College football bowl guide key players storylines


Here’s a breakdown of the key players and storylines for every team in a bowl game.

College Football Playoff

Dec. 29

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
4 p.m. ET, ESPN
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Clemson Tigers (13-0)

Key player: QB Trevor Lawrence is going to be the engine that drives the Clemson offense. While much has been made of Tua Tagovailoa‘s ascension at Alabama, Lawrence has provided his own spark to the Clemson offense, and if he can flourish in bowl season, the Tigers are as good as any team in the country.

Storyline to watch: Clemson’s secondary struggled badly against Kellen Mond and Jake Bentley during the regular season, and if there’s a weakness on an otherwise stout defense, it’s the safety play. The types of quarterbacks Clemson will see in a potential run to a national championship will be a real test of how good this unit is.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-0)

Key player: QB Ian Book has sparked this Notre Dame offense, throwing for 2,468 yards and 19 touchdowns after replacing starter Brandon Wimbush after the third game of the season.

Storyline to watch: Two years removed from a 4-8 campaign, Notre Dame’s staff overhaul paid off with an undefeated season, the Irish’s first since 2012, when Alabama beat them 42-14 in the BCS title game. Kelly has prepared this Irish team for chaos all season with surprise scenarios in practice. Will that also pay off?


College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

Oklahoma Sooners (12-1)

Key player: Kyler Murray is on pace to shatter the FBS passing efficiency record set by Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield last season. Oh yeah, Murray can run a little bit, too.

Storyline to watch: Murray and the Sooners get their shot at Alabama, in a showdown of the two Heisman favorites. Murray will make plays. Can the OU defense keep making them, too?

Alabama Crimson Tide (13-0)

Key player: If Terrell Lewis, who returned to practice last week after a five-month recovery from ACL surgery, can get back on the field in time for the playoff he would give an already stout defense a difference-maker rushing the passer.

Storyline to watch: Even if Tua Tagovailoa comes back healthy after the SEC Championship Game, will his poor performance and the heroics of Jalen Hurts make coach Nick Saban rethink the way he handles the position?

Dec. 15

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl
Alcorn State vs. North Carolina A&T
12 p.m. ET, ABC
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Alcorn State (9-3)

Key player: QB Noah Johnson earned SWAC Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for 2,079 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions to go along with 960 yards rushing.

Storyline to watch: After winning the SWAC for the third time in five years, Alcorn State is looking for its first Celebration Bowl championship since the event was created in 2015.

North Carolina A&T (9-2)

Key player: RB Marquell Cartwright. In 10 games, Cartwright ran for 892 yards and five touchdowns and was named first-team All-MEAC.

Storyline to watch: Outside of a pair of losses by a combined four points, it has been another dominant season for the two-time Celebration Bowl champions, who won the MEAC for the fourth time in five years.


New Mexico Bowl
North Texas vs. Utah State
2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Branch Field at Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico

North Texas Mean Green (9-3)

Key player: QB Mason Fine has been one of the nation’s most productive passers, with 3,734 passing yards along with a stellar 27-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Storyline to watch: A victory would give the Mean Green their first 10-win season since 1947 (not counting 1977, when they won nine and got a 10th by forfeit).

Utah State Aggies (10-2)

Key player: QB Jordan Love. A second-team All-MWC selection, Love threw for 3,208 yards with 28 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Storyline to watch: A victory will tie the Aggies’ single-season record for wins (11) and possibly lead to just their third AP Top 25 finish in school history. But they’ll have to do it under interim head coach Frank Maile, who is replacing Matt Wells, hired as Texas Tech’s new coach. Wells will be involved in practice and with the game plan, and will be on the sideline, but will not coach the Aggies in the game.


AutoNation Cure Bowl
Tulane vs. Louisiana
2:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida

Tulane Green Wave (6-6)

Key player: CB Donnie Lewis Jr. A second-team All-AAC selection, Lewis led the conference and ranks third nationally in passes defended (1.7 per game). He also leads the team with three interceptions and ranks fifth with 54 tackles.

Storyline to watch: Tulane made its first bowl since 2013, but will go into the game with an interim offensive coordinator after Doug Ruse was fired at the end of the regular season. The Green Wave rank No. 93 in the nation in scoring, averaging 25.7 points per game.

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (7-6)

Key player: Sophomore Elijah Mitchell, second-team All-Sun Belt at running back, is a big-play threat for the Ragin’ Cajuns in the same backfield as third-team all-league pick Trey Ragas, the workhorse who has topped 1,000 yards on the ground.

