If you were under the impression that the arrival of an honest-to-god playoff at the center of the college football solar system signaled the withering of the “traditional” postseason system, think again: Old bowl games don’t die, they multiply. This year’s bowl slate consists of a record 38 contests — thirty-eight! — spanning 15 days,1 each of which represents (in the words of our own Charles P. Pierce) “museum-quality specimens of a kind of lost American ballyhoo.” The annual winter welter will begin in New Orleans on December 20 with a morning kickoff between Nevada and Louisiana and culminate two weeks later with a contest between Toledo and Arkansas State in Mobile, Alabama. In between, the spectacle will span the country from Honolulu to the Bronx. Everyone is welcome here, even Fresno State and its losing record.
Not including the January 12 title game between as yet unknown opponents.
Theoretically, it would be possible for anyone willing to set up camp in front of a television for the entire holiday season to watch every game,2 the vast majority of which will air on ESPN proper3 and very few of which will occupy competing time slots; indeed, for some of you an evening with the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl probably sounds like a better way to spend the day after Christmas than slinking out of the room when certain family members start quoting Fox News. For everyone else, we offer this humble primer to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Most Playoff-y Matchup That’s Not a Playoff Matchup: Peach Bowl (December 31)
With some requisite channel flipping, of course.
The Worldwide Leader owns and operates many of the lower-tier games, which function mainly as seasonal programming options.
For now, no. 9 Ole Miss and no. 6 TCU are still lingering over what might have been after letting semifinal berths slip from their grasps — at various points both were ranked in the selection committee’s top four, the Horned Frogs right up to the penultimate poll — but by New Year’s Eve the disappointment will have passed and we’ll be left with exactly the kind of pairing the overhauled system was meant to produce: a collision of top-10 teams that checks every box for competitiveness and watchability. TCU will arrive with the nation’s no. 2 scoring offense, Ole Miss with the no. 1 scoring defense, and both sides will be looking for a head start on the 2015 playoff hype looming just over the horizon.
Best Contrast of Stereotypically Regional Styles: Cotton Bowl (January 1)
Sure, no. 5 Baylor and no. 8 Michigan State would have been an even more intriguing New Year’s Day matchup last year, when the Bears and Spartans ended the regular season as the FBS leaders in total offense and total defense, respectively, but as representative stalwarts of their conferences’ distinct dispositions, they’re still carrying the banners pretty high. Baylor once again ranks as the nation’s most productive offense, a title that seems to belong perpetually to a spread-friendly Big 12 team, while Michigan State is one of five Big Ten defenses that checks in among the top dozen in the nation in yards allowed against FBS foes. Pay no attention to MSU’s previous efforts against playoff-level offenses from Oregon and Ohio State,4 or the soaring over/under according to Vegas, and the reflexive “Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object” narrative ought to hold up just fine.
Most Emblematic of the New Postseason Order: Fiesta Bowl (December 31)
The Ducks and Buckeyes combined for 1,059 yards and 95 points in the Spartans’ only losses.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
In the BCS era, no. 20 Boise State’s chances of crashing one of the roped-off, big-money bowls hinged on the Broncos finishing undefeated, and even then it was up for debate: Although Boise State was invited to the Fiesta Bowl with perfect records in 2006 and 2009, and won both times, it was also snubbed despite boasting a top-10 ranking at the end of the regular season in 2004 (11-0), 2008 (12-0), 2010 (11-1), and 2011 (11-1). By contrast, the 2014 Broncos haven’t approached the heights of any of those campaigns, finishing 11-2 in a mediocre Mountain West Conference, with a 22-point loss in their only game against a ranked opponent. Still, as the newly crowned MWC champion and the highest-ranked team from the Group of 5, Boise State was actually guaranteed a spot in the major-bowl rotation under the revised system, and will face 10-3, 10th-ranked Arizona.5 Now Boise State faces the same challenge as every other big-time program destined for a familiar locale: Selling tickets at substantial markups compared to the online offerings.
Best Player You Really Should See Before It’s Too Late: Las Vegas Bowl (December 20)
The Wildcats have had an even harder time cracking a top-tier game: The last time they played in one of the current access bowls was in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl, five years before the BCS made the Fiesta one of the perennial headliners.
On paper, Colorado State sophomore Rashard Higgins is the nation’s most prolific wide receiver, having accounted for 149.1 yards per game and 17 touchdowns — best in the nation on both counts — on a staggering 18.4 yards per catch. No other player this season has more receptions covering 20 yards (28), 30 yards (19), 40 yards (11), or 50 yards (6). In the national consciousness, though, Higgins is a blip; no Colorado State game has aired on a recognizable cable network since early September. The bowl date against Utah, on the other hand, will air for a broadcast audience on ABC. It may be the first time most of us see the sophomore,6 but it almost certainly won’t be the last.
