Alabama and Clemson secured their respective spots in the College Football Playoff National Championship in impressive fashion, which means just one game remains in the 2018-19 college football season. The Crimson Tide and Tigers have become virtual rivals over the last half-decade, and we should be in for another hard-fought battle between the nation’s two best teams. If this year’s title game is anything like last year’s clash between Alabama and Georgia, it will certainly go down as one of the top games of the season.
However, as we wait for the championship game to kick off in Santa Clara, there are several other contests during this most wonderful time of the year: the three-week stretch between mid-December and New Year’s Day. Let’s count down the top 10 bowl games of the 2018-19 season:
T-10. Oregon 7, Michigan State 6 – Redbox Bowl
Dec. 31, 2018 – Santa Clara, Calif.
A big-time pro prospect hit his top target for a 28-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to secure a come-from-behind, one-point victory at the site of the national championship game. That’s a recipe for an all-time great bowl game, right?
Well, despite the TD pass from Justin Herbert to Dillon Mitchell (marking 28 consecutive games in which Herbert has thrown for a TD), the fact it was the only time either Oregon or Michigan State found the end zone forced it towards the bottom of our list instead of the top. Special teams blunders, including a botched hold on a 50-yard field goal attempt for the Spartans and a poorly executed Oregon fake field goal/punt that resulted in a sack, also sullied the tightly contested game. The Ducks managed just 203 yards of total offense and still found a way to win. And even better, Herbert will have an opportunity to add to his story in 2019 as the potential first-round NFL draft pick announced he would return for his senior season.
T-10. Stanford 14, Pitt 13 – Sun Bowl
Dec. 31, 2018 – El Paso, Texas
Obviously, not all one-point victories are created equally – even during bowl season. Stanford and Pitt played a similarly sloppy, offensively-challenged Sun Bowl and the Cardinal pulled out a 14-13 victory thanks to a Jordan Scarlett fumble recovery in the end zone. Neither offense was able to move the football through the air with consistency as Stanford QB K.J. Costello and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett combined to complete 17 of 46 pass attempts (37 percent) for 241 yards and zero touchdowns. Scarlett, playing in place of former Heisman finalist Bryce Love, who sat out in preparation for the draft, led the Cardinal with 94 rushing yards and scored twice. Pitt running back Darrin Hall led all players with 123 rushing yards, but he found the end zone just once as Pitt fell to 7-7 on the season.
9. Kentucky 27, Penn State 24 – Citrus Bowl
Jan. 1, 2019 – Orlando, Fla.
As was the case in several of the top bowl games on our list, one team jumped out to what appeared to be an insurmountable lead only to find itself in trouble before the final whistle sounded. In the Citrus Bowl, it was Kentucky, which built a 27-7 lead thanks in large part to star running back Benny Snell Jr. Snell ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns in his final collegiate game, but his performance was nearly overshadowed when Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives (after he reportedly suffered a broken foot and returned to the game!) to pull the Nittany Lions to within 27-21 with nine minutes remaining.
McSorley led Penn State into the red zone again with an opportunity to take the lead, but head coach James Franklin opted for a 32-yard field goal with 4:12 on the clock and handed the game to his defense. Snell and the Wildcats bled all but one second off the clock, and picked up win No. 10 when McSorely was unable to orchestrate a miracle on the final play. His completion to DeAndre Thompkins was fumbled when Thompkins attempted a lateral, and the Wildcats recovered and celebrated.
8. Washington State 28, Iowa State 26 – Alamo Bowl
Dec. 28, 2018 – San Antonio
Washington State was surprisingly outgained in its Alamo Bowl victory over Iowa State, and though the Cougars never trailed in the game, it was a nail-biter to the end. Gardner Minshew came up just one yard short of his 12th 300-yard passing performance in his one and only season with the Cougars, completing 35 of 49 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns and adding 16 yards and another TD on the ground to help Washington State set a school record with 11 wins.
The Cougs allowed 515 total yards to the Cyclones, but forced three important turnovers and kept Iowa State out of the end zone on a two-point conversion following a Brock Purdy touchdown run with just over four minutes left on the clock. The true freshman threw for 315 yards and ran for 46 while scoring twice, but he also tossed two interceptions.
7. TCU 10, Cal 7 (OT) – Cheez-It Bowl
Dec. 26, 2018 – Phoenix
Like a cult movie that’s so bad it’s good, the Cheez-It Bowl bloodbath between TCU and Cal earned a spot on our list in part because it was a laughably ugly and an unabashedly fun contest. There were certainly aspects of a traditionally great game as two evenly-matched teams played to a tie in regulation, with TCU coming out on top with a game-winning field goal in overtime. Also, TCU running back Sewo Olonilua racked up 194 rushing yards and a touchdown and Cal defensive back Jaylinn Hawkins picked off three passes. However, nine total interceptions, including six in the first half and two on illegal forward passes by TCU quarterback Grayson Meuhlstein, helped limit the teams to a combined 17 points.
The ESPN broadcast team named TCU receiver Jalen Reagor player of the game, and though he played a big role as a punt returner, the Horned Frogs’ most dynamic offensive playmaker was held to nine total yards of offense and zero catches. The game nearly (and fittingly) ended on a Juwan Johnson pick-six in overtime (during which a TCU sideline interference penalty cost the Horned Frogs 15 yards), but instead the Frogs won when Jonathan Song hit a 27-yard walk-off field goal. Having kicked off at 9 p.m. Eastern on a Wednesday night in what is traditionally a baseball stadium, only college football die-hards were awake to see it, but those that did are unlikely to forget it.
