Ranking the Best Bowl Game Performances of the Past Decade
Tim Tebow threw for a career-high 482 yards in Florida's 51-24 win in the 2009 Sugar Bowl over Cincinnati, but was it enough to rank as one of the best college football bowl performances of the past decade?
These rankings are based on a combination of individual stats and national relevance. Generally speaking, a running back who racks up 200 yards and three touchdowns in a national championship will fare much better than one with 275 yards and four touchdowns in a mid-December bowl. Also, it's important that the player's team won the game, as no one in our top 10 played for the losing side.
Before we dive in, this was probably the toughest ranking I've had to do in my five years with Bleacher Report. I went through every bowl game box score from the past 10 years and had an original list of nearly 100 candidates. It took four cycles of pruning that list just to get it down to a top 10 with a dozen honorable mentions. If your personal favorite performance didn't make this list, take solace in the fact that it has a lot of quality company on the cutting-room floor.
Also, please note that the listed year of each game is the year in which the regular season occurred.
Ray Rice, 2007 International Bowl: Back when Rutgers was good enough to occasionally qualify for bowl games, Rice carried the Scarlet Knights to a 52-30 victory with 280 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Ball State. He needed 268 to reach 2,000 yards for the season, and the Cardinals couldn't keep him from getting there.
Antonio Brown, 2009 GMAC Bowl: Brown's all-purpose yard total in this game was staggering. He had 178 receiving yards, 22 rushing yards and 203 kick-return yards, totaling 403 with two touchdowns. But it's hard to reward him with a top-10 ranking when more than half of those yards came because Central Michigan's defense was so bad that he got to return seven kickoffs in the 44-41 win over Troy.
Geno Smith, 2011 Orange Bowl: Smith had seven total touchdowns in West Virginia's 70-33 rout of Clemson. But three of his "passing" scores were actually two-inch tosses that should've just been handoffs to receivers in motion. Still, someone from WVU's 10-touchdown game should be mentioned on this list.
Kyle Van Noy, 2012 Poinsettia Bowl: More than 90 percent of the candidates were offensive players, but I did also check the defensive box scores of every bowl game. This is the one that stood out the most. In a contest where the offenses combined to score one touchdown, BYU's linebacker returned an interception and a fumble for fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 23-6 win. He also had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Tajh Boyd, 2013 Orange Bowl: Boyd torched Ohio State for more than 500 total yards. He threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns while also rushing for 127 yards and a sixth score. But he did toss a pair of interceptions. Moreover, Buckeye fans would tell you that it's not Boyd, but rather Sammy Watkins (16 receptions, 227 yards, 2 TD) who still haunts their memories of this game.
Tre Mason, 2013 National Championship: The national championship games from 2007 to 2012 didn't produce any particularly noteworthy individual stat lines, but the last four years have been stupendous, beginning with Mason's 237 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against Florida State. However, because Auburn lost 34-31—certainly not his fault, but still—there were better candidates for the top 10.
Cooper Rush, 2014 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl: Rush threw for 485 yards and seven touchdowns, most of it in the fourth quarter during a furious comeback. But even that wasn't enough for Central Michigan to defeat Western Kentucky, as it lost 49-48 in an irrelevant bowl.
Johnny Jefferson, 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl: I was unable to find anyone who rushed for 300 or more yards in a bowl game in the past decade, but Jefferson came darn close. He had 299 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-38 win over North Carolina. As a team, Baylor rushed for 651 yards and seven scores—the only 650-yard performance since Rice did it in 2003.
O.J. Howard and Deshaun Watson 2015 National Championship: Howard, a tight end, averaged 41.6 yards per reception, hauling in five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-40 Alabama win. Watson helped Clemson keep pace with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns, as well as 73 rushing yards. However, if you can't definitely say who was the star of this game, it's hard to call him one of the 10 biggest stars of the past decade.
Sam Darnold and Saquon Barkley, 2016 Rose Bowl: This has the same issue as the 2015 title game. USC's Darnold went off for 453 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-49 Trojans win, but Penn State's Barkley had 249 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a battle for the ages. Easily one of the top five bowl games of the past decade, but its top performers only get honorable mentions here.
10. Kareem Hunt, 2014 GoDaddy Bowl
By the Numbers: 32 carries, 271 rushing yards, 5 TD
Though Toledo eventually won by a comfortable margin, 63-44, this was a tight game late in the second quarter. Kareem Hunt had already rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns by then, but the Rockets were ahead by just four points, 21-17, and facing a 4th-and-2 decision.
All eyes were on Hunt, but it didn't matter. He found a hole up the gut and cut back for a 29-yard touchdown. Arkansas State never got the deficit back to single digits.
