It started December 19 — the journey through all 40 bowl games, the largest collection of postseason events in college football history.
A week ago, I gave you my bowl grades for the first week of bowl season. With all of the bowls now completed (aside from the national championship Game), here are my grades for the rest.
The same rules as last time apply. The grades judge teams against themselves and their opponents. They are not how I would determine a theoretical matchup between two random teams. If a bad team gets an A for overachieving while a good team earned a C, the second team is probably still better. Also, the grades are only based on the bowl games. I am treating each bowl game as a one-game season. What a team earned in that game is its grade.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: Navy 44, Pittsburgh 28
Navy: The Midshipmen played just about as perfect a bowl game as a team can play, a fitting way to end Keeenan Reynolds’ career. A small blip (and an unlucky play) in the third quarter made the closer than it actually was, but Navy dominated this from start to finish.
Pittsburgh: It’s always a negative to not be prepared enough when facing a triple-option team, but Navy’s option was run to near-perfection. There just wasn’t much Pitt could do in this game. It wasn’t a bad performance, but there was nothing that good here either.
Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota 21, Central Michigan 14
Minnesota: I’m not sure what happened to the Golden Gophers this season. They held TCU to the Horned Frogs’ lowest point output of the year, and that was back when TCU was healthy. Something just fell apart this season. They put together a solid, though far from exceptional, bowl performance and it was enough to get a win over a decent MAC team.
Central Michigan: The Chippewas and Cooper Rush didn’t have another bowl-ending miracle in them, but they fought a tough game against a really good defense. There just wasn’t much room to move the ball. The defense was solid and it was a good game.
Russell Athletic Bowl: Baylor 49, North Carolina 38
Baylor: No Seth Russell? No problem. No Jarrett Stidham? No problem. No quarterback at all? No problem. Baylor did a tremendous job adjusting its offensive attack and exploiting a weakness it found in North Carolina. The defense will need work, but this should be a dangerous team again in 2016.
North Carolina: How do you not prepare to stop the run, especially with Baylor bringing a third-string quarterback? Expecting to stop Baylor completely might be unfair, but North Carolina’s defensive performance remains embarrassing.
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU 56, Texas Tech 27
LSU: LSU was the more talented team coming into this game and knew it. The Tigers also knew that they presented a matchup nightmare. They called the game beautifully and just let that big offensive line move the ball at will all night.
Texas Tech: There’s not much you could ask for. The Red Raiders did their best; they just met a better team. It even looked like they might get a few stops early in the game. All in all, there is not too much to complain about and this program is heading in the right direction.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: California 55, Air Force 36
California: Cal was challenged early but managed to get a few stops on that Air Force option attack. Air Force, on the other hand, had no answers for Jared Goff. His last game at Cal was a great one. Replacing him will be a nearly impossible task.
Air Force: Once upon a time, Air Force excelled at stopping the pass and enforced a “No Fly Zone” on the field–just ask Case Keenum. Now, though, the passing defense needs serious work. The offense was solid, but it couldn’t overcome the Falcons’ defensive issues for much of the season, and it couldn’t in the bowl game.
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl Grade: Incomplete
I missed this one because it was on my sister’s birthday and we took her to a birthday dinner. Because it wasn’t on ESPN (or any other reasonably accessible television channel), there was no ESPN3 replay of the game. My sister gets a grade: an A+ for being awesome.
National Funding Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin 23, USC 21
Wisconsin: The Badgers did an excellent job all year (aside from against Kenyon Drake and Alabama) at guarding speed even when they lacked it themselves. They did it again in this game, containing USC when many believed it impossible. Corey Clement had a year (and bowl game) to forget, but he gets to start things off again in Lambeau Field next year against LSU.
USC: What a disappointing year for the Trojans and a disappointing way for coach Clay Helton to start his tenure. The Trojans are riddled with talent but way too inconsistent. This game was essentially a microcosm of the entire season. Throwing a 7-yard out route on 4th and 10 to end it? That’s not a good sign from a new coach. Next up? It’s Alabama to open 2016.
Birmingham Bowl: Auburn 31, Memphis 10
Auburn: It surprised everyone that Auburn was favored in this game, but the Tigers from the Plains were clearly bigger and stronger. They used that to their full advantage to dominate the line of scrimmage and the game.