Most Corrupt: Bahamas Bowl (December 24)
I admit to being in the dark, too, aside from the stat sheet.
The Bahamas Bowl is a brand-new contest that will pit a 7-5 also-ran from the MAC (Central Michigan) against a 7-5 also-ran from Conference USA (Western Kentucky) in Nassau, in a game sponsored by a Southern fried chicken chain (Popeyes) that doesn’t operate a franchise in the Bahamas. How could such a felicitous arrangement be anything but on the up and up?
The [Bahamian] taxpayer faces having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidise the upcoming Bahamas Bowl football game, after the Government effectively gave away potential multi-million dollar revenue streams to the game’s organisers.
Documents obtained by Tribune Business reveal that the contract signed by the Government has exposed the Bahamian taxpayer, and National Sports Authority, to covering the costs of hosting the Christmas Eve match-up given the lack of income it will generate for the latter.
LeRoy Archer, the National Sports Authority’s chairman, in an October 6 letter to Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, warned that the $70,000 stadium rental fee stipulated in the deal with Conference USA would only cover event security and staffing costs.
He thus called for “initial funding for the event” to be provided to the National Sports Authority, meaning that the taxpaying Bahamian public – via the Government – will be called on to underwrite the event.
Commenting on the Government’s seeming commercial naivete, Mr Archer told Mr Wilchcombe: “It appears that all potential revenue rights for the National Sports Authority and the Bahamas have been forfeited in favour of the client and organisers of the Bahamas Bowl.”
So it does: According to the same article, Conference USA stands to pocket 100 percent of TV, radio, sponsorship, advertising, and other media rights for the entire six-year span of the contract, which was reportedly ratified by a government official who (according to Archer) isn’t authorized to sign said contracts on the National Sports Authority’s behalf. After reading that, even the unbridled joy Central Michigan players showed when they found out they’d be spending Christmas Eve in the Caribbean instead of Detroit isn’t enough to cleanse the palate.
Most Superfluous: Independence Bowl (December 27)
Miami finished 6-6 with three consecutive losses to end the regular season, including back-to-back, double-digit flops against Virginia and Pittsburgh. South Carolina, which began the season ranked in the top 10, finished 6-6 with five losses in its last six against Power 5 opponents, including a 35-17 thumping at the hands of rival Clemson the last time out. Can anyone, including the players and coaches themselves, come up with a single compelling reason the Hurricanes and Gamecocks should proceed to stage a perfunctory game in Shreveport, Louisiana, two days after Christmas?
Most Depressing: Boca Raton Bowl (December 23)
Last week, Marshall and Northern Illinois clinched conference championships in Conference USA and the MAC, respectively, and maybe they should have quit while they were ahead. Instead, the Thundering Herd and Huskies (combined record: 23-3) will cap their banner seasons by traveling a combined 2,400 miles to play in an obscure, first-year bowl in the retirement capital of America, which subsequently doubles as perhaps the only city in the South that doesn’t give a damn about college football. The host venue, 30,000-seat FAU Stadium, is best known for selling naming rights to a private prison company with a record of alleged prisoner abuse until the subsequent outcry/mockery compelled the company to withdraw its bid last year.
Best Reunion: Texas Bowl (December 29)
Beginning in 1932, Arkansas and Texas played every year for 60 years in a row as rival members of the Southwest Conference, including the (in)famous 1969 game that ended with Richard Nixon unilaterally declaring the undefeated Longhorns as national champions, for some reason. Most players on the current rosters weren’t even born when Arkansas bailed on the soon-to-be-defunct SWC and started playing in the SEC in 1992, and they probably didn’t catch much of the Razorbacks’ only postseason win over Texas — in the 2000 Cotton Bowl — either. Fortunately, whether one was born into it or not, it doesn’t take very long to inherit the hate.
Most Marketable Matchup That’s Actually Kind of Terrible: Music City Bowl (December 30)
LSU and Notre Dame are instantly recognizable, marquee names that, between them, spent 24 weeks ranked in the AP poll. They also combined to go 2-6 in November, with three of those losses coming by at least 17 points. The Tigers will arrive in Nashville ranked next-to-last among SEC offenses in points per game, and they might have a new starting quarterback after reopening the competition between the much-maligned incumbent, sophomore Anthony Jennings, and freshman Brandon Harris.7 The Irish will come in riding an ugly, four-game losing streak, with a looming quarterback controversy of their own — Everett Golson has fallen on very hard times since his name adorned midseason Heisman lists — and a lengthy casualty list on defense. So far, LSU is roughly an eight-point favorite, give or take a point, and as long as it’s mathematically possible, Les Miles will be perfectly content to win this one with eight points total.
Least Marketable Matchup That’s Actually Pretty Good: Miami Beach Bowl (December 22)
In conference games, Harris completed just 48.1 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 101.1 efficiency rating, one of the worst in the league among regular starters.
