The games and players we’re most excited to watch this bowl season

Now that we’re the past the chaos of the weekend and the College Football Playoff being set between No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Alabama, we look ahead to what the rest of the postseason is going to bring us, and there is no shortage of high-profile and exciting games.

We break down the games and players we are most excited to watch once bowl season gets underway on Saturday, Dec. 16.

Jump to: CFP | New Year’s Six | The best of bowl season
Who has something to prove | Under-the-radar players

What are you excited to see in the playoff?

Blake Baumgartner: We’ve been here before with Texas and Washington. By the time the Allstate Sugar Bowl kicks off on New Year’s Day night, 368 days will have passed since the first year of the Kalen DeBoer era in Seattle concluded with a 27-20 victory over Steve Sarkisian and Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl. A track meet is likely to ensue in New Orleans with Michael Penix Jr. (FBS-leading 4,218 passing yards with 33 touchdowns) and Quinn Ewers (3,161 passing yards with 21 touchdowns) calling the shots for two of the most explosive offenses in the country, with Texas ninth (475.9 YPG) and Washington not too far behind at 12th (469.1 YPG). How much does last December’s meeting in San Antonio play into preparation for this year’s? I’m unsure, but it undoubtedly adds intrigue and should provide a fun watch with the Huskies (1991) and Longhorns (2005) looking to end long national championship droughts.

Mark Schlabach: What font will the asterisk next to Michigan‘s national title be if the Wolverines finally get it done? Arial? Comic Sans MS? Times New Roman? There will be a lot of college football fans across the country rooting for Alabama — as difficult as that might be for some — to beat the Wolverines in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Prudential. The same goes for the winner in the other CFP semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, either Texas or Washington, if the Wolverines win their first CFP game under coach Jim Harbaugh on New Year’s Day. Florida State‘s unprecedented snub in the CFP might have stolen headlines on Selection Day, but Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal isn’t going to be swept under the rug for many fans.

Chris Low: It wasn’t too long ago that Jalen Milroe was standing on the sideline and watching Tyler Buchner (yes, the same Tyler Buchner who just transferred to play lacrosse at Notre Dame) and Ty Simpson combine to complete 10 passes in an ugly win over South Florida. Now, here he is in the College Football Playoff three months later as one of the hottest players in the sport, trying to lead Alabama to its seventh national championship under Nick Saban. Milroe wasn’t on anybody’s radar back in September as a player who could be a catalyst for his team taking home the top prize. He’s like an explosive running back with great acceleration who’s gained increasing confidence to stand in the pocket, and he’s stepped up in the pocket when necessary to deliver big-time throws. Oh yeah, he’s pretty good at improvising, too. See his flip pass against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Michigan’s defense is stout and especially adept at bullying teams. It should make for good theater seeing Milroe go up against an elite defense for the second straight game after engineering Alabama’s 27-24 win over Georgia to win the SEC title.

Paolo Uggetti: Can the Pac-12 go out with a bang? It was a banner year for the conference in more ways than one. Elite quarterbacks ruled the season and, at one point, the conference had nine ranked teams in the AP Top 25. It took an undefeated Washington team to give the Pac-12 its first playoff team since 2016. Now, the Huskies will be carrying the conference into a matchup with Texas. A win and they’ll be the first to make it to a national title game since Oregon did in 2015. This season, the Huskies have shown they know how to simply keep winning in any situation. Can they keep it going?

Adam Rittenberg: Whether Michigan can take the step from bullying the Big Ten to winning on the national stage. This was a problem under Jim Harbaugh’s coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler, and has been a problem during Harbaugh’s tenure as well. Harbaugh is 1-6 in bowls at Michigan, including losses in each of the past two CFP semifinals. The Wolverines don’t have an obvious weakness, although their offense didn’t impress against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. They will need their best effort to take down Nick Saban and Alabama at the Rose Bowl. If they fall short, how will we look at this era at Michigan? I can’t wait to see what happens.

Which New Year’s Six bowl game are you most looking forward to?

Baumgartner: Oregon and Liberty have made the lives of opposing defenses miserable all season long and that should set the stage for a very entertaining Vrbo Fiesta Bowl. Both teams feature dynamite quarterbacks, Bo Nix (Oregon) and Kaidon Salter (Liberty), who lead the second-and-third-best offenses, respectively, in the country — Oregon at 526.6 YPG and Liberty at 514.9 YPG. We know Jamey Chadwell and the Flames will be excited to be there with Salter (3,814 total yards and 43 total touchdowns) leading the way for the first Conference USA team to reach the New Year’s Six. Can the Ducks put another three-point loss to Washington in the rear-view mirror and allow Nix (4,145 passing yards with 40 TDs) to conclude his collegiate career in proper fashion?

