College football bowl storylines: Playoff gets new blood as postseason offers record 43 games

·9 min read

After 14 weeks of the regular season, college football concludes with the largest postseason in its history. Almost two thirds of the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision have extended their seasons as 84 finished with at least six wins to qualify.

The stakes will be high as the College Football Playoff will potentially crown a first-time champion under the current system that started in 2014. The New Year’s Six bowls are also full of newcomers in this new era, while some schools are breaking long droughts with the opportunity to put a bow on a successful campaign and hopefully build momentum for 2022.

The best storylines from the postseason extravaganza to keep you busy into the New Year:

New blood in the playoff

Fans frustrated by seeing the same teams in the College Football Playoff got their wish with only Alabama in the field with multiple appearances before this season. The Crimson Tide earned their seventh trip to the semifinals, which broke a tie for first overall with Clemson. The Tigers and regulars Ohio State and Oklahoma all missed the field with only the Buckeyes earning a trip to the New Year’s Six. At least three of the quartet had appeared in every playoff since 2015.

Aidan Hutchinson led Michigan to its first Big 10 title since 2004. Can he help lead the way to their first national championship since 1997?
Aidan Hutchinson led Michigan to its first Big 10 title since 2004. Can he help lead the way to their first national championship since 1997?

Their disappointing seasons opened the door for three teams with one combined trip. That one is Georgia, which lost to Alabama in the title game during the 2017 season.

Michigan had a surprising campaign that saw the Wolverines start the season unranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and end with their first Big Ten title since 2004. Almost as important, they ended an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State.

Cincinnati is carrying the banner for the Group of Five as it made history by being the first team outside the Power Five to make the field. The Bearcats, who have gone unbeaten in the past two regular seasons, get to test themselves against the bluest of blue bloods in Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Georgia and Michigan meet in the Orange Bowl.

If someone knocks off the defending champion Crimson Tide, the other three schools will end some notable title droughts. Michigan last won a share of the national championship in 1997. The last crown for Georgia was in 1980. Cincinnati has never won a national championship and its highest placing in the final poll is No. 8.

Full slate on tap

Fans won’t get short-changed this postseason. One year after only 29 games were played due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing cancellations, there will be a record 43 matchups to cap the season.

The Rose Bowl Game is nicknamed "The Granddaddy of Them All" because it is the oldest currently operating bowl game.
The Rose Bowl Game is nicknamed "The Granddaddy of Them All" because it is the oldest currently operating bowl game.

You can thank the NCAA for that switch. The organization stepped in and approved the Frisco Football Classic in a one-time move that makes room for all 84 teams that qualified, filling a vacancy that was created by the Redbox Bowl calling off its game for the second consecutive year.

There will be something old and something new. The Rose Bowl, which was started in 1902, continues as the longest-running game. An equally historic venue will get its first opportunity to host as Fenway Park will welcome the first-time Fenway Bowl.

The NFL also gets in on the fun with two of its newest attractions integrated into the lineup. The inaugural LA Bowl will be played at SoFi Stadium and the Las Vegas Bowl moves to Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders.

In all, 16 postseason games will be played at NFL venues with the College Football Playoff championship game headed to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The stadium has never been the site of a bowl game, though the Super Bowl has been there once, the Final Four three times and every Big Ten title game since it began in 2010.

Two NFL stadiums – the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida – join Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, and Camping World Stadium in Orlando as hosts for two games on the schedule.

Intriguing matchups

Don’t ever say bowls lack a sense of humor or ulterior motives when matching the teams. This year’s schedule will see some intriguing reunions with one being fairly acrimonious.

That would be at the Liberty Bowl where former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach will lead Mississippi State against the Red Raiders. Leach was let go by Tech in 2009 after accusations of mistreatment by a player that was the son of an ESPN announcer. Leach would file a lawsuit against the school for wrongful termination. He lost in court, but assuredly would relish a victory on the field against the Red Raiders, who haven’t won more than eight games in a season since his departure.

In the Liberty Bowl,  Mississippi State coach Mike Leach will face his former team, Texas Tech, in one of the more intriguing matchups of the bowl season.
In the Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach will face his former team, Texas Tech, in one of the more intriguing matchups of the bowl season.

