The networks that own the rights to the bowl slate arrange everything so that if you wanted to, you could take in a significant chunk of all 40 games of the FBS postseason, a three-week-long binge to close out a satisfying season. But if we’re being realistic, things come up. Holiday traditions get in the way of the Holiday Bowl. The cheapest flights home happen to overlap with the first three quarters of the Boca Raton Bowl (this specific scenario hits particularly close to home). Sacrifices must be made, and accordingly, priorities must be set.
To help you make those tough choices, we’re counting down 2017’s 37 bowl games outside the College Football Playoff, from the least watchable matchups to the can’t-miss events. The criteria used to sift through the clutter, in no particular order: the potential for offensive fireworks, any intriguing contrast in schematic styles, the presence of a superstar player or future first-round draft pick, the prestige of the bowl game and/or venue itself, the TV time slot and the quality of the teams involved.
If you weren’t already planning to watch the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the national title game, these rankings aren’t for you, so for the sake of suspense at the top of the list we’ve left out the three games with national title implications. (But for the record, Georgia-Oklahoma just barely edges out Alabama-Clemson as the postseason’s most entertaining bowl due to the unique matchup and offensive contrast.)
37. Independence Bowl: Southern Miss vs. Florida State
After Jimbo Fisher’s messy exit, the Seminoles might be regretting the lengths they went to just to get to six wins and extend their record bowl streak to 36 years, rescheduling a game against Louisiana-Monroe that was cancelled by Hurricane Irma to avoid a 5–6 finish. Now they’ll travel to Shreveport for a matchup with a decidedly middle-tier Conference USA foe in the middle of a weekday afternoon two days after Christmas.
36. Cure Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State
These aren’t quite the same high-flying Hilltoppers we’ve seen in years past: Western Kentucky only topped 40 points twice all season, in part because senior quarterback Mike White was sacked a stunning 38 times. At least the Panthers will want to be in Orlando, making the program’s second bowl appearance ever.
35. Pinstripe Bowl: Iowa vs. Boston College
Boston College’s stretch-run offensive explosion (36 points per game in the second half of the regular season) still feels too good to be true, and a meeting with the Hawkeyes—traditionally a stylistic kindred spirit—inside a baseball stadium should remind the Eagles of the first-to-14-points thrillers from whence they came.
34. Gasparilla Bowl: Temple vs. Florida International
Another baseball stadium bowl venue, and this one (Tropicana Field) is barely accepted as a suitable place to play baseball. When Bad Boy Mowers famously signed on for the St. Petersburg Bowl’s flashy rebrand, it had to have been hoping for a little better luck than this. This game should at least shine some light on Butch Davis’s impressive one-year turnaround at FIU, which has been completely overshadowed by Lane Kiffin’s impressive one-year turnaround at FAU.
33. Camellia Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill bought $10,000 worth of tickets to incentivize students to make the trip to Montgomery—the Blue Raiders were sent to Hawaii and the Bahamas the last two postseasons, but their lackluster 6–6 finish kept them a little closer to home. Keep an eye on Red Wolves sack master Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, and make sure you watch the postgame press conference to see if head coach Blake Anderson sends any more digs Arkansas’s way.
32. Frisco Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. SMU
This might be your last chance to see Courtland Sutton in an SMU uniform: The 6'4" junior receiver has the NFL’s attention after a few eye-popping campaigns within head coach Chad Morris’s breakneck-fast offense. But Morris couldn’t make it to this game before being hired by Arkansas.
31. Arizona Bowl: New Mexico State vs. Utah State
This year’s Just Happy to Be Here winner in a landslide is New Mexico State, which last went to a bowl in 1960. Emotions were high after the Aggies clinched their sixth win on Saturday, so expect an atypically charged atmosphere in Tucson.
30. Sun Bowl: NC State vs. Arizona State
The Sun Devils’ final game before the official start of the Herm Edwards era comes against an NC State team that has beaten just three teams that finished with winning records this year. The Wolfpack faithful thought this season might end somewhere a little closer to the beach than El Paso, but they have several young receivers to be excited about. Sophomores Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers and do-everything weapon Jaylen Samuels could rip off some big plays against Arizona State’s suspect defense.
29. Military Bowl: Virginia vs. Navy
Given the recent heights Navy has reached, this counts as a down year, but the Midshipmen should pose an interesting challenge for the Cavaliers, whose only win in their final six games came over another triple-option team, Georgia Tech.
28. Quick Lane Bowl: Duke vs. Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois is 0–4 in bowl games under Rod Carey; Duke got its first postseason win in half a century two years ago at the Pinstripe Bowl. Nobody will be in their element. On a fast track at Ford Field, look out for Blue Devils leading receiver T.J. Rahming, whose one touchdown this season belies his quick-twitch athleticism.
27. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Central Michigan v. Wyoming
NFL draft darling Josh Allen hurt his throwing shoulder in mid-November but is expected to be good to go by the time Wyoming gets to Boise. If the Cowboys’ free-slinging quarterback can’t play, drop this matchup down 10 slots.
