Winners and Losers from Week 14 of College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2021

Winners and Losers from Week 14 of College Football

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Championship week brought us feel good stories, newly minted title-holders and and Ol' Saint Nick (Saban) reasserting himself and his team as forces to be reckoned with this college football holiday season.

    Plenty of surprises shook free, too. Of the 10 conference championship games, six underdogs won.

    Perhaps the biggest news was Alabama totally dominating top-ranked Georgia, humbling that vaunted defense and catapulting into the College Football Playoff. Cincinnati shook off a pedestrian first half to wallop Houston at home and (likely) become the first-ever Group of Five program in college football's final four.

    Baylor stole a page from Oklahoma State's defensive playbook with two goal-line stands to upset the Cowboys and end their playoff hopes. Michigan held serve to stay in the playoffs with a win over Iowa in the Big Ten title game, and Pittsburgh clamped down on defense after a shaky first quarter to beat Wake Forest.

    Utah handled Oregon for the second time in three weeks, and UTSA erased last week's loss—one that knocked it from the ranks of the unbeaten—with a big Conference USA win over Western Kentucky. Utah State stunned San Diego State in the Mountain West, and Billy Napier left Louisiana a champion in the Sun Belt.

    Let's take a look at the winners and losers for the week.

Winner: Cincinnati Riding Second-Half Reset to the Playoffs

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    No matter what else happened on Saturday, Cincinnati has played its way into the College Football Playoff.

    After the Bearcats' statement win over Houston, anything else would be a travesty and an egregious mistake by the playoff committee.

    They had to wring hands for a half against the Cougars, but with so much in grasp and on the cusp of history, the Bearcats stormed out of the locker room at halftime and showed just how well-coached and talented they truly are.

    Coach Luke Fickell's team made all the necessary adjustments on its way to a 35-20 victory in the AAC championship game at Nippert Stadium in the most significant game in the conference's history.

    Leading by a solitary point exiting halftime, Cincinnati orchestrated a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in less than 3 minutes to open the third quarter and give itself a bit of breathing room. Then came the game's biggest play.

    On Houston's first offensive play of the third quarter, Clayton Tune dropped back to throw and failed to see linebacker Joel Dublanko settling down over the middle. Dublanko leapt and intercepted the ball and returned it nine yards to the 23-yard line, setting up a touchdown two plays later.

    Suddenly, the Bearcats had a 15-point lead less than 4 minutes into the second half, and their home stadium with more than 40,000 screaming fans was raucous.

    They added another third-quarter touchdown, and a Cougars team that had just one loss and had been solid on both sides of the ball all year was suddenly out of answers. Cincinnati's defense was awesome with eight sacks and 12 tackles for a loss as it looked every bit like a playoff team.

    Cincinnati rode that burst for a cruise-control win, and with Oklahoma State losing and Notre Dame not playing, there should be no doubt it punched its playoff ticket in the process, becoming the first-ever Group of Five participant in college football's final four.

Loser: Georgia's Defense Falls Flat on Big Stage

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    If you were tuning in to Saturday's SEC Championship Game and it was your first Georgia game all year, you'd never believe the Bulldogs' defense has been historically terrific.

    This talent-laded group allowed an average of 6.9 points a game all year, and they're the primary reason the Bulldogs were the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

    People tend to forget Alabama and quarterback Bryce Young are pretty good, too.

    The Crimson Tide torched the Dawgs for scores on five consecutive possessions to turn a 10-point deficit into a two-touchdown lead in what ultimately became a healthy 41-24 win over Georgia in Atlanta.

    UGA had no answer for Heisman Trophy candidate Young and his stable of weapons; the defensive backs were a step slower than Jameson Williams and Co. all day. The Crimson Tide were concerned all week about running back depth, but Brian Robinson played and was able to get just enough to keep the Dawgs honest.

    Young's arm did the rest.

    The Tide scored a touchdown just before the half and, after receiving the ball to open the second half, it took them less than two minutes to put the ball in the end zone once again. They rode that run to give Nick Saban yet another win over former pupil Kirby Smart.

