Ranking Every 2020 Bowl Game so Far

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2020

Ranking Every 2020 Bowl Game so Far

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Bowl season? The early stages were more like bore season. But the past couple of days, bowl season elevated its game, and after Saturday night's Cure Bowl, every college football fan should be excited about what's to come.

    While things may seem to be heating up a little competition-wise, there haven't been a lot of marquee matchups so far. Those are coming. With a depleted pool of candidates, lots of opt-outs and some poor pairings of lower-tier schools, it was inevitable that some games wouldn't be classics.

    There have been a few good ones, though.

    The top two showdowns so far—Coastal Carolina vs. Liberty and BYU vs. UCF—at least gave us one good game between the Chanticleers and Flames.

    These games were ranked on competitive more than anything else, but "watchability" also played a factor, considering if there were players who had some clout on a national perspective or those who posted terrific individual performances. 

    Let's rank the 10 bowl games of the first week. Don't avert your eyes just yet: Reading this will be better than watching most of the games so far.

10. New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Louisiana Tech

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    The worst type of uncompetitive game is when one team struggles to score any points. 

    That was the case in the New Orleans Bowl when Georgia Southern pounded Louisiana Tech 38-3. The Eagles got injured starting quarterback Shai Werts back in time for the game, and the Bulldogs couldn't find any offensive footing with backup signal-caller Aaron Allen.

    Allen tossed three first-half interceptions, and Werts was the dual-threat star he routinely was throughout his career when he was healthy. Coach Skip Holtz's team had few answers for Georgia Southern, which was clearly the better team.

    "It's unfortunate some of the mistakes we made early, with some of the interceptions," Holtz said, according to NOLA.com's Chris Dabe.

    Wertz made them pay, and the Southern defense was stout throughout the game. Louisiana Tech's year-long offensive struggles came to a head without starting quarterback Luke Anthony. The Bulldogs had won six consecutive bowl games entering the contest.

    According to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), the Bulldogs also had won 18 consecutive games against Sun Belt members before getting whipped by Southern. The quarterback issues were the primary culprit.

    Once JD Head replaced Allen, he didn't fare much better, throwing the team's fourth interception.

    Despite a shoulder injury that had kept him out the previous two games, Werts showed little effects, completing seven of his 12 passes for 126 yards and rushing for 71 more yards.

9. Myrtle Beach Bowl: Appalachian State vs. North Texas

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    If you wanted a good football game between two quality opponents, the season's first bowl showdown in the Myrtle Beach Bowl between Appalachian State and North Texas was not for you.

    The Mountaineers were far and away the class of those two programs, and they showed out in Conway, South Carolina, with rival Coastal Carolina watching from the stands on the Chanticleers' home field. They dominated the Mean Green by a 56-28 score.

    But the watchability was supremely enhanced by Appalachian State running back Camerun Peoples, who put on a performance Buffalo's Jaret Patterson would have been proud of.

    With Patterson not playing in his bowl game after tying the FBS single-game rushing touchdown record and finishing with the second-most rushing yards ever against Kent State earlier this year, Peoples shattered the bowl rushing record.

    It was one of the best performances we'll ever see. He finished with 319 rushing yards and five touchdowns against the Mean Green. The former was a bowl record. The latter tied a bowl record.  

    "This is probably one of the most memorable football games I've ever played," Peoples told reporters. Peoples had runs of 64, 62 and 76 yards, and teammate Marcus Williams added a 70-yard scoring run.

    Senior quarterback Zac Thomas rarely even needed to throw the ball but still completed half of his 16 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. 

    The only reason to watch the second half after App built a 28-7 lead was to see the Mountaineers' running backs break away. It happened over and over again.

8. LendingTree Bowl: Georgia State vs. Western Kentucky

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    David J. Griffin/Getty Images

    The Georgia State Panthers may have been just another team in a deep, talented Sun Belt Conference that featured standout seasons from Coastal Carolina and Louisiana and another good year from Appalachian State.

    But the Panthers (and fellow state conference mate Georgia Southern) are a quality program, and they proved that with a convincing LendingTree Bowl win over a Western Kentucky team that saw its offense exposed once again. 

