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Bowl season! We tell you which bowl games are worth watching and why

Two fans represent the perfect blend of saltiness and cheese that makes Cheez-Its™ America’s favorite cracker snack. This is not sponsored content, we just really like Cheez-Its.

Two fans represent the perfect blend of saltiness and cheese that makes Cheez-Its™ America’s favorite cracker snack. This is not sponsored content, we just really like Cheez-Its.
Photo: Getty Images

Christmas approaches quickly, but college football fans are acutely aware that the real late December holiday is bowl season. Just when visions of the CFB content stream finally slowing to a crawl is dancing in your head, the NCAA presents the most meaningless postseason tradition in American sports. Aside from the top four teams playing for a championship on New Years’ Eve, bowl season is nothing but an excellent opportunity for large brands to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a game that will be lucky to sell out half its seating capacity and for schools to make sure their athletes don’t spend Christmas with their families.

Sure, we’ve got the classics and the tradition that comes along with them, and the New Year’s Six bowls are taken more seriously by the top teams, but still — coaches leave teams high and dry, star players planning on entering the draft sit out to avoid injury, and with 42 bowl games this year for every team with a record that ended above .500 (and also 6-7 Hawaii), it’s clearly all about the money.

But don’t get me wrong — I live for bowl season, and not just because the college football gods bestow one extra week of games on the fans just as we’re about to enter withdrawal. In the past few years, as sponsors’ blatant money grab has created some truly ridiculous bowl names, the bowls themselves have sort of embraced their own ridiculousness. The Belk Bowl Twitter started it all, bringing a unique self-awareness and hilarity to the verified account era, and its direct descendant, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, has fully embraced the insanity that there is a Duke’s Mayo Bowl and has thus become America’s favorite bowl game.

Last year’s bowl season saw replacement Gatorade showers of Cheez-Its (guess which bowl!), a fistfight at the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (you guys didn’t have to take the name that seriously), and, of course, a universal demand to see the winning coach of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl doused in the game’s namesake. With the amount of chaos that has already reigned during this year’s CFB season, we’re hoping that the bowls outdo themselves this year in absurdity. With that being said, we were also feeling the withdrawals of college football, and have decided to draft a lineup of the bowl games we’re most excited to watch (picking-teams-for-dodgeball-style, naturally).

Jesse: I get the first pick? Thanks! I’m not going to go off the board at No. 1, because both of these semifinal matchups are good and worth watching… although I once again question the college football-industrial complex putting playoff games on New Year’s Eve. There’s one game that belongs on New Year’s Eve, and I don’t mean one annual bowl game. I mean one game, ever: the 2000 Independence Bowl between Mississippi State and Texas A&M, played in a blinding snowstorm in Shreveport. But I’ll go with the Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31, 3:30 ET, ESPN) between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati. This isn’t a typical top-ranked Alabama team, as we’ve seen both the Auburn and Georgia games, so they’re interesting, and we finally get to see what a G5 team can do on the biggest stage (probably what Power 5 teams do on the biggest stage, lose badly to Alabama, but still).

Grace: New Year’s Eve is bad, but I had a family wedding a couple years ago on semifinal day. I had my phone propped up on the table streaming ESPN during the champagne toasts. Anyways, I’ll obviously pick the other semifinal game, the Orange Bowl (Dec. 31, 7:30 ET, ESPN) between No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia. I’m thrilled to see a new B1G face in the playoff, and I’m interested to see whether the Dawgs can bounce back from that beating that Alabama gave them. Michigan’s run-heavy offense going up against Georgia’s famed defensive line will be a great matchup, and I’m interested to see whether Michigan’s secondary can cover those larger-than-life Georgia receivers. Should be a fun one.

Jesse: New Year’s Eve weddings are great generally because it’s a guaranteed great time on a party night that so often does not live up to expectations. Speaking of not living up to expectations, I’ll go for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, 5:00 ET, ESPN) against the Utah team that twice destroyed Oregon, which of course is the team that gave the Buckeyes their first loss. I don’t think it’s full transitive property, but these are two really good teams and the Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl.

