Bleacher Report College Football Awards for 2016 Season

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2016

Bleacher Report College Football Awards for 2016 Season

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    Incredible performances like this one in September at Syracuse helped Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson earn plenty of accolades during the 2016 season.
    Incredible performances like this one in September at Syracuse helped Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson earn plenty of accolades during the 2016 season.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    The end of the regular season means it's time to hand out some honors to college football's best players, coaches and memorable moments from 2016. There are no fancy trophies associated with these awards, but that doesn't make them any less meaningful.

    These awards were voted on by 20 members of our college football staff: writers Greg Couch, Tyler Donohue, Ed Feng, Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Sanjay Kirpalani, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brian Pedersen, David Regimbal, Barrett Sallee, Damon Sayles, Brad Shepard, Greg Wallace and Christopher Walsh; video staff members Michael Felder, Hunter Mandel and Sean McManus; and editors Eric Bowman and Eric Yates.

    Each voter devoted every Saturday (plus quite a few weeknights) since September watching and tracking everything that happened in college football. They submitted nominations for 15 different categories, with the top vote-getter and runner-up listed on the following slides.

    Some writers have also weighed in with their thoughts on why they picked certain winners. Check out who landed some accolades and then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

        

    All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting info via Scout.com. All slides written by Brian J. Pedersen. Follow the author on Twitter at @realBJP.

Coach of the Year

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    Robert Reiners/Getty Images

    Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

    Texas fired Charlie Strong last month after he managed to win only 16 games in three seasons. Colorado could have handed MacIntyre a similar fate last winter after going 10-27 in his first three years, with only two Pac-12 wins to speak of, but the school decided he deserved more time to turn the program around.

    The result: The Buffaloes went 10-3, winning the South Division with an 8-1 record (they were 5-40 in their first five years of Pac-12 play) and reaching the conference title game. Colorado's losses were all to Top 10 teams: Michigan, USC and Washington, all of whom it led or was tied with at some point in those respective games.

    Colorado is MacIntyre's second turnaround, winning 10 games at San Jose State in 2012 after going 1-12 two years before that. The Buffaloes are headed to the Alamo Bowl in hopes of their first 11-win season since 1994.

        

    Runner-up: James Franklin, Penn State

    Franklin had already done an admirable job in his first two seasons at Penn State, helping navigate the program out of NCAA probation and recording back-to-back 7-6 records despite scholarship restrictions. And it looked like another similar mark was on tap after the Nittany Lions started 2-2 and lost their Big Ten opener at Michigan by 39.

    But then PSU rattled off nine straight wins, including an upset of Ohio State that propelled it to the East Division championship. The Lions then won their first Big Ten title since 2008 by rallying from a 21-point deficit against Wisconsin on Saturday.

Assistant of the Year

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Don Brown, Michigan

    Michigan had the No. 4 defense in the country in 2015 under the guidance of coordinator D.J. Durkin, who parlayed that success into his first permanent head coaching gig at Maryland. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh wasted little time replacing Durkin, plucking Brown away from Boston College where his Eagles posted the nation's top defensive unit last year.

    Brown managed to improve on what Durkin did by propelling Michigan to No. 2 nationally at 252.7 yards allowed per game as well as second-best in scoring defense at 12.5 points allowed per game. The Wolverines held five opponents to eight or fewer points and two more to just 10, including a Penn State team that averaged 36.7 points per game and won the Big Ten.

    Among Brown's most notable moves this season was moving redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers from the secondary to linebacker. Peppers responded by recording 15 tackles for loss to tie for the team lead.

        

    Runner-up: Lane Kiffin, Alabama

    Kiffin solidified his reputation as an offensive genius by once again reinventing Alabama's offense in order to fit the skills of his quarterback. After turning career backups Blake Sims and Jake Coker into senior stars in 2014 and 2015, respectively, this time he convinced Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to hand the reins to a true freshman for the first time in his career.

