NCAA Bowl Season – With all but two games of the 2021 season in the rearview mirror, it seems prudent to describe the entire season with one word: “rollercoaster.” At times, there seemed to be no elite teams as upsets prevailed and unexpected results posted everywhere. We ended the season with two first-time College Football Playoff teams: the Michigan Wolverines and the Cincinnati Bearcats. Cincinnati also represented the first team outside of the Power 5 structure to be allowed a chance to compete for the national championship. Bowl season came, opt-outs began, and hot takes were offered about the number, relevance, and even enjoyment of the bowl games. A few last-minute arrangements prevented some bowl cancellations, but six games in all were canceled due to team issues with health and safety, along with the increased strain of player opt-outs.
Like all rollercoasters, though, despite the twists and turns, the ups and downs, you always end back up where you started, and the 2021 college football season is no different. Alabama and Georgia will face off next Monday to determine the college football champion of 2021.
Let’s take a stroll through some of the more enjoyable, interesting, and just plain strange bowl games of 2021.
Note: All ratings presented reflect final playoff Committee Rankings
No. 1 Alabama 27, No. 4 Cincinnati 6
Due to the physical problems associated with quick acceleration in water, when two boats with vastly different speeds engage in a race, clear separation between the two often takes some time. Although one vessel may be obviously superior, the other may appear similar in quality for a few moments as they both accelerate towards their top speed. Thus, the term “boat race” is a college football colloquialism for the exact phenomenon of two vastly mismatched teams playing a close game for a few drives or quarters until the obviously better unit pulls ahead.
In that way, the first of the playoff semifinals can be designated a “boat race.” In the Cotton Bowl, No. 1 seed Alabama led No. 4 Cincinnati just 7-3 after the first quarter en route to a 27-6 drubbing. The game began in exciting fashion as the two teams traded scores on opening drives: Alabama marched down 75 yards for a touchdown, then Cincinnati kicked a field goal after a few goal-line wide receiver drops. From that point forward, though, Alabama outscored Cincinnati 20-3 in a game that rarely felt that close. Alabama decided to drastically alter its game plan to start the contest. On the season, Alabama ran on 45.6% of early downs (first and second downs), 20th-fewest in the nation; on the Crimson Tide’s first two drives, the Crimson Tide ran on 68.8% of early downs.
The Alabama rushing attack, much maligned this season, had a career day. Brian Robinson Jr. set season-highs in yards and yards per carry against Cincinnati (26 attempts averaging 7.8 yards per run), and the Crimson Tide averaged 0.188 EPA/rush while rushing 55.6% of the time. Alabama was evidently wary of Cincinnati’s vaunted pass defense (seventh nationally in EPA/pass), attempting just two passes 20-plus yards downfield, and only eight of 28 attempts further than 10 yards downfield. Heisman winner Bryce Young was pressured on 45.5% of dropbacks and completed only 60.7% of his 28 targeted passes for 6.5 yards per attempt and 1.47 total EPA. Part of that has to reflect Alabama coach Nick Saban’s reluctance to put any kind of downfield passing on film in anticipation of a Championship Game matchup against elite passing defenses in Georgia or Michigan. Another part of that certainly reflects Saban’s confidence in the physical dominance of his SEC squad over an American Athletic Conference unit.
And dominant they were; 62.2% of Robinson’s yards came after contact, and in all, the Crimson Tide forced 17 missed tackles. The team had just one rush longer than 20 yards, a 23-yard burst by Robinson, but 11 of 43 attempts (25.6%) went for at least 10 yards. Robinson amassed 12.4 total EPA on the ground, leading all players. In many blowouts, running backs generate most of their value after a team is up big simply trying to run out the clock. Here, though, Brian Robinson had 8.91 of his total EPA while the lead was in single digits, an absolutely stellar performance.
In all, Cincinnati allowed 3.00 points per drive to Alabama (not counting the final run-out-the-clock drive), while the Crimson Tide held the Bearcats to just 0.67 points per drive. On a per-play basis, Alabama’s 0.131 EPA/play was its ninth-best performance of the season, offensively, and 27 points marks only the second time all season the Crimson Tide failed to score 30.
