College Football and Dynasties Don’t Mix

Even the great Nick Saban couldn’t get it done.

The hardest thing to do in sports just might be building a lasting dynasty in college football. In pro sports, repeats are not at all unusual, even three-peats. In college basketball, before the one-and-done era, teams frequently claimed back-to-back titles — heck, UCLA won seven in a row.

But in college football, even with change of the times, one thing remains constant: Championships are elusive, even for the best in the business.

This year’s Alabama team was all set for a dynastic run. The Tide rolled into Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game 14-0, on a 26-game winning streak, during which they were rarely challenged. They got up to a 14-0 lead and their opponent, Clemson, looked dispirited and dejected. Saban’s second consecutive title and fourth in six years appeared assured.

Then Deshaun Watson intervened. The Clemson quarterback, harried and harassed much of the game, came alive in the fourth quarter, directing three lengthy Tigers drives. He managed to extract three touchdowns from the Alabama defense in the final 15 minutes alone, the last on the game-winning 2-yard throw to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left to give the Tigers an improbable 35-31 upset victory.

Clemson’s dramatic knockout of Alabama was very much reminiscent of the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 victory over a USC team that was on a quest to win an unprecedented third straight national championship. Young’s virtuoso performance short-circuited the Trojans dynasty — they never returned to the national championship/playoff since. The same fate probably will not befall Crimson Tide, but this loss will haunt Saban for some time just as that Rose Bowl loss forever dogged Pete Carroll.

That USC team, led by back-to-back Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, had won 34 in a row and was set to become the first team in the poll era (since 1936) to win three consecutive national championships. The Trojans’ defense wasn’t as stout as their teams from the previous two years but their offense was as dynamic as college football had ever seen. But against Texas, they let a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away, the most pivotal moment being a fourth-and-2 that they failed to convert with 2 minutes to play that would’ve sealed the victory.

The men responsible for that fourth-and-2 call — an unsuccessful off-tackle run by LenDale White — were fatefully involved in Monday night’s dynasty killer once again, and on the wrong end of it.

Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were the co-offensive coordinators under Carroll in 2005, and together they called plays for the Trojans. Kiffin would’ve been calling the plays for the Tide against Clemson, but he was prematurely “mutually parted” by Saban just a week before the game. In stepped Sarkisian, who took over the play-calling on short notice after spending the season as an offensive “analyst” on Saban’s staff.

Certainly Monday night’s outcome cannot be blamed on Sark, short notice or not. With a barely functioning quarterback — ‘Bama’s Jalen Hurts for much of the night didn’t look like a true freshman, but a high school senior — Sarkisian’s offense put up 31 points on Clemson. This game was lost on defense — Saban’s specialty, just as the 2005 title game was lost on defense — Carroll’s specialty.

Watson, reprising the role of Young, led Clemson on fourth-quarter drives of 72, 88 and 68 yards against the vaunted Alabama D, the last in just 2 minutes and 6 seconds, with one single second to spare. A year ago he tore up the Tide in a 45-40 loss with 405 passing yards. This year he somehow topped that with 420 passing yards.

The victory gave Clemson its first national title since 1981, and denied Saban a record-tying sixth championship, something he would’ve shared with Alabama’s legendary Bear Bryant. Just as the Tigers’ previous national title was won under a coach from Alabama — Danny Ford — this championship was corralled by another Tide grad, Dabo Swinney.

Few will shed tears for Alabama, of course. Ever since Saban’s arrival in 2007, the Tide have won their embarrassing share of titles, both of the SEC and the national variety. With another top recruiting haul coming to the Tuscaloosa campus — likely Saban’s fifth straight No. 1 class — Alabama should have ample opportunities to collect more hardware down the road.

Alabama should. But this goes to the ephemeral nature of sustained dominance in college football. Even the best of the best can’t manage to Win Forever (as coined by Pete Carroll). And Saban will rue the one that got away for a very long time.

Our final rankings: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. USC, 4. Washington, 5. Penn State, 6. Ohio State, 7. Oklahoma, 8. Florida State, 9. Michigan, 10. Wisconsin.

— Samuel Chi is the managing editor of and proprietor of College Football Exchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.


Just Who Is Steve Sarkisian?

