For weeks, we racked our brains with hypothetical bowl pairings that could define the 2015 postseason. But finally, we no longer need to project. On Sunday all 40 bowl pairings were released, which means it’s now time to analyze the most intriguing matchups of the postseason.
Everyone knows the College Football Playoff semifinals and New Year’s Six games will be must-see TV. But how many other bowls are appointment viewing? SI.com offers a handy guide to break down the entire bowl lineup, rating each matchup on a scale of—what else?—footballs. A single football signifies a boring contest, while five footballs represent one of the best games of the postseason.
College Football Playoff
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 31, 4 p.m., ESPN)
Clemson has never played for a national title under Dabo Swinney despite five straight 10-win seasons. Now the Tigers, led by quarterback Deshaun Watson and a stingy defense, finally get their shot in a semifinal matchup with Oklahoma. But the Sooners’ offense ranks third in FBS (45.8 points per game) behind their own talented signal-caller, Baker Mayfield, and a skilled backfield.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Alabama vs. Michigan State (Dec. 31, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Last season Ohio State dashed Alabama’s championship hopes in a playoff semifinal. The Crimson Tide hope their luck changes against Michigan State, another Big Ten foe, in Dallas. ‘Bama boasts a Heisman finalist in running back Derrick Henry, along with the best front seven in college football. But Spartans quarterback Conner Cook has only lost four games in three seasons as a starter.
New Year’s Six games
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Houston vs. Florida State (Dec. 31, 12 p.m., ESPN)
Tom Herman could’ve landed a number of Power Five jobs after one season at Houston. Instead, he committed to a future with the Cougars. Now his prize is a meeting with Jimbo Fisher and star running back Dalvin Cook in Atlanta.
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State (Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Urban Meyer coaching against Notre Dame? That storyline writes itself. Now the Buckeyes must get up for a meeting with an Irish squad that nearly beat No. 1 Clemson on the road.
Rose Bowl: Stanford vs. Iowa (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
Iowa might’ve lost its first game of the season in the Big Ten title game to Michigan State, but coach Kirk Ferentz’s defense is the real deal. How will the Hawkeyes handle Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’s longtime record for single-season all-purpose yardage (3,496) in 2015?
Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Oklahoma State can thank Texas for upsetting Baylor last week, a result that thrust the Cowboys into the Sugar Bowl. But coach Mike Gundy’s defense, which gives up 430 yards per game, faces a test in quarterback Chad Kelly and the Ole Miss offense.
Cure Bowl: San Jose State vs. Georgia State (Dec. 19, noon, CBS Sports Network)
Coach Trent Miles and Georgia State shocked the Sun Belt by overcoming a 2-6 start to the season. They’ve won four straight games as they head into a matchup with 5-7 San Jose State.
Gildan New Mexico Bowl: Arizona vs. New Mexico (Dec. 19, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Now that Rich Rodriguez reaffirmed his commitment to Arizona after a reported flirtation with South Carolina, the Wildcats slide into a matchup with a New Mexico defense that showed marked improvement during its seven-win season.
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: BYU vs. Utah (Dec. 19, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
The Holy War is back on! A series that was played 90 times between 1922 and 2013 renews in Las Vegas, where Utah will look to spoil Bronco Mendenhall’s last game as BYU coach before he heads to Virginia.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Ohio vs. Appalachian State (Dec. 19, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
An Appalachian State team that boasts the Sun Belt’s top defense meets an Ohio program that was snubbed by the bowls in 2014 despite a 6-6 record.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech (Dec. 19, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Miami Beach Bowl: USF vs. Western Kentucky (Dec. 21, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty, Conference USA’s leading passer (9.3 yards per attempt), clashes with one of the top defenses in the AAC.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Akron vs. Utah State (Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Marmot Boca Raton Bowl: Temple vs. Toledo (Dec. 22, 7 p.m., ESPN)
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Boise State vs. Northern Illinois (Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
A four-loss season isn’t what Boise State had in mind after a Fiesta Bowl win in 2014, but a victory over Northern Illinois and first-team All-MAC running back Joel Bouagnon would be a nice way to finish.
GoDaddy Bowl: Bowling Green vs. Georgia Southern (Dec. 23, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Western Michigan (Dec. 24, noon, ESPN)
P.J. Fleck’s rising Western Michigan program, which hung tough against Michigan State earlier this year, will Row The Boat all the way to the Bahamas to meet Middle Tennessee State.
Hawaii Bowl: Cincinnati vs. San Diego State (Dec. 24, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Running back Donnel Pumphrey (1,464 yards in 2015) and San Diego State ran the table in the Mountain West to win the conference title. Cincinnati’s questionable defense might need a banner day in Hawaii.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Marshall vs. Connecticut (Dec. 26, 11 a.m., ESPN)
A UConn team that upset Houston earlier this year and nearly upset Missouri in Columbia takes on Marshall, which is seeking its third straight season with at least 10 wins.
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami vs. Washington State (Dec. 26, 2 p.m., CBS)
The underachieving Hurricanes likely didn’t expect a bowl berth when they fired Al Golden in October. Wazzu, meanwhile, might’ve expected a better landing spot after an eight-win season in the Pac-12.
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl: Washington vs. Southern Miss (Dec. 26, 2:20 p.m., ESPN)
Few teams head to the postseason feeling better than Washington, which reached six wins after a 45-10 rout of rival Washington State on Nov. 27. But a motivated Southern Miss squad is searching for its first double-digit win season since 2011.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Duke vs. Indiana (Dec. 26, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Expect plenty of offensive talent on Dec. 26 in the Bronx. Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk averages 282.7 yards of offense per game, third in the ACC, while Indiana signal-caller Nate Sudfeld finished as the Big Ten’s highest-rated passer (153.93 rating).
