College football bowl games are illogical, relatively meaningless, financially troubling exhibition games. There are so many of them. The sponsorships are ridiculous. They’re often sloppily played thanks to huge layoffs. They’re corrupt.
And yet I love bowl season.
Really, bowls are a perfect representation of college football, full of faults but still endlessly entertaining. They give nightly spotlights to unheralded teams. They give us brilliantly memorable games. Best of all, they are entirely unpredictable. Spending inordinate amounts of time trying to predict them seems futile, so we might as well offer quick reaction picks to all 35. We’ll delve deeper into the bigger games later, but for now here’s a quick viewer’s guide, ranking the bowls by watchability, from best to worst, with gut-reaction picks.
(Team rankings from the BCS; all times Eastern)
1. No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Alabama (12-1)
Discover BCS National Championship
Jan. 7 | 8:30 p.m. | Miami | ESPN
Alabama tries to keep the SEC’s six-championship streak and its home state’s three-championship streak alive in a clash of historical powers and brilliant defenses. For the next 40 days, Notre Dame will not be given much of a chance as the Rust Belt meets the SEC, despite the Fighting Irish actually having the better defense. But the bigger advantage is on the other side of the ball, where Alabama has the better QB (A.J. McCarron), the better RBs (T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy) and the better line (Barrett Jones, etc.).
2. No. 4 Oregon (11-1) vs. No. 5 Kansas State (11-1)
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Jan. 3 | 8:30 p.m. | Glendale, Ariz. | ESPN
The Ducks get an at-large bid and are only the fourth team to make four consecutive BCS bowl appearances, heading to Glendale for what many thought would be the national title matchup just a few weeks ago. Oregon’s game against a physical, run-first, defense-heavy Stanford worked out terribly, so some might think the same will happen against Collin Klein and Kansas State. But Baylor also showed that K-State is hardly invincible too.
3. No. 9 Texas A&M (10-2) vs. No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2)
AT&T Cotton Bowl
Jan. 4 | 8 p.m. | Arlington, Texas | Fox
The Cotton Bowl at Jerry World feels like a sixth BCS game anyway, and the matchup looks like one too, with a different feel to it given that the Aggies and Sooners spent the last two decades in the same conference. On one side, we get Johnny Manziel, likely freshman Heisman winner. On the other, we get Oklahoma, which for some reason is the subject of much sympathy because Northern Illinois/the system knocked it out of a potential Sugar Bowl bid. This is a pretty good consolation.
Pick: Texas A&M
4. No. 8 LSU (10-2) vs. No. 14 Clemson (10-2)
Dec. 31 | 7:30 p.m. | Atlanta | ESPN
Without question, the Georgia Dome, fresh off its all-time classic SEC title game, gets one of the best bowl draws of the season. Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M almost ended up here -- who knows how many yards he would have racked up against the Tigers’ defense -- but instead we get an intriguing matchup between Clemson’s explosive offense led by Tajh Boyd and LSU’s star-studded defense. Clemson played one great defense during the regular season and lost to Florida State 49-37. This won’t be as high-scoring, but we may see a similar result.
5. No. 12 Florida State (11-2) vs. No. 15 Northern Illinois (12-1)
Discover Orange Bowl
Jan. 1 | 8 p.m. | Miami | ESPN
Perhaps Northern Illinois isn’t entirely deserving of the MAC’s first BCS bid ever, given that the Huskies played possibly the worst schedule in America. Whatever. Good for them, and good for a highly entertaining league. Non-AQ teams are 5-2 in BCS games, and motivation is always a key. This is the biggest game in Northern Illinois history. This is, safe to say, not the biggest game in Florida State history. The Huskies also have MAC superstar Jordan Lynch at QB, making for an interesting matchup against Florida State’s stingy defense. An upset isn’t impossible, although it remains unlikely.
