Winners and Losers from Week 15 of College Football
The College Football Playoff crystalized on championship weekend, but there were plenty of surprises.
After Utah squandered a wide-open shot at the final four by losing a lopsided Pac-12 Championship Game to Oregon on Friday night, the Utes left the door open for Oklahoma or Baylor.
The Sooners won an overtime classic to secure a spot that only became set in stone when LSU continued its impressive, undefeated run by pummeling Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Clemson looks like a worthy defending champion, and Ohio State rebounded from a major first-half scare to dominate the second half against Wisconsin and win by double digits.
A Group of Five trio proved their worth in their respective title games, as Memphis, Boise State and Appalachian State all won.
It was an eventful Saturday, and a few of the games even lived up to the massive expectations. So, take a look at the weekend's winners and losers.
Winner: Oklahoma Seizing Its Playoff Opportunity
The biggest winner of championship Saturday was Oklahoma, which was victorious in a winner-take-all Big 12 title-game grudge match with Baylor.
With Utah losing Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Sooners needed to beat the Bears and have Georgia lose to LSU to make it into college football's final four, and all that happened. Considering how many teams squandered opportunities over the past few weeks, this was huge.
For a while late in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Sooners would be the latest team to choke away a chance.
After Charlie Brewer was lost for the game just before halftime with an apparent head injury, Baylor coach Matt Rhule put in Gerry Bohanon, who was ineffective. That's when Rhule inserted true freshman Jacob Zeno, who completed two 75-plus-yard passes that led to 10 late points and forced overtime.
In the extra session, though, OU's defense—which had played so well until Zeno's heroics—came up with two colossal plays. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch dialed up pressure to force two incompletions on Baylor's possession after Oklahoma scored to start overtime.
Then, Zeno couldn't get away from the Sooners' rush, resulting in a sack for a 10-yard loss and then a throw-away while he was getting knocked down on 4th-and-long to give OU a 30-23 overtime win.
The Sooners surged offensively to start the game, but Jalen Hurts made too many mistakes and Baylor's defense showed why the Bears entered the day 11-1 in helping bring the team back. At the end, the Sooners' maligned defense propelled them to yet another Big 12 title.
From Hurts' early-game heroics to CeeDee Lamb's electrifying outing (his 173 yards marked his sixth time over 130 receiving yards this year) to the defense making clutch plays, the Sooners were in championship form.
They positioned themselves to get that up-for-grabs spot.
Loser: Baylor and Its Unfortunate Offensive Luck
In its biggest game of the year, Baylor lost its offensive leader when Brewer went down hard with what looked like a head injury and never returned.
While Zeno ultimately came in and led the Bears to a 10-point comeback and overtime, their offense was discombobulated throughout. It was a terrific decision by Rhule to turn to Zeno, but he should have done it sooner.
Bohanon was ineffective, and the offense was inefficient.
That allowed Oklahoma to seize control and win. It's uncertain whether Brewer would have made a difference, but the way he's led and as gutsy as he's been in clutch moments, it would've been great to see how the game would have played out with him.
That's football, though, and the Bears' misfortunate was Oklahoma's boon. The Sooners deserved to win, as OU was the better team throughout. A big part of that was Brewer-less Baylor had difficulty moving the ball.
With him out, the running game sputtered, too. Grinch had a terrific game plan, sending pressure from all sides, and the Sooners did an outstanding job of setting the edge.
The Bears' leading rusher was John Lovett with 19 yards. The entire team had 35 rushing yards, and Baylor finished 3-of-15 on third-down conversions. No, this hasn't been an offensive juggernaut all year, but the Bears were in the top half of the Big 12 in throwing and running.
Neither of those things worked until Zeno gave them a spark. It just wasn't enough as Baylor had to do without one of its biggest leaders in its biggest game of the season, and that went a long way in determining why they'll be watching the College Football Playoff from home.
Winner: Joe Burrow Cementing the Heisman and LSU's SEC Championship
It was just one play in a game full of brilliant ones, but Joe Burrow's second big-stage Heisman Trophy moment came at a backbreaking time for Georgia. It became the brightest star in a sky full of magnificent plays by the LSU senior quarterback.
