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College football bowl games, ranked by tiers: from the flat-out entertaining to the ones you can skip

Oregon running back CJ Verdell runs for a touchdown against Utah during the second half of the Pac-12 championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018.
Oregon running back CJ Verdell runs for a touchdown against Utah during the second half of the Pac-12 championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (Tony Avelar/AP)

With 40 college football bowl games, you’re going to need some help to decide what to watch. Here’s a guide to the best and the worst of the season:

Flat-out entertaining

1. College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona (Dec. 28, 8 p.m., ESPN): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson

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The two most complete teams in the country face off in a game worthy of a national title. With talented players all over the field — Justin Fields, Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins, Trevor Lawrence and Tee Higgins, just to name a few — this game is college football at its very best.

2. College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta (Dec. 28, 4 p.m., ESPN): No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oklahoma

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Expect fireworks. The total over/under opened at 79½, by far the highest of any game this bowl season. Joe Burrow vs. Jalen Hurts is an enticing quarterback matchup, and the pass-happy Tigers and power-running Sooners offer a unique contrast in styles. Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb vs. the Tigers secondary is must-watch TV.

3. Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN): No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

This game is always the best visual experience of bowl season as the sun sets on the West Coast. The actual game should be great, too, with the Badgers’ Jonathan Taylor looking to cap one of the best careers of any college running back, and the Ducks, led by NFL quarterback prospect Justin Herbert, riding high from their Pac-12 title win over Utah.

Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions reacts to a play during the second half of the game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 30, 2019 in State College, Pa.
Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions reacts to a play during the second half of the game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 30, 2019 in State College, Pa. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images North America/TNS)

4. Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas (Dec. 28, noon, ESPN): No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 17 Memphis

Penn State’s James Franklin was rumored to be in the mix for the Florida State coaching job that went to Memphis’ Mike Norvell. The Tigers have found a replacement in Ryan Silverfield, and Franklin is staying in Happy Valley at least through 2025 after signing an extension. Memphis is talented enough to give the Nittany Lions a hard time, and it’s always entertaining to see a rising Group of 5 team take its best shot against a Power 5 blue blood.

5. Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida (Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN): No. 18 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Auburn

Don’t let the venue fool you. This game is worthy of New Year’s Six prestige, with the Golden Gophers aiming to win 11 games for the first time this century and the Tigers looking to put a stamp on an Iron Bowl-winning season. Tanner Morgan vs. Bo Nix is an underrated quarterback matchup, and these defenses will get after it.

6. Texas Bowl in Houston (Dec. 27, 6:45 p.m., ESPN): No. 25 Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M

These former Big 12 rivals meet for the first time since 2011, when the No. 7 Cowboys won a 30-29 shootout over the No. 8 Aggies. Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher, needs just 64 yards for a 2,000-yard season, while talented Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond looks to finish strong.

7. Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m., ABC): No. 19 Boise State vs. Washington

Chris Petersen’s final game as coach at Washington comes against the program he helped build into a household name. Boise State, the Mountain West champion, has been exceptional this year, so Petersen’s last coaching job will have to be one of his best.

8. Belk Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina (Dec. 31, noon, ESPN): Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky

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In his final game as Virginia Tech defensive coordinator, Bud Foster is tasked with stopping receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., who just ran for 284 yards against Louisville. The Wildcats have attempted just 70 passes since Bowden took over Oct. 13, and Kentucky is 5-2 in that span.

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2019, file photo, Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the NCAA college football game against Louisville, in Lexington, Ky. Bowden was selected to The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference football team, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2019, file photo, Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the NCAA college football game against Louisville, in Lexington, Ky. Bowden was selected to The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference football team, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File) (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Looks good on paper, but ... do they care?

9. Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida (Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC): No. 13 Michigan vs. No. 14 Alabama

If someone told you before the season that Michigan and Alabama would face each other in a bowl game, you would have expected it to be in the playoff. Instead, both teams are looking for a bright spot after losing to their biggest rivals. The Nick Saban-Jim Harbaugh coaching matchup alone makes this a must-watch, but don’t expect to see many NFL-bound players suit up.

10. Alamo Bowl in San Antonio (Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m., ESPN): No. 11 Utah vs. Texas

Utah’s Tyler Huntley and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger are two of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the country and will go up against a pair of talented defenses. But don’t expect any “we’re back” proclamations from Ehlinger this time around.

11. Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN): No. 9 Florida vs. No. 24 Virginia

The Gators opened as a 13-point favorite, and it’s hard to see the Cavaliers keeping up after they were blown out, 62-17, by Clemson in the ACC title game. But Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins has worked his entire career for a moment like this, and his team won’t shy away from the moment. If Florida isn’t ready to play, we could see an upset.

12. Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN): No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Baylor

After these teams each lost their conference title game with a potential spot in the playoff on the line, it’s going to be tough to get motivated for this one. Expect a defensive struggle, with the opening over/under set at 42½.

