Winners and Losers of Week 14 in College Football
College football saved the best for last.
If there was ever a weekend to stay in and watch football, it was this one, where championship games mostly all lived up to their massive expectations.
It all started Friday when Washington and Utah played a good old-fashioned slugfest, and Northern Illinois put on a furious rally to upend Buffalo for the MAC title.
Oklahoma's enacting of revenge on Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game gave us hope for the day, and nothing disappointed. The SEC Championship Game gave us a Hollywood hero in a fantastic showdown, and UCF's post-McKenzie Milton brilliance was noteworthy, too.
And the Conference USA title game was great, too—though the Sun Belt Championship Game was a snore.
The night action couldn't quite sustain the momentum as Clemson smoked Pittsburgh, but Northwestern kept things tight for much of the game before it succumbed to Ohio State, and the Mountain West Conference Championship Game was a good one, too.
This weekend was one to remember, so let's take a look at all the winners and losers.
Winner: Jalen Hurts' Hollywood Script
If you'd watched it on the silver screen, you'd think it was based on a true story with a little Disney-infused, feel-good embellishment to add some manufactured drama.
Sometimes, real life is so much cooler. And college football got its story of the year in the SEC Championship Game.
Jalen Hurts entered with Alabama trailing 28-21 and Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa's ankle injured. The former two-year starter led the Crimson Tide all the way back and ahead for an incredible 35-28 win over the Georgia Bulldogs, who'd hoped to pay UA back for last year's national title loss.
Even the normally robotic Nick Saban nearly choked up when he talked to the CBS television crew about Hurts after the game.
"Well, we've always had a lot of faith in Jalen, and you know, I told him when we put him in when Tua got hurt, 'It's your time,' and he certainly took advantage of it and did a fantastic job," the Tide head coach said. "I'm so proud of this guy for what he's done this year, I can't even tell you."
In last year's title game, Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at halftime and led the Tide to the championship—with Hurts, who obviously was disappointed, cheering on the sideline for his teammate the whole way.
Rather than transfer, Hurts stayed in Tuscaloosa to battle for the job. When Tagovailoa won it and starred throughout the year, Hurts stayed and played in mop-up duty and situational snaps. Unlike Clemson's Kelly Bryant—who will transfer after giving way to Trevor Lawrence—Hurts waited for another big chance on a big stage.
It came with Alabama's back against the wall Saturday, and he starred. Hurts finished 7-of-9 for 82 yards and a score. He also had 28 yards on five carries and scored the game-winning touchdown on an awesome 15-yard scamper.
It was an ending you had to see to believe.
"I honestly didn't know what to think," Hurts told CBS's postgame crew. "All year, I've kind of been waiting on my opportunity, and regardless of how it went, my opportunity came today. I worked hard this week with my teammates, and we found a way to get it done today."
Loser: Kirby Smart's Fake-Punt Execution
You can understand Georgia coach Kirby Smart's decision to roll the dice and be the aggressor against Alabama in plenty of different scenarios.
After all, no Saban disciple has ever beaten him, and the Bulldogs led much of Saturday's SEC Championship Game before they lost that advantage to the Crimson Tide and Hurts.
But after they were trading punches with the undefeated Tide, you have to ask why Smart elected for the fake punt with 3:04 left in a game tied 28-28. Especially considering it was 4th-and-11 from the 50-yard line and Alabama gave a defensive look in anticipation of a Georgia fake.
If that didn't work (and it didn't) he'd be giving Alabama an extremely short field with limited time left on the clock. Why not punt the ball deep and make Hurts stretch the field to beat you?
It's something he's struggled to do consistently in the past, especially considering UGA is one of the nation's best at not giving up the deep ball.
Instead of factoring all that into the equation, Smart called the fake punt. The long-snapper hiked it to freshman quarterback Justin Fields, who looked like he had a couple of potential receivers but instead elected to tuck it and try to run for the first down.
It went nowhere. Smart told DawgNation's Mike Griffith after the game UGA "had a guy wide open."
A crimson flurry of defenders snowed Fields under, and Hurts got his short field and took advantage of it with an efficient drive that concluded with his game-winning touchdown.