26. Belk Bowl: Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M
The Aggies are playing out the string in between Kevin Sumlin and Jimbo Fisher, while Greg Dortch, the star of Wake Forest’s upstart passing attack with nine catches this year, was lost for the season with an abdominal injury. His absence won’t stop Demon Deacons QB John Wolford from chucking it around the yard in his final game, but there may not be enough on the line for this to devolve into a back-and-forth shootout.
25. Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Northwestern
One Wildcats team is a lot hotter than the other: Northwestern has won seven straight, while Kentucky has lost three of four. Both teams would prefer to do most of their work on the ground, which may limit the scoring potential but should wrap up with plenty of time for fans to switch gears before the No. 1 game on this list (stay tuned).
24. Orange Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Miami
It’s the Turnover Chain vs. the nation’s top defense by yards allowed per game, which could mean a long night for quarterbacks Malik Rosier and Alex Hornibrook. The losers of Saturday’s two primetime Power 5 conference championship games square off in Miami’s home stadium with considerably lower stakes than they had hoped for, taking the edge off the lowest New Year’s Six matchup on our rankings. You’ll be able to tell how much juice the Hurricanes’ breakout season has left by whether Miami fans are out-attended by the well-traveled Badger faithful.
23. New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. Colorado State
A game can only drop so far in these rankings if it features a receiver with a very real chance at going for 200-plus yards, and Colorado State senior Michael Gallup is just that kind of player—he did it twice in the regular season.
22. Hawai’i Bowl: Fresno State vs. Houston
Ed Oliver’s disruptive dominance in the middle of the line is the gift that keeps on giving for those who have stuck with Houston games even after Tom Herman jumped to Texas. After playing Washington and Alabama in back-to-back weeks in December, Jeff Tedford’s Fresno State team has earned itself a Christmas Eve in Hawaii.
21. Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. UCLA
This figures to be Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen’s final collegiate game before the NFL comes calling. Scouts will be watching Kansas State junior corner D.J. Reed closely, as well. There’s some sneaky shootout potential here, as the Wildcats spent half the season scoring at will and the other half searching for stability at quarterback. Will freshman Skylar Thompson’s tenure as the starter outlast Bill Snyder’s coaching career?
20. Holiday Bowl: Washington State vs. Michigan State
On paper, it seems like these two teams might present a refreshing contrast of styles and strengths, but Cougars QB Luke Falk was terrible in last year’s bowl game and the Spartans are unlikely to get the benefit of bad weather in San Diego, so neither team seems set up to play its best. Plus, after this matchup was announced, the Spartans and their fans promptly made it known they’d rather be in Tampa for the Outback Bowl.
19. Bahamas Bowl: UAB vs. Ohio
UAB deserves a trip to the Bahamas to cap its first season back after the miraculous resurrection of its football program, and although Ohio played its way out of a shot at the MAC title with a puzzling late-season loss to Akron, the Blazers get a quality opponent to measure themselves against.
18. Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State vs. Oregon
This was higher before Oregon head coach Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State, but it should still provide a decent glimpse at what the Ducks might look like next year with a healthy Justin Herbert at the helm of the offense. The Mountain West champs suffered two embarrassing losses to Power 5 opponents (one in triple-overtime, one by a wider margin than the Broncos had allowed at home in over a decade) and should have a little something extra to prove.
17. Heart of Dallas Bowl: Utah vs. West Virginia
The Utes may be 6–6, but they kept the Pac-12’s four best teams all within a possession. The Mountaineers may be 7–5, but they put a scare into almost everyone except Oklahoma. This game has the Boxing Day afternoon window all to itself, and there should be enough offensive fireworks here not to spoil it.
16. Camping World Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are one of the most fun teams in the country to watch when their offense is clicking, but that fun can burn out quickly if it becomes apparent the opponent has no chance of scoring with them. Virginia Tech’s last game was a 10–0 slog of a win over Virginia. This was a risky yet undeniably intriguing pairing.
15. New Orleans Bowl: Troy vs. North Texas
The first game of the FBS bowl slate pits the Sun Belt champs against the Conference USA runners-up in the Superdome. Will Troy’s Neal Brown or North Texas’s Seth Littrell get the call to coach a Power 5 program first? And will Trojans running back Jordan Chunn, who put up 190 yards on LSU’s defense, return to form once he crosses back over the Louisiana state line?
14. Boca Raton Bowl: Akron vs. Florida Atlantic
With a prime-time national audience to himself, Lane Kiffin is going to try to get everyone’s attention one way or another. The clearest path to that goal seems like it will be dropping 60 on the Zips, who can’t hang with FAU’s lethal offense. Owls running back Devin Singletary is 204 rushing yards away from 2,000 on the season, and Akron is 99th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (197.2). Just keep an eye on it.
13. Citrus Bowl: Notre Dame vs. LSU
It’s a New Year’s Day bowl, sure, but one between two teams everybody seems to have pretty much figured out by this point. If Josh Adams and Derrius Guice don’t get going (or skip the game altogether) against two solid run defenses, this could turn into a slog.
