Winners and Losers of the College Football New Year's Day Bowl Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2022

Winners and Losers of the College Football New Year's Day Bowl Games

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Welcome to 2022, college football fans. If the first day is any indication, buckle up because it's going to be a fun year.

    Saturday's bowl games gave us every reason in the world for College Football Playoff expansion. A day after Alabama and Georgia won snore-fests, the New Year's Day contests were quite simply amazing.

    Jaxon Smith-Njigba's record-shattering day and C.J. Stroud's brilliance led Ohio State to a remarkable come-from-behind win in the Rose Bowl over Utah.

    Notre Dame and Oklahoma State gave us a thrilling Fiesta Bowl that saw the Cowboys come back for a huge win. Kentucky blew a 10-point lead and then rode a fourth-quarter drive and Wan'Dale Robinson's heroics to win the Citrus Bowl, and Arkansas dominated Penn State in the second half to win the Outback Bowl.

    The Sugar Bowl was a bit of a letdown as Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral suffered a leg injury and exited the game, which led to a stunted offensive effort for the Rebels in a 21-7 Baylor win. But the Bears defense stole the show in a historic year for that program.

    Let's take a look at the winners and losers from Saturday's bowls.

Winner: Jaxon Smith-Njigba Ascends to Superstardom in Rose Bowl Win

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    By now, pretty much everybody who loves college football has heard of Ohio State sophomore receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. When you lead a Buckeyes team that features Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in receiving, it draws attention.

    But with both of those teammates sitting out the Rose Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, Smith-Njigba delivered a performance for the ages in the 48-45 win.

    Is that hyperbole? You may think so, but there's no other way to describe what he did to shred Utah on Saturday in Pasadena, California.

    How good was Smith-Njigba? Not only did he set a Rose Bowl record with 347 receiving yards (on 15 catches), he also torched the record for all bowl games held by Hawaii's Jason Rivers, who gained 308 in 2006. In the process, he broke the Buckeyes' all-time single-season receiving yards record. Oh, he scored three touchdowns too.

    This is a kid who was essentially an afterthought nationally at the beginning of the year but played his way into the spotlight with pristine route running and terrific hands. What he did Saturday will be remembered, likely for decades.

    Thankfully for Ohio State, he had plenty of help, as freshman receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. added three touchdowns and 71 yards. 

    Ohio State is far from perfect, but with quarterback C.J. Stroud and receivers Smith-Njigba, Harrison, Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka back next year, this passing game is still extremely dangerous.

    Smith-Njigba may be on his way to being a generational star.

Loser: The Fact Somebody Had to Lose a Classic Rose Bowl

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    Utah played in its first Rose Bowl on Saturday. Utes fans packed the palace in Pasadena, the players built a two-touchdown lead against Ohio State and stars rose to the occasion all over the place.

    Quarterback Cameron Rising broke out with his legs and his arm, racking up 306 total yards and three touchdowns. Do-it-all receiver Britain Covey ended his Utes career with a receiving touchdown and a kick-return score.

    When Rising left with an apparent head injury late in the fourth quarter, backup quarterback Bryson Barneswho hadn't thrown a pass all yearcompleted both his attempts for 23 yards, added a 10-yard scramble and led the Utes on a game-tying drive late, just ahead of Ohio State's game-winning field goal.

    They were more than game in this game. 

    It's just a shame somebody had to lose. It happened to be the Utes. Victimized by Smith-Njigba's monumental day and unable to slow down Stroud, who had 573 passing yards and threw six touchdowns, the Utes simply ran out of time. The Buckeyes battled all the way back, had the ball long enough to sustain a game-winning drive and capitalized.

    It was a game that felt as though, had the Utes had another couple of minutes, they would have won.

    The Rose Bowl has given us amazing classics in recent memory such as Oregon's 28-27 win over Wisconsin in 2020, Ohio State's 28-23 win over Washington in '19, Georgia's College Football Playoff 54-48 win over Oklahoma in '18, and USC's 52-49 win over Penn State in 2017.

    But Saturday's bout was up there with the best of them.

Winner: Oklahoma State Bounces Back Big

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    When Mike Gundy received the Gatorade bath following Oklahoma State's 37-35 improbable comeback win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, it had to be extra special.

    This was not only about history, but also redemption for his Cowboys.

    The Pokes erased a 28-7 deficit by scoring just before halftime, nabbing a quick-strike touchdown to shave the margin to seven on the opening second-half drive and then tying things late in the third before taking control. It was the largest comeback in school history.

    Prior to the big-stage win for a program needing one, Oklahoma State's largest comeback was a 20-point rally against Colorado in 1979.

    But Saturday had to be extra special for other reasons. Gundy's program needed a jolt of positivity after losing to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game.

    A defense that carried the Cowboys all season and led the Big 12 endured the departure of coordinator Jim Knowles, who left for the same job at Ohio State, and then they were shredded by Jack Coan and the Irish in an embarrassing first half.

