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Murphy: College football bowl season is a delight from beginning to end
Lesser-known bowls often have the most exciting finish
Georgia
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart reacts after Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) scored a touchdown against Auburn during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday in Atlanta. - photo by John Bazmore | Associated Press

College bowl season is the absolute best for prolonged sports consumption. 

Fourteen days’ worth of football games spread out over 23 days around Christmas to keep the sport in the forefront of everyone’s conversation. Does it get any better than that? I don’t think so. Not even the NCAA basketball tournament can match the unexpected excitement of two marginally talented college football programs battling late into the night, even though the majority of the games have little lasting impact. 

We’re all waiting eagerly for the semifinals of the playoffs on Jan. 1 when No. 3 Georgia (12-1) faces No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl for a chance to play in the national championship game Jan. 8 in Atlanta. 

Bulldogs fans are all abuzz pondering what it will feel like to win their first national title since 1980. 

The other playoff game between No. 1 Clemson (12-1) and No. 4 Alabama (11-1) also has the makings of another classic, after these two battled it out for the national championship in 2015 and 2016. 

As great as the four-team playoffs are (and it doesn’t need to be expanded to eight teams), it’s selling the unpredictable enjoyment of bowl season short if you boil it down to the three playoff games needed to crown the national champion. 

There’s no warning before the first bowl game of the season starts that one will go to seven overtimes, include a wacky game-winning play as time expires or feature a lesser-known player who breaks out as a guy to watch for 2018. To be sure not to miss anything, you really need to watch them all. 

The best example of an instant classic was the 2014 Bahamas Bowl where Central Michigan overcame a 35-point deficit and scored a 75-yard touchdown with a Hail Mary and three backward passes after the completion on the game’s final seconds to get within a point, only to miss the 2-point try and lose to Western Kentucky 49-48.

Last year, it was the Rose Bowl win by Southern Cal against Penn State that people were talking about long after Trojans kicker Matt Baermeester booted through a 46-yard field goal as time expired to keep from wasting a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

Also, you have to appreciate the not-so-cheap business sponsorships thrown in front of a bowl game to make an unbelievably awkward combination. Taking the cake in 2017 is when Temple (6-6) and Florida International (8-4) meet Dec. 21 at the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

Simply calling it the St. Petersburg Bowl just didn’t cover the cost of playing a game that will be picked up by ESPN.

This game might be a 30-point blowout, but it could just as easily be a game with nine lead changes and three successful onside-kick attempts late in the game. Just for that alone, I’ll be watching. 

A close second in the name game is when Southern Mississippi (8-4) faces Florida State (6-6) Dec. 27 at the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. I learned that Walk-On’s is a popular family of sports bars in Louisiana. With the Seminoles currently in transition from the Jimbo Fisher coaching era and star defensive back Derwin James already announcing he will not play in the game as he prepares to enter the NFL draft, this game could be a whole lot closer than you would think at first glance. 

Here are a couple other games with interesting storylines:

DOLLAR GENERAL BOWL, DEC. 23: Gainesville High graduate Devan Stringer will play his final college game for Appalachian State (8-4) against Toledo (11-2) in Mobile, Alabama. Stringer, an outside linebacker, has been a leading tackler for the Mountaineers as they have played in a bowl game in each of its first three years of eligibility since joining the Sun Belt Conference. 

CAMPING WORLD BOWL, DEC. 28: The nation’s leader in passing yards (Mason Rudolph) and receiving yards (James Washington) will take the field one last time for Oklahoma State (9-3) as it faces Virginia Tech (9-3) in Orlando, Florida. Rudolph (4,553 yards) and Washington (1,423 yards) will both likely go somewhere in the first two days of the NFL Draft. 

ARMED FORCES BOWL, DEC. 23: San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny is both the leading rusher nationally (2,026 yards) and also an exciting kick returner. The Aztecs will face a talented Army defense in Fort Worth, Texas. Just last month, Penny had 222 rushing yards, a kick return and punt return for a touchdown against Nevada. Even with his impressive numbers, Penny is generally considered a late-round prospect in the NFL draft. 

BOCA RATON BOWL, DEC. 19: Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic (10-3) will face Akron (7-6) in Boca Raton, Florida. This game isn’t interesting just because Kiffin, who is generally considered a candidate for a bigger job in the future, is the coach for the Owls. Florida Atlantic has a hurry-up offense that wastes little time with long snap counts. Owls sophomore running back Devin Singletary keeps their offense moving, averaging almost 160 yards per game. If you want a game that moves fast, this is your bowl game. 

PEACH BOWL, JAN. 1: There are a couple fascinating angles to the matchup between Central Florida (12-0) and Auburn (10-3) in Atlanta. Will Central Florida have any motivation playing for Scott Frost before he takes off to become coach at Nebraska? Does Auburn show any interest after falling flat in the SEC Championship game and thus missing out on the playoffs?

Along the same lines of the prestigious coaching carousel: will Texas A&M (7-5) be fired up for the Belk Bowl, the gap between Kevin Sumlin being fired as Aggies coach and Fisher taking over in 2018 as part of a $75 million dollar contract. 

Mississippi State and Oregon will also playing with interim coaches in bowl games. These are still high-profile programs, despite the man at the top changing. 

There are other bowl games with compelling story angles, but with consideration for time and space, it suffices to say they’re all worth watching. 

Enjoy bowl season. It’s almost here. 


Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com or @Bill_Murphy379 on Twitter.

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