The College Football Playoff national championship isn’t really a bowl game – it’s a whole other entity.
So what were the best bowl games of the season and which were the worst? Which ones will everyone remember, and which ones were the total duds?
The New Year’s Six disasters and the horrible two-day stretch on December 31st and January 1st marred an otherwise wonderful group of bowls, but the biggest problem? Two of the best finished up around 2:30 am ET. For those who sat through all 40, there were some great rewards to go along with a slew of disappointments.
1. Valero Alamo Bowl: TCU 47, Oregon 41 3OT
TCU came back with the comeback of all comebacks – started off by Gary Patterson changing his shirt to purple – but it also helped that the team started to execute. TCU got down 31, Oregon overcame the disappointment of blowing the lead by forcing three overtimes, and this turned into the signature bowl – for those who stayed around on a Saturday night to sit through the whole thing. Oregon’s collapse was more than just losing Vernon Adams, and TCU’s comeback was more than just getting hot. This is why you watch bowl games.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 4
2. National Funding Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin 23, USC 21
It’s a shame this was played so late – most of America was fast asleep when this was rolling into the wee hours of the morning East Coast time. It was the best finish of the bowl season with Wisconsin hanging on for dear life while Cody Kessler had one final shot, but overall, the game itself was wildly entertaining.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 15
3. Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: West Virginia 43, Arizona State 42
How do you finish up the bowl season? In an insane shootout with a little bit of everything for everyone – unless you like defense – both teams marched up and down the field at will in the exact type of firefight deserving to be the last game before the national title. 676 yards of total offense for West Virginia, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 24
4. New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Duke 44, Indiana 41 OT
Really, was it good? With controversy, lots of offense, and huge performances on both sides of the ball, it was wildly entertaining with normally-solid IU PK Griffin Oakes missing a game-winning 56-yard attempt in regulation, and putting a possible game-tying overtime attempt over the top of the right upright – it looked good on replays.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 18
5. Camping World Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech 55, Tulsa 52
Frank Beamer’s retirement game took a backseat to what turned into a thriller. It would’ve been the ultimate embarrassment had Beamer’s team gagged away the game after going up 52-31, but his team hung on. Tulsa kept pushing, and almost pulled it out. Lots of offense, lots of drama – it’s what an early bowl game should be like.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 32
6. Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Appalachian State 31, Ohio 29
Appalachian State played like a team in its first bowl game. After whiffing on two easy kicks, senior Zach Matics ran off the field after hitting the game-winning 23-yarder to end a game of crazy mood swings and lots of effort from both sides.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 36
7. NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Nevada 28, Colorado State 23
It didn’t matter that it was Mountain West vs. Mountain West – the two teams were fighting from the start. There was plenty of intruige throughout with Nevada overcoming the Rams’ control with lots of home runs. Colorado State had a shot at the win late, but time ran out in a heart-stopping finish.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 27
8. Gildan New Mexico Bowl: Arizona 45, New Mexico 37
The two teams kept throwing haymakers and kept on pushing each other. New Mexico made Arizona sweat – the Wildcats were really trying – in an entertaining battle early on in the bowl season. There was a sense of desperation after Arizona lost to Boise State in last year’s Fiesta – it couldn’t lose two bowls in a row to Group of Five teams.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 13
9. Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Utah 35, BYU 28
It was all about the comeback. BYU couldn’t have tried to have a worst first quarter with five giveaways, but it made up for it by balling and battling to get a shot at pulling off the miracle late. Utah hung on by grinding out the clock late just when it became obvious the D didn’t have any answers.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 9
10. Hyundai Sun Bowl: Washington State 20, Miami 14
The snow-globe aspect in the second half made the game special in a lot of ways, and Miami did its part to keep the battle going. Nothing seemed to go right for the Hurricanes, but Washington State struggled to put the game away. Miami looked like it had it late, but a lost fumble after a called back play made it a heartbreaker for the Canes.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 21
11. Miami Beach Bowl: WKU 45, South Florida 35
