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Can’t Decide Which Bowl Games To Watch? We’ve Got A Metric For That.

As it has ballooned over the decades, college football’s bowl calendar has become a lot to sift through. In 1970, there were only 11 bowls. In 2021, there are 42 in the Football Bowl Subdivision alone, not including the national championship game or the Celebration Bowl that crowns a Division I champ for historically Black colleges and universities. It all happens in December and early January, at times when lots of people are traveling or trying to spend time with loved ones. And it conflicts with busy stretches for the NFL and various other college and pro sports, plus all kinds of holiday TV specials. The playoff semifinals this year are on New Year’s Eve, when even some of the most committed college football fans won’t watch them. 

Time is of the essence. The ultimate determinant in whether you watch a bowl game this year may just be, “Are you on the couch with time to kill at the exact time a game is on?” If you are committed to watching every one of the nearly four dozen bowls, more power to you, but even among diehards, you are likely in the minority. If you prefer everything in moderation but still want to sample the best of the postseason, an alternative course is to plan ahead. 

Enter BEAST, the Bowl Enjoyment and Attractiveness System for Television. It’s a proprietary bowl watchability rating system developed in a lab (or at a kitchen table) by someone (me) who watches college football in bulk quantities for his profession (talking about college football). BEAST has four elements and blends fact and opinion; the maximum possible BEAST score is 15 (for the most watchable bowl), and the lowest is 4 (for the least). The components: 

  • Stakes (5, 3 or 1 point): A bowl with a championship on the line gets 5 points in this category. A New Year’s Six bowl slot, which the sport reserves for conference champs and the highest-ranked at-large teams, gets 3. Everything else gets 1 point, which is fine. Teams can and should hang a banner for winning the Myrtle Beach Bowl. 
  • Quality (5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 point): Bowls get from 1 to 5 points, with the higher number corresponding with the ostensibly better teams. I worked subjectively here, and you’re welcome to develop your own BEAST scores should you disagree. 
  • Style (2 or 1 point): In a lower-weighted category, games get 2 points if they feature teams with unusual or diametrically opposed styles of play. Is an air raid team playing a triple-option offense? Great, that’s 2 points. Is a spread offense team that goes fast and doesn’t play any defense going head-to-head with a team that prefers to play manball? That’s 2 points. Everything else gets 1 point. 
  • Familiarity (3, 2 or 1 point): Bowl games are meant to put strange bedfellows together, so games get 3 points if the two teams haven’t played in the past 15 years. They get 2 points if they have some kind of recent history that makes for a fun matchup — a slight downgrade because rivalry-ish games are more fun when they’re played on campus in the regular season. A bowl gets just 1 point here if the teams have played recently and don’t have some kind of personalized factor to make them more interesting. 

Is this all a bit silly and subjective? Well, yes. But that’s only in keeping with the tradition of college football’s postseason, in which either media members or appointed bureaucrats have had a large hand in selecting the champ for the sport’s whole history.1 Arbitrarily assessing the postseason is a feature of college football, not a bug. 

So, here are 2021’s BEAST scores for every bowl matchup, broken out by category. First, the highest-scored games:

The cream of the crop

Tier 1 of 2021 college football bowl games by BEAST score, with points for team familiarity, opposing styles, quality and stakes

Bowl Matchup Date Fam. Style Quality Stakes BEAST
Cotton Cincinnati-Alabama 12/31 3 2 5 5 15
Orange Georgia-Michigan 12/31 3 2 5 5 15
Rose Ohio State-Utah 1/1 3 2 5 3 13
Celebration S.C. St.-Jackson St. 12/18 3 2 3 5 13
Sugar Baylor-Ole Miss 1/1 3 2 4 3 12
Peach Michigan St.-Pitt 12/30 2 2 4 3 11
Fiesta Okla. St.-Notre Dame 1/1 3 1 4 3 11

Source: FBSchedules.com

There’s no need to get cute off the top. The playoff semifinal bowls both look excellent this year, albeit in different ways. Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite to beat Cincinnati, but the intrigue factor of the first Group of Five team to ever make the playoff going head-to-head with Nick Saban’s war machine on the big stage makes the Cotton Bowl a singular event. (Cincinnati’s defense against Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Bryce Young and his star wideout, Jameson Williams, is a particularly intriguing matchup.) The Orange Bowl semi between two programs trying to get historical boulders off their backs, Georgia and Michigan, should be a fun and physical slugfest. The Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Utah should be a similar slobberknocker, as the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense tries to get through a Kyle Whittingham defense. 