With 4:17 left in the third quarter after Rodrigo Blankenship missed a chip-shot field goal, Georgia had LSU and Burrow backed up at their 20-yard line.
The quarterback dropped back and received pressure from Travon Walker, who appeared to have a certain sack, but Burrow slipped through. Then, he sidestepped Jordan Davis, raced to his right and threw on the run to a wide-open Justin Jefferson.
The receiver broke a tackle from J.R. Reed after catching it around the 43-yard line and raced across the field before he was dragged down at the 9-yard line for a 71-yard gain. Three plays later, Burrow hit Terrace Marshall Jr. for a touchdown on 3rd-and-goal to make it 27-3.
LSU dominated Georgia 37-10 in the SEC Championship Game to knock the Bulldogs out of CFP contention, and it was largely because UGA didn't have enough weapons or defenders to slow Burrow.
What defense does? This was the SEC's top unit and one of the nation's best, and Burrow made play after play. He finished with 349 yards on 28-of-38 passing and threw four touchdowns.
On an afternoon when Clyde Edwards-Helaire was slowed and the Tigers looked like they'd be one-dimensional, Burrow provided the rushing attack too. Several times, UGA had him hemmed up in the backfield, but he made plays and wound up with 41 yards on the ground.
It's what he's done all season and the reason LSU is undefeated. Burrow is having one of the best individual college football seasons of the modern era. He is playing on a different level than any other offensive player in the nation.
Loser: Georgia Still Singing the Same Sad Refrain Since 1980
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has recruited enough star prospects to outfit a championship team, but the Bulldogs are still struggling to get over that hump.
Several times since winning it all in 1980, the Bulldogs have played in games where winning would mean a title or a shot at one. They just can't seem to show up the majority of the time.
There's nothing wrong with getting torched by Burrow; every other Tigers opponent has this year. But the biggest disappointment for Georgia in another strong season has been the James Coley experiment at offensive coordinator. For whatever reason, the offense has taken a giant step back.
That was the case again Saturday as Georgia could do nothing against an LSU defense that has been pedestrian for much of the season.
UGA quarterback Jake Fromm has been regarded as a first-rounder, but he hasn't played like one all year. On Saturday, he missed several open receivers and finished with another ho-hum 225 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
D'Andre Swift banged up his shoulder a week ago at Georgia Tech and wasn't himself, winding up with 13 yards on just two carries. Brian Herrien led UGA with 24 rushing yards.
Georgia's receiving corps was the team's weakness all season, and it was dealt a blow when senior transfer Lawrence Cager was lost for the year in late November to an ankle injury. Against LSU, freshman Dominick Blaylock went down with a non-contact leg injury that looked bad.
It's not all Coley's fault, but the lack of development on that side of the ball is alarming, especially considering the elite talent at every position and the future NFL players on the offensive line. This is the kind of season that makes head coaches go a different direction at coordinator.
Colorado State let go long-time UGA offensive coordinator, former quarterback and friend of Smart, Mike Bobo, as its head coach, and it wouldn't be surprising if Georgia looked at him.
With so much talent ready to win, the Bulldogs need to do something to shake things up offensively.
Winner: Clemson's Well-Oiled Offensive Stable of Weapons
Dabo Swinney doesn't have to continue with his whiny rants anymore. Whether the College Football Playoff committee "wants" the Tigers or not, it's getting them.
Nobody wants to play them, either.
The defending national champions look like they could be the two-time defending champs this time next year, and while they're playing against the weak ACC competition, they're winning with all the style points you could ask for. That happened again Saturday night in a 62-17 win over a Virginia team that couldn't hang.
The Cavaliers started the game by storming down the field, but Bryce Perkins threw an interception in the back of the end zone. Clemson and Virginia then traded scores to tie the game at 7-7, and that's the last time it was competitive.
Par for the way the season has gone. After the Tigers got by an upset-minded North Carolina in September, it's been smooth sailing.
