Previewing the best non-New Year’s Six bowl games

Columbus, Ohio, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) drops back to pass during the NCAA football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

• Previewing the five best non-New Year’s Six bowl games: TroyUTSA, OregonNorth Carolina, Florida StateOklahoma, WashingtonTexas and South CarolinaNotre Dame

• Get ready for fireworks in San Antonio: Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers should put on an absolute show in the Alamo Bowl.

Tyler Buchner’s first game back: Notre Dame’s original starting quarterback will make his return in the Gator Bowl from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for 10 games.

College football bowl season officially kicks off this Friday, a time for teams to either put a bow on their campaigns or end on a sour note.

While the New Year’s Six bowls get all the love, there are still quality games elsewhere. Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the five best non-New Year's Six bowls.

No. 24 Troy Trojans vs. No. 25 UTSA Roadrunners (Cure Bowl)

How to watch: 3 p.m. ET on ESPN (Friday, Dec. 16)

Storyline to know: Can UTSA secure its first bowl victory in school history?

UTSA has been to three bowl games since its inaugural season in 2012, but all ended in defeat.

Winning their fourth opportunity won’t be easy for the Roadrunners, as they take on No. 24 Troy, which just won the Sun Belt championship. If UTSA can pull out the victory, it’d finish the year 12-2, matching its best record in school history, which was set just last season.

Matchup to watch: Frank Harris vs. Troy’s defense

UTSA quarterback Frank Harris has been one of the best signal-callers in the country this year. The redshirt senior is both the fourth-highest-graded and the fifth-most valuable quarterback this season, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. He’s already announced his plans to return to the Roadrunners for his seventh season, which should make fans very optimistic for 2023.

Before that, though, he’ll face a stingy Troy defense. The Trojans have allowed only 5.13 yards per passing play this season, the third fewest in the Group of Five. The star of that unit is Reddy Steward, whose 90.1 grade is the second best among Group of Five cornerbacks.

Prediction: UTSA 30, Troy 27

The Roadrunners take down the Trojans and secure the first bowl victory in program history. 

No. 15 Oregon Ducks vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (Holiday Bowl)

How to watch: 8 p.m. ET on FOX (Wednesday, Dec. 28)

Storyline to know: Can North Carolina finish the season on a high?

About one month ago, North Carolina was riding a six-game win streak and stood at No. 13 in the College Football Playoff ranking. Many were even wondering if the Tar Heels would have their first Heisman Trophy winner. Drake Maye led all quarterbacks in the nation with a 92.7 grade up until that point. 

Since then, North Carolina has lost three in a row. Two of those losses came to then-unranked teams in Georgia Tech and N.C. State before the Tar Heels were blown out in the ACC championship game by then-No. 9 Clemson, 39-10. North Carolina now faces Oregon — currently the No. 12 team in PFF’s power rankings — in the Holiday Bowl.

Matchup to watch: Two high-powered offenses deal with significant losses

Despite the three-game skid, Drake Maye has still been one of the nation’s best quarterbacks this season. The redshirt freshman led all Power Five quarterbacks in grade (91.6) and made six more big-time throws than any other signal-caller in the country (41). Many of those big-time throws went to Josh Downs, whose 86.5 receiving grade trailed only a couple of Biletnikoff Award finalists in Marvin Harrison Jr. and Xavier Hutchinson among Power Five receivers. However, Downs already announced that he’d be skipping the bowl game to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft. He’s currently a first-round prospect on PFF’s big board.

The Ducks will also be missing a key piece to their offense, except theirs comes via the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was recently hired by his alma mater, Arizona State, to be the Power Five’s youngest head coach at just 32 years old. Under Dillingham, Oregon fielded the nation’s fifth-most efficient offense in terms of EPA per play. The Ducks were the only team in the top five whose head coach, Dan Lanning, comes from a defensive background.

Most efficient offenses in college football in EPA per play | 2022
School EPA per play
USC 0.277
Tennessee 0.264
Washington 0.260
UCLA 0.235
Oregon 0.221

Prediction: Oregon 36, North Carolina 23

Even without Dillingham calling plays, Oregon’s offense outduels North Carolina, and the Tar Heels close out the season with their fourth straight loss after starting with a 9-1 record. 

No. 13 Florida State Seminoles vs. Oklahoma Sooners (Cheez-It Bowl)

How to watch: 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN (Thursday, Dec. 29)

Storyline to know: Two powerhouses heading in opposite directions

Florida State and Oklahoma are two of the most historic programs in college football, combining to win 10 national championships. 

They each are trending in opposite directions, though. Since Jimbo Fisher’s departure, the Seminoles have been to only two bowl games in the past five years. Before that, the last time Florida State missed a bowl game was in 1981. However, Florida State’s 9-3 record this season is the best it’s had since 2016 and things are looking promising for 2023. 

