Bowl season is finished, and only one game is left on the college football calendar: the playoff national championship between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama next Monday in Arizona.
Before we get to the biggest game of the year, it's time to look back at all the joy and anguish that the rest of the postseason brought to the table. The 2015 season featured a record 40 bowl games, and while the New Year's Six flopped, there were still great performances and fascinating finishes elsewhere. Here is the best and worst of what we saw over the last few weeks of bowls.
Best of Bowl Season
1. Alabama and Clemson. We must start with the obvious. Nobody has had a better bowl season than the Crimson Tide and Tigers, the only teams who extended their seasons by winning their bowls. In most cases, winning a bowl game is a nice way to end a season on a high note and hoist some sort of trophy. In the case of Alabama and Clemson, it means getting a chance to play for the national championship. The Tide crushed Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl, with their defense dominating the game. The Tigers ran away from Oklahoma in the second half of the Orange Bowl to win 37-17 behind their defense and ground attack. Both teams got to celebrate and add hardware to their trophy cases, but there is more work to be done.
2. Christian McCaffrey. While Alabama shut out Michigan State, it got a quiet day from Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back. The next day in the Rose Bowl, McCaffrey -- the Heisman runner-up -- made quite the statement. Many thought he should have won the Heisman, and his performance in Pasadena helped confirm those thoughts. Against a stellar Iowa defense, McCaffrey ran 18 times for 172 yards, caught four passes for 105 yards and a touchdown and returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey had 368 all-purpose yards, adding to his FBS single-season record, leading Stanford to a 35-point halftime lead and ultimately a 45-16 win.
3. Having 40 bowl games. Too many bowls? Of course not. Without several of the seemingly unappealing bowls, we would have had even fewer entertaining games. While the eight games on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 produced lopsided results, bowls like the Cactus Bowl (West Virginia 43, Arizona State 42), Miami Beach Bowl (Western Kentucky 45, USF 35), Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Akron 23, Utah State 21), Pinstripe Bowl (Duke 44, Indiana 41), Independence Bowl (Virginia Tech 55, Tulsa 52) and Arizona Bowl (Nevada 28, Colorado State 23) produced many of the closets and/or most exciting scores.
4. Jared Goff. The possible top quarterback in the 2016 NFL draft ended his career on a high note before deciding to enter the draft early. In California's 55-36 win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, Goff completed 25 of 37 passes for 467 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Goff did not have the best supporting cast, particularly on the offensive line, and he certainly had some down games. But he is the most polished quarterback in the draft class of 2016. In Sonny Dykes' wide-open offense, Goff completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 4,719 yards with 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a junior, setting single-season Pac-12 records for passing yards and TDs. He saved one of his best performances for last.
5. Ole Miss. A year ago, Ole Miss suffered one of the postseason's biggest embarrassments in getting run off the field by TCU 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. This year, Ole Miss turned the tables on the Big 12. The Rebels capped the run of New Year's Six blowouts by torching Oklahoma State 48-2o for their first Sugar Bowl win since the 1969 season. It marks the end of an era for the Rebels' historic recruiting class of 2013, as Robert Nkemdiche (who was suspended for the game), Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil will all be heading to the NFL after three years.
We already know Laquon Treadwell can catch. We might as well find out if he can throw (He can). https://t.co/KWRh13mJTL— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 2, 2016
6. Scooby Wright returns. Last season, Wright led the nation in tackles, tackles for loss and fumbles, putting up absurd numbers to help lead Arizona to a division title. This season, we barely saw him. Wright spent most of the season sidelined by a knee injury, then a foot injury, appearing in only two regular season games. Before declaring for the draft, Wright returned for one last college appearance in the New Mexico Bowl. In Arizona's 45-37 win over New Mexico, Wright racked up 15 tackles, 3 ½ tackles for loss and two sacks against the Lobos' option attack.
