For many life-long college football fans, New Year’s Day still resonates as the day of ultimate celebration for the sport. So while the bowl season is much more spread out now, watching your team participate in a Jan. 1 or New Year’s Eve bowl remains a special event.
Most games over this calendar transitioning weekend won’t have competition from other contests in the same timeslot. But we’re sure that you have other plans to celebrate the arrival of 2022, so you’ll want to plan your football viewing accordingly. We’re here to help.
The two College Football Playoff bowls should obviously be your highest priority, but what about the rest of the slate? Here are the Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 games ranked in order of what we think will be the most watchable.
Orange Bowl – No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: We’ll agree with the schedule makers who opted to put this semifinal in the prime-time window that this, on paper at least, has the greater instant-classic potential of the two. Both programs are hoping to snap lengthy national title droughts. There might not be a whole lot of offensive fireworks, as both teams want to control the game at the line of scrimmage. Michigan RB Hassan Haskins has ably carried the load of late, but he should get help with Blake Corum back from an ankle injury. But finding real estate against DT Jordan Davis and the Bulldogs’ front line isn’t easy, even for a group as accomplished as the Wolverines, so QB Cade McNamara is going to have to provide a measure of air cover. The Bulldogs will likewise look to RBs Zamir White and James Cook to help QB Stetson Bennett avoid the fierce Michigan pass rush, led by Heisman finalist DE Aidan Hutchinson.
Why it could disappoint: It shouldn’t as far as intensity is concerned, but it probably won’t be a high-scoring affair. Georgia has only been forced into comeback mode once this season and didn’t handle it well, but the Wolverines did let a double-digit lead get away in their lone setback at Michigan State thanks in part to some breakdowns in the kicking game.
Cotton Bowl – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati
Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: The day’s first semifinal carries the classic established heavyweight champ vs. scrappy challenger storyline. The Crimson Tide haven’t dominated like last year’s version often did, but they looked every bit the title favorite in the SEC finale. The Bearcats have been waiting for this opportunity since last year’s unbeaten regular season wasn’t enough to earn them an invitation. The big stage is not new to Alabama, of course, but Cincinnati has a few things operating in its favor. The Bearcats have a terrific defensive secondary, featuring CBs Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner and S Ja’von Hicks. Tide QB Bryce Young’s receiving corps will be missing top target John Metchie III, injured late in the Georgia win, but Jameson Williams is a constant breakaway threat, and WR Slade Bolden and TE Cameron Latu are solid in the mid-range game. Bearcats’ QB Desmond Ridder is as tough a competitor as there is, though he can be streaky at times. He’s going to need a lot of support from RB Jerome Ford if he hopes to limit his high-impact encounters with Tide LB/DE Will Anderson.
Why it could disappoint: Missing personnel aside, Alabama will still have the advantage in overall depth, so Cincinnati can’t afford to be playing from behind. If the Tide come out firing, it could get away early.
Sugar Bowl – No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 8 Mississippi
Saturday, 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: The last game on the New Year’s Day lineup has the potential to be the best one. The Big 12 champion Bears, who are actually staying in the league, will try to earn a few conference bragging rights against the perceived predators from the SEC. But the Rebels will be quite pleased to be at this venue near their backyard and want to make a statement of their own. Baylor should have QB Gerry Bohanon back from injury, but the game plan should still involve plenty of touches for RBs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner. The job of bottling them up will belong to Ole Miss LBs Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson. The Rebels’ attack can be more explosive, and the running ability of QB Matt Corral is an underappreciated aspect of his game. Somebody on the sound Baylor defense, possibly LB Terrel Bernard, will have to keep an eye on him.
Why it could disappoint: A blowout seems unlikely, though the Bears would conceivably have a more difficult time staging a rally should Ole Miss grab an early lead. A barrage of turnovers is possible, though both teams are generally sound with the ball.
Fiesta Bowl – No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: There are also plenty of reasons to catch this one as Notre Dame kicks off the Marcus Freeman era against an opponent the program has never faced. The Cowboys, a strong bowl team throughout Mike Gundy’s tenure, are happy to have the opportunity to close the year with a meaningful win after coming up agonizingly short in the Big 12 title tilt against Baylor. Oklahoma State QB Spencer Sanders is particularly eager for this shot at redemption after being much too charitable with the ball in his most recent outing, though the absence of RB Jaylen Warren didn’t help. Warren should be available, but he’ll have to avoid Fighting Irish LBs J.D. Bertrand and Drew White. Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams is off to the NFL, so the ground game will be in the capable hands of Chris Tyree. He and QB Jack Coan could nevertheless have their hands full against the Cowboys, defense, led by ubiquitous LB Malcolm Rodriguez.