Lane Kiffin is making all sorts of news after he was fired by Nick Saban even though he quit first. But let’s face it, he’s gone (to Florida Atlantic) and is old news by now. Instead, let’s focus on who’s more important at hand – his successor.

No one has ever faced the unique kind of pressure for Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game that awaits Steve Sarkisian, immediately installed as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after Kiffin was summarily dismissed on last Monday. Sark will have less than a week to coach up the Tide’s anemic offense to keep up with Clemson’s.

So just who is Steve Sarkisian?

That almost seems like a dumb question. He’s been the head coach at USC and Washington. He was the offensive coordinator during the Trojans’ dynasty run in the 2000s under Pete Carroll. He played quarterback under the legendary LaVell Edwards at BYU. Sark is not exactly an unknown quantity in college football circles.

The problem is that in some ways he’s too much like Kiffin, still one of his best pals. He and Kiffin ran the USC offense together under Carroll after Norm Chow’s departure. He succeeded Kiffin as the Trojans’ head coach. Heck, Al Davis even offered him the Raiders’ job first before he turned it down, leading to Kiffin’s disastrous 20-game stint in Oakland.

And then he followed Kiffin to Alabama after Sarkisian was unceremoniously dumped by USC midseason in 2015 (just like Kiffin was in 2013) as a result of his drinking problem coming to a head. He was widely seen as Kiffin’s eventual successor when he was scooped up by Saban in 2016, and he became just that.

But this is where Sark is different from Kiffin. He’s a more sober (pardon the pun) playcaller than his buddy Lane – at least he will be for Monday night’s game. It’s something even Kiffin readily acknowledged.

“The best way I would describe it without details is that Sark’s personality will work a little bit better than mine with Coach (Saban),” Kiffin said before the Peach Bowl and being prematurely dumped by Saban. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing at all. I would say that Sark just manages people better than I do at times.”

This doesn’t mean Sarkisian isn’t the same offensive coaching mind as Kiffin. It’s just that he’s more likely to comply with Saban’s wishes to be more conservative offensively, more risk-adverse, especially with a freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts who has a severely limited repertoire.

Sarkisian is highly unlikely to do anything razzle dazzle against a Clemson defense that shut out of Ohio State in its semifinal game at the Fiesta Bowl. More likely, he’ll hand the ball repeatedly to sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough and use Alabama’s stout offensive line as a bludgeon until the Tigers crack.

If the Tide offense simply can’t keep up with Deshaun Watson and a Clemson attack that hung 40 points on them in last year’s championship game, Sarkisian will get some blame – but most of the blowback will fall on Saban for making a drastic switch less than a week before the title game rematch. If Alabama comes away with a victory in any fashion, however, Sarkisian will get his due, given the circumstances.

That’ll go a long way toward his rehabilitation, professionally at least, if not personally. Like Kiffin, he had reached the mountaintop of his craft as the head coach at USC only to see everything crumble to pieces with an uncertain way back. But again like Kiffin, having been picked up by Saban as a reclamation project, he may be on course for redemption.

Make no mistake, Saban didn’t hire Kiffin and Sarkisian as pure charity cases. He knew his offense needs an upgrade and he was able to hire two talented minds back-to-back. Kiffin helped Alabama to three consecutive SEC titles by grooming a new starting quarterback each year. And Sarkisian was paid a mere $35,000 this season as an “analyst” before being summoned to take over for Kiffin.

Thus, Sark has a great opportunity to rebuild his reputation with all eyes on him Monday night. He should thank Saban, but especially his good friend Kiffin, for this unexpected fortune.

— Samuel Chi is the managing editor of and proprietor of College Football Exchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

The Best and Worst of Bowl Season

Forty bowl games are now in the books for the 2016-17 season, with only the College Football Playoff championship game still to come. And just when you thought it was pretty ho-hum with a bunch of “meaningless games” …

Then the Granddaddy happened. Of course it’s the Rose Bowl that gave us the best setting for the most memorable game, despite a game-time temperature of 55 degrees (brrrr!) that was the coldest since the 1974 game.

As for the rest of the bowls, sure, there’s been more interesting news off the field than on it, such as top prospects sitting out games to protect their pro futures, player shoplifting at the bowl game’s namesake store, and Lane Kiffin getting fired even though he quit first.

