From the unexpected to the below par.
The excitement of Championship Week is beginning to take over headlines, but college football’s 2018 regular season deserves one final review.
While a couple of teams expected to have a mediocre campaign ended up thriving, a few respected programs had a year far below what was anticipated.
Oh, Alabama and Clemson are still great. What’s new, right?
Bowl games and the College Football Playoff will be the most memorable part of 2018, but the regular season shaped what we’re about to enjoy.
Winner: Alabama Crimson Tide
If this was the same old year — decent offense, excellent defense — we probably wouldn’t highlight the Tide. You’ve heard that story enough. But what Tua Tagovailoa accomplished this season was special. The sophomore quarterback turned Alabama into a scoring attack nobody wanted to face. He accounted for 3,400 yards of total offense and 41 touchdowns despite attempting only three fourth-quarter passes all season. That’s a mind-numbing fact. Overall, the Tide ranked No. 2 nationally in both yards per play and scoring offense. Tagovailoa should win the Heisman Trophy.
Loser: USC Trojans
After leading USC to a Pac-12 championship in 2017, Clay Helton received a contract extension. How quickly things change, though. By the end of the 2018 regular season, the college football world seemed to agree Helton would be looking for a new job. Well, he narrowly avoided that fate despite a 5-7 record. Excluding the two years USC was on probation, it was the first year the Trojans missed a bowl game since 2000. The future holds real promise with JT Daniels at quarterback, but USC isn’t beginning its journey back toward relevance from a position of strength.
Winner: Washington State Cougars
Washington State wasn’t supposed to be here. Offseason departures and one tragedy later, the Cougs merely attaining bowl eligibility could’ve been considered a success. Instead, they nearly turned in a storybook season. Led by graduate transfer Gardner Minshew at quarterback, Wazzu ripped off a 10-win campaign. The program hadn’t reached double-digit victories in 15 years. Although a loss to rival Washington ended WSU’s hopes of a Pac-12 title, the Cougs shattered expectations and enjoyed some of the greatest moments in the school’s football history.
Loser: Michigan State Spartans
What a roller coaster the last four seasons have become for Michigan State. The 2015 team reached the College Football Playoff, then the Spartans finished 3-9. They bounced back with a 10-3 year in 2017, then flopped this season. Dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke arrived with considerable hype following his tremendous sophomore year, but he regressed in a major way. Michigan State was one of nine offenses that mustered less than 20 points per game. While a strong defense saved the Spartans and helped them reach a bowl, this roster had unfulfilled 10-win promise.
Winner: Clemson Tigers
Moving on from Kelly Bryant at quarterback was a tough decision. Only four players can lead an offense to the College Football Playoff in a given season, and he accomplished it in 2017. That should not be discounted. But having a freshmen like Trevor Lawrence is rare. The rising star replaced Bryant as the starter in Game 5, and Clemson survived one injury scare before emerging as Alabama’s biggest threat. As the first-string defense didn’t allow a touchdown in six straight games, Lawrence propelled the Tigers to No. 3 nationally in total offense.
Loser: ACC’s projected second tier
North Carolina State did a little better than expected, overcoming huge losses on defense to threaten for 10 wins. But it was a forgettable year for Florida State, Miami, Louisville and Virginia Tech. Not only did FSU and Louisville fall short of bowl eligibility, Virginia Tech might only reach the mark after a make-up outing. Plus, Miami endured a four-game losing streak following a 5-1 start, wasting an elite defense along the way. It’s safe to say nobody expected Pitt, Syracuse and Georgia Tech to be the only programs with five ACC wins beyond Clemson and NC State.
Winner: UCF Knights
Though the horrific leg injury to quarterback McKenzie Milton was a major disappointment, UCF still ended the campaign with a perfect record. Regardless of what the postseason holds, 2018 will be another fond memory for the Knights. They followed up a 13-0 “championship-winning” year with 11 straight victories, returning to the American Athletic Conference title game. UCF again posted top-10 rankings in both scoring and total offense. It’s insincere to discuss the Knights without mentioning CFP inequality, yet they enjoyed a special regular season again.
Loser: Florida Atlantic Owls
It turns out that replacing a star quarterback and rebuilding an offensive line is pretty tough! Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic captured a bit of the nation’s attention in 2017 with a 10-win finish, leading to a massive contract extension and hefty offseason expectations. But the surprise retirement of quarterback Jason Driskel shook up FAU’s offense, and former prized recruit Chris Robison struggled in his debut season. The Owls, once considered one of the best Group of Five teams, limped to 5-7. We won’t even see Kiffin and FAU in a bowl game.
Winner: Mountain West Conference
In a strong year for the Mountain West, Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State all earned 10 victories during the regular season. Not since 2008 had the conference featured three 10-win teams before bowls arrived. Additionally, all three made at least one appearance in the College Football Playoff rankings, making 2018 the first season that three MWC schools jumped into the CFP Top 25. UCF’s excellent year prevented a MWC program from taking the spotlight, but the league offered a clear reminder that it has high-quality contenders for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Loser: Arizona Wildcats
This season did not go as planned. Kevin Sumlin oversaw the offense that made Johnny Manziel a Heisman Trophy winner, so how could we not be excited about Khalil Tate running the same system? The breakout sensation of 2017 topped 3,000 yards of total offense last season despite starting only two-thirds of the year. However, the dual-threat quarterback lacked the second part of that label in 2018, mustering 224 rushing yards. Sure, an ankle injury limited Tate for a while. But the dynamic part of his game was never apparent this season, and Arizona lumbered to a 5-7 record.
Winner: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame practically returned its entire defense from 2017, so the defining question was always whether the offense would have a stable quarterback. Early on, the Irish felt fraudulent. They clipped Michigan before edging Ball State and Vanderbilt in unimpressive fashion. But then, Notre Dame switched to Ian Book behind center. He turned the scoring attack into a feared unit, while the Irish put together a tremendous — and consistent — year defensively. They’ll be underdogs in the CFP, but a 12-0 regular season officially makes them a championship contender.
Loser: Connecticut Huskies
Your nightmare is over, UConn fans. But if you’re not looking forward to 2019, we can’t blame you. The Huskies set a couple of futility records in 2018, surrendering the most yards per play and most total points in Football Bowl Subdivision history. Truly, it’s difficult to comprehend giving up 605 points in a 12-game season. UConn’s only victory of the year happened against lower-division Rhode Island, and the Huskies still ceded 49 points in that game. Connecticut is now a dismal 4-20 through two years of Randy Edsall’s second tenure at the school.
Winner: Oklahoma Sooners
Falling to Texas will never be acceptable for Oklahoma. That’s why rivalries are so much fun. But it’s probably a little easier to handle for Sooners fans to handle when the season featured an electrifying quarterback. Kyler Murray — whose future is baseball, not football — showed his otherworldly athletic skills with 4,527 yards of offense and 48 total touchdowns while guiding OU to an 11-1 record. The Sooners led the nation in yards per snap and points per game. No matter if Oklahoma reaches the CFP, Murray secured a memorable place in program history.
Loser: Colorado Buffaloes
Heading into the year, Mike MacIntyre seemed to have a decently secure job. Only a dramatic collapse would put his position in jeopardy. Unfortunately for him and Colorado, that’s exactly what happened. The Buffs took advantage of a soft early schedule and ripped off a five-game winning streak to begin the campaign. From there, it got worse and never improved. Six straight losses led to MacIntyre’s dismissal, and Colorado fell to Cal in the regular-season finale. The Buffs were a victory away from bowl eligibility by Oct. 6 but failed to clear that sixth hurdle.