Ranking the 42 college football bowl games from best to worst

·19 min read

Welcome to bowl season!

It's the most glorious time of the year. And from the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 17 to the College Football Playoff national championship on Jan. 10, there will be 43 postseason games played.

Not including the national title game, Yahoo Sports' Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg have ranked all 42 bowl games from best to worst. Beyond the CFP bowls, there are many intriguing matchups to look forward to in the coming weeks. 

(Full 2021 bowl game schedule with dates, times and TV channels)

1. Orange Bowl: Michigan (12-1) vs. Georgia (12-1)

Georgia opened as a 7-point favorite over the Wolverines but this could be an extremely even game. And an absolute battle in the trenches. Both of these teams excel because of their offensive and defensive lines and they love to run the football. This is an especially enticing game for fans of old-school football and it’s made better by involving two blue-blood programs searching for their first national title in decades. 

2. Cotton Bowl: Alabama (12-1) vs. Cincinnati (13-0)

Cincinnati became the first Group of Five program to reach the College Football Playoff, and now it has to go up against mighty Alabama. The Bearcats earned it. They are undefeated this year, have won 22 of their past 23 and are 44-6 combined over the past four seasons. Now the Bearcats have to deal with Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who just diced up Georgia’s acclaimed defense for 421 passing yards and four total touchdowns in the SEC title game.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, right, stands on the sidelines during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Houston Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, right, stands on the sideline during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship against Houston on in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

3. Rose Bowl: Ohio State (10-2) vs. Utah (10-3)

Utah is a scary team at the moment. The Utes have won six straight games and dominated Oregon twice in that timeframe. Ohio State, meanwhile, has the best trio of wide receivers in the country. Utah’s ferociousness up front will be a challenge for Ohio State’s offensive line. The Buckeyes couldn’t handle Aidan Hutchinson and Michigan. Will they be able to stop the Utes?

4. Peach Bowl: Pittsburgh (11-2) vs. Michigan State (10-2)

The ascendance of Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett from middle of the road ACC starter to potential Heisman finalist has been one of the stories of the season. Another big story this year was Mel Tucker and Michigan State. MSU went 2-5 in 2020, Tucker’s first season as head coach. This year, MSU went 10-2 and was once ranked as high as No. 3 with RB Kenneth Walker III leading the way. This is going to be fun.

5. Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State (11-2) vs. Notre Dame (11-1)

This is a matchup of the two teams that missed out on the playoff. Oklahoma State came within inches of a playoff berth in the waning seconds of the Big 12 title game while Notre Dame is likely in the playoff if Georgia beat Alabama. This should be a great defensive matchup with Oklahoma State’s top defense and the head coaching debut of Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman.

6. Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2)

In Year 2 under Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss got to 10 regular season wins for the first time. Kiffin has Matt Corral and the Rebels' offense playing at a high level. The defense is much-improved, too. Baylor also has a second-year coach, Dave Aranda. BU went 2-7 last year. This year, BU won the Big 12. The Bears have been steady and well-coached on both sides of the ball. This is a really fun matchup.

7. Alamo Bowl: Oregon (10-3) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)

This is going to be the interim coach bowl in the only non-New Year’s Six game that features 10-win teams from Power Five conferences. Oklahoma will be coached by former coach Bob Stoops on an interim basis after Lincoln Riley left for USC. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal left for Miami on Monday and it's unclear who will lead the Ducks in this game.

8. Cheez-It Bowl: Iowa State (7-5) vs. Clemson (9-3)

Iowa State fell well short of expectations this season, but you know Matt Campbell’s team will be charged up to go against a team like Clemson in a bowl game. ISU has a senior-laden team that will be challenged by Clemson's defense. Clemson having three losses is out of the ordinary, but the Tigers quietly won seven of eight after a 2-2 start. Oh, and the winning coach will probably have a bucket of Cheez-Its dumped on his head.

9. Boca Raton Bowl: Appalachian State (10-3) vs. Western Kentucky (8-5)

The Boca Raton Bowl opens the first Saturday of bowl season with an enticing matchup. Both teams rank in the top 25 in points per game and Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe could set FBS records in this one. Zappe needs four TD passes for 60 on the season and a tie with LSU’s Joe Burrow in 2019 for the most passing TDs in a single season. Zappe (5,545 yards) is also less than 300 yards away from throwing for the most passing yards in a single season of any QB in FBS history.

Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe looks to throw during an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe looks to throw during an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

10. Gator Bowl: Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Wake Forest (10-3)

Texas A&M had national championship aspirations this year, but ended up going 8-4. Still, TAMU has one of the nation’s most-talented rosters — especially on defense. The Aggies will have a challenge going against Wake Forest, which lost the ACC title game to Pitt on Saturday. The Demon Deacons have a great offense that averages 41.2 points and 469 yards per game.

11. Music City Bowl: Purdue (8-4) vs. Tennessee (7-5)

Two creative offenses in an even matchup within driving distance of both fan bases? Yes, please. Purdue won four of its last five games of the season including an upset win over Michigan State. Tennessee won three of its last four and scored at least 45 points in each of those victories.

12. Outback Bowl: Arkansas (8-4) vs. Penn State (7-5)

Yessir! Arkansas is back in a bowl game after a four-season absence. The Razorbacks won eight games combined in the three seasons before Sam Pittman arrived. In his second year, they are 8-4. Penn State had a disappointing year, but has an excellent defense and one of the best receivers in the country, Jahan Dotson. He and Arkansas WR Treylon Burks could both be first-round NFL draft picks.

13. Holiday Bowl: N.C. State (9-3) vs. UCLA (8-4)

N.C. State had an incredibly solid season in 2021 — its three losses came to Mississippi State, Miami and Wake Forest. All three of those teams are going to bowl games. QB Devin Leary has completed two-thirds of his passes and has thrown 35 TDs and just five interceptions. UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson can be electric in Chip Kelly's offense and the Bruins have scored at least 42 points in each of their last three games.

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly yells at officials during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is back in a bowl game for the first time since 2012. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

14. Liberty Bowl: Texas Tech (6-6) vs. Mississippi State (7-5)

On the surface, this is a mediocre Big 12 program vs. a decent SEC program. But if you know the history of Mississippi State coach Mike Leach and Texas Tech, you’re going to want to watch this one. To call Leach’s exit from Texas Tech messy would be an understatement. That was 12 years ago, but Leach’s lawyer last year said the coach has vowed to “fight” Texas Tech “until he dies.” Yeah, so go ahead and set a reminder to watch this one right now.

15. L.A. Bowl: Oregon State (7-5) vs. Utah State (10-3)

Utah State was the surprise winner of the Mountain West after a 1-5 season in 2020. The team’s turnaround under new coach Blake Anderson has been quick and fueled by the arrival of QB Logan Bonner after he came to Utah State with Anderson from Arkansas State. Though Oregon State has lost four of its last seven after a 4-1 start, this rushing attack is extremely fun to watch. OSU will be plenty motivated to win its first bowl since 2013. 

16. Frisco Bowl: UTSA (12-1) vs. San Diego State (11-2)

UTSA is in the midst of its best season ever. The Roadrunners started the year 11-0, lost the regular season finale but then beat Western Kentucky in the Conference USA title game. Now UTSA is seeking the first bowl win in program history. SDSU has also had an excellent season, but is coming off a disappointing 46-13 loss to Utah State in the Mountain West title game. Tune in to this one just to see SDSU punter Matt Araiza, who is averaging 51.4 yards per attempt.

17. Sun Bowl: Washington State (7-5) vs. Miami (7-5)

There could be a lot of points in this one. Washington State has been playing very well and recently elevated interim coach Jake Dickert to full-time head coach. This will be his first game without the interim label. On the other side, Miami fired head coach Manny Diaz on Monday and hired Oregon's Mario Cristobal as his replacement. On the field, Miami has two exciting young offensive weapons in QB Tyler Van Dyke and RB Jaylan Knighton.

18. Fenway Bowl: SMU (8-4) vs. Virginia (6-6)

This game would be higher up the board if neither team came crashing to a halt in November. SMU was 7-0 before losing four of its last five games and falling to Tulsa in the regular season finale. Virginia was 6-2 before losing its last four games. It could be a shootout though, with Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong and SMU’s Tanner Mordecai both operating as some of the most proficient QBs in college football. And it’s the final game for Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall before he steps away from football.

19. Citrus Bowl: Kentucky (9-3) vs. Iowa (10-3)

Kentucky keeps putting winning seasons together under Mark Stoops and now can get to 10 wins for the fourth time in program history. Two transfers — QB Will Levis from Penn State and WR Wan’Dale Robinson from Nebraska — have had big seasons for the Wildcats. Iowa won the Big Ten West despite its offensive struggles. The Hawkeyes got to 10 wins thanks to an opportunistic defense and excellent special teams.

