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Tiers of football joy: Breaking down all 41 college bowl games

Western Kentucky wide receiver Nicholas Norris kisses the Conference USA championship trophy as they celebrate in the locker room after defeating Louisiana Tech 58-44 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016 at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowlin
Western Kentucky wide receiver Nicholas Norris kisses the Conference USA championship trophy as they celebrate in the locker room after defeating Louisiana Tech 58-44 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016 at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)
Michael Noble Jr., AP

College football's bowl season is upon us, and it's time to separate the truly fantastic games from the not-so-compelling ones.

We've separated college football's bowl games into four tiers from bottom to top. They were rated by the quality of the matchup, the predicted competitiveness of the game as well as how fun the games should be to watch. Here's the four tiers of the college football's bowl games:


Tier 4: It's football, right?

This category is the bottom tier of bowl games. These are the games that critics of the bowl system, myself included, point to in saying that college football's postseason is broken. But that's a topic for another article.

That being said, these are college football games, and we're about to hit the long drought between January and August. We might as well enjoy these games for what they are, even if they're not the most compelling on the bowl schedule.

New Mexico Bowl: 8-4 New Mexico vs. 6-6 UTSA

Let's face it: This is a glorified extra home game for the Lobos, and not a particularly appealing one at that. At least it's not last year's Arizona Bowl, which was pretty much an extra conference game for the Mountain West.

Cure Bowl: 6-6 UCF vs. 7-5 Arkansas State

Given that this game is in Orlando, you could go to Disney World or Universal Studios as part of your trip to see this game. Of course if you get stuck in a long line you might miss part or all of the game. Seeing as the best win for either team was Arkansas State's win over Troy, perhaps that's a risk you'll be OK with taking.

New Orleans Bowl: 6-6 Southern Miss vs. 6-6 Louisiana-Lafayette

Actually going to New Orleans to watch this game would be fun. Still, watching two teams who barely made it into the postseason doesn't make this must-watch football. But if you need an excuse to go to the Big Easy on a Saturday night without breaking the bank to go to the Sugar Bowl, here's one.

Hawaii Bowl: 6-7 Hawaii vs. 8-4 Middle Tennessee State

Here's one of the too many bowl games involving a team with a losing record. Hawaii has one of the worst defenses in the FBS, giving up more than 450 yards per game. At the very least we should see MTSU's Brian Stockstill (2,801 yards passing and 27 TDs), I'Tavius Mathers (1,504 yards rushing and 16 TDs) and Richie James (1,463 yards receiving and 11 TDs) tear up the Rainbow Warriors.

St. Petersburg Bowl: 6-6 Miami (Ohio) vs. 5-7 Mississippi State

This is another bowl game that had to turn to a team with a losing record. What else is there to say?

Quick Lane Bowl: 6-6 Maryland vs. 6-6 Boston College

I thought the point of bowl games was to see fun football games in nice, sunny locations. This one is in Detroit between two 6-6 teams. So, what is the point of bowl season, again?

Independence Bowl: 6-6 NC State vs. 6-6 Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt getting bowl eligible is probably more indicative of how weak the SEC is this year than how good the Commodores are. NC State came within a missed field goal of beating Clemson in what would have been the upset of the year.

Heart of Dallas Bowl: 6-5 Army vs. 5-7 North Texas

This game is the poster child for everything wrong with the bowl system.

Army and North Texas already played each other this season, and the Mean Green won 35-18. Of all the games to have a rematch of in bowl season, why on earth is this one happening? That's not to mention that North Texas has a losing record.

Military Bowl: 10-3 Temple vs. 6-6 Wake Forest

Temple upsets Navy, wins 10 games and the American Athletic Conference championship, and this is what the Owls are rewarded with? A game against a mediocre ACC team that got beat 17-14 by Boston College in its last game? This bowl is a waste. Both Temple and college football fans deserve better than this.

Cactus Bowl: 10-2 Boise State vs. 6-6 Baylor

The wheels have fallen off Baylor's wagon after losing the last six games in a row, and there's been a lot going on both on and off the field. Will the Bears even put up a fight with the coaching staff on its way out? I fully expect the duo of Boise State QB Brett Rypien and RB Jeremy McNichols to tear Baylor apart.

