College football bowl season is here! Here are the key players and storylines you need to know for every team in every game, starting this week and running all the way through the College Football Playoff.
Friday, Dec. 17
Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo
Thomas Robinson Stadium, Nassau, Bahamas
Noon, ESPN and the ESPN App
Middle Tennessee (6-6)
Player to watch: QB Nick Vattiato. Vattiato has been one of many to play quarterback for the Blue Raiders this season, but he’s had the reins of late. He has thrown for 754 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions in five games.
Storyline to watch: Toledo’s 20th-ranked SP+ defense is going to be a difficult task for Vattiato, who is only a freshman. The Middle Tennessee offense has gone through tons of changes during the season, and despite its 7-5 record, Toledo has proved it can be no slouch (like almost beating Notre Dame). — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: RB Bryant Koback. The talented running back led the team in rushing yards with 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Storyline to watch: In its last four games of the season, Toledo went 3-1 and averaged 45.5 points per game. In those four games, Koback had 639 rush yards and 10 touchdowns. If Toledo can get similar production out of Koback against Middle Tennessee State, it has a good chance to come out on top. — Tom VanHaaren
Tailgreeter Cure Bowl
Northern Illinois vs. Coastal Carolina
Exploria Stadium, Orlando, Florida
6 p.m., ESPN2 and the ESPN App
Northern Illinois (9-4)
Player to watch: RB Clint Ratkovich. He doesn’t have huge rushing yardage numbers with 448 yards, but Ratkovich has 12 rushing touchdowns on the season for Northern Illinois.
Storyline to watch: Northern Illinois is 9-4 on the season, but the team has allowed 425 points, which is ranked 118. Coastal Carolina ranks sixth in offensive points scored per game, averaging 38.33 points, so Northern Illinois’ defense is in for a test. — Tom VanHaaren
Coastal Carolina (10-2)
Player to watch: QB Grayson McCall. He led the FBS in passing efficiency (207.95) and threw for 2,558 yards with 23 touchdowns, leading the Chanticleers to 10-win campaigns for only the second time in school history. He led the Sun Belt with 255.8 passing yards and 280.8 yards of total offense per game and was named the league’s offensive player of the year for the second straight time.
Storyline to watch: Coastal Carolina didn’t get as much national attention as it did in 2020, when it finished 11-0 in the regular season. The Chanticleers lost two games this season, but they’ll have a chance to win a bowl game for the first time in the program’s five-year history as an FBS program. Last season, Liberty spoiled Coastal Carolina’s perfect season with a 37-34 overtime victory at the Cure Bowl. — Mark Schlabach
Saturday, Dec. 18
RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl
Western Kentucky vs. Appalachian State
FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida
11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Western Kentucky (8-5)
Player to watch: QB Blake Zappe. I mean, the guy led the FBS in passing with 5,545 yards. Western Kentucky’s offense is fun to watch, and Zappe is one of the main reasons. He’ll be a fun matchup against this App State defense.
Storyline to watch: Who are going to be the big receivers for Western Kentucky? Statistically, Jerreth Sterns is king with 1,718 yards receiving. But with four receivers having at least 690 yards on the season, anybody can break out in the offense. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Appalachian State (10-3)
Player to watch: CB Steven Jones Jr. He tied for the FBS lead with five interceptions this season and returned three of them for touchdowns. Jones had a 14-yard interception return for a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe, and then had two more the next week against Arkansas State. According to Appalachian State, no FBS player had three pick-six touchdowns in a shorter span (two games) since Houston’s Johnny Jackson had three such scores against Texas in 1987.
Storyline to watch: The Mountaineers will try to preserve their perfect record in bowl games. Since becoming eligible for the postseason as an FBS program in 2015, Appalachian State has played in bowl games in seven straight seasons and won the previous six. Only five programs have won more than seven consecutive bowl games, led by Florida State’s 11 (1985 to 1995) in a row. — Mark Schlabach
Cricket Celebration Bowl
South Carolina State vs. Jackson State
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Noon, ABC and the ESPN App
South Carolina State (6-5)
Player to watch: DE Jablonski Green. The Bulldogs allowed only 15.6 points per game during an unbeaten run through the MEAC, and Green (19.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and another dynamite lineman, Patrick Godbolt (11 TFLs, three sacks), are the primary reasons for that.
Storyline to watch: After a 1-4 start overall, the Bulldogs turned things around in conference play, scoring a series of tight wins to finish 6-5 and score their first Celebration Bowl bid. If they keep things tight into the second half, they could find the edge and spoil the end of JSU’s magnificent season. — Bill Connelly
Jackson State (11-1)
Player to watch: LB James Houston. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders may have won the Jerry Rice award this year, but the JSU defense is the best unit in the game, and Houston is an absolute shop-wrecker: He has recorded 21.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, with seven forced fumbles, in 12 games.
Storyline to watch: Deion Sanders made waves in his first year as JSU coach by signing an army of FBS transfers and bringing his blue-chip son, Shedeur, to town. The Tigers have immediately reaped the benefits — they’re 11-1, and a win in Atlanta would give them their first 12-win season. — Bill Connelly
PUBG Mobile New Mexico Bowl
UTEP vs. Fresno State
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
2:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: DE Praise Amaewhule. Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener is no joke, and Amaewhule has been the Miners’ best player at getting guys behind the line of scrimmage. In 12 games, Amaewhule has 38 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. He’s going to come up big in this one if UTEP is going to come out on top.
Storyline to watch: Dana Dimel has taken this UTEP team a long way, after going a combined 2-22 in his first two seasons, and 3-5 in the 2020 pandemic season. Now, he’s giving his team a chance to give UTEP its first bowl victory since 1967 against a Fresno State team that had two ranked wins this season. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Fresno State (9-3)
Player to watch: QB Jake Haener. After flirting with the idea of returning to Washington after Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer took the job in Seattle, Haener reversed course and will look to cap off a brilliant season with the Bulldogs. More importantly, he’ll be back in the Valley next year as Jeff Tedford makes his return as head coach.
Storyline to watch: With DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb off to Washington, Lee Marks will guide the Bulldogs through the bowl game. A win would give the Bulldogs their third 10-win season since 2017, when Tedford began his initial run and revived the program. Prior to that, Fresno State had just two 10-win seasons since 1992. — Kyle Bonagura
Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl
UAB vs. BYU
Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana
3:30 p.m., ABC and the ESPN App
Player to watch: RB DeWayne McBride. The sophomore proved in 2021 that he has an incredibly bright future, averaging 6.7 yards per rush for 1,185 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s going to have to be on his game in order to knock off BYU.
Storyline to watch: BYU has the 17th-ranked offense in SP+, while UAB has the 27th-ranked defense in SP+. That’s likely going to be the matchup to decide how this game goes, or be the most compelling matchup, if nothing else. –– Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: Running back Tyler Allgeier. The second-team All-American back is tied for the most rushing touchdowns in the nation with 20 and at 5-11, 220-pounds can bulldoze defenders when needed. It’s also why he was able to play linebacker during the 2019 season. The sophomore totaled over 1,400 rushing yards this season and averaged over five yards per carry.
