Winners and Losers of the College Football Non-Playoff New Year's Six Bowl Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 3, 2023

Winners and Losers of the College Football Non-Playoff New Year's Six Bowl Games

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    ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 02: Alex Bauman #87 of the Tulane Green Wave celebrates with Michael Pratt #7 of the Tulane Green Wave after scoring a touchdown against USC Trojans in the fourth quarter the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on January 02, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    If you only tuned in to the outstanding College Football Playoff showdowns between TCU-Michigan and Georgia-Ohio State, you missed out.

    The non-playoff New Year's Six bowl games had a lot of fun storylines, too.

    Tulane shocked the college football world with an improbable, closing-seconds comeback win over USC in a barn-burning Cotton Bowl Classic.

    Two great Alabama living legends (Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr.) said goodbye to the collegiate game and turned toward the NFL as the Crimson Tide rolled over Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl.

    Tennessee announced its return to the championship conversation with a dominant win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and Penn State beat Utah soundly in Monday's nightcap to win its first Rose Bowl since 1995.

    Here are the winners and losers from a two-day slate of non-CFP big-time bowl action.

Winner: A Green Wave of Wow

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    Tulane head coach Willie Fritz celebrates with the trophy after the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)
    AP Photo/Sam Hodde

    When the ESPN cameras found Tulane coach Willie Fritz following Tulane's improbable 46-45 Cotton Bowl Classic win over USC, the veteran who'd just completed the largest one-season turnaround in FBS history had no words to describe what just transpired.

    "I'm not sure," he said.

    That's all right, Coach. Neither are we.

    The Green Wave trailed by 15 points with 4:10 left, but they scored in two plays against a USC defense that couldn't stop them the entire game. Fritz said the Tulane staff debated whether or not to attempt an onside kick but chose to kick it deep instead. He's glad he did.

    USC's Mario Williams fumbled out of bounds at the 1-yard line to put the Trojans in a precarious position, and on second down, Patrick Jenkins stuffed Austin Jones in the end zone for a safety to bring the score to 45-39 with 3:20 left. Tulane's heroics improbably continued.

    A 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive that included two fourth-down conversions (a Michael Pratt eight-yard run on 4th-and-6 and a completion to tight end Alex Bauman for 24 yards on 4th-and-10) culminated in more drama.

    Pratt passed to a diving Bauman in the end zone with nine seconds left, and he bobbled it while falling to the ground. The officials initially ruled it incomplete, but replays showed the ball never hit the ground and the call was overturned, giving the Green Wave a win for the ages.

    The comeback victory propelled them from two wins a season ago to 12-2 this year.

    More importantly, they kept bazooka-firing rocks at a Power Five Goliath and took down the Trojans with a win that capped an absolutely wild bowl season. Pratt had completed just four passes before that final drive but was 4-of-6 for 58 yards and the winning score in crunch time and finished with 317 all-purpose yards.

    Dynamic running back Tyjae Spears also amazed with 205 yards and four scores.

    A man of few words, Fritz still had a hard time characterizing just what a victory like this means. "We're excited," he said through an AT&T Stadium-sized grin. "It's a huge win for Tulane. This is big."

    That game, and this bowl season, couldn't have been summed up any better.

Loser: Alex Grinch and Porous USC Defense

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    ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 2: Tyjae Spears #22 of the Tulane Green Wave runs the ball in for a touchdown as Calen Bullock #7 of the USC Trojans tries to make the stop in the first half of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on January 2, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    It wouldn't be fair to talk about just how remarkable USC's one-year offensive turnaround under first-year coach Lincoln Riley has been without applying the same logic to criticism on the other side of the ball.

    Despite a group of transfers on offense (led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams) igniting a rebound season, the Trojans failed in the biggest moments because of their destitute defense.

    Unfortunately for USC fans wishing for a silver lining to the dark cloud over Monday's Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane, this was also the case when defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's Oklahoma defensive units failed to match Riley's resounding offensive success.

