Who’s Hot (and not) in college football entering the bowl season. Clemson and Penn State secure league championships with exciting seven-point wins.
The Ragin’ Cajuns
Louisiana-Lafayette closed the regular season by winning its final three Sun Belt Conference games, capped by Saturday’s third straight over instate rival Louisiana-Monroe, 30-3. The 6-6 Cajuns’ prize for finishing strong under coach Mark Hudspeth? A bonus game later this month that not only gives the team a shot to finish with a winning mark, but also means one fewer 5-7 squad will be participating in this year’s bowl bonanza.
What an effort by the Owls, who shut down the high-scoring Navy offense in Annapolis to capture the school’s first conference title since 1967. The Midshipmen did lose QB Will Worth in the first half, a crushing blow, but Temple was winning by 18 at the time. Owl QB Phillip Walker played through pain, the ground game out-rushed the Mids and unheralded head coach Matt Rhule has now won 10 in back-to-back seasons, which is mighty impressive for a program with a limited history of football success.
Air travel is recommended to get from Kalamazoo to Arlington, Tex. Metaphorically speaking, though, the Broncos have rowed the boat to a perfect season, a first MAC title since 1988 and the top of the Cotton Bowl pecking order. Western Michigan got all it could handle from an Ohio D that’s been quietly stout all year. However, in the end, the Broncos shut the door on the Bobcats’ final drive to add an exclamation point to the best season in program history.
The Sooners’ hopes of returning to the playoffs essentially ended in Week 3. And yet, their heart and motivation for winning the Big 12 never did. And for battling back from a 1-2 start to win nine in a row, including Bedlam on Saturday, Bob Stoops and his kids deserve a ton of credit. Oklahoma improved throughout the season, including on defense and along the O-line, which were September stumbling blocks. Stoops has remarkably won 10 conference titles over 18 years, and now has a shot to win the Sugar Bowl for the second time in the last four seasons.
The Washington D
The Huskies took care of business in Santa Clara Friday, hammering Colorado, 41-10, to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2000 and answer playoff critics. The game ball belongs to Pete Kwiatkowski’s entire D, which picked off three Sefo Liufau passes and yielded just nine first downs and 163 total yards. S Taylor Rapp spruced up his Freshman All-American resume with two interceptions and a pick-six, and U-Dub proved it can win when QB Jake Browning has an off night, an important development as the start of the postseason looms.
The Tide dispatched another resounding statement to the other three playoff teams—if you plan to keep Alabama from back-to-back national titles, you better be prepared to be perfect. Bama was supposed to beat overmatched Florida in the SEC Championship Game. However, it embarrassed the East Division champ, producing an offensive, defensive and special teams touchdown … in the first 18 minutes of a 54-16 obliteration. It was the most points allowed by the Gators since the Fiesta Bowl loss to unbeaten Nebraska 21 years ago.
Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions
Penn State’s magical regular season added a miraculous exclamation point in Indianapolis. The Lions, dismissed after losing early to Pitt and Michigan, have now won nine in a row. But nothing compared to Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game, which the Badgers led, 28-7, before McSorley took command. The fiery sophomore threw four touchdown passes on a secondary that had allowed eight all season long. And the Penn State D surrendered just three second-half points to complete the biggest comeback ever in a Power Five conference championship game.
Who's Fledgling At Regular Season's End
The Trojans failed to finish this season, letting at least a share of a Sun Belt Championship slips through their fingers. Troy was the team to beat after handling Appalachian State in a Nov. 12 thriller. But the frontrunners couldn’t handle prosperity, losing badly at home to Arkansas State and then inexcusably falling to 4-7 Georgia Southern this past weekend. It was a good year for Troy and Neal Brown, but it’ll be hard not to ponder what might have been as they go through bowl prep.
Boy, it sure is tough getting on the Cowboys after how well they played this season. However, their closing act could result in a hangover effect in December, even though the program will be bowling for the first time in five years. Wyoming closed the regular season with three losses in the final four games, with the defense coming apart at the seams in Las Vegas and Albuquerque. And with an opportunity to host the Mountain West Championship Game, the Cowboys couldn’t overcome three turnovers or 100-yard rushing games from Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey.
Conference USA Championship Game Defenses
It was absolutely no surprise that the offenses were ahead of the defenses when Western Kentucky hosted Louisiana Tech. The teams combined for 107 points when they met on Oct. 6. But Saturday had to be nauseating for the defensive coordinators, Topper Nick Holt and especially Bulldog Blake Baker, whose team yielded 58 points and well over 600 yards in a loss. The numbers were bad, as were the fundamentals, highlighted by scores of missed tackles, blown assignments and just generally rotten D from both teams.
Bad news, Bears. Not only was Saturday’s loss in Morgantown your sixth straight to offset a 6-0 start, but you also have to play a low-value bowl game with a coach who’ll soon be replaced. This past season is one the entire Baylor community wants to put in the history books, and hopefully only revisit as a cautionary tale. The off-field scandal that cost Art Briles his job in May has left scars that may not heal for years, and will impact the search to find a permanent replacement. On the field, the Bears never recovered from a crushing one-point loss to Texas on Oct. 29.
Jim McElwain’s Offense
Florida has done well to get to two SEC Championship Games in McElwain’s first two seasons in Gainesville, and those experiences are going to benefit the holdovers. But there’s a hard cap on how high the Gators can climb in this conference without more help from the offense. The D is championship-caliber. The attack, though, has been a perennial problem since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009. Florida, which has averaged 15 points over the last five games, has one more game before it hopes to address the quarterback situation with an import, possibly Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham.
A handful of very good coaches had very bad years in 2016. Patterson was chief among them. His TCU team, which seemingly harbored enough talent to at least get to where West Virginia did this fall in the Big 12, slumped to a disappointing 6-6 campaign. Plus, many of the locals witnessed the decline in person, as the Frogs lost their final four games at Amon G. Carter, including Saturday versus Kansas State. Patterson and the staff will use the bowl game to get a jumpstart on 2017, which shapes up as an important year in Fort Worth.
Wisconsin Versus the Big Ten East
The Badgers scripted a terrific season in 2016. In the end, though, they were limited by the inability to solve the top teams from the Big Ten’s better half. Wisconsin entered the league title game having already lost to Michigan and Ohio State, the latter in Madison in a game it largely controlled. But this program will be haunted for a very long time by the inability to shut the door on Penn State, despite holding what looked to be an insurmountable three-touchdown lead. The reliable D went AWOL, the offense was silenced and dreams of a league title and Rose Bowl berth were crushed in Indianapolis.