Storylines to watch: From being ranked as high as 10th, to dominating and winning all five games they played against Pac-12 opponents this season, it’s been a banner season for BYU. Kalani Sitake’s season earned him interest in the coaching carousel, including from Oregon, but in the end, BYU was able to keep him in Provo by agreeing on what they called an “unprecedented” deal through 2027. Now, with Big-12 membership just a year away, they’ll be looking to finish this season with 11 wins, giving the Cougars back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time since 2006 and 2007. — Paolo Uggetti
Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty
Hancock Whitney Stadium, Mobile, Alabama
5:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Eastern Michigan (7-5)
Player to watch: RB Samson Evans. In the first game of the season, Evans had 11 rushing yards but also had three touchdowns on five carries. The rest of his stats are similar with short yardages and a lot of touchdowns. He had 264 rush yards on the season, but 12 touchdowns. He even has three touchdown passes this season for Eastern Michigan, so he does a little bit of everything.
Storyline to watch: Eastern Michigan has allowed 334 points this season, ranking 82nd among all FBS programs. Liberty has been averaging 31 offensive points per game, so Eastern will have its hands full to keep Liberty off the board. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: QB Malik Willis. His 2021 season was a little bumpier than a year ago, as Willis threw 12 interceptions and was sacked 50 times. But he’s still one of the most talented run/pass quarterbacks in college football and is projected by ESPN’s Todd McShay to be the third quarterback taken and the 17th overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Willis passed for 24 touchdowns and ran for 11 touchdowns this season and is a load to get on the ground when he starts to scramble.
Storyline to watch: The Flames lost their last three games, and it’s no secret why. They turned the ball over 11 times in those three losses and didn’t force any turnovers. If they’re going to win their third straight bowl game, they need to find a way to swing the turnover battle to their side. Liberty is ranked 125th nationally in turnover margin (minus-11), and Willis and the Liberty offense have to avoid negative yardage plays. — Chris Low
Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl pres. by Stifel
Utah State vs. Oregon State
SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California
7:30 p.m., ABC and the ESPN App
Utah State (10-3)
Player to watch: One of 10 semifinalists for the Fred Biletnikoff award, WR Deven Thompkins had 96 receptions for 1,589 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. It marked a breakout season for the senior, who managed 69 catches over his first three seasons.
Storyline to watch: The Aggies were one of the best stories in college football, winning the Mountain West title in coach Blake Anderson’s first year. A win against Oregon State could be enough to propel Utah State into the final AP poll for just the third time since 1962. — Kyle Bonagura
Oregon State (7-5)
Player to watch: B.J. Baylor. Suiting up for the Beavers in his fifth year with the program, Baylor’s patience finally paid off. After wondering whether he’d ever get the shot to be the starting running back once Oregon State changed coaches in 2018, Baylor has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards this season and added 13 rushing touchdowns. Baylor’s season earned him a spot on the Pac-12’s first-team all-conference.
Storyline to watch: Although they lost to Oregon in their regular-season finale, the Beavers were still in contention for the Pac-12 North late in the season. With head coach Jonathan Smith now signed to a long-term extension through 2027, Oregon State feels like this season — its first over .500 since 2013 — is a positive harbinger of things to come. A win in its bowl game would carry that momentum toward next season. — Paolo Uggetti
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Louisiana vs. Marshall
Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
9:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: LB Chauncey Manac. Manac started his college career at Georgia, transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas after one season, and then arrived at Louisiana in 2018. This season, he was third in the Sun Belt with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss to go with 55 tackles, 7 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery and 2 forced fumbles.
Storyline to watch: With former coach Billy Napier moving on to Florida, the Michael Desormeaux era begins in the New Orleans Bowl. A record-setting quarterback for the Ragin’ Cajuns from 2005 to 2008, Desormeaux was an assistant at UL the past six seasons, helping guide the team to four consecutive Sun Belt West titles and its first outright conference championship this season. — Mark Schlabach
Player to watch: RB Rasheen Ali. Ali is one of the most dynamic running backs in the country. In 12 games, he rushed for 1,241 yards and 20 touchdowns, as well as 329 receiving yards and a touchdown. The one time head coach Charles Huff let him return a kickoff this season, he took it to the house on a great trick play — maybe we’ll see it again.
Storyline to watch: The Sun Belt announced on Oct. 30 that Marshall would be joining the conference, and in the New Orleans Bowl, we’ll be getting a preview of what will become a regular matchup in a conference that’s been on the rise in recent years. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Monday, Dec. 20
Myrtle Beach Bowl Presented by TaxAct
Old Dominion vs. Tulsa
Brooks Stadium, Conway, South Carolina
2:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Old Dominion (6-6)
Player to watch: RB Blake Watson. Watson has averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season, rushing for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns. Typically this season, as Watson has had good games, the results have gone in favor of the Monarchs.
Storyline to watch: The Monarchs are going for their second bowl win in school history (2016 Bahamas Bowl). But after they started the season 1-6, finishing with a bowl victory would be one of the more impressive turnarounds we’ve seen in college football this season. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: RB Shamari Brooks. The senior has a chance to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons played after sitting out 2020 with a torn ACL. He comes into the game with 922 yards and six touchdowns.
Storyline to watch: Defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie left to join Sonny Dykes’ staff at TCU. The Golden Hurricane’s strength this year has been the defense, so how they handle an Old Dominion team that’s coming in hot will be key. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Tuesday, Dec. 21
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Kent State vs. Wyoming
Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
3:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Kent State (7-6)
Player to watch: QB Dustin Crum. This pick could be running back Marquez Cooper or receiver Dante Cephas, because Kent State has a balanced attack. Crum has thrown for 2,922 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also rushing for 633 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Storyline to watch: Kent State does have a balanced attack, but Wyoming is allowing only 177 pass yards per game and 22 points per game. The Wyoming defense will test the Flashes’ offense, but Kent State has quite a few playmakers to defend who have been putting up points all season. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: A first-team All-Mountain West selection, Chad Muma ranked second nationally in solo tackles per game (6.7) and four in total tackles (10.8). He was named second-team on Walter Camp All-American team.
Storyline to watch: Before Craig Bohl’s arrival in 2014, no coach in school history had won more than one bowl game with the Cowboys. A win against Kent State would make it three for Bohl in five years. — Kyle Bonagura
Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl
UTSA vs. San Diego State
Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
7:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: QB Frank Harris. Harris has made some massive plays for the Roadrunners in what has been a spectacular season for him. In 13 games, Harris has had a 66% completion rate with nearly 3,000 yards passing, 25 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has also rushed for 565 yards and six touchdowns, and even had a receiving touchdown this season.
Storyline to watch: The Roadrunners (13-1) are going for their first bowl victory in program history. In just their third bowl appearance ever, a win in the Frisco Bowl would be the icing on the cake. — Harry Lyles Jr.
San Diego State (11-2)
Player to watch: San Diego State was the best team in the conference for long stretches during the season primarily because of its defense, led by lineman Cameron Thomas. The MWC Defensive Player of the Year had been named first-team All-MWC the last three two seasons.
Storyline to watch: Punter Matt Araiza is on pace to break the single-season punting average and will likely do so barring bizarre circumstances. He’s currently averaging 51.47 yards per punt and the record is 50.98, which was set by Texas A&M’s Braden Mann in 2018. — Kyle Bonagura
Wednesday, Dec. 22
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Missouri vs. Army
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas
8 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: RB Tyler Badie. Badie led the SEC and ranked third in the FBS with 1,604 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 268 carries. The New Orleans native set a Missouri single-season record for rushing yards this year. He had more than 200 yards in five games, including a career-high 254 with two touchdowns in a 37-28 victory at Vanderbilt.
