Ranking Top 10 Bowl Games of the 2019-20 Season
The main event of bowl season is yet to come on Jan. 13, but we wanted to take a look back on the past few weeks to put together a ranking of the best undercard bouts.
Dramatic endings and memorable highlights were the two main things considered, but the stakes also factored prominently into the rankings. The New Year's Six bowls—especially the College Football Playoff semifinals—carried a little extra weight, since they featured the best teams playing for more prestigious honors.
But that didn't stop the Belk Bowl—aka Lynn Bowden Jr. Day—from ranking in our top five, nor did it keep a pair of games featuring teams from the Mid-American Conference from sneaking into the top 10.
While we wait to crown a national champion, come relive the 2019-20 bowl season with us.
2018 Cheez-It Bowl Wannabe Honorable Mention: The Sun Bowl
Last year's Cheez-It Bowl was a complete disaster. TCU and California threw a combined nine interceptions in a 10-7 overtime affair that caused many of us to question the cost of "free" football. Everyone agreed it was laughably, awful football, but some ranked it as one of the top games because it was a 17-car pileup they'll never forget witnessing.
Based on that line of thinking, this year's Sun Bowl warrants some consideration as a memorable calamity.
Arizona State fumbled on the first play of the game, setting up Florida State at the opponent's 13 for what should have been an easy scoring drive. Instead, on 2nd-and-goal from the 1, James Blackman threw a pass well behind a stumbling receiver and into the arms of Aashari Crosswell, who almost took it 100-plus yards for a pick-six.
Five plays, two turnovers, zero points. Yikes.
Blackman was strip-sacked two possessions later and threw another interception midway through the second quarter. Arizona State's A.J. Carter also fumbled the ball away for the second time early in the second quarter. At halftime, the Sun Devils led 9-0 in a game with five turnovers.
FSU briefly took the lead in the third quarter, but Blackman threw a pick-six to Willie Harts for Arizona State's only touchdown of the day. The Seminoles committed two more turnovers in the final four minutes, bringing their total to six giveaways in a 20-14 loss.
Oh, these teams also went a combined 6-of-33 on third-down attempts. Brutal stuff.
There have been plenty of turnover bonanzas over the years. In the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Central Michigan committed eight turnovers in a 37-14 loss to Wyoming. But it's because the Cowboys were able to do something with many of those gifts that no one remembers that as one of the ugliest bowl games of the decade. This Sun Bowl will persist as a candidate in that debate because of Arizona State's refusal to capitalize on offense.
The Actual Honorable Mention: Gator Bowl (Tennessee 23, Indiana 22)
This was nowhere near the gong show that the Sun Bowl was, but let's just say the football was not very good for the majority of the Gator Bowl.
Even though there were four red-zone possessions in the first half, it was merely 6-3 at halftime. Each starting quarterback threw an interception—neither one in the red zone, though—and it felt like neither of these teams would figure out how to score a touchdown.
If you turned off the game at that point, you certainly weren't alone.
Indiana finally punched one in on its first drive of the second half and then took a Jarrett Guarantano pass 63 yards the other way for a pick-six one minute later. In the blink of an eye, the Hoosiers turned a 6-3 deficit into a 16-6 lead.
Tennessee returned the favor in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 22-9, the Volunteers marched 82 yards down the field for a touchdown, recovered the ensuing onside kick and scored another touchdown 30 seconds later to take a 23-22 lead.
Indiana had two chances to retake the lead and got the ball into Tennessee territory both times. However, Logan Justus missed a long field goal the first time, and Peyton Ramsey threw four consecutive incompletions on the second one to end the game.
Ugly as it was until the final few minutes, winning six consecutive games after a 2-5 start will all but ensure that Tennessee makes an appearance in next year's preseason AP Top 25. The Vols were ranked 25th to open both the 2015 and 2017 seasons, but they might land in the top 20 to open 2020.