Storyline to watch: Don’t take the Ragin’ Cajuns lightly because of their record. Four of their six losses were to a 10-2 Appalachian State team (twice — once in the regular season and again in the league title game), Mississippi State (56-10 in Week 3) and Alabama (56-14 in Week 5).


Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
No. 21 Fresno State vs. Arizona State
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas

Fresno State Bulldogs (11-2)

Key player: Jeff Allison. Allison led Fresno State with 109 tackles during the regular season as the Bulldogs allowed just 13.5 points per game.

Storyline to watch: Had there been more turnover on the coaching carousel, Jeff Tedford would have been a much more talked about name. Fresno State went 1-11 in 2016 before he got there and have been 21-5 since.

Arizona State Sun Devils (7-5)

Key player: RB Eno Benjamin, who emerged as a sophomore star for the Sun Devils in running for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns and averaged 154 yards per game in the final five games of the season.

Storyline to watch: It’s still unclear whether star receiver N’Keal Harry will play in the bowl game after announcing that he’d enter the 2019 NFL draft. Harry — now ranked as the second-best wide receiver in the 2019 class, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. — said he would discuss his options with head coach Herm Edwards in the days to come.


Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
Georgia Southern vs. Eastern Michigan
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama

Georgia Southern Eagles (9-3)

Key player: Senior running back Wesley Fields has gained 959 yards on the ground this season and nearly 3,000 in his career while also posing a threat in the passing game.

Storyline to watch: The Eagles enter bowl season with nine wins to equal their high as an FBS program after finishing 2-10 in 2017 as coach Chad Lunsford took over midseason.

Eastern Michigan Eagles (7-5)

Key player: DE Maxx Crosby was named first team All-MAC for the second season in a row after 7.5 sacks. He also had five forced fumbles, tied for second among FBS players.

Storyline to watch: In 2016, the Eagles made their first bowl game since 1987 and lost to Old Dominion in the Popeyes Bahama Bowl. They sat out bowl season in 2017 after finishing 5-7 and will be motivated for a bowl win after showing progress this season.


R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Middle Tennessee vs. Appalachian State
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Mercedes-Benz Superdome
New Orleans

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (8-5)

Key player: QB Brent Stockstill has 105 career TD passes, tying him for 20th in FBS history with former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Storyline to watch: A win for the Blue Raiders would give them nine for the first time since 2009; it would also ensure the team’s second-best season win total under coach Rick Stockstill.

Appalachian State Mountaineers (10-2)

Key player: Sophomore QB Zac Thomas, the Sun Belt offensive player of the year, threw for 270 yards in an overtime loss against Penn State for the Mountaineers in his debut as a starter, and completed 14 of 14 throws for 295 yards and three touchdowns against Charlotte.

Storyline to watch: The Mountaineers are unbeaten in bowl games over the past three seasons after making the jump to the FBS in 2014, a stretch that has turned coach Scott Satterfield into a hot candidate to move up from his alma mater.

Dec. 18

Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
UAB vs. Northern Illinois
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida

UAB Blazers (10-3)

Key player: RB Spencer Brown (1,149 rushing yards) was Conference USA’s third-leading rusher and has a UAB single-season record 16 rushing touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: From #FreeUAB to conference champs. The Blazers have been one of college football’s best stories, and if they can cap off this historic season with a bowl victory, it would be a cherry on top.

Northern Illinois Huskies (8-5)

Key player: DE Sutton Smith is a repeat winner as MAC defensive player of the year. Smith had 13 sacks in the regular season, third in FBS.

Storyline to watch: Smith and the Northern Illinois defense have been stout this season, allowing just 2.7 yards per rush (tied for first in the country with Clemson and Michigan State) and just 107 yards per game.

Dec. 19

DXL Frisco Bowl
San Diego State vs. Ohio
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

San Diego State Aztecs (7-5)

Key player: LB Kyahva Tezino finished the regular season with 120 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks on his way to being named first-team All-Mountain West.

Storyline to watch: Rocky Long has taken San Diego State to a bowl game in all eight seasons he has been the head coach, but there’s less buzz for this one because the Aztecs finished on a three-game losing streak and lost four of their final five.

Ohio Bobcats (8-4)

Key player: RB A.J. Ouellette and WR Papi White have combined for 21 touchdowns for Ohio this season, but QB Nathan Rourke has thrown for 22 touchdowns and run for 13.

Storyline to watch: This Ohio offense has averaged 470.6 yards and 41.2 points per game, which ranks No. 10 nationally, and scored 49 or more points in five of the Bobcats’ final six games. Can anyone slow them down?

