Ranking All 39 Bowls from 2021 By Excitement

by CJ Olson

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma State athletics

What a bowl season it was. Georgia won its first national championship in 41 years, a coach was doused in mayonnaise, and some teams showed up at the last minute to a different game than originally scheduled.

Out of the 38 FBS bowls and one FCS bowl, there was varying levels of excitement.

We watched every bowl, from the Bahamas Bowl to the College Football Playoff National Championship. Let’s rank all 39 bowls by subjective excitement. The only question asked when creating this list was “how exciting was this game?”

Some close final scores were boring. Some blowout final scores were exciting. There is no set criteria.

Without further ado, here’s a look back the most — and least — exciting bowls:

39. Pinstripe Bowl

Maryland 54, Virginia Tech 10

This game checks in at dead last. It was a game between two 6-6 teams with a Virginia Tech program in the process of a coaching transition. By the middle of the third quarter, ESPN already had given Maryland greater than a 98% win probability.

38. Gator Bowl

Wake Forest 38, Rutgers 10

What was originally an intriguing matchup between Texas A&M and Wake Forest became a game with next to no expectations as Rutgers replaced the Aggies. The reason this was not dead last was because of how Rutgers rallied to put together their team and a game plan in roughly a week.

37. Orange Bowl (College Football Playoff)

Georgia 34, Michigan 11

This was a game that was probably incredibly cathartic and satisfying for Georgia fans to watch. Michigan was simply outmatched and overpowered from the very first drive. Georgia’s first punt came in the second half, and Michigan’s lone touchdown came with less than five minutes to go.

36. Texas Bowl

Kansas State 42, LSU 20

It felt a little weird that this one happened on Jan. 4 — a few days after the New Year’s Day bowls and about a week before the National Championship. LSU’s roster was so devastated, that this one felt like it was being played out of obligation. Don’t let the final score fool you, this was a 42-7 game until LSU’s second touchdown with 3:35 left in the game.

35. Camellia Bowl

Georgia State 51, Ball State 20

The lone game on Christmas, this had some potential to be a back-and-forth contest through the first half. But three consecutive scoring drives and a pick-six gave Georgia State a 35-point lead. Ball State had no chance of coming back.

34. LendingTree Bowl

Liberty 56, Eastern Michigan 20

This was not a competitive game for long, but Liberty quarterback Malik Willis had an exciting game that included a 54-yard passing touchdown, a 35-yard rushing touchdown, and several other big gains. Five different receivers had a long reception of at least 20 yards for the Flames.

33. Cotton Bowl (College Football Playoff)

Alabama 27, Cincinnati 6

This was a classic Nick Saban game, where Alabama frustrated its opponent defensively and pounded the rock offensively. Early on, Cincinnati had Alec Pierce open in the end zone for a would-be touchdown if not for the pass being batted down at the line. From then on, it never felt like Alabama’s defense gave any breathing room for Cincinnati to operate. We’d also be remiss to not take this opportunity to point out that Cincinnati losing by 21 does not mean it did not belong in the playoff or that a Group of 5 team should never make a four-team playoff.

32. Celebration Bowl

South Carolina State 31, Jackson State 10

Similar to Cincinnati, the Tigers were frustrated offensively and were never able to get into second gear. This game never got into second gear either, as it featured 15 punts and another couple turnovers on downs.

31. Quick Lane Bowl

Western Michigan 52, Nevada 24

After Nevada standouts Carson Strong and Romeo Dubbs announced they were forgoing this game, there were concerns whether Nevada would have the firepower to keep up. It did not. This game is partially saved by Western Michigan’s explosivity. Seven Broncos had a rush of at least 10 yards and four Broncos had a reception of at least 20 yards.

30. Liberty Bowl

Texas Tech 34, Mississippi State 7

The final score makes this one look worse than it really was. Texas Tech was able to grind this game down, outrushing Mississippi State, 260-54. While getting outrushed is not new to Mike Leach-coached teams, quarterback Will Rogers only throwing for 290 yards was uncharacteristic.

29. Guaranteed Rate Bowl

Minnesota 18, West Virginia 6

The lack of points gave this game a little bit of excitement, because it felt like at any moment West Virginia could break off a huge play and change the complexion of this game. And then it didn’t, at any point.

28. Frisco Football Classic

Miami University 27, North Texas 14

The classic example of “you throw to score but run to win,” Miami held the ball for 12:30 of the final 16 minutes by running 20 out of 24 times. This was a chess match between two teams playing for little else than a winning season in a bowl game thrown together at the last second to accommodate all of the bowl eligible teams. That’s what bowl season is all about.

27. Boca Raton Bowl

Western Kentucky 59, Appalachian State 38

Western Kentucky held a 31-24 lead at halftime in a game that saw Bailey Zappe break the single season record for passing yards and passing touchdowns. For a game that petered out towards the end, as other games were kicking off on the busiest day of bowl season, those historical accomplishments saved the game’s excitement factor.

