If your team is playing in one of these bowls, congratulations! Your team is at least 6-6 (unless it’s Minnesota…5-7 got you in due to your school’s academic progress rate!), and they’ve achieved one of their season-long goals. If your team isn’t here, then you just love football, and hopefully you’ll be happy reading this as well. I’m providing bowl game takeaways for every bowl, and I’ll update this page whenever games occur (most recent bowl first), so check back often. I’ll try to discuss each game within 24 hours of it going final. The two CFP Semifinal games will be discussed separately in another post. Read on for the takeaways!
Cheez-It Citrus Bowl: (21) Tennessee 35, (17) Iowa 0
What a fitting end to bowl season. The team that told their OC that he wouldn’t return while putting up the 4th-fewest points in the FBS got shut out. Iowa has been able to rely on their stellar defense to earn 10 wins this year, but they cracked a bit against Michigan and Penn State. In both of those matchups, their only games against ranked foes, the Hawkeyes were also blanked. These 3 games are also the only ones in which the defense ceded more than 16 points. Having to keep ranked opponents below 16 points to win is not a sustainable strategy, and regardless of the 35 points allowed here, the blame falls squarely on the offense.
QB Deacon Hill had a disastrous outing, losing a fumble and throwing 2 INTs on just 7/18 passing. The second INT was returned for six by James Pierce Jr and led to his benching. His replacement, true freshman Marco Lainez, was much more mobile, running for 51 yards on 6 carries while evading pressure. He only went 2/7 for 4 yards as a passer though, and the rest of the team averaged under 3 yards per carry. Tennessee was without QB Joe Milton (NFL draft), but their fans were excited to see touted freshman Nico Iamaleava. His passing (12/19, 151 yards, TD) was fine, but before he scored a throwing TD , he ran for 3 scores.
The ground game overall feasted for Tennessee, with RB Dylan Sampson running 20 times for 133 yards and freshman RB Cameron Seldon adding 55 more. This run-based attack is likely to continue for the Volunteers in 2024. They’re shifting from the Hendon Hooker-style air raid offense to more of a rushing-focused scheme. That’s simply good coaching by Josh Heupel, who is tailoring his plans to his players’ strengths. Their days in the top 25 should continue. Iowa has hit its ceiling. The defense can only do so much alone. Whoever becomes the OC must find a QB and revamp the offense. The Hawkeyes are likely to be ranked, but asking them to crack the top 10 is a stretch.
Vrbo Fiesta Bowl: (8) Oregon 45, (23) Liberty 6
The public outcry was strong when it was announced that Liberty, not SMU, was the highest-ranked Group of 5 team. If 13-0 wasn’t good enough for FSU, why have a double standard for the Flames? Very early in the Fiesta Bowl, Liberty silenced the doubters. They went 75 yards in 6 plays for an opening-drive TD, looking as good as they have all year. Their kicker missed the PAT though, and that TD proved to be the absolute peak of their day. Every other aspect of this game went in Oregon’s favor. The Ducks rattled off 45 straight points in a dominating effort that demonstrated the gap between C-USA and the Pac-12’s remnants.
With no real reason to do so, Oregon QB Bo Nix and RB Bucky Irving opted to play in this bowl game. I don’t think they had a chance to boost their draft stock given the opponent, but they wanted to be with their teammates one last time. Both were fantastic. Nix (28/35, 363 yards, 5 TDs) was superb, dicing up the Liberty secondary as if they were high-school players. He hit his adoptive brother, WR Tez Johnson, 11 times for 172 yards and a TD before making a one-play curtain call in the 4th quarter. Irving (14/117/1) showed his major explosiveness, ripping off chunk gains before he too was lifted from the game 1 play after Nix
Aside from a 41-yard run by RB Quinton Cooley, there isn’t much to say about Liberty. QB Kaidon Salter (15/24, 126 yards, TD, INT) was overmatched, barely passing 100 yards by the final quarter. The defense only made Oregon punt twice and forced 0 turnovers. As disastrous as this was, the Flames still had a fantastic year. Going 13-0 is a great achievement regardless of the level of competition, and new coach Jamey Chadwell ushered them into C-USA extremely well. Oregon is just on another level. They didn’t lose to anybody but Washington (twice) this year, and QB Dillon Gabriel is coming from Oklahoma. Reload, rinse, and repeat.
ReliaQuest Bowl: (13) Louisiana State 35, Wisconsin 31
This badly renamed bowl (I still miss the Outback Bowl) was one of the best we had this year. Only the Gator Bowl and Famous Toastery Bowl came close. That we saw such a fun matchup without Heisman winner Jayden Daniels suiting up for LSU was a sign of the Tigers’ depth. In a likely precursor to a starting role in 2024, backup Garrett Nussmeier didn’t offer a drop of the rushing element brought by Daniels but actually looked like a major upgrade in the passing department. It just took a bit for him to get going, as Wisconsin looked as good as they have all season long.
One big reason why was the return to health of QB Tanner Mordecai. The Badgers QB broke his hand midseason against Iowa and had surgery. He returned in just a few weeks but was clearly hobbled and playing through pain. Finally back to his normal self, he looked like the guy we saw at SMU and early in the season. He went 27/40 for 378 yards and 3 TDs as Wisconsin took a quick 14-0 lead. LSU bounced back though, sandwiching two TD drives around a missed FG by the Badgers. That pattern continued again, with Wisconsin scoring 14 more points before the Tigers tied the game once again.
Our first non-TD score came at the very end of the 3rd quarter, when Wisconsin stalled in the red zone and kicked a field goal. The game turned into a punt-fest until Wisconsin WR Will Pauling downed a punt at the LSU 2. Pauling was everywhere in this game, as he was the Badgers’ leading receiver (8/143/2) along with Bryson Green (7/105/1). RB Cade Yacamelli (7/45) ran well before he was injured, after which Jackson Acker (14/86/1) filled in admirably. Nussmeier saved his best for last though, leading a 98-yard go-ahead TD drive in just 3:02 and 8 plays. WR Brian Thomas Jr (8/98/2) scored what would be the game-winning TD.
Wisconsin still had time to go win, but with 2 minutes left and the Badgers threatening, their offensive line imploded. Mordecai was sacked twice in a row, including one where he lost 13 yards on a fumble that his team recovered. Then, following a timeout, Maason Smith and Mekhi Wingo converged to sack him again, forcing a fumble on 4th down that the Tigers would scoop up. LSU had 5 sacks on a team, but that was 3 on 3 consecutive dropbacks. It’s not like Mordecai held the ball too long either; he barely got the snap each time before rushers were in his face. After leading the whole game, this was a poor way to end
Nussmeier was great, going 31/45 for 395 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT. The INT went to CB Ricardo Hallman, who is tied for the FBS lead with 7. Tigers fans should be excited about what’s to come because they’ll see many of these players in 2024. LSU can be a top-15 team again, even without Daniels. Wisconsin is a case of “if only”. Had Mordecai not gotten hurt, the Badgers likely would’ve remained ranked. They were clearly respected, as a 7-5 team doesn’t often face the 13th-ranked team in the nation. QB Tyler Van Dyke is coming from Miami; if his reclamation project is a success, Wisconsin’s 2024 will be the 2023 they wish they had.
Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl: Wyoming 16, Toledo 15
This game was largely uneventful, so I’m going to devote an inordinate amount of space to one particular play. It was arguably the difference in this game, and Toledo got SCAMMED. Down 3-0 in a boring 1st quarter, the stadium came alive when QB Tucker Gleason threw a pass intended for RB Jacquez Stuart (9/99/1). The ball went off Stuart’s hands and into the arms of lineman Devan Rogers, who rumbled for a 29-yard TD. Initially ruled a TD, the officials came back and said that it was illegal touching even though the ball hit an eligible player’s hands first. That was awful, but what happened next was even more bonkers.
The referees announced that the play was under review. Nobody knew why, as the actual events of the play were totally clear. It turned out that they were reviewing their own ruling(s)! Eventually, they decided that the second one was correct and wiped away the TD. On the subsequent 4th-down play, Gleason threw an INT/arm punt. You can look at the play and see what you think, but my position is firm. I HATE ineligible player rules (including the illegal man downfield one), because the game is more fun when the big men get involved in catches. I believe that all 11 players should be eligible, and I will stand by that declaration. Live a little.
Don’t be too mad at Stuart; he had an 80-yard TD, Toledo’s only end zone trip, and a nice kick return later in the game. He and Gleason were also substituting for a 1400-yard rusher (Peny Boone) and a starting QB (Dequan Finn), respectively, so I’ll give Gleason (14/34, 184 yards, INT, 42 rushing yards) a pass as well for his lackluster offensive showing. Actually, Wyoming’s offense was even worse. QB Andrew Peasley (20/25, 168 yards) was efficient but couldn’t reach the end zone a single time. He took a back sack in the end zone from Esean Carter for a safety and eventually left the game on another big hit. Only RB Harrison Waylee (18/91) produced.
Backup QB Evan Svoboda bailed the Cowboys out. He threw just 2 passes (1/2, 16 yards) but opened up the rushing attack, taking 5 carries for 26 yards and a TD that cut Toledo’s lead to 2. Svoboda then led another drive upon Peasley’s second departure due to injury, taking the last 4:11 of clock and producing a game-winning FG from John Hoyland. It was quite a way for HC Craig Bohl to go out in his last game before retirement. Once again, this bowl had lackluster announcing with too much of a focus on gambling. The announcers talked about betting so much that I wonder if they had an over-under on the number of FGs scored (5).
Wyoming DC Jay Sawvel is taking over as HC, which should maintain some nice continuity. This team prides itself on defense, so while I can’t say that they’re the best team in the Mountain West, nobody enjoys playing them because they always stay dangerous by keeping games close. Toledo should be proud of their 11-win season, but it ended in heartbreaking fashion. First, they lost the MAC championship game, which could have given them back-to-back titles. Now they’ve lost a game on a walk-off, and they can certainly argue that it was stolen. What we know is that HC Jason Candle has a really good team. They’re in the mix every year and figure to be strong again next season.