Dec. 20

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl
Marshall vs. USF
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

Marshall Thundering Herd (8-4)

Key player: WR Tyre Brady was one of Conference USA’s top pass-catchers, with 66 receptions for 914 yards and nine touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: The Thundering Herd rush defense has been stellar; the unit hasn’t allowed a player to rush for 100 yards in any of Marshall’s 12 games this season.

USF Bulls (7-5)

Key player: Jordan Cronkrite. Cronkrite rushed for 1,095 yards this season, becoming just the fifth player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard mark. Freshman Johnny Ford has gotten his opportunities in the backfield as well, rushing for 120 yards against UCF.

Storyline to watch: How healthy is quarterback Blake Barnett? Barnett missed two of the final three regular-season games with a shoulder injury. In their loss to UCF, the Bulls played both Chris Oladokun and Brett Kean, and neither was effective. USF goes into the bowl game with five consecutive losses.

Dec. 21

Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl
FIU vs. Toledo
12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium
Nassau, Bahamas

FIU Golden Panthers (8-4)

Key player: QB James Morgan set a school single-season record with 26 touchdown passes, putting him in the top three in Conference USA.

Storyline to watch: If the Panthers win, they’ll set a school record for victories in a season with nine. Butch Davis has won eight games in each of his first two season as their coach.

Toledo Rockets (7-5)

Key player: WR Diontae Johnson saw his numbers dip this season, but still accounted for seven receiving touchdowns plus 412 return yards with another score.

Storyline to watch: The Toledo defense has struggled this season, giving up an average of 430.1 yards. That includes giving up 257.8 pass yards per game, which ranks 108th among all FBS teams.


Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Western Michigan vs. BYU
4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Lyle Smith Field at Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho

Western Michigan Broncos (7-5)

Key player: The combo punch of RBs LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan has been potent for Western Michigan. Bellamy leads the MAC with 1,172 rushing yards; Bogan has 15 rushing touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: It has been a season of streaks for the Broncos. After losing nonconference games to Syracuse and Michigan to open the season, they reeled off six consecutive wins, then lost three straight. After closing with a victory over Northern Illinois, which team will show up in the bowl game?

BYU Cougars (6-6)

Key player: Freshman QB Zach Wilson replaced former starter Tanner Mangum after six games this season. Wilson has thrown for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 130 yards and two more scores.

Storyline to watch: BYU rebounded from a 4-9 disaster in 2017, but had an uneven regular season and blew a 20-point lead to archrival Utah to lose 35-27 in the Holy War finale. Can the Cougars rebound from that disappointment?

Dec. 22

Birmingham Bowl
Memphis vs. Wake Forest
Noon ET, ESPN
Legion Field,Birmingham, Alabama

Memphis Tigers (8-5)

Player to watch: RB Darrell Henderson. Henderson has had one of the most under-the-radar seasons of anyone in the country, rushing for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns. His power and speed make him extremely difficult to bring down, especially when he gets loose in the open field.

Storyline to watch: Memphis rallied late in the season to clinch a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game, but another heartbreaking loss to UCF put a damper on that division title. How do the Tigers respond after letting another opportunity for a conference title slip from their grasp?

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (6-6)

Key player: This is, in many ways, a send-off to the Wake offensive line, which arrived undersized and overwhelmed four years ago, and now departs as one of the most established groups in the ACC. Phil Haynes and Ryan Anderson, in particular, have been crucial in Wake’s growth in recent seasons.


Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Houston vs. Army
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas

Houston Cougars (8-4)

Key player: QB Clayton Tune. Tune took over for the injured D’Eriq King, out for the season with a knee injury. Tune is completing only 44.7 percent of his passes this season, so getting the extra reps during bowl practices should help him get more comfortable.

Storyline to watch: What will the defense look like? After initially saying he planned to play in the bowl game, defensive tackle Ed Oliver opted to skip the postseason to prepare for the NFL draft. Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was recently fired, creating uncertainty all around.

Army Knights (9-2)

Key player: QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and RB Darnell Woolfolk make this offense tick. The two have combined for 1,606 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground this season.

Storyline to watch: Army’s triple-option offense holds the ball for 39 minutes per game, and its defense allows just 18.7 points. The Knights held Oklahoma, the nation’s No. 1 offense, to 28 points in a seven-point loss, and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in the country.


Dollar General Bowl
Buffalo vs. Troy
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Alabama

Buffalo Bulls (10-3)

Key player: QB Tyree Jackson was named the MAC offensive player of the year and earned first-team All-MAC honors. He threw for 2,605 yards and 25 touchdowns during the regular season.

