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The best college bowl game performances this century

Texas Longhorn quarterback Vince Young scores the winning touchdown during the 2006 Rose Bowl game

(Photo by Scott Clarke/WireImage)

It’s one of the most indelible moments in college football history.

Trailing by five points and facing a 4th-and-5 situation with seconds left to play in the 2006 Rose Bowl, Vince Young dropped back, evaded the USC pass rush, and sprinted toward the right pylon, prancing into the end zone for the game-winning score in a game that has gone down in the books as one of the best ever. 

The victory gave the Longhorns their fourth national championship in program history. The outcome was made all the sweeter by arguably the greatest individual performance in a bowl game by their fearless leader at quarterback.

With the current bowl season officially upon us, it’s the perfect time to take a look at some outstanding bowl game performances in recent years.

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, 2017 CFP National Championship

It was the rematch of all rematches. Nearly a year to the day after suffering a narrow five-point loss to Alabama in the national championship game, Clemson exacted its revenge. The catalyst? Watson, who turned in a legendary performance to unseat what appeared to be a nearly unbeatable Bama squad. The junior quarterback racked up 420 yards and three touchdowns through the air, while adding 43 more yards and a score on the ground. His biggest completion, a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left on the clock, capped off a wild fourth quarter and etched Watson’s name in Clemson lore in capturing the school’s first title since 1981.

Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, 2016 Rose Bowl

The most electrifying player in the land that season, McCaffrey shone when given the opportunity to put his skills on display in front of a national audience. The Heisman runner-up did a little bit of everything in Stanford’s 45-16 drubbing of Iowa. McCaffrey scored on his first touch, taking a short catch 75 yards to the house. He later returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown as part of his 368 all-purpose yards to set a Rose Bowl record. He became the first player in the bowl’s history to have both 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving. Said Stanford coach David Shaw: “I think he was the best player in America before this game, so I think it’s just the icing on the cake.”

Running back Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the Ohio State Buckeyes scores a 33 yard touchdown

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott, 2015 CFP National Championship

The inaugural CFP National Championship will be more remembered for the individual performances rather than that of the actual outcome. A one-point game in the third quarter turned into an OSU romp as the Buckeyes scored 21 straight points to close things out in the 42-20 victory over Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and Oregon. Elliott did much of the heavy lifting, establishing a championship-game record with 246 rushing yards while finding the end zone four times. With third-stringer Cardale Jones starting at quarterback, the Buckeyes leaned heavily on Elliott as he carried the ball a career-high 36 times in an all-time great rushing performance.

LSU RB Leonard Fournette, 2015 Texas Bowl

Yes, it’s not the sexiest of bowls. But it didn’t make Fournette’s performance — coming against a team led by a future NFL MVP at that — any less impressive. LSU’s All-American running back scored five total touchdowns to tie the record for most in a bowl game. He finished with 212 yards on the ground in the 56-27 trouncing of Texas Tech to extend his school single-season rushing record to just shy of 2,000. On the opposite sidelines, Patrick Mahomes did his best to keep the Red Raiders in it with a big outing of his own (370 yards, four TD), a sign of things to come for the current Chiefs superstar.

Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, 2014 Orange Bowl

This game would stand as a pivotal moment.  It helped mark the beginning of Clemson’s ascent to becoming a national power under Dabo Swinney. This particular duo had their handprints all over an impressive 40-35 win against Ohio State. Boyd passed for 378 yards and five touchdowns along with rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown.  He finished with 505 total yards — enough to outgain the Buckeyes by himself. Watkins was the primary beneficiary of Boyd’s excellence. The stud wideout hauled in 16 catches for an Orange Bowl-record 227 yards with two touchdowns. It was quite the encore for Watkins, who a few months later was drafted fourth overall by the Buffalo Bills.

Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, 2013 Cotton Bowl

It was only fitting that Johnny Football capped a breakout season with one last eye-popping performance. The first freshman Heisman winner compiled 516 total yards.  He established a Cotton Bowl record as Texas A&M trounced Oklahoma, 41-13. Manziel set the FBS bowl record in the process while rushing for 229 yards. He added 287 yards through the air, while passing and rushing for a pair of touchdowns each. Following the game, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said Manziel was “everything he was billed to be.” The win pushed the Aggies’ record to 11-2 in their inaugural season in the SEC. 

West Virginia QB Geno Smith, WR Tavon Austin, 2011 Orange Bowl

The Mountaineers had a field day in their first Orange Bowl appearance. Led by the duo of Smith and Austin, West Virginia rolled up 70 points in establishing a new bowl record.  At one point they scored five touchdowns over a 13-minute span in easily dispatching Clemson. “Never could we imagine we’d put up 70 points,” said Smith, who matched a bowl record by tossing six touchdown passes. He also added a rushing touchdown on a night he totaled 433 yards. Austin tied a record for any bowl game with four touchdown grabs as he finished with 12 catches for 123 yards. 

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow passes the ball during warmups

(Photo by John Korduner/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

Florida QB Tim Tebow, 2010 Sugar Bowl

This list wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by Tebow. He is one of the most decorated players in college football history. Playing in his final game in a Gators uniform, Tebow had said he wanted it to be a “special one.” That it certainly was. Tebow spearheaded a record-setting performance that saw Florida score on its first five possessions.  They built a commanding 23-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Tebow amassed 533 total yards (including a career-high 482 through the air) in setting a new BCS individual game record. He also scored four touchdowns. The victory was the 13th in a row for Florida.  It capped a legendary career for the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tebow.

USC QB Mark Sanchez, 2008 Rose Bowl

After missing out on an opportunity to compete for a BCS championship, Sanchez and USC took out their frustration on a Joe Paterno-led Penn State team. Sanchez guided the Trojans to scores on five consecutive first-half possessions to open a 31-7 halftime advantage. The junior signal-caller completed 28 of 35 passes to finish with 413 passing yards and five total touchdowns. It would also stand as the final game of his collegiate career. Many, including his coach, hoped he would come back for his senior season.  Sanchez went against Pete Carroll’s advice and declared for the NFL draft after coming up roses.

Texas QB Vince Young, 2006 Rose Bowl

In a game featuring a pair of Heisman winners, it was Young who shone the brightest. The shifty quarterback was nearly unstoppable on the ground. He rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns, none bigger than his 8-yard scamper for the game-winning touchdown. Oh, he also ran in the ensuing two-point conversion for good measure. The Longhorns won the 41-38 slugfest over a squad led by Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Young finished with 467 total yards to snap USC’s 34-game winning streak. The win dashed the Trojans’ hopes for what would have been a third consecutive national championship.  He helped secure the Longhorns’ claim to the BCS title.