Pick: Florida State
6. No. 3 Florida (11-1) vs. No. 21 Louisville (10-2)
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Jan. 2 | 8:30 p.m. | New Orleans | ESPN
Northern Illinois knocked Oklahoma out of the BCS, thus moving Louisville up in the selection order to the Sugar. Instead of Gators-Sooners, we get Gators-Cardinals, and Florida’s hard-hitting defense will provide the biggest test of the year for Teddy Bridgewater, who did manage to lead a win at Rutgers despite playing with a broken wrist and sprained ankle. He’ll have a month to heal, but it probably won’t matter.
7. No. 6 Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)
Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio
Jan. 1 | 5 p.m. | Pasadena, Calif. | ESPN
Bowls aren’t perfect, and neither are conference championship games. Wisconsin finished third in its division, made the Big Ten title game anyway because of the NCAA’s sanctions against Ohio State and Penn State, and then proceeded to bludgeon Nebraska with its running game in a 70-point embarrassment. Wisconsin will not be able to run up the score via the run against Stanford’s No. 3 ranked run defense, although it will be a fun battle between senior runners in Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor.
8. No. 10 South Carolina (10-2) vs. No. 18 Michigan (8-4)
Jan. 1 | 1 p.m. | Tampa, Fla. | ESPN
For all of Michigan’s faults, three of its four losses this year came against the top three teams in the AP poll: Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State. Of course, the Wolverines don’t really have any impressive wins, and they’ll run into the brick wall that is Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. Hopefully a month of preparation will allow the Wolverines to get creative with Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner and make this one interesting.
9. No. 17 UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5)
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl
Dec. 27 | 9:45 p.m.| San Diego | ESPN
Baylor bowl games are defense-optional, and this will be no different. The last time the Bears met a Pac-12 team, in last year’s Alamo Bowl, they beat Washington 67-56 in a highly entertaining track meet. Baylor may not have Robert Griffin III anymore, but Art Briles’ offense still led the country by averaging 579 yards per game and has recently had a breakout star in RB Lache Seastrunk. Plus, the Bears are hot lately, riding a three-game winning streak with victories over Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. UCLA is loaded with weapons too, led by Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin, so get your popcorn ready.
10. No. 7 Georgia (11-2) vs. No. 16 Nebraska (10-3)
Capital One Bowl
Jan. 1 | 1 p.m. | Orlando, Fla. | ABC
The Big Ten apparently applied pressure on the Capital One Bowl to not let Nebraska slip too far after its league title debacle against Wisconsin, reports the Chicago Tribune. So, in what’s usually considered the best or second-best non-BCS bowl, we’re treated to a Georgia team that was so, so close to advancing to the national title game, and a Nebraska team that was last seen giving up 70 points and 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin. Anything can happen in bowls, except picking Nebraska after what happened on Saturday.
11. No. 23 Texas (8-4) vs. No. 13 Oregon State (9-3)
Valero Alamo Bowl
Dec. 29 | 6:45 p.m. | San Antonio | ESPN
Two of the nation’s most active QB carousels meet in what, theoretically, could be a nice defensive battle … if Texas ever gets around to living up to expectations on that side of the ball. The Longhorns are full of stars, from Kenny Vaccaro to Alex Okafor to Jackson Jeffcoat, but they gave up more than 30 points six times. At the very least, Texas will be playing in what’s essentially a home game 80 miles down I-35 in San Antonio.
12. USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7)
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Dec. 31 | 2 p.m. | El Paso, Texas | CBS
How the mighty have fallen. USC’s “unfinished business” apparently meant the Sun Bowl against a 6-7 Georgia Tech team that received a special bowl waiver because of its participation in the ACC title game, after the Trojans slogged through a disappointing 7-5 season. In his final game before stepping aside, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin gets the joy of preparing for a triple-option offense. He’ll be fine, though; Marqise Lee may rack up 400 all-purpose yards against the Yellow Jackets.
13. Michigan State (6-6) vs. TCU (7-5)
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Dec. 29 | 10:15 p.m. | Tempe, Ariz. | ESPN
The bowl formerly known as the Insight Bowl gets the award for biggest defensive slugfest outside of the national title game, as Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson both boast squads known for their defense and occasionally lackluster offense. Of course, the best player in the game is actually an offensive player, and Michigan State RB Le’Veon Bell could be playing in his final college game if he elects to go pro early after leading the country with 350 carries.
