College football bowl season: Breaking down all 28 games

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The 2020 college football bowl season figures to be like none other, with COVID-19 issues causing some squads to opt out and bowl games having to be canceled because of a lack of participating teams.

Still, there are 28 bowl games left to keep us entertained between now and the Jan. 11 College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

Here are the players and storylines to watch in each of those bowl games:

College Football Playoff

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame

Friday, Jan. 1, 2021

AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Alabama (11-0)

Key player: RB Najee Harris. Quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith will probably be among the Heisman Trophy finalists. Harris deserves an invitation, too. Harris leads the FBS with 24 rushing touchdowns and is No. 1 in the SEC with 1,262 rushing yards. He had 248 yards of total offense and five total scores in a 52-46 victory over Florida, the most touchdowns by a player in the SEC championship game.

Storyline to watch: Alabama center Landon Dickerson suffered a left knee injury in the final minutes of the SEC championship game. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban called the injury "pretty serious," and Dickerson is expected to miss the CFP. He started every game the past two seasons. Senior Chris Owens and sophomore Darrian Dalcourt are the Tide's backup centers.

Notre Dame (10-1)

Key player: QB Ian Book. Alabama's secondary was surprisingly vulnerable against Florida's fast-paced offense, surrendering 408 passing yards and 10.2 yards per completion. For Notre Dame to have a chance, Book is going to have to play extremely well. He has completed 64% of his attempts for 2,601 yards with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Storyline to watch: The Fighting Irish have been embarrassed in their past two trips to college football's biggest stage, losing to Clemson 30-3 in a CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl in 2018 and 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS National Championship following the 2012 season. Will the Irish perform better this time?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl

No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State

Friday, Jan. 1, 2021

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

8 p.m. ET,ESPN/ESPN App

Clemson (10-1)

Key player: QB Trevor Lawrence. Anybody who needed a reminder about what makes Lawrence the most valuable player in college football should watch what happened to Clemson against Notre Dame in November, and what happened to Clemson against Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. He was the literal difference between winning and losing. In the ACC championship game, Lawrence accounted for 412 yards and three touchdowns, and moved his record to 34-1 as a starter.

Storyline to watch: Clemson played its best, most complete game of the season in the ACC championship game, showing terrific balance on offense and renewed relentlessness on defense. At various points throughout the season, Clemson struggled on both the offensive and defensive lines. But what we saw in the rematch against Notre Dame was a team that played with a ferociousness and physicality that will make them tough to match up against in the playoff. Combine that with Lawrence, Travis Etienne and its other playmakers, and Clemson might be hitting its stride exactly at the right time.

Ohio State (6-0)

Key player: QB Justin Fields. Who knows what type of season Fields would have had if the Buckeyes had started their season in September like the ACC, SEC and Big 12. Instead, his body of work over six games was rather incomplete considering the challenges his team faced -- particularly in its two biggest games. In those games -- against Indiana and Northwestern -- Fields did not play his best. In fact, all five of his interceptions this season came in those two games. Clemson presents a far bigger challenge, and Fields sprained the thumb on his throwing hand in the Big Ten championship game, so that could be a factor as well.

Storyline to watch: These two teams played an epic semifinal a year ago, and Ohio State has been waiting for its shot at the rematch. But this is a different Buckeyes team than the one that faced Clemson last season, and they have not put together a dominant performance during their abbreviated season. Ohio State has dealt with widespread coronavirus issues for a month now, and with some eased restrictions on when players can return, perhaps it will be able to welcome back wide receiver Chris Olave and others who missed the Big Ten championship game. But considering how Clemson played in the ACC championship game and the way Ohio State struggled to pull away, how the Buckeyes practice and put together a game plan over a short period of time will be one of the biggest keys to the game.

Bowl season

Monday, Dec. 21

Myrtle Beach Bowl

Appalachian State vs. North Texas

Brooks Stadium, Conway, S.C.

2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Appalachian State (8-3)

Key player:
RB Camerun Peoples. The Mountaineers must be licking their chops to face a not-so-Mean Green defense that is surrendering 243.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 120th out of 127 FBS teams. North Texas allowed 301 rushing yards in its most recent game, a 45-43 win over UTEP. Peoples leads the Mountaineers with 807 rushing yards.

Storyline to watch: Appalachian State will be going for its sixth consecutive bowl victory and its second under coach Shawn Clark. The Mountaineers haven't lost in the postseason since moving to the FBS in 2014.

North Texas (4-5)

Key player:
QBs Jason Bean and Austin Aune. The Mean Green has rotated quarterbacks for much of the season and the results have been pretty good. North Texas averages 35.1 points and 515 yards of offense, which ranks seventh in the FBS. Bean (880 passing and 336 rushing) and Aune (1,650 passing) have both started games, and coach Seth Littrell has gone with the hot hand.

Storyline to watch: The Mean Green will be without star wide receiver Jaelon Darden, who opted out after the regular-season finale to prepare for the NFL draft. Darden leads the FBS with 19 receiving touchdowns, to go along with 74 catches for 1,190 yards. He had eight catches for 173 yards with four scores against UTEP.

