Bowl season is upon us in all its magnificence: 40 generally meaningless games with silly names played in empty stadiums across (and sometimes off) the continent, mostly packaged in stand-alone broadcast windows so you can spend three straight weeks watching college football. Some say this is the most wonderful time of year because of holidays, gifts, parties, or time spent with loved ones. All bogus. The best thing about this time of year is that virtually whenever you want, you can see a team from the Mountain West Conference play somebody from the Sun Belt Conference in a tropical setting.
The season can be daunting, so here are some games to look out for:
Most Interesting Game: Peach Bowl, UCF vs. Auburn, January 1
This is the best game of the bowl season for three reasons:
First, this is UCF’s national championship. The fact that the 12-0 Knights were ranked no. 12 by the College Football Playoff committee after completing their undefeated season—not in the playoff, not even close—essentially tells us that it will be impossible for a team outside of the power conferences to win a national championship under the current setup. So the Peach Bowl is UCF’s everything.
Second, it’s Scott Frost’s last game as the Knights’ coach. He’s already agreed to the Nebraska job, but like a retiring heist leader leaving behind a life of crime to settle down with his family, he’s sticking around for One. Last. Job. (Movie title: FINAL FROST. Tagline: He’s still got a little bit of chill left.)
Third, UCF has perhaps the best offense in college football, leading the nation with 49.4 points per game, and Auburn has one of the best defenses, ranking fifth in defensive S&P+. It’s a spectacular stylistic showdown. Teams like the Knights get bumped down in rankings and esteem because of their lack of matchups against elite teams. If they can outscore the Tigers, we’ll know they were legit all along.
Best Grudge Match: Frisco Bowl, Louisiana Tech vs. SMU, December 20
Sonny Dykes was just hired as the new coach at SMU, and in a rare move, he’ll immediately coach the Mustangs in their bowl game. According to Yahoo, no coach has tried to pull this off in at least a decade, since Brian Kelly coached Cincinnati in the International Bowl following the 2006 season.
Why would Dykes—whose Air Raid/Bear Raid offense will presumably take some time to install as the Mare Raid at SMU—want to step in immediately? Well, before Dykes was SMU’s coach, he was Cal’s coach, and before he was Cal’s coach, he was Louisiana Tech’s coach.
There’s no reason to believe there’s much ill will here—Dykes’s departure from Louisiana Tech wasn’t particularly adversarial—or that Dykes has much knowledge of the Bulldogs’ players or style of play. None of Tech’s players played under Dykes, and head coach Skip Holtz runs a very different offense.
But this is clearly A REVENGE GAME. Dykes has (presumably) been waiting for years to face off against the program that helped him get his start as a head coach, and Louisiana Tech has (maybe) been champing at the bit to take down the coach who led them to their most recent conference championship. As if the stakes of the DXL Frisco Bowl could get any higher.
Most Over-the-Top Bowl Name Change: Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, December 21
The bowl played at Tropicana Field—a game formerly known (in chronological order) as the magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, and the St. Petersburg Bowl—is now the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. It’s already in the pantheon of all-time great bowl names.
Gasparilla is the name of a likely fictional pirate, and a very real festival held in Tampa every year. Bad Boy Mowers is a company—not owned by Diddy, sadly—that sells riding lawn mowers. Its motto is “Mow With an Attitude,” so, if you’ve long been frustrated by your inability to perform a D-Generation X crotch chop at neighbors while riding a $4,000 miniature car whose sole purpose is to prevent you from having to move your feet while trimming grass, here you go. Bad Boy claims its mowers are “BATTLE READY TOUGH,” which I think seriously overstates the threat posed by grass.
I don’t know why Bad Boy (or any company) gets into the bowl sponsorship game, but I specifically question its decision to sponsor this bowl game—played indoors, on artificial turf. Specifically, it’s a baseball field whose transformation to a football field often results in the sickliest, patchiest fake grass you’ve ever seen. A lawn care company sponsoring an artificial-turf bowl game is like a company with “outdoors” in its title sponsoring a game in a dome. (Oh, wait, that’s happening too.)
