College football winners and losers: Big 12 thrives, ACC struggles in bowl season

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
·11-min read

The weirdest bowl season in modern college football history is in the rearview.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the 2020 college football regular season and those impacts were also felt during the postseason. So many teams decided they had enough football during a pandemic and decided against playing a bowl game that bowl games had to be canceled. Other games were canceled before the season ended. And some were canceled just days before they were scheduled to be played because their participants had COVID-19 cases.

Forty-three bowl games were originally scheduled for this postseason. Monday’s national title game between Alabama and Ohio State will be the 26th and final game of the postseason. With 25 games complete, here are our winners and losers from this bowl season unlike any other.

Winners

The Big 12: There wasn’t a conference that performed better in bowl season than the Big 12. Sure, it didn’t have a team that reached the College Football Playoff, but its top teams delivered against some solid competition.

Big 12 teams went 5-0 in the postseason, and four of those bowl wins came against teams from other Power Five conferences. No. 21 Oklahoma State beat No. 18 Miami 37-34 in the Cheez-It Bowl, No. 20 Texas beat Colorado 55-23 in the Alamo Bowl, No. 6 Oklahoma beat No. 7 Florida 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl and No. 10 Iowa State beat No. 25 Oregon 34-17 in the Fiesta Bowl. The fifth bowl win came courtesy of West Virginia, which overcame a 21-10 third-quarter deficit to beat a nine-win Army team 24-21 in the Liberty Bowl.

For Iowa State, winning a New Year’s Six bowl game capped off the best season in its history.

Texas A&M: Texas A&M thought it had a legitimate argument to make the College Football Playoff over Notre Dame. Instead, the Aggies finished No. 5 in the final CFP rankings and were matched up with No. 13 North Carolina in the Orange Bowl. Instead of sulking about getting left out of the playoff, A&M went out and beat UNC 41-27 in a hard-fought game.

North Carolina went ahead 27-20 on a long touchdown pass with 13:51 remaining, but the Aggies fought back and closed out the game with three scoring drives. The biggest play of the game was the go-ahead 76-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Devon Achane with 3:44 to go. Achane is part of an exciting, young group of players set to return under Jimbo Fisher in 2021.

A&M is now 3-0 in bowl games under Fisher.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane (6) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Texas A&M defeated North Carolina 41-27. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Texas A&M running back Devon Achane (6) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the Orange Bowl. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Northwestern: After a miserable 3-9 record in 2019, Northwestern bounced back in a big way in 2020. The Wildcats went 6-1 in the regular season and won the Big Ten West before giving Ohio State a huge scare in the Big Ten title game. From there, Northwestern capped off the season by beating Auburn 35-19 in the Citrus Bowl to finish the year with a 7-2 record. It was a heck of a way to go out for longtime Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who is retiring after 13 seasons leading the Wildcats’ defense. Northwestern has now won four consecutive bowl games.

Liberty: One of the most-anticipated matchups of the early part of the bowl slate was Liberty vs. Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. CCU entered the game undefeated while Liberty had just one loss. It lived up to the hype in terms of drama, and featured one of the strangest endings you’ll ever see.

With the game tied 34-34, Liberty was on the doorstep of the end zone. Coastal was trying to let Liberty score, while Liberty just wanted to run the clock out. Somehow amid the chaos, Liberty’s Joshua Mack was stripped and fumbled. Coastal recovered, forcing overtime. Liberty ended up winning the game 37-34 to finish the year 10-1 and knock the Chanticleers to 11-1. Hugh Freeze now has an 18-6 record in his two seasons at Liberty.

BYU: Despite having just one loss (to Coastal Carolina), BYU finished No. 16 in the final CFP rankings. But when the Cougars got an opportunity to play a good program like UCF in a bowl game, they took advantage of it. BYU trounced the Knights in the Boca Raton Bowl, 49-23. Zach Wilson, in his final college game, threw for 425 yards and three touchdowns while Tyler Allgeier rushed for 173 yards and a score on 19 carries. In all, the Cougars put up 655 yards of offense while limiting UCF’s vaunted passing attack to just 217 yards. With the win, BYU finished the year with an 11-1 record.

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 22: Zach Wilson #1 of the Brigham Young Cougars looks to pass against the Central Florida Knights at FAU Stadium on December 22, 2020 in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson threw for 425 yards and three touchdowns against UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin has given Ole Miss some life in his first season in Oxford. The Rebels capped off the 2020 season with a 26-20 win over No. 11 Indiana in the Outback Bowl. Indiana was playing with its backup quarterback, but has a really strong defense. Ole Miss ended up putting up nearly 500 yards in the win. Ole Miss led 20-6 entering the fourth quarter, but Indiana tied the score at 20-20 with 5:58 to play. Ole Miss responded quickly with a touchdown and then got the defensive stop it needed to pull out the win and finish the year with a 5-5 record. It was the program’s first bowl win since 2015.

Ball State: Ball State capped off a historic season with a blowout 34-13 victory over San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. It marked the first bowl victory in program history for the Cardinals, who were previously 1-7 in bowl games. San Jose State, the previously unbeaten Mountain West champion, was missing coaches and players due to COVID-19 issues, but it doesn’t take away from Ball State’s accomplishments. The program won the MAC for the first time since 1996 and finished the year 7-1.