    Thanks to huge games from Malcolm Rodriguez, Kolby Harvell-Peel and others, they reached down and pulled out plenty of second-half pride, shutting out the Irish until a late desperation touchdown shaved the lead to the final margin before a failed onside kick ended the threat.

    Finally, there was quarterback Spencer Sanders. After throwing four picks against the Bears in the league title game, the dual-threat signal-caller was the catalyst in the win, throwing for 371 yards and four scores (three to Tay Martin) and rushing for 125 more.

    It took all those guys to rally and keep Notre Dame's January misery fresh.

Loser: Marcus Freeman's Notre Dame Debut

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    There will be better days for Marcus Freeman as Notre Dame's head coach.

    At least, the Fighting Irish hope so.

    After jumping out to a three-touchdown lead over Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Freeman's Irish choked on their way to a 37-35 stunning loss to the Cowboys. 

    Different coach, same ol' story for a Notre Dame team that continues to falter in big games and crumble in the New Year's Six and College Football Playoff/BCS bowls. The Irish have lost all eight times they played in one of those games.

    The way things started for Notre Dame on Saturday, it's hard to believe we're riding that same narrative, too.

    Quarterback Jack Coan (509 yards, five touchdowns) sprayed the ball around to receivers all over the field, torching the vaunted Pokes defense. Running back Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer and receivers Lorenzo Styles and Kevin Austin Jr. all had massive games, as it looked like Oklahoma State could do nothing to stop them.

    Then it just stopped. Two Irish turnovers helped turn the momentum toward the Cowboys, but more than that, it was a sheer lack of answers by Freeman, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and Co. In the first game following Brian Kelly's decision to take the money and run to LSU, nobody stepped up to stop the bleeding.

    Freeman is a brilliant recruiter, has a great defensive mind and has a lot of upside at just 35 years old. But Saturday is going to be remembered as a colossal blunder and squandered opportunity. The Irish must perform better in big games to be considered a title-contending threat in the future. 

Winner: Baylor's Transformation

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    A year ago, Baylor looked like it would slump back into college football's abyss.

    The recent history of the program has been up-and-down, from Art Briles' Bears dominance to his ignominious exit to Matt Rhule's rebuild before his departure for the NFL. Then, they hired Dave Aranda, whose first year in Waco amid COVID-19 finished with the Bears going 2-7 in 2020.

    It looked like hiring the former LSU defensive coordinator was a mistake. A year later, it's obvious Baylor struck gold.

    After beating Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game, Aranda's Bears concluded the season by dominating Ole Miss in a 21-7 Sugar Bowl win.

    Yes, the Rebels struggled offensively after Matt Corral's first-quarter leg injury, but one of Baylor's three interceptions came on a Corral throw. They dictated the pace of play and controlled the game. Even when the Ole Miss defense played exceptionally, Baylor's was a bit better.

    They finished with 10 sacks and allowed just 2.6 yards per carry.

    Al Walcott's 96-yard pick-six helped give the Bears a seven-point lead that lasted until the Rebs tied it in the third quarter on their only sustained drive with Luke Altmyer under center.

    The Bears' dominance on defense bought them time, allowing for two fourth-quarter offensive touchdowns (including one on a short field after JT Woods' second interception of the game) in what wound up as a thorough win.

    All that equaled a New Year's Six bowl victory and the first 12-win season in Bears history. 

Loser: College Football, After Matt Corral's Injury

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    Ole Miss star quarterback Matt Corral was carted off the Sugar Bowl field against Baylor with a lower-leg injury, and social media immediately erupted with debates about whether players should opt out of bowl games.

    Such a national reaction wasn't fair to Corral.

    Even though we don't know the extent of his injury, just the possibility of the junior star electing to share one more huge moment with his teammates and getting hurt in the process was tough to stomach.

    Of course, a situation like this will ignite conversation, but such an important decision should be up to the player. Then, everybody should sit back and hope it works out for the best.

    The bottom line, regardless of what your position is on the opt-out/play topic, is seeing Corral on crutches, limping back to the sideline, his eyes reddened with tears, hanging on every moment from his Rebels teammates and cheering the plays he couldn't be a part of was just heart-breaking.

    He's not only one of college football's best players, he's also one of the grittiest and most likable.

    To see Corral go down with an injury in such a big moment, just months before his opportunity to make millions, is sad. No matter how—or if—this is an injury that could affect Corral's draft status, the Rebels wanted him out there, and it's likely Baylor did too.

    Everybody should hope he gets well soon, returns to form and is well enough to show out for NFL draft scouts. Whether it impacts the topic of future decisions of players to opt out is irrelevant.

Winner: Hogs Running Wild in the Outback Bowl

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    For a while on Saturday, you'd have to pardon Arkansas if it looked like it hadn't been here before. "Here" is a bowl game, and it had been a while. After enduring years of turmoil and turnover, the Razorbacks hadn't played in a bowl game since 2016 or a New Year's Day or New Year's Six bowl since '11.

