Ranking every college football bowl game, from Lending Tree to Peach

Bowl season will culminate with The College Football Playoff. (Roger Steinman/AP)
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No bowl games will get more attention and hype than the two playoff semifinals. That’s as it should be, since the Fiesta and Peach bowls will set up next month’s national title game.

Yet the true meaning of the (bowl) season are the unexpected delights, whether it’s a rollicking matchup on a weekday afternoon before the holidays or a pairing of good-though-largely-overlooked teams who manage to deliver a fun game in the days leading into the more heavily promoted playoff games.

The thing is, it’s impossible to know what matchups will produce the most fun. It is possible to take an educated guess with The Washington Post’s annual 1-to-41 bowl guide. (All games are the first bowl matchups between the schools unless otherwise noted).

Georgia, Michigan, TCU, Ohio State to play in College Football Playoff

41. LendingTree Bowl: Rice vs. Southern Mississippi (Dec. 17)

Just a year after Southern Miss left for the Sun Belt, these former Conference USA rivals are reunited in Mobile, Ala. Rice is the lone sub-.500 team still playing, taking advantage of its strong Academic Progress Rate to earn its first bowl berth since 2014. Southern Miss (6-6) owns a victory over American Athletic champ Tulane (another former C-USA foe). Nonetheless, the familiarity (they’ve met in each of the past eight seasons) and the teams’ so-so overall performance (ahem) lends this one a decidedly regular season vibe.

40. Camellia Bowl: Buffalo vs. Georgia Southern (Dec. 27)

Georgia Southern needed double-overtime in its finale to beat Appalachian State and get to 6-6. Buffalo needed a late touchdown against Akron in a game postponed by a massive snowstorm to do the same. It is, however, a chance to see Georgia Southern’s new look under Clay Helton: a passing attack ranked fourth in the country at a school long known for running the option.

39. Quick Lane Bowl: Bowling Green vs. New Mexico State (Dec. 26)

Two 6-6 teams. In Detroit. The day after Christmas. Which means this will invariably develop into one of the most entertaining games of the bowl season. Bowling Green makes a short trip up Interstate 75 for its first bowl appearance since 2015. New Mexico State makes a much longer trip for only its second postseason nod in 62 years. The Aggies are 3-0-1 all-time in bowls, and could become a more regular postseason participant under first-year coach Jerry Kill — especially after joining Conference USA next season.

38. First Responder Bowl: Memphis vs. Utah State (Dec. 27)

Another pair of 6-6 teams, though they got there in different ways. Utah State was 1-4 before winning five of its next six. Memphis started 4-1 and then lost five conference games by a combined 23 points.

37. Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Wisconsin (Dec. 27)

The Cowboys (7-5) and Badgers (6-6) both began the season ranked in the top 20. Wisconsin made a coaching change in early October, and Oklahoma State has dropped four of five. It’s not a promising pairing for a great game in Phoenix.

36. Bahamas Bowl: Miami (Ohio) vs. UAB (Dec. 16)

There is no greater reward for going 6-6 than going to the Bahamas for a few days, as both teams will learn this month. As for watching from home, it’s a morning kickoff on a Friday. There are far worse diversions.

35. Cheez-It Bowl: Florida State vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 29)

It’s a brand-name bonanza in Orlando, but will it be a good game? Florida State (9-3) is enjoying a renaissance season, while Oklahoma (6-6) went 3-6 in the Big 12 under first-year coach Brent Venables. The Sooners’ last three losses came by three-point margins, but against the Big 12’s best teams — Kansas State, TCU and Texas — they gave up a combined 145 points. Yikes. This feels like it could be a blowout.

Postseason history: It’s the fifth bowl matchup between the teams. Florida State won the Gator Bowl after the 1964 season, and Oklahoma took back-to-back Orange Bowls after the 1979 and 1980 seasons. But the programs’ most meaningful postseason encounter was Oklahoma’s 13-2 triumph in the Orange Bowl after the 2000 season that delivered a national title to the Sooners.