Pick: Michigan State
14. Rutgers (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
Russell Athletic Bowl
Dec. 28 | 5:30 p.m. | Orlando, Fla. | ESPN
The Wikipedia page for the Russell Athletic Bowl features a treasure trove of name changes. Long live the MicronPC.com Bowl. This year’s matchup features one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in Virginia Tech, which needed wins in its last two games to become bowl eligible, ending a streak of eight seasons with at least 10 wins. Rutgers is the team that can’t find a way to get over the BCS hump, doing things like losing to Pitt by three touchdowns with a Big East title on the line. Say hello to another defensive showdown.
15. No. 20 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
Jan. 1 | Noon | Jacksonville, Fla. | ESPN2
Northwestern started 5-0, Mississippi State started 7-0. They finished with a combined seven losses, to no one’s surprise. Both are solid teams, though, with Northwestern boasting one of the nation’s most entertaining offensive players in QB/athlete Kain Colter and Mississippi State led by a star tandem of cornerbacks in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. This is Northwestern’s fifth bowl appearance in a row, but the Wildcats haven’t won one since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
16. No. 19 Boise State (10-2) vs. Washington (7-5)
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas
Dec. 22 | 3:30 p.m. | Las Vegas | ESPN
The Broncos nearly crashed the BCS party despite “rebuilding” and sharing the Mountain West title with a 10-2 overall record and a conference loss to San Diego State, but instead they’re stuck with their third straight trip to Las Vegas. Chris Petersen still managed to put together the nation’s No. 6 scoring defense (14.9 points per game), while opponent Washington has been disappointing on offense all season, averaging 23.8 points per game after its 56-point effort in last year’s Alamo Bowl.
Pick: Boise State
17. Syracuse (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Dec. 29 | 3:15 p.m. | New York | ESPN
The bowl gods failed to cooperate, as most people surely would have loved to see Pitt and West Virginia be forced to play each other in a Backyard Brawl reunion. Instead, “New York’s College Team,” Syracuse, gets to play at Yankee Stadium after a September game in East Rutherford against USC drew as many Trojans fans as Orange fans. Now we get to see a different Big East reunion, one that last saw Syracuse upsetting West Virginia on a Friday night in 2011. Despite its problems in the second half of the season, here’s guessing we’ll see a different result in Geno Smith’s final college game.
Pick: West Virginia
18. No. 25 Kent State (11-2) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)
Jan. 6 | 9 p.m. | Mobile, Ala. | ESPN
Kent State probably deserved a better reward than playing Arkansas State in Mobile, but it’s still a nice under-the-radar matchup centered around Arkansas State head coach/offensive guru Gus Malzahn -- assuming he doesn’t jump to a bigger job before then -- and Kent State star athlete Dri Archer, who spent the season doing things like this.
Pick: Kent State
19. Vanderbilt (8-4) vs. N.C. State (7-5)
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Dec. 31 | Noon | Nashville, Tenn. | ESPN
It’s the James Franklin Bowl, sponsored by Franklin American Mortgage. When N.C. State fired Tom O’Brien, many assumed athletic director Debbie Yow would put the full-court press on Vandy coach James Franklin, who was Yow’s coach-in-waiting in Maryland a few years ago. Instead, Franklin stayed at Vandy and got a better contract, while Yow hired Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren. Vandy is searching for its third bowl win ever.
20. Nevada (7-5) vs. Arizona (7-5)
Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 15 | 1 p.m. | Albuquerque, N.M. | ESPN
Believe it or not, the New Mexico Bowl is actually worth watching, if for nothing else than to see the two most productive running backs in college football. Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey led the country with an average of 146.4 yards per game, while Nevada’s Stephon Jefferson finished just behind him at 141.9, and the teams are coached by a pair of offensive innovators in Nevada’s Chris Ault and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez.
