The fourth stanza of this season’s buffet of bowls is stuffed with seven contests – including the two CFP semifinal games – played in just two days.
The action begins on Thursday (Noon EST, ESPN) with an intriguing matchup (No. 24 Tulsa vs. Mississippi State – a 1.5-point underdog) in the Armed Forces Bowl. It’s one of three Power 5 vs. Group of 5 matchups in this set. Next up, flip over to CBS at 2pm EST for the only bowl game not on the ESPN/ABC family of networks – the Arizona Bowl – which features the MAC champ (Ball State) vs. the MWC champ (No. 22 San Jose State). The day wraps up early – at 4pm EST, ESPN – with Army trying to score its first bowl win over a Power 5 program in 35 years vs. West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl.
New Year’s Day (Friday) kicks off with (8) Cincinnati trying to prove the CFP committee made an error vs. (9) Georgia in the Peach Bowl (Noon EST, ESPN). An hour after that – at 1pm EST – don’t forget to switch over to ABC for the Citrus Bowl – Auburn is a 3.5-point underdog to (14) Northwestern.
That leads to what we’ve seen before but are anxious to see again anyway – the CFP semifinals starting with (4) Notre Dame vs. (1) Alabama in the Rose Bowl (in Texas) at 4pm EST on ESPN followed by (3) Ohio State vs. (2) Clemson in the Sugar Bowl (it’s still in Louisiana the last time we checked) at 8pm EST on ESPN.
Thursday, Dec. 31
Lockheed Martin ARMED FORCES BOWL
(24) TULSA (6-2) vs. MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-7) – AAC vs. SEC – Amon G. Carter Stadium, Ft. Worth, Texas – Noon EST – ESPN
First year: 2003
Previous names: Fort Worth (2003-05)
Most appearances: Houston (2-3), Air Force (1-4)
Last year: Tulane 30 – Southern Miss 13
Tulsa is 10-11 in bowl action. It last went bowling in 2016, destroying Central Michigan 55-10 in the Miami Beach Bowl. It last beat a Power 5 team in bowl play in the 2012 Liberty Bowl, a 31-17 win over Iowa State.
Mississippi State is 13-10 in bowl play. It fell 38-28 to Louisville in last season’s Music City Bowl. The most recent win came in the 2017 Gator Bowl, a 31-27 victory over Louisville.
This is Tulsa and Mississippi State’s first football meeting.
Line: Tulsa -1.5
While it’s no surprise that Mike Leach has managed to take a Mississippi State offense that ranked No. 109 in passing yards per game in 2019 to a No. 16 national rank this season, it’s perplexing that it has struggled to score points. The Bulldogs, cranking out 311 air yards per game, are only averaging 20.7 points per game – that’s No. 109 nationally and No. 13 in the SEC. It’s an issue that may not get resolved vs. a Tulsa D currently ranked No. 23 nationally in scoring and is No. 22 vs. the pass. It’s the same unit that held SMU (averaging 318 passing yards per game, No. 14 in the FBS) to a mere 200 air yards earlier this season. What adds to the intrigue is a matchup between a Power program (hailing from the most powerful power league) that has only managed to win three games and a Group of 5 program that has only lost two games – a 16-7 loss in the opener to (21) Oklahoma State and then a 27-24 defeat at (6) Cincinnati in a conference championship game. The Armed Forces Bowl has “worth watching” stamped all over it.
Tulsa will be without junior LB Zaven Collins (tied for the third-most interceptions in the FBS) who, after being awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (the best defensive player), declared for the NFL draft and announced he will opt out of the bowl game.
Players to Watch
Tulsa: sophomore S Kendarin Ray (#1) (leads the team in tackles), junior DL Jaxon Player (#90) (nine tackles for a loss and three sacks this season)
Mississippi State: freshman QB Will Rogers (#2) (No. 9 in the FBS in completion percentage), freshman CB Emmanuel Forbes (#13) (tied for the third-most interceptions in the FBS)
BALL STATE (6-1, MAC Champions) vs. (22) SAN JOSE STATE (7-0, MWC Champions) – MAC vs. MWC – Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz. – 2pm EST – CBS
First year: 2015
Most appearances: Nevada (2-0)
Last year: Wyoming 38 – Georgia State 17
Ball State is 0-7 in bowl action. Its most recent appearance came in the 2013 GoDaddy.com Bowl, a 23-20 loss to Arkansas State.
