We are officially into bowl season, the disappointing, yet still fun end to college football. There are no shortage of marquee games either. From the College Football Playoff to the Camping World Bowl, there are a ton of games that you should give your attention.
We decided to look at the biggest matchup for all of the top bowl games and the best matchup on either side of the ball for the New Year’s Six. These will determine who goes home happy at the end of the year.
Here are the most compelling matchups of bowl season.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA vs. Jayd Kirby, linebacker, Kansas State
Assuming Rosen plays in the Cactus Bowl (he said he’s going to play), this should be one of the better early bowls. Given the Bruins are 120th in defensive S&P+, they’ll need Rosen to stay in it against the Wildcats. Kirby has been threatening in all facets of the game this season. He has four sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, 81.5 tackles, and four pass breakups, per Football Study Hall. The cat-and-mouse game between those two could be what decides it.
James Washington, wide receiver, Oklahoma State vs. Adonis Alexander, cornerback, Virginia Tech
This one is going to be a lot of fun. Washington is the clubhouse leader for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the best receiver in the country. Alexander has been a stalwart corner on the second-best scoring defense in the country. Who knew the Camping World Bowl would be this intriguing? Alexander has an interception and four pass breakups on the year. Washington averages over 20 yards per catch — he’s Mr. Big Play. This matchup will dictate whether Oklahoma State’s offense can get going. If it does, the night will be long for the Hokies.
Bryce Love, running back, Stanford, vs. Ben Banogu defensive end, TCU
Love isn’t Stanford’s only offense, but he’s close. The Cardinal rank 29th in offensive S&P+ thanks to quarterback K.J. Costello bringing the passing game some competency. However, the formula to beating them remains pretty simple: stop Love. Banogu has been TCU’s best all-around defender this season, notching 15.5 TFLs and 11 run stuffs in total, per Football Study Hall. If he, and the rest of the Horned Frogs’ D-line, can slow Love down, TCU’s offense will take care of the rest.
Tavares Martin Jr., wide receiver, Washington State vs. Josiah Scott, cornerback, Michigan State
The quiet weakness of the Cougars this year, ironically enough, has been their offense. Outside of Martin, Washington State doesn’t really have a dynamic player. Slow him down and the Cougars become stagnant pretty fast. Luckily for the Spartans, their defense is seventh in S&P+ thanks in part to a secondary that excels when it comes to limiting the big plays that define Mike Leach’s Air Raid. Scott will likely go up against Martin for at least some of the game. The freshman has nine pass breakups on the year to lead MSU, per Football Study Hall. A few more and the Spartans will take the Holiday Bowl.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville vs. Mississippi State defense
This is the only matchup on this list that isn’t one-on-one, the reason being that every Louisville game feels like Jackson against the world. The rest of the Cardinals’ roster is flat-out bad, yet they have the fifth-best offense in the country by S&P+. That’s how good Jackson has been. Of course, that lack of talent represents a massive drawback for Louisville against a defense as good as Mississippi State’s. The Bulldogs will key in on Jackson and try to force the Cardinals to beat them in other ways. Louisville can still score — it’s hard to key in on a quarterback the way you would a running back or wide receiver — but their defense is so bad the Cardinals won’t be able to keep up, at least in theory. The way Mississippi State handles Jackson is going to be what determines the TaxSlayer Bowl victor.
Anthony Miller, wide receiver, Memphis vs. Reggie Wilkerson, defensive back, Iowa State
Miller has been the catalyst behind Memphis’ 52-point per game offense, putting up an absurd 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns this year. Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell will be thinking a lot about him in the coming days and Wilkerson will likely have a role in Campbell’s plan to stop him. Wilkerson has 62.5 tackles on the year along an interception and two pass breakups, per Football Study Hall. If the Cyclones’ defense can stop the Tigers, they’ll win the Liberty Bowl and the way to do that is by slowing down Miller.