There is little fault to be found in Cincinnati’s defense, its strength, in restraining Alabama’s offense. The reason for the point disparity simply comes down to the Bearcats’ inability to consistently generate successful plays. Cincinnati was successful on just 37.9% of plays, almost a full 10 percentage points lower than its season average of 46.3%. Of course, Cincinnati played the entirety of its offensive possessions from a deficit, but even so, its 36.7% rush rate was 28.4% lower than season average. The Bearcats averaged 0.212 EPA/rush but only -0.517 EPA/pass on the day. Quarterback Desmond Ridder connected on only two of eight passes 10 or more yards downfield as most of the Bearcats’ receiving yards came after the catch (88 of 144 total yards, 61.1%).
Cincinnati struggled to finish drives; on three drives with first downs inside the Alabama 40, the Bearcats came away with just six total points. The Bearcats had averaged 4.92 points per quality possession all season; Alabama held them to 2.00.
Finally, Cincinnati’s run game was able to generate timely value but failed to generate the typical big rush the Bearcats have relied on all season. Against Houston in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, the Bearcats had touchdown runs of 79 and 42 yards; outside of those two runs, they averaged a 29.6% success rate and 3.92 yards per carry. Against Alabama, they had just two runs longer than 10 yards, despite Jerome Ford averaging 5.13 yards per rush, but the explosive ceiling was nowhere to be found.
In all, the first semifinal spoke perhaps less to the disparity of quality between Group of 5 and Power 5 teams and more to the inevitability of Nick Saban when he has a few weeks to prepare for an opponent. The Crimson Tide were able to attack Cincinnati in a way they haven’t tested opponents all season and refrain from putting too much more on film for their next opponent. Saban and Alabama have now made seven of the eight playoffs and six of the playoff-era National Championship Games. The Crimson Tide are 9-3 in playoff games and 3-2 in National Championship Games.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati goes down in history as the first Group of 5 team to be afforded a spot in the playoff, thanks largely to three two-loss Power 5 conference championships and the luck to have Notre Dame on the schedule in the same year. Cincinnati’s appearance is a huge accomplishment and one to be celebrated, even as it was mostly outside their control. We haven’t seen the last of many players from this Cincinnati team: cornerback Ahmad Gardner, quarterback Desmond Ridder, and edge rusher Myjai Sanders all rank in PFF’s top 50 2022 draft prospects, and they will certainly be playing on Sundays after their impressive seasons.
No. 3 Georgia 34, No. 2 Michigan 11
In contrast to a boat race, sometimes competition is over almost before it begins. No. 3 Georgia scored on its first five possessions, holding No. 2 Michigan to just a field goal and 96 total yards in the first half. The Bulldogs put on the brakes after halftime, cruising to a 34-11 win and allowing a touchdown to Michigan only with five minutes left in the game, up by 31 points—the very definition of garbage time. The Bulldogs bullied Michigan, averaging 0.174 EPA/play on a 48.5% success rate, even as they turtled up in the second half.
Georgia rushed on 43.3% of early downs, averaging -0.037 EPA/rush and a whopping 0.412 EPA/pass. That constitutes Georgia’s fifth-best passing performance of the season; Stetson Bennett threw for three touchdowns and 10.6 total EPA on a 50% passing success rate. Notably, the Georgia offensive line neutralized Michigan’s pass-rush threat; the Wolverines pressured Bennett only nine times with no sacks, and Heisman Trophy finalist Aidan Hutchinson had just one pressure on 24 pass-rush snaps. James Cook caught four balls for 112 yards and 6.49 total EPA, while freshman tight end Brock Bowers averaged 11.0 yards and 0.249 EPA per reception on five catches, both with a touchdown.
Michigan’s offense had its moments but failed to finish drives to even give themselves a chance. Despite averaging 4.62 points per quality possession this season, Michigan (aside from the garbage-time touchdown) scored three points on three quality possessions. The Wolverines had three first downs inside the Bulldogs 20-yard line, kicking a field goal, throwing an interception, and failing to convert a fourth-and-goal. Michigan’s Cade McNamara threw for -12.5 total EPA, two interceptions, and only 106 yards. The Wolverines abandoned the run game, calling only 15 designed rushes and gaining just 61 total yards and -5.03 total EPA on the ground on a 34.8% success rate. Hassaan Haskins forced only one missed tackle and his lone explosive run was just 19 yards. Michigan’s offensive line couldn’t get a push in the run game, nor could it protect the quarterback long enough to get any kind of consistent pass game (20 pressures and four sacks on 48 dropbacks).
