This article opens a series of recaps on the bowl season for each of the AQ conferences from best to worst, in addition to a closing summary. Note that not all bowl games are included, but only those that suggested something meaningful about the conference.
Best: BCS National Championship Game (Alabama def. Notre Dame)
Essentially delivering a knockout punch before halftime, Alabama defended its national title with a second straight emphatic victory in the last game of the year. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon bulldozed the heralded Notre Dame defensive line almost at will in a matchup between two teams that looked entirely at different levels of the sport. Meanwhile, quarterback A.J. McCarron demonstrated his improvements from last season by throwing four touchdowns as Alabama dominated in every area of every phase. If they continue at this level, and most signs suggest that they will, the rest of college football will find it very difficult to stop a three-peat.
Very Good: Cotton Bowl (Texas A&M def. Oklahoma)
Among the leading contenders to face Alabama in Pasadena next year (and not in the Rose Bowl) is the squad led by Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Contrary to the trend of Heisman flops in bowl games, Manziel looked every inch the superstar who became the first freshman to win that trophy. But the greater eye-opener perhaps came from the Texas A&M defense, which stifled an Oklahoma offense full of weapons. More even than the victory over Notre Dame, an independent program still early in its resurgence, the Cotton Bowl reasserted the SEC’s primacy when a team that didn’t even reach its championship game crushed the second-best team in the Big 12, its leading rival.
Good: New Year’s Day bowls (Georgia def. Nebraska; South Carolina def. Michigan)
Appetizers to the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl later that day, these games demonstrated what most already knew: the SEC harbors more athletic talent than the fading Big Ten, Ohio State excepted. That said, one might have expected Georgia to dominate a reeling Nebraska team through the first three quarters of the Capital One Bowl rather than pulling away from a 31-31 tie with an excellent fourth. And South Carolina should not have needed a last-minute comeback in the Outback Bowl to escape a Michigan team searching for its identity. Perhaps both SEC squads entered their games emotionally flat after one had fallen five yards short of a trip to Miami and the other had sustained a season-ending injury to one of its most productive and most beloved players in Marcus Lattimore.
Bad: Chick-fil-A Bowl (Clemson def. LSU)
Rarely does a Les Miles team surrender a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, but LSU did against a Clemson program known for embarrassing collapses in moments such as these. Their one-dimensionality on offense, which cost the Tigers a national title last year, came back to haunt them on New Year’s Eve when they could not extend drives long enough to run down the clock. More uncharacteristic was the failure of their vaunted defense to stop Clemson when the game hung in the balance, just as they had failed to stop Alabama in a similar situation. The ACC team not only converted a fourth-and-sixteen but gained key yards with an LSU penalty that must have infuriated Miles.
Worst: Sugar Bowl (Louisville def. Florida)
Allowing the ACC to topple one of its pillars in the Chick-fil-A Bowl struck a blow to SEC pride, but even heavier was the blow struck by the moribund Big East in a BCS bowl. Third-ranked Florida entered that game as heavy favorites over Louisville, expected (like LSU) to compensate for their offensive mediocrity with suffocating defense. Instead, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgwater sliced and diced the Florida secondary mercilessly, while his defense set the tone with an interception returned for a touchdown on the first play. No amount of prayers from Florida alum Tebow could alleviate this embarrassment, erased only in part by Alabama’s brilliance.
The SEC remains the best conference in college football at its top with an ideal balance between offense and defense that few can rival. Below that level, the picture grows murkier as former powers like LSU look more mortal than they have before. The all-defense/no-offense model for which the conference had grown notorious failed to produce postseason results as impressive as it has, so its mid-level teams may want to shift more recruiting efforts towards players who produce points.