Bleacher Report College Football Awards for the 2018 Season
The two-week gap between college football's conference championship week and the beginning of bowl games is unofficially "trophy season," and Bleacher Report's experts voted on several awards, ranging from Best Play to Top Assistant Coach, Comeback Player of the Year, Biggest Upset and everything in between.
Five members of Bleacher Report's college football staff—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Ian Wharton—voted on the 14 awards. The voters identified the best individuals, games and moments of the year.
For each award—presented in no particular order—we have a winner and a runner-up.
Head Coach of the Year
Winner: Bill Clark, UAB
Bill Clark stuck with UAB through the program's two-year hiatus from football, and now both sides are reaping the benefit.
Clark was our Head Coach of the Year in 2017 because we thought going 8-4 (excluding bowl play) in the first year back was a herculean job. It was. But Clark took the Blazers one step further this year, winning the Conference USA championship over Middle Tennessee to get to a 10-3 record.
Last year's team was kind of fluky, winning four of the eight games by one-possession margins and getting three of the other four victories against dreadful teams—Alabama A&M, Rice and UTEP. But the Blazers were legitimately kind of dominant this year, reeling off eight straight wins before putting up a decent fight in a loss at Texas A&M.
This program went under in 2014 in large part because it had only played in one bowl game in its first 19 seasons and never won more than seven games in one year. Now the Blazers have set a school record for wins in back-to-back seasons and have tripled their all-time bowl appearances count. That's worth a second straight B/R Coach of the Year title.
Runner-Up: Mike Leach, Washington State
A snowstorm was at least partially to blame for Washington State's inability to end its Apple Cup losing streak, but what an incredible season for Mike Leach and Co. all the same.
The Cougars won 10 games for the first time since 2003. And if they can take care of Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28, they'll get to 11 wins for the first time in program history. Not too shabby for a team that Athlon Sports (and others, no doubt) had pegged for a 6-6 finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings.
Assistant Coach of the Year
Winner: Mike Locksley, Alabama OC
It's easy to look good as an offensive coordinator when you have elite linemen blocking for Tua Tagovailoa, who is either throwing to one of five future NFL wide receivers or handing off the ball to one of four future NFL running backs. But are we supposed to just disregard Mike Locksley as a candidate for the best assistant coach because he's working with more talent than anyone else?
Here's why he got my vote: When Mario Cristobal left for the Oregon HC job, Locksley inherited one of the biggest QB battles in the country. Had the Crimson Tide stuck with Jalen Hurts as the starter and simply maintained the status quo of smoking opponents with rushing and elite defense, Locksley wouldn't be a good candidate.
Instead, he revamped Alabama's offense into a bona fide aerial assault for perhaps the first time in program history. Moreover, he did it with a left-handed quarterback. Granted, it's a mighty fine left-handed quarterback who is now a Heisman Trophy finalist, but that factor needs to be considered when putting together the playbook.
That Alabama thrived (even more so than usual) through all those changes deserves some commendation.
Runner-Up: Brent Venables, Clemson DC
Speaking of assistants getting to work with a stacked deck, Brent Venables had more talent on that Clemson defense than he could have possibly needed. Really, who among us wasn't expecting the Tigers to be elite on D with Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, etc., all returning for another year?
Things didn't start out so great, though. Clemson allowed more than 500 yards against Texas A&M in its first FBS game of the season, darn near losing because of its porous defense.
From that point forward, though, the Tigers locked down just about everyone aside from South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley in the regular-season finale. In between the Texas A&M and South Carolina outliers, Clemson's nine opponents averaged 237.1 yards per game and 3.51 yards per play. The Tigers led the nation in the latter category with a mark of 4.08 for the year.
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa's season ended with a whimper. A model of efficiency for the bulk of the regular season, Alabama's Heisman candidate completed just 10 of 25 pass attempts in the SEC championship against Georgia, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for the first time in his college career. And that contest came with a price, as he suffered an ankle injury and was replaced by Jalen Hurts, who shone in a big way.
But if you'll allow a Super Troopers quote while looking through Tagovailoa's game log: "Oh, that little guy? I wouldn't worry about that little guy."
Tagovailoa entered the game with a 212.5 passer efficiency rating, averaging 11.9 yards per attempt with 36 touchdowns against two interceptions. As mentioned in our Assistant Coach of the Year discussion, he took over an Alabama offense that relied primarily on the run for decades and turned it into one of the top passing attacks in the nation.
Through six games, Tagovailoa had a completion percentage of 75.2, averaged 14.8 yards per pass and had a passer efficiency rating of 258.4. Even though he tapered off a bit down the stretch while playing on a banged up knee—while Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins both continued to thrive, no less—he's still our Offensive Player of the Year.
