The college football bowl season finished on a high note.
On New Year’s Day, we saw an all-time classic in Georgia’s Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma, a clinical Alabama victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, and a memorable Central Florida win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Though the National Championship Game still remains, the college football season’s symbolic end was as perfect as could be.
This season feels like a turning point: The most memorable playoff race in the CFP’s short history and the year that convinced most people it’s time to expand from four teams to eight (we all know it’s happening eventually),
Here are our top-20 takeaways from the craziest season the craziest sport has had in a long time.
Jake Fromm is a star, now and in the future
Georgia’s run game was the catalyst behind its offense, both during the regular season and the Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma. However, Fromm, a true freshman, has made a play every time the ‘Dawgs have needed him to do so.
At no time was this more evident than the last drive of regulation against Oklahoma. Fromm got the ball with 3:22 to go and Georgia down by seven. He proceeded drive down the field, making two of the toughest plays you could imagine. A short completion to Sony Michel after the pocket broke down that ended up going for 17 and a bullet to Terry Godwin to convert 3rd-and-10.
How many freshman quarterbacks could make plays like that, on a stage as big as the Rose Bowl?
Fromm finished the game with 210 yards and two of Georgia’s seven touchdowns, a solid but unimpressive line. However, the eye test was far better. Fromm did everything he had to do, and then some more. His potential is unlimited from here.
Roquan Smith is the best defensive player in college football
Smith won the Butkus Award after the regular season, so this should come as no surprise. If there was any doubt he was deserving, Smith put it to rest in the Rose Bowl.
He led the Bulldogs with 11 tackles and had a TFL to boot. In the first overtime, he made an absurd tackle on third down to stop Jordan Smallwood behind the line to gain and hold the Sooners to a field goal. In the second, he took out Rodney Anderson for a two-yard loss, putting Oklahoma in a 3rd-and-long situation it couldn’t convert.
Smith was unbelievable all year as well — his 13 tackles, two TFLs, and sack against Auburn catalyzed Georgia’s SEC Championship Game victory. He deserves to be the first linebacker off the board come April without a doubt. Nobody in the country had the same sideline-to-sideline impact as Smith in both run and pass defense. The time for a more prolonged conversation will come soon, but for now, Smith is ‘Bama’s problem.
Baker Mayfield dominates everybody
Despite a lackluster second half in the Rose Bowl, Mayfield still put together one of the most dominant college football seasons in recent memory.
During the regular season, he led the country with 11.8 yards per attempt and a 203.8 passer rating. Mayfield’s 4,340 passing yards were second only to Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, whom Mayfield outdueled in an epic Bedlam matchup. He earned the Heisman Trophy despite walking on at Oklahoma just a few years ago. In all likelihood, he also earned first round status at the NFL Draft.
As for the Rose Bowl, the first half showcased exactly what Mayfield is capable of doing. Mayfield gashed a vaunted Georgia defense for 31 first half points, making it look like a Big 12 team. In the second, things changed as the ‘Dawgs clamped down. However, Mayfield still finished the game averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. If not for a botched squib kick at the end of the first half, it might be the Sooners heading to Atlanta next week.
Alabama is still Alabama
For a fleeting moment, it seemed the Tide might miss the playoff for the first time in the CFP’s history. Alabama looked exposed in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, dropping its first game of the season and losing out on a trip to the SEC title game. If things had played out a little differently and Auburn beat Georgia — or the committee had chosen Ohio State over the Crimson Tide — Alabama would have been relegated out of the playoff.
Alas, it was not to be.
The committee took the Crimson Tide as the last team in and the Crimson Tide reminded us all why on Monday.
Alabama’s defense didn’t slow down Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, it stopped the Tigers like a traffic jam when a city is being evacuated. Clemson had 2.7 yards per play on the game after averaging 6.0 for the year. The offensive line was overwhelmed by the Tide’s defensive front. So, for that matter, was Kelly Bryant. Though it was a seven-point game heading into halftime, the result was never really in doubt because nobody thought Clemson could score seven points.
In the end, it didn’t.
The difference between Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant was exposed when it mattered
Bryant looked to be Watson’s natural successor in Death Valley all year. Though the junior was never going to be the same NFL-level passer as Watson, Bryant was good enough all year. Clemson coasted thanks to a strong run game and vaunted defensive front.
Not against ‘Bama.
