Questions and storylines for all 42 bowl games

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

There are officially 49 games left in the 2023 college football season: 42 bowl games (including both College Football Playoff semifinals), three remaining FCS playoff games, three lower-level title games and, of course, the CFP National Championship.

Like a snowflake, every bowl is unique and beautiful in its own right. There's a reason to watch every single one. But a lot of them can be categorized -- the Both Teams Really Care bowls, the Key Players Opted Out bowls, the Disappointing Team Redemption bowls, etc. Mixing in some legit, interesting storylines, let's keep those categories in mind as we ask at least one question of every remaining non-CFP game on the slate (all times ET).

Jump to a bowl tier:
Both teams care | Hot streakers
The race for 7 wins | Redemption for 2023
Starting 2024 right | Interim impressions
Star QB farewells | The Craig Bohl bowl
How angry is Alabama?| The fireworks in NOLA
Lower-level title games

Who wins the most likely Both Teams Really Care bowls?

Maybe they haven't bowled (or won a bowl) in a while. Maybe their stars are mostly returning and both of their fan bases have relatively short drives. Whatever the reason, we can usually identify some bowls that are more likely than others to have great atmospheres and motivated teams. We won't be limited to just five of them in the coming weeks, but these five bowls certainly check a lot of Potentially Great Bowl boxes.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. UCF Knights (Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl, Dec. 22, 6:30 p.m.)

UCF was awfully good when quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was healthy and rallied to win three of four in November to assure bowl eligibility. The Knights also got a short trip over to Tampa. Tech, meanwhile, is bowling for the first time in five years and should come out swinging despite losing a couple of defensive starters to transfer. Beyond that, who couldn't get up for the Gasparilla Bowl??

Texas State Bobcats vs. Rice Owls (SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, Dec. 26, 5:30 p.m.)

While Deion Sanders and Colorado prematurely stole most of the "turning your program around with transfers" headlines, G.J. Kinne and the Bobcats were the real models of success. A mostly new set of Bobcats jumped from 4-8 to 7-5 in Kinne's first season; now they get to drive up to Dallas for the program's first bowl against a Rice team looking for its first bowl win since 2014. The Owls' JT Daniels won't play, but backup AJ Padgett was solid this year.

Kansas Jayhawks vs. UNLV Rebels (Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Dec. 26, 9 p.m.)

Kansas hasn't won a bowl since 2008, and UNLV hasn't since 2000. We might end up with some transfers here (and KU offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki is off to Penn State), but right now both rosters are mostly intact, and both teams should have plenty of motivation. And if they play, a battle between KU's Jason Bean and UNLV's Jayden Maiava tops the QB matchup in a majority of bowls.

Memphis Tigers vs. Iowa State Cyclones (AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29, 3:30 p.m.)

Memphis is playing a home game, which certainly guarantees a certain level of atmosphere even if a couple of Tigers O-linemen have entered the portal. And after winning five of seven to finish the regular season, a pretty young ISU team has a chance to finish strong and build optimism for 2024.

Who rides a hot streak into the offseason?

We've got some winning streaks on the line.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers vs. San Jose State Spartans (EasyPost Hawai'i Bowl, Dec. 23, 10:30 p.m.)

SJSU hasn't lost since a Week 6 heartbreaker at Boise State dropped them to 1-5. Now 7-5, the Spartans have lost a couple of offensive starters to the portal and face a Coastal team that won five in a row before face-planting with two late losses and losing two QBs to the portal.

No. 24 SMU Mustangs vs. Boston College Eagles (Wasabi Fenway Bowl, Dec. 28, 11 a.m.)

Since a frustrating loss at TCU rendered them 2-2, SMU has won nine in a row, including a 12-point AAC championship road victory over Tulane without injured starting QB Preston Stone. Stone's still out, but SMU's still awesome. BC better hope a home-esque crowd can make up for what is on paper, a pretty big deficit against a future conference mate.

No. 18 NC State Wolfpack vs. No. 25 Kansas State Wildcats (Pop-Tarts Bowl, Dec. 28, 5:45 p.m.)