Storyline to watch: Buffalo is averaging an 11-point margin of victory this season and averaged 35.25 points per game in the regular season. That offense will be tough to stop.

Troy Trojans (9-3)

Key player: Sophomore QB Sawyer Smith took over at midseason for Kaleb Barker, who suffered a season-ending knee injury, and gave the Trojans their second-ever pair of 1,000-yard passers in the same season.

Storyline to watch: Headed to the postseason for a third consecutive year, Troy has won 22 of its past 26 games and has lost only once in four seasons under coach Neal Brown when trailing at the half.


SoFi Hawai’i Bowl
Louisiana Tech vs. Hawaii
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Aloha Stadium, Honolulu

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-5)

Key player: Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, who’s nicknamed “Sack Daddy,” is the nation’s leader in sacks this season (15) and the FBS active leader in career sacks (42.5).

Storyline to watch: The Bulldogs are one of only four teams in the nation that have won a bowl game in each of their past four seasons. Can they make it five in a row?

Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (8-5)

Key player: Going into the conference title games, QB Cole McDonald ranked No. 5 nationally with 3,790 passing yards to go along with 35 touchdown passes (No. 7 nationally).

Storyline to watch: Make it two bowl games in three seasons for coach Nick Rolovich. Hawai’i had gone five consecutive seasons without a bowl until Rolovich took over and got things headed in the right direction.

Dec. 26

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
Boston College vs. No. 25 Boise State
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Cotton Bowl, Dallas

Boston College Eagles (7-5)

Key player: The BC offense has plenty of weapons, but it will need QB Anthony Brown to show he has made strides during bowl prep. Brown got hurt against Clemson and didn’t look sharp the rest of the way as the Eagles lost three straight to end the regular season.

Storyline to watch: BC offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was hired away by Bowling Green, which should make for an interesting bowl game for the Eagles. Loeffler helped design a scheme that could play both tempo and power football, so the transition could be tough.

Boise State Broncos (10-3)

Key player: QB Brett Rypien. The Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year owns the conference record for total passing yards (13,456) and finished the regular season ranked No. 8 in touchdown passes, No. 9 in passing yards.

Storyline to watch: At one point Saturday, when it looked like UCF was going to lose to Memphis, it seemed like Boise State was headed to the Fiesta Bowl. If Memphis held on, all Boise had to do was win a home game against a team (Fresno State) it had already beaten. That’s quite the fall.


Quick Lane Bowl
Minnesota vs. Georgia Tech
5:15 p.m. ET ESPN
Ford Field, Detroit

Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-6)

Key player: Running back Mohamed Ibrahim is on pace to break the 1,000-yard mark in his freshman season after taking over the featured spot in the Gophers’ offense early this season.

Storyline to watch: Minnesota won two of its last three to squeak into the postseason. Another victory would be a good sign that P.J. Fleck’s program is turning a corner at the end of his second season.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (7-5)

Key player: For all the attention on the Georgia Tech offense, the key to this season’s revitalization has been on defense, led by lineman Anree Saint-Amour. The senior led the team with 11 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries to go with three forced fumbles.

Storyline to watch: Paul Johnson will officially end his run at Georgia Tech after the bowl game, which will no doubt make for an emotional farewell. Johnson’s option offense has defined the Yellow Jackets for 11 seasons, so this game really represents the end of an era.


Cheez-It Bowl
California vs. TCU
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Chase Field, Phoenix

California Golden Bears (7-5)

Key player: LB Evan Weaver, a 245-pound junior who finished second on the team in tackles (127), tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (4.5). Weaver was at the center of coach Justin Wilcox’s rugged defense, which ranked third in the Pac-12 behind title-game participants Washington and Utah.

Storyline to watch: While Weaver and the Golden Bears were formidable on defense, they never quite figured it out on offense and finished last in the league in points per game (23.6) and total offense (350 yards). RB Patrick Laird, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2017, was unable to get it going this season and averaged only 4.1 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns.

TCU Horned Frogs (6-6)

Key player: Wide receiver Jalen Reagor still made a huge impact for the TCU offense despite playing with three different quarterbacks. The numbers might not be there. But the talent is.

Storyline to watch: Gary Patterson did a masterful job rallying TCU to a bowl game, even after the crushing defeat to Kansas. The Horned Frogs have a lot coming back in 2019, and a bowl victory would give them even more momentum going into the offseason.