Capital One Orange Bowl: (6) Georgia 63, (5) Florida State 3
The two teams with the biggest grudges against the CFP committee played in this game. Their players had VERY different ways of expressing their displeasure. FSU had more missing players than just about any other team. QB Jordan Travis broke his leg; backup QB Tate Rodemaker entered the portal; and RB Trey Benson, DE Jared Verse, and WRs Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman all opted out and entered the draft. In fact, DL Patrick Payton was the only starter along the defensive line to play in the game. Conversely, Georgia’s players wanted to prove a point, so all but two injured members (TE Brock Bowers and T Amarius Mims) suited up. It really showed.
Earlier in the week, Seminoles QB Brock Glenn, the freshman third-stringer who looked lost against Louisville in the ACC championship game, suggested that FSU should be considered national champions if they’re the only undefeated team remaining. I pondered that argument, akin to the 2017 UCF claim, but figured it wouldn’t matter because Georgia would win. That might go down as my biggest understatement ever. The Bulldogs obliterated FSU, allowing a mere 3 points to an overmatched Glenn (9/26, 139 yards, 2 INTs, FUM). Committing 4 turnovers against Georgia usually spells doom, and it very much did here.
Bulldogs QB Carson Beck (13/18, 203 yards, 2 TDs) and the rest of the starters only played a half. I guess HC Kirby Smart saw enough from them in a 35-point 2nd quarter. His 3-headed backfield, Kendall Milton (9/104/2), Roderick Robinson II (7/70), and Daijun Edwards (7/62/2), all had big games. WR Dillon Bell (5/86) made several circus catches. Even backup TE Oscar Delp (3/31) showed flashes as a receiver and blocker. Then, backup QB Gunner Stockton (6/10, 93 yards, 2 TDs; 7/46 rushing) came in and kept the scoring party going until Georgia finally took their foot off the gas pedal.
Smart lamented the opt outs across college football after the game, and he’s totally right. You feel badly for the players that do show up only to be crushed by another team’s starters. FSU is likely to reload next year and be ACC contenders again (if they stay in the conference that is) with a transfer QB like Cameron Ward. Their recruiting is strong, and I believe they’re deep on defense and at the skill positions. Georgia made their point and then some. This team really shouldn’t have dropped all the way to #6 for one 3-point loss the more I think about it. They’ll be great next year, and that 12-team playoff probably pleases them greatly.
TransPerfect Music City Bowl: Maryland 31, Auburn 13
QB Taulia Tagovailoa, otherwise known as Tua’s brother, opted out, Maryland coach Mike Locksley said he’d play two QBs: Billy Edwards Jr, who we’ve seen before, and Cameron Edge. Edwards looked exactly like he has in past appearances: an erratic passer but an evasive runner. He completed just 6 of 20 passes for 126 yards and a TD while running for 50 yards and a score on 13 carries. Edge had a hot start and finished 4/6 for 82 yards and a TD, but he also threw an INT. I’m not sure who has the edge in the 2024 competition for the starting job, and NC State transfer MJ Morris will likely get an opportunity as well.
Maryland’s offense could find its way at any pace because Auburn looked atrocious. They played 3 QBs, but that wasn’t the plan. Payton Thorne (13/27, 84 yards, TD, INT), the normal starter, just couldn’t do much of anything. Neither could Holden Geriner (1/6, 8 yards INT). Hank Brown (7/9, 132 yards) actually looked competent and led the Tigers on their 2nd scoring drive of the day, but it came too late to change the outcome. The Terrapins took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back. Each team had 3 sacks, and neither topped 3.5 yards per carry on the ground.
It’s clear to see that Maryland is going to miss Tagovailoa. Their year was eerily similar to 2022, with a hot start followed by a cold stretch during the Big 10 portion of their schedule. The conference is only getting tougher, so they may struggle to remain as relevant as they’ve been the last few seasons. Auburn didn’t get the bump they anticipated from coach Hugh Freeze, turning in a 6-7 campaign. This team definitely needs an infusion of talent to be competitive again. I thought the offense needed all the work, but the defense has also shown some cracks of late. One offseason might not be enough to right the ship.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: (11) Ole Miss 38, (10) Penn State 25
Here’s another case where the final score suggests a moderate victory, but the game was actually much more of a blowout in the second half. The first two quarters really were very competitive. We had traded field goals and traded touchdowns to create a 10-10 game. Ole Miss then asserted themselves a bit more, adding another FG and converting a Drew Allar INT into a TD. PSU backup QB Beau Pribula came in partway through the next drive, and he tossed just one pass on the day: a 48-yard TD to RB Nicholas Singleton. Singleton had a great game, taking 8 carries for 50 yards and catching 4 passes for 85 yards and that score.
Once the third quarter came around, the game was no longer a contest. The Rebels put up 18 unanswered points, with Penn State’s lone response coming late in the 4th quarter during garbage time. The Ole Miss offense was a well-oiled machine. I haven’t seen QB Jaxson Dart (25/40, 379 yards, 3 TDs, 14 yards and a TD rushing, 15 yards receiving) play better since he came over from USC. He was decisive and accurate, finding TE Caden Prieskorn (10/136/2) and WR Tre Harris (7/134) open all game long. RB Quinshon Judkins wasn’t very efficient, but he ran hard to earn 105 yards on 34 carries. That’s a true workhorse!
This offensive output was normal for Ole Miss, but Penn State’s defense certainly didn’t expect it. That unit allowed just over 11 points per game, and they weren’t missing too many players. I’ve considered PSU overrated each of the past two years, and that seems to be true. Allar (19/39, 295 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) played much worse than those numbers suggest, and he was 5/14 at one point. Four quality Pac-12 teams are joining the Big 10, and they could all be better than the Nittany Lions. Ole Miss has much better prospects. HC Lane Kiffin has led the Rebels to their first 11-win season and has dominated the transfer portal. This team is getting better, not worse.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: (9) Missouri 14, (7) Ohio State 3
Ohio State came into this game without WR Marvin Harrison Jr (draft) and RB Chip Trayanum (transfer). QB Kyle McCord surprisingly transferred to Syracuse after the regular season. You can say whatever you want, but there’s no excuse for a 3-point performance by a Ryan Day-coached team. The man McCord (barely) beat out in camp, Devin Brown (#33 for some reason), started at QB. He didn’t look great, especially in terms of pocket awareness. Missouri DL Johnny Walker Jr came around the edge, and he never saw it coming, taking a brutal hit. The ball actually came out, but OSU got lucky because the refs blew the play dead.
Brown was injured on that play and would not return, which forced freshman Lincoln Kienholz into action. As we’ve seen many times in the past few weeks, freshman QBs entering a game unexpectedly have not fared well. Kienholz (6/17, 86 yards) was no exception. His teammates didn’t do him any favors though. The offensive line was a sieve, allowing 4 sacks and holding the Buckeyes to 2.9 yards per run. On the one potential scoring drive Kienholz led, K Jayden Fielding missed a 48-yard FG. Missouri knew that they could just stack the box and dominate the line of scrimmage.
Both defenses played their tails off and should be commended. For three quarters though, offensive ineptitude was on full display. OSU scored first on an FG, and that was literally every point scored through 45 minutes. Two bad mistakes burned Mizzou in the first half. After suffocating the Buckeyes near their own end zone, Walker committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, costing the Tigers time and field position. He rebounded by winning defensive player of the game with a sack and 1.5 TFLs, so I guess he’s forgiven. On the final possession, the Tigers committed a delay of game penalty, costing themselves a shot at a 60-yard FG (K Harrison Mevis has hit from 61, so he had a legitimate chance).
Missouri, kick-started by a big pass from Brady Cook (11/18, 128 yards, TD) to Marquis Johnson (1/50), finally had a 95-yard drive in the 4th quarter that reached the end zone. Cook (19/66) and RB Cody Schrader (29/128/1) powered the Tigers on the ground. Cook gutted out this game despite taking some big shots. Schrader is a fantastic story: a D-II player who walked on after nearly starting a DoorDash career, only to become a consensus AP All-American. He set the school’s single-season rushing record in this game, capping his inspiring college career. Once Missouri added a second TD, this game was practically a wrap.
Eli Drinkwitz has proven a lot of people wrong this year. His Tigers were picked to finish 13th (ahead of only Vanderbilt) in the SEC. Instead, they finished 3rd. Aside from Schrader, most of this roster is returning, giving Mizzou a chance to build on their great run. Ohio State is in a rare spot for them. They actually have no clue what they’re doing at QB. Day previously said that he wouldn’t use the portal for that position, but he might need to reconsider. His defense was great in 2023, and the Buckeyes are always loaded at WR. But they’re not getting past Michigan (or new Big 10 team Oregon) without a viable signal caller.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Memphis 36, Iowa State 26
You can always count on a lot of points when Memphis is playing. They get involved in shootouts like no other team. This time they actually did much of the scoring themselves, and they never trailed. Neither team was greatly affected by opt outs or transfers, which feels like a miracle. The Tigers delivered an opening salvo, scoring TDs on each of their first 3 drives. If not for their kicker missing a PAT and then Memphis failing on a 2-point conversion to chase that point, the damage would’ve been worse. Either way, it was a 19-0 start, and we looked to be on the path toward a historic blowout.
ISU took advantage of a lull in Memphis’s attack to score 13 unanswered points, making it a one-possession game. That was the only time they would be within one score though, as the Tigers turned back on shortly thereafter. Both QBs had outstanding days. Memphis QB Seth Henigan went 24/34 for 364 yards and 4 TDs (6/27/1 rushing), while Iowa State QB Rocco Becht broke Brock Purdy’s bowl record for passing yards at the school with 446 and 3 TDs of his own on 22/38 passing. Each team had a star WR; Memphis had Roc Taylor (8/102), while ISU’s Jayden Higgins (9/214/1) was dominant.
