College football bowl preview - Players and storylines to watch for every game

2021-12-25 02:04:20 By : Mr. Bien Zhu

Alabama may be a two touchdown favorite, but take a look at how Cincinnati may stand a chance at defending against the Crimson Tide. (1:44)

College football bowl season is here! Here are the key players and storylines you need to know for every team in every game, all the way through the College Football Playoff.

TaxAct Camellia Bowl Georgia State vs. Ball State

Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama 2:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: S Antavious Lane. The two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection was second in the league with four interceptions and had six pass breakups and a forced fumble. He was the Panthers' third-leading tackler with 72. He is Georgia State's career leader in interceptions with eight in just two seasons. Lane led a defense that had a school-record 84 tackles for loss while limiting five teams to just one offensive touchdown.

Storyline to watch: The Panthers are enjoying their longest stretch of success under coach Shawn Elliott. He has guided them to bowl games in four of his five seasons. Georgia State is playing in the postseason for the third straight season for the first time in program history. The Panthers are 2-2 in bowl games after defeating Western Kentucky 39-21 in the LendingTree Bowl last season. -- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: S Bryce Cosby. The senior safety was second on the team in total tackles with 101, second on the team in sacks with four, first in tackles for loss with 10.5 and also had two interceptions, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this season.

Storyline to watch: The offenses for both Ball State and Georgia State have not produced a ton of points this season. Ball State ranks No. 94 in points scored per game with 24.42 and Georgia State ranks 82 with 26.25 points per game. The defenses for both teams haven't been great at keeping points off the board, though, so this should be a pretty even matchup that could come down to a few points. -- Tom VanHaaren

Quick Lane Bowl Western Michigan vs. Nevada

Ford Field, Detroit 11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Kaleb Eleby. He was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and threw for 3,115 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. He also had five rushing touchdowns to go along with the production he had through the air.

Storyline to watch: Nevada's offense has put up 33.17 points per game, good for No. 22 in the country, and has also averaged 439.6 yards per game. Western Michigan's defense ranks 28 in yards allowed per game but has given up 343 total points this season, which ranks 89 among all FBS teams. The Broncos haven't given up a ton of yards, but they are going to have a difficult time keeping points off the board against Nevada. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: QB Carson Strong was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 4,186 yards with 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but his status for the game is still in doubt due to a knee issue.

Storyline to watch: The Wolf Pack are in an unusual position, having seen their head coach, Jay Norvell, leave for another team in the conference at the end of the regular season. Ken Wilson, a longtime assistant to former Nevada coach Chris Ault and Oregon co-defensive coordinator, was hired to replace Norvell and will begin guiding the team after the game. -- Kyle Bonagura

Military Bowl presented by Peraton Boston College vs. East Carolina

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland 2:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Phil Jurkovec. Expectations were high for Jurkovec headed into the season, as the offense was centered around him, but a wrist injury forced him to miss six games. When he returned, he struggled to return to form and the Eagles struggled to protect up front as well. Some extended time off between the end of the regular season and the bowl game will end up being beneficial in a variety of ways.

Storyline to watch: After a 4-0 start, BC closed 2-6, ending with a dispiriting 41-10 loss to eventual Atlantic Division champion Wake Forest. Last year, BC declined a bowl bid because of the pandemic, so getting this first postseason appearance under Jeff Hafley and all the practices/prep time that go with it should be a big boost headed into an important offseason. -- Andrea Adelson

Player to watch: RB Keaton Mitchell. In 12 games this season, Mitchell has rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns. He's the most reliable part of the ECU offense.

Storyline to watch: ECU is in its first bowl game since 2014, when it lost in the Birmingham Bowl to Florida. Mike Houston appears to have the program, which used to be considered one of the best of the Group of 5, back on track. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl Houston vs. Auburn

Protective Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama Noon, ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: CB Marcus Jones. Jones is talented as a cornerback, as his 47 total tackles, 13 pass deflections, five interceptions and one forced fumble would tell you. But he's also one of the most dangerous return men in the country, with two kick returns for touchdowns as well as two punt returns for touchdowns.

After a wild regular season, bowl season is upon us, including the College Football Playoff. Here's everything you need to know. CFP preview » | Complete bowl schedule » Players, storylines for every bowl game » Previews: Fiesta | Rose | Sugar

Predictions for all 44 bowl games

Storyline to watch: The Cougars are coming off of an AAC championship game loss to Cincinnati in which they looked different from how they played in their 11 wins leading up to the game. How they come out against a 6-6 Auburn team will be the story. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

Player to watch: CB Roger McCreary. One of the most feared shutdown cornerbacks in the country, McCreary is at his best in press coverage. He had 49 tackles, one sack defended and two interceptions this season. He leads the SEC with 14 pass breakups and 16 passes defended. McShay ranks him as the No. 13 prospect overall and No. 2 cornerback, behind LSU's Derek Stingley Jr., among those eligible for the 2022 NFL draft.