7. Houston saves the American. After a terrific regular season that ended with three ranked teams, plus a Memphis team that beat Ole Miss, the American mostly tanked in the postseason, going just 2-6. Memphis got blown out by Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Cincinnati got blown out by San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. Tulsa lost a shootout to Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl. Connecticut lost a low-scoring game to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. South Florida lost a shootout to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl. Temple struggled against Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. So… no, it was not pretty. But the league's two best teams did their part to sway public opinion. Navy won a home game against Pittsburgh 44-28 in the Military Bowl. Most notably, Houston did the one thing that will be remembered most for the league: It beat Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl. If a conference is going to go 2-6 in postseason play, winning the biggest game can do a lot to change the perception. The AAC champion Cougars were the best Group of Five team, and they decisively beat a top-10 ACC team. They also may be ranked in the top 10 next year, with coach Tom Herman and quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returning.
8. Frank Beamer goes out with a win. No, it was not the most glamorous ending, but to finish a storied career in which he built Virginia Tech in to a consistent contender, Beamer won his 12th straight meeting with rival Virginia, then made his 23rd straight bowl appearance, in Shreveport where his streak started in 1993. The Hokies beat Tulsa 55-52 in an uncharacteristic shootout, putting up 598 yards to give Beamer his 280th career win as a head coach.
9. Jeff Driskel. After a lost career at Florida under Will Muschamp, the embattled quarterback found new life as a graduate transfer under Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech. In his one year with the Bulldogs, Driskel led them to a 9-4 record, capped by a 47-28 win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl. Driskel completed 26 of 38 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns with no picks. As for the Gators, they have been held under 200 passing yards in six of the last seven games, including 155 yards in their Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan.
10. Baylor running game. Baylor lost quarterback Seth Russell for the season. Then it lost Jarrett Stidham. Then it lost Chris Johnson during a loss to Texas. Johnson returned for the Russell Athletic Bowl against North Carolina, a matchup of the two national leaders in yards per play, but Art Briles devised a new offense, going run-heavy and setting a bowl record with 645 rushing yards as the Bears beat the Tar Heels 49-38. They did this without injured starting running back Shock Linwood too. Johnny Jefferson ran for 299 yards and three TDs, Devin Chafin had 161, Terence Williams had 97 and quarterbacks Johnson and Lynx Hawthorne had a total of 94. It was a strange but impressive and satisfying way to end a season that was derailed down the stretch by injuries.
The Baylor running game is on FIRE. Here's an 80-yd TD for the Bears to go with their 560 rush yds so far. https://t.co/HaMlENQxm3— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) December 30, 2015
11. Teams with 5-7 records go 3-0. Even as a defender of the existence of 40 bowl games, I won't pretend it's not a little ridiculous for 5-7 teams to be included. But whatever. San Jose State, Nebraska and Minnesota all played, and college football was not ruined. In fact, they all won. San Jose State beat Georgia State in the Cure Bowl, Nebraska beat UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl and Minnesota beat Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. All have the strange of honor of winning bowl games but still winning with losing records, but at least they all put up respectable showings.
12. Teams making bowl debuts. Last year, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State went a combined 16-8 in their debuts at the FBS level, but strange NCAA rules prevented them from playing in bowl games. This year, the Eagles (8-4) and Mountaineers (10-2) both capped stellar second seasons with wins in their first-ever bowls. Georgia Southern, under an interim coach with Willie Fritz off to Tulane, beat Bowling Green 58-27 in the GoDaddy Bowl, with quarterback Favian Upshaw rushing for 199 yards. Appalachian State kicked a field goal as time expired to beat Ohio 31-29 in the Camellia Bowl. Credit also goes to Akron, who won a bowl game for the first time in 29 FBS seasons after edging Utah State 23-21 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
13. Pinstripe Bowl. Duke vs. Indiana still sounds strange as a football bowl game, but the two delivered an entertaining, back-and-forth shootout on Dec. 26 in Yankee Stadium. Duke won 44-41 in overtime, after a 38-yard field goal attempt by Indiana's Griffin Oakes sailed over the goal post and apparently just missed, according to the officials. The Hoosiers had 667 total yards, but Duke ran for 373, with three 100-yard rushers. Kicker Ross Martin also hit all three of his field goals, including a 52-yarder, to help deliver the Blue Devils' their first bowl victory since the 1960 season.