Runner-Up: Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
As will likely be the case on the night of the Heisman ceremony Saturday, Murray comes in second place behind Tagovailoa. (I have Murray at No. 1, but my colleagues disagree.)
This Sooner was so great, he made us all forget about ol' Baker What's-His-Name. Murray threw for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns with a completion percentage of just under 71—all while rushing for 892 yards and 11 touchdowns.
And while Tagovailoa had the luxury of taking risk-free chances for a team that won each regular-season game by at least 22 points, Murray had to be almost flawless in every contest because of Oklahoma's 108th-ranked defense (out of 130). And he was.
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Josh Allen, Kentucky
Kentucky had one of the best defenses in the nation this season, and Josh Allen was the driving force of it. The senior linebacker led the team in tackles (84), tackles for loss (18.5) and sacks (14.0). In fact, he had more tackles for loss than the rest of the team had sacks (18.0). Allen also forced five fumbles and broke up four passes.
Simply put, he was omnipresent for a squad that held its first eight opponents to 20 points or fewer.
And Allen had the good fortune of playing his best game when all eyes were on the Wildcats for the first time. Following the 4-0 start with marquee wins over Florida and Mississippi State, Kentucky debuted in the AP poll at No. 17 in advance of its Week 5 matchup against South Carolina—a game in which Allen set career-high marks with three sacks and four tackles for loss.
Both Allen and Kentucky struggled late in the season against Georgia and Tennessee, but it was something of a 2016 Lamar Jackson situation. He was so ridiculously good in September and October that most had already decided he was the Defensive POY before a slightly disappointing November.
Runner-Up: Quinnen Williams, Alabama
At this point, we may as well reserve one of these two spots for "TBD Alabama DL." Jonathan Allen was a phenom in 2015 and 2016. Da'Ron Payne was one of the biggest stars of last season. And now it's Quinnen Williams.
Bama's nose tackle will enter the College Football Playoff with 18.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks. His best performance of the year came in the Crimson Tide's shutout of LSU. Williams finished that one with 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Before the season began, everyone assumed Houston's Ed Oliver or Ohio State's Nick Bosa would be the first defensive player drafted, possibly with the No. 1 overall pick. But if this redshirt sophomore declares, he just might be the recipient of that honor.
Freshman of the Year
Winner: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
With an honorable mention to Iowa State's Brock Purdy—who led the Cyclones to a 7-1 record after Zeb Noland and Kyle Kempt both got hurt—Trevor Lawrence was the top freshman this season. He played well enough to force Kelly Bryant out of a starting job (and out of Clemson altogether) and led the Tigers to an undefeated season.
Clemson only played in two games decided by fewer than 20 points. Bryant took the bulk of the snaps in the first one, and Lawrence was knocked out of the second one with a first-half injury. But when he was healthy and receiving the lion's share of the playing time, the Tigers were unstoppable. He threw 24 touchdowns with only four interceptions and steered the offense to an even 50 points per game over the final eight contests.
It's kind of absurd that this true freshman needs to stay in school for two more years before he can go get a nice, big paycheck. Clemson has won four consecutive ACC titles, and that streak should extend to at least six years with Lawrence running the show.
Runner-Up: Rondale Moore, Purdue
Rondale Moore racked up 103 receptions for 1,164 yards and a dozen touchdowns. In doing so, he became the first freshman with at least 100 catches since Middle Tennessee's Richie James in 2015 and the first frosh with a dozen receiving touchdowns since Davante Adams in 2012.
Moore was also dangerous out of the backfield, rushing for 203 yards and a score.
It's more than just the numbers, though. Watching Moore is an experience. He's already a little like Saquon Barkley in that you almost expect him to break free for a touchdown every time he touches the ball because he's so fast and shifty. Fans of the other 13 Big Ten programs may disagree, but he's going to be a ton of fun over the next couple of years.
Senior of the Year
Winner: Will Grier, West Virginia
Over the past two seasons, Will Grier was either very good or great in all but two contest. And it's not even fair to count last year's Texas game against him, since he suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter. Exclude that one, and Grier threw for at least 285 yards and two touchdowns in 20 of his last 21 games.
The 2018 dud in a loss at Iowa State was the lone exception.
In fact, that 100-yard fiasco in Ames was the only game this season in which Grier didn't throw for at least 330 yards, as well as the only time he finished with fewer than three total touchdowns. And he saved his best for last, torching Oklahoma's woebegone defense for 539 passing yards and five total scores.
