The best from bowl games with non-New Year’s Six names

LaDainian Tomlinson, then a 21-year-old TCU standout

LaDainian Tomlinson, then a 21-year-old TCU standout
Photo: Getty Images

Making fun of lesser bowl games is easy and fun. Do we really need a Boca Raton Bowl? Or a LendingTree Bowl? Or a Gasparilla Bowl? Or a Cameilla Bowl? Or a Hertz Bowl? Or a Guaranteed Rate Bowl? (Only one of those is fake.) No, probably not. The answer to “Who’s better: Eastern Michigan or Liberty?” has never kept me up at night, nor should the outcome of Tulsa-Old Dominion keep you awake.


That’s why my approach is not why have so many bowl games but rather why not? If your answer is “To avoid head injuries,” thank you for your concern, but they signed up for this, so let’s move on. Football is in the same category as boxing and MMA at this point; the warnings are on the label.

That said and blind eye turned, more football always beats less football, and let’s face it: This is the last opportunity to suffer brain trauma game for a lot of these players. It would be awesome to cap off a playing career with any nationally televised bowl game. (You hear that, Scott Frost? Any bowl game would be awesome.)

On top of giving young men a larger stage to do something they love one final time, it’s also an opportunity to see unconventional matchups, individual brilliance from future pros or college greats, all-time games, wild finishes and memorable moments. If those sound like titles of slides for a countdown of college football’s non-marquee bowl moments, you’re mistaken.

I’m not counting anything down. You’re a fucking adult. You don’t “read” slideshows, you subscribe to The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Keep your dignity intact. This is an ode to the unforgettable that came from the inconsequential that happens to have slides.

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Weird matchups and moments

Clearly, the big bowls games are going to feature the matchups you remember most — Vince Young and Texas versus Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and USC — but how about the 1998 Sun Bowl between USC and TCU? Sophomore running back LaDainian Tomlinson and true freshman Carson Palmer shared a field that day. It would’ve been cooler if LT had played more, but that’s not the point, the point is a baby-faced Palmer and a baby-faced Tomlinson shared the field.


Alright, not impressed? Here’s a bit of recent trivia: Who’s the only Big 12 team to beat Dabo Swinney? It’s not Oklahoma, Texas or Oklahoma State. It’s Nebraska.

Check the tape. Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers rallied to beat Clemson in the 2009 Gator Bowl, 26-21, and both universities have headed in opposite directions ever since. Swinney was technically the interim head coach that year because Tommy Bowden resigned. The pounding Clemson took in the 2012 Orange Bowl to Geno Smith and West Virginia came when WVU was still in the Big East.


If that’s not weird enough, did you know that when Ohio State coach Woody Hayes infamously struck a Clemson player during a game it was during the 1978 Gator Bowl? I’m sure you knew he punched a player in the throat and got fired for it, but I bet you didn’t know it was in a non New Year’s six bowl game. If we didn’t have these trivial bowl games, we would never get weird to crazy moments like those or performances like these…

NFL greats and HOFs going ham

Yes, I know including Barry Sanders or Randy Moss in anything comes across as an excuse to show Barry Sanders and Randy Moss highlights, and this is exactly that. Sanders tied a bowl game record with five rushing touchdowns and 222 yards on the ground, including a 68-yard burst that featured a classic Barry wiggle (4:05 mark), in the 1988 Holiday Bowl.

Moss was a Heisman finalist during his last season of college ball at Marshall, which ended against Ole Miss in the inaugural Motor City Bowl in 1997. The Thundering Herd, quarterbacked by Chad Pennington, weren’t able to knock off Deuce McAllister and Ole Miss, losing 34-31, but Moss did catch six passes for 173 yards and a touchdown.

There are many other All-Pros who have lit up a Hawaii Bowl or a Las Vegas Bowl here and there, but not all college football stars have a game that translates to the NFL or last in the league due to injury or otherwise, so it’s nice to have a cherry on top of their collegiate careers…


Games showcasing college football greats

It’s easy to remember what Tim Tebow, Tommie Frazier or Young did in their college careers because they played in the biggest games and won a title/titles. But how about those players who more or less peaked in college and didn’t win titles but we loved anyway?


I’m sure Michigan State fans remember Charles Rogers’ (RIP) 10-catch, 270-yard, two-touchdown effort in the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic against Fresno State even if the Detroit Lions fan in them wants to forget him. That game may have been cursed, though, because opposite of Rodgers was future No. 1 pick David Carr, who threw for 531 yards and four touchdowns, and also never panned out in the NFL. Carr’s favorite Bulldog target Rodney Wright actually outplayed Rogers, which sounds impossible until you see his stat line: 299 yards, 13 catches and two touchdowns.