Despite the underwhelming playoff performance, Michigan’s 2021 will go down as one of the program’s best seasons in at least recent history. Jim Harbaugh finally got his win over Ohio State, they won the Big Ten convincingly, and they appeared in the playoff for the first time. All three of those accomplishments should be celebrated, not to mention that the team last won 12 games in 1997. In fact, under Harbaugh, Michigan has now won double-digit games in four of seven seasons, something they had done just four times in the prior 15 seasons. The playoff loss stings, but there is more to college football than the result of the last game.
Georgia moves on to its second National Championship Game. In 2017 they beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl Semifinal but lost to Alabama despite a 13-0 halftime lead. Georgia is now 2-1 in playoff games, and they’ll look to avenge their SEC title loss against Alabama for their first National Championship since 1980.
New Year’s Six
Across the New Year’s Six, we got a mix of opt-outs, injuries, and coaching changes that made games a bit more volatile than normal. In fact, in three-quarters of the non-playoff games, the winning team initially fell behind by double digits before mounting a huge comeback. Let’s look at some of the key stats and stories that determined each game.
Peach Bowl: No. 10 Michigan State 31, No. 12 Pittsburgh 21
What was initially a star-studded matchup in Atlanta lost a little bit of its luster when Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III and Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett both opted to prepare for the NFL draft instead of participating. The college football fan should hold no ill will towards these players making the decision they deem best for their future, but it did knock some shine off of the game. Despite those lowered expectations, the Peach Bowl turned out to be a fun affair.
The Panthers held a 14-10 lead over the Spartans in the first half, and a Payton Thorne fumble out of the half extended it to 21-10, but the seeds of Michigan State’s eventual 31-10 win were there all along in the first half. The teams were almost even in total yards at halftime: 176 to 170 in favor of Pittsburgh. Outside of two touchdown drives, Pitt went three-and-out on its other four possessions, and the second touchdown drive included an almost-Herculean Jordan Addison reception. Meanwhile, Michigan State had four first downs inside the Pittsburgh 30, missing a field goal after a first down at the Pitt goal line and throwing an interception after a first down at the Pitt 29.
It didn’t hurt Michigan State’s chances that Pitt’s Nick Patti, playing in the stead of Pickett, injured his shoulder on the first touchdown drive and left the game. Davis Beville, filling in, completed 14-of-18 passes for 149 yards but -15.0 total EPA. Outside of that amazing Addison play, in fact, Beville averaged just 7.4 yards per completion. Michigan State held Pittsburgh’s offense and the replacement Beville to just 79 total second-half yards and zero second-half points as the Spartans scored 21 straight points to complete the comeback. Cal Haladay returned a Beville interception 78 yards for the score to ice the game—a play worth -9.27 EPA alone. Michigan State’s Thorne had a fine day: 10.3 total EPA and three touchdowns.
In all, neither team moved the ball particularly well: on 11 drives starting in their own territory, Pitt scored 14 points and Michigan State scored just 17. The points off turnovers (seven for each team) weighed each other out, and the difference-maker for the game really comes down to a 27-net-yard punt by Pitt from its own 2-yard line which set up a 29-yard Michigan State touchdown drive.
Fiesta Bowl: No. 9 Oklahoma State 37, No. 5 Notre Dame 35
In Tempe, Notre Dame had a 14-0 lead, outgaining Oklahoma State 144 yards to 11 after three possessions, and faced fourth-and-1 at its own 39 yard line. The Fighting Irish punted, and somehow the game changed. Oklahoma State outscored Notre Dame 47-21 over the final 47 minutes of the game. Despite punting twice and fumbling on its first two drives, Oklahoma State averaged 2.3 points per drive on 16 possessions, and it could have been much worse for Notre Dame: the Cowboys missed a field goal in the first half and fumbled twice inside the Notre Dame 20 in the second half.