    Grinch, of course, followed Riley to Los Angeles, and swarms of criticism engulfed him and and the Trojans defenses following a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

    That big-stage setback erased any playoff possibilities and was low-lighted by allowing 47 points and 533 yards to the Utes, prompting defensive back Mekhi Blackmon to tweet that Grinch is a "great [expletive] coach" in defense of his coordinator.

    The debacle against the Green Wave screams otherwise, and it won't help Grinch's case after his Trojans unit had zero answers down the stretch, allowing 539 yards and big play after big play in the loss.

    Sure, there was a special teams gaffe and O-line breakdown that didn't help, but the bottom line is USC had tons more talent than the Group of Five team, yet failed to make just one defensive stop that could have prevented the embarrassing setback.

    Williams was magnificent with 462 passing yards and five touchdowns. His cast of playmakers wowed everybody, even without receiver Jordan Addison. Those guys deserved better, but the defensive demoralization didn't allow it.

    Grinch has to be on the hot seat after this.

Winner: Tennessee's Unconventional Domination

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 30: Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Aaron Beasley (24) sacks Clemson Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) in the first half during the Capital One Orange Bowl game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Clemson Tigers on Friday, December 20, 2022 at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    In Josh Heupel's magical second season on Rocky Top, the Tennessee Vols' modus operandi has been to score points in bunches, apply offensive pressure and hang on just enough defensively to win.

    This year's rendition of the Vols scored more points (599) and churned out more yards (6,832) than any team in program history.

    But in a 31-14 win over Clemson on Friday night in the Orange Bowl, Tennessee flipped the script to move to 11-2, capping a phenomenal season that has announced the return of a once-proud program to the national spotlight.

    Tennessee still dominated, but it did so with an opportunistic defense that bent but refused to break throughout the night, allowing Clemson to make it inside its 35-yard line seven times in the first half alone. But despite an Orange Bowl-record 101 plays by the Tigers, they scored just one touchdown.

    Yes, the Vols were the beneficiary of two missed Clemson field goals and a freshman mistake by Cade Klubnik, who ran to the middle of the field at the end of the first half with no timeouts, allowing time to run out inside the UT 20-yard line. But Tennessee was the defensive aggressor all night.

    The Vols dialed up pressure on the Tigers rookie making his first start and harassed him all night to the tune of an astounding 26 pressures, the most a Clemson QB had been pressured since 2013, according to ESPN.

    While they didn't have their characteristic dominant performance on the other side of the ball, quarterback Joe Milton III produced an MVP performance.

    Playing for injured signal-caller Hendon Hooker, the former Michigan transfer waited his turn and thrived on the big stage, throwing for 251 yards and three scores in the win.

    But this win was really about the Vols' defensive resurgence.

Loser: Clemson, Again, in a Bowl

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Dabo Swinney (R) of the Clemson Tigers talks with Cade Klubnik #2 after a play against the Tennessee Volunteers at the end of the first half of the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    The Clemson mystique is gone.

    Yes, with freshman stars like quarterback Cade Klubnik and receivers Antonio Williams and Cole Turner, along with sophomore running back Will Shipley, the future may be bright.

    But the fear the program once inspired is a thing of the past.

    Despite finishing the 2022 season 11-3, they closed with a lopsided loss to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, ending the year on a losing note for the third time in four years dating back to their 2018 national championship.

    Nobody is saying the program coach Dabo Swinney has built is in shambles, but the bottom line is this team has lost its way offensively, and they've been reluctant to play the NIL or transfer portal game. If they don't find a way to change the trajectory, adapt and adjust, the title-contending window is going to pass them by.

    Clemson moved the ball against Tennessee on Friday night, but the Tigers couldn't produce points. After DJ Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State, Klubnik looked very much like a kid making his first start in an uneven performance.

    "Name of the game, missed opportunities, simple as that," Swinney said in his postgame press conference. "In the first half, I think we had six scoring opportunities out of seven drives and got one field goal out of it.

    "So, against the No. 1 scoring offense in the country that you know at some point is going to hit an explosive [play] or two, you have to capitalize."

    Failing to capitalize is becoming too commonplace for a program that has, whether fair or not, set its standard as a national championship contender perennially. What's made Alabama the gold standard is, when things change, Nick Saban adapts, too, and he does it better than anybody else.

