After a brief hiatus following the regular season, college football returns on Saturday with five bowl games kicking off the 40-game bowl season that will culminate with the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 8.
The four teams in the College Football Playoff will garner the most attention because they are competing for a championship, but there are a slew of matchups that will be worth paying attention to for marquee value and evaluating prospects for the upcoming NFL draft.
Looking ahead to all of the bowl games, here are predictions for each matchup and key storylines to watch over the next three weeks.
2017-18 Bowl Schedule and Predictions
Saturday, Dec. 16
New Orleans Bowl: North Texas 30, Troy 24
Cure Bowl: Western Kentucky 35, Georgia State 21
Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State 45, Oregon 31
New Mexico Bowl: Colorado State 23, Marshall 21
Camellia Bowl: Arkansas State 35, Middle Tennessee 17
Tuesday, Dec. 19
Boca Raton Bowl: FAU 37, Akron 20
Wednesday, Dec. 20
Frisco Bowl: Louisiana Tech 37, SMU 30
Thursday, Dec. 21
Gasparilla Bowl: FIU 26, Temple 23
Friday, Dec. 22
Bahamas Bowl: UAB 28, Ohio 24
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Central Michigan 31, Wyoming 21
Saturday, Dec. 23
Birmingham Bowl: USF 48, Texas Tech 44
Armed Forces Bowl: San Diego State 30, Army 24
Dollar General Bowl: Appalachian State 24, Toledo 17
Sunday, Dec. 24
Hawaii Bowl: Fresno State 34, Houston 14
Tuesday, Dec. 26
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Utah 30, West Virginia 27
Quick Lane Bowl: Northern Illinois 29, Duke 24
Cactus Bowl: UCLA 41, Kansas State 27
Wednesday, Dec. 27
Independence Bowl: Florida State 24, Southern Miss 20
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College 20, Iowa 17
Foster Farms Bowl: Purdue 34, Arizona 27
Texas Bowl: Texas 23, Missouri 16
Thursday, Dec. 28
Military Bowl: Virginia 28, Navy 20
Camping World Bowl: Oklahoma State 40, Virginia Tech 30
Alamo Bowl: TCU 24, Stanford 14
Holiday Bowl: Michigan State 31, Washington State 28
Friday, Dec. 29
Belk Bowl: Wake Forest 34, Texas A&M 28
Sun Bowl: Arizona State 36, NC State 33
Music City Bowl: Northwestern 26, Kentucky 21
Arizona Bowl: New Mexico State 32, Utah State 29
Cotton Bowl Classic: Ohio State 31, USC 24
Saturday, Dec. 30
TaxSlayer Bowl: Louisville 28, Mississippi State 27
Liberty Bowl: Iowa State 33, Memphis 26
Fiesta Bowl: Washington 41, Penn State 38
Orange Bowl: Wisconsin 23, Miami 10
Monday, Jan. 1
Outback Bowl: Michigan 20, South Carolina 16
Peach Bowl: Auburn 31, UCF 17
Citrus Bowl: Notre Dame 24, LSU 21
Rose Bowl: Oklahoma 31, Georgia 30
Sugar Bowl: Clemson 20, Alabama 10
Monday, Jan. 8
College Football Playoff National Championship (Predicted Matchup): Clemson 24, Oklahoma 21
Best Matchup: Clemson vs. Alabama (Sugar Bowl)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
Sometimes the easiest choice really is the correct choice, especially when thinking about the best bowl game among the 2017-18 lineup.
This year’s Clemson-Alabama matchup isn’t exactly the same as the previous two we witnessed in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Carlos Watkins, Reuben Foster, O.J. Howard and Jonathan Allen are among the players who have since moved on to the NFL after the 2017 title game that Clemson won 35-31 on the last offensive play.
Clemson is on its way to reaching the peak that Alabama has occupied for the past decade. The Tigers have won three straight ACC championships, played for a national title in each of the past two years and won one last year.
The Tigers have won at least 10 games in each of the past seven seasons and enter the College Football Playoff ranked No. 1.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban knows firsthand how good Clemson is and how much talent is on the roster, even with the loss of stars like Watson and Gallman.
