The top five games of the college football bowl season

By Nick Shook

I gave you eight days to recover from the exhilarating finish to the BCS National Championship Game. Now that you’ve had time to rest, recuperate, reflect and rehydrate, it’s time to look back on the most exciting games of college football’s annual bowl season.

5. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: Central Florida 52, Baylor 42

This game promised to be one of the higher-scoring contests of bowl season, and it lived up to the hype.

Fiesta Bowl

Central Florida’s Rannell Hall (6) runs during a 50-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter against Baylor during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Az., on January 1, 2014. Photo by Wally Skalij at Los Angeles Times. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

Art Briles’ Baylor Bears had a banner year, going 11-1, winning the Big 12 and coming one conference loss away from a shot at the national title. Briles and quarterback Bryce Petty were favored over American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida, playing in its first Bowl Championship Series game in school history.

Boy, were the bookmakers ever wrong.

Led by quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, the Knights emphatically cast their place in UCF history from the opening kick. Johnson scored twice in the first quarter and the Knights never trailed, running away with a surprising and impressive victory over Baylor.

As a fan of beautiful execution, my favorite part of the game came in the form of two well-timed screen plays, both in the second quarter. The first was a bubble screen from Bortles to wide receiver Rannell Hall near the left sideline, and while I despise the bubble screen for its ineffectiveness and think it should be banished from playbooks worldwide, UCF gave me a reason to believe that maybe it isn’t all that bad. And wouldn’t you know, the second was again a bubble screen, this time to the right sideline. Textbook downfield blocking from Knights wide receiver Josh Reese sprung the scores. Nothing gets me more fired up during a football game than great downfield blocking.

4. Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Texas A&M 52, Duke 48

Duke is another program that is reaching unprecedented heights in 2013. Although Florida State demolished the Blue Devils in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, Duke had a nice consolation prize in an invitation to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, playing in his last college football game, and the rest of the Aggies awaited Duke in Atlanta, Ga., but for the first two quarters, Duke dominated. The Blue Devils took a 38-17 lead into half time and looked to be in control.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl

Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) stiff-arms Duke Blue Devils safety Jeremy Cash (16) as he goes into score a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. The Aggies win, 52-48. Photo by Chuck Liddy at Raleigh News & Observer. Courtesy of MCT Campus.

Then the second half began, and Manziel played like he suddenly realized he had just two quarters left in a maroon A&M uniform. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner tossed two touchdowns, ran for another and willed the Aggies to an unbelievable comeback win.

I admit I watched the entire first half nearly without interruption. Then I left to celebrate New Years Eve, and when the final score flashed across a TV screen at the bar, I had to confirm what I was seeing with a friend next to me. And it was no lie. Manziel put on one final scintillating performance to cap his brief collegiate career.

3. Orange Bowl: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35

Disclaimer: I’m an Ohio State fan, born and raised.

Orange Bowl

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (10) scores in the first quarter against Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. Photo by Al Diaz at Miami Herald. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

However, I am an objective journalist first, and I knew that any opponent Ohio State faced beyond the regular season would put up at least 30 points on the Buckeyes’ abysmal secondary. Tajh Boyd and Clemson did more than that, but fortunately for football fans across America, the Buckeyes kept up nearly blow for blow.

It was an odd game. Clemson’s Boyd and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller traded rushing touchdowns to start the contest. Boyd was penalized for grounding in his own end zone, resulting in a safety. Clemson scored again to take an 11-point lead, but missed the extra point. Then Ohio State scored twice (one of its points after touchdown was also blocked) and grabbed all of the momentum back.

The Buckeyes scored to open the second half and looked to be in control, but that’s when Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins started incinerating the OSU defense. He caught his second touchdown in the third quarter, and before the third was finished, the Tigers led 34-29.

But then Ohio State countered again, scoring early in the fourth on a 14-yard pass from Miller to running back Carlos Hyde. The roller-coaster ride brought one more big rise and fall, when Boyd completed his fifth TD pass of the night to give the Tigers a 40-35 lead. A quick exchange of turnovers sealed the Buckeyes’ fate and gave Clemson its second BCS bowl win in as many years.

2. Rose Bowl: Michigan State 24, Stanford 20

I once played in a high school football game against Connor Cook.

Rose Bowl

Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler (13) stiff-arms Stanford safety Ed Reynolds after a big gain in the third quarter in the 100th Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. Michigan State won, 24-20. Photo by Wally Skalij at Los Angeles Times. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

On the first play of the game, Cook, then a quarterback at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit, dropped back and threw an interception. Despite muddy conditions, Cook kept on throwing, and later passed his way down the field to set up a game-winning field goal. My team lost that game 17-14.

The 2013 Rose Bowl wasn’t much different.

Cook – now the starting quarterback at Michigan State – threw a first-half interception that was returned for a touchdown to give Stanford a 17-7 lead. He later rebounded to toss two TDs to give Michigan State a 24-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Michigan State defense levied the final blow, stopping Stanford on 4th and 1 to take possession and its first Rose Bowl win in 26 years.

1. BCS National Championship: Florida State 34, Auburn 31

Florida State was the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation, the only team to finish the regular season 13-0. Auburn was the team of destiny, beating previously undefeated and defending national champion Alabama in the most unlikely fashion.

BCS National Championship

Florida State Seminoles’ Kermit Whitfield beats the Auburn Tigers special teams on a kick-off return for a touchdown in the 4th quarter of the BCS National Championship game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. FSU won, 34-31. Photo by Wally Skalij at Los Angeles Times. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

Auburn took command of the game in the first half, going ahead 21-3 in the second quarter. Florida State still trailed for much of the third, but things got memorable in the final five minutes of the game.

FSU’s Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown, Auburn responded with a 37-yard touchdown run by running back Tre Mason, and when all else seemed doomed, FSU’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston led a seven-play, 80-yard drive in 1:06 that culminated in a TD pass from Winston to wideout Kelvin Benjamin.

The score gave Florida State the lead, the victory, the national title and the historic finish that captivated millions of football fans worldwide.

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