Storyline to watch: The Tigers lost starting quarterback Bo Nix to a broken ankle against Mississippi State on Nov. 13. Without him, the offense foundered down the stretch, finishing 10th in the SEC in scoring (29.6 points) and total offense (405.4 yards). As a result, first-year coach Bryan Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after just one season, and Harsin will apparently call offensive plays in the bowl game. Harsin was Boise State's offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, but he didn't call plays in his first two seasons as the Broncos' coach in 2014 and 2015. He took over playcalling before the 2016 season. -- Mark Schlabach

Servpro First Responder Bowl Air Force vs. Louisville

Gerald J. Ford Stadium, University Park, Texas 3:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: RB Brad Roberts was named first-team all-conference after rushing for 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season. Roberts was consistent all season, though he isn't a threat to break many long runs.

Storyline to watch: A win would give coach Troy Calhoun his fourth 10-win season during his 15 years at the academy, equaling the amount Fisher DeBerry had during his 23-year tenure. -- Kyle Bonagura

Player to watch: QB Malik Cunningham. Because quarterback play across the ACC was so stellar in 2021, what Cunningham did often gets overlooked. But Cunningham put together the best season of his career, with 3,701 yards of total offense (No. 14 in the country) and 37 total touchdowns to get the Cardinals back to a bowl game.

Storyline to watch: Louisville has been a team that has been hard to predict throughout the course of the season because of the uneven way in which it has played. In some games, the Cardinals look unstoppable -- the way they did against Syracuse and Duke. In others, including a disappointing loss to rival Kentucky to close out the regular season, they fail to put an entire game together. It raises the question: Which Louisville team will show up for the bowl game? -- Andrea Adelson

AutoZone Liberty Bowl Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee 6:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Will Rogers. A sophomore from Brandon, Mississippi, Rogers has been the triggerman in coach Mike Leach's version of the Air Raid offense. Rogers has completed a whopping 75.1% of his passes, which leads the FBS and is highest among all Leach-coached starting quarterbacks. Rogers also leads the country with 474 passing yards and is third with 370.9 yards per game. A finalist for the Manning Award, which goes to the sport's top passer, Rogers has thrown 35 touchdowns with eight interceptions.

Storyline to watch: It's one of the more tantalizing storylines of the postseason -- Leach against his former team, Texas Tech, where he started his FBS head-coaching career in 2000. After guiding the Red Raiders to an 84-43 record, which made him the winningest coach in school history, Leach was fired in December 2009 following an incident with a player. Leach sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination; a court eventually ruled that Tech was immune from Leach's claims. Red Raiders interim coach Sonny Cumbie was a walk-on quarterback for Leach at Tech. -- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: Whoever starts at quarterback. Oregon transfer and starter Tyler Shough has not yet been medically cleared after suffering a broken collarbone in September against Texas. Since then, Donovan Smith has thrown for 859 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in four games, including 323 and three TDs in a win over Iowa State.

Storyline to watch: The Red Raiders' interim coach, Sonny Cumbie, was initially retained by new Tech coach Joey McGuire, but then landed the Louisiana Tech head-coaching job. With a new staff in place and an old staff steering the ship, how will the players fare in an emotional end to a turbulent season? -- Dave Wilson

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl UCLA vs. NC State

Petco Park, San Diego 8 p.m., Fox

Player to watch: Dorian Thompson-Robinson. UCLA's quarterback may be best remembered this season for scoring a touchdown at USC, signing an autograph in the stands and then getting penalized for it. DTR is still one of the Bruins' most talented players, that much remained evident this season. And despite teamwide struggles that resulted in UCLA's impressive early win against LSU being the biggest bright spot, you can bet that the senior quarterback would love to go out with a bang.

Storyline to watch: A hot seat can only get so hot in beautiful Westwood, California, but it is almost hard to believe that it took Chip Kelly four seasons to get UCLA to a bowl game. Now, should Kelly stay, it's starting to finally feel like the clock is ticking. A bowl win would certainly give next season a slightly different tenor, at least to start. -- Paolo Uggetti

Player to watch: NC State lost its top two linebackers -- Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore -- during the season, but the Wolfpack felt little drop-off thanks to the terrific play of Drake Thomas, who led the team with 99 tackles to go with 13.5 TFL, six sacks, nine QB hurries and three interceptions. He's anchored the middle of a defense that's been among the best in the ACC.