    Whether Swinney can do the same will go a long way in determining if his program keeps pace. He has some adjustments to make to get Clemson back to the top.

Winner: Bryce Young's Swan Song

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    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 31: Bryce Young #9 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after throwing for a touchdown against the Kansas State Wildcats during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on December 31, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Whether you're an Alabama fan or a hater, hopefully you took a little time as a college football fan on Saturday morning and appreciated what you were seeing in Alabama's 45-20 Sugar Bowl win over Kansas State.

    Because no matter who won this year's Heisman Trophy, and no matter that he played through injuries and took a statistical step back with worse receivers this year, Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young is special.

    And if you didn't know that about last year's Heisman winner, it'll be hammered home when he's the No. 1 player (or at least quarterback) taken in this year's draft. He chose to play his final game for Alabama against Kansas State in New Orleans, and all he did was make several "OMG, did he just do that?!" passes in a lopsided victory over Kansas State.

    The best of those came on a 32-yard, dropped-in-a-bucket dime to Ja'Corey Brooks in the back corner of the end zone to start the second half, open up the lead and initiate the onslaught.

    247Sports @247Sports

    Bryce Young ➡️ Ja'Corey Brooks 🎯<br><br>Alabama takes a 3-score lead in the Sugar Bowl 🏈<a href="https://t.co/59bRl5C9jG">pic.twitter.com/59bRl5C9jG</a>

    This came after a surgically orchestrated 98-yard drive in 51 seconds to close the first half after Alabama stopped the Wildcats on the 2-yard line on a drive that could have put K-State ahead. Instead, the failure to get into the end zone turned into a 14-point swing because Young may be the best college quarterback ever in the two-minute offense.

    He wound up completing 15 of 20 passes for 321 yards and five scoring tosses, leading Bama to five touchdowns in consecutive possessions to open up the lead and give the Tide an easy consolation prize after being left out of the College Football Playoff.

    He left to a standing ovation after a handoff with 8:40 left in the game. In Young's swan-song game and farewell to college football, he provided perhaps his best performance of the season in a sterling finale.

Loser: Kansas State's Midgame Desperation

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    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 31: Chris Klieman head coach of the Kansas State Wildcats looks on during the second quarter of the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Caesars Superdome on December 31, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    It's understandable that Kansas State realized it was going to have to play a perfect game to hang with Alabama, especially after Bryce Young and Co. got it going on offense.

    Wildcats coach Chris Klieman probably went into the Sugar Bowl knowing he had to pull out all the stops.

    But you simply can't let a close game get out of hand the way K-State did on Saturday. Driving late in the first half down 14-10, Klieman elected to go for the touchdown rather than cut the lead to one. Will Howard threw an errant pass to turn the ball over on downs, and then Young led a 98-yard touchdown drive in the blink of an eye.

    With Alabama getting the ball first in the second half, Klieman called an onside kick, which failed, giving the Tide a short field. They scored again, then added another one moments later after a Howard interception.

    Suddenly, a game that had been a four-point contest evaporated and turned into a 35-10 deficit with 13 minutes left in the third quarter. It took all of three minutes and one second.

    Again, there's nothing wrong with a little gambling when you're playing the Tide, but this Wildcats team burst out to a 10-0 lead to start the game. Though they didn't punch the ball into the end zone at the end of the first half, they'd held the ball for a drive that took 10:30 off the clock.

    Kansas State was far from getting annihilated. This wasn't dice-roll gambling; it was Russian roulette. And it cost the Wildcats any chance at a program-changing win.

Winner: Group of Five and Playoff Expansion

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    ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 2: JhaQuan Jackson #4 of the Tulane Green Wave celebrates with wide receivers coach John McMenamin after scoring a touchdown against the USC Trojans in the first half of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on January 2, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    Tulane's win wasn't just a victory for the Green Wave program that capped a historic one-year turnaround.

    It was also a win for college football's decision to expand to a 12-team playoff and the Group of Five in general.

