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It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that a Texans victory on Saturday night in Foxborough would be one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. Of course, the Patriots being favorites in a playoff game is nothing new, especially at home where they are 15-3 during the Bill Belichcik/Tom Brady era. What is unusual is that Houston enters Gillette Stadium as a 16-point underdog.
If being one of the biggest playoff underdogs in the last 40 seasons isn’t enough motivation for the Texans, then perhaps avenging an earlier loss to New England will do the trick. Perhaps you recall the Houston didn’t just lose at home to the Patriots way back in Week 3, the Texans lost to a New England team that had rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback with Tom Brady suspended and backup Jimmy Garoppolo out because of an injured shoulder. Brissett himself was hurt, playing with torn thumb ligaments, but it didn’t matter as the Patriots shut out Houston 27-0 to kick off Week 3.
A little more than three months later, the Texans would even their record this season against third-string rookie quarterbacks with a playoff win against the Derek Carr-less Raiders last week, 27-14. Oakland was resigned to playing rookie Connor Cook, after backup Matt McGloin injured his shoulder in Week 17. Houston capitalized on the Raiders’ misfortunes, intercepting Cook three times and limiting Oakland to just 64 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per play.
Unless the Texans’ No. 1-ranked defense can completely stifle Brady (who is a little bit better than Cook or Brissett) and the Pats’ offense, their playoff run is likely to be short lived.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Houston at New England
Kickoff: Saturday Jan. 14 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -16
Three Things to Watch
1. Pressuring Tom Brady
Without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Houston defense hasn’t missed a beat, leading the NFL in both total (203 ypg) and passing yards (139 ypg) allowed. Some of this success can be attributed to the presence of former No.1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. After making the switch to full-time defensive end, Clowney has been able to avoid the injuries that plagued his first few seasons and turned in a Pro Bowl-worthy campaign. He recorded a sack in each of the last three regular season games and was a constant force last week against Oakland, including a highlight-reel interception that set up Houston’s first touchdown.
But if the Texans are going to have a shot at beating the Patriots at home, they will need more than just Clowney to make an impact on defense. Expect Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, a Bill Belichick disciple, to dial up as many blitzes as possible to force Brady into errant throws. Look for Crennel to blitz outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus all night long, as well as inside linebacker Brian Cushing up the middle.
2. Brock Has to be Better
It’s fair to say that Brock Osweiler has not lived up to the $72 million contract he signed this offseason after spurning his former team, the Denver Broncos, to be the quarterback of the future in Houston. Osweiler was benched a few weeks ago in favor of third-year pro Tom Savage, but got the job back after Savage was sidelined with a concussion. Osweiler responded last week with one of his better performances, which isn’t saying much, completing 14 of 25 attempts for 168 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
There’s no way around it — to beat the Patriots and their top-ranked scoring defense on their own turf, Osweiler has to have the game of his life. Completing only 56 percent of his passes and throwing for just one touchdown won’t be enough. Osweiler will have to be near-perfect, utilizing his best target, wide receivers, DeAndre Hopkins (5 rec., 56 yds., TD last week) as much as possible and hope that the Texans’ offensive line can create lanes for running back Lamar Miller. Much easier said than done.
3. Pats on a Mission
Year after year New England has been a Super Bowl contender under Bill Belichick. Having reached the AFC Championship Game for the last five consecutive seasons, the Patriots are the model of NFL consistency. But this season is different. This season the chip on their shoulder is as big as the Lombardi Trophy and Tom Brady’s ego combined.
As if the desire to win a fifth Super Bowl under Belichick wasn’t motivation enough, the thought of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell having to hand over the trophy to owner Robert Kraft, Belichick, and Brady after the embarrassing, elongated Deflategate scandal left Brady suspended for four games, would be the sweetest victory of all.
Since Brady’s return, the Patriots have gone 11-1, currently riding a seven-game winning streak, all while No. 12 has forced his way into the NFL MVP conversation with more than 3,500 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions in that span. The road to a sixth straight conference championship game seems to be paved quite nicely for the vendetta-charged Patriots, starting with Houston on Saturday night in Foxborough.
It’s no secret that the Patriots are the class of the AFC this season. With the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (15.6 ppg), the third-ranked scoring offense (27.6 ppg), and the game’s best head coach and quarterback combo of all-time, the AFC crown is once again New Engand’s to lose this postseason. Stranger things have happened, but it’s hard to not expect Tom Brady and the motivated Patriots to put a hurting on the Texans.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
It’s rematch time in the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs as the Seattle Seahawks will head to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons. These two clubs met earlier this season back in Week 6 at CenturyLink Field with the Seahawks winning a 26-24 thriller.
Seattle comes into this matchup with the Falcons with some much-needed momentum as they used a power-running game to eliminate the Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card Game 26-6 last Saturday night. Thomas Rawls ran for franchise postseason-record 161 yards on 27 carries with one touchdown. This effectiveness on the ground set the tone for the play-action passing game, which opened up for Russell Wilson as the game went along. Doug Baldwin came up big for the Seahawks along with Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham as they all made very timely catches that kept the Detroit defense on its heels. It will be very interesting to see if Seattle can take this type of performance on the road, as Pete Carroll’s team was just 3-4-1 away from home this season.
Atlanta is the No. 2 seed in the NFC after winning the South by two games over Tampa Bay. The Falcons under head coach (and former Seattle defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn are a mirror image of the Seahawks – a fiercely competitive team that can change a game instantly through explosive plays. Atlanta was the NFL’s top scoring offense at 33.8 points per game led by an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Matt Ryan, who has thrown for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman’s efficiency running the ball set up the passing game, led by Julio Jones, as defenses were kept off balance and had to pick their poison – load up the box or focus on stopping Jones and the other pass catchers?
NFC Divisional Playoff: Seattle at Atlanta
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 14 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Falcons -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Falcons’ offensive line vs. Seahawks’ defensive line
The signing of Alex Mack by Atlanta in the offseason to take over at center could go down as one of the Falcons’ best moves in some time. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mack’s consistency and rock-solid performance has rubbed off on his fellow linemen, as Atlanta’s improvement up front is a big reason for the offense’s success this season. For Seattle, the trio of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark is going to have to find a way to pressure Matt Ryan from the opening snap. The Seahawks don’t necessarily have to rack up five or six sacks, but they do have to get Ryan off of his spot, disrupt his rhythm and force him to get rid of the football earlier than he wants to. Seattle’s line also will have to do its job against the Falcons’ running game, which was fifth in the league at 120.5 rushing yards per game. If Atlanta can stay balanced on offense and control the line of scrimmage this game will get out of hand quickly.
2. Seattle passing attack vs. Atlanta’s defense
Simply put, Russell Wilson will have plays out there in the passing game available to be made against the Falcons’ secondary. Wilson completed 23 of 30 pass attempts for 224 yards and two touchdowns last week against Detroit. It is going to take that type of performance and then some this week, as the Seahawks will need to score points to keep up with the Falcons’ potent offense. Look for Wilson to get the ball in Doug Baldwin’s hands early and often after the two connected 11 times for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. Jimmy Graham should see plenty of time split out wide in an attempt to create mismatches against linebackers and nickel cornerbacks. It will be very important for Seattle to avoid a catastrophic turnover early and gain some confidence with big plays in the passing game.
3. Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman
In the first matchup in Week 6, Jones finished with seven receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in the 26-24 loss in Seattle. Even though the two All-Pros weren’t matched up against each other all of the time, Jones was able to win a few of the one-on-one battles against Sherman. Last week, Sherman stayed primarily on the left side of the field for the majority of the game and did not follow a specific receiver. This move by Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard paid off nicely as Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completed just 18 of his 32 attempts for 205 yards and no touchdowns. However, Seattle’s secondary figures to have a tougher time this game against Atlanta’s passing attack with safety Earl Thomas sidelined due to a leg injury. This could force Richard to have Sherman shadow Jones. If this happens, these one-on-one matchups should be well worth the price of admission alone. How the officials call the game in terms of illegal contact and pass interference early on could dictate how this one plays out. Falcon fans no doubt still remember the non-call against Sherman when he was covering Jones in the first meeting, a result that had a big hand in that game’s outcome.
