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College football bowl games ranked: Can’t-miss matchups, best storylines and more

Instead of a packed college football bowl schedule this holiday season, COVID-19 opt-outs and cancellations have left us with only a handful of matchups to sink our teeth into.

Here are the remaining bowl games to watch, ranked by level of entertainment:

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The playoff (duh)

1. Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (Friday, 8:45 p.m., ESPN): No. 2 Clemson (10-1) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (6-0)

A rematch of last season’s semifinal has all the makings of a classic game. There’s NFL talent all over the rosters, led by quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. There’s intrigue about the status of Fields’ injured thumb and questions about the Buckeyes’ ability to bounce back from a lackluster performance against Northwestern. There’s even some controversy after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ranked Ohio State 11th in his final poll. Outside of the national title game, this could be the game of the year.

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2. Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas (Friday, 5 p.m., ESPN): No. 1 Alabama (11-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1)

Alabama is favored by 20 points, so on paper this game is pretty unappealing. But given the stakes and how well Notre Dame is capable of playing when it’s at its best — remember that double-overtime win over Clemson? — there’s a good chance this isn’t the blowout many people expect. How the Fighting Irish try to slow down the Crimson Tide’s dynamic offense, led by DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Mac Jones, will be a fascinating chess match.

Can’t-miss matchups

3. Cotton Bowl in Arlington (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN): No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2) vs. No. 7 Florida (8-3)

If you like offense, this is the game for you. Florida’s Kyle Trask and Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler are two of the best quarterbacks in the country and will be facing some less-than-stellar defenses. The over/under total of 70 points should tell you everything you need to know about why this game is a must-watch.

4. Peach Bowl in Atlanta (Friday, 12:30 p.m., ESPN): No. 8 Cincinnati (9-0) vs. No. 9 Georgia (7-2)

Cincinnati didn’t get the playoff invite some thought might be possible, but at least they have an opportunity to prove themselves against a blue blood. Since USC transfer JT Daniels took over at quarterback, Georgia’s offense has been playing at an elite level. How will it fare against a Bearcats defense that ranks second nationally in efficiency? For Cincinnati, quarterback Desmond Ridder and Co. are looking to cap a special season and prove the Group of Five is not to be ignored.

5. Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1) vs. No. 13 North Carolina (8-3)

Texas A&M hovered around the top five all season, but are the Aggies really that good? If they’re not ready to play against North Carolina, they could get run off the field. Led by quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels offense has been dynamite, but it won’t have three of its biggest stars as Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown opted out to prepare for the draft. Meanwhile, Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond has one last chance to prove he’s NFL material.

The best storylines

6. Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., ABC): No. 11 Indiana (6-1) vs. Ole Miss (4-5)

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s season-ending knee injury took some of the shine off Indiana’s thrilling season, but Jack Tuttle has been a capable replacement and the defense has been solid. With a win, the Hoosiers can finish in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1967. They face an Ole Miss team that can light up the scoreboard, evidenced by its 40.7 points per game and No. 9 ranking in offensive efficiency. Lane Kiffin vs. Tom Allen is a high-energy coaching matchup that’s sure to produce some fun soundbites.

7. Arizona Bowl in Tucson, Arizona (Thursday, 2 p.m., CBS): No. 22 San Jose State (7-0) vs. Ball State (6-1)

San Jose State couldn’t play at its home field for most of the season because of COVID-19 restrictions, yet still won its first Mountain West Conference title and had its best record since going 13-0 in 1939. The Spartans are ranked for the first time since 2012, and coach Brent Brennan is here to stay after recently finalizing an extension. Ball State, meanwhile, upset Buffalo to win its first MAC championship game and is playing in a bowl for the first time since 2013.