Bryant, quite simply, wasn’t good enough in the Sugar Bowl. Once Alabama went up 17-6 and Clemson had no choice but throw, Bryant threw a pick-six into the hands of Mack Wilson, his second interception of the game. He without a touchdown, averaging just 3.4 yards per attempt. That won’t cut it in the playoff. Not against an Alabama team that jumps down your throat if you make the smallest mistake.
Clemson got pretty far without Watson. But if their goal is still a national championship, a better successor is the only option.
Georgia should be favored over Alabama in the national championship game
Despite the Crimson Tide’s domination of Clemson, Georgia still deserves the benefit of the doubt next Monday.
During the regular season, Alabama’s defense was better than Georgia’s, but only by the slimmest of margins. Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, and Co. are more than capable of slowing down the Tide.
If the game is a low-scoring slugfest, as expected, the Bulldogs have the advantage. Georgia can play ball control by handing it to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who form one of the best running backs in the country. Alabama won’t make it as easy as Oklahoma did, but Georgia is capable of running the ball against anybody.
Jalen Hurts and Jake Fromm are similar players at quarterback right now (though Fromm will develop into more) — the better run game is going to be decisive here. And that advantage is held by Georgia.
The College Football Playoff needs to be expanded to eight teams
This was clear when the regular season ended, but bowl season has made it all the more obvious. After Central Florida upset Auburn in the Peach Bowl, nobody can say the undefeated Knights didn’t deserve to make the playoff. Ditto for 12-1 Wisconsin after it beat Miami in the Orange Bowl.
An eight-team playoff isn’t all that hard to construct. Take the Power Five conference champions, any undefeated Group of Five team, and throw in the best remaining Power Five teams. Going by the CFP final rankings and substituting UCF for Auburn — the lowest-ranked team not to win its conference — here’s what those matchups would have looked like:
- No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 8 UCF
- No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 USC
- No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 Wisconsin
- No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 5 Ohio State
All of those teams, saving perhaps USC, had a legitimate playoff case to make this year anyway. It only makes sense they should all get a chance to vie for the national championship.
You can’t win if you can’t throw
This feels like stating the obvious, but two schools with top defenses finished their with bowl losses, without so much as making a peep in the title conversation: Michigan and LSU.
After the regular season ended, Michigan was 10th in defensive S&P+, while LSU was 17th. The other common thread between the two storied programs: neither had a quarterback it could trust.
Danny Etling for the Tigers and the three-headed monster of Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters for the Wolverines simply couldn’t get it done.
Though the former was certainly better than the latter three, Etling became a nonfactor in losses against Mississippi State, Alabama, and Troy. O’Korn and Peters threw key interceptions against Michigan State, Ohio State, and South Carolina.
Both programs had good enough run games. Both programs had great defenses. Neither had a successful season.
The Pac-12 is in trouble
Not only did the Pac-12 fail to get a team in the College Football Playoff, it didn’t come close. USC won the conference and was ranked eighth in the final CFP poll, completely out of the argument. When bowl season came, the conference didn’t exactly cover itself in glory.
The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowls, with USC, Washington State, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA suffering blowout losses. Utah — the only Pac-12 team to win a bowl game — did so over a West Virginia team missing its star quarterback, Will Grier.
Who knows if this trend holds into the 2018 season. If USC’s Sam Darnold foregoes the NFL Draft, the Trojans will likely be preseason favorites to win it all. But then again, USC was a playoff favorite coming into 2017 and look how that went.
The fact remains: the Pac-12 is the only power conference without a consistent playoff contender. The SEC (Alabama), Big Ten (Ohio State), Big 12 (Oklahoma), and ACC (Clemson), all feature teams that have been to the playoff more than once and expect to compete for it every year. A team like that has yet to emerge in the Pac-12.
College football should get rid of Thursday and Friday games
This ties directly into the Pac-12’s decline. The loss to Washington State that likely kept USC out of the playoff came on a Friday night. The loss to Stanford that likely kept Washington out of the playoff was on a Friday night.
Here’s a novel idea: Power Five conferences shouldn’t make unpaid kids play on short rest, let alone on the same days some of them might have classes or exams. If the Pac-12 can’t get people to watch their conference otherwise, maybe they should make the Pac-12 Network accessible to regular cable systems.
The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference that did this. The ACC played Thursday and Friday games as well. In what should come as a surprise to nobody, Clemson’s only loss of the regular season came — you guessed it — on a Friday night. The Big Ten held some early in the year and will continue to do so. No doubt it will bite that conference in the future as well.
