It might be early, but there's never a wrong time to start thinking about college football bowl matchups. Yes, this season's slate will look slightly different due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some regular bowls will not be played (we're still waiting on the official status of the Las Vegas Bowl), while a couple of new ones have been added.
That said, here's a look at our early predictions for the 2020 bowl season.
** Denotes New Year's Six bowl games.
This is a nice little Texas matchup. Houston had some trouble getting off the ground due to COVID-19 issues, but the program has found some consistency on and off the field. UTSA, meanwhile, boasts one of the nation's best rushers in Sincere McCormick, who has gained 921 yards on the ground and scored seven touchdowns through eight games.
Marshall's won its first five games, and done so with a solid run game and a defense that's allowed just 47 points. Coastal Carolina, meanwhile, is also in the midst of a potentially memorable season with wins in its first six contests. This would actually be a home game for the Chanticleers and some major exposure for the Sun Belt team.
The old Mountain West Conference versus Mid-American Conference matchup on the blue turf of Boise. Toledo is again expected to challenge for the MAC championship despite failing to earn a bowl bid with 2019's 6-6 season. The Spartans, meanwhile, won their first two games of their shortened 2020 campaign. Back in in 2017 and '18, SJSU combined for three victories.
Wake Forest started slow, but has won four in a row heading into the first full weekend of November. Running backs Kenneth Walker (528 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns) and Christian Beal-Smith (472 yards, four TDs) have helped pave the way. UCF has rebounded from two consecutive defeats and is starting to play like a team that's regained its confidence.
Louisiana was the darling of the early days of the 2020 season after winning at Iowa State and earning a national ranking. They're 5-1 and in position to play for a Sun Belt title. UAB might be the team to beat in the West Division of Conference USA and then set itself up for a league championship meeting against Marshall. Should this be the bowl matchup, it might be one of the more underrated contests on the slate.
The Sun Belt has some quality teams this season, and Georgia Southern is certainly one of them. The Eagles are 4-2 and appear on track to make a third consecutive bowl appearance. Tulane, meanwhile, just halted a three-game losing streak so it should have some confidence to build on that amid what's turned out to be a competitive American Athletic Conference.
Off to a 6-0 start, Liberty is one team that nobody is really talking about. However, after winning eight games in 2019, the Flames are headed to their second straight ball bowl game. Quarterback Malik Willis has completed 67.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and an interception. Ohio, which begins its season with the rest of the MAC, will be trying for a sixth consecutive bowl appearance.
Ball State has not been to a bowl game since 2013, but the program believes that could all change during this shortened season within the MAC after going 5-7 last season. Troy, meanwhile, is a perennial Sun Belt contender, and is looking to get back in the bowl picture after its three-season streak ended with a 5-7 finish last season.
Here's the thing, both of these teams have some work left to do to feel secure about a bowl invitation. These programs need to get to .500, so it's quite possible that happens even though they both sit at 2-4. This would actually be a fun matchup between underachieving teams that have plenty of holes but are capable of playing a competitive. Also, should Iowa rebound from a 2-0 start, the Hawkeyes could also land here.
FAU has had to deal with COVID-19 issues like many other programs around the country, but Willie Taggart's group is 2-1. This would be sort of a home game for Owls, while Central Michigan would not mind some time in the Florida sun. Out of the MAC, the Chippewas, who reached the league title game last season, are again expected to challenge for the conference crown.
SMU should still be holding out hope that it has a chance to play for the American Athletic Conference title. Shane Buechele (2,226 yards, 16 TDs, three INTs) has been solid for the Mustangs, but their defense has some issues. Virginia, meanwhile, snapped a four-game slide with a win over North Carolina to begin its quest to reach .500.
Miami is reigning Mid-American Conference champion and is considered one of the favorites to claim the crown in 2020. The RedHawks last won a bowl game in 2010, so should they get to one this year, their motivation will be simple. Appalachian State has won three in a row, but is still chasing Coastal Carolina for first place in the Sun Belt East Division.