The two teams kept cranking up the offense. WKU looked great early, but USF kicked it into gear in time to make this a fight to the finish. For those who care about conference pride, it was a big moment for Conference USA holding off the American Athletic team.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 22
12. Russell Athletic Bowl, Baylor 49, North Carolina 38
645 rushing yards. The game itself might not have been all that interesting after Baylor took control, but if part of the bowl game fun is to see something different, that Bear ground game was it. The North Carolina defense didn’t have a prayer.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 5
13. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Akron 23, Utah State 21
It was a low-scoring game as expected, but Akron played well enough offensively to get on the road and come up with a stunner. Utah State just didn’t have it, but the Akron D had a lot to do with that. It was the first even bowl win for Akron.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 35
14. Popeyes Bahamas Bowl: Western Michigan 45, Middle Tennessee 31
Lots and lots and lots of offense – way over 1,000 – made it lots of fun. Jamauri Bogan and his four touchdown runs made it memorable, but Middle Tennessee didn’t go away until late. The Corey Davis 80-yard touchdown catch for WMU was terrific.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 12
15. BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28
This probably won’t get the credit it deserved. Notre Dame turned in an impressive comeback to fight back into the game and make Ohio State work. It was a bittersweet game for Ohio State – it showed what it could’ve been, but still, it was a win over Notre Dame. The program will take it.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 2
16. Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl: Washington 44, Southern Miss 31
It was the Myles Gaskin show with the Washington running back going off. Southern Miss did its part to hang around with a huge day from its offense with plenty of big plays, but it was Gaskin who made it a game breaking open a 24-24 tie.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 31
17. TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia 24, Penn State 17
Penn State had a Hail Mary attempt that meant something – that didn’t seem possible after getting down 24-3 and with Christian Hackenberg knocked out of the game. Trace McSorley almost pulled the Nittany Lions out of the fire, but give credit to Georgia for getting it down with Mark Richt off to Miami.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 29
18. Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska 37, UCLA 29
Nebraska obviously didn’t care about being 5-7. UCLA wasn’t unfocused, but it couldn’t gear it back up after the Huskers started pounding. In a lot of ways, this was the type of teams Husker fans were waiting for with the power running attack getting it done.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 26
19. Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota 21, Central Michigan 14
It might have been a forgettable bowl, but it was close until the end. Minnesota needs to score in the final few minutes to get over the embarrassment over a MAC team, but the defense held down Cooper Rush and the high-powered CMU attack.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 33
20. AutoNation Cure Bowl: San Jose State 27, Georgia State 16
Georgia State played fired up in its first bowl game, while San Jose State had something to prove at 5-7. The Georgia State passing game pressed, but couldn’t connect late, while the defense and special couldn’t handle Tyler Ervin and his 132 rushing yards and punt return for a score.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 37
21. St. Petersburg Bowl: Marshall 16, Connecticut 10
It was supposed to a defensive struggle, and from that aspect it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t fun with the two offenses sputtering, but it was still a tight battle in the final minutes. There weren’t enough big moments to make the game matter.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 40
22. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Navy 44, Pitt 28
Kennan Reynolds was almost worth watching this game. He ran for tree short touchdowns, but it was the Navy grinding offense that won the day with a huge late drive and a 31-point run to never have to worry too much.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 19
23. R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana Tech 47, Arkansas State 28
Kenneth Dixon, Jeff Driskel, and the Louisiana Tech was fun, but Arkansas State was a massive disappointment. The Red Wolves didn’t play well at all with too many little mistakes that added up. ASU is better than it showed.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 11
24. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: California 55, Air Force 36
This was a disappointment after it became obvious Air Force didn’t have a prayer of stopping the Cal passing game. However, the Jared Goff show was terrific, throwing for 467 yards and six scores.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 20
25. GoDaddy Bowl: Georgia Southern 58, Bowling Green 27