Dec. 27

Walk-On’s Independence Bowl
Temple vs. Duke
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana

Temple Owls (8-4)

Key player: WR Isaiah Wright. The 2018 American Athletic Conference special teams player of the year, Wright leads the nation with three special-teams touchdowns (two punt returns, one kick return) and averages 13.9 yards per punt return and 25.9 yards per kickoff.

Storyline to watch: Quarterback Anthony Russo missed the final regular-season game with an injury, and leading rusher Ryquell Armstead tweaked an ankle injury, so making sure both those players are healthy is a big key during bowl prep.

Duke Blue Devils (7-5)

Key player: Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris is one of the nation’s top defenders when healthy. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, health has been an issue for Giles-Harris and nearly every member of the defense. After getting smoked 59-7 by Wake Forest in the regular-season finale, they’re looking for answers here.

Storyline to watch: QB Daniel Jones got some serious NFL attention throughout the season, and as a prototypical NFL-style passer, who learned under QB guru David Cutcliffe, a strong bowl showing could be the ticket to an early entry into the draft.


New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Miami vs. Wisconsin
5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Yankee Stadium, New York

Miami Hurricanes (7-5)

Key player: QB N’Kosi Perry is the future for Miami — at least it seems. The back-and-forth under center likely undermined the Canes’ entire season, but Mark Richt has tabbed Perry as his guy, and the bowl is the redshirt freshman’s chance to prove his coach right.

Storyline to watch: A season that started with big expectations ended as mostly a waste for Miami, with a four-game losing streak midway through sinking things. But the Canes have a chance to end on a high note and start building for 2019 with the bowl.

Wisconsin Badgers (7-5)

Key player: Wisconsin’s disappointing record overshadowed onetime Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor‘s 166 rushing yards per game — the best average in the nation by a wide margin.

Storyline to watch: The Badgers started the season with playoff hopes. After finishing it with a deflating loss to rival Minnesota, will they have any interest in bouncing back in a bowl game?


Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl
Baylor vs. Vanderbilt
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
NRG Stadium, Houston

Baylor Bears (6-6)

Key player: Baylor wide receiver Jalen Hurd was the Big 12 offensive newcomer of the year after leading the Bears with 69 receptions.

Storyline to watch: Baylor will try to cap what otherwise has been a tremendous season for coach Matt Rhule, who after winning one game in his first campaign has taken the Bears to a bowl.

Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6)

Key player: It’s probably time someone pay attention to Ke’Shawn Vaughn. All the junior has done this season is rush for 1,001 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: The Commodores’ offense has steadily improved the past few seasons, but this could be the end of an era as senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur ends a three-year run as the starter.

Dec. 28

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Purdue vs. Auburn
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee

Purdue Boilermakers (6-6)

Key player: Freshman Rondale Moore announced himself as one of the Big Ten’s most electric playmakers in his college debut in August, and the league’s rookie of the year has been consistently cranking out highlights since.

Storyline to watch: Jeff Brohm is back. The bowl game should feel like a victory lap for the Boilermakers, who already notched their best win of the postseason by hanging onto their head coach despite an offer from his alma mater, Louisville.

Auburn Tigers (7-5)

Key player: Barring an out-of-this-world performance by JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn’s streak of 1,000-yard rushers is going to end. But Whitlow is only a freshman and is certainly worth watching, as he could become the face of the offense next season.

Storyline to watch: Can Jarrett Stidham finish strong and rediscover the form that had him in the discussion about the top draft-eligible quarterbacks before the season? Or will the former transfer continue to struggle and consider returning for another season on the Plains?


Camping World Bowl
No. 18 West Virginia vs. No. 20 Syracuse
5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida

West Virginia Mountaineers (8-3)

Key player: Quarterback Will Grier was in the hunt for the Heisman for the much of the season and boasts arguably the top passing arm in college football.

Storyline to watch: The Mountaineers had every opportunity to win the Big 12, but couldn’t make enough stops against the Oklahoma schools. With such a senior-laden team, will they still be motivated to go out with a victory?

Syracuse Orange (9-3)

Key player: As QB Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse. Dungey wraps up a stellar career for the Orange in the bowl game, and his ability to both move the ball downfield with his arm and his uncanny knack for avoiding pressure and making plays with his feet has turned Syracuse into one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses.

Storyline to watch: Syracuse overachieved this season, and this level of bowl is new territory under third-year coach Dino Babers. So are the Orange just happy to be here or can the bowl game be a springboard to something even bigger down the road?


Valero Alamo Bowl
No. 24 Iowa State vs. No. 13 Washington State
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas

Iowa State Cyclones (8-4)

Key player: Freshman quarterback Brock Purdy became the difference for Iowa State after taking over midseason, quarterbacking the Cyclones to a 6-1 record as the starter.