Josh Adams, running back, Notre Dame vs. Devin White, linebacker, LSU
Adams, if he stays in South Bend, has put himself at the front of the 2018 Heisman discussion thanks to a 1,386 yard, nine touchdown campaign this season. The Irish rank fifth in rushing S&P+ — slow down Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush probably won’t will Notre Dame to victory. White has been one of the best run defenders in football this season, notching 18 run stuffs and 12.5 TFLs, per Football Study Hall. Whether or not he can get in the Fighting Irish’s backfield with consistency will be one of the biggest things to watch in the Citrus Bowl.
Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, South Carolina vs. Lavert Hill, cornerback, Michigan
Hill is a shutdown corner of the highest order. The sophomore has been targeted 26 times this year and given up just seven completions, per CFB Film Room. Nobody will mistake South Carolina’s offense for one of the best in the country. However, Samuel is highly regarded as a potential draft prospect. Chances are he’ll return from a broken leg in time for the Outback Bowl, where Hill will await. This rates are one of the more intriguing matchups of bowl season. Not only will it have a large impact on the game itself, but both players are likely to go to the NFL eventually. For Samuel, a good performance could prompt him to enter the draft this year. If Hill shuts him down, however, it’s likely he stays in Columbia for his senior season.
Billy Price, center, Ohio State vs. Rasheem Green, defensive tackle, USC
Now for the good stuff. Ohio State’s offensive line has been one of the country’s best all year, thanks in large part to Price, who’s widely considered the best interior lineman in college football. In Green, Price goes up against a player who has 11.5 TFLs and nine sacks on the year, the latter ranking second in the Pac-12. Immovable object, meet unstoppable force. The Buckeyes’ offensive prospects will be largely dictated by the run game, where both quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back J.K. Dobbins can wreak havoc. If Green can win his matchup against Price, however, it will give the Trojans a leg up in the Cotton Bowl.
Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC vs. Denzel Ward, cornerback, Ohio State
Darnold has found his footing since USC’s loss to Notre Dame at the end of October. In the five games since, the junior has nine touchdowns, two interceptions, with an average of nearly 300 passing yards per game. Against the Buckeyes, who rank 11th in defensive S&P+, we’ll see just how real that renaissance has been. Ward has been targeted 51 times this year and given up only 18 completions, per CFB Film Room. In all likelihood, he’ll draw the assignment of Deontay Burnett, Darnold’s favorite target. Darnold will have to navigate those waters to bring the Field Scovell Trophy to Los Angeles.
Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State vs. Vita Vea, defensive tackle, Washington State
This could be one of the most fun battles to watch on January 1. Barkley’s Heisman campaign was derailed by his own coach. However, that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a threat to opposing defenses. Barkley is still perhaps the most singularly dynamic player in all of college football. On the other side, Vea is a 340-pound monster, the type of player who stands out as an NFL Draft prospect before you see him play a down of football. He swallows up space in the run game like few other defensive players. The winner of this matchup will put his team in a perfect position to take the Fiesta Bowl.
Chris Peterson, head coach, Washington vs. James Franklin, head coach, Penn State
Franklin has been woefully inadequate at times this year, especially when it comes to offensive playcalling. With star coordinator Joe Moorhead gone to Mississippi State, the onus is entirely on Franklin to get it right for the Fiesta Bowl. On the other side, it’s hard to say a bad thing about Chris Peterson. Washington’s head coach has had great success throughout his career and shown himself to be an offensive innovator. This matchup, to put it lightly, looks lopsided. It’s on Franklin to balance the scales.
Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin vs. R.J. McIntosh, defensive lineman, Miami
If you can force Alex Hornibrook to make throws, you have a pretty good chance of beating Wisconsin. The way to do that, naturally, is by stopping the run. Taylor has been nothing short of great this year, with 1,847 yards on the ground. But Ohio State managed to hold him to just 41 yards in the Big Ten title game. Miami’s run defense pales in comparison the Buckeyes’, however, McIntosh is the Hurricanes’ best shot. He has 19 run stuffs this year along with 12.5 TFLs, per Football Study Hall. If the ‘Canes get his best effort, they’ve got a solid chance of stopping Taylor.