With Grier's consistent production, it's hard to believe the Mountaineers went just 1-2 against teams that finished the season with winning records—and they needed a gutsy two-point attempt to get that win over Texas.
Runner-Up: Andy Isabella, Massachusetts
Unless you're an NFL draft scout or a UMass alum, chances are you've never intentionally watched Andy Isabella play. After all, the Minutemen are 18-66 over the past seven seasons and don't even play in a conference anymore.
Nevertheless, Isabella was a beacon of light in a sea of darkness, accumulating more than 3,500 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns over the past three seasons. This year alone, he led the nation with 1,698 receiving yards and had 13 scores. He also rushed 11 times for 79 yards and a 14th touchdown and even returned the occasional punt—though his team's dreadful defense didn't force many of those.
Isabella had a 303-yard receiving game against Liberty and finished his college career with 15 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia.
Transfer of the Year
Winner: Gardner Minshew II, Washington State
East Carolina fired head coach Scottie Montgomery a few days before the team's final game of the season (a third consecutive year with a 3-9 record). But the Pirates probably should have canned him before the end of September because Gardner Minshew II was thriving at Washington State after transferring out of ECU.
In his first season at ECU, Minshew got stuck behind Minnesota transfer Philip Nelson on the QB depth chart. The following year, he had to split playing time with Duke transfer Thomas Sirk. But if Montgomery had just given the former Northwest Mississippi CC transfer a chance to shine, perhaps he would've kept his job behind a dominant passing attack.
Montgomery's loss was coach Mike Leach's gain. Prior to the snow-covered Apple Cup, Minshew threw for at least 300 yards in each of his first 11 games. He finished the year with 4,477 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, thanks in large part to six games with at least 414 yards and multiple scores.
In most seasons, he would've been one of the top candidates for the Heisman. It's just too bad that Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins all had even more incredible campaigns for better teams.
Runner-Up: Shea Patterson, Michigan
One year removed from an injury-plagued disaster at the position, Michigan solved its quarterback problem in the form of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. Michigan had just nine passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, but Patterson had a great year, finishing with 21 and five, respectively.
He didn't have any 300-yard games, which was a bit surprising after he did it five times in seven games in 2017. But that's just a product of Michigan's leaning heavily on its running game. If the Wolverines had ever asked him to, he could've thrown it 50 times for 400 yards. But he was plenty efficient at a lesser volume.
Comeback Player of the Year
Winner: Jalen Hurd, Baylor
Jalen Hurd was once a top-notch running back for Tennessee. As a sophomore—starting ahead of Alvin Kamara—he rushed for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns. But midway through the following season, he left the Volunteers with the hope of reinventing himself as a wide receiver.
Hurd transferred to Baylor and sat out the 2017 campaign before becoming the leading receiver for the Bears. He had 69 receptions for 946 yards and four touchdowns this year. But he didn't completely retire from running the ball, rushing 48 times for 209 and three scores.
If he can pick up 54 receiving yards against Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27, he will finish his career with both a 1,000-yard rushing season and a 1,000-yard receiving season.
Over the past 19 years, 70 players have hit 1,000 yards in rushing and receiving for their careers, but only Oregon's Byron Marshall has had single-season marks of at least 1,000 yards in both during that span.
Runner-Up: Byron Murphy, Washington
Last year, Byron Murphy intercepted two passes in the first game of his college career, and he broke up three passes in his second. But a broken foot suffered in Week No. 3 kept him out of action for more than two months. He did play in Washington's final three games, but this year was his comeback story.
It took a while for the cornerback to get back into the interception category, but he had four of them in his final four games, including the game-winning pick-six against Utah in the Pac-12 championship.
Murphy was a big reason why Washington's secondary limited opponents to 5.7 yards per pass attempt and just nine passing touchdowns, ranking top-10 nationally in both categories.
Group of 5 Player of the Year
Winner: Darrell Henderson, Memphis
Last season, Darrell Henderson averaged 8.9 yards per carry, but he barely got 10 carries per game while splitting touches with Patrick Taylor Jr. in a pass-first offense.
This year, though, he got a bigger share of the backfield touches. And with quarterback Riley Ferguson out of the picture, there were more of those touches to go around. He continued to average 8.9 yards per carry, but now instead of 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns, those numbers ballooned to 1,909 and 22, respectively.
Only Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor (1,989) finished with more rushing yards. No one had more rushing touchdowns. And Clemson's Travis Etienne (8.3 YPC, 21 touchdowns) was the only player to put up anything close to a similar season.
Henderson is only a junior, so he could come back and destroy the world again next year.