There are basically two boxes left for Dave Doeren to check at NC State: win 10 games and win an ACC title. We'll see about the latter, but he's got a shot at the former in Orlando. The Wolfpack have won five in a row (including three against SP+ top-30 teams) to turn a forgettable, .500-ish season into something far more impressive. Now they face a Kansas State team that will be ushering in the Avery Johnson era -- with starting QB Will Howard in the portal, it's officially the blue-chip freshman's show. Doeren or Chris Klieman: Who eats a giant Pop-Tart late on Dec. 28??

No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 14 Arizona Wildcats (Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 28, 9:15 p.m.)

After suffering through its first sub-.500 season of the 21st century in 2022, Oklahoma rebounded nicely, going 10-2 with a win over Texas and losses by a combined eight points. But that pales in comparison to what's been going on in Tucson.

Arizona jumped from 1-11 to 5-7 in Jedd Fisch's first season, and after a 3-3 start in 2023, the Wildcats have won six straight and now have a shot at their first 10-win season in nine years (and only second in 25). OU's offense has been hit reasonably hard by transfers -- namely, quarterback Dillon Gabriel -- and we'll see who else might opt out over the next two weeks. But the stakes are high for Arizona regardless.

No. 22 Clemson Tigers vs. Kentucky Wildcats (TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, Dec. 29, 12 p.m.)

Clemson has lost at least three defensive starters to opt-outs. That might slightly tamp down the momentum from the Tigers' 4-0 November. Or maybe that just feeds into Dabo Swinney's "Buy Clemson stock right now" vibe.

Kentucky's stock is a smidgen higher after a season-ending upset of Louisville, but the Wildcats still head into bowl season having lost five of seven.

Dabo hyped after win over ND: You better buy Clemson stock right now

Dabo Swinney is fired up during the postgame interview after his team's win over Notre Dame.

Getting to 6-6 meant a lot. Who can score a seventh win?

A 6-6 record doesn't look like much, but if you rallied to get back to .500, or if you hadn't seen the postseason in a while, it can feel awfully good.

South Florida Bulls vs. Syracuse Orange (RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 21, 8 p.m.)

Syracuse won two of three to rally to 6-6 despite firing Dino Babers late in the season, but the real story here is USF. The Bulls were a dismal 8-37 from 2019-22 but went 6-6 in Alex Golesh's first season. Their reward: a 3½-hour trip to Boca. (It's a lot more than 3½ hours from Syracuse.)

Arkansas State Red Wolves vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (Camellia Bowl, Dec. 23, 12 p.m.)

Safe to say, 6-6 meant a lot to both of these teams. Arkansas State went just 5-19 in Butch Jones' first two seasons and lost the first two games of this season by a combined 110-3. But an all-or-nothing offense found enough big plays and big games to win six of nine and bowl. NIU, meanwhile, lost 13 of 17 following 2021's MAC title run but rallied from a 1-4 start to work back to .500.

Who redeems a semi-disappointing season?

Others backed into bowl season. Who can arrest a slide and bring some more positivity into 2024?

Georgia State Panthers vs. Utah State Aggies (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m.)

After winning 11 games in 2021, Utah State has won just 12 in the two years since, but the Aggies managed to win three of four and eked out bowl eligibility with an OT win over New Mexico. They can at least claim to be trending well; Georgia State can't really say anything like that after watching a 6-1 start turn into an 0-5 finish, replete with a number of offensive transfers including 1,300-yard rusher Marcus Carroll (he's committed to Missouri) and nearly 900-yard receiver Robert Lewis.

Bowling Green Falcons vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Quick Lane Bowl, Dec. 26, 2 p.m.)

Bowling Green is going to have to provide the positivity in Detroit. The Falcons won five of six to snare a bowl for the second straight year.

Minnesota, however, was one of the most disappointing teams in the country. With such a weak Big Ten West, the Gophers should have been division title contenders but instead lost their last four games to finish 5-7 and only claimed a bowl bid because there weren't enough eligible teams. Starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis is in the transfer portal, too, and despite 2023's disappointing performance, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi got hired away by Michigan State.

For some, the bowl is the first game of the 2024 season. Who starts 1-0?

