The 14th weekend on the college football schedule provided the gift of championship weekend, when the crème de la crème put on tremendous shows for all watching.
The action began in earnest on Friday night, with a tighter than expected battle for MAC supremacy. Ultimately, Western Michigan maintained its perfect record in a 29-26 win over Ohio, but the Bobcats gave the Broncos quite a scare in Detroit.
It all ended on Saturday night with a couple of thrillers. In the B1G Championship Game, Penn State came from behind in epic fashion to beat Wisconsin by a touchdown. At the same time, the ACC title was being contested by Clemson and Virginia Tech, which gave the Tigers all they could handle.
These games and others will have a huge impact on the College Football Playoff rankings, and we can’t wait to see what happens once bowl season begins in earnest later this month. Until then, we present the top takeaways from college football’s championship weekend.
1. Western Michigan tested but still not bested
Based on the way Western Michigan blew through its schedule to an undefeated record, it would have been easy to predict another blowout for the Broncos in the MAC Championship Game. Ohio had a different take on that narrative, however, and gave them all they could handle in a losing cause.
The final score in this one was 29-23, and the outcome was never set in stone. It wasn’t until Broncos linebacker Robert Spillane picked off Bobcats quarterback Greg Windham in the game’s waning moments that P.J. Fleck and the Broncos could rejoice about completing their undefeated season.
Afterwards, Fleck made a strong case for his team to be included in the Cotton Bowl as the top-ranked Group of Five team in the nation.
“It’s a historic day in Western Michigan history, and we deserve to be in the gosh darn Cotton Bowl, period,” Fleck said after the game, according to ESPN’s Dan Murphy. “Write it down.”
And after Navy lost on Saturday, the Broncos are almost certainly headed to the gosh darn Cotton Bowl.
Ohio’s defense came to play on Friday night, turning over Zach Terrell twice on interceptions. This is particularly impressive when you consider Terrell had previously thrown just one interception all year. The Bobcats also shut down Western Michigan’s rushing attack, allowing a scant 2.6 yards per carry and nary a touchdown — an inspired effort all around.
Unfortunately for Ohio, Corey Davis broke loose (as he’s done all year long) with eight catches for 184 yards and a touchdown, and kicker Butch Hampton took advantage of all five of his opportunities to convert three points.
It wasn’t as pretty as all the blowout wins Western Michigan piled up this year, but it sure was sweet for the Broncos.
2. Huskies likely punched playoff ticket, despite poor game by Browning
Imagine someone told you Jake Browning had one of his worst performances of the season in the Pac 12 Championship Game against Colorado. Imagine they said he finished with just 118 yards on 9-of-24 passing. Surely this would mean the Huskies lost the game, right?
Remarkably, nothing could be further from the truth.
Browning was wildly inaccurate. Even one of his touchdown passes happened almost in spite of him, rather than because of him (watch John Ross pull off a ridiculous one-handed grab here). More often than not, when he dropped back to pass, he was getting pressured as well. It was just an ugly, ugly performance by Washington’s offensive line and by Browning.
Yet the Huskies absolutely blew the Buffaloes out of the water, 41-10, thanks to a dominant rushing attack and stellar defensive effort.
Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman totaled 146 rushing yards in the first half and 260 by game’s end, with both going over 100 yards and Coleman scoring a touchdown.
Washington’s defense was indomitable. It allowed just nine first downs, 163 total yards and forced three interceptions — all in the pivotal third quarter — that turned into 13 points. Freshman safety Taylor Rapp was the star of that show, bringing in two of the three interceptions and returning one for a touchdown.
Now with just one loss on the season and this blowout win over the No. 8-ranked team in the nation, Washington — No. 4 before the game — has almost surely punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Huskies match up against the best of the best in January.
3. Temple’s defense sparks dominant win over Navy
Heading into the AAC Championship Game Saturday, Navy was riding about as high as it possibly could. The Midshipmen were coming off a tremendously dominating performance against SMU in which they rushed for 496 yards and scored 75 points.