10. Frisco Bowl (Kent State 51, Utah State 41)
As news of bowl pairings trickled down throughout Selection Sunday, I don't imagine there were many people thinking, "Man, I cannot wait for the Frisco Bowl!" Even if you staunchly believe there's no such thing as too many bowl games, a seven-win team from the Mountain West against a six-win team from the Mid-American doesn't do much to tickle your fancy.
But college football is college football, dammit, and by the time the first day of bowl season rolled around, we were starving for this matchup.
It ended up being a wildly entertaining affair with more than 1,000 combined yards and at least three scores in each quarter.
Utah State's Jordan Love fared well in the final game of his college career, throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. There weren't any huge strikes—his longest completion only went for 26 yards—but he led the Aggies on many long drives on the way to 41 points.
It wasn't enough to keep pace with Dustin Crum, though.
Kent State's junior quarterback was almost perfect, completing 21 of 26 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He also crushed Utah State with his legs, rushing for a career-high 147 yards and a third score. Crum connected with Isaiah McKoy for a 78-yard touchdown on the Golden Flashes' opening possession, setting the stage for a huge day.
Crum also delivered the knockout blow on 4th-and-1 late in the fourth quarter. Not only did he get the first down, but he rushed four yards for the touchdown to put Kent State ahead by the final score of 51-41.
Many fans had probably never heard of Crum prior to this performance, but get ready for him to feature prominently in the 2020 preseason lists of Group of Five players to watch.
9. First Responder Bowl (Western Kentucky 23, Western Michigan 20)
Much like the Frisco Bowl, the First Responder Bowl wasn't circled on many calendars around the nation. But this mid-west directional battle delivered the most dramatic finish of any bowl game.
Western Kentucky's Ty Storey and Lucky Jackson were a match made in heaven on this day. The former threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns. The latter made 17 receptions for 148 yards and one of those TDs. But on a deflected pass, Storey also threw one touchdown to the wrong team, as Kareem Ali took the carom 88 yards for a much-needed touchdown in a game where Western Michigan struggled to move the ball.
But on the game-winning drive, it was Gaej Walker, an untimed down and an unlikely kick which set the Hilltoppers up for the win.
After tying the game at 20 with less than two minutes remaining and then stopping the Broncos on a confusing fourth-down attempt near the red zone, Storey hit Walker for gains of 11 yards and 20 yards to get within range for a Hail Mary attempt. Storey's pass fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired. The game appeared to be headed for overtime—which would have been the only overtime game of this entire bowl season, if you can believe that.
However, the referees conferred and determined Western Michigan had 12 men on the field, giving Western Kentucky one more shot from the WMU 34. Rather than launch another prayer into the painted area, the Hilltoppers tried their luck with Cory Munson on a 52-yard field-goal attempt.
The freshman's previous long was 48 yards in mid October. He hadn't even attempted one from more than 40 yards away since that game, and he entered the day having missed each of his last four attempts from at least 32 yards. He finished the regular season making just 14 of 24 field goals, and even missed a 29-yarder right before halftime.
But he drilled this long kick like it was nothing, giving the Hilltoppers the 23-20 victory.
8. Hawaii Bowl (Hawaii 38, BYU 34)
Christmas Eve is a rough day to be a sports fan, especially when it falls in the middle of the week. There were no NBA or college basketball games. No NHL. No NFL. Just a whole lot of nothing except for this one college football game.
Thankfully, the Hawaii Bowl was a barnburner featuring a quarterback who threw for more than a quarter of a mile.
Cole McDonald—who threw for 85 yards with two interceptions in the 2018 Hawaii Bowl—put up 493 passing yards in Hawaii's 38-34 victory over BYU.
LSU's Joe Burrow had the same yardage total in the Peach Bowl, and like the Heisman winner, McDonald did the majority of his damage in the first half. After going three-and-out on the opening possession, he led the Rainbow Warriors on five consecutive scoring drives, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing in a fourth. He had 331 passing yards by intermission, and 600 was certainly in play with BYU keeping pace in a 31-24 contest.