    With expansion blooming everywhere and Power Five conferences like the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma, the Big Ten adding USC and UCLA and the Big 12 getting BYU, Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati, you'd think the "little guy" would be the big loser.

    The Green Wave proved you should think otherwise.

    The non-Power Five conferences will be guaranteed a spot in the 12-team playoff beginning in the 2024 season, and whether or not programs like Tulane can keep coaches like Willie Fritz, games like Monday's Cotton Bowl prove there's magic just waiting to happen.

    Running back Tyjae Spears is the type of superstar who could start for the majority of Power Five programs, and Tulane rode him to a bowl title. A season ago, another AAC program—the Cincinnati Bearcats—made history when they became the first non-Power Five team to make the playoffs.

    Holding Alabama in check in a 27-6 loss wasn't an embarrassment, and don't forget UCF going undefeated with Scott Frost as the head coach in 2017.

    Programs such as Boise State, SMU, San Diego State, Fresno State and others have enjoyed recent success, too. With the transfer portal and NIL leading to more movement by players across the country, it may not be uncommon to see off-the-radar powerhouses emerge to put a scare into the top teams.

    Tulane's win should make us all excited for the future.

Loser: Kyle Whittingham's Ability to Get that Elusive Rose Bowl W

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    Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) is helped off the field during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
    AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

    Last year, the Utah Utes were just happy to be in Pasadena for their first-ever Rose Bowl, and they gave Ohio State all they wanted in a frenetic 48-45 win.

    When the Utes surged past USC in the Pac-12 title game and got another chance at the Big Ten this year in the granddaddy of them all, they were only slight underdogs to Penn State. But the Nittany Lions handled coach Kyle Whittingham's team a little more easily than expected.

    PSU's game plan was to make Utah quarterback Cameron Rising beat them by passing the ball, and while he hit some passes and converted some big moments, he never could quite get things going through the air to balance the attack.

    Then, when Utah fell behind, Rising couldn't help. He suffered what appeared to be a knee injury, walked off the field and to the locker room under his own power and reemerged midway through the fourth quarter in street clothes.

    Without their star signal-caller, the Utes couldn't muster any type of rally, and the way the Lions' defense was playing, it would have been a tall order, anyway.

    Now, the big question will be whether Rising returns next season for his final year in Salt Lake City. If he does, there's a good chance we'll be asking the question about whether or not the third time is the charm for Whittingham, whose teams always seem to improve as the year progresses, putting them in the mix for conference titles.

    If he doesn't, the veteran coach that has accomplished so much and loves the role as an underdog may be facing long odds to make it back another season, especially with Oregon and USC returning key pieces, too.

Winner: Penn State's Offensive Explosion

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    PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 02: Nicholas Singleton #10 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Utah Utes during the first quarter in the 2023 Rose Bowl Game at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    When you think of Penn State offensive football, you think of thump plays instead of chunk plays.

    In a 35-21 annihilation of Utah in Monday's Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions proved they could do both to perfection, capping an 11-2 season in style.

    While the power running game that has been a staple of coach James Franklin's teams was still prevalent and helped PSU control the second half of the game and eventually wear down the Utes, it was two massive plays that secured the win.

    It was neat to see veteran quarterback Sean Clifford enjoy one of his best games and be a huge part of the heroics, especially considering the knock on the senior for his big-game performances in the past.

    Instead, the signal-caller who ranks first in school history in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions and completion percentage passed Trace McSorley to become the all-time winningest quarterback with the victory. He left in tears as Franklin called a late fourth-quarter timeout to let him walk off a winner.

    Clifford was terrific, and two Franklin recruiting wins in recent high-profile classes provided the pizzazz.

    True freshman running back Nicholas Singleton burst into the second level and outran defenders on his way to an 87-yard touchdown run with 9:25 left in the third quarter to break the tie. Then, Clifford found sophomore KeAndre Lambert-Smith for 88 yards on a slant-and-go to extend the lead early in the fourth quarter.

    According to the ESPN telecast, it was the first time in the storied history of Penn State football it had two plays of 85 or more yards in the same game. What a way to send Clifford out in style.

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