All signs look to this game being another heavyweight fight as both offenses should be able to have their fair share of success scoring points if they take care of the football. Seattle historically has had its issues getting off to good starts on the road in playoff games and have had is share of issues away from this season. If Russell Wilson can avoid the early pick-six like he threw last year in the divisional round in Carolina then this game will be in the balance in the fourth quarter. For Matt Ryan, he needs to put his playoff struggles in the rear-view mirror, run the offense the way he has throughout this season, and take advantage of playing at home. Will the Atlanta’s balanced offense be too much for the Seahawks to overcome or will Seattle’s playoff experience produce the first road victory of these playoffs?
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
College football’s 2016 season officially ended on Monday night in Tampa, Fla. with Clemson's last-second win over Alabama. While the Tigers are still celebrating and the party in Death Valley isn't going to end anytime soon, it's never too early to peek ahead at 2017 and examine some of the teams that could take a step forward in the win column or move a little higher in the rankings. With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed this offseason.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
There’s a long ways to go until the 2017 season officially begins, but here are 15 teams we think are on the rise for next season.
College Football's Top 15 Teams on the Rise for 2017
The Black Knights had a breakout year in coach Jeff Monken’s third season at West Point. Army recorded its first winning season and bowl trip since 2010 and snapped a 14-game losing streak to Navy. The Black Knights could be even better in 2017, as Monken’s offense returns its top six rushers from last year, including Andy Davidson (961) and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (826). The defense limited opponents to 5.1 yards per play in 2016 but must replace standouts Andrew King (LB), Jeremy Timpf (LB) and Xavier Moss (safety). Linebacker Alex Aukerman (15 tackles for a loss) will take on an even bigger role in this defense next fall, and the Black Knights return a pair of freshman cornerbacks – Jaylon McClinton and Elijah Riley – that received significant playing time in 2016. Outside of a road trip to Ohio State, the schedule isn’t too daunting for Army next fall. Could Monken’s team push for 10 wins in 2017?
After a 1-2 start, Auburn reeled off six consecutive wins and appeared to be on the verge of finishing 2016 as a top-10 team. However, injuries took a toll on the Tigers, including ailments to running back Kamryn Pettway and quarterback Sean White. As a result, Auburn finished the year 1-3 over its final four games. While the end of 2016 didn’t finish on a high note, the Tigers could be the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West next fall. Former Baylor and junior college transfer Jarrett Stidham is set to take over at quarterback, and there’s no shortage of talent at receiver or running back to ease the former four-star recruit’s transition into the starting job. The addition of Stidham should spark a passing attack and add balance to an offense that already ranked No. 1 in the SEC in rushing. Guard Alex Kozan is a big loss up front, but Austin Golson, Darius James and standout guard Braden Smith provide a strong foundation. The biggest losses for coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense are end Carl Lawson, safety Rudy Ford, cornerback Joshua Holsey and tackle Montravius Adams. However, the defense shouldn’t suffer too much of a setback next year, especially with rising star Marlon Davidson coming off the edge and cornerback Carlton Davis anchoring the secondary. Auburn has to play LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road next fall. However, Georgia and Alabama visit Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With Lane Kiffin taking over in Boca Raton next fall, FAU is going to be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2017. Former coach Charlie Partridge was regarded as a good recruiter, and there are several promising players for Kiffin to build around. Running back Devin Singletary is a rising star after posting at least 200 rushing yards in two out of his final four games, and the top three receivers are back from 2016. Former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson was signed from the junior college ranks and will compete with Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for the starting nod. FAU allowed 39.8 points per game in 2016, so there is plenty of room for improvement behind new coordinator Chris Kiffin. The biggest loss for Kiffin is standout end Trey Hendrickson (9.5 sacks in 2016), but the rest of the defense returns largely intact. Defensive back Ocie Rose, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young are a promising trio for Kiffin to build around this spring. Considering the talent in place, along with the addition of Kiffin as a head coach, FAU should contend for a bowl in 2017.
The Seminoles should be one of the favorites to win it all in 2017. Under coach Jimbo Fisher’s watch, this program has won at least 10 games in six out of the last seven seasons and has played in a New Year’s Six bowl for three consecutive years. Quarterback Deondre Francois started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and finished the year with 3,350 yards and 20 scores. With another offseason to work with Fisher, Francois should take another step forward in his development. The receiving corps also returns largely intact, with Nyqwan Murray (27 catches) emerging as a breakout candidate for 2017. The biggest loss on offense is running back Dalvin Cook (1,765 yards), but the Seminoles won’t be hurting for options. Five-star prospect Cam Akers will push Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul for carries right away. The offensive line gave up 36 sacks in 2016 and has to replace standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. After allowing at least 30 points in four out of the first five games, the defense stepped up over the second half of 2016. Contributing to the early struggles was a tough slate of opposing quarterbacks, as well as the loss of safety Derwin James. With James back in the mix and a handful of talented young defensive backs in place, Florida State’s secondary should be one of the best in the nation. End DeMarcus Walker is a big loss up front, but end Josh Sweat, tackle Derrick Nnadi and linebacker Matthew Thomas is a talented trio for coordinator Charles Kelly. A road trip to Clemson and a neutral site matchup against Alabama will be tough. However, the development of Francois, and a talented defense should push Florida State to be the team to beat in the ACC next fall.
Despite a significant turnover on defense and a true freshman (Jacob Eason) at quarterback, Georgia finished 8-5 and lost three of those games by a touchdown or less in coach Kirby Smart’s first year in Athens. It’s no secret the standard is much higher than eight wins, but the pieces seem to be falling in place for Smart’s team to take a step forward in 2017 and challenge for the SEC East title. Eason should be better with a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, and running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel turned down the NFL for another season at Georgia. Developing the playmakers at receiver and solidifying the offensive line are the top priorities for coordinator Jim Chaney this offseason. Despite a major overhaul in the front seven on defense, the Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (24) in 2016. With tackle Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith anchoring the front seven and poised for a breakout 2017 campaign, Georgia’s defense should take a step forward on the stat sheet. Maurice Smith is the biggest loss in the secondary, but safety Dominick Sanders passed on the NFL for another year in Athens.
Coach Bill Snyder’s team quietly finished 2016 with a 9-4 record and wins in six out of the program’s last seven games. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are likely to begin 2017 as the favorites to win the Big 12 title, but don’t overlook Kansas State in the conference championship discussion. The Wildcats return quarterback Jesse Ertz and running back (and rising star) Alex Barnes to anchor a ground game that averaged 231.8 yards per contest in 2016. In addition to Ertz and Barnes, the top two receivers (Dominique Heath and Byron Pringle) are back and the offensive line should be among the best in the Big 12. Linebacker Elijah Lee, safety Dante Barnett and end Jordan Willis are three big losses for a defense that led the Big 12 in scoring (22.3 points per game allowed). However, the cupboard is far from empty. Tackle Will Geary, end Reggie Walker and cornerback D.J. Reed should keep this unit performing at a high level. Could the Oct. 21 matchup against Oklahoma in Manhattan be an early preview of the Big 12 title game?
The Wildcats are coming off their first bowl trip and winning season since 2010, and with most of the depth chart returning intact for 2017, another step forward in the win column wouldn’t be a surprise. An injury to Drew Barker pressed junior college transfer Stephen Johnson into the starting quarterback role last season, but both passers should battle for time this offseason. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, the ground game will be the focal point for the offense. Boom Williams (1,170 yards in 2016) is off to the NFL, but Benny Snell (1,091 yards) is back after a terrific freshman season. Three out of the top five statistical receivers also return. The biggest loss on offense is standout center Jon Toth. If Kentucky is to take a step forward and challenge for a finish in the top three of the SEC East, improving the defense is a must. With only five seniors set to depart after contributing in a major role from 2016, this unit has enough returning depth and talent to show improvement on the stat sheet. Linebacker Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) is quietly emerging as one of the better defenders in the SEC.