Schlabach: I thought there were better potential matchups available — Georgia vs. Oregon in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl or Ohio State vs. Florida State in the Capital One Orange Bowl — than what we’ll actually watch. That being said, the Orange Bowl will be interesting, if not entertaining, to see how the Seminoles look on offense and who shows up for the Bulldogs. Is Georgia quarterback Carson Beck coming back or entering the NFL draft? Will star tight end Brock Bowers and receiver Ladd McConkey, two of the most competitive guys on the team, play one more game? Their motivation level might take a hit after the Bulldogs were left out of the CFP with a 12-1 record. The two-time defending national champions insist they’ll be ready to play, but it’s impossible to really know. If Florida State knocks off Georgia, the Seminoles will undoubtedly claim a national title. They can order their T-shirts from the same vendor that printed the UCF ones in 2017.

Hale: The best bowl games often come from two programs with diametrically opposed styles, and that’s exactly what makes the Peach Bowl so intriguing. Ole Miss is all offense, all the time under coach Lane Kiffin. Penn State‘s defense was among the most dominant in the country in 2023 (even if its offense was unaware of the forward pass at times). Drew Allar, Quinshon Judkins, Kaytron Allen and others provide ample star power, and both fan bases should show up in full force in Atlanta. Plus, the game’s on a Saturday, so the Chick-fil-A at Mercedes Benz Stadium will be open. Spicy chicken sandwiches all around!

Rittenberg: Ohio State’s transfers and opt-outs change the outlook for the Buckeyes in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, but I’m still interested to see how coach Ryan Day and his players respond from their latest setback against Michigan. They take on a Missouri team that seemingly will be much more motivated at AT&T Stadium after a surprising 10-2 season. The Tigers’ backfield of Brady Cook and Cody Schrader is must-see, and will provide a real challenge for a Buckeyes’ defense that couldn’t get off the field against Michigan. Missouri’s defense is solid, too, and goes against a Buckeyes’ offense now featuring Devin Brown at quarterback and most likely new faces around the field. Ohio State has handled these consolation bowls better than expected, winning the Rose Bowl after both the 2018 and 2021 seasons. Day certainly is incentivized to regain some goodwill after another Michigan failure. Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz joked on ESPN that he would be getting intel on the Buckeyes from former Michigan staff member Connor Stalions. It should be an interesting night at Jerry World.



Missouri coach makes Connor Stalions joke to end interview

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz jokes that he’s getting a call from alleged Michigan signal-stealer Connor Stalions ahead of the Tigers’ matchup vs. Ohio State.

Which under-the-radar bowl is a must watch?

Baumgartner: James Madison‘s fight for bowl eligibility amid its two-year transition from FCS to FBS was one of the season’s captivating storylines as it got off to a 10-0 start and “College GameDay” came to town ahead of its game with Appalachian State. With coach Curt Cignetti now at Indiana and quarterback Jordan McCloud (3,413 passing yards with 32 lTDs; 311 rushing yards and eight rushing TDs) intending to play despite entering the transfer portal, the Dukes’ matchup with Air Force in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23 reeks a little of uncertainty. But something will have to give with the Falcons’ rush offense (275.8 YPG; second in the FBS) going up against a Dukes’ rush defense that has allowed just 61.5 yards per game, which led the entire country. James Madison has won at a high level and has done so frequently — five 11-win seasons since 2016 — and is aiming to finish with 12 victories for the second time in the past two seasons.

Schlabach: The Las Vegas Bowl features what might be the best coaching job of the season by Northwestern‘s David Braun and one of the best of the past decade in Utah‘s Kyle Whittingham. After winning 11 of their first 12 bowl games under Whittingham, the Utes have fallen in four straight. Braun worked a miracle after taking over for longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald in July following a hazing investigation, then guiding the Wildcats to a 7-5 record.

Low: If you’re looking for a pairing of two coaches who’ve done serious work this year and the past couple of years, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl matchup between Kansas and UNLV should be one to watch. Lance Leipold has worked wonders at Kansas, which was 8-4 and 5-4 in the Big 12. Let’s put that into perspective. The last time the Jayhawks had a winning overall record was 2008, and it was only the third time in the past 30 years that Kansas finished with a winning record in conference play. Barry Odom wasn’t to be outdone in his first season at UNLV. The Rebels won nine games and made it to the Mountain West Conference championship game. Before Odom’s arrival, UNLV had suffered through nine straight losing seasons.

Uggetti: The Alamo Bowl seems to always deliver an entertaining matchup and this year’s game sets up for an offensive explosion with Oklahoma and Arizona suiting up in San Antonio. Despite the Sooners losing quarterback Dillon Gabriel to the transfer portal, the opportunity is there for freshman five-star prospect Jackson Arnold to show why he’s the guy for the job next season. On the other sideline, Noah Fifita has done just that this season. The freshman stepped in following an injury to Jayden de Laura and immediately became one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, throwing for 2,515 yards and 23 touchdowns while leading the Wildcats to a 9-3 record. Between Fifita’s rise and the potential emergence of Arnold, this will be a fun watch.

