Biggest winners and losers from college football’s regular season

By Ethan Sears
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

College football’s regular season is finally at an end. Usain Bolt would be jealous of the way this season sprinted to its finish — after a chaotic Week 13, things are still completely in flux.

Going into conference championship games, there isn’t a single team we can say will make the College Football Playoff with confidence. Everyone but Wisconsin and Central Florida has at least one loss, and unless the Badgers upset Ohio State next week, neither of them will make it. Despite this chaos at the top, we still know who’s up and down.

Here are the winners and losers of college football’s regular season.

Winner: Eight-team playoff proponents

There’s only one scenario for next week that doesn’t make the selection committee’s choice impossible: Clemson, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Wisconsin all win. If anything else happens — and knowing this sport, it will — we’re going to be staring down utter chaos. Alabama has a good case with one loss, as does Ohio State with two. Oklahoma, however, beat the Buckeyes in a head-to-head matchup and their worst-case is two losses. There’s also the matter of a two-loss Pac-12 champion getting a say.

In short, a lot of people are going to be unhappy. But if we were to expand to eight, things would be much easier: all five Power Five conference champs get in, followed by Alabama, Central Florida, and the best one-loss team remaining (likely Wisconsin). That’s not perfect, but it’s much better than the inevitable food fight that will occur after next week.

Loser: Big 12 Championship Game backers

Disclaimer: The Big 12 Championship Game is going to be a lot of fun and we will enjoy watching it and be happy that it’s happening. But, it could well screw the conference out of a playoff spot. If Oklahoma didn’t have to play next weekend, it would be in the playoff without question. But if they lose to TCU, the Sooners are probably out. Oklahoma handled the Horned Frogs fairly easily in their first meeting, but things can change. If TCU pulls of the upset, the Big 12 is going to be screwed again.

Winner: Scott Frost

In 2015, Central Florida was 0-12. In 2016, they hired Scott Frost and went 6-6 before losing a bowl game. This year, they’re 11-0 and facing Memphis — a team they crushed earlier in the year — in the AAC Championship Game with a New Year’s Six bid on the line. If you can’t do the math, Frost is a magician and he will have his pick of jobs this offseason. Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, heck, Arizona State would probably give Frost the job if he wanted it. He’s the hottest coaching commodity on the market right now and with good reason.

Loser: Central Florida

Yes, the Knights are 11-0 and likely going to a New Year’s Six game. Yes, that will make the program more money than it has ever had. But UCF is undefeated and can’t get any kind of playoff buzz. Moreover, there seems to be no chance at all that Scott Frost actually stays in Orlando next year. Central Florida fans should feel at least a little indignant — they probably won’t be this good again for a while. A New Year’s Six is nice, but not when you could be getting more.

Winner: Miami

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt college football Week 11

Not only did the Hurricanes go 10-1, putting them a win away from the CFP, but Miami was the most entertaining team in the country. The turnover chain was the single most fun thing to come out of this season. The Hurricanes kept winning close games and put a beating on Notre Dame. They made Hard Rock Stadium into a good atmosphere. If you’ve watched the Hurricanes or Dolphins in the past 10 years, you understand just how hard a feat that is to pull off. College football is a better sport when Miami is good and this season was proof.

Loser: Louisville

Louisville has had the best player in college football for two years in a row and was never a serious title contender. It’s rare that an 8-4 record should be considered an objective failure, but this was an objective failure. Bobby Petrino didn’t put enough talent around Lamar Jackson and didn’t do enough with the talent that was around Lamar Jackson. This was Louisville’s national championship window and they couldn’t even win the Citrus Bowl last year. That’s not good enough.

Winner: Matt Campbell

Campbell set himself up to jump right into one of the premier job openings this offseason. Iowa State’s 7-5 record alone won’t open eyes on its own, but let’s put some context around it. Before this year, the Cyclones hadn’t finished above .500 since 2009 and hadn’t made a bowl since 2012. Not only did Campbell guarantee both, but he did so by pulling off two of the year’s biggest upsets. He also built a good defense in the Big 12, of all places, and without much of a recruiting base. Whichever program lands Campbell this offseason is going to be very happy for a long time.

Loser: Matt Rhule

Rhule took a risk in jumping to a Baylor program in flux instead of staying at Temple until a better opportunity came along. A year later, it feels safe to say that decision hasn’t paid off. Baylor has been utterly abysmal this season. That has little to do with Rhule himself — the circumstances surrounding the program are a lot to overcome and this is just his first year in Waco. But a 1-11 record, including a loss to FCS Liberty, doesn’t reflect well on Rhule. And it will still be an uphill climb to get respectable in Year Two. Rhule may have tanked his own long-term prospects by taking this job.

Winner: The SEC

The SEC doesn’t have good depth and it’s no longer the best conference in the land. But the Southeastern Conference has a pretty good shot at getting two teams in the playoffs and its top three — Auburn, Georgia, Alabama — match up favorably against anyone else’s. The winner of the SEC title game between Auburn and Georgia is expected to be in the playoff. As for Alabama, the Tide have a strong case to make it as a one-loss team. They’ll need some help — namely a loss for either Wisconsin or Oklahoma — but that’s more than feasible. Alabama will have a great case to make. It’s hard to argue it isn’t one of the best four teams. Right now, it wouldn’t be surprising at all for the SEC to have two teams in the playoff.

Loser: Independents

Setting aside Notre Dame for a second, it’s getting really hard to be an independent. UMass and BYU both had disastrous seasons. Army is 8-3 heading into its matchup against Navy, but independence in general will hurt the Black Knights when bowl selection time comes. It’s also hard to keep up with other programs in terms of money when you don’t have a TV deal.

