Ranking the bowls 1-40 (excluding the national championship)

Bowl season is upon us.

Well, it officially starts in 13 days when five games kick off the 40 (and one) that will make up the conclusion of the 2015 season.

With the College Football Playoff field set and three 5-7 teams heading to bowls this year, here's how we rank the matchups.

We took record into account, of course, but we also tried to figure out which games would be the most unpredictable. And, as always, one of the games near the bottom of this list will turn out to be the highlight of bowl season.

Away we go.

1. Goodyear Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31, Dallas)  Alabama (12-1) vs. Michigan State (12-1)

No, this game isn't a referendum on the SEC and the Big Ten, though it will be viewed as such by many. Alabama's defensive line will have a great matchup with Michigan State's offensive line. Can MSU QB Connor Cook find WR Aaron Burbridge over the top of the Alabama secondary? Will Derrick Henry have running lanes if Michigan State puts eight in the box and dares Alabama's Jake Coker to beat it?

2. Capital One Orange Bowl (Dec. 31, Miami)  Clemson (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (11-1)

Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield will likely be the top two Heisman vote-getters at quarterback. Will either be a Heisman winner when this game rolls around? With both offenses proficient through the air and on the ground, the key factor is going to be the defensive lines. Whichever one gets the most pressure likely seals a berth to the title game.

3. Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1, Glendale, Arizona)  Ohio State (11-1) vs. Notre Dame (10-2)

Ohio State's coaching staff will likely devise a plan to limit Notre Dame WR Will Fuller's production. Can the Irish run the ball? And can Notre Dame stop Ohio State if the Buckeyes stay committed to the ground game? Notre Dame was 65th in the country in rushing defense. If the Michigan game was an indicator of what Ohio State will do in RB Ezekiel Elliott's last game as a Buckeye, cover your eyes Irish fans.

4. Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, Pasadena, California)  Stanford (11-2) vs. Iowa (12-1)

Oh, the grit that will be in this game. Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri tweaked his ankle again against Michigan State. Hopefully the long layoff helps him heal because this should be a fun battle between Canzeri and Stanford's Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey. Can the Hawkeyes keep McCaffrey from piling up the special teams yards?

5. Valero Alamo Bowl (Jan. 2, San Antonio, Texas)  TCU (10-2) vs. Oregon (9-3)

Oh hell yes. This is set up to be one of the most entertaining bowl games of the season. Both TCU's Trevone Boykin and Oregon's Vernon Adams should be healthy and the contrast between offensive styles should be an intriguing one. Does the winner break 50, or even 60?

6. Russell Athletic Bowl (Dec. 29, Orlando) — North Carolina (11-2) vs. Baylor (9-3)

This game has the potential to be a lot of fun if Baylor can find a worthwhile quarterback. The Bears lead the nation averaging 48 points per game and the Tar Heels average 40.9 points per game. Both of these teams missed out on CFP and NY6 spots, so while points are possible, motivation might be lacking. 

7. Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl (Dec. 31, Atlanta)  Houston (12-1) vs. Florida State (10-2)

The Cougars' offense vs. the Florida State defense should be a fantastic matchup. Will Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey shadow Demarcus Ayers? Houston's defense has been overshadowed by its explosive offense, but the Cougars are equipped to contain the FSU passing game. But that's not the issue. Stopping RB Dalvin Cook is.

8. Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, New Orleans)  Ole Miss (9-3) vs. Oklahoma State (10-2)

The last time these two teams met in a bowl game was the 2010 Cotton Bowl when Houston Nutt's Ole Miss team beat the Cowboys. This is likely to be the final college game for Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and we'll also get to see Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah. And there's the battle at wide receiver between Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell and OSU's James Washington.

9. Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 19, Las Vegas) – BYU (9-3) vs. Utah (9-3)

A Holy War showdown for Bronco Mendenhall’s last game as BYU head coach? Sign us up. Both of these teams had some shine in the national spotlight this year, too. It should be a good one, though the Utes will be without star running back Devontae Booker due to a knee injury.

10. Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 22, Boca Raton, Florida) – Temple (10-3) vs. Toledo (9-2)

Both of these teams had great seasons, but fell short of winning their respective conferences. Toledo had a chance to win its division in the season finale and then lost head coach Matt Campbell to Iowa State. Meanwhile, Temple (which can reach 11 wins for the first time in program history) dropped the AAC title game to Houston. Nonetheless, these are two of the best Group of Five teams in the country. We’re looking forward to this one.

11. GoDaddy Bowl (Dec. 23, Mobile, Alabama) – Bowling Green (10-3) vs. Georgia Southern (8-4)

Georgia Southern has to deal with one of the nation’s top offenses in its first-ever bowl game. The Eagles won the Sun Belt last year, but couldn’t qualify for a bowl because they were in the first season of FBS play. Now they get a their shot against the MAC champions. Though the Falcons just lost head coach Dino Babers to Syracuse, senior quarterback Matt Johnson and the nation’s fourth-best offense will want to go out on a high note.

12. Holiday Bowl (Dec. 30, San Diego)  Wisconsin (9-3) vs. USC (8-5)

The Trojans' late-season success came with a prioritized ground game to take pressure off QB Cody Kessler. Wisconsin finished the regular season No. 4 in rushing defense. The Trojans will need to stop Wisconsin's rushing attack and force Joel Stave, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2015, to beat them.

13. Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (Dec. 19, Montgomery, Alabama) – Appalachian State (10-2) vs. Ohio (8-4)

Ohio and Appalachian State may not be the sexiest names in the bowl slate, but this one has some potential. The Mountaineers boast the best offense in the Sun Belt while the Bobcats are riding a three-game winning streak. This is the first bowl appearance for App State since its move over from the FCS level, so you know they’ll have some extra juice to come out with a win.

14. Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, Tampa, Florida)  Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4)

Both teams finished the season in the Top 25 of the College Football Playoff rankings. The Wildcats, at 10-2, should have the edge in this one assuming they can stop the Tennessee running game. The Volunteers have a shot if QB Josh Dobbs makes improvements as a passer in the extra bowl practices.

15. Birmingham Bowl (December 30, Birmingham, Alabama)  Memphis (9-3) vs. Auburn (6-6):

Hello, offense. Well, assuming Auburn will be able to throw the ball with any effectiveness. It's also the Tiger bowl, so we'll refrain from using the school's nicknames for the remainder of this blurb. Auburn's defense has been terrible this season. Stopping Memphis QB Paxton Lynch, a guy who beat Ole Miss earlier in the year, doesn't seem like an optimal matchup.

16. San Diego County CU Poinsettia Bowl (Dec. 23, San Diego, California) – Boise State (8-4) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)

Hey, look at that! Another good Group of Five game. This was a down season for Boise State, but the Broncos still won eight games and have a star in the making with freshman quarterback Brett Rypien. Rypien isn’t the one to watch, though, it’s sophomore RB Jeremy McNichols. Northern Illinois made it all the way to the MAC title game, but had to start a freshman walk-on at quarterback due to injuries. That injury situation is one to keep an eye on.

17. AutoZone Liberty Bowl (January 2, Memphis, Tennessee)  Kansas State (6-6) vs. Arkansas (7-5)

Can you get a coaching personality matchup more different than Kansas State's Bill Snyder vs. Arkansas' Bret Bielema? The Wildcats got into this game by winning three games to finish the year following a six-game losing streak. Arkansas improved as the season went on. It's not an erotic (to quote Bielema) matchup, but it's an underrated one.

18. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl (Dec. 29, Houston)  Texas Tech (7-5) vs. LSU (8-3)

What a contrast of offensive styles. LSU's offense will be centered around Leonard Fournette and time of possession. Texas Tech will want to run as many plays as possible. And while Tech stopped Arkansas earlier in the season, its rush defense allowed 272 yards per game. Fournette could have a field day.

19. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (December 30, Nashville)  Louisville (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (8-4)

Welcome to a bowl of unmet expectations. Both the Cardinals and Aggies didn't live up to what their fans thought the season would be like at the beginning of the year. This could be an ugly game too. Texas A&M's offense has been inconsistent at best while Louisville's hasn't figured out a consistent passing attack.