    Under Kiffin's guidance, Jalen Hurts threw 21 touchdown passes and also ran for a team-high 12 scores while setting a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback.

Offensive Player of the Year

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Lamar Jackson, Louisville

    We'll find out on Saturday if he becomes Louisville's first Heisman Trophy winner, but there's no doubt in our staff's mind that Jackson was the best player in the country this season. The sophomore quarterback was the overwhelming pick for this honor, selected by 16 of our 20 voters.

    Jackson's numbers in 2016 jump off the page: 3,390 passing yards with 30 touchdowns and 1,538 rushing yards with 21 scores. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer considers Jackson's rushing effort "a Heisman-like year for a running back" but when paired with what he does in the air it's even more amazing.

    He's the eighth player in FBS history to throw for at least 3,000 and rush for another 1,000 and just the second (Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch did it in 2012) to go for 3,000 and 1,500.

    Just on his own, Jackson's 51 total TDs were more than 89 FBS schools scored during the 2016 season.

    "No player was more destructive and entertaining over the course of a full year than this one," Kramer said. "And the numbers as a thrower and runner are hard to wrap your head around."

        

    Runner-up: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma

    Oklahoma has had some great wide receivers over the years, guys like Ryan Broyles and Sterling Shepard who put up strong numbers over the course of their careers. Broyles' 2010 season, in which he caught 131 passes for 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns, helped the Sooners go 12-2 and win the Big 12 title.

    Westbrook didn't catch as many passes this season, pulling in only 74, but nearly 22 percent of those receptions resulted in TDs (16) and produced 1,465 yards.

    The 6'0", 175-pound senior, who had 46 catches for 743 yards and four TDs as a junior in his first season with the program, was unguardable in Big 12 play. In those nine games—all Oklahoma wins—he had 57 catches for 1,311 yards and all 16 of his scores.

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Jonathan Allen, Alabama

    Allen dominated as a junior, helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship in January in what would have been a perfect swan song for his college career. But instead of entering the NFL draft, where he likely would have been an early selection, the 6'3”, 291-pound defensive lineman opted to play one more college season.

    That move paid off big time for Allen and Alabama. He recorded 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss during a 13-0 regular season, with 1.5 sacks in the SEC championship against Florida. Along the way, Allen showed off speed that someone his size shouldn't have, returning fumbles for touchdowns against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.

    "Allen's final season has been everything he could have hoped for," Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh said. "You don't often see defensive linemen return fumbles for touchdowns, and he did it twice. His teammates call him 'Superman' from the flying sack over a blocker against Texas A&M. Quite frankly, he should be up for the Heisman."

    Allen isn't a Heisman finalist but he is up for several other national honors, and on Monday he won the Nagurski Award given to the nation's top defensive player.

        

    Runner-up: DeMarcus Walker, Florida State

    Another future pro who passed up the NFL draft for his senior year, Walker had the best season of his career in 2016 with 15 sacks (which is tied for the FBS lead) and 16.5 tackles for loss along with three forced fumbles and a blocked kick. The 6'4", 280-pound defensive end had five games with at least two sacks, starting the year off with a bang by sacking Ole Miss Chad Kelly quarterback 4.5 times on Labor Day.

Freshman of the Year

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Jalen Hurts, Alabama

    Alabama is a mainstay atop the recruiting rankings each year, annually signing more 4- and 5-star prospects than almost anyone else. And because the Crimson Tide are usually so stacked with talent, they have the luxury of bringing most players along slowly with several relegated to special teams duty or limited mop-up time as freshmen.

    Coach Nick Saban has been notoriously reluctant to play young guys at quarterback, but Hurts was too good to be held back this season. Inserted a few series into Alabama's season-opening win against USC—after he fumbled on his first play—it's been nearly all good from the 6'2", 209-pound dual-threat passer.