Storyline to watch: Can NC State get its 10th win? The Wolfpack enjoyed their share of big moments, from beating Clemson in double overtime to an astonishing comeback win in a rivalry game against North Carolina. They can top it all off with a bowl victory that would give the program 10 wins in a season for just the second time in program history (2002). -- David Hale

Guaranteed Rate Bowl West Virginia vs. Minnesota

Chase Field, Phoenix 10:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Jarret Doege. The senior averages 242 yards per game and has thrown six touchdowns and one INT in the Mountaineers' two most recent wins over Texas and Kansas. But he'll be tested by a Minnesota defense that allows just 184.7 passing yards per game, 10th best nationally.

Storyline to watch: Under Neal Brown, the Mountaineers have gone 5-7, 6-4 and are 6-6 this season. Brown is 17-17 at WVU and has lost several players to the transfer portal this year and could use the momentum a bowl win can provide, not to mention avoid a second losing season. -- Dave Wilson

Player to watch: QB Tanner Morgan. The Gophers quarterback had a lot of success under offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who was just hired back at Minnesota. Morgan has thrown for 1,935 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.

Storyline to watch: Minnesota finished the season 6-2, and one of the two was a five-point loss to Iowa. The Gophers' defense is only giving up 284.8 yards per game and allowing 18.25 points per game. On top of that, Ciarrocca had been an analyst for West Virginia, so maybe he can help game plan against the Mountaineers. -- Tom VanHaaren

Wasabi Fenway Bowl SMU vs. Virginia

Fenway Park, Boston 11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai, a transfer out of Oklahoma, had a good season in his first year as a starter, completing nearly 68% of his passes for 3,628 yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He'll be without his top target in Reggie Roberson, who declared for the NFL draft, but he's still worth keeping an eye on.

Storyline to watch: How does SMU play after the departure of coach Sonny Dykes to crosstown TCU? The Ponies have had a difficult end to their season between Dykes' exit and losing four of their last five games after starting undefeated. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

Player to watch: QB Brennan Armstrong. If you did not get a chance to watch Armstrong play this season, bowl season provides the perfect opportunity. One of the most entertaining players in the ACC, Armstrong does it all for the Cavaliers -- ranking No. 1 in the nation in total offensive yards per game with 427.3 and No. 2 in total yards with 4,700.

Storyline to watch: To say it was a disappointing end to the season for the Cavaliers would be an understatement. Virginia ended with four straight losses -- including one to Pitt on Nov. 20 that would have given it the Coastal Division. But the bigger heartbreaker was dropping its regular-season finale against rival Virginia Tech. How will the Cavaliers respond in the bowl game? -- Andrea Adelson

New Era Pinstripe Bowl Maryland vs. Virginia Tech

Yankee Stadium, New York 2:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Taulia Tagovailoa. It has been an up-and-down season for the Terps, but Tagovailoa has thrown for 3,595 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.

Storyline to watch: This is a pretty even matchup on paper, with both teams having struggled against better teams. Maryland was able to beat West Virginia to start the season, but it went 2-6 in its last eight games. With a few weeks of rest and prep time, can the Terps regain their form from the start of the season? -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: RB Raheem Blackshear. The Hokies have struggled to move the ball consistently on offense this season, but Blackshear has played well of late. He hit 100 yards in two of the final three games of the season, including a season-high 169 yards in a huge win over rival Virginia to get the Hokies to bowl eligibility.

Storyline to watch: Interim coach J.C. Price did a terrific job getting Virginia Tech ready against the Cavaliers, so the same is expected for the bowl game. Virginia Tech has lost three straight bowl games, and this is a program in transition, with Brent Pry coming on as head coach. How this team prepares and plays will undoubtedly be a major story to watch. -- Andrea Adelson

Cheez-It Bowl Clemson vs. Iowa State

Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida 5:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: Linebacker James Skalski is playing in his final game at Clemson, and it's been a spectacular, if often unheralded, career. Skalski was the veteran leader of this year's defense, which was arguably the nation's second best after Georgia. He finished with 88 tackles, 9 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks, and his five years at Clemson coincide with a remarkable run of success for the program.

Storyline to watch: Despite the disappointing season for Clemson, the Tigers have had their share of star performances, from Will Shipley's breakout as a true freshman to a loaded defense led by Myles Murphy, Trenton Simpson and Andrew Booth Jr. But the focal point in the bowl will be the same as it has been all year: QB D.J. Uiagalelei. No one has shouldered more of the burden of Clemson's struggles, and this could be an important turning point if he's able to put together a complete performance in his final game of the season. -- David Hale

Player to watch: QB Brock Purdy. The senior owns or shares 31 school records, and has completed 73% of his passes this season, but all seven of his interceptions came in four of ISU's five losses. Breece Hall has not announced his intentions for next season, but if he plays in the bowl game, he'll be a focal point. If Purdy can make defenses pay, it changes everything for the Cyclones.