Leach has already publicly tweaked his previous school on Twitter with his reference to Mississippi State fans being allowed to bring cowbells to the game. It should be a fun atmosphere and one of the more compelling games outside the New Year’s Six.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi will get reacquainted with Michigan State in the Peach Bowl. Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator for the Spartans for eight seasons before taking over the Panthers job in 2015. He led them to their first ACC title this year.

Former ACC foes Virginia Tech and Maryland will have a reunion in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Hokies and Terrapins haven’t met since 2013, which was the final season before the latter left for the Big Ten.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl matches an off-and-on border rivalry between North Carolina and South Carolina. The schools first played in 1903 and have met 58 times, though only on four occasions in the past 30 years.

Oregon and Oklahoma wouldn’t be considered rivals, but their last meeting resulted in one of the most controversial endings in college football history. The Sooners recovered an onside kick in the final minutes that would have sealed the game, however officials rewarded the ball to the Ducks, who would then drive for the winning score.

Fifteen years later, the loss still stings. Bob Stoops, the losing coach in that game who, will lead Oklahoma as interim coach, had this to say: “You don’t want me talking about the 2006 game.”

Coaching uncertainty

The coaching carousel this season has been like nothing college football has experienced. Southern California fired its coach after two games. Among the other schools announcing departures before the season was over were LSU, Florida, Virginia Tech, TCU, Texas Tech, Washington and Washington State.

There was further change after the season as bowl-eligible teams Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, Miami (Florida\), Virginia, SMU, Fresno State, Nevada and Louisiana-Lafayette had coaching departures. The impact on bowl preparations has been profound as programas have had to manage the early recruiting period while practicing and sorting out replacement staffs. It’s not ideal.

Fourteen teams are playing in bowls after having coaches leave. Three games will match schools with interim staffs – the Fenway Bowl (Virginia-SMU), the Alamo Bowl (Oklahoma and Oregon) and the Sun Bowl (Washington State-Miami).

Biggest names are left out

Even with only 46 schools missing out on bowl games, the postseason will be lacking several elite programs that are considered royalty in college football. Texas, Nebraska and Southern California all rank among the top eight teams in bowl appearances, yet the group combined for a record of 12-24 this season and all of them will be staying home.

The Texas Longhorns will not be going bowling for the first time since 2016.
The Texas Longhorns will not be going bowling for the first time since 2016.

The Longhorns, who have played in 57 bowls, came the closest after finishing with five wins, but saw their run of four consecutive trips end. It was not a great season with first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

The Trojans limped to four wins after Clay Helton was dismissed and will not add to their total of 53 postseason appearances.

But with Lincoln Riley coming in you have to think this is perhaps the last time in a long time they’ll be left out.

Also stuck at 53 appearances are the Cornhuskers after a fifth consecutive season with fewer than six victories. It was a frustrating campaign that saw them lose six games against ranked opponents by nine points or fewer.

Among the other notable programs with lots of free time during the holidays are Florida State, Washington, TCU, Colorado, Stanford and Georgia Tech.

There’s some smaller schools, however, which are going the opposite direction. Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina are in a bowl for just the second time.

It’s only the third trip for Liberty and Texas-San Antonio.

Oregon State returns to the postseason for the first time since 2013. Only Kansas and Lousiaina-Monroe had longer streaks of missing out. East Carolina and Texas-El Paso last played in a bowl in 2014.

Bowls by the numbers

There are 41 states that have Football Bowl Subdivision programs. All but four will be represented in the postseason with Connecticut, Nebraska, New Mexico and New Jersey being left out. It’s worth noting that New Mexico has only two FBS teams and the others only have one.

The Southeastern Conference, unsurprisingly, leads all leagues with 13 bowl berths. Only Vanderbilt did not qualify. The Atlantic Coast Conference is second with 10 teams followed by the Big Ten with nine. The Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Conference USA placed eight teams. The Big 12 has seven and the Pac-12 trails all Power Five conferences with six.

There’s three games matching ranked opponents outside the New Year’s Six bowls, starting with No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 15 Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.

No. 16 Iowa squares off with No. 20 Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. The schools have never met. No. 19 Wake Forest playing No. 23 Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl. They faced each other four years ago in the Belk Bowl, the last game for the Aggies before Jimbo Fisher took over as coach.

Not included, but worth noting, is No. 25 Texas-San Antonio and San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl. The Aztecs did not make the final coaches poll of the regular season but were ranked No. 24 by the playoff committee.

Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football bowl season features new blood in record 43 games