34. Frisco Bowl: Boise State vs. North Texas (Dec. 17)

A pairing of conference runners-up delivers a compelling strength-vs.-strength showdown: the Broncos’ No. 6 total defense against North Texas’ No. 20 total offense. The Mean Green has the shortest commute of any team this bowl season; per Google Maps, it’s as little as 23.9 miles from Denton to Frisco. It also is the only bowl team to fire its coach after the season, dismissing Seth Littrell on Sunday. (Wisconsin also fired its coach, but in the middle of the season.)

33. Hawaii Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. San Diego State (Dec. 24)

At last, a Christmas Eve tradition returns. The pandemic led to the outright cancellation of the 2020 Hawaii Bowl, and last year’s game was declared a no-contest when Hawaii’s football team had a coronavirus outbreak. Both Middle Tennessee and San Diego State are 7-5.

Deion Sanders vows to make Colorado ‘elite’ after leaving Jackson State

32. Independence Bowl: Houston vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 23)

It’s a year late for this matchup. Last season, Houston went 12-2 and UL Lafayette was 13-1. This fall? They were 7-5 and 6-6, respectively. No matter. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a strong postseason history, going 7-2 in bowls since 2011. It will be their first trip to the in-state Independence Bowl in Shreveport.

31. Music City Bowl: Iowa vs. Kentucky (Dec. 31)

No power conference team that played 12 games ran fewer plays than Iowa (724). Kentucky took almost two more snaps a game and finished with 744 plays. Both teams are 7-5 and possess stout defenses. As for the offenses … the less said, the better.

Postseason history: Kentucky rang in 2022 by beating the Hawkeyes, 20-17, in the Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats will try to end the year in similar fashion, though a combined 37 points might be asking a bit much from these two.

30. Las Vegas Bowl: Florida vs. No. 14 Oregon State (Dec. 17)

Which version of 6-6 Florida shows up? It won’t have QB Anthony Richardson after he declared for the NFL draft. The Beavers (9-3) capped a fine year by rallying past Oregon to close the regular season. They’ve only enjoyed two 10-win years in program history (2000 and 2006).

29. Liberty Bowl: Arkansas vs. Kansas (Dec. 28)

Would be a great NCAA tournament game this basketball season. Instead, it’s a pairing of 6-6 teams — though in fairness to Kansas, it’s a cause for plenty of excitement as it ends the longest bowl drought among power conference teams. The Jayhawks’ last bowl berth came in 2008.

28. Arizona Bowl: Ohio vs. Wyoming (Dec. 30)

Ohio (9-4) lost in the MAC title game to miss out on its first league championship since 1968. Wyoming (7-5) was enjoying a fine season before back-to-back losses to Boise State and Fresno State in late November. The good news for both is there’s still a chance to salvage something from those late-autumn disappointments.

27. Myrtle Beach Bowl: Connecticut vs. Marshall (Dec. 19)

It’s U-Conn.’s first bowl trip in seven years, and it’s a chance to escape New England in December. Toss in the depth the Huskies plunged to in recent years, and there should not be many teams happier to be playing anywhere this bowl season. The Thundering Herd (8-4), which drew attention for winning at Notre Dame in September, rolls in on a four-game winning streak.

Postseason history: That last U-Conn. bowl game was also against Marshall. The Thundering Herd earned a 16-10 victory in the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl.

26. Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force vs. Baylor (Dec. 22)

Air Force (9-3) allowed just 25 points during a four-game winning game streak to close the regular season, and two of its losses occurred despite yielding less than 20 points. Baylor (6-6) heads into this on a three-game slide, though it did nearly topple playoff participant TCU last month.

25. New Mexico Bowl: BYU vs. SMU (Dec. 17)

It’s the Big 12-bound Cougars’ final game as an Football Bowl Subdivision independent, and it’s a chance to see SMU senior wideout Rashee Rice (96 catches, 1,355 yards, 10 touchdowns) attempt to produce another monster day for the 7-5 Mustangs. That sure beats an afternoon at the mall on a December afternoon.

Postseason history: BYU beat SMU, 46-45, in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, the teams’ only prior postseason encounter.

24. Idaho Potato Bowl: Eastern Michigan vs. San José State (Dec. 20)

Even before the weather forecast is set, this looks like it could be a low-scoring duel. Eastern Michigan (8-4) is 95th nationally in total offense, while San José State (7-4) is 96th. (They’re a more middle-of-the-road 65th and 74th, respectively, in scoring offense.) It’s two solid teams with coaches who have done fine work reinvigorating down-on-their-luck programs.