Hale: Florida State’s frustration at being snubbed by the committee might be echoed by another soon-to-be ACC team, SMU. The Mustangs got the opposite treatment of FSU though. While the Seminoles were left out based on a “best team” qualification, Liberty grabbed the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bid from the Mustangs based on its undefeated record. Was the committee talking out both sides of its mouth? Of course! But the upshot is SMU still gets an interesting matchup in the Fenway Bowl against its soon-to-be conference mate, Boston College. Both offenses can put up points, and who doesn’t love going to (checks notes) Boston in (checks notes again) December?

Kyle Bonagura: How about a little love for New Mexico State? The Aggies won 10 games for the first time in over 60 years as coach Jerry Kill, in Year 2, has somehow breathed life into a program that managed just eight combined wins in the four seasons before his arrival. Their first appearance in the Isleta New Mexico Bowl comes against a Fresno State team that, despite some tough losses down the stretch, has traditionally been one of the best Group of 5 programs. A win against the Bulldogs, who will be without their coach, Jeff Tedford, as he deals with a health issue, would tie NMSU’s school record for wins.

Rittenberg: The fact that none of you picked the Pop-Tarts Bowl is absurd and disappointing. Even if the matchup wasn’t interesting, we’re talking about Pop-Tarts here. The winner gets to EAT the Pop-Tart mascot! The matchup is pretty good, too, as NC State aims for the elusive 10th win against Kansas State, in a Top 25 matchup. Wolfpack quarterback Brennan Armstrong will cap an up-and-down season, while Kansas State should counter with Avery Johnson, its quarterback of the future. NC State hasn’t won 10 games since 2002, when Philip Rivers was its quarterback. Kansas State aims for consecutive seasons of nine or more wins for the first time since 2011 and 2012. But Pop-Tarts, guys. Enough said.

What player, team or coach has the most to prove in a bowl?

Baumgartner: J.J. McCarthy and Michigan have had a year to stew over what happened last season against TCU in the CFP. McCarthy threw two pick-sixes in the 51-45 loss to the Horned Frogs, but has since has had a solid junior season in Ann Arbor, throwing for 2,630 yards and 19 touchdowns for the three-time reigning Big Ten champions. But the standard at Michigan is higher than conference titles. The collective reaction to the drawing of Alabama in the Rose Bowl during the Wolverines’ watch party on Sunday was telling. They know they’ve got their work cut out for them with Nick Saban and company. But it provides the Wolverines a tremendous chance and opportunity to finally put those demons away for good if they can knock off the Tide and take a step they couldn’t a year ago and find themselves 60 minutes away from their first undisputed national championship since 1948. — Baumgartner



Michigan seems less than enthusiastic about facing Alabama in CFP

Check out Michigan’s reaction as the team finds out it is facing Alabama in the College Football Playoff.

Schlabach: Penn State quarterback Drew Allar is only a sophomore and a first-year starter, so I’m not sure he’s under any type of pressure heading into his game against Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. I’m sure Nittany Lions coach James Franklin would like to see Allar step up on a big stage. He completed 61.1% of his passes for 2,336 yards with 23 touchdown passes and one interception in the regular season. But Allar had 70 yards with one touchdown pass in a 24-15 loss to Michigan, then 191 yards with one score in a 20-12 loss at Ohio State. Franklin fired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich after the loss to the Buckeyes; he hired Kansas’ Andy Kotelnicki to replace him, but Kotelnicki will be only observing during bowl practices. Allar needs to take the next step if Penn State is ever going to challenge Michigan and Ohio State.

Wilson: Texas’ Quinn Ewers has an NFL arm. He’s got an NFL pedigree, going from the No. 1 overall recruit to the quarterback who led a storied program back to its first conference title after a 13-year drought and a College Football Playoff appearance. After a rocky first season as a starter last year in Austin, Ewers looked like a finished product in the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma State, completing his first 12 passes, finishing the day early after completing 35 of 46 passes for 452 yards and four touchdowns to one interception. He’s missed part of the past two seasons with injuries and has been leaning toward returning to Texas, but with another stellar performance or two in the spotlight, his draft stock could rise, making that a tougher decision. Not to mention that he grew up a Longhorns fan and has a chance to become an all-time Texas legend in the process.

