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The greatest performances in bowl game history

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

December 22nd, 2020

College football's bowl season has officially kicked off, and each game presents a chance for teams and players to end their seasons on a winning note. This time of year has produced some of the most memorable performances in college football history, and we’ve ranked the top 10.

A few notes before we kick off, though. This list counts national championship games as bowl games, even if the word “bowl” isn’t in the title. Also, I’m limiting each player to one spot on the list. Several had multiple performances I could pick from, and it didn’t seem right to give players multiple positions.

Anyway, here we go!

10. Jadeveon Clowney, 2013 Outback Bowl

Clowney was a man among boys his entire college career, and perhaps nothing signifies that more than the tackle known as “the Hit.”

Clowney’s South Carolina Gamecocks were trailing the Michigan Wolverines, 22-21, when the defensive end rocked running back Vincent Smith with one of the most emphatic tackles in recent college football history. Clowney recovered the ensuing fumble, South Carolina scored a touchdown on the next play, and the Gamecocks prevailed, 33-28.

9. Tom Brady, 2000 Orange Bowl

Before he became arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Brady battled for reps at Michigan.

He fended off Drew Henson for the starting job, then led the Wolverines to the Orange Bowl, where they faced Alabama. Brady scorched the Crimson Tide for 369 passing yards and four touchdowns, and Michigan prevailed, 35-34.

8. Marcus Mariota, 2015 Rose Bowl

Oregon lost the 2015 title game to Ohio State (more on that later), but Mariota’s efforts to get the Ducks to that point included a virtuoso performance against an overmatched Florida State defense.

The Heisman Trophy winner threw for 338 yards, ran for 62, and led Oregon to a 59-20 win over the Seminoles, who were led by another Heisman winner, Jameis Winston.

7. Justin Blackmon, 2012 Fiesta Bowl

Blackmon never panned out in the NFL, but he was one of the most dynamic playmakers in recent college football history.

The Oklahoma State wide receiver torched Stanford for 238 total yards and three touchdowns on just nine total touches in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, and his stellar performance spurred the Cowboys to a 41-38 overtime victory.

6. Byron Leftwich, 2001 GMAC Bowl

One of the most exciting bowl games of all time featured Marshall and East Carolina.

The Pirates took a 38-8 lead into halftime, and all appeared lost for the Thundering Herd.

But Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich went to work after the break. He finished with 41 completions on 70 attempts for 576 yards and four touchdowns. His last touchdown pass gave the Thundering Herd a 64-61 win in the second overtime cycle.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship

Elliott finished his sophomore season with three consecutive 200-yard rushing efforts, and his performance in the title game against Oregon may have been the best of the bunch.

Zeke finished with 246 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries against the Ducks, and the Buckeyes cruised to a 42-20 victory.

4. Charles White, 1980 Rose Bowl

The first of two straight entries from 1980 comes from that year’s Heisman Trophy winner.

The USC running back (who was so good future NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen was moved to fullback) set a Rose Bowl record with 247 rushing yards against Ohio State, and he finished off his season with a game-winning touchdown run.

3. Jim McMahon, 1980 Holiday Bowl

Nothing about Jim McMahon was conventional.

He was a party-boy quarterback, who set dozens of records at BYU and eventually took his act to the Chicago Bears.

Before he joined the Monsters of the Midway, though, McMahon announced his presence with a miraculous comeback over up-and-coming SMU. He racked up 446 passing yards and led three scoring drives in the final minutes, as the Cougars stunned the Mustangs, 46-45.

2. Vince Young, 2006 Rose Bowl

Say the words “Vince Young” to a USC football fan, and chances are, they’ll recoil in disgust.

This isn’t without merit, as his brilliant performance in the 2006 national title game spurred the Texas Longhorns to an upset victory over the favored Trojans.

Young was masterful in the Granddaddy of Them All. He threw for 267 yards, rushed for 200, and led a pair of touchdown drives in the final minutes to turn a 38-26 USC lead into a 41-38 winning margin for Texas.

1. Deshaun Watson, 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship

The Clemson legend’s effort checks every box for a list like this.

Watson put up massive numbers (420 passing yards, 43 rushing yards, four touchdowns) against an elite Alabama defense on the biggest stage possible, and he connected with Hunter Renfrow for a game-winning touchdown with just one second left on the clock.

It didn’t happen long ago, but this is the kind of effort those in attendance will be talking about for generations.