    Most importantly, the victory ensures Alabama makes it back to the College Football Playoff once again after winning the national title last year and having to replace a ton of talent on both sides of the ball.

    A defense that had led the nation, allowing just 230.9 yards per game, gave up 536 on Saturday against the Tide. A week after being shut out for more than three quarters against Auburn, Alabama pretty much did what it wanted through the air against Georgia.

    It's definitely possible these teams meet again on an even bigger stage.

Winner: Jameson Williams Helps Bryce Young Get Alabama Offense Get Back on Track

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Anybody who still thinks the college football transfer portal is a scrap heap where players go to rust needs to get with the times. There are valuable, program-changing stars out there waiting to be grabbed.

    Or, in Alabama's case, players sitting there waiting to keep the program on a championship level.

    That's exactly what former Ohio State pass-catcher Jameson Williams—a Biletnikoff Award finalist this season—has done for the Crimson Tide this year after they lost Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to the NFL.

    In Saturday's SEC championship game, Williams was half of one of the most dynamic duos in conference title game history, helping Alabama rebound from a left-for-dead Iron Bowl squeaker win a week ago.

    While quarterback Bryce Young may have won the Heisman Trophy with his unbelievable performance, having Williams around was a big part of that. Last week, the receiver missed the second half against Auburn after a being ejected because of a targeting penalty.

    He made up for lost time against the Dawgs, finishing with seven catches for 184 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the second quarter, Young found Williams over the middle, and he accelerated to out-run defenders for a 67-yard touchdown that to give Alabama its first points of the game, cutting the margin to 10-7.

    The next time Williams crossed the goal line, the scoreboard showed a different story. His 55-yard bomb from Young to open the second half made it 31-17 Tide on their way to a statement win. His final yardage was second only to Auburn's Darvin Adams (217) in a 2010 win.

    Young's SEC Championship Game record 421 passing yards eclipsed the total of last year's teammate Mac Jones, who had 418 before winning the national title and moving on to the New England Patriots. The Young-to-Williams combo was electric Saturday, and the offensive line was brilliant, too.

Loser: All Those Jim Harbaugh Nay-Sayers, Because Michigan Is the Real Deal

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The Michigan Wolverines are heading to the College Football Playoff.

    Yes, we know: That doesn't fit the narrative that the Wolverines overpaid for favorite son Jim Harbaugh to come home and that he couldn't lead Big Blue back to glory, but he did. 

    The long and winding road that brought the Wolverines here has been well-documented. Harbaugh was winless against rival Ohio State, they had a losing record last year in the abbreviated season and he restructured his contract in the offseason.

    Harbaugh went from one of the nation's highest-paid coaches to the 10th-highest paid base salary in the Big Ten, according to the Detroit Free PressOrion Sang. It seemed to be the final straw before they pulled the trigger on Harbaugh's career at his alma mater.

    Something happened on the way down the spiral, though. The Wolverines kept recruiting well, they found the ideal formula on both sides of the ball, and on Saturday night in the Big Ten title game against Iowa, there was no hangover following last week's thorough domination (finally) of the Buckeyes.

    Instead, the Wolverines played a brilliant all-around game in a dismantling of Iowa. 

    Two big plays—a 67-yard Blake Corum touchdown run and a 75-yard trick-play touchdown heave from running back Donovan Edwards to Roman Wilson—gave Michigan an early advantage. Defensively, they never blinked, smothering Iowa's pedestrian offense.

    The special teams got in on the action in the fourth quarter with Cornelius Johnson's blocked punt that the Wolverines turned into a quick touchdown. 

    It was thorough in every facet. The Fox cameras even caught a celebrating Harbaugh dancing on the sideline late in the game. He deserves it considering the way he and his team have rebounded this year. Now, they've got a shot to play for a national championship.

Winner: Utah Finally Smelling the Roses After Second Domination of Oregon

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    Alika Jenner/Getty Images

    Utah owns Oregon.

    Now, the Utes own their first-ever Rose Bowl invitation after Friday night's total demoralization of the Ducks in a 38-10 win in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas.