So, from the picture-perfect ending in Pasadena to the empty stands mostly everywhere else, here’s our nifty summary of this bowl season:

Best game: Rose Bowl. This isn’t even close. USC somehow managed to out-Penn State in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Nittany Lions 17-0 to pull out a dramatic 52-49 victory on Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard field goal at the gun in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl game in history. Despite not being a “playoff” game, the Rose Bowl actually had the most expensive tickets and is expected to earn the highest TV rating of all bowl games.

Best game (non-Rose Bowl edition): Orange Bowl. Anything involving Jim Harbaugh was bound to be entertaining and this game did not disappoint. Michigan fell behind early and looked out of it entering the fourth quarter but rallied to take the lead with just over a minute remaining. But a long kickoff return set Florida State up for the winning play just seconds from the end of regulation in a 33-32 Seminoles victory.

Worst game: Citrus Bowl. Some shine came off the game when LSU running back Leonard Fournette decided to skip the game to protect his pro future – a first-round selection in the NFL Draft – but it still had Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Well, the Louisville quarterback was sacked eight times and the hapless Cardinals lost their third straight game in an ugly 29-9 defeat against LSU.

Best conference: ACC. Other than Louisville, the ACC had a banner season in the bowl games, with Clemson advancing to the CFP title game and Florida State upsetting Michigan in the Orange Bowl. The ACC finished with an 8-3 record, with two more wins than any other conference.

Worst conference: Big Ten. The MAC might’ve gone 0-6, including a loss by Western Michigan in its New Year’s Six bowl appearance, but the Big Ten was billed as the best conference most of the season and placed four teams in NY6 games. But the B1G didn’t live up to the hype, limping to a 3-7 bowl record, including 1-3 in the NY6 games.

The rest of the conference standings:

  • SEC 6-6
  • Big 12 4-2
  • Pac 12 3-3
  • Sun Belt 4-2
  • C-USA 4-3
  • Mountain West 4-3
  • American 2-5
  • Independents 2-0

Best coaching move: Nick Holt, Western Kentucky. As the interim coach with Jeff Brohm having moved on to Purdue, the former defensive coordinator didn’t hold back and emptied the playbook – including a fake victory formation kneel down that went for a 53-yard gain right before the half. The Hilltoppers went on to a 51-31 rout of Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. For the record, interim coaches went 3-2 in bowl games, with Baylor and South Florida also winning while Houston and Temple lost.

Worst coaching move: Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks could’ve gotten the MAC to a winning start when they had Mississippi State on the ropes late in the game. But instead of driving for a game-winning touchdown, Martin chose to go conservative, calling plays to concede 3 yards while in the red zone, only to see Nick Dowd’s 37-yard field goal attempt blocked in a 17-16 loss in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

Best performance: Sam Darnold, USC. Are you ready for the Heisman hype, for 2017? All Darnold did was throwing for 450 yards and a Rose Bowl-record five touchdowns to lead the Trojans to a scintillating comeback against Penn State. USC won nine straight to end the season and, with the redshirt freshman quarterback returning, will be a sure-fire pick as a playoff contender for 2017.

Worst performance: Ohio State. It was an epic fail in all phases of the game, and especially shocking coming from an Urban Meyer team. The Buckeyes were outclassed in every way by Clemson in a 31-0 beatdown in the Fiesta Bowl that was also a CFP semifinal game. Ohio State’s losing margin was the second largest of the bowl season – only Central Michigan’s 55-10 loss to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl was worse.

Best fight: This battle in the bathroom between a Miami fan and West Virginia fan during the Russell Athletic Bowl had a little of everything, including a nifty reference from the movie Road House.

Who says bowl games are “meaningless?” Even a mere urinal is worth fighting for!

Can Anyone Stop Alabama?

Does Washington really have a chance?

That’s on the minds of fans everywhere, as the third edition of the College Football Playoff draws near. On New Year’s Eve, Washington will take on defending champion Alabama in the Peach Bowl while Ohio State and Clemson face each other in the Fiesta Bowl to determine who’ll play for the 2016 national championship.