Storyline to watch: It's the last go-round for a class that made history at Iowa State, but the huge 2021 expectations fizzled in a season in which the Cyclones lost five games by a total of 29 points. The experienced cast will be facing a Clemson team that just lost both coordinators, and has a chance to finish with one last big win. -- Dave Wilson

Valero Alamo Bowl Oregon vs. Oklahoma

Alamo Dome, San Antonio 9:15 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: Travis Dye. When starting running back CJ Verdell suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season, the Ducks needed someone to step up. Over the next eight games of the season, Dye was a revelation. The rare running back who wears no gloves soon became a reliable safety valve for an Oregon offense that badly needed it. In the process, he totaled over 1,000 rushing yards and a combined 28 touchdowns (20 rushing, eight through the air).

Storyline to watch: With Mario Cristobal gone to Miami and Kayvon Thibodeaux officially heading to the NFL, Oregon is left picking up the pieces and looking ahead to next season. There's a good chance the Ducks will have a head coach by the time this bowl game is played, which will likely overshadow any storyline in this matchup between two teams that have lost their head coach. And depending on whom they hire, the Ducks might be in need of some good news on the field ahead of next season. -- Paolo Uggetti

Player to watch: QB Caleb Williams. Lincoln Riley has always played an outsized role in working with quarterbacks, being their position coach and calling all the plays. The Sooners have the extended bowl practices to get up to speed, but Williams will be adjusting to new voices in his ear.

Storyline to watch: Sooners fans have fallen even harder for the ever-loyal Bob Stoops in the wake of Lincoln Riley's departure, and will be thrilled to see the OG visor back on the sideline. For a season that ended in absolute shock, it's a rare positive for this year's Sooners, who, aside from a thrilling second half against Texas, otherwise underwhelmed in a season that began with national championship aspirations. -- David Wilson

Duke's Mayo Bowl North Carolina vs. South Carolina

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina 11:30 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Sam Howell. When the season began, Howell was on preseason lists for the Heisman Trophy. While that has not panned out for him, you could make an argument that nobody was more valuable to their team this season than Howell, whose gritty performance won't soon be forgotten (2,851 yards passing, 815 yards rushing, 34 total touchdowns).

Storyline to watch: The Tar Heels began the year ranked No. 10 in the nation but could never quite get on the same page on offense or defense. North Carolina struggled to replace the skill players it lost a year ago (it became the Howell-Josh Downs show) while the defense was simply never consistent enough and gave up far too many points. North Carolina had its best players opt out of the Orange Bowl a year ago. Will the same happen again in a lower-tier game? -- Andrea Adelson

Player to watch: DB Jaylan Foster. Foster arrived at South Carolina as a walk-on after transferring from Gardner-Webb in 2017. He was placed on scholarship before the 2020 season, then exploded to become the Gamecocks' most productive defender this season. He tied for second in the FBS with five interceptions and leads the team with 90 tackles. He also had two sacks, two forced fumbles and two passes defended.

Storyline to watch: With a victory over the Tar Heels, the Gamecocks can finish with a winning record in coach Shane Beamer's first season, which would be a heck of an accomplishment considering what the team's roster looked like in August. Despite playing three quarterbacks because of injuries and having fewer scholarship players than most of their opponents, the Gamecocks defeated Florida and Auburn and became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2018. -- Mark Schlabach

TransPerfect Music City Bowl Tennessee vs. Purdue

Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee 3 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: WR Cedric Tillman. Tillman caught a total of eight passes in his first three seasons, but he has blossomed into a big-play weapon for the Volunteers this year. He leads the team with 57 catches for 931 yards with nine touchdowns. Even more impressive, the Las Vegas native combined to catch 17 passes for 352 yards with two scores in losses to Alabama and Georgia. Not bad for a guy whose only other scholarship offers came from UNLV, Hawaii and FCS program Weber State.

Storyline to watch: Given what the Volunteers lost through the transfer portal after former coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff were let go after the 2020 season, Josh Heupel has done amazing work, especially on offense. The Volunteers scored 45 points or more in three victories in their last four games. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, is completing 69% of his passes for 2,567 yards with 26 touchdowns and two interceptions. The Vols' offense will have to be as good to keep up with the high-scoring Boilermakers. -- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: QB Aidan O'Connell. With David Bell and George Karlaftis opting out of the bowl game, O'Connell is the big name for the Boilermakers. They're going to need him to step up and make plays without the top receiver in Bell. O'Connell threw for 3,178 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but Bell caught 1,286 of those passing yards this season.

Storyline to watch: Tennessee is giving up 251.4 pass yards per game this season and has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62% of their passes. Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell has thrown for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. O'Connell should have a big game and will be relied upon to win this game for the Boilermakers. -- Tom VanHaaren

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta 7 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Payton Thorne. With running back Kenneth Walker III entering the NFL draft and forgoing the bowl game, Thorne is going to be relied on heavily. He threw for 2,886 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season and has had a lot of success connecting with receiver Jayden Reed.