Clemson's defense is among the nation's best, and though that side of the ball didn't play up to its lofty expectations against UVA, it wasn't bad.
The offense, on the other hand, looks like the prolific attack everybody expected at the start of the season. Yes, Trevor Lawrence got off to a rough start to the year, but in the season's last three quarters, he has been dynamic, and so have his playmakers.
Even a good defense such as Virginia's had no chance. Lawrence wound up with 302 passing yards and four touchdowns, while running back Travis Etienne made his case yet again as the best back in the nation with 114 rushing yards and a score.
Receivers Tee Higgins (nine catches for 182 yards and three scores) and Justyn Ross (three catches for 94 yards and a touchdown) made highlight reel plays too.
The Tigers are legit again. Everybody will see what they have in the playoffs, and it should be fun.
Loser: Virginia, as a Representative of the Rest of the ACC
Clemson is among the nation's elite teams every year, but the ACC has to do something about improving the "everybody else" part of the conference.
For the second season in a row, the Tigers were basically handed the title because there's nobody in the league who can muster any competition. So, if Swinney wants to rant at anybody, he should first talk to the other member institutions.
This argument isn't taking anything away from Virginia and its solid season. The Cavaliers finished 9-4 and still won six games in the league, but the Coastal Division was weak again. Last year, Pat Narduzzi's Pittsburgh was the ACC championship Game sacrificial lamb.
This year, it was Virginia's turn.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins is one of the league's brightest stars, and he has dual-threat abilities that could be fun to watch in the NFL if he continues to develop, but Virginia hasn't surrounded him with enough talent to be competitive with Clemson. He basically has a nonexistent running game supporting him—other than his own legs.
Defensively, the Hoos were hamstrung by the loss of their best player, cornerback Bryce Hall, who missed his senior season with an ankle injury.
Perhaps this is just the infancy stages of the program Bronco Mendenhall wants and believes he can build in Charlottesville, but life after Perkins won't be easy.
With Saturday's news that Mike Norvell will be Florida State's new head coach, that should give rise to hopes of an explosive offense that can be competitive with Clemson down the road. Mack Brown's North Carolina put up a fight this year, and he is recruiting well enough to turn around the Tar Heels.
Manny Diaz had an up-and-down season with Miami, but the Hurricanes hope he can swing things back in a positive direction, and Scott Satterfield's first year with Louisville was promising.
The only way for Clemson's schedule to improve is if the conference improves, or Swinney is just going to have to deal with the necessity of being perfect for a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
Winner: Ryan Day Dialing It Up in Ohio State's Complete 2nd-Half Rally
The only way to emerge from Urban Meyer's considerable shadow is to build your own body of work.
Ryan Day is doing just fine.
In his biggest test yet as Ohio State's full-time head coach, Day saw his Buckeyes fall behind by two touchdowns after the first half of Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game. Day's bunch then bore down, and so did Day, becoming the only first-year coach to win a Big Ten title since 1948.
Everything he called in the second half seemingly worked, as quarterback Justin Fields awoke from his half-long slumber to throw three touchdown passes and rally the Buckeyes to a 34-21 win. Until the Badgers' final last-ditch effort while down two scores, it was decisively one-sided after the break.
At that point, Ohio State had outgained Wisconsin 256-23 in the second half, and the Buckeyes wound up outscoring the Badgers 27-0 after falling behind 21-7 at the break, leading to a frenzy of "what would happen if the Buckeyes actually lost?" tweets.
Turns out those scenarios don't matter.
The Badgers tested Ohio State, but Day and Co. passed with flying colors. Did the talent discrepancy catch up with Wisconsin? Yes, probably. But that doesn't change the fact that the Badgers had all the momentum, and Day found ways to take it away.
He loosened up the defense by getting Fields out of the pocket and putting his banged-up quarterback, who was sporting a heavy brace, on the perimeter. J.K. Dobbins made several plays in the running game, and the receiving corps had some moments too.
A case can be made Ohio State should retain the No. 1 overall ranking and enter the playoffs as the favorite to win it all. Of course, Clemson and LSU will have something to say about that, but a game like this can do nothing but help the Buckeyes.