Why He's Here
Few NFL fans knew about Hunt before he became a fantasy darling in the first few weeks of this season for the Kansas City Chiefs, but college fans were aware of the small-school stud who rushed for 4,945 yards in his career. He only played 10 games in this sophomore season, but he ran for at least 100 yards in each of them.
This was his masterpiece, though. He set career highs in both yards and touchdowns. Hunt was one of just five players in the last five seasons to rush for at least 270 yards and five touchdowns in one contest, and he's the only one to do so in a bowl game in at least 18 years—if it has ever been done at all.
Had he done it in a noteworthy bowl game or against an opponent who actually ranked in the top 100 nationally in rushing defense (Arkansas State was No. 105), this performance might have landed in the top five. As is, it squeaks in at No. 10.
9. Leonard Fournette, 2015 Texas Bowl
By the Numbers: 29 carries, 212 rushing yards, 4 TD; 1 catch, 44 receiving yards, 1 TD
Most of the signature moments on this list resulted in touchdowns, but we're making an exception for a 35-yard Leonard Fournette carry on which he destroyed two poor Texas Tech defenders.
First, he steamrolled Keenon Ward, which is the sort of play we witnessed often in Fournette's career. When this dude would lower his shoulder against a defensive back, the result was almost always embarrassing for that would-be tackler. But what he did to Jah'Shawn Johnson was just as disrespectful, as Texas Tech's safety had his ankles broken on a subtle juke move. Fournette even hurdled one of his fallen blockers, showing off all his tricks on LSU's second play of the game.
Why He's Here
This game was practically scheduled by the Texas Bowl committee to advertise Fournette as a star.
Texas Tech had the second-worst rushing defense in the nation that season. Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for 355 rushing yards and six touchdowns against the Red Raiders. In their final game of the regular season, they gave up 276 yards and four touchdowns to Chris Warren III of Texas.
Combine that with the fact this wasn't a marquee bowl game, and it's tough to be overly impressed by Fournette's stats in this one. Heck, Tigers not named Fournette averaged 15.9 yards per carry against Texas Tech.
Still, Fournette was masterful, as always. And this was a tight game until he took over. LSU led just 21-20 midway through the third quarter, but he had 130 total yards and three touchdowns on the next five possessions to turn a close one into a 56-27 blowout.
8. Connor Shaw, 2013 Capital One Bowl
By the Numbers: 312 passing yards, 88.0% completion, 3 TD, 0 INT; 47 rushing yards, 1 TD; 1 catch, 9 receiving yards, 1 TD
For a guy who completed 22 of 25 passes, Connor Shaw wasn't afraid to take some deep shots. Seven of his completions went for at least 20 yards, and we're not talking about screen plays that turned into 20-yard gains. He legitimately threw the ball down the field with incredible accuracy.
The most impressive of these bombs was the 39-yard touchdown strike to Bruce Ellington. Shaw rolled to his right after a play-action fake, giving Ellington plenty of time to get down the field. Shaw cocked back and threw a gorgeous spiral, hitting the receiver in his bread basket in stride. It was the first of Shaw's five touchdowns on the day.
Why He's Here
Though it didn't make the cut for the top five, this is easily my favorite stat line of the bunch.
Save for a fumble and three incomplete passes, Shaw was flawless against a solid Wisconsin Badgers defense. And, more importantly, he was as versatile as a Swiss Army knife. He either passed, rushed or caught all five of South Carolina's touchdowns in the 34-24 victory.
The Gamecocks were down 17-13 midway through the third quarter when Shaw put the team on his back. Over the course of the next three drives, he completed 11 of 12 passes for 179 yards and two TDs and rushed for 27 yards and a third score.
If you can believe it, though, Shaw was not the only player in the past decade to have at least 300 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in a bowl game. Rice's Chase Clement also did it in the 2008 Texas Bowl, which takes some of the luster off Shaw's big day.
7. Christian McCaffrey, 2015 Rose Bowl
By the Numbers: 18 carries, 172 rushing yards; 4 receptions, 105 receiving yards, 1 TD; 63 punt-return yards, 1 TD; 28 kick-return yards
It didn't take long for Christian McCaffrey to make his presence felt in the 2015 Rose Bowl. Stanford's do-it-all tailback had a 75-yard receiving touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.
Iowa had nearly a month to prepare for this game, but it looked like senior defensive back Jordan Lomax had never seen footage of McCaffrey. The sophomore stutter-stepped his defender into oblivion and found a wide-open seam over the middle. From there, he just had to outrun everyone, which happened a lot in 2015.