“This will be by far the best team that we’ve played all year, and we’ll certainly need to play our best to have any kind of chance to be successful in the game,” Saban told reporters when the playoff matchups were announced.
The Crimson Tide come into this game with a lot to prove. They didn’t play for an SEC title after losing their season finale to Auburn and didn’t beat a team that finished in the top 15 of the final playoff standings.
These are the two most prestigious programs in the country right now. Their first two playoff games were instant classics, with each team winning once and both games decided by a total of nine points.
Game three in the series has a lot to live up to, but there’s no reason to think Clemson and Alabama can’t reach those heights.
Player with Most At Stake: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
When the 2017 season started, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was not in the conversation with USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen as a top NFL draft prospect.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had Mayfield ranked as his No. 6 overall quarterback in the 2018 class way back in September.
Three months later, it would be a shock if Mayfield didn’t end up as a first-round draft pick. ESPN’s Todd McShay has the 2017 Heisman winner going No. 19 overall to the Los Angeles Chargers as the successor to Philip Rivers.
A Rose Bowl matchup against an elite Georgia defense, which features stud linebacker Roquan Smith, will go a long way toward showing that Mayfield is worthy of his status as a potential first-round draftee.
The stats look great for Georgia’s defense, though Seth Oliveras of Crimson and Cream Machine did throw some cold water on that group’s performance:
“Defensively, the Bulldogs rank fourth in the country in both total yards and points per game with 271 yards and 13.2 points respectively. Those two figures cannot be overstated, even though the majority of the offenses Georgia has faced do not rank anywhere near Oklahoma’s. The two most prolific offenses UGA has defended so far this season are Missouri and Auburn.”
The first time Georgia and Auburn met on Nov. 11, the Tigers erupted for 40 points and 488 yards of offense.
Oklahoma has scored at least 38 points in seven straight games, including 79 combined points in two games against a TCU defense that ranked 12th in the nation with 17.6 points allowed per game.
The last time Mayfield led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, he threw for 311 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 37-17 loss against Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl. That was his first full season as a starting quarterback after transferring from Texas Tech in 2013.
With three years and a Heisman trophy under his belt, Mayfield can end this season with his draft stock soaring if he plays well against Georgia and, potentially, Clemson or Alabama.
Best Non-CFP Matchup: Ohio State vs. USC (Cotton Bowl Classic)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Before the season started, Ohio State vs. USC would have been a popular choice for the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Both teams stumbled in the middle of the season, costing themselves a shot at playing for a national title. Ohio State lost by 31 points to Iowa one week after a dramatic come-from-behind win over Penn State. USC was blown out, 49-14, by Notre Dame for its second loss.
Darnold is a must-see player this bowl season because of his standing as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick. The USC quarterback didn’t improve upon his breakout season in 2016, with fewer touchdown passes (31 to 26) and more interceptions (nine to 12).
Pro Football Focus did offer a nugget about Darnold’s struggles really only lasting for a period of three weeks during the season:
PFF College Football @PFF_College
Safe to say USC QB Sam Darnold had an 🔼 and 🔽 year. https://t.co/EhG6KZUomv
With Darnold back on track, USC has taken off with five straight wins and at least 31 points in four of those games.
Darnold will have to contend with a ferocious Ohio State defense that features Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Nick Bosa, who led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
But the real battle in this game will come down to Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett’s ability to navigate the offense against a USC defense that tied for most sacks in the nation with 43 and tied for 16th with 24 turnovers forced.
Barrett was able to create big plays against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game with an 84-yard touchdown pass and 57-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. His overall stat line wasn’t impressive, with 12 completions on 26 attempts and two interceptions.
The senior quarterback did have arthroscopic knee surgery less than one week before that game, so it’s fair to give him a mulligan for not playing up to his full potential.
Eight of Barrett’s nine interceptions came in the season’s final five games, including four against Iowa, and he hasn’t completed more than 60 percent of his passes in each of the last three games.
Trying to piece things together against a USC defense that gets after the quarterback as well as any team in the country isn’t a good look for Barrett. He’s been a dynamic playmaker over the past four seasons for the Buckeyes, so one more big game under the spotlight would be a fitting end to his college career.