Favian Upshaw and the Georgia Southern running game were worth the price of admission, but it would’ve been nice if the Bowling Green offense of the regular season did more. The Falcons just never had the ball.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 6
26. Franking American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville 27, Texas A&M 21
Texas A&M mounted a comeback late, but without the starting quarterbacks the game didn’t have the sizzle. However, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson did his part to make it wild with 227 passing yards and 226 more on the ground.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 28
27. CapitalOne Orange Bowl: Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17
It will be remembered as a dud, but it was a really, really intense, energetic game for a half. Oklahoma’s running back injuries turned into a problem, but Clemson also turned its game up a few notches.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 3
28. Marmot Boca Raton Bowl: Toledo 32, Temple 17
This was a strangely rough game with Temple’s defense not playing like it did throughout the season. Toledo was good, but that wasn’t the Owl team that beat Penn State and almost got Notre Dame.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 17
29. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Houston 38, Florida State 24
Florida State had a moment when it looked like it might turn it on and be Florida State again, but Houston never let it happen. The goal was to get this game over with to get to the Orange Bowl and the College Football Playoff.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 10
30. AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU 56, Texas Tech 27
Leonard Fournette and the running game ran like they were supposed to against the porous Texas Tech defense. This was going to be an LSU walk – or pounding run – in the park if it showed up and tried, and it did.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 16
31. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Arkansas 45, Kansas State 23
Kansas State kept it close for a while, and Arkansas needed to battle a bit in the second half, but there was no pop from the Wildcats. Arkansas was too good being able to out-Kansas State, Kansas State with the time of possession and running game.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 34
32. Allstate Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss 48, Oklahoma State 29
This was over instantly. Ole Miss did its part with the stars showing up on both sides of the ball, but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense was a stunning disappointment. This was supposed to be a fun shootout, and it never materialized.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 6
33. Belk Bowl: Mississippi State 51, NC State 28
Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State offense were just too good. NC State kept on fighting and didn’t give up after getting down 21-0, but the outcome was never in doubt.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 14
34. Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual: Stanford 45, Iowa 16
Christian McCaffrey by himself made this worth the watch at an all-timer level, but Iowa wasn’t built to come back after getting down fast. Stanford is good, but it’s not that good. Iowa was far, far, far better than this.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 5
35. Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Alabama 38, Michigan State 0
For a jaw-dropping display of talent and muscle-flexing, Alabama provided a showstopper. That wasn’t some lightweight Michigan State team that got rolled over – that was a strong, veteran team that’s been through the wars. Alabama ran a scrimmage.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 1
36. Tennessee 45, Northwestern 6
This was expected to be a total disaster of Tennessee’s SEC talent got up early on the punchless Wildcats, and that’s exactly what happened. It took a while for the game to get going, and then once it did, it was time to do something else.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 38
37. Birmingham Bowl: Auburn 31, Memphis 10
Memphis lost its head coach weeks ago, and its quarterback was ready to go to the NFL. Auburn’s offense wasn’t interesting, but it didn’t have to be.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 23
38. Hawaii Bowl: San Diego State 42, Cincinnati 7
Cincinnati at least got a trip to Hawaii. San Diego State meant business from the very start with a killer performance from the defense against the Gunner Kiel-less Bearcat offense.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 25
39. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Michigan 41, Florida 7
Florida’s New Year’s Resolution to keep sucking on offense started off on the right foot. At least this was supposed to be a defensive slugfest, but the Gators didn’t oblige.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 30
40. San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Boise State 55, Northern Illinois 7
Northern Illinois came up with 33 yards of total offense whether they were needed or not. Boise State is a great bowl team, Northern Illinois is an awful one. The Broncos wanted to make a statement, and NIU didn’t have a prayer.
Pre-Bowl Season Matchup/Game Rank: 39