    "Hurts has been unbelievable for the Crimson Tide this year," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee said. "For a true freshman to have the mindset of a veteran, lead his team to an unblemished record and conference championship with the pressure of being The Alabama Quarterback hanging over his head, he's the surefire pick for the nation's top freshman."

    Hurts has thrown for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns this season and run for 841 yards and 12 scores. That's the most rushing yards any Alabama QB has ever posted, and he accounted for nearly half of the team's rushing TDs.

        

    Runner-up: Ed Oliver, Houston

    Don't let the fact he played mostly against non-Power Five conference opponents fool you. Oliver was so impressive in his first season of college football that it didn't matter who the competition was—he dominated.

    The 6'2", 290-pound defensive tackle notched five sacks with 19 tackles for loss and 61 total tackles as well as nine pass breakups, seven quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Four of those sacks came against two of the best passers in the country, taking down Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield twice in the season opener and getting to Louisville's Lamar Jackson twice in November.

Senior of the Year

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Jonathan Allen, Alabama

    Most college players who stick around for their senior year do so because their pro prospects aren't good enough to leave early or that final season is their first chance to play a featured role. Neither was the case for Allen, who was Alabama's top defender a year ago and was projected as a first-round pick by many draft experts, including ESPN.com's Mel Kiper, before he decided to come back for another season.

    Staying in school didn't hurt Allen's NFL future; in fact, it probably boosted his stock. Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller has the 6'3", 291-pound defensive lineman at No. 3 on his most recent big board.

        

    Runner-up: Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State

    It's a rarity for a standout running back to play all four years in college, considering the short shelf life of ball-carriers in the pros. But whatever the future holds for Pumphrey as a professional, it won't hurt his chances that he may end up going down as the most prolific rusher in FBS history.

    The 5'9", 180-pound Pumphrey has run for 2,018 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, helping San Diego State win a second straight Mountain West Conference title. He has 6,290 yards for his career, needing only 108 yards to pass former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne for the all-time FBS record. He and the Aztecs take on Houston on Dec. 17 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Transfer of the Year

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    Davis Webb, California

    Webb's time at Texas Tech was filled with highs and lows, having started six games at quarterback as a freshman, including a Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State in which he threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns. But once Patrick Mahomes came along in 2014, Webb's time as starter quickly went away, and he was relegated to a little-used backup.

    His degree in hand, Webb landed at California in the offseason (after briefly committing to Colorado) and ended up putting together a massive senior season as a graduate transfer. His 4,295 passing yards are second-most in FBS—ironically, only Mahomes had more—and he threw 37 touchdown passes while rushing for six more.

    "California missed out on bowl season, but don't blame Davis Webb," Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller said.
    "It's not the Texas Tech transfer's fault the Golden Bears gave up 42.6 points per game. Rather, he did everything in his power to make up for that glaring lack of defense."

        

    Runner-up: Trevor Knight, Texas A&M

    A multiyear starter at Oklahoma, he was the hero of the Sooners' 2014 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, but a neck injury the following November opened the door for Baker Mayfield to eventually beat him out for the job in 2015. Once Knight graduated, he asked for his release and found a home at Texas A&M, where quarterback departures made him a much-needed addition.

    Knight helped pilot the Aggies to a 6-0 start, accounting for five total touchdowns in their overtime win against Tennessee. A shoulder injury later knocked him out for three games, but he returned for A&M's regular-season finale and threw for 211 yards and three TDs, giving him 26 total TDs for the season.

Comeback Player of the Year

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    James Conner, Pittsburgh

    Conner earned ACC Player of the Year honors in 2014 as a sophomore after a season in which he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns and broke the program record for scores, which was previously held by Tony Dorsett. Even bigger things were in store for the running back in 2015 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.

    But that was just the start of the hurdles the 6'2", 235-pound Conner would have to overcome to get back on the field. In a press release last December, he revealed he'd been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma but vowed he would play college football again. He made good on that pledge in September, when he ran for 53 yards and a touchdown and also caught a scoring pass in Pittsburgh's win over Villanova.

