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Ranking the 2020 college football bowl games, 28-1: Sugar, Cotton, Boca Raton among major highlights – CBS Sports

The 2020 college football season has reached that wonderful time of year known as Bowl Season. Of course, like everything else in college football and the world this year, it doesn’t look like the Bowl Season we’re used to seeing. Due to so many teams opting out of the postseason and plenty of other bowls canceling the festivities this season, we only have 28 bowls. Last year, we had 39 — and the number was supposed to increase in 2020.

Also, the regular season ended on Saturday, meaning Bowl Season starts less than 48 hours after the regular season ends. And it’s starting on a Monday afternoon in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Usually, when you find yourself in Myrtle Beach on a Monday afternoon, it means you just woke up from the night before with one hell of a headache.

Oh, and did I mention that the Rose Bowl is being played in Texas? Yeah, the Rose Bowl is being played in Texas this year. But other than all of that, this Bowl Season looks just like any other — except the term is now capitalized for some corporate reasons. And there’s the fact that a ton of teams with losing records are playing in games.

But I digress! If you’re looking for some normalcy, my method for ranking the bowls has not changed. I still approach this process by looking at three key areas that are more impactful.

  • Strength of the teams: Generally speaking, games with good teams will more often lead to better games.
  • Matchup quality: A team can be good and rated highly in my system, but if it’s going against a team that will be favored by at least two touchdowns over it, odds are the game won’t be that entertaining.
  • Styles of play: Styles make fights, and every team has its style. Some may make for intriguing matchups, while others could lead to a dull, boring game.

Then when things are close, I take a look at potential storylines. You know, like when a coach is facing his former school or the game is being played inside an active volcano (maybe next year). So, now that you know how it works let’s get to ranking. All times listed are Eastern, and all dates are Gregorian.

Dec. 21, 2:30 p.m. — Congratulations, Myrtle Beach Bowl. Not only are you the first bowl of the season, but you’re the first on this list. Unfortunately, that means you’re also the worst. Listen, there’s nothing I love more than a football stadium with teal turf and an end zone that’s separated from a street by a chain-link fence, but this matchup isn’t very appealing. Appalachian State is a lot better than the 4-5 North Texas squad it’ll be facing. The spread in this game is roughly three touchdowns for a reason. It’s not likely to be close with the Mountaineers (8-3) a threat for a potential blowout. Appalachian State is 5-0 all-time in bowl games.

Dec. 23, 3 p.m. — You know, in a normal year, being rewarded with a free trip to New Orleans is something to be celebrated. I’m not so sure the city has the same charm when you’re socially distanced. Of course, I doubt the players will see much outside of the hotel lobby while in town anyway. Stylistically, there’s a chance for some fun here. Georgia Southern runs an option offense, and quarterback Shai Werts is always Werts your time (puns!). Werts’ 649 rushing yards this season were the most by any quarterback in the country outside of Liberty’s Malik Willis. Still, as exciting as Werts can be, overall, this game doesn’t have the most appeal. Then again, neither do I, and I know of at least one person who loves me, so anything is possible.

26. LendingTree: Georgia State vs. Western Kentucky

Dec. 26, 3:30 p.m. — The LendingTree Bowl makes me think of “The Giving Tree,” the story of a boy and an apple tree. As the child, the boy plays with the tree, spends time with it, and the tree rewards it with apples. As the boy ages, his relationship with the tree becomes purely transactional. He just shows up to get an apple or shade or whatever he needs. The book ends with the tree as a stump and the boy as an elderly man with no teeth who just wants to sit down. It’s depressing! I don’t know what my mom was trying to tell me when she gave it to me as a kid! Anyway, yeah, this probably means I’m going to have an apple while watching this game. It features a Western Kentucky team that started the year 1-4 but won three straight to finish the season, and a Georgia State squad playing in its fourth bowl game in only eight seasons as an FBS team. There’s a good chance this game will be high scoring and close. Georgia State went 4-4 this season, and its games featured an average of 73.75 points per contest, with all of them being competitive games aside from a 51-0 loss to Coastal Carolina.