The RedHawks were one of the nation’s most improved teams during the course of the 2016 season. After an 0-6 start, coach Chuck Martin’s team won its final six games and earned a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl against Mississippi State. While Miami (Ohio) fell short in the bowl, Martin has this program poised to take another step forward next fall. Quarterback Gus Ragland was instrumental in the second-half turnaround (1,537 yards and 17 TDs) and should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter. Leading receivers James Gardner (45 catches) and Jared Murphy (43) return, along with the team’s top three running backs from 2016. Martin has a few voids to fill in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but there’s enough of a foundation in place to prevent a major drop in production. The defense surrendered only 23.8 points per game in 2016 and features a standout secondary, which is headlined by first-team All-MAC selection Heath Harding. Linebacker Junior McMullen and defensive back De’Andre Montgomery are two other key returnees, but end J.T. Jones expired his eligibility.
After losing arguably the best player in school history in former quarterback Dak Prescott, it was no surprise Mississippi State took a step back in the win column in 2016. After posting 19 victories from 2014-15, the Bulldogs slipped to 6-7 but still managed to earn a bowl trip, which extended the program’s postseason streak to seven in a row. Coach Dan Mullen’s team is in much better shape for 2017, as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a rising star, running back Aeris Williams (720) is back after a strong close to the season, and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) is a big-play threat on the outside. Replacing standout receiver Fred Ross and offensive linemen Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are the biggest concerns on offense. Improving the defense is an offseason priority for Mullen, but the addition of veteran play-caller Todd Grantham should help this unit take a step forward. Grantham will be busy this offseason as he looks to find replacements for ends A.J. Jefferson and Johnathan Calvin, linebacker Richie Brown and safety Kivon Coman. The schedule features home games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and LSU in conference play.
Wisconsin is the early favorite to win the Big Ten West next fall, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is one to watch this offseason. The Wildcats are positioned as the biggest threat to the Badgers in the West Division, especially if quarterback Clayton Thorson develops into one of the Big Ten’s top passers. Thorson finished 2016 with 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns but won’t have top receiver Austin Carr to throw to next fall. However, the Wildcats return standout running back Justin Jackson, and the offensive line should take a step forward with the starting group returning nearly intact. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, but safety Godwin Igwebuike and defensive end Xavier Washington headline the key returnees on defense. In addition to replacing Walker, standout pass rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo (12 TFL) will be missed. Road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska are tough, but Northwestern catches Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota at home. Additionally, the Wildcats won’t have to play Michigan or Ohio State.
Under coach Mike Gundy’s direction, Oklahoma State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last seven seasons. Considering the returning firepower on offense next year, the Cowboys should hit double-digit wins once again and challenge for the Big 12 title. The dynamic connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington passed on the NFL for one more year in Stillwater. But Washington will have plenty of help at receiver, as Jalen McCleskey emerged as a key contributor in 2016, Marcell Ateman is back from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible after sitting out last fall. The ground game will be anchored by Justice Hill after he rushed for 1,142 yards as a freshman in 2016. Left tackle Victor Salako and guard Michael Wilson are the biggest losses in the trenches. Each level of the defense suffered a key loss, but coordinator Glenn Spencer is one of the best in the Big 12. Tackle Vincent Taylor and safety Jordan Sterns leave big shoes to fill this offseason. Oklahoma State catches a break in scheduling with Kansas State and Oklahoma coming to Stillwater in 2017.
The Ducks should be one of the nation’s most improved teams in 2017. New coach Willie Taggart is one of the offseason’s top hires and his background on offense should be a good fit for a team with a young core of talent on that side of the ball. Quarterback Justin Herbert (1,936 passing yards and 19 TDs) had a promising debut, and running back Royce Freeman decided to return to Eugene for his senior year. Charles Nelson and Darren Carrington lead the way at receiver, and the offensive line returns four key freshmen who saw extensive snaps in 2016. Taggart’s blend of power football and spread looks should be a good fit for the returning personnel. On the other side of the ball, Taggart hired Jim Leavitt – one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators – away from Colorado. Leavitt inherits a defense in need of repair after this unit gave up 41.4 points per game in 2016. However, Leavitt does have pieces to work with this spring. Linebacker Troy Dye is back after a promising freshman campaign, safety Brenden Schooler picked off four passes as a freshman, and nine of the team’s top 10 tacklers from 2016 return next fall. Additionally, Oregon misses USC in crossover play with the Pac-12 South.
The Nittany Lions were on the doorstep of a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2016 and should be one of the favorites to claim a spot in the top four next fall. Coach James Franklin’s team showed marked improvement after a 2-2 start. Penn State knocked off Ohio State in surprising fashion (24-21), which helped to spur a winning streak that extended to nine in a row after defeating Wisconsin (38-31) in the Big Ten Championship. Franklin’s decision to hire Joe Moorhead as the program’s new offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season paid immediate dividends. The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points a game – up from 23.2 in 2015 – and quarterback Trace McSorley developed into one of the best in the Big Ten. McSorley and Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley (running back) are back to anchor an explosive offense next fall. Another reason for optimism on offense is the play of the front five. The overall depth and performance for this group took a step forward in 2016. Receiver Chris Godwin declared early for the NFL, but tight end Mike Gesicki is back in Happy Valley. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry will have a few big losses to address this offseason. Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden have departed. However, there’s still a good foundation in place, led by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen. Penn State has to travel to Ohio State, but Michigan, Pitt and Nebraska visit Beaver Stadium.
There wasn’t a better fit in the offseason coaching carousel than Tom Herman returning to Texas after a successful two-year stint at Houston. Herman – a former graduate assistant with the Longhorns – should provide an immediate boost for a program that has missed out on a bowl game in each of the last two seasons. Quarterback Shane Buechele (2,958 yards and 21 TDs) returns after a promising freshman season, the top three receivers from 2016 are also back in the mix, and the line is anchored by one of the nation’s top tackles in Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren missed eight games due to injury in 2016 but is slated to return and should assume a key role in the backfield. While Herman’s background on offense should help this group take a step forward in 2017, one of his best offseason moves was to bring in coordinator Todd Orlando. Under Orlando’s direction, Houston finished second in the American in scoring defense in 2016 and third in 2015. After giving up 31.3 points per game last year, Texas has room to improve on defense. With most of this unit returning intact – including linebacker Malik Jefferson and edge rushers Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach – immediate improvement is expected. Texas should go from 5-7 to a top 25 team next fall.
New coach Charlie Strong is stepping into a good situation. The Bulls were one of the top Group of 5 teams in 2016, and the pieces are in place for a run at a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2017. Running back Marlon Mack will be missed after declaring early for the NFL Draft, but the USF offense won’t miss a beat behind quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers averaged 334 total yards per game and scored 42 total touchdowns. New play-caller Sterlin Gilbert needs to find a new go-to receiver for Flowers after Rodney Adams (67 catches) expired his eligibility. With a dynamic offense in place, Strong should be able to devote some extra attention to the defense (31.6 ppg in 2016). This unit doesn’t lose a ton, but linebacker Nigel Harris (9.5 TFL) and defensive back Nate Godwin will be missed. The combination of Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector at tackle is a tough matchup for opposing offensive lines, and linebacker Auggie Sanchez returns after leading the team with 117 tackles. USF’s schedule is also favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games, with Illinois as the only Power 5 opponent on the slate for next fall.
Others to Watch
Kalani Sitake had a successful debut in 2016, and the Cougars open 2017 with three Power 5 programs (LSU, Wisconsin and Utah) in the month of September. Quarterback Taysom Hill is gone, but Tanner Mangum is ready to step back in under center. Replacing running back Jamaal Williams is the top priority this offseason for coordinator Ty Detmer.