Memphis: Memphis is clearly just nowhere near as good a team without Justin Fuente as coach. The Tigers might be heading back to the cellar of the FBS moving forward if Mike Norvell doesn’t work out. Paxton Lynch is gone too. That never helps.
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State 51, N.C. State 28
Mississippi State: Another SEC team was granted an overmatched bowl opponent and took care of business. No complaints here about Mississippi State. The Bulldogs did everything right and took full advantage of their matchup.
NC State: The Wolfpack offense was not the explosive unit that showed up in the Clemson game, and that fact doomed the Pack from the start. N.C. State couldn’t get any stops and never had much of a chance once we got into the second quarter.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville 27, Texas A&M 21
Louisville: The Cardinals missed an extra point, which could have cost them the game. The defense was pretty stout as usual, though, and held down Texas A&M enough to get the win. Don’t let the 27 on the scoreboard fool you; the offense was explosive and next season should be something Cardinals fans really look forward to.
Texas A&M: We all thought the Aggies had no quarterback, but Jake Hubenak did a heck of a job. He didn’t get the win, but it really wasn’t his fault. The defense was entirely unprepared for Louisville’s read-option attack.
Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Houston 38, Florida State 24
Houston: Greg Ward Jr. is a star and, unlike last year, had a complete team around him this past season. This team might be even better next season, and the Cougars get to prove it in the non-conference portion of the schedule against Oklahoma and Louisville. If you ever want to see a Group of 5 team in the Playoff, root for Houston next season.
Florida State: It has been impossible to get a good read on the Seminoles all season. It is possible that they are not a great football team. They certainly didn’t look like a great one in the Peach Bowl. Part of that was the opponent, but we have now seen 13 games and still have no real idea just how good Florida State is. Having an injured quarterback for most of the game doesn’t help un-muddle things.
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17
Clemson: Clemson is a really, really good football team. The Tigers left a ton of points on the board in this game and still won it easily. Dabo Swinney has done a heck of a job here. If the Tigers play a perfect game in the championship game, it will be very difficult for anyone to beat them, even Alabama. They better not leave points on the board against Alabama, though.
Oklahoma: Maybe the murmurs that the Sooners played a bunch of teams without their starting quarterbacks holds a little water. Then again, Baylor and TCU did perfectly well in their bowl games with replacement quarterbacks. Oklahoma was finally matched up against a team who can stop its offense and that was the difference in this game, just like it was against Texas.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Alabama 38, Michigan State 0
Alabama: The Tide scouted out Michigan State’s weaknesses and exploited them. This was a masterclass performance by Lane Kiffin.
Michigan State: It wasn’t just that the Spartans were outmatched in this game. They messed up on a lot of little things. There were way too many dropped passes and the offense stubbornly tried to establish the run in an impossible situation. There have teams that played well and still got blown out this bowl season. Michigan State did not play well. Winning this game might have been an impossible task, but this definitely could have been a 21-point game instead of a 38-point game if Michigan State had played well enough.
Outback Bowl: Tennessee 45, Northwestern 6
Tennessee: I’m seeing a trend here. SEC teams found opponents with matchup weaknesses and took full advantage. Northwestern didn’t have the offensive weapons to consistently move the ball on Tennessee, and the Volunteers exploited Northwestern’s lack of speed on defense. A bunch of late scores made this look uglier than it really was; this game was not out of hand until after Northwestern had given up. The funny thing is that Tennessee made a ton of mistakes early, which really could have given Northwestern a chance had the Wildcats done anything with them.
Northwestern: The Wildcats were outmatched in this game and shot themselves in the foot with poor execution or penalties whenever they had a chance to do something on offense. Their one touchdown ended with a missed extra point.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Michigan 41, Florida 7
Michigan: We all knew that the Wolverines had an excellent defense. What we didn’t know was that their offense could take over, too. Jehu Chesson burned Florida’s future NFL lockdown corner Vernon Hargreaves III several times. This was a clinic. This bowl game has to make Michigan rue its losses to Utah and Michigan State earlier in the season. If Michigan had played at this level in those games, this could have been a very rosy season indeed. Instead, there is just a lot to look forward to for 2016.