Dec. 24, 3:30 p.m. — This has a chance to be entertaining. It was a disappointing season for Houston as the Cougars finished 3-4, but their four losses came to BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Memphis. Hawaii is in a similar position with three of its four losses coming to San Diego State, Boise State and San Jose State. In other words, these are two average teams who have a habit of losing to teams they’re superior to. That can make for an interesting matchup. Of course, even if it isn’t, it’s worth tuning in just to check out Hawaii coach Todd Graham’s wristbands. They really pop off the screen.

Dec. 26, 12 p.m. — When South Carolina interim coach Mike Bobo was asked about his team’s vote to play in a bowl game, he said they didn’t vote because “there’s no vote in the SEC. You come to play in the SEC, you come to play ball.” I’m not sure how South Carolina players are going to feel about the conference not even giving them a choice in the matter. I mean, South Carolina already saw a bunch of opt outs after Will Muschamp was fired, and now the SEC is making them play in a bowl game the day after Christmas? The chances of a full-blown mutiny on the sideline bump this game up a few spots. Also, I do feel bad for UAB. It’s a Conference USA champion, and it gets lined up with a 2-8 SEC team for its bowl game. But perhaps the Blazers can lose some of that discontent to notch an SEC win.

23. Montgomery Bowl: Memphis vs. FAU

Dec. 23, 7 p.m. — Be aware that with FAU in this game, there’s a good chance it will be postponed. The Owls had four games postponed due to COVID-19 during the regular season, though only one in their last eight games. Despite the stops and starts, Willie Taggart had a decent performance in his first year with the Owls, as they enter this game at 5-3. Ryan Silverfield’s first year at Memphis was pretty successful, too. The Tigers are 7-3 but flew under the radar a bit in the AAC because of Cincinnati and Tulsa both finishing 6-0 before they squared off in the AAC championship.

Dec. 26, 3:30 p.m. — I don’t mean to be disrespectful of UTSA here as Jeff Traylor’s first season with the Roadrunners was a success. They went 7-4 overall and finished second in their division. I just can’t help but feel like Louisiana is getting screwed over here. We’re talking about a Ragin’ Cajuns team that went 9-1 with a win over Iowa State and is ranked No. 16 in the final College Football Playoff Rankings. Can’t we get them against a more prominent opponent than UTSA? As for the matchup itself, it has some sneaky potential. The Cajuns are favored by about two touchdowns, and they should be, but this is a UTSA offense that can jump up and bite you if you aren’t careful. Running back Sincere McCormick is fifth in the country in rushing yards per game at 134.5.

 Dec. 31, 4 p.m. — Tennessee fans woke up Sunday, the day after losing to Texas A&M, wondering whether Jeremy Pruitt was going to be fired. They were then surprised to learn that their 3-7 Volunteers were getting a bowl invite. Tennessee will make the trip to Memphis to take on a West Virginia team that ran hot and cold this season. The Mountaineers are 5-4 thanks mainly to a defense that allowed only 20.4 points per game. The Tennessee offense averages 21.5 points per game, so this could be a battle for the ages!

Dec. 31, 12 p.m. — Seriously, what is going on with the SEC sending all these terrible teams to bowl games? Apparently, it does not mean as much as the SEC wants you to believe. Mike Leach’s tenure got off to what looked like a fantastic start when the Bulldogs beat LSU 44-34 to open the season. But then we learned LSU wasn’t very good, and neither were the Bulldogs. Tulsa, on the other hand, has been one of the most underappreciated teams in the country. The Golden Hurricane’s two losses have been a nine-point loss to Oklahoma State to open the season and a last-second 27-24 loss to Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game.

The best player on the field will be Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins. Not only does he have four sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions, but his name begins with a Z. Every name immediately sounds cooler when it has that Z sound starting it. That’s why everybody you know named Xavier pronounces it “Zavier” and not “X-avier.” Collins is worth the price of admission alone and was worth a couple of spots in these rankings.