Storyline to watch: Can the Tigers slow down Army’s flexbone triple-option offense? The Tigers were dreadful against the run under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks in 2021. Missouri surrendered 229.3 rushing yards per game, which ranked 124th in the FBS. The Black Knights averaged 301.7 yards on the ground, which was second best in the country. — Mark Schlabach
Player to watch: QB Christian Anderson. Army’s rush attack is a well-balanced unit, but it’s led by Anderson, who ran for 586 yards and seven touchdowns this year. He only threw 59 passes on the season, accounting for 653 yards and five additional scores.
Storyline to watch: Can the Black Knights rebound from a tough loss to Navy? As 7-point favorites against its archrival, Army went scoreless in the second half and dropped a 17-13 decision to the Midshipmen, who entered the game 3-8. — Ryan Canner-O’Mealy
Thursday, Dec. 23
Frisco Football Classic
North Texas vs. Miami (Ohio)
Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
3:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
North Texas (6-6)
Player to watch: RB DeAndre Torrey. The senior running back has been the anchor of the North Texas offense, rushing for 1,214 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added 115 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 receptions.
Storyline to watch: The Mean Green won’t have to go far to play in the inaugural Frisco Football Classic at Toyota Stadium, home to FC Dallas. They’re coming off of a 45-23 win over UTSA, handing the Roadrunners their only loss of the season. What they do for an encore will be something to watch. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Miami (Ohio) (6-6)
Player to watch: WR Jack Sorenson. The talented receiver is sixth in the country in receiving yards with 1,290 and also has 10 receiving touchdowns for Miami. He’s averaging 18.7 yards per reception and only has seven drops on the season.
Storyline to watch: The RedHawks have one of the best passing offenses in FBS, averaging 282.7 yards through the air per game (20th in FBS). They’re led by quarterback Brett Gabbert, who has thrown for 2,418 yards, 24 touchdowns, and six interceptions this season with just a 58 percent completion percentage. If the RedHawks have success against North Texas (whose defense is 88th in SP+), Gabbert and the passing attack will be key. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl
UCF vs. Florida
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
7 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: QB Mikey Keene. Keene replaced Dillon Gabriel, who broke his collarbone in Louisville in September. Gabriel is now in the transfer portal, which means the freshman will have a chance to show a national audience what he can do against Florida.
Storyline to watch: The in-state matchup. UCF has wanted a matchup like this, and it is getting it, despite Florida having a down year and playing with an interim head coach. However, it will mean more to UCF than it will to Florida, which is getting ready to start a new regime under Billy Napier. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: QB Emory Jones. With quarterback Anthony Richardson reportedly sidelined from the bowl game because of a right knee injury, Jones will again be under center for the Gators before he transfers for next season. Jones has passed for 2,563 yards with 19 touchdowns and is the team’s leading rusher with 697 yards and four more scores. However, Jones also threw 13 interceptions and lost two fumbles. He had 464 yards with six touchdowns and ran for 86 yards with one score in a 70-52 victory against FCS program Samford, setting a UF record for total offense in one game.
Storyline to watch: After Dan Mullen was fired and Louisiana’s Billy Napier was hired to replace him, how much motivation will the Gators have to play UCF? Top pass-rusher Zach Carter (11½ tackles for loss and eight sacks) opted out and will begin preparations for the NFL draft. Leading receiver Jacob Copeland (39 catches for 607 yards with four touchdowns) and leading tackler Mohamoud Diabate (89 tackles) have entered the transfer portal and aren’t expected to play, either. The Gators had better be motivated, because UCF will be. — Mark Schlabach
Friday, Dec. 24
EasyPost Hawai’i Bowl
Memphis vs. Hawai’i
Clarence T. C. Ching Athletics Complex, Honolulu
8 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: WR Calvin Austin III. Austin has been one of the best wideouts in FBS the past two seasons and will hear his name called in April’s NFL draft. In 12 games, he has 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns receiving. He’s also a threat in the punt return game when Memphis decides to put him back there.
Storyline to watch: The Tigers have lost six of their last nine games after a 3-0 start. Hawaii isn’t necessarily strong on either side of the football (Memphis has struggled against the better defenses it has faced), but with how up and down the Tigers have been this season, keep an eye out for how Memphis comes out in this one, whether it be hot or cold. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: A first-team All-Mountain West selection for a second straight year, LB Darius Muasau finished the regular season with 109 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.
Storyline to watch: As outlined in a report from SFGate, several players are looking to transfer from Hawai’i due to the culture established by second-year coach Todd Graham. Starting quarterback Chevan Cordeiro was the first big name to leave, having already announced he’s headed to San Jose State. — Kyle Bonagura
Saturday, Dec. 25
TaxAct Camellia Bowl
Georgia State vs. Ball State
Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama
2:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Georgia State (7-5)
Player to watch: S Antavious Lane. The two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection was second in the league with four interceptions and had six pass breakups and a forced fumble. He was the Panthers’ third-leading tackler with 72. He is Georgia State’s career leader in interceptions with eight in just two seasons. Lane led a defense that had a school-record 84 tackles for loss while limiting five teams to just one offensive touchdown.
Storyline to watch: The Panthers are enjoying their longest stretch of success under coach Shawn Elliott. He has guided them to bowl games in four of his five seasons. Georgia State is playing in the postseason for the third straight season for the first time in program history. The Panthers are 2-2 in bowl games after defeating Western Kentucky 39-21 in the LendingTree Bowl last season. — Mark Schlabach
Ball State (6-6)
Player to watch: S Bryce Cosby. The senior safety was second on the team in total tackles with 101, second on the team in sacks with four, first in tackles for loss with 10.5 and also had two interceptions, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this season.
Storyline to watch: The offenses for both Ball State and Georgia State have not produced a ton of points this season. Ball State ranks No. 94 in points scored per game with 24.42 and Georgia State ranks 82 with 26.25 points per game. The defenses for both teams haven’t been great at keeping points off the board, though, so this should be a pretty even matchup that could come down to a few points. — Tom VanHaaren
Monday, Dec. 27
Quick Lane Bowl
Western Michigan vs. Nevada
Ford Field, Detroit
11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Western Michigan (7-5)
Player to watch: QB Kaleb Eleby. He was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and threw for 3,115 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. He also had five rushing touchdowns to go along with the production he had through the air.
Storyline to watch: Nevada’s offense has put up 33.17 points per game, good for No. 22 in the country, and has also averaged 439.6 yards per game. Western Michigan’s defense ranks 28 in yards allowed per game but has given up 343 total points this season, which ranks 89 among all FBS teams. The Broncos haven’t given up a ton of yards, but they are going to have a difficult time keeping points off the board against Nevada. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: QB Carson Strong was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 4,186 yards with 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but his status for the game is still in doubt due to a knee issue.