    "For James Conner to even be on the field this season is a miracle," Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani said. "Defeating cancer is a feat in and of itself."

    Conner finished the regular season with 1,060 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and also caught four scoring passes.

        

    Runner-up: Mike Williams, Clemson

    Williams' junior year—and nearly his career—came to a halt when he caught a touchdown pass but collided head-first with the goal post during the first half of Clemson's 2015 opener. Williams fractured his neck, which forced him to miss the rest of the season.

    The 6'3", 225-pound wide receiver returned with a bang this season, catching 84 passes for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Most Exciting Player to Watch

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    Lamar Jackson, Louisville

    Louisville's push for the playoff didn't pan out thanks to losses to Houston and Kentucky in its final two games. But even in those defeats, there was no denying how fun it was to watch Jackson every time he took a snap.

    The sophomore quarterback was a threat to run or throw for a touchdown on nearly every play, doing so 51 times in 12 games with at least one every outing. His drive to make something out of each touch got him in trouble quite a bit, however, as he threw nine interceptions and had several fumbles at critical moments, though even that didn't take away from the excitement he fostered when in action.

    When he took off, you never knew if he was going to hurdle someone, juke them or just run them over them. And if given even the slightest amount of time to throw, he'd frequently go deep for a big play.

        

    Runner-up: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma

    The Oklahoma offense had no shortage of stud players this season, but Westbrook turned the most heads. The Sooners threw the ball in his direction quite often, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, with 28.3 percent of their passes going toward the 6'0", 176-pound senior, who hauled in 74 of 97 throws for a 76.3 percent catch rate.

    Plenty of those receptions were more than just run-of-the-mill. Pro Football Focus noted Westbrook led all power-conference receivers in yards after the catch.

    "Whether it's turning short throws into big gains with his yards-after-catch ability or catching deep balls for touchdowns, he can do it all," PFF wrote.

Group of Five Player of the Year

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    Tie: Corey Davis, Western Michigan, and Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State

    So much attention is given to the power conferences in college football that it's hard to get noticed when you play for one of the little guys—unless you set FBS career records or are on the cusp of doing so.

    Davis and Pumphrey are close to wrapping up stellar college careers with offensive numbers that are among the best in history. Davis, a 6'3", 213-pound senior wide receiver, is already the all-time leader in receiving yards with 5,205, which includes 1,427 (with 18 touchdowns) for 13-0 Western Michigan this season. And Pumphrey, a senior running back for San Diego State who is all of 5'9" and 180 pounds, has run for 2,018 yards in 2016 and 6,290 for his career. Another 108, and he will be No. 1 in FBS history.

    Each has one game left—the Broncos will face Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, while the Aztecs will play Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. If you haven't seen them play yet, make sure to check out those finales.

Best Single-Game Performance

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    Lamar Jackson vs. Syracuse

    The Heisman Trophy is an award based on season-long achievement, but most winners end up having a particular game that can serve as their Heisman audition tape. For Jackson, that was Louisville's ACC opener at Syracuse on Sept. 9.

    Though the Orange defense ended up appearing on many teams' highlight reels—giving up 38.6 points per game, including 76 in its finale against Pittsburgh—that doesn't lessen what Jackson did inside the Carrier Dome on a Friday night. It wasn't just that he tallied 610 yards of offense (411 passing, 199 rushing) and accounted for five touchdowns, including four on the ground—it was how effortlessly he made it seem.

    Jackson threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to James Quick on the first play from scrimmage, but he was just getting started. On the Cardinals' second drive, Jackson hit Jaylen Smith for a 61-yard completion on second down and scored on a seven-yard run on the following play. And after Louisville got the ball back less than two minutes later, Jackson quickly found the end zone again—on a 72-yard first-down run.