Do waves of opt-outs deprive bowl season of some star power? Sure. But if we're spinning that positively -- we'll say that this also gives us a first look at the players who might be replacing stars next year! Some teams really do end up treating these games like the first one of next season. And the list of those teams is pretty long.

South Alabama Jaguars vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles (68 Ventures Bowl, Dec. 23, 7 p.m.)

USA receiver Caullin Lacy would have been the biggest star in this game, but he's in the portal, as is EMU quarterback Austin Smith. So get to know names like Jamaal Pritchett (the new go-to Jaguars receiver) and EMU QB Ike Udengwu III.

Utah Utes vs. Northwestern Wildcats (SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m.)

Northwestern won four of its last five games to finish a stunning 7-5, and the Wildcats will be taking on a thinned-out Utah team missing quarterback Nate Johnson (portal) and receiver Devaughn Vele (opt-out). For now it appears All-American defensive end Jonah Elliss is playing, though, as is quarterback Bryson Barnes, who will transfer after the game.

Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Tulane Green Wave (Military Bowl presented by GoBowling.com, Dec. 27, 2 p.m.)

A unique situation: Tech, the power conference team, is mostly intact after rallying for a bowl bid and a shot at a first winning record in four years. But Tulane, the far more proven Group of 5 team, will be without coach Willie Fritz (off to Houston) and receiver Chris Brazzell (portal), at the least.

North Carolina Tar Heels vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (Duke's Mayo Bowl, Dec. 27, 5:30 p.m.)

With UNC quarterback Drake Maye officially opting out this week, a potential Conner Harrell era begins in Chapel Hill. The dual-threat redshirt freshman will likely start against a West Virginia team that will be missing star center Zach Frazier but is mostly intact. It will be all up to Harrell to determine whether we see Mack Brown covered in mayonnaise that evening.

No. 15 Louisville Cardinals vs. USC Trojans (DIRECTV Holiday Bowl, Dec. 27, 8 p.m.)

The battle to win the 2024 USC starting QB job, between Miller Moss and blue chip freshman Malachi Nelson, begins in San Diego. The Trojans will likely also be without running back MarShawn Lloyd and receiver Brenden Rice. That could be an issue against a Louisville team that (a) was likely better anyway and (b) is mostly intact.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Miami Hurricanes (Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28, 2:15 p.m.)

Rutgers got a boost from the announced return of star RB Kyle Monangai, but corner Max Melton has opted out. That's still a net gain compared to Miami, which will be without quarterback Tyler Van Dyke and at least three defensive starters who opted out. Rutgers has advantages in both geography and continuity here.

No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 19 Oregon State Beavers (Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, Dec. 29, 2 p.m.)

There's always a good crowd at the Sun Bowl, and if nothing else this matchup will give non-Notre Dame fans a fun reminder of the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.

That's good because you're going to be watching a lot of 2023 backups. OSU's dealing with an exodus on both sides of the ball following coach Jonathan Smith's departure for Michigan State, and Notre Dame's passing game got hit hard by portal entries and quarterback Sam Hartman's opt-out.

Chad Johnson, Oregon State defeat Notre Dame in 2001 Fiesta Bowl

Former Oregon State wide receiver Chad Johnson recalls his team's 2001 Fiesta Bowl victory vs. Notre Dame.

No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 9 Missouri Tigers (Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Dec. 29, 8 p.m.)

If this were a full-strength vs. full-strength matchup, Ohio State would likely be about a nine-point favorite. Instead, the line has moved to Missouri -2 or -3 because while the Tigers are almost full strength for their first major bowl in a decade, the Buckeyes are not. Quarterback Kyle McCord, running back Miyan Williams and receiver Julian Fleming are definitely out, and the status for plenty of others is up in the air.

No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions vs. No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels (Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Dec. 30, 12 p.m.)

These two teams are both mostly intact -- PSU end Chop Robinson is for now the only major opt-out -- but this one's huge for narrative purposes. Penn State has won 21 games in a row against teams not named Michigan or Ohio State. With a number of potential star juniors, 2024 will be a huge season for the Nittany Lions. The same goes for Ole Miss, with losses only to Alabama and Georgia this season. Either or both of these teams should see playoff expectations with next year's expanded CFP.

