Ranking the five best games of the 2016–17 bowl season
- While the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl produced dramatic showdowns between playoff-caliber teams, there was no matching this year's national championship game.
Over 41 games and 24 days, the college football postseason offered some fitting sendoffs to another thrilling year. Although the College Football Playoff semifinals were mostly duds for the second straight year (consider it the New Year’s Eve curse), bowl season provided plenty of drama from the highest of stakes on down.
Narrowing it all down to just the five best games was no easy task—made harder by Monday’s sensational finale—but the resulting lists comprises the games that truly stuck with us now that all the action is over. We’ll rely on these memories to get us through the long off-season.
No. 5: Pinstripe Bowl — Northwestern 31, Pittsburgh 24
A Panthers team with one of the best pair of wins in the country (Penn State, at Clemson) couldn’t handle Northwestern stud tailback Justin Jackson, who gashed coach Pat Narduzzi’s defense for 224 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Wildcats benefited from injuries to three of the Panthers’ best offensive players (running back James Conner, quarterback Nathan Peterman and offensive lineman Dorian Johnson), but their defensive playmaking should not be discounted; defensive backs Kyle Queiro, Godwin Igwebuike and Jared McGee each recorded an interception to help stifle Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense.
This was a rare triumph in an ugly bowl season for the Big Ten, and it took place at a pretty cool venue. — Chris Johnson
No. 4: Sun Bowl — Stanford 25, North Carolina 23
The biggest storyline entering this game between preseason division title contenders was Cardinal star tailback Christian McCaffrey’s decision to skip the contest in order to begin preparing for the NFL draft. The biggest storyline coming out of the game was the performance of another Stanford standout who’ll jump to the professional ranks this off-season, Solomon Thomas. The junior defensive lineman notched a sack and seven tackles, and made a key stop on a late North Carolina two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game.
McCaffrey’s absence also provided a major opportunity for sophomore Bryce Love, who went off for 115 rushing yards on 22 carries plus 49 receiving yards and a touchdown. — CJ
No. 3: Orange Bowl — Florida State 33, Michigan 32
Two teams with College Football Playoff aspirations before the season produced one of the best non-playoff bowls of 2016–17. A 12-yard touchdown pass from Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois to wide receiver Nyqwan Murray, after a 66-yard kickoff return fro freshman Keith Gavin, lifted coach Jimbo Fisher’s team over the Wolverines in a thriller at Hard Rock Stadium that also featured a stellar send-off performance from NFL-bound tailback Dalvin Cook (145 rushing yards, 7.3 YPC, 1 TD, 62 receiving yards).
The winning score followed Michigan’s comeback from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. Don’t be surprised if these two teams meet in the national semifinals, or the title game, a year from now. — CJ
No. 2: Rose Bowl — USC 52, Penn State 49
It’ll be remembered as the game when Sam Darnold entered USC lore. The redshirt freshman quarterback logged one of the best performances in the game’s history—33 for 53 passing with five touchdowns and one interception—and a positively unconscious throw to tie the game at 49. One of his counterparts, running back Saquon Barkley, logged one of the best rushing performances in the game’s vaunted history, logging 249 total yards, three touchdowns and this incredible run.
USC safety Leon McQuay’s interception with under a minute remaining set up kicker Matt Boermeester’s game-winning 46-yard field goal, but it was the action in between—Penn State’s four touchdowns on four consecutive plays, USC’s comeback from two scores down with under five minutes left—that made this game one of the best in contemporary college football history. — Gabriel Baumgaertner
No. 1: National Championship — Clemson 35, Alabama 31
Yes, this game gets top billing because of its magnitude. The Rose Bowl featured better end-to-end action, but this game featured a game-winning touchdown pass with one second left to win a national championship.
This game was so good that some of the best moments were lost once Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow for the game’s final score. Remember when Clemson’s Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams made stupendous catches on the final drive to set up the game-winner? How about when Alabama receiver ArDarius Stewart drilled fellow receiver Calvin Ridley on the “double bubble” pass for a crucial first down on the prior drive? Or when Jalen Hurts, who struggled all game throwing the ball, ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run to give Alabama a 31–28 lead with just over two minutes remaining? How about when Deshaun Watson was hit so hard by Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster he went flying like a helicopter?
Alabama hadn’t given up a fourth-quarter point since it played Arkansas on Oct. 9, yet Clemson scored 21 in the fourth quarter to come back from a 10-point deficit. Entering the game, Nick Saban was 97–0 when his Crimson Tide teams were leading by double digits heading into the fourth quarter. It was a game of thrills, statistical anomalies and an unforgettable ending. — GB