    After three fruitless trips to the conference title game in their 11 years in the league, the Utes are finally heading to Pasadena, and Friday night was simply a coronation. Coach Kyle Whittingham's team proved the 38-7 plucking of the Ducks back on November 20 was no fluke.

    They're simply the better team—better prepared, better coached and more talented. Given the adversity the team faced this year after the accidental shooting death of star running back Ty Jordan last December and then the shooting death of Aaron Lowe in September, this win was even more special.

    "It's tough to describe," an emotional Whittingham told ABC's Holly Rowe after the game. "What we've been through, just so proud of these guys. We have great leadership on this football team. They hung in there, they went through incredible adversity. We love our boys Ty and Aaron; they were here with us tonight."

    While Utah quarterback Cam Rising shined, it was Oregon coach Mario Cristobal's staunch determination to stick with embattled QB Anthony Brown that was again puzzling. He never got anything going against an awesome Utes defense, and Cristobal still played him the entire game.

    After back-to-back losses to BYU and San Diego State back in mid-September, the Utes have won nine of 10 games to storm back and put themselves in this position. Inserting Rising for Charlie Brewer, who began the season as the starter, was a catalyst, and this young team kept improving each week.

    Now, they're heading to the program's first Rose Bowl.

Winner: Pittsburgh Turning Up the Defensive Pressure for a Three-Quarter Shutout

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    Saturday night's ACC Championship Game was billed as a quarterback slugfest between Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Wake Forest's Sam Hartman, two leaders of outstanding offenses capable of putting up points by the bushel.

    For a quarter, it lived up to the hype with a 35-point outburst in the first quarter; 21 of those coming from the Demon Deacons.

    Then, things changed dramatically. The Panthers turned up the heat, blowing by Wake offensive linemen and harassing Hartman. Once Pitt figured out how to defend the pronounced mesh, they pinned their ears back and brought the pressure.

    It resulted in a completely different game. The Panthers scored 31 unanswered points in the final three quarters to run away with the ACC championship game in a 45-21 win. Pittsburgh sacked Hartman five times and got to him many others.

    Still, the game was close until late in the third quarter when the second of Hartman's four interceptions turned the game. Erick Hallett got the snag, and Pickett parlayed it into a touchdown four plays later to give the Panthers a 10-point lead.

    A.J. Woods got the next interception, returning it 73 yards to the Wake Forest 3-yard line to set up another touchdown, then Hallett got a 19-yard pick-six, and the onslaught was in full effect.

    Hartman's nightmarish second half gave way to the floodgates opening for the Panthers, but it was as much the Deacs' porous offensive line play as his ineffectiveness. 

    Pickett, meanwhile, finished his brilliant career by breaking Dan Marino's school touchdown record, throwing for 253 yards and two scores, while running for 20 more and a magnificent scoring run where he faked a slide and broke free.

    The Pitt QB had a big day, but the defense was the difference.

Loser: Oklahoma State's Goal-Line Offense with Playoff Hopes on the Line

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    Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson sprinted away from the mass of humanity clustered in the middle of the field with Jairon McVea in hot pursuit in a race to get to the left pylon.

    Hanging in the balance were the Cowboys' College Football Playoff hopes.

    As McVea dove toward the ball-carrier on that 4th-and-goal play from the 1-yard line to force him further toward the goal line, Jackson stretched the ball for the pylon and came up just shy. It was a microcosm of the Cowboys' day. Baylor's stand preserved a 21-16 victory in a Big 12 Championship Game classic.

    Twice in the closing minutes of the game, coach Mike Gundy's team had 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line. They ran seven plays from the 2 or inside and came away with three measly points. The first time around, after three futile runs, they settled for a field goal to trim the score to 21-16.

    Needing the touchdown at the end, again, they couldn't capitalize.

    "To see that effort and that fight is just definitive of what's been happening without all the eyes that are on us today," Baylor coach Dave Aranda told the ABC crew afterward. After finishing 2-9 a year ago, the Bears celebrated the title with some revenge from an earlier loss to Oklahoma State.

    The Cowboys' defense lived up to the hype. All three Baylor scoring drives began inside OSU territory, and they were shut out after the break. But the offensive woes were horrific.