Birmingham Bowl: 10-2 South Florida vs. 6-6 South Carolina

Is there really no better bowl for a 10-win team than this? The Bulls should be a heavy favorite with QB Quinton Flowers beating the Gamecocks with his arm and his legs as he has almost 4,000 yards of total offense and 37 total touchdowns.

Liberty Bowl: 7-5 Georgia vs. 6-6 TCU

Other than big names, this bowl doesn't have much going for it. Both of these teams are massive disappointments as both were ranked in the AP preseason poll. The only question to be answered in this bowl game is which one is the greater disappointment.


Tier 3: Good football … but not great

The games here are actually good and worth watching. These aren't games that college football fans should drop everything to see, but with so little college football left this season, fans should watch them.

Celebration Bowl: 9-2 North Carolina Central vs. 11-1 Grambling State

This is the only game to feature FCS teams, so some might dismiss this game prematurely. But both of these teams are conference champions. All three of both teams' losses came to FBS teams, meaning they both went unbeaten in their division. This game is worth a look.

Miami Beach Bowl: 6-6 Central Michigan vs. 9-3 Tulsa

Yes, this game features a 6-6 team, but Central Michigan did knock off Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, Tulsa came within a touchdown of beating Houston and just two points from beating Navy.

Poinsettia Bowl: 8-4 BYU vs. 8-5 Wyoming

This game is the first between the two since BYU left the Mountain West for independence, so there's some intrigue there. Cougar fans will be able to see Tanner Mangum start for the first time this season after Taysom Hill's season ended against Utah State — again. BYU's defense will be challenged by Wyoming's Brian Hill, who has 1,767 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on the season.

But let's face it: Not many people outside of the old Mountain West will care much about this game.

Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl: 8-4 Idaho vs. 7-5 Colorado State

This is Idaho's first bowl game since 2009 and only the third bowl game in the Vandals' history. And with Idaho moving down to the FCS in 2018, this could be Idaho's last. Meanwhile, Colorado State may not have had a great season, but it did beat MWC champ San Diego State 63-31 in its last game.

Bahamas Bowl: 7-5 Eastern Michigan vs. 9-3 Old Dominion

Old Dominion is another FCS team that seems to have made the transition to the FBS well. It only took four years for the Monarchs to win nine games as a Sun Belt team and to go to their first bowl game. It's more surprising to see Eastern Michigan in a bowl game. The last and only other time the Eagles were in a bowl game was 1987.

Armed Forces Bowl: 8-5 La Tech vs. 9-3 Navy

This game would have been in a higher tier if Navy QB Will Worth hadn't been lost for the season against Temple. Worth was the Midshipmen's top passer and rusher, and he's an integral cog in Navy's triple option offense. We'll get a chance to see Navy play Army before the bowl game, but things seem a bit one-sided with La Tech having QB Ryan Higgans' 4,208 yards and 37 touchdowns available for this game.

Dollar General Bowl: 8-5 Ohio vs. 9-3 Troy

Ohio has an interesting defense with Tarell Basham and his 10 sacks on the season. Meanwhile, Troy became ranked briefly for the first time in school history after it beat Appalachian State only to fall out one week later.

Holiday Bowl: 8-4 Minnesota vs. 8-4 Washington State

Want to see one of college football's best passing attacks? Washington State's Luke Falk will put on a show with 4,204 yards passing and an amazing 37 touchdowns on the year. That alone is worth tuning in for.

Minnesota will struggle to keep up with the Cougars, which is what keeps this bowl game from being a higher tier.

Pinstripe Bowl: 8-4 Pitt vs. 6-6 Northwestern

Pitt has beaten two Power 5 conference champions in Clemson and Penn State, but just hasn't been able to put it together. Northwestern doesn't have the signature victories that Pitt has, but it gave teams like Ohio State quite the scare.