There’s no clear favorite in the ACC’s Coastal Division for 2017. However, the Yellow Jackets should be picked near the top of the division after improving their win total by six games from 2015 to 2016. Quarterback Justin Thomas, center Freddie Burden and linebacker P.J. Davis are just a few of the key losses, but running back Dedrick Mills should be one of the ACC’s top playmakers in 2017. Additionally, the schedule isn’t too daunting, as Georgia, North Carolina, Pitt and Virginia Tech visit Bobby Dodd Stadium.
New coach Nick Rolovich guided the Rainbow Warriors to a 7-7 record in his first season at the helm and finished the year with a victory over MTSU in the Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors should be in good shape to take another step forward under Rolovich in 2017, as quarterback Dru Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste headline the key returnees.
Replacing quarterback Brad Kaaya is the biggest offseason priority for coach Mark Richt, but there’s a solid foundation in place for this team to win the Coastal in 2017. Running back Mark Walton returns after rushing for 1,117 yards in 2016, and receiver Ahmmon Richards (934 yards) is back after a promising freshman campaign. Cornerback Corn Elder is a big loss on defense, but the front seven should return nearly intact.
After back-to-back 7-6 seasons under coach Dave Doeren, can the Wolfpack take a step forward in 2017? This team was close to a couple of big wins in 2016, as NC State lost by seven in overtime to Clemson, by four to Florida State and two other games were decided by seven points or less. Running back Matt Dayes is a big loss, but quarterback Ryan Finley, all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels and a solid offensive line return on offense. End Bradley Chubb turned down the NFL for one more season in Raleigh, but the secondary loses three key contributors. The schedule breaks in NC State’s favor, as Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina all visit Raleigh in 2017.
Coach Gary Andersen didn’t inherit a lot to work with in 2015, but this program is on the right track after a 6-18 mark over the last two years. The Beavers finished 2-10 in 2015 and made a two-game jump in wins last fall (4-8). In order for Anderson to elevate Oregon State into a bowl in 2017, a quarterback needs to emerge, and three starters must be replaced on the offensive line. Junior college recruit Jake Luton could be the answer under center. Running back Ryan Nall (951 yards) leads the way on offense. The defense limited opponents to 5.7 yards per play in 2016, but linebacker Caleb Saulo and defensive backs Treston DeCoud and Devin Chappell leave big shoes to fill.
The Mustangs are poised to breakthrough under coach Chad Morris in 2017. SMU just missed out on a bowl last year but should reach the postseason next fall. Receiver Courtland Sutton and running back Braeden West headline an improving (and potentially dynamic) offense.
The Orange might be one year away from reaching a bowl game under coach Dino Babers, but this program showed progress in 2016 and should take another step forward next fall. A healthy (and full) season from quarterback Eric Dungey would be a huge boost for Syracuse and its potential bowl hopes in 2017. Dungey threw for 2,679 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine games last year but faced a lot of pressure from an offensive line that dealt with a handful of injuries and surrendered 38 sacks. Amba Etta-Tawo (94 catches) will be missed at receiver. However, Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael return, and running back Dontae Strickland is back to anchor the ground attack. Scoring points won’t be a problem, but Syracuse won’t push for a bowl without improvement by its defense. This unit gave up 6.9 yards per play in 2016.
Willie Fritz was one of the top coaching hires from last offseason and guided the Green Wave to a 4-8 record in his first year. As expected, Fritz and this coaching staff needed a year to transition offensive schemes and find an answer at quarterback. Junior college recruit Jonathan Banks could be the answer under center, and running back Dontrell Hilliard (759 yards) retruns to anchor the ground game. The defense will miss standout tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley.
The Blazers are back after a two-year hiatus on the gridiron and return as the 14th member of Conference USA. Rebuilding the program (and roster) is no easy assignment, but coach Bill Clark is one of the best in C-USA and will have this team competitive right away in 2017. Additionally, with facility improvements already underway and potentially a new stadium in the near future, this program is clearly trending up as it makes its return to the gridiron on Sept. 2.
Scott Frost’s first year at the helm resulted in a six-game improvement in the win column for the Knights. UCF has a few key losses to address on defense, but the offense should improve if quarterback McKenzie Milton takes a step forward in his development.
Despite losing quarterback Garrett Smith to a season-ending injury in mid-October, the Warhawks improved their win total by two games in 2016. First-year coach Matt Viator was a solid hire last offseason and returns enough talent to push for more improvement in the win column in 2017.
The Roadrunners earned the program’s first bowl appearance under new coach Frank Wilson in 2016 and enter 2017 as one of the frontrunners in a wide-open C-USA West Division. Standout running back Jarveon Williams must be replaced, but quarterback Dalton Sturm and the top four receivers are back next fall. The defense is anchored by linebacker Josiah Tauaefa (115 stops as a freshman in 2016) and end Marcus Davenport (second-team All-Conference USA).
The Demon Deacons have showed marked improvement under coach Dave Clawson and finished 2016 on a high note by beating Temple in the Military Bowl. A few key pieces must be replaced on defense, but the offense should take a step forward.
There’s a famous scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman sits before the parole board and tells them he does not know the meaning of the word rehabilitated. The same truth applies to the word upset in the NFL. Many fans would tell you there is no such thing as an upset, especially in the NFL playoffs.
To give you an example, in the last 10 years, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference have played for their respective championships only once and that was last year. In this age of parity in the NFL, a No. 6 seed can win it all with the term upset rarely being applied.
However, there is that rare instance where a team that did so well during the regular season loses to a team whose performance was nowhere near as impressive and it usually happens during the Divisional Round. Here are the most shocking upsets in NFL playoff history.
5. San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT)
Jan. 3, 2009 – San Diego
The Chargers started the season 4-8 before winning its last four games to clinch the AFC West title. Since the 8-8 Chargers were a division champion they hosted Peyton Manning and the 12-4 Colts, one of the wild card teams, but records would not matter in this game. San Diego running back Darren Sproles amassed 328 all-purpose yards and the Chargers shut down Indianapolis’ rushing attack, as the game went into overtime. San Diego then got the ball first and marched down the field, with Sproles finishing the upset with a 22-yard touchdown run. The win made the Chargers the first team to not have a winning record until after the first round of the playoffs, although the next team would eclipse that notoriety.
4. Seattle 41, New Orleans 36
Jan. 8, 2011 – Seattle
The 11-5 Saints were defending world champions, while the 7-9 Seahawks were the first team with a losing record to make the playoffs in a full season. Seattle hosted as the NFC West champions, but New Orleans was still a 10-point favorite. The Saints jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but the Seahawks came back to go ahead 34-20 with 9:54 left in the third quarter. The Saints closed that gap to 34-30 with a little more than four minutes remaining. Then on the ensuing drive, the Seahawks handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch, who broke nine tackles on a 67-yard touchdown run. The play, known as “Beast Quake” because of Lynch’s nickname and the fact that the Seattle fans’ reaction registered on a seismograph, sealed the victory. The play cemented Lynch’s position with the Seahawks, who would go from the first losing team to win a playoff game to Super Bowl champion three years later.
3. Minnesota 36, San Francisco 24
Jan. 3, 1988 – San Francisco
San Francisco finished 13-2 and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed after the bizarre strike-shortened, replacement player-supplemented 1987 season. Joe Montana led the league in passer rating and Jerry Rice caught a then-record 22 touchdown passes in only 12 games. The Vikings squeaked in to the playoffs at 8-7, but in this Divisional Round matchup, their offense would have a banner day. Wide receiver Anthony Carter caught 10 passes for 227 yards as Minnesota jumped out to a 20-3 halftime lead and never trailed. San Francisco fans best remember the upset because Bill Walsh replaced Montana with Steve Young in the third quarter. The quarterback duel kick started the 49ers’ near-threepeat at the end of the ‘80s.