26. New Orleans Bowl

Louisiana 36, Marshall 21

Marshall held a five-point lead with just 8:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. This game likely would’ve ranked a little higher if it weren’t for 10 hours of football throughout the day before kickoff, coupled with a 14-minute scoreless streak to open up the second half. All football is great football. It’s just that in the window when this was the only game on, it didn’t capitalize on being the only game on by being exciting.

25. Myrtle Beach Bowl

Tulsa 30, Old Dominion 17

Both teams were 6-6 coming into the game, but each rallied very well late in the season to get to bowl eligibility. Despite Old Dominion being completely dominated by Tulsa in most metrics, this game still had plenty to be excited about. A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start is always exciting, for example.

24. Duke’s Mayo Bowl

South Carolina 38, North Carolina 21

This game was exciting if for no reason other than the stakes of the winning coach getting a mayonnaise bath. Similar to the Myrtle Beach Bowl, South Carolina pulled away late after dominating most metrics for most of the game.

23. Cheez-It Bowl

Clemson 20, Iowa State 13

As soon as Breece Hall announced he was forgoing playing in this bowl, it just felt like we were headed to a game with a result like 20-13. With that being said, this one gets some bonus points for Clemson’s pick-six having the wildness that only a “meaningless” bowl game or “Pac-12 After Dark” can provide.

22. Outback Bowl

Arkansas 24, Penn State 10

With no Jahan Dotson, this felt like a game where Arkansas just needed to get to 21 and then let the game bleed away. For awhile, it did not look like Arkansas was going to be able to do that, but in the second half, the Razorbacks started to click offensively, and that was it for Penn State. Despite only featuring 34 points, this was a good amuse-bouche for the rest of Jan. 1.

21. LA Bowl

Utah State 24, Oregon State 13

This game featured five turnovers, eight sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. It also featured Utah State quarterback Cooper Legas throwing his first collegiate pass: a 62-yard touchdown. A solid mid-tier bowl with some memorable moments, including the bowl’s mascot, Jimmy Camel…throwing up on Laura Rutledge?

20. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Wyoming 52, Kent State 38

This game saw seven touchdowns of at least 27 yards. It also saw quarterback Levi Williams take control of the Wyoming offense, accounting for 327 yards. 16 carries for 200 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns would be an impressive day for an all-conference running back, nonetheless a quarterback that had previously averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 152 career carries.

19. Gasparilla Bowl

UCF 29, Florida 17

Florida struggled to move the ball offensively, which made this a drab game. But, the Twitter rivalry between UCF and Florida fans more than made up for that. There are still squabbles going back and forth between these fan bases over this game. Plus, this was a single-digit game until UCF’s field goal with 2:41 remaining put this one on ice.

18. Alamo Bowl

Oklahoma 47, Oregon 32

This game was fixing to be the least exciting bowl game of the bowl season before Oregon was able to find four consecutive touchdown drives in the second half. Oklahoma had 10 drives, ignoring the final victory formation drive. It scored on eight of them and took up almost 30 minutes of game time over those eight drives.

17. Las Vegas Bowl

Wisconsin 20, Arizona State 13

This was like if the Clemson vs. Iowa State game didn’t feature two teams that had playoff hopes/expectations coming into the season. As a viewer, we were on the edges of our seats as Wisconsin ran off the final 9:57 while Arizona State waited for one more shot. Arizona State got into Wisconsin territory each of its last two possessions. Maybe one more chance would have been all the Sun Devils needed, but Wisconsin was able to run the ball 16 times to bleed the clock on its last drive.

16. Frisco Bowl

San Diego State 38, UTSA 24

This was an exciting game for a couple of reasons. First of all, yours truly represented Fifth Quarter as a credentialed member of the press for the first time. Second of all, this game featured the highest combined winning percentage of non-playoff games. Several Frisco Bowl records were broken by members of the Aztecs offensively, and more than a couple highlight reel touchdowns were made.

15. New Mexico Bowl

Fresno State 31, UTEP 24

One of the first games of the bowl season, this one was exciting because UTEP would not go away despite the fact that it felt like Fresno State was the better team. There were five lead changes, although a scoring drought for almost 14 minutes in the third quarter did prevent this from being one of the more under-the-radar good games of bowl season.

14. Birmingham Bowl

Houston 17, Auburn 13

In a fun game that Auburn looked to be in control of for most of the way, Houston was able to score on a 26-yard pass late to take a 17-13 lead. Far from any player’s best game, every point felt magnified, which only drew out and increased the drama.

13. Sugar Bowl

Baylor 21, Ole Miss 7

Matt Corral getting injured definitely let some air out of the balloon early, but that didn’t stop this defensive slugfest from having exciting moments. Much like the Birmingham Bowl, every point was magnified. This meant fans had to be on the edge of their seats waiting for the dam to burst and a big play to tip the scales.