Georgia came back and threw into the end zone at the buzzer, but the pass was batted away, and Alabama won. Rather than making the Tide drive the length of the field to win, Smart was too aggressive, and it burned him.
It may have been bad execution by Fields, but there's no doubt that it was a questionable call against the speed of that defense in that situation with the game on the line.
Winner: Clemson's Young Offensive Arsenal
Clemson's exceptional defense is equal parts dominant and dynamic, and that side of the ball deserves every bit of newspaper ink it receives with the nation's best defensive coordinator Brent Venables leading the way.
But you can't ever forget about the work the other side puts in. Broyles Award finalist Jeff Scott's offense is capable of being every bit as exciting. Last year, the Tigers went to the College Football Playoff with Kelly Bryant at quarterback. The year before that, they won it all with Deshaun Watson at the helm.
In Saturday's 42-10 win over Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game, youngsters dotted the box score with highlights.
Leading the charge was elite true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who completed 12 of 24 passes for a ho-hum 118 yards and a pair of scores.
The star of the group is fringe Heisman Trophy candidate Travis Etienne, who is penalized at times because coach Dabo Swinney has so many weapons that he doesn't always get enough touches. But the running back scored his 20th and 21st touchdowns on the ground (ranked second nationally) on his way to 156 yards on 12 carries.
He's just a sophomore, too.
As if elite playmaking receiver Tee Higgins wasn't enough, true freshman Justyn Ross showed his skills with two catches for 70 yards. Oh, and by the way, Higgins finished with two touchdowns on three catches.
There's Amari Rodgers, Lyn-J Dixon and plenty of other youngsters who double as stars. That stockpiled talent was on full display for Swinney and crew, and that will be the case again in the playoffs.
So, while Clemson is getting ready to say goodbye to an incredible senior class that went to 53-4 Saturday night—an all-time ACC wins record to go along with four playoff appearances—the future, too, is bright.
Loser: Kenny Pickett
Everybody knows Pittsburgh's game is running the football.
But with the Panthers facing the No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship Game, they had to inject a little pizazz into their vanilla offense.
Coach Dabo Swinney's team is second nationally against the run, and since defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters he was "embarrassed" after South Carolina torched such a good defense a week ago, you just knew the Tigers would come out motivated.
That means Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett needed to play the game of his life if the heavy-underdog Panthers were to have a chance.
Instead, he was about as bad as a major college quarterback can be in a game of this magnitude.
Pickett followed up last week's struggles against Miami with a worse showing. He completed just four of 16 passes for eight yards as Pitt couldn't establish any offensive balance. The Panthers still were at least within striking distance just ahead of the half before Pickett's biggest blunder.
With his team trailing 21-10 right before the half, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi decided to be aggressive rather than take the game into halftime down a couple of scores. Pickett dropped back and looked just as uncomfortable as he had all night, unleashing a wobbler into the flats that A.J. Terrell intercepted.
The Clemson cornerback took the pick 31 yards to the 10-yard line, and one play later, Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for the score to help make it 28-10 at the break. It may as well have been a 50-point lead the way the Tigers defense was playing.
Pickett has some admirable traits and can have a quality career for Narduzzi, but Saturday night was forgettable.
Winner: The Dwayne Haskins Show
Dwayne Haskins will be penalized in the Heisman Trophy voting because he's had to do too much this year for a sometimes one-dimensional Ohio State.
Thankfully for coach Urban Meyer's team, that one dimension is Haskins, the redshirt sophomore quarterback who'll get invited to New York for the ceremony even if he's a long shot to win.
Haskins again was incredible against Northwestern in a game where the Wildcats played the Buckeyes close throughout and made enough big plays that would've won many big contests. But they didn't have Haskins, and that was the difference.
The Ohio State signal-caller finished 34-of-41 for 499 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-24 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Never mind that Haskins has altered the way one of the sport's most knowledgeable, innovative offensive minds in Meyer has changed the way he calls plays—he also shattered Drew Brees' single-season Big Ten passing touchdowns record.