21. BYU (7-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Dec. 20 | 8 p.m. | San Diego | ESPN
The Aztecs get a home game in a stadium that’s frequently featured BYU in bowl games, only in the Holiday Bowl, a game in which the Cougars have appeared 11 times. Now, this is BYU’s first Poinsettia Bowl, and their strong defense faces a San Diego State team that’s won seven straight games despite losing starting QB Ryan Katz in October.
Pick: San Diego State
22. Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5)
Heart of Dallas Bowl
Jan. 1 | Noon | Dallas | ESPNU
Oklahoma State plummeted in the bowl pecking order after its loss to Baylor, and it can take its frustrations out against a 6-6 Purdue team that just fired head coach Danny Hope.
Pick: Oklahoma State
23. No. 22 Utah State (10-2) vs. Toledo (9-3)
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Dec. 15 | 4:30 p.m. | Boise, Idaho | ESPN
The best name in bowl games welcomes Utah State back to the blue turf after the Aggies were edged 24-23 in a heartbreaker against Ohio last year. Utah State is 10-2 with its only losses coming by five total points to Wisconsin and BYU, despite losing two star running backs from last year’s bowl team. Toledo is no slouch either, losing to Arizona in overtime and beating Cincinnati.
Pick: Utah State
24. Louisiana-Monroe (8-4) vs. Ohio (8-4)
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Dec. 28 | 2 p.m. | Shreveport, La. | ESPN
I won’t be happy until I see another Independence Bowl played in a Louisiana blizzard. A bowl game being played in Shreveport is a wondrous or horrifying thing depending on your college football perspective, but we’ll opt for the former view, especially giving the other game that happened in Shreveport this season. Twitter was ablaze with speculation about this game Sunday night because Louisiana Tech apparently turned down a chance to play despised rival Louisiana-Monroe (which is playing its first bowl ever), with the athletic director’s reasoning being that the Independence Bowl refused to wait for the Bulldogs to let their options play out. Louisiana Tech is unfortunately stuck at home, while this game still offers a nice matchup of QBs in the Warhawks’ Kolton Browning and the Bobcats’ Tyler Tettleton, although Ohio is trying to recover from a disappointing second half after opening 7-0 and losing four of its last five.
25. Duke (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3)
Dec. 27 | 6:30 p.m. | Charlotte | ESPN
Congratulations to Duke for making its first bowl game since 1994, while also getting the opportunity to stay in its home state -- the only place the Blue Devils have actually won this season. They’ll get matched up with Cincinnati, one of four Big East co-champions, and also a team that is desperately trying to hold onto its coach, Butch Jones.
26. Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Ole Miss (6-6)
BBVA Compass Bowl
Jan. 5 | 1 p.m. | Birmingham, Ala. | ESPN
Congratulations, Pitt! Bowl games are supposedly meant as “rewards” for the players, and by crawling to 6-6 with wins over Rutgers and South Florida the last two weeks, the Panthers punched their third straight ticket to the paradise that is Birmingham. The good news is that this is the first time they’re doing it without an interim coach. Good luck with the motivation part of the job, Paul Chryst.
Pick: Ole Miss
27. Navy (7-4) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Dec. 29 | 4 p.m. | San Francisco | ESPN2
We have only two more years to enjoy the quirky game that wedges itself into a baseball stadium and puts both teams on the same sideline, as the Fight Hunger Bowl will move to the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014. If nothing else, watching Navy run the option is much more interesting than last year’s edition of this game, when 6-6 Illinois and 6-7 UCLA battled after firing Ron Zook and Rick Neuheisel. Amazingly, Arizona State should not have an interim coach in this one, because Todd Graham has yet to leave for another job in his quest to coach every team in America.