Grace: Ah, I wanted Utah! But I can’t let the Irish get away, so my next selection is the Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1, 1:00 ET, ESPN). Desperately hoping that the afternoon slot gives me enough time to recover from NYE, but with a new head coach at the helm and a player-led program finding its groove, I’m excited to watch Notre Dame play a solid Big 12 team. The Cowboys might be out for blood after that juuuuust-missed touchdown against Baylor, but the Irish definitely have something to prove as well.

Jesse: The Fiesta Bowl is a morning local-time start, and that feels wrong. At the same time, what feels extremely right is shaking off the New Year’s hangover with Iowa and Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC), running the football and punting and seeing who can win by doing the absolute least, four words that are what I am all about on New Year’s Day. (Also, I somehow always wind up watching the Citrus Bowl.)

Grace: OK, underdog pick early on here, but I want Purdue-Tennessee in the Music City Bowl (Dec. 30, 3:00 ET, ESPN). The Spoilermakers were one of my favorite teams to watch this year (barring the OSU game), and Tennessee is on a weird, wild, and wonderful journey right now that could finally pull the Vols program out of a slump. This may genuinely be one of the best games to watch over the next few weeks.

Jesse: I think Tennessee has a real challenge to shake that program slump, but at least they’re interesting now, and I like that pick. I’m going to stick with the same day and snag the Peach Bowl (Dec. 30, 7:00 ET, ESPN) between Michigan State and Pittsburgh, or as it might better be known, the Kenny Bowl, with Kenneth Walker III running for the Spartans and Kenny Pickett throwing for the Panthers.

Grace: I woke up feeling the cheesiest and will be choosing the Cheez-It Bowl (Dec. 29, 5:45 ET, ESPN) next. This is a real chance for Clemson to prove that this was just a rebuilding year and that they’ll be a threat come fall, or a chance for Matt Campbell and the Cyclones to make a real mark outside their conference and be taken a little more seriously, especially with the upcoming Big 12 realignment going on. Also I love Cheez-Its.

ARE YOU HUNGRY YET

ARE YOU HUNGRY YET
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Jesse: I was hoping to snag that one because Clemson will be entertaining either way. Also endlessly entertaining? Ole Miss, which faces Baylor in the Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:45 ET, ESPN). I’m no fan of the Bears, but I’m glad they won the Big 12 because I could not bear to watch more of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State this season… which might be a giveaway that there’s another game I’m leaving on the board for you.

Grace: Which I will gladly take. Oregon and Oklahoma face off in the Alamo Bowl (Dec. 29, 9:15 ET, ESPN), which could just as easily be called the interim coach bowl. Both dramatically abandoned by their head coaches after disappointing ends to their seasons, the once-playoff hopefuls will face off and I honestly have pretty much no clue how this one’s going to go.

Jesse: I’m extremely cool with Oregon-Oklahoma not being a playoff game this year. I kind of wish Wake Forest was in the mix, though, because they’ve been constant fun. They face Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl (Dec. 31, 11:00 a.m. ET, ESPN) and that ought to be the best football game played in Jacksonville this year.

Grace: Might be too early to be picking this one — or maybe I’m just way too into the weird parts of this sport — but I want Coastal Carolina and Northern Illinois in the Cure Bowl (Dec. 17, 6:00 ET, ESPN2). You may be thinking to yourself — what’s wrong with you?? But NIU won the MAC (the funniest conference in CFB) and Coastal had a solid season in 2021 despite their close loss to App State, although it wasn’t quite as exciting as their 2020. Also, it’s the first day of bowl season, so what better way is there to kick things off?