San Jose State is 7-3 in bowl play. It hasn’t been bowling since downing Georgia State 27-16 in the 2015 Cure Bowl, also its fourth-consecutive bowl win.
This is the first ever football meeting between Ball State and San Jose State. The Cardinals have never beaten a current member of the MWC (0-3).
Line: San Jose State -10
Other than the Sugar Bowl, this is the only bowl game featuring two conference champions. Ball State and San Jose State share the same offensive strength – throwing the ball. Where the Cardinals finished the season ranked No. 26 nationally in passing yards per game, the Spartans came in at No. 20. What separates the two is success defending the pass. Where San Jose State has been “ok” (No. 60 in the FBS vs. the pass), Ball State has not (No. 119 vs. the pass). Only eight teams in the nation have been more generous through the air than the Cardinals.
Players to Watch
Ball State: senior QB Drew Plitt (#9) (No. 17 in the FBS in passing yards per game)
San Jose State: junior DL Cade Hall (#92) (tied for the most sacks in the FBS), senior QB Nick Starkel (#17) (No. 16 in the FBS in passer rating), senior WR Bailey Gaither (#84) (No. 14 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)
AutoZone LIBERTY BOWL
WEST VIRGINIA (5-4) vs. ARMY (9-2)– Big 12 vs. Independents – Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn. – 4pm EST – ESPN
First year: 1959
Most appearances: Arkansas (2-3)
Last year: (21) Navy 20 – Kansas State 17
West Virginia is 15-22 in bowl play. It last went bowling in 2018, losing 34-18 to then (18) Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl, also its third-consecutive bowl loss. The most recent win came in the 2015 Cactus Bowl, a narrow 43-42 victory over Arizona State.
Army is 6-2 in bowl action. It most recently appeared in the 2018 Armed Forces Bowl, destroying Houston 70-14. Its last bowl win over a current Power 5 member came in the 1985 Peach Bowl, a 31-29 victory over Illinois.
These two have only met three times previously but not since 1961. Army leads the all-time series 2-1, all three games were played at West Point.
Line: West Virginia -7
There are two stellar matchups in this one. First up, it’s Army’s triple option offense (currently ranked No. 4 in the nation in rushing) taking on a West Virginia D ranked No. 24 nationally vs. the run. It’s the same defense that held four of its nine opponents to fewer than 80 rushing yards this season. Next up, it’s the Mountaineers’ passing attack (ranked No. 27 in the FBS and No. 2 in the Big 12) taking on a Black Knight D ranked No. 1 – in the entire nation – vs. the pass. Though both these programs are more recognizable by their respective offensive strengths, in 2020 they boast two of the top defenses in college football – Army is ranked No. 2 in scoring while WVU is No. 22 nationally and No. 1 in the Big 12.
West Virginia will be without senior LB Tony Fields II (tied for No. 22 in the FBS in total tackles) who has declared for the NFL draft and will not participate in the bowl game.
Players to Watch
West Virginia: junior QB Jarret Doege (#2) (No. 21 in the FBS in passing yards per game), junior RB Leddie Brown (#4) (tied for No. 21 in the FBS in rushing yards per game)
Army: senior RB Sandon McCoy (#3) (tied for No. 18 in the FBS in rushing TDs)
Friday, Jan. 1
Chick-fil-A PEACH BOWL
(9) GEORGIA (7-2) vs. (8) CINCINNATI (9-0, AAC Champions) – SEC vs. AAC – Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga. – Noon EST – ESPN
First year: 1968
Previous names: Chick-fil-A (2006-13)
Most appearances: Clemson (3-5)
Last year: CFP Semi-Final Game (1) LSU 63 – (4) Oklahoma 28
Georgia is 32-21-3 in bowl play. It beat then (8) Baylor 26-14 in last season’s Sugar Bowl.
Cincinnati is 9-9 in bowl action. It downed Boston College 38-6 in last year’s Birmingham Bowl, also its second-straight bowl victory over a Power 5 member.
These two have met twice previously but not in 44 years. The most recent meeting came during the 1976 regular season (a 31-17 Georgia win in Athens), before that it was 1942 (a 35-13 Bulldog win in Cincinnati).