Malik Rosier, quarterback, Miami vs. T.J. Edwards, linebacker, Wisconsin
Rosier’s struggles were the biggest factor in Miami’s two straight losses to close the year. He completed less than half of his passes and threw for below 200 yards against both Pitt and Clemson. Things won’t get easier for Rosier against the Badgers. Their defense, led by Edwards, is the best in the nation by S&P+. Edwards himself has 11 TFLs and two sacks on the year, per Football Study Hall. If he, Garret Dooley, and co can put pressure on Rosier, it could be enough to put Wisconsin over the top in the Orange Bowl.
Kerryon Johnson, running back, Auburn vs. Titus Davis, linebacker, Central Florida
Johnson was held to just 44 yards on 13 carries in the SEC title game last weekend. That was his second straight game averaging 3.5 or fewer yards per carry. Central Florida isn’t known for its defense, however, it’s hard to overstate how big it would be if the Knights could slow down Johnson. Davis, who has 23 run stuffs this season, is likely their best shot. If he can make a big impact in the run game, UCF will join Houston and Boise State as G5 teams to win a New Year’s Six Bowl in the playoff era.
Tre’Quan Smith, wide receiver, Central Florida vs. Carlton Davis, defensive back, Auburn
Smith has arguably been the best player on UCF’s offense, which leads the country in points per game. The 6-foot-1 junior has 54 receptions for 1,082 yards this season. Shut him down and Auburn will likely hand the Knights their first loss and win the Peach Bowl to boot. Davis has allowed just 17 completions on 44 targets this year, per CFB Film Room. He has as good a chance of anyone when it comes to stopping Smith. Expect to see a lot of this matchup on New Year’s Day.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma vs. Roquan Smith, linebacker, Georgia
Mayfield is the overwhelming Heisman Trophy favorite and the best quarterback in college football this year. Smith is the Bednarik Award favorite, given to the nation’s best defensive player, and comes off a game in which he seemingly stopped Auburn single-handedly to put Georgia in the playoff. Yeah, this one is going to be fun. Oklahoma, to state the obvious, has to score to win. The Sooners’ defense isn’t good enough to keep them in a game. In facing Smith — and the rest of the ‘Dawgs’ defense — Mayfield will be navigating the toughest waters he’s had to face all year. A win, however, would put the Sooners in the national title game.
Nick Chubb, running back, Georgia vs. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, defensive end, Oklahoma
The Sooners are 95th in defensive S&P+, so Georgia should move the ball just fine in the Rose Bowl. However, Okoronkwo is worth paying attention to, especially in the run game. The senior has 17.5 TFLs and 23 run stuffs, per Football Study Hall. Chubb, along with Sony Michel, has spearheaded a lethal rushing offense all year. The odds are against Okoronkwo in this matchup, but if he can slow down the run, Oklahoma will be poised to win.
Kelly Bryant, quarterback, Clemson vs. Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback, Alabama
Bryant has done a solid Deshaun Watson impression all year, so naturally, he has to beat Alabama in the playoff now. That’s an overstatement — if Clemson wins, their defense will likely be the reason why — but Bryant could be put in a situation where he has to drive down the field against Alabama to win the game. Fitzpatrick, likely the best defensive back in the country, will be Bryant’s biggest obstacle all game, let alone in that hypothetical. He has 42.5 tackles and seven pass breakups this year, per Football Study Hall. According to CFB Film Room’s tracking, he’s given up just 17 completions to boot. Fitzpatrick will likely be the first DB off the board in the NFL Draft, but first, revenge could be in order.
Matt Womack, right tackle, Alabama vs. Austin Bryant, defensive end, Clemson
Womack is the weak link in the Crimson Tide’s offensive line. He’s given up 18 hurries, four hits, and a sack, per CFB Film Room, with a feeble 92.5 pass block percentage. And Bryant may be his toughest matchup of the year. The junior has nine sacks, four hits, and 16 hurries this season, also per CFB Film Room. He’s been a terror to opposing quarterbacks and lining up across from Womack may be like Christmas Day. Alabama has to do all it can to help Womack, or Bryant may take over the game.