2. Jacksonville 30, Denver 27
Jan. 4, 1997 – Denver
The Broncos started the season 12-1 and rested its starters for the final three games after securing the No. 1 seed. The Jaguars, in only their second year as an expansion franchise, won their last five games to make the playoffs at 9-7. Fourteen-point favorite Denver jumped out to a 12-0 lead, but Jacksonville stormed back on the strength of 140 rushing yards by Natrone Means and clutch passing by Mark Brunell, to go ahead 13-12 at the half and stretch it to a 10-point cushion early in the fourth quarter. The Broncos cut the deficit to 30-27 with a 15-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to Ed McCaffrey with 1:50 left in the game, but the Jaguars secured the onside kick and scored one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
1. New York 37, Green Bay 20
Jan. 15, 2012 – Green Bay, Wis.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers had steamrolled through the regular season en route to a 15-1 record, while the NFC East champion Giants were 9-7. The two teams’ Divisional Round matchup started off fairly uneventful with New York holding a 13-10 lead. Giant quarterback Eli Manning threw a 37-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks as the second quarter ended to take a 20-10 halftime lead (Ironically, the Packers returned the favor in last weekend’s wild card game.). The Packers never recovered and the Giants pulled away to win. New York would go on the beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, becoming the first 9-7 team to do so, but no win was as shocking as the upset of Green Bay.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
Every basketball player has dreamed of shattering a backboard Shaquille O'Neal style, but rarely does it get done.
Isaiah Banks of Heritage High School in Georgia went up for a dunk during a game against Evans High Schools and literally tore the rim down. Due to the shattered backboard the game was called in the third quarter with Heritage being the winner, 40-14.
BREAKING!!! Literally! Heritage shatters the backboard against Evans tonight!!!! OH MY WORD pic.twitter.com/w5W4OtH5zC— Kevin Faigle (@kevinfaiglewrdw) January 11, 2017
Talk about going out on a high note.
College football's 2016-17 farewell tour spanned 41 games, 23 days and approximately 143 hours — and that last figure is just the length of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Sure, bowl season has swelled to ridiculous proportions in recent years. But in the larger-than-life world of 21st century college football, nothing exceeds like excess.
Forty-one bowl games produce 41 winners — and 41 losers. From those scores of postseason participants, let's whittle it down to the very best of the 2016-17 bowl season.
WINNER: Deshaun Watson
Clemson's quarterback had thrice come close to winning one of college football's top prizes — twice named a Heisman Trophy finalist and last year, playing for a national championship — but always come up just short. In a College Football Playoff title rematch with Alabama, Watson stood tall.
His 2016 performance against the Crimson Tide stands as one of the most impressive individual showings a quarterback's ever had against a Nick Saban-coached team. The 2017 game may well have exceeded that. Watson's rushing touchdown was the first the Tide defense allowed to a quarterback all season, and he showed uncanny poise leading the Tigers on four second-half touchdown drives.
When the clock (finally) struck zeroes, Watson was no longer a runner-up: He'd earned his place in the annals of college football history with one of the best postseason performances ever.
LOSER: The Alabama Offense
Alabama's offense was a strangely mixed bag in the national championship. The Tide scored 31 points, exceeding the 17 per game the Clemson defense allowed coming in by two touchdowns.
But without the explosive plays that got Alabama into the end zone four times, the Crimson Tide were stagnant. It was either big play or bust for running back Bo Scarbrough before his unfortunate, second-half injury. Quarterback Jalen Hurts looked like a freshman, going just 13-of-31 passing, as Alabama was rendered increasingly one-dimensional.
While some criticism may be laid on Steve Sarkisian — thrust into the role of play-caller a week before the title game — the offense was no better in Lane Kiffin's Peach Bowl swan song. The Tide scored 17 offensive points against Washington.
WINNER: The ACC
During ESPN's Coaches Film Room broadcast of the national championship game, NC State head coach Dave Doeren noted the ACC's 8-3 record in bowl games. By night's end, Clemson made it 9-3.
The Tigers' victory concluded an impressive run against the SEC, which included Doeren's Wolfpack blasting Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech rallying to blowout Arkansas and Georgia Tech having no trouble with Kentucky.
The ACC also got wins from unlikely representatives like Wake Forest, which cruised against American Athletic Conference champion Temple; and Boston College, which played its best offensive game of the year against the Big Ten's Maryland Terrapins.
LOSER: The Big Ten
Can a season that ends with four teams ranked in the top 10 be fairly deemed a loss? In the case of the Big Ten, absolutely.
The 2016 regular season marked a breakthrough for the long-suffering conference, with Michigan and Ohio State jockeying near the top of the polls for much of the fall; Wisconsin holding steady as a contender; and Penn State emerging as one in James Franklin's third season.
Three of the four lost in their bowl games. The sole winner — Wisconsin — beat Western Michigan; the representative of the only conference (MAC) with a worse postseason record than the Big Ten's 3-7 mark.
Worse yet for the Big Ten this bowl season: The league's flag-bearer division, the East, went 0-5.
WINNER: The Early Slate of Bowl Games
Think there are too many bowl games? The pre-Christmas offering of bowls begs to differ. Some of the most exciting contests of the entire postseason fell in that week-long window right before the holiday.
The first bowl game of the 2016-'17 season saw New Mexico hold off UTSA in a surprising gem from the Land of Enchantment. The Roadrunners' first postseason didn't quite have a fairy tale ending, but Old Dominion's did.
The Monarchs completed a 10-win campaign in a back-and-forth Bahamas Bowl defeat of Eastern Michigan — another program excited to participate in bowl season. For the Eagles, a trip to the Bahamas signaled the end of a three-decade wait.
Wyoming nearly completed a three-touchdown rally against BYU in a driving rain storm during the Poinsettia Bowl. Louisiana Tech and Navy traded haymakers in a high-scoring contest. Troy fended off Ohio to complete the best FBS season in program history.
Even a lopsided contest, like San Diego State's Las Vegas Bowl defeat of Houston, featured Donnel Pumphrey setting the NCAA career yardage record.
Oh, and what would a bowl season rundown be without a shout-out to arguably the most jaw-dropping play of the last three weeks? Grambling's Verlan Hunter became a viral sensation with his snag in the Celebration Bowl.
LOSER: New Year's Eve
When the College Football Playoff moved to New Year's Eve last season, organization officials promised to "change the paradigm" of the holiday. In a note befitting the Year 2016 A.D., the calendar flipped in underwhelming fashion.
Every game played on Dec. 31 was a blowout, including both College Football Playoff semifinals. Clemson blanked Ohio State and Alabama stifled Washington — a scene reminiscent of last April's Final Four, when two awful semifinal games led to a thrilling championship.
New Year's Eve's other offerings would have no such payoff — just one-sided dominance from LSU in a 29-9 thrashing of Louisville, and Georgia Tech having no trouble in a 33-18 defeat of Kentucky.
This bowl season was filled with surprising stories. Each of the aforementioned programs — Troy, Eastern Michigan, Old Dominion, UTSA and Wyoming — were surprising participants this postseason.
Idaho may not have been the biggest surprise; the Vandals garnered some bowl-game buzz heading into 2016, the result of a promising finish to '15. However, Paul Petrino's team capped an impressive, nine-win season with the highest scoring output of the postseason.
Quarterback Matt Linehan passed for four touchdowns, and running back Isaiah Saunders rushed for three to pace the Vandals' 61-50 defeat of Colorado State.
The Vandals' Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win was bittersweet, as evidenced in Linehan's postgame speech. The Idaho quarterback targeted university brass for the decision to drop to FCS in the 2018 football season.
"We belong here," Linehan said in his postgame MVP acceptance speech, per the Spokesman Review. "No matter what anyone thinks, even our tone-deaf president."
