Best New Year's Six bowl? Favorite storyline? We've got that and more in our bowl preview
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Bowl season is here.
Who doesn't love looking at the schedule and seeing at least one college football game just about every day for the next two and half weeks? We know some bowls matter more than others. The ones OU and OSU will play are a big deal to folks in our state. The playoff games are important to just about every college football fan.
But college football fans will watch a lot of these games because, well, we're addicted to college football.
So with the bowls set to start Friday, The Oklahoman asked its college football coverage team to take a look at the bowls and share the games, the players and the stories that they're most looking forward to during this bowl season.
Bowl game you'll rearrange your schedule to watch?
Scott Wright, OSU beat writer: Alabama vs. Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. Bama had its playoff hopes dashed by a couple of last-minute losses. Kansas State made an unexpected run to the Big 12 title. Two teams trending in opposite directions. Everyone knows K-State will be jacked to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. How will Bama feel about it?
Ryan Aber, OU beat writer: The Gator Bowl. Notre Dame vs. the giant slayers South Carolina has become? I'll be watching, probably from the Orlando airport heading home from OU’s bowl. Shane Beamer's team ended the playoff hopes of Tennessee and Clemson late in the season, and Spencer Rattler has rebounded after some rough patches. After a rough start, Notre Dame has salvaged Marcus Freeman's first season as head coach, but a bowl victory would make it even more impressive.
Jacob Unruh, OSU beat writer: I want to say one of the playoff games, but that's obvious, right? So, I'll go away from those and pick the Rose Bowl. Utah and Penn State match up well in a game that could come down to the final possession. Plus, I just love the Rose Bowl.
Justin Martinez, OU beat writer: No surprise from the San Antonio native here, but I’ll be rearranging my schedule to watch UTSA face Troy in the Cure Bowl on Friday. It’s the only bowl matchup in the month of December that features two conference champions, and neither team has lost a game since Week 3.
Jenni Carlson, columnist: Sugar Bowl for me. Alabama vs. Kansas State. The Wildcats finished as strong as any team while the Crimson Tide had a meh season by its standards. With Alabama losing multiple players to the draft and the portal, the Wildcats have a huge opportunity.
Best New Year's Six bowl?
Martinez: Tulane is in the Cotton Bowl. I repeat, Tulane is in the Cotton Bowl. The Green Wave has surprised everyone this season, and it’d be the ultimate surprise if it could upset USC and Heisman Trophy quarterback Caleb Williams on Jan. 2.
Carlson: I love Tulane. (Think any OU fans will go to Dallas to pull against Lincoln Riley?) But I have to go Fiesta. Michigan vs. TCU. Horned Frogs quarterback Max Duggan is a total gamer, so don’t be surprised if this one goes down to the wire.
Unruh: The Peach Bowl. Ohio State got in the College Football Playoff despite ending the regular season with a blowout loss. The Buckeyes certainly have the talent to win the national title. Going to Atlanta and upsetting Georgia would be quite impressive.
Wright: Tulane vs. USC in the Cotton Bowl. The intrigue of a Group of Five team with no real winning tradition facing off against one of the sport’s bluebloods with a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback is off the charts. And this is a little taste of the kind of matchups we’ll eventually be getting in the early rounds of the 12-team playoff.
Aber: The Fiesta Bowl. TCU keeps things interesting, and it’ll do that once again here. Max Duggan's rise to stardom has been one of the biggest storylines of this season, and he'll show why again on the biggest stage. But that wasn't quite enough in the Big 12 Championship Game. Will it be against Michigan and Donovan Edwards?
Which non-New Year's Six bowl has you most excited?
Wright: The Gator Bowl. Notre Dame and South Carolina both had some shaky moments early and some intriguing wins later in the year. Outside of the NY6, there are only three games pitting ranked opponents, and this is the best of them.
Unruh: The Cure Bowl matchup of Texas-San Antonio and Troy. Two conference champions on 10-game winning streaks? It might not grab the national headlines, but there will be some good football. Sign me up.
Aber: The ReliaQuest Bowl. It was going to be a fun one anyway — Illinois' tough defense led by former OU graduate assistant Ryan Walters (who has taken the Purdue head coaching job) against Mike Leach's offense. Leach's death, though, has turned this game into a celebration of his life, his quirkiness and his lasting impact on football at every level. Here's hoping the Bulldogs wear pirate flags on their helmets for the bowl.
Martinez: The Gator Bowl. South Carolina finished the regular season with wins over Tennessee and Clemson, and it’s now facing Notre Dame on Dec. 30. It seems like forever ago that former OU quarterback Spencer Rattler was projected to be atop the 2021 NFL Draft, but he has looked like that caliber of a player with the Gamecocks the past two games.
Carlson: Maybe Justin doesn’t think he can pick this because of his Lone Star State roots, but I’m going Texas vs. Washington in the Alamo. Two good quarterbacks, Quinn Ewers and Michael Penix Jr. Could be a lot of points, even without Bijan Robinson.
Carlson: Mississippi State hasn’t always been lovable, even as an underdog, but the Bulldogs certainly will be against Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl. After the death of head coach Mike Leach earlier this week, it will be very easy to pull for Mississippi State.
Unruh: Tulane. This has nothing to do with the opponent being USC. It has everything to do with Tulane being in the Cotton Bowl. I've enjoyed watching Tulane win 11 games this season ― even beating Big 12 champion Kansas State ― and I certainly mostly love their uniform combinations.
