2021 College Football Bowl Games: What to Watch This Year

College football bowl games Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamaraDarren Lee/CSM / Shutterstock

This year’s college football bowl games begin on Dec. 17 and continue for more than three weeks, culminating with the College Football Playoff National Championship in Indianapolis, IN on Jan. 10. There are some high-stakes title bouts nestled in there, most notably the Playoff games and four other “New Year’s Six” bowls that carry some prestige (the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Peach Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl). But the rest of bowl season is fun because it’s quirky: Capable teams head to places like Mobile, AL, to play in games sponsored by mortgage companies you’ve never heard of. There’s a lot of great football to watch this time of year.

 

 

Taken together, the college football bowl season has more than 40 games, and it can be a lot to sift through. Below you’ll find a brief field guide to a handful of games worth tuning in for.

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A Guide to College Football Bowl Games

The Playoff Bowl Games: Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl, Dec. 31

Cotton Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

Orange Bowl: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia

The winners of these two bowl games meet for the title 10 days later. Bama-Cincinnati is a historic matchup because the Bearcats are the first team from outside the Power Five conferences to ever get a Playoff slot. That says more about the selection committee’s bias than it does about the Bearcats’ talent, and now Cincy will get to carry the banner for undefeated teams before them that didn’t get a chance to prove themselves on the big stage. Bama will probably prevail, but you could talk me into believing that Cincinnati’s excellent defense gives the Bearcats some hope.

The other semifinal pits two of the angstiest fanbases in college football against each other, and the two teams’s seasons have been quite different. No matter what happens in this game, Michigan’s season will go down as a smashing success: The Wolverines finally slayed Ohio State and won the Big Ten under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Things are less rosy for Georgia. The Dawgs were the unbeaten No. 1 team heading into last weekend, but they got whacked by Alabama in the SEC Championship and appear to have a pretty serious QB problem. Coach Kirby Smart has his work cut out for him: Win two games in a row, or the most promising UGA season in a while will go down as an unfortunate failure.

The games take place on New Year’s Eve (the Cotton Bowl at 3:30 p.m. EST and the Orange Bowl at 7:30 p.m. EST), because Playoff organizers decided years ago that college football’s biggest games should conflict with all your end-of-year parties.

Best Aesthetics: Rose Bowl, Jan. 1

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah

The Rose Bowl is the prettiest setting in college football—and maybe all of American sports. The sun hits the stadium perfectly by the third quarter or so, and the broadcast provides views of the San Gabriel Mountains that will make you want to move to Pasadena.

The game itself should be pretty attractive, too. Quarterback C.J. Stroud, receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and tailback TreVeon Henderson will lead a very capable OSU offense against a stout Utah defense. The Utes are no slouches on offense, either: They have morphed into one of the better units in the country in the second half of this season, which raises the possibility that they could score a bunch against a deeply flawed Ohio State defense. Bottom line: Fun teams facing off in a beautiful stadium should make for a very entertaining game.

Best Clash of Football Styles: First Responder Bowl, Dec. 28

Air Force vs. Louisville

This game lacks the stark differences that might exist if an all-rushing service academy played an air raid team that mainly chucks the ball around the field, but it should still be a study in contrasts. Air Force will bring its version of the triple-option flexbone offense to North Texas for this game, and the Cardinals will take close to 100 percent of their snaps out of the shotgun and try to win with a mix of spread running and passing.

You might find it visually soothing to watch the action vacillate between Air Force’s repeated four-yard runs and Louisville’s attempts to use some of the Falcons’ same option principles out of the shotgun (and with more passing involved). These schools have never played football against each other, so there’s a certain novelty to them facing each other now.

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Best for Offense: Music City Bowl, Dec. 30

Tennessee vs. Purdue

The Volunteers have one of the fastest-paced offenses in the country under first-year coach Josh Heupel. His offensive philosophy more or less boils down to “sprint to the line of scrimmage, snap the ball quickly, and throw it deep.” It’s great fun to watch.

On the other side, Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers enjoy running the occasional gadget play, and wide receiver David Bell (who may opt out to prep for the NFL Draft, but we’ll see) is one of the best players in the sport at any position. Neither of the defenses in this game has been bad, and in Purdue’s case, the D has outperformed the offense for much of the year. But I still expect points, especially because Tennessee will make sure these teams squeeze lots of snaps into 60 minutes.

Best Weekday Game: Frisco Bowl, Dec. 21

UTSA vs. San Diego State

The Roadrunners went 12–1 and claimed the Conference USA Championship. The Aztecs don’t play much offense, but they have a great defense, including maybe the most powerful punter who has ever played American football. The game will air on ESPN at 7:30 (EST) on a Tuesday night right before Christmas—a time when many people are liable to forget college football is even being played. Don’t fall into that trap: This is some weeknight action worth making time for.

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