This was an incredibly clean game, as neither team committed a turnover, and Memphis had 0 penalties (ISU had just 3). With both passing attacks working well, the difference came on the ground. That’s mostly because of the Memphis defense, which held ISU to 0 total rushing yards. Yes, 0. RB Abu Sama III, who had 276 yards and 3 TDs against Kansas State in his last game, was held to just 4 yards on 12 carries here. Memphis racked up 8 TFLs, with LB Chandler Martin earning 5 on his own. That kept the Cyclones one-dimensional, whereas Tigers RB Blake Watson had 107 yards on 15 carries, providing balance for their offense.
I may declare Memphis the most fun team to watch this season. Their games were always exciting, and it worked for them. They notched a 10-win season in a nice reversal after a couple of down years. Two conference losses (vs. Tulane and SMU) hurt their ACC performance, but those two teams are really good, and Memphis beat everyone else except (9) Missouri. Henigan is coming back, so this team is in great shape for 2024. Iowa State only finished 7-6, but give HC Matt Campbell credit. Multiple QB injuries forced him to start the freshman Becht, and he still made it to a bowl and beat KSU. Don’t sleep on the Cyclones.
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl: (16) Notre Dame 40, (19) Oregon State 8
I feel for Oregon State. HC Jonathan Smith left for Michigan State, backup QB Aidan Chiles followed him, and starting QB DJ Uiagalelei entered the portal as well. New coach Trent Bray, an internal hire, likely wanted to rely a lot on RB Damien Martinez in this game, but he was suspended after a DUI arrest. All of that upheaval had the Beavers come out flat and stay that way. Neither of the replacements, QB Ben Gulbranson and RB Deshaun Fenwick, worked out, but most of it was on Gulbranson. His stats (16/27, 180 yards, TD, INT) don’t look awful, but much (including the score) came in garbage time.
Notre Dame was able to stack the box against the run because they felt completely unthreatened by the pass. The Irish allowed just 2 rushing yards, giving their offense some margin for error. They too were missing their QB (Sam Hartman) and RB (Audric Estime), who both left for the draft, but their substitutes had very good games. QB Steve Angeli was surgical against a deflated Beaver squad, completing 15 of 19 passes for 232 yards and 3 TDs. He has looked good in limited action, and I think he would compete to be the starter next year if Riley Leonard hadn’t transferred from Duke. RB Jadarian Price (13/106/1) spearheaded a 254-yard rushing day for the Irish.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot more to say here. OSU didn’t get on the board until 6 minutes remained in the 4th. The Beavers are in an awful situation going forward. The Pac-12 is mostly dead, and the remaining two teams (they and Washington State) will be pseudo-Mountain West members while they sort things out. Many players and coaches have jumped ship, and it feels like their good run of appearances in the rankings may be ending. Notre Dame appears to be stuck in neutral. They try a new senior QB each year, but they land near #15 every time. The Irish are a cut below the title contenders, so a 12-team playoff will benefit them more than most.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: (22) Clemson 38, Kentucky 35
More tech trials! This was one of 15 bowl games to use NFL-style Microsoft Surface tablets. There’s no reason it has taken this long to give real-time video a shot, as it enables to see plays immediately after they happen, letting them correct mistakes and learn. Both teams got plenty of teaching tape in this one, as mistakes were made aplenty. We aren’t mad though; the errors helped morph this game into the most action-packed battle of bowl season. A few players on each side were missing, but the main contributors mostly showed up to play. We had a fairly slow first half, with Kentucky taking a 14-10 lead.
The 3rd quarter began with a bang, as WR Barion Brown (3/100/1, 2/26/1 rushing) took the opening kickoff 100 yards to stretch UK’s lead. Clemson got a TD a few drives later but missed the 2-point conversion. Then, the Wildcats self-destructed. Clemson DE Xavier Thomas strip-sacked UK QB Devin Leary, and the Tigers recovered. Cade Klubnik gave the ball right back one play later with an INT, wasting the great field position, but Leary returned the favor with an INT of his own. After Clemson closed the gap with a field goal, Brown lost a fumble himself, and Clemson took the lead with a TD. Three turnovers in three possessions. Yikes.
To their credit, the Wildcats didn’t stay down on the map. Leary (16/28, 306 yards, 2 TDs) hit Brown for a lighting-quick score to take a 28-27 advantage. Tigers RB Will Shipley took the subsequent kickoff 60 yards, but he was carted off with a knee injury. I don’t know the severity and wish him nothing but the best, but this is the reason stars often opt out of bowl games. A bad injury could sink his draft stock, and nobody wants that. Clemson did nothing with the field possession, and K Jonathan Weitz kicked a Gator Bowl-record 52-yard FG to take the lead again. Leary, refusing to be denied, led ANOTHER 3-play drive for a TD.
That one was scored by RB Ray Davis (13/63/1), who already declared for the draft but wanted to play with his teammates anyway. This is the flip side of the opt out debate: players honoring a commitment to their university and their brothers. Klubnik (30/41, 264 yards, INT), struggled for much of the game, but he took advantage of UK’s soft coverage to methodically drive down the field. RB Phil Mafah (11/71) scored his 4th TD of the game to put Clemson ahead for good. In the last 17 seconds, Leary overthrew his WR for his second INT of the game, sealing Clemson’s 13th straight season with a postseason victory.
By their standards, Clemson has had a few tough years. Neither DJ Uiagalelei nor Klubnik have been adequate Trevor Lawrence replacements despite their 5-star statuses. Great defenses have been wasted, though they’ve allowed Clemson to post 9-win seasons (or better) the entire time. They’re best in bowl games, which is a testament to HC Dabo Swinney, but he needs to recruit more playmakers on offense. Kentucky is a team that seems oh so close. Their conference (SEC) hurts their chances, but they’ve risen to a genuine threat under Mark Stoops. Above-average seasons are now the norm, which is much better than UK used to be.
Valero Alamo Bowl: (14) Arizona 38, (12) Oklahoma 24
It’s getting a little old talking about everyone who isn’t playing in these games, but they’re having major impacts on the outcomes. So here we go again. Oklahoma starting QB Dillon Gabriel transferred to Oregon, leaving #3 recruit Jackson Arnold to start. To be perfectly honest, he looked exactly like you’d expect a freshman with talent but no experience to look. After Arizona opened the game with a field goal, he threw an INT. He’d add two more throughout the game and lose a fumble as well. His first 2 INTs allowed the Wildcats to take a 13-0 lead, but it felt like they could have done more with their turnovers.
Oklahoma finally got in a groove by smartly relying on RB Gavin Sawchuk (15/134/1). Arnold made some great throws, showing us why he was such a highly touted prospect. He threw for 361 yards and 2 TDs and added 38 yards rushing. In fact, Oklahoma scored 24 unanswered points to lead by 11, stifling Arizona’s offense in the process. However, a fumble by WR Jalil Farooq was taken back by Arizona S Gunner Maldonado for an 87-yard TD. Maldonado also had one of the INTs. Farooq fumbled twice to give Oklahoma 6 total turnovers. It’s amazing they ever had a lead with that lack of ball security.
With little help from the running game, Wildcats QB Noah Fifita (24/38, 354 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) put the offense on his back. He threw passes to WRs Tetairoa McMillan (10/160) and Jacob Cowing (7/152/2) for chunk gains, adding 2 TDs and a field goal while OU sabotaged themselves with turnovers. Arizona really should’ve dominated more given the takeaway margin, but they notched their first bowl win since 2015 regardless. This season was a masterful coaching job by Jedd Fisch, who completely turned the Wildcats around. Oklahoma had a revival themselves, but the SEC is a different beast. Dominating defenses like UGA’s is hard.
Pop-Tarts Bowl: (25) Kansas State 28, (18) NC State 19
Is this my new favorite bowl game? I’m probably a little biased by the giant edible Pop-Tart the winning team gets, but it certainly shined. That’s in no small part because it came so soon after the Duke’s Mayo Bowl; this time, the announcers got to eat Pop-Tarts on air instead of the heresy of putting mayo on Krispy Kreme donuts. Anish Shroff had his first ever Pop-Tart! Anyway, back to the game. This time, neither team had their starting QB, but both replacements were ready to play. For NC State, MJ Morris opted out midseason to preserve his redshirt before transferring, while Kansas State’s Will Howard entered the transfer portal.
Brennan Armstrong, the Wolfpack’s starter at the beginning of the season, took over for this game, while freshman phenom Avery Johnson was under center (well, in the shotgun) for KSU. I touched on the latter back in week 8, and the story was fairly similar here. He completed less than half of his passes (14/31) and threw for only 178 yards, but he tossed 2 TDs and didn’t turn the ball over. His running prowess was on full display; he had 7 carries for 71 yards and an ankle-breaking TD scamper. Armstrong (14/28, 164 yards, INT) also did much better on the ground (17/121/1) than through the air in his final college game.
Though the game got close in the second half, Kansas State never trailed, and it didn’t seem likely that NC State would overtake them. The Wildcats gave them too much DJ Giddens. The RB ran for 151 yards and a TD on 28 catches, adding a 37-yard TD catch. He consistently moved the chains and burned clock. The two most interesting plays came on special teams. After a dropped pass by TE Garrett Oakley (Ben Sinnott would’ve caught it, but he opted out), the Wildcats had to punt. However, Jack Blumer faked it and ran 30 yards behind elite G Cooper Beebe. The entire line is great, but Beebe may be a first-round talent.
