Conquering Bowl Mania: Our 2021 College Football Bowl Game Predictions
It’s bowl season. That means it’s time for Bowl Mania!
For those of you that have never played ESPN’s Bowl Mania, here’s how it works: You pick the winner of every bowl game and assign each game a confidence ranking. The teams that you’re most confident are going to win their bowl games are given the higher numbers. And the games you are least confident about are given the lower numbers.
At the end, the ranks of all the bowl games you correctly picked are added up for a final total. The higher your number, the better.
So how did we calculate our projections? We simulated each game 1,000 times on a neutral field. If a team won 579 of those simulations, that team’s win probability was 57.9%. We sorted the probabilities from lowest to highest and assigned each of them a confidence ranking.
Without further ado, here are our projections for this year’s slate of college bowl games, starting with our model’s least confident projection.
1) Military Bowl, Dec. 27: Boston College vs East Carolina
- Winner: Boston College
- Win Probability: 50%
- Average Score: 27.5 – 26.8
- Something to Know: After 1,000 simulations, each team won exactly 500 times. Boston College enters the game with the fourth-best pass defense in FBS, allowing only 173.5 yards per game.
2) Holiday Bowl, Dec. 28: UCLA vs. North Carolina State
- Winner: UCLA
- Win Probability: 50.3%
- Average Score: 30.8 – 30.6
- Something to Know: Of every bowl game, this is the game that had the narrowest average margin of victory, with UCLA only projected to win by 0.195 points per 1,000 simulations.
3) Frisco Football Classic, Dec. 23: North Texas vs. Miami (OH)
- Winner: North Texas
- Win Probability: 51.4%
- Average Score: 23.8 – 23.6
- Something to Know: North Texas had to beat then No. 24 UTSA in its final game to become bowl eligible. The team responded with a resounding 45-23 victory, led by a rushing attack that finished third in the FBS in rushing yards per game – and tops among non-triple option offenses.
4) First Responder Bowl, Dec. 28: Air Force vs. Louisville
- Winner: Air Force
- Win Probability: 52.7%
- Average Score: 36.4 – 35.4
- Something to Know: Speaking of triple option offenses, Air Force led the FBS in rushing yards per game (341.4). However, the more dynamic running quarterback in this game is Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, who finished the season with 968 rushing yards – the most among all FBS quarterbacks.
5) Sun Bowl, Dec. 31: Miami (FL) vs. Washington State
- Winner: Miami
- Win Probability: 53.9%
- Average Score: 31.2 – 29.3
6) Cheez-It Bowl, Dec. 29: Iowa State vs. Clemson
- Winner: Iowa State
- Win Probability: 56.2%
- Average Score: 18.1 – 15.9
- Something to Know: Clemson finished second in the FBS in scoring defense, behind only the vaunted Georgia defense. With both Iowa State and Clemson stronger on defense than offense, this is our lowest projected scoring bowl game.
7) Texas Bowl, Jan. 4.: LSU vs Kansas State
- Winner: LSU
- Win Probability: 56.5%
- Average Score: 26.2 – 23.2
8) Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 18: Appalachian State vs. Western Kentucky
- Winner: Appalachian State
- Win Probability: 56.6%
- Average Score: 40.2 – 37.6
- Something to Know: Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe can sling it. He led the FBS in passing yards per game (426.5) and threw for so many more touchdowns (56) than the next closest quarterback (43), it’s almost unbelievable. As a result of their dynamic passing game, WKU finished second in the FBS in scoring offense, behind only Ohio State.
9) Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1: Kentucky vs. Iowa
- Winner: Kentucky
- Win Probability: 56.6%
- Average Score: 32.4 – 30.2
10) Myrtle Beach Bowl, Dec. 20: Old Dominion vs. Tulsa
- Winner: Old Dominion
- Win Probability: 56.9%
- Average Score: 24.5 – 21.6
- Something to Know: Depending on where you look, Tulsa is favored between 7.0 and 9.5 points, making this game the biggest upset that our projections are expecting to happen.
11) Frisco Bowl, Dec. 21: UTSA vs. San Diego State
- Winner: UTSA
- Win Probability: 57.4%
- Average Score: 32.5 – 29.9
- Something to Know: This is the only non-New Year’s Six bowl game to feature two teams with fewer than three losses. UTSA is led by star running back Sincere McCormick, who finished the Conference USA championship game with 204 rushing yards and three touchdowns. San Diego State is led by their star, punter Matt Araiza, who led the FBS in punt average (51.4). Yes, we said punter.
12) Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 22: Army vs. Missouri
- Winner: Army
- Win Probability: 57.4%
- Average Score: 41.6 – 37.3
13) Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Tennessee vs. Purdue
- Winner: Tennessee
- Win Probability: 57.4%
- Average Score: 40.7 – 37.6
14) Sugar Bowl (NY6), Jan. 1: Ole Miss vs. Baylor
- Winner: Ole Miss
- Win Probability: 57.6%
- Average Score: 25.8 – 23.3
- Something to Know: The Ole Miss offense, led by head coach Lane Kiffin, gets most of the attention, but it was the team’s defense that led it to a birth in a New Year’s Six game. The Rebels didn’t allow more than 21 points to any of their final four opponents. While the Rebels defense came on strong late, Baylor’s defense was stout all season, only allowing 19.2 points per game.
15) Peach Bowl (NY6), Dec. 30: Pittsburgh vs. Michigan State
- Winner: Pittsburgh
- Win Probability: 58.7%
- Average Score: 37.6 – 34.0
- Something to Know: Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, one of the two headlining stars of this game, has pulled out to begin preparing for the NFL Draft. Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett and Walker finished third and sixth, respectively, in the Heisman voting.
16) Gator Bowl, Dec. 31: Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest
- Winner: Texas A&M
- Win Probability: 59%
- Average Score: 33.8 – 28.8
17) Fiesta Bowl (NY6), Jan. 1: Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State
- Winner: Notre Dame
- Win Probability: 59.1%
- Average Score: 18.5 – 15.8
- Something to Know: Along with Iowa State vs. Clemson, this is the headline game for fans who love defenses. Both teams finished in the top 10 in points allowed per game. Notre Dame only allowed three (!!!) combined points in the first half of its final four games.
18) Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24: Hawaii vs. Memphis
- Winner: Hawaii
- Win Probability: 60.6%
- Average Score: 40.7 – 35.9
19) Quick Lane Bowl, Dec. 27: Nevada vs. Western Michigan
- Winner: Nevada
- Win Probability: 60.6%
- Average Score: 38.6 – 33.7
20) LA Bowl, Dec. 18: Oregon State vs. Utah State
- Winner: Oregon State
- Win Probability: 61.1%
- Average Score: 41.7 – 37.6
21) Rose Bowl (NY6), Jan. 1: Ohio State vs. Utah
- Winner: Ohio State
- Win Probability: 63.2%
- Average Score: 43.7 – 38.0
- Something to Know: The Rose Bowl is our highest projected scoring bowl game as it features two teams in the top 20 in the FBS in scoring offense, including Ohio State’s No. 1 scoring offense. Utah annihilated Oregon in back-to-back weeks to receive the Pac-12’s Rose Bowl berth. Meanwhile, one of Ohio State’s losses on the season was at the hands of the Ducks.
22) Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Dec. 21: Wyoming vs Kent State
- Winner: Wyoming
- Win Probability: 63.9%
- Average Score: 41.7 – 34.9
23) Fenway Bowl, Dec. 29: Virginia vs. SMU
- Winner: Virginia
- Win Probability: 64.7%
- Average Score: 44.0 – 37.0
- Something to Know: Virginia is projected to put up the most points of the bowl season. The Cavaliers are led by spectacular quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who finished second in the FBS in passing yards per game.
24) Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Penn State vs. Arkansas
- Winner: Penn State
- Win Probability: 64.8%
- Average Score: 28.1 – 22.4
25) Bahamas Bowl, Dec. 17: Toledo vs. Middle Tennessee
- Winner: Toledo
- Win Probability: 65.5%
- Average Score: 27.5 – 20.7
26) LendingTree Bowl, Dec. 18: Liberty vs. Eastern Michigan
- Winner: Liberty
- Win Probability: 66.3%
- Average Score: 33.3 – 27.1
27) Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Dec. 30: North Carolina vs. South Carolina
- Winner: North Carolina
- Win Probability: 67.4%
- Average Score: 39.7 – 30.5
- Something to Know: Despite being a potential first-round pick, North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell has announced his intentions of playing one final game for the Tar Heels before turning his focus to the NFL Draft.
28) Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Dec. 28: Minnesota vs. West Virginia
- Winner: Minnesota
- Win Probability: 67.5%
- Average Score: 28.1 – 21.5
29) Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29: Oklahoma vs. Oregon
- Winner: Oklahoma
- Win Probability: 67.5%
- Average Score: 38.1 – 31.6
- Something to Know: Both teams will feature a different head coach than the one who led them throughout the regular season. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley moved to USC. Oregon’s Mario Cristobal left for Miami (FL).
30) Liberty Bowl, Dec. 28: Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech
- Winner: Mississippi State
- Win Probability: 67.7%
- Average Score: 38.0 – 30.7
31) Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 28: Auburn vs. Houston
- Winner: Auburn
- Win Probability: 67.8%
- Average Score: 28.6 – 22.4
32) Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Arizona State
- Winner: Wisconsin
- Win Probability: 69.2%
- Average Score: 29.8 – 22.8
- Something to Know: Wisconsin’s rush defense was historically good this season. The Badgers only allowed 2.1 yards per rush (in college football, sacks are counted as rushes), the best mark in the FBS over the last five seasons.
33) Camellia Bowl, Dec. 25: Georgia State vs. Ball State
- Winner: Georgia State
- Win Probability: 69.3%
- Average Score: 29.4 – 20.5
34) Independence Bowl, Dec. 18: BYU vs. UAB
- Winner: BYU
- Win Probability: 69.7%
- Average Score: 35.9 – 28.5
35) New Orleans Bowl, Dec. 18: Louisiana vs. Marshall
- Winner: Louisiana
- Win Probability: 70.8%
- Average Score: 32.8 – 23.3
36) New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 18: Fresno State vs. UTEP
- Winner: Fresno State
- Win Probability: 71.5%
- Average Score: 33.3 – 22.8
37) Orange Bowl (Playoff), Dec. 31: Georgia vs. Michigan
- Winner: Georgia
- Win Probability: 72.6%
- Average Score: 32.0 – 23.4
- Something to Know: Georgia only allowed one team (Alabama in the SEC championship game) to score more than 17 points all season and its FBS-leading 9.5 points allowed per game is the best mark produced by a team in the last 10 seasons.
38) Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 29: Virginia Tech vs. Maryland
- Winner: Virginia Tech
- Win Probability: 72.9%
- Average Score: 38.6 – 28.5
39) Cure Bowl, Dec. 17: Coastal Carolina vs. Northern Illinois
- Winner: Coastal Carolina
- Win Probability: 78.7%
- Average Score: 44.4 – 31.8
- Something to Know: Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall quarterbacked one of the most balanced offenses in the country. McCall led the FBS in yards per completion (16.61) and quarterback rating (207.9) while his team ranked sixth in rushing yards per game.
Meanwhile, after going 0-6 in 2020, Northern Illinois bounced back in the most surprising of ways, ultimately capturing the MAC championship behind an excellent rushing attack that ranked fifth – one spot ahead of Coastal Carolina.
40) Cotton Bowl Classic (Playoff), Dec. 31: Alabama vs. Cincinnati
- Winner: Alabama
- Win Probability: 79.3%
- Average Score: 37.8 – 25.4
- Something to Know: Alabama has the major talent advantage. Cincinnati, however, has the profile of a team that can pull off a major upset. The Bearcats defense finished fourth in the FBS in points allowed per game, while the offense finished ninth in scoring offense. Only Georgia also finished in the top 10 in both categories.
41) Gasparilla Bowl, Dec. 23: Florida vs. UCF
- Winner: Florida
- Win Probability: 82.0%
- Average Score: 34.3 – 17.9
- Something to Know: Florida defeated in-state rival Florida State in the final game of the regular season to become bowl eligible. The Gators were led by a monstrous performance from linebacker Brenton Cox Jr., who notched four sacks in the win.
42) Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, Dec. 31: Boise State vs. Central Michigan
- Winner: Boise State
- Win Probability: 86.4%
- Average Score: 38.4 – 21.2
- Something to Know: Boise State is the team our projections are most confident will win their bowl game. They won 864 of our 1,000 simulations and won at an average margin of 17.2 points per game, larger than any other team. The Broncos headline player is wide receiver Khalil Shakir, who led the team with 1,117 receiving yards.
Data modeling by Evan Boyd. Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.