It has now been a week since the bowl games have ended, which means it is time for college football fans everywhere (except in Clemson, South Carolina) to start to put the season to bed and finish recapping it. While everyone looks back at the season, I prefer to look back at how each team finished it. Therefore, similar to last year, I will be grading every team on their performance during bowl season. For some teams, bowl season doesn’t accurately represent what the team achieved during the year. But it is always the last memory we have of a team, and therefore it is what we will carry into the next season.
Remember, all of these grades are subjective. Sometimes I will look at a team just based on the performance in the bowl game, and sometimes I will base it on how well the team should have played. This is more of an art than science, so by all means feel free to disagree with me.
2016-17 Bowl Grades: December 26th-29th
St. Petersburg Bowl: Mississippi State 17, Miami (OH) 16
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were playing well below their talent level, against an overmatched MAC school in a game that no one can understand what bowl organizers were thinking. Mississippi State was basically outplayed on both sides of the ball, even with a vast size and talent disparity. The Bulldogs were more physical in the trenches, but Miami still got stops and gashed the Bulldogs’ defense.
Miami (OH): I’m going to give the RedHawks a better grade than Mississippi State. They played inspired football and did absolutely everything imaginable to almost upset a much better and bigger team. The coaching decision at the very end to slow down and take a long field goal for the win is understandable, but was clearly a mistake — especially with an extra point blocked earlier in the game. If that last-second field goal was 10 yards closer, it’s entirely possible that it can be kicked higher and isn’t blocked.
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College 36, Maryland 30
Boston College: Talk about a tale of two halves. The Eagles piled it on early and often, jumping out to a huge lead that they almost managed to surrender in the second half. Boston College didn’t do anything particularly great, but the Eagles played a solid game and had a winning game plan.
Maryland: Terps fans will wonder how different this game would have been without four turnovers (plus two more on downs). D.J. Durkin is bringing some talent to College Park, though it probably will never quite be enough in a loaded Big Ten East. A win here could have been a good springboard, but too many costly mistakes doomed the Terrapins.
Independence Bowl: N.C. State 41, Vanderbilt 17
N.C. State: The Wolfpack came into this game after a huge upset of their major rival and continued that momentum against Vanderbilt. Quarterback Ryan Finley consistently found holes in the Commodores’ defense, and watching the game it felt like he threw much better than his 19-for-30 completion stat indicates. The defense also stood up, holding a sometimes-explosive Vanderbilt offense in check.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores were also coming off an upset of a major rival, but they couldn’t find any rhythm whatsoever in their bowl game. The offense never got anything going — Kyle Shurmer went 19-of-46 with three interceptions — and the defense couldn’t stop N.C. State. This was a solid season from Vanderbilt, but this poor bowl showing will leave a bad taste in fans’ mouths.
Military Bowl: Wake Forest 34, Temple 26
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons played a fine game and had a great game plan, so I’m going to take this space to point out a major frustration that I had with ESPN’s commentators for this game. Constant, incessant references were made to the fact that “this is the first time in three years that Wake Forest has played without worrying that the game plan was compromised.” No. Just no. In fact, this was the first game Wake Forest had played since the school found out that plays were ever compromised. The team played well, though, so it gets a good grade regardless of how annoying the commentators were.
Temple: The Owls lost their excellent head coach, but that’s not quite enough to explain how poorly the defense performed in this game. The offense did most of its job, even if the Owls could never run the ball and couldn’t quite finish drives, but the defense’s inability to get any real stops doomed Temple here.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Army 38, North Texas 31
Army: Army failed the point after on its first four touchdowns of this game. That’s impressive no matter how ridiculous it feels. The triple-option offense was effective in the first half, but was held scoreless in the final 22 minutes of regulation. The defense stepped up in overtime, though, after not being able to do enough in the second half.
North Texas: UNT beat Army in the regular season, one of the team’s five wins. Maybe there is, in fact, just one bowl game too many. According to my unofficial research, North Texas became the first team in FBS history to appear in bowl games with a losing record twice (UNT also went bowling at 5-6 after the 2000 season as Sun Belt champions). The Mean Green managed to force overtime with a strong second half, but it wasn’t enough to come out with a win.
Holiday Bowl: Minnesota 17, Washington State 12
Minnesota: Remember when we thought this upset was a sign of big things coming for the Big Ten in bowl season? That didn’t last too long, did it? Minnesota absolutely deserves a ton of credit for winning this game, though. The offense did just enough and Mitch Leidner managed the game well. It wasn’t pretty (on offense; the defense in this game was gorgeous), but it got a big win for the school and the program, and the program made a major coaching upgrade after the season. Watch out for the Golden Gophers in the next few years.
Washington State: Minnesota never let Luke Falk get into a rhythm, Falk wasn’t at his best, and the team never managed to find a useful running game that could take pressure off the passing game. When that happens, it’s very hard for a Mike Leach “air raid” to win.
Cactus Bowl: Baylor 31, Boise State 12
Baylor: For a program in turmoil, this game was a good step for the football team. From an on-field perspective, at least, this game was important as the school transitions to new coach Matt Rhule and tries to make Baylor football about, well, just football.
