Winners and losers of college football's bowl season

·13 min read

We’ve just about reached the end of bowl season. It’s been quite a ride. 

While the two College Football Playoff semifinal games resulted in blowouts, there have been some truly excellent games over the course of the last few weeks. That includes Saturday night’s Rose Bowl thriller between Ohio State and Utah

With a few more bowls to go (the national title game not included), we figured it was time to assess whose bowl performances were the best and worst across college football. 

Let’s go.

Winners

Jaxon Smith-Njigba and C.J. Stroud: The Ohio State duo of Smith-Njigba and Stroud put on an absolute show in OSU's epic Rose Bowl win over Utah. The Buckeyes trailed early but stormed back behind an incredible performance from the offense in a 48-45 win. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns, setting an all-time bowl record for receiving yards. That's right — every bowl ever played. Stroud, meanwhile, threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns. That's the third-most passing yards in bowl history. In all, the Buckeyes compiled a whopping 683 yards of offense in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowls in recent memory. 

Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State fell just short of winning the Big 12 and potentially earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. That was disappointing, no doubt. But a 21-point comeback victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl isn’t the worst consolation prize. The Cowboys fell behind 28-7 late in the first half but responded with 30 unanswered points. Spencer Sanders, who struggled with turnovers in the Big 12 title game, had his best outing of the season with 371 yards and four TDs passing and 125 rushing yards. With the win, OSU reached the 12-win mark for just the second time in program history.

Purdue: The best game of bowl season had to be the Music City Bowl between Purdue and Tennessee. Playing without receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis, both potential first-round picks, the Boilermakers were 7.5-point underdogs against the Vols and their high-powered offense. Tennessee jumped out to an early 21-7 lead but Purdue fought back and took a halftime lead. It was a shootout from there and the score was tied at 45 apiece entering overtime. That’s when Purdue got a controversial stop of Tennessee at the goal line and then booted a game-winning field goal. With the win, Purdue reached the nine-win mark for the first time since 2003.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohn holds up the trophy after Purdue beat Tennessee 48-45 in overtime to win the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game Thursday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohn holds up the trophy after Purdue beat Tennessee 48-45 in overtime to win the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game Thursday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Clemson: For Clemson this was considered a down season. For almost every other program in the country it would have been a great one. And with the way the Tigers closed, there’s a whole lot to be positive about. Clemson hadn’t lost three regular season games since 2014, but found itself 4-3 after seven games. From there, Dabo Swinney’s team didn’t lose. The Tigers closed out the year with six straight wins, including a hard-fought 20-13 win over Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl. Clemson finished the year 10-3 and has reached double-digit victories in 11 consecutive seasons.

Kentucky: Winning 10 games is far more rare for a program like Kentucky, but the Wildcats got to 10-3 by beating Iowa in a thrilling Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats jumped out to a 13-3 halftime lead before Iowa stormed back in the second half to take a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter. UK’s offense struggled throughout the second half, but put together an 80-yard drive and scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:48 to play. The win got UK to 10 wins for the fourth time in program history and the second time in the past four seasons. Shoutout to Mark Stoops.

Oklahoma: Speaking of the Stoops family, the Alamo Bowl featured a special moment. With Lincoln Riley off to USC, legendary Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops was back in the fold as OU’s interim coach for the Alamo Bowl against Oregon. The Sooners blasted the Ducks, 47-32, and the win included a touchdown reception by Drake Stoops, Bob’s son. That gave us this awesome embrace on the sideline for father and son.

Central Michigan: Central Michigan had to pivot from thinking it was playing Boise State in the Arizona Bowl to traveling to El Paso to face Washington State in the Sun Bowl. Facing a Pac-12 opponent, the Chippewas were pretty big underdogs. But they were able to jump out to an early lead and pull out a 24-21 victory. It marked CMU’s first bowl victory since 2012 and gave the MAC its first-ever bowl victory over a Power Five opponent in 18 years.