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8. Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN): No. 25 Oregon (4-2) vs. No. 10 Iowa State (8-3)

Oregon didn’t even win its own division, yet ended up securing its second straight Pac-12 title. That’s college football in 2020. Meanwhile, Iowa State fell short of its first conference championship since 1912, but the Cyclones are making their first appearance in a major bowl game since the 1977 Peach Bowl. Both teams also have intriguing (and sought-after) coaches, with Mario Cristobal building a West Coast power and Matt Campbell turning a moribund program into a perennial Big 12 contender. These teams are well-rounded, both ranking in the top 15 in efficiency, and feature some creative offenses, which should make for a fun back-and-forth game.

Season-defining games

9. Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando, Florida (Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN): No. 18 Miami (8-2) vs. No. 21 Oklahoma State (7-3)

With hopes of competing for the ACC title, Miami fell flat in its two biggest games, getting blown out by Clemson and North Carolina. Star quarterback D’Eriq King lifted the Hurricanes to respectability, but even he couldn’t get them over the hump. However, a victory would go a long way toward making 2020 feel like a success for coach Manny Diaz’s squad. For Oklahoma State, an up-and-down season could use an uplifting finish.

10. Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN): No. 20 Texas (6-3) vs. Colorado (4-1)

Coach Tom Herman’s job was the topic of much debate after another disappointing season, though he appears to be safe in Austin — for now. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger makes his final appearance in a Texas uniform, and while his teams never lived up to the hype, his career will be one to remember. Colorado, meanwhile, was one of the biggest surprises of the season, racing out to a 4-0 start under new coach Karl Dorrell. This is just the Buffaloes’ second bowl appearance since 2007.

11. Citrus Bowl in Orlando (Friday, 1 p.m., ABC): No. 14 Northwestern (6-1) vs. Auburn (6-4)

A matchup between two programs seemingly headed in opposite directions. Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern routinely outperforming expectations, while Gus Malzahn was recently fired for failing to deliver the results Auburn fans and boosters wanted. A win for the Wildcats, even against a perhaps emotionally drained Tigers team, would go a long way toward proving that this season wasn’t just an aberration.

Weird, but kinda fun

12. Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas (Thursday, Noon, ESPN): No. 24 Tulsa (6-2) vs. Mississippi State (3-7)

Tulsa deserves so much more than a matchup against a three-win SEC team. The Golden Hurricane find themselves ranked for just the second time this decade, though they’ll be without star linebacker and American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Zaven Collins, who declared for the NFL draft. Meanwhile, the Mike Leach Era has gotten off to a rocky start in Starkville. The Air Raid offense hasn’t fared well in the SEC, though the Bulldogs might have found a quarterback in Will Rogers. The clash of styles makes this game more entertaining than you might think.

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13. Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee (Thursday, 4 p.m., ESPN): West Virginia (5-4) vs. Army (9-2)

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Army finally got a bowl invitation after initially being left out, which is good news for fans of the triple-option offense. Jeff Monken continues to prove he’s one of the best coaches in the country, leading the Black Knights to eight or more wins in four of his six seasons. Meanwhile, Neal Brown makes his first bowl game appearance with West Virginia, which boasts one of the nation’s best defenses.

Could be better, but we’ll take it

14. Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina (Wednesday, Noon, ESPN): Wake Forest (4-4) vs. Wisconsin (3-3)

A COVID-19 outbreak completely derailed Wisconsin’s season, but the Badgers are still a solid team with a top-five defense. Wake Forest has a fun offense led by quarterback Sam Hartman, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes to just one interception this season while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. We’ll see how Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz compares after an up-and-down year.

15. Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida (Saturday, Noon, ESPN): No. 23 NC State (8-3) vs. Kentucky (4-6)

It’s been a nice bounce-back season for NC State coach Dave Doeren after a 4-8 finish in 2019, but it’s hard to know what to make of this year’s team. The Wolfpack rank 46th in efficiency and have a point differential of just plus-15, suggesting that their 8-3 record is rather flimsy. Kentucky, meanwhile, suffered its first losing season since 2015 and will be saying goodbye to quarterback Terry Wilson, a key figure in the program’s recent turnaround.

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