Foster Farms Bowl: 6-6 Indiana vs. 8-4 Utah

Not too long ago the Rose Bowl was within the Utes' grasp. Losing three of the last four dropped them all the way from the Granddaddy of Them All to the Foster Farms Bowl. And frankly, this matchup doesn't do Utah any favors as the Utes have a lot to lose and little to gain here playing a 6-6 team that just fired its head coach. That could be dangerous as Indiana may be more motivated than the Utes to win one for their old coach.

Texas Bowl: 8-4 Texas A&M vs. 8-4 Kansas State

This is a reunion game for old Big 12 rivals. While both teams have the same record, Bill Snyder's Wildcats won five of their last six while the Aggies lost four of their last six.

Belk Bowl: 7-5 Arkansas vs. 9-4 Virginia Tech

This could be one of the most intriguing quarterback duels between the Razorbacks' Austin Allen and Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans. This game could be great depending on which Arkansas decides to show up: The one that beat Florida or the one that lost to Missouri.

Arizona Bowl: 6-6 South Alabama vs. 9-3 Air Force

South Alabama did pull off impressive wins over Mississippi State and San Diego State, so Air Force would do well not to dismiss the Jaguars despite their 6-6 record. At any rate, this is a much better game than last year for the Arizona Bowl as it had two MWC teams last time.

TaxSlayer Bowl: 8-4 Georgia Tech vs. 7-5 Kentucky

If you like teams that run the football, this is the bowl for you. Both of these teams averaged more than 240 yards rushing per game this season.


Tier 2: Solid football

This is where the games start to get really fun. These are games we'd watch even on crowded Saturdays during the regular season.

Las Vegas Bowl: 9-3 Houston vs. 10-3 San Diego State

Houston seemed destined for greater things after knocking off Oklahoma in the season-opener. Three losses later and the Cougars find themselves in Las Vegas. Still, Houston QB Greg Ward is one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks with 31 total touchdowns and more than 3,800 yards of total offense to his name.

On the other side, San Diego State just won back-to-back conference titles for the first time since the 1970s. And the Aztecs have college football's leading rusher in Donnel Pumphrey with 2,018 yards. There should be offensive fireworks in this game.

Camellia Bowl: 9-3 Appalachian State vs. 9-3 Toledo

Not too long ago, Appalachian State was an FCS team that could beat big name FBS teams like Michigan. Now the Mountaineers continue to impress in their new division as they are Sun Belt champions.

Toledo is the No. 4 team in the nation in total offense with 529.9 yards per game. This game will feature two 1,300 yard rushers: Jalin Moore and Kareem Hunt.

Boca Raton Bowl: 8-4 Memphis vs. 10-3 Western Kentucky

This game features some of the best players you may not have heard of. WKU's QB Mike White has 4,027 yards and 34 touchdowns, and RB Anthony Wales has 1,376 yards and 24 touchdowns of his own. Memphis has WR Anthony Miller's 1,283 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.

Russell Athletic Bowl: 10-2 West Virginia vs. 8-4 Miami

West Virginia is the 10-win team that nobody seems to want to talk about. The Mountaineers' only two losses came against good teams in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They're better than they get credit for.

Meanwhile, Miami is the definition of a roller-coaster team as it won the first four games, lost the next four, then won the last four. And seeing Miami's Brad Kaaya take on West Virginia's Skylar Howard sounds like an awful lot of fun.

Sun Bowl: 9-3 Stanford vs. 8-4 North Carolina

Stanford fell from grace after losing games to Washington, Washington State and Colorado, but it's quietly won all of its games since. Just having Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey take on North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky is enough to make this game worth watching.

Music City Bowl: 9-3 Nebraska vs. 8-4 Tennessee

There was a time when Nebraska vs. Tennessee would have been national championship material. While neither team is there, both programs took a step in the right direction in 2016, but it's been a wild ride for both teams. Both Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong and Vols QB Joshua Dobbs have had their ups and downs this season. We'll have to see which one can come out on top.

Outback Bowl: 8-4 Florida vs. 8-4 Iowa

Lovers of good defense can eat their heart out as both teams tied for No. 10 in scoring defense allowing just 17.9 points per game. Iowa has crawled back into respectability after losing to North Dakota State by beating the likes of Michigan and Nebraska. Florida has some solid wins, like over LSU, but the last couple weeks have been hard on the Gators with loses to Florida State and Alabama. Still, it should be fun if you like a lot of defense.

