We’ll miss the bowl games when they’re gone.
In some ways, we already do. That magical New Year’s Day buffet of Cotton, Sugar, Orange, Rose, and Fiesta, all stacked one after the other, with hors d’oeuvres of minor bowls, is ancient history. At the same time, there are more bowl games than ever. In 1998, the first year of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), there were 22. This year there are 43, two of which serve as the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Even so, hardly anyone still bothers to ask “why are there so many bowl games?” Schools want to play ’em, people want to watch ’em, and the ESPN family of networks—which not only airs forty of the bowls but owns seventeen of the events—wants to show ’em. Plus, of course, the games still bring in title sponsors, be they prosaic (Allstate, Goodyear), entertaining (Tony the Tiger, Jimmy Kimmel), or appalling (Barstool Sports).
Soon we’ll likely have a bigger College Football Playoff, and even the bowls that retain some glamour will be diminished. “Remember the Alamo Bowl?” we’ll probably say. (Unless it gets to be the playoff quarterfinal.) Already the faster-than-ever pace of coaching changes and player opt-outs have turned non-playoff bowls into exhibition contests, more or less, with teams focused as much on practicing for next season as being rewarded for the current one. The new age of name, image, and likeness (NIL) also means that, for players who can now earn endorsement money, a few hundred dollars’ worth of sponsor tchotchkes plus a free trip to the beach (or desert, or the Dallas suburbs) is not the perk it used to be—unless the bowl sponsors themselves are writing NIL checks.
This year’s Texas bowl season is happening without Texas—as in, the 5–7 University of. Also missing are TCU, Rice, and Texas State. Picking up the slack are the University of Houston, Baylor, and UTSA, which all won ten games or more this season, plus Texas A&M, Texas Tech, SMU, North Texas, and UTEP (the Miners already lost the PUBG Mobile New Mexico Bowl—or, as I prefer to think of it, the Better Call Saul Bowl—to Fresno State on Saturday).
And while the Cotton Bowl hasn’t hosted the Cotton Bowl since 2010, and the stadium also lost what used to be the TicketCity Bowl—and then the Heart of Texas Bowl, and now the First Responder Bowl—because of outdoor hockey (!), the state remains home to eight bowl games, including two scheduled at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, thanks to ESPN’s last-minute addition of the Frisco Football Classic, which heroically ensured that even the very last 6–6 team in the country—that’s you, North Texas!—gets to play some extra football.
Here are the games you must watch, should watch, or might choose to skip between now and January 4.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl, Tuesday, December 21
UTSA vs. San Diego State, 6:30 p.m., ESPN
I don’t want to pick on Frisco. But college football fans have been spending their Christmas vacations at bowl games in San Antonio (the Riverwalk, the Alamo, tacos) and San Diego (the ocean, perfect weather, tacos) for years. So it’s hard not to chuckle at the thought of Roadrunners and Aztecs fans getting a dream trip to Collin County.
But UTSA-SDSU is also a great game, and a coup for Frisco—a matchup of top 25 teams, so long as you cherry-pick from different polls. San Diego State is number 24, according to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, while the Roadrunners—meep! meep!—still disrespected by the CFP snobs, finished the season at number 24 in the Associated Press rankings. SDSU started its year 7–0 before losing to Fresno State, while UTSA seemed headed for a perfect season before tripping up against North Texas.
The 12–1 Roadrunners also won the Conference USA championship game over Western Kentucky, while 11–2 SDSU got hammered by Utah State in the Mountain West title tilt. Why UTSA isn’t playing Utah State (which beat Oregon State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl) in a battle of conference champions, with SDSU facing Western Kentucky (which beat Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl) in a battle of runners-up, I couldn’t tell you. But this is probably a better game, even with UTSA running back Sincere McCormick and cornerback Tariq Woolen skipping the game to focus on NFL draft prep. (And good on Roadrunners coach Jeff Traylor for handling their absences with grace.)