    Yes, they were magnified by the seven forgettable plays that will haunt the program, but it was bad all the way around. Spencer Sanders threw a career-high four interceptions, and with leading rusher Jaylen Warren out, the Cowboys couldn't get anything going on the ground (70 rushing yards, 1.8-yard average).

    Oklahoma State may have been a playoff spectator even with a win, but it'll certainly be relegated to watching now.

Winner: Blake Anderson and Utah State’s Stunning Season

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    Andres Leighton/Associated Press

    Some people you just have to pull for. Some people just deserve magical moments.

    This season was full of them for Utah State coach Blake Anderson, and Saturday's shocking 46-13 win over San Diego State was the culmination of a stunning season.

    The Aggies finished 1-5 a year ago, just a game better than UNLV in a next-to-last finish in the Mountain West Conference. They fired coach Gary Andersen in November before the season ended and then looked toward Arkansas State for Anderson.

    But after losing his wife, Wendy, to cancer in 2019, Anderson needed a change of scenery. He resigned and took the same job at USU. Heading to Logan would give him a new start, and he'd carry his high-octane attack with him. Mostly, maybe everything he saw wouldn't remind him of all he'd lost off the football field.

    As he told The Athletic after the 2019 season: "There's still a song or a memory or a place or a comment made and I'll think about her, and I'm gonna do that for years and I'm never going to forget her."

    On Saturday, the Aggies finished on a high note with a blowout of the 11-1 Aztecs.

    Much like Northern Illinois and UTSA, the Aggies came from nowhere to win a conference title. But Anderson has a ton to do with it. He's an offensive genius, and he turned quarterback Logan Bonner into a star this year. He was strong again with 318 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday.

    Also, the Utah State defense played its best game of the season. It was an outstanding evening for a team that has come a long way and especially for a coach who has endured so many grueling days that everybody should be happy to see him have one to celebrate.

Loser: An Oregon Team That Clearly Looked Affected and Unprepared

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    Listen: In this day of huge-money contracts, it's hard to blame any head coach for listening to other teams' courtship, seeing the dollar signs and bolting for greener pastures.

    Or, in Oregon coach Mario Cristobal's (possible) case, his home beaches of Miami.

    But the problem with all the rumors and speculation surrounding Cristobal's future is it broke a few hours before the Ducks played Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game with so much on the line. The Oregonian's John Canzano reported the Miami Hurricanes were prepared to give Cristobal a "Lincoln Riley" level contract.

    Cristobal was born in Miami and played for the Hurricanes. Just this week, Canzano reported, Cristobal was in Miami visiting his mother, who ABC's Chris Fowler called "gravely ill" during the telecast. 

    The Ducks had a Rose Bowl berth on the line against the Utes, and while it's impossible to know if the buzz around their coach had an affect, Oregon played pitifully.

    "I don't know what to tell ya. I can tell you this: If I had any plans, if I had a decision to make or had something to report, I would," Cristobal said when asked if the rumors affected his team. "I wouldn't keep it one way or the other. Do I expect people to come at me? Yeah, I do. It happens every single year."

    Cristobal's team looked soft, there was ineffective quarterback play again, the defense faltered and it was a massive disappointment. The Ducks looked unprepared.

    Given Cristobal's difficult personal situation this week, it's tough to place all the blame on him. Football, after all, isn't the most important thing going on here. But this flirtation with the Hurricanes, at least, could have waited a little longer. Oregon played as if its coach was already gone.

    "When you say someone's offered, I haven't talked to anybody, so let's not create narratives as we sit here in this press conference," Cristobal told reporters after the game. "Oregon is working on some stuff for me, and that's what I have right now, and that's the extent of that conversation."

Winner: UTSA's Historic Win in an Arcade-Level C-USA Shootout

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    It suits Bailey Zappe that he has a name fit for a video game considering the way he flings the ball all over the field like a pinball machine.

    Unfortunately for Western Kentucky and its star quarterback, though, UT San Antonio had more weapons in its arsenal and just enough quarters in its pocket to outlast the Hilltoppers' scintillating comeback attempt in a 49-41 Conference USA Championship Game win.