Storyline to watch: Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett is not playing in the game, which is good news for Michigan State's secondary. The Spartans defense has struggled defending the pass this season and Pickett was a Heisman finalist. He attempted 497 passes this season while Nick Patti and Davis Beville together attempted 18 passes. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: Pickett garnered the bulk of the headlines in 2021, but it was Jordan Addison on the receiving end of many of Pickett's biggest throws. The Pitt sophomore won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver after racking up 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns. Addison's job gets tougher with Pickett opting out of the bowl game, but he'll still be the Panthers' top target and a key to keeping the passing game going without the superstar QB.

Storyline to watch: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi spent eight years as Michigan State's defensive coordinator, and he has sought counsel throughout 2021 from former Spartans coach Mike Dantonio. Now he'll go head-to-head with his former school, now led by Mel Tucker, who landed a hefty new contract after a spectacular 10-2 season. Narduzzi was integral in building Michigan State into a consistent winner -- including helming the defense during the Spartans' last New Year's Six game -- making this one more than just a bowl game for Pitt. It's personal. -- David Hale

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl Wisconsin vs. Arizona State

Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas 10:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: RB Braelon Allen. Even though he's only a freshman, Allen has been a big part of Wisconsin's turnaround after the 1-3 start. Allen leads the team in rushing with 1,109 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Storyline to watch: The Badgers had an up-and-down season and finished the season with a 7-point win over Nebraska, then a 10-point loss to Minnesota. The defense played well against the Gophers, but Allen and the offense weren't able to get going. The team finished with only 62 rush yards. Allen needs to have a big game to get the offense going against Arizona State. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: Quarterback Jayden Daniels recently announced he would be returning to Tempe next season, giving him another chance at proving he's more like the dynamic quarterback Arizona State saw in 2019. As a freshman, Daniels performed above expectations and didn't make many mistakes, but he has struggled since to find that same level of performance. Daniels has turned into more of a dual-threat weapon this season, adding six rushing touchdowns, which could bode well for a bounce-back senior year.

Storyline to watch: It has been a strange year for Arizona State, which came into the season inside the top 25, but also with a cloud of NCAA investigations looming overhead. Nothing has been resolved on the latter front, but Herm Edwards & Co. remain staunchly in place. Though Edwards has said he's returning to coach, it feels like things in Sun Devil land could remain on edge for the foreseeable future, making Arizona State a program worth keeping an eye on, on and off the field. -- Paolo Uggetti

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M

TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Florida 11 a.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: It's impossible to pinpoint one member of Wake's O-line for this spot, but as a unit, it's likely to be the X factor for the Deacons. In the ACC championship, Pitt's defensive front made light work of the Wake line, getting to QB Sam Hartman often and largely bottling up the Deacons' run game. Left tackle Zach Tom is among the ACC's best blockers, and he'll need to lead the way, but particularly against Texas A&M's fierce interior, look for center Michael Jurgens and guards Sean Maginn and Loic Ngassam Nya to play critical roles if Wake is to win.

Storyline to watch: Hartman has been the linchpin of Wake Forest's historic season, but his final game turned into a nightmare as he threw four interceptions in the Deacons' ACC championship game loss to Pitt. It was the second time in less than a year that Hartman had returned to his hometown of Charlotte and thrown four picks in a Wake loss. Afterward, head coach Dave Clawson said the defeat shouldn't be pinned on his QB and promised Hartman would be a critical component of Wake's future success. Can Hartman turn the page in time for the bowl game and lead Wake to an 11th win? -- David Hale

Player to watch: DL Micheal Clemons. The graduate student has been a force on the defensive line this season, and he's going to have to be even more disruptive with All-SEC performer DeMarvin Leal opting out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Clemons had 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 10 games. He had 3½ sacks in a 27-24 loss at LSU and scored the game's lone touchdown on a 24-yard fumble return in a 20-3 win against Auburn.

Storyline to watch: The Aggies will be looking for revenge after falling to the Demon Deacons 55-52 in the 2017 Belk Bowl. The Aggies were led by interim coach Jeff Banks after Kevin Sumlin was fired; Jimbo Fisher would take over the next season. The teams combined for 1,260 yards of offense, 899 passing yards and 63 first downs in what was the fourth-highest-scoring bowl game in history at the time. Matt Colburn's 1-yard touchdown run with 2:18 left put the Demon Deacons ahead for good. -- Mark Schlabach

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl Washington State vs. Miami

Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas 2 p.m., CBS

Player to watch: Quarterback Jayden de Laura. The work Wazzu players have put in this season given the chaos around them during the early part of the year makes de Laura's season even more impressive. The Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year led the conference in passing yards (2,757) and touchdown passes (23) in his first season. After having led the Cougars to their first Apple Cup win since 2012, de Laura is already a legend in Pullman, and his future there looks bright.