Jesse: Phew. When you said “early,” I looked at the top part of the calendar and saw a game that I’m excited about and kind of forgot to snag while we were doing so many post-Christmas games. Me, I like the winter solstice, and will spend it at the altar of the PUNT GOD Matt Araiza in the Frisco Bowl (Dec. 21, 7:30 ET, ESPN) with San Diego State against UTSA, our beloved Roadrunners. I’m so glad that these teams who brought so much joy this year get to be in a bowl together, and also that the Roadrunners are good and should make SDSU punt a lot. Meep meep!

Grace: Well. You may have just gotten the best pick of the draft with that — I can’t believe I didn’t put it together that Punt God would be facing the Roadrunners! If that’s not 2021 CFB boiled down to its most potent strain, I don’t know what is. OK, I’ll take the Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, 12:00 ET, ESPN2), with two teams that had really strong starts to their season facing off after sort of limping to the end. Penn State and Arkansas made it to a New Year’s Day game, which both teams should be counting as a victory, and it’s the first ever matchup between the Razorbacks and the Nittany Lions. Love the conference crossover there.

Jesse: I like Arkansas, but can’t decide if watching Penn State is fun or torturous, so let me know how that turns out! I’m going to stick with the early part of bowl season and pick the New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 18, 2:15 ET, ESPN) between Fresno State and UTEP. We’ve seen the Bulldogs beat UCLA and challenge Oregon this year, while the Miners have a little less of a resume but have made quite a rebound from being one of the worst teams in the sport.

Grace: To continue on the G5 train, I want the Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 18, 11:00 ET, ESPN), where the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers — one of the most exciting offenses in college football — will face Appalachian State. Both teams lost by one score in their conference title games, and I’m excited to watch standout QB Bailey Zappe go up against a solid Mountaineers defense on a Saturday morning.

Jesse: Western Kentucky and App State playing in a beach town feels wrong. North Carolina and South Carolina playing in Charlotte feels right. That’s why I’m taking the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (Dec. 30, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN) and unsure whether I’d rather see Mack Brown or Shane Beamer get a bucket of mayonnaise dumped on his head. Okay, fine, it’s Mack Brown.

Grace: I know — no hilltops or mountains to speak of in Boca Raton. I’ll take Houston and Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 28, 12:00 ET, ESPN) next. I’m not sure what prompted this matchup after Auburn hung around with Alabama for four OTs and Houston got suffocated by Cincinnati, but you never know — if Auburn does nothing else, they’ll surprise you. This surprise might be a loss.

Jesse: Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl has big potential for “we just want to go home and see our families” energy, and Houston might be better than the Tigers anyway, so I’m with you. In the game I’m picking next, I know nothing about the teams other than that Deion Sanders coaches Jackson State. They’re playing South Carolina State in the Celebration Bowl (Dec. 18, Noon ET, ABC), which is always a better experience than many of the bigger bowls.

Grace: We’re getting down to some slim pickings here, but I’ll take Louisiana vs. Marshall in the New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 18, 9:15 ET, ESPN). I hope they let the kids go out on Bourbon Street. Also, Notre Dame plays Marshall early next year and I want to scope them out against a ranked team here.

Jesse: We’ve each got 10 now, and that’s still not even half the bowl games, but at this point we can rapid-fire. Note to our editors: please put a photo of a jubilant Wisconsin here to appease our Badger editor-in-chief for us not having picked the Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 30, 10:30, ESPN) against Arizona State. A couple other bowls I had on my board but didn’t pick yet: Kansas State-LSU in the Texas Bowl (Jan. 4, 9:00 ET, ESPN) because a bowl after New Year’s is always a good chance for weirdness and LSU hasn’t given a flying fuck about anything for months; the Fenway Bowl (Dec. 29, 11:00 a.m. ET, ESPN) and Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 29, 2:15 ET, ESPN) feature Virginia-SMU and Virginia Tech-Maryland on Northeast baseball fields, which is what their seasons deserve; and the Gasparilla Bowl (Dec. 23, 7:00 ET, ESPN) will be a great chance to point and laugh at Florida, or point and laugh at UCF for losing to this version of Florida.

