CFB bowl season winners and losers: ESPN, the SEC and the Rose Bowl

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, left, and Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day pose with the Rose Bowl trophy during a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, left, and Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day pose with the Rose Bowl trophy during a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

Three dozen postseason games have been played, five have been canceled, and two remain.

Our look at the winners and losers across the landscape …

Winner: ESPN. With COVID creating pent-up demand in 2020 and COVID forcing people to stay home in 2021, the bowl season has produced impressive audiences for ESPN: All but two of the first 24 games registered one million viewers. Fans who believe there are too many bowls will be disappointed to learn the '21 postseason has justified the current lineup and expenditure. All hail the Cheez-It Bowl, which drew almost five million viewers.

Loser: The ACC. Without Clemson competing on the playoff stage, we saw the ACC for what it has been for years: A one-team league. The conference went 2-4 in the bowl season and is just 2-10 over the past two years. Until Clemson's victory over Iowa State last week, the ACC had lost 13 consecutive bowls. The Pac-12 sends its sympathies.

Winner: The SEC. After a few ugly losses early in the bowl season, the conference dominated the games that mattered most (combined scores of semifinal wins by Alabama and Georgia: 61-17) and is assured of its 12th national title in the past 16 years. (Georgia would be the conference's fifth different school to raise the trophy in that span.) SEC hegemony over the sport has never been greater.

Loser: Alliance leverage. The SEC's mastery of the semifinals showed just how much the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC need the playoff to expand — and underscore why the SEC would be perfectly content with the current system remaining in place for the next four years. If anything, commissioner Greg Sankey's leverage within the CFP boardroom has gotten stronger in the past week. Why vote to expand unless he gets exactly what he wants?

Winner: The Group of Five. Cincinnati's multi-touchdown loss to Alabama provided anti-G5 fuel only to the ignorant. The Bearcats were no less competitive against the Crimson Tide than Washington was in 2016 or Notre Dame in 2020. If Cincinnati didn't belong this year, neither did Michigan, which trailed Georgia 27-3 at halftime.

Loser: The Pac-12. We outlined the unseemly results — and attempted to provide an explanation — in our Saturday Night Five. But the bottom line is this: The Pac-12's last postseason win was Justin Herbert's final game in an Oregon uniform, and he's finishing Year Two with the Chargers.

Winner: The Big 12. Five months after Texas and Oklahoma announced their intentions to depart, the Big 12 holdovers carried the banner impressively: Baylor beat Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma State edged Notre Dame in the Fiesta. Overall, the league is 4-2 in the postseason.

Loser: Michigan. The wait was so long; the beatdown was so thorough; the talent gap is so immense.

Winner: Pac-12 officials. Referee Steve Strimling and his crews easily cleared the bar in the two highest-profile games of the season for Pac-12 officiating: The Oregon-Ohio State duel in Week Two and the Alabama-Cincinnati semifinal in the Cotton Bowl. They were good enough on New Year's Eve to go completely unnoticed.

Loser: The Holiday Bowl. UCLA's game-day cancellation was deeply unfortunate for all involved, as we noted last week in the stock report. Had the Hotline been hired as a consultant by the bowl, we would have urged the formulation of a Plan B the moment UCLA was invited. And that would have been the case with any of the Pac-12's California schools. Test, and ye shall find.

Winner: The Rose Bowl. The Granddaddy delivered in classic fashion with Ohio State's unforgettable 48-45 victory over Utah. Five of the past six games have been decided by a touchdown or less — a stretch that started with USC's 52-49 escape from Penn State. The exception during this scintillating run: Alabama's CFP semifinal win over Notre Dame in the 2020 season.

Loser: Pac-12 'State' teams. Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington State lost games they either should or could have won. OSU was beaten by Utah State's third-string quarterback. ASU let Wisconsin run out the last 10 minutes with an 18-play drive that was capped by — what else — a decisive penalty on the Sun Devils. And Washington State became the first Power Five team in 18 years to lose a bowl game to the Mid-American Conference.

Winner: Recruiting ratings. The dominance by Alabama and Georgia added to the mountainous evidence that the star system correlates closely to success on the biggest stage. You don't need a slew of highly-ranked recruiting classes to win a division or conference title (see: Utah and Wake Forest). But to succeed in the playoff, the four- and five-star talents are essential.

Loser: Canceled games. The Holiday, Fenway, Hawaii, Arizona and Military bowls were all KOed by COVID. Given the timing of the omicron rise (holiday gatherings, travel, weakening of the second vaccine shot), it's surprising more games weren't impacted. This week, Georgia and Alabama players will be placed in individual, hermetically sealed containers and fed through tubes designed by NASA.

Winner: Utah. The end-of-game strategy was perplexing — either use your timeouts or let the opponent score — but that's a mere quibble compared to the Utes' broader performance in the Rose Bowl and throughout a season defined by tragedy and resilience. They were the brightest light … the only light … of the Pac-12's postseason.


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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