The 20 things you'll learn this bowl season

Some bowls mean nothing. Others (Orange and Cotton) will help determine this year's national champion.

Some bowls mark the end for iconic coaches like Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer. Others feature skeleton coaching staffs with graduate assistants overseeing position groups.

Some bowls pair teams with plenty of motivation. Others pair teams who would rather be anywhere else (Western Michigan and Middle Tennessee, who meet in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, have no such excuse).

What do bowls really reveal? What questions are truly answered? It's always tricky to extract definitive conclusions from bowls, given the numerous variables involved.

As the 41-game bowl season kicks off Saturday with six games, here's a stab at forecasting what we'll learn, as well as some superlatives from the schedule.

Conference with most at stake: SEC. An underwhelming bowl performance last season (7-5 overall but 2-5 by ranked teams) preceded a rough regular season this fall. The SEC has only one top-10 team and arguably the weakest division (East) among Power 5 conferences. Alabama can end the SEC's brief national title drought, but a stronger overall showing is key as FPI favors all 10 SEC teams in their bowl matchups (Las Vegas favors all but Florida). If the SEC stumbles again, its incessant claim of being the nation's top conference will ring hollow entering next season.

Most exciting non-playoff or New Year's Six game: TCU-Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl. If the Horned Frogs are healthy -- quarterback Trevone Boykin should be and wide receiver Josh Doctson could be -- this one will be really fun. Arguably no team other than Oklahoma ended the season playing better than Oregon, which won its final six games and averaged 48.6 points in its final five. Ducks quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. leads the nation in pass efficiency (179.6) and Boykin ranks second in total offense (380.6 YPG).

Best individual matchup: Two defensive end-offensive tackle clashes should register on the Richter scale. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa will face Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. Bosa, who also could play at defensive tackle because of Adolphus Washington's suspension, is No. 1 on Mel Kiper's Big Board for the 2016 NFL draft (he likely will skip his senior season). Stanley is No. 9. The top offensive tackle on Kiper's board, Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil (No. 6), will have his hands full with Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Ogbah ranks fourth nationally in sacks with 13.

Best head coaching matchup: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly vs. Ohio State's Urban Meyer. Both are multiple winners of national coaching awards, and both have won multiple national titles (Meyer has three in the FBS, Kelly has two in Division II). Their offenses are consistently among the nation's best, and they are a combined 14-5 in bowl games. Although both teams had national championship aspirations, Kelly guided Notre Dame through nine season-ending injuries to starters. Meyer's team rebounded from its lone setback against Michigan State by thrashing Michigan in the Big House.

Best assistant coaching matchup: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables vs. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl. Both were finalists for this year's Broyles Award (as the nation's top assistant), which went to Riley. Venables, an Oklahoma assistant from 1999 to 2011, remade one of the nation's best defenses this fall after losing eight starters. The 32-year-old Riley brought the Air Raid back to Norman, and the Sooners rank third nationally in both scoring and pass efficiency, with a dramatic spike in rushing production in the second half of the season.

Best mentor-protégé matchup: Nick Saban vs. Mark Dantonio in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Saban has dominated his protégés, posting a 8-0 mark against former assistants and winning each game by at least 14 points. Dantonio absorbed one of those beatings, as Michigan State fell to Alabama 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Michigan State has dramatically improved since then, and it has won more big games lately than the Tide. Dantonio also has a notable statistic of his own: His Spartans teams are 8-2 in their past 10 games against top 10 opponents. Also worth mentioning: Kansas State's Bill Snyder and Arkansas' Bret Bielema in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. They both have Iowa/Hayden Fry roots and Bielema served as Snyder's co-defensive coordinator in 2002-03.

Best under-the-radar coaching matchup: San Diego State's Rocky Long vs. Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville in the Hawai'i Bowl. Long quietly guided the Aztecs to their first outright conference title since 1986. His defense muted normally potent Mountain West offenses, as San Diego State gave up only 11.2 points per game in league play. SDSU presents a challenge for Tuberville's Bearcats, who rank fifth nationally in yards per game (559.4) and fourth in passing (373.1). Long and Tuberville have 262 career wins between them, although Tuberville has a sizable edge in bowl record (7-5 vs. 2-7).

Coaches who need a win the most: West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. The friends and former colleagues -- Holgorsen worked as Sumlin's offensive coordinator at Houston in 2008-09 -- suddenly find themselves on shaky ground. Holgorsen, whose WVU career reached an apex four years ago with an Orange Bowl thrashing of Clemson, was the subject of rumblings after the Mountaineers fell to Kansas State in their regular-season finale. He could benefit from a win in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl against Arizona State. Sumlin, who has found life after Johnny Manziel increasingly difficult, faces significant questions after the recent quarterback news. He could use a win against Louisville in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Others worth mentioning here include Penn State's James Franklin (TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Georgia) and Auburn's Gus Malzahn (Birmingham Bowl vs. Memphis).

Non-playoff matchup that could be a national semifinal next season: Stanford vs. Iowa in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. Notre Dame-Ohio State could go here, too, but Stanford and Iowa both could be back in national title contention in 2016. Stanford has to replace quarterback Kevin Hogan, but it returns dynamic running back/returner Christian McCaffrey and will be more experienced in the secondary. Iowa will be more experienced on defense, returns quarterback C.J. Beathard and benefits from a schedule without Ohio State or Michigan State and with the toughest games (Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern) at home.