Grace: My love for coaching drama forces me to pick Miami (who may have just had the shadiest coaching change of all time) and Washington State (remember Nick Rolovich?) in the Sun Bowl (Dec. 31, 12:00 ET, CBS). I’ll take the brand new Frisco Football Classic (Dec. 21, 7:30 ET, ESPN) that puts North Texas, the only team to defeat UTSA this year, up against Miami (OH). I’ll take UAB and BYU (battle of the letters) in the Independence Bowl (Dec. 18, 3:30 ET, ABC), although this matchup seems almost disrespectful to BYU, who ended in the top 15. I’ll pick the Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 22, 8:00 ET, ESPN) because I forget that Missouri is in the SEC and I think it’ll be fun to watch the Army triple option against their defense. I also hope to see Liberty lose in the LendingTree Bowl (Dec. 18, 5:45 ET, ESPN) against Eastern Michigan, who would be getting their first bowl win in over 30 years.

Jesse: You waited it out, including my sudden five-pick barrage, and cornered the market on Miamis. Fantastic! I need to circle back to the Liberty Bowl (Dec. 28, 6:45 ET, ESPN) between Mississippi State and Texas Tech because it’s Mike Leach going up against the Red Raiders. Also, it doesn’t quite feel like bowl season – specifically the lunatic part of bowl season – until we see the blue field in the Potato Bowl (Dec. 21, 3:30 ET, ESPN), this year between Kent State and Wyoming. Also, I need to shout out more baseball stadium bowl games, the Holiday Bowl (Dec. 28, 8:00 ET, Fox) between N.C. State and UCLA, and the Guaranteed Rate Bowl (Dec. 28, 10:15 ET, ESPN) featuring Minnesota and West Virginia.

Grace: OK, I’ll pick the Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 17, Noon ET, ESPN) next because I’m so happy that the kids from Toledo and Middle Tennessee get a nice free trip to the Caribbean. They’ll be so shocked by the beautiful weather that the game might not even get played. We already have an Armed Forces Bowl, but I guess we need a Military Bowl (Dec. 27, 2:30 ET, ESPN) too, where Boston College has fallen so far in the ACC that they’ll face Eastern Carolina. I’d actually love to know who will be watching the Arizona Bowl (Dec. 31, 2:00 ET, streaming) between Central Michigan and Boise State on semifinals day, but love the faith in their fans to tune in! Oregon State-Utah State will be an interesting regional P5-G5 matchup in the LA Bowl (Dec. 18, 7:30 ET, ABC).

Jesse: That leaves us with a few games that neither of us wants, and I think I need to give special mention to the bowl game that I am absolutely sure I will watch zero seconds of. No offense to Ball State and Georgia State, who I’m sure are lovely football teams that I do not remember watching at all this year, but the Camellia Bowl (Dec. 25, 2:30 ET, ESPN) is something for Applebee’s to put on a couple of TVs just so that not every TV in the place is tuned to the same NBA game. And yes, the last time I was at Applebee’s was on a Christmas afternoon — they have a deal for movie tickets at the theater across the street when you get lunch there, it’s great. Do you have an anti-pick left?

Grace: The one day/time that is possibly worse to have a game on than Christmas is 8:00 on Christmas Eve night. The Hawai’i Bowl (Dec. 24, 8:00 ET, ESPN) is literally asking — nay, BEGGING — us not to watch Hawai’i and Memphis face off in the Aloha State. Come on guys. Who made that decision??

Jesse: Only three other games left, which are unappealing but not so much as to be our least desirable bowls of the season. Have fun out there in the Myrtle Beach Bowl (Dec. 20, 2:30 ET, ESPN), Tulsa and Old Dominion, the Quick Lane Bowl (Dec. 27, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN), Western Michigan and Nevada, and the First Responder Bowl (Dec. 28, 3:15 ET, ESPN), Air Force and Louisville. Hope the swag bags are good!

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