Notre Dame is back
The Irish couldn’t make the playoff thanks to the whipping it took in Miami. However, Brian Kelly’s squad recovered from a 4-8 2016 better than anyone expected, going 10-3 and beating LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Notre Dame, undoubtedly, earned top-10 status this year. Running back Josh Adams and wideout Equanimeous St. Brown were two if the most dynamic offensive players in the country. Though St. Brown is expected to go to the NFL, Adams seems more likely to stay. If he does, the Irish will roll into 2018 with a second-year starting quarterback in Brandon Wimbush and one of the country’s best running games. The Irish also boast the seventh-best recruiting class in the nation, according to the 247 Composite rankings.
Notre Dame will be tested immediately at the start of next season, as the Irish open up at home against Michigan. However, it’s hard not to think Notre Dame will be right in the playoff mix again come next fall.
So is Miami
The Hurricanes also fell short of the playoff, but the fact remains: The U is back and it’s wonderful.
Miami hit double-digit wins for the first time since 2003 — when it played in the Big East Conference, reaching the Orange Bowl and falling one win short of the College Football Playoff.
Just as important: Miami had its swagger. The turnover chain was likely the most fun part of college football this season. Hard Rock Stadium was filled up every week and the fans were into it. The Hurricanes were fun.
Miami likely wasn’t as good as its record. It played a whole lot of close games against bad teams and wilted in the ACC title game against Clemson. But 10-3 is still 10-3 and this year was what it took to bring back the Hurricanes.
But not Texas…yet
If nothing else, Tom Herman’s first year in Austin reminded everybody just how far the Longhorns need to go before they become contenders. Herman made some pointed comments after the season saying as much.
Texas did reach its first bowl game since 2014, winning the Texas Bowl over Missouri, but a 7-6 record reflected a sobering reality.
That doesn’t mean the Longhorns won’t be back soon though. Texas lost its best offensive player of 2016, D’Onta Foreman, to the NFL and struggled with its quarterback situation all year. Despite that, the Longhorns managed to put together the 26th-ranked defense by S&P+. If a few more bounces had gone their way in close losses against USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech, we might be having an entirely different conversation right now.
Even more importantly, Herman has brought in the nation’s third-best recruiting class, per 247’s composite rankings. That won’t mean much if he can’t coach them into something, but it’s a notable sign of progress nonetheless. Texas won’t be a national title contender next season, but the Longhorns are, without a doubt, on the right track.
James Franklin costs Penn State a CFP spot
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley proved time and time again that he was the nation’s most dynamic offensive player. The only person who failed to see it was Franklin, his head coach.
Barkley averaged 16.7 carries per game, nowhere near enough. For reference, Stanford’s Bryce Love averaged 20.2, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny 22.2. Sure, the Nittany Lions had a better passing game than the Cardinal or Aztecs and yes, it’s a positive they didn’t need Barkley to go for 200 yards to win a game.
But handing the ball to their best player just 21 times at Ohio State and only 14 times at Michigan State, both losses, was unacceptable. Both games were close throughout — at no point did Penn State need abandon the run. Yet, that’s just what Franklin did.
Winning the Fiesta Bowl is an objective success, but the Nittany Lions were capable of more. With Barkley going to the NFL, it’s unlikely their 2018 squad will have the same ceiling.
Nebraska and Tennessee bottom out
At 4-8, the Cornhuskers had their worst season since 1961. The Volunteers, with the same record, set program history with their most losses ever and had their worst winning percentage since going 1-6 in 1909. Both schools fired their coaches, with Nebraska hiring Scott Frost and Tennessee hiring Jeremy Pruitt after an embarrassing fiasco of a search.
Neither program has been a true powerhouse in a while. Nebraska hasn’t been ranked in the AP top-five since 2010 and hasn’t won a marquee bowl game since 1999. Tennessee hasn’t been in the AP top-five since 2005 and that was in the preseason poll, in a year where the Vols went 5-6 and missed bowl season. But that doesn’t make the fall any less stunning.
Even though the two programs play in winnable divisions, the Big Ten West and SEC East, it’s hard to believe either will ever return to being powerhouses for a sustained period of time. Nebraska’s recruiting ability seems to have dried up and Tennessee can’t compete with the likes Alabama, Auburn, or Georgia in the region. Perhaps there is a way back — if Nebraska is ever going to be Nebraska again, Frost looks like the man to get them there — but the landscape seems permanently altered.
