Winners and Losers of the 2020-21 College Football Bowl Season
As the victors of the College Football Playoff semifinals, Alabama and Ohio State were the biggest winners of the 2020-21 bowl season.
They weren't the only ones, though. Nor were Clemson and Notre Dame the only big losers.
While only about 60 percent of the originally scheduled bowl games took place this year, the past two weeks were loaded with incredible performances of the individual, team and game varieties.
Justin Fields' six-touchdown night in the Sugar Bowl was the most noteworthy, but several players scored five times in what might have been the last game of their college careers. Ball State finally won its first bowl game. Lincoln Riley finally beat an SEC team. And the highly entertaining Cure Bowl was a fitting exclamation point on what was a banner season for the Group of Five.
But there were also significant injuries, an entire conference laid an egg and we all missed out on a seven-gallon mayonnaise bath that we never knew we needed until we didn't get it.
These are your biggest bowl season winners and losers.
Winner: Undefeated Teams Inside the College Football Playoff
Alabama, 11-0, did the expected in the Rose Bowl, comfortably taking care of business against Notre Dame. A lot of bettors wish the Crimson Tide wouldn't have given up that garbage-time touchdown to drop the final margin to 17 points, but that game was never in doubt.
On its first three possessions, Alabama needed just 18 plays to gain 260 yards and score 21 points. Only putting up 10 points over the final 38 minutes was a little surprising for this high-octane offense, but the three-headed monster of Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith was outstanding, per usual.
The Alabama defense thrived with a bend-don't-break approach. Notre Dame got more than its fair share of first downs but none of the huge plays that plagued the Alabama secondary at times this season. On its lone scoring drive in the first 59 minutes, Notre Dame needed 15 plays, three third-down conversions and a successful 4th-and-goal plunge from the 1-yard line to break through. Then Alabama negated it with a touchdown just over two minutes later.
Much less expected was what 6-0 Ohio State did to Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
After a three-and-out on its opening possession, Ohio State ended the first half with five consecutive touchdown drives and outscored Clemson 21-0 in the second quarter. The Buckeyes did this despite Fields taking a bone-crushing hit near the end of the fourth of those five drives.
Fields was repeatedly shown wincing and grimacing on the sideline, but he showed no ill effects on the field—aside from an understandably drastic decrease in scrambling. He threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns with just six incompletions. Included in that stat line was a 56-yard touchdown bomb to Chris Olave and a 45-yard howitzer of a touchdown to Jameson Williams, both in the second half.
Clemson's Trevor Lawrence threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns of his own, but it felt like he was under duress on every snap. And once Ohio State pulled ahead by three scores, it was too much for even the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft to overcome. Ohio State won 49-28 to set up an undefeated showdown for all the marbles Jan. 11.
Loser: Undefeated Teams Outside the College Football Playoff
In the past nine years, only four teams went undefeated during the regular season and were denied the opportunity to play for a national championship: UCF in 2017 and 2018, Western Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2012, when the Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason.
But in a 2020 season full of truncated schedules, we ended up with three undefeated teams left in the lurch: 11-0 Coastal Carolina, 7-0 San Jose State and, most notably, 9-0 Cincinnati.
The postseason was not kind to those teams.
San Jose State got drilled by Ball State. The final margin was 21 points, but it felt more like 71. The Spartans won each of their prior seven games by double digits thanks to an excellent defense. However, an early pick-six served as a huge shot of adrenaline in a dominant first quarter for the Cardinals. They cruised from there.
The Coastal Carolina-Liberty game was an instant classic in the Cure Bowl. The Chanticleers clawed back from an early 14-0 deficit, forcing overtime behind three consecutive touchdown drives of at least 70 yards and an absurd fumble in the final minute of regulation. They just ran out of steam in overtime and fell shy of the perfect 12-0 dream. More on that game in a bit.
In the Peach Bowl between Cincinnati and Georgia, the Bearcats looked like the better team for most of the afternoon. But after opening up a 21-10 lead less than a minute into the third quarter, they got a little too conservative and complacent on offense and made some terrible clock management decisions late in the game, leaving the door open for Georgia to win it on a 53-yard field goal in the closing moments.
Cincinnati proved it belonged, though. Sure, the Bulldogs had a bunch of opt-outs. And based on recent history with teams like UCF, Boise State, Western Michigan and Houston doing the same, we know it won't change how the selection committee treats the Group of Five. But the Bearcats were a good team and deserved more respect than they got.
Winner: Oklahoma Sooners
Over the past three College Football Playoffs, the SEC outclassed Oklahoma—and the gap was getting worse, not better.
At the end of the 2017 season, the Sooners lost a double-overtime classic against Georgia. The following year, Alabama seized a 28-0 lead before Oklahoma at least made things a little more respectable at 45-34. And last year, LSU pummeled the Sooners from start to finish in a 63-28 blowout.