20. Belk Bowl (Dec. 30, Charlotte, North Carolina)  N.C. State (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)

It's Dak Prescott's final game but Is that enough of a draw for Mississippi State fans? The Wolfpack should have some homefield support if its fans want to show up for a bowl sponsored by a southern department store. The Bulldogs should have a significant edge, but this is a good building block for NC State coach Dave Doeren.

21. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, Orlando)  Michigan (9-3) vs. Florida (10-3)

Oh, this does not set up well for the Gators at all. Michigan has enough offense to crack the Florida defense, and from what we've seen from Florida, the Gators don't have enough to do anything to Michigan. Can Florida coach Jim McElwain figure out an effective game plan to move the ball against the Wolverines? It may require RB Kelvin Taylor to get the ball a lot.

22. Miami Beach Bowl (Dec. 21, Miami) – South Florida (8-4) vs. Western Kentucky (11-2)

It’s going to be hard to top the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl (the brawl, too) but this is a pretty intriguing matchup. USF coach Willie Taggart went from a guy who was fighting for his job to a guy who led his team to wins in seven of its final eight games. The Bulls, led by RB Marlon Mack and speedy QB Quinton Flowers, will have to be at the top of their game to keep up with the high-powered Western Kentucky offense. Senior QB Brandon Doughty leads the Hilltoppers attack. Oh, and to the add to the intrigue, Taggart left WKU to take the USF job.


Hyundai Sun Bowl (Dec. 26, El Paso, Texas) — Miami (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)

This game is a showcase of young, star quarterbacks. Both Washington State’s Luke Falk and Miami’s Brad Kaaya are among the nation’s best — when they’re healthy. This will be an experience for the Miami secondary, which likely will see something like 60 passing attempts from Mike Leach’s squad.

24. Motel 6 Cactus Bowl (Dec. 2, Phoenix)  Arizona State (6-6) vs. West Virginia (7-5)

The Sun Devils get to stay home and host a West Virginia team that's see-sawed throughout 2015. The Mountaineers started 3-0, went to 3-4, then to 7-4 before losing to Kansas State to end the season. ASU also had a three-game losing streak during the year. These teams are about evenly matched and this could be a sneaky fun game.

25. R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 19, New Orleans) – Arkansas State (9-3) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4)

After starting 1-3 in a challenging non-conference slate, Arkansas State tore through the Sun Belt, going a perfect 8-0 to finish 9-3. Louisiana Tech, led by Florida transfer Jeff Driskel at quarterback, should present a bigger challenge than the average Sun Belt foe. Driskel has serious weapons in end zone magnet RB Kenneth Dixon (83 career TDs – that’s not a typo) and WR Trent Taylor (89 catches, 1,113 yards, 8 TDs).

26. Taxslayer Bowl (Jan. 2, Jacksonville, Florida)  Georgia (9-3) vs. Penn State (7-5)

First team to 20 points wins? Both teams' offenses have been under scrutiny this year. Penn State already made a change at offensive coordinator and it's doubtful Brian Schottenheimer returns as Georgia's OC in 2016. It's also disappointing that neither of these schools' presidents made a music video about the bowl berth.

27. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman (Dec. 28, Annapolis, Maryland) — Pittsburgh (8-4) vs. Navy (9-2)

Both of these teams have enjoyed resurgent seasons. Navy could be playing for its first-ever 11-win campaign and Pitt hasn’t won nine games since 2009. It also will be the last chance to see Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who is one of the most dynamic players at any position in the country.

28. Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 24, Nassau, Bahamas) – Middle Tennessee (7-5) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)

It’s not too common to see two 100-catch receivers in one game, but that’s what we have in the Bahamas Bowl with MTSU freshman Richie James (100 catches, 1,220 yards, 6 TDs) and WMU junior Daniel Braverman (103 catches, 1,266 yards, 12 TDs). Both teams ended their seasons on high notes too. The Blue Raiders won their final four games while the Broncos beat a ranked Toledo team on the road.

29. Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 26, Dallas) — Washington (6-6) and Southern Miss (9-4)

This game could be another low-scoring defensive battle, but don’t dismiss Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens, who has thrown for 4,145 yards and 36 touchdowns this season. He’s not the best quarterback Washington has seen, but he’ll be a challenge.

30. Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24, Honolulu) — San Diego State (10-3) vs. Cincinnati (7-5)

Expect a high-scoring affair in this one as the two-headed San Diego rushing attack duels with the Bearcats’ strong passing attack. SDSU is coming off a MWC title win while Cincinnati has gone 2-2 down the stretch.

31. New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 26, Bronx, New York) — Indiana (6-6) vs. Duke (7-5)

This would be an excellent basketball matchup, but as a football matchup we’re a little iffy. Indiana’s offense is tough to stop and this is a Duke teams that comes into the contest having lost four of its last five games.


Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 26, Santa Clara, California) — UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7)

Nebraska is playing in the postseason courtesy of its APR, not really its on-field merit. That said, this is an intriguing matchup. UCLA’s freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has been refreshing this season and he has a chance to give the Bruins their fourth consecutive season with at least nine wins.

33. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 29, Fort Worth, Texas) — California (7-5) vs. Air Force (8-5)

Cal is playing in its first bowl game since 2011, but much of the focus has been on coach Sonny Dykes, who is seemingly doing anything to get out of Berkeley. So who knows if he’ll be around to coach against the Mountain West runner-ups, but at the very least we’ll get to see QB Jared Goff in what’s probably his final game.

34. Gildan New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 19, Albuquerque, N.M.) – New Mexico (7-5) vs. Arizona (6-6)

After learning their head coach flirted with taking the South Carolina job, the underachieving Wildcats are rewarded with a trip to scenic New Mexico, where they’ll play the Lobos in their home stadium. Though they fell short of winning their division, Bob Davie leading the Lobos back to a bowl for the first time since 2007 is a nice story.

35. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 22, Boise, Idaho) – Akron (7-5) vs. Utah State (6-6)

This is a matchup of teams trending in the opposite direction. Akron won its final four games while Utah State dropped three of its last four. Still, this is the last time we’ll get to see Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Keeton has made some special plays over the years, but has battled knee injuries. He should be back at full strength for this one.

36. Camping World Independence Bowl (Dec. 26, Shreveport, Louisiana) — Tulsa (6-6) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)

The Hokies turned in an inspiring effort to get Frank Beamer a final bowl game before he retires and now they have to finish it off. Just a little unfortunate Beamer’s final contest isn’t in a place a little more glamorous than Shreveport.

37. St. Petersburg Bowl (Dec. 26, St. Petersburg, Florida) — Connecticut (6-6) vs. Marshall (9-3)

This game could be oddly defensive since both teams rank in the top 17 in scoring defense. However, the Huskies will have their hands full with the potent Marshall offense, which is averaging 32.6 points per game.

38. Quick Lane Bowl (Dec. 28, Detroit, Michigan) — Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Minnesota (5-7)

If Minnesota wins this game, it would still finish the season with a losing record.Central Michigan, on the other hand, hasn’t won eight games since 2009. Central Michigan has some good wins this year and stayed close with Michigan State for a good portion of the game. So this could be an unexpectedly good contest.

39. Arizona (Dec. 29, Tucson, Arizona)  Colorado State (7-5) vs. Nevada (6-6)

Yes, these two teams are both in the Mountain West Conference. The magic of 40 bowls and 5-7 teams going to bowls means we get stuck with an in-conference game this season. At least these two teams didn't play each other in 2015.

40. AutoNation Cure Bowl (Dec. 19, Orlando, Florida) – Georgia State (6-6) vs. San Jose State (5-7)

We don’t want to discredit Georgia State for winning its final four games, but this bowl is as bad as it gets. The only reason San Jose State – a team that lost to 2-10 Oregon State – is in this game is because of its high APR. The Spartans only have two wins over teams with a winning record, New Mexico and FCS New Hampshire. But hey, at least we get to watch SJSU RB Tyler Ervin (1,469 yards) play one more time.