WINNER: The Rose Bowl Game
College football's first bowl played its 103rd installment in 2017. With more than a century's worth of competition, USC and Penn State easily cracked the Rose Bowl's top five.
The two hottest teams in the nation not playing for a title played arguably their best games of the season against one another. The result was a seesaw contest that featured highlight-reel plays from Chris Godwin and Saquon Barkley; a breakout night from Deontay Burnett; and the possible prelude to a Heisman for Sam Darnold.
USC's three-score rally in the fourth quarter functioned as a microcosm of the Trojans' comeback season.
LOSER: The Sugar Bowl
College football's next-most historic game and permanent resident of Jan. 1 — er, Jan. 2 — won't be remembered for producing a thrilling matchup like this year's Granddaddy of 'Em All.
No, Oklahoma's thorough deconstruction of Auburn took a backseat to the awkward defense Brent Musburger launched for Sooners running back Joe Mixon.
Surveillance video of Mixon punching a woman two years ago surfaced in the weeks before the Sugar Bowl. Mixon was suspended for the 2014 season, but the release of the video renewed discussion of the running back's punishment. That discussion spilled over into the game broadcast.
Let the hype begin. Alabama and Florida State figure to be atop most preseason college football rankings for 2017, and luckily for us, they will get to settle that distinction on the field during the sport’s opening weekend. Not a bad opening for brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, huh?
The Crimson Tide and the Seminoles may be the headliners for Week 1, but there are plenty of other enticing matchups that will keep us all looking ahead to seven-plus months from now, when the new college football season commences.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
Here are the top 10 games of the 2017 opening weekend.
1. Alabama vs. Florida State
Sept. 2 (Atlanta)
Nick Saban squares off against his most successful protege in Jimbo Fisher, who has adapted “The Process” and ushered the Seminoles to a 59-9 record, one national title and one College Football Playoff appearance over the past five years. You can argue that we haven’t had an opening weekend game with such heavy national title implications since LSU beat Oregon in 2011. Oh, and here’s a little nugget that will surely get thrown around come game week: Fisher is 9-1 against the SEC during his time at FSU.
2. Florida vs. Michigan
Sept. 2 (Arlington, Texas)
Which third-year head coach gets his team off to a quicker start? Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines got the best of Jim McElwain and the Gators in the 2016 Citrus Bowl, and expectations should again be high for both clubs. There have been discussions about moving this game to the next day, a Sunday, according to ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg.
3. Tulsa at Oklahoma State
Sept. 2 (Stillwater, Okla.)
Mike Gundy is a man, and he will have turned 50 by the time the Cowboys kick off their 2017 campaign. Whether he can still bask in the glow of the milestone birthday will be contingent upon how his defense slows down the Golden Hurricane, who could enter Philip Montgomery’s third season as American Athletic Conference (AAC) favorites after a 10-3 campaign that saw them set all sorts of offensive records.
4. BYU vs. LSU
Sept. 2 (Houston)
It is officially the Ed Orgeron Era in Baton Rouge, and the new full-time Tigers coach will get a stiff test in his 2017 debut against the Cougars, who are coming off a nine-win season in Kalani Sitake’s first year in Provo.
5. Navy at Florida Atlantic
Sept. 2 (Boca Raton, Fla.)
Lane Kiffin’s first game as a head coach in nearly four years would have been a must-see event regardless of the opponent. But when you throw in one of the most efficient machines in all of college football in the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack? Yeah, this one could be quite exciting. (And if you’re still sleeping on Navy football, well, we have no idea what’s left to tell you. Your loss.)
6. Temple at Notre Dame
Sept. 2 (South Bend, Ind.)
The Owls are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, a run that Notre Dame itself has not accomplished since 1991-93. Matt Rhule’s first game as a head coach came in South Bend, in 2013, and new head coach Geoff Collins will have big shoes to fill in his opening act against a 2017 Irish squad that will likely make or break Brian Kelly’s future with the program after a 4-8 ’16 campaign.
7. Texas A&M at UCLA
Sept. 2 (Pasadena, Calif.)
Speaking of make or break, both Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora will have plenty of eyes on them throughout 2017, after more disappointment in ‘16. The Aggies got the best of the Bruins in OT last year but are on the road this time. Plus, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen UCLA QB Josh Rosen, who missed the final six games of 2016.
8. Louisville vs. Purdue
Sept. 2 (Indianapolis)
What will Heisman winner Lamar Jackson do for an encore? Well, for the sake of the Cardinals, hopefully he’ll snap a three-game losing streak — much of which can be blamed on a leaky offensive line. But this also is a big game for the Boilermakers, who made an impressive hire in Jeff Brohm, who went 15-1 in Conference USA the past two years and who used to be the QB for — wait for it — Louisville.
9. Ohio State at Indiana
Aug. 31 (Bloomington, Ind.)
There has to be at least one Thursday night game here, right? And considering that Kevin Wilson, who resigned as Indiana’s head coach in December, is now the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator; this one suddenly has some extra juice to it, especially after OSU was shut out to close the 2016 season.
10. Western Michigan at USC
Sept. 2 (Los Angeles)
We don’t know who will be coaching the Broncos just yet, but the mystery is the fun part, at least for now. P.J. Fleck had WMU recruiting light-years ahead of the rest of the MAC, so there is talent there. And USC figures to be a preseason national title contender... again. We’ll see if the Trojans actually live up to the hype here, although we can at least attest to Sam Darnold’s magic after a dazzling redshirt freshman campaign.
Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (Sept. 2, Landover, Md.)
Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (Sept. 4, Atlanta)
Appalachian State at Georgia (Sept. 2, Athens, Ga.)
Miami (Ohio) at Marshall (Sept. 2, Huntington, W. Va.)
NC State vs. South Carolina (Sept. 2, Charlotte, N.C.)
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
Wild Card Weekend belonged to the home teams, which means the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs will fittingly feature only division winners. The top four seeds in each conference will meet on Saturday and Sunday to set up what should be two intriguing championship games for the right to play in Super Bowl LI.
Not only did all four home teams win this past weekend, they also did so in runaway fashion. The narrowest victory was 13 points by Houston over Oakland and the average margin for the four games was 21.5 points per contest.
Arguably the two most impressive performances came on Sunday, as Pittsburgh physically dominated Miami winning 30-12 while Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay lit up New York’s defense 38-13 at Lambeau Field. Those showings no doubt got the attention of Kansas City and Dallas. The Chiefs and the Cowboys may be the home teams this Sunday, but they will be hosting the two hottest teams in the league, as the Steelers have won eight games in a row and the Packers have reeled off seven straight victories. Adding to the intrigue in Big D is Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will be playing in their first career postseason game.
On Saturday, Seattle will try and contain Atlanta's prolific offense, and hope Thomas Rawls can pick up where he left off after rushing for a franchise-record 161 yards against Detroit. New England will face Houston in the nightcap, as the top-seeded Patriots will face off against the league's No. 1 defense as one of the biggest playoff favorites of the past 40 years. So will we continue to see the home teams hold serve or will one of the road teams build off of the momentum from last week’s victory and shake up the bracket?
So which teams will come out on top in every NFL game during the Divisional Round? Athlon's own Rob Doster (AthlonDoster), John Gworek (JohnGworek), Steven Lassan (AthlonSteven), and Mark Ross (AthlonMarkR), along with AthlonSports.com contributor Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer), predict the winners:
NFL Divisional Playoff Game Predictions
Green Bay at
|Wild Card Round||3-1||4-0||4-0||4-0||4-0|
Note: Ties are not included in season record.
Numbers and statistics are a huge part of college football. Every week during the regular season, reading updated box scores and stats is like Christmas for fans and media members. Some stats like total offense and total defense are overrated, but each help paint a picture for a team or particular game. The same can be said after bowl games. While postseason matchups are just one game in sample size of around 13 contests, the bowl games often produce plenty of interesting or intriguing totals. Additionally, the bowl season often allows players to reach various statistical milestones they couldn't hit with just 12 regular season matchups.