All told, Riley entered this postseason with an 0-3 record against the SEC, and two of the three games weren't even close.
That's probably why Florida linebacker James Houston IV said a week before the Cotton Bowl: "Oklahoma is a good matchup, but they're not on our level. They're not the SEC. They're not the Florida Gators. So we should put on a good show."
Houston recorded one tackle in Oklahoma's 55-20 shellacking of Florida.
Florida certainly wasn't playing with a full deck. Between Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes opting out of the game and Jacob Copeland missing it because of COVID-19, the Gators were without their four leading receivers. Key defenders Ventrell Miller, Marco Wilson and Shawn Davis were also absent for the Gators.
As a result, things got out of hand in a hurry. Oklahoma led 14-0 less than three minutes into the game. Each of Florida's first three possessions ended with an interception of Kyle Trask.
It just looked like Oklahoma had something to prove and like Florida had a plane to catch.
The Sooners will enter the 2021 season on an eight-game winning streak, during which they averaged 45.0 points. Expectations were high for Spencer Rattler's first season as starting quarterback, but don't be surprised when Oklahoma gets some first-place votes in the 2021 preseason AP poll.
Loser: The Duke's Mayo Bowl Water Bath
From the moment over the summer when Duke's Mayonnaise replaced Belk as the title sponsor of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bowl game, the No. 1 thing we wanted to see this bowl season was a deluge of lukewarm mayo over the head of a winning coach.
In the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, they dump a Gatorade cooler of french fries on the winning coach. The Cheez-It Bowl winner gets pelted with a great big bucket of Cheez-Its.
Why should the Duke's Mayo Bowl be any different?
Before the game, the official Duke's Mayo Bowl Twitter account posted a picture of a cooler on the field, teasing the possibility that this weirdly disgusting dream could come true.
Instead, at the conclusion of Wisconsin's 42-28 victory over Wake Forest, Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was merely doused with a cooler full of water.
And, look, I get it. A mayo cooler bath is a liability waiting to happen. Seven gallons of mayonnaise would weigh approximately 57 pounds. And if you've ever tried to dump mayo out of a jar, you know those 57 pounds would've either come out in one gigantic blob, or it would have congealed and not come out at all—in which case the coach might just take a full cooler to the dome. Either way, that impact could kill someone.
But come on. If you're going to sponsor a bowl, at least give us a 50-50 mayo-water slurry so the coach gets covered in some twang. Hopefully Hellmann's gets in on next year's action and does it right.
Winner: The Cure Bowl
On the one hand, I'm pleasantly surprised that there were 14 bowl games played before New Year's Eve.
Late in the regular season, it felt like there was another bowl getting canceled every week. Then, a whole bunch of teams opted out of bowl season, and they had to call off even more games on Selection Sunday. Throw in the ever-present possibility of last-minute COVID-19 cancellations and there were many points before Dec. 21 when I wasn't sure any games outside the New Year's Six would happen.
On the other hand, most of those 14 games were...well...the nicest thing I can say is that they happened.
Ten were decided by double digits. One of the four close ones (Marshall-Buffalo) was pretty much unwatchable, in large part because each team's star running back, Brenden Knox and Jaret Patterson, sat out the game. One of the other close ones (Miami-Oklahoma State) was marred by D'Eriq King's torn ACL, which hung like a pall over what otherwise would have been an entertaining second half.
But the Cure Bowl between Liberty and Coastal Carolina?
That game was awesome and preposterous.
It was clear early on that the undefeated Chanticleers had no answer for the legs of Liberty's dual-threat QB Malik Willis. He ran 10 times for 48 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter while pacing the Flames to a 14-0 lead. (He ended up rushing for 137 yards and four scores.)
Once Coastal's offense woke up, though, this became a highly entertaining back-and-forth affair. There was one stretch in which points were scored on eight out of 10 possessions, and one of the exceptions was when the Chanticleers ended a 78-yard Liberty drive with an interception in the end zone.
The complete madness came in the final minute. Liberty drove the length of the field with the game tied at 34-34. In trying to drain all the time off the clock before kicking the game-winning chip shot, Joshua Mack fumbled at the goal line while Coastal Carolina was trying to pull him into the end zone to get the ball back.
Let me type that again for anyone who missed this game: The defense was literally trying to pull the ball-carrier across the goal line, and he was so desperately trying to not score that he fumbled in his effort to keep the ball from crossing the plane. Given what happened at the end of the Indiana-Penn State game (and the NFL's Atlanta-Detroit game), I can appreciate why Liberty was trying not to take the touchdown. But, wow, it was so bizarre to watch that unfold.
After the fumble, the game went to overtime, where Liberty won anyway on a blocked field-goal attempt.