The coaching carousel is crazier than ever
This year featured four absolute shockers on the coaching carousel: Jimbo Fisher leaving Florida State for a $75 million(!!!) deal at Texas A&M, Willie Taggart leaving Oregon for Florida State after one year, Herm Edwards going to Arizona State, and Tennessee fans revolting over the potential hiring of Greg Schiano.
The revolving door at FSU was crazy for two reasons: Fisher getting $75 million and Taggart leaving Eugene so soon. Investing that much in Jimbo Fisher feels like a questionable decision at best from Texas A&M. And Taggart leaving players he recruited to Oregon after just one season (a season in which quarterback Justin Herbert missed significant time with an injury at that) felt slimy and opportunistic at best.
As for Edwards, if you didn’t think hiring a bad NFL coach who hadn’t been on a sideline since 2008 was questionable, his introductory news conference probably changed your opinion. It was absurd in every way imaginable. He even seemed unaware the school’s mascot is the Sun Devils.
Schiano, well, that saga had a life of its own. Tennessee fans succeeded in derailing his hiring, but not without embarrassing the program. There might not be a comparable moment in sports history to it.
The rest of the coaching carousel had its usual level of insanity. Scott Frost returned to Lincoln, Gus Malzahn stayed put, Chad Morris went to Arkansas, Dan Mullen to Florida, Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State. But as a whole, things were on another level.
Heisman Trophy voting is broken
Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with the choice the voters made. Baker Mayfield had a great season and Lamar Jackson, who arguably deserved the honor, suffered because he won it last season, not because he played on the West Coast.
However, Penny and Love, two West Coast running backs, had next to no buzz. This, despite rushing for 2,248 and 2,118 yards, respectively. Penny lead the country in rushing yards and got just seven first place votes. Love did better, finishing second in total voting, but there was no real consideration given to him.
When it comes to the Heisman, it feels like the voters don’t consider the award with requisite gravity. Consider the way NBA writers treat MVP voting. Does anyone think the average Heisman voter is doing anything close to that level of thinking? Of course not. It’s still a disadvantage to play on the West Coast! The average Heisman voter doesn’t have DVR!! Can you imagine if Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant didn’t get talked about in the NBA MVP discussion because basketball writers hadn’t seen enough of the Golden State Warriors?
Again, this isn’t a grievance because Baker Mayfield won. It’s about the process, where November matters more than September and West Coast players have a disadvantage. That needs to be fixed, and soon.
Winning your conference doesn’t matter if you have two losses
As long as the CFP is a four-team affair, this rule is in effect.
Ohio State was the first team out of the playoff, despite winning the Big Ten, thanks to losing two games. Alabama, who went in over them, had one loss but didn’t even make the SEC Championship Game.
This was also the second straight year this happened. In 2016, a two-loss Penn State which won the Big Ten was the first team out, in favor of a one-loss Ohio State that wasn’t in the Big Ten title game.
If you were looking to figure out what the committee wants, we have the formula.
Matt Campbell gives Iowa State its best season since 2000
Iowa State isn’t a football powerhouse and it probably never will be. But Matt Campbell has done as good a job of getting them to prominence as anyone could have expected.
In just his second year in Ames, Campbell led the Cyclones to 8-5 and a Liberty Bowl victory. Iowa State had marquee wins over both Oklahoma and TCU. Though the 2018 status of quarterback Kyle Kempt will depend on whether the NCAA grants him a sixth year of eligibility, the Cyclones are in a good place for next year thanks to Campbell staying.
Iowa State probably doesn’t have the talent to compete with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, or TCU in the Big 12. But if the Cyclones can hang with eight or nine wins a year during the Campbell Era, that’s an incredible accomplishment which went over .500 just once from 2006-2016.
Florida State is an unmitigated disaster
The Seminoles were this year’s Hindenburg Team. They started the season ranked third overall. They ended it feeling good about 7-6 and an Independence Bowl victory. Everything that could go wrong did.
Quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending knee injury during the opening game. Safety Derwin James didn’t live up to the hype. Neither did running back Cam Akers. The offensive line was disastrous, the defense was mediocre. Jimbo Fisher got into an argument with a fan, then left for Texas A&M.
The recruiting class looks fine, but 33rd in the 247 Composite ain’t gonna cut it for a program that wants to contend for titles. A healthy Francois will help the passing game next year and Akers still has a ton of talent at running back. It’s hard to imagine things going worse in 2018, but the Seminoles are still looking at a long road back to title contention.