The College Football Playoff semifinals are in the books. Notre Dame and Oklahoma are done, and Clemson and Alabama are where they usually are: playing each other in the national title game. They’ll see each other January 7 in Santa Clara, California.
Clemson and Bama were the winners of the day’s two games. But let’s pick out a few more specific winners and losers from the season’s most important day yet.
Winner: Trevor Lawrence
Clemson’s five-star freshman QB owned the day more than any other single player did. He was 27-of-39 for 327 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks against an elite defense. Lawrence being good now isn’t surprising. He was one of the highest-rated prospects in the history of recruiting, and Clemson surrounded him with a top skill-position group and a road-grading offensive line.
But his total reliability as a freshman — almost never throwing picks, only making occasional, minor mistakes — is incredible. If he can beat the Tide, he’ll be the second true freshman to QB his team to a title, after Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. I won’t put it past him.
Winner: Tua Tagovailoa
Tagovailoa lost out to Kyler Murray in one of the best Heisman races ever, but he was the better of the two quarterbacks in the Orange Bowl (though Murray put up three excellent quarters of his own and still fairly deserved the trophy).
Tua put up one of those lines that would be absurd if he hadn’t done it several times already: 24-of-27 for 318 yards, four touchdowns, and (of course) no interceptions.
He looked healthy and every bit as crisp as he did for the first 80 percent of the season, when he built what had seemed to be an insurmountable lead for the Heisman. People who wish to relitigate that trophy race may do so now, but Tagovailoa will happily get ready for the title game instead. His bad SEC Championship feels like a distant memory, even though the Clemson defense he’ll see next is in a different world than the Oklahoma D he just saw.
Loser: Notre Dame’s big-game reputation, again
The Irish have now lost their last eight New Year’s Six (or equivalent) bowl games, going back to the 1993 season’s Cotton Bowl. I’m 24, and I have not been alive to see Notre Dame win a top-tier bowl game. On the one hand, props to Notre Dame for managing to stay relevant as a national brand amid such a long drought. On the other, while the Irish deserved their Playoff spot, much of the country will still decline to take them seriously. They’ve once again failed to make an emphatic argument in their own favor.
Loser: Nick Saban’s headset
Rest in peace:
Loser: Anyone who bet the over in the Orange Bowl at 79.5 or higher
That was the opening total on Selection Sunday. It went even higher, reaching the highest total in Playoff history, comfortably. The game settled at 79 points exactly, with Alabama kneeling out the clock inside Oklahoma’s 10-yard line. No, I’m not personally upset about it. Why would you ask?
Loser: Jim Harbaugh
Heading into a game at Ohio State the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Michigan was ranked No. 4. The Wolverines were favored to win in Columbus, an extreme rarity in a series Ohio State has owned. This seemed like their best shot in years. That ended in humiliation, though. So maybe Michigan would at least beat a supposedly inferior team in the Peach Bowl and see some postseason success this year? Nope. This qualifies as a collapse, which Harbaugh’s getting used to in Ann Arbor.
The Dawgs, who took Alabama to the wire and had a legit case as one of the four best teams, did not make the Playoff. Their players spent the day tweeting gleefully about Notre Dame’s and Oklahoma’s struggles, suggesting they should’ve been in the field instead.
But hear me out on this: nobody is getting a better deal than the Dawgs.
Their fans think they’re better than both Notre Dame and Oklahoma, so the logical follow is that they’d have faced Clemson as the No. 3 seed in the Playoff. That would suck. What’s much better is getting to play Texas in the Sugar Bowl, probably winning that game by a lot, and pretending for the whole offseason that Clemson wouldn’t have beaten you by 21.
Rain won the inaugural First Responder Bowl, canceling the Boise State-Boston College game in Dallas before it got through the first quarter. Games get canceled for weather reasons all the time, but this appears to have been the first FBS bowl in the modern era to meet that fate. The game was declared a no-contest, its few stats wiped out.
The sponsor of a middling (at best) bowl game in Phoenix wound up overseeing one of the most virally enjoyed bowls in years. Cal and TCU played just a hideous game, combining for nine interceptions, but you can’t buy publicity like the cracker-maker got at the end of it.
Indeed, those are Cheez-Its in that trophy bowl.
The Hurricanes secured their spot as the most disappointing team of 2018 by getting caved in by Wisconsin at the Pinstripe Bowl. The preseason No. 8 Hurricanes finished 7-6. What’s worse, they have a ton of problems facing them as they move into 2018.
