20 – NEW MEXICO BOWL: ARIZONA VS. NEW MEXICO – December 19th, 2 PM, ESPN
The first bowl is played in Albuquerque — I’m fond of calling it the Breaking Bad Bowl or HeisenBowl. Having the local team in the game — coached by former television analyst and Notre Dame boss Bob Davie — adds some intrigue to the mix. The first bowl of 40 carries a freshness the January 2 bowl games won’t have.
19 – POINSETTIA BOWL: BOISE STATE VS. NORTHERN ILLINOIS – December 23rd, 4:30 PM, ESPN
These are two of the most successful programs of the past decade from the Group of Five conferences. This is a very appealing matchup. However, it’s in the middle of the afternoon in the Western United States, and occupies the drive-time hours in the East and Central time zones on the Wednesday before Christmas. That’s rough.
You’ll notice that a number of games with football-specific appeal (read: a good matchup) are located in not-that-convenient time slots. A number of not-as-attractive games conversely inhabit quality time slots. A lot of the games currently being mentioned (from the mid-20s through No. 12) fit into one of those two categories.
18 – MILITARY BOWL: PITTSBURGH VS. NAVY – December 28th, 2:30 PM, ESPN
This is an attractive game. Keenan Reynolds, the Navy quarterback who will very likely finish in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting, plays his last collegiate game in his home stadium. That’s a significant event in its own right. If Navy beats Army on Dec. 12, this game will give the Midshipmen a chance to win 11 games in a season for the first time ever. Navy has played football since the late 19th century.
Yet, this game is in the middle of the workday on a Monday. Good matchup, bad time slot.
17 – INDEPENDENCE BOWL: TULSA VS. VIRGINIA TECH – December 26th, 5:45 PM, ESPN
The evening slot on a Saturday works. The career finale for Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer? That’s a big draw. This game should attract a considerable degree of attention, despite a matchup which doesn’t pop or crackle.
16 – TEXAS BOWL: TEXAS TECH VS. LSU – December 29th, 9 PM, ESPN
These teams aren’t special, but LSU running back Leonard Fournette is. The two coaches — Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech and Les Miles of LSU — are colorful and made for television. The time slot is smack-dab in the middle of prime time. The game isn’t all that great, but the peripheral details certainly are.
15 – LIBERTY BOWL: KANSAS STATE VS. ARKANSAS – January 2nd, 3:20 PM, ESPN
The teams involved were not particularly successful in 2015, but the head coaching clash is one to be treasured. White-haired wizard Bill Snyder, a legend who is still going strong in his mid-70s, leads Kansas State against Bret Bielema of Arkansas. This game settles comfortably into a mid-afternoon Saturday slot on a day without an NFL wild card game. It will be very easy to find, and anyone who gravitates to college sports for the coaches will enjoy this meeting of the minds in Memphis.
14 – SUN BOWL: MIAMI VS. WASHINGTON STATE – December 26th, 2 PM, CBS
As one of a few bowl games on network television, this game acquires an extra measure of watchability. The crowd won’t be a big one — teams from opposite corners of the country will fly to El Paso. The locals will have to snap up some tickets to fill the stands.
However, Washington State coach Mike Leach instantly makes a game more appealing. El Paso is also a unique bowl destination, enhanced by the fact that the Sun Bowl is — one year behind the Orange and Sugar — the fourth-oldest bowl game of them all. The Sun Bowl is one of the more remarkable success stories in American sports… out in the West Texas town which always gets its moment on national TV in late December.
13 – PINSTRIPE BOWL: DUKE VS. INDIANA – December 26th, 3:30 PM, ABC
A network television broadcast in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? Not bad for two basketball schools. No, these teams are not juggernauts, but this contest carries a certain poignancy and promises a great visual image at the end. Indiana hasn’t won a bowl game in 24 years, Duke not in 54 years. One team is going to stage a very emotional celebration at the end. It’s the surprise attraction of the bowl season when you realize what’s at stake.
12 – FOSTER FARMS BOWL: NEBRASKA VS. UCLA – December 26th, 9:15 PM, ESPN
This is another example of the theme we’ve been talking about: In many cases, the quality game has the bad time slot. In this case, a dumpy game has a perfect time slot plus the brand-name power of two prominent schools. Nebraska is 5-7, but Big Red fans will enjoy the chance to go to the San Francisco Bay Area (and the site of Super Bowl 50) on a holiday weekend. UCLA is trying to reach a higher plateau as a program. Playing a 5-7 team seems like a waste of time on one level, but playing a school with Nebraska’s heritage is something different altogether. Saturday night? Spotlight bright? You could do worse than this game. People will watch… and with Nebraska motivated to play well to erase the memory of its miserable 5-7 season, this contest will be more competitive than you think.
Up to this point, a lot of games have either been high on quality and poor on time-slot centrality, or vice-versa. The final 11 games on the list are simply the best bowl matchups, with enough visibility to make them easily accessible to viewers:
11 – OUTBACK BOWL: NORTHWESTERN VS. TENNESSEE – January 1st, NOON, ESPN2
Northwestern put together an excellent 10-2 season. Tennessee did not achieve what it easily could have, but the Volunteers’ talent was evident in narrow road losses to Florida and Alabama. This is a legitimately good game on the merits. Both schools will be excited to play on New Year’s Day… even if it’s not the Rose Bowl for Northwestern or the Sugar Bowl for the Vols.