Florida: The Gators end the season on a three-game losing skid, and this one wasn’t pretty. The offense moved the ball at times, but there were too many mistakes and no overall consistency. The defense was torched in a way no one thought possible at any time earlier in the season. This was not a pretty bowl game for Florida.
BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28
Ohio State: The Buckeyes are the most talented team in the country and they know it. They will rue that loss to Michigan State for a long time. They beat Notre Dame by two scores even without the majority of their starting defensive line. That excuses the defense’s lack of potency, but just a little.
Notre Dame: Brian Kelly said that Ohio State was the best team in the country, and he probably wasn’t wrong (or if he was, not by much). Notre Dame did well just to keep this game in doubt. This team has a ton of talent too, just not as much as the Buckeyes.
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: Stanford 45, Iowa 16
Stanford: Two words: Christian McCaffrey.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes never had the speed to deal with McCaffrey. He presented a matchup they couldn’t beat. Punting to him was just foolish, however, and that’s being nice. The offensive futility is inexcusable, though. Expecting to beat Stanford between the tackles was naively optimistic at best. There needed to be an immediate backup option regardless. Even with McCaffrey in there, Iowa needed a plan to handle Stanford’s offense. The Hawkeyes didn’t have anything. This was an unfitting ending for an amazing season in Iowa City. Hopefully Kirk Ferentz can build on this rather than falling back like Iowa did after its last major bowl appearance.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Mississippi 48, Oklahoma State 20
Mississippi: Ole Miss brought a little bit of everything into this game, which the Rebels ran away with in the second quarter. Chad Kelly is a rising star and should be the SEC’s best quarterback next year. The defense loses a ton of talent to the NFL, though. The Rebels will have to overcome that.
Oklahoma State: I felt the Cowboys overachieved all season, so I can’t fault them too much for this. Ole Miss brought just about its best possible game. Oklahoma State didn’t have much to respond with. There is no fault there, just a team not being good enough and not being able to string drives together in the first half when it counted.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia 24, Penn State 17
Georgia: The Bulldogs were by far the more talented team. That was obvious from the very beginning of the game. They also made too many mistakes and couldn’t put Penn State away. Worth noting: It’s very difficult to judge a team without a real coaching staff at the time of the game.
Penn State: Penn State probably played a better game than Georgia did. The Nittany Lions fought hard and never gave up, even without their star quarterback from the past few years. I can’t give them a higher grade than Georgia, but this was an impressive showing from Penn State, final score notwithstanding. A few fewer mistakes and Penn State might have actually won.
Autozone Liberty Bowl: Arkansas 45, Kansas State 23
Arkansas: The Liberty Bowl brings us another SEC team that had a dream matchup in bowl season. It also brings us another team that took advantage of it. Arkansas controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated both sides of the ball. Giving up 23 points was probably too many for this defense, honestly.
Kansas State: Things looked good when Arkansas’ opening possession ended in an interception. They looked better when Kansas State responded with a touchdown. They didn’t look so good for the rest of the game. Kansas State played pretty well. The Wildcats just weren’t as fast or as big as their opponents. That’s not a winning combination.
Valero Alamo Bowl: TCU 47, Oregon 41 (3OT)
TCU: TCU’s first half was not good. The offense was ineffective and the defense couldn’t stop Vernon Adams. They didn’t fix anything on defense in the second half, but the offensive adjustments got them back into this game with a chance to win. Grading both of these teams is impossible, really. Their grades from the first half to the second would be so drastically different. Averaging the two is the way to go.
Oregon: This is the one game where I will give the losing team a better grade than the winning team. Oregon is just a different team with Jeff Lockie, and it’s not as good. The Ducks win this game if Adams plays just one or two more possessions. The defense stopped functioning at halftime, though, which cost them the game as much as the loss of Adams did.
Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: West Virginia 43, Arizona State 42
West Virginia: The Mountaineers’ offense was lethal all game, though it was unable to finish drives and score touchdowns early. This could have been out of reach in the first quarter, but West Virginia could never put its foot down. The defense finally got a stop in the final two minutes when it mattered most.
Arizona State: No one had any defense in this game. I can’t blame either team too much for that. The Sun Devils took advantage of West Virginia mistakes at the end of the first half and kept trading scores in the second. This final game of the bowl season was highly entertaining, but it was not played particularly well.