Camping World Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Tulsa (Dec. 26, 5:45 p.m., ESPN)
Frank Beamer’s 29-season career in Blackburg comes to a close against Tulsa in Shreveport, La. How will the Hokies play in their legendary coach’s final game?
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. UCLA (Dec. 26, 9:15 p.m., ESPN)
After seven seasons of nine wins or more under former coach Bo Pelini, can Nebraska fans get excited for a trip to Santa Clara after a 5-7 season from first-year coach Mike Riley? The Huskers must stop UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who threw 20 touchdowns as a true freshman, to avoid loss No. 8.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: Pittsburgh vs. Navy (Dec. 28, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Pittsburgh finished the regular season sixth in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.06), and that phase of Pat Narduzzi’s defense will have its hands full against Navy. The Midshipmen’s triple-option attack is led by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who broke Montee Ball’s NCAA record for career rushing touchdowns with 83 this year.
Quick Lane Bowl: Central Michigan vs. Minnesota (Dec. 28, 5 p.m., ESPN2)
Coach Tracy Claeys and Minnesota snuck into bowl season with a 5-7 record, and its reward is a meeting with Central Michigan and quarterback Cooper Rush. The Chippewas’ signal-caller threw for 3,703 yards and 25 touchdowns this fall.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force vs. California (Dec. 29, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Sure, Cal coach Sonny Dykes has been linked to seemingly every job opening in recent weeks. But should he stick around Berkeley for the school’s first bowl game since 2011, he’ll face an Air Force team that almost won the Mountain West title.
Russell Athletic Bowl: North Carolina vs. Baylor (Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
Can you say offense? Two teams that both had playoff aspirations at the end of the season must settle for a high-scoring outing in Orlando. The Bears rank first nationally in scoring (48 points per game), while Tar Heels check in at No. 11 (40.9).
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Colorado State vs. Nevada (Dec. 29, 7:30 p.m., American Sports Network)
In his first season at Colorado State, Mike Bobo managed to field the third-best offense in the Mountain West. However, the Rams still dropped from 10 wins to seven. But Bobo’s defense must step up against Nevada running backs James Butler and Don Jackson, who both surpassed 1,000 yards this season.
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Texas Tech vs. LSU (Dec. 29, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Not long ago, it looked unlikely that Les Miles would coach the Tigers in a bowl game. But now Miles can cap a nine-game season by taking out Texas Tech, whose defense ranks 117th nationally in yards-per-play allowed (6.69) and must find a way to stop Leonard Fournette.
Birmingham Bowl: Memphis vs. Auburn (Dec. 30, noon, ESPN)
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch threw just three interceptions against 28 touchdowns this season. Lynch has to be licking his chops in advance of this matchup, as Auburn’s pass defense finished 12th in the SEC.
Belk Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Mississippi State (Dec. 30, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville vs. Texas A&M (Dec. 30, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Normally a matchup between Bobby Petrino and Kevin Sumlin would mean three things: Points, points and points. But this year Louisville and Texas A&M both rank in the middle of their leagues in scoring offense. Still, the Aggies’ skill talent could be fun to watch against a Cardinals’ defense that finished third in the ACC in total defense.
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin vs. USC (Dec. 30, 10:30 p.m., ESPN)
The Badgers didn’t make a return trip to the Big Ten title game in 2015, but they fielded one of the league’s best defenses. USC will put that unit (13.1 points per game allowed) to the test with quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and the rest of the Trojans’ offensive talent.
Outback Bowl: Northwestern vs. Tennessee (Jan. 1, noon, ESPN2)
Both Northwestern and Tennessee head to Tampa on the heels of five-game winning streaks. The matchup to watch should be the Wildcats’ stingy defense (16.4 points per game allowed) against Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and the talented Vols’ offense, which averages 34 points per game.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida (Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Can we call this the “Jim Bowl”? This game features two coaches who have drastically overachieved in their first seasons on the job. Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain boast top-10 defenses at Michigan and Florida, respectively, so offense might come at a premium in this one.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia vs. Penn State (Jan. 2, noon, ESPN)
The Bulldogs haven’t played a bowl game without Mark Richt since the 2000 season, when it beat Virginia 37-14 in the Oahu Bowl. Today Penn State’s James Franklin could use a win over Georgia to reach eight wins. Of course, the last time Franklin faced the Dawgs—in 2013 as Vanderbilt’s head coach—he upset a 15th-ranked Georgia squad, 31-27.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Kansas State vs. Arkansas (Jan. 2, 3:20 p.m., ESPN)
Remember how Arkansas closed its season last year? A 31-7 rout of Texas sparked plenty of momentum heading into the off-season in Fayetteville. The Hogs have won five of their last six games this season after starting 2-4. Now Bret Bielema’s team faces a Kansas State squad coming off its worst season (6-6) since 2009.
Valero Alamo Bowl: TCU vs. Oregon (Jan. 2, 6:45 p.m., ESPN)
The scoreboard operator might need a week off after this game. Oregon and TCU both average better than 41 points per game thanks to two dynamic quarterbacks. The Ducks’ Vernon Adams, Jr. and the Frogs’ Trevone Boykin should provide plenty of offense in San Antonio.
Cactus Bowl: West Virginia vs. Arizona State (Jan. 2, 10:15 p.m., ESPN)
Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia squad surprised many by running the ball more (589 carries) than any Big 12 team aside from Baylor. Perhaps the Mountaineers’ offense isn’t the Air Raid of old, but Holgorsen could finish the year with a win over Arizona State, which won just two of its last six games.