Speaking of the NFL, the best pro prospect on either team is probably SDSU’s punter, whom you’ll surely see on Sundays.
Allstate Sugar Bowl, January 1
Baylor vs. Ole Miss, 7:45 p.m., ESPN
With no Big 12 team and two SEC teams in the College Football Playoff, this is very much the Consolation Bowl, which was also true of Texas-Georgia in 2019 and Baylor-Georgia in 2020.
But it’s still the Sugar Bowl. And a matchup of top-ten teams (11–2 Baylor and 10–2 Ole Miss are numbers seven and eight, respectively, according to the CFP). Plus, it’s in New Orleans on New Year’s Day—may the least hungover fan base win!
On the field, though, the team with the best defense should win. Baylor won the Big 12 by holding Oklahoma to just two touchdowns and Oklahoma State (the second time, in the conference championship) to sixteen points. Can it do that against Ole Miss’s offensive-minded coach Lane Kiffin and his quarterback, projected top-ten NFL draft pick Matt Corral?
A Baylor win would give fans in Waco the satisfaction of beating a team from the conference for whom Texas and Oklahoma are ditching the Big 12. Of course, the SEC faithful will be quick to point out that Ole Miss is only the third-best team in the conference.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl, December 28
Texas Tech vs. Mississippi State, 5:45 p.m., ESPN
The Red Raiders are 6–6 and went just 1–3 after firing head coach Matt Wells. The Bulldogs are 7–5 and 1–2 in their last three games against FBS opponents (that’s a sentence you have to type about SEC teams in November).
But only one thing matters about this middling Big 12 versus SEC contest. Texas Tech is Texas Tech, and Mississippi State is coached by Mike Leach. It’s Sonny Cumbie—still Tech’s interim head coach despite the Red Raiders’ hiring Joey McGuire to take over the program next season and Cumbie’s plan to take over at Louisiana Tech in 2022—versus his former mentor, and Leach versus an institution he still reveres . . . sorry, I mean, reviles.
The game probably won’t be better than the interviews.
TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, December 28
Houston vs. Auburn, 11 a.m., ESPN
The number 21 Cougars (11–2), who lost the AAC championship to playoff-bound Cincinnati, probably deserve better, but at least they get a chance to hang a loss on a Power 5 opponent. Dana Holgorsen’s UH squad ought to win, considering that Auburn is unranked, 6–6, and winless in its last four games. And if they do, that now counts as a win for the Big 12.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, December 31
Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest, 10 a.m., ESPN
The 8–4 Aggies probably don’t deserve better. Wake Forest (10–3) began the season 8–0 before losing a ridiculous non-overtime game to North Carolina, 58–55, and the Demon Deacons were ranked as high as tenth by the Associated Press. A&M, of course, finished last year as the number-five team in the country and started this season at number six, but early losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State ended the Aggies’ playoff hopes. They picked themselves up off the SEC West mat by beating Alabama and Auburn, then lost their last two FBS games (see above, November, SEC). Perhaps it was a Texas Monthly curse?
A&M should still be able to defeat Wake Forest, but if the Aggies fall short, the fans in College Station will have no shortage of excuses for a potential loss. Take your pick: NFL draft opt-outs; quarterback Zach Calzada’s decision to enter the transfer portal; a practice schedule that’s been drastically shortened because of players testing positive for the coronavirus this week; defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s departure to become head coach at Duke. Or perhaps the Aggies, with their $90 million coach and national championship hopes, just won’t be able to get up for a lesser bowl game.
The contest could get more interesting if A&M’s preseason starting quarterback Haynes King returns from injury, but for now the plan is for walk-on freshman Blake Bost, from Port Neches, to start.
Update: Or they could just not play this game at all.