Auburn Tigers vs. Maryland Terrapins (TransPerfect Music City Bowl, Dec. 30, 2 p.m.)

Another Narratives Bowl. Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa should play, though star corner Tarheeb Still opted out. But the focus here is on an Auburn team that rode a roller coaster to 6-6, finishing the year with a blowout loss to NMSU and heartbreaking loss to Alabama. The Tigers head into 2024 an absolute mystery. But 7-6 still looks a lot better than 6-7.

No. 5 Florida State Seminoles vs. No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs (Capital One Orange Bowl, Dec. 30, 4 p.m.)

The official list of opt-outs is still pretty small for this one. That will likely change, perhaps significantly. You're definitely watching this one to check out who might take star turns in 2024.

No. 13 LSU Tigers vs. Wisconsin Badgers (ReliaQuest Bowl, Jan. 1, 12 p.m.)

The Wisconsin skill corps has been hit hard by both opt-outs (RB Braelon Allen) and transfers, but we're still waiting to find out about LSU's Heisman winner Jayden Daniels and star receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas. It would be a welcome surprise if any of them played.

Who impresses under interims?

For these three bowls, four of six teams either fired or lost their coach to another school. Interims are in place as their newly hired replacements wait in the wings.

Troy Trojans vs. Duke Blue Devils (76 Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 23, 12 p.m.)

With Jon Sumrall off to Tulane and Mike Elko hired away by Texas A&M, we're double-dipping in the interims department for this one. Troy has yet to fill Sumrall's position, but defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato is pulling the strings for now for a team that has won 10 in a row. Duke, meanwhile, is run by Trooper Taylor and will likely start Grayson Loftis at QB without transferring (and injured) starter Riley Leonard.

James Madison Dukes vs. Air Force Falcons (Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m.)

Oof. JMU's first ever bowl game will feature a shell of JMU. The Dukes will be without head coach Curt Cignetti (off to Indiana) and a number of either injured or transferring defensive starters. Quarterback Jordan McCloud is also transferring but expected to play. We'll see if we get Air Force starter Zac Larrier, too. The Falcons' season imploded when he got hurt, but he is trying to work his way back.

No. 20 Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. Texas A&M Aggies (TaxAct Texas Bowl, Dec. 27, 9 p.m.)

Oklahoma State should be reasonably close to full strength here, but A&M is massively in flux. Interim head man Elijah Robinson will be dealing with a number of transfers and opt-outs -- WR Ainias Smith (opt-out) and DT Walter Nolen (transfer) are among the known absences, and there could end up being even more.

Which star QB goes out with a W?

Drake Maye and Caleb Williams aren't playing. It would be a shock if Jayden Daniels did. But we still get to say goodbye to a couple of star signal-callers on Jan. 1.

Well, one star and one near-star, at least.

No. 8 Oregon Ducks vs. No. 23 Liberty Flames (Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 p.m.)

After narrowly missing a CFP bid with a pair of gut-wrenching losses to Washington, Oregon will have to face a supremely motivated and efficient Liberty team without center Jackson Powers-Johnson and running back Bucky Irving, at the very least. We'll see who else opts out, but at the moment, quarterback (and Heisman finalist) Bo Nix has not. Nix vs. Kaidon Salter would be one of the best QB matchups of the bowl season.

No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. No. 21 Tennessee Volunteers (Cheez-It Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 p.m.)

I was completely convinced that we would end up with one of two extremes with Tennessee's Joe Milton III. Either he would finally enjoy the breakout season many expected, surging into both the Heisman race and the discussion for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL draft, or he would falter once more and cede the starting job to star freshman Nico Iamaleava. Instead, he did neither. He was ... fine. And now he finishes his lengthy career against one of the best and most frustrating defenses in the country.

Can Wyoming win one for Craig Bohl?

Toledo Rockets vs. Wyoming Cowboys (Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, Dec. 30, 4:30 p.m.)

He was the architect of North Dakota State's FCS dynasty, and after 10 seasons in Laramie, he's also the all-time winningest Cowboys coach. His unique, Hall of Fame-worthy career will come to an end after the Arizona Bowl, and Wyoming is listed as a slight favorite over a very talented Toledo team that will presumably be missing quarterback Dequan Finn (who recently entered the transfer portal).