Biggest mismatch (team): Arkansas vs. Kansas State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The Hogs might not have met preseason expectations, but they finished strong, winning five of their final six games, the lone loss a 51-50 setback to Mississippi State. Quarterback Brandon Allen ends an excellent senior season (3,125 passing yards) against a Kansas State defense that ranks 119th in passing yards allowed (283.1 YPG). The bigger issue for the Wildcats is keeping up on the scoreboard, as they've dealt with quarterback injuries all season. Arkansas thumped Texas 31-7 in last year's Texas Bowl and could post a similar result in Memphis.

Biggest mismatch (player): LSU running back Leonard Fournette vs. Texas Tech's run defense in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. Although Fournette tumbled in the Heisman Trophy race, he still leads the nation in rushing average (158.3 YPG). He should have little trouble exceeding his average against the Red Raiders, who rank 125th nationally in rushing defense (271.8 YPG). Texas Tech fired three defensive assistants, including co-defensive coordinator/line coach Mike Smith, after the regular season. The Red Raiders are down a total of five assistants entering the game.

Teams that could use bowl as springboard to next season: Tennessee and Washington. The Vols were in a similar spot last season and routed Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. They didn't break through this fall but return a talented squad next season. A signature win against No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl would set a nice tone for 2016. Washington won its final two games by a combined score of 97-17 and boasts a talented freshman backfield of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The Huskies face a strong Southern Miss team in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Player who could use bowl as showcase opportunity: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The can't-miss NFL prospect missed quite a bit this season, as Penn State ranked 101st in scoring offense and coordinator John Donovan was dismissed after the regular season. The TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia could be Hackenberg's final game as a Nittany Lion, and if he moves on to the NFL -- as many think he will -- it's an important opportunity to finish strong. Hackenberg had one of his best performances in last season's Pinstripe Bowl win against Boston College (371 passing yards, four touchdowns).

Team with most to gain, least to lose: Houston. Life is good for the Cougars, who won their first conference title since 2006, retained superstar coach Tom Herman and are headed to their biggest bowl game (Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl) since the 1985 Cotton. Plus, the Cougars could be even better next season, especially at the offensive skill positions (star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returns) and the defensive front seven (star linebacker Steven Taylor also is back). An upset of Florida State in Atlanta would stamp Houston as a top-10 team and an emerging Group of 5 power. A loss to the supremely talented Seminoles won't do much to take the shine off of a special season.

Team with most to lose, least to gain: UCLA. The Bruins began the season with playoff aspirations, but key injuries and maddening inconsistency knocked them out of the Pac-12 championship mix. They ended up 8-4 and fell all the way to the Foster Farms Bowl, where they'll take on 5-7 Nebraska. Normally, a bowl against the Huskers would represent a nice opportunity to cap the season. But this Nebraska team reached a bowl only because there weren't enough 6-6 squads available. UCLA won't help its profile much with a win. A loss would extend the disappointment into the offseason.

Biggest wild card: Georgia. Who knows what to expect from the Bulldogs at the TaxSlayer Bowl? They've lost their coach (Mark Richt), defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) and offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer). This week, interim coach Bryan McClendon announced a staff that assigned position groups to three graduate assistants, the director of player personnel and the director of recruiting. Were the members of R.E.M. and Samuel L. Jackson too busy or something? Other coaching mysteries include USC's defensive staff, Texas Tech's defensive staff and the GoDaddy Bowl, which will feature two interim coaches (Georgia Southern's Dell McGee and Bowling Green's Brian Ward).

Best Group of 5 matchup: Toledo vs. Temple in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl. At times this season, both teams were in the mix for a New Year's Six spot, and between them they have victories against Arkansas, Penn State, Memphis and Bowling Green. Coach Matt Campbell's departure from Toledo takes something away from the game, but both teams are strong defensively and both have talented running backs in Jahad Thomas (Temple) and Kareem Hunt (Toledo).

Rivalry watch: The playoff semifinals and matchups like Ohio State-Notre Dame shouldn't lack intensity, but the one true rivalry in this year's bowls kicks off Saturday in Las Vegas. The Holy War between BYU and Utah resumes in Sin City as the teams meet in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Utah defensive lineman Viliseni Fauonuku, mindful of BYU's recent reputation, got the smack talk started this week, saying Wednesday at a welcome reception: "BYU, y'all are a good team. But you're a dirty team. Don't start nothin', won't be nothin'." BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, working his final game for the Cougars before departing for Virginia, and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham vow to keep the peace, but things should get heated on the field and in the stands at Sam Boyd Stadium. Buckle up.

Big man touchdown watch: Gimmick plays are as big a part of bowl tradition as cool swag and losing money, as the extra preparation time allows coaches to expand their playbooks. Baylor's 400-pound man, LaQuan McGowan, announced himself nationally with a touchdown against Michigan State in last year's Cotton Bowl. McGowan is worth watching again as Baylor, down to its third-string quarterback, will need to get creative to keep pace with North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Also keep an eye on Utah's Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound defensive tackle who has three fumble recoveries this season and a touchdown against Fresno State. Would Michigan State give Jack Allen another chance after his touchdown against Penn State? It's not as if anyone else can run on Alabama. Might as well give a 296-pound center a chance.

Best bowl swag item: There are better bowls than the Quick Lane Bowl and better holiday destinations than downtown Detroit (getting better, but still not the Bahamas). There are better overall bowl gift packages than the ones Central Michigan and Minnesota players will receive from the Quick Lane Bowl. But no single gift can top the custom-made, life-size decal each player will receive with his likeness. How cool is that!