPN2)
Michigan ranks 101st nationally in total offense, South Carolina 108th. In other words, this isn’t the game to perk you up after a long night on New Year’s Eve. Both teams are 8-4, but arrived there in different ways. Michigan is looking to salvage something after besting one bowl-bound team all year (6-6 Purdue), while South Carolina made progress for the second year in a row under Will Muschamp.
25. Music City Bowl (Kentucky vs. Northwestern, Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
It’s a Wildcat Wrangle in Nashville, as well as a Ground-N-Pound special. Running back Benny Snell rushed for 1,318 yards for Kentucky, which started 5-1 and then dropped four of six to close out the regular season. Northwestern — winner of seven in a row, the nation’s fourth longest winning streak — counters with an offense centered on RB Justin Jackson (1,154 yards).
26. Pinstripe Bowl (Boston College vs. Iowa, Dec. 27, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)
Both teams are averaging less than 400 yards per game, so defense will be on the menu in the Bronx two days after Christmas. Get a good look at RB A.J. Dillon, a one-time Michigan commit, the ACC’s freshman of the year and the centerpiece for Boston College’s power-rushing attack for the next couple years.
27. Idaho Potato Bowl (Central Michigan vs. Wyoming, Dec. 22, 4 p.m., ESPN)
The Chippewas are the eighth different Mid-American Conference school in the past nine years to play on the Smurf Turf in the postseason. Only Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Miami (Ohio) are needed to complete the set. Knock the matchup down a few spots if Wyoming QB Josh Allen, who is expected to turn pro after the season, doesn’t play.
28. Belk Bowl (Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest, Dec. 29, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Here’s hoping Jimbo Fisher coaches the bowl game for Texas A&M simply because of how appropriate it would be for him to finish his season in Charlotte — back in ACC country and at the site of a conference title game he couldn’t reach in his final three seasons at Florida State. While Wake isn’t the sexiest opponent for the Aggies, they’ll be challenged by durable Demon Deacon senior QB John Wolford.
29. New Mexico Bowl (Colorado State vs. Marshall, Dec. 16, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
There’s one excellent reason for draftniks to take a peek at this one: Colorado State WR Michael Gallup heads into his final college game with 94 catches for 1,345 yards and seven TDs as a senior.
30. Boca Raton Bowl (Akron at Florida Atlantic, Dec. 19, 7 p.m., ESPN)
The host Owls have won nine in a row and rank ninth in the country in scoring. Akron went 7-6 and the only bowl-bound team it beat was Ohio (though it also upended a pair of 6-6 home-for-the-holidays teams). This warrants a lower spot on the surface, but heavens knows what sorts of mischief Florida Atlantic Coach Lane Kiffin will create as the Conference USA champion Owls wrap up their turnaround season.
31. Cactus Bowl (Kansas State vs. UCLA, Dec. 26, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Before the Chip Kelly era begins, the Josh Rosen era (likely) ends for UCLA, which hasn’t won a game away from home all season and will try to beat the Wildcats in the postseason for the second time in four seasons. The Bruins edged K-State in a testy Alamo Bowl in 2014.
32. Heart of Dallas Bowl (Utah vs. West Virginia, Dec. 26, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
The Utes made it to 6-6 only with a rout of Colorado to close the season. West Virginia lost QB Will Grier (broken finger) for most of its final two games and is likely to be without him again. This is the power conference matchup likely to create the least buzz.
33. Frisco Bowl (Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist, Dec. 20, 8 p.m., ESPN)
This isn’t a new game, just the relocated Miami Beach Bowl, which provided three-and-a-half hours of television inventory for three whole years. This will be a de facto home game for SMU, which makes its first bowl appearance since 2012 and will travel 25 miles to the northern Dallas suburbs to face the Bulldogs.
34. Quick Lane Bowl (Duke vs. Northern Illinois, Dec. 26, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)
Both teams returned to the postseason after losing seasons a year ago. It also marks Northern Illinois’ seventh trip in eight seasons to Ford Field; it split six Mid-American title games there between 2010 and 2015.
35. Gasparilla Bowl (Florida International vs. Temple, Dec. 21, 8 p.m., ESPN)
The former St. Petersburg Bowl is now named for legendary (though perhaps not real) Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar, who supposedly marauded Florida’s Gulf Coast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. How Mike Leach didn’t will Washington State into this game, we’ll never know.
36. Arizona Bowl (New Mexico State vs. Utah State, Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Aggies’ incredible story — making their first bowl trip since 1960 just as they are getting booted from the Sun Belt — makes this more interesting than a typical game between 6-6 teams. But just a little bit.
37. Independence Bowl (Florida State vs. Southern Mississippi, Dec. 27, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
The Seminoles’ bowl streak remains alive at 36 after some shrewd late-season rescheduling, but there’s not a lot going for this matchup between a brand-name program having a decidedly off-brand season at 6-6 and a perfectly capable Southern Miss bunch.
38. Camellia Bowl (Arkansas State vs. Middle Tennessee, Dec. 16, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Arkansas State’s Justice Hansen leads the nation’s No. 6 passing offense and has thrown for 3,630 yards, 34 TDs and 15 interceptions this season. He’ll face a Middle Tennessee bunch that saw its hopes largely derailed by injuries, though it won its finale to earn a third bowl trip in a row.
39. Cure Bowl (Georgia State vs. Western Kentucky, Dec. 16, 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
A first-year coach — Georgia State’s Shawn Elliott or Western Kentucky’s Mike Sanford — is going to cap the season with a victory. But at the end of the day, it’s a 6-5 team (Georgia State) against a 6-6 team (Western Kentucky) in mid-December. Not exactly appointment viewing.
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