    Coach Jeff Traylor's Roadrunners used a running attack that mixed bruising with big plays to build a 42-13 lead with just over 10 minutes left in the third quarter. But they sat on that lead, allowing Zappe to storm the 'Toppers back behind his C-USA-record 577 passing yards.

    Though the signal-caller finished four touchdowns shy of Joe Burrow's single-season record of 60 scoring tosses, he proved he is one of the most prolific college signal-callers in recent memory. 

    Still, the Roadrunners made the plays when they had to. First, sick of how conservative playcalling had whittled their lead, Traylor elected to go for it on 4th-and-3 from near midfield with 8:16 left. The Roadrunners got the first down and scored a few plays later to take a two-score lead that would prove to be enough.

    It's the 11-year-old program's first championship, and there were more than 40,000 people watching in San Antonio's Alamodome. This is a program on the rise.

    With stars like running back Sincere McCormick (204 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and quarterback Frank Harris (299 yards, three touchdowns), UTSA is the type of Group of Five program that could surge for years sitting on the Lone Star State hotbed of talent.

    This is just the beginning.

Loser: Appalachian State's Bid to Send Billy Napier out with a Loss

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Billy Napier is heading to the Florida Gators a winner.

    After announcing earlier in the week that the Sun Belt Championship Game would be his last one coaching the Ragin' Cajuns, everything looked like it could be a letdown game for a program that would ultimately be looking for its next head coach.

    Instead, Napier proved once again just how good of a coach and motivator he is by keeping his team focused. They controlled the game against Appalachian State from the outset, and though there was nothing flashy about a 24-16 win, it gave Louisiana-Lafayette a conference title.

    Remember, the Mountaineers were actually favored to win this game, despite the Cajuns being ranked and 11-1. These two teams met in 2018 and '19 with the Mountaineers winning both times in Boone, North Carolina.

    That ownership of Napier's team ended earlier this year with a 41-13 Louisiana win back in October. Even with all the distractions and the uncertainty facing the program following Saturday's game, they weren't going to let it affect them.

    Napier said earlier this week coaching the conference championship game was "non-negotiable."

    "It’s important for everyone to realize the commitment we've made to the players here and the staff here to really kind of take a singular focus on trying to do the best job we can do for this team," Napier said.

    The commitment to their outgoing coach was reciprocated. Levi Lewis, who has been the author of so many quality Louisiana wins during Napier's tenure, had 253 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense was stout, too.

    Appalachian State could have muddied the waters of Napier's departure. Instead, Saturday served as a farewell tour, with "Thank you Billy" signs in the stands, emotions running high and a championship win.

Winner: Northern Illinois Playing Blue Print to Perfection in MAC Championship

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Kent State Golden Flashes entered Saturday's MAC championship game in Detroit with the conference's top rushing offense and second-ranked scoring offense.

    So, what did Northern Illinois do? The Huskies focused on keeping the leading rushing attack in the MAC and senior quarterback Dustin Crum off the field for the vast majority of the first half while building a lead.
    By the time the Flashes tried to mount their comeback in the second half, Crum was discombobulated, and Kent State never could get going.

    As a result, the Huskies won their first conference title since 2018 (after finishing 0-6 in an abbreviated season last year) with a 41-23 victory over a Kent State team that entered the game as the slight favorite.
    While the inconsistencies for head coach Sean Lewis' team led them to an underwhelming 7-6 record, the Golden Flashes' explosivity on offense made them a sexy pick.

    Instead, the Huskies swarmed them throughout the day.

    When Kent State needed a touchdown late in the third quarter to pull within a score, Crum instead threw his second interception of the day to C.J. Brown, who jumped the route, picked it off and raced 26 yards untouched for a touchdown to make it 24-3.

    Though the Golden Flashes bounced right back with (finally) their first touchdown of the day, it was far too late to muster too much of a threat.

    A plodding, ball-control Huskies offense led by Michigan State-transfer Rocky Lombardi and an opportunistic defense helped return NIU back to the winner's circle in the MAC. All season the conference had beaten up on itself and been so unpredictable.

    The championship game was the same.