 Jan. 2, 12 p.m. — NC State is one of the more surprising teams of the 2020 season. Expectations for the Wolfpack were pretty low, but the team ended up going 8-3 with respectable losses to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Miami. Of course, its best win is Liberty, which is why it’s only ranked No. 23, but it has an entertaining, no-name offense. Kentucky, on the other hand, has been pretty disappointing. The Wildcats went from winning 18 games over the last two seasons to finishing 4-6 this year. They’re solid defensively, though, as they allowed only 20.9 points per game against teams that weren’t Alabama and Florida. That could make for your classic matchup of offense and defense here. Not to mention the classic matchup of cats and dogs.

Dec. 31, 8 p.m. — Well, would you look at that? Another SEC team with a losing record playing in a bowl game. Honestly, everybody made fun of LSU for self-imposing a bowl ban this year, but the Tigers finished 5-5! They would have deserved a bowl game! Instead, we’ve got two and three-win teams getting their spot. Though, to be totally honest, I’m cool with Arkansas getting a bowl game because I like Sam Pittman that much. Also, this is an old school SWC reunion. The Texas Bowl always seems to do a solid job finding interesting storylines for its game with a local connection. Both of these teams have been extremely profitable for gamblers as well with each 7-3 ATS this year. That despite Arkansas being an underdog in all 10 games it played.

Dec. 30, 12 p.m. — First of all, let’s get the obvious joke out of the way quickly. The only bowl that would be more apropos for Wisconsin to play in than the Mayo Bowl would be the Cheese Bowl. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Cheese Bowl, just a Cheez-It Bowl. As for the game itself, this matchup could be fun because it’s two fundamentally different styles. Wisconsin is looking to beat you up and tends to move at a slower pace. Wake Forest wants to move quickly and isn’t as much interested in playing defense as it is outscoring you. The Demon Deacons averaged 37.0 points per game this season, while only one team (Iowa, 28) scored more than 17 points against Wisconsin in 2020.

16. Music City: Iowa vs. Missouri

Dec. 30, 4 p.m. — I fear for Missouri in this matchup. It’s traditional school colors of black and gold are a fine combination in a vacuum, but the fact of the matter is that the combo pales compared to black and yellow. I’m afraid the Tigers will realize this going up against Iowa and have a crisis of confidence. As for the game itself, on paper, it looks interesting because it’s a Big Ten and SEC matchup. I can’t rank this higher because I also fear it’s a bit of a mismatch.

Northwestern fans are about to spit at their screens, but even after the Wildcats’ performance against Ohio State, I think Iowa finished the regular season playing like the second-best team in the Big Ten. Mizzou is 5-5, but its five wins have come against LSU, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Those five are a combined 13-36. When playing teams that finished with a winning record, like Iowa has, the Tigers were 0-3 and outscored by 78 points.

Dec. 25, 2:30 p.m. — It’s a battle of runners-up as Marshall enters the game fresh off a Conference USA championship loss to UAB. Buffalo suffered its first loss of the season in the MAC championship against Ball State. So, there could be some “feeling sorry for themselves” letdown potential from these teams. Thankfully, they have coaches in Marshall’s Doc Holliday and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold who aren’t likely to let that happen. As is always the case when two of the Group of Five’s best teams meet, we’ve got that sneaky potential for a great game.

Keep an eye on Marshall’s young, exciting QB Grant Wells and Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson. Patterson has rushed for 1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, which doesn’t strike you as anything incredible until you realize Buffalo has only played six games. His 178.7 rushing yards per game leads the nation, and if you extrapolate his numbers over the course of a 13-game season, he’d have 2,323 yards and 41 rushing touchdowns. The numbers look pretty incredible now, don’t they?

14. Arizona: Ball State vs. (22) San Jose State

Dec. 31, 2 p.m. — We go from a game between runners-up to a matchup of conference champions. If you’ve followed college football closely this year, you’ve heard plenty about teams like Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and BYU. You’ve heard about how the CFP has disrespected them and ignored them. Well, San Jose State might be the most ignored team of all in 2020. It finished 7-0 and won the Mountain West, but since the conference started later than those other three Group of Five powers, it was lost in the shuffle. This is a strong Spartans team we’re dealing with here, but even if this is a matchup of conference champions, I can’t rank it higher than this. Ball State’s had an impressive season, but I don’t think the Cardinals are at the same level as this SJSU team. It could be close, but I don’t expect it to be stressful.

Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m. — This game has the potential to be great. Nevada had a strong season, even if it didn’t finish as well as it started. The Wolf Pack have lost two of their last three, but one of those losses came to a very good San Jose State. They are led offensively by a pack of three in QB Carson Strong, WR Romeo Doubs and RB Toa Taua. It’s one of the best trios in the Group of Five. Then there’s Tulane, which always has a fun offense to watch due to its creativity. Michael Pratt is having an excellent season at QB for the Green Wave, and they have several different weapons on offense, including brothers named Deuce and Phat Watts. What isn’t to love?

Dec. 29, 9 p.m. — It’s a battle of the disappointing season and the surprise contenders. Texas might be ranked 20th, but Longhorns fans had much higher hopes for this team. Those hopes died early with consecutive losses to TCU and Oklahoma in a 2-2 start. The Horns played better down the stretch, but it didn’t matter much as there was still plenty of speculation about Tom Herman’s job status. Anyway, this is likely the last game in the college career of The Iconic Texas Quarterback Sam Ehlinger. You know he wants to go out with a win.

As for Colorado, where did the Buffaloes come from? This is a team that unexpectedly lost its coach to another job in February after he’d only been there a year. They replaced him with Karl Dorrell, who hadn’t been a head coach at the college level since 2007 at UCLA. Expectations were not high, but in a shortened season, the Buffs went 4-1 and nearly reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. Running back Jarek Broussard is second in the nation in rushing yards per game at 162.6.

Jan. 2, 12:30 p.m. — There’s a strong argument to make that Indiana got screwed this year. While I believe the Big Ten did the right thing in allowing Ohio State to play in the Big Ten championship (the Buckeyes did beat Indiana, after all), if the Hoosiers played in the game and beat Northwestern, they’d be in a New Year’s Six bowl. Instead, they’re in the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss. But you know what? It might not be what Indiana wanted, but it might be awesome for us.

Every Ole Miss game is dumber than the last because Lane Kiffin just wants his team to have the ball so he can call plays. So the Rebels defense is very accommodating, allowing opponents to score quickly. Unfortunately, with Rebels receivers Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah opting out to prepare for the NFL Draft, the game loses some luster. Still, Indiana receivers Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor are expected to play, and both will have monster games against this Rebels secondary. If any game has the chance to break 100 points, this is it.

10. Citrus: Auburn vs. (14) Northwestern

Jan. 1, 1 p.m. — This game reaches the top 10 because of name value more than anything. Plus, the last time these two met in a bowl game, it was pretty epic. Auburn won the 2010 Outback Bowl 38-35 in overtime, but the OT came after Northwestern rallied from 14 points down in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. My concern is that Auburn just paid Gus Malzahn over $20 million to go away, and the coaching search is a mess at the moment. It’s hard to know how that will impact the team’s preparation and motivation to play. That’s not the case with Northwestern, even though Pat Fitzgerald’s name is now coming up in NFL coaching circles. If both teams show up interested in playing, this could be an exciting — if low-scoring — contest. If they don’t, it could get ugly quickly.

9. Cure: (12) Coastal Carolina vs. Liberty

Dec. 26, 12 p.m. — Remember how excited everybody was for the impromptu meeting between Coastal Carolina and BYU this season? Well, it was impromptu because Coastal’s original opponent for that game had to cancel due to COVID-19 issues. That opponent was Liberty. Well, while nearly everybody was pumped for Coastal-BYU, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted to see the matchup between Coastal and Liberty because I felt it had the potential to get stupid in the best way possible. Now, the game against BYU turned out to be wonderful, too, but I still think this game has a chance to be The Bowl Game Everybody Is Talking About when it’s finished. These are two entertaining and exciting offenses to watch as coaches Jamey Chadwell and Hugh Freeze are terrific play-callers. Combined record of these teams? 20-1. Want scoring? Liberty and Coastal put points on the board ranking 17th (38.3 points) and 18th (37.5 points) in scoring average.