Hawaii's offense went missing in the third quarter, though. McDonald completed one of seven pass attempts as the Rainbow Warriors ended the period with negative-four yards on four possessions.
After the two sides exchanged missed field goals early in the fourth quarter, McDonald got the ball back on his own 14. There were two minutes left on the clock with Hawaii down by three when first-half McDonald resurfaced for a four-play, 86-yard touchdown drive.
He did it so quickly that BYU still had time on the clock to potentially put together a clutch drive of its own. Zach Wilson threw for three first downs to get into Hawaii territory, but he ultimately tossed a game-sealing interception.
7. Orange Bowl (Florida 36, Virginia 28)
Each of Florida's three previous trips to the Orange Bowl were blowout wins. The Gators beat Georgia Tech by 15 in 1967, smoked Syracuse by 21 in 1999 and smashed Maryland by 33 in 2002.
The expectation was that this year's edition—Virginia's first appearance in one of college football's oldest annual traditions—would be yet another rout.
Florida finished at No. 9 in the CFP rankings, only suffering two losses in close games away from home against LSU and Georgia. Virginia ended up at No. 24, got destroyed by Clemson in the ACC championship and was disappointing on defense for just about the entire season.
Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins helped to level the playing field, throwing for 323 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. Not only did he have the numbers, but he had a ridiculous highlight, escaping from about four would-be tacklers before firing a touchdown to Hasise Dubois in the back of the end zone. That play and the ensuing extra point tied the game at 14 at the beginning of the second quarter.
But Florida had too much Lamical Perine.
Playing in his 50th game, the senior set a career high with 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He also made five receptions for 43 yards and another score. All three of his touchdowns came in the first half, including a 61-yard run on his first touch. Virginia was unable to recover to ever take the lead.
Sadly, the best play of the game didn't count. Virginia dialed up a trick play for what was supposed to be a lateral to offensive tackle Bobby Haskins. He rumbled into the end zone for a touchdown that was overturned because the designed backward pass traveled forward by a few inches. The referees took it off the board, but they can never erase it from our memories.
6. Outback Bowl (Minnesota 31, Auburn 24)
Not only was the Outback Bowl played on the same day as the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, but it shared a start time with the much more noteworthy Citrus Bowl battle between Alabama and Michigan. As a result, even in the Big Ten and SEC markets, Auburn vs. Minnesota was clearly the "B" game of the afternoon.
This ended up being the better game, though.
Unless you count Noah Igbinoghene's 96-yard kickoff return, Minnesota's defense was outstanding against the supposedly superior SEC power. Auburn averaged 211.3 rushing yards and 421.4 total yards during the regular season, but the Golden Gophers limited the Tigers to season-worst marks of 56 and 232, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Tigers had no answer for Tyler Johnson, who had a 73-yard receiving touchdown and an absurd one-handed touchdown grab on his way to 204 yards. Minnesota also rushed for 215 yards against a front seven that had held each of its first 12 opponents below 190.
Despite being more than doubled in total yards, Auburn kept it close in a game in which neither team led by multiple scores. The Tigers weren't consistent on offense, but they had two long touchdown drives in addition to the kickoff returned for six points.
It was a long non-scoring Minnesota drive that ended the game, though.
One possession after Johnson had that 73-yard touchdown on the first play, the Golden Gophers ran 16 plays and bled eight minutes and 38 seconds off the clock. That drive included an acrobatic fourth-down catch by backup tight end Bryce Witham—who hadn't caught a pass during the regular season—followed by a 10-yard run by Mohamed Ibrahim on 3rd-and-10.
The victory gave Minnesota its first season with 11 or more wins since 1904.
5. Cotton Bowl (Penn State 53, Memphis 39)
Maybe you prefer defensive grinds, but I'm a big fan of games in which the over cashes early in the third quarter. That's what we got in the Cotton Bowl with Penn State and Memphis taking turns probing the opposing defense for chunk gains.
