Navigating college football’s bowl season


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Clemson sophomore running back Travis Etienne (9) is a major contributor to the Tigers rushing offense.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

The matchups for all of college football’s postseason games were announced Sunday, from the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl to the Playoff Semifinals. The sport is dominated by the playoff discussion around this time of year, but there are plenty of other marquee matchups that are worth your attention during this bowl season.

One of the first notable games will feature two non-Power Five teams that each have an opportunity to cement their place in program and sport history. North Texas and Utah State are each one win away from setting program records for wins and they will meet in the New Mexico Bowl Dec. 15. Both teams are headlined by outstanding quarterbacks. Junior Mason Fine for North Texas and sophomore Jordan Love for Utah State each threw for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2018.

UAB is another feel-good story looking to punctuate an already wildly successful season. The school shut down its football program after the 2014 season to save money, but the team was reinstated in 2017. Now, the Blazers are conference champions for the first time in program history, and will play in their third bowl game ever against Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl Dec. 18.

This year’s lesser known bowls, even if they don’t garner much excitement, will feature a number of players expected to have their name called at next April’s NFL Draft. Football fans want to keep an eye on junior quarterback Justin Herbert — the nation’s top quarterback prospect — who will play for the final time as an Oregon Duck against the Michigan State Spartans in the Redbox Bowl New Year’s Eve.

Miami and Wisconsin will meet for the second straight season, but this year’s clash lacks the hype that their 2017 matchup brought. These two teams were narrow misses for the College Football Playoff a year ago, but an underwhelming season has left each to settle for the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, where the Hurricanes will look to avenge last year’s Orange Bowl defeat.

What looks like a bland matchup on paper will actually feature pro prospects on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor — once thought to be a Heisman contender — and his elite offensive line must contend with a Miami front four that is loaded with NFL talent, led by junior edge defender Shaquille Quarterman.

The first game between ranked opponents will take place in Orlando Dec. 28, when No. 16 West Virginia and No. 20 Syracuse face off in the Camping World Bowl. This contest will feature excellent quarterback play from Syracuse senior Eric Dungey and West Virginia redshirt senior Will Grier. Both players will look to close stellar college careers on a high note and this should be a high-scoring and entertaining spectacle.

Those who prefer a defensive battle won’t have to wait long. One day later, the Peach Bowl will feature two dominant defenses from No. 10 Florida and No. 7 Michigan. The Wolverines fell out of playoff contention after they were routed in the final game of the regular season by rival Ohio State, but they still boast the nation’s stingiest defense. Florida, meanwhile, has a game-changing player in junior defensive lineman Jachai Polite, who racked up 11 sacks and five forced fumbles this season.

Then, a classic battle of offense versus defense will take place in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. No. 8 UCF will bring its fifth-best scoring offense across the country to Glendale, Arizona, to face off against No. 11 LSU’s 32nd-best scoring defense. After being left out of the College Football Playoff despite their second straight undefeated season, UCF wants to make another statement in front of a national audience.

The biggest question is whether the Knights can replicate their offensive production without junior quarterback Mckenzie Milton, who went out for the season when he suffered a horrific leg injury in the final regular season game against South Florida. Redshirt first-year Darriel Mack Jr. replaced Milton and has performed well, but LSU will present a very different level of competition for Mack, who is making only his third career start.

The main event, the Playoff Semifinal games, has been moved up a couple of days from its usual date. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame will compete Dec. 29 to figure out who will meet in Santa Clara for the National Championship game.

First, the Cotton Bowl between Clemson and Notre Dame will be played at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. These two teams are undefeated, but got to this game in very different ways. Notre Dame has shown resolve and moxie, with junior quarterback Ian Book leading the Irish to close wins over Pitt and USC, among others.

Book will have his hands full when he faces the Tigers. Clemson has been nothing short of dominant, rolling through the ACC on to their fourth-straight conference title. Their defensive line is the best in the country and all four starters expect to be drafted in the NFL’s first two rounds. On the other side of the ball, first-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence is paired with sophomore ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne to create an offense that can score through the air and on the ground.

Later that night, Alabama will enter as a two-touchdown favorite against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The Crimson Tide are expected to roll once again, but their loaded defense will have to contend with one of the sport’s most electric offenses. Oklahoma boasts a dynamic trio of redshirt junior quarterback Kyler Murray, junior receiver Marquise Brown and sophomore receiver CeeDee Lamb that has combined to average a national-best 49.5 points per game.

That offense will try to cover for a defense that has been among the worst in the Power Five — the Sooners have allowed 40 or more points in four of their last five games.

Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa exited the SEC championship game early with an injury, but backup Jalen Hurts came in and led a game-winning touchdown drive. Tagovailoa should be back for this game and will make his final case for the Heisman Trophy — and things could get ugly if Oklahoma is unable to contain the Tide.