    In only 4:43 of game time, Jackson had tallied 212 yards of offense and accounted for three touchdowns. He added scoring runs of 13 and nine yards before the first half ended, and there could have been more had the Cardinals not fumbled on two other first-half possessions and Jackson not thrown an interception late in the second quarter.

        

    Runner-up: Patrick Mahomes vs. Oklahoma

    Football is a team game, but there have been plenty of times in Mahomes' three seasons at Texas Tech when it seemed like he was the only guy doing anything. Never was this truer than during the Red Raiders' 66-59 home loss to Oklahoma on Oct. 22.

    In a game that established several individual and team FBS records for offense, Mahomes compiled an astounding 819 yards of offense. He was 52-of-88 for 734 yards and five touchdowns, tying the single-game passing yardage mark and coming one attempt shy of that record. He also ran for 85 yards and two scores.

Game of the Year

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Michigan at Ohio State

    Only four teams make it to the College Football's Playoff, but when Michigan visited Ohio State in the regular-season finale Nov. 26, the game had the feeling of a postseason clash. If was basically a playoff quarterfinal, as the winner would be in great position to earn a bid to the playoff while the loser would probably be out of the running.

    Not surprisingly, both teams played like their season was on the line. The Wolverines scored first and held a 17-7 lead late in the third quarter before the Buckeyes offense got in gear. Ohio State scored to pull within three, and it stayed that way until the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.

    A 23-yard field goal with one second left by Tyler Durbin—who missed on two other attempts, including a 21-yarder that would have tied the game midway through the fourth quarter—forced the first overtime in the 113-game history of the rivalry.

    And that's when the fun really started.

    The Buckeyes needed only two plays to score a touchdown and go up 24-17, and Michigan had to convert on 4th-and-goal to even it up. The Wolverines then took a 27-24 lead on a field goal in the second overtime before Ohio State won it on Curtis Samuel's 15-yard touchdown run...but not before J.T. Barrett narrowly converted a first down on 4th-and-1—a play that was reviewed (and scrutinized after the fact like it was the Zapruder film).

        

    Runner-up: Louisville at Clemson

    Clemson didn't officially clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title under mid-November, but its 42-36 home win over Louisville on Oct. 1 all but locked up that championship. And as was the case with many of the Tigers' wins this season, it came down to the final seconds.

    Clemson held a 28-10 halftime lead before the Cardinals scored 26 unanswered points to take an eight-point midway through the fourth quarter. Deshaun Watson then led the Tigers on consecutive scoring drives, and Clemson went up 42-36 on Watson's 31-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with 3:14 to go.

    Louisville quickly got into Clemson territory and advanced as far as the 9-yard line, but the drive stalled. Facing 4th-and-12 from the 14 after a false-start penalty, Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson connected with James Quick on a pass that came up one yard short, as Tigers cornerback Marcus Edmond knocked Quick out of bounds with 33 seconds to play.

Upset of the Year

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    Penn State over Ohio State

    Penn State started the 2016 season 2-2 with losses at Pittsburgh and Michigan—the latter by 39 points. A week later, the Nittany Lions needed overtime to knock off Minnesota at home. They were an underdog against visiting Maryland the game after that, per Odds Shark.

    When Ohio State came to Happy Valley on Oct. 22, there weren't many people who thought the Nittany Lions could hang with the Buckeyes, much less beat them, since they'd gone 0-6 against ranked opponents with an average margin of defeat of 24.8 points under head coach James Franklin.

    Final score: Penn State 24, No. 2 Ohio State 21.

    In what ended up being a season-long trend for the Lions, they fell behind 12-0 and were down 21-7 entering the fourth quarter before coming to life. A touchdown and a field goal narrowed the gap to four, though the Buckeyes had a chance to push their lead to seven with a long field-goal attempt with 4:39 remaining.

    Instead, Penn State blocked the kick, and Grant Haley scooped up the ball and returned it 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

        

    Runner-up: Pittsburgh over Clemson

    Before Clemson began its current six-year run of winning at least 10 games per season, a derogatory term was thrown around any time the Tigers lost a game they shouldn't have. It was called "Clemsoning," and it specifically referred to them falling to unranked opponents.