14. The SEC rebounds. Bowl season was a disaster for the SEC in 2014. While it went 7-5, it lost high-profile games. Alabama lost in the playoff semifinal to Ohio State, Ole Miss got blown out by TCU in the Peach Bowl, Mississippi State got trampled by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, LSU lost to Notre Dame and Auburn lost to Wisconsin. Despite a down year for the conference, life has been better this postseason. While SEC East champion Florida got destroyed by Michigan and Texas A&M fell to Louisville, the other eight SEC teams won. That includes Alabama's 38-0 Cotton Bowl win, Ole Miss' 48-20 Sugar Bowl win and Tennessee' 45-6 Northwestern. Of course, we shouldn't exaggerate these results. Much of the success was based on advantageous matchups, and the conference still faces a strangely precarious situation at quarterback entering 2016.
15. Gary Patterson's purple shirt. TCU tied for the biggest bowl comeback ever by erasing a 31-0 halftime deficit against Oregon, and it did so without suspended quarterback Trevone Boykin and injured receiver Josh Doctson -- the team's two best players. The Horned Frogs won the Alamo Bowl 47-41 in triple-overtime behind little-known senior quarterback Bram Kohlhausen, crawling back into the game as Oregon's offense went into 62-20-loss-to-Utah mode. Obviously, though, the real key was Patterson's choice of clothes. At halftime, he traded black for purple, and TCU proceeded to mount a monumental comeback.
Well, there you have it. https://t.co/XBzULSq0NB— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 3, 2016
Worst of Bowl Season
1. New Year's Eve playoff. First, a few words of positivity: The playoff exists, and this is an overwhelmingly positive thing. While the top two seeds both won in blowouts, the playoff is a substantial upgrade over the BCS, giving four teams a shot to play for a championship on the field instead of two. For all the complaining about the playoff process, the whole system worked fairly well this season. But, yes, staging the semifinals on New Year's Eve and thinking that this will change the Dec. 31 habits of America was misguided and arrogant. Ratings took a big hit, and while that's partially a product of the blowout results, everything felt anticlimactic. Instead of building to the two semifinals at the end of Jan. 1,which worked brilliantly last year, the semifinals were stuck on a workday and during New Year's Eve celebrations. Blame the playoff leadership, and also blame the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl and their locked-in Jan.1 television contracts. Everyone still made their money, but the system took a big step back in its second year.
2. Oklahoma and Michigan State. The New Year's Eve playoff was made worse by the fact that Oklahoma lost by 20 points, failing to score in the second half of the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, and Michigan State failed to score at all in a 38-0 loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners and Spartans had fantastic seasons in winning conference titles -- what would have been seen as upsets in the preseason -- but the lopsided nature of the semifinals will certainly leave a sour feeling for both for months to come.
3. Major bowl blowouts. The six major bowl games were decided by an average of 24.2 points per game. The closest was Houston's two-touchdown upset of Florida State. Add in the Citrus and Outback bowls, and the eight games on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 were decided by an average of 27.3 points. Jan. 2's three games decided by seven points or less helped alleviate some of that pain, but this was a sadly unwatchable climax of bowl season. Of the 40 bowl games overall, 16 were decided by single digits.
4. Conference championship game losers. As if the first weekend in December wasn't bad enough, those who lose their conference championship games had horrible experiences in bowl games. In fact, they went 0-8 in bowls:
- Temple (AAC) lost to Toledo 32-17 in the Boca Raton Bowl.
- Northern Illinois (MAC) lost to Boise State 55-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
- Southern Miss (Conference USA) lost to Washington 44-31 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
- North Carolina (ACC) lost to Baylor 49-38 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
- Air Force (Mountain West) lost to California 55-36 in the Armed Forces Bowl.
- USC (Pac-12) lost to Wisconsin 23-21 in the Holiday Bowl.
- Iowa (Big Ten) lost to Stanford 45-16 in the Rose Bowl.
- Florida (SEC) lost to Michigan 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl.
Only USC stayed within single digits of its opponent.