12. Sun Bowl

Central Michigan 24, Washington State 21

This was a game that came down to the wire that was between two teams that were not originally scheduled to play. In the final 19 minutes, Washington State came alive. That was an exciting final quarter of football between a couple of teams fighting to win the game they fought hard to throw together last minute.

11. First Responder Bowl

Air Force 31, Louisville 28

They aren’t the Air Force for nothing, folks. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels was 9-for-10 for 252 yards and two touchdowns — a fun surprise. Malik Cunningham and Louisville also had a pretty good day, but not enough to erase the Falcons’ big, early lead.

10. Independence Bowl

UAB 31, BYU 28

After racing to a 14-0 lead, it looked like it might be all UAB, all day. Then, when BYU came alive to tie it back up in less than half of a quarter, it looked like BYU might take over and be the team that rolled through the Pac-12 South. Ultimately what happened was better than either of those scenarios: a back-and-forth game that was as close to evenly matched as you can get.

9. Citrus Bowl

Kentucky 20, Iowa 17

This game gets a top-10 nod just for the fact that with 2:51 remaining, ESPN had Iowa with a 92.4% chance to win but Kentucky still pulled it out. Also, we had an exciting pass catcher’s battle between Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson and Iowa’s Sam LaPorta. Each finished with more than 100 yards receiving.

8. Bahamas Bowl

Middle Tennessee 31, Toledo 24

We kicked off bowl season with a very underrated game. Danny Kannell might’ve thought that it took us 20 games to get to a fun game, but Middle Tennessee and Toledo delivered. This game had everything you’re looking for from an early bowl game, especially the Bahamas Bowl. The over hit with 1:08 remaining on a Toledo touchdown. There was a 90-yard touchdown pass, and there were almost 900 yards of total offense.

7. Armed Forces Bowl

Army 24, Missouri 22

Here’s another underrated game from Dec. 22 where it felt like not many were paying that close of attention to. Missouri took a one-point lead with 1:11 left, but then Army marched down the field with a swiftness. Cole Talley booted through the game-winning 41-yard field goal, and that was that. Throw in a surprise bootleg pass on fourth down earlier in the fourth quarter, and this game had plenty of sparks.

6. Peach Bowl

Michigan State 31, Pittsburgh 21

There was no Kenneth Walker III or Kenny Pickett, but that didn’t stop these two teams from playing a back-and-forth, exciting game. Michigan State fumbled to open the second half, and a Pittsburgh scoop-and-score gave the Panthers an 11-point lead. In the final 8:06, Michigan State proceeded to score 21 unanswered points to bring home the Peach Bowl. It looked like Pittsburgh was going to get into position to kick a game-tying field goal or score a game-winning touchdown, but this game was iced with a 78-yard interception return with just 22 seconds remaining.

5. Cure Bowl

Coastal Carolina 47, Northern Illinois 41

What was an early contender for game of the bowl season, the Cure Bowl absolutely delivered. There were over 1,000 yards of total offense, eight lead changes, and just two total punts. The game also was a nail-biter down to the very last play — an instant classic.

4. Fiesta Bowl

Oklahoma State 37, Notre Dame 35

ESPN gave Notre Dame a 96% chance to win with 1:09 left in the second quarter as it led by 21 points. Oklahoma State would go on to score 30 unanswered points. Another offensive bout, this game saw 1,156 total yards of offense between two teams that do not typically feature high-octane offenses. This game was all over the place, and a great representation of why bowl season is fun.

3. Rose Bowl

Ohio State 48, Utah 45

The “Granddaddy of Them All” was another game that saw over 1,100 yards of total offense. The opt-outs from Ohio State did not prevent this from being an all-time bowl game. Jaxon Smith-Njigba notched 15 receptions, 347 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns. In other words, Smith-Njigba recorded statistics that are put up when you set the difficulty to “Rookie” mode on the NCAA Football video game. This was an instant classic performance in an instant classic game.

2. College Football Playoff National Championship

Georgia 33, Alabama 18

We almost went with this as the No. 1 offering out of respect for Georgia fans and the moment. What a fun game this was. Usually games that feature seven field goal attempts aren’t all that exciting, but this was one of the best title games in recent memory. Every point scored felt like a decisive battle victory in an overall war between two superpowers. This was a very satisfying conclusion to the end of a great season.

1. Music City Bowl

Purdue 48, Tennessee 45

1,293 total offense yards, 93 points scored, and a major controversy at the end. What else could a football fan want? It did not matter that this was a “meaningless” bowl between an 8-4 Purdue and a 7-5 Tennessee. By the end of the first quarter, 28 points had already been scored. Neither team kept its momentum for too long before the pendulum swung back. This was just an all-time football game that will be remembered forever for its entertainment value.

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