Notre Dame averaged 0.296 EPA/play on offense in the first half but fell to -0.298 in the second half behind a Jack Coan interception, a Logan Diggs fumble, and a 30.2% success rate. In fact, as Oklahoma State has done many times this season, the Cowboys entirely disrupted Notre Dame’s passing attack in the second half. In the first half, Notre Dame was successful on 61.8% of passes, averaging 0.675 EPA/pass. In the second half? 27.0% passing success rate and -0.165 EPA/pass. The Irish tried to find some success rushing the ball in the second half (50% rushing success rate in the second half as opposed to a 15% success rate in the first), but playing from a negative game script, they had to pass, and it went poorly. Coan had 16.9 total passing EPA, but 23.0 in the first half. You can do the math as to the dropoff. His aggregate numbers look impressive: he threw 68 passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns but completed only 15 of 35 second-half passes (42.9%).
On the other side, after a slow start, Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders accounted for 10.9 total EPA, 371 yards, and four touchdowns. He also scrambled five times for 64 yards and was responsible for eight first downs on 13 total rushing attempts. The Oklahoma State wide receivers combined for 161 yards after the catch and four touchdowns on 33 targets as they stretched out, outran, and out-finessed Notre Dame’s secondary.
Rose Bowl: No. 6 Ohio State 48, No. 11 Utah 45
In yet another New Year’s Six game, a team took a big lead only to falter later. Ohio State fell behind 7-0 after two possessions before the teams traded touchdowns on seven consecutive drives, including a 97-yard Britain Covey kickoff return. In that seven-drive stretch, both teams combined for 220 total kick return yards as the shootout was born. Ohio State broke serve with a fumble before the half, facing a 35-21 deficit.
To start the second half, the teams traded turnovers and Ohio State pulled within a score after an 11-yard touchdown drive. Six of 11 second-half drives ended in scores as Ohio State outpaced Utah 27-10 to secure the win. Heisman Trophy finalist C.J. Stroud accounted for 573 passing yards, six touchdowns, and 33.6 total EPA in a game almost utterly devoid of defense. Despite missing leading receivers Garret Wilson and Chris Olave, the Buckeyes had no problems in the passing game. Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Marvin Harrison Jr. combined for 28.9 total receiving EPA and six touchdowns. Smith-Njigba had an absurd 347 yards on 15 receptions (23.1 yards per reception), and six different Buckeyes caught at least three passes.
For Utah, quarterback Cam Rising had 8.72 passing EPA and 4.25 rushing EPA before leaving the game with a head injury. Ultimately, the firepower of the Ohio State offense was too much for the Utes defense to contain; the Buckeyes had touchdown drives of 2, 7, 2, and 1 plays, and a 21.8% explosive play rate. Noah Ruggles kicked a 19-yard field goal with nine seconds left to complete the comeback for Ohio State.
Sugar Bowl: No. 7 Baylor 21, No. 8 Ole Miss 7
It’s hard to make too much of this Sugar Bowl for either team. The good news is that initial tests on Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral’s ankle have come back negative, and he seems to be uninjured. Corral left the game in the first quarter after just six passes with the game tied. Baylor would go on to score three touchdowns—a returned Luke Altmyer interception, a 15-yard drive after another Altmyer interception, and a 48-yard Monaray Baldwin run. A common theme of Baylor’s season has been creating and capitalizing on short fields, in fact. The Baylor offense has scored 40 total points on its last 39 drives that weren’t short fields, despite a 4-0 record. Six of the Bears’ nine touchdowns in that span came on drives that started in opponent territory.
Ole Miss, to its credit, even with Altmyer, moved the ball well. The Rebels missed two field goals, and the returned interception came at the Baylor 12. Ole Miss had six scoring opportunities to Baylor’s five; the Rebels averaged 1.4 points per scoring opportunity to Baylor’s 2.8. On the season, Ole Miss averaged 4.30 points per scoring opportunity.
Dave Aranda’s Bears complete an almost unthinkable season; despite a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and a consensus eighth-place ranking in preseason Big 12 polls, Baylor won the Big 12, the Sugar Bowl, and 12 games.
Ole Miss has to be disappointed, but injuries are part of the game, and fans should celebrate winning 10 games in Oxford for the first time since 2015 and the third time since 1972.
College football is more than the playoff and the New Year’s Six. Across the 36 bowl games that were played, there were blowouts and there were snoozers, but there were also some of the most exciting and entertaining games of the season. Here are some stats about five bowl games that were worth remembering.
Note: All rankings here refer to the Fremeau Efficiency Index.