The Tigers routed Purdue in the Music City Bowl, 63-14. Had they not let up considerably in the second half, they would’ve easily broken the all-time bowl scoring record Army tied days earlier (70, and more on that shortly). They still put together one of the most dazzling offensive games any team has had in years, providing a nice little capper to a pretty terrible season for Gus Malzahn. Maybe it’ll be something to build on, or maybe it was just fun.
Winner: Gardner Minshew
Washington State beat Iowa State in a fun Alamo Bowl, and Minshew threw for 299 yards and a couple of touchdowns. He capped off one of the best and most memorable seasons ever for a Mike Leach QB in a uniformly positive way.
The Black Knights won what you could fairly call the most lopsided bowl game in history, 70-14 against Houston at the Armed Forces Bowl. The 56-point margin of victory tied the record, and their 70 points tied the record, too. All of that pretty wells sums it up, but it’s worth noting Army scored 10 TDs on 10 offensive drives. (The Knights lost one fumble, which they offset with a defensive touchdown.) They finished with a program-high 11 wins and have never won more games in two years than the 21 they’ve won these last two.
Loser: Major Applewhite
That result has Houston head coach Applewhite’s job in danger, sources told SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey. UH’s president famously said upon hiring Applewhite that the school fires coaches when they go 8-4 (though it doesn’t usually, in truth), and Applewhite has now had a worse record than that in each of his two years. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles resigned after the bowl, with sources telling Godfrey he was expected to head to Florida State. UH was supposed to lose this game without DT Ed Oliver and QB D’Eriq King, but Applewhite may have lost more than the bowl.
Winner: Troy, for somehow still having Neal Brown
The Trojans beat Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl, a weird game that included the Bulls’ offense not seeing the field for the whole third quarter. That was weird, but what wasn’t was seeing Troy get to double-digit wins. The Trojans have done that three years in a row under Brown, with bowl wins capping all three and Power 5 wins at LSU and Nebraska mixed in. It’s astonishing that nobody’s yet hired Brown to a head coaching gig in those ranks, but Troy will take it. The program had never won 10 games before this three-year run of doing it every year. Troy’s one of the sport’s most reliable winners. Troy!
The Tigers were the losers in the Birmingham Bowl, the most dramatic bowl yet. After blowing an 18-point lead, they scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:15 left against Wake Forest. But they let the Demon Deacons march all the way downfield to take the lead back with 34 seconds left. Then they got into game-tying field goal range, and Riley Patterson knocked through a 38-yarder that got wiped out because Wake had called an icing timeout. He knocked through another after that, but a false start pushed it back to a 43-yarder, which Patterson then missed to give the win to the Deacs.
Winner: Jaylon Ferguson
The senior Louisiana Tech defensive end used the Hawaii Bowl to break Terrell Suggs’ career Division I sack record of 44, fighting through an iffy facemask call and some brief official scoring drama to do it. Ferguson has gotten little attention over his career, because he plays in Conference USA. But he’s been productive for four years, putting up particularly big totals in his sophomore and senior years. Bowl games are primarily about TV, but at their best, they should be about players, and seeing Ferguson celebrate was tremendous.
(Yes, it’s fine to note the NCAA did not count bowl stats before 2002, and that might make Suggs’ and others of his time look worse. It’s a bad policy. But that’s not Ferguson’s problem, and he should sleep fine going forward as a record-holder. He’s also a winner because he got to go to Hawaii, and because Tech actually beat the Rainbow Warriors.)
The Cougars had an up-and-down year, but they made sure to finish with a winning record by beating the hell out of WMU in the Potato Bowl. They gained 9.4 yards per play to the Broncos’ 4.1 and got one of the most sparkling QB lines ever out of freshman Zach Wilson: 18-of-18 passing for 317 yards, four touchdowns, and (obviously) no picks. He was two measly screen passes away from qualifying for and setting the FBS record for single-game completion percentage. Former Georgia QB Grayson Lambert has it now at 96 percent.
The Bahamas Bowl was good fun, and Butch Davis’ Panthers came out on top against Toledo. They did it with a backup quarterback, Christian Alexander, running all over the Rockets’ defense and also converting some key late third downs with his arm. FIU lost a lot of talent from an eight-win team in 2017, Davis’ first season, and still inched forward to nine wins this year, including the second bowl win in program history and first since 2010. It’s not hard to see FIU as a Conference USA contender in 2019.
The Blazers did not field a team two seasons ago, or three seasons ago. But head coach Bill Clark stuck around and, when the program was reinstated a half-year after shutting down in December 2014, got to building a winner. A JUCO-heavy roster-building strategy paid off this year, when UAB won Conference USA and put up 10 wins, the most in its history. That was before trouncing MAC champion NIU in the Boca Raton Bowl, 37-13. That was the program’s first bowl win ever.
