College Football Bowl Games: Winners and Losers From a Decisive Weekend

College Football Bowl Games Playoff semifinals Alabama wide receiver Ja'Corey Brooks
Alabama wide receiver Ja'Corey BrooksManny Flores/CSM / Shutterstock

From the College Football Playoff semifinals to the New Year’s Six matchups, this past weekend was a busy one for college football bowl games. Aside from determining which teams will meet in the upcoming College Football National Championship, it solidified a clear pecking order in the sport: There are the elites, and then there’s everybody else.



Alabama and Georgia both dispatched their opponents on Dec. 31, and they’ll face each other for the national title on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis, a couple of days after Montana State and North Dakota State meet to settle the FCS championship. Here’s an overview of who thrived during this weekend’s college football bowl games, who didn’t, and whose fates are still up in the air.

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Winner: Talent

That’s the simplest way to frame the two Playoff semifinals: Alabama dispatched Cincinnati, 27–6, and Georgia thumped Michigan even more convincingly, 34–11. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs were playing an entirely different sport than their opponents, and those opponents were some of the best college football has to offer.

The gap between those two SEC teams and the rest of college football is wide, and the reason for that is clear. This is a recruiting sport, and Bama and Georgia recruit better than everyone else. They are essentially tied for No. 1 in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, a measurement of the recruiting ratings of every player on their rosters, and no other program comes close. College football has always had top recruiting teams, but in the recruiting rankings era (which started around 2002), it’s rare to see such obvious dominance.

Loser: Notre Dame

The Irish blew a 28–7 first-half lead and squandered a late Pokes fumble to lose the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State by a score of 37–35. It was a rough first outing for Marcus Freeman, who was recently elevated to head coach. He helped OSU get back into the game by choosing to punt on fourth-and-one near midfield at the end of the first half; that gave the Cowboys just enough time to mount a touchdown drive and get back into the game.

The loss extends an astonishing losing streak in college football’s most prestigious bowl games for Notre Dame. The program has appeared in 10 Bowl Championship Series, Playoff, or New Year’s Six bowls since the 1994 season’s Fiesta Bowl, and it has lost every one of them. Notre Dame is one of the sport’s blue-blood programs, but it hasn’t won a premier bowl game in nearly three decades.

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Winner: Ohio State

Ohio State was missing 24 of its scholarship players for the Rose Bowl against Utah, and the team seemed to be in deep trouble when the Utes took a 21–7 lead in the second quarter. But the Buckeyes pulled it together and managed a comeback win thanks to an absurd 347 receiving yards from wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba—the most anyone has put up in any bowl game. Ohio State is one of the few programs for which playing in a Rose Bowl is a weird consolation—the Buckeyes missed the Playoff, their usual goal—but they played hard down the stretch and won on a chip-shot field goal by Noah Ruggles.

Loser: The Pac-12

Utah’s loss capped a miserable postseason for the Pac-12, which went 0–5 in college football bowl games. Washington State lost to the MAC’s Central Michigan in the Sun Bowl. The Chippewas weren’t even supposed to be there: They stepped in to replace Miami, which dropped out due to COVID issues. Elsewhere, Oregon State lost to Mountain West champion Utah State, and Oregon got blown out in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma—one of the most-watched non-New Year’s bowls.

Does a conference’s bowl record really matter? Not in and of itself. It’s mainly chum for talk radio hosts and internet posters (like me) to give grief to a given league. But when your conference gets a reputation for being less serious about football than its peers and takes five losses in five bowls, it’s definitely not a good look.

Winner: Dave Aranda

Baylor’s coach has long had a reputation as one of the best defensive schemers in the country. This season, he established himself as one of its best head coaches. He capped it with a 21–7 Sugar Bowl win over Ole Miss, where his team pummeled the Rebels offense and placed a nice cherry atop a Big 12 championship season. While an injury to Ole Miss QB Matt Corral certainly helped, Baylor put in a tremendous performance.

The Big 12 is due for a significant reshape as Texas and Oklahoma will depart for the SEC no later than 2025 (and quite possibly sooner). Aranda has Baylor positioned to sit near the top of the pecking order in the new conference. Or he could take another head coaching job—he’s made himself one of the most desirable candidates in the business.

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