Every year, college football teams enter the season with sky-high expectations of winning the national championship or returning a program to prominence.
For some fan bases, those hopes are dashed over the course of a competitive and unpredictable season. For others, their season surpasses even their wildest dreams.
In this article, we look at the 5 biggest winners and 5 biggest losers of an eventful 2016 college football season.
Let’s get started.
Winner: Western Michigan Broncos
All you can really say about P.J. Fleck and this Western Michigan squad is this — Row the Boat. The mantra developed by Fleck upon his arrival in Kalamazoo has been the rallying cry for this Broncos team during the season.
A little-known team from the MAC, the Broncos went 13-0 in the regular season, led largely by future first-round draft pick wide receiver Corey Davis as well as prolific passer Zach Terrell.
Fleck, seen as one of the hottest rising coaches in college football, has completely changed the culture of a team that had never won more than nine games in program history.
All of that culminated in the greatest season the Broncos have ever seen. With wins over Power Five foes Northwestern and Illinois, Fleck established the Broncos as a major threat early on and rattled off 13 straight wins to pen a storybook season.
And when big time programs came calling for the 36-year-old from Sugar Grove, Illinois, Fleck stuck with the team he turned from a 1-11 doormat to an undefeated conference champion with an argument for the College Football Playoff.
While a 24-16 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin put a damper on an otherwise fantastic season, the excitement around the program has lead to the best recruiting class in school history. The future looks to be even brighter for the Broncos.
Loser: UCLA Bruins
Once touted as a top-25 team with potential College Football Playoff aspirations and led by a future No. 1 overall draft pick in Josh Rosen, UCLA was seen as the sexy pick to win the PAC-12 South at the very least.
Fast-forward a few months, and UCLA was blown out by cross-town rival USC 36-14 en route to a 4-8 season that left head coach Jim Mora’s job in dire jeopardy.
With Rosen suffering nerve damage in his throwing shoulder, Mora turned to backup walk-on Mike Faufal.
That didn’t work out well at all.
And with some evidence Mora struggles to develop talent, as well as his inability to properly manage games, it’s little surprise that UCLA imploded like it did.
From an offensive line that was essentially a sieve, a run game that was absolutely putrid, and a defense that gave up less than 21 points just once on the year, the season was an absolute bust for the secondary college football team in Los Angeles.
While injuries obviously attributed to some of the issues, the play calling and overall game management left a lot to be desired. And despite multiple highly ranked recruiting classes in his tenure in Westwood, Mora has continuously failed to cultivate depth and develop the talent needed to consistently competitive in an aggressive PAC-12 conference.
And while you’ll hear chants of “next year!” from Bruin fans, the fact of the matter is that Mora is on his third offensive coordinator in three seasons, his quarterback is recovering from nerve damage, and with USC on the rise again it may be a few more rough seasons in Westwood.
Winner: Louisville Cardinals
Not many people expected the Louisville Cardinals to make a legitimate push for the College Football Playoff before petering off at the end. Then again, not many people knew about all-world quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The sophomore from Broward County had a season for the ages, leading Louisville to a 9-1 start and blowing out a highly-regarded Florida State squad.
While the Cardinals faltered down the stretch, losing three straight, the hype and excitement surrounding the program hasn’t been this high since the 2013 season. With a Heisman winner returning, a great recruiting class incoming and players developing within the scheme, Lousiville could be poised to contend for the Playoff once again.
While it remains to be seen if the Cardinals’ woes down the stretch will come back to haunt them, no team started out hotter than Louisville.
And with the Heisman Trophy winner guaranteed to come back for one more year, it generates a buzz around the program that will only help in terms of recruiting.
Loser: Tennessee Volunteers
The Volunteers entered the season with an experienced quarterback in Josh Dobbs, a rugged running back in Jalen Hurd and young talent all over the field.
Debuting at No. 9 in the AP poll, that would wind up being the highest the team would ever reach.
Seemingly a perennial “next year is our year!” team, Tennessee has devolved from aspirations of winning the SEC, to a goal of becoming “Champions of Life” — and even that they failed at. With the implosion of the offensive line, as well as multiple key injuries, Tennessee finished with a 9-4 record that is worse than it looks.
While Tennessee had some miraculous comebacks, the aspirations of a championship did not line up with the on-field product at all. And while a 9-4 season is not bad by any means, the issue lies with Butch Jones and the expectations surrounding the program.
With multiple high-profile recruiting classes, as well as a hype surrounding the program built by Jones, the fact of the matter is that anything less than 10 or 11 wins is not ideal.
Add in the propensity for multiple major injuries, and questions are mounting surrounding Butch Jones and his ability to lead this team to the playoffs.
Add in the Jalen Hurd fiasco, and this season was a bust by all means.
Winner: Penn State Nittany Lions
While the debate over whether or not Penn State deserved the death penalty following the Jerry Sandusky scandal will rage on for years, one can’t question this season as a major win for the Nittany Lion program.
Losing a three-year starter at quarterback, sack artist Carl Nassib at defensive end and many other key contributors, nobody would have faulted Penn State for having a rough 7-win season.
And while they had issues at times all season, especially in the first half, their resiliency and propensity to come up clutch in big games shined through all year. Now that head coach James Franklin no longer on the hot seat and offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead is hitting his stride, this Penn State program has suddenly become a very enticing place to be.
With the defining moment being a massive win over undefeated Ohio State that propelled Penn State to the Big Ten championship game, the Nittany Lions are suddenly one of the darlings of college football.