The Celebration Bowl pits Jackson State against South Carolina State for the HBCU national title and should be fun for several reasons. For one thing, the game features new blood; North Carolina A&T has won the past three Celebration Bowls (most recently in 2019) but left the MEAC for the Big South. Deion Sanders’s Tigers are the SWAC champions and bring an 11-1 record into this meeting with the S.C. State Bulldogs, who went 6-5 overall but 5-0 in the MEAC. These are two historic powers –– they have eight Pro Football Hall of Famers between them –– but they haven’t played since 1994. The resumption of hostilities features a national title on the line. 

A grab bag of potential goodies

Tier 2 of 2021 college football bowl games by BEAST score, with points for team familiarity, opposing styles, quality and stakes

Bowl Matchup Date Fam. Style Quality Stakes BEAST
Independence UAB-BYU 12/18 3 2 4 1 10
New Orleans Louisiana-Marshall 12/18 3 2 4 1 10
Frisco UTSA-San Diego St. 12/21 3 2 4 1 10
Alamo Oregon-Oklahoma 12/29 2 2 4 1 9
Music City Tennessee-Purdue 12/30 3 2 3 1 9
Cure N. Illinois-C. Carolina 12/17 3 2 3 1 9
Boca Raton W. Kentucky-App. St. 12/18 3 2 3 1 9
LA Oregon St.-Utah St. 12/18 3 2 3 1 9
Armed Forces Army-Missouri 12/22 3 2 3 1 9
Liberty Texas Tech-Miss. St. 12/28 3 2 3 1 9

Source: FBSchedules.com

The opening bowl weekend includes a handful of strong all-Group of Five bowls. The Frisco Bowl features UTSA, a school that started playing football only 10 years ago and is 12-1 this year, and San Diego State, which has extraordinary punter Matt Araiza. At 51.37 yards per punt on the year, Araiza will try to clinch the single-season FBS record for punting average (currently 51 yards) and perhaps beat Sammy Baugh’s 51.4-yard pro record. Hopefully the SDSU offense will be dreary enough to give him lots of runway for some big boots. It’s also worth checking out Western Kentucky’s offense (second in the country in points per game and fifth in expected points added per play) as it takes a crack at a typically strong Appalachian State defense (11th in EPA per play on defense). Elsewhere, the Independence Bowl pits BYU’s excellent offense against UAB’s consistently good defense. 

If you like mess, keep an eye on Missouri’s horrendous rush defense (120th in EPA per play against the run) trying to figure out Army’s flexbone offense. You might also consider Mike Leach’s Mississippi State air raid going up against his former employer, Texas Tech, which Leach has long claimed owes him about $2.5 million. Perhaps they’ll go double-or-nothing. Oregon and Oklahoma last played in 2006, right on my arbitrary 15-year border, but I’m interested in how two elite recruiting schools that just lost their head coaches (Oregon’s Mario Cristobal to Miami, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley to USC) will fare in a mid-tier bowl game. 

The messy middle

Tier 3 of 2021 college football bowl games by BEAST score, with points for team familiarity, opposing styles, quality and stakes

Bowl Matchup Date Fam. Style Quality Stakes BEAST
Gator Wake Forest-Texas A&M 12/31 1 2 4 1 8
Outback Arkansas-Penn St. 1/1 3 1 3 1 8
Quick Lane W. Michigan-Nevada 12/27 3 1 3 1 8
Birmingham Houston-Auburn 12/28 3 1 3 1 8
First Responder Air Force-Louisville 12/28 3 1 3 1 8
Holiday UCLA-N.C. State 12/28 3 1 3 1 8
Guaranteed Rate W. Virginia-Minnesota 12/28 3 1 3 1 8
Fenway Virginia-SMU 12/29 3 1 3 1 8
Cheez-It Clemson-Iowa St. 12/29 3 1 3 1 8
Citrus Iowa-Kentucky 1/1 3 1 3 1 8
Duke’s Mayo N. Carolina-S. Carolina 12/30 2 2 3 1 8
New Mexico Fresno St.-UTEP 12/18 3 1 3 1 8
Potato Kent St.-Wyoming 12/21 3 2 2 1 8
Las Vegas Wisconsin-Arizona St. 12/30 1 2 3 1 7
LendingTree Liberty-E. Michigan 12/18 3 1 2 1 7
Hawaii Memphis-Hawaii 12/24 3 1 2 1 7
Military Boston College-East Carolina 12/27 3 1 2 1 7
Arizona C. Michigan-Boise St. 12/31 3 1 2 1 7
Texas Kansas St.-LSU 1/4 3 1 2 1 7