Hale: The answer is undoubtedly Michigan. After one of the most controversial seasons in years, and on the heels of two straight playoff defeats, the Wolverines could really use a win. And unlike the past two seasons when Michigan was clearly facing an uphill climb to a national championship with the vaunted Georgia Bulldogs in the way, this year’s field is wide open for Jim Harbaugh’s team to win it all. Two teams that shouldn’t feel pressure to prove something, however, are Alabama and Florida State. For the Tide, their playoff berth was controversial, but not undeserved. Nick Saban has done perhaps his best coaching job ever this year, and a win in the playoff isn’t needed to justify the program’s success in 2023. By that same token, an FSU loss in the Orange Bowl says nothing about the Seminoles’ snub. With opt-outs, frustration and a handful of players going into the portal, whatever version of the Seminoles shows up in South Florida will be something far different than the team that walked off the field in Charlotte with an ACC title.

Low: The pick here is Nick Saban, but not for conventional reasons. After all the uproar — from fans, media, other coaches and other teams — about Alabama not being deserving of a playoff spot or that Saban’s influence (or the SEC brand) is what landed the Crimson Tide that fourth spot over Florida State, it now comes down simply to what Saban’s Alabama team does on the field, starting with Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Saban is a stickler when it comes to outside forces (even yummy rat poison) not affecting the way his team prepares or plays in games. There will be plenty of noise surrounding Alabama and its eighth playoff appearance. This might be the ultimate test for Saban’s process-oriented approach as the college football world outside the Alabama bubble world screams loudly and incessantly that the Tide don’t deserve to be in this position. But as Clint Eastwood, aka William Munny, said in “Unforgiven,” the best Western film ever made, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Bonagura: Look, Saban is far beyond ever having to prove himself in college football. Everyone should agree he’s the greatest coach in modern college football. That’s why Alabama is in the playoff over an undefeated Power 5 blue-blood program. The Great Alabama-Florida State Debate of 2023 will live on for years and however the Tide perform in the playoff will undoubtedly play an oversized role in how people justify their arguments in the future. It will never be as simple as vindication for the committee or proof they got it wrong, but rest assured, that’s often how it will be framed.

Which under-the-radar player should we have our eyes on?

Baumgartner: Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter has been the point man for a program that leads the nation in rushing (302.9 YPG), is third in total yards (514.9 YPG) behind LSU and Oregon and has gotten off to the program’s first-ever 13-0 start. Salter, who transferred from Tennessee, has accumulated 3,814 total yards (2,750 passing) and 43 total touchdowns (31 passing touchdowns) on the way to piloting an offense averaging 40.8 points a game (fifth in all of FBS). Seven times this season, Salter has accounted for at least four total touchdowns in a game as the Flames have tallied at least 30 points in all but one game this season (a 21-16 win over Sam Houston on Oct. 5).

Rittenberg: Boise State running back Ashton Jeanty appeared on my radar earlier this season and he’s not one to miss. Jeanty leads the nation in average yards from scrimmage (rushing or receiving) at 164.9 yards per game, 15.7 yards more than any other FBS player. The sophomore ranks sixth nationally in rushing yards per game (114.7) and also has 552 receiving yards and five touchdowns for Boise State, leading all FBS running backs in receiving yards per game (50.2). After helping Boise State to a Mountain West title Saturday, Jeanty announced Tuesday that he’s returning to the Broncos in 2024, passing up the portal and likely several lucrative offers. He will face UCLA, which leads the nation in rushing defense (69.6 ypg) but recently lost defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn to rival USC, in the Starco Brands LA Bowl. — Rittenberg

Low: Jaylen Raynor won’t fly under the radar for long. He put together the best season for an FBS true freshman quarterback in 2023 and didn’t establish himself as Arkansas State‘s full-time starter until the fourth game of the season. His play was a big reason the Red Wolves were able to get to a bowl game for the first time since 2019. They will face Northern Illinois in the Camellia Bowl. In 10 games, Raynor passed for 2,300 yards, rushed for 324 yards and accounted for 20 touchdowns. He’s a dynamic playmaker. His 15.2 passing yards per completion ranks seventh nationally. — Low

Wilson: UTSA senior quarterback Frank Harris has been the most important player in the school’s football history. First of all, he’s been there seven of the program’s 13 years in existence due to a redshirt, a medical redshirt and a COVID year. He almost couldn’t play this year, his final season, due to that history of knee issues dating back to high school, but a surgeon patched him up enough to play this year, though the Roadrunners held him out of a couple of nonconference games to preserve him. Harris is a San Antonio native, wildly popular in the community, and under Jeff Traylor, has taken the program to new heights, throwing for 11,862 yards and 91 touchdowns as the Roadrunners have won 31 games in the past three years. His impact on the history of UTSA football is cemented, but the one thing that the Roadrunners have never done is win a bowl game. So while the Scooter’s Coffee Frisco Bowl might not be on your radar, watching Harris try to make history in Texas — a player who really wants to play in one last bowl game — will be worth it. — Wilson


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