Loser: Wisconsin Giving Us All Mayhem
Wisconsin, you had one job.
Yeah, yeah. Of course it was a daunting task. Heading to Indianapolis and beating an Ohio State team that is as talented and as complete as any in the country in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Had you done this, it would have turned the CFP rankings into a free-for-all. Would the Buckeyes make it anyway? Could the Badgers even leapfrog one-loss Oklahoma into the fourth spot?
None of that matters since you didn't complete the job. Hey, at least you made it interesting.
In all seriousness, coach Paul Chryst's team was a worthy foe in the title game, building a 21-7 advantage before Fields and the Buckeyes came storming back. An offensive line that couldn't protect its quarterback in the first half flexed and pulled together in the second half.
It was more about what Ohio State did than what the Badgers didn't do after the break. All of a sudden, all those gaps Wisconsin defenders burst through to make Fields' life difficult in the first half closed. The Buckeyes proved just how loaded with talent they are, thanks to Meyer's recruiting.
And Day's coup in landing Fields, who transferred from Georgia, was the biggest recruiting victory of them all.
After halftime, star running back Jonathan Taylor was a non-factor. Quarterback Jack Coan, who did so much to help Wisconsin pull ahead, also failed to continue to put the offensive pressure on the Buckeyes.
That allowed Ohio State to do what it's so used to doing and impose its will on both sides of the ball, and it all led to the third consecutive Big Ten title for Ohio State.
Still, with that performance against the loaded Buckeyes, it's hard to say the Badgers were losers. They deserve to play in the Rose Bowl.
Winner: A Duo of Young Ducks
Oregon will say goodbye to senior quarterback Justin Herbert after the Rose Bowl, but there is a stocked pond full of ducklings ready to make sure this quack attack continues to swim downstream for the next few years.
The Pac-12 Championship Game was a reminder of that.
Coach Mario Cristobal has built the conference's premier recruiting power, and though the Ducks laid an egg a couple of weeks ago in a loss to Arizona State that kept them out of the College Football Playoff, they proved they're the conference's best with a 37-15 win over Utah.
They dominated the first half with a 20-0 edge at the break and then staved off a furious Utah third-quarter rally.
Oregon's defensive line dominated throughout, and the Ducks were led on that side of the ball by true freshman edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, a 5-star prospect and the nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to 247Sports.
Virtually everybody in the nation wanted him, and he showed the world why against Utah, finishing with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and a blocked punt. The huge night gave Thibodeaux nine sacks for the season.
But Utah proved how good a team it was by storming back to trim the lead to 23-15 in the fourth quarter. That's when another underclassman took over. Sophomore running back CJ Verdell broke off a massive 70-yard touchdown run with 7:09 left in the game to seal it.
Verdell finished with a trio of scores and 208 yards on 18 carries. He added a 31-yard scoring run with 2:33 left to cement a career night in the Oregon's biggest game of the year. He also eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season.
The Ducks dominated Friday, and no matter how hard they try, it's going to be tough to think about what might have been without that debacle in Tempe. Still, the youth on this team should make Oregon fans confident they'll be back.
Loser: Utah and Its Playoff Chances
All Utah had to do was win the Pac-12 Championship Game, and it was likely in the College Football Playoff.
Much like their opponent, Oregon, a couple of weeks ago, the Utes couldn't seize the opportunity.
So, the Pac-12 will be without a playoff participant yet again. For Utah, Friday night's 37-15 loss to the Ducks was the antithesis of the dominant, disciplined style coach Kyle Whittingham's team has played with all season.
Instead, this game looked eerily like the Utes' 30-23 setback against USC back on September 20. Not since then have they played so out of sorts.
The offensive line had no answer for Thibodeaux and the Oregon pass rush, which limited quarterback Tyler Huntley's difference-making ability because he was under such duress for much of the game. Huntley pressed throughout the second half and was forced into mistakes.
He entered the championship game with two interceptions all season but threw a pair Friday night and had multiple other rushed passes that bounced in front of receivers or went behind them.