The Seminoles should have one of the most electric offenses in the country next season with three stars returning: quarterback Jordan Travis, running back Trey Benson and wide receiver Johnny Wilson. That’s not even mentioning tight end Jaheim Bell, who’s transferring in from South Carolina and was our fifth-best player in the transfer portal.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma disappointed in its first year under head coach Brent Venables. The Sooners currently have a 6-6 record — their worst mark in 24 years. And former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, who followed head coach Lincoln Riley to USC, just won the Heisman Trophy. 

Matchup to watch: How will a depleted Oklahoma offensive line handle Jared Verse?

The Sooners did an excellent job this season of protecting the quarterback. Oklahoma allowed a pressure on only 13.5% of its pass-blocking snaps, the third-lowest rate in the country. However, both of its starting tackles, Anton Harrison and Wanya Morris, already announced that they’d skip the bowl game and prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft. Harrison, in particular, is currently a first-round prospect on PFF’s big board

Florida State also has a first-round prospect in edge defender Jared Verse, who’s currently our No. 20 prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft. Verse’s 85.7 pass-rushing grade was a top-15 mark among Power Five edges this season. Unlike other projected high draft picks, the redshirt sophomore already announced his intention to play in the bowl game.

Against two backup Oklahoma offensive tackles, Verse can have an absolute field day before heading off to the NFL.

Prediction: Florida State 35, Oklahoma 28

Both Verse and Florida State’s offense lead the Seminoles to a bowl victory to cap off their best season in six years.

No. 12 Washington Huskies vs. No. 20 Texas Longhorns (Alamo Bowl)

How to watch: 9 p.m. ET on ESPN (Thursday, Dec. 29)

Storyline to know: A new-look Texas team

Texas heads into its bowl game without many of its key players. According to a report from 247 Sports, running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson and linebacker DeMarvion Overshown all plan on skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Robinson won the Doak Walker Award this season as the nation’s best running back. The junior led the nation with 104 forced missed tackles, 10 more than the next closest player. In fact, Robinson is arguably the most efficient tackle-breaker since PFF began tracking college football in 2014.

Most career missed tackles forced per attempt in PFF College era | Since 2014, min. 300 attempts
Name School Years Played Career Forced Missed Tackles per Attempt
Bijan Robinson Texas 2020-2022 0.39
Javonte Williams North Carolina 2018-2020 0.39

Robinson is likely the best running back prospect since Saquon Barkley and is a first-round prospect on PFF’s big board, an extremely rare feat for a running back.

Matchup to watch: Get ready for a laser show

Without Bijan Robinson or Roschon Johnson in the backfield, expect Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers to be given full control of the Longhorns' offense.

Ewers entered college as one of the highest-rated quarterback recruits ever, but he had a shaky first season as a starter. The redshirt freshman earned just a 66.8 passing grade this year, which ranked 94th among 146 FBS quarterbacks. Ewers still consistently showed off his insane arm talent, though, which is what made him so highly touted. His 6.6% big-time throw rate was the sixth-highest mark for Power Five quarterbacks.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. did an excellent job of taking care of the football. His 1.3% turnover-worthy play rate was the fifth lowest among college football quarterbacks. That doesn’t mean the junior can’t sling it, as he led the nation with 4,354 passing yards and tied for the fourth-most big-time throws in the Power Five (25).

Prediction: Washington 34, Texas 33

Ewers might have a higher ceiling, but Penix is the better quarterback right now. In a game that’ll likely be decided by who has the better signal-caller, Washington pulls out a close one.

No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. No. 21 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Gator Bowl)

How to watch: 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN (Friday, Dec. 30)

Storyline to know: Can South Carolina conquer another giant?

No team in the country looked better than South Carolina over the last two weeks of the regular season. In that span, the Gamecocks ended the playoff aspirations of both No. 5 Tennessee and No. 8 Clemson.

Now, the Gamecocks look to take down their third ranked opponent in as many games in Notre Dame. While the Fighting Irish are ranked No. 21 in the College Football Playoff ranking, they’re currently ninth in PFF’s power rankings.

Matchup to watch: Tyler Buchner’s first game back

Notre Dame will have a new man under center in the Gator Bowl. That’s because starter Drew Pyne is no longer with the team after entering the transfer portal.

Replacing him will likely be Tyler Buchner, who actually opened the season as the Fighting Irish’s starter. He played in two games before suffering an AC sprain to his non-throwing shoulder that sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. The sophomore recorded a 64.8 grade over those two games. He’ll try to make his case as a capable starter against South Carolina, especially since head coach Marcus Freeman already stated that Notre Dame will be in the market for a transfer quarterback this offseason.

Prediction: Notre Dame 27, South Carolina 24

Buchner does enough in his first game back to lead the Fighting Irish to a Gator Bowl victory.

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