Loser: Health of Starting Quarterbacks in Dec. 29 Bowls
On Dec. 26, the college football world got an exciting bit of day-after-Christmas news when Miami QB D'Eriq King announced his intention to return in 2021 for what will be his sixth season.
Three days later, his health for that season was thrown into a serious state of uncertainty when his already surgically repaired right knee buckled on a first-half scramble in the Cheez-It Bowl. (King tore the meniscus in that knee late in the 2018 season.)
King was helped off the field, unable to put much (if any) weight on his right leg, and later returned to the sideline on crutches. It was announced Thursday morning that he suffered a torn ACL and will hopefully be back for fall camp. If he's good to go by then, he'll be one of the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy.
Also in that game, Oklahoma State's quarterback Spencer Sanders sustained multiple cuts on his throwing hand when an opposing lineman stepped on it. It's an apples-and-oranges comparison because Sanders didn't miss a snap—the injury happened on a third-down scramble, so he had an entire Miami possession to get cleaned up—but it was a physically taxing game for those quarterbacks.
In the other Dec. 29 game, Texas' senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger exited the Alamo Bowl in the first half because of a shoulder injury. Much like King, he later returned to the sideline in street clothes with his throwing arm in a sling.
It was already unclear whether Ehlinger would come back for a fifth season or leave for the NFL draft. If this is a serious enough injury to keep him from participating in the combine and predraft workouts, that probably significantly increases the likelihood that he plays one more year of college football.
However, it's not even clear when the injury happened, so it probably(?) isn't anything too severe. Regardless, it was the type of night that makes you wonder why anyone with NFL draft potential would risk playing in a non-CFP bowl game ever again.
Winner: 5-Touchdown Performers in Early Bowls
It has become surprisingly commonplace for an individual player to put up at least five touchdowns in a bowl game. In each of the past three years, it happened exactly four times—most notably LSU's Joe Burrow accounting for a combined 14 touchdowns in last year's College Football Playoff across two games.
All the same, it's a little outrageous that each of the first three games of the 2020 bowl season featured a five-touchdown performer.
In the Myrtle Beach Bowl, Appalachian State's Camerun Peoples went off against an atrocious North Texas defense. The redshirt sophomore running back carried the ball 22 times for 317 yards and five touchdowns. He was actually tackled for a two-yard loss on his first touch of the day before busting out runs of 62, 64 and 76 yards in the 56-28 victory.
The following afternoon, Nevada's Carson Strong was lights out against Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, completing 22 of 28 passes for 271 yards and five scores for a 38-27 win. The redshirt sophomore was already an intriguing draft prospect, and that type of year-end performance—albeit against a weak secondary—should have scouts buzzing. He ended the year with a 70.1 completion percentage and a 27-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in nine games.
Right after that game ended, BYU's Zach Wilson had yet another banner day in a 49-23 Boca Raton Bowl victory over UCF, throwing for 425 yards and three touchdowns and rushing in two more scores. The Heisman hype around Wilson went out the window in a hurry when BYU checked in all the way down at No. 14 in the initial CFP rankings, but he had a sensational year, ending up with just under 4,000 total yards, 43 total touchdowns and three interceptions.
And while he didn't score five times, let's also mention Hawaii's Calvin Turner. In leading the Rainbow Warriors to a 28-14 victory over Houston in the New Mexico Bowl, Turner became just the third player in the past two decades to accumulate at least 60 rushing yards, 80 receiving yards and 100 kick-return yards in a bowl game. One of the previous two was Reggie Bush in the unforgettable 2006 Rose Bowl.
Loser: Conference USA
In the previous two decades, there had only been three cases of a conference posting a winless postseason record while competing in at least four bowl games. All three of those happened to the MAC, which went 0-5 during the 2008-09 bowl season, 0-5 in 2013-14 and 0-6 in 2016-17.
But we can add Conference USA to that ignominious list following its 0-6 effort this year.
At least Marshall and UTSA put up somewhat of a fight. The former battled Buffalo in a defensive, 17-10 Camellia Bowl, but the Bulls scored the game-winning touchdown with a little over one minute remaining. And in the First Responder Bowl, UTSA clawed back from a 17-point second-half deficit to tie the game at 24-24, but Louisiana pushed back ahead late for a 31-24 victory.
Others weren't anywhere near that competitive.
Louisiana Tech committed more turnovers (four) than it scored points (three) in the process of getting waxed by Georgia Southern in the New Orleans Bowl. North Texas couldn't do anything to slow Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. And while Florida Atlantic had a solid defensive effort against Memphis in the Montgomery Bowl, the Owls were down by three scores by the time they finally moved the ball inside the Memphis 40-yard line.
Of the six games, the only time Conference USA even held a lead was for roughly four minutes in the first quarter of the LendingTree Bowl. Western Kentucky scored first, only to watch Georgia State score four unanswered touchdowns in a 39-21 game.