The Utes finished just 4-of-14 in third-down efficiency and mustered 309 total yards.
More uncharacteristic were the defensive doldrums. The Utes entered Friday first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and nearly 50 yards better than No. 2 Oregon in rush defense, allowing just 56 yards per game.
Those numbers were good for third nationally in scoring defense and first overall in rush defense.
Verdell and the Ducks torched them for 239 rushing yards and 37 points, shredding the side of the ball that got Utah where it was.
Winner: Memphis Giving Cincinnati the Bluff City Blues
Much like the situation with Florida Atlantic and Lane Kiffin, the Memphis Tigers had to play Saturday with lots of rumors that head coach Mike Norvell would leave for another job—in this case, Florida State, which he did, per ESPN.com's Chris Low.
But with the game on the line, Norvell gambled, and it paid off in a big way by securing the Tigers' second win in eight days over Luke Fickell's Cincinnati Bearcats and an American Athletic Conference title in the process.
Trailing 24-23 with 1:18 remaining, the Tigers faced a 3rd-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Rather than run the ball and kick the go-ahead field goal, Norvell leaned on his prolific passing game.
Quarterback Brady White delivered a quick-hitting, high-percentage bubble screen to Antonio Gibson on the perimeter. After a brief juggle, Gibson controlled the ball and scampered into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. The two-point conversion, however, was no good, leaving Memphis with a five-point cushion.
That drive was clutch when the Tigers had to have it, going 75 yards in 10 plays in 3:09. The game's seventh lead change was the last.
Though the Bearcats stormed right back with two big pass plays to get to the Memphis 21-yard line, Fickell called for a spike on first down with 44 seconds left, virtually wasting a play. The Tigers blitzed on the next three snaps, getting to Desmond Ridder and harassing him into three incompletions.
The 38-year-old coach's star rose because of his terrific offensive system and the fact that he isn't ever too conservative with the game on the line.
Much like Justin Fuente at Memphis before him, Norvell has shown the country his coaching chops are working on this level. The Tigers are heading to a New Year's bowl game because of it.
Winner: Boise State Taking Care of Business
The dark side of most college football Cinderella stories is the glass slipper gets broken at some point more often than not.
For Hawaii, it's been an exciting, surprising run to the Mountain West Conference Championship Game with overwhelming favorite Boise State. But the big, bad Broncos have been there and done that too many times to be blinded by any feel-good stories.
They dealt the Rainbow Warriors a 31-10 loss Saturday afternoon that closed the book on any fairytales.
Want a good story from this one? How about the coaching job Bryan Harsin has done this season with Boise State, which moved to 12-1 and remained undefeated in the MWC.
This year, the Broncos suffered injuries to true freshman starting signal-caller Hank Bachmeier and backup Chase Cord, but senior Jaylon Henderson has started the season's final four games and won all of them. Against Hawaii, he threw for 212 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead the Broncos to the win.
Had Boise not been upset by BYU in Cord's start earlier this season, the Broncos would be in the New Year's Six. But that spot looks like it will probably go to Memphis after the Tigers beat Cincinnati.
It's still been a great year for Boise, and Harsin's team flipped the script from the first meeting with the Rainbow Warriors on October 12. In that 59-37 victory, the Broncos torched them offensively with 518 yards.
Saturday, it was more about the defense, which made a pair of stands inside the 5-yard line to keep the game from being closer.
Harsin's name surely will come up for other jobs across the country, but the former Boise State quarterback is doing just fine for himself in Idaho, which is home to the Mountain West's juggernaut yet again.
Winner: Eli Drinkwitz's First Go-Round at a Mid-Major Powerhouse
Appalachian State got off to a roaring start in the Sun Belt Championship Game and hung on against Billy Napier's Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns by the final score of 45-38 despite a frantic rally by the losing team.
The game was a microcosm of Eli Drinkwitz's first season in Boone, North Carolina.
After losing longtime coach and favorite son Scott Satterfield to a Power Five job at Louisville, where his coaching acumen helped the Cardinals to a rejuvenated season in his first year in the ACC, the Mountaineers faced an uncertain future.