8. Cheez-It: (18) Miami vs. (21) Oklahoma State

Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m. — It’s the Cheez-It Bowl, but it’s not the Cheez-It Bowl I grew up watching (the last two seasons). That Cheez-It Bowl, the one played in Arizona after 10 p.m. ET on a weeknight, is now the Guaranteed Rate Bowl and will not be played this season. This Cheez-It Bowl is in Orlando and was called the Camping World Bowl the last three seasons. Still, while I want to be angry about it and knock the game down a few pegs, I can’t. It’s a good matchup!

Miami has had a good season thanks to transfer QB D’Eriq King, and while Oklahoma State’s season faded a bit down the stretch, the Cowboys are good, too. There is solid potential for an excellent game here, even if I’m never going to accept it as the real Cheez-It Bowl. Beware that this isn’t your grandma’s Oklahoma State team. The Cowboys allowed only 22.4 points per game this season. That’s their best performance since allowing 21.6 points in 2013 when they reached the Cotton Bowl.

7. Fiesta: (10) Iowa State vs. (25) Oregon

Jan. 2, 4 p.m. — For those of you joining the season just now, a quick recap on Oregon: The Ducks did not win the Pac-12 North but did win the Pac-12 title. This is because Washington — the team that did win the North — could not play in the game due to COVID-19 issues. So, since the show must go on, the Pac-12 had Oregon step in even though Colorado had a better record than it did because Colorado and USC, who did not play one another this season, are in the same division. Oregon then beat a USC team playing on a short week that had to prepare for two different teams (the other being Washington). Caught up? Good.

None of this is to say Oregon is a bad team, because it’s not. But it is a team that has had a lot of star players opt-out or get hurt. It will be facing an Iowa State squad that is quite good and had been in contention for a playoff spot until losing its rematch against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. Let’s all hope Iowa State running back Breece Hall plays in the game, as he led the nation with 1,436 rushing yards this year.

6. Orange: (5) Texas A&M vs. (13) North Carolina

Jan. 2, 8 p.m. — Yes, please. Listen, I know Texas A&M fans are disappointed about being left out of the playoff, but did you really want to watch your team get crushed by Alabama again? I prefer the Orange Bowl option against North Carolina. Not only are these two more evenly-matched teams, but this is a matchup that could produce the best bowl game of the season. North Carolina’s offense is explosive and fun to watch. It can beat you on the ground and in the air while scoring 43 points per game. Texas A&M’s offense isn’t quite as good (31.7 points per game), but matchup wise, there’s potential for both teams to break the 40-point mark in this one. I’d take that over being a sacrificial lamb to the Tide every day of the week.

5. Boca Raton: (16) BYU vs. UCF

Dec. 22, 7 p.m. — One thing all fans must realize is that sometimes the best bowl games are the smaller ones. When it comes to the New Year’s Six, there’s a lot on the line for teams and coaches. Then there are games like the Boca Raton Bowl between two good teams that can just have fun because winning or losing isn’t going to decide anybody’s fate. BYU has been one of the most fun teams to watch all season long, and the Cougars have a legit potential first-round QB in Zach Wilson. They put up points in a hurry and were one of the potential Cinderella stories this year. UCF is the original CFP Cinderella story, and even if the Knights had a disappointing (by their standards) 6-3 season, they’re still a UCF team that scored 44.3 points per game. BYU averaged 43 points per game. Do the math there, and what you get is a game that should be a lot of fun.

4. Peach: (9) Georgia vs. (8) Cincinnati

Jan. 1, 12 p.m. — Let’s get our story straight right now. If Cincinnati wins this game, it does not prove that the Bearcats deserved a College Football Playoff berth and were screwed over by the CFP Selection Committee. It just means that Georgia “didn’t want to be there.” Now, if Georgia wins the game, then it’s proof that Cincinnati didn’t even belong in the conversation, and anybody who thought it did was just another deluded fool who “doesn’t understand football.” Got it? If you have any questions, ask them now because I don’t want any confusion later.

