With just the national championship game remaining on the schedule, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the 2016-17 bowl season.
Close encounters: This has been the most competitive and exciting post-season in recent memory. Over half the games had a one-score margin of victory and were decided in the last minute or overtime.
Best Game: The Rose Bowl, our choice for the best matchup in the post-season lineup, certainly lived up to the hype. USC beat Penn State, 52-49, on a 46-yard field goal as time expired. The game showcased two of the brightest stars in college football, the Trojans’ redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State’s sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Darnold passed for five TDs and 453 yards; Barkley rushed for 194 yards, including a spectacular 79-yard TD jaunt that was one of the niftiest runs you’ll ever see. With these two around, the game is in good hands for the next couple of years.
Semi-finals: Sadly, both College Football Playoff semi-final games were one-sided affairs. No. 1 Alabama outclassed No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl, 24-7, and No. 2 Clemson destroyed No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-0.
‘Bama’s win was no surprise. Washington’s high-scoring offense was simply no match for the Crimson Tide defense. Husky quarterback Jake Browning looked rattled most of the day. His pick-six gave Alabama a 17-7 lead that sealed Washington’s doom. However, even those of us who predicted a Clemson win over Ohio State never imagined a 31-0 beat-down. It was the first time in 194 games that an Urban Meyer coached team was shut out. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, despite his customary two turnovers, played brilliantly, and his receivers made the all-world Buckeye secondary look quite human.
So the championship game will be a rematch of last year’s classic 45-40 Alabama win. Alabama is the early favorite, but we like Clemson in this one. The game may hinge on whether Watson and company can keep the Alabama defense out of the end zone.
Foster Farms Bowl—Utah 26, Indiana 24: It was a great game, decided by a Utah field goal in the final minute and highlighted by the 222-yard rushing performance of "unretired" Utah running back Joe Williams. It’s just a shame there wasn't much of a crowd on hand to see it...27,000 tickets “distributed,” 15,000 fans in the house. Fox did an excellent job on the broadcast (other than the introduction of Foster Farms’ CEO as “Mr.” Laura Flanagan during the trophy presentation), with its No. 1 announce team and studio crew.
Unfortunately, Foster Farms was swamped in the TV ratings by the competing bowls on ESPN—Russell Athletic and Texas. The Pac-12 and 49ers believed that being the only bowl game on Fox would translate into a big viewing audience. But over the years, it’s been proven time and time again that the built-in audience and constant promotion on ESPN—the undisputed home of college football and the place where most post-season games reside—delivers higher ratings than being the lone wolf on an over-the-air network like Fox.
Sun Bowl—Stanford 25, North Carolina 23: Another great game, with almost the identical score as the Foster Farms Bowl. With Christian McCaffrey sitting out and Keller Christ felled by a knee injury, Stanford’s defense and special teams saved the day. Defensive end Solomon Thomas and safety Dallas Lloyd were brilliant, with Thomas harassing Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky throughout and making the game-deciding play, and Lloyd intercepting two passes, returning one for a score. Running back Bryce Love did his best McCaffrey impersonation with a 49-yard TD reception and 59-yard run from scrimmage.
Cardinal kicker Conrad Ukropina (try saying that quickly five times in a row!) scored more than half of Stanford’s points with four field goals and an extra point. The lone miss clanged off the left upright, something that Ukropina did four times this year. The odds on that happening must be a billion to one. For the season, Conrad hit 22 of 27 field goal attempts. If those goal post shots had caromed through the uprights instead of bouncing out, he’d have converted 26 of 27 on the year.
Note to those who think bowl games are “meaningless exhibitions:” Check out the sideline and on-field celebrations by Stanford players when they stopped North Carolina’s two-point conversion attempt to win the game.
Shaw Superlatives: There were some who questioned former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby (now Big 12 Conference Commissioner) in January of 2011 when he hired David Shaw to replace Jim Harbaugh as head football coach. Shaw has not only proven the naysayers wrong, he’s become the one of the most successful coaches in Stanford history. In six years, Shaw has posted a 64-17 record, won four Pac-12 Conference Championships, gone to the Rose Bowl three times (winning two), won 10 or more games five times, and finished in the top 10 nationally four times. Next year, in all likelihood, he will pass the legendary Pop Warner (71-17-8) as the winningest Stanford coach of all time. Heady stuff.
Shaw’s name is routinely mentioned as a candidate for every NFL job that pops up, because of a stellar resume that includes pro coaching experience prior to his Stanford tenure. So far, he’s resisted the urge and the promise of more money. Why? He’s a Stanford alum who truly believes in the university’s mission to win the right way, and his family loves the environment on campus and in Palo Alto. Stanford has had a long line of coaches who’ve left soon after achieving success on the Farm—John Ralston (Denver Broncos), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Denny Green (Minnesota Vikings), and Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame). Shaw just may be the one who sticks around.
Memory lane: We spotted Sun Bowl officials Jimmy Rogers and John Folmer on the dais for the trophy presentation to David Shaw. Rogers and Folmer were the two bowl representatives who invited Stanford to the Sun Bowl back in 1977, when I was Sports Information Director and Bill Walsh was the head coach. After Stanford's 21-3 win over Cal in the Big Game, I walked Jimmy and John down to the Stanford locker room, where they extended the official Sun Bowl invitation to Bill as he emerged from the shower, draped only in a white towel. His best friend, Cal coach Mike White, was standing right next to him.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkles was suspended from the Belk Bowl for shoplifting…at the Belk department store, the game’s title sponsor.