Why it could disappoint: Freeman did his best to maintain continuity on the Fighting Irish sideline, but there’s a measure of uncertainty that comes with any change. The team shouldn’t experience any issues on the field, but the Cowboys are capable of exploiting miscues.
Rose Bowl – No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah
Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: You can’t not watch the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, right? The ‘Granddaddy’ might not have the day’s best matchup, but Ohio State’s presence will always bring attention and Utah earned its way here with a pair of convincing wins down the stretch against early Pac-12 favorite Oregon. Buckeyes’ QB C.J. Stroud figures to enter next season among the Heisman frontrunners, especially if he leaves a good final impression here in Pasadena. Trying to make sure he doesn’t will be LB Devin Lloyd, who leads the Utes in total tackles and interceptions and is second on the team in sacks. Utah QB Cameron Rising isn’t quite as prolific in the aerial game, but he doesn’t need to be with RB Tavion Thomas and a powerful line lending plenty of ground support. They’ll look to exploit an Ohio State front that was gashed in the team’s two losses.
Why it could disappoint: Several of Stroud’s top weapons have moved on, including WRs Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, so the game will lack a bit for star power. If the Utes can push the Buckeyes around the way Oregon and Michigan did, OSU will have to count on younger playmakers on offense to keep up.
Outback Bowl – No. 24 Arkansas vs. Penn State
Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2
Why watch: The Razorbacks will look to cap off a breakout campaign with a New Year’s Day bowl win. But win or lose, the program is clearly on the rise with Sam Pittman at the helm. The Nittany Lions were a bit unlucky to finish 7-5 with several close losses down the stretch but hope to end on a high note. Arkansas QB K.J. Jefferson can run a bit but has a big enough arm to make things happen downfield. Penn State will counter with QB Sean Clifford, who has already said he’ll be back for his extra season of eligibility next year.
Why it could disappoint: Unfortunately, a number of key contributors won’t be on hand. The Nittany Lions will be missing NFL-bound WR Jahan Dotson and several defensive starters, while the Razorbacks will be without flashy WR Treylon Burks. Penn State’s more numerous opt-outs could prove problematic against Arkansas’s superior depth along the lines.
Sun Bowl – Washington State vs. Central Michigan
Friday, 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Why watch: It took some late maneuvering, but bowl officials worked out an opponent for the Cougars to replace Miami (Fla.). It worked out well for CMU, whose Arizona Bowl opponent, Boise State, also had to pull out. In the end, this might be the sneaky-good game of the weekend – regardless of whether you like Frosted Flakes. The Chippewas had to win their last four games to get to 6-6, but this might not be the mismatch it seems to be. They won’t be intimidated by power-five competition thanks to early dates against Missouri and LSU, and with QB Daniel Richardson and RB Lew Nichols III manning the backfield, they’re more than capable of putting up points. Washington State should be able to move the ball as well, however, with QB Jayden de Laura making ample use of WRs Calvin Jackson and Travell Harris.
Why it could disappoint: The change in opponents has undoubtedly altered the preparations for both teams. It’s conceivable that could result in a slew of mistakes, but those could go either way.
Citrus Bowl – No. 16 Iowa vs. No. 20 Kentucky
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: It’s a top-20 matchup on the first day of 2022, so it should be worth a look. Both teams feature top-25 defenses, so if nothing else it should be competitive in the fourth quarter.
Why it could disappoint: Quite simply, the potential for exciting plays is extremely limited. Iowa’s offense has been a weakness all season, and the unit’s one true standout, RB Tyler Goodson, is off to the draft. UK will also struggle to score with several receivers sidelined.
Gator Bowl – No. 19 Wake Forest vs. Rutgers
Friday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: It’s a football game on a Friday morning. Beats watching “The Price Is Right,” doesn’t it? Make no mistake – both these teams are happy to be in Jacksonville. The Demon Deacons came up short in the ACC title game but have a chance for the program’s first 11-win campaign since 2006. Rutgers, an 11th-hour replacement for Texas A&M, will at least try to enjoy the experience.
Why it could disappoint: When Rutgers dropped its regular-season finale 43-16 to Maryland, the Scarlet Knights understandably thought their season was over. Even with proper preparation time – which the team most definitely has not had since accepting this invitation – Rutgers just doesn’t have the offensive punch to keep up with QB Sam Hartman and Wake’s high-octane attack. The Deacons have been turnover prone of late, which could be the Knights’ saving grace. But Wake will do its best to put this on ice early – and allow you to flip over and catch the showcases if you’re a “Price Is Right” fan.