The Music City Bowl: No. 21 Purdue 48, No. 14 Tennessee 45
It may be hard to overstate the excitement factor in this game. With six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Tennessee led 31-30. Both teams would combine for 321 yards and 28 points in the remaining six minutes of regulation. Tennessee had a chance to ice the game in regulation with a field goal, but some confusing game management by Josh Heupel had the Vols attempting a 56-yarder and missing, sending the game to overtime. There, Heupel elected to go for it on fourth down twice, and the Vols came up literally inches from scoring as Jaylen Wright was ruled down before crossing the goal line. Purdue kicked a field goal to win 48-45 in one of the wildest bowl games in a long while. The two teams combined for 1,293 total yards of offense. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell averaged 20.5 yards per completion and threw for five touchdowns and 534 yards.
The Cure Bowl: No. 51 Coastal Carolina 47, No. 99 Northern Illinois 41
Coastal Carolina averaged 0.569 EPA/play to Northern Illinois’ 0.168 and still somehow didn’t win this game until the last play. The Coastal defense was nowhere to be found, allowing Northern Illinois to score on its first six drives. Up 41-39, Northern Illinois went for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 34, and the failed attempt set up the decisive touchdown for Coastal Carolina, a one-play, 34-yard drive. The Huskies got the ball back with 2:25 left and marched 83 yards, but ultimately ran out of time.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi completed 10 of 14 passes for 79 yards on the final drive, almost half of his passing total for the day. The Huskies ran for 335 yards, including 196 yards after contact. NFL prospect tight end Isaiah Likely led Coastal Carolina with 96 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.
The Chanticleers have won 11 games in back-to-back seasons, a 22-3 record. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois completed a mind-scrambling season. After an 0-6 2020, the Huskies went 9-5, including an 8-2 record in one-score games to win the MAC.
The Armed Forces Bowl: No. 42 Army 24, No. 75 Missouri 22
Kicking off a subpar SEC performance in the early bowl slate, Missouri, absent running back Tyler Badie, fell to Army after failing a two-point conversion and allowing the Knights to march 51 yards in just 71 seconds and kick the winning field goal. Missouri had led this game 16-7 before Army outscored the Tigers 17-6 in the second half to win its fourth Armed Forces Bowl. The Knights combined for 211 yards, and six players had at least 15 rushing yards. Fan favorite Jakobi Buchanan—a 6-foot-1, 260-pound fullback—led the team with 21 carries, 68 yards, and a touchdown.
The Cheez-It Bowl: No. 29 Clemson 20, No. 13 Iowa State 13
Clemson had a down year in 2021. Clemson also won 10 games in 2021. Despite much fanfare being made about the ruin of Dabo Sweeney’s empire, the Tigers completed one of the most underwhelming 10-win seasons in history with a Cheez-It Bowl win over Iowa State. Iowa State underwhelmed this season themselves; after being ranked No. 5 in the preseason and considered a consensus playoff contender, the Cyclones finished 7-6.
Defenses reigned in this game, with only 585 total yards of offense and nine first-half points. Clemson scored a touchdown on a 12-yard Will Shipley run and then promptly turned around and returned a Brock Purdy interception for a touchdown to jump out to a 20-3 lead, seemingly putting the game out of reach. A D.J. Uiagalelei interception set up a quick Iowa State field goal and Purdy completed 5 of 6 passes on a 63-yard touchdown drive to bring the game back within striking distance.
With 1:41 left in the game, Iowa State got the ball back with a chance to tie. On fourth-and-2, Purdy rushed for the first down, but then fumbled the ball, ending the game.
Two programs with high hopes for the season played a hard-fought 60 minutes, coming down to the last drive. Clemson running back Will Shipley led all skill players with 114 yards from scrimmage (61 rushing and 53 receiving).
The Sun Bowl: No. 84 Central Michigan 24, No. 44 Washington State 21
The Sun Bowl deserves appreciation simply for the fact that it happened at all. Central Michigan’s Arizona Bowl opponent and Washington State’s Sun Bowl opponent both had to withdraw, and it is a testament to the best in college football that the two teams played at all, let alone that they played a very enjoyable game.
The Chippewas ended the season winning four straight games and their energy in the Sun Bowl was palpable; they jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead. Washington State made some adjustments in the second half, outscoring Central Michigan 21-3, but stalled on three of its final four drives in the game. Central Michigan sacked Washington State quarterbacks five times in the game, and Chippewas freshman Lew Nichols III had 158 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.