By the end of the first quarter, there had already been seven plays on which a player—a different guy each time—gained at least 15 yards. By the end of the day, there were 22 such gains by 13 unique players, not even including Garrett Taylor's 15-yard interception return for a touchdown at the game's most critical juncture.
Penn State running back Journey Brown was responsible for five of those big plays on just 16 carries. There was the 32-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter on which he broke three tackles and dragged a fourth defender into the end zone. The 56-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was much less physically demanding, as he did one jump-cut near the line of scrimmage and then went untouched into the end zone.
Brown led a Penn State rushing assault that racked up 396 yards and five touchdowns.
Memphis' Brady White did everything he could to keep the Tigers within shouting distance of the Nittany Lions, throwing for 454 yards, rushing for one touchdown and even making a 25-yard reception on a gadget play. However, that pick-six with Memphis trailing 38-36 late in the third quarter more or less ended the game.
Over the previous five seasons, the Group of Five's representative in the New Year's Six had a 3-2 record with both losses coming by an eight-point margin. That means this ended up being the worst score for the "little guys" since they were given a seat at the adults' table, but this was by no means a blowout. It has consistently been one of the most entertaining games each year.
4. Peach Bowl (LSU 63, Oklahoma 28)
There are two types of blowouts. The boring one is when the losing team looks awful. The fun-to-watch one is when the winning team is so dominant that it makes the losing team look helpless.
There's a fine line between the two, but the Peach Bowl definitely fell into the latter category with LSU having a historically great first half on its way to a 35-point shellacking.
Oklahoma wasn't terrible. It scored a touchdown in each quarter, and each one came on a drive of at least 69 yards. It was far from a vintage Sooners offensive performance, but they occasionally didn't look out of their league on offense.
Defense was another story.
LSU QB Joe Burrow was unstoppable all season long. He threw for at least 275 yards, accounted for multiple touchdowns and completed at least 71 percent of his pass attempts in all 13 games en route to winning the Heisman by a country mile.
But even those lofty standards couldn't prepare us for the way he completely dismantled the Sooners secondary.
Burrow had seven touchdowns and more than 400 passing yards...by halftime. In the past two seasons, there were only two other instances of a quarterback hitting both of those marks in an entire game, and they both took place in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense at Washington State.
Getting there in fewer than 30 minutes in a national semifinal was nothing short of ludicrous.
At a certain point—somewhere in the middle of the drive when Burrow ran for back-to-back first downs and then connected with Justin Jefferson on a 42-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 28-7—the victory became inevitable and it turned into a question of how absurd his stat line could get.
Unless you're an Oklahoma fan, it was a delight to behold—almost like watching the football equivalent of a magical Home Run Derby round or Katie Ledecky annihilating the "competition" in a long-distance freestyle swim. It wasn't a close game, but it was an unforgettable performance.
3. Belk Bowl (Kentucky 37, Virginia Tech 30)
For teams that hadn't previously played each other since 1987, Kentucky and Virginia Tech sure weren't fond of one another in advance of the Belk Bowl.
One of the perks of participating in this particular bowl game is paying a visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway for a NASCAR ride-along. But there was a bit of a scuffle when Kentucky's arrival time there overlapped with Virginia Tech's departure plans.
Those extracurriculars took an otherwise low-key bowl game—neither team was ranked in the final CFP Top 25, and the Belk Bowl hasn't been a particularly must-watch affair in most years—and turned it into the most intriguing non-playoff matchup of this bowl cycle.
Better yet, the game delivered one of the most dramatic finishes.
Kentucky trailed for most of the afternoon but never allowed the Hokies to put the game out of reach. Despite committing turnovers on two consecutive second-half possessions, the Wildcats got the ball back down 30-24 for Bowden to lead them on an 18-play, 85-yard, eight-minute, game-winning drive.