Tuesday, Dec. 22

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Tulane vs. Nevada

Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho

3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Tulane (6-5)

Key player: DE Patrick Johnson. Johnson helped the Green Wave put together one of the most disruptive defensive fronts not only in the American Athletic Conference but in college football from his rush end position. He had a league-leading 10 sacks, becoming the school record holder for career sacks (24.5) in the process. In all, he finished with 14.5 tackles for loss. Between Johnson and fellow end Cameron Sample (six sacks, eight tackles for loss), Tulane ranked No. 9 in the country in sacks per game (3.36, with 37 total sacks).

Storyline to watch: Tulane put together a nice run to close out the season, winning four of its past five games to make a third straight bowl appearance for the first time in school history. One of the biggest factors in its improved play over the past month is the way freshman quarterback Michael Pratt has grown from week to week. Tulane already runs the ball well (averaging over 200 yards per game) but couple that with Pratt making plays in the passing game and the Green Wave are a far more balanced team now than they were to start the season.

Nevada (6-2)

Key player: QB Carson Strong. Strong became the first Nevada player to win Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors (and the first underclassman) after finishing the regular season in the top 15 nationally in five different categories, including passing yards (2,587) and passing touchdowns (22). In eight total games, Strong had five 300-yard performances. Thanks to Strong, Nevada improved its offensive output in the most important statistical categories, increasing its scoring, passing and total offense in 2020.

Storyline to watch: Nevada had a chance to play for the Mountain West championship, but struggled on offense in the decisive game against San Jose State - scoring only 20 points while fumbling the ball four times. How will the offense rebound from one of its worst outings of the season? Especially against a Tulane defense that has done a great job getting after the quarterback and putting major pressure on opposing offensive lines. Boca Raton Bowl

UCF vs. No. 17 BYU

FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Fla.

7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

UCF (6-3)

Key player: QB Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel had one of the more unheralded seasons in the country, throwing for 3,353 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He leads the nation in total offense and yards per game as well. Yet he did not make the all-conference team and is often overlooked when it comes to discussing talented young quarterbacks. Folks should be paying attention to Gabriel, who has been putting up big numbers since his freshman season a year ago. Wide receiver Marlon Williams has been sensational, too, ranking No. 9 in the nation with 1,039 receiving yards.

Storyline to watch: UCF certainly did not have its best season in recent memory, and often had to rely on its offense to win. Depth concerns certainly played a role in the defensive performance, but it was simply not as strong as it has been in the past. The Knights struggled to stop the run (ranking No. 92 in the nation in run defense) and ranked No. 124 in the nation in penalties per game (9.4). If UCF does not tighten up on defense and stay disciplined, it could be a long night.

BYU (10-1)

Key player: QB Zach Wilson. Wilson has been dynamite for the Cougars, and was at one point considered a Heisman Trophy candidate because of his ability to do it all for the offense. Wilson ranks No. 2 in the nation in points responsible for (234), tied with Gabriel for passing touchdowns (30) and in the top 15 in nine other statistical categories. So yes, Coastal Carolina game notwithstanding, Wilson has had a special season and so has the BYU offense.

Storyline to watch: The Cougars' offensive line has been so good all season long, but its performance against an undersized Coastal Carolina defensive front certainly raised some red flags. UCF has struggled against the run this season, so this provides BYU the perfect opportunity to use one of its biggest strengths to its advantage to control the line of scrimmage. Though its New Year's Six hopes ended with the loss to Coastal, this is one of the more compelling matchups during bowl season.

Wednesday, Dec. 23

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

Louisiana Tech vs. Georgia Southern

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Louisiana Tech (5-4)

Key player: QB Aaron Allen. The Bulldogs lost starting quarterback Luke Anthony in the final minutes of their most recent game, a 52-10 loss at TCU. Anthony fractured his right leg and had surgery. He will be replaced by Allen, who threw two interceptions against the Horned Frogs. Allen has thrown for 561 yards with four touchdowns and five picks this season.

Storyline to watch: The Bulldogs have won six consecutive bowl games going back to 2014, which is the longest current postseason winning streak in the FBS. That streak includes a 14-0 shutout of Miami in the Independence Bowl last season.

Georgia Southern (7-5)

Key player: DE Raymond Johnson III. The senior has been one of the better pass-rushers in the Sun Belt Conference the past two seasons. After piling up seven tackles for loss and three sacks in 2019, Johnson has five sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season. He has six recovered fumbles for his career, tied for the school record set by Michael Berry (1988-91). Johnson also has two blocked kicks in his career.

Storyline to watch: The Eagles might be down to their third-string quarterback, Miller Mosley, who has attempted 15 passes with two interceptions. Senior Shai Werts missed the final two regular-season games with a right shoulder injury and is questionable to play in the bowl game, and backup Justin Tomlin had ankle surgery and is out.

Montgomery Bowl

Memphis vs. Florida Atlantic

Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Memphis (7-3)

Key player: WR Calvin Austin III. After Damonte Coxie opted out after two games, Austin became the go-to receiver for quarterback Brady White and put together a career season. Austin had 1,025 yards receiving and 10 receiving touchdowns en route to first-team All-AAC honors and finished off the season with six 100-yard receiving games in his last eight. The former walk-on is the fourth Memphis player to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season, and he did it in only 10 games.