When you try to put Haskins' 46 scoring strikes in perspective, it's difficult. Yes, Tagovailoa is the best player on college football's best team. Of course, Murray is college football's most dynamic dual-threat athlete and is lighting up scoreboards for its top offense.
But Haskins has more touchdown passes than any Power Five quarterback since Oklahoma's Sam Bradford in 2008 (50). That's an impressive stat for a player in the Big Ten who's playing for a historically spread-option coach who has changed the way he game-plans this year.
Haskins is a transcendent player, and he will be a high draft pick if he comes out. Where he falls in the Heisman race may be just short, much like the one-loss Buckeyes' playoff hopes.
Loser: Boise on the Blue Turf
The only time Boise State has been an underdog at home in the past 19 years for a regular-season game at home, the Broncos beat Fresno State earlier this year 24-17 on the blue turf and were downright defiant afterward.
They probably aren't talking too much after the Mountain West Championship Game.
Fresno State rebounded and served a little revenge cold in a 19-16 overtime win over Boise State. Maybe it's because the blue turf was brushed white by a driving snow. Whatever the case, Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford milked the magic from the field.
Boise had the opportunity to break a 13-all tie with a chip-shot field goal with 8 minutes to go, but Fresno blocked the kick. Then, after the Broncos kicked a go-ahead field goal in their overtime session, Ronnie Rivers capped Fresno's game-winning drive with a 1-yard jaunt for the 19-16 win.
"I don't think I've ever been prouder of a team," Tedford said, according to the Mountain West Conference Twitter account.
The win was massive for the Tedford regime at his alma mater and marked the second time ever Fresno State has ever won in Boise.
Just how good has the Tedford regime been? The Bulldogs were 1-11 two years ago, won a division title in his first year and went all the way in the conference with an 11-2 record this season. Once Tedford got Oregon State transfer quarterback Marcus McMaryion and started developing him, the program turned.
It can't just be attributed to offense, though. The defense has turned into a Group of Five juggernaut, holding Brett Rypien to fewer than 50 percent of his passes for just 126 yards in the win.
That's why the Bulldogs are now MWC champions.
Winner: Byron Murphy's Highlight Pick-6 and Lockdown Follow-Up
Washington lockdown sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy's how-did-that-happen pick-six covered 66 yards and turned Friday night's Pac-12 Championship Game in the Huskies' favor.
Everything he did afterward sealed it.
In a defensive slugfest, Washington handed Utah a 10-3 loss at Levi's Stadium. It was a beautiful sight for those who detest those Big 12 shootouts where whoever gets the ball last wins. Both teams hit each other hard and made plays on defense all night.
The biggest star was the lockdown corner who may eventually be a first-round NFL draft pick whether the third-year sophomore comes out this year or waits. His ball skills are uncanny, and he proved that Friday.
First, the ball popped out of Siaosi Mariner's hands and bounced off his leg into Murphy's arms before the defender scampered 66 yards for the game's only touchdown. It was a play you needed to rewind several times to appreciate how it unfolded.
"The ball came up, and I just knew I had to make a play," Murphy told the Associated Press. "The opportunity was there. I just had to make sure I took it."
Then, he grabbed another pick.
Finally, on the Utes' last hurrah, Jason Shelley tried to fit a fourth-down pass in front of Murphy, and though the corner went through the receiver a little early, no flag was thrown, and Murphy's deflection turned the ball over on downs.
He was the biggest defensive star on a night full of them in Santa Clara, California.
Loser: Utah's Retooled Offense
The flip side of all that great defense in the Pac-12 Championship Game was a pair of offenses that could do little.
It was a major disappointment for a veteran Washington team that features senior quarterback Jake Browning and senior running back Myles Gaskin, among other longtime starters. But the Huskies' inefficiencies can be overlooked since they're going to their first Rose Bowl since the 2000 season.
On the other side, the loss hurts.
The Utes had to replace more than 80 percent of their offense late in the year after season-ending injuries to quarterback Tyler Huntley (collarbone) and running back Zack Moss (knee). The junior quarterback had completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,762 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions as well as 304 rushing yards.