    Once they got their sea legs, they got those legs churning. The result was a 24-10 annihilation of an outmatched Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

    Trailing by three points at halftime, the Razorbacks really got moving with their running game after the break as they turned to dual-threat quarterback KJ Jefferson on a keeper-infused, third-quarter-opening touchdown drive on their way to 176 yards on the ground in the third frame.

    For the game, a Hogs team that finished second in the SEC with more than 217 yards on the game embarrassed a strong Nittany Lions defense to the tune of 353 rushing yards, a 6.1 average and three touchdowns.

    Jefferson's 110 rushing yards led the way and more than made up for a pedestrian 98 passing yards, but, just like Arkansas has done all year, he wasn't alone.

    Freshman running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders had 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Dominique Johnson had 77 more, and backup signal-caller Malik Hornsby added 67 yards on just four carries.

    The Nittany Lions had no answers.

Loser: Penn State's Lack of 2nd-Half Adjustments

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    Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith ran wild throughout the first half of the Outback Bowl, making plays, giving Penn State fans a glimpse of the future and almost allowing them to forget about receiver Jahan Dotson, who opted out to focus on the draft.

    Then, everything suddenly stopped.

    On one hand, it's hard to scheme up plays when you're as one-dimensional as coordinator Mike Yurcich's offense is. The Nittany Lions finished the season 13th in the Big Ten in rushing yards and struggled again against Arkansas. But it isn't like there's a lack of talent.

    You can understand why Penn State fans are so frustrated with this 7-6 team after last year's debacle. Head coach James Franklin recruits so well, and at one point of the season, PSU was looking strong at 5-0. Then, it went 2-6 the rest of the way, crumbling in the wake of prosperity.

    Not only did the Razorbacks torch Penn State's vaunted defense while running the ball, but the Nittany Lions also couldn't get anything going offensively. 

    The Lions had just 91 second-half yards and seven first downs, and the one time they mustered a drive and got all the way into scoring position, Sean Clifford threw a crippling interception in the end zone.

    With an elite recruiting class coming in and some good, young playmakers ready to take charge, Penn State has reasons for excitement. But Franklin has to do more with these players than he has the past two years, or the seat is going to get very warm soon.

Winner: Kentucky's 4th-Quarter Heroics Give Mark Stoops a Win over Alma Mater

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    Say what you want about the ugly way Kentucky wins, but the Wildcats are continuing to truck right along under Mark Stoops.

    In the Citrus Bowl against Iowa, the Wildcats had to play a Hawkeyes brand of slug-it-out football, blowing a 10-point halftime lead only to rally with a massive fourth-quarter drive to pull out a 20-17 win.

    UK linebacker DeAndre Square's lunging interception ended the Hawkeyes' threat to take the lead late, and the Wildcats ran out the clock for the win. Stoops corralled his second 10-victory season in four years, and he also beat his alma mater.

    For Kentucky, it found another way to win, no matter how few style points it earned. A diverse cast of heroes led the way, and everybody played a part.

    "Unbelievable," Stoops told the ABC television crew after the game. "You know when you're playing Iowa, it's going to be a game like that. It's one of the last things I said walking out of halftime is, 'This is going 60 minutes.' I said to them: 'They're not going anywhere. I know them. However, we're not, either.' I'm so proud of this group; very hard-fought game."

    Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. set a Kentucky record with his ninth 100-yard game, but he was one of many playmakers. Perhaps the biggest was Nebraska transfer Wan'Dale Robinson, who finished with 10 catches for 170 yards.

    He made the biggest play on the final drive when he ran a beautiful route, caught a pass from Will Levis and made a miraculous juke-and-hurdle play to race 52 yards to the 1-yard line to set up Rodriguez's game-winning touchdown.

Loser: Anybody Who Tried to Guard Elite Tight Ends LaPorta and Mayer

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    Notre Dame and Iowa would love to have been celebrating bowl wins, but both programs got to showcase weapons whose names everybody should remember.

    Those would be tight ends Sam LaPorta and Michael Mayer, who might be the first two names at the top of that position group in the 2023 draft.

    Mayer is a sophomore Fighting Irish star, so he has to return to college. LaPorta has a decision to make, and though the junior hasn't gotten a lot of publicity about getting picked, CBS Sports' Josh Edwards recently wrote he is a "balanced tight end deserving of more buzz in this draft class."

    Both looked like future All-American matchup nightmares in losses Saturday.

    With Tyler Goodson opting out of the Citrus Bowl to prepare for the draft and the Hawkeyes needing a productive short-passing game to help supplement the running attack, they turned to leading receiver LaPorta. He again answered the call in a losing effort against Kentucky, catching seven passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

    Mayer was a force as well. Though he didn't get nearly enough recognition throughout the season, he's got to have NFL scouts everywhere excited. He navigated the seams all day against Oklahoma State, exploiting them for big gains.

    Mayer did most of his damage in the red zone, finishing with seven catches for 72 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

    Both have a chance to be stars, and they're already impacting strong teams in big ways.