NC State one-upped KSU with a fake punt of their own. On theirs, upback Trent Pennix took the snap and ran 60 yards for a TD. The Wildcats pulled away late, salting away 7:24 of clock on a Giddens-led TD drive. Jacob Parrish intercepted a pass, and the game fittingly ended with a Beebe pancake block. Kansas State is a really fun team and they’re always good for an upset or two. Their Big XII chances look great next season. NC State’s outlook improved greatly once we learned that Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall would be joining them. He’s the best QB they’ve had in years, and he makes them ACC contenders.
Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers 31, Miami 24
Miami had no QB other than Jacurri Brown due to the transfer of Tyler Van Dyke and an injury to Emory Williams. That’s ok though, because Rutgers never has one! I’m only partially kidding here. Although Gavin Wimsatt is the best QB the Scarlet Knights have had in years, this team doesn’t throw the ball a lot. Frankly, they never do it all that well, so coach Greg Schiano is wise to run his offense through the ground game. They made their intentions known immediately, taking the opening drive for 75 yards over 13 plays with 11 rushes (including 7 straight). The drive ended comically with 3 straight “tush pushes” until one got in.
Brown threw an INT on Miami’s second drive, and Rutgers took advantage. On 4th and 1, the Canes jumped, extending the drive. Rutgers extended their lead to 14-0. The Scarlet Knights were, however, in a giving mood. Miami’s next two drives were greatly aided by Rutgers penalties. A PI foul, a roughing penalty after a play, and an unsportsmanlike conduct foul gave the Hurricanes 45 free yards en route to a TD and a field goal before the half. Miami then scored to start the 3rd quarter and took their first lead. The tide seemed to be turning with the Rutgers offense stuck in the mud, but they then made a game-changing play.
Trevor Yeboah-Kodie blocked a punt, and Timmy Ward returned it for a TD. At that point, Rutgers returned to what worked: running the ball. Miami’s 10th-ranked run defense failed miserably (likely because S Kamren Kinchens opted out). Wimsatt (2 TDs) and RB Kyle Monangai (25/163/1) feasted, extending the lead to 31-17 while burning tons of clock. UM made a valiant comeback attempt, largely due to WR Xavier Restrepo (11/99/1). The slot receiver set a school record for receptions in a season and would have had 2 more TDs but they got called back (one due to a penalty and another because he was barely out of bounds).
After cutting the deficit, Miami actually recovered an onside kick (why was Monangai on the hands team??), but their last-gasp drive fell short. This was all terrible for Miami. The Canes lost their first ever game to Rutgers (they were 11-0), and RB Mark Fletcher got hurt early on (he couldn’t put weight on his foot). HC Mario Cristobal continues to face criticism due to time management blunders and a sub-.500 record. Oh, and Rutgers took a knee at the end. The Scarlet Knights are doing as well as they can: a tough out in the Big 10. They’re above average and proud. The Hurricanes expect more. Right now, they’re just not close. Perhaps a transfer QB could help?
Wasabi Fenway Bowl: Boston College 23, (24) Southern Methodist 14
Sorry Mustangs; I knew we’d reach the other (24) when I ranked James Madison out of protest. I didn’t mean to steal any of your thunder. But that ranking may not stay after SMU’s performance in this bowl game. In a battle between an ACC team and a future ACC team, the incumbents made a statement. To be fair, SMU QB Preston Stone broke his leg earlier this season against Navy, but this was still an 11-2 ranked team that wanted to be in a New Year’s Six bowl in place of Liberty against a 6-6 team that started the season as one of the worst groups in the Power 5.
Backup QB Kevin Jennings, a freshman, had a tough opening drive, fumbling on a strip sack by LB Kam Arnold. Boston College only got a field goal off of it, but on the next drive, a deep shot was dropped in rain (players were also slipping on the Red Sox’s baseball field). SMU eventually settled in and scored 2 straight TDs before the half. Jennings (24/48, 191 yards, TD) made good decisions with the football, but he got no help. He led the team in rushing with 51 yards, his receivers dropped multiple passes (WR Key’Shawn Smith dropped a well-thrown TD pass), and SMU’s special teams allowed a punt and an FG to get blocked.
Two factors really ruined this game for the Mustangs, more so than the loss of their QB. First, the officials refused to throw flags for PI, even (or especially) on 4th down. The zebras were at least commendably consistent, but based on circumstance, this hurt SMU more than it hurt BC. That’s because the Eagles didn’t throw the ball much. And why should they? Their run game dominated, especially in the 4th quarter. QB Thomas Castellanos (11/18, 102 yards, INT through the air; 21/156/2 on the ground) and RB Kye Robichaux (13/89/1) gashed SMU throughout the contest, growing stronger as the game went on.
SMU made a bold move to move into the Power 5 by agreeing to take no conference revenue for multiple years. This game showed them that they need a bit more, especially up front, to compete with the top schools. That said, they’re still very good and should adjust in due time. BC has experienced quite the turnaround. From falling to a MAC team (Northern Illinois) and nearly losing to Holy Cross to winning 6 games plus a bowl, the Eagles have come a long way. Castellanos is improving as he gains more experience, and the defense made great strides over the year. Both of these teams will be interesting to study in 2024.
TaxAct Texas Bowl: (20) Oklahoma State 31, Texas A&M 23
Texas A&M did not come into this bowl in good shape. Coach Jimbo Fisher was fired, the team underachieved yet again, their starting QB (Conner Weigman) is hurt, their backup QB (Max Johnson) transferred to USC, and only 3 scholarship WRs suited up. Not the ideal situation for interim HC Elijah Robinson to face. Then, on the first play of the game, 3rd-string QB Jaylen Henderson hurt his arm and was lost for the game. That forced Marcel Reed into action, and honestly, he acquitted himself well. He did throw an INT, but he went 20/33 for 361 yards and added a rushing TD. Not bad for a freshman with 3 career attempts.
Oklahoma State pretty much had all hands on deck, which ended up being the difference. QB Alan Bowman was his typical gunslinger self, throwing for 402 yards and 2 TDs but also tossing 2 INTs. He got a lot of help from his teammates. RB Ollie Gordon, the nation’s leading rusher, had 27 carries for 118 yards and a TD. He’s the favorite to be the first RB off the board in this year’s draft (maybe in round 2). WRs Rashod Owens (10/164/2), Brennan Presley (16/152, 34-yard pass), and Leon Johnson III (4/86) were fed all game long, carving up a depleted Aggie secondary.
For the record, TAMU didn’t quit. They faced a 24-6 halftime deficit but found some mojo in the second half, cutting the lead to one score near the end of the game. A missed FG by OSU gave the Aggies a drop of life, but Reed’s Hail Mary attempt was intercepted. Mike Elko is coming from Duke to coach the team, but if Fisher couldn’t fix this offense, then I don’t know what Elko, another defensive coach, will be able to do. Tonight suggested that maybe the unit isn’t as far off as some might think though. Regarding OSU, Mike Gundy always keeps this team competitive. They can win the Big XII with OU and Texas out of the way.
DIRECTV Holiday Bowl: USC 42, (15) Louisville 28
Do you think bowl games are meaningless now? Try asking Miller Moss that question. USC’s backup QB, Moss hadn’t started a game since junior year of high school. With Caleb Williams off to the NFL draft and 5-star freshman Malachi Nelson in the transfer portal, Moss got the start, and all he did was throw 6 TD passes and set a Holiday Bowl record. You know who did play? WR Tajh Washington. He probably boosted his draft stock with his 7/99/2 outing, juking defenders and showcasing his speed. Louisville had a good defense this season, but the Trojans dominated them without their star QB.
Louisville’s offense wasn’t even bad. QB Jack Plummer only had 138 yards, but he was accurate with 21 completions on 25 attempts. RB Isaac Guerendo ran wild against a poor Trojan defense, taking 21 carries for 163 yards and 3 scores. He also led the team with 42 yards on 3 receptions. A Plummer fumble and a blocked punt enabled USC to score 21 unanswered points, turning a 7-0 deficit into a 21-7 lead that they wouldn’t lose. This was simply a case of one offense being nearly unstoppable (Moss threw 1 INT to go with his 372 yards and 6 scores), with the other unable to keep up.
The one thing that surprised me was Barry Sanders making an appearance in the broadcast booth, which was odd considering his alma mater (Oklahoma State) was set to play in another bowl an hour later. Putting that aside, USC underachieved this year to put it lightly. The Trojans wasted another fantastic campaign from Williams with their FBS-worst defense. Even here, a struggling offense scored 28. This seems to be a staple of Lincoln Riley teams: great offenses ruined by awful defenses. Conversely, Louisville overachieved in Jeff Brohm‘s first year but fell back to earth by season’s end. They’re good, but they’re not top-15 good quite yet.
Duke’s Mayo Bowl: West Virginia 30, North Carolina 10
Once again, we have a team missing its starting QB. This one really hurt though, as UNC’s Drake Maye is considered good enough to go #2 overall in the 2024 NFL Draft. I don’t share that opinion, but you still have a drop-off to freshman Conner Harrell. The backup QB has a curious background; he played QB and DT in high school, which is a fascinating combination. I actually liked much of what I saw; he threw 2 INTs (18/27, 199 yards, TD otherwise), but overall he made good reads and showed off some arm talent. I’m not putting this loss all on him. Star RB Omarion Hampton had just 3.3 yards per carry, and the defense was porous.
Bad defenses have become a staple of Tar Heel football, and this bowl game was no exception. However, let’s give credit to West Virginia. Their defense forced 3 turnovers (2 INTs and a fumble) and never let Harrell truly settle in. On offense, QB Garrett Greene continues to surprise. His passing was decent (12/24, 228 yards, TD), but teams underestimate his running ability; he led the Mountaineers with 9 carries for 64 yards. Despite a slow start, a fumble of their own, and a missed FG, WVU didn’t trail in this game. The second quarter was most competitive; the Mountaineers broke away and shut out UNC in the second half.