5. Northern Illinois' offense. Special mention, among the conference championship losers, has to go to Northern Illinois for an all-time bad bowl performance. Last season, Texas managed a dreadful 59 yards in the Texas Bowl against Arkansas. In this season's Poinsettia Bowl, Northern Illinois somehow did worse. In that 55-7 loss to Boise State -- a four-loss Boise team -- the Huskies managed just 33 total yards. Their only points came on a kick return touchdown. Boise State out-gained Northern Illinois 654 to 33 with 35 first downs to seven. The Huskies' first drive gained 42 yards (ending in a fumble), which means that they lost yardage the rest of the game. Boise State allowed at least 6.4 yards per play in each of its last four regular season games; Northern Illinois averaged 0.65. While the Huskies won the MAC West for a sixth straight season, it was clear that they had taken a step back. Nobody could have possibly predicted anywhere close to this sort of futility, though.
6. Top draft prospect QBs not named Jared Goff. Goff performed brilliantly in the Armed Forces Bowl, but the postseason was a struggle for other QBs expected to go in the first few rounds. Memphis' Paxton Lynch ended the regular season by throwing seven first-half touchdowns against SMU. He ended his college career by 16 of 37 for 106 yards and an interception in a 31-10 loss to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Goff and Lynch are widely regarded as the draft's two best quarterbacks at this point, but erratic performances like this will certainly put Lynch under the microscope over the next four months. Michigan State's Connor Cook, facing a brutal matchup, went 19 of 39 for 210 yards with two picks in the loss to Alabama, getting no help from his running game. And Penn State's Christian Hackenberg capped a frustrating career by going 8 of 14 for 139 yards and an interception in a 24-17 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia before exiting in the first half with a shoulder injury.
7. Big Ten teams against Tennessee in Florida. Last year, Tennessee earned offseason hype after dismantling Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer bowl (the game wasn't actually that close). This year, Tennessee dismantled Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl. So, yes, Tennessee is pretty good when matched with Big Ten West opponents in the Sunshine State. The Vols did win six in a row to end the season, and while they stumbled early, their final 9-4 record is around what many predicted. They may be the SEC East favorite next year. Iowa, of course, rebounded from last year's loss to the Vols, so Northwestern will hope to somehow do something similar. While the Wildcats had a successful season at 10-3, they were lucky to get there with an offense that ranks 122nd in yards per play. The Outback Bowl confirmed all of the worst suspicions about this team.
8. Todd Graham's decision-making. The Cactus Bowl was filled with fireworks, with Arizona State and West Virginia playing a back-and-forth game that featured nearly 1,200 yards and 85 points. The Sun Devils mistakenly failed to try for one more point. Trailing 36-35, they scored a touchdown with 4:56 left. They decided to kick the extra point for a six-point lead rather than going for two and trying to go up by seven. West Virginia went on to score a touchdown with 2:19 left, and its extra point won the game 43-42. "We were supposed to go for two, and we didn't," Graham said afterward. "Mismanagement there, and that is my responsibility." With the loss, Arizona State fell to a disappointing 6-7 after being ranked 15th in the preseason.
9. Oregon without Vernon Adams. Somehow, Oregon was almost as bad as Northern Illinois once Adams exited with a head injury. The Ducks built a 31-0 lead in the first half against TCU, compiling 376 total yards in 30 minutes. In the second half, they failed to score and had 19 total yards with Jeff Lockie at quarterback and a backup center in the game. It allowed for TCU to come back and win in triple-OT, and it served as a perfect illustration of Oregon's season as a whole. The Ducks struggled to a 3-3 start with Adams bothered by a finger injury, then they rolled in the second half of the season with Adams healthy, as he leads the nation in passer rating. In the Alamo Bowl, he went 13 of 19 for 197 yards and a TD, while Lockie went 7 of 15 for 36 yards. Adams is gone, and Oregon may turn to another FCS transfer with Montana State's Dakota Prukop joining the Ducks for 2016.
10. BYU in the first quarter. Look at the final score, and the Las Vegas Bowl appears to have been a great back-and-forth game between rivals, as Utah edged BYU 35-28. The truth was much different. Utah did not play well most of the afternoon, but it built a 35-0 lead in the first quarter because of turnovers on each of BYU's first five possessions. The Utes, playing without tailback Devontae Booker, were able to capitalize on the Cougars' mistakes and build a huge cushion. And then they did almost nothing. BYU crawled back into the game, out-scoring Utah 28-0 in the final three quarters and out-gaining the Utes 386 to 197 overall. It didn't matter; the early mistakes were too much to overcome.