Storyline to watch: The Tigers are playing in a program-record seventh straight bowl game, but they are looking for their first bowl victory since the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl. To do it, keep an eye on the offense and White, who has won more games than any quarterback in program history and more career passing touchdowns and yards than any quarterback in school history. White can cap what he has done to help elevate the Memphis program with a long-awaited bowl win.

Florida Atlantic (5-3)

Key player: LB Leighton McCarthy. McCarthy switched from defensive end to linebacker under first-year coach Willie Taggart and has flourished at the position, leading Conference USA and tied for second nationally in sacks (nine). He also leads the league with 12.5 sacks. The Owls have played well on defense all season long, ranking second in the league in scoring defense and third in total defense. FAU also is tied for the league lead with 25 total sacks.

Storyline to watch: The Owls have lost two straight going into the game after a four-game win streak. The big story to watch on offense is who ends up starting at quarterback. FAU has switched between junior Nick Tronti and redshirt freshman Javion Posey throughout the season. Tronti started in the Owls' previous game, against Southern Miss; Posey provides more of a threat on the ground -- he leads the team in rushing with 401 yards.

Thursday, Dec. 24

New Mexico Bowl

Hawai'i vs. Houston

Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Hawai'i (4-4)

Key player: QB Chevan Cordeiro. A product of Honolulu, Cordeiro is attempting to become the first quarterback to lead Hawai'i in rushing since Michael Carter in 1991. Cordeiro has passed for 1,947 yards with 11 touchdowns and six picks, while running for 450 yards with seven more scores. He threw for 252 yards and ran for 88 yards with one touchdown in Hawaii's previous game, a 38-21 victory over UNLV.

Storyline to watch: The Rainbow Warriors are making only their third mainland bowl appearance and first since 2008. They're 7-6 in bowl games all time, and 11 of the previous 13 appearances came in the state of Hawai'i. Their previous bowl game on the mainland was a 41-10 loss to Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl.

Houston (3-4)

Key player: KR Marcus Jones and KR Marquez Stevenson. Don't flip the channel when Hawai'i is punting or kicking off to the Cougars. Houston ranks third in the FBS with a 20.1-yard average on punt returns and 12th with a 26.5-yard average on kickoff returns. Jones has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in his career (each one came while he played at Troy), and Stevenson has three, including a 97-yarder against Tulane this season. Jones also leads the FBS with a 21.1-yard average on punt returns; he had a 72-yarder for a score against South Florida earlier this season.

Storyline to watch: How focused and prepared will the Cougars be? They didn't start their season until a 49-31 win over Tulane on Oct. 8 after their first three games were postponed because of COVID-19 issues. Three more games were postponed in November, and Houston has played only once since Nov. 14, a 30-27 loss at Memphis on Dec. 12. All told, the Cougars had eight games either postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 this season.

Friday, Dec. 25

Camellia Bowl

Marshall vs. Buffalo

Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Marshall (7-2)

Key player: DE Darius Hodge. The junior has been one of the better players on a pretty stout defense. Hodge has 56 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and one caused fumble in nine games. Despite their late-season struggles, the Thundering Herd rank No. in the FBS in run defense, allowing 88.9 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Marshall's opponents scored only four rushing touchdowns in nine games.

Storyline to watch: After winning their first seven games, the Thundering Herd didn't look too inspired in the past two, losing 20-0 at Rice at home and 22-13 to UAB in the Conference USA championship game. How motivated will the Thundering Herd be to play a bowl game on Christmas Day?

Buffalo (5-1)

Key player: RB Jaret Patterson. He leads the FBS with 178.7 yards per game, while running for 1,072 yards with 19 touchdowns in six games. Patterson, a junior from Glendale, Maryland, tied the FBS record for rushing touchdowns in a game and had the second highest single-game rushing total with 409 yards and eight scores in a 70-41 victory over Kent State on Nov. 28. He was limited to 47 yards on 18 carries after injuring his right knee in a 38-28 loss to Ball State in the MAC championship game.

Storyline to watch: After failing to win a bowl game in its first 29 seasons as a Division I-A and FBS program, the Bulls have a chance to win back-to-back bowl games under coach Lance Leipold. Buffalo blasted Charlotte 31-9 in the Bahamas Bowl last season. The Bulls had lost each of their three previous bowl trips by 10 points or more.

Saturday, Dec. 26

Cure Bowl

Liberty vs. No. 12 Coastal Carolina

Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.


Liberty (9-1)

Key player: QB Malik Willis. The Auburn transfer has been tailor made for coach Hugh Freeze's wide-open offense, leading the Flames in passing and rushing. He has completed 64% of his passes for 2,040 yards with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also is a dangerous runner with 807 yards and 10 more scores. The Atlanta native had six total touchdowns in victories over ACC opponents Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Storyline to watch: These teams were scheduled to play on Dec. 5, but COVID-19 issues inside Liberty's program forced the game to be canceled. Instead, Coastal Carolina knocked off then-No. 13 BYU 22-17 at home that day. The Flames haven't played since a 45-0 victory over UMass on Nov. 27.

Coastal Carolina (11-0)

Key player: DE Tarron Jackson. QB Grayson McCall has been great on offense, but Jackson has been just as valuable on defense. He ranks eighth in the FBS with 8.5 sacks and 13th with 13.5 tackles for loss. He is Coastal's single-season leader in sacks with 10 in 2019 and is the Chanticleers' career leader in sacks (26.5), yards lost from sacks (176), tackles for loss (43), yards lost from tackles for loss (214) and quarterback hurries (31).

