The Top 35: Ranking this season's bowl games

By Tom Fornelli | College Football Writer

Florida State national champions
The bowl season went out in style Monday night in Pasadena. (USATSI)

About a month ago, following the end of the regular season, I embarked on the endeavor of ranking all 35 bowl games that we'd be watching over the following 30 days. Well, what's the point of ranking the bowl games before they're played if you're not going to rank them after they're played as well?

So that's exactly what I'm going to do. Throughout bowl season I've been using a formula that's highly unscientific to rank the bowl games using statistics from each game. You know, things like the final margin of victory, the average point differential during the game (basically was it a close game throughout), lead changes, exciting plays, all the kind of things that make football fun. While I won't sit here and tell you my formula was perfect, based on the results it spit out, I have to say it's pretty damn accurate.

So let's rank some bowl games.

No. 35 Liberty Bowl, 12/31 (Original ranking: 28)

Mississippi State 44, Rice 7

For a few minutes it looked like we might have a game on our hands. Just over halfway through the first quarter Rice's Charles Ross gave the Owls a 7-0 lead. And then Mississippi State scored 44 unanswered points.

No. 34 Alamo Bowl, 12/30 (8)

Oregon 30, Texas 7

This game had a lot of attention since it was Mack Brown's final game with the Longhorns, but when Case McCoy threw a pick six just over a minute into the contest you pretty much knew exactly how it was going to play out.

No. 33 Russell Athletic Bowl, 12/28 (9)

Louisville 36, Miami 9

Speaking of Texas, this was Charlie Strong's final game at Louisville, though we didn't know it at the time. And neither did his team, because if it had it probably wouldn't have blown Miami out as easily as it did. Of course, while it was never close, at least this game allowed us one more glimpse of Teddy Bridgewater being brilliant before going to the NFL.

No. 32 Sun Bowl, 12/31 (13)

UCLA 42, Virginia Tech 12

This game was strange, man. It was a defensive struggle for three quarters, and after weeks of boring bowl games it looked like we would finally have an entertaining finish as these teams went to the fourth quarter with UCLA leading 14-10. And then, in the blink of an eye, the Bruins reeled off four touchdowns to pluck the Hokies bare.

No. 31 Las Vegas Bowl, 12/21 (11)

Southern California 45, Fresno State 20

This game wasn't as close as the score might have you believe. The truth is that USC had a 35-6 lead on Fresno State at halftime and just coasted through the second half. Though at least it further confirmed the notion that this USC team was capable of winning under any coach not named Lane Kiffin.

No. 30 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 12/21 (27)

San Diego State 49, Buffalo 24

This game directly followed the Las Vegas Bowl and helped further set the tone that bowl season was going to be pretty boring until New Year's Eve. Buffalo got a couple cosmetic touchdowns at the end to make this one look more competitive, but the Aztecs led 42-10 following the third quarter.

No. 29 Advocare V100 Bowl, 12/31 (24)

Arizona 42, Boston College 19

I was looking forward to this game as it featured two of the best running backs in the country in Ka'Deem Carey and Andre Williams. Well, Carey may have run wild, but Williams was held to 2.9 yards per carry as Arizona actually held a 42-6 lead early in the fourth quarter.

No. 28 Armed Forces Bowl, 12/30 (32)

Navy 24, Middle Tennessee 6

I think the most exciting thing about this game was the dirty play of Middle Tennessee throughout. And I don't mean that as a compliment. This was a boring game through and through, and if not for the final margin of victory it probably would have rated lower in these rankings.

No. 27 Heart of Dallas Bowl, 1/1 (31)

North Texas 36, UNLV 14

They decided to hold this game at a time when nobody would bother watching it, and that was probably for the best considering the result. Truth be told, I'd have liked to watch because one of my favorite things about bowl games is getting a chance to see teams I don't see much of during the regular season. Maybe next year I'll be able to be bored watching this one.

