Running through the highs and lows from Saturday afternoon’s action:
WINNER: Alabama. The Crimson Tide wasn’t perfect against Auburn, but it did finish the regular season with an unblemished record. Alabama (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) heads into conference title weekend as the only Power Five school without a loss.
Does that mean Nick Saban’s bunch basically has a mulligan to work with next week? Perhaps, depending on how much the playoff selection committee chooses to emphasize the value of a conference championship.
In truth, the Crimson Tide received only a remotely serious threat from two teams (Mississippi and Texas A&M) while plowing through the SEC. A 30-12 defeat of Auburn merely solidifies a spectacular regular season, and Alabama should be one of the four playoff teams regardless of next week’s results. Of course, handling Florida like it has the rest of the conference would merely clinch the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
LOSER: Purists. Those who didn’t enjoy the presence of three 5-7 teams in bowl games last year would be wise to turn away. Today’s results ensured at least three more sub-.500 teams will play in the postseason in 2016.
Among those who stumbled when they had a chance to lock up a postseason bid: Mississippi, North Texas and Southern Methodist. And that doesn’t include Arizona State, which became Arizona’s first (and last) victim in Pac-12 play with an ugly loss Friday night.
WINNER: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are in the clubhouse at 11-1, with victories over Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. They needed two overtimes to secure a 30-27 defeat of Michigan, but they got it to clinch a share of the Big Ten’s East Division.
A few hours later, Penn State wrapped up a 45-12 bludgeoning of Michigan State to also finish at 8-1 in the division. The Nittany Lions earned the tiebreaker to the Big Ten title game based on a head-to-head defeat of the Buckeyes.
So now Ohio State must wait out a weekend to find out of its overall resume (minus a conference title) is worth more than whatever the Pac-12 champ, the Big 12 champ and/or the Big Ten champ might have to offer.
Are the Buckeyes, winners at Oklahoma in September, likely to get bumped out of the field for a Sooners team with one other loss? Or is Wisconsin, which fell to Ohio State at home, going to get a nod ahead of Ohio State? Common sense says no, which is what makes the Buckeyes a winner for the moment. What the committee ultimately rules is a bigger unknown.
LOSER: Michigan. The Wolverines (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) likely saw their national title hopes brought to an end despite collecting 13 tackles for loss (on 82 Ohio State plays) and sacking Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett eight times.
Michigan remains on the wrong end of a lopsided stretch in its series with Ohio State, having now dropped 12 of the past 13. But as Saturday illustrated, the massive chasm between the programs that existed just two years ago has narrowed to minuscule levels. This was a bitter day for Michigan, but it’s likely to get the better of the Buckeyes again sooner rather than later.
LOSER: Lamar Jackson. Know how not to make a case for the Heisman Trophy? Get sacked 11 times in the penultimate game of the season, then commit four turnovers in the second half (including one while in the red zone and aiming for a go-ahead score) the following week in a rivalry game.
Jackson’s numbers remain incredible, and he turned in another impressive statistical day in a 41-38 loss to Kentucky with his 281 yards passing, 171 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. But those giveaways aren’t something to be forgotten.
Neither is the reality that Heisman voters have usually treated the trophy as a reward for the best player on a really good team. Of the past 25 Heisman winners, 21 came from teams ranked in the top five of the final Associated Press poll. Only two (Texas’s Ricky Williams in 1997 and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in 2011) came from teams outside the top 10. With Louisville (9-3) set to drop, Jackson would be an outlier if he won.
WINNER: Average Big Ten teams. The headline game in Jim Delany’s league was obvious enough, but it’s worth noting that for a league that had five teams floating around the top 15 nationally, it only had seven bowl-eligible schools coming into the final weekend of the regular season.
Fortunately, there was a B1G scheduling bounce Saturday as all three of the conference’s 5-6 teams (Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern) got to face teams at the end of long-since lost seasons (Purdue, Rutgers and Illinois, respectively).
Predictably, all three prevailed, though in different fashion. Northwestern cruised to a 42-21 triumph. Maryland eventually pulled away for a 31-13 victory. And Indiana rallied in the fourth quarter to claim the Old Oaken Bucket, 26-24. Regardless of how it happened, the Big Ten got its bowl slots filled up Saturday.
WINNER: Those who took the over for Syracuse-Pittsburgh. Somehow, a Big 12 game is not in possession of the highest-scoring game in FBS history. Pittsburgh and Syracuse saw to that, with the Panthers earning a 76-61 victory in their regular season finale.
There is a Big 12 influence there, since Syracuse Coach Dino Babers spent time as an Art Briles assistant at Baylor before becoming a head coach. There’s also plenty of ridiculous numbers to find beyond the combined 137 points.
Pittsburgh averaged 10.9 yards per play. The Panthers averaged 1.29 points per play. Pittsburgh scored on four of its nine pass completions. Syracuse graduate student Amba Etta-Tawo, a transfer from Maryland, hauled in 13 catches for 178 yards and five touchdowns. The teams combined for 1,312 total yards, with both managing at least 644 yards.
So congrats if you took the over on what seemed like a fairly meaningless game for the bowl-bound Panthers (8-4) and their former Big East rivals who had already clinched a losing record before the season’s final weekend.
LOSER: Mark Helfrich. Is there anything left for Oregon to lose? Over the past two years, the Ducks have slid from the national title game to 4-8. They no longer own the Pac-12. They no longer own their division.
And as of Saturday, they no longer own the state. Oregon State snapped an eight-game losing streak in the Civil War, dealing Oregon a 34-24 loss as Ryan Nall rushed for four touchdowns. The Beavers, in full rebuilding mode, finished with the same record as the Ducks and a game ahead in the Pac-12 standings.
This does not bode well for Helfrich, even with his eight-figure buyout. It’s anyone’s guess where Oregon might look — it hasn’t made an outside hire since Rich Brooks was brought in after the 1977 season — but the financial heavyweights with some responsibility for the Ducks’ rise to relevance aren’t likely to handle a Chizikian slide (complete with its own Heisman Trophy winner who couldn’t be adequately replaced) with much patience.
WINNER: Clemson. The Tigers (11-1) simply need to keep winning to return to the playoff. Style points don’t hurt, though, and a 56-7 pummeling of South Carolina will get the attention of many.
Maybe the biggest individual winner was quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 347 yards and six touchdowns in his final game in Death Valley.
WINNER: Colorado. The Buffaloes (10-2, 8-1) are headed to the Pac-12 title game to face Washington after besting Utah, 27-22. Colorado’s victory locked up the Pac-12 South and denied Southern California a return trip to the conference championship.
As improbable a turnaround as it was for Colorado, it’s almost fitting Mike MacIntyre’s team is taking its turn as the South Division champs. Five different schools have won the division over the past five years.