Storyline to watch: Jake Dickert coaches his first game as the permanent head coach of the Cougars following an inspiring stretch as an interim coach that kept Washington State not only afloat following Nick Rolovich's firing, but bowl-eligible. School leadership felt no need to conduct a search for a coaching replacement, and Dickert has shown so far he's up for the job. A bowl win would be icing on top of the cake. -- Paolo Uggetti

Player to watch: QB Tyler Van Dyke took over in Week 3 after starter D'Eriq King was hurt, and the immediate results were mixed (2 TDs, 3 INTs in his first two starts vs. ACC opponents). After that, however, Van Dyke blossomed into one of the most prolific QBs in the country. He finished the regular season with six straight games of 300 passing yards and three TDs.

Storyline to watch: At Miami, everything is about the 2022 season and beyond, and the bowl game is simply another showcase for the future. From Van Dyke to receivers Key'Shawn Smith and Xavier Restrepo to safety Kamren Kitchens and D-lineman Jahfari Harvey, the Hurricanes' late-season surge was led, in large part, by freshmen, and this offers their biggest stage yet to set the tone for what lies ahead. -- David Hale

Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl Central Michigan vs. Boise State

Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona 2 p.m.

Player to watch: RB Lew Nichols III. Central Michigan had the leading rusher in Nichols, who had 1,710 yards this season along with 15 rushing touchdowns. Nichols is averaging 5.5 yards per rush and has been a huge part of the Chippewas' offense.

Storyline to watch: Central Michigan has quite a few playmakers on offense with Nichols, as well as Kalil Pimpleton, Dallas Dixon and JaCorey Sullivan, who have combined for 24 receiving touchdowns this season. Pimpleton is averaging 16.02 yards per reception and also has two punt return touchdowns on the season. The Chippewas will need all of their main contributors to have an impact on this game against Boise State. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: In a down year for Boise State, WR Khalil Shakir had a big season, catching 77 passes for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a first-team All-Mountain West selection.

Storyline to watch: If Boise State (7-5) loses, it would mark the first time since 1998 it finished just one game above .500, when it was still a member of the Big West Conference. Since joining the WAC in 2001, the Broncos have never finished a full season with fewer than eight wins. -- Kyle Bonagura

Outback Bowl Penn State vs. Arkansas

Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida Noon, ESPN2 and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Sean Clifford. Penn State's run game has been bad all season, and the offense struggled when Clifford was injured. Clifford is going to have to carry the offense against Arkansas if the Nittany Lions are going to have a chance.

Storyline to watch: Arkansas has played some pretty high-powered offenses this season, so the defensive rankings and stats probably look worse than they really are. Penn State had only 61 yards rushing against Michigan State in the final game of the season, but Clifford threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns. If Penn State can find success through the air and limit Arkansas, which ranks 37th in offensive points scored per game, this could be close. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: Arkansas cornerback Montaric Brown tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions, earning him a spot on the All-SEC team. His total tied for second most in the FBS. It was the ninth most by a Razorbacks player in a single season; he is the first Arkansas player to have five or more picks since Tramain Thomas in 2011. Brown also had 53 tackles with 10 passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Storyline to watch: Sam Pittman did amazing work at Arkansas this season, guiding the Hogs to a 4-0 start and winning four of their last five games. With a victory over the Nittany Lions, Arkansas can win nine games in a season for the first time since going 11-2 under Bobby Petrino in 2012. It would also be the Hogs' first bowl victory since a 45-23 win under Bret Bielema at the end of the 2015 season. -- Mark Schlabach

Vrbo Citrus Bowl Iowa vs. Kentucky

Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida 1 p.m., ABC and the ESPN App

Player to watch: LB Jack Campbell. The Iowa defense led all FBS programs with 24 interceptions this season and Campbell had two himself. He led the defense in tackles with 129, and he also had 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

Storyline to watch: Iowa's pass defense leads the country in interceptions with 24 and has been stout all season. Kentucky ranks 90th in interceptions thrown with 12, so that matchup between the Wildcats' offense and Iowa's secondary will have a big impact in this game. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. Along with quarterback Will Levis and receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, he has been one of the catalysts for Kentucky's transformation on offense. Rodriguez is the SEC's No. 2 rusher with 1,272 yards with eight touchdowns. He ran for 100 yards or more in each of the last four games and eight this season. With 2,633 rushing yards in his career, he needs just 15 to move into sixth place all-time at UK, and his 25 career rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth most. Levis, Rodriguez and Robinson are only the second trio in school history to have 2,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season.