Conference USA probably would have gotten a win in the Gasparilla Bowl if league champion UAB had been able to face 2-8 South Carolina. However, the Gamecocks had to cancel the game because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Winner: Ball State Cardinals
Of the 130 college football programs at the FBS level, 104 have played at least 40 seasons there. All but one of those teams entered this season with at least one bowl win under its belt.
The exception to that was Ball State.
The Cardinals had spent the past 45 years at the FBS level, but all they had to show for it was an 0-7 record in bowl games. After six consecutive losing seasons, though, they won the MAC championship to draw undefeated San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.
And they blew out the Spartans in a hurry.
Senior cornerback Antonio Phillips ended the first possession of the game with the first pick-six of his career, giving Ball State an early 6-0 lead. From there, it was: San Jose State three-and-out, Ball State touchdown, lather, rinse, repeat.
Roughly 14 minutes into the game, Ball State was up 27-0, and San Jose State's only first down was a gift by the defense on a 3rd-and-8 pass interference penalty.
On Ball State's next three drives, it got down inside the San Jose State 10 before coming away with no points. (One missed field goal; two fumbles.) But the defense continued to dominate. The Cardinals pitched a first-half shutout, and it wasn't until they went ahead 34-0 that they finally let the Spartans get on the board with a kick-return touchdown.
The final margin (34-13) doesn't do justice to how much of a butt-whooping this was.
In case you're curious, the longest bowl-win drought now belongs to Louisiana-Monroe at 34 years. The Warhawks lost their only bowl game appearance in 2012. And they probably won't be snapping that skid next year, considering they went 0-10 this season, outscored by an average margin of 25.7 points per game.
Loser: Anyone Who Had to Face a Big 12 Team
At the beginning of the year, we railed on the Big 12 for its ineptitude.
Iowa State lost to Louisiana. Kansas State lost to Arkansas State. Kansas got crushed by Coastal Carolina. Texas Tech barely beat Houston Baptist. Oklahoma State struggled with Tulsa.
It was a truncated nonconference schedule, but a rather terrible one for the league.
The Big 12 finished the year a whole heck of a lot better, though.
We previously discussed Oklahoma's 55-20 romp over Florida in the Cotton Bowl, but it bears repeating. The Sooners rushed for 435 yards against a Gators defense that wasn't exactly stingy long before it had players opting out of the game. That 35-point victory was the widest margin of the entire bowl season, tied with Georgia Southern's 38-3 win over Louisiana Tech.
Texas almost equaled that margin, too, in its 55-23 win over Colorado. It wasn't enough to save Tom Herman's job, but the Longhorns gave their fans reason for optimism, with a young nucleus laying the smack down in the second half of the Alamo Bowl.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Iowa State had its way with a turnover-prone Oregon for a 34-17 victory. The Ducks botched fielding a kickoff, fumbled a punt and committed three turnovers on offense. And the Cyclones possessed the ball for nearly 43 minutes.
West Virginia eked out a 24-21 come-from-behind victory over Army in the Liberty Bowl. And after jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl, Oklahoma State narrowly held on for a 37-34 win over Miami.
All told, the Big 12 went 5-0 against opponents who entered bowl season with a combined record of 33-10.
That's certainly one way to close the book on a season that began with an 0-3 record against the Sun Belt.
Winner: Anyone Who Got to Face an ACC Team
In the previous Conference USA section, we noted how rare it is for an entire league to play at least four bowl games and go winless.
But just like Conference USA, the ACC came away with a donut in the win column to go with its six-pack of losses.
Clemson and Notre Dame getting blown out in the College Football Playoff were the ACC's most noteworthy shortcomings, by far. The other four teams at least stayed within two scores in their losses, and they didn't suffer their defeats under the brightest of lights.
But they all still lost.
North Carolina played a great game against Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl. The Tar Heels led 27-20 early in the fourth quarter. But a defense that was suspect all season melted down late as the Aggies pulled away for a 41-27 victory.
It was a similar story in the Duke's Mayo Bowl, with Wake Forest jumping out to an early 14-0 lead and nearly doubling Wisconsin in total yards (518 to 266). But a blocked punt late in the first half and four second-half interceptions doomed the Demon Deacons to a 42-28 loss. Wisconsin had five touchdown drives of 33 yards or fewer, three of which started inside the Wake Forest 10.
Miami (Cheez-It Bowl) and NC State (Gator Bowl) went the opposite route, digging themselves early holes before coming just short of climbing out of them. Miami was down 21-0 to Oklahoma State in the first quarter of its 37-34 loss. NC State trailed Kentucky 13-0 at halftime prior to three second-half touchdowns that weren't quite enough. The Wolfpack lost 23-21.