On paper and in betting parlors, the Alabama-Washington game appears to be a mismatch, as the Tide are favored by 14 points. Other than one close encounter with Ole Miss early in the season, Alabama has scarcely been challenged in breezing to a 13-0 record and the SEC title. It routed Rose Bowl-bound USC by 46 points in the season opener.

This is in fact only the second undefeated squad in Nick Saban’s 21-year career as a college football head coach (the other was the 2009 Alabama team that won the national title). And it’s probably his finest, despite starting a true freshman at quarterback and having to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning running back.

Washington, on the other hand, is new at this. The last time the Huskies were national title contenders, neither the BCS nor the playoff existed. Under the legendary Don James, Washington was a beast in the old Pac-10 and won a share of the national championship in 1991. But since then, the Huskies have not been relevant until the arrival of Chris Petersen three years ago.

(James, coincidentally, launched Saban’s coaching career by hiring him as a grad assistant on his Kent State staff after the young defensive back finished his playing career, all the way back in 1973.)

Petersen, who oversaw the rise of Boise State as a pesky upstart in a non-Power 5 conference, is building another powerhouse but this time with much more talent at his disposal. The Huskies won their first Pac-12/10 title since 2000 with a stout defense and a well-balanced offense. But do they have enough to slow Alabama to have a chance, in a hostile environment in Atlanta that’ll be like a home game for the Crimson Tide?

Probably not.

Not with the Huskies missing their two best linebackers – Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis – both lost for the season because of injuries. And not with quarterback Jake Browning having a late-season slump, a disastrous script against an Alabama defense that might be among the most opportunistic in college football history.

Prediction: Alabama 38, Washington 14

The other playoff matchup should be much more entertaining. It’ll be the second time in four seasons with Ohio State facing Clemson in a postseason game, as the Tigers won the Orange Bowl, 40-35 after the 2013 season. It’s also a matchup between two teams that advanced to the national title games in the first two years of the CFP, with Ohio State winning the championship in 2014 and Clemson narrowly losing to Alabama last year.

And by the way, there’s also this bit of history: Clemson was the last team Woody Hayes faced as a coach. On Dec. 29, 1978, the legendary Ohio State coach ended his career ignominiously when he punched Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman on the sideline after Bauman’s interception sealed a 17-15 Gator Bowl victory for the Tigers.

Chances are, Urban Meyer won’t be punching anyone in this game, win or lose, as he’ll be busy devising ways to slow down Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who nearly singlehandedly defeated Alabama in last year’s national title game.

But this year’s Clemson team isn’t as good as the 2015 edition, as it’s lost significant amount of talent on defense. And it had to scrape by several games – especially against Louisville, Florida State and North Carolina State – just to get into the playoff.

It’s the same case for the Buckeyes, who lost the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa from last year’s team – it’s still a mystery how that team lost to Michigan State and didn’t make the playoff. Ohio State again failed to win the Big Ten this year, but nevertheless made the playoff thanks to a controversial double-overtime victory over Michigan.

This edition of the Buckeyes will have trouble containing Watson and the high-octane Clemson offense. If it cannot create turnovers to help out an offense that sputtered late in the season, Ohio State will end up 0-3 all-time against Clemson in bowl games.

Prediction: Clemson 34, Ohio State 24

Conservatism Dominates Coaching Searches

The coaching carousel mostly spun to a crawl on Sunday when South Florida hired Charlie Strong to fill its vacancy. There are still three openings, but these Group of 5 jobs (Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Temple) will go to current interim coaches or assistants from elsewhere.

In all, there were 17 openings, including six Power 5 jobs this year. But curiously, other than Texas making the most anticipated – and expected – hire of Tom Herman from Houston, there were no splashy signings. No blockbuster deal materialized as when Michigan lured Jim Harbaugh from the San Francisco 49ers two years ago.

Despite the availability of “big names” such as former LSU coach Les Miles, former USC coach Lane Kiffin and former Baylor coach Art Briles, most schools played it safe. Even Oregon, which reportedly was willing to offer an 8-figure contract for a top-tier coach, decided to pull back and settled for a more low-key hire.

