College football bowl season winners, losers: Big 12 steps up; Pac-12's stink will linger

·6 min read

After nearly three weeks and almost 40 games, college football's postseason has reached the finish line. On Monday night in Indianapolis, Alabama and Georgia will end the 2021 season in the second SEC-only national championship game of the College Football Playoff era.

This matchup has made the SEC one of the big winners of the postseason. But it wasn't all positive for the conference, which dropped multiple games against Group of Five competition and will finish with a losing record in bowl play.

It could've been worse. No conference had a more painful few weeks than the Pac-12, which failed to win a single bowl game and will end the 2021 season with a 9-23 record in non-conference games against the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Elsewhere, the American and Mountain West flexed some muscle for the Group of Five, Oklahoma rode a roller coaster of good news and bad, Notre Dame threw away a big lead under its new head coach and Clemson finished strong after a surprisingly uneven start to the year.

With one game left, here are the winners and losers from bowl season:

WINNERS

The SEC

One way or another, the SEC will celebrate the league's third straight national championship and 12th in the past 16 seasons. Will it be Georgia celebrating for the first time since 1980? Alabama wearing the crown for the seventh time under coach Nick Saban? The Bulldogs would be the fifth SEC team to win the national title in this 16-year span, joining the Tide, Auburn, Florida and LSU. Alabama would go back-to-back for the second time under Saban, joining 2011-12. For the SEC to win another championship is entirely unsurprising; to have both teams in the championship game is a better marker of how the SEC dominates the FBS.

The Mountain West

Mountain West teams notched two wins against Power Five competition and went 5-1 overall in bowl play to cap a successful season for the conference, even if the league's strong depth and high-quality top half was overshadowed in the Group of Five by Cincinnati's run into the playoff. Bowl wins for Air Force (Louisville) and Fresno State (UTEP) gave the league four teams with double-digit wins, tying the MWC with the SEC and Big Ten for the most in any FBS conference. And in the best Group of Five-only postseason matchup, San Diego State beat Texas-San Antonio 38-24 in the Frisco Bowl.

Clemson

Clemson's roughest season since 2014 ended with the Tigers at 10-3 and destined for a spot well inside the top 20 in the final USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. After starting 2-2 and falling to 4-3 heading into Halloween, the Tigers won six straight to end the year, finishing with the 20-13 victory against Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl. Not bad for a rebuilding season. (But with more coaching changes and two new coordinators set to take over this winter, there are still plenty of unanswered questions.)

Oklahoma interim coach Bob Stoops and defensive lineman Kelvin Gilliam celebrated after  beating Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
Oklahoma interim coach Bob Stoops and defensive lineman Kelvin Gilliam celebrated after beating Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.

The Big 12

Iowa State fell to Clemson and West Virginia laid an egg in losing 18-6 to Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Amid those losses and the sense of disappointment over being left out of the playoff, the Big 12 had a very strong postseason, highlighted by impressive wins in the league's three biggest games: Oklahoma and interim coach Bob Stoops held on to beat Oregon 47-32 in the Alamo Bowl, Baylor smothered Ole Miss 21-7 in the Sugar Bowl, and Oklahoma State fought out of a 28-7 hole to beat Notre Dame 37-35 in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition, Kansas State took care of LSU in the Texas Bowl and Texas Tech bullied Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl.

The American

While Cincinnati didn't come close to knocking off Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, that the Bearcats reached the national semifinals was a remarkable moment in college football history and a major achievement for the American. And though multiple bowls involving American teams were canceled — the Holiday, Military and Fenway — the league did get two wins against the SEC: Central Florida beat Florida 29-17 in the Gasparilla Bowl and Houston topped Auburn 17-13 in the Birmingham Bowl.

LOSERS

The SEC

The championship game matchup helps to overwrite what was otherwise a disappointing postseason for the SEC. The league went 5-7 overall in bowl play and winless against Group of Five competition — losing to UCF, Houston and Army — but did rally in the marquee games. Beyond the two national semifinals, Arkansas beat Penn State 24-10 in the Outback Bowl and Kentucky beat Iowa 20-17 in a very physical Citrus Bowl. With the league set to bring home the championship trophy, this mediocre postseason performance will soon be forgotten.

The Pac-12

But this stink will linger long into the offseason: Pac-12 teams went 0-5 in bowl play, in the latest national embarrassment for a conference accustomed to bringing up the rear for the Power Five. Oregon State lost the LA Bowl to Utah State. Arizona State dropped the Las Vegas Bowl to Wisconsin. Washington State nearly climbed out of a 21-0 halftime hole but lost 24-21 to Central Michigan in the Sun Bowl. And in the league's two biggest games, Oregon fell to Oklahoma and Utah lost 48-45 in a memorable Rose Bowl shootout against Ohio State.

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Oklahoma

Winning the Alamo Bowl with Stoops on the sidelines and new coach Brent Venables ready to take over was exactly what the program needed after losing Lincoln Riley to Southern California in late November. But then came another enormous loss: Caleb Williams, the star freshman who took over early in Big 12 play and surged into the Heisman Trophy race, announced this week he would be entering the transfer portal "to see who may offer the best preparation and development for my future career." While he has the option of staying at OU, that the Sooners just took a commitment from UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel suggests the staff has already planned for life without Williams.

Notre Dame

Coughing up a 21-point lead and losing the Fiesta Bowl? It wasn't a smashing start for new coach Marcus Freeman, who made no notable game-management errors in his debut but must take responsibility for the way the Irish crumbled in the second half. To Freeman's credit, Notre Dame had a strong initial game plan and played with great energy in the first two quarters — the latter a testament to the way Freeman and his staff conducted bowl preparations leading into kickoff. But the way OSU flipped the script in the second half and pushed the Irish back on their heels without any major adjustments in response speaks to the learning curve that will last into Freeman's first full season in charge.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football bowl season winners, losers: Pac-12 stink will linger