Whether the stats are historic, advanced or just an observation from a box score, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from the 2016-17 college football bowl action:
35 Amazing College Football Stats from the 2016-17 Bowl Season
97-1: Nick Saban’s Record When Leading by Double Digits in 4th Quarter
The one loss? Clemson on Monday night. Alabama held a 24-14 lead going into the fourth quarter but was unable to hold on thanks to the Tigers’ high-powered offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson.
99: Plays Run by Clemson in the National Championship
Alabama’s defense was the best in college football this season, but the Crimson Tide spent a ton of time on the field in Monday night’s game. Clemson ran 99 plays against Alabama, which was the most this defense faced in 2016 – and it’s also a big reason why the Crimson Tide came up short.
941: Total Yards by Clemson QB Deshaun Watson In Games Against Alabama
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was the difference maker in Monday night’s victory. Over the last two seasons, Watson has accumulated 941 total yards and eight overall scores in national championship matchups against the Crimson Tide.
11: Touchdowns Scored by Alabama’s Defense in 2016
The Crimson Tide scored a total of 15 non-offensive touchdowns in 2016, with 11 coming on defense. Alabama scored on an interception return against Washington and nearly had a fumble return for a score against Clemson in the national title game.
1: Times Urban Meyer’s Teams Have Been Shutout on Offense
Ohio State’s offense was completely dominated in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson, as the Buckeyes managed only 215 total yards and were held scoreless. The shutout by the Tigers was the first time in Urban Meyer’s head coaching career his offense failed to score a point.
6,405: Donnel Pumphrey’s Career Rushing Yardage
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey rushed for 115 yards in the 34-10 win over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl, giving the senior the NCAA record for most career rushing yards (6,405) over Ron Dayne (6,397).
5,285: Career Receiving Yardage by WMU WR Corey Davis
Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis finished his career with 5,285 receiving yards, which is the most in FBS history.
196.4: Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield Sets New NCAA Mark for Efficiency
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield capped a standout 2016 season with a stellar performance against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Mayfield finished 2016 with an efficiency mark of 196.4, which sets a new NCAA record (previously held by Russell Wilson 191.8).
111: Combined Points by Colorado State and Idaho in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
The Rams and Vandals combined for 111 points in chilly Boise, Idaho on Dec. 22, which was the third highest total in bowl history. These two teams also combined for 1,206 total yards.
1: Tulsa Sets FBS Record
Tulsa became the first team in FBS history to have a 3,000-yard passer, 2 1,000-yard rushers and 2 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
0: Punts by Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl
The Golden Hurricane were firing on all cylinders in the 55-10 win over Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl. Coach Philip Montgomery’s offense averaged 6.8 yards play (581 total) and never punted over 11 possessions.
30: Points by Florida State and Michigan in the Fourth Quarter
The Orange Bowl matchup between Florida State and Michigan was one of the better matchups from the postseason. The Seminoles and Wolverines combined for 30 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning touchdown by Florida State with less than 40 seconds to go.
9: Completions by Florida State QB Deondre Francois in Orange Bowl
Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois capped a standout season with a unique performance in the Orange Bowl. Francois only connected on 9 of 27 passes but averaged a whopping 24.7 yards per completion.
186: Total Yards by Louisville QB Lamar Jackson in Citrus Bowl
LSU’s defense limited Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson to just 186 total yards in the Tigers 29-9 victory over the Cardinals. The 186 total yards were the fewest in a game by Jackson in 2016.
35-0: Virginia Tech’s Second-Half Run Beats Arkansas
After falling behind 24-0 in the first half, Virginia Tech was a completely different team after halftime in the Belk Bowl. The Hokies scored 35 unanswered points to defeat the Razorbacks 35-24.
473: USC QB Sam Darnold Sets New Rose Bowl Record for Total Yards
In USC’s thrilling 52-49 victory over Penn State, quarterback Sam Darnold set a new Rose Bowl record with 473 total yards. The 473 mark broke the previous record set by Texas quarterback Vince Young.
5-0: Kansas State’s Record Against Teams from Texas in 2016
Kansas State quietly finished 9-4 and ended the season on a four-game winning streak after defeating Texas A&M 33-28 in the Texas Bowl. The victory over the Aggies gave the Wildcats five victories over teams from Texas in 2016.
2-1: Interim Coaches in Bowl Games
The 2016-17 bowl season had three teams guided by interim coaches. T.J. Weist of USF and Nick Holt of WKU guided their programs to wins, while Ed Foley from Temple came up short in the Military Bowl against Wake Forest.
40+: WKU’s Scoring Average in Each of the Last Three Seasons
WKU is the only team in the nation to finish each of the last three seasons with a scoring average of more than 40 points.
51.8: Average Length of Maryland’s TDs Against Boston College
Maryland scored four touchdowns in a 36-30 loss against Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26. The Terrapins averaged a healthy 51.8 yards on their four scores.
33: Career Sacks by Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
Barnett passed Reggie White in the Tennessee record books for the most career sacks in the win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl. Barnett recorded one sack against the Cornhuskers, which gave the junior 33 for his career.
4.1: Yards Per Play by Washington State Against Minnesota in Holiday Bowl
Washington State’s high-powered offense never got on track in the Holiday Bowl loss to Minnesota. The Cougars averaged just 4.1 yards per play and was limited to 264 yards by the Golden Gophers.
-20: Rushing Yards by Temple Against Wake Forest in Military Bowl
Counting yards lost by sacks, Temple’s ground game notched minus-20 yards on 23 attempts against Wake Forest in the Military Bowl. The Owls entered the postseason averaging nearly 200 rushing yards per game (191.2).
15: Tackles for a Loss by Florida State Against Michigan
Florida State’s defense won the battle up front against Michigan in its Orange Bowl win, recording 15 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
26: Combined Penalties by UCF and Arkansas State in Cure Bowl
Arkansas State and UCF kept the referees busy in the Cure Bowl. These two teams combined for 26 penalties in the Red Wolves 31-13 victory.
46: Rushing TDs by Army in 2016
The Black Knights set a school record by posting 46 rushing touchdowns in 2016. The 46 scores broke the record by the 1945 team (45).
9.1: Yards Averaged by Colorado State in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Usually, teams that average 9.1 yards per play don’t come out on the losing end of a game. However, that was the case in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Despite averaging 9.1 yards per play and scoring 50 points, the Rams fell 61-50 to Idaho on Dec. 22.
24-20: ODU Beats Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl
ODU capped an outstanding season with the program’s first bowl victory in the Bahamas. The Monarchs defeated Eastern Michigan 24-20 to earn win No. 10 in 2016.
5: Carries by Ohio State RB Mike Weber Against Clemson
Ohio State’s offense was completely dominated by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, but the usage – or lack thereof – for Weber was puzzling. The standout redshirt freshman only had five carries against the Tigers after rushing for over 1,000 yards in the regular season.
10-1: Utah’s Record in Bowl Game Under Kyle Whittingham
Thanks to Utah’s 26-24 victory over Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl, the Utes improved to 10-1 under coach Kyle Whittingham in postseason matchups.
4: Seasons of 1,000 Rushing Yards by Appalachian State RB Marcus Cox
Thanks to 143 yards on 22 attempts in the Camellia Bowl win over Toledo, Appalachian State running back Marcus Cox reached 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth season in a row.
8: Sacks Recorded by Boston College Against Maryland
Boston College’s defense dominated the line of scrimmage in the Quick Lane Bowl against Maryland. The Eagles recorded eight sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and one interception.
362: Combined Receiving Yards by Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor
Louisiana Tech’s dynamic receiving duo of Carlos Henderson (129) and Trent Taylor (233) combined for 362 yards in the Armed Forces Bowl win over Navy.
9: Completed Passes by Stanford in Sun Bowl
Stanford quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst combined for just nine completions in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina. However, the lack of a passing game worked out just fine for the Cardinal, as Bryce Love led a backfield that rushed for 129 yards and the defense made enough stops to secure the victory.