As for the Irish, they’re well-off in that department but there’s no doubt independence hurt Notre Dame in playoff contention. After their second loss, it was more or less over for the Irish because they had no conference championship to win. Notre Dame has joined a conference in every sport but football. It’s probably only a matter of time before the football program succumbs as well.

Winner: Georgia

The Bulldogs took a massive risk firing Mark Richt after a 9-3 season in 2015. Richt had the program in a nine or 10-win capacity consistently — firing him was Georgia’s way of saying that wasn’t enough. The risk in trying to make a jump to national title contender by firing a coach cannot be overstated, but the early returns are positive. Kirby Smart has the ‘Dawgs at 11-1, one win away from the College Football Playoff despite quarterback Jacob Eason getting hurt in the first game of the year. Who knows if that’s sustainable in the long term, but Georgia has to be feeling pretty good about its decision right now.

Loser: USC

The Trojans were good enough to make the playoff this year when it came to talent. The offense had all the makings of something special, and after closing 2016 with nine straight wins, including the Rose Bowl, a playoff berth seemed almost inevitable. But despite a 9-2 record and a decent shot of winning the Pac-12 next week, this hasn’t been a playoff team. USC fell flat against two of the three good teams it played all year — Washington State and Notre Dame. It took until after that Notre Dame loss for the Trojans to start looking like the team we thought they could be and by then it was too late. Even if it wins a conference title, this year will be a missed opportunity for USC.

Winner: Gus Malzahn

There was a faction of Auburn’s fanbase that was looking for any excuse possible to get rid of Malzahn and it seemed to be working.  Even after the Tigers knocked off Georgia, Malzahn was the odds-on favorite to replace Brett Bielema at Arkansas. After winning the Iron Bowl and putting Auburn in position to make the playoff, suffice it to say Malzahn will remain in place so long as he wants to be in place. It was always mystifying that people were eager to call for Malzahn’s head. Now, he’s solidified his position for a long time.

Loser: Mike Leach

This one was mostly out of Leach’s control. When AD Bill Moos ditched Washington State for Nebraska, Leach lost his biggest backer. And after the debacle that was Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln, it’s fair to say Leach won’t follow Moos to the Cornhusker state. Leach is unlikely to be shown the door anytime soon. After all, the Cougs were 9-3 and he’s build Wazzu into a perennial Pac-12 North contender. But when Leach’s tenure in Pullman does end, we’ll likely look back on this year as when the clock started ticking.

Winner: Notre Dame

Jumping from 4-8 to 9-3 makes you a winner. That much is pretty simple. The Irish probably could have made the playoff — they lost to Georgia by one point at home in a game that could have gone either way — but they’ll take this after the disaster of 2016. A year ago, we were talking about whether Brian Kelly would survive. Now, it’s hard to believe he’ll be leaving South Bend anytime soon. And if running back Josh Adams doesn’t leave for the NFL, Notre Dame will probably be among the title favorites next season.

Loser: Nebraska

It’s hard to think of any moment in the last 50 years when Nebraska was less relevant nationally than it is right now. The Huskers are 4-8, out of a bowl game for the first time in 10 years and the third time since 1969. They still have yet to find a long-term replacement for Tom Osborne, who retired after the 1997 season. Since then, Nebraska has had five head coaches, none for more than seven seasons. Looking back, firing Frank Solich was probably ill-advised. Whoever replaces Mike Riley has a monumental and unenviable task of building Nebraska back into a national power without much of a recruiting base or recent success to build on and with a massive fan base breathing down his neck. Why would anyone take that job if there was another good option available?

Winner: Michigan State

All credit to Mark Dantonio — he’s running one efficient ship out of East Lansing. The Spartans were 3-9 in 2016, their worst mark since Dantonio has been head coach, and didn’t look much better on paper this year. No matter, Michigan State finished 9-3, beating in-state rival Michigan and then-No. 7 Penn State. The defense was a meat grinder in the most literal sense of the phrase — it held opponents to 10 or fewer points six times. The Spartans made teams play on their terms and it worked. Michigan State had a down 2016, but they reminded us just how rare that is this season.

Loser: Michigan

In all fairness, the Wolverines were expected to be an eight or nine-win team and they were, going 8-4 despite two quarterback injuries. But they couldn’t beat Michigan State, or Ohio State. Or Penn State, or Wisconsin for that matter — which happened to be the four good teams they played. Michigan wasn’t supposed to beat those teams — save for the Spartans — but a 5-4 conference record isn’t made better because of that. 2018 will be the referendum on Jim Harbaugh and this iteration of Michigan’s football program. If it goes well, this year doesn’t really matter, but the bar is going to be a lot higher than 8-4.

Winner: Baker Mayfield

Mayfield is the odds-on Heisman favorite and with good reason. He threw for 4,097 yards — 11.8 per attempt — along with 37 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions. He led the country in completion percentage, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, and passer efficiency rating. He led Oklahoma to an 11-1 record and had two of the year’s signature moments: planting the flag on Ohio State’s logo after beating them in Columbus and hitting Marquise Brown on a 77-yard score to seal a Bedlam victory. More than that, Mayfield significantly upped his draft stock in doing so. He was probably a Day 3 guy before this season. Now, he’ll probably go in the second round, early third at the latest.

Loser: Sam Darnold

Everything Mayfield was, Darnold wasn’t. The redshirt sophomore wasn’t bad by any means, but Darnold was supposed to be the best quarterback in the country and certainly was not. Darnold looked tentative in a lot of big moments and it so often felt like he wasn’t playing his best. The simple fact of the matter is that he was better at the end of last season than at any point this year. He slipped from the likely No. 1 overall pick to someone who’s in the discussion, but likely behind UCLA’s Josh Rosen (Lamar Jackson is better than both of them, but that’s an argument for another day). And he’s a lot less of a sure thing than people thought three months ago.