Moss had 1,092 yards through the season's first nine games and looked like a potential league player of the year candidate before his injury.
Freshman signal-caller Jason Shelley and junior running back Armand Shyne filled in admirably, leading Utah to a 3-0 record without the pair of stars. That magic ran out against Washington. Though Shelley's first interception was a fluke, he finished with three picks and struggled while throwing downfield.
The Huskies also bottled Shelley up when he tried to run. Shyne sputtered as well, and the Utes missed freshman change-of-pace runner TJ Green, who was sick and had just one carry.
To make things worse, receiver Britain Covey suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for Utah's bowl game, according to Salt Lake City Tribune reporters Kurt Kragthorpe and Gordon Monson.
The Utes had just 188 yards, including 51 on the ground. Washington took them out of everything they wanted to do.
Winner: Grant Calcaterra's 1-Handed Haul to Cap OU's Offensive Performance
Oklahoma is used to playing those high-octane, scoreboard-breaking affairs that feature 100-point outcomes. So, when the Sooners were forced to play Texas' tempo in Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game, they needed some big-time heroics.
The defense came up with huge plays, and the special teams held its own, too. Also, Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray delivered yet another Heisman Trophy-worthy performance to put his resume on the field for the world to see one last time as he tries to catch Tagovailoa.
But perhaps the biggest offensive play of the day came from veteran tight end Grant Calcaterra, who caught Murray's third touchdown pass with a beautiful grab that became bigger considering the stage and the moment.
With the Sooners clinging to a 32-27 lead and facing a 3rd-and-10 from the 18-yard line and needing a big play to put away Texas, they didn't have Marquise Brown to turn to. He'd been carted off the sideline moments earlier with a lower-leg injury.
Instead, Murray floated the ball to the back of the end zone in Calcaterra's direction. With Longhorns defender B.J. Foster draped all over him, Calcaterra reached out and made a one-handed grab for a huge touchdown.
It was his second score of the day, and it put the game out of reach.
For an OU team that scores as quickly as anybody (as evidenced by an 80-yard, 41-second drive to close the first half), it was the cap to an uncharacteristic but vital drive. The Sooners held the ball for 6:27 on an 11-play, 65-yard march to put the game out of reach.
Now, OU awaits its fate. It avenged its only loss of the year, and Alabama had lots of trouble with Georgia. Will it matter?
Loser: Longhorns Late
It's been a major leap forward for Texas in year two under Tom Herman, and the Longhorns could've bolstered it by beating Oklahoma for the second time this year in Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game.
Instead, the 39-27 Sooners win shed more light on an issue that has plagued the 'Horns all season.
Texas needs to learn how to finish games.
The contest was tied 27-27 entering the final frame, but Oklahoma turned up the pressure in all facets. Two huge defensive plays sparked OU, and a scoring drive of its own erased a big CeeDee Lamb fumble. The Sooners outscored the 'Horns 12-0 in the fourth, and that was the difference.
After an Austin Seibert field goal hit the upright and clanked through to give OU a 30-27 lead, the Sooners looked like they would score a touchdown before Lamb's fumble.
But after Texas took over, defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill called a defensive back blitz, and Tre Brown surged around the left end untouched and unseen by UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Brown sacked him for a safety to make it 32-27, and the Sooners scored again to put Texas away.
An interception ended the Longhorns' final hopes, as again, Texas had no fourth-quarter answers.
It's not a new thing for young teams to have to get over that hurdle, and it's been an issue since the first game of the year when Texas led Maryland 29-24 entering the fourth frame but lost 39-34 after a 10-0 Terrapins close.
Later in the year, Texas led West Virginia 31-27 entering the fourth but lost 42-41.
Herman has a good, young team, but closing games will be an important lesson, because it looks like Texas' presence in big games is here to stay.
Winner: (The Other) Husky Heroics
There was another set of Huskies playing for a conference title Friday night.
There was another set of Huskies winning one, too.
Northern Illinois went into the MAC Championship Game against Buffalo in Detroit as an underdog, per OddsShark, and trailed the Bulls 29-10 in the third quarter of what looked like it would be a cruise-control victory for coach Lance Leipold's upstart MAC turnaround, feel-good story.