Aber: It has to be Tulane, right? USC has plenty of Hollywood sizzle, from Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams to Lincoln Riley's offensive innovation to a defense that allows plenty of yards but forces turnovers in bunches. All of this sound familiar, Sooners' fans? If the Green Wave find a way to knock off Riley's Trojans in the Cotton Bowl, it would cap what has been a storybook season for a team no one envisioned before the season would be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six.
Martinez: There’s no bigger underdog than New Mexico State. The Aggies finished their regular season with a 6-6 record after their Week 6 game against San Jose State got canceled, but they received an NCAA waiver to add a Dec. 3 game against Valparaiso, won and became bowl eligible for only the second time since 1960. New Mexico State will face Bowling Green in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26.
Wright: Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. The Red Raiders are a 3.5-point underdog to Ole Miss, but this Tech team has been solid in Joey McGuire’s first year as head coach. And any chance the Big 12 has to poke the SEC bear, it needs to do it.
Unruh: Former Oklahoma State coordinators facing off. Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken is beloved in Stillwater for his tenure that resulted in a Fiesta Bowl win and Big 12 title. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is equally beloved for a run that led to a Fiesta Bowl win last season. Now, they meet in the playoff, with perhaps some orange bragging rights on the line.
Wright: The celebration of Mike Leach. The college football world lost such a unique human, and we need to hear all the fascinating stories people have to tell about interacting with him. Beyond that, his impact on college football, from former players and assistants who are scattered across the country in top coaching roles, is significant in bowl season. Sonny Dykes at TCU, Lincoln Riley at USC, Josh Heupel at Tennessee, Dave Aranda at Baylor, Dana Holgorsen at Houston. Leach and his impact deserve to be celebrated.
Martinez: The college football world will be rooting for Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois on Jan. 2. The Bulldogs will be without Leach, who died late Monday night due to heart condition complications. Mississippi State will look to win in memory of The Pirate.
Aber: Conference champions facing off. Quick — what's the only bowl game to feature two conference champions? If you said the Cure Bowl, congratulations. Troy against UTSA. There aren't any household names on either roster, but the winner here will get a signature win to cap a remarkable season.
Carlson: Can a quarterback who watched his beloved head coach get fired, then was passed over for the starting job but didn’t transfer out lead his team to a national title? From what we’ve seen from TCU quarterback Max Duggan, I wouldn’t rule it out.
Best player matchup?
Aber: Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud vs. Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter in the Peach Bowl. If the Buckeyes are to win this game, Stroud is going to need to be effective against the Bulldogs' stout defense. If Carter gets to Stroud repeatedly, it could be a long night for Ohio State.
Unruh: Does a quarterback matchup count? North Carolina's Drake Maye and Oregon's Bo Nix could face off (if Nix is cleared to play). If both are playing, the Holiday Bowl could become quite a show.
Wright: Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn vs. Alabama linebacker Henry To’oto’o. Not only is it an elite name matchup, but To’oto’o is a tackling machine for the Tide, while Vaughn is a missed-tackle master. Can the 5-foot-6, 176-pound Vaughn make the Alabama defense look silly, just like he’s been doing to Big 12 defenders for years?
Martinez: It isn’t a player-player matchup, but TCU quarterback Max Duggan will face his biggest test of the season when he goes up against Michigan’s defense in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. The Wolverines are allowing just 277.1 yards per game this season, which is the second-lowest average in the nation.
Carlson: Can the Stetson Bennett legend add another chapter? Georgia’s quarterback already has a national title, but Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will have more than a month to prepare his guys for Bennett and Co. in the national semifinal.
Bowl that will have everyone buzzing?
Unruh: The Fiesta Bowl. Most of the nation has witnessed the magical run this season by TCU, but this will be a true showing, even if the Horned Frogs lose. Max Duggan has a good chance to really capture the nation's heart, especially if he leads TCU to the upset.
Aber: The Rose Bowl. Last year's Rose Bowl was epic and this one figures to be, too. Penn State is sneaky good, with its only losses coming to Michigan and Ohio State. Utah is dangerous with Cameron Rising behind center — just ask USC. The Utes are the team of the moment, but this bowl could be more about the future because Penn State looks like it could be a contender for the College Football Playoff next season.
Martinez: The Sugar Bowl. If Alabama comes out like a team that doesn’t want to be there, it could easily find itself in trouble against a Kansas State team that beat TCU in the Big 12 title game. Everyone already buzzes whenever the Crimson Tide misses out on the College Football Playoff. Chaos would ensue if it loses to the Wildcats.
Carlson: The very orange Orange Bowl. Clemson vs. Tennessee. But the team colors won’t cause the buzz. Cade Klubnik has taken over at quarterback at Clemson, and his first start will be the Orange. Is he the Tigers’ next QB star? Could he get Clemson back to the playoff? We’ll get some early answers.
Wright: The Fiesta Bowl. Did TCU belong in the playoff? Is Max Duggan really that good? Does the Big 12 suck? Lots of direct and indirect storylines tied to this game that have been talking points across college football for weeks. And the spotlight is on the Horned Frogs when they line up against Michigan on New Year’s Eve.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: College football: Bowl preview with best matchups, favorite underdog and more