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) pitches the ball to Kentucky wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson (1) in the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) pitches the ball to Kentucky wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson (1) in the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

20. Gasparilla Bowl: Florida (6-6) vs. UCF (8-4)

It’s UCF’s chance to play Florida on a neutral site. Raymond James Stadium will be rocking for this one, though it’s hard to get excited about Florida. This is a team that lost to South Carolina and Missouri down the stretch and both head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham got fired. What kind of offensive trickery will UCF coach Gus Malzahn have up his sleeve for a rematch with a former SEC rival? And will Florida be motivated to play?

21. First Responder Bowl: Air Force (9-3) vs. Louisville (6-6)

Air Force had a nice season, going 9-3, and has a three-game win streak entering this game. AFA’s option was humming along at an excellent rate all year long. The Falcons also throw more than their service academy counterparts, Army and Navy. Louisville has one of the most exciting dual-threat QBs in the country with Malik Cunningham. This could be a fun contrast of offensive styles.

22. Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin (8-4) vs. Arizona State (8-4)

Arizona State and Wisconsin fans converging on Las Vegas is a match made in heaven. The game, however enticing it looks via record, isn’t as fun as envisioning Badgers and Sun Devils fans on the Strip. By now, you know the Wisconsin formula. Hand the ball off to a star running back (freshman Braelon Allen) and don’t let the QB (Graham Mertz) make too many mistakes. ASU was about as uninspiring as you can be for a team four games above .500 and there’s the whole NCAA investigation looming over the program too.

23. Birmingham Bowl: Houston (11-2) vs. Auburn (6-6)

The first year of the Bryan Harsin era at Auburn was up and down. The Tigers were once 6-2 and ranked No. 13. And then they lost their final four games, including a dramatic 4OT Iron Bowl against Alabama. Houston lost its opener to Texas Tech and then reeled off 11 consecutive victories before losing to Cincinnati in the AAC title game. Auburn wants to avoid a losing record. Houston wants to snap a four-game bowl losing streak.

Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen, center, waits to lead his team onto the field before an NCAA college football against Temple, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen, center, waits to lead his team onto the field before an NCAA college football against Temple, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

24. Arizona Bowl: Boise State (7-5) vs. Central Michigan (7-5)

Boise State played 10 bowl teams in 2021. Only Colorado State and New Mexico were on the Boise State schedule and didn’t end up going to bowl games. Does that mean Boise is underrated? Central Michigan got to a bowl game after winning its last four games of the season. The Chippewas beat four bowl teams on that winning streak too. This could be a fun one.

25. New Orleans Bowl: Marshall (7-5) vs. Louisiana (12-1)

This does look like a bit of a mismatch on paper. Louisiana dominated the Sun Belt in 2021 while Marshall missed out on the C-USA title game. Louisiana coach Billy Napier is off to Florida, however, and Marshall has a defense that’s capable of slowing down Louisiana’s offense. Only UAB gave up fewer points in Conference USA.

26. Quick Lane Bowl: Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Nevada (8-4)

​​We could be in line for a lot of points in this one. Western Michigan scored 249 points in its last six games of the season while Nevada averaged 37 points per game. It may also be the final college game for Nevada QB Carson Strong, so it could be your last college chance to see a toolsy QB who could be an early-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Vai Taua will be Nevada's head coach in the bowl game, filling in for Jay Norvell who is leaving the Wolf Pack for Colorado State

27. Texas Bowl: LSU (6-6) vs. Kansas State (7-5)

Ed Orgeron is out and Brian Kelly is in at LSU, but it will be offensive line coach Brad Davis running the show for the bowl game. He and the Tigers have a tough task against Kansas State, who has one of the most underrated running backs in the country in 5-foot-5 Deuce Vaughn. However, K-State will be very one-dimensional if starting QB Skylar Thompson cannot play. He got hurt late in the season.

28. Cure Bowl: Coastal Carolina (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (9-4)

Coastal Carolina was one of the top stories of college football in 2020, and CCU had another good year in 2021. The Chanticleers run a unique offense and have an excellent quarterback in Grayson McCall. Northern Illinois went winless in 2020 and won the MAC in 2021. How about that turnaround? The Huskies have an excellent running game and are looking for their first bowl win since 2011.

Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall (10) throws a pass during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Appalachian State on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Boone, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley).
Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall (10) throws a pass during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Appalachian State on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Boone, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley).

29. Independence Bowl: BYU (10-2) vs. UAB (8-4)

No offense to UAB, but we were hoping to see BYU play UTSA in this one. The Cougars ended the season in the top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings and are in this game via an agreement with the Independence Bowl before moving to the Big 12. While UAB nearly handed UTSA its first loss of the season, this is a team that also lost to Liberty and Rice. The Cougars are going to be big favorites.