Storyline to watch: How disappointed will the Chanticleers be after finishing No. 12 in the CFP selection committee's final rankings and missing out on a New Year's Six bowl game? They figure to be motivated by the simple fact they're playing in their first bowl game since moving to the FBS in 2016. The Chanticleers are on a 12-game winning streak dating back to last season, which is tied with Alabama for the longest current winning streak in the FBS.

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl

UTSA vs. Louisiana

Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas

3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

UTSA (7-4)

Key player: RB Sincere McCormick. In 10 games, McCormick leads Conference USA and ranks second in the nation with a school-record 1,345 yards rushing and a school-record 11 touchdowns. His big-play ability cannot be underestimated. McCormick has 31 runs of 10 yards or more, including 16 of 20 yards or more, and four that have gone for 50-plus. Then there is this: McCormick has gained 748 yards after contact. In the most recent game UTSA played, he ran for a school-record 251 yards in a victory over North Texas.

Storyline to watch: Chances are this game could be close. Eight of UTSA's 11 games this season have been one score games in the fourth quarter. If it does come down to the wire, watch for kicker Hunter Duplessis, who has 85 points this season and made 16 of 18 field goals. UTSA was originally scheduled to play SMU in the Frisco Bowl, but when that game was canceled because of coronavirus issues with the Mustangs, UTSA shifted into this bowl game -- marking its first bowl appearance since 2016.

Louisiana (9-1)

Key player: QB Levi Lewis. It is no secret the Ragin' Cajuns have an explosive offense, and that is led by Lewis, who has thrown for 2,128 yards and 17 touchdown passes this season. Lewis currently ranks fourth in program history in career passing yards and second in program history in passing touchdowns, and has thrown a touchdown pass in 17 straight games.

Storyline to watch: Louisiana wanted another shot at Coastal Carolina, but its Sun Belt championship game was canceled because of coronavirus reasons with the Chanticleers, so they were declared co-champions. That shouldn't take away from what the Ragin' Cajuns did this season -- including a victory over Iowa State, now headed to the Fiesta Bowl. A bowl victory would get the program back-to-back double digit wins in consecutive seasons. Louisiana has played in its fair share of close games this season, as Lewis has led four game-winning fourth-quarter drives in 2020.

Lending Tree Bowl

Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State

Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.

3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Western Kentucky (5-6)

Key player: QB Tyrrell Pigrome. The Maryland transfer is the only FBS player with more than 81 pass attempts who hasn't thrown an interception this season. He hasn't thrown a pick in 264 attempts, while completing 58.3% of his passes for 1,423 yards with nine scores. He also ran for 328 yards with three touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: After a 1-4 start, the Hilltoppers won four of their past six games to get to one game under .500. Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis will be working his last game as WKU's offensive coordinator and playcaller. Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton announced last week that Zach Kittley, who worked with Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech and at Houston Baptist this past season, will take over those duties next year.

Georgia State (5-4)

Key player: QB Cornelious Bennett IV. In his first season as a starter, Bennett ranked No. 2 in the Sun Belt Conference with 227.3 passing yards per game. He completed 59.1% of his attempts for 2,046 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine picks. He had a career-high 372 yards in his most recent start, a 30-24 win over Georgia Southern.

Storyline to watch: The Panthers are playing in a bowl game for the third time in four seasons under coach Shawn Elliott. Wyoming defeated Georgia State 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl last season. The Panthers' first bowl win was a 27-17 victory over Western Kentucky in the 2017 Cure Bowl.

Tuesday, Dec. 29

Cheez-It Bowl

No. 18 Miami vs. No. 21 Oklahoma State

Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Miami (8-2)

Key player: QB D'Eriq King. Bringing King in as a transfer from Houston was a rousing success, as he was a major upgrade not only at quarterback and for the offense, but his leadership in the locker room could have a long-term effect as coach Manny Diaz continues to build the team. King threw for 2,573 yards with 22 touchdowns to five interceptions, while adding 520 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Everything goes through him on offense, and taking him off his game is the key to slowing the Hurricanes down.

Storyline to watch: Miami played poorly in its regular-season finale against North Carolina, particularly on defense, and will go into this game without starting ends Quincy Roche and Jaelen Phillips, who have declared for the NFL draft. Miami has played poorly in its past three bowl appearances, including an embarrassing 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl a year ago. The Hurricanes have scored just a combined three points in their past two bowl games. This is as close to a must-win as you can get in a bowl game, considering their recent history but also what happened the last time out.

Oklahoma State (7-3)

Key player: WR Tylan Wallace. Every time Wallace gets on the field, he is a matchup advantage for Oklahoma State. Though he missed the regular-season finale against Baylor, Wallace leads the team once again in receiving with 877 yards and six touchdowns and is one of the biggest keys to success for the entire offense. Quarterback Spencer Sanders just needs to find a way to be more consistent at getting the ball to his big-play receivers.

Storyline to watch: The Cowboys have done a nice job running the ball even without Chuba Hubbard, who has opted out. Dezmon Jackson stepped up to fill his shoes, but the big question here is whether Oklahoma State can replicate what North Carolina did to Miami on the ground. The Tar Heels had two backs combine to rush for over 500 yards, and their offensive line beat Miami at the point of attack. Oklahoma State has been a successful bowl team under Mike Gundy, and pounding the ball on the Hurricanes might be one way to extend that success.

