For the second straight year, COVID had an impact on the bowl season.
Five games were canceled, and two teams served as replacements. Opt-outs were a polarizing topic of conversation. That said, a total of 38 games will have been played when the College Football Playoff championship between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia is played on Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Here is a look at the conference-by-conference records ahead of the Texas Bowl between LSU and Kansas State:
Conference Bowl Records
2021-22 Bowl winners and losers
Winner: SEC heavyweights
Alabama and Georgia flexed in the CFP semifinals and set up a rematch of their 26-23 overtime classic in the 2018 CFP championship game. That means the conference is guaranteed a fifth national championship in the last seven seasons and third straight.
The Crimson Tide plowed through Cincinnati 27-6 with the help of a school bowl-record 204 rushing yards from Brian Robinson. Now, Nick Saban is back in the CFP championship game for the sixth time.
Georgia shook off the SEC championship game loss to Alabama and routed Michigan 34-11 in the Orange Bowl. Stetson Bennett passed for 313 yards and three TDs, and the defense flexed with All-Americans Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean.
Indianapolis will get some Southern exposure from Crimson Tide and Bulldogs fans as a result.
BENDER: Alabama goes old school in rout of Cincinnati
Loser: Cincinnati and Michigan
The Bearcats and Wolverines had break-through seasons, but their offenses were overmatched in the semifinals.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder finished 17 of 32 passing for 144 yards, and the Bearcats finished with 26 rushing attempts for 74 yards. The defense could not stop Alabama’s rushing attack.
Michigan split time between quarterbacks Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, which will kick-start a controversy heading into next season. Michigan managed just 27 carries for 91 yards, and the defense failed to get a sack.
Luke Fickell and Jim Harbaugh did remarkable work to get their programs to this point. It’s clear, however, that there is more catch-up to do with the SEC powerhouses.
BENDER: Next step for Harbaugh is closing SEC gap
Winner: C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Ohio State rallied from a two-TD deficit to beat Utah 48-45 in the Rose Bowl, and that was made possible by the remarkable combination of C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Stroud finished with a Rose Bowl record 573 passing yards, which smashed the record of 473 set by USC’s Sam Darnold in 2017. The Ohio State quarterback had a fantastic bounce-back performance after the loss against Michigan.
Smith-Njigba took advantage of an open spotlight left by Ohio State opt-outs Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Smith-Njigba finished with 15 catches for a Rose Bowl-record 347 yards and three TDs. He had six catches of 30 years or more and was unstoppable against the Utes’ secondary. Freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. also had three TD catches.
The Buckeyes will be right back in the top five heading into 2022.
BENDER: Ohio State, Utah put on show at ‘meaningless’ Rose Bowl
Loser: Notre Dame’s defense
The Irish built a 28-7 lead in the first half against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, and it looked like Marcus Freeman’s debut would be a rousing success.
The Cowboys had 232 yards at halftime, but a late first-half TD kick-started a rally in which Oklahoma State scored 30 unanswered points in a 37-35 victory. It was the first time Notre Dame has blown a 21-point lead and lost since 2004.
Oklahoma State had 605 total yards of offense despite converting just 3 of 14 on third downs. Spencer Sanders also torched the Irish defense for 371 yards passing and 125 yards rushing.
It’s Freeman’s first game, but it goes down as his first loss to a top-10 team. Notre Dame opens at Ohio State to start 2022.
BENDER: Freeman will learn from first-game collapse
Winner: Mountain West and AAC
Cincinnati made the CFP for the American Athletic Conference, and that was the conference’s only loss. Houston beat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, and UCF beat Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. Those were notable scores against SEC schools, and Tulsa added a victory against Old Dominion in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.
It could have been an even better record, but East Carolina and SMU had their bowl games canceled.
The Mountain West led all conferences with a 5-1 record. Utah State beat Oregon State in the Los Angeles Bowl, and San Diego State beat UTSA in a battle of G5 champions in the Frisco Bowl. Air Force scored another victory over a Power 5 school against Louisville, and Wyoming and Fresno State picked up victories. That legitimized a solid season for the conference.
The Pac-12 is a conference batting for respect among the Power 5. Utah’s loss in the Rose Bowl was tough considering quarterback Cameron Rising left in the second half with an injury, but that was the high-profile loss.
Oklahoma routed Oregon in the Alamo Bowl. Arizona State lost to Wisconsin, and Washington State and Oregon State lost to Group of 5 opponents.
The conference had some coaching changes in this cycle, including USC bringing in Lincoln Riley and Oregon hiring Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. The conference still has not had a team qualify for the College Football Playoff since 2016 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2019.
Winner: Clemson and Oklahoma
Reports of these programs’ respective demise are exaggerated.
Clemson capped off a 10-win season with a victory against Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl, and Dabo Swinney celebrated like any other big victory. New coordinators Brandon Streeter and Wes Goodwin settled into their new roles, and the Tigers won 10 games for the 11th consecutive season.
Oklahoma will begin a new regime under Brent Venables in 2022, but the Sooners flashed a powerful offense under former coach Bob Stoops in the Alamo Bowl against Oregon. Caleb Williams, who had an up and down freshman season, passed for 242 yards and three TDs. He’ll be better with a full offseason as the starter.
These teams will be back in the playoff mix next season, too. They aren’t that far off.
Loser: Opt-out talk
It’s a part of the game. Accept it and move on. PItt’s Kenny Pickett and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III didn’t play in the Peach Bowl, and the teams played a thriller that went down the final drive. Michigan State won 31-21, and it should not affect the outlook of either team heading into 2021.
Ohio State had several key players sit out, but receiver Chris Olave stayed on the sideline and coached up the other young receivers for the Buckeyes. Smith-Njigba and Harrison, Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka did just fine with their opportunity and can build on that for next season.
Of course, the flashpoint came when Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral exited the Sugar Bowl with a leg injury. Corral, who is projected to be one of the top quarterbacks taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, made his intentions clear before the bowl game. It was his decision, and he appears to have avoided serious injury.
If players opt out, that’s fine. If they play, then that’s fine, too. It’s their decision.