Line: Georgia -7
This is an intriguing matchup between two teams with elite defenses. The only difference is one roster is full of blue-chippers while the other is not. Georgia is ranked No. 21 nationally in scoring D and is No. 1 in the FBS vs. the run. Its’ weakness is vs. the pass, where it comes in at No. 91. This sets up ever so well vs. a Cincinnati offense ranked No. 15 nationally in scoring, No. 14 in rushing yards per game and a not-as-impressive No. 49 in passing. On the other side of the ball, it’s the Bulldogs’ solid – though not all world – offense (No. 32 in scoring, No. 44 in rushing and No. 60 in passing) taking on a stifling Bearcat D that is No. 7 in scoring, No. 19 vs. the run and No. 21 vs. the pass. Despite getting left out of the CFP bracket, this is Cincinnati’s golden opportunity to prove that not only can it hang with top-tier SEC talent – it can beat it. This is one of the most exciting matchups of the postseason.
Georgia will be without junior DB Eric Stokes (tied for the third-most interceptions in the FBS) who has declared for the NFL draft and will not participate in the bowl game.
Players to Watch
Georgia: sophomore RB Zamir White (#3) (tied for No. 18 in the FBS in rushing TDs)
Cincinnati: junior QB Desmond Ridder (#9) (tied for No. 10 in the FBS in rushing TDs), junior DE Myjai Sanders (#21) (tied for No. 17 in the FBS in sacks)
Vrbo CITRUS BOWL
AUBURN (6-4) vs. (14) NORTHWESTERN (6-2) – SEC vs. Big Ten – Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla. – 1pm EST – ABC
First year: 1947
Previous names: Tangerine (1947-82), Citrus (1983-2002), Capital One (2003-14)
Most appearances: Georgia (4-1-1), Michigan (4-2), Florida (2-4), Penn State (2-4)
Last year: (9) Alabama 35 – (17) Michigan 16
Auburn is 24-18-2 in bowl play. It fell 31-24 to then (16) Minnesota in last season’s Outback Bowl. The most recent win came in the 2018 Music City Bowl, a 63-14 beatdown of Purdue.
Northwestern is 5-10 in bowl action. It most recently went bowling in 2018, upsetting then (20) Utah 31-20 in the Holiday Bowl.
The only other meeting between these two came in the 2009/10 Outback Bowl, a narrow 38-35 win for Auburn.
Line: Northwestern -3.5
Neither Northwestern nor Auburn have had much success finding the endzone this season. Where the Wildcats are averaging 23 points per game (No. 96 in the FBS), the Tigers are averaging 26 (No. 86). It’s a weakness that’s not likely to improve against the opposing team’s defense – Northwestern is No. 5 – in the entire nation – in scoring D (giving up 16 points per game) while Auburn is at No. 35 (allowing 24 points per game). With lots of old-world charm, expect this one to be hard fought and low scoring.
With the departure of Gus Malzahn, Auburn will be led in the Citrus Bowl by interim head coach Kevin Steele who has served as the Tigers’ DC since 2016. Moving into next season, Bryan Harsin – who has been the head coach at Boise State since 2014 – will take over the reins at Auburn.
Players to Watch
Northwestern: freshman DB Brandon Joseph (#16) (No. 1 in the FBS in interceptions)
Auburn: junior LB Zakoby McClain (#9) (No. 6 in the FBS in total tackles)
ROSE BOWL GAME – CFP Semifinal Game
(4) NOTRE DAME (10-1) vs. (1) ALABAMA (11-0) – ACC vs. SEC – AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – 4pm EST – ESPN
First year: 1902
Previous names: Tournament East-West football game (1902, 1916-22)
Most appearances: USC (25-9)
Last year: (7) Oregon 28 – (11) Wisconsin 27
This year’s Rose Bowl has been moved from its home in Pasadena, California to Arlington, Texas due to “rising COVID-19 cases in Southern California.” It marks the first time the game has relocated since the 1941/42 season when it was played in North Carolina over fears of a west coast attack after Pearl Harbor.
Notre Dame is 19-19 in bowl play. It beat Iowa State 33-9 in last season’s Camping World Bowl.
Alabama is 42-26-3 in bowl action. It downed then (17) Michigan 35-16 in last year’s Citrus Bowl.
A rematch of the 2012/13 BCS Championship (a 42-14 win for Alabama), the 1974/75 Orange Bowl (a 13-11 win for Notre Dame) and the 1973 Sugar Bowl (a 24-23 Irish win), these two have met seven times previously. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 5-2 but the two have split the last four.