Storyline to watch: The Wolf Pack are in an unusual position, having seen their head coach, Jay Norvell, leave for another team in the conference at the end of the regular season. Ken Wilson, a longtime assistant to former Nevada coach Chris Ault and Oregon co-defensive coordinator, was hired to replace Norvell and will begin guiding the team after the game. — Kyle Bonagura
Military Bowl presented by Peraton
Boston College vs. East Carolina
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland
2:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Boston College (6-6)
Player to watch: QB Phil Jurkovec. Expectations were high for Jurkovec headed into the season, as the offense was centered around him, but a wrist injury forced him to miss six games. When he returned, he struggled to return to form and the Eagles struggled to protect up front as well. Some extended time off between the end of the regular season and the bowl game will end up being beneficial in a variety of ways.
Storyline to watch: After a 4-0 start, BC closed 2-6, ending with a dispiriting 41-10 loss to eventual Atlantic Division champion Wake Forest. Last year, BC declined a bowl bid because of the pandemic, so getting this first postseason appearance under Jeff Hafley and all the practices/prep time that go with it should be a big boost headed into an important offseason. — Andrea Adelson
East Carolina (7-5)
Player to watch: RB Keaton Mitchell. In 12 games this season, Mitchell has rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s the most reliable part of the ECU offense.
Storyline to watch: ECU is in its first bowl game since 2014, when it lost in the Birmingham Bowl to Florida. Mike Houston appears to have the program, which used to be considered one of the best of the Group of 5, back on track. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Tuesday, Dec. 28
TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl
Houston vs. Auburn
Protective Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama
Noon, ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: CB Marcus Jones. Jones is talented as a cornerback, as his 47 total tackles, 13 pass deflections, five interceptions and one forced fumble would tell you. But he’s also one of the most dangerous return men in the country, with two kick returns for touchdowns as well as two punt returns for touchdowns.
Storyline to watch: The Cougars are coming off of an AAC championship game loss to Cincinnati in which they looked different from how they played in their 11 wins leading up to the game. How they come out against a 6-6 Auburn team will be the story. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: CB Roger McCreary. One of the most feared shutdown cornerbacks in the country, McCreary is at his best in press coverage. He had 49 tackles, one sack defended and two interceptions this season. He leads the SEC with 14 pass breakups and 16 passes defended. McShay ranks him as the No. 13 prospect overall and No. 2 cornerback, behind LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., among those eligible for the 2022 NFL draft.
Storyline to watch: The Tigers lost starting quarterback Bo Nix to a broken ankle against Mississippi State on Nov. 13. Without him, the offense foundered down the stretch, finishing 10th in the SEC in scoring (29.6 points) and total offense (405.4 yards). As a result, first-year coach Bryan Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after just one season, and Harsin will apparently call offensive plays in the bowl game. Harsin was Boise State’s offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, but he didn’t call plays in his first two seasons as the Broncos’ coach in 2014 and 2015. He took over playcalling before the 2016 season. — Mark Schlabach
Servpro First Responder Bowl
Air Force vs. Louisville
Gerald J. Ford Stadium, University Park, Texas
3:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Air Force (9-3)
Player to watch: RB Brad Roberts was named first-team all-conference after rushing for 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season. Roberts was consistent all season, though he isn’t a threat to break many long runs.
Storyline to watch: A win would give coach Troy Calhoun his fourth 10-win season during his 15 years at the academy, equaling the amount Fisher DeBerry had during his 23-year tenure. — Kyle Bonagura
Player to watch: QB Malik Cunningham. Because quarterback play across the ACC was so stellar in 2021, what Cunningham did often gets overlooked. But Cunningham put together the best season of his career, with 3,701 yards of total offense (No. 14 in the country) and 37 total touchdowns to get the Cardinals back to a bowl game.
Storyline to watch: Louisville has been a team that has been hard to predict throughout the course of the season because of the uneven way in which it has played. In some games, the Cardinals look unstoppable — the way they did against Syracuse and Duke. In others, including a disappointing loss to rival Kentucky to close out the regular season, they fail to put an entire game together. It raises the question: Which Louisville team will show up for the bowl game? — Andrea Adelson
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee
6:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Mississippi State (7-5)
Player to watch: QB Will Rogers. A sophomore from Brandon, Mississippi, Rogers has been the triggerman in coach Mike Leach’s version of the Air Raid offense. Rogers has completed a whopping 75.1% of his passes, which leads the FBS and is highest among all Leach-coached starting quarterbacks. Rogers also leads the country with 474 passing yards and is third with 370.9 yards per game. A finalist for the Manning Award, which goes to the sport’s top passer, Rogers has thrown 35 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
Storyline to watch: It’s one of the more tantalizing storylines of the postseason — Leach against his former team, Texas Tech, where he started his FBS head-coaching career in 2000. After guiding the Red Raiders to an 84-43 record, which made him the winningest coach in school history, Leach was fired in December 2009 following an incident with a player. Leach sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination; a court eventually ruled that Tech was immune from Leach’s claims. Red Raiders interim coach Sonny Cumbie was a walk-on quarterback for Leach at Tech. — Mark Schlabach
Texas Tech (6-6)
Player to watch: Whoever starts at quarterback. Oregon transfer and starter Tyler Shough has not yet been medically cleared after suffering a broken collarbone in September against Texas. Since then, Donovan Smith has thrown for 859 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in four games, including 323 and three TDs in a win over Iowa State.
Storyline to watch: The Red Raiders’ interim coach, Sonny Cumbie, was initially retained by new Tech coach Joey McGuire, but then landed the Louisiana Tech head-coaching job. With a new staff in place and an old staff steering the ship, how will the players fare in an emotional end to a turbulent season? — Dave Wilson
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
UCLA vs. NC State
Petco Park, San Diego
8 p.m., Fox
Player to watch: Dorian Thompson-Robinson. UCLA’s quarterback may be best remembered this season for scoring a touchdown at USC, signing an autograph in the stands and then getting penalized for it. DTR is still one of the Bruins’ most talented players, that much remained evident this season. And despite teamwide struggles that resulted in UCLA’s impressive early win against LSU being the biggest bright spot, you can bet that the senior quarterback would love to go out with a bang.
Storyline to watch: A hot seat can only get so hot in beautiful Westwood, California, but it is almost hard to believe that it took Chip Kelly four seasons to get UCLA to a bowl game. Now, should Kelly stay, it’s starting to finally feel like the clock is ticking. A bowl win would certainly give next season a slightly different tenor, at least to start. — Paolo Uggetti
NC State (9-3)
Player to watch: NC State lost its top two linebackers — Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore — during the season, but the Wolfpack felt little drop-off thanks to the terrific play of Drake Thomas, who led the team with 99 tackles to go with 13.5 TFL, six sacks, nine QB hurries and three interceptions. He’s anchored the middle of a defense that’s been among the best in the ACC.
Storyline to watch: Can NC State get its 10th win? The Wolfpack enjoyed their share of big moments, from beating Clemson in double overtime to an astonishing comeback win in a rivalry game against North Carolina. They can top it all off with a bowl victory that would give the program 10 wins in a season for just the second time in program history (2002). — David Hale
Guaranteed Rate Bowl
West Virginia vs. Minnesota
Chase Field, Phoenix
10:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
West Virginia (6-6)
Player to watch: QB Jarret Doege. The senior averages 242 yards per game and has thrown six touchdowns and one INT in the Mountaineers’ two most recent wins over Texas and Kansas. But he’ll be tested by a Minnesota defense that allows just 184.7 passing yards per game, 10th best nationally.