The offensive numbers from that game were wild — 11 touchdowns, 1,100-plus yards of offense combined and two receivers combining for 569 of them. Wright’s 299 yards and Rogers’ 270 yards sit at spots two and three on the list of most receiving yards in a bowl game. (The most is 308 by Hawaii receiver Jason Rivers in the 2006 Hawaii Bowl.) Performances like these are why arbitrary bowl games can be so much fun.


While we know Robert Griffin III definitely had a moment in the NFL, his final game for Baylor, the 2011 Alamo Bowl against Washington, makes the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic look like a bad Big 10 game. The two teams combined for 1,397 yards (a bowl game record), 123 points (a bowl game record in regulation) and 17 touchdowns (a bowl game record).

Baylor was down 42-24 early in the third quarter and ended up winning 67-56. RG3 only accounted for 340 of the Bears’ 777 total yards (a bowl game record), so maybe it wasn’t the showcase for him that I remember, but I will never forget that track meet or how much joy RG3 and that Baylor team left in their wake of internet-breaking numbers. It’s a shame injuries derailed his pro career because he was a more accurate (and more injury-prone) version of Lamar Jackson.


That said, it was still a record-setting game, something more common in lesser bowl games. Speaking of which…

Stupid records broken

Whether it’s points scored, largest comeback or not knowing who Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe was/that he was chasing multiple passing marks, picking against him in your bowl picks game and watching with a sense of “Of course I went against the guy who’s throwing quick slants on first and goal from the one because he’s trying to to top Joe Burrow,” the storylines and straight batshit crazy games that manifest from pitting teams of college kids against each other at random are fantastic.


One of the more entertaining stat lines was your boy Mike Kafka of Northwestern completing 47 passes (bowl record) on 78 attempts (bowl record) for 532 yards (eighth most is bowl game), four touchdowns and five interceptions (second most in a bowl game) in an overtime loss to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl.

Then there’s the 2001 GMAC Bowl, which is the highest scoring bowl game ever at 125 points, that saw Byron Leftwich tie the bowl game record for passing yards (576) and lead Marshall to the second biggest comeback (30) in bowl history, a 64-61 overtime thriller against East Carolina. The largest comeback (31 points) has been done twice. However, what would’ve been the craziest, most insane comeback fell just short in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl…


Near crazy comebacks

During the first ever Bahamas Bowl in 2014, Central Michigan and quarterback Cooper Rush trailed Western Kentucky 49-14 with 8:55 left in the third quarter, but technically didn’t get their rally started until the fourth, when the QB threw five touchdown passes, including this lateral-ridden, “The band is out on the field” type touchdown as time expired.

That throw-turned-game-of-hot-potato was his seventh TD pass of the game, which was — say it with me here — a bowl game record. However, instead of kicking the extra point and going to overtime, Central Michigan pulled a Tom Osborne, went for two and the win but didn’t get it, ending their bid for what would’ve been a bowl record 35-point comeback.


Michigan came 15 yards short of a similar walk-off lateral-off against Nebraska in the 2005 Alamo Bowl that came complete with people-on-the-field-who-weren’t-supposed-to-be-there madness.

Wolverine fans will still argue a flag should’ve been thrown for Husker players coming on the field mid-play, but that didn’t get called so calm down. I remember watching that game while on Christmas vacation and then falling asleep to the second broadcast on the floor of my sister’s apartment after celebrating the W with family and friends all night.


Aside from a New Year’s six bowl game or the playoff, there’s no better way to finish a season — or celebrate the holiday season — than with a wild win over a good team in a bowl game…

Prayers answered

No more late-game teases. Here are a couple of very memorable Hail Marys that were answered in meaningless bowl games. We’ll start first with the 2005 Capital One Bowl when Iowa’s confused Drew Tate beat an even more confused LSU defense on the final pass of the game.

And now let’s finish with the 1980 Holiday Bowl. Jim McMahon and BYU trailed the Pony Express aka SMU’s Eric Dickerson and Craig James, 45-25, before rallying within 6 at 45-39. The Cougars proceeded to block a punt and then got a shot from the 41-yard line with 3 seconds remaining.

There are so many moments that I definitely forgot, which is why this isn’t a top 10 list, so don’t kill me for it. When you sit down to midweek football (that’s not an NFL game rescheduled due to COVID) this holiday season, try to enjoy the pageantry and save the cynicism for people telling you their New Year’s resolutions.


And if you want a full list of bowl game records, here you go. Happy bowl season!

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