Here’s a recap on what’s happened in this season of coaching changes, with our way-to-early grade for each (in alphabetical order):

Baylor: Briles was ousted amidst scandal before the season started and Jim Grobe was brought in as a caretaker for just for 2016. The Bears lost all but one of their recruits but somehow managed to land Temple’s Matt Rhule, a hot coach who led the Owls to the American Athletic championship. Grade: A+

Cincinnati: Tommy Tuberville resigned after a disastrous 4-8 season during which he got into a shouting match with a disgruntled fan. After failing to get into the Big 12, the Bearcats must continue to slog away in the AAC and they hired Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell for the task. Grade: B+

Florida International: Is FIU a sleeping giant or a program with unrealistic expectations? After canning Ron Turner four games into the season – following the absurd dismissal of Mario Cristobal four years ago – the Panthers landed their big fish, former Miami Hurricanes coach Butch Davis. Grade: B

Fresno State: Tim DeRuyter was fired after the Bulldogs started the season 1-7, this following a 3-9 record in 2015 and a clear sense the program was in a tailspin. Fresno hired its former offensive coordinator and Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who’s a certified offensive guru. Grade: A-

Georgia State: This could be a sleeping giant program, in a recruit-rich area and set to move into the former Turner Field as it’s converted into a football stadium. Trent Miles was let go with a 9-38 record in four seasons, replaced with South Carolina assistant Shawn Elliott. Grade: B-

Houston: The Cougars resisted the urge to hire either Miles or Kiffin, opting to stay in-house by promoting offensive coordinator and former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite. The school is now focused more on stability than a household name, after losing three of its previous four coaches (Briles, Kevin Sumlin and Herman) to Power 5 programs. Grade: B+

Indiana: Kevin Wilson’s departure was both sudden and unexpected after he’s made Indiana competitive in the brutal Big Ten East. The schools wasted no time to promote assistant Tom Allen as the permanent head coach. Grade: C-

LSU: After being outbid by Texas for Herman, the Tigers opted for the safe pick of keeping interim coach Ed Orgeron, who filled the same role for USC but was not retained three years ago. Now the intrigue is whether he could lure Kiffin to Baton Rouge to be his offensive coordinator. Grade: B-

Nevada: Just like Kansas State seems incapable of replacing Bill Snyder, the same is true for Nevada and Chris Ault. Brian Polian is out after failing to keep up with Ault’s legacy, and now it’s former Arizona State assistant Jay Norvell’s turn. Grade: C

Oregon: Even with Phil Knight’s millions, the Ducks were not able to persuade former coach Chip Kelly to come back to replace his former assistant Mark Helfrich. They also lost out to Baylor on Rhule. So Oregon settled for Jim Harbaugh disciple Willie Taggart from South Florida. Grade: B

Purdue: Despite playing in the weaker of the Big Ten’s two divisions, the Boilermakers have just been abysmal under Darrell Hazell. The former Quarterback U is back in search for some offense after hiring Western Kentucky’s point-a-minute machine mastermind Jeff Brohm. Grade: A-

San Jose State: The Spartans must view former coach Mike MacIntyre’s success at Colorado with envy, but they’re forever a stepping stone program. The latest switch from Ron Caragher to Oregon State assistant Brent Brennan isn’t going to change that. Grade: C-

South Florida: The Bulls lost Taggart to Oregon but scooped up former Texas coach Charlie Strong. Though his Longhorns tenure ended in failure, Strong was just a bad fit there and now he’s back in familiar ground in the state of Florida. This may actually be an upgrade for USF. Grade: A+

Texas: The Longhorns had to get Herman, after waffling for quite sometime and almost losing him to LSU. The hope is that he becomes the next Urban Meyer, Herman’s former boss at Ohio State who’s brought success everywhere he went. Grade: A


Game of the Week

Mary Hardin-Baylor 14, Mount Union 12: For the first time since 2004, neither Mount Union (Ohio) nor Wisconsin-Whitewater will be in the Division III championship game after the Crusaders upset the defending champion in the semifinals. Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) pulled off the upset after gaining a first down on a fake punt with 45 seconds left to set up a championship match with Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Our Own 2016 Awards Show

College football’s various individual awards will be handed out this week to the outstanding players and coaches of the 2016 season. The biggie, obviously, is the the stiff-armed statuette bestowed Saturday night.