Storyline to watch: Kentucky's season has been one of streaks. The Wildcats started 6-0 for the first time since 1950, lost three in a row and then won three in a row to close the regular season. They went 5-3 in SEC play, just the second time since 1977 that they had a winning mark in the league. Kentucky can win 10 games in a season for only the fourth time in school history, and Mark Stoops can become the first coach to do it twice. The Wildcats went 11-1 under Bear Bryant in 1950, 10-1 under Frank Curci in 1977 and 10-3 under Stoops in 2018. -- Mark Schlabach

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State

State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona 1 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: DE Isiah Foskey. It's unclear whether the sophomore from California will go pro, but it does appear he's playing in the bowl. He'll have a chance to add on to an incredible pass rushing season: In his first season as a full-time starter, he made 10 sacks and forced five fumbles.

Storylines to watch: The next era of Notre Dame football begins in the Fiesta Bowl. Marcus Freeman takes over as head coach, and the Irish will face Oklahoma State without a couple of stars (Kyren Williams, Kyle Hamilton) but with quite a few younger future stars. -- Bill Connelly

Player to watch: QB Spencer Sanders. Sanders pulls all the strings on the OSU offense and was much improved this season, but still threw 12 interceptions, although seven of those came in two games against Baylor. If the Cowboys have first-team All-Big 12 Sanders, they will be a tough matchup. If they have the Sanders who struggled against Baylor's defense, the defense could be put in some tough spots.

Storyline to watch: The Cowboys are loaded with experience on defense (average age of its starters: 21.9, according to The Oklahoman), ranked No. 3 in total defense and No. 7 in scoring defense and allowed just 4.4 yards per play, also fourth in the country. Coordinator Jim Knowles is departing for Ohio State after this game, so it truly is a final ride for much of what has been OSU's calling card this season. -- Dave Wilson

Rose Bowl Game Pres. by Capital One Venture X Ohio State vs. Utah

Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California 5 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB C.J. Stroud. The Ohio State offense goes through Stroud, who ranks No. 8 in pass yards and No. 5 in pass touchdowns. There are a ton of offensive options for the Buckeyes, but Stroud is the distributor.

Storyline to watch: When Ohio State played Michigan, the Wolverines got constant pressure on Stroud and disrupted the offense. Utah ranks No. 5 in sacks this season with 41 and ranks No. 2 in disrupted dropbacks. Utah has a blueprint from Michigan and will look to put pressure on Stroud in this game. -- Tom VanHaaren

Player to watch: Britain Covey. It's incredible that after six years, five seasons, nearly 2,000 receiving yards, over 1,000 return yards and 16 touchdowns, Covey still has a year of eligibility left. He has announced that he won't be returning to Utah, so this will be the final chance to see Covey explode on a punt return wearing Utah colors. Covey leads the nation in punt return yards and is tied for the most punt returns for touchdowns with two. He holds the Utah record for career punt return yards too.

Storyline to watch: Utah's season has been something to behold. On the field, the Utes sputtered to a 1-2 start before rattling off a 9-1 finish and their first Rose Bowl bid. There's no conflating those struggles with what the team has had to endure off the field in the sudden and tragic death of teammate Aaron Lowe less than a year after Ty Jordan was also killed in a shooting. Kyle Whittingham has been able to keep this team on track through an emotional season and the work on the field has paid off, regardless of a Rose Bowl result that could end the season on a winning note. -- Paolo Uggetti

Allstate Sugar Bowl Ole Miss vs. Baylor

Caesars Superdome, New Orleans 8:45 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Matt Corral. The California native seems tailor-made to direct coach Lane Kiffin's high-flying offense. Corral has completed 68% of his passes for 3,339 yards with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has run for 597 yards with 11 scores. He is the only player in the FBS this season with more than 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. His 11 rushing scores are third most by an Ole Miss quarterback in a single season, and he is just one of three FBS passers with at least 20 passing scores and 11 or more rushing. ESPN's Todd McShay rates Corral as the No. 16 prospect overall and No. 2 quarterback available for the 2022 NFL draft.

Storyline to watch: Kiffin has done tremendous work in two seasons at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels to 10 victories in the regular season for the first time in school history. The Rebels, who have been playing football since 1902, have never won 12 games in a season. Last week, the school rewarded Kiffin with a new deal that will pay him an average of $7.5 million per year. -- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: Abram Smith, who started several games at linebacker last year, moved back to running back, his original position, and rushed for 1,429 yards on 6.2 yards per carry this season. If Baylor can get him going, the Bears can play their game and keep the Ole Miss offense off the field.