Boise State: As has happened many times over their last decade-plus of dominance, the Broncos just didn’t show up for a bowl game. When the games have been huge and high-stakes, Boise State always brings it. But for lower-tier bowl games, the Broncos drop of a lot of duds. Speaking of drops, there were way too many dropped passes by talented receivers. The defense seemed just unprepared for Baylor’s offense. This was just a poor showing all-around by a highly-talented team.
Russell Athletic Bowl: Miami (FL) 31, West Virginia 14
Miami (FL): The Hurricanes ended Mark Richt’s first year on a high note, handing West Virginia its only loss to a school not from Oklahoma. Brad Kaaya had an excellent send-off before he enters the NFL Draft, throwing for 282 yards and four touchdowns. The defense also shut down Skyler Howard and a strong West Virginia offense, holding the Mountaineers to under 250 yards. It’s not offense that a team seals the game by turning it over on downs, but that happened here.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers never got any rhythm on offense, going three-and-out five times in the first half. Aside from a poor stretch at the end of the first half, the defense wasn’t awful, but it couldn’t keep it nearly close enough to win this game. The Mountaineers now need to find someone to replace Howard, who did an excellent job leading this offense the past two years.
Foster Farms Bowl: Utah 26, Indiana 24
Utah: What would have happened to the Utes if Joe Williams had stayed retired? He carried this offense through this game and to this victory. Without him (even with his fumble), Indiana wins this game handily. The defense also did a good job keeping a sometimes-potent Indiana offense in check. This grade gets a bump solely for the best Hail Mary defense you’ll ever see — only sending three and leaving a QB spy who rushes late to not let the quarterback roll out and move forward to the line of scrimmage on the release.
Indiana: Zander Diamont — who retired from football after this game to protect his brain — blamed the coaching and play selection for the loss. Anyone who saw Indiana’s final two drives probably can’t disagree. However, Indiana outplayed Utah for most of this game, so it earns a positive grade despite the loss.
Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern 31, Pittsburgh 24
Northwestern: Justin Jackson had a career day and led the Wildcats to a pretty big upset. Between Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern, the Big Ten was off to an excellent start to bowl season. Big-time Big Ten fans might not want to read the final article in this series. It doesn’t get better from here, trust me.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers never really found their proper balance on offense, at least not after quarterback Nathan Peterman got hurt. This offense was explosive for a fair part of the season, but just couldn’t do it to close the year. Pittsburgh can hang its hat on wins over Clemson and Penn State, but the bowl loss stings. The defense needs serious work if Pat Narduzzi wants to coach a contender in 2017.
Texas Bowl: Kansas State 33, Texas A&M 28
Kansas State: The Wildcats had two touchdown drives of two plays or less in this game. That’s not something you often see from Bill Snyder’s team. This team was surprisingly solid throughout the year, quietly going 9-4, with all four losses coming against teams that ended the year ranked.
Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin will be on a major hot seat in 2017 because he can’t seem to win once November hits, but that’s not entirely fair to him. This game was well-coached and a good matchup between two evenly-matched teams. Two Trevor Knight turnovers were the difference between winning and losing in this one.
Alamo Bowl: Oklahoma State 38, Colorado 8
Oklahoma State: Mason Rudolph and company could do no wrong in this game. The offense racked up over 500 yards and scored five touchdowns without turning the ball over. On top of that, the defense held a strong Colorado offense to nothing throughout the game. This was as comprehensive a bowl victory over a good team as anyone could ask for.
Colorado: The offense couldn’t do anything in the first half and the defense got shredded, which is never a good way to start a game. Even if Sefo Liufau was fully healthy, this game probably ends up ugly. The offense started moving the ball a little in the second half, but it was nowhere near enough and two long drives ended with turnovers on downs anyway.
Belk Bowl: Virginia Tech 35, Arkansas 24
Virginia Tech: I should divide the grades for this game into halves. Virginia Tech was atrocious for the first 30 minutes. The Hokies couldn’t move the ball and the defense couldn’t get a stop. The second half was like an entirely different team. The defense flocked to the ball and forced turnovers while the offense felt unstoppable. I feel like averaging an F (first half) and an A (second half) should earn a C, but I’ll be a little nicer.
Arkansas: Everything I said about Virginia Tech works in reverse for Arkansas. The second half on offense for the Razorbacks consisted of five punts and three turnovers, after moving the ball consistently in the first half. So, average an F and an A to get a C, right?
Birmingham Bowl: South Florida 46, South Carolina 39
South Florida: The Bulls dominated this game but let off the gas too early. Quinton Flowers is an amazing dual-threat quarterback who might get some serious Heisman buzz thanks to an easy schedule next year. This game really shouldn’t have gone to overtime, but the defense wasn’t great (it wasn’t all year) and the offense took the air out of the ball a little early.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were clearly the less-talented team in this game, but I have to give major credit to Will Muschamp and his team for never giving up, even when down 18 points in the third quarter. South Carolina delivered its best offensive performance of the season in this game (Western Carolina doesn’t count), but it just barely wasn’t enough. The defense will need to improve next year if this team wants to be competitive in the SEC East.