Bowl season is finally here.
Starting Friday, and continuing through Jan. 10, the final 43 games of the 2021 college football season will be played at various venues and locales both in and out of the country.
There’s the College Football Playoff and the rest of the New Year’s Six, plus every other bowl game you can imagine.
With so many postseason contests it can be difficult to choose which ones to watch. College football games tend to be three or four hours long after all, a sizable time commitment for anyone.
Have no fear, we’ve got you covered.
The obvious ones
Let’s get a few bowls out of the way.
For BYU, Utah and Utah State fans, the Independence Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl are all must watch events (even if Cougars fans are still a little salty about their opponent).
Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl: UAB Blazers vs. BYU Cougars
Dec. 18, 1:30 p.m. on ABC
As a Conference USA member, UAB doesn’t have the name brand of Ohio State or Oregon State, but the Blazers are actually BYU’s best opponent (record wise) in a bowl since Utah in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl (Big 12 membership cannot come soon enough for Cougars fans). UAB has the 16th-best total defense in the country, so there is actually something to watch between the teams (BYU has the 17th-best offense).
Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: Utah State Aggies vs. Oregon State Beavers
Dec. 18, 5:30 p.m. on ABC
Utah State will play its first Power Five opponent in a bowl game since 1961, when the Aggies lost to Baylor in the Gotham Bowl. A win over the Beavers would give the Aggies two wins over P5 teams this year. And Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner has a legitimate chance to break basically every single season quarterbacking record at USU.
Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X: Utah Utes vs. Ohio State Buckeyes
Jan. 1, 3 p.m. on ESPN
The Utes have by far the most prestigious bowl (of the three FBS programs in Utah), both in venue and opponent. A win in Pasadena would make the 2021 season arguably the greatest in program history, all things considered. If quarterback Cam Rising has a standout performance, don’t be surprised if he is discussed as a Heisman Trophy candidate next season, either.
BYU, Utah and Utah State all have the chance to win 11 games this season, a milestone that adds significant importance to their games, both for the record books and 2022 preseason polls.
For lovers of top tier Power Five matchups
These bowls are fairly obvious as well. The CFP and the remaining New Year’s Six bowl games are supposed to pit the best teams in the country against each other, so if the goal is to watch the best against the best, these games are the best options.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Cincinnati Bearcats
Dec. 31, 1:30 p.m. on ESPN
The first of two CFP semifinals, Alabama-Cincinnati is David vs. Goliath on a stage that hasn’t been seen in college football, possibly ever (with all due respect to Boise State, TCU and Utah’s crashing of the BCS). The Bearcats have a legitimate shot at winning a national title, but have to get through the Tide to do so, and of course Alabama is led by the greatest coach in the history of the sport (Nick Saban).
Capital One Orange Bowl: Michigan Wolverines vs. Georgia Bulldogs
Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m. on ESPN
The second CFP semifinal might end up being the game of the year. The Wolverines had a legitimate argument to be the No. 1 team in country at the end of the season and the Bulldogs were the No. 1 team all year long. Michigan will attempt to overwhelm Georgia with the nation’s 10th-best rushing attack, but the Bulldogs boast the nation’s third-best rushing defense.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Michigan State Spartans vs. Pittsburgh Panthers
Dec. 30, 5 p.m. on ESPN
This game has one of the best storylines, as Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi faces off against his former employer (Narduzzi was a longtime defensive coordinator at MSU). Throw in two of the best offensive players in the country (Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett and Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III), and the Peach Bowl could turn into a high scoring shootout (the Panthers have a top 5 offense, while the Spartans are 41st).
Utah fans will love this tidbit: This is the most significant bowl game Pitt has played in since the Fiesta Bowl in 2004.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. on ESPN
By all accounts, this will be an ugly football game. The Fighting Irish and Cowboys didn’t win pretty this season, at least not often, but both teams did win. A combined 22-3, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State needed things to break just a little differently over conference championship weekend and one or both would be playing in the CFP. So consider this game the CFP semifinal that could have been.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Baylor Bears vs. Ole Miss Rebels
Jan. 1, 6:45 p.m. on ESPN and the ESPN App
Talk about a clash of styles. The Bear and Rebels are polar opposites in so many ways. Lane Kiffin and Dave Aranda couldn’t be more different, at least in persona. Ole Miss has one of the most electric offenses in the country (top 4), while Baylor is solid, but not spectacular (No. 42). Defensively, the Bears are fairly stout (No. 39), while the Rebels are sieve-like (No. 102). Ole Miss is boom or bust, while is Baylor is slow and steady, which will make for one of the most intriguing games of the postseason.