    The star of the show in Georgia State's 39-21 victory was dual-threat quarterback Cornelious "Quad" Brown IV, who threw for three touchdown passes and 226 yards. He led four consecutive first-half touchdown drives to put the game far out of reach.

    If you thought the Panthers were just the Quad Brown Show, you were mistaken. They also had 227 rushing yards, two interceptions and sacked Tyrrell Pigrome three times. Pigrome's first interception snapped a streak of 278 passes without one.

    Shawn Elliott has taken the metro Atlanta program from the cellar of the conference to the first back-to-back winning seasons in the school's brief history. 

    This is yet another building block for a program that has the tools and the recruiting base to win in a big way in the Sun Belt. Now with Brown having the potential for three more years at the program, they have the offensive catalyst to stay in the mix.

    Georgia State's three-game winning streak is a nice way to end the '20 season and head into next year with high hopes.

7. Boca Raton Bowl: BYU vs. UCF

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Back on Dec. 22, you may have settled in front of your television to watch two high-octane offenses take scoreboard body-blow after body-blow against each other in what you expected to be a scoring barrage between BYU and UCF.

    Instead, what transpired was the final chapter of an extremely impressive season for the Cougars, whose only loss came after a cross-country, last-second trip to Conway, South Carolina, to play Coastal Carolina on Dec. 5.

    It was another disappointing showing for the Knights, who played uneven football all year. Their defense was never good, and at times, the offensive tempo that had so benefitted Josh Heupel's program was a detriment. That was the case again against BYU, which built a massive first-half lead on its way to a 49-23 win.

    On another national stage, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson had one of his best performances in what may have been his final collegiate game, throwing for 425 yards and three touchdowns.

    Running back Tyler Allgeier added 173 rushing yards, and pretty much everything offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes called worked to perfection. BYU rolled up 655 total yards in the rout, and it had UCF confused for much of the game.

    "Structurally they were a little bit different than what we had anticipated going into the game in some ways," Heupel said after the game. "Initially, we just didn't understand exactly what they were doing. As we did, we adjusted to it, but we still didn't play as efficiently as we were capable of."

    It wasn't just domination on that side of the ball, though. Vaunted UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel's offense mustered a season-low 217 passing yards.

    So while there wasn't any competitive reason to watch a game that was over by halftime, it may have been your final opportunity to watch Wilson and all his weapons shine for the Cougs.

    The win gave BYU its first 11-win season in 11 years and laid the groundwork for the future of Kalani Sitake's program.

6. Montgomery Bowl: Memphis vs. Florida Atlantic

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The first season of Ryan Silverfield's tenure at Memphis was up and down with the Tigers battling the coronavirus and struggling at times offensively after the explosive tenure of Mike Norvell. 

    But they found enough footing in the Montgomery Bowl to beat Florida Atlantic 25-10 and finish a successful season with an 8-3 record.

    Willie Taggart's first season replacing Lane Kiffin as the Owls head coach had its own share of good and bad spots, but the team finished at 5-4. 

    During the game, ESPN's play-by-play announcer, Clay Matvick, broke the news that Memphis star quarterback Brady White was going to enter the NFL draft. The Arizona State transfer has enjoyed a sterling career at Memphis and capped it with a 284-yard, three-touchdown performance.

    "He could come back next year because of the NCAA rule, but he said this week it's time to turn the page," Matvick said (h/t the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Landon Bost). "He's going to turn pro."

    Siverfield's offense should be in good hands with another transfer from the state of Arizona as Wildcats signal-caller Grant Gunnell is heading East, according to 247Sports' Christian Fowler. He will have some big cleats to fill when he attempts to replace White.

    How wacky has 2020 been? This bowl game wasn't even supposed to exist. It was created to replace the Fenway Bowl, which was canceled due to COVID-19.

    Memphis built an 18-0 lead at the break, but FAU roared back with 10 consecutive points in the third quarter before the Tigers pulled away. Though they bid farewell to White, it was an exciting game for the program's future, too.

    Redshirt freshmen Tahj Washington and Javon Ivory each finished with more than 100 receiving yards against the nation's No. 18 pass defense, and Auburn running back transfer Asa Martin had 96 rushing yards. After a year in which the Tigers struggled to run the ball, Martin provided a glimmer of future hope.

5. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Tulane vs. Nevada

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    Steve Conner/Associated Press

    The Nevada Wolf Pack came so close to playing for their first-ever Mountain West Conference championship, but they ran into a team of destiny a couple of weeks ago in San Jose State.

    It wasn't a bad consolation prize to head to a bowl destination they knew well, playing in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on rival Boise State's blue turf. The familiarity wound up paying dividends, as the Wolf Pack put together one of their most impressive performances of the year in a win over Tulane.

    Coach Jay Norvell's team built a big first-half lead and finished with a sterling performance from redshirt sophomore quarterback Carson Strong, two 100-yard rushers and eight sacks in a 38-27 victory.

    "Last game out still stings us little bit because we felt like we had a good enough team to win a championship," Strong told reporters. "But at least you can go home with a smile on your face now. I’m glad we could come back here and redeem ourselves."

    The Wolf Pack lost to Ohio in the same bowl game a season ago, so it was a bit of poetic symmetry to capitalize on a second chance.

    Strong was the catalyst, tying a Potato Bowl record with five touchdown passes. He also threw for 271 yards, and he had a lot of help from his friends. The running back tandem of Devonte Lee (105 yards) and Toa Taua (102 yards) was dominant at times.

    Taua, particularly, rebounded from the costly fumbles he suffered against SJSU that helped the Spartans score 23 unanswered points two weeks ago. Taua had a scoring run, and he also caught six passes for 77 yards and another score.

    Terrific receiving tight end Cole Turner added 60 yards and two scores, and Nevada flexed its offensive muscle. Nevada built a 19-0 lead, but the Green Wave shaved the lead to 26-20 before the Wolf Pack pulled away.

4. New Mexico Bowl: Hawaii vs. Houston

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    Matt Strasen/Associated Press

    Throughout the year, Todd Graham's Hawaii Rainbow Warriors were a sneaky-sound team.

    He inherited some talent from Nick Rolovich, who bolted the islands to coach at Washington State in January. But it was the development of redshirt sophomore quarterback Chevan Cordeiro who really helped propel the team to a winning record.

    The Rainbow Warriors secured a 5-4 record with a 28-14 New Mexico Bowl win over Houston. It ended a disappointing season for coach Dana Holgorsen's team. There were few teams that dealt with more COVID-19 cancellations than the Cougars, and it showed in a 3-5 season.

    The Warriors built a two-touchdown lead before the Cougs battled back to within a touchdown with 3:45 left in the third quarter.

    That's when the biggest play from Hawaii's do-it-all player Calvin Turner sealed the win.

    Turner took the ensuing kickoff 92 yards to the house to make it a two-touchdown lead again, and Houston never could get any closer. Turner wound up with 252 all-purpose yards, after rushing for 60 and taking a pass 75 yards for a touchdown earlier in the game on his way to 88 receiving yards.

    But the kick return score was the biggie.

    "They had just scored a touchdown," Turner told reporters, "so I was thinking I needed to come up with a big play."

    Cordeiro threw for just 136 yards but added three scoring tosses in the win, and while it has been far from a normal season for anybody, it was a positive first step for Graham.

3. First Responder Bowl: Louisiana vs. UT-San Antonio

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    Matt Strasen/Associated Press

    Billy Napier's program at Louisiana is as healthy as any Group of Five team in the country, and even if he winds up losing star playmakers in quarterback Levi Lewis and running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, the program will still be on firm footing.

    All three of those guys can come back to school, too.

    The Ragin' Cajuns secured their second straight 10-win season with a 31-24 win over the UT San Antonio Road Runners in the First Responder Bowl. Though they were in control for much of the game, it was never really in-hand.

    Louisiana was in victory formation inside the 20-yard line at the end of the game, so it could have tacked on another score, but that wouldn't have been indicative of the way the game went. UTSA, who finished 7-5, just wouldn't go away. 

    Louisiana's only loss was a three-point setback to Coastal Carolina that it didn't get to avenge a week ago when the conference title game was postponed due to COVID-19 reasons.

    Instead, the Cajuns had to settle for a 10-1 record and a punishing win over the Road Runners in which they controlled both lines of scrimmage, even if they were unable to pull away. Mitchell was the game's MVP with 127 yards and a touchdown, and Ragas added 98 more and a score.