Why He's Here
At a certain point, we grew numb to McCaffrey's outlandish stat lines—similar to what happened with Louisville QB Lamar Jackson this season. But in retrospect, this might have been the most impressive performance of his college career.
McCaffrey had 368 all-purpose yards on just 24 touches. That's 15.3 yards per play against what had been a top-20 defense in yards allowed per play before McCaffrey ripped it to shreds.
Prior to its 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship, Iowa was undefeated and well on its way to a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the Hawkeyes were down 35-0 just 22 minutes into this game because of McCaffrey. His 63-yard punt return TD early in the second quarter effectively ended the game, which resulted in a 45-16 Cardinal win.
6. Justin Blackmon, 2011 Fiesta Bowl
By the Numbers: 8 catches, 186 receiving yards, 3 TD; 1 carry, 52 rushing yards
It was more of a sequence than a moment, but Oklahoma State's offense got out to a horrific start in this game. After averaging 557.0 yards of total offense during the regular season, the Cowboys had a total of 27 yards on their first four possessions, including an interception.
But Justin Blackmon hauled in a 43-yard touchdown reception midway through the second quarter to finally get the Pokes on the board. After a Stanford three-and-out, he scored from 67 yards out on the second play of Oklahoma State's next drive. That got the offense going for a 41-38 overtime victory.
Why He's Here
There have been a lot of impressive bowl performances by wide receivers over the past decade, but this one stood out the most. This was effectively the runner-up game for the BCS championship, pitting No. 3 Oklahoma State against No. 4 Stanford. If the College Football Playoff had been a thing in 2011, both of these teams would've had a shot at the title.
Even one of the four best squads in the country couldn't come up with an answer for Blackmon, though.
In addition to those two big catches in the second quarter, Blackmon had a 17-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also made the game-saving 21-yard catch on a 4th-and-3 play with just over three minutes remaining and Oklahoma State down by a touchdown. Speaking of fourth-down conversions, Blackmon was also on the receiving end of a 23-yard play on 4th-and-4 late in the first half, setting up a Brandon Weeden rushing touchdown.
Basically, every time Oklahoma State scored in this game, Blackmon was at least tangentially responsible for the points.
5. Johnny Manziel, 2012 Cotton Bowl
By the Numbers: 287 passing yards, 64.7% completion, 2 TD, 1 INT; 229 rushing yards, 2 TD
Like Christian McCaffrey in the 2015 Rose Bowl, Johnny Manziel set the tone early in the 2012 Cotton Bowl.
Manziel rushed three times for 52 yards on Texas A&M's opening possession, including the 3rd-and-9 play on which he spun away from a pass-rusher, beat him to the edge by a country mile and then eluded a tackler while tiptoeing down the sideline for a 23-yard touchdown.
There were some incredible designed runs for Manziel. In particular, the 44-yard draw play early in the second quarter was sensational. But this was a pass play that the freshman Heisman winner had the wherewithal to turn into a huge run.
Why He's Here
Bowl game or not, what Manziel did against Oklahoma has not been accomplished by anyone else in the past 18 years. He's the only player to throw for at least 250 yards and rush for at least 220 yards in a single game since at least 2000.
Sure, he threw a brutal red-zone interception and missed his target 11 other times, making this far from the most flawless performance of his career—let alone in the history of the sport. But he ran and threw circles around Oklahoma's defense, propelling the Aggies to a 41-13 victory.
4. Mark Sanchez, 2008 Rose Bowl
By the Numbers: 413 passing yards, 80.0% completion, 4 TD, 0 INT; 16 rushing yards, 1 TD
Mark Sanchez was never fleet of foot. In his college career, his longest run went for just 15 yards. Thanks to sacks counting as negative rushing yards, he finished his time at USC with 70 carries for just 33 yards.
But on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Penn State 6-yard line, USC ordered up a draw for Sanchez. He avoided both edge-rushers and had a nice jab step to avoid Jared Odrick, who was spinning off his blocker. Sanchez wasn't really touched until he crossed the plane.
The passing stats are what made him the star, but this was a back-breaking play for Penn State's defense. It was the second of five consecutive possessions on which USC scored.
Why He's Here
During the regular season, Penn State had one of the best pass defenses in the nation. Opponents averaged just 168.0 passing yards per game and completed 54.1 percent of attempts against the Nittany Lions. They entered the Rose Bowl with 16 interceptions and only six touchdowns allowed. In the previous seven games combined, they gave up two TDs and picked off eight passes.
But Sanchez looked like he was out there tossing darts against the scout team.
Sanchez completed just one of his first three attempts, but he caught fire from there. He found the mark on 17 of his next 20 attempts for 269 yards and three touchdowns. His rushing TD also came during this stretch, as USC had jumped out to a 31-7 lead by halftime.