Postseason history: Nothing like an excuse to dust off a reference to the 1987 California Bowl, a 30-27 Eastern Michigan victory in Fresno. It remains the school’s only bowl triumph.

23. Boca Raton Bowl: Liberty vs. Toledo (Dec. 20)

Toledo (8-5) is coming off a Mid-American Conference title. Liberty (8-4) … is coming off an exquisite egg-laying, a 49-14 dud at home against New Mexico State as rumors (which were later validated) swirled about then-Flames coach Hugh Freeze leaving for Auburn. Liberty has dropped three in a row, too, firmly making it one of this bowl season’s top candidates for a sluggish showing.

22. Gasparilla Bowl: Missouri vs. Wake Forest (Dec. 23)

Two teams heading in opposite directions. Missouri (6-6) won its last two (and four of its final six) to salvage something from its season and will vie for its first postseason victory since the Citrus Bowl after the 2014 season. Wake Forest was 6-1 with a double-overtime loss to Clemson, then lost four of five as its defense unraveled.

21. Pinstripe Bowl: Minnesota vs. Syracuse (Dec. 29)

It has the makings of a great running back showcase. The Golden Gophers (8-4) are at their best when Mohamed Ibrahim (1,594 yards, 19 TDs) has a heavy workload. He ranks fourth nationally in yards and third in carries (304) despite missing one game. Syracuse (7-5), which faded in the second half of the season, counters with Sean Tucker (1,060 yards, 11 TDs). In a cold-weather game in New York, both teams figure to lean on the run. The Gophers are seeking their sixth consecutive bowl victory.

Postseason history: Syracuse scratched out a 21-17 victory over the Gophers in the 2013 Texas Bowl in Houston.

20. Los Angeles Bowl: Fresno State vs. Washington State (Dec. 17)

The Mountain West champion Bulldogs have some older offensive skill position stars, with QB Jake Haener (2,616 yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs in nine games), RB Jordan Mims (1,161 yards, 16 TDs in 13 games) and WR Jalen Moreno-Cropper (1,044 yards and 5 TDs on 79 catches) all enjoying fine years. They can get Fresno to the 10-win plateau against Washington State (7-5), which is arguably the sole member of the Pac-12’s middle class this season.

19. Fenway Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Louisville (Dec. 17)

Any game that revives a rivalry trophy that’s gone dormant for almost a decade has to be at least half-decent. And with a trophy name like the Keg of Nails, there was no way the teams’ first meeting since 2013 wouldn’t have some buzz. Then came Monday, when Cincinnati poached coach Scott Satterfield from Louisville. The Bearcats (9-3) aren’t a playoff team like last year and the Cardinals (7-5) had an average season. Big deal. Not only are I-71 bragging rights on the line, but Louisville can also get the last word with a coach whose wandering eyes caused frustration in the Derby City earlier in his four-year tenure.

Scott Satterfield leaves Louisville for Cincinnati ahead of bowl showdown

18. New Orleans Bowl: South Alabama vs. Western Kentucky (Dec. 21)

A sneaky-good game. South Alabama (10-2) has won five in a row, has already clinched its first winning season since moving up to the FBS in 2012 and will try to earn its first bowl victory (it capped 6-7 seasons with bowl losses in 2014 and 2016). Western Kentucky QB Austin Reed ranks second nationally in passing yards (4,249) and is fourth in touchdown passes (36). The Hilltoppers (8-5) won three of their last four.

17. Sun Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. No. 18 UCLA (Dec. 30)

The Bruins (9-3) are aiming for their first 10-win season since 2014, while Pittsburgh (8-4) will try to win a bowl game outside of Detroit for the first time since knocking off Kentucky in Birmingham, Ala., after the 2010 season. It’s a good, solid matchup, made better by Pitt’s four-game winning streak in November.

16. Citrus Bowl: No. 17 LSU vs. Purdue (Jan. 2)

Both teams lost conference title games to undefeated teams, so there might not be much juice to this game. However, LSU (9-4) enjoyed a fine first season under Brian Kelly (besides its post-Thanksgiving no-show at Texas A&M), and no one can ever predict when Purdue (8-5) is going to uncork a randomly magical game. Maybe it’ll be in Orlando to close out the season.

15. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: Maryland vs. No. 23 N.C. State (Dec. 30)

It’s a reunion of former ACC rivals in Charlotte, the heart of ACC country. The Terrapins (7-5) and QB Taulia Tagovailoa have a potent offense even with WRs Jacob Copeland and Dontay Demus Jr. turning pro, while N.C. State (8-4) led the ACC in scoring defense (19.4 ppg) and ranks 14th nationally in the category.

Maryland will face N.C. State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl

Postseason history: First bowl meeting, though they met in the regular season every year from 1956 to 2013.

14. Military Bowl: Central Florida vs. Duke (Dec. 28)

The return of this game after a two-year hiatus delivers a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks in Annapolis, Md. John Rhys Plumlee led the Knights (9-4) to the American Athletic title game, while Riley Leonard was a central figure for the Blue Devils (8-4) in their impressive turnaround under first-year coach Mike Elko. Both Plumlee and Leonard led their respective teams in both passing and rushing.

13. ReliaQuest Bowl: Illinois vs. No. 22 Mississippi State (Jan. 2)

The former Outback Bowl brings quite a contrast to Tampa. Bret Bielema has recreated his Wisconsin days with the Illini (8-4), cultivating a run-heavy attack led by Chase Brown. And Mississippi State (8-4), well, it attempted an FBS-high 589 passes this season. That’s par for the course for a team coached by Mike Leach, who will get to coach a game in a stadium with a pirate ship.

12. Texas Bowl: Mississippi vs. Texas Tech (Dec. 28)

The opposite of the Music City Bowl. No one will pack more football into a game than the Rebels (8-4) and Red Raiders (7-5). Texas Tech has run 1,006 plays, the most in the FBS — and did it in just a dozen games. Ole Miss is no slouch in that department with 917 plays, tied for 14th nationally and behind only Texas Tech, Oklahoma State (943), Buffalo (921) and SMU (918) among teams with 12 games or less.

Postseason history: Mississippi has won all three postseason meetings between the teams, the 1986 and 1998 Independence Bowls plus the Cotton Bowl after the 2008 season.

11. Birmingham Bowl: Coastal Carolina vs. East Carolina (Dec. 27)

There’s a big caveat here. If Grayson McCall plays — the fourth-year Coastal Carolina player missed time in November with a foot injury — this could be a wildly entertaining contest. McCall, the three-time player of the year in the Sun Belt, has thrown for 2,633 yards, 24 TDs and two interceptions. East Carolina QB Holton Ahlers has 3,408 yards, 23 TDs and five picks to his credit in 2022 and is the Pirates’ career passing leader.

10. Gator Bowl: No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 South Carolina (Dec. 30)

The Irish (8-4) will be down their starting quarterback after Drew Pyne opted to transfer. South Carolina (8-4) derailed the playoff hopes of both Tennessee and Clemson, and can add a victory over another storied program to cap Shane Beamer’s second season in Columbia.

9. Cure Bowl: No. 25 Texas-San Antonio vs. No. 24 Troy (Dec. 16)

It’s the only bowl game to pit conference champions, though a Georgia-Michigan national championship would spoil that stat. Frank Harris (3,865 yards, 31 TDs passing) leads the 11-2 Roadrunners, who have won consecutive Conference USA titles, against Sun Belt champion Troy (11-2) and linebacker Carlton Martial, the all-time leader in tackles at the FBS level. Slight bonus for a 3 p.m. Eastern kickoff on a Friday. Not a bad way to get a weekend started.

8. Rose Bowl: No. 11 Penn State vs. No. 8 Utah (Jan. 2)

The Utes (10-3) return to Pasadena by virtue of beating Southern California in the Pac-12 title game, their second victory over the Trojans this year. They’ll face a Penn State team that’s been low on thrilling moments all season. The Nittany Lions met expectations, losing to Michigan and Ohio State while beating everyone else and played just one game decided by less than 10 points (the 35-31 opener at Purdue). It’s hard for a 10-2 team to be unremarkable, but Penn State has managed to be precisely that. Maybe Utah — which came up short in a 48-45 barnburner against Ohio State in last season’s Rose Bowl — can get the Nittany Lions into a close game.

