As the college football season winds down, Simon Clancy casts an eye over the past month of bowl games – good and bad…
And then there were two.
Only the National Championship decider remains between #1 Alabama and #2 Clemson in Santa Clara on Monday night. 78 schools played 39 games across America whilst the debate around playoff expansion and draft eligible players sitting out games continued apace. The future of bowl season is probably best left to another day, but the sight of empty stadiums and an increase in player pull-outs can’t make for happy viewing for the NCAA.
To the games, and many people used social media to rail against any sort of playoff expansion as the Crimson Tide and the Tigers swept past Oklahoma and Notre Dame respectively, but it seems likely that, at some point, playoff growth will be a reality, perhaps as soon as 2020. What didn’t help the debate was that two of the three teams with legitimate gripes about not getting in – Georgia and UCF – were beaten fairly convincingly, whilst the third, Ohio State, had to survive a furious comeback by Washington in the Rose Bowl.
Bowl season began with four games on December 15th, including Utah State’s domination of North Texas, a game worth re-watching on ESPN Player for a tremendous performance from redshirt sophomore QB Jordan Love, who threw for 359 yards and four touchdowns. His name may not mean much right now but, if he continues his development, then this rocket-armed signal caller will be a first round pick in the 2020 draft alongside Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm.
Overall, the product on the field was fine. There were a number of good games throughout the month, although the quality seemed to lessen the closer we got to January. However, two of the best were the Camellia Bowl between Eastern Michigan and Georgia Southern and the Bahamas Bowl between FIU and Toledo. In the first, Southern drove down the field, trailing by one, to set up a last-second 40-yard field goal, which was duly converted and led to wonderful scenes as head coach Chad Lunsford conducted his ESPN interview in tears, alongside his bawling family. There were tears of despair on the other sideline as EMU lost their 11th one-possession game (of 13 total defeats) in two seasons. In the Bahamas Bowl, the heroes for FIU – who won 35-32 – were a back-up QB who’d thrown just 68 passes in four years but then proceeded to make three huge plays on the game-clinching drive; and a tailback who’d been injured in a drive-by shooting in September but ripped off an 18-yard touchdown – his third of the day – to seal the win late on.
Wake Forest were another who relied on a dramatic performance from a back-up QB as Jamie Newman, replacing injured freshman Sam Hartman, delivered big play after big play in a 37-34 comeback win against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. The Tigers had a chance to send the game to overtime, but Riley Patterson missed a 43-yarder at the gun. One wonders what Darrell Henderson’s presence would have added to the game – the star runner sat out ahead of the draft.
This was the Texas Bowl between Vanderbilt and Baylor, a 45-38 barnburner in which the two schools combined for 1,241 yards of offense. Vandy tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed for 243 yards on just 13 carries, including three runs of 65+ yards in comfortably the best Bowl performance of the year. But it wasn’t quite enough as Matt Rhule completed a remarkable turnaround for the Bears after the disgraceful end to the Art Briles era.
The Cheez-It Bowl where TCU and Cal combined for nine interceptions and the Horned Frogs’ Athletic Director fell over on the sideline, interfered with an official and was penalised for doing so. A disaster all around. It finished 10-7 after a walk-off field goal ended the misery in OT.
BEST TEAM PERFORMANCE:
Army were the comfortable winners of this award, shellacking Houston 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl, tying the record for the largest bowl victory in history to cap an impressive 11-win season. They’re now 21-5 the last two seasons. The Black Knights will have a chance to show their mettle at the start of next season as they play Michigan in the Big House on September 7th.
WORST TEAM PERFORMANCE:
This was a tie between Miami and Purdue. Wisconsin’s beat down of the Hurricanes was the full-stop on a dreadful campaign for The U, who started the season in the top 10 and ended it at 7-6 with a pitiful 35-3 loss in the Pinstripe Bowl. Less than 48 hours later, head coach Mark Richt had stood down. New head coach Manny Diaz has a lot of work to do in South Florida.
If that was bad, then the product Purdue put on the field made Miami look half decent. Auburn embarrassed the Boilermakers 63-14 in the Music City Bowl, scoring on each of its first seven possessions. The only reason they didn’t score on their eighth was because they took a knee to end the half. Or the pain – by that time it was already 56-7. QB Jarrett Stidham in his final game for the Tigers threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns…. in the first two quarters.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES BY PLAYERS NOT CALLED KE’SHAWN VAUGHN:
Jartavious Whitlow did something pretty special in that beat-down of Purdue, scoring on his first three touches of the ball. Elsewhere, Duke QB Daniel Jones had a very nice outing in the Blue Devils’ 56-27 demolition of Temple. Jones, who declared for the draft after the game, passed for 423 yards and five touchdowns. WR TJ Rahming caught 12 of Jones’s passes for 240 yards and two scores. In the Gator Bowl, Trayveon Williams ran for 236 yards and three touchdowns in Texas A&M’s win over NC State, including a 93-yarder at the start of the fourth quarter. Defensively, BYU’s Sione Takitaki had 19 tackles against Western Michigan, Cal DB Jaylinn Hawkins had three interceptions and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen of Kentucky had three sacks and blocked a field goal, underlining the incredible talent which he’ll take to the NFL as a sure fire top five pick.
Syracuse capped an excellent season for head coach Dino Babers by beating a Will Grier-less West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl, Florida thrashed a hugely disappointing Michigan team missing a number of stars including Rashaan Gary and Karan Higdon in the Peach Bowl and Iowa held off a late charge from Mississippi State to win the Outback Bowl.
The New Year’s Day games were all close on the scoreboard without ever really being close in reality: UCF jumped to a 14-3 lead against an LSU side missing half of its defensive starters in the Fiesta Bowl but couldn’t get off the field, lacking the spark that injured QB McKenzie Milton provided, eventually losing 40-32 and ending their 25-game win streak. In the Citrus Bowl, Kentucky jumped out early on Penn State and never ceded the advantage, despite some late heroics from Trace McSorley in his final game amid some more questionable playcalling from James Franklin. The Rose Bowl was also something of a dud as Dwayne Haskins led Ohio State to a 28-23 win. The Buckeyes’ inability to move the ball late on kept the Huskies in it, but they did just about enough, stopping Jake Browning at midfield on the final drive. And, in the Sugar Bowl, Texas jumped out to a big lead and kept it despite a late Georgia rally. In truth, the Bulldogs didn’t want to be there. They felt stiffed by the Playoff Committee and the loser of the SEC Championship game is now 4-5 in bowl games this decade. Moment of the game came before kick-off as the two mascots stared each other out.
Overall, this much is clear: Alabama and Clemson have forged their own bowl legacy. They’re streets ahead of everyone else and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon. And whilst it’s obvious that America loves college football, it doesn’t love bowl season that much: empty stadiums and low TV figures attest to that. But maybe it’s the quality of the output that’s the issue: the average score in the 38 games was 34-18, with 22 games decided by double digits and 14 with a margin of 20+. Want to fix things? Less games, better competition, better product. Will it happen? Don’t count on it.