Instead, the veteran Huskies looked and played like they'd been there before (newsflash: they have) in a 30-29, come-from-behind win that gave them their third conference title in Rod Carey's six-plus years.
"Winning championships is hard, and I am so proud of these guys, these student-athletes," Carey told the Associated Press. "I'm proud of my coaches, too. In all my years of coaching, this is my favorite group to be around, and I've won championships before."
The loss dropped Buffalo to 10-3 and gave NIU an 8-5 record in a year where an early out-of-conference schedule against Florida State, Utah, Iowa and BYU (a 7-6 win) skewed the final results.
In a game that matched the conference's Offensive Player of the Year in Bulls quarterback Tyree Jackson against the defensive winner in Sutton Smith, Smith's team came away with the defensive heroics when it mattered.
Buffalo got a little conservative in the second half, and Marcus Childers' fourth scoring strike of the game, a 35-yard pass to D.J. Brown, completed the raucous comeback.
Loser: Tua Tagovailoa's Heisman Lead
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa may not have lost his Heisman Trophy on Saturday, but at the very least, he lost his lead on Kyler Murray.
After the Crimson Tide sophomore quarterback's injury-plagued, forgettable effort led to Jalen Hurts replacing him and leading UA to the comeback win over Georgia, his march to college football's top individual honor is no longer guaranteed.
Earlier in the day, voters watched Kyler Murray lead his Sooners to avenge their only loss of the season with a masterful performance against Texas. The redshirt junior completed 25 of 34 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-27 win. He added 39 yards on the ground for good measure.
Tagovailoa never could get anything going, and though his numbers are not atrocious, his production was. The usually brilliant sophomore finished 10-of-25 for 164 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against the best defense he's played all year.
Yes, LSU and Mississippi State may have higher ratings, but the Bulldogs were all over the field and have athletes comparable to the Tide. They confused Tagovailoa much of the afternoon, and he was off his game.
It's also important to note (and many voters saw) that the yardage for Tagovailoa was inflated by a short pass that freshman Jaylen Waddle turned into a 51-yard touchdown.
Was it enough for Murray to overtake Tagovailoa for the Heisman Trophy? That's going to be interesting to see shake out. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins' name is still in the mix, too, after such a great outing against Northwestern.
Heisman voters are human, and college football is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately landscape. How the contenders performed in Saturday's biggest showdowns will be weighed heavily.
Tagovailoa easily could still win the Heisman and be completely deserving. But it's nowhere near the guarantee it once was. At worst, Murray has pulled into a dead heat.
Winner: Nothing Hokie About 26 Straight
It took a big comeback and a little luck last week for Virginia Tech to beat rival Virginia again and set up a chance to earn bowl eligibility this week.
They did that against Marshall on Saturday, building a 25-point halftime lead and cruising to a 41-20 win over the Thundering Herd. It was only fitting that backup quarterback Ryan Willis was the star in the clincher since the Hokies' season took a turn for the worse when starter Josh Jackson was lost for the season.
The downfall was more on a Tech defense that couldn't stop anybody at times rather than Willis, but the Kansas transfer still took his share of criticism.
None of that was to be found Saturday as he completed touchdown passes to four different receivers on his way to a 312-yard game to send the Hokies to a bowl matchup for the 26th consecutive season. It's the longest active streak in college football after Florida State's run was snapped last week.
The Seminoles weren't recognized by the NCAA, anyway, since they had to vacate some wins. But the Hokies now have the longest run regardless.
But it was a massive win for Tech even without considering its bowl streak after all the Hokies endured this year.
"Certainly getting to the No. 26 was part of this, but I thought it was bigger than that," VT coach Justin Fuente told The Athletic's Andy Bitter. "Those kids in the locker room stood tall when other people ran."
That's why this $300,000 add-on game against Marshall was worth every penny. It was a win, it extended a streak, and, most importantly, it gave all those Hokies who hung tight another game.
Loser: UCF's Doubters After McKenzie Milton's Injury
So, UCF is a one-man team, huh?