6. Baylor 45, Vanderbilt 38 – Texas Bowl
Dec. 27, 2018 - Houston
Baylor and Vanderbilt met in Houston in a Texas Bowl that was both very similar, and yet quite the opposite, of the Cheez-It Bowl. Points were far easier to come by and turnovers were fewer and much farther between, but the Bears and Commodores fought it out to the end in a 45-38 Baylor victory. Big plays ruled the night: Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn needed only 13 carries to rack up 243 rushing yards, including touchdowns of 68 and 69 yards, while quarterback Kyle Shurmur connected with Khari Blasingame on a 65-yard TD pass.
Not to be outdone, Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer tossed a 75-yard touchdown to Trestan Ebner in the fourth quarter, and a 52-yarder to Marques Jones with 1:50 on the clock that proved to be the game-winner. Brewer finished with 384 yards and two touchdowns through the air and 109 yards and another score on the ground.
5. Oklahoma State 38, Missouri 33 – Liberty Bowl
Dec. 31, 2018 – Memphis, Tenn.
Oklahoma State used a 21-point third quarter to take control of its Liberty Bowl matchup with former Big 12 rival Missouri, but the Cowboys nearly gave the game away in the fourth. Thanks in part to a failed Oklahoma State fake punt, the Tigers stormed back for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and had the ball on the Cowboys’ nine-yard line with 1:01 left to play.
However, head coach Barry Odom made a questionable decision to kick an extra point following an earlier 86-yard Drew Lock touchdown pass that pulled Mizzou to within 35-25. And later forced to go for it on 4th-and-1 with a five-point deficit, Lock was pulled down short of the first-down marker, giving Oklahoma State an upset victory.
4. Georgia Southern 23, Eastern Michigan 21 – Camellia Bowl
Dec. 15, 2018 – Montgomery, Ala.
The first great finish of the 2018-19 bowl season came on its first day. Trailing 21-20 following a 16-play Eastern Michigan touchdown drive, Georgia Southern kicker Tyler Bass connected on a 40-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired. The Eagles from the Sun Belt notched win No. 10 of the season - an incredible turnaround from a 10-loss 2017 campaign. Head coach Chad Lunsford celebrated the win in emotional fashion on the field, and then dropped an elbow on an Eastern Michigan-logoed chair in the locker room afterward. Lunsford’s squad also completed an FBS record-setting season by turning the football over just five times all season. With the loss, Eastern Michigan dropped to 7-6 overall – including five losses (and three victories) by a single possession.
3. Nevada 16, Arkansas State 13 (OT) – Arizona Bowl
Dec. 29, 2018 – Tucson, Ariz.
Overshadowed by the College Football Playoff semifinal contests later in the day, and the Power 5 matchups in the Belk and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowls during the early window, the Arizona Bowl between Arkansas State and Nevada nevertheless proved to be the most exciting contest of the final Saturday of 2018. The Wolf Pack were outgained 499-285, but the Nevada defense came up big when necessary. Nevada forced three turnovers – two of which occurred in the end zone – and found just enough offense to win in overtime.
The Wolf Pack scored its first touchdown of the game with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter, but then Arkansas State drove for a 32-yard field goal to tie the score 10-10 at the end of regulation. The Red Wolves settled for a 24-yarder to take a 13-10 lead in OT, which allowed Nevada to walk off with a victory as Ty Gangi and Reagan Roberson connected on an 11-yard touchdown pass.
2. Cincinnati 35, Virginia Tech 31 – Military Bowl
Dec. 31, 2018 – Annapolis, Md.
Similar to the Arizona Bowl, the Military Bowl matchup between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech was highly overlooked as the undercard on a full slate filled with battles between Power 5 programs, but the Bearcats and Hokies provided the most exciting game on New Year’s Eve.
The teams traded touchdowns in the first half, then swapped scores throughout a second half that featured six lead changes. Running hard in a steady rain, Cincinnati tailback Michael Warren II rumbled his way to 166 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors. Warren ripped off a 40-yarder that gave the Bearcats a 21-17 lead in the third quarter, and later capped the scoring with an eight-yarder with 1:29 remaining in the game that proved to be the game-winner. Cincinnati defensive back James Wiggins’ interception on the Hokies’ ensuing drive secured win No. 11 of the season for the Bearcats.
1. Wake Forest 37, Memphis 34 – Birmingham Bowl
Dec. 22, 2018 – Birmingham, Ala.
More than a week earlier, the Birmingham offered one of the wildest finishes of the 2018-19 college football season. Memphis star returner Tony Pollard took a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, which pushed the Tigers lead to 28-10 over Wake Forest. However, the Demon Deacons rallied behind quarterback Jamie Newman, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a one-yard run in the 37-34 victory.
Newman, who spent most of the season as the backup, threw for 328 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and added 91 rushing yards and three scores on 23 carries. Receiver Alex Bachman stepped up in the absence of top target Greg Dortch, hauling in seven catches (including three on the final TD drive) for 171 yards. The Tigers managed to go 75 yards in six plays to set up an opportunity to force overtime, but an untimely false start penalty negated a 38-yard field goal from Riley Patterson, who missed the subsequent 43-yard attempt to secure a winning season for Wake Forest.
(Top photo courtesy of godeacs.com)