Valero Alamo Bowl

No. 20 Texas vs. Colorado

Alamodome, San Antonio

9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Texas (6-3)

Key player: QB Sam Ehlinger. The senior is literally the last man, or captain, standing for the Longhorns. Five other team captains -- left tackle Samuel Cosmi, safety Caden Sterns, defensive end Joseph Ossai, defensive tackle Ta'Quon Graham and safety Chris Brown -- have opted out. Senior center Derek Kerstetter, another captain, injured his foot against Kansas State and won't play, either. No one loves the Longhorns more than Ehlinger, and he'll be asked to carry the offense on his back once again in what might be his final college start.

Storyline to watch: The past few weeks haven't been fun for Longhorns coach Tom Herman, who has a 31-18 record in four seasons. There was plenty of speculation about his job security until athletic director Chris Del Conte offered him a public vote of confidence, only after former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer reportedly decided to stay retired. For all of Herman's shortcomings at Texas, he has led the Longhorns to a 3-0 record in bowl games.

Colorado (4-1)

Key player: RB Jarek Broussard. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore from Dallas has been a welcome addition after missing all of 2019 with a knee injury. In five games, Broussard ran for 813 yards with three touchdowns. He had 301 yards on 25 attempts in a 24-13 win at Arizona on Dec. 5. His production has helped the Buffaloes secure their second winning season since 2006.

Storyline to watch: Colorado's defense was pretty good in coach Karl Dorrell's first season, and senior linebacker Nate Landman was a big reason why. Landman led the team with 61 tackles and five sacks. Unfortunately, he ruptured his right Achilles tendon in a 38-21 loss to Utah on Dec. 12. Landman had surgery and won't play against the Longhorns.

Wednesday, Dec. 30

Duke's Mayo Bowl

Wake Forest vs. Wisconsin

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

Noon p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Wisconsin (3-3)

Key player: RBs Jalen Berger, Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson. We are going to go with all three running backs because Berger and Watson did not play against Minnesota and we want to make sure our bases are covered with the Badgers' run game. Berger and Watson have combined for 458 yards and four touchdowns, while Groshek had the game of his life to beat the rival Golden Gophers with a career-high 154 yards. How the run game goes often determines how Wisconsin does, so keep these backs front of mind when tuning in to the game.

Storyline to watch: The Badgers have had quite the season since opening with an impressive 45-7 win over Illinois. Their next two games were canceled because of coronavirus issues in the program, and in their rescheduled game against Minnesota to end the season, they were missing their two leading rushers, two top receivers and starting left tackle. And quarterback Graham Mertz took a hit to the head and left the game. So not the typical season for the Badgers, but still their 19th straight bowl trip. They need a win here to avoid their first losing season since 2001.

Wake Forest (4-4)

Key player: QB Sam Hartman. Hartman threw for 1,906 yards and 10 touchdowns to one interception in eight games this season, with the highlight coming in a wild game against North Carolina -- in which Hartman and UNC quarterback Sam Howell put on a quarterback show. Hartman threw for a career-high 429 yards and tied a career high with four touchdown passes. He also had a streak of 258 straight passes without an interception until he threw one against Louisville in the regular-season finale.

Storyline to watch: The last month of the season did not the way Wake Forest wanted. The Demon Deacons had coronavirus issues that forced them to go nearly a month between games. Then their game against Florida State, scheduled for Dec. 19, was canceled because of coronavirus issues with the Seminoles. In the only game they have played since Nov. 14, they looked rusty and disjointed, as coach Dave Clawson feared. But he and his players want one last opportunity to play. How they respond with yet another long layoff will be a story to watch.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Florida

AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Oklahoma (8-2)

Key player: QB Spencer Rattler. In his first season as a starter, Rattler has picked up where Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts left off as the generals of Lincoln Riley's offense. Rattler led the Big 12 in passing yards per game (278.4), completion percentage (68%) and passing touchdowns (25). Yet Rattler wasn't an all-Big 12 selection; Iowa State's Brock Purdy and Texas' Sam Ehlinger were on the first and second teams, respectively.

Storyline to watch: As good as the Sooners have been in Riley's four seasons, they've yet to win a bowl game during his tenure. OU lost each of its previous three bowl games, each of them in a CFP semifinal and each of them to an SEC opponent. During the 2017 season, OU fell to Georgia 54-48 in the Rose Bowl. The Sooners lost to Alabama 45-34 in the Orange Bowl in 2018, and then 63-28 to LSU in the Peach Bowl last season.

Florida (8-3)

Key player: Quarterback Kyle Trask. He has a chance to put the finishing touchdowns on what has been one of the most prolific passing seasons in Florida and SEC history. Trask leads the FBS with 4,125 passing yards and 43 touchdowns, with only five interceptions in 409 attempts. It might be his final college game; he's projected as a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

Storyline to watch: After starting 8-1, the Gators lost their past two games, and their defense was a big reason why. Florida surrendered 89 points and 1,023 yards of offense combined in a 37-34 loss to LSU and 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. The Gators rank 61st in the FBS in scoring defense (28.6 points per game) and 62nd in total defense (404.7 yards).