    But after building a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter, Louisiana allowed 17 unanswered points to fall into a 24-all tie early in the fourth quarter. It was the type of disappointing lapse that kept Louisiana from pulling away from a lot of opponents this year.

    But the Cajuns put together a 12-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to milk the clock and secure yet another win. Now, the question becomes whether Napier, whose name has come up in several coaching searches the past couple of years, will stick around in Lafayette.

    He doesn't seem in any hurry to leave.

2. Camellia Bowl: Marshall vs. Buffalo

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The second-best game of the bowl season so far didn't include a lot of points, but it took place between two of the nation's top Group of Five programs for much of the year that saw their seasons take disappointing turns.

    Buffalo mustered some positivity with a big Camellia Bowl victory over Marshall, getting Kevin Marks Jr.'s go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 remaining and making a couple of pivotal defensive plays afterward to survive with a 17-10 win.

    For the Bulls, it was a quality rebound from a disappointing MAC Championship Game that saw elite running back Jaret Patterson shut down and Ball State pull away for a convincing victory. Patterson, the nation's leading rusher, suffered a knee injury in the game and couldn't play in the bowl.

    Marks proved a capable replacement. He finished with 138 rushing yards and the big touchdown.

    Quarterback Kyle Vantrease also had his moments for coach Lance Leipold's team.

    For Marshall, it was more of the same struggles that transformed its season from a spotless 7-0 start to a reeling finish that saw the Herd lose their final three games.

    Quarterback Grant Wells was one of the biggest freshman revelations, but he got a case of the "yips" in the final stanza of the season, throwing five interceptions in a shocking 20-0 loss to hapless Rice on December 5.

    In a loss to UAB in the Conference USA Championship Game, Wells completed just eight of his 23 passes and followed it up with another lackluster game against the Herd.

    "We just didn’t make enough plays offensively the last three weeks," Marshall coach Doc Holliday told reporters.

    Buffalo did. The Bulls capped a 13-play, 88-yard drive that took 6:18 off the clock with Marks' touchdown, and then they got crucial sacks from Kadofi Wright and Eric Black after Wells drove Marshall to the red zone in the closing seconds.

1. Cure Bowl: Liberty vs. Coastal Carolina

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Before the Cure Bowl, college football's game of the year happened between Coastal Carolina and BYU because a regularly scheduled game between the Chanticleers and Liberty was called off because of COVID-19 concerns.

    The two teams met in Orlando after all Saturday and may have eclipsed that previous best game in an overtime classic. It was worth tuning in for the entertainment value alone.

    The final result was a 37-34 Liberty win that ended when Elijah James blocked a 42-yard field-goal attempt to give Hugh Freeze and the Flames their first win in school history over a ranked FBS opponent.

    But, oh so much more happened before then, including the most bizarre play in college football this season.

    After Chanticleers clutch redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall led his team down the field for the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion to make it 34-all with 3:02 left in a game Coastal trailed the whole way (by as much as 14), pandemonium prevailed.

    Liberty marched right back downfield, thanks to star quarterback Malik Willis, who couldn't be stopped all night. He finished with 220 passing yards, 137 rushing yards and four scores on the ground.

    But with more than a minute left on the clock and his team inside the 5-yard line, Freeze tried to stall the game and run clock rather than score quickly.

    On first down, running back Joshua Mack stalled then took a knee to let more time elapse with the Chants out of timeouts. Then on second down, he tried to do it again (while Coastal tried to allow him to score). Rather than take a knee, though, Mack lumbered lazily toward the line of scrimmage.

    It seemed Coastal's defense was literally pushing him across the goal line so they'd have time to get back the ball. Then, inexplicably, Liberty tight end Jerome Jackson approached Mack's back, came into contact with his teammate and appeared to lodge the ball free before he reached the goal line, resulting in a fumble.

    Coastal recovered the ball, ran out the clock in regulation and forced overtime, where Liberty kicked a field goal and blocked Coastal's field goal.

    If it sounds ridiculous, it's because it was—and glorious, too. But Freeze's 10-1 Liberty team somehow overcame the debacle and handed Coastal (11-1) its first loss of the year in a classic Group of Five showdown.