All that momentum meant absolutely nothing going up against Temple, as the Owls put the game away almost from the get go, winning 34-10.
The Owls featured a stifling defense that cut Navy’s rushing game down to size. They allowed just 168 yards on the ground (less than half the team’s per-game average) and 3.8 yards per carry. That was part of the equation that led to victory. The other part was an offensive explosion that saw Temple score touchdowns on each of its first three drives to open the game.
From that point on, the Owls were pretty much in cruise control and in full control of the game. Afterwards, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo put the game’s outcome into excellent perspective, saying, “They just played better than we did. It wasn’t schematic. They just beat the crap out of us,” per the Associated Press.
Temple is most definitely a team on the come under head coach Matt Rhule, who has led the program to its second 10 win season in a row. Before last year’s incredible run that saw the Owls win 10 games before losing to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, the program hadn’t seen a 10-win season since 1979.
4. Oklahoma might be one of the best four teams, but it won’t get into playoff
The annual Bedlam matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State was pretty phenomenal through one half of play. The Sooners were tested early by their in-state rival Cowboys, who actually took a 17-10 lead late in the second half on a punishing run by quarterback Mason Rudolph (watch here).
However, Oklahoma State’s exuberance was quickly quelled by Baker Mayfield and the Sooners, who marched right down the field before halftime to tie the game up at 17-17.
The second half belonged to Oklahoma. Led by running back Samaje Perine, the Sooners were an unstoppable machine, winning by the score of 38-20. Perine valiantly fought through a few huge hits and ended up gaining 239 hard-earned yards and one touchdown on the ground. Joe Mixon was also phenomenal, going for 99 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries.
Mayfield didn’t have to do a lot, thanks to his offensive line and remarkable running backs. But when he got his chances, he made the most of them throwing for 288 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 attempts.
This was all the more remarkable considering the Sooners were without Heisman candidate Dede Westbrook for more than two quarters after he sustained a concussion following a brutal hit by safety Jordan Sterns. Still, before he was injured Westbrook made his mark on the game, catching four balls for 111 yards and a touchdown — the guy is a freak among freaks.
Oklahoma’s defense is pretty darn good, too. It held an offense that averaged more than 500 yards and 40 points per game to 403 and 20 in this one.
Since dropping two of its first three games to start the season, Oklahoma has rattled off nine straight games, running the table on the Big 12 in the process. Losing to Houston and Ohio State, it’s not unfair to say the Sooners have the same type of resume as Wisconsin or Penn State did before the B1G title game, and they’ve been winning big to close out the season.
So while it’s almost certain they have no shot to get into the playoff, it’s not crazy to wonder if the Sooners aren’t actually one of the nation’s top four teams.
5. Alabama proves its supremacy in brutal fashion, despite rough outing for Jalen Hurts
Alabama ruthlessly put the Gators in their place Saturday at the Georgia Dome, winning by the score of 54-16.
And the most ridiculous aspect of this dominating victory for Nick Saban’s team is that freshman phenom quarterback Jalen Hurts was a non-factor for much of the game.
He finished with just 138 yards on 11-of-20 passing with a touchdown. Hats off to Florida’s defense for shutting him down on the ground, too. Hurts averaged 70 yards rushing per game before Saturday’s showdown and was held to just one yard on eight carries against the Gators.
Alabama averaged 479 yards of offense per game this season and managed just 372 in this one as well. Florida’s defense put forth a gutsy effort. Unfortunately, even while Hurts struggled, the offensive line of ‘Bama started to own the trenches. By the end of the game, the Crimson Tide had rushed for 234 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
And that’s not even the most impressive aspect of what Alabama was able to do on Saturday. The defense was a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of an already tepid Florida offense that averaged just a mere 24 points per game during the regular season. Poor Austin Allenby was victimized three times by the sniping ‘Bama defense, including a pick-six by Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first quarter that foreshadowed what was to come (watch here).
Oh, and Florida gained exactly zero yards on the ground. Zero. A new SEC Championship Game record.