WVU had a great year. Most analysts projected the Mountaineers to finish near the bottom of the Big XII, but they went 8-4 and landed 5th. A 9-win year is well above expectations for coach Neal Brown. Greene will return next year, so with OU and Texas gone, West Virginia has a chance to build on this success and maybe reach 10 wins. North Carolina can’t call this season anything but a disappointment. A team with a star QB and CFP aspirations should not finish 8-5. As usual, the defense let UNC down, but why isn’t that fixed already? QB Max Johnson is coming from TAMU, but HC Mack Brown needs to target the other side of the ball.
Last, I wanted to touch on the communication in this game. Several bowls are trying out NFL-style headset systems, where communication between the QB or the defensive player with the microphone and the coaches is not cut off once 15 seconds remain on the play clock. The sideline can talk to the players until the snap, which I think is great. The weird signs on boards and constant views of entire units looking toward the coaches for information is antiquated. Should the NCAA adopt this system permanently, I think it would be a boon for college football.
Military Bowl Presented by GoBowling.com: Virginia Tech 41, Tulane 20
Normally, I’d complain about a 6-6 ACC team being considered equivalent to an 11-2 Group of 5 team. However, Tulane QB Michael Pratt opted out to prepare for the Senior Bowl, which completely leveled the playing field. In fact, that one absence flipped the entire paradigm to the other direction. The Green Wave actually took a fumble back for a TD to take a 7-0 lead, but after holding a 7-3 advantage in the first quarter, they’d never lead again. The Hokies found some rhythm after Dontae Fleming muffed a punt, setting up Va. Tech in the red zone. QB Kyren Drones, who lost the first rumble, ran for a score in 1 play.
Tulane fumbled again on the next drive, which really hurt because they had the ball at Virginia Tech’s 1. The Green Wave tied the game, but loose balls were a theme of this game. Tulane lost 3 fumbles, while Virginia Tech lost only 2 despite putting the ball on the ground 5 times. The rainy weather definitely didn’t help, but this was sloppy all around. The other theme was Drones running the football. He had just 91 passing yards (but 2 TDs), but he took 20 caries for 176 yards and a TD. Tulane simply had no answer for him or RB Bhayshul Tuten (18/136/2) on the ground.
We expected 2 Tulane QBs, but Justin Ibieta had just 1 pass attempt. Kai Horton played the vast majority of the game, scoring 1 rushing TD. It was tough sledding for the Green Wave without Pratt and coach Willie Fritz, who left for Houston. Slade Nagle did his best as the interim, but he was undermanned. I don’t think those two absences affected the defense that much though, so Virginia Tech might have won regardless. The Hokies and coach Brent Pry took this game very seriously, capping off their first winning season since 2019. Tulane is fine too; they’ve won 23 games in the past 2 years, and Jon Sumrall is coming from Troy to coach them. They’re AAC elites.
Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Kansas 49, UNLV 36
Who knew that our nighttime bowl between a Big XII team and a Mountain West team would be our highest-scoring bowl so far? UNLV went on a little skid against two of the best MW teams to end their season, including a blowout loss to Boise State in the conference championship game. Kansas came in without starting QB Jalon Daniels once again, but they’re used to that by now. The Jayhawks got some emotionally uplifting news when it was announced that star RB Devin Neal would return for another season. Well-known backup QB Jason Bean led the offense, and we got the traditional Jason Bean game.
But first things first. UNLV scored right away on a nearly perfect drive. Kansas responded a couple drives later with a 98-yard TD march. On the Rebels’ next drive, a bad snap led to QB Jayden Maiava forcing a throw, which was picked off. The Jayhawks scored a TD and then added another after a missed UNLV field goal. The two teams then traded INTs, but Kansas went to the half with a 28-10 lead. To UNLV’s credit, they didn’t roll over. When I mentioned the “traditional” Bean game, I was referring to the start of the 3rd quarter, where he threw a bad INT. Bean always seems to have a few boneheaded moments, and he threw 3 INTs here.
That allowed Maiava (24/35, 291 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) and WRs Ricky White (7/97/1) and Jacob De Jesus (8/95) to chip away and make it a 28-24 game. Then, we saw the good Bean. He threw TD passes on 3 consecutive drives, giving him 6 on the day to go with his 449 yards passing. One of them came on 4th and 1 when he threw a 40-yard bomb, stemming the tide of UNLV’s onslaught and capping a 99-yard, 7-minute drive. The KU WRs, Luke Grimm (4/160/3) and Lawrence Arnold (6/132/3) were spectacular. Neal (20/71/1) didn’t have his best game, but he was still a vital part of the approach.
UNLV tried to counter but couldn’t make up the deficit. The main note from this game though was the penalties. For part of the game, the referees’ microphones weren’t working, but I didn’t care because they were no fun anyway. In terms of accepted penalties, the Rebels had 9 for 99 yards…and they were the LESS-penalized team! Kansas had a bowl record-tying 18 penalties for an insane 216 yards. The fouls during plays (like PI) were all valid, but I saw at least 4 unsportsmanlike fouls for celebrating. During a celebratory bowl game. Come on guys, read the room.
Ironically, the game ended with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Rebels, which granted KU the game-clinching first down. Still, I can’t say enough about what both these coaches have done with their teams. New UNLV coach Barry Odom took a yearly loser to a team on the cusp of a conference title. With a young QB and an improved roster, this team is set up for success. Kansas is also in great shape playing in a conference that will no longer have Texas and Oklahoma. Lance Leipold turned a “basketball school” into one that posts winning seasons in football. The college’s first bowl win since 2008 adds to the success.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Texas State 45, Rice 21
We had ourselves a classic tale of two halves. The first half was extremely competitive. Three touchdowns in the first five drives gave Texas State a 14-7 lead. Both offenses were pretty effective despite headset communications going down in the first quarter (they returned early in the second quarter). Rice’s TD was a reception for WR Luke McCaffrey, who notched his 13th score of the year. Yes, his brother is Christian. Do all McCaffreys score TDs at ridiculous paces? Anyway, the problem for Rice was that they had a freshman backup in AJ Padgett starting at QB. QB1 JT Daniels was forced to medically retire due to concussions.
Padgett had a decent start but faltered in the second quarter, firing a telegraphed pick six to LB Brian Holloway. It seemed as though the Bobcats were pulling away, but they had 3 straight drives end in punts and then gave Rice some help. First, they committed two personal foul penalties to extend Rice’s drive, including one on 3rd and 20. That led to a TD. Then, they chose to have Rice re-kick instead of taking the ball at the 35 following a kickoff out of bounds. Texas State lost 17 yards of field position from that decision. Rice managed to tie the game at 21 before the Bobcats kicked a field goal to end the first half.
The wheels completely fell off from there. Padgett threw two more INTs, including a second pick six to Holloway. Two other QBs saw snaps, including Shawqi Itraish, who added 2 INTs of his own. Behind a steady diet of RBs Ismail Mahdi (24/122) and TD vulture Jahmyl Jeter (8/36/3), Texas State added 21 second-half points and shut out the Owls. We even got a big man TD on a lateral to lineman Nash Jones! I think Rice overachieved this year; they’re a middling C-USA team who just joined the AAC, and they managed to reach a bowl. That’s really good! Texas State has higher aspirations, and they seem to be heading the right way.
Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota 30, Bowling Green 24
Our one 5-7 team featured in this game; congrats on your sterling academic progress rate Minnesota! According to the commentators, the bigger story was starting QB Cole Kramer. A long-time backup and wildcat QB for the Gophers, Kramer had no expectation of playing in this game. In fact, he was planning for his wedding that’s coming up in 40 days. With the transfer portals ravaging the Minnesota roster, coach PJ Fleck asked him to come back and play one last college game. Kramer wasn’t sure, but his fiancée said he’d regret it if he didn’t accept. I’m positive she’s right, as he’ll never forget this bowl game.
Bowling Green scored first on a highly effective opening drive. The series ended with an Odieu Hiliare TD, and the WR (10/152/1) was essentially the entire Falcon offense. Minnesota responded on Kramer’s 3rd career TD pass, but they went for 2 on a trick play and failed. The teams traded FGs and punts for the rest of the half, but the Golden Gophers came out firing in the 3rd quarter. They scored TDs on 2 consecutive possessions, taking a 23-10 lead that they would not relinquish. The Falcons scored TDs on their final 2 possessions of the game, but time ran out before they could completely close the gap.
Kramer (8/16, 26 yards, 2 TDs, INT; 3/31/1 on the ground) is a great story, but he only generated 57 total yards. The MVP was Minnesota RB Darius Taylor. Uncertain to even play, Taylor was a workhorse, taking 35 carries for 208 yards and a TD. He even led the team in receiving with 2 catches for 11 yards. The entire offense went through him, and he even took some wildcat snaps. This is a pretty much a storybook ending to Minnesota’s season, but the program has work to do replenishing the roster. Bowling Green had a tough task facing a Big 10 team, but they acquitted themselves well. Today’s performance would’ve beaten most of their fellow MAC teams.
EasyPost Hawaii Bowl: Coastal Carolina 24, San Jose State 14
If you’re going to travel for a bowl, Hawaii has to be the best option right? Especially for an eastern team like Coastal Carolina. For San Jose State QB Chevan Cordeiro, it’s not as big a deal considering he’s from the island and started his career at the University of Hawaii. He did get to enjoy becoming the Mountain West’s all-time completions leader, which is a great achievement. However, not much else went right for the Spartans, particularly on offense, through 3 quarters. Coastal Carolina only had 7 points themselves in the first half, but they completely blanked SJSU for most of the game.