Runner-Up: McKenzie Milton, UCF
Most importantly, we're all hoping McKenzie Milton is able to make a full recovery from the devastating knee injury that cut short his season. It feels a little trivial to focus on his stats while he waits find out if he'll be able to play again, but there's no denying he was one of the most important players in the country when he was healthy.
Milton led the Knights through the bulk of a second consecutive undefeated season, throwing for at least 200 yards and averaging 3.7 total touchdowns in each of his first nine games. His numbers weren't quite as impressive as last year's, but he did more than enough to keep UCF among the nation's elite.
The Knights finished eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings. It was the highest-ever ranking for a Group of Five program.
Most Exciting Player to Watch
Winner: Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
This might get flagged as heresy in Louisville, but Kyler Murray was even more entertaining than Lamar Jackson in 2016, when he won the Heisman.
The latter ran about twice as often as the former, but that's because he had to. Murray has a more accurate arm, along with better receivers, much better running backs and an infinitely more capable offensive line. Jackson was so much fun to watch at least partially because of that poor blocking, as he frequently had to miraculously turn a dead-to-rights sack into a big gain.
Murray is a magician in his own right, though. And when he decides to take off, by golly does it happen in a hurry. His acceleration and elusiveness are a sight to behold—and the Oakland Athletics have to be pretty thrilled that kept their investment from taking big hits.
It's his arm, his vision and his patience that make him extra special. Even though he's only 5'10", Murray showed time and again the ability to sit in the pocket and scan the field before finding the open man. It felt like Oklahoma was going to score every time he had the ball—and good thing, because that Sooners D is atrocious.
Runner-Up: Darrell Henderson, Memphis
As previously mentioned, Darrell Henderson is lightning-in-a-bottle. Four times this season, he averaged at least 12.4 yards per attempt while rushing the ball at least 13 times. The rest of the country combined to produce just 10 such games.
Assuming he rushes for at least 91 yards against Wake Forest in the Birmingham Bowl and does so on 48 carries or fewer, he'll be the first person since at least 2000 to finish a season with at least 2,000 yards on fewer than 263 carries.
As is, he's already one of just three players since 2000 to average at least 8.5 yards per carry while rushing the ball more than 175 times.
Best Single-Game Performance
Winner: Dwayne Haskins vs. Michigan
There were quite a few outrageous performances by Heisman-caliber quarterbacks. Gardner Minshew II torched Arizona for 473 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Kyler Murray shredded Baylor for 477 total yards and seven scores. And forced to choose just one big game by Tua Tagovailoa, his six-TD performance in the Iron Bowl was arguably his magnum opus.
But it would irresponsible to go with anything other than Dwayne Haskins and what he did to what we thought was an elite Michigan defense.
Heading into The Game, the Wolverines secondary had held eight consecutive opponents below 200 passing yards. None of those teams recorded multiple passing touchdowns. The average QB line in those games was 10.4 completions on 23.3 attempts (44.6%) for 111.4 yards with 0.4 touchdowns and 1.0 interceptions.
Haskins lit them up. The Buckeye completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 396 yards, six touchdowns and no picks.
Par for the course, though, right? Haskins averaged 390 passing yards and 3.9 total touchdowns over his final eight games, surging his way into a Heisman debate once thought to be a two-horse race between Tagovailoa and Murray. Having a game like that against a defense that good was legendary.
Runner-Up: Jonathan Taylor vs. Purdue
We could have gone with one of the other QB gems here, but let's give a shoutout to running back Jonathan Taylor—who was way too darn good this season to have not even been mentioned yet.
Taylor was basically Wisconsin's entire offense with quarterback Alex Hornibrook sidelined by a concussion for several games, but the Boilermakers couldn't do anything to slow him down. The man had four games this season with at least 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns—no other player did it more than once—but he ran for 321 yards and three scores in this three-overtime affair, helping the Badgers win 47-44.
Biggest Upset of the Year
Winner: Old Dominion over Virginia Tech
It feels like a lifetime ago, but Virginia Tech entered this September game ranked No. 13 in the nation. Following a season-opening statement win at Florida State—coupled with Miami's disappointing showing in the loss to LSU—the Hokies seemed to be the early favorites to win the ACC's Coastal Division.
Meanwhile, Old Dominion was 0-3 with bad losses to Liberty, Charlotte and Florida International. Even though the Monarchs were the home team, they were underdogs by more than four touchdowns, presumed to be the doormat that Virginia Tech would use as one more tune-up before back-to-back showdowns with Duke and Notre Dame.
That all changed when quarterback Josh Jackson suffered a broken leg early in the fourth quarter.