12. Alamo Bowl: Stanford vs. TCU
The mysteries of bowl season: Why do the Pac-12’s two top games outside the New Year’s Six kick off at the same time (9 p.m. ET) on the same day (Dec. 28) on different channels (FS1 for the Holiday Bowl, ESPN for the Alamo)? If the conference is making you choose between two top teams, choose the Cardinal as Bryce Love tries to burn Gary Patterson’s defense.
11. Armed Forces Bowl: San Diego State vs. Army
With the No. 1 (Army) and No. 12 (SDSU) rushing offenses in the country on hand, this one might get wrapped up in under three hours. The stars of those ground games are both seniors trying to go out in style: Black Knights quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (1,472 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Aztecs running back Rashaad Penny (2,027 rushing yards, 19 touchdowns) have toiled in relative obscurity for too long.
10. Foster Farms Bowl: Arizona vs. Purdue
Two of the season’s great underdog stories meet in Santa Clara, as electrifying quarterback Khalil Tate and Arizona take on coach Jeff Brohm’s turnaround-in-progress at Purdue. Tate is a house call waiting to happen every time he touches the ball, and the Boilermakers have no shortage of offensive tricks up their sleeve.
9. TaxSlayer Bowl: Louisville vs. Mississippi State
We were robbed of a dual-threat QB duel between Lamar Jackson and Nick Fitzgerald when Fitzgerald suffered a season-ending injury in the Egg Bowl, and then we were robbed of the Todd Grantham Bowl between the fiery defensive coordinator’s past and present employer when Grantham followed Dan Mullen to Florida. It’s a testament to Jackson’s entertainment value that this remains a top-10 game. Enjoy him at his peak while you still can.
8. Fiesta Bowl: Washington vs. Penn State
Saquon Barkley has committed to playing in this game before hopping to the draft, and NFL executives everywhere will be wincing at each hit he takes from Washington’s punishing defense. Under-the-radar matchup to watch: Penn State’s 21st-ranked punt coverage team (just 73 return yards allowed all year) against Dante Pettis, the all-time leader with nine career punt return TDs, including four this season.
7. Birmingham Bowl: Texas Tech vs. South Florida
Points ... points everywhere. This game might take five hours, and nobody will care. Head coaches Kliff Kingsbury and Charlie Strong are more than acquainted with each other from Strong’s time at Texas, as well.
6. Dollar General Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Toledo
Just as was the case in the New Orleans Bowl above, both head coaches are on the way up. Scott Satterfield ushered Appalachian State into FBS play, and Jason Candle’s Rockets just wrapped up a dominant MAC campaign. Make some time for two of the most underrated teams in the Group of Five.
5. Texas Bowl: Texas vs. Missouri
Missouri started out the season 1–5 and then won six straight, scoring a ton of points and unleashing the full potential of quarterback Drew Lock in the process. A handful of Texas defenders are already skipping this game to prepare for the NFL, so Longhorns QB Sam Ehlinger should be asked to cut it loose in response. The result should be consequence-free offensive football.
4. Outback Bowl: Michigan vs. South Carolina
It’s been five long years since The Hit. The game itself is worth watching to see whether Gamecocks QB Jake Bentley can find a way through the Wolverines’ stout defense after South Carolina fired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, but we’re all just looking for excuses to watch The Hit again, and the telecast is sure to oblige.
3. Peach Bowl: UCF vs. Auburn
UCF coach Scott Frost’s decision to come back from his new job at Nebraska to coach the bowl game has raised the intrigue of this one considerably. As the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six rep, the Knights were destined to draw a top-10 team in a no-win situation, and that certainly applies to Auburn, which may still be emotionally deflated (if not still physically depleted) from its SEC title game loss. A win here would put UCF’s perfect season near the very top of college football’s pact two decades of underdog stories.
2. Liberty Bowl: Iowa State vs. Memphis
It seems like these teams were involved in a disproportionate number of the season’s most exciting games: Iowa State with its upset of Oklahoma and last-second losses to Oklahoma State and Iowa, Memphis with its shootout win over UCLA and double-overtime loss to UCF. Both programs also recently locked in their rising coaches with new deals, meaning no one will be caught looking towards 2018. And Iowa State’s Allen Lazard and Memphis’s Anthony Miller are two of the best receivers in the country, full stop.
1. Cotton Bowl: USC vs. Ohio State
Who will respond better to the committee’s controversial playoff snub? The Buckeyes would like nothing more than to finish ahead of Alabama in the final rankings, while USC just wrapped a whisper-quiet 11-win season without hardly any of the fanfare that normally hijacks Trojans runs. Sam Darnold and J.T. Barrett are set up to wage an imperfect yet enthralling quarterback duel, and both teams are loaded at the skill positions. Clear your Friday night now for Dec. 29—given the deep lineup over the next three weeks, rescheduling any plans last-minute won’t be easy.