Playing without injured and portal-bound QB Grayson McCall, Ethan Vasko got the start and played well. His 199 passing yard won’t jump out at you, but he threw 3 TDs and ran for 50 yards, leading the team. For SJSU, RB Kairee Robinson (12/67) lost 2 fumbles in CCU territory on consecutive drives. When Coastal Carolina kicker Kade Hensley made a season-long 49-yard FG to make the score 17-0 with 14 minutes to go, you figured it was over. The Spartans couldn’t score 3 times, right? Well, no, but they came quite close. On the very next drive, Cordeiro hit TE Sam Olson (4/96/1) for a 35-yard TD on 4th and 9 to keep the game alive.
SJSU forced a punt and then scored another TD, cutting the deficit to 3 with 8:30 remaining. CCU then led one gutsy drive that chewed up 5:47 of clock and ended with a one-handed TD grab by WR Sam Pinckney (8/123/1) to ice the game (he did get away with a facemask though). San Jose State attempted to complete their miraculous comeback, but a 32-yard FG miss dashed their hopes. The Spartans had a terrible start to the year but finished the regular season on a 6-game win streak to set things right. Coastal Carolina had a new coach in Tim Beck, but they had a nice year too, especially considering the time missed by McCall.
68 Ventures Bowl: South Alabama 59, Eastern Michigan 10
Such little MAC respect! No team was a bigger underdog than Eastern Michigan (+17.5) despite facing a fellow 6-6 Group of 5 foe. Well…uh…the Eagles validated that sportsbook decision and more. Each team was starting a backup QB, and both appeared determined to let more than one guy get reps. Longtime Jaguar Desmond Trotter came out first for USA, and though he stats weren’t great (9/17, 115 yards, TD, INT), he exited the first time with a 10-0 lead. Freshman Gio Lopez rotated with him and was a revelation, completing 14 of 19 passes for 192 yards and 3 TDs while leading USA on the ground (7/88/1).
For EMU, the quarterbacking went from bad to worse. Ike Udengwu III started but went 0/3. The Eagles then brought in Cam’Ron McCoy, who went 12/27 for 73 yards and 2 INTs. When Trotter’s INT gave the Eagles life, they could only muster a field goal, and they wouldn’t score again until a late TD that defines garbage time. By that point, the Jaguars had 59 on the board. USA WR Jamaal Pritchett had 8 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs, while DBs Marquise Robinson and Jalen Jordan each recorded INTs. This game felt as one-sided as USF’s 45-0 win a couple of days ago, if not more so.
Each of these teams had up-and-down seasons, but it’s South Alabama’s that ends on a high note. The school notched its first bowl win in program history, and they seem to have found their QB of the future in Lopez. EMU is in a better place though than this result suggests. They’re perennially competitive in the MAC under coach Chris Creighton. 2023 was a down year for the Eagles, and their roster definitely needs an overhaul. However, they can use the transfer portal to try and rectify the situation, and their track record suggests they’re capable of doing so.
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl: Northwestern 14, Utah 7
If you’re a fan of good offensive football, I hope you shielded your eyes. No such offense was found anywhere in this game outside of maybe 2 or 3 plays. Both defenses showed up, but I’d argue that they had a fairly easy job. Each team was completely one-dimensional: Utah couldn’t throw, and Northwestern couldn’t run. Utes QB Bryson Barnes started despite being in the portal, but Booger McFarland wondered live on ESPN whether he’d be all in. Regardless of the reason, Barnes struggled mightily. He kept Utah in many games this year with Cam Rising still injured, but he threw 2 INTs on deep balls and went 8/13 for 55 yards here.
Both INTs ended up being meaningless because NW couldn’t cash them in. Following the second INT, NW started at Utah’s 7; the Wildcats earned just 6 yards in 4 plays. The team ran 35 times during the gain and earned only 65 yards, so it’s no surprise that they couldn’t break through at the goal line. Northwestern CB Jaheem Joseph deserves credit for being the one to catch both INTs. He played almost like a free safety with his range, and both plays (plus his 45 return yards) were great even if his offense was helpless with the ball. NU broke through in the second quarter with a TD, but 2 missed FGs could have cost them.
Utah wouldn’t get on the board until the 4th quarter. Backup QB Luke Bottari converted a 3rd down when Barnes was briefly injured, and the running game reached the end zone. After trading turnovers on downs, Northwestern took their short field and went 53 yards on 3 plays, with QB Ben Bryant tossing the go-ahead TD. Utah turned the ball over on downs again, and that was that. The Utes did well this year given Rising’s injury. He’ll be back next year, and thus so will Utah. Northwestern is the big story. Interim-turned-permanent HC David Braun did a brilliant job this year turning around a 1-11 squad. The dark clouds from Pat Fitzgerald and the hazing days have finally parted.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Georgia State 45, Utah State 22
This game had a rocket start, with a 21-14 first quarter. The defenses came late to this party. From then on, only one team continued their assault, with Utah State scoring just once in the final three frames. From the very beginning, Georgia State made it clear that they would not be stopped through the air or on the ground. QB Darren Grainger made his final college game count, completing 19 of 22 passes for 257 yards and 3 TDs. He also ran 24 times for 111 yards and 2 more scores. Only one other player ran the ball: Freddie Block, a player with just 6 carries all season. Naturally, he took 24 carries for 276 yards and a score.
USU intended for 2 QBs to play, and Levi Williams went first. He led 2 TD drives but then threw an INT and did nothing else for the rest of his playing time. McCae Hillstead (7/11, 57 yards, TD) fared a bit better but only had a quarter to work with. By then, his team was already down 38-14 after the latest TD from Panthers WR Caddarius Thompson (5/117/2). This game was lost by the Aggies on defense more than anything; you can have an elite offense, but allowing 31 first-half points is not a recipe for consistent success. The team is in a bit of flux, as not even they know who’s starting at QB for them next year.
Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott had a wild ride. A 6-1 start was followed by a 5-game losing streak, causing the Panthers to limp into the postseason. Nobody would’ve been surprised if they came out flat one more time. To their credit, they were anything but flat. This team competed and refused to be denied. As Elliott’s reward, he got the victory in the best bowl game for a coach. When you win the Famous Idaho Potato bowl, you don’t get soaked in Gatorade; you get French fries! He probably cares more about the fact that his team built some great momentum for next season, but a French fry bath is seriously great.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force 31, (24) James Madison 21
You might notice that by the end of these recaps, I’ll have included two teams ranked (24). That’s not a typo. Due to the NCAA’s continued stupidity regarding this team and all others transitioning from the FCS to the FBS, JMU cannot be ranked by the CFP. I’ll just share the posts where I’ve complained about this so you don’t have to read about it further if you don’t want to. Therefore, to give them their due, I’m using the AP ranking for this one school. They might not have that ranking after this game though. Air Force never trailed due to their dominant, clock-grinding rushing attack.
After an 8-0 start, the Falcons lost their last 4 games. They didn’t look like the struggling version of the team here. True to form, they only attempted 5 passes, but one was a 42-yard TD to Jared Roznos on a play that really broke the game open before halftime. Air Force ran 62 times for 353 yards and 3 TDs, with FB Emmanuel Michel (35/203/2) in the starring role. The service academies seem to keep the fullback position alive on their own. Defensively, the Falcons looked better than they have in weeks because JMU still put up a fight. Their regular season-ending swoon was likely a blip and not an omen. This team is good.
The deck was stacked a bit against James Madison. First, they’re a Sun Belt team, and bowls have not been kind to that conference this year. More importantly, they lost coach Curt Cignetti to Indiana, forcing Damian Wroblewski into the interim role. QB Jordan McCloud (20/33, 257 yards, 3 TDs, INT) played despite being in the transfer portal, which I appreciated, but his running game (26 yards total) didn’t help him out. Even if it had, would it have mattered? Air Force ran wild, earning a 15-minute time of possession advantage. Regardless of this result, JMU will be ready when they’re finally a full FBS member next year.
Camellia Bowl: Northern Illinois 21, Arkansas State 19
Northern Illinois lived and died by analytics in this one. Luckily for them, they lived just a bit more. After their opening-drive TD, they needlessly went for 2 and missed. Once they scored again, they tried a surprise onside kick but illegally touched it. Their defense held on 4th and 1 to prevent points, but I don’t understand that decision. Not done being bold, the Huskies trotted out the FG unit on 4th and 4 at the 32. Punter/holder Tom Foley flipped the ball to kicker Kanon Woodill, who ran 32 yards for a TD. That one was a brilliant play, and who new a kicker could come with such speed?!
Our total of 34 was the most first-half points scored in Camellia Bowl history. It was also a very chippy half. I saw at least 4 personal foul calls after plays ended. In second half though, everything went quiet. Neither team scored in the 3rd quarter, and the mood was rather subdued. The Red Wolves finally scored a TD with just over a minute to go but failed to convert the 2-point try to tie the game. Still armed with 3 timeouts, they went for an onside kick…and got it! Except a referee called offsides and made them re-kick; they did not recover the second one. Judge for yourselves, but I don’t believe a flag should’ve been thrown.
Arkansas state coach Butch Jones was understandably livid, but he had to call a timeout to argue the call. That left the Red Wolves with just two. NIU ran for a first down on the next play, sealing the win. Fittingly, RB Antario Brown (25/132) made the play, as he was NIU’s MVP. This was the Huskies’ first bowl win since 2012…against Arkansas State…in a game played in Alabama. The Sun Belt’s poor luck continues, but Arkansas State really deserved a chance to win here. NIU did deserve their win though, showing fearless play calling and good-enough execution. I’ve told you all that MACtion is fun!
76 Birmingham Bowl: Duke 17, Troy 10
In this game, neither team had their head coach! Duke’s Mike Elko was poached by Texas A&M, while Troy’s Jon Sumrall left for Tulane. That left Trooper Taylor and Greg Gasparato as the interim coaches of the Blue Devils and Trojans, respectively, with Manny Diaz and Gerad Parker waiting in the wings to take over next year. Duke also lost QB Riley Leonard (injury+transfer to Notre Dame), forcing freshman Grayson Loftis to make his 5th career start. I thought he did pretty well (19/29, 183 yards), making just one mistake (a late INT in Troy territory) while letting his running game and defense control the game.