The game was already tied at 28, so it's not like the Hokies were thriving until then. But they feasibly could have rallied, won the game and somehow turned a close call into a wake-up call for the tough games ahead. After Jackson went down, though, Old Dominion pounced and finished off the 49-35 upset with three consecutive long touchdown drives.
Runner-Up: Purdue over Ohio State
Like Ohio State's blowout loss to Iowa one year ago, this upset had major long-term ramifications.
The Buckeyes got destroyed by Purdue, who were playing an emotional game for superfan Tyler Trent. David Blough threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns. Rondale Moore was responsible for about half of that (170 yards and two scores). And D.J. Knox rushed for 128 yards with a career-high three touchdowns, while the Boilermakers let the nation know in a big way that Ohio State's defense is quite bad.
This was far from the only time Ohio State struggled, but it was the Buckeyes' only loss of the season.
However, it was so egregious that—despite OSU's quality wins over Michigan, Penn State and others—the CFP selection committee put the 12-1 Big Ten champions at No. 6 in their final rankings, one spot behind two-loss Georgia and two spots behind an Oklahoma team with a similarly awful defense and less than phenomenal resume.
Best Play of the Year
Winner: North Texas' Fake Fair Catch vs. Arkansas
In the grand scheme of things, this play didn't matter. North Texas blew out Arkansas 44-17. The former qualified for a bowl game with several wins to spare. The latter went 2-10 and wasn't anywhere close. And until the clip made its rounds on social media, hardly anyone even knew it happened.
But you can keep your ridiculous one-handed grabs and season-saving plays and just inject this fake fair catch into our veins.
Keegan Brewer did little else all season, finishing with six catches for 96 yards and no other touchdowns. His other nine punt returns went for a combined total of just 35 yards. But he deserves an Oscar for making this catch, staring down Arkansas' gunners until they walked away and then taking off up the sideline with a convoy of blockers.
As a rule of thumb, if a play is so ridiculous that it forces an immediate debate over whether the rules of the game should be changed to outlaw it, it's going to win this category.
Runner-Up: Iowa's Side Snap vs. Minnesota
Speaking of plays so ridiculous you're not entirely sure if or how they're legal, remember this gem from the Hawkeyes?
On 4th-and-goal from the 4, Iowa lined up in a formation straight out of a Chip Kelly two-point playbook. Only the center was near the ball as seven Hawkeyes were out to the right, ready to block for T.J. Hockenson after the sideways snap.
Minnesota's defense had no clue what to do. Guys were befuddled while pointing out pre-snap assignments, but Hockenson got into the end zone mostly untouched. The worst part is the Golden Gophers had two timeouts to burn, but they were so confused that they just let it happen.
Game of the Year
Winner: Texas A&M 74, LSU 72 (7OT)
Excluding national championships, there aren't many "I remember where I was when" moments in college football. Certain fanbases will always remember big moments involving their teams, but there are usually so many games happening concurrently that it's tough for the majority of football fans to be honed in on the same one.
There are exceptions, of course. There's the Boise State "Statue of Liberty" play in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. (More than a decade later, I can still remember I was eating a bowl of ice cream in my mom's kitchen.) There was the Kick Six in the 2013 Iron Bowl and Michigan's punt fiasco against Michigan State in 2015. And I think we can add this seven-overtime game to the list.
It wasn't any individual play—though there were quite a few great ones. It was just the increasing absurdity as the game kept dragging on. Every time the second team to possess the ball scored again to tied it up and force another period, I started laughing even harder.
And thanks to social media, it gradually became a national moment. By overtime No. 7—with LSU head coach Ed Orgeron still wet and miserable from his premature Gatorade bath at the end of regulation—it was as if we were all sitting in the same bar, staring at our phones and laptops and soaking in the glory of that game.
Oh, there have been ridiculously long overtime games before. Just last year, Western Michigan and Buffalo went to seven overtimes too. But this was a regular-season-ending game between the then-No. 7 Tigers and No. 22 Aggies, and it actually meant something to the College Football Playoff conversation. It served as a 10-times multiplier on the "I gotta see how this ends" scale.
It wasn't the most important game of the season, but it's the one I'll never forget.
Runner-Up: Alabama 35, Georgia 28 (SEC Championship)
This actually was the most important game of the season, and it had everything.
The underdog made the favorite to win the national championship look vulnerable for the first time all season. Jalen Hurts had his massive redemption, just one year removed from Georgia seemingly ruining his college career in the national championship. There was even the bone-headed trick play on the fake punt late in the fourth quarter.
And because the result ultimately (and controversially, of course) kept Georgia out of the College Football Playoff, you could easily argue it was the best/biggest game. We're sticking with the seven-OT classic, though.