Storyline to watch: Under Neal Brown, the Mountaineers have gone 5-7, 6-4 and are 6-6 this season. Brown is 17-17 at WVU and has lost several players to the transfer portal this year and could use the momentum a bowl win can provide, not to mention avoid a second losing season. — Dave Wilson
Player to watch: QB Tanner Morgan. The Gophers quarterback had a lot of success under offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who was just hired back at Minnesota. Morgan has thrown for 1,935 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Storyline to watch: Minnesota finished the season 6-2, and one of the two was a five-point loss to Iowa. The Gophers’ defense is only giving up 284.8 yards per game and allowing 18.25 points per game. On top of that, Ciarrocca had been an analyst for West Virginia, so maybe he can help game plan against the Mountaineers. — Tom VanHaaren
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Wasabi Fenway Bowl
SMU vs. Virginia
Fenway Park, Boston
11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: QB Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai, a transfer out of Oklahoma, had a good season in his first year as a starter, completing nearly 68% of his passes for 3,628 yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He’ll be without his top target in Reggie Roberson, who declared for the NFL draft, but he’s still worth keeping an eye on.
Storyline to watch: How does SMU play after the departure of coach Sonny Dykes to crosstown TCU? The Ponies have had a difficult end to their season between Dykes’ exit and losing four of their last five games after starting undefeated. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: QB Brennan Armstrong. If you did not get a chance to watch Armstrong play this season, bowl season provides the perfect opportunity. One of the most entertaining players in the ACC, Armstrong does it all for the Cavaliers — ranking No. 1 in the nation in total offensive yards per game with 427.3 and No. 2 in total yards with 4,700.
Storyline to watch: To say it was a disappointing end to the season for the Cavaliers would be an understatement. Virginia ended with four straight losses — including one to Pitt on Nov. 20 that would have given it the Coastal Division. But the bigger heartbreaker was dropping its regular-season finale against rival Virginia Tech. How will the Cavaliers respond in the bowl game? — Andrea Adelson
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Maryland vs. Virginia Tech
Yankee Stadium, New York
2:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: QB Taulia Tagovailoa. It has been an up-and-down season for the Terps, but Tagovailoa has thrown for 3,595 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
Storyline to watch: This is a pretty even matchup on paper, with both teams having struggled against better teams. Maryland was able to beat West Virginia to start the season, but it went 2-6 in its last eight games. With a few weeks of rest and prep time, can the Terps regain their form from the start of the season? — Tom VanHaaren
Virginia Tech (6-6)
Player to watch: RB Raheem Blackshear. The Hokies have struggled to move the ball consistently on offense this season, but Blackshear has played well of late. He hit 100 yards in two of the final three games of the season, including a season-high 169 yards in a huge win over rival Virginia to get the Hokies to bowl eligibility.
Storyline to watch: Interim coach J.C. Price did a terrific job getting Virginia Tech ready against the Cavaliers, so the same is expected for the bowl game. Virginia Tech has lost three straight bowl games, and this is a program in transition, with Brent Pry coming on as head coach. How this team prepares and plays will undoubtedly be a major story to watch. — Andrea Adelson
Clemson vs. Iowa State
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
5:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: Linebacker James Skalski is playing in his final game at Clemson, and it’s been a spectacular, if often unheralded, career. Skalski was the veteran leader of this year’s defense, which was arguably the nation’s second best after Georgia. He finished with 88 tackles, 9 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks, and his five years at Clemson coincide with a remarkable run of success for the program.
Storyline to watch: Despite the disappointing season for Clemson, the Tigers have had their share of star performances, from Will Shipley‘s breakout as a true freshman to a loaded defense led by Myles Murphy, Trenton Simpson and Andrew Booth Jr. But the focal point in the bowl will be the same as it has been all year: QB D.J. Uiagalelei. No one has shouldered more of the burden of Clemson’s struggles, and this could be an important turning point if he’s able to put together a complete performance in his final game of the season. — David Hale
Iowa State (7-5)
Player to watch: QB Brock Purdy. The senior owns or shares 31 school records, and has completed 73% of his passes this season, but all seven of his interceptions came in four of ISU’s five losses. Breece Hall has not announced his intentions for next season, but if he plays in the bowl game, he’ll be a focal point. If Purdy can make defenses pay, it changes everything for the Cyclones.
Storyline to watch: It’s the last go-round for a class that made history at Iowa State, but the huge 2021 expectations fizzled in a season in which the Cyclones lost five games by a total of 29 points. The experienced cast will be facing a Clemson team that just lost both coordinators, and has a chance to finish with one last big win. — Dave Wilson
Valero Alamo Bowl
Oregon vs. Oklahoma
Alamo Dome, San Antonio
9:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: Travis Dye. When starting running back CJ Verdell suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season, the Ducks needed someone to step up. Over the next eight games of the season, Dye was a revelation. The rare running back who wears no gloves soon became a reliable safety valve for an Oregon offense that badly needed it. In the process, he totaled over 1,000 rushing yards and a combined 28 touchdowns (20 rushing, eight through the air).
Storyline to watch: With Mario Cristobal gone to Miami and Kayvon Thibodeaux officially heading to the NFL, Oregon is left picking up the pieces and looking ahead to next season. There’s a good chance the Ducks will have a head coach by the time this bowl game is played, which will likely overshadow any storyline in this matchup between two teams that have lost their head coach. And depending on whom they hire, the Ducks might be in need of some good news on the field ahead of next season. — Paolo Uggetti
Player to watch: QB Caleb Williams. Lincoln Riley has always played an outsized role in working with quarterbacks, being their position coach and calling all the plays. The Sooners have the extended bowl practices to get up to speed, but Williams will be adjusting to new voices in his ear.
Storyline to watch: Sooners fans have fallen even harder for the ever-loyal Bob Stoops in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s departure, and will be thrilled to see the OG visor back on the sideline. For a season that ended in absolute shock, it’s a rare positive for this year’s Sooners, who, aside from a thrilling second half against Texas, otherwise underwhelmed in a season that began with national championship aspirations. — David Wilson
Thursday, Dec. 30
Duke’s Mayo Bowl
North Carolina vs. South Carolina
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
11:30 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
North Carolina (6-6)
Player to watch: QB Sam Howell. When the season began, Howell was on preseason lists for the Heisman Trophy. While that has not panned out for him, you could make an argument that nobody was more valuable to their team this season than Howell, whose gritty performance won’t soon be forgotten (2,851 yards passing, 815 yards rushing, 34 total touchdowns).
Storyline to watch: The Tar Heels began the year ranked No. 10 in the nation but could never quite get on the same page on offense or defense. North Carolina struggled to replace the skill players it lost a year ago (it became the Howell-Josh Downs show) while the defense was simply never consistent enough and gave up far too many points. North Carolina had its best players opt out of the Orange Bowl a year ago. Will the same happen again in a lower-tier game? –– Andrea Adelson
South Carolina (6-6)
Player to watch: DB Jaylan Foster. Foster arrived at South Carolina as a walk-on after transferring from Gardner-Webb in 2017. He was placed on scholarship before the 2020 season, then exploded to become the Gamecocks’ most productive defender this season. He tied for second in the FBS with five interceptions and leads the team with 90 tackles. He also had two sacks, two forced fumbles and two passes defended.