But we’re going to beat everyone to the Heisman Trophy ceremony – as well as the Home Depot Awards show Thursday night – by naming our top players and coaches of our own:

Top defensive player: Jonathan Allen, Alabama – The most dominant player on the most dominant defense of the year should get this honor. There’s not a whole lot to debate about this. Besides anchoring a nasty defensive line, Allen even took two fumbles back for touchdowns.

Top defensive back: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan – While teammate Jabrill Peppers gets much more publicity and even an invitation to New York as a Heisman finalist, it’s Lewis who plays a shut-down corner for the Wolverines’ suffocating defense.

Top linebacker: Reuben Foster, Alabama – The senior linebacker is the workhorse of the Alabama defense, leading the top-ranked Tide with 94 tackles, including 12 for a loss and four sacks.

Top punter: Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah – His predecessor Tom Hackett was a legend, but Wishnowsky picked up right where the two-time Ray Guy award winner left off by leading the nation in net punting (44.9 yards) and knocking 34 punts inside the 20.

Top kicker: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State – The Sun Devils senior is NCAA’s all-time leading scorer among kickers and he capped off his final collegiate season by hitting 23 of 25 field goals, including a career-best 59-yarder.

Top lineman: Cam Robinson, Alabama – With a young offense piloted by a true freshman quarterback, Robinson led the line that allowed Jalen Hurts to navigate out of trouble as the Tide rolled to a 13-0 regular season and a third straight playoff.

Top tight end: Jake Butt, Michigan – After deciding to return for his senior season, Butt proved to be the Wolverines’ most reliable pass-catcher, becoming the school’s all-time leading receiving tight end with a 43-catch, 518-yard season and four touchdowns.

Top receiver: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma – He is one of the difference-makers in the potent Oklahoma offense that rolled to a perfect 9-0 record in the Big 12. Westbrook caught 74 passes for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Top running back: D’Onta Foreman, Texas – San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey is set to become the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, but Foreman had a better year against better competition despite Texas’ disappointing 5-7 season.

Top quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma – The bad news for OU’s Big 12 foes is that Mayfield intends to return for his senior season, instead of opting for the NFL Draft. In his second season with the Sooners, Mayfield completed over 71 percent of his passes and racked up 3,669 yards with 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

Most versatile player: Adoree Jackson, USC – Again, Michigan’s Peppers was more touted for his all-purpose prowess, but Jackson actually made the bigger plays in the biggest games for the Trojans. Besides primarily being USC’s top cornerback, Jackson also returned kicks and punts and caught passes on offense. His signature moment came when he scored a TD each on a punt return, kickoff return and a pass reception against Notre Dame.

Assistant coach of the year: Don Brown, Michigan – In his first season in Ann Arbor after coming over from Boston College, Brown upgraded the Wolverines’ already stout defense into something even more ferocious. Statistically only Alabama’s defense is better than Michigan’s, but the Wolverines played better competition, going 3-1 against teams in the AP top 10.

Coach of the year: Mike MacIntyre, Colorado – Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South once again, the Buffaloes instead won it, marking a spectacular turnaround from their first five years in the conference. In his fourth year in Boulder, MacIntyre has finally restored a once-proud program that had been in the dumps ever since the early 2000s.

Most inspirational player: James Conner, Pittsburgh – When you beat cancer, you’re already plenty inspirational. But on top of that, Conner came back to rush for over 1,000 yards (1,060, to be exact) and score 20 touchdowns. The Panthers were the only team to defeat two Power 5 conference champions (Clemson and Penn State) and Conner had his best games in these upsets, rushing for over 100 yards in each.

Player of the year: Lamar Jackson, Louisville – Though the Cardinals sputtered late in the year, there’s no denying the spectacular season that Jackson had on his way to collect the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. The sophomore quarterback amassed nearly 5,000 yards of total offense with 51 touchdowns. Jackson will become Louisville’s first Heisman winner, something even Johnny Unitas was not able to claim.

Surprise! Committee Pulls a Fast One

The biggest surprise from the College Football Playoff committee this year is that there were no surprises.