The wide-receiver-turned-running-quarterback only completed six passes in the game, but two of them came during this series. Bowden converted on 4th-and-7 by connecting with Josh Ali for a nine-yard gain. Then, a few plays after he rushed for two yards on 4th-and-1, he found Ali again for a 13-yard touchdown with 15 seconds to go.
Bowden ran for 53 yards on that possession alone, finishing the day with 233 yards on the ground and three total touchdowns.
2. Rose Bowl (Oregon 28, Wisconsin 27)
This year's Granddaddy of Them All wasn't quite on par with the 2018 double-overtime gem between Georgia and Oklahoma nor the previous year's instant classic between USC and Penn State, but it was still the best non-CFP game of the past month.
Early on, it looked like this might be a high-scoring affair, similar to the 2012 Rose Bowl when Oregon defeated Wisconsin 45-38. The Ducks went 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession, followed by Aron Cruickshank taking the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
From that point forward, though, this was precisely the defensive brawl that was anticipated.
Oregon did everything in its power to stifle Jonathan Taylor, limiting him to 94 rushing yards. Wisconsin focused on not letting Justin Herbert win the game with his arm and ended up holding the Ducks to just 204 total yards—129 yards after the first drive.
The difference in the game was Oregon forcing turnovers and capitalizing on most of them.
After Thomas Graham Jr. picked off Jack Coan late in the second quarter, Oregon went 33 yards in three plays for its second touchdown of the night. When Badgers punter Anthony Lotti dropped a snap early in the third quarter, Brady Breeze snatched it up and went 31 yards for a touchdown. And when Danny Davis III fumbled midway through the fourth, Herbert scored a 30-yard rushing touchdown on the next play—his third rushing touchdown of the night and what proved to be the game-winning score.
To put it lightly, no one was expecting those three rushing touchdowns. Herbert entered the Rose Bowl with one on the season and just two in his previous 25 games combined. And it's not like the Badgers were notorious for forgetting about the quarterback. In the Big Ten Championship Game, Justin Fields had one rushing yard. It was a weird wrinkle in a great game.
1. Fiesta Bowl (Clemson 29, Ohio State 23)
For all the time we spend obsessing over the College Football Playoff semifinal matchups every year, they end up being boring blowouts more often than not.
Remember last year? Clemson smashed Notre Dame 30-3, and then Alabama scored the first 28 points en route to an easy win over Oklahoma. Close, entertaining affairs have been the exception to the rule since the playoff's inception.
But Clemson vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was an awesome game. Even Buckeyes fans who will forever blame the officials for the loss should be able to admit that.
Ohio State had Clemson's number for the first 25 minutes, scoring on four of five possessions while its defense pitched a shutout. But three of those four scores were short field goals, leaving the door open for a Tigers comeback that was jump-started by a controversial targeting call that evidently woke up quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Clemson scored the next 21 points, including a 67-yard touchdown run by Lawrence—whose previous career high rushing total for a game was 66 yards.
There was the more-controversial-than-the-targeting overturned fumble-six late in the third quarter, a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown drive by each of next year's Heisman co-favorites and a dramatic final possession that ended with Justin Fields throwing an interception in the end zone when Chris Olave unexpectedly broke off his route.
I had no rooting interest in the game, and it still felt like I was holding my breath for the entire second half. It was a battle befitting of a spot in the national championship.
One parting intriguing parallel in light of the forthcoming nonstop Fields and Lawrence conversations for the next 12 months: In Lawrence's final season at Cartersville High School, he threw 40 touchdowns against just one interception. But in the All-American Game that January, he threw two interceptions. An exhibition all-star game obviously doesn't carry the same weight as a CFP semifinal, but it's kind of bizarre that Fields also threw a pair of picks after bringing a 40-1 ratio into that game.
The good news for Fields is that Lawrence's teams have won 29 consecutive games since then. Perhaps he can restart a similar streak for Ohio State next year.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.