Washington is about to start its season with the rest of the Pac-12, kicking off the Jimmy Lake era as head coach of the program. The Huskies will begin their season outside The Associated Press Top 25, but in a Pac-12 that has one true frontrunner (Oregon), there is a possibility for greater success. Army has won four in a row and has allowed just 82 points while going 6-1.
The days of whipping the ball around the field at West Virginia are gone. Instead, coach Neal Brown has brought a more balanced approach to the offense and a defense that's held three opponents to 17 or fewer points. Purdue won its first two games by a combined 11 points, but will sit idle this week after its scheduled game with COVID-19-infested Wisconsin was called off.
This game could be over rather quick. Both teams will keep the ball on the ground, so it could end up being a battle on the line of scrimmage. The Hokies' Khalil Herbert (803 rushing yards, six touchdowns) is one of the top running backs in the country. Navy, meanwhile, has struggled a bit of late, but the Midshipman have the potential to get back on track and earn this bid at a familiar site.
The Spartans made a statement with that win at rival Michigan. Just how much are they able to build off it remains to be seen. Probably enough to reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. Boston College nearly stunned Clemson to close out October, and is playing with plenty of confidence behind Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec (1,875 passing yards, 14 touchdown passes, four interceptions).
The Miami resurgence of 2020 might not be rewarded with a high-profile bowl, but this would actually be an intriguing matchup. D'Eriq King (1,401 passing yards, 11 touchdown passes, two rushing TDs) has breathed life into the Hurricanes offense. Kansas State, meanwhile, has talent, but also seems lost at times on the field. On neutral field, through, this has the potential to be a highly entertaining contest.
Oklahoma State stumbled against Texas, but all hope is not lost for a strong finish. Even with rival Oklahoma still on the schedule. This, though, would be a fantastic matchup with some decent star power. Running back Chuba Hubbard (550 rushing yards, five TDs) leading the Cowboys. And, a hopefully healthy Kedon Slovis guiding the USC offense, that should be eager for big things in 2020.
After two games, we really don't know what to make of Michigan. What we do know is that Joe Milton has the potential to be a pretty good quarterback, but his supporting offensive cast is questionable. Pitt is struggling at the moment, but there's a good chance it can get back on track over the next few weeks before facing Clemson to conclude the regular season.
Following an 0-2 start, it's still quite possible that Penn State goes undefeated the rest of the season, considering what's on tap. Still, a Big Ten title is likely out of the question following that loss to Ohio State. Tennessee, meanwhile, would be happy with a bowl game in its home state and a chance to cap what is likely to be a highly respectable season.
This is the first New Year's Six bowl we'll dive into. On paper, this would be a pretty fun matchup. Now, that's if Oklahoma can continue its surge and find a way to win the Big 12. That could possibly open the door for this contest against a confident Texas A&M group that will have been battle-tested from the rigors of the SEC. Interestingly enough, these programs last met in the Cotton Bowl to conclude the 2012 season.
One contest on the bowl scene. We expect Boise State to win the Mountain West Conference. And, with the status of the Las Vegas Bowl in limbo, this seems like a good landing spot for the Broncos. Arizona State, meanwhile, should be highly competitive in the Pac-12, thanks in part to talented quarterback Jayden Daniels, who threw for 2,943 yards with 17 touchdowns, two interceptions and 355 rushing yards.
Entering the first weekend of November, Tulsa is tied for the American Athletic Conference lead. Don't sleep on the Golden Hurricane because they should be bowl bound. TCU, meanwhile, has been interesting team thus far. The Horned Frogs still need to reach .500, but they won at Texas and have possibly three more wins on their schedule.
It really doesn't matter who is playing, the Sun Bowl is a traditional favorite on the bowl slate that should always be celebrated. This season, N.C. State has shown signs of promise, so this seems like a good spot for it to spend the holidays. Utah, meanwhile, has lost plenty of talent from last season, but the program is good enough to still be highly competitive in a Pac-12 that is not all deep.
Entering the first weekend of November, Iowa State is a co-leader in the Big 12. Mostly because of budding star running back Breece Hall, who ranks among the national rushing leaders with 901 yards and over 150.2 per game. Missouri might have some discipline issues, but we believe the Tigers will find a way to work themselves into bowl contention as its rebuild is accelerated.