Storyline to watch: The Bears have been one of the best stories in college football this year, bouncing back from a 2-7 season in Dave Aranda's first year to Big 12 champions despite quarterback Charlie Brewer transferring and this year's starter, Gerry Bohanon, missing their final 2½ games. After claiming a Big 12 title, Baylor has a chance to make a statement against a good SEC team. -- Dave Wilson

TaxAct Texas Bowl LSU vs. Kansas State

NRG Stadium, Houston 9 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: QB Garrett Nussmeier. With starter Max Johnson entering the transfer portal, and former starter Myles Brennan doing the same earlier this season, Nussmeier is the only scholarship quarterback left on LSU's roster. However, since he has already played in four games this season, he'll burn his redshirt if he plays against the Wildcats in the bowl game. Will the Tigers sacrifice a year of Nussmeier's eligibility to try to win a bowl game, or will they turn to walk-ons Tavion Faulk or Matt O'Dowd?

Storyline to watch: The Tigers will be playing without former coach Ed Orgeron, who was fired by the school on Oct. 17, and stuck around for the final five regular-season games. Offensive line coach Brad Davis, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will serve as interim coach. He will be the first Black coach to lead the Tigers into a game. Receivers coach Kerry Joseph left for Nebraska, and longtime strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt wasn't retained by new head coach Brian Kelly. -- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: RB Deuce Vaughn. At 5-6, 172 pounds, Vaughn is hard to pin down, and one of the most fun college football players in the country to watch. He ran for 1,258 yards and 15 touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game as well with 47 catches.

Storyline to watch: K-State coach Chris Kleiman fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and fullbacks/TE coach Jason Ray after the regular season, turning the offense over to former Wildcats star and 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, who had been coaching the quarterbacks. Can Klein, who ran for 55 touchdowns at KSU, help revive the offense? -- Dave Wilson

CFP Semifinal: Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas 3:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: Coby Bryant. The Thorpe Award winner is going to be key in stopping Jameson Williams and Alabama's passing attack. Bryant and Sauce Gardner are one of the best cornerback duos in college football, and will need to be at their best in the Cotton Bowl.

Storyline to watch: Can Cincinnati prove that the Group of 5 can hang with the Power 5? It's unfair to put that kind of weight and expectations on Cincinnati -- especially given everything the Bearcats had to do over the past two years to get here -- but they will undoubtedly be judged by their performance in this game. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

Player to watch: WR Jameson Williams. While Tide quarterback Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy, it's hard to imagine where Alabama would be without Williams, an Ohio State transfer. He ranks second in the FBS with 15 receiving touchdowns and is fifth with 1,445 receiving yards and a 21.3-yard average on 68 catches. He'll have to be even better after teammate John Metchie III suffered an ACL tear in his left knee against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Williams and Metchie combined to catch 68.3% of Alabama's completions this season; Slade Bolden (32 catches for 333 yards with two scores) is the only other Tide receiver with more than 15 receptions.

Storyline to watch: Was Alabama's dominant performance a one-hit wonder or a sign of things to come in the playoff? After looking rather ordinary in closer-than-expected victories over LSU, Arkansas and Auburn to close the regular season, the Crimson Tide ran over a Georgia defense that had been dominant. Alabama's much-maligned offensive line, which surrendered seven sacks in the Iron Bowl, played exceptionally well against the Bulldogs' vaunted defensive front Can the Tide keep it rolling and put together two more consistent performances to win their seventh national title under coach Nick Saban? -- Mark Schlabach

CFP Semifinal: Capital One Orange Bowl No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia

Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 Orange Bowl, Miami 7:30 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App

Player to watch: LB Nakobe Dean. The general of Georgia's top-ranked scoring defense, Dean won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the FBS. He leads the team with 8½ tackles for loss and is tied for the lead with 61 tackles. He also has five sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, including a pick-six against Florida. He's a big reason the Bulldogs lead the country in scoring defense (9.5 points) and are second in total defense (254.4 yards).

Storyline to watch: How do the Bulldogs bounce back from their first defeat of the season, a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game? Georgia coach Kirby Smart had to know it wasn't going to be easy in trying to end the program's 41-year drought without a national title. Georgia rolled through the regular season en route to finishing 12-0, but then was run over in another humbling loss to the Crimson Tide. Smart says he likes his team's leadership, and the Bulldogs will have to put that setback in the rearview mirror to get past the Wolverines and reach a potential rematch against Alabama in the Jan. 10 CFP National Championship.-- Mark Schlabach

Player to watch: RB Hassan Haskins. When Michigan's offense is rolling, Haskins or Blake Corum is at the center of it. Michigan is going to need Haskins to help move the ball against Georgia's defense if the Wolverines are going to have any success.

Storyline to watch: Michigan's offense is going to have its hands full against Georgia's defense. The Wolverines rank 19th in total offensive yards per game, ninth in rush yards per game and 11th in offensive points scored per game with 36.62 points. The Dawgs' defense is highly ranked in most statistical categories, and Michigan is going to have to find a way to put up points against a team that is allowing only 9.5 points per game. -- Tom VanHaaren