Bowl season started with North Carolina A&T’s Malik Wilson returning a kickoff for 18 yards and finished with orange and white confetti blanketing Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Sandwiched between those two moments were 40 matchups—notably not 41, but we’ll get to that in a second—that ranged from highly entertaining to borderline unwatchable. There were statement wins and embarrassing losses, draft stock–altering performances and boneheaded coaching decisions, along with tears of joy and of sadness from upperclassmen wrapping their college careers.
Bowls offer a chance to sweeten a season that ended short of the national championship game and head into the offseason with positive momentum. As is the case every year, some took advantage and some didn’t.
Below are the biggest winners and losers from the 2018–19 bowl season, excluding the national title game, in which Clemson’s dominance and Alabama’s failures both seem a little too obvious to highlight here. We’re big fans of finishing on a positive note, which requires us to begin with the negative.
Notre Dame’s national reputation
Another huge bowl game for Notre Dame, another embarrassing defeat for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s team were thoroughly outmanned, outschemed and outplayed by Clemson; the final 30–3 scoring line was actually a bit flattering for the Irish. Notre Dame has now lost eight straight New Year’s Six (or equivalent) bowl games, including its infamous 42–14 beatdown at the hands of Alabama in the BCS title game that wrapped the 2012 season. It’s hard to argue that the Irish didn’t deserve a spot in the playoff based on their résumé, and Kelly did his best to spin the loss as an X’s and O’s thing rather than a major talent disparity. But another comprehensive defeat on a national stage is inarguably damaging to the program’s reputation.
Servpro First Responder Bowl
The (unofficial) first rule of being a bowl is that you have to actually stage a football game. In that regard, the Servpro First Responder Bowl was a failure of unprecedented proportions. With play stopped due to weatheras Boston College led 7–0 with 5:08 left in the opener, organizers decided to cancel the Boise State–Boston College matchup because of the rest of the day’s forecast in the Dallas area. The game was officially ruled a “no contest” and all parties involved left unhappy (both schools offered refunds to fans who bought tickets through them). The players missed Christmas with their families only to have their Boxing Day game cancelled. Just brutal.
After battling back from a sleepy start to cut a 20-point deficit to 27–21 with 4:21 left in the Citrus Bowl, Penn State faced a fourth-and-seven from the Kentucky 14-yard line. The Nittany Lions would have had multiple good reasons to go for it. Quarterback Trace McSorley had led back-to-back touchdown drives and deserved to have the ball in his hands to close out his final game, and even if Penn State didn’t convert, it would have a chance to get the ball back needing a touchdown to win the game. Instead, Franklin chose to kick a field goal to cut the deficit to three. That effectively took the game out of his team’s hands, and Kentucky converted two first downs to salt the victory away. Franklin was almost universally criticized for the decision, a fitting bookend to a season that was knocked off track by his puzzling fourth-and-five call at the end of a close loss to Ohio State.
Houston’s final days of 2018
Houston entered the Armed Forces Bowl as six-point underdogs to Army and nearly lost by 10 times that. The Black Knights’ 70–14 win was a butt-kicking of the highest order, and they accomplished it while only throwing the ball four times the entire game (appropriately, all four passes were completed). Army’s rushing statistics were comical: 58 rushes, 507 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. The 56-point margin of defeat—which tied the FBS record for a bowl game—capped a two-month long tumble after the Cougars spoiled a 7–1 start with injuries to quarterback D’Eriq King and defensive tackle Ed Oliver. A little more than a week later, head coach Major Applewhite was fired after just two seasons at the helm. Houston lured West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen to take his place, an impressive coup for a Group of Five school, but after the Cougars had entered the season with an SI cover story and dreams of New Year’s Six contention, their latest move is a somewhat less thrilling high note.
The Big 12
The conference’s 4–3 bowl record wasn’t anything particularly special on paper, but the way its two signature programs fared was impressive. After falling behind 28–0 to Alabama, Oklahoma outscored the Tide 34–17 the rest of the way to keep the final score line (45–34) more than respectable. The biggest win for the conference—and arguably the most statement-ey victory of the entire bowl season—came courtesy of Texas, which beat Georgia 28–21. That the second-place Big 12 team beat the second-place SEC team, a Georgia squad that many thought deserved Oklahoma’s playoff spot, will quiet some Big 12 hate. Oklahoma State and Baylor also fared well against SEC opponents, beating Missouri and Vanderbilt after entering as underdogs.
Jones had himself quite a day in Duke’s 56–27 Independence Bowl win over Temple, finishing 30-of-41 through the air for 423 yards, with five passing touchdowns and another rushing score (he did throw two interceptions). The redshirt junior QB was in full control of an offense that scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions as the announcers gushed over his potential in front of a national audience. It’s no wonder that he declared for the NFL draft soon after. Jones’s stock was only helped by Justin Herbert’s decision to return for another season at Oregon, thinning out this year’s QB pool to the point where Jones could be the second quarterback taken behind Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins in the first round. That performance against Temple may have secured him a multi-million dollar future.
The Texas A&M hype train
The Aggies’ 52–13 win over N.C. State in the Gator Bowl earned the program its first season of more than eight wins since 2013. Let’s also remember A&M’s seven-overtime victory over LSU to wrap up the regular season. Jimbo Fisher has built some serious momentum in College Station, with a consensus top-five recruiting class on its way to add to that optimism in the spring and summer. The Aggies should be a real threat in the SEC West next season.
Big Ten West
Ever since the Big Ten split into its current alignment, the narrative has been that the East was a significantly stronger division than the West. That appeared to be true again this year—Michigan hung around the playoff picture, Penn State hovered around the top 10 and Ohio State won the East by beating them both, while Northwestern(!) won the West despite losing to Akron at home early in the season. But then bowl season happened. Minnesota beat Georgia Tech; Wisconsin crushed Miami; Northwestern came back to beat Utah; Iowa held on to beat a ranked Mississippi State team. Meanwhile, Ohio State was the only East team to win its bowl game. It’s important not to extrapolate too much from five bowl games a month after the regular season, but it was a sweet fortnight for the Big Ten’s other division.