7. Cotton Bowl: No. 10 Southern California vs. No. 16 Tulane (Jan. 2)

The Trojans (11-2) could have been prepping for Michigan had they handled business against Utah in the Pac-12 title game. Instead, Coach Lincoln Riley returns to AT&T Stadium, where he won a few Big 12 titles at Oklahoma. American Athletic champion Tulane (11-2) is the top Group of Five champion, and its No. 21 pass efficiency defense will be tested plenty by Caleb Williams and Co.

Postseason history: In its first postseason appearance, the Green Wave dropped a 21-12 decision to the Trojans in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1932. Southern Cal has played in 51 bowl games since then, while Tulane’s appeared in 13 more.

Heisman finalists include three QBs in CFP chase plus USC’s Caleb Williams

6. Sugar Bowl: No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State (Dec. 31)

Has 2021 Heisman winner Bryce Young played his final game for Alabama (10-2)? How about outside linebacker Will Anderson? The Crimson Tide — always loaded with next-level talent, even in a year when it isn’t its usual self — has some roster questions to sift through. Kansas State (10-3), the Big 12 champs, figures to be fired up for its first BCS/New Year’s Six appearance since the post-2012 Fiesta Bowl.

5. Alamo Bowl: No. 20 Texas vs. No. 12 Washington (Dec. 29)

Could it be a send-off for Texas RB Bijan Robinson (1,580 yards, 18 TDs rushing)? Depends on if he opts out or not. It definitely won’t be a swan song for Washington QB Michael Penix Jr., who leads the FBS with 4,354 yards passing and announced Sunday he would be back in Seattle for another season. The Longhorns (8-4) can cap an eventful and largely positive year with a win in their backyard, while the Huskies (10-2) have won six in a row — the longest winning streak for any Power Five team not named Georgia or Michigan.

Postseason history: The Longhorns claimed a 47-43 victory over the Huskies in the 2001 Holiday Bowl, erasing a 19-point deficit in the second half behind Major Applewhite. Washington enjoyed a more pedestrian 14-7 triumph against Texas in the 1979 Sun Bowl.

4. Orange Bowl: No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 6 Tennessee (Dec. 30)

Never has a game had a more appropriate name. Expect a sea of orange-clad fans in Miami as ACC champion Clemson (11-2) starts Cade Klubnik at quarterback for the first time. It’s a breakthrough moment for the Volunteers (10-2), who are playing in a BCS/New Year’s Six game for the first time since the Fiesta Bowl after the 1999 season.

Postseason history: The Tigers took a 27-14 decision in the Peach Bowl played after the 2003 season (the Peach was not part of the BCS structure).

3. Holiday Bowl: North Carolina vs. No. 15 Oregon (Dec. 28)

This might be the best quarterback matchup of the postseason. Oregon’s Bo Nix will have a month to heal up from an ankle injury that slowed him late in the regular season, while North Carolina’s Drake Maye — the ACC player of the year with 4,115 yards and 35 touchdowns — gets the spotlight as well in a game featuring two teams trying to get to 10 wins on the season.

2. Fiesta Bowl: No. 2. Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU (Dec. 31)

The Big Ten champion Wolverines (13-0) are back in the playoff semifinals for the second year in a row, while the Horned Frogs (12-1) make their playoff debut. The questions for TCU are the same as anyone who encounters Michigan: Can it hold up against the Wolverines’ offensive front, and can it find answers against the No. 3 total defense? Max Duggan and the Horned Frogs have a serious task ahead of them.

1. Peach Bowl: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Dec. 31)

On paper, it’s a glitzy matchup. Georgia’s dominant defense gets a crack at QB C.J. Stroud and Ohio State. Only the Buckeyes (11-1) got walloped their last time out against Michigan, and the Bulldogs (13-0) are more than capable of steamrolling Ohio State as well. Still, it’s no surprise TV chose this game for prime time on New Year’s Eve.

Postseason history: It feels like these two high-profile programs would have run into each other a bunch over the years, but it’s only the second time they’ve ever met. The other was on New Year’s Day 1993, when the Bulldogs earned a 21-14 victory in the Citrus Bowl.