They had plenty of talent, but it's not easy to replicate Satterfield's coaching chops.
The school made a brilliant hire, nabbing North Carolina State's offensive coordinator to lead the program, and the Mountaineers didn't miss a beat. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack really struggled without Drinkwitz calling plays.
The Mountaineers are now 12-1 and should be getting more consideration for the Group of Five's spot in the New Year's Six bowl game, though they won't. All they do is win big every year, and the former FCS powerhouse has now turned into a perennial beast in the Sun Belt.
Here's the thing: The Mountaineers may be even better next year, as star quarterback Zac Thomas and stud running back Darrynton Evans will be in their senior seasons. With Drinkwitz dialing up offensive success stories on so many drives, App is tough to beat.
Throw in how consistently good the defense is, and you've got the trappings of a powerhouse program. Saturday was further proof this program could be a training ground for another big-name Power Five coaching hire soon.
Winner: Lane Kiffin in His Swan Song as an Owl
With rampant rumors swirling about Lane Kiffin probably being Ole Miss' pick to be the Rebels' next head coach, it could have been a major distraction for the Owls in their Conference USA Championship Game matchup with UAB.
Instead, Kiffin flexed his coaching muscle over Bill Clark's Blazers, and Florida Atlantic proved it was the superior team talent-wise in a 49-6 drubbing. The Owls end the regular season 10-3 and riding a six-game winning streak, and the Owls are again one of the stoutest Group of Five teams.
In Kiffin's first year in Boca Raton, FAU dominated North Texas by a 41-17 score to win the conference championship, and after a middling season a year ago, the Owls reloaded and won their second league title in three seasons.
It was a complete effort, and after the game, Ole Miss announced Kiffin would be its next head coach.
The Owls blocked a punt and turned it into a touchdown, the defense was fast and dominant, and Kiffin's strong suit was the difference-maker. That, of course, is on the offensive side of the ball, where he dialed up big play after big play.
Quarterback Chris Robison utilized weapons all over the field, including elite tight end Harrison Bryant, to throw for 267 yards and four touchdowns to four different players.
The running back tandem of Alabama transfer BJ Emmons (two scoring runs) and Malcolm Davidson, who had 11 carries for 128 yards, kept UAB's defense on its heels all game. By the end of the contest, FAU had taken its foot off the gas and was on cruise control.
It's going to be fun watching Kiffin with the Rebels' young weapons, like running back Jerrion Ealy and quarterbacks John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral.
He knows how to get the most out of his playmakers.
Winner: Miami (Ohio) Squelching a Couple of Redemption Stories in the Wacky MAC
If you had any idea what was going to happen in the wacky MAC this year, you're the only one.
This was perhaps the most ridiculous year in a conference where you never know what's going to happen, and that held true again Saturday in the title game when Miami (Ohio) shrugged off being nearly a touchdown underdog and beat Central Michigan 26-21.
The Chippewas came into the game with a couple of former SEC personalities leading the way throughout the season. Former Florida coach Jim McElwain has turned around the program with the help of former Tennessee starting quarterback and transfer starter Quinten Dormady.
Dormady had 232 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but his effort wasn't enough for the Chippewas.
The RedHawks were led by another familiar name in Brett Gabbert, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and he had 196 yards and a scoring toss. After his touchdown pass to Jack Sorenson, the Miami defense basically shut Central Michigan down and controlled the game.
The victory was their 16th MAC championship, more than any other program in that league.
The RedHawks dominated the second half with defense, but special teams play kept them in the game during the first half.
On the game's opening kickoff, Maurice Thomas returned it 97 yards, and Jaylon Bester punched it in from a yard out to give Miami the lead. After CMU tied the game, the Chippewas tried a fake punt, but it was stopped on their own 19-yard line, and the RedHawks turned that into a field goal.
This was far from a pretty game, but that's been the story of the MAC all year. Both teams that played in the championship finished with 8-5 records. But there was plenty of fun despite the ugly games and the conference parity throughout the season.