The random solid Power Five matchups
One of the best parts of bowl season are the random unexpected great matchups that emerge between solid programs that are looking for that one final win to make a season good or even great.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: UCLA Bruins vs. NC State Wolfpack
Dec. 28, 6 p.m. on Fox
Both NC State (9-3) and UCLA (8-4) had solid seasons. Nothing spectacular, but the Wolfpack were in contention for the ACC title for much of the year, while the Bruins were in the race for the Pac-12 South Division for awhile. A win by either side would go a long way to solidifying their success and their contrasting styles (UCLA has the 29th-best total offense, while NC State has the 24th-best total defense) should make for an entertaining game.
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin Badgers vs. Arizona State Sun Devils
Dec. 30, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN
Pac-12 vs. Big Ten. Need more be said? Arizona State and Wisconsin both finished the regular season 8-4, leaving multiple wins on the table. Both teams had the chance to play for a conference title, if only they’d avoided a specific loss. The game probably holds more weight for the Sun Devils (Wisconsin seems to just always win between seven and 10 games a season), who will hope that 2022 is their breakthrough year.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Wake Forest Demon Deacons vs. Texas A&M Aggies
Dec. 31, 9 a.m. on ESPN
For almost the entire season, Wake Forest was the team to beat in the ACC. That all changed down the stretch, though, and turnovers in the ACC title game kept the Demon Deacons from a New Year’s Six bowl. Texas A&M, meanwhile, beat Alabama, but otherwise was pretty mediocre. Is the SEC as great as people assume? This is the kind of game that pundits will point to either way to prove their point.
Vrbo Citrus Bowl: Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Kentucky Wildcats
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. on ABC
Speaking of the SEC, Iowa and Kentucky is another one of those matchups that people will look to following bowl season when they debate which conference is the best. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats are similar, really similar — defense is their calling card — though Iowa is much more established under head coach Kirk Ferentz. Still, Mark Stoops is building Kentucky into the type of team Iowa has been for decades, making for an interesting matchup.
Group of Five versus Power Five
These games are becoming more and more rare, which is a little disappointing. Battles between Power Five and Group of Five teams are often the underdogs matchups that the country loves the most (even though the games don’t benefit P5 programs much, if at all).
TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl: Houston Cougars vs. Auburn Tigers
Dec. 28, 10 a.m. on ESPN
Houston isn’t long for the Group of Five, but a win over Auburn would go a long way to justifying the Cougars’ invitation to the Big 12. Houston was the second best team in the AAC this season (behind only Cincinnati) and while Auburn finished 6-6, the Tigers nearly beat Alabama and were competitive in almost every game they played. This is the type of the game SEC teams usually win, lending credence to the “best conference” idea, but Houston is legitimately good.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Air Force Falcons vs. Louisville Cardinals
Dec. 28, 1:15 p.m. on ESPN
More than anything else, Air Force-Louisville is a case study as to whether mid-tier Power Five programs are actually better than upper echelon Group of Five programs. The Falcons were really good in the Mountain West this season and were a Utah State loss away from playing for a conference championship. Air Force has the best rushing offense in the country, not surprising given the triple-option, but notable. Louisville, meanwhile, was the epitome of mediocre, though it skewed towards offense (No. 21 nationally, while the defense was No. 84).
The best of the Group of Five
There aren’t a lot of showdowns between top G5 teams during bowl season (the best G5 teams are usually pitted against mediocre P5 teams), but the ones that do exist are fascinating.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl: UTSA Roadrunners vs. San Diego State Aztecs
Dec. 21, 5:30 p.m. on ESPN
This one will be fun. The Roadrunners are Conference USA champions and lost only one game, to a white hot North Texas team. San Diego State, meanwhile, was the second best Group of Five team all season long, until it was obliterated by Utah State in the MW championship. Pitting the top teams (or near top teams) from a pair of Group of Five conferences is fascinating.
Cure Bowl: Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Dec. 17, 4 p.m. on ESPN2
Similar to the Frisco Bowl, Northern Illinois and Coastal Carolina are two of the best Group of Five programs. The Huskies had one of the best turnarounds of the season, going from winless in 2020 to MAC champions in 2021. The Chanticleers, meanwhile, have had back-to-back 10 win seasons and have been one of the best stories in football over the last couple of seasons.
The best (remaining) storyline
Honestly, Mike Leach just deserves his own section, especially this year.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Dec. 28, 4:45 p.m. on ESPN
This bowl has the best storyline of bowl season. Leach, the head coach at Mississippi State, has had success at some of the most difficult Power Five jobs, including Washington State and now Mississippi State. Nowhere was he more successful, though, than at Texas Tech. Now he pits his Bulldogs against not only his former team, but his former quarterback, Red Raiders’ interim head coach Sonny Cumbie.