At 9-3, Memphis is cochampion of a conference many readers may struggle to identify,8 marking the Tigers’ first championship of any stripe since claiming the Missouri Valley Conference crown in 1969. Not surprisingly, it also put third-year head coach Justin Fuente’s name in the mix for a bigger job, or at least a bigger paycheck at his current gig. Memphis’s ninth win tied the school record for wins in a season; no. 10 in the bowl game would break it. Meanwhile, after a 4-0 start, BYU promptly fell off the national map following a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Taysom Hill, facilitating a four-game losing streak that spanned October, but regained its footing in November to finish 8-4. The Tigers and Cougars will have the 2 p.m. time slot all to themselves on December 22 before Monday Night Football steals most of us away, and for a random Monday afternoon, that’s quite the bargain.
Most Likely to Devolve Into a Wildly Entertaining, Utterly Meaningless Shootout: Liberty Bowl (December 29)
That would be the American Athletic Conference, née Big East.
The offensive staffs at Texas A&M and West Virginia are both manned by descendants from the Air Raid coaching tree, meaning (a) no one in charge of either side gives a good goddamn about the defenses in this game, and (b) there’s a lot of career overlap on the sidelines. The Mountaineers’ head coach, Dana Holgorsen, once served as offensive coordinator for A&M’s Kevin Sumlin when Sumlin was the head coach at Houston; after Holgorsen landed the top job at West Virginia, in 2011, he hired a former graduate assistant from Houston, Jake Spavital, who’s now back under Sumlin’s wing as the offensive coordinator in College Station.
It begins as a friendly rivalry. It ends with a bomb on the bus and two up-tempo, 7-5 offenses with nothing to lose laying down rubber to keep the pace from dropping below 50 points per hour.
Most Geographically Obvious: Poinsettia Bowl (December 23)
In a way, the Poinsettia Bowl landed not one hometown team, but two: San Diego State plays its home games in the host venue, Qualcomm Stadium, and Navy is a significant draw for the largest U.S. naval base on the West Coast, located less than 10 miles away. When the Aztecs and Midshipmen met in this game in 2010, the announced attendance exceeded 48,000, by far the best crowd since the Poinsettia Bowl came online in 2005. If this year’s game matches that, it will be more than a 30 percent increase over SDSU’s average attendance in Qualcomm this year (32,294), which is already inflated by a significant margin.
Most Geographically Absurd: Foster Farms Bowl (December 30)
Stanford will wake up on game day and drive 20 minutes from Palo Alto to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Meanwhile, Maryland will travel nearly 3,000 miles cross-country for the privilege of arriving on the underdog end of the most lopsided point spread (the Terps are plus-14) of the entire bowl season. No wonder coach Randy Edsall appears to be planning a Kong-like rampage across the entire Bay Area:
Most Dependent on One Player: Russell Athletic Bowl (December 29)
If Clemson’s freshman quarterback phenom, Deshaun Watson, is cleared to play against Oklahoma on a partially torn ACL, the game may very well double as the launch party for one of 2015’s most crowded bandwagons: Watson, who was limited to essentially four full games and some change as Clemson’s primary signal-caller, ranks as the nation’s most efficient passer among players with at least 100 attempts, just ahead of Marcus Mariota.9 If Watson goes under the knife, the Tigers will be forced to turn to fifth-year senior Cole Stoudt, and the game may very well bog down into a game of chicken between offenses terrified of their own quarterbacks. Stoudt looked like a bona fide liability down the stretch, serving up five interceptions in just 42 attempts in the Tigers’ last three games. On the other side, redshirt freshman Cody Thomas has been erratic, to say the least, and the Oklahoma offense ground to a halt in last weekend’s deflating loss to Oklahoma State after the early exit of freshman tailback Samaje Perine. Between Watson, Perine, OU quarterback Trevor Knight, and OU receiver Sterling Shepard, the “questionable” list at the moment is way more interesting than the actual starting lineups.
Most Likely to Fuel Wildly Inflated Expectations for 2015: Holiday Bowl (December 27)
Holly Anderson covered the spectacular debut of the Deshaun Watson Show in October, before the first of multiple injuries that have limited his rise.
USC is coming off a 49-14 massacre of Notre Dame to close the regular season and has a chance to unload again on a Nebraska outfit still suspended in that weird limbo state between head coaches. As you probably don’t need to be told, any 9-4 USC team coming off consecutive blowouts of name-brand ciphers to end the year is likely to be met with enthusiasm the following year, and that’s particularly true for this bunch. The starting lineup features just four seniors, and junior quarterback Cody Kessler is closing in on arguably the best statistical season in school history. Man-for-man, the Trojans remain the gold standard for blue-chip talent west of the Mississippi, and another full recruiting class in February will alleviate some of the lingering depth issues inflicted by NCAA sanctions. You know USC’s going to break through again eventually. Why not next year?