Line: Alabama -20
While a lot of the chatter about this matchup rightly focuses on how Notre Dame’s defense will manage against Alabama’s elite ariel attack (No. 5 in the FBS) it would be a mistake to underplay the importance of the running game. Two key stats that separate the Irish’s win over Clemson (which shares similar statistical DNA with Alabama) and its loss to the Tigers are rushing yards gained and rushing yards allowed. First up, in the win Notre Dame earned 208 ground yards (in line with its season average of 218 yards per game). Compare that to the 44 total rushing yards it gained in the loss. Not only was that a season low, it’s the fewest ground yards the Irish have managed since Nov. 8, 2014 when they posted 41 rushing yards in a 55-31 loss at Arizona State.
Next up, in the win, Notre Dame held Clemson (which has averaged 164 rushing yards per game in 2020) to a mere 34 ground yards. It’s the fewest it allowed all season. Compare that to the loss when the Irish gave up 219 rushing yards. It was only the second opponent – all season – which managed to hang up 200-plus on the Irish. Though a lot of stars will need to align for Notre Dame to pull off a stunning upset vs. Alabama, rushing for 200-plus yards and holding the Tide to fewer than 100 ground yards could set the stage.
Players to Watch
Notre Dame: sophomore RB Kyren Williams (#23) (tied for No. 11 in the FBS in rushing TDs)
Alabama: junior QB Mac Jones (#10) (No. 1 in the FBS in passer rating), senior RB Najee Harris (#22) (No. 1 in the FBS in rushing TDs), senior WR DeVonta Smith (#6) (No. 2 in the FBS in receiving yards per game and receiving TDs)
Allstate SUGAR BOWL – CFP Semifinal Game
(3) OHIO STATE (6-0) vs. (2) CLEMSON (10-1) – Big Ten vs. ACC – Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La. – 8pm EST – ESPN
First year: 1935
Most appearances: Alabama (9-7)
Last year: (5) Georgia 26 – (8) Baylor 14
Ohio State is 25-26 in bowl play. It fell to then (3) Clemson 29-23 in last season’s Fiesta Bowl/CFP semifinal. Its most recent win came the year before, in 2018, when it downed then (9) Washington 28-23 in the Rose Bowl.
Clemson is 25-21 in bowl action. Prior to last year’s 42-25 loss to (1) LSU in the CFP title game and 29-23 win over (2) Ohio State in the semifinal, it triumphed 44-16 over then (1) Alabama in the 2018 CFP Championship game.
A rematch of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl/CFP semifinal, the 2016 Fiesta Bowl/CFP semifinal, the 2013/14 Orange Bowl and the 1978 Gator Bowl (all wins for Clemson). Ohio State has never beaten the Tigers.
Line: Clemson -7.5
This one features one of the biggest mismatches, at least on paper, of bowl season. While yes, Ohio State is undefeated and ok, it’s beaten its six opponents by an average of three touchdowns – the Buckeyes have a dirty little secret. Ohio State’s defense is ranked No. 103 nationally and No. 14 (dead last) in the Big Ten vs. the pass. And it’s not like the Bucks have squared off with the “Murder’s Row” of passing teams this season. The best passing attack they faced was Indiana – averaging 258 passing yards per game (No. 39 in the FBS). How did it go? Well, it wasn’t pretty – the Hoosiers hung up a season-high 491 air yards in what was Ohio State’s narrowest victory of the season. It’s the same Buckeye D that gave up 232 passing yards to Rutgers (the No. 98 unit in the FBS, averaging 195) and 224 to Northwestern (No. 106, averaging 186).
It all leads to an obvious question – what will the OSU defense look like against Clemson – averaging 344 passing yards (No. 7 in the FBS)? These are the same Tigers that hung up 439 air yards on Notre Dame (No. 3 in the ACC vs. the pass) and 436 on Pitt (No. 7 in the ACC vs. the pass) in back-to-back appearances in November. Look for Ohio State to either defy its own numbers, or – to be exposed.
Players to Watch
Ohio State: junior WR Chris Olave (#2) (No. 10 in the FBS in receiving yards per game, who is expected back after missing the Big Ten championship), sophomore WR Garrett Wilson (#5) (No. 14 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), senior RB Trey Sermon (#8) (No. 14 in the FBS in rushing yards per game)
Clemson: senior RB Travis Etienne (#9) (tied for No. 8 in rushing TDs), junior QB Trevor Lawrence (#16) (No. 11 in the FBS in passing yards per game)