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Monday Measure: The five most intriguing non-College Football Playoff bowl games

Bowl season is quickly approaching. The first bowl games of the 2019 season are just 11 days away as the Bahamas Bowl kicks off on the afternoon of Dec. 20. If you haven’t had a chance to see all the bowl matchups, here’s a complete bowl schedule and here’s our ranking of all 39 bowl games in 2019 and 2020.

Those rankings were done largely with the on-field product in mind. Some of this list isn’t. Here are five games we think are going to be extremely intriguing in the coming weeks.

How will Memphis fare against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl after head coach Mike Norvell (pictured) left for Florida State? (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

5. Memphis and Mike Norvell’s move to Florida State

Cotton Bowl: Penn State (10-2) vs. Memphis (12-1) — Dec. 28

Mike Norvell is the second Group of Five coach to leave for a new job after his team qualified for a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Norvell was introduced Sunday as the new coach at Florida State. He joins Scott Frost, who took the Nebraska job following UCF’s undefeated 2017 season, as the only coaches to leave for a Power Five job after their team clinched a major bowl berth. (While Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck left for Minnesota after the 2016 season, the Gophers didn’t make a coaching change until after Fleck’s Broncos played in the Cotton Bowl.)

Frost ended up coaching UCF in the Peach Bowl against Auburn as he tried to juggle two jobs at once. At the moment, it’s unclear if Norvell will try to do the same. Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch said Sunday that he needed to talk to Norvell, but the plan was that interim coach Ryan Silverfield would coach the game.

If Silverfield coaches the game, it’d be the first time in the six years of the current bowl format that a team in a New Year’s Six bowl game was coached by an interim coach. If Norvell coaches, he’ll be a very busy man at the end of December. Either way, Memphis will be in a rare situation.

4. Air Raid vs. Option

Cheez-It Bowl: Air Force (10-2) vs. Washington State (6-6) — Dec. 27

You won’t find a bigger contrast in offensive styles than when Washington State and Air Force meet in the Cheez-It Bowl. 

Washington State, under Mike Leach, throws the ball more than any other team while running the Air Raid. On the other side, Air Force — like the other service academies — features an option-based attack. 

The passing numbers from the team’s quarterbacks will give you a straightforward glimpse at what you’ll be watching. Washington State’s Anthony Gordon has thrown for 5,228 yards and 45 touchdowns while completing 465 of his 645 attempts. Gordon has thrown 164 more passes and completed 123 more than any other quarterback in the country. By comparison, Air Force’s Donald Hammond III has attempted just 171 passes in 20 games at quarterback for the Falcons.

Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon has thrived under coach Mike Leach. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Air Force passes more than Army and Navy, but still ranks No. 3 in the country in rushing offense, gaining an average of 292.5 yards per game on the ground. The Falcons have four players with at least 491 rushing yards. Washington State, with just 870 total rushing yards, is second to last, going for just 72.5 yards per game — a product of the team’s No. 1 passing offense. 

With a matchup like this, we’re highly unlikely to see a repeat of last year’s wild Cheez-It Bowl, a 10-7 overtime victory for TCU over Cal that featured a combined nine interceptions between the two teams. But it should be just as entertaining.

3. Ex-Big 12 mates face off in Texas

Texas Bowl: Oklahoma State (8-4) vs. Texas A&M (7-5) — Dec. 27

It’s always fun to see teams that used to be conference rivals meet up in a bowl game. Though if we’re being greedy it would have been nice to see this former Big 12 matchup between Texas and Texas A&M.

It’s the second straight season that Oklahoma State has faced a former Big 12 foe. A year ago the Cowboys beat Missouri in the Liberty Bowl. This year the crowd in Houston should be a bit more hostile with Texas A&M just up the road. 

The move to the SEC hasn’t exactly worked out for A&M since Johnny Manziel’s departure. The Aggies have just two nine-win seasons since that magical 11-2 run in 2012, and the team’s seven wins in 2019 match the lowest win total in Kevin Sumlin’s six-year tenure with the school.

Jimbo Fisher’s job isn’t in danger. Not with a $75 million contract. But this bowl game is a statement opportunity for Texas A&M to show that it’s a better program in the SEC even if the win-loss record isn’t what fans wished it would be.

Texas A&M is 7-5 in 2019 under head coach Jimbo Fisher. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2. Saban vs. Harbaugh

Citrus Bowl: Alabama (10-2) vs. Michigan (9-3) — Jan. 1

Hoo boy. Citrus Bowl officials had to be thrilled that both Michigan and Alabama were there for the selecting after the New Year’s Six bowls made their choices. You can’t pass up the opportunity for Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh.

This game is the first matchup between two of the three most recognizable coaches in college football and perhaps the two most polarizing. And it comes a year after Harbaugh hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to be Michigan’s offensive coordinator in 2019. 

The two coaches were also on the forefront of the debate about satellite camps a few years ago when Michigan started having coaching camps at locations across the country. It inspired this tweet from Harbaugh that still stands following Saban’s criticism of the practice. 

The game may not be nearly as intriguing on the field. It sets up as a really good matchup but there’s no telling just how many Alabama players will sit out the game ahead of the NFL draft. After all, it’s the first time the entire Alabama roster has missed out on the College Football Playoff. And Saban isn’t too big a fan of the bowl-missing practice.

But we will say this — the last time Alabama ended up in the Citrus Bowl it was quite the blowout. The Crimson Tide beat Michigan State 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.

1. Chris Petersen’s final game

Las Vegas Bowl: Washington (7-5) vs. No. 19 Boise State (12-1) — Dec. 21

One of the most surprising moments of the 2019 season came when Washington abruptly announced last week that Chris Petersen planned to step down after the season. The news came completely out of left field, but Petersen has always done things his way, so those who know him best weren’t shocked by his decision. 

Petersen is simply burnt out from the rigors of college coaching, something he’s done at an extremely high level for decades. Before he coached Washington to two Pac-12 championships and a College Football Playoff appearance, Petersen rose to fame has the sharp-minded, Fiesta Bowl-winning Boise State coach who wouldn’t leave the comfort of the blue turf for just any job. USC wanted him, but Petersen’s unwillingness to cater to certain aspects of that job ultimately weren’t a fit. But the ability to float under the radar that Washington provided ultimately was enough to lure Petersen to a power program. 

Chris Petersen's final game as the head coach at Washington will come against the school that put him on the map: Boise State. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

That’s why when the news of this year’s Las Vegas Bowl matchup — Boise State vs. Washington — broke Sunday, it immediately became one of the must-see games of this year’s bowl slate. Under other circumstances, it would be a matchup of the premier program in the Mountain West against a Pac-12 power looking to cap off an underwhelming year on a high note. 

Instead, it’s a battle between Petersen’s old school (which is coached by former Petersen assistant Bryan Harsin) and his current school in what could ultimately be his last game as a college head coach. The on-field action should be compelling, too. 

Boise State is 12-1 and just won its third Mountain West title in Harsin’s six-year tenure. But Washington is the more talented team despite the disappointing 7-5 record. The Huskies are led offensively by quarterback Jacob Eason, a transfer from Georgia, and 1,000-yard rusher Salvon Ahmed. (Star tight end Hunter Bryant and tackle Trey Adams will not play, presumably to preserve their health ahead of the NFL draft). Washington’s players, the ones who do play, will do everything in their power to make sure Petersen goes out with a victory.

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