Troy wanted to run their offense through RB Kimani Vidal (17/79), who is the FBS’s leading rusher until Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon plays his bowl game. His rushing average was good, but credit Duke’s defense for limiting the damage he could do by making life tough for Troy’s offensive line. Though Trojans QB Gunnar Watson (21/36, 230 yards) was only sacked twice, many of his throws were disrupted, including a game-ending INT flung under pressure. The senior QB also earns kudos from me for toughing this game out despite flu-like symptoms and playing under constant siege.
Even with so many missing pieces, the Blue Devils didn’t have much trouble with the two-time Sun Belt champions. They didn’t allow a single point until a 3rd-quarter field goal, smothering everything Troy tried to do. I do have to point out Troy’s TD: a backwards pass to lineman Derrick Graham. I love big man TDs and I bet you do too. Duke proved quite a bit here by beating an 11-win team without many players and coaches. They’ll be a threat in the ACC once they restock. Troy is still a good program as well. You don’t win 2 straight conference titles by chance no matter who you’re playing. They just didn’t quite have it today.
Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl: Georgia Tech 30, UCF 17
If there has been a theme for this year’s bowl games thus far, it’s comebacks. Teams are taking heavy hits only to return the favor later. Case in point, UCF took a 14-0 lead by scoring TDs on each of their first two drives while forcing punts on each of Ga. Tech’s. The momentum started to change when RB RJ Harvey (15/120) lost a fumble near midfield. The Yellow Jackets only got a field goal out of it, and UCF even scored an FG the very next drive to stretch the lead back to 17-3, but the game’s tone shifted. UCF continued to make mistakes as Georgia Tech built confidence.
Under new coach Brent Key, the Yellow Jackets have moved away from their triple option offense. They even brought in a better passer in Texas A&M’s Haynes King. Tonight they went back to their running roots throw, tossing 13 passes and rushing 58 times. It became very effective starting in the 2nd quarter. King had 12 carries for 89 yards and a TD, while RB Jamal Haynes took 18 totes for 128 yards. Georgia Tech managed to tie the game 17 before the half (aided by a 30-yard FG miss from UCF). From there, UCF bogged down, throwing an INT and turning the ball over on downs twice in a second-half shutout.
This has been quite the turnaround for Key. It’s funny to think that if not for the worst in-game management ever by Miami coach Mario Cristobal they wouldn’t have made a bowl, but this team has really made strides. The Yellow Jackets haven’t finished with a winning record since 2018, and now they’re 7-6. UCF didn’t have as much fun, receiving a bit of a rude awakening during their Power 5 debut. The Big XII isn’t the AAC, and QB John Rhys Plumlee isn’t Dillon Gabriel. This was the only conference newcomer out of 4 to reach a bowl game though, so they may be on the right track if given enough time.
RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl: South Florida 45, Syracuse 0
I suppose we should’ve expected this result. Syracuse came into this game as a wounded duck, without QB Garrett Shrader, whose college career ended with shoulder surgery earlier in the season, and an interim HC. The Orange fired Dino Babers after the regular season, putting Nunzio Campanile in charge for the bowl game. Most of the excitement in Syracuse is about what’s coming next. Georgia DB coach Fran Brown has been hired as the new HC, and Ohio State QB Kyle McCord announced that he’s transferring to the school. In the here and now though, this team suffered our first bowl shutout in a noncompetitive effort..
Syracuse hadn’t even thrown an incompletion yet early in the second quarter but was already down 21-0. USF scooped up two fumbles for TD returns, the latter ending Syracuse’s only legitimate scoring opportunity. Two QBs got to play for the Orange. Braden Davis (6/12, 84 yards, FUM) got some experience as a freshman, but he won’t be a factor unless McCord gets hurt next year. The other was a former Michigan QB who converted to TE with Syracuse: Dan Villari. Sporting jersey number 89, he went 4/11 for 55 yards and 2 INTs. His play and overall situation pretty much encapsulates how things went for Syracuse.
Nothing seemed to go wrong for the Bulls. QB Byrum Brown, a definite building block for the team, went 18/25 for 213 yards and 3 TDs while also leading the team in rushing (14/65). WR Sean Atkins (6/93/2) became the first USF receiver with 1000 receiving yards in a season. The former walk-on even completed a 21-yard pass on a trick play. A defense that had been in the bottom 10 of the FBS in many categories pitched a dominating shutout. Aside from one drive, Syracuse never came close to scoring. Though it came against an incomplete team, this win can and should be celebrated given how bad the Bulls have been in recent years.
Scooter’s Coffee Frisco Bowl: UTSA 35, Marshall 17
UTSA had a nice debut in the AAC, almost making the conference championship game. Even better, coach Jeff Traylor hasn’t been poached by another school yet (as of this writing anyway)! Marshall had an up-and-down campaign, producing a fitting 6-6 record. Neither school had its starting QB. UTSA legend Frank Harris was out with a shoulder injury he suffered against Tulane, while Marshall QB Cam Fancher entered the portal. That left us with the battle of the sons: Owen McCown vs. Cole Pennington. Their dads, Josh McCown and Chad Pennington, respectively, were both in attendance.
The Roadrunners had an awful start. On their first 4 drives, they punted twice and were picked off twice. Their defense, without departing transfer DE Trey Moore (the AAC DPOY with 24 sacks), gave up two TDs in 16 minutes. Marshall had a 14-0 lead and looked to be running away with the game. Then, McCown settled in and led a TD drive, followed by another. The all-time leading WR at UTSA, Joshua Cephus (7/102/1), got involved in the second quarter on that second TD (a 44-yard catch and run). He would set the single-season receiving record at the school later in the game. Marshall retook the lead with an FG, but that was it.
The Thundering Herd couldn’t score again, and Pennington (15/33, 258 yards) started to fall behind McCown (21/31, 251 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, FUM). In a peculiar start to the 3rd quarter, with a 4th and 2 at the UTSA 25, Marshall committed delay of game and false start penalties. That led to their first FG miss of two, which went from 43 yards to 53 yards in an instant. Their best offensive player, RB Rasheen Ali (9/92/1), exited at halftime because he was on a “snap count”. After UTSA kept pouring on points, Pennington took a hard hit on a do-or-die drive. Backup QB Colin Parachek immediately threw an INT on 4th down, ending any hope of a comeback.
UTSA had never won a bowl game (0-4 in their previous attempts), so this was a big deal for them. I also love that Traylor was soaked not with Gatorade but with a giant cup of Scooter’s Coffee. I think McCown will grow into the starting QB role, and the Roadrunners should have another nice season coming up. It hasn’t been a very good start for the Sun Belt this bowl season. Only Appalachian State has earned a win; the other 4 have lost so far. Marshall likes Pennington’s potential, but he needs quite a few more reps before we can judge him. The bloodlines suggest he can succeed.
Famous Toastery Bowl: Western Kentucky 38, Old Dominion 35 (OT)
This game could not have started any worse for Western Kentucky. With no Austin Reed at QB (opt out), redshirt freshman Turner Helton got the start. Already in a bad spot because his defense allowed an opening-drive TD, Helton looked every bit like a freshman in taking a 17-yard sack, losing the ball after holding it poorly, and giving the Monarchs an instant red zone opportunity, which they converted. His next pass attempt was completed…to DE Kris Caine, who took it 30 yards for a pick six. Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton saw enough and inserted another freshman QB, Caden Veltkamp.
Veltkamp led a nice first drive, but WR Craig Burt Jr fumbled after catching a pass, and ODU converted that into a TD as well, taking a 28-0 lead. Monarchs QB Grant Wilson had a great first half, and he finished with 126 yards and 2 TDs on 8 carries. Passing was a different story, as the ODU offense went into the tank. Meanwhile, Veltkamp caught absolute fire. I counted two bad throws on the day: a dropped INT, and one where he didn’t see an undercutting Tahj Ra-El, who picked it off and took it back 40 yards. However, the subsequent 47-yard FG attempt by ODU came up short to end the half.
Two bad throws aren’t killers when you attempt a whopping 52 passes, which Veltkamp had to do to claw back from such a deficit. He force-fed WR Dalvin Smith (9/77/3), and why not? He caught everything remotely close to him, including 2 insane catches. One of them was a one-handed snag behind his body for a TD. These WKU receivers are outstanding; even without star Malachi Corley, who opted out after 1 quarter, Smith was incredible, and Elijah Young tried to one-up him by hurdling a defender before scoring. Somehow, the Hilltoppers pulled it off and tied the game at 35 after a 21-point 4th quarter.
Special teams played a big role. The unit blocked one FG in regulation, and then they blocked a much shorter kick in OT. Needing no more than an FG to win, WKU played conservatively and got their game-winning kick. Henson has found his QB for 2024. Veltkamp was sensational, finishing 40/52 for 383 yards and 5 TDs. He even led the team with 53 rushing yards. Western Kentucky can easily make it to the C-USA title game if they played like they did in the second half. ODU will feel awful about letting a 28-0 lead slip away, but they did well just to get here, winning their last 2 to reach 6-6. They’ll learn from this (I think).
Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl: Texas Tech 34, California 14
I thought we were ending the night with one more tough battle. That was very true…for about a quarter and a half. Cal struck first after recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff and scoring 1 play later. On their next drive, they faced 4th and 2 at the TTU 5 but ran for a 2-yard loss. The Red Raiders took the ball 93-yards for a tying score, and the game was on. The next two drives included a TD for each team, and that was it for Cal. I’m not sure if Texas Tech flummoxed them with defensive adjustments or if the offense just went in the tank, but the Golden Bears never scored again.