Storyline to watch: With a victory over the Tar Heels, the Gamecocks can finish with a winning record in coach Shane Beamer’s first season, which would be a heck of an accomplishment considering what the team’s roster looked like in August. Despite playing three quarterbacks because of injuries and having fewer scholarship players than most of their opponents, the Gamecocks defeated Florida and Auburn and became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2018. — Mark Schlabach
TransPerfect Music City Bowl
Tennessee vs. Purdue
Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
3 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: WR Cedric Tillman. Tillman caught a total of eight passes in his first three seasons, but he has blossomed into a big-play weapon for the Volunteers this year. He leads the team with 57 catches for 931 yards with nine touchdowns. Even more impressive, the Las Vegas native combined to catch 17 passes for 352 yards with two scores in losses to Alabama and Georgia. Not bad for a guy whose only other scholarship offers came from UNLV, Hawaii and FCS program Weber State.
Storyline to watch: Given what the Volunteers lost through the transfer portal after former coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff were let go after the 2020 season, Josh Heupel has done amazing work, especially on offense. The Volunteers scored 45 points or more in three victories in their last four games. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, is completing 69% of his passes for 2,567 yards with 26 touchdowns and two interceptions. The Vols’ offense will have to be as good to keep up with the high-scoring Boilermakers. — Mark Schlabach
Player to watch: QB Aidan O’Connell. With David Bell and George Karlaftis opting out of the bowl game, O’Connell is the big name for the Boilermakers. They’re going to need him to step up and make plays without the top receiver in Bell. O’Connell threw for 3,178 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but Bell caught 1,286 of those passing yards this season.
Storyline to watch: Tennessee is giving up 251.4 pass yards per game this season and has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62% of their passes. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell has thrown for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. O’Connell should have a big game and will be relied upon to win this game for the Boilermakers. — Tom VanHaaren
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
7 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Michigan State (10-2)
Player to watch: RB Kenneth Walker III. The Doak Walker Award winner was second in total rush yards this season with 1,636 and eighth in rushing touchdowns with 18. One of the more impressive stats from Walker’s season is that he ranks first in rush yards after first contact, with 995 of his 1,636 yards coming after first contact.
Storyline to watch: The Spartans are playing Pitt, whose offense is led by Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett, who is No. 5 in passing yards with 4,319. Pickett is also No. 3 among all quarterbacks in passing touchdowns with 42, which does not bode well for Michigan State’s secondary. The Spartans’ defense ranks last in pass yards per game, No. 61 in opponent passing touchdowns per attempt and 109th in passing touchdowns allowed with 26. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: It’s unfair to credit Kenny Pickett for all of Pitt’s success this season, but suffice it to say that, had Pickett not chosen to return for a fifth season with the Panthers, it’s highly unlikely this team would be playing in a New Year’s Six game. Pickett is a Heisman finalist, broke Dan Marino’s school record for career TDs, and broke Deshaun Watson’s ACC record for touchdown passes in a season. A Peach Bowl win would be one final feather in Pickett’s cap, as he looks to leave Pitt less as a conquering hero and more as a school legend.
Storyline to watch: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi spent eight years as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, and he has sought counsel throughout 2021 from former Spartans coach Mike Dantonio. Now he’ll go head-to-head with his former school, now led by Mel Tucker, who landed a hefty new contract after a spectacular 10-2 season. Narduzzi was integral in building Michigan State into a consistent winner — including helming the defense during the Spartans’ last New Year’s Six game — making this one more than just a bowl game for Pitt. It’s personal. — David Hale
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl
Wisconsin vs. Arizona State
Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas
10:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: RB Braelon Allen. Even though he’s only a freshman, Allen has been a big part of Wisconsin’s turnaround after the 1-3 start. Allen leads the team in rushing with 1,109 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Storyline to watch: The Badgers had an up-and-down season and finished the season with a 7-point win over Nebraska, then a 10-point loss to Minnesota. The defense played well against the Gophers, but Allen and the offense weren’t able to get going. The team finished with only 62 rush yards. Allen needs to have a big game to get the offense going against Arizona State. — Tom VanHaaren
Arizona State (8-4)
Player to watch: Quarterback Jayden Daniels recently announced he would be returning to Tempe next season, giving him another chance at proving he’s more like the dynamic quarterback Arizona State saw in 2019. As a freshman, Daniels performed above expectations and didn’t make many mistakes, but he has struggled since to find that same level of performance. Daniels has turned into more of a dual-threat weapon this season, adding six rushing touchdowns, which could bode well for a bounce-back senior year.
Storyline to watch: It has been a strange year for Arizona State, which came into the season inside the top 25, but also with a cloud of NCAA investigations looming overhead. Nothing has been resolved on the latter front, but Herm Edwards & Co. remain staunchly in place. Though Edwards has said he’s returning to coach, it feels like things in Sun Devil land could remain on edge for the foreseeable future, making Arizona State a program worth keeping an eye on, on and off the field. — Paolo Uggetti
Friday, Dec. 31
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M
TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Florida
11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Wake Forest (10-3)
Player to watch: It’s impossible to pinpoint one member of Wake’s O-line for this spot, but as a unit, it’s likely to be the X factor for the Deacons. In the ACC championship, Pitt’s defensive front made light work of the Wake line, getting to QB Sam Hartman often and largely bottling up the Deacons’ run game. Left tackle Zach Tom is among the ACC’s best blockers, and he’ll need to lead the way, but particularly against Texas A&M’s fierce interior, look for center Michael Jurgens and guards Sean Maginn and Loic Ngassam Nya to play critical roles if Wake is to win.
Storyline to watch: Hartman has been the linchpin of Wake Forest’s historic season, but his final game turned into a nightmare as he threw four interceptions in the Deacons’ ACC championship game loss to Pitt. It was the second time in less than a year that Hartman had returned to his hometown of Charlotte and thrown four picks in a Wake loss. Afterward, head coach Dave Clawson said the defeat shouldn’t be pinned on his QB and promised Hartman would be a critical component of Wake’s future success. Can Hartman turn the page in time for the bowl game and lead Wake to an 11th win? — David Hale
Texas A&M (8-4)
Player to watch: DL Micheal Clemons. The graduate student has been a force on the defensive line this season, and he’s going to have to be even more disruptive with All-SEC performer DeMarvin Leal opting out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Clemons had 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 10 games. He had 3½ sacks in a 27-24 loss at LSU and scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 24-yard fumble return in a 20-3 win against Auburn.
Storyline to watch: The Aggies will be looking for revenge after falling to the Demon Deacons 55-52 in the 2017 Belk Bowl. The Aggies were led by interim coach Jeff Banks after Kevin Sumlin was fired; Jimbo Fisher would take over the next season. The teams combined for 1,260 yards of offense, 899 passing yards and 63 first downs in what was the fourth-highest-scoring bowl game in history at the time. Matt Colburn’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:18 left put the Demon Deacons ahead for good. — Mark Schlabach
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl
Washington State vs. Miami
Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
2 p.m., CBS
Washington State (7-5)
Player to watch: Quarterback Jayden de Laura. The work Wazzu players have put in this season given the chaos around them during the early part of the year makes de Laura’s season even more impressive. The Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year led the conference in passing yards (2,757) and touchdown passes (23) in his first season. After having led the Cougars to their first Apple Cup win since 2012, de Laura is already a legend in Pullman, and his future there looks bright.