No. 26 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 12/28 (19)

Kansas State 31, Michigan 14

If you thought Michigan's offense struggled with Devin Gardner, you should have seen it without him. There was nothing exciting about this game. Nothing. In other words, it was the perfect end to Michigan's season.

No. 25 Belk Bowl, 12/28 (22)

North Carolina 39, Cincinnati 17

Cincinnati didn't win a game against a team with a winning record all season, and it showed as it got blitzed by a 6-6 team in Charlotte. This one was over quickly as North Carolina would build a lead as large as 29-3 in the third quarter, but at the very least it had a couple of exciting plays as the Heels returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Plus there was a safety! Everybody loves safeties.

No. 24 Outback Bowl, 1/1 (12)

LSU 21, Iowa 14

This game was close, and in the fourth quarter the outcome was in doubt throughout, but you know what? I watched this entire game and at no point was I truly excited. It was just two teams trading punts for the better part of three hours. There were some late fireworks, though, but not nearly enough to make the first 57 minutes of this game worth it.

No. 23 Hawaii Bowl, 12/24 (30)

Oregon State 38, Boise State 24

The only bowl game of the season I didn't see a single minute of. Normally I watch it, but while I was at my sister's house on New Year's Eve I flipped it on and saw that Oregon State had a 31-6 lead at halftime. I then turned the television off.

No. 22 BBVA Compass Bowl, 1/4 (18)

Vanderbilt 41, Houston 24

This was a game of runs, and for a few minutes it threatened to be a classic. After falling behind 24-0 in the first half, Houston responded with 24 points in the third quarter to tie the game. And then it gave up 17 straight points to Vanderbilt to make sure there would be no drama at the end of this one. Still, there was enough excitement here to rank it above all the previous stinkers.

No. 21 Holiday Bowl, 12/30 (17)

Texas Tech 37, Arizona State 23

This is usually one of my favorite games of the year because it has a tendency to get crazy, but the only insane part of this game was how terrible Arizona State looked early. Yes, the final margin was only 14 points, but Arizona State -- a team that played for the Pac-12 title only a few weeks before -- fell behind a Texas Tech team that hadn't beaten anybody with a winning record all season 27-6 in the second quarter. The Sun Devils always presented the threat of a comeback in this game, but then they'd just lose interest again. I enjoyed the surprise of the result, just not how it got there.

No. 20 Music City Bowl, 12/30 (26)

Ole Miss 25, Georgia Tech 17

I thought this game was better than this ranking, but my formula didn't quite like it as much. Not that I'm saying it was good or anything, but compared to all the other games we saw through the first 10 days of the bowl season, it wasn't the worst exhibition of football we'd seen to this point.

No. 19 Fight Hunger Bowl, 12/27 (15)

Washington 31, Brigham Young 16

This was another game I had highish hopes for before the games started and it just didn't live up expectations. It started well enough, as the halftime score was 21-16 with the Huskies in the lead, but the BYU offense just didn't do anything in the second half. In fact, not much of anything happened in the second half for either team.

No. 18 Poinsettia Bowl, 12/26 (16)

Utah State 21, Northern Illinois 14

Known by it's alternate name of "the Hipster Bowl," this one was another disappointment. It was a close game and everything, but man was it boring. There's good defense, and then there's just incompetent offense, and there was plenty of both in this game. At the very least this game provided fodder for all those people who were personally offended by Jordan Lynch being a Heisman finalist. Lynch finished the game completing 20 of his 35 passes for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Still, it was Lynch's battering ram running style he's best known for, and he only rushed for 39 yards on 18 carries.

No. 17 Pinstripe Bowl, 12/28 (33)

Notre Dame 29, Rutgers 16

We've reached the point of these rankings where we're getting the games that weren't terribly boring, but also didn't provide much else than moderate entertainment. Compared to the other 34 games, this one was actually one of the closest affairs throughout the entire 60 minutes before Notre Dame pulled away late. It's just this game had more than twice as many field goals as touchdowns, and nobody finds a field goal exciting unless it's to win a game. Also, considering Rutgers turned the ball over four times, this game should have been a blowout, but Notre Dame never really took advantage.