Pick: Arizona State
28. Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Dec. 29 | 9 p.m. | Houston | ESPN
The last time these two teams met was also in a bowl game, when Mike Leach’s Red Raiders rallied from a 31-point second-half deficit to win 44-41 in overtime at the Insight Bowl. A few days later, Minnesota fired the perennially solid Glen Mason. This year, it’s shocking that the Golden Gophers are even in a bowl, until you realize that their six wins are against UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Syracuse, Purdue and Illinois. So, congratulations or something. Minnesota won’t have to worry about holding onto a lead this year.
Pick: Texas Tech
29. No. 24 San Jose State (10-2) vs. Bowling Green (8-4)
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman
Dec. 27 | 3 p.m. | Washington D.C. | ESPN
San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre is a popular name in the coaching carousel, and for good reason. This is only the Spartans’ second bowl appearance since 1990, and MacIntyre has gone from 1-12 to 5-7 to 10-2 in his three seasons. The Spartans actually face a decent challenge in the Falcons, who give up only 15.8 points per game and gave Florida a run in September.
Pick: San Jose State
30. SMU (6-6) vs. Fresno State (9-3)
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Dec. 24 | 8 p.m. | Honolulu | ESPN
Ah, the Hawaii Bowl, ESPN’s annual Christmas Eve counterprogramming. This is only the fourth time in 11 versions of the current Hawaii Bowl that the University of Hawaii is not playing in the game, which means the bowl must entice SMU and Fresno State fans to travel all the way to Honolulu for a game on a holiday night. SMU does have former Hawaii coach June Jones, but the Mustangs are just 6-6 and face a rejuvenated Fresno State squad that’s won five in a row under new coach Tim DeRuyter. There are some familiar names here, from SMU QB Garrett Gilbert to Fresno State QB Derek Carr.
Pick: Fresno State
31. Tulsa (10-3) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Dec. 31 | 3:30 p.m. | Memphis, Tenn. | ESPN
Somehow, one of the biggest stories of bowl selection Sunday was the absence of Louisiana Tech, which thought it might get a Liberty Bowl bid. Instead, executive director Steve Ehrhart told the Commercial Appeal: “We just felt was in the best long-term interest of our bowl as we get into future contract negotiations next year to establish a relationship with a BCS conference such as the Big 12.” Never mind the fact that Louisiana Tech scores 51 points per game, scored 57 on Texas A&M and has three more wins than Iowa State. Bowl selections aren’t about rewards for college kids. They’re about politics and money, as we all know. Also, it’s worth noting again that Tulsa’s athletic director, Ross Parmley, was put on leave last week because of a gambling investigation.
Pick: Iowa State
32. East Carolina (8-4) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 22 | Noon | New Orleans | ESPN
The Ragin’ Cajuns had never been to a bowl until last year, and now they’re making their second straight New Orleans Bowl appearance after a thrilling victory over San Diego State in 2011. Both these teams are riding three-game winning streaks into the bowl, and Lafayette even nearly took down Florida a few weeks ago.
33. UCF (9-4) vs. Ball State (9-3)
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg
Dec. 21 | 7:30 p.m. | St. Petersburg, Fla. | ESPN
In the battle for all the mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers, look out for UCF running back Latavius Murray, who ran for 1,000 yards despite missing three games and faces a Ball State defense that gives up more than 200 yards on the ground per game.
34. Rice (6-6) vs. Air Force (6-6)
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
Dec. 29 | 11:45 a.m. | Fort Worth | ESPN
Nothing says bowl season like a 6-6 Conference USA team that lost to Memphis playing a 6-6 Mountain West team that lost to Army and UNLV, kicking off at 10:45 local time on a Saturday morning. This is the kind of game for true diehards only.
Pick: Air Force
35. Western Kentucky (7-5) vs. Central Michigan (6-6)
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl
Dec. 26 | 7:30 p.m. | Detroit | ESPN
The Pizza Bowl failed to get its token 6-6 Big Ten team, meaning it gets relegated to hosting a 6-6 MAC team (one that did beat Iowa!) and a 7-5 Sun Belt team (one that did beat Kentucky!). Picking games like this is a total crapshoot, so let’s just appease Big Red.
Pick: Western Kentucky