Bowl games are the mood rings of college football. And in an unprecedented transition into 2013, everybody around here went home happy.
Georgia and South Carolina rallied to beat Big Ten teams and restore order to the Southeastern Conference the day after Clemson and Georgia Tech breathed a little life into the Atlantic Coast Conference. It’s the first time all four major programs in the border states have ever won bowl games in the same year.
“This was a landmark win,” a delirious Dabo Swinney declared after his Tigers upset Louisiana State’s with a last-second field goal in the bowl formerly known as Peach.
Swinney could have been speaking for all of this regional peers. While Clemson won 11 games for the first time since its national title season of 1981, South Carolina won 11 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. Georgia reached 12 wins for the second time in the Mark Richt era and third time ever.
All three of them could finish in the top 10 of the final rankings.
Even Georgia Tech registered a “landmark” moment, becoming the first team in history with a losing record to win a bowl game. It might not be the kind of thing they hoist a banner for on The Flats, but from where the Jackets were in October it’s quite an achievement.
Each bowl win meant something, but the most crucial result came on New Year’s Day in the old Citrus Bowl. Because no team’s season could have been more negatively impacted with a loss than Georgia’s.
The Bulldogs were just a few yards and seconds short of competing in the BCS Championship Game, and the value of that heartbreaking conclusion against Alabama in the SEC Championship would have dropped dramatically if Georgia couldn’t rebound to beat Nebraska.
Trailing 31-23 early in the second half and getting pushed around by the Cornhuskers, Georgia rallied with three of Aaron Murray’s five touchdown passes to win 45-31. Two of those comeback TDs went to Chris Conley, the receiver who grieved over his instinctive catch of Murray’s batted pass that allowed the clock to expire against Alabama.
While the validating victory can soothe the pain of falling just short of their ultimate goals, it might also have been a last hurrah as well. Murray might soon join Alec Ogletree and a host of teammates in the NFL Draft pool, raising questions about the future.
“The future? I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Murray told reporters after the game.
South Carolina doesn’t have such long-range concerns. The Gamecocks concluded arguably the best season of any of them when Dylan Thompson hit Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left to lift the Gamecocks to a 33-28 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Those 11 wins included decisive victories over both Georgia and Clemson – a streak of victories that runs to seven in a row against its closest rivals. With competing quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Thompson returning with emerging star Ace Sanders (three touchdowns Tuesday) on offense and Jadeveon Clowney back anchoring the defense, the Gamecocks will be a serious contender for the SEC title that generally sets up a BCS title shot.
Before the calendar shifted, Clemson and Georgia Tech delivered not only for themselves and their fan bases but their beleaguered conference.
It’s been another rough year for the ACC, with no high-profile nonconference victories, a surprise defection by Maryland, only five (barely) bowl eligible teams and a two programs enduring on-going scandal.
There didn’t seem a lot of promise in the bowl scenarios. Perennial punch line Duke fumbled away a golden opportunity to end a 51-year bowl victory drought to Cincinnati. N.C. State fired its head coach and then lost to Vanderbilt. Once-proud Virginia Tech escaped suffering its first losing season in two decades by surviving 13-10 in overtime in one of the worst played bowl games ever against Rutgers.
Even ACC champion Florida State’s matchup with Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl established a new low in ticket demand (and probably ratings).
So really the only two chances for the ACC to make any kind of postseason statement rested with the Tigers and Yellow Jackets.
Despite having to petition to compete in a bowl with a 6-7 record, Georgia Tech got matched up with preseason No. 1 Southern Cal in the Sun Bowl. While it seemed apparent from pre-game comments and in-game performance that the sinking Trojans didn’t want to be there, the Jackets were elated to walk away with a convincing 21-7 victory that ended a seven-bowl losing streak.
But the real New Year’s Eve prize was delivered by Clemson. Taking on one of the established power teams of the SEC in the Georgia Dome, Clemson had a lot to play for a year after the 70-33 Orange crush by West Virginia.
It looked bleak trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter to one of the nation’s top defenses, but Clemson scratched back with scores on its final three possessions. The last (after LSU coach Les Miles, needing only two yards, inexplicably opted not to run the ball TWICE to burn clock and Clemson timeouts) included a fourth-and-16 conversion and finally Chandler Catanzaro’s 37-yard field goal for the 25-24 victory.
It was all good stuff to cap a “landmark” season. And even with 2013 just beginning, college football fans around here already can’t wait for next season.