Thursday, Dec. 31

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

No. 24 Tulsa vs. Mississippi State

Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas


Tulsa (6-2)

Key player: LB Zaven Collins. He was a dual-threat quarterback and safety in Hominy, Oklahoma, but broke out as one of the best linebackers in the FBS in 2020. He leads the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks and ranks third on the team with 53 tackles. Against SMU, his interception with 1:29 left sealed a 28-24 upset victory over the then-No. 19 Mustangs. Against Tulane, his 96-yard interception return for a touchdown was the winning score in a 30-24 victory in two overtimes.

Storyline to watch: If the Golden Hurricane had been in better shape financially, coach Philip Montgomery might not have been around for a sixth season. After guiding Tulsa to a 10-3 record in 2016, his teams didn't win more than four games in each of the next three seasons. The Golden Hurricane were picked to finish ninth in the 11-team AAC this season. They finished second, were ranked in the AP poll for six straight weeks and nearly knocked off Cincinnati in the conference title game.

Mississippi State (3-7)

Key player: QB Will Rogers. The freshman from Brandon, Mississippi, gives the Bulldogs hope heading into Year 2 under coach Mike Leach. Rogers has been very good over the past four games, throwing for 336 yards against Georgia's highly ranked defense and then piling up a total of 965 yards with seven touchdowns in the past three games, against Ole Miss, Auburn and Missouri. He completed at least 30 passes during that four-game stretch becoming the first MSU quarterback to accomplish that feat. His total in such games is only one behind the school career record of five held by Dak Prescott.

Storyline to watch: Coaches talk about the benefits of bowl practices, and few FBS teams are as young as the Bulldogs. In addition to Rogers, true freshmen Jaden Walley and Jo'Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson have been major contributors on offense. Walley has 691 receiving yards with four straight 100-yard receiving games. Marks' 56 receptions this season is most on the team and the most in school history by a running back. Johnson has 34 receptions and 312 all-purpose yards.

Arizona Bowl

Ball State vs. San Jose State

Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.

2 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

Ball State (5-1)

Key player: QB Drew Plitt. This has been a season for the ages for Ball State, and Plitt is a big reason why. In the MAC championship win over Buffalo, Plitt was offensive player of the game after throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another one. He has 15 total touchdowns over the past four games, and also moved up the school career passing list with his performance against Buffalo -- passing current coach Mike Neu for fourth (6,293).

Key storyline: Neu has done a stellar job transforming the Cardinals since he arrived five years ago. Incremental progress led to this season, when the Cardinals upset Buffalo to win the school's first MAC championship since 1996. This marks their first bowl appearance since the 2013 season, and a victory in this game would be the program's first in a bowl. Ball State goes into the game on a six-game winning streak and perhaps the most impressive thing it did in the MAC title game was to slow down Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson, who had only 47 yards rushing. Buffalo went into the game averaging 344.5 yards rushing.

San Jose State (7-0)

Key player: QB Nick Starkel. The well-traveled Starkel, who previously played at Arkansas and Texas A&M, hit a home run with the Spartans with a career season -- leading them to their first conference title in 29 years. In seven games, Starkel has thrown for 1,906 yards -- including two 400-yard games -- and completed 65% of his passes, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. His teammates voted him a captain as a grad transfer, a tribute to just how well respected and liked he is in the locker room.

Key storyline: There are several undefeated Group of 5 schools this season, but San Jose State arguably has the best story. This is a program that has been uprooted from his campus because of coronavirus restrictions in its county, making Las Vegas its temporary home. Its past two "home" games were played in Las Vegas, including the Mountain West championship game victory over Boise State. So traveling to a bowl destination will be par for the course. This is a team that has bonded through the challenges and sacrifice. The video clip it posted after the MWC win, where the Spartans are singing "Lean on Me" together, is sure to give you chills. A win in the bowl would give them their first undefeated season since 1939.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

West Virginia vs. Army

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.

4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

West Virginia (5-4)

Key player: RB Leddie Brown. The junior from Philadelphia ranks second in the Big 12 with 105 rushing rushing yards per game and third with nine rushing touchdowns. Thanks to Brown's improvement, the Mountaineers are averaging nearly twice as many rushing yards per game as they did in 2019. Last season, they ranked 128th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing with 73.3 yards per game. This season, they're 81st with a 145.4-yard average. Brown's 945 total is 66 yards more than the entire West Virginia team had last season.

Storyline to watch: The Mountaineers are gaining one Arizona transfer and losing another one for the bowl game. Linebacker Tony Fields II, the team's third-leading tackler announced earlier this month that he is opting out to prepare for the NFL draft. He led the Mountaineers with 88 tackles, which ranked third in the Big 12. Safety Scottie Young, who started 29 games with 150 tackles and five interceptions in three seasons at Arizona, announced on Twitter on Sunday that the NCAA has cleared him to play in the bowl game.

Army (9-2)

Key player: LB Jon Rhattigan. This hasn't been Jeff Monken's most polished Army offense, but it might be his best defense. The Black Knights dominate both against the run and in the red zone, and Rhattigan's efforts have been the key to both. The senior from Naperville, Ill., is the engine of this aggressive, disruptive run front, leading the team with 10 run stuffs and adding a pair of interceptions to boot.