Sun Belt: Another conference that performed well on the bowl stage was the Sun Belt. While Coastal Carolina carried the torch for the league throughout the regular season, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana and Georgia State all won their bowl matchups this year. The average margin of victory in those games was 22 points.

Losers

The ACC: Thanks to Notre Dame’s one-season membership, the ACC entered the bowl season as the only conference able to brag about getting two teams in the playoff. Both of those teams lost their semifinal games. And every other ACC team lost its bowl game as well. The conference went 0-6 in bowl games after NC State capped off the ACC bowl season with a two-point loss to Kentucky in the Gator Bowl.

Is the ACC’s bowl season a sign that the conference is down? It’s hard to draw conclusions about a conference from bowl season. But it’s definitely not a sign that the ACC is anything more than the third or fourth-best Power Five conference in the country.

Miami: The Hurricanes contributed to the ACC’s 0-6 record with a loss in the Cheez-It Bowl to Oklahoma State. That was Miami’s fourth straight bowl loss and the Hurricanes are a whopping 1-10 in bowl games since winning the MPC Computers Bowl in Larry Coker’s final season in 2006. That game is now the Potato Bowl.

Miami also lost QB D’Eriq King in the bowl game too. King announced before the game that he would be back for another season as Miami’s QB and then unfortunately tore his right ACL in the second quarter. Miami said it expects King to be ready for fall practice as the Hurricanes look to get back into ACC title contention.

Florida: The Gators entered the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma without their top four receivers and it showed. Florida got blown out by the Sooners as Kyle Trask threw three interceptions for the first time all season. It was a whimper of an end to 2020 for Trask after he played well enough to be a Heisman finalist throughout the regular season.

The Gators were missing key players on defense too, though that wasn’t necessarily an excuse for Florida’s defensive struggles. Florida gave up over 30 points per game throughout the 2020 season after giving up 55 to Oklahoma. There are going to be staff changes on that side of the ball at Florida but coach Dan Mullen is reportedly keeping defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Florida coach Dan Mullen talks with quarterback Kyle Trask after Trask threw a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Oklahoma's Woodi Washington during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Florida coach Dan Mullen talks with quarterback Kyle Trask after Trask threw a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Oklahoma's Woodi Washington during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Cincinnati: The Bearcats were so close to a statement win over Georgia in the Peach Bowl. But the offense stagnated in the second half outside of a long TD run by Jerome Ford and Georgia kicked a late field goal to eventually win 24-21. The field goal came after the Bearcats had the chance to run more time off the clock, but went for a game-deciding first down via the pass — a pass that fell incomplete and stopped the clock.

A win would have capped an undefeated season for Cincinnati and helped show how the AAC is a conference that isn’t far off from the Power Five. Instead, Cincinnati’s loss was part of a 1-5 bowl season for the conference. The only AAC team to win a bowl game was Memphis. The Tigers beat Florida Atlantic 25-10 in the Montgomery Bowl. UCF, Tulane, Tulsa and Houston all lost.

Tom Herman: We all thought Herman was going to be back for the 2021 season. After all, Texas convincingly beat Colorado in the Alamo Bowl and athletic director Chris Del Conte said that Herman would be back. Well, that promise to keep Herman lasted less than two days into the new year. Herman was fired on Saturday and was given a $15 million buyout to depart as Texas’ coach. While Herman will undoubtedly be back in college football sooner rather than later with a good job, it’s a bit unusual to be told you’re keeping your job only to get fired less than a month later.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons were up 14-0 in the first quarter over Wisconsin yet somehow lost the Duke’s Mayo Bowl by 14. How in the heck did that happen? Blame the four second-half interceptions that Sam Hartman threw. Three of Wisconsin’s four TDs in the final half were set up by interceptions and the longest drive leading to those four scores went a whopping 33 yards. Two of those drives lasted less than five yards thanks to interceptions. It was a brutal way for Wake Forest to finish the season at 4-5.

Mississippi State and Tulsa: The Armed Forces Bowl was an entirely forgettable bowl game between a 3-7 team from the SEC and a good AAC team that casual fans don’t really care about. And then the brawl happened. Thursday’s game produced the lowlight of bowl season as Mississippi State and Tulsa players fought after the game while MSU coach Mike Leach was taking pictures with fans in the stands. There were kicks, punches, helmet swings, you name it. It was ugly. And it’ll be a fight that will undoubtedly have consequences for players during the 2021 season.

Auburn: We’ll look on the bright side first. After a circuitous coaching search that seemed to keep coming up empty, Auburn found Boise State coach Bryan Harsin to succeed Gus Malzahn. But with Harsin in attendance at the Citrus Bowl, Auburn capped a 6-5 season with a 35-19 loss to Northwestern and allowed the Wildcats to rack up 457 yards of offense. The Tigers were absolutely stifled on the ground and rushed for just 61 yards. That put pressure on sophomore QB Bo Nix, who threw for 292 yards. But that was a product of Auburn playing catchup from the start. Northwestern jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

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