QB Fernando Mendoza threw 3 INTs and lost a fumble, torpedoing Cal’s chances to recover after TTU took their first lead in the second quarter. Red Raiders QB Behren Morton (27/43, 256 yards, 3 TDs, INT) came alive, even if his offense slowly tapered off in the second half (10 points total). Cal made some real strides this year after a trio of sub-.500 seasons. It’s a shame that their season ended this way, but they’re steadily improving. Conversely, TTU is treading water. They’ve been 7-6 or 8-5 each of the past 3 years, and they just lost 57-7 to Texas before this bowl win. I’m not sure what to make of them, but they’re typically competitive.
Starco Brands LA Bowl: UCLA 35, Boise State 22
The transfer portal struck again. Mountain West champs Boise State played without QB Taylen Green due to the portal, while their better option, Maddux Madsen, missed the past few games with an injury. That left the game in the hands of CJ Tiller, a freshman clearly overwhelmed by his Power 5 moment. He went just 12/21 for 117 yards and an INT, but to be fair, he was put in a tough position. UCLA lost QB Collin Schlee to injury during the game, but he was a surprising starter to begin with. Ethan Garbers had been playing well and did nothing to lose the job. He proved as much in this contest.
Though Schlee was efficient through the air (11/16, 78 yards, TD) and downright dangerous on the ground (7/127), Garbers (9/12, 152 yards, 2 TDs) was the far better passer. He fed WR J Michael Sturdivant (4/142/1) and leaned on RB TJ Harden (20/105/2) while digging the Bruins out of a 16-7 halftime hole. Garbers came on in the middle of the first drive of the 3rd quarter, quickly converting it into a TD. I guess that inspired the defense, as the Bruins didn’t allow a single point outside of a very late George Holani 68-yard run. Garbers produced TDs on all but 2 of his drives (1 punt and 1 kneel down at BSU’s 1).
With Dante Moore in the portal for UCLA and Garbers entrenched as the starter, I think the Bruins are in good shape at QB. Moore has loads of potential, but Chip Kelly wants to win now, and a steadier hand fits that goal. Eliminating the early-season offensive lulls would have this team ranked in the top 25 as an ACC member. Boise State enters a period of uncertainty. I liked what I saw from Madsen, but this is a new era. Spencer Danielson is the head coach now, and a new regime brings much change at a time when players can easily move around. Based on the Broncos’ history, I anticipate them still competing for conference titles.
Isleta New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State 37, New Mexico State 10
Those looking for an argument that the Mountain West is a superior Group of 5 conference to C-USA will use this game as exhibit A. New Mexico State had a great year, and the entire program has turned around under coach Jerry Kill and QB Diego Pavia. They lost a competitive conference title game to Liberty, but they still reached 10 wins and smashed Auburn by 21 on the road. Against Fresno State, they looked almost like an FCS team. Pavia did no damage as a passer, going 11/25 for 58 yards and an INT. He led the team in rushing (18/72/1), but no other runner reached 20 yards, and no receiver reached 25 yards.
With a fully healthy Mikey Keene (31/39, 380 yards, 3 TDs, INT) at QB, the Bulldogs dominated. They never trailed in this game, and even though they were up 10 points entering the 4th quarter, they continued attack. Fresno State added 17 more points in the final frame, making the score reflect the disparity between the two teams on the field. A 9-4 record is actually a bit of a letdown in Fresno, and a 3-game losing streak to end the regular season stings. With better injury luck, they’ll be back. NMSU has nothing to be ashamed of; this program is headed firmly in the right direction, and they can easily contend for the C-USA title again in 2024.
Update: Kill stepped down from his position as HC due to physical and emotional fatigue; WR coach Tony Sanchez has been promoted to the top job.
Avocados From Mexico Cure Bowl: Appalachian State 13, Miami OH 9
Another game impacted by the transfer portal (why did they stupidly open the transfer window the day after announcing the bowl matchups?), as Miami played without QB Aveon Smith. He was already the team’s second choice, as he replaced injured starter Brett Gabbert. Riding a formula consisting of a strong rushing attack and great defense, Miami surprised Toledo and won the MAC. For a while, it seemed like they’d steal a bowl win from a Sun Belt team as well. In rainy, muddy weather, neither team did much scoring. Miami didn’t do much passing in general, with 2 QBs combining to go 6/10 for 44 yards total.
What the Redhawks did have was RB Rashad Amos, who took an insane 33 carries for 180 yards and a TD. Unfortunately, they missed the PAT on that score. They also had defense, and that unit picked off Mountaineers QB Joey Aguilar (18/32, 211 yards) on the first possession. Miami scored an FG off the turnover, and that would be their only lead of the day. App State scored 2 FGs in the first half and added 1 TD in the 3rd quarter, while neither team scored in the 4th frame. Later on, Miami had a promising 55-yard drive doing, but RB Keyon Mozee lost a fumble. With 2:39 remaining, the Mountaineers burnt the remaining clock.
Not everything should’ve been so simple though. Yes, Miami’s defense wore out and let RB Anderson Castle (20/119) repeatedly gouge them on the final drive. However, on a 2nd and 2, Castle got right to the first down marker, and he was ruled to have made the line to gain. That iced the game, but I thought he might’ve been JUST short, and even if he wasn’t, another look was warranted. Furthermore, an offensive lineman committed a dead-ball personal foul penalty. That didn’t end up mattering, but had Castle been short, it would’ve been 3rd and 15 instead of 3rd and inches. Miami likely gets the ball back in that scenario.
Regardless of the unsatisfying finish, the team that put together just a little bit of offense and made timely plays earned their win. After losing the Sun Belt title game to Troy, this was a much better way for App State to close out their season. The program is back on the upswing after a couple of down years. Miami can still hold their heads high. They competed to the end despite a ravaged QB room, and they have an 11-win season with a conference championship in hand. That’s little solace this weekend, but it was still a very successful 2023 campaign for Chuck Martin‘s team.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Jacksonville State 34, Louisiana 31 (OT)
Jacksonville State only in this game because there weren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill all the bowl slots. Don’t worry; I’m not going to blast the NCAA again for prohibiting them from bowl participation in the first place while they transition from the FCS. We’re just going to discuss this great game. The Gamecocks had a horrid start, losing a fumble (returned for a TD) and throwing an INT on their first two possessions. Their defense held really strong, preventing Louisiana from scoring any points until JVST could tie the game. Both offenses died for a while after that, with 6 punts in 7 drives (the exception was a turnover on downs).
The scoring drought ended when Jacksonville State QB Zion Webb threw another INT, this time a pick six. He came right back out to lead a TD drive, tying the game at 14 before the half. The offenses had more success in the second half, but the Gamecocks’ other QB, Logan Smothers, threw a pick six of his own (they rotate their QBs). Down 31-24, Webb came back in and led a 70-yard TD drive to force OT. At that point, the kickers decided things. Louisiana’s Kenneth Alemendares missed from 43 yards, but JVST’s Garrison Rippa connected from 27 yards. The extra few yards earned by the Gamecocks on their possession mattered.
This was Louisiana’s second consecutive 6-7 season (6-6 plus a bowl loss in each) since coach Billy Napier left for Florida in 2022. I’m not really sure where they go from here, but their current direction isn’t ideal. The Gamecocks have to be thrilled. They earned a 9-4 season as a first-year FBS team. C-USA is considered a weak conference, but JVST took down a Sun Belt team to show that they’re for real. I expect less QB switching next year as this was Webb’s 7th and final season of eligibility. Each of these conferences is more competitive than in years past. That bodes better for the Gamecocks than the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Cricket Celebration Bowl: Florida A&M 30, Howard 26
Our annual HBCU playoff game provided a surprisingly excellent matchup. Sure, the game was sloppy, but it was exciting! FAMU was heavily favored as an 11-1 team whose only lost came against an FBS foe (South Florida). Howard must’ve been unaware of that fact or perhaps motivated by it because they stormed out to a 14-0 lead, and they forced two turnovers on the Rattlers’ first 2 drives (one via fumble and one on downs). Up 16-7 after a safety, the Bison picked off a Jeremy Moussa (19/32, 289 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) pass, but they gave it back on a pick of their own. That allowed FAMU to kick an FG and only trail 16-10 at the half.
Howard’s offense eventually became their undoing. The running game started off well but finished with a whimper, averaging just 2.9 yards per attempt on the day. QB Quinton Williams threw for no TDs and 3 INTs, and he had a particularly poor time in the second half. The Rattlers took the lead for the first time in the 3rd quarter, but Howard seemed to have new life once Moussa threw his 2nd INT: a pick six to Carlson Hinton. FAMU responded with a TD though, and 2 consecutive INTs ruined any chance of a comeback. The better team ended up winning; they just took a wild whirlwind tour to get there.
Myrtle Beach Bowl: Ohio 41, Georgia Southern 21
Georgia Southern really limped into this game. They lost their last 4 regular-season games and weren’t remotely competitive in one of them. A MAC opponent with multiple players, including its top 2 QBs, in the transfer portal looked like an appealing matchup. Ohio was having none of that. Third-string QB Parker Navarro had an efficient if average passing day (11/16, 120 yards, TD) but carried the ball 15 times for 71 yards. That opened up lanes for RB Ricky Hunt (17/151), who scored 4 TDs. The Eagles could do nothing to stop a rushing attack that generated 232 yards overall and raced out to a 27-0 lead.
GASO made things interesting with 21 points in the second half along with a successful onside kick, but they never really threatened. The offense turned the ball over 5 times (3 INTs and a fumble by QB Davis Brin alone). You simply aren’t going to win when you lose the turnover battle 5-0. Those 3 TDs scored by the Eagles made the game look a lot closer than it ever was. Ohio dominated throughout, and they earned their second consecutive 10-win season under coach Tim Albin. Albin had big shoes to fill when he took over for the legendary Frank Solich. Two straight bowl wins should please Bobcat fans nationwide.