No. 16 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, 12/23 (23)

East Carolina 37, Ohio 20

This game provided more excitement than others, it's just there wasn't a lot of drama late which hurt it in these rankings. Still, East Carolina jumped out to a 14-0 lead only to see Ohio go on a 20-3 run to take a 20-17 lead early in the fourth. And then Ohio started turning the ball over like it was going out of style and the Pirates ripped off three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to put it away. Still, even though it wasn't close, these two teams did combine for over 1,000 total yards of offense and their share of big plays.

No. 15 Military Bowl, 12/27 (20)

Marshall 31, Maryland 20

The Military Bowl was a solid bowl game this season. Not boring, though not overly exciting either. However, what I think it did do was introduce a larger audience to Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. If you're looking for next season's Jordan Lynch -- as in the player from the non-power conference that makes some noise on the Heisman circuit -- there's a good chance it could be Cato, who finished off a strong season by throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns for the Herd to knock off Maryland.

No. 14 New Orleans Bowl, 12/21 (34)

Louisiana-Lafayette 24, Tulane 21

While it didn't actually factor into my formula, I think that personally the atmosphere for this game helped make it seem better to me than it actually was. The Superdome was packed for these two local teams, and they put on a good show. We seemed destined for a blowout when the Cajuns jumped out to a 21-0 lead but Tulane would respond with 21 straight points of its own. As these two teams went to the fourth quarter the game was tied, and Hunter Stover's 27-yard field goal with 10 minutes remaining won it. Of course, it should also be mentioned these two teams combined for 17 penalties worth 158 yards. That also helped keep this game from developing a nice flow.

No. 13 Texas Bowl, 12/27 (29)

Syracuse 21, Minnesota 17

This game was helped tremendously by an exciting finish, as the first three quarters, while close, weren't exactly full of interesting developments. However, in the fourth quarter the Gophers would score two early touchdowns to take a 17-14 lead over the Orange. Which they would hold until the final minutes when Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt would score a 12-yard touchdown with 1:14 left to win the game for the Cuse.

No. 12 Gator Bowl, 1/1 (14)

Nebraska 24, Georgia 19

You're going to find that as we approach the top 10 there will be a lot of games that were played on New Year's or later. And that's because bowl season didn't get good until New Year's Eve. One of those good games was this rematch in rainy Jacksonville. While it wasn't the prettiest game to ever be played, it was close throughout and the game-winning play was a 99-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa late in the third quarter. Georgia would score early in the fourth to make it a one score game, but the Nebraska defense would keep it from denting the scoreboard again to hold on for the victory.

No. 11 Capital One Bowl, 1/1 (6)

South Carolina 34, Wisconsin 24

Had this game featured a more exciting finish it probably finished closer to the top five. However, No. 11 isn't a bad spot either for a game that was thoroughly entertaining. Both of these teams played well throughout the game, but it just wasn't close enough in the fourth quarter. When Kenzel Doe returned a kick 91 yards for a touchdown to cut South Carolina's lead to 27-24 it looked like we were on our way to a classic finish. Sadly Wisconsin would not score again, and Connor Shaw's 1-yard touchdown run with 5:48 left put this one to rest. After that Wisconsin would turn the ball over a few times trying to mount a comeback that just wasn't meant to be.

No. 10 Rose Bowl, 1/1 (2)

Michigan State 24, Stanford 20

Not only have we reached the top 10, but we've also reached the portion of these rankings where every single one of these games was good, and possibly great. They were all separated by a few different things here and there. For instance, this Rose Bowl was one of my favorite games of the bowl season, but it only ranks tenth and I totally understand why. It was the first of two classics in Pasadena this season, as we were presented with great defense, big plays and a huge defensive stand to ice the game at the end. The kind posters are made of with Michigan State linebackers leaping over the line of scrimmage to stop Stanford's Ty Gaffney. All in all, an outstanding game.