Loser: The Pac-12
The worst Power 5 conference missed the Playoff for the third time in the five-year history of the event. Then it began its underwhelming bowl schedule with Arizona State losing (and losing unimpressively) to the Mountain West’s Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Fresno comfortably covered a 6-point spread despite having a near-touchdown turn into a touchback when a fumble at the pylon went through the end zone. The Sun Devils did not seriously threaten to win. It’s the second year in a row the Pac-12’s lost in Vegas, after Oregon fell to Boise State in 2017, both times by double digits.
Loser: North Texas
UNT quarterback Mason Fine getting hurt against Utah State was a big shame. His teammates weren’t able to keep things close without him. What we’d pegged as one of the best matchups of bowl season turned into a rout. The good news, though: UNT head coach Seth Littrell surprised a bunch of people by not leaving for Kansas State, Texas Tech, or any other open coaching job. The Mean Green should be a Conference USA contender in 2019.
The Green Wave hadn’t won a bowl since 2002. They hadn’t been in a bowl since 2013. They were 5-6 entering a Week 13 game against Navy, and they put their bowl eligibility on the line when they went for a 2-point conversion with 1:27 left in a 1-point game there. They got it and won, and then they went to the Cure Bowl and beat UL Lafayette by 17. Willie Fritz has gradually built the Wave up and now has some postseason success to show for it.
Winner: FCS call-ups
- Georgia Southern completed one of the year’s best turnarounds by beating Eastern Michigan on a 40-yard field goal at the buzzer of the Camellia Bowl. The Eagles’ 10 wins are their most since they made the jump to FBS in 2014, and they come a year after the program cratered to 2-10. Things started to turn around midseason last year, when Chad Lunsford took over for the fired Tyson Summers and went 2-4 after an 0-6 start. Now? GaSo looks as good as ever. When the Eagles are running the option, they’re good.
- Appalachian State won impressively against Middle Tennessee at the New Orleans Bowl. The Mountaineers, who have hovered around the top 15 for most of the year in S&P+, are just really good. The Sun Belt champs showed out and did their conference proud, and they did it in their first game without Scott Satterfield, their coach who left for Louisville. Satterfield had transitioned the Mountaineers, like GaSo, from FCS blue-blood status to FBS startup. Things seem even better at App right now than they do at Southern.
- So, hey, let’s count the Louisville as a winner in this group. The Satterfield hire already looked good, but it looks better now that App State’s had a good bowl and Mountaineer defensive coordinator Bryan Brown’s agreed to join Satterfield in Louisville. Meanwhile, there’s no reason new App coach Eliah Drinkwitz can’t win right away there.
- Cheers to Kansas State, too, in a similar vein. The Wildcats’ new coach, outgoing NDSU boss Chris Klieman, is on to another FCS final. The drawback there is that K-State needs to sign some recruits. On another hand, it’s good to hire championship coaches.
Winner: Mary Hardin-Baylor
The Cru beat Mount Union (the closest thing Division III has to its own North Dakota State) in a dramatic Stagg Bowl. UMHB’s now won two national titles in three years. That’s a hell of a thing for any program at any level, but it’s especially cool given this one’s newness. The school’s only been playing football for 21 years, starting in 1998. It was a playoff team by 2001, a regular contender after that, and now the best DIII team of the last three years.
Winner: North Carolina A&T
A&T beat Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl to win HBCU football’s national title, 24-22. That makes three in four years (and in the Celebration Bowl’s history) for the Aggies, who have beaten up on the MEAC and SWAC and started this season by topping FBS East Carolina in Greenville. The team’s lost two games in two years. Rod Broadway built the Aggies up before retiring after 2017’s Celebration Bowl win, and first-year successor Sam Washington is now one-for-one.
Winner: Valdosta State
The Blazers won Division II’s national title — their fourth ever, also their fourth since 2004, and first since 2012— by surviving Ferris State in a truly wild championship game. QB Rogan Wells threw for five touchdowns in the title game and caught another, setting that game’s record for touchdowns responsible-for. VSU finished a sterling 14-0.
Loser: South Dakota State
The poor Jackrabbits have the misfortune of being rivals with North Dakota State. They’ve been unable to get over the NDSU hump for years, as their northern neighbors have become the most dominant program in the country at any level. The Bison blew them out in an FCS playoff semifinal in Fargo to continue both teams’ trends.