It's hard to believe there were three more impressive performances than this, because the future architect of the butt fumble beat the living daylights out of an outstanding defense in the 38-24 win.
3. Tim Tebow, 2009 Sugar Bowl
By the Numbers: 482 passing yards, 88.6% completion, 3 TD, 0 INT; 51 rushing yards, 1 TD
To put it lightly, Cincinnati had no answer for Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. With a little over three minutes remaining in the second quarter, the 2007 Heisman winner had already completed 16 of his first 17 pass attempts for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He had also rushed for 27 yards.
But where he really broke the Bearcats' back was the 80-yard bomb to Riley Cooper, helping to put the Gators ahead by a 30-3 margin late in the first half. The play wasn't anything fancy. It was a go route with a play-action fake that the cornerback bit on for a split second, opening the door for Cooper to get open down the sideline. From there, Tebow hit him in stride on a ball that traveled about 40 yards in the air.
Why He's Here
Outside of a pair of big efforts in the 2014 and 2016 national championships, Tebow had the most incredible bowl performance of the past decade. Cincinnati was undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings, so this wasn't just some big day against a bunch of scrubs.
As great as Tebow was in college, this game was far from his norm. Prior to this final performance of his senior season, he had never thrown for more than 338 yards in a single game. To explode for 482 yards with just four incompletions was incredible.
It's a shame he didn't have more touchdowns in the 51-24 victory. Emmanuel Moody and Chris Rainey combined to punch in three short touchdowns. Had Tebow run even two of those in to finish with six scores, he would've been a no-brainer for the top spot on this list.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, 2014 National Championship
By the Numbers: 36 carries, 246 rushing yards, 4 TD
Ezekiel Elliott had a lot of impressive runs against the Oregon Ducks, but the best was the one that got the Ohio State Buckeyes on the board for the first time.
Elliott's combination of speed and vision made him one of the top running backs of the past decade, and we got to see both on his 33-yard TD. It looked like he was slalom skiing his way through the Oregon defense, passing through all the gates before finally turning on the afterburners to reach paydirt.
Why He's Here
Were there running backs with better stat lines in bowl games in the past decade? Absolutely. We had Kareem Hunt at No. 10 with 271 yards and five touchdowns, and a few of the honorable mentions had slightly bigger numbers.
But no running back in a national championship game can hold a candle to what Elliott did in the 42-20 win.
The one-yard TD run with 28 seconds remaining and a 15-point lead was a bit excessive, but why should we penalize Elliott for getting to enjoy the fruits of his labor? He beat up on Oregon's front seven all game, enabling the Buckeyes to dominate the time-of-possession battle by roughly 15 minutes against an incredibly potent Oregon offense. He earned those late touchdowns, even if the last one wasn't necessary.
(Also, he had a 17-yard run down to the 1 earlier in the game that set up a short TD pass to Nick Vannett. That late touchdown was just retribution for that decision.)
And though it's technically not supposed to be part of the consideration here, it's hard to forget that this was the capstone of a three-game run that started with 220 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship and 230 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama in the national semifinal.
1. Deshaun Watson, 2016 National Championship
By the Numbers: 420 passing yards, 64.3% completion, 3 TD, 0 INT; 43 rushing yards, 1 TD
The entirety of the final seven minutes of this national championship game felt like one frantic signature moment. But there's no question about where we're going with this one, right?
With his Clemson Tigers down by three points late in the fourth quarter, Deshaun Watson rolled to his right and hit Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with just one second remaining. Alabama fans will never forgive the officials for letting that pick/rub play slide, but Watson looked cool as a cucumber in one of the most pressure-filled moments an athlete could ever face.
Why He's Here
As was the case with Ezekiel Elliott at No. 2, there were better statistical performances than what this Clemson QB did. But none came in a national championship game.
As was also the case with Elliott, it was hard to forget about previous stellar showings from Watson. As noted in the honorable mentions, he had one heck of a game in the 2015 national championship against Alabama, and he was a top-three finisher for the Heisman as both a sophomore and junior.
But even if we try to ignore those details for a moment, Watson could not be stopped by a defense that had been stopping everyone. Alabama's previous two opponents, in the SEC championship and national semifinal (Florida and Washington), combined for 455 yards of total offense against the Crimson Tide.
Watson had 463.
He did fumble once, but the interceptions that plagued him often throughout his career were nowhere to be found in this 35-31 victory. He picked apart this Alabama secondary. And on one of the times that the Tide actually stopped him, he had a 38-yard pooch punt that pinned Alabama inside its own 5. The man could do no wrong.
Kerry Miller covers men's basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.