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Our college football bowl preview guide, from FSU-Oklahoma to UConn and beyond

The Gators’ Gervon Dexter and an Illinois star from Clearwater are among the players to watch over the next few weeks.
Trey Benson and the Seminoles will try to beat Oklahoma for only the second time in program history.
Trey Benson and the Seminoles will try to beat Oklahoma for only the second time in program history. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Dec. 16, 2022

Four under-the-radar bowls to watch

Cure Bowl (3 p.m. Friday, ESPN): I hate that the bowl system pits two of the best mid-major teams, No. 23 Troy and No. 22 UTSA, against each other instead of giving them a shot at upsetting a Power Five program. My moral objection, however, will not prevent me from watching this game.

Holiday Bowl (8 p.m. Dec. 28): North Carolina faces No. 15 Oregon in a matchup of top-25 scoring offenses. It’s also a great quarterback duel between the Tar Heels’ Drake Maye and the Ducks’ Bo Nix.

Alamo Bowl (9 p.m. Dec. 29): No. 21 Texas won’t have star running back Bijan Robinson (who has opted out to prepare for the NFL draft), but Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Michael Penix is always fun to watch for No. 12 Washington. This is a big stage for Penix, to try to launch his 2023 Heisman Trophy campaign.

Related: What’s the NCAA transfer portal window like? ‘Insanity’

Gator Bowl (3:30 p.m. Dec. 30): I don’t have a read on this game, because I don’t have a read on either team. No. 19 Notre Dame lost to Marshall and Stanford before upsetting Clemson by three scores. No. 20 South Carolina lost by 32 at Florida, then beat top-10 Tennessee and Clemson teams in back-to-back weeks. The uncertainty makes this one interesting.

FSU history lesson

Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff had a record-setting day for Florida State in a Gator Bowl win over Oklahoma.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff had a record-setting day for Florida State in a Gator Bowl win over Oklahoma. [ HEIDI FANG | Las Vegas Review-Journal ]

Florida State is 1-6 all-time against Oklahoma, but the one exception is notable. The Seminoles beat the Sooners 36-19 in the January 1965 Gator Bowl behind FSU and NFL legend Fred Biletnikoff, who set program records with 13 catches for 192 yards and four touchdowns. We’ll see whether these No. 13 Seminoles can put up big offensive numbers against the nation’s No. 99 scoring defense in Orlando’s Cheez-It Bowl.

Related: What the ‘Fire Mike Norvell’ Twitter Spaces guy thinks of FSU football now

6 questions on the New Year’s Six

Tennessee will face Clemson in the Orange Bowl without offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, USF's new head coach.
Tennessee will face Clemson in the Orange Bowl without offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, USF's new head coach. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

1. What does No. 6 Tennessee’s offense look like without Alex Golesh in the Orange Bowl against Clemson? This will give us a gauge of how important the new USF coach was to the Volunteers’ elite offense.

Related: Is new USF football coach Alex Golesh the next Jim Leavitt? Or another Jeff Scott?

2. How does Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik fare in his first career start, against the Volunteers? The No. 10 Tigers should, again, be ACC contenders next year, if Klubnik is more Trevor Lawrence than DJ Uiagalelei.

3. How much does No. 5 Alabama really care about the Sugar Bowl against No. 11 Kansas State? The Crimson Tide have lost two of their last four non-playoff bowl games under Nick Saban.

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4. Will No. 1 Georgia be tested by No. 4 Ohio State in the Peach Bowl semifinal?

5. Can No. 3 TCU be physical enough to withstand No. 2 Michigan in the other semifinal, the Fiesta Bowl?

6. Will either first-round playoff game be entertaining? Twelve of the previous 16 semis have been blowouts.

Gasparilla Bowl

Sam Hartman will leave Wake Forest as one of the most prolific passers in ACC history.
Sam Hartman will leave Wake Forest as one of the most prolific passers in ACC history. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

Wake Forest-Missouri isn’t an eye-catching matchup, but take a moment to appreciate what the Demon Deacons have done. Quarterback Sam Hartman has thrown 107 touchdown passes and needs only one more to break his tie with former Clemson star Tajh Boyd for the ACC record. Wake Forest has averaged at least 30 points in six consecutive seasons; the only longer streaks in ACC history were 1992-2003 Florida State, 2011-20 Clemson and 2008-16 FSU.