Don't tell that to the Knights.
Or maybe do tell them; they'll prove you wrong, just like they've done for the past two spotless seasons.
After star quarterback McKenzie Milton went down last week with a gruesome season-ending knee injury against South Florida, there were plenty of doubters who thought the 24-game winning streak would come to a close this week in a rematch with Memphis in the AAC Championship Game.
This was a Tigers team that took a Milton-led UCF to the brink earlier this year before losing 31-30.
Instead, Central Florida battled all the way back from a huge first-half deficit and blew past Mike Norvell's team on its way to a 56-41 win. You may not think the Knights deserve to be in the College Football Playoff, but it sure would be fun to see them try.
Josh Heupel's team made it 25 in a row thanks to a brilliant showing by backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr., who accounted for six touchdowns in relief of Milton. Talk about your Mariano Rivera moment.
The 6'3", 229-pound freshman completed 19 of 27 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns through the air with no interceptions. He added 59 rushing yards and four more scores on the ground.
It didn't hurt that stud running back Greg McCrae had 206 rushing yards and a score in a resounding win that should show everybody that, while Milton is an incredible player worthy of all the accolades, this UCF team is now an established program.
Former coach Scott Frost left things in great hands with Heupel, who not only had his team prepared for Memphis, but also had them mentally ready to rebound from a difficult first half to battle back and win.
Winner: UAB's Storybook Reboot Continues
If you didn't think the college football gods were UAB fans, Saturday should show you otherwise.
The Blazers avenged last week's season-ending 27-3 loss to Middle Tennessee with a 27-25 win over the Blue Raiders in the Conference USA Championship Game in the most bizarre way imaginable.
After MTSU stopped them on 4th-and-2 and looked to force a punt with a minute remaining, the Blue Raiders made a colossal gaffe. They were flagged for too many men on the field on the punt return, and coach Bill Clark pointed it out. The penalty gave UAB a first down, and it took a knee to close the game.
The win sent the Blazers' record to 10-3 and represented the next remarkable chapter in the program's rejuvenation.
Remember, two years ago, the Blazers didn't even have a football team. The program had been shuttered, and SB Nation's Alex Kirshner summed up the situation well.
Last year was the team's first season back, and they went an admirable 8-5 under Clark. The Blazers were poised to take a major step forward this year, and they did, spoiling Blue Raiders star quarterback Brent Stockstill's home finale.
UAB battled back from a 10-point first-quarter deficit, kicked a late field goal to take the lead and then stopped the Blue Raiders' potential game-winning drive. From there, the Blazers looked like they couldn't run out the clock, but MTSU's blunder changed all that.
Now, Clark's team awaits its bowl fate, but regardless of where they go, it's yet another chapter in an amazing revitalization story.
Loser: Louisiana-Lafayette's Passing Game (Again) Against Appalachian State
Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Andre Nunez probably sees Appalachian State jerseys in his nightmares.
The Ragin' Cajuns aren't a particularly good passing team, entering Saturday's inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game ranked 77th nationally in passing offense, averaging 218.3 yards per game.
But when they play against the Mountaineers, they don't even sniff numbers like that. During a 27-17 loss in October, Nunez had just 108 passing yards, and Levi Lewis replaced him in the third quarter after failing to get anything going against the Mountaineers secondary.
Saturday's game was on a much bigger stage at Kidd-Brewer Stadium, but it was much the same result.
Nunez and the Louisiana passing attack were smothered all day; he completed just 10 of 21 passes for 85 yards and a pair of picks. That performance allowed Appalachian State to complete its rebound from a midseason setback to Georgia Southern to win the conference championship with a 30-19 victory.
When the Mountaineers beat the Ragin' Cajuns the first time, pollsters responded by ranking them. The very next week, though, they were pummeled by Georgia Southern and never sniffed the rankings again despite being the class of the conference.
The stingy App State secondary, which bolstered a unit that was ranked fourth nationally in total defense and passing defense responded in a resounding way on Saturday. And that's one of the main reasons why the conference title stayed right there in Boone, North Carolina.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.