Many Mid-American Conference pundits believe Buffalo is the team beat in the conference. Mainly because of its talent running back duo of Jaret Patterson (1,799 rushing yards in 2019) and Kevin Marks (1,035 yards). San Diego State is a perennial bowl team that should be in the mix to challenge Boise State for the Mountain West Conference title.
Texas could still be holding out hope of competing for a Big 12 championship. If not, this would be an intriguing matchup where defense might end up being nonexistent. The bigger question is whether 2-3 LSU will actually make a bowl one season after winning the national championship. We think the Tigers can do it, even with Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida still on the schedule.
Like many other teams in these all-too early predictions, a team like Kentucky, which entered the first weekend of November at 2-4, has work to do for a bowl bid. We think it's possible, even within the confines of the SEC. Memphis, meanwhile, has two losses but would seem in good position to run the table on the rest of the regular season to grab this New Year's Day spot.
The Bearcats opened the season with five straight wins and appear to be headed to the AAC title. It's also quite possible they make it to this point undefeated. Now, would that entertain any thoughts of a College Football Playoff berth? Doubtful. Georgia, meanwhile, has no room for error in its quest to be included in the CFP. Beating Alabama in a potential SEC title-game matchup would be a severe hurdle for the Bulldogs.
If things play out in Northwestern's favor, it would not be far-fetched for the Wildcats to again find themselves in the Big Ten Championship game. Through the first two weeks of the season, Northwestern handled itself well on both sides of the ball. Auburn, meanwhile, ended October with two consecutive wins are starting to look like a cohesive unit, especially on offense, where it totaled 83 points in wins over Ole Miss and LSU.
We're assuming Trevor Lawrence is back in the fold for the Tigers, but there's a serious chance they don't finish the regular season as the No. 1 team in the country. Thus, earning the second seed in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State again will be in position to win a national title, and again it seems Clemson could stand in its way. The question: Can the Justin Fields and the Buckeyes clear that hurdle this season?
We're going to go with Alabama as the top seed in College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide are still an offensive machine even without Jaylen Waddle and the defense is starting to round into form (41 points allowed in the last three games). When it comes to Notre Dame, we're going out on a limb a bit by putting the Irish into the CFP. Perhaps with one loss. Which could still be good enough to get them in ahead of potential two-loss teams in Georgia, Florida and anybody from the Big 12.
Another fun matchup between neighboring states. The Tar Heels, who have lost two of three following a strong start, snapped a three-game skid versus South Carolina with last season's 24-20 win. The Gamecocks entered the first weekend of November with a 2-3 mark, but will eventually earn themselves a bowl bid to perhaps set up this interesting meeting.
This would be a fun matchup of upstart teams. Led by by talented quarterback Michael Penix (131.4 passer rating), the Hoosiers would be trying for their first bowl win since 1991. Though the Razorbacks still have work left to get themselves a secure their first bowl appearance since 2016, a 2-3 start (and playing Auburn and Texas A&M) close has been a more than respectable start.
This might end up being wishful thinking for the sake of an interesting matchup. When healthy, Wisconsin might be the second-best team in the Big Ten. However, the Badgers' COVID-19 issues, especially at the quarterback position, have everything in flux. Oregon, however, likely ends up being the best team in the Pac-12. If the Ducks manage to run the regular-season table and win a league title, then perhaps a CFP berth is in the cards.
Maybe Gators coach Dan Mullen will expect the stadium to be packed for this contest. This, of course, is all contingent on if he can keep another COVID-19 outbreak from infesting the Florida program. However, Florida still has a shot at the CFP if things break the right way. BYU, meanwhile, is on a quest to stay undefeated, but that Boise State matchup could be the defining moment for the Cougars this season.
This matchup obviously makes sense and is expected. Still, nobody should be surprised if Ohio State finds its way into the national title game. OK, now that that caveat is in play, let's get back to Clemson and Alabama. While everybody wants to talk about Trevor Lawrence, wouldn't it be something if the unheralded Mac Jones (16 TD passes, two interceptions, 78.5 completion percentage) turns out to be the star of this show?
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.