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2019, file photo, Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis throws against UCLA during the first half of an NCAA college football game, in Los Angeles. Slovis was selected as The Associated Press Pac 12 Conference team Newcomer of the Year, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2019, file photo, Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis throws against UCLA during the first half of an NCAA college football game, in Los Angeles. Slovis was selected as The Associated Press Pac 12 Conference team Newcomer of the Year, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Styles make fights

13. Cheez-It Bowl in Phoenix (Dec. 27, 10:15 p.m., ESPN): Air Force vs. Washington State

Triple-option vs. Air Raid in the desert. What more do you want? The Falcons rank third in the country, and the Cougars lead the nation in passing, a glorious contrast of styles. The late time slot only adds to the fun, so grab your favorite holiday beverage and settle in.

14. Holiday Bowl in San Diego (Dec. 27, 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1): No. 22 USC vs. No. 16 Iowa

Trojans true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis vs. the Hawkeyes defense is a matchup worth tuning in for. Iowa’s Nathan Stanley is 208 passing yards away from moving to second on the school’s all-time list, and can win his third straight bowl game to end his college career.

15. Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee (Dec. 31, 3:45 p.m., ESPN): No. 23 Navy vs. Kansas State

Quarterback Malcolm Perry’s final game for the Midshipmen should be celebrated after he helped lead one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in school history. He gets to face a Wildcats team under new coach Chris Kleiman that upset playoff participant Oklahoma.

16. Military Bowl in Annapolis (Dec. 27, noon, ESPN): North Carolina vs. Temple

UNC quarterback Sam Howell quietly had one of the best true freshman seasons in recent memory, and he gets another test in a solid Owls team that reached its fifth straight bowl game despite losing its coach twice during that span (three times, if you count Manny Diaz’s jump to Miami days after being introduced at Temple).

17. Pinstripe Bowl in New York (Dec. 27, 3:20 p.m., ESPN): Michigan State vs. Wake Forest

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans were one of the most disappointing teams in the country, but a win over one of the ACC’s best teams will ease some tension. The Demon Deacons are looking to win nine games for just the third time in school history and have one of the most unique, patient read-option running games in the country.

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18. Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida (Dec. 21, 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): Liberty vs. Georgia Southern

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Consider this the sodium-free Cheez-It Bowl. Georgia Southern’s triple-option was good enough to beat Sun Belt champion Appalachian State earlier this season, and Liberty has a bona-fide NFL prospect in wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden leading its passing attack. Plus, who knows what apparatus Hugh Freeze will be coaching the game from?

Liberty running back Joshua Mack, left, slaps hands with wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden during an NCAA college football game against New Mexico State at Williams Stadium at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP)
Liberty running back Joshua Mack, left, slaps hands with wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden during an NCAA college football game against New Mexico State at Williams Stadium at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP) (Taylor Irby/AP)

Pointsy

19. Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m., ABC): SMU vs. Florida Atlantic (Over/under: 71.5)

Though Lane Kiffin has departed for Ole Miss, the Owls can win 11 games for the second time in three seasons and have the Willie Taggart era to look forward to. The Mustangs are playing in just their second bowl game in seven seasons and can put the finishing touches on their best season since the “Pony Express” era.

20. Hawai’i Bowl (Dec. 24, 8 p.m., ESPN): Hawai’i vs. BYU (Over/under: 62.5)

Hawai’i quarterback Cole McDonald is just as likely to throw five touchdown passes as he is five interceptions — and maybe in the same game. The Cougars are just as unpredictable, with wins over Tennessee, USC and Boise State and losses to Toledo and South Florida. If you’re looking for an escape from your in-laws on Christmas Eve, you could do worse than this matchup.

21. Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas (Dec. 31, 2 p.m., CBS): Florida State vs. Arizona State (Over/under: 55.5)

The Cereal Bowl! In the first bowl game sponsored by a cereal mascot (Tony the Tiger), a pair of talented Power 5 rosters arrive in the desert. Come for the mountainside views and Frosted Flakes, stay for the football.

22. Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas (Jan. 4, 11:30 a.m., ESPN): Southern Mississippi vs. Tulane (Over/under: 58)

Willie Fritz is staying put, and that’s cause for celebration at a Tulane program that has reached consecutive bowl games for the second time in its history. The Green Wave — sporting the best logo and uniforms in the country — face an old Conference USA rival in what could be a shootout.

23. Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN): Mississippi State vs. Louisville (Over/under: 60.5)

Scott Satterfield was named ACC Coach of the Year after taking Louisville from 2-10 to 7-5. Joe Moorhead needed to beat Ole Miss to save his job. Both teams will be happy to be here, and that could make for some offensive fireworks.

24. Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida (Dec. 23, 2:30 p.m., ESPN): UCF vs. Marshall (Over/under: 61.5)

This wasn’t the season UCF was hoping for, but the Knights will at least get a solid Marshall team to take their frustrations out on. At 17½ points, UCF is the biggest favorite of bowl season, but the Thundering Herd have a way of making life difficult for good teams.

Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) throws against Purdue during the first half in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) throws against Purdue during the first half in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Fun narratives

25. Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana (Dec. 26, 4 p.m., ESPN): Louisiana Tech vs. Miami

The Hurricanes schadenfreude could continue with a loss to the Bulldogs, who are seeking their first 10-win season in school history. For the sake of his Twitter mentions, it’s recommended that Manny Diaz wins this game.

26. Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida (Jan. 1, 7 p.m., ESPN): Indiana vs. Tennessee

#9WINdiana is still alive. The last time the Hoosiers won nine games was 1967, and the only other time before that was 1945. The Volunteers, meanwhile, won their last five and six of their last seven after a 1-4 start.

27. New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans (Dec. 21, 9 p.m., ESPN): Appalachian State vs. UAB

The Mountaineers lost coach Eliah Drinkwitz to Missouri, but not before becoming the first 12-win team in Sun Belt history and, as they coyly pointed out, the first 12-win FBS team from the state of North Carolina. After the UAB program was abandoned for two seasons in 2015 and 2016, coach Bill Clark has gone 34-18 and taken the Blazers to three straight bowl games.

28. Celebration Bowl in Atlanta (Dec. 21, noon, ABC): Alcorn State vs. North Carolina A&T

This HBCU rivalry has become an annual tradition. The SWAC champion Braves and the MEAC champion Aggies will meet for the second straight year and the third time since 2015, with NC A&T winning both matchups.

If defense is your thing

29. Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., Fox): California vs. Illinois (Over/under: 41.5)

Fear the Beard. The Fighting Illini reached a bowl game for the first time since 2014, which means we get to see Lovie Smith coach a postseason game for the first time since the 2010 NFC championship game with the Chicago Bears.

30. New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Dec. 21, 2 p.m., ESPN2): Central Michigan vs. San Diego State (Over/under: 41)

The Aztecs allow just 12.8 points per game, while the Chippewas surrender 20.3 (if you remove a 61-0 loss to Wisconsin). We might see more punts than points, and that should be celebrated.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) scrambles against Boston College during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) scrambles against Boston College during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Michael Conroy/AP)

Fun players

31. Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida (Dec. 28, noon, ABC): Notre Dame vs. Iowa State

As quiet as one possibly can at Notre Dame, quarterback Ian Book threw for 2,787 yards and 33 touchdowns and ran for 516 and four scores. Not to be outdone, Iowa State QB Brock Purdy had 3,760 passing yards and 35 total touchdowns (27 passing, eight rushing).

32. Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama (Dec. 21, 5:30 p.m., ESPN): Florida International vs. Arkansas State

Arkansas State wide receiver Omar Bayless led the nation and set a Sun Belt record with 1,473 receiving yards. He also caught 16 touchdown passes, the most in school and Sun Belt history and second most nationally. FIU quarterback James Morgan is three touchdown passes shy of the school’s all-time mark.

Charlotte coach Will Healy walks on the sideline during a game against Clemson on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Clemson, S.C.
Charlotte coach Will Healy walks on the sideline during a game against Clemson on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Clemson, S.C. (Richard Shiro/AP)

Coaches on the rise

33. Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 20, 2 p.m., ESPN2): Buffalo vs. Charlotte

In his first season, Will Healy took Charlotte to its first bowl in just fifth season at the FBS level. Buffalo regressed under Lance Leipold after winning 10 games in 2018, but two straight bowl games for the Bulls is a first.

34. Frisco Bowl (Dec. 20, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2): Utah State vs. Kent State

Despite facing Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin, Kent State won six games under second-year coach Sean Lewis to reach its first bowl since 2012 and third in program history. You can also get a look at Utah State junior quarterback Jordan Love, a possible NFL draft pick.

35. Arizona Bowl (Dec. 31, 4:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): Wyoming vs. Georgia State

Georgia State’s Shawn Elliott rebounded from a 2-10 season to go 7-5, including a win over Tennessee. Craig Bohl, 61, has led the Cowboys to six or more wins each of the past four seasons.

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36. LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama (Jan. 6, 7:30 p.m, ESPN): Louisiana vs. Miami (Ohio)

A school-record 10 wins could extend to 11 for second-year coach Billy Napier at Louisiana. After going 22-39 in his first five seasons with Miami, Chuck Martin finally broke through for his first MAC title.

It’s football

37. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Jan. 3, 3:30 p.m., ESPN): Ohio vs. Nevada

Ohio rebounded from a 2-4 start and Nevada won three of its last four to get here. These players deserve at least something nice in their swag bag.

38. First Responder Bowl in Dallas (Dec. 30, 12:30 p.m., ESPN): Western Kentucky vs. Western Michigan

This would have been an awesome game in 2016, when WKU went 11-3 and WMU went 13-1 and played in the Cotton Bowl. Sadly, it’s 2019.

39. Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 2, 3 p.m., ESPN): Boston College vs. No. 21 Cincinnati

Luke Fickell has gone 21-5 in his past two seasons with the Bearcats. He doesn’t deserve to spend his New Year’s in Birmingham.

40. Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit (Dec. 26, 8 p.m., ESPN): Pittsburgh vs. Eastern Michigan

Be honest with yourself: you’ll be starving for live football in a few months. Enjoy it while you can. Even this game.

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