Bowl season is arguably the best time of year for any college football fan. Sure, there may be too many bowl games, but that just means more college football to enjoy before it goes away for the year.
All of the bowl game madness tends to get even crazier on New Year's Day. Some of the best postseason matchups are played annually on the first day of the new year. Excitement is at an all-time as this year's slate of games plays host to the first ever playoff.
Many consider the playoff to be the cure for a flawed BCS system that constantly caused uproar among college football fans, coaches, and players. The selection committee faces constant ridicule and criticism, but all of that will be forgotten when it comes times for kickoff.
Of course, the two semifinal games are not the only ones of importance. We all get to sit back and enjoy three ranked matchups prior to the playoff games. All of these things are key ingredients to a great day of college football.
Outback Bowl: #19 Auburn vs. #18 Wisconsin
11:00 am CT on ESPN2
Auburn (8-4, 4-4 SEC) will not be playing in the New Year's Day game they originally hoped for. They will instead settle for the Outback Bowl. They will have their hands full slowing down Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who leads the country in rushing yards and touchdowns. Gordon also leads the nation in plays of 10 yards or more where the Tigers are ranked 71st nationally in defending. However, the primary focus for Gus Malzahn will be executing his own ground attack.
Wisconsin's (10-3, 7-2 BIG Ten) postseason has not gone as planned. Following an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the BIG Ten Championship game, it was announced that head coach Gary Andersen would be leaving for Oregon State. Interim coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez will be tasked with stopping Malzahn's run-heavy spread offense. Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne is no Melvin Gordon, but he did lead the SEC in rushing.
Both teams will have important pieces missing from this matchup. Malzahn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson at the end of the regular season, while also suspending wide receiver Duke Williams for the game. The Badgers will obviously suffer from the sudden departure of Gary Andersen. These absences may take a toll on team chemistry but not on the overall game plan: run the ball.
Cotton Bowl: #8 Michigan State vs. #5 Baylor
11:30 am CT on ESPN
Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 BIG Ten) appears to be one of the most undervalued teams in all of college football. They have only suffered two losses on the season and both were to teams that are playing in a playoff game. However, they gave up an average of 529 yards per game in those two losses and will be facing the best total offense in the country on Thursday. As if making one of the big bowl games was not enough, head coach Mark Dantonio has to once again proven he can take down a top-ranked program.
Baylor (11-2, 8-1 BIG 12) was one of the first teams to feel cheated by the playoff committee's selections. The Bears were constantly in the hunt for a spot in the final four, but the lack of a consensus conference championship on their résumé hurt them in the long run. Despite the disappointment, Baylor should treat this game as an opportunity to prove their worth instead of a consolation prize. That is if Bryce Petty can power his team past the best defense they have faced all season.
Michigan State will say goodbye to long time defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who will be on the Spartans staff one last game before leaving to be Pittsburgh's new head coach. Facing Baylor's high-powered offense is probably not his idea of a going away party. Both teams felt like they received the short end of the stick, so expect this one to be a hard fought battle.
Citrus Bowl: #16 Missouri vs. #25 Minnesota
12:00 pm CT on ABC
Missouri (10-3, 7-2 SEC) exceeded expectations for the second consecutive season by making it to the SEC Championship once again. While they may have not been able to take down Alabama, the Tigers can end their season on a high note with a win over Minnesota. It will not come without issue. Missouri ranks 104th nationally in total offense and has only averaged 11 points per game against ranked opponents. Without an offensive spark, they could find themselves losing to a BIG Ten opponent once again.
Minnesota's (8-4, 5-3 BIG Ten) record may be a bit misleading. The Golden Gophers are arguably the most underrated team in the Big Ten. They lost to eventual conference champion Ohio State by only four points and managed to take down Nebraska. That does not mean that they will not have a tough time with Missouri. If you thought the Tigers were bad on offense, Minnesota managed to finish two spots behind them in total offense. In other words, these two teams will not be lighting up the scoreboard.
This may not be your idea of an appetizer game for the first semifinal, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. In fact, it may be the most evenly matched game of the afternoon. With neither team having a direct advantage, this one could come down to the wire. Turnovers and special teams should be the deciding factor.
Rose Bowl: #3 Florida State vs. #2 Oregon
4:00 pm CT on ESPN
Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC) managed to survive the whole year unscathed despite multiple close calls. The Seminoles were trailing at halftime in five different games this season. With a national championship hanging in the balance, there will be no room for error against Oregon. Jimbo Fisher wants to win back-to-back national titles, he will need James Winston to be cured of the turnover bug. Winston has thrown 11 interceptions in his last six games compared to only have thrown 10 last season.
Oregon (12-1, 8-1 PAC 12) will enter Thursday's matchup in Pasadena as favorites to take down FSU. The whole country knows what the Ducks are capable of doing on offense behind the arm of Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. Defense will be the primary concern heading into the game. The recent injury to Ifo Efpre-Olomu leaves a hole in the secondary that may serve as a problem against talented FSU receivers Rashad Greene and Travis Rudolph.
Florida State will not have room to slip early against Oregon. Trailing the Ducks at halftime is not the same thing as trailing North Carolina State at halftime. On the other hand, the Ducks have concerns of their own. Jameis Winston may be inconsistent, but, when he is on, he is one of the best in the country.
Sugar Bowl: #1 Alabama vs. #4 Ohio State
7:30 pm CT on ESPN
Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC) was never expected to make it this far with Blake Sims at quarterback. Not only did Sims exceed everyone's expectations, he proved that he can hang with the best of them. He will likely be pressured all night by one of the best defenses in the entire country led by Joey Bosa. The Buckeyes will likely try to figure out a scheme to slow down superstar Amari Cooper. The Crimson Tide needs to get the ball rolling on offense or else they will once again see disappointment in the Sugar Bowl.
Ohio State (12-1, 9-0 BIG Ten) proved they were worthy of a playoff spot despite some early setbacks. The Buckeyes had multiple starters go down with injuries, yet Urban Meyer managed to win with backups. While the defense has their own concerns with stopping Cooper and company, Meyer is primarily concerned with figuring out how to move the ball against Alabama's tough defensive line. Quarterback Cardale Jones will be facing one of the best defenses in the country in just his second start.
Experts may not agree, but Ohio State is capable of taking down Alabama. Even if the Buckeyes struggle, this will still be one of the most hyped up games of the year. Both teams are loaded with future NFL talent and many believe Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are the two best coaches in college football. Is there a better way to start the playoff than with a renewed Saban vs. Meyer rivalry?