No. 9 Fiesta Bowl, 1/1 (7)

UCF 52, Baylor 42

This was the BCS bowl that many football fans wrote off, but it proved to be full of surprises and very fun to watch. Baylor opened the game as a three-score favorite and ended up losing by 10 points as both the Knights and Bears combined for 1,106 yards of offense and 13 touchowns. It was video game football at its finest. The only thing this game didn't have going for it was an exciting finish as the Knights built a 17-point lead with less than five minutes to play and Baylor would get a touchdown to make the final look a lot closer than it actually was.

No. 8 Little Caesars Bowl, 12/26 (21)

Pittsburgh 30, Bowling Green 27

I bet you weren't expecting to see this game ranked this high. However, what this game lacked in marquee value -- though it did have one of the best defensive players in the country in Pitt's Aaron Donald -- it made up for with drama. First of all, it was a close game throughout, as the biggest lead in this game by anybody was 14 points and that was in the second quarter. There were also six combined ties or lead changes, and the game ended on a 39-yard field goal by Chris Blewitt with 1:17 left to play. The Panthers defense would then hold on for the victory.

No. 7 GoDaddy Bowl, 1/5 (25)

Arkansas State 23, Ball State 20

This is a game most people probably skipped, but it was their loss. Yes, it was a game between a Sun Belt team and a MAC team, but the biggest deficit in this game occurred in the first quarter when Ball State took a 7-0 lead. After that these two teams battled closely and gave us an exciting finish. Ball State scored a touchdown with 1:33 left to take a 20-16 lead, but Arkansas State would respond with a late drive of its own as Fredi Knighten found Allen Muse for a 13-yard score with 32 seconds left to give the Wolves a 23-20 lead. And it wasn't over then, either, as Ball State would drive for a game-tying field goal attempt on the last play of the game. And that's when Scott Secor's 38-yard field goal try was blocked by Ryan Carrethers as time expired. As for last minute insanity, there was only one other bowl game this season that surpassed the GoDaddy Bowl, but we'll get to that game soon enough.

No. 6 Cotton Bowl, 1/3 (4)

Missouri 41, Oklahoma State 31

Can I just say that one of the most annoying things about this bowl season was that, throughout the first few weeks the games were scheduled to minimalize overlap until New Year's Day. Then, on Friday night, when only two bowl games were being played, they were played at the same time. And they were both fantastic, but viewers had to choose one or the other or just split their attention.

Anyway, now that we're past that complaint, this game was all right through three quarters and then just got awesome in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma State tied it 17-17 early in the quarter and then the Cowboys and Tigers just trade blows for the final 13 minutes, tying the game, taking the lead, losing the lead, it was awesome. And it finished with Henry Josey's third touchdown run of the game to give Missouri a 34-31 lead with 3:08 left. Oklahoma State would have one more chance to tie, but Clint Chelf would fumble and Mizzou's Shane Ray would scoop the ball up and take it 73 yards to the house with 55 seconds left. So this game was even closer than that final score would have you believe.

No. 5 Sugar Bowl, 1/2 (5)

Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31

If you saw this one coming you either have family on Oklahoma's team or you just really hate Alabama. I know I was totally shocked by what developed in this game as Trevor Knight, a quarterback who struggled mightily as a passer during the regular season, lit up one of the best defenses in the country. Knight finished with 348 yards and four touchdowns against the Tide as the Sooners came out, got punched in the mouth by Alabama, but -- unlike most Alabama opponents throughout history -- punched Alabama right back. Repeatedly.

And it wasn't just surprise that made this game great, as it was exciting too. I'll admit that when Derrick Henry -- a name we'll all be a lot more familiar with in coming seasons -- scored a 61-yard touchdown to pull Alabama within 38-31 with 6:22 left I had that "okay, here we go" feeling that Alabama was going to comeback and pull this one out. But it didn't. Instead AJ McCarron's college career would end when he fumbled in the final minute and Oklahoma's Geneo Grissom would return the fumble eight yards for a touchdown to put this game to bed. Considering Bob Stoops' comments about the SEC before the season started, I can't imagine a better ending for Oklahoma's season than this.