    The Tigers effectively retired the term by winning 46 such games over a five-year span, but they lost 43-42 at home to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12—their first regular-season loss since November 2014 and first home loss since October 2013.

Play of the Year

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    Tennessee's Hail Mary vs. Georgia

    For a while this season, it looked like Tennessee was the team of destiny. Picked to win the SEC East by the media for the first time in a while, the Volunteers made large comebacks an art form by rallying in wins over Appalachian State, Virginia Tech and Florida in just the first four weeks of the season. The last of those three was particularly significant because they trailed 21-0 before scoring 38 straight points to end an 11-game skid against the Gators.

    It was more of the same the next week, when Tennessee fell behind 17-0 at Georgia only to take a 28-24 lead on Corey Vereen's fumble recovery in the end zone with 2:56 to go. But when the Bulldogs scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left, it looked like the Vols' luck had finally run out.

    Oh ye of little faith.

    After a short kickoff, a decent return and a penalty put UT at Georgia's 43-yard line with time for one last play, quarterback Joshua Dobbs launched the ball into the end zone, where receiver Jauan Jennings somehow caught it in a crowd of players for the game-winning touchdown.

        

    Runner-up: Central Michigan's Hail Mary vs. Oklahoma State

    Speaking of Hail Marys, Central Michigan owes its bowl eligibility to one it pulled off for a 30-27 win at Oklahoma State on Sept. 10. Without that play, in which quarterback Cooper Rush threw the ball 42 yards to receiver Jesse Kroll, who then lateraled to Corey Willis as he ran the final nine yards to the end zone, the Chippewas would have finished the season 5-7 and would not be preparing to play Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.

    As amazing as the play was, it became even more unbelievable when officials later ruled it should have never happened and that the crew working the game incorrectly awarded Central Michigan one untimed down after the Cowboys were called for intentional grounding as time expired.

Best Moment of the Year

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    Nebraska honors Sam Foltz with delay of game penalty

    Foltz was Nebraska's starting punter for three seasons and was preparing for his senior year with the Cornhuskers when he was killed in a car accident in Wisconsin in July. The crash also took the life of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and injured LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye.

    The pain was still fresh when Nebraska played its season opener Sept. 3 against Fresno State. When the 'Huskers went three-and-out on their first possession, it was time to punt. That would have been Foltz's job, so in his absence, they decided on that play he couldn't be replaced.

    Nebraska sent only 10 men onto the field and let the play clock run out, which resulted in a delay of game penalty. As the seconds ticked down, the sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium cheered in memory of Foltz. The Bulldogs declined the penalty.

    "Sports have a way of dehumanizing people," Bleacher Report's David Kenyon said. "We often think of these figures more as objects than real, breathing, feeling bodies. But in that fourth-down moment, everyone so painfully realized Foltz was gone. It was such a powerful way to honor his memory."

        

    Runner-up: Michigan-Ohio State finish

    Ohio State is in the playoff as the No. 3 seed and will take on Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31, a spot it earned by going 11-1 with several quality victories. One of those was a double-overtime win against Michigan in the regular-season finale—a game that was decided by inches.

    Michigan had taken a 27-24 lead in the second OT thanks to a field goal, meaning the Buckeyes could win it with a touchdown. But after J.T. Barrett's pass to Curtis Samuel on 3rd-and-9 netted only eight yards, OSU had to decide whether to try to force a third extra period with a field goal or go for it on fourth down.

    It opted for the latter, and Barrett kept the ball but was met at the line to gain by several Wolverines defenders. The play was reviewed, replay officials upheld the determination that Barrett had just barely got the first down and one play later, Samuel scored on a 15-yard run to cap a 30-27 victory.

    Had Barrett been ruled short on that play, Michigan might be in the playoff instead of the Buckeyes.