Storyline to watch: Jake Dickert coaches his first game as the permanent head coach of the Cougars following an inspiring stretch as an interim coach that kept Washington State not only afloat following Nick Rolovich’s firing, but bowl-eligible. School leadership felt no need to conduct a search for a coaching replacement, and Dickert has shown so far he’s up for the job. A bowl win would be icing on top of the cake. — Paolo Uggetti
Player to watch: QB Tyler Van Dyke took over in Week 3 after starter D’Eriq King was hurt, and the immediate results were mixed (2 TDs, 3 INTs in his first two starts vs. ACC opponents). After that, however, Van Dyke blossomed into one of the most prolific QBs in the country. He finished the regular season with six straight games of 300 passing yards and three TDs.
Storyline to watch: At Miami, everything is about the 2022 season and beyond, and the bowl game is simply another showcase for the future. From Van Dyke to receivers Key’Shawn Smith and Xavier Restrepo to safety Kamren Kitchens and D-lineman Jahfari Harvey, the Hurricanes’ late-season surge was led, in large part, by freshmen, and this offers their biggest stage yet to set the tone for what lies ahead. — David Hale
Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl
Central Michigan vs. Boise State
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona
Central Michigan (8-4)
Player to watch: RB Lew Nichols III. Central Michigan had the leading rusher in Nichols, who had 1,710 yards this season along with 15 rushing touchdowns. Nichols is averaging 5.5 yards per rush and has been a huge part of the Chippewas’ offense.
Storyline to watch: Central Michigan has quite a few playmakers on offense with Nichols, as well as Kalil Pimpleton, Dallas Dixon and JaCorey Sullivan, who have combined for 24 receiving touchdowns this season. Pimpleton is averaging 16.02 yards per reception and also has two punt return touchdowns on the season. The Chippewas will need all of their main contributors to have an impact on this game against Boise State. — Tom VanHaaren
Boise State (7-5)
Player to watch: In a down year for Boise State, WR Khalil Shakir had a big season, catching 77 passes for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a first-team All-Mountain West selection.
Storyline to watch: If Boise State (7-5) loses, it would mark the first time since 1998 it finished just one game above .500, when it was still a member of the Big West Conference. Since joining the WAC in 2001, the Broncos have never finished a full season with fewer than eight wins. — Kyle Bonagura
Penn State vs. Arkansas
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Noon, ESPN2 and the ESPN App
Penn State (7-5)
Player to watch: QB Sean Clifford. Penn State’s run game has been bad all season, and the offense struggled when Clifford was injured. Clifford is going to have to carry the offense against Arkansas if the Nittany Lions are going to have a chance.
Storyline to watch: Arkansas has played some pretty high-powered offenses this season, so the defensive rankings and stats probably look worse than they really are. Penn State had only 61 yards rushing against Michigan State in the final game of the season, but Clifford threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns. If Penn State can find success through the air and limit Arkansas, which ranks 37th in offensive points scored per game, this could be close. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: Arkansas cornerback Montaric Brown tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions, earning him a spot on the All-SEC team. His total tied for second most in the FBS. It was the ninth most by a Razorbacks player in a single season; he is the first Arkansas player to have five or more picks since Tramain Thomas in 2011. Brown also had 53 tackles with 10 passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Storyline to watch: Sam Pittman did amazing work at Arkansas this season, guiding the Hogs to a 4-0 start and winning four of their last five games. With a victory over the Nittany Lions, Arkansas can win nine games in a season for the first time since going 11-2 under Bobby Petrino in 2012. It would also be the Hogs’ first bowl victory since a 45-23 win under Bret Bielema at the end of the 2015 season. — Mark Schlabach
Vrbo Citrus Bowl
Iowa vs. Kentucky
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
1 p.m., ABC and the ESPN App
Player to watch: RB Tyler Goodson. Iowa’s run game is led by Goodson, who has 1,151 yards and six touchdowns. The pass offense has been up and down this season, but Goodson has been reliable throughout the year.
Storyline to watch: Iowa’s pass defense leads the country in interceptions with 22 and has been stout all season. Kentucky ranks 90th in interceptions thrown with 12, so that matchup between the Wildcats’ offense and Iowa’s secondary will have a big impact in this game. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. Along with quarterback Will Levis and receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, he has been one of the catalysts for Kentucky’s transformation on offense. Rodriguez is the SEC’s No. 2 rusher with 1,272 yards with eight touchdowns. He ran for 100 yards or more in each of the last four games and eight this season. With 2,633 rushing yards in his career, he needs just 15 to move into sixth place all-time at UK, and his 25 career rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth most. Levis, Rodriguez and Robinson are only the second trio in school history to have 2,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season.
Storyline to watch: Kentucky’s season has been one of streaks. The Wildcats started 6-0 for the first time since 1950, lost three in a row and then won three in a row to close the regular season. They went 5-3 in SEC play, just the second time since 1977 that they had a winning mark in the league. Kentucky can win 10 games in a season for only the fourth time in school history, and Mark Stoops can become the first coach to do it twice. The Wildcats went 11-1 under Bear Bryant in 1950, 10-1 under Frank Curci in 1977 and 10-3 under Stoops in 2018. — Mark Schlabach
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State
State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
1 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Notre Dame (11-1)
Player to watch: DE Isiah Foskey. It’s unclear whether the sophomore from California will go pro, but it does appear he’s playing in the bowl. He’ll have a chance to add on to an incredible pass rushing season: In his first season as a full-time starter, he made 10 sacks and forced five fumbles.
Storylines to watch: The next era of Notre Dame football begins in the Fiesta Bowl. Marcus Freeman takes over as head coach, and the Irish will face Oklahoma State without a couple of stars (Kyren Williams, Kyle Hamilton) but with quite a few younger future stars. — Bill Connelly
Oklahoma State (11-3)
Player to watch: QB Spencer Sanders. Sanders pulls all the strings on the OSU offense and was much improved this season, but still threw 12 interceptions, although seven of those came in two games against Baylor. If the Cowboys have first-team All-Big 12 Sanders, they will be a tough matchup. If they have the Sanders who struggled against Baylor’s defense, the defense could be put in some tough spots.
Storyline to watch: The Cowboys are loaded with experience on defense (average age of its starters: 21.9, according to The Oklahoman), ranked No. 3 in total defense and No. 7 in scoring defense and allowed just 4.4 yards per play, also fourth in the country. Coordinator Jim Knowles is departing for Ohio State after this game, so it truly is a final ride for much of what has been OSU’s calling card this season. — Dave Wilson
Rose Bowl Game Pres. by Capital One Venture X
Ohio State vs. Utah
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
5 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Ohio State (10-2)
Player to watch: QB C.J. Stroud. The Ohio State offense goes through Stroud, who ranks No. 8 in pass yards and No. 5 in pass touchdowns. There are a ton of offensive options for the Buckeyes, but Stroud is the distributor.