30. Armed Forces Bowl: Army (8-3) vs. Missouri (6-6)

Anytime Army gets to go up against a Power Five program, it’s worth a watch. The Black Knights run a crisp, consistent triple-option offense. Missouri has one of the worst run defenses in the country, but that unit played much better down the stretch. At least Mizzou has three weeks to prepare.

31. Military Bowl: Boston College (6-6) vs. East Carolina (7-5)

East Carolina won four of its last five games after starting the season 3-4. The only loss in that stretch came to Cincinnati in the final game of the regular season. Boston College went 2-6 in the ACC as QB Phil Jurkovec missed most of the season with a wrist injury. He’s back now and gave the Eagles a big boost in his return to the field. 

32. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)

UNC started the year ranked No. 10 in the AP poll but went just 6-6. The Tar Heels have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Sam Howell, but that defense hasn’t stopped anybody. South Carolina is in its first season under Shane Beamer and exceeded expectations to get to a postseason game.

33. Guaranteed Rate Bowl: West Virginia (6-6) vs. Minnesota (8-4)

It’s hard to get excited about this one unless you’re a fan of either of these teams. This is a Minnesota team that lost to Bowling Green and West Virginia has been the epitome of .500 this season. And with this bowl game in Phoenix, so far away from either school, there may not be many fans in attendance.

34. Pinstripe Bowl: Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Maryland (6-6)

Virginia Tech fired coach Justin Fuente but got a rivalry win over Virginia to get bowl eligible. The Hokies struggled on offense for much of the year, but found a rhythm running the ball over the last month of the season. Maryland started 4-0 but needed to beat Rutgers in its last game to get bowl eligible for the first time under Mike Locksley.

35. New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State (9-3) vs. UTEP (7-5)

Fresno State enters this game without coach Kalen DeBoer after he was hired at Washington. And QB Jake Haener has his name in the transfer portal so he won’t play in the bowl game. UTEP has had a fantastic season to get to a bowl game but went 1-4 in its last five games.

36. Myrtle Beach Bowl: Tulsa (6-6) vs. Old Dominion (6-6)

Old Dominion did not play football in 2020 and started the 2021 season with a 1-6 record, only to rally and win five straight to get bowl eligible in Year 1 under Ricky Rahne. Tulsa also rallied to reach a bowl, winning its last three games, including a road upset over SMU, to get to 6-6.

37. Idaho Potato Bowl: Kent State (7-5) vs. Wyoming (6-6)

Wyoming was a tough team to figure out. The Cowboys won four to start the season then lost four before alternating wins and losses in its past four games. Kent State won the MAC East with a 6-2 record in the conference but was overmatched outside the conference and lost 108-33 to the three Power Five teams it played.

38. LendingTree Bowl: Liberty (7-5) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)

Liberty is coached by a familiar face (Hugh Freeze) and has an NFL draft prospect (Malik Willis) at quarterback, but enters the bowl game on a three-game losing streak. Eastern Michigan is looking for its first bowl win since 1987. The Eagles have played in three bowl games under Chris Creighton, but lost them all.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (7) passes against Mississippi during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (7) passes against Mississippi in the first half in a November game. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

39. Frisco Football Classic: North Texas (6-6) vs. Miami, Ohio (6-6)

Welcome to the bowl game created so every team could go to a bowl game this season. The Frisco Football Classic effectively replaces the canceled Redbox Bowl and accommodates a North Texas team that won five straight at the end of the season to get to a bowl game and a Miami team that started the season 2-4 before winning four of six down the stretch.

40. Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee (6-6) vs. Toledo (7-5)

Toledo was a preseason favorite in the MAC, but finished third in its division. The Rockets finished the season winning three of four, however, and are looking to win their first bowl game since 2015. MTSU needed a come-from-behind win in its last game to get bowl eligible. The Blue Raiders are just 2-6 in bowls under head coach Rick Stockstill. 

41. Hawaii Bowl: Hawaii (6-7) vs. Memphis (6-6)

If you’re a football junkie you’ll be watching this game on Christmas Eve if you’re looking for a distraction before Santa comes. We can’t promise this is going to be a good distraction, but it’s always fun to dream about Hawaii on Christmas Eve, right?

42. Camellia Bowl: Ball State (6-6) vs. Georgia State (7-5)

Georgia State has won six of seven entering bowl play while Ball State has lost three of its past five. Neither team lights up the scoreboard on offense and there’s just three combined bowl wins between the two programs.