Storyline to watch: With a bowl victory, Iowa State could finish with nine wins for just the third time in program history.

Washington State Cougars (10-2)

Key player: QB Gardner Minshew, who, true to Mike Leach’s preseason promise, finished the 2018 regular season as the nation’s leader with 4,477 passing yards.

Storyline to watch: With a devastating loss in the Apple Cup to Washington, the Cougars missed out on a chance to play for the Pac-12 title and a long-shot playoff bid. The question is whether they will be able to summon the same motivation they would’ve had for the Rose Bowl or a New Year’s Six game.

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Greg McElroy is excited to find out how Michigan will perform on a big stage against Florida in the Peach Bowl.

Dec. 29

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
No. 10 Florida vs. No. 7 Michigan
Noon ET, ESPN
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Florida Gators (9-3)

Key player: The entire Gators defense is solid, but defensive lineman Jachai Polite has the ability to ruin a quarterback’s day. He racked up 11 sacks and five forced fumbles this season.

Storyline to watch: Keep an eye on the quarterbacks, Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones. If Franks, who has battled inconsistency, plays poorly, he could open the door for the freshman Jones to start next season’s quarterback battle early.

Michigan Wolverines (10-2)

Key player: Fiery linebacker Devin Bush won the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year award thanks to the great closing ability that netted him 79 tackles and five sacks in his junior season.

Storyline to watch: Bush and the previously No. 1-ranked defense in the nation have some redemption to seek after getting blown out by Ohio State 62-39 with a Big Ten title shot hanging in the balance.


Belk Bowl
South Carolina vs. Virginia
Noon ET ABC
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina

South Carolina Gamecocks (6-5)

Key player: Maybe he hasn’t been as explosive as his three-game, four-touchdown 2017 season, but WR Deebo Samuel is the Gamecocks’ most productive weapon, with 58 catches and nine total touchdowns this season.

Storyline to watch: There were some low points around the middle of the season, but this offense is on a roll and looking dangerous under coordinator Brian McClendon, averaging 36.3 points per game over the second half of the regular season.

Virginia Cavaliers (7-5)

Key player: The entire secondary has been exceptional for Virginia this season, but the highlight might be cornerback Bryce Hall. The junior led the ACC with 22 passes defended, including 20 broken up during the regular season.

Storyline to watch: There’s no doubt about the impact QB Bryce Perkins had on Virginia’s offense this season, but the frustrating finish against rival Virginia Tech — when he fumbled a handoff in overtime that the Hokies recovered — could linger. Perkins needs to rebound from that brutal performance for the Hoos to finish the season on a high note.


NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl
Arkansas State vs. Nevada
1:15 p.m. ET, CBSSN
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona

Arkansas State Red Wolves (8-4)

Key player: Senior QB Justice Hansen enters his career finale second in program history in in total offense, pass completions and passing yards. His 83 touchdown throws are a school record.

Storyline to watch: The Red Wolves are 3-5 all time in bowl games and are experienced in the postseason, playing in a bowl every season from 2012 on.

Nevada Wolf Pack (7-5)

Key player: LB Malik Reed. The senior defensive end finished the regular season with 15.5 tackles for loss on his way to earning first-team all-conference honors for a second straight season.

Storyline to watch: After missing the past two postseasons, the Wolf Pack have a chance to reach eight wins for the first time since 2010.

Dec. 31

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman
Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Noon ET, ESPN
Jack Stephens Field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland

Cincinnati Bearcats (10-2)

Key player: QB Desmond Ridder. The redshirt freshman sparked Cincinnati’s resurgence this season, earning American Athletic Conference rookie of the year honors after throwing for 2,359 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 563 yards rushing with five touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: Luke Fickell has done a terrific job turning the program around. The Bearcats have an opportunity to win 11 games for the first time since 2009, when they went 12-1 with a loss in the Sugar Bowl to Florida.

Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6)

Key player: Defensive lineman Ricky Walker was the backbone of a young defense for the Hokies, and even as the team sputtered this season, he continued to prove a valuable leader on and off the field.

Storyline to watch: How much progress can that young defense make during bowl prep? So many key players such as Caleb Farley, Dax Hollifield and Divine Deablo had to grow up fast in 2019, and that process hasn’t always been pretty. The bowl game is a chance to prove they’ve taken a big step.