San Diego State: SDSU went 11-1 during the regular season but got blown out, 46-13, in the Mountain West championship game. The Aztecs dealt with a lot of COVID-related absences in that loss and it was not a game that was indicative of this team’s talent. Eager to get back on the field, SDSU put together a great performance in the Frisco Bowl, beating UTSA — the 12-win champions of Conference USA — by a score of 38-24. SDSU set a program record with 12 wins on the season.

Western Kentucky: WKU closed out the season in style by crushing Appalachian State, 59-38, in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Hilltoppers had a whopping 638 yards of offense and forced four turnovers in the win. As he did all season, Bailey Zappe led the way. Zappe, who declared for the NFL draft after the win, threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns. With that performance, Zappe set FBS records for passing yards (5,967) and passing touchdowns (62) in a season.

Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe throws a touchdown pass, his sixth of the game, during the second half of the Boca Bowl NCAA college football game against Appalachian State, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021 in Boca Raton, Fla. Zappe threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as the Western Kentucky beat Appalachian State 59-38. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe throws a touchdown pass, his sixth of the game, during the second half of the Boca Bowl NCAA college football game against Appalachian State, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021 in Boca Raton, Fla. Zappe threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as the Western Kentucky beat Appalachian State 59-38. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Army and Air Force: Both of these service academies faced Power Five opponents in their bowl games and came away with victories. Army squared off with Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl and knocked off Missouri, 24-22, thanks to a last-second field goal. That gave the Black Knights a 9-4 record for the season. Air Force, meanwhile, faced Louisville in the First Responder Bowl and emerged with a 31-28 win to finish 10-3 on the year.

UAB: The Independence Bowl was one of the best matchups in the early part of bowl season. BYU won 10 games and was ranked No. 13 in the nation but couldn’t get past UAB. UAB was an underdog in the game but jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. BYU fought back and took a 28-24 lead early in the fourth, but the Blazers surged ahead with a score with 6:17 to play and then forced a BYU fumble and ran out the clock to seal the victory.

Losers

Mississippi State: The Liberty Bowl was Mike Leach’s chance to beat the school that he says owes him money. Leach has long held a grudge against Texas Tech since his firing in 2009 and sued to collect the money he believed he was owed.

That win didn’t happen. The Red Raiders dominated Leach’s Bulldogs under the direction of former Leach QB Sonny Cumbie in a 34-7 win. Tech had 512 yards of offense and Mississippi State turned the ball over three times. Texas Tech shut out Leach and his Air Raid offense in the second half and turned a 13-7 game at halftime into a rout by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. The loss dropped MSU to 7-6 on the season and elevated Tech to 7-6 after the school fired Matt Wells during the season.

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach watches from the sideline in the first half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game against Texas Tech Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach watches from the sideline in the first half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game against Texas Tech Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

North Carolina: The Tar Heels took a big step back in 2021 after an Orange Bowl appearance and an 8-4 season in 2020. While QB Sam Howell returned, the offense lost its top two running backs and its top two wide receivers from a season ago. And it turned out that Howell needed some help in 2021.

That was plainly evident in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat the Tar Heels, 38-21, as the Tar Heel defense allowed 543 yards of offense. With Howell off to the NFL in 2022, North Carolina will need a new QB and also hope for some defensive improvement. UNC gave up 30 or more points in its last six games against FBS teams to finish the season at 6-7.

The Pac-12: The only conference to go winless this bowl season is the Pac-12. The conference went 0-5 this bowl season and its teams’ final three games were decided by a combined 13 points. Oregon State lost to Utah State, a shorthanded Oregon team lost to Oklahoma, Arizona State lost to Wisconsin, Washington State lost to Central Michigan and Utah fell to Ohio State.

We’re not here to make sweeping proclamations about the strength of the Pac-12 based on the results of this bowl season. But it’s indisputably not great that the conference widely regarded as the worst of the Power Five didn’t get a single win.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers finished the season at 6-7 after an 18-6 loss to Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The game was about as entertaining as the score indicates. West Virginia had just 206 yards of offense as Minnesota held onto the ball for nearly 40 minutes and ran the ball 51 times.

Friday afternoon, QB Jarret Doege said he’d be transferring away from West Virginia. He made his announcement hours after wide receiver Winston Wright said he was leaving the program. Doege has been West Virginia’s starting QB for the past two seasons while Wright had 63 catches for 688 yards and five touchdowns. While there are West Virginia fans undoubtedly looking for a change on offense, their departures along with the transfer of others set up a potential make-or-break season for Neal Brown in 2022.