Storyline to watch: A second chance. Initially passed over for a bowl slot, the Black Knights got slotted in when Tennessee was forced to opt out. Now, in addition to winning their fourth Commander-In-Chief's Trophy in five years, they also get a shot at their third season of 10+ wins in the last four. (It would also give them their first win over a power-conference team since beating Duke in 2017.) Monken's building job has been incredible, and his team was just gifted a great opportunity.

Note: Tennessee will not be able to play in the Liberty Bowl due to COVID issues.

Friday, Jan. 1

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

No. 9 Georgia vs. No. 8 Cincinnati

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta


Georgia (7-2)

Key player: QB JT Daniels. The USC transfer gave Georgia's offense a much-needed boost after he took over the starting job in the past three games. Sidelined while recovering from knee surgery at the beginning of the season, Daniels has completed 66.7% of his passes with nine touchdowns and just one interception. With Daniels under center, the Bulldogs have been able to throw the ball down the field more than they did previously, getting George Pickens and others involved in the passing game.

Storyline to watch: Georgia has already had three seniors opt out of the bowl game, linebacker Monty Rice, tight end Tre' McKitty and cornerback DJ Daniel, and there might be more coming. Last season, junior offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson and senior safety J.R. Reed skipped the Sugar Bowl, but the Bulldogs were able to rally for a 26-14 victory over Baylor.

Cincinnati (9-0)

Key player: QB Desmond Ridder. He was named AAC Offensive Player of the Year after running for 609 yards with 12 touchdowns and completing 66.4% of his passes for 2,090 yards with 17 scores and six interceptions. Ridder will have to make some plays with his arm against a Bulldogs team that led the FBS in run defense, allowing only 69.3 yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry.

Storyline to watch: The undefeated Bearcats felt slighted by the CFP selection committee, which didn't elevate them higher than No. 7 after the initial rankings, even after teams ranked ahead of them lost. Cincinnati defeated then-No. 22 Army, No. 16 SMU and No. 23 Tulsa this season, but knocking off Georgia in Atlanta would give the Bearcats a stamp of legitimacy.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl

Auburn vs. No. 14 Northwestern

Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

1 p.m. ET, ABC

Auburn (6-4)

Key player: RB Tank Bigsby. Auburn's lack of production on offense is what ultimately got former coach Gus Malzahn fired. As bad as the Tigers were at times, though, freshman tailback Bigsby looks like a future star. He ran for 834 yards with five touchdowns and had four 100-yard outings. He had 192 yards on 26 carries in a 24-10 win over Mississippi State on Dec. 12. Northwestern's defense is very good and ranks fifth in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing only 15.5 points per game. But the Wildcats have been suspect against the run; they surrendered 399 yards in a 22-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Storyline to watch: It won't be a job audition for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele if Auburn hires Malzahn's replacement before New Year's Day. Steele is serving as interim coach and has the support of some influential boosters. He will reportedly get an interview with the search committee. Other potential targets are UAB coach Bill Clark, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Northwestern (6-2)

Key player: LB Paddy Fisher. Perhaps no Wildcat embodies coach Pat Fitzgerald's physical and blue-collar approach on defense like Fisher, who was named the winner of the Big Ten's Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year. He led Northwestern with 74 tackles to go with 3.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and one interception.

Storyline to watch: Remember when Northwestern couldn't win a bowl game? After going 64 years between bowl victories, between 1949 and 2013, the Wildcats have now won three in a row under Fitzgerald. It is their first trip to the Citrus Bowl since a 48-28 loss to Tennessee and Peyton Manning in 1997, which was Fitzgerald's last game as a Wildcat.

Saturday, Jan. 2

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

Kentucky vs. NC State

TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.


NC State (8-3)

Key player: LB Payton Wilson. The redshirt sophomore emerged with a breakout season, leading the ACC in tackles with 10.8 per game. He also is tied for eighth in the league with 11.5 tackles for loss. With over 100 tackles on the season, he is just one of seven players to reach that mark in all of FBS. And in a mark of just how tough he is, Wilson led his team with 11 tackles in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, even though he had dislocated both his shoulders.

Storyline to watch: No matter what happens in the bowl game, this season has to be considered a success. The Wolfpack went 4-8 last season and coach Dave Doeren made significant changes, including bringing in Tim Beck as offensive coordinator. Despite losing starting quarterback Devin Leary to injury, NC State still doubled its win total and made major improvements across the board. Plus, the Wolfpack were able to play their 11 scheduled games and make it back to a bowl.

Kentucky (4-6)

Key player: RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. Though Rodriguez missed two games, he led the team in rushing with 701 yards and nine touchdowns. In four of the games he played, he rushed for 100 yards. Though Kentucky did not finish with a winning record, it was able to run the ball effectively for most of the season, ranking fourth in the SEC in rushing offense (175.9 yards per game)

Storyline to watch: Kentucky did not exactly have the easiest schedule this season, but it also struggled to find much of an identity on offense and was anemic passing the ball. Given the shift toward high-flying passing offenses across the sport, coach Mark Stoops had to make a change. He has already hired Liam Coen as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach from the Los Angeles Rams to help the Wildcats improve their offense moving forward. Getting to this bowl game, despite the losing record, means Stoops is the first coach to take Kentucky to five consecutive bowl appearances.