Can Michigan counter an angry Alabama?

No. 1 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide (CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl presented by Prudential, Jan. 1, 5 p.m.)

What's the opposite of rat poison? Nick Saban always starts complaining when coverage is too positive and when people start expecting too much of his team. But now he's been able to feed off of a unique amount of negativity with the reaction by some (who will remain nameless) to Alabama's playoff inclusion over an unbeaten Florida State. History suggests that means we'll see a particularly strong and motivated version of Alabama in Pasadena. Combined with the fact that their last performance -- an SEC championship win over Georgia -- was their best of the season, that could be a pretty scary thing.

Michigan has been the most consistently dominant team of 2023, showing as much upside as required and grinding teams to dust with great line play and efficiency. But the Rose Bowl might be determined by just how much upside Michigan can deploy. Big plays haven't been a major feature for the Wolverines' offense; they might have to show up now.

Who wins a playoff fireworks show in New Orleans?

No. 2 Washington Huskies vs. No. 3 Texas Longhorns (CFP semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m.)

In his two years as Texas' starting quarterback, Quinn Ewers has produced a Total QBR of higher than 90 in five games. One was against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship. Three others were against either Alabama (twice) or Red River rival Oklahoma (once). He's been at his absolute best in the biggest games he's played, and the Sugar Bowl against Washington will be the biggest yet.

Big Game Quinn, meet Big Game Mike. Washington's Michael Penix Jr. has played five games against ranked opponents this season. He produced a Total QBR of 88.5 in them and threw for at least 300 yards three times. In the fourth quarter of these games, he completed 69% of his passes with two touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack. The better Penix and his receivers have had to be, the better they've been.

Texas' run defense and Washington's secondary are both strong, but signs point to a Sugar Bowl track meet. Who does that favor?

Who wins rings at the lower levels?

We're deep into the smaller-school playoffs -- the D-II, D-III and NAIA title games all take place between Friday and Monday, and the FCS semifinals are this weekend as well. You owe it to yourself to take in some of the action.

FCS semifinals: No. 15 UAlbany at No. 1 South Dakota State (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN2); No. 7 North Dakota State at No. 2 Montana (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2)

Three powers and an upstart. Albany has raised its all-time FCS playoff win total from one to three over the last two weeks. The Great Danes won at Idaho last weekend to earn a shot at the heavily favored champs.

Meanwhile, NDSU visits Montana for the first time since the 2015 season opener - a classic 38-35 win for the home team -- looking to score a likely rematch of last year's SDSU-NDSU title game. (I'll have a full FCS preview up on Friday.)

Division II championship: No. 1 Colorado Mines vs. No. 3 Harding (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPNU)

Paul Simmons' Harding Bisons rode their flexbone option attack to 48 points and 404 rushing yards per game this year. Their defense allowed a total of 20 points in the quarterfinals and semis, too. This is a breakthrough season for Harding, just as last year was for Colorado Mines. The Orediggers reached the 2022 finals before suffering a blowout loss to Ferris State. Is it their turn at the title now? Will Harding cut in line?

Division III championship: No. 1 North Central vs. No. 13 SUNY Cortland (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)

This is North Central's fourth straight finals appearance, and a win would be the Cardinals' third in that span. They had to work awfully hard to get past Wisconsin-La Crosse and Wartburg in the past two rounds. We'll see what kind of test they get from first-time finalist Cortland. The Red Dragons' offense has ignited in the playoffs (last two games: 107 points), but North Central's generally more than comfortable in a track meet.

NAIA championship: No. 1 Northwestern (Iowa) vs. No. 3 Keiser (Monday, 1 p.m., ESPN3)

Rematch! Last year, Northwestern took down first-time finalist Keiser 35-25 to win its first NAIA Division I crown. Neither team has lost to an NAIA opponent since; the Red Raiders are 14-0, while the Keiser Seahawks lost only to a pair of Division II opponents in September. Northwestern has the experience advantage -- this is their third final in four years -- but SP+ gives Keiser and its dynamite offense a slight advantage.