No. 4 New Mexico Bowl, 12/21 (35)

Colorado State 48, Washington State 45

Make a note to yourself right now. Watch the New Mexico Bowl next season. Even when it's boring through the first three quarters and the game feels over because the fourth quarter of this game just goes insane. Last year it was Arizona overcoming a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter and scoring two touchdowns in the final minute to beat Nevada, and this year brought more insanity.

With three minutes left to play in this game Washington State held a 45-30 lead. Now look up a the final score one more time. Yeah, seriously, Washington State had a 45-30 lead with three minutes to play and it lost 48-45. Partially do to stubbornness -- sometimes it's okay to run the ball, Mike Leach -- and good old human error as the Cougars would fumble a kick return. All of which lead to Jared Roberts' 41-yard field goal as time expired to give Colorado State the 48-45 win. The first 57 minutes of this game weren't anything special, but the final three minutes provided what was easily the most incredible finish to a bowl game that we saw this season. And this was the first bowl game played this year.

No. 3 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, 12/31 (10)

Texas A&M 52, Duke 48

Heading into New Year's Eve the bowl season had been a dud. After the excitement of the New Mexico Bowl the following 10 days didn't provide college football fans with any real drama. But before 2013 turned into 2014 Duke and Johnny Football would come to our rescue.

Duke shocked the world by jumping out to a 38-17 lead on Texas A&M in the first half, and it seemed like the Aggies simply couldn't do anything to stop Anthony Boone and the Duke offense. But that would change in the second half as Johnny Manziel and company would mount a fantastic comeback. Ironically, after getting torched in the first half it would be the Texas A&M defense that won it late. Aside from just getting stops, it was Tony Hurd Jr. intercepting an ill-advised Boone pass and taking it 55 yards to the house to give Texas A&M its first lead of the game at 52-48 with 3:33 left. Duke would not be able to respond thanks to another interception.

If this was Johnny Manziel's last game in college, he went out in style, combining for 455 total yards and five touchdowns.

No. 2 Orange Bowl, 1/3 (3)

Clemson 40, Ohio State 35

This was the other classic going on that Friday night alongside the Cotton Bowl. This was a battle of two teams trying to end their season on a high note, and they provided a great game to watch. While Clemson took a 20-9 lead in the second quarter and it felt like the Tigers were a play away from ending this one early the Buckeyes would respond with 20 straight points to take a 29-20 lead in the third quarter. And from that point on these two teams would trade big plays and the lead a few times.

Of course, the end of the game also featured three turnovers in a span of six plays to ice it. While trailing 40-35, Braxton Miller would fumble after being sacked by Bashaud Breeland and Clemson would recover. All hope seemed loss until Tajh Boyd threw a pass right to Ohio State's C.J. Barnett a few plays later. Then, two plays after that, Braxton Miler would throw a very bad pass right to Clemson's Stephone Anthony and that would be it. Clemson would run out the final 78 seconds of the game and leave with a trophy full of oranges.

No. 1 BCS Championship Game, 1/6 (1)

Florida State 34, Auburn 31

The final game of the BCS era also happened to be the best bowl game of the season. And I didn't plan it this way, this was all the formula I used. This game isn't here based on its importance, it's here because it earned it.

Florida State battled back from a 21-3 deficit in the first half to make a game of it in the fourth quarter, as both teams traded the lead back-and-forth a few times, turning what felt like a possible blowout early into an all-time classic. It also featured a picture perfect ending depending on your perspective.

If you didn't have a rooting interest in this game, it's hard to ask for much more than a Heisman-winning quarterback given a chance to drive his team down the field in the last 79 seconds of a football game needing a touchdown to win a national championship. Jameis Winston took advantage of that chance too, finding Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone with 13 seconds left following a pass interference call that gave the Seminoles a first and goal.

And so ended the 2013 season, the SEC's reign over college football, and the BCS era. All went out in style.

 
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