Wasabi Fenway Bowl, December 29
Virginia vs. SMU, 10 a.m., ESPN
This is a nice enough prize for the 8–4 Mustangs, who had their 2020 “trip” to Frisco canceled because of COVID-19. They’ll be without much of their coaching staff for the game, though, because former head coach Sonny Dykes has already left for his new job leading the TCU Horned Frogs. And SMU’s new hire, Rhett Lashlee, won’t be on the job until next season.
At least Virginia is in the same boat, with the Cavaliers’ recent announcement of ex-Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott as their incoming head coach. So in a season of bowl matchups that feel somewhat like exhibition games, expect SMU-UVA to feel even more like an exhibition game. Too bad they can’t kick field goals over the Green Monster.
(Oh, and Wasabi, by the way, is a cloud storage company, not a garnish for your spicy tuna rolls.)
WATCH IF IT’S YOUR ALMA MATER
Frisco Football Classic presented by Ryan, December 23
Miami (Ohio) vs. North Texas, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
When ESPN, Frisco, and the NCAA teamed up to create an extra event on short notice, one couldn’t help but wonder who might step up to sponsor the thing: Whataburger? Buc-ee’s? Goldee’s Barbecue?
The much more simple, if less entertaining, answer: global tax services provider Ryan, whose Galleria headquarters are just down the road.
Its 6–6 record aside, North Texas earned this bowl appearance with five straight wins to end the season, including the victory that spoiled UTSA’s perfect record.
Oh, and last I checked, Miami hates being referred to as Miami (Ohio). Or even worse, Miami of Ohio. The MAC school is Miami University; the school in Florida is the University of Miami.
OTHER TEXAS BOWLS
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, December 22
Missouri vs. Army, Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, 7 p.m., ESPN
Servpro First Responder Bowl, December 28
Air Force vs. Louisville, Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas 2:15 p.m., ESPN
If you live in the Metroplex and/or were in the military, these are the games for you.
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, December 31
Washington State vs. Miami (Florida), the Sun Bowl, El Paso, 11 a.m., CBS
CBS! That’s not a typo.
If you can go in person, the Sun Bowl is easily one of the most scenic stadiums in college football (second only to the Rose Bowl, but with much better food). Plus, you get to see the school (Washington State) that fired its coach (Nick Rolovich) for not being vaccinated against COVID-19 go up against the school (Miami) that pretended it wasn’t going to fire its coach (former Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz) until it lined up a replacement (Hurricanes alum and former Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, who won’t be coaching on New Year’s Eve).
One other factor: El Paso is a labor-friendly town, so it’s probably fortunate that title sponsor Kellogg’s finally reached an agreement with its striking workers. Otherwise, the optics of the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl wouldn’t have been GRRREAT!
Valero Alamo Bowl, December 29
Oregon vs. Oklahoma, the Alamodome, San Antonio, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
San Antonio is where the Longhorns finished up its last two disappointing seasons, both of which are not as disappointing in hindsight. UT even won the game both times!
Now it’s Oklahoma’s turn to lick its wounds. This is a matchup between two national championship pretenders who still managed to lose their head coaches to new jobs. In addition to Cristobal’s departure from Oregon, Lincoln Riley ditched the Sooners for USC, leaving none other than Bob Stoops to serve as OU’s interim bowl coach. That could be entertainment. Just don’t ask him about Urban Meyer.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, January 31
College Football Playoff Semifinal, No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
This one might be good.
Sure, it’s possible that this will be the best Power 5 versus Group of 5 bowl game since the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma and Boise State. And if this one ends the same way, that would mean underdog Cincinnati will be celebrating a trip to the national championship game. And since Alabama lost to Texas A&M, who’s to say the Bearcats can’t pull it off?
Or, this one could end with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide rolling, as they tend to do at this stage of the season. Alabama is 5–0 in College Football Playoff semifinal games since losing in the first year of the CFP, and none of those wins were close.
TaxAct Texas Bowl, January 4
Kansas State vs. LSU, NRG Stadium, Houston, 8 p.m., ESPN
Well, it’s still better than a Texans game.