Eye on the NFL

Florida Gators defensive lineman Gervon Dexter chose to play in the Las Vegas Bowl, unlike many NFL draft prospects.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Gervon Dexter chose to play in the Las Vegas Bowl, unlike many NFL draft prospects. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Florida defensive lineman Gervon Dexter is the rare high-end player who is participating in a bowl game despite already declaring for the draft. “I think it reflects his character,” Gators coach Billy Napier said. We’ll see whether he can boost his stock with a nice showing in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl against No. 17 Oregon State (ESPN).

Related: Who is Jack Miller, Florida Gators’ starting quarterback for Las Vegas Bowl?

Local to watch

Jer’Zhan "Johnny" Newton starred at Clearwater Central Catholic before he became one of the nation's top defensive players at Illinois.
Jer’Zhan "Johnny" Newton starred at Clearwater Central Catholic before he became one of the nation's top defensive players at Illinois. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]

Illinois defensive lineman Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton (Clearwater Central Catholic)

The second-team All-American leads the Illini in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (5½) and ranks among the nation’s leaders in quarterback hits (10) and pressures (50), according to Pro Football Focus. Keep an eye on him as he tries to slow down Mississippi State in a Jan. 2 homecoming of sorts at Tampa’s ReliaQuest Bowl.

Related: RIP Mike Leach, college football treasure and Florida man

Fenway history

Fenway Park will finally make some interesting history when it hosts Cincinnati and Louisville on Saturday (ESPN). The stadium was supposed to host its first bowl game in 2020, but it was called off because of the pandemic. Last year’s game was canceled, too, because of a coronavirus outbreak with Virginia. This year’s game is just bizarre. Cincinnati will be led by interim coach Kerry Coombs because the Bearcats’ new coach, Scott Satterfield just came from … Louisville. The Cardinals will be led by Super Bowl 39 MVP Deion Branch and a makeshift staff.

3 pleasant surprises

UConn, somehow, is back in a bowl game.
UConn, somehow, is back in a bowl game. [ BRYAN WOOLSTON | AP ]

1. UConn has risen from longtime laughingstock to bowl participant after Jim Mora’s Huskies went 6-6 in his first year. A win over Marshall in the Myrtle Beach Bowl would be the program’s first since beating South Carolina in the 2009 PapaJohns.com Bowl.

2. Eastern Michigan had only one bowl appearance before Chris Creighton’s arrival. Tuesday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against San Jose State will be the Eagles’ fifth in his tenure. A win would give Eastern Michigan its first nine-win season since 1987.

3. Duke’s resurgence flew under the radar, but it shouldn’t have. First-year coach Mike Elko — a former Jimbo Fisher assistant at Texas A&M — took a team that had lost 23 of its last 29 games to an 8-4 regular season and a trip to the Military Bowl against UCF.

By the numbers

UCF coach Gus Malzahn will try to lead the Knights to another bowl win after knocking off the Gators in last year's Gasparilla Bowl.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn will try to lead the Knights to another bowl win after knocking off the Gators in last year's Gasparilla Bowl. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

3-5 — UCF coach Gus Malzahn’s career record in bowls, including the BCS title game loss to FSU

11,792 — Passing yards at Purdue by former quarterback Drew Brees, whom the Boilermakers hired as an assistant for the Citrus Bowl

1934 — The last time Tulane won a major bowl game. The No. 14 Green Wave will have a shot at ending that drought against No. 8 USC in the Cotton Bowl

3 — Consecutive bowl losses for Utah, which had won 14 of its previous 15. The No. 7 Utes should be in for a great game against No. 9 Penn State in the Rose Bowl

0 — Bowl wins in South Alabama history. The Jaguars are favored to get No. 1 against Western Kentucky in the New Orleans Bowl

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