Source: FBSchedules.com

Some of these games will turn out to be great fun. Others will not. Good luck knowing ahead of time which is which. Texas A&M’s stingy defense going up against Wake Forest’s pointsy offense in the Gator Bowl is enticing, but the Aggies might be watered-down with quarterback Zach Calzada in the transfer portal and defensive coordinator Mike Elko off to Duke.  

One under-the-radar game to consider in this group: the Kent State-Wyoming Potato Bowl. It’s a stylistic clash. The Golden Flashes have a good offense (27th in EPA per play) and prefer to run the ball out of spread formations in the shotgun. They ran more plays from the gun this year than all but five teams, and 51 percent of those plays were runs (the national average is just 41 percent). Wyoming’s offense is 116th in shotgun snaps, and the team much prefers to run the ball in general, but out of under-center formations. Plus, it’s highly likely that the winning coach, either Kent State’s Sean Lewis or Wyoming’s Craig Bohl, is doused with french fries at the end of the game

North Carolina and South Carolina have an honest-to-goodness rivalry, which makes the Duke’s Mayo Bowl a zesty matchup even as the teams meet regularly at the same Charlotte venue. 

At least they’re not on holidays

Tier 4 of 2021 college football bowl games by BEAST score, with points for team familiarity, opposing styles, quality and stakes

Bowl Matchup Date Fam. Style Quality Stakes BEAST
Gasparilla Florida-UCF 12/23 2 1 2 1 6
Pinstripe Virginia Tech-Maryland 12/29 2 1 2 1 6
Bahamas Middle Tennessee-Toledo 12/17 3 1 1 1 6
Myrtle Beach Old Dominion-Tulsa 12/20 3 1 1 1 6
Frisco Football Classic Miami (Ohio)-North Texas 12/23 3 1 1 1 6

Source: FBSchedules.com

These bowls are mostly full of .500ish teams that barely qualified for the postseason. Some are just playing out the string under interim coaches (Florida, Virginia Tech), others are capping off decent seasons that weren’t quite what they hoped (Maryland, UCF), and others will be genuinely excited to be here after terrible starts to the season. Old Dominion and North Texas both started their seasons 1-6 before rattling off five wins to get to bowl eligibility, so I might gravitate toward their bowls. Maryland started the season 4-0 and finished on a 2-6 skid, but it’s a little exciting that the Terps are playing in a bowl for the first time since 2016. The Pinstripe Bowl is at Yankee Stadium, so if you like football fields on baseball diamonds, that may be the thing for you. 

Reruns that even fans of the originals may not watch

Tier 5 of 2021 college football bowl games by BEAST score, with points for team familiarity, opposing styles, quality and stakes

Bowl Matchup Date Fam. Style Quality Stakes BEAST
Sun Washington St.-Miami 12/31 1 1 2 1 5
Camellia Ball St.-Georgia St. 12/25 1 1 1 1 4

Source: FBSchedules.com

Wazzu and Miami played the Sun Bowl in 2015, a 20-14 Cougars win that you almost certainly don’t remember. The Hurricanes are in transition as Cristobal takes over the program, but he won’t be coaching this game. Ball State and Georgia State played a home-and-home in 2015 and 2016, splitting a couple of games decided by 10 and 12 points. Either of these games could be quite good, because every bowl has the potential to be quite good in some way or another. Just think about it at length before you plan your day around watching one of them. 

Footnotes

  1. Until 1998, media selected champions outright, and since 2014, the College Football Playoff selection committee has decided who gets to compete in the four-team playoff.

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo.

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