Add in their play in the Rose Bowl, and it’s easy to see why the Nittany Lions are winners of the 2016 season.
Loser: Baylor Bears
Their losing season started before the year when allegations of sexual assault flew around the Baylor campus. Add in the firing of arguably the best coach in Baylor history, as well as one of the worst recruiting classes in the country and multiple key transfers, and this season imploded early.
While the season itself wasn’t terrible under Jim Grobe with a 7-6 record, considering the team had come off three straight ten-plus win seasons, this one was rough.
And with sanctions likely impending, the season was a major loss for multiple reasons away from the field
The one shining light through all this scandal? The hiring of Matt Rhule from Temple. A tough head coach who has no issues rebuilding a program, he has inherited a team that was divided all year but is littered with talent.
Although he will need to make some home run hires if he expects to right the ship, the early returns are promising.
That being said, the loss of star freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a major blow for the future of this Bears program. The former five-star recruit, who started multiple games as a true freshman, announced his transfer following the firing of Art Briles and is set to enroll at Auburn this Spring.
Facing an uphill battle, expect Rhule to bring a fire this team lacked all season.
Winner: Colorado Buffaloes
Winning 10 games for the first time in 15 years, just a season removed from a 2-10 record, this Colorado Buffalo rise has been unprecedented. Fueled by energetic, up-and-coming coordinators on both sides of the ball, Colorado pushed for a historic turnaround under Mike Macintyre.
Aided by senior quarterback Sefo Liufau returning from a foot injury that cost him his junior year, the Buffaloes went blow for blow with Michigan in the Big House and stole the PAC-12 South from USC.
With the best recruiting class in school history set to enroll in this offseason, the Buffs arrow is trending way up. And with coaches like Macintyre and offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini committed to “The Rise” as it’s called, we could be seeing a return to the glory days for Colorado football.
Few know better than Chiaverini, himself a former Buff whose name is etched across school record books. Playing in Boulder during the Golden Age of Buffalo football, Chiaverini brings a passion and love for the school that’s infectious. Add in his ability to connect with players and develop them, as evidenced by the breakout of guys like Shay Fields, Chiaverini has been key in helping right the Colorado ship.
Expect the Buffaloes to push for the playoffs next season, if they can get past the USC hump.
Loser: Texas Longhorns
When Charlie Strong was lured away from Louisville following a 12-1 season in 2013, it was expected he would return a once-proud program to prominence.
With Mack Brown failing to develop talent, and just generally being out-coached, the Longhorns jumped at the chance to hire one of the hottest rising stars in college football. Strong preached a tough, physical, disciplined program that focused on hard-nosed defense and recruiting well within the state of Texas.
It was felt by many that, while it would take a year or two, fans would see a marked improvement by year three.
That seemingly failed to happen.
With multiple embarrassing losses, despite some bright spots, the on-field product for Texas never truly progressed. Even with a massive win over what many thought would be a top-tier Notre Dame squad, it became quickly apparent that this season wouldn’t turn out ideal for the Longhorns.
With losses to a putrid Kansas squad, as well as in the Red River Shootout against hated rival Oklahoma, it was clear to the boosters that it was time to move on. And with Tom Herman turning around a Houston Cougar program while having been a former grad assistant at Texas, it made all the sense in the world to part ways with Strong.
While you feel for him, the season was a wash by Week 5 and things had to be done.
Winner: Washington Huskies
Let’s face it, no one outside of Seattle (and few inside) expected Washington to have the season they had.
Despite a fantastic and athletic defense, no one in their right mind expected the Huskies to make the College Football Playoff, let alone hang with the defending national champions for two quarters.
And despite the loss to USC, the Huskies’ domination of the PAC-12 was unprecedented. With their first 12-win season since they won the national championship in 1991 and only second in school history, Chris Petersen has laid the foundation foer a dominant program.
It all started with the hiring of Chris Petersen from Boise State in 2014 following Steve Sarkisian leaving for USC. Known for over-achieving in relation to the talent level he had to work with while at Boise State, Petersen put himself on the map in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. With consistent success, as well as a penchant for trick plays in key situations, Petersen became highly sought after.
Upon arriving in Seattle, he set about building a staff that would turn the Huskies into a national power. Mission accomplished, as the defense was dominant and the offense extremely explosive.
And now, with a buzz around the program that Husky fans haven’t seen since the Don James era, Petersen’s program is poised to unseat Stanford as the presumptive favorite in the PAC-12 North.
Notching the program’s first double-digit win season since 2000, Petersen was a home-run hire for the Washington administration. And this season was a grand slam for the Huskies squad.
Loser: Ole Miss Rebels
Returning a multi-year starter at quarterback, one of the few to beat a Nick Saban-led Bama squad, as well as having explosive playmakers all over the field, no one expected a team that had just notched a ten-win season to miss out on making a bowl game.
And yet, Hugh Freeze’s program regressed badly in his fifth year at the helm in Oxford.
The low point in the year came in a blowout loss to Vanderbilt, the first time the Commodores beat the Rebels since 2012. Add in the major controversy surrounding allegations of coaches paying players, and this season has been a bust for the Hotty Toddy faithful.
With Chad Kelly getting into some hot water while at his younger brother’s high school football game, the pay-for-play scandal, and the season ending in a blowout loss to in-state rivals Mississippi State, Rebel fans may be longing for a signature win — even if it’s just Vanderbilt.