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Bowl games that weren’t: Matchups we missed out on in 2018

This year’s bowl season features some fascinating matchups, and of course, the playoff semifinals do not lack for intrigue. This season has featured the second-most points per game of any year in FBS history, which may mean that even games that don’t jump off the page still have the potential to turn into thrilling shootouts.

But for as much care as the conferences and bowl officials take in putting together the optimal matchups for each bowl, it still feels like we’re missing out. With the reshuffling of a few teams, the bowl slate could have featured even more must-see pairings. Here are this year’s bowl game matchups we deserve but won’t get.

Mississippi State vs. Penn State

Last year, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left Happy Valley for Starkville to become Mississippi State’s head coach.

Moorhead’s two-year tenure with the Nittany Lions was a smashing success: Penn State lit up scoreboards across Big Ten country for nearly 40 points per game and went to a New Year’s Six game two years in a row.

A bowl matchup pitting Moorhead against James Franklin, his former boss, just a year after leaving Penn State would deliver. Plus, quarterback Trace McSorley would have to challenge his former offensive coordinator, who undoubtedly knows his tendencies well, in his last college game.

An extra nugget: Former Nittany Lions and current Bulldogs defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was sued by Penn State after he left for the same job at Tennessee two seasons ago. The two sides reached a settlement this February, but that history adds some extra zest on an already storyline-loaded bowl game.

Instead, the Nittany Lions take on Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, and the Bulldogs get Iowa in the Outback. Orlando and Tampa are only 90 minutes apart on Florida Interstate 4, so the two sides can still exchange pleasantries on New Year’s Day if they so desire.

Stanford vs. Northwestern

These two top-ten universities have a history. Stanford leads the overall matchup, 3–2 (with two ties, including a 41–41 barnburner in 1994), but in 2015 the Wildcats shocked No. 16 Stanford at Ryan Field, 16–6. With 134 yards, Wildcats running back Justin Jackson more than doubled Cardinal star Christian McCaffrey’s production, and quarterback Clayton Thorson, making his college debut, ripped off a 42-yard touchdown scamper down the sideline in the second quarter that still holds up as a career highlight.

Northwestern went on to a 10–2 regular season that jump-started the best four-year stretch in team history, while Stanford’s loss may have kept it out of the College Football Playoff. The Cardinal haven’t been to a New Year’s Six bowl since.

The segments would have written themselves for the broadcasters calling this game. Instead, Northwestern will play Utah in the Holiday Bowl, and Stanford will take on Pitt in the Sun Bowl.

UCF vs. Florida

A Sunshine State championship game may be this season’s most egregious missed opportunity. Just imagine the scene: Thousands of black and gold-clad UCF fans proclaiming themselves the best team in Florida, while on the other side, Gators faithful scoffing at the Knights.

After Florida crushed Florida State during rivalry week, the Gators football program’s account tweeted this:

Meanwhile, UCF hasn’t lost since the Obama administration. Sure, Florida, Florida State and Miami have 11 combined national titles, but UCF has last year’s national championship. With far fewer resources, UCF has been Florida’s most successful team over the last two years, but it hasn’t been able to test its mettle against any of the state’s traditional powerhouses. UCF is 0–5 all-time against those schools, and with a no-win situation looming if they crossed the Knights at the apex of their run, it’s best the Florida establishment keeps it that way, which leaves a bowl game as the only chance to see such a matchup.

Both teams were ticketed for the New Year’s Six rotation, the committee passed on the tantalizing duel. The selection committee is directed to steer clear of sending the Group of Five representative to the same bowl in consecutive years (UCF won last year’s Peach Bowl) and to take into account geographic convenience in setting its matchups, which is why Florida will face Michigan in the Peach Bowl and UCF will take on LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. The Fiesta’s corporate suits likely had no interest in a game played between two Florida schools 2,000 miles away in Arizona.

UCF-LSU and Florida-Michigan should both captivate us, but a Florida-UCF showdown would have delivered in a big way.

Army vs. UAB

It’s time for some mid-major flavor, because Army and UAB feature two of the best defenses in college football. The Black Knights have allowed the fifth-lowest yardage output in the FBS this season, and on September 22 they smothered Kyler Murray and Oklahoma’s high-octane attack to only 330 yards and 21 points in regulation with a big assist from their ball-controlling option offense.

Just four years removed from its program being shut down, UAB’s stout defense has pitched three shutouts this year and has given up just 17 points per game. Behind top lineman Jamell Garcia-Williams, the Blazers have racked up 41 sacks this year, the fourth-most in the FBS, and they won the Conference USA title over Middle Tennessee.

Arizona State vs. Duke

During Herm Edwards’s introductory press conference at Arizona State last December, the longtime NFL coach and ESPN analyst seemed to forget his new team’s nickname: The Sun Devils. After a reporter from introduced himself, Edwards hilariously perked up: “I’m Catholic now, I’m a Christian. Watch out for them devils.”

To add some spice to Edwards’s plate, the Sun Devils should obviously play the Blue Devils in a postseason devil-fest. It would likely be an entertaining game between 7–5 teams—the last time the two teams met was in the 2014 Sun Bowl, where the Sun Devils prevailed in a 36–31 thriller. This double-deviled matchup would drive Herm absolutely bonkers, so on second thought, maybe it actually shouldn’t happen.

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