Hyundai Sun Bowl
Stanford vs. Pitt
2 p.m. ET, CBS
Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas

Stanford Cardinal (8-4)

Key player: QB K.J. Costello, who took over as the leader of the offense with 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love struggling with injuries and behind an inexplicably ineffective offensive line.

Storyline to watch: Stanford was ranked as high as No. 7 earlier in the season but was out of the CFP rankings by the end. It’s still unclear what ailed the Cardinal, as they returned a lot of talent, including Love. You never know which Stanford might show up this season.

Pitt Panthers (7-6)

Key player: Tailback Qadree Ollison has been the backbone of the Pitt attack this season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and anchoring the power run game. Pitt needs to be successful on the ground to open up play-action, and Ollison is the key.

Storyline to watch: Pitt was the best of a bad division in the ACC Coastal, but a bowl victory would actually do a lot to help the league’s perception nationally. In nonconference play this season, the Panthers were blown out by Penn State and UCF, so a big win outside the ACC would mean a ton for how both the team and the league are viewed.


Redbox Bowl
Michigan State vs. Oregon
3 p.m. ET, Fox
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

Michigan State Spartans (7-5)

Key player: Former walk-on Kenny Willekes racked up 20.5 tackles for loss (the most in the Big Ten) while leading the stingiest rushing defense in the country this season.

Storyline to watch: The Spartans’ coaching staff will spend its offseason trying to upgrade an underwhelming offense, and bowl season might offer some insight into what changes they have in mind.

Oregon Ducks (8-4)

Key player: QB Justin Herbert, who opened the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate and the presumptive top quarterback prospect in the 2019 NFL draft but struggled down the stretch.

Storyline to watch: Herbert didn’t throw for more than 300 yards in any game after the Ducks’ Sept. 22 overtime loss to Stanford, and the Ducks went 3-3 in their final six games. A big bowl performance would go a long way to closing out his career on a needed high note.


AutoZone Liberty Bowl
No. 23 Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
3:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee

Missouri Tigers (8-4)

Key player: He doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, but Tigers linebacker Cale Garrett is a tackling machine and the heartbeat of the defense with 98 total tackles and counting.

Storyline to watch: It has been an underwhelming season for Drew Lock, whose 25 passing touchdowns pales in comparison to the 44 he threw in 2017, but this game offers a chance to show why he was considered one of the top draft-eligible quarterback prospects coming into the season.

Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-6)

Key player: Tylan Wallace proved to be just the latest in a budding line of big-time Oklahoma State wide receivers and could add yet another Biletnikoff Award to the Cowboys’ trophy case.

Storyline to watch: It was a strange season for the Cowboys, who played up and down to the competition all year to finish with a 6-6 record. Which Oklahoma State squad will show up to the bowl?


San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
Northwestern vs. No. 17 Utah
7 p.m. ET, FS1
SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, Calif.

Northwestern Wildcats (8-5)

Key player: Sophomore Paddy Fisher will likely finish with more than 100 tackles for the second season in a row as a focal point for the Wildcats’ defense.

Storyline to watch: The West Division champ can win its third bowl game in the past four seasons after going more than a half-century without a postseason victory.

Utah Utes (9-4)

Key player: LB Chase Hansen, who led the Pac-12 with 22 tackles for a loss in his first season at the position after playing the previous three at safety.

Storyline to watch: Utah lost QB Tyler Huntley and RB Zack Moss in the final month of the season and those absences finally took a toll in the Pac-12 championship game, when Washington held the Utes to 188 yards. Utah might have also lost leading receiver Britain Covey in that game, hobbing its offense even further. That means it’s all up to Utah’s defense, which is one of the best in the country, but can’t do it all alone.


TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
NC State vs. Texas A&M
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Florida

NC State Wolfpack (9-3)

Key player: Tailback Reggie Gallaspy wasn’t healthy early, and he struggled at times during the season. But if NC State is going to play its best football, the ground game has to be functional. Gallaspy will be crucial in balancing the attack.

Storyline to watch: QB Ryan Finley will be in the mix for first-round draft pick consideration, and the bowl game is a potentially big spot for him to showcase what he can do one final time for the Wolfpack.

Texas A&M Aggies (8-4)

Key player: There’s some legit NFL draft buzz around mostly unheralded Aggies tight end Jace Sternberger, who leads all players at his position in the SEC in receiving yards (804), receptions (47) and touchdowns (10).

Storyline to watch: Jimbo Fisher got perhaps the signature victory of his first season in College Station at the end of the regular season against LSU, and now can use the extra bowl practices to start building toward a future in which fans expect to compete for conference championships.