While there were rampant speculations on who might be the fourth team in the four-team playoff, at the end the committee stuck to the script, picking the four Power 5 teams with one or fewer losses for the field. And the rest of the New Year’s Six bowl games also fell in line exactly as how we projected Saturday night …

No one should have any beef with these decisions, really. Penn State, at No. 5, has two losses, including a 39-point beatdown by No. 6 Michigan, which actually has a stronger case than the Nittany Lions. The Big 12 is left out of the playoff for the second time in three years, leading its commissioner Bob Bowlsby to howl. But it has no real argument, either (more on that later).

Now that we’ve had three years of the playoff, just exactly what have we learned from the committee in its decision making?

The truth? Nothing. The members make their calls not any different from how voters in the polls or knowledgeable pundits make theirs. Conference championships are important – until they’re not. Head to head matters, until it’s not. The “13th data point” is relevant, until it’s irrelevant.

For the first time, a non-conference champion is picked for the playoff, and Ohio State’s inclusion was a slam-dunk. The Buckeyes are ranked third by the committee only for cosmetic reasons – so they’ll wear white uniforms against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, but they’re favored by Vegas.

Washington’s inclusion was the least certain, but after its 41-10 demolition of Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Huskies secured the final spot. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt admitted that UW’s weak nonconference schedule (ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams) was a concern, but at the end its work in conference play was enough to hold off the Big Ten champion Penn State.

Let’s face it, despite all the statistical information and all the game footage at their disposal, the committee members are no more than knowledgeable fans. It’s a waste of time trying to make much more out of that.

USC is back: For the first time since the Pete Carroll era, USC is in a BCS/NY6 bowl game. The Trojans will be making their record 34th appearance in the Rose Bowl, the first time they’re in the Granddaddy of Them All since after the 2008 season. USC also keeps alive another amazing streak, as it’s played in a Rose Bowl during every presidential administration since Herbert Hoover in 1929. The Trojans just made it before Barack Obama leaves office.

SEC is hollowed out: While Alabama continues to be the undisputed most dominant program in college football under Nick Saban, the rest of the SEC has fallen off a cliff. The SEC only got a second NY6 bowl because contractually the Sugar Bowl had to pick a team from that conference. Auburn, at No. 14 and with four losses, is ranked lower than any other Power 5 participants in NY6 bowls, and actually ranked lower than even the Group 5 rep Western Michigan in both the AP and Coaches polls.

Row the Boat: Western Michigan became the third different G5 conference champion to appear in an NY6 bowl, joining Boise State (Mountain West) in 2014 and Houston (American) in 2015. The MAC champions are the only other undefeated FBS team besides No. 1 Alabama. Win or lose in the Cotton Bowl, it’ll probably lead to a big job for coach P.J. Fleck, who’s in his fourth season at the helm of the Broncos and just turned 36 last week.

Game of the Week

Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31: The Big Ten Championship Game was “only” for a Rose Bowl berth, but turned out highly entertaining nonetheless. The Nittany Lions overcame turnovers and questionable decisions by coach James Franklin that dug them in a 28-7 hole before storming back to win their first conference title since 2008, before the Jerry Sandusky scandals came to light and the ensuing NCAA sanctions. It’ll be Penn State’s first BCS/NY6 bowl appearance since losing the 2009 Rose Bowl to USC, 38-24.

Player of the Week

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: The Sooners didn’t make the playoff, but Oklahoma did win their second consecutive Big 12 title and clinch a trip to the Sugar Bowl, beating Oklahoma State in Bedlam, 38-20. Perine was the workhorse, carrying the ball a career-high 37 times for 239 yards as Oklahoma rolled up 629 total yards to pull away late.

The Weak

We seem to have all figured out how the committee works, except the Big 12. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is demanding to know why his conference is left out of the playoff for the second time in  three seasons.

That’s easy, Bob. Oklahoma was beaten badly by Ohio State, at home, and also lost to Houston. The Sooners had no case, nor did any other Big 12 teams.

The Big 12 rushed to add a championship game starting in the 2017 season despite not expanding and not putting its 10 teams in two divisions. In this year’s case, Bedlam would’ve been a totally meaningless affair as both teams would’ve been assured of a berth in the Big 12 title game a week later.

This conference cannot disband soon enough.

— Samuel Chi is the managing editor of and proprietor of College Football Exchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.