Outback Bowl

No. 11 Indiana vs. Ole Miss

Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

12:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Ole Miss (4-5)

Key player: QB Matt Corral. The sophomore has been very good in coach Lane Kiffin's fast-paced offense -- when he takes care of the football. Corral ranked second in the SEC with a 71.3% completion percentage and third with 27 passing touchdowns and 332.8 yards per game. He also had 14 interceptions, including five in a 53-48 loss at LSU on Saturday night. In his defense, Corral seemed to be pressing after top wide receiver Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah opted out for the remainder of the season.

Storyline to watch: The Rebels and Hoosiers couldn't have been built any more differently. Ole Miss ranks 13th in the FBS in scoring offense (40.7 points per game); Indiana ranks 54th (30.1 points). The Hoosiers rank 19th in scoring defense (19.4 points); the Rebels rank 121st (40.3 points). The Rebels have allowed 30 points or more in seven of nine games.

Indiana (6-1)

Key player: QB Jack Tuttle. The Utah transfer assumed the starting job after Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL while running out of bounds in a 27-11 win over Maryland on Nov. 28. Tuttle started against Wisconsin the next week and did just enough, completing 13 of 22 attempts for 130 yards with two touchdowns in a 14-6 victory. The extra preparation time should be beneficial before the bowl game.

Storyline to watch: Kane Wommack, the playcaller for Indiana's stingy defense, was named South Alabama's new coach earlier this month. He will stick around to coach the bowl game. Wommack, 33, spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as South Alabama's defensive coordinator before joining the Indiana staff. He spent 2018 as the Hoosiers' linebackers coach before taking over the coordinator role from coach Tom Allen.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

No. 25 Oregon vs. No. 10 Iowa State

State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Oregon (4-2)

Key player: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux. If this had been a normal season, Thibodeaux would have been a preseason All-American. But even in six games, he made his presence felt. That was evident in the Pac-12 championship game against USC, in which he was named the MVP with five tackles and a sack. Thibodeaux, who leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, is a difference-maker wherever he lines up, and Iowa State will have to account for him.

Storyline to watch: The Ducks did not even win their division but were the surprise winners in the Pac-12, upsetting USC in the conference championship game. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is what they did at quarterback, where both Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown played. It was an interesting move, considering Brown -- a Boston College transfer -- had not played at all this season. Coach Mario Cristobal wanted to get him some playing time and Oregon designed a few packages for him. Brown rewarded that faith with two touchdown passes. Shough also threw two touchdown passes, so it begs the question: Will the Ducks try to get Brown into this game, too?

Iowa State (8-3)

Key player: RB Breece Hall. The nation's leading rusher with 1,436 yards, Hall is a big reason why the Cyclones put together a season worthy of making it to the New Year's Six as an at-large team. Though Oklahoma limited him to 79 yards and only 3.4 yards per carry in the Big 12 championship game, Hall put together eight 100-yard games this season and scored 19 touchdowns in what should be considered an All-America-type season.

Storyline to watch: The Cyclones are in the first New Year's Six game in school history after playing for the Big 12 title for the first time in school history. There is no question this has been a historic season, and Iowa State will want to avoid the mistakes that cost them against the Sooners. Quarterback Brock Purdy threw three interceptions, and this will be a homecoming of sorts for him, as he is from Arizona. So is Shough, so the quarterback matchup will no doubt become one of the biggest storylines to watch.

Capital One Orange Bowl

No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 13 North Carolina

Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.

8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App

Texas A&M (8-1)

Key player: RB Isaiah Spiller. Though quarterback Kellen Mond gets all the attention, Spiller has done a great job helping the Aggies establish their running game behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. In just eight games, Spiller has rushed for 986 yards and seven touchdowns, and has six 100-yard rushing games. The Aggies thrive on their balance -- a hallmark of coach Jimbo Fisher -- making Spiller exceptionally important on this team.

Storyline to watch: The Aggies were thisclose to making the College Football Playoff, finishing No. 5 behind Notre Dame because the committee deemed the Fighting Irish to have a better overall body of work. So will Texas A&M go into this game with some extra motivation and something to prove, or will the Aggies be more resigned to play this game because they didn't make the top four? Texas A&M has played well defensively in the second half of the season, but the Aggies also struggled to slow down the two most explosive teams they faced, Alabama and Florida. So their game plan to stop the Tar Heels' explosive offense will be one to watch.

North Carolina (8-3)

Key player: RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. It is nearly impossible to choose one over the other, so we are just going to go with both. They have each had outstanding seasons but combined, they are the best running back duo in the nation. Carter led the team with 1,245 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns. Williams rushed for 1,140 yards and scored a team-high 19 rushing touchdowns. As much attention as quarterback Sam Howell and the Carolina receivers get, Carter and Williams deserve just as much.

Storyline to watch: The last time we saw the Tar Heels play, they absolutely pounded Miami on the ground, with Carter and Williams combining to rush for 544 yards and five touchdowns. But beyond the two 1,000 yard rushers, Carolina also has a 3,000-yard passer in Howell and 1,000-yard receiver in Dyami Brown. As explosive as the Tar Heels can be, what they did against the Hurricanes showed how good they can be when they put together a consistent effort. If it does it again in the bowl, UNC will have its most wins since 2015.

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