Storyline to watch: When Ohio State played Michigan, the Wolverines got constant pressure on Stroud and disrupted the offense. Utah ranks No. 5 in sacks this season with 41 and ranks No. 2 in disrupted dropbacks. Utah has a blueprint from Michigan and will look to put pressure on Stroud in this game. — Tom VanHaaren
Player to watch: Britain Covey. It’s incredible that after six years, five seasons, nearly 2,000 receiving yards, over 1,000 return yards and 16 touchdowns, Covey still has a year of eligibility left. He has announced that he won’t be returning to Utah, so this will be the final chance to see Covey explode on a punt return wearing Utah colors. Covey leads the nation in punt return yards and is tied for the most punt returns for touchdowns with two. He holds the Utah record for career punt return yards too.
Storyline to watch: Utah’s season has been something to behold. On the field, the Utes sputtered to a 1-2 start before rattling off a 9-1 finish and their first Rose Bowl bid. There’s no conflating those struggles with what the team has had to endure off the field in the sudden and tragic death of teammate Aaron Lowe less than a year after Ty Jordan was also killed in a shooting. Kyle Whittingham has been able to keep this team on track through an emotional season and the work on the field has paid off, regardless of a Rose Bowl result that could end the season on a winning note. — Paolo Uggetti
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Ole Miss vs. Baylor
Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
8:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Ole Miss (10-2)
Player to watch: QB Matt Corral. The California native seems tailor-made to direct coach Lane Kiffin’s high-flying offense. Corral has completed 68% of his passes for 3,339 yards with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has run for 597 yards with 11 scores. He is the only player in the FBS this season with more than 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. His 11 rushing scores are third most by an Ole Miss quarterback in a single season, and he is just one of three FBS passers with at least 20 passing scores and 11 or more rushing. ESPN’s Todd McShay rates Corral as the No. 16 prospect overall and No. 2 quarterback available for the 2022 NFL draft.
Storyline to watch: Kiffin has done tremendous work in two seasons at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels to 10 victories in the regular season for the first time in school history. The Rebels, who have been playing football since 1902, have never won 12 games in a season. Last week, the school rewarded Kiffin with a new deal that will pay him an average of $7.5 million per year. — Mark Schlabach
Player to watch: Abram Smith, who started several games at linebacker last year, moved back to running back, his original position, and rushed for 1,429 yards on 6.2 yards per carry this season. If Baylor can get him going, the Bears can play their game and keep the Ole Miss offense off the field.
Storyline to watch: The Bears have been one of the best stories in college football this year, bouncing back from a 2-7 season in Dave Aranda’s first year to Big 12 champions despite quarterback Charlie Brewer transferring and this year’s starter, Gerry Bohanon, missing their final 2½ games. After claiming a Big 12 title, Baylor has a chance to make a statement against a good SEC team. — Dave Wilson
Tuesday, Jan. 4
TaxAct Texas Bowl
LSU vs. Kansas State
NRG Stadium, Houston
9 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: QB Garrett Nussmeier. With starter Max Johnson entering the transfer portal, and former starter Myles Brennan doing the same earlier this season, Nussmeier is the only scholarship quarterback left on LSU’s roster. However, since he has already played in four games this season, he’ll burn his redshirt if he plays against the Wildcats in the bowl game. Will the Tigers sacrifice a year of Nussmeier’s eligibility to try to win a bowl game, or will they turn to walk-ons Tavion Faulk or Matt O’Dowd?
Storyline to watch: The Tigers will be playing without former coach Ed Orgeron, who was fired by the school on Oct. 17, and stuck around for the final five regular-season games. Offensive line coach Brad Davis, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will serve as interim coach. He will be the first Black coach to lead the Tigers into a game. Receivers coach Kerry Joseph left for Nebraska, and longtime strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt wasn’t retained by new head coach Brian Kelly. — Mark Schlabach
Kansas State (7-5)
Player to watch: RB Deuce Vaughn. At 5-6, 172 pounds, Vaughn is hard to pin down, and one of the most fun college football players in the country to watch. He ran for 1,258 yards and 15 touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game as well with 47 catches.
Storyline to watch: K-State coach Chris Kleiman fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and fullbacks/TE coach Jason Ray after the regular season, turning the offense over to former Wildcats star and 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, who had been coaching the quarterbacks. Can Klein, who ran for 55 touchdowns at KSU, help revive the offense? — Dave Wilson
College Football Playoff
CFP Semifinal: Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati
Friday, Dec. 31, 2021
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
3:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: Coby Bryant. The Thorpe Award winner is going to be key in stopping Jameson Williams and Alabama’s passing attack. Bryant and Sauce Gardner are one of the best cornerback duos in college football, and will need to be at their best in the Cotton Bowl.
Storyline to watch: Can Cincinnati prove that the Group of 5 can hang with the Power 5? It’s unfair to put that kind of weight and expectations on Cincinnati — especially given everything the Bearcats had to do over the past two years to get here — but they will undoubtedly be judged by their performance in this game. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Player to watch: WR Jameson Williams. While Tide quarterback Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy, it’s hard to imagine where Alabama would be without Williams, an Ohio State transfer. He ranks second in the FBS with 15 receiving touchdowns and is fifth with 1,445 receiving yards and a 21.3-yard average on 68 catches. He’ll have to be even better after teammate John Metchie III suffered an ACL tear in his left knee against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Williams and Metchie combined to catch 68.3% of Alabama’s completions this season; Slade Bolden (32 catches for 333 yards with two scores) is the only other Tide receiver with more than 15 receptions.
Storyline to watch: Was Alabama’s dominant performance a one-hit wonder or a sign of things to come in the playoff? After looking rather ordinary in closer-than-expected victories over LSU, Arkansas and Auburn to close the regular season, the Crimson Tide ran over a Georgia defense that had been dominant. Alabama’s much-maligned offensive line, which surrendered seven sacks in the Iron Bowl, played exceptionally well against the Bulldogs’ vaunted defensive front Can the Tide keep it rolling and put together two more consistent performances to win their seventh national title under coach Nick Saban? — Mark Schlabach
CFP Semifinal: Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia
Friday, Dec. 31, 2021
Orange Bowl, Miami
7:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App
Player to watch: LB Nakobe Dean. The general of Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense, Dean won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the FBS. He leads the team with 8½ tackles for loss and is tied for the lead with 61 tackles. He also has five sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, including a pick-six against Florida. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs lead the country in scoring defense (9.5 points) and are second in total defense (254.4 yards).
Storyline to watch: How do the Bulldogs bounce back from their first defeat of the season, a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game? Georgia coach Kirby Smart had to know it wasn’t going to be easy in trying to end the program’s 41-year drought without a national title. Georgia rolled through the regular season en route to finishing 12-0, but then was run over in another humbling loss to the Crimson Tide. Smart says he likes his team’s leadership, and the Bulldogs will have to put that setback in the rearview mirror to get past the Wolverines and reach a potential rematch against Alabama in the Jan. 10 CFP National Championship.— Mark Schlabach
Player to watch: RB Hassan Haskins. When Michigan’s offense is rolling, Haskins or Blake Corum is at the center of it. Michigan is going to need Haskins to help move the ball against Georgia’s defense if the Wolverines are going to have any success.
Storyline to watch: Michigan’s offense is going to have its hands full against Georgia’s defense. The Wolverines rank 19th in total offensive yards per game, ninth in rush yards per game and 11th in offensive points scored per game with 36.62 points. The Dawgs’ defense is highly ranked in most statistical categories, and Michigan is going to have to find a way to put up points against a team that is allowing only 9.5 points per game. — Tom VanHaaren