Seriously, though, this is a matchup I find quite interesting. Cincinnati is genuinely a good football team, and while I don’t think it would have had a prayer of beating Alabama, I feel that way about generally everybody but maybe two teams. Georgia is a good team as well, and it’s been better since making the switch to J.T. Daniels at QB. I know I joked around about the narratives that will surround this game afterward, and there will be plenty more beforehand, but my advice is to just go in expecting a good college football game. Odds are you’re going to get one.

3. Rose semifinal (1) Alabama vs. (4) Notre Dame

Jan. 1, 4 p.m. — How exciting a game this is will come down to which Notre Dame shows up. The Fighting Irish were beat soundly by Clemson in the ACC Championship, and that dredged up the old narrative about Notre Dame in big games. It’s a narrative based on Alabama crushing it in the 2012 BCS Championship Game. What’s often ignored is that even though Clemson crushed the Irish 30-3 in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals to add to that narrative, the same Clemson team went on to beat Alabama 44-16 a week later. It also ignores that Notre Dame beat Clemson earlier this season.

Still, Alabama is something entirely different. There is a realistic chance that this Alabama team has three Heisman Trophy finalists in QB Mac Jones, RB Najee Harris and WR DeVonta Smith. It is an absolute matchup nightmare for every team in the country, and Notre Dame has a high mountain to climb. But I promise you, this Notre Dame team is not the 2012 team that Alabama crushed. It’s better. It’s just, this 2020 Alabama team is better than that 2012 Alabama team, too. It’s not only second in the country in points scored per game at 49.7, it’s only allowed more than 24 points to any opponent twice this season. That’s how you go 11-0 and win your games by an average of 30.3 points.

2. Cotton: (7) Florida vs. (6) Oklahoma

Dec. 30, 8 p.m. — Get ready for some points to be scored. This is an odd situation for those of us who have followed this sport for a long time. It wasn’t that long ago when the argument you heard was that the Big 12 wasn’t real football because nobody played defense and that the “real football” was played in the SEC because defense wins championships. Now, here we are in a time when the most explosive offenses in the country are in the SEC, and it’s Oklahoma that has the better defense in a bowl matchup against an SEC team.

The Gators have lost three times this year, but one of them was a fluky loss, another came on the road by three to Texas A&M early in the season, and the third involved putting a scare into Alabama that not many other teams are capable of doing. Oklahoma is a team that was impacted by the strange nature of the 2020 season. It lost two of its first three games in part because it had a young, inexperienced QB who didn’t have an offseason to prepare him for the regular season. However, after that 1-2 start, the Sooners began playing much better football and will come into this game having won seven straight. They’ll be up against a Florida team that might genuinely be one of the country’s four best teams. This isn’t a College Football Playoff game, but it will feel like one.

1. Sugar semifinal: (2) Clemson vs. (3) Ohio State

Jan. 1, 8 p.m.: Listen, I will take all the Clemson and Ohio State games you want to give me. Last year’s semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl was one of the games of the year. The 2014 Orange Bowl was pretty great, too. The 2016 Fiesta Bowl, not so much! But while everybody wants to argue about whether Ohio State deserves this playoff spot — and there are sound arguments on both sides — all I care about is getting to watch this game.

It’s a battle between the two quarterbacks many believe will be the first two names called at the NFL Draft in Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. It’s a battle of two programs that have been at the top of their sport for most of the decade and churn out elite talent every single season. And if all that’s not enough for you, there’s plenty of extra spice thanks to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Not only was Dabo openly campaigning against Ohio State’s case for a playoff berth, but he put the Buckeyes at No. 11 on his latest Coaches Poll ballot.

Considering Dabo’s ability to find perceived slights against his team in anything said (or not said) about his team, what do you think Ryan Day and the Buckeyes will be able to do with that kind of motivation? It’s called the Sugar Bowl, but there’s going to be more salt than anything this year in what should be the best game of Bowl Season.

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