Most Tragic Bowl Name Change: Bahamas Bowl, December 22
I try not to be too attached to any brand or corporation, with one exception: Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. It is a crime against humanity that KFC remains in business, meaning people across the globe are eating its bland-ass food when they could be eating flavorful Popeyes spicy chicken along with a buttery biscuit and any number of perfect sides.
And thus, my favorite bowl game was the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. I went to the first game, in 2014, the one that resulted in the silliest ending in bowl history. I learned that Bahamians (a) love football and (b) are fiercely loyal to KFC in part because the nation did not have any Popeyes franchises.
But alas: Popeyes was sold this year to the same company that owns Burger King, and now the game is just the Bahamas Bowl—no sponsor. This is tragic. The idea of the world’s best chicken chain sponsoring a bowl in a nation with no real football presence made no sense, but neither does bowl season, so it actually made perfect sense. Bowl season should be spicy, not mild. It’s still the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl to me, dammit.
Best Mascot Matchup: New Mexico Bowl, Colorado State vs. Marshall, December 16
The Colorado State Rams and the Marshall Thundering Herd, represented by a bison, are depicted by two great American animals that excel at banging their heads into things. Let’s watch both majestic beasts smash their heads into cars:
Anyway, humans should not do this, because our brains aren’t meant for repeated impact with objects, so if you could go back 150 years and prevent them from inventing football, that would be just great.
Secretly Fun Under-the-Radar Bowl: Armed Forces Bowl, San Diego State vs. Army, December 23
This is one of two matchups from the non-power-conferences category that features two nine-win teams. San Diego State was ranked earlier in the year after beating Stanford and finished the season 10-2; Army closed the year with seven wins in its final eight games (including an all-important win over Navy) to get to 9-3.
SDSU has Rashaad Penny, who led the nation with 2,027 yards rushing, eclipsing 200 yards in five separate games. He will literally drag opponents. Meanwhile, Army’s triple-option leads to a significantly different method of running the football: Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw finished fifth in the nation in rushing, with 1,566 yards.
Best Pointsfest: Foster Farms Bowl, Arizona vs. Purdue, December 27
When the Wildcats have the ball, that means Khalil Tate is doing things. For a few weeks there, I was convinced that Tate was the best player in college football history, as he won each of the first four games in which he received extended playing time while running for 210 yards per game and averaging almost 13 yards per pass. Hey, let’s slow down a bit—before thinking about this game anymore, let’s watch a video of Khalil Tate, ridiculously talented quarterback:
The Wildcats lost three of their last four games, and Tate was held to 60 combined rushing yards in their last two. Still, he managed to finish 15th nationally in rushing despite not starting until October.
When the Boilermakers have the ball, that means head coach Jeff Brohm is doing things. The former XFL QB is a pretty good tactician. Hey, let’s slow down a bit—before thinking about this game anymore, let’s watch Jeff Brohm, XFL quarterback:
Anyway, the Wildcats defense is aggressively bad, 110th out of the 130 teams in college football in scoring defense. Eighteen of the 20 teams below them aren’t in bowls this year.
Least Exciting Game: Military Bowl, Navy vs. Virginia, December 28
Most bowl games feature winning teams. This does not—Navy and Virginia are both 6-6.
Most bowl games feature teams that got to go to a cool place. This does not—the game is played in Navy’s home stadium in Annapolis, and Virginia isn’t even leaving the DMV. (If you have to travel north to a bowl game, it’s typically a bad sign.)
Most bowl games are supposed to feel like rare matchups between teams that otherwise wouldn’t play. Navy and Virginia have played 33 times, although this is their first meeting since 1994.
Bowls are supposed to be fun finishes to exciting seasons. Navy lost six of its last seven games; Virginia lost five of its last six.
I’ll probably watch.