Jan. 1

Outback Bowl
No. 18 Mississippi State vs. Iowa
Noon ET, ESPN2
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4)

Key player: It’s going to be a bittersweet swan song for Nick Fitzgerald, who drew almost no FBS interest coming out of high school and transformed himself into one of the most productive quarterbacks in Mississippi State history.

Storyline to watch: Good luck keeping Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons out of the backfield. The two linemen have first-round NFL potential and have made quarterbacks’ lives difficult all season, even Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who was held to164 passing yards against the Bulldogs.

Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4)

Key player: Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the Hawkeyes’ big-play threat on offense and special teams. He averaged 17.5 yards per catch and 30 yards per kick return this season.

Storyline to watch: Iowa’s running game started to hit its stride late in November. A good performance to end the season, especially from sophomore back Mekhi Sargent, will lead to an optimistic offseason.


VRBO Citrus Bowl
No. 12 Penn State vs. No. 14 Kentucky
1 p.m. ET, ABC
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida

Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3)

Key player: Trace McSorley could reach 10,000 career passing yards with a big performance (currently at 9,653 yards) in the final game of his Penn State career.

Storyline to watch: A postseason victory would give James Franklin a third consecutive 10-win season, which hasn’t been done in Happy Valley for since the early 1980s.

Kentucky Wildcats (9-3)

Key player: A finalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award with 84 tackles, 14 sacks and five forced fumbles, Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen could continue to soar up draft boards in his final game with the Wildcats.

Storyline to watch: It’s time to end one of the best seasons in recent Kentucky history on a high note. The Wildcats might have fallen short of SEC East contention, but they could wind up with 10 wins for the first time in four decades.


PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
No. 11 LSU vs. No. 8 UCF
1 p.m. ET, ESPN
State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

UCF Knights (12-0)

Player to watch: QB Darriel Mack Jr. Mack replaced the injured McKenzie Milton and scored six total touchdowns to help UCF clinch the American Athletic Conference championship and another undefeated regular season. He’s a threat to run the ball, but he also showed some touch on his deep passes that is hard to defend.

Storyline to watch: Can UCF go undefeated in consecutive seasons? The Knights are in a New Year’s Six game for the second straight year without another huge opportunity to prove their doubters wrong. Perhaps athletic director Danny White will have another opportunity to self-declare a national championship.

LSU Tigers (9-3)

Key player: There might not be a better linebacker in college football than LSU’s Devin White. The uber-athletic former running back has 115 tackles this season and is well on his way to becoming a first-round pick.

Storyline to watch: The offensive and defensive lines have been a sore spot for LSU all season, and coach Ed Orgeron could use the extra practices to make changes and try to develop more difference-makers up front.


Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
No. 9 Washington vs. No. 6 Ohio State
5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Rose Bowl,Pasadena, California

Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)

Key player: Quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who set Big Ten records for touchdown passes (42) and passing yards (4,081) in a season during his first year as a starter, adds another gear to Urban Meyer’s offense at Ohio State.

Storyline to watch: Despite some midseason malaise, the Buckeyes ended the season strong and how have a chance to finish with only one loss for the third time in the past five seasons.

Washington Huskies (10-3)

Key player: RB Myles Gaskin, the Huskies’ all-time leading rusher who became the first player in Pac-12 history to run for 1,000 or more yards in four seasons.

Storyline to watch: When Washington is at its best, Gaskin is the focal point of the Huskies’ steady but unspectacular offense. If a defense manages to slow Gaskin down, four-year starting QB Jake Browning must shoulder the load — something he’s not done a great job of this season.


Allstate Sugar Bowl
No. 15 Texas vs. No. 5 Georgia
8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Georgia Bulldogs (11-2)

Key player: DeAndre Swift is peaking at the right time. After failing to break the 100-yard mark during any of Georgia’s first seven games, he closed out the regular season with four 100-yard games and five total touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: To go toe-to-toe with Alabama in the SEC title game was impressive. But figuring out what went wrong in the second half and why they couldn’t win even on Jake Fromm’s best day will take some soul-searching.

Texas Longhorns (9-4)

Key player: Sophomore Sam Ehlinger might be the most underrated quarterback in the country. Between the first regular-season game and the last, he didn’t throw a single interception.

Storyline to watch: Despite falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship, Texas can cap what would still be an outstanding season with a victory in the Sugar Bowl.

–Written by Andrea Adelson, Joel Anderson, Kyle Bonagura, David M. Hale, Sam Khan Jr., Dan Murphy, Alex Scarborough, Mitch Sherman, Jake Trotter and Tom VanHaaren



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