The special teams unit also pitched in a touchdown on a blocked punt, which was followed by a blocked extra point attempt by Florida — one of the craziest two-play sequences we’ve seen all year (watch here).
Heading into the College Football Playoff, after watching Alabama discard all comers this year with authority, it’s hard to imagine the Tide will stop rolling this year until another championship banner is claimed.
6. Clemson survives scare, will hang onto playoff spot
Clemson needed to win to get in, and it did…barely. Surviving a huge scare when Virginia Tech refused to die after going down by three touchdowns in the third quarter, the Tigers will absolutely be one of the four teams competing for the national championship in January.
Clemson’s defense was softer than you’d like to see heading into bowl season, but you also have to tip your cap to an inspired effort by Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans.
The junior college transfer rebounded from a couple of rough interceptions to score three touchdowns and push the No. 3 team in the nation to the brink.
Really, the entire game boiled down to the two quarterbacks, and Watson’s one mistake (on a tipped pass no less) did not lead to points for Virginia Tech. His tremendous effort is the reason the Tigers will have a chance to play for the championship.
But there are some serious concerns about Clemson’s ability to compete against the likes of Alabama this year. We’ll get to see what happens soon enough. For now, it’s nice to reflect on the phenomenal two-year run the Tigers have had with Watson as the leader of the offense. Maybe there’s still a bit of magic left in the tank for a miraculous finish.
7. Penn State won’t likely get into playoff despite outstanding comeback to win B1G
Trace McSorley for President. That’s the initial takeaway after watching the sophomore quarterback lead the Nittany Lions in a 38-31 comeback win for the ages against Wisconsin to claim the B1G title.
Nearing the end of the second quarter, the Badgers had a commanding 28-7 lead over Penn State. McSorley looked like a piece of red meat to Wisconsin’s defensive front. He was getting absolutely hammered by the likes of T.J. Watt and appeared to be incapable of turning things around.
Until he did.
Here's Trace McSorley on his last nine passes:
9-of-9, 241 yards, four TDs
— Josh Moyer (@ByJoshMoyer) December 4, 2016
His four touchdown passes put him at 25 on the season, breaking Penn State’s all-time record. He also broke Matt McGloin’s school single-season passing yards record when he connected on a 38-yarder to DaeSean Hamilton in the third quarter.
His performance was legendary, and it put a huge cherry on top of the amazing season Penn State has put together.
As spectacular as the win was for Penn State, here’s the sad truth: The Nittany Lions are not going to get into the playoff. None of the top four teams lost this weekend. No. 4 Washington romped. No. 3 Clemson did enough to retain its spot behind an idle No. 2 Ohio State, which only lost once this year — the stunner in Happy Valley.
And we all know what Alabama did, never once wavering from its No. 1 ranking since before the season began.
There just isn’t enough room for the likes of Penn State or Oklahoma, two worthy teams that will be right on the outside looking in when the committee unveils its final rankings.
8. Lamar Jackson will win Heisman, but he’s not the nation’s best player
One of the things that piqued our interest heading into championship weekend was the prospect of Dede Westbrook, Baker Mayfield or Deshaun Watson going absolutely ham, thus perchance stealing the Heisman away from Lamar Jackson at the last moment.
Westbrook was phenomenal…for the quarter-plus he played in the Bedlam matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. He should be a finalist but won’t rank higher than third place. Mayfield had a tremendous year and was great on Saturday. But he might not even make it to New York.
Watson had a big game in Clemson’s ACC title win, scoring five touchdowns in a shootout with Jerod Evans. But when you compare his overall season numbers to the ones put up by Jackson, they pale in comparison: Jackson finished the season with 4,928 total yards and 51 touchdowns. Watson finished with 4,443 total yards and 43 touchdowns, and he had an extra game to compile those stats.
When the Heisman votes are counted, Jackson, by virtue of his overwhelming stats, will be the winner. But there are other players around the nation who played just as well, if not better, for their teams.