Sugar Bowl: 8-4 Auburn vs 10-2 Oklahoma

This is by far the weakest New Years' Six bowl. It features a four-loss SEC team in Auburn. That isn't to say that this will be a bad game, but it's not the usual must-watch game that we expect from the Sugar Bowl. Still, it will be interesting to see Oklahoma's offense go against Auburn solid defense and watch Auburn's OK offense go against Oklahoma's mediocre defense. At least fans will get to see Baker Mayfield.


Tier 1: Must-see college football

These are the bowl games we as college football fans want. Of this year's bloated slate of bowl games, these are the ones that you need to clear your schedule for if you call yourself a fan of the sport. No excuses.

Alamo Bowl: 9-3 Oklahoma State vs. 10-3 Colorado

Both the Cowboys and the Buffaloes came just short of winning conference titles. Colorado has transformed itself from a Pac-12 bottom feeder to a division champ. Oklahoma State remains one of the most explosive offenses around, but it seems allergic to defense, as is the way in the Big 12. This could be an extremely fun back-and-forth game between Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Colorado's Sefo Liufau.

Citrus Bowl: 7-4 LSU vs. 9-3 Louisville

We get to see Leonard Fournette of LSU take on Lamar Jackson of Louisville, two players that we'll see for years to come on Sunday? Um, yes please.

Orange Bowl: 10-2 Michigan vs. 9-3 Florida State

Michigan has to be hurting after how painfully close it came to a playoff bid. Still, a New Years' Six bowl is a fantastic consolation prize. And it will face a Florida State team that must be hungry for validation after being just five points away from an 11-1 season and a playoff bid of its own. There's plenty of talent and motivation on both sides of this game.

Cotton Bowl Classic: 13-0 Western Michigan vs. 10-3 Wisconsin

P.J. Fleck and the Broncos have rowed the boat right into their first New Year's Six bowl. That's remarkable given that Western Michigan won its first bowl game just last year. Now the Broncos get a chance to etch themselves into college football history against a solid Wisconsin squad that came just short in the Big Ten title game. And to those who doubt that this could be a game for the ages, remember that folks said that about the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma.

Rose Bowl: 9-3 USC vs. 11-2 Penn State

USC lost three of its first four games, but the Trojans have turned themselves into one of the hottest teams in college football. USC has a chance to end the year with a statement win in the Granddaddy Of Them All and announce to the world that the Trojans are back.

The other team looking to make a statement is the Big Ten champion Nittany Lions. This team has a mammoth-sized chip on its shoulder after it felt the world turned against it in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. And it just got left out of the playoff despite winning the conference and beating playoff-bound Ohio State head-to-head.


What more could you want?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Peach Bowl: 12-1 Washington vs. 13-0 Alabama

Chris Petersen has the chance he never got at Boise State: A chance to take down the biggest name in college football with national championship implications. Washington hasn't won a conference title since the year 2000 or won a national championship since 1991. The Huskies have the chance to make history by taking down the Crimson Tide on the way to glory.

But Alabama has its reputation for a reason. Nick Saban has won the national championship at LSU and Alabama five times since the last time Washington won a Pac-12 title. The Crimson Tide has rolled over every opponent it's faced so far this year. Could Washington simply be next on Alabama's way to yet another national title?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl: 11-1 Ohio State vs. 12-1 Clemson

Clemson, in some ways, is the most lucky team in college football. NC State missed a 33-yard field goal that would have given the Wolfpack the win. The ball has bounced the Tigers' way several times, but that doesn't mean Clemson isn't good. Clemson's offense features an almost 4,000-yard passer in Deshaun Watson, a 1,000 yard rusher in Wayne Gallman and a 1,100-yard wide receiver in Mike Williams. Lucky and good is a dangerous combination.

Ohio State is lucky in its own way as the committee chose it over the conference champion that beat it head-to-head, and the ball bounced the Buckeyes' way in their win over Michigan.

Which team's luck will run out? That's something definitely worth watching to find out.

Lafe Peavler is a sports strategist for the Deseret News and KSL.com. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.