Auburn: Bryan Harsin’s first season in Auburn ended below .500 after a Birmingham Bowl loss to Houston. The Cougars beat the Tigers, 17-13, after Auburn took the lead for the first time in the third quarter. But the Tigers went scoreless in the fourth and Clayton Tune found Jake Herslow for a 26-yard TD with 3:52 left.

TJ Finley started the bowl game for the Tigers after Bo Nix’s season-ending injury against Mississippi State. With Nix transferring to Oregon, Finley will enter the 2022 season as the favorite to start barring any additions in the transfer portal. After parting ways with Mike Bobo, Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Austin Davis is set to be the new offensive coordinator in 2022.

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 28: Auburn Tigers head coach Bryan Harsin during the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl between the Houston Cougars and the Auburn Tigers on December 28, 2021 at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 28: Auburn Tigers head coach Bryan Harsin during the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl between the Houston Cougars and the Auburn Tigers on December 28, 2021 at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Florida: The Gators lost out on in-state bragging rights to UCF to end a moribund 2021 season. The Knights beat Florida, 29-17, in the Gasparilla Bowl for the school’s first win over the Gators. Florida QB Emory Jones started the game despite announcing his intention to transfer in the days before the game and was off-target throughout. Jones was just 14-of-36 passing for 171 yards in a game that was a showcase for other schools looking to add a QB.

The loss dropped Florida to 6-7 on the season, though there’s optimism about the program’s future with Billy Napier’s arrival. The Gators have already added Ohio State QB Jack Miller through the transfer portal and Miller will compete with backup Anthony Richardson and maybe others to be the Gators’ starter in 2022.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost, 20-13, to Wisconsin in a game where the Badgers went scoreless in the second half. Arizona State punted from midfield to Wisconsin with 9:57 left to go in the game and never got the ball back. The Badgers closed out the game with an 18-play, 90-yard drive to milk every second that remained off the clock.

ASU had multiple chances to get Wisconsin off the field on that drive too. The Badgers converted a third-and-12 in their own territory and then faced a third-and-4 at the ASU 14 with 2:33 to go. But Wisconsin got a free first down on that play when Arizona State lined up offside while out of timeouts. Brutal. ASU now heads into an offseason that will be clouded by the NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations.

Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/L.E. Baskow)
Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/L.E. Baskow)

NC State: The Wolfpack were unfortunately unable to play in the Holiday Bowl against UCLA because of COVID-19 cases at UCLA. The game was called off hours before kickoff and joined the likes of the Hawaii Bowl, Military Bowl and Fenway Bowl as games canceled this bowl season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NC State was understandably frustrated with traveling across the country over Christmas to not play in a bowl game. But the Wolfpack were extremely petty in the way they handled the game’s cancellation and are the only team involved in a canceled bowl game publicly clamoring for the game to count as a win. It doesn’t — it’s officially recognized as a no contest — but NC State was presented with the trophy. And that official no-contest designation really drew the ire of coach Dave Doeren, who said that the NCAA stood for “No Clue At All.” Doeren was set to make an extra $50,000 if NC State beat UCLA.

Kent State: The Golden Flashes were lit up by Wyoming in the Potato Bowl. Kent State put up 656 yards of total offense and didn’t turn the ball over but still somehow lost, 52-38, to the Cowboys. Wyoming rushed 53 times for 411 yards and QB Levi Williams accounted for five touchdowns. Williams had 16 carries for 200 yards and four scores on the ground and was 9-of-11 passing for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Toledo: The Rockets entered the first game of bowl season as a 10-point favorite in the Bahamas Bowl and lost, 31-24, to Middle Tennessee State. MTSU freshman QB Nick Vattiato threw for 270 yards and hit Jarrin Pierce for what turned out to be the game-winning 59-yard TD pass with 6:24 left. That score was part of 17 straight points scored by the Blue Raiders in the fourth quarter to flip a 17-14 deficit into a 31-17 lead in 10 minutes.

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