229: Yards by West Virginia in Russell Athletic Bowl
West Virginia’s offense was limited to just 229 yards in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Miami. The 229-yard mark is the first time the Mountaineers have been held under 300 yards since 2013.
Other Interesting Statistics
Baylor receiver KD Cannon set a Cactus Bowl record by posting 226 receiving yards in the win over Boise State.
Toledo running back Kareem Hunt rushed for 120 yards against Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl, which gave him 4,945 for his career. That’s a new Toledo school record.
South Alabama recorded 313 total yards against Air Force. However, 163 of that yardage came on three plays.
Tennessee has claimed three straight bowl victories for the first time since 1994-96.
Washington recorded 64 yards on its second drive of the game against Alabama. However, it managed only 130 yards on 13 other drives.
LSU recorded 10 tackles for a loss and eight sacks in the Citrus Bowl win over Louisville.
Iowa recorded 226 yards in its Outback Bowl loss to Florida. The Hawkeyes posted 124 of that yardage on two drives.
TCU finished 6-7 in 2016. The 6-7 mark is just the third losing season under coach Gary Patterson.
Louisiana Tech finished the 2016 season by scoring points in all 14 games on the opening possession.
San Diego State recorded four interceptions and posted seven sacks of Houston quarterback Greg Ward. The Aztecs are also the first team in FBS history to have a 2,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same backfield.
WKU receiver Taywan Taylor finished the season by catching a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games.
For the first time since 1981, the Clemson Tigers are the champions of college football. An epic victory in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against previously unbeaten Alabama has put Clemson firmly on top of the college football world, and justifiably so. But where do these Tigers rank compared to past national champions?
For the purposes of this updated ranking of top national championship teams, we will go back to the start of the BCS Championship Era in 1998 and roll right on up to the third season of the College Football Playoff. Here is how the champs stack up.
Note: Opponent’s ranking at time in parentheses
1. Miami, 2001 (12-0, 7-0 Big East)
Head Coach: Larry Coker
Since the dawn of the BCS Era, few teams have carried the amount of NFL talent on one roster the way the 2001 Miami Hurricanes did. Larry Coker stepped in as head coach following Butch Davis’ departure for the NFL, and he took over a program as locked and loaded that any coach would dream of running. The season started off with a dominating victory over Penn State, which set the tone for the championship run. Miami ripped through Florida State, avoided a letdown against Boston College and nipped Virginia Tech while blitzing through the rest of the schedule, which included victories against four top-15 teams before the BCS National Championship Game. Nebraska wiggled its way into the national championship game but was clearly out of its league against Miami in the Rose Bowl. Miami’s 37-14 victory over the Cornhuskers capped an undefeated season for the best national championship team of the era.
Sept. 1: Miami 33, Penn State 7
Sept. 8: Miami 61, Rutgers 0
Sept. 27: Miami 43, Pitt 21
Oct. 6: Miami 38, Troy 7
Oct. 13: Miami 49, (14) Florida State 27
Oct. 25: Miami 45, West Virginia 3
Nov. 3: Miami 38, Temple 0
Nov. 10: Miami 18, Boston College 7
Nov. 17: Miami 59, (14) Syracuse 0
Nov. 24: Miami 65, (12) Washington 7
Dec. 1: Miami 26, (14) Virginia Tech 24
Jan. 3: Miami 37, (4) Nebraska 14
2. USC, 2004 (13-0, 8-0 Pac-10)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll
The Trojans had to settle for the rare split national title during the BCS years in 2003, but left no doubt about who the top team was in ’04. USC started the season as the No. 1 team in the country and never lost a grip on the top spot in the poll, picked up a Heisman Trophy season from quarterback Matt Leinart and saw the running duo of Reggie Bush and LenDale White give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares all season long. In all, this USC team, which destroyed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, saw 18 players get selected in either the first or second round of the NFL Draft and was absolutely loaded on offense, is arguably one of college football’s best in decades.
Aug. 28: USC 24, Virginia Tech 13
Sept. 11: USC 49, Colorado State 0
Sept. 18: USC 42, BYU 10
Sept. 25: USC 31, Stanford 28
Oct: 9: USC 23, (7) Cal 17
Oct. 16: USC 45, (15) Arizona State 7
Oct. 23: USC 38, Washington 0
Oct. 30: USC 42, Washington State 12
Nov. 6: USC 28, Oregon State 20
Nov. 13: USC 49, Arizona 9
Nov. 27: USC 41, Notre Dame 10
Dec. 4: USC 29, UCLA 24
Jan. 4: USC 55, Oklahoma 19
3. Texas, 2005 (13-0, 8-0 Big 12)
Head Coach: Mack Brown
The 2005 season saw No. 1 USC and No. 2 Texas on a season-long collision course for the national championship. The two remained in the top two spots of the poll all season long, setting up the game for the ages in the Rose Bowl for the BCS National Championship. But before Texas could let Vince Young turn in a game legends are made of, the Longhorns first had to get through the regular season. An early victory over No. 4 Ohio State was later followed up with blowout wins over Oklahoma, No. 10 Texas Tech and rival Texas A&M before tearing up Colorado, 70-3, in the Big 12 Championship Game. In the national title clash with defending champion USC, Young did it all in leading Texas to the victory. This Texas team had four consensus All-Americans and went on to send 24 players through the NFL Draft, while beating perhaps the best team to not win a national title since 1998.
Sept. 3: Texas 60, ULL 3
Sept. 10: Texas 25, (4) Ohio State 22
Sept. 17: Texas 51, Rice 10
Oct. 1: Texas 51, Missouri 20
Oct. 8: Texas 45, Oklahoma. 12
Oct. 15: Texas 42, (24) Colorado 17
Oct. 22: Texas 52, (10) Texas Tech 17
Oct. 29: Texas 47, Oklahoma State 28
Nov. 5: Texas 62, Baylor 0
Nov. 12: Texas 66, Kansas 14
Nov. 25: Texas 40, Texas A&M 29
Dec. 3: Texas 70, Colorado 3
Jan. 4: Texas 41, (1) USC 38
4. Florida State, 2013 (14-0, 8-0 ACC)
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher
We are not so far removed from watching Florida State be the dominant force in college football. Jimbo Fisher’s best team since succeeding Bobby Bowden brought the Seminoles back to the national championship discussion with a dominant start to the year. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston got things started by jumping head first into the Heisman Trophy discussion after his debut performance on a Monday night at Pittsburgh, and it was off to the races from there. Florida State’s offense was filthy. The Florida State defense was nasty, holding opponents to 14 points or fewer 11 times before facing Duke in the ACC Championship Game. A win in Charlotte sent Florida State’s juggernaut squad off to Pasadena for a matchup with SEC champion Auburn. A 34-31 come-from-behind victory over the SEC champs (FSU was down 18 points at one point) provided the validation needed for Florida State’s perfect season and snapped the SEC’s winning streak in the BCS title game.
Sept 2: Florida State 41, Pitt 13
Sept. 14: Florida State 62, Nevada 7
Sept. 21: Florida State 54, Bethune-Cookman 6
Sept. 28: Florida State 48, Boston College 34
Oct. 5: Florida State 63, (25) Maryland 0
Oct. 19: Florida State 51, (3) Clemson 14
Oct. 26: Florida State 49, NC State 17
Nov. 2: Florida State 41, (7) Miami 14
Nov. 9: Florida State 59, Wake Forest 3
Nov. 16: Florida State 59, Syracuse 3
Nov. 23: Florida State 80, Idaho 14
Nov. 30: Florida State 37, Florida 7
Dec. 7: Florida State 45, (20) Duke 7
Jan. 6: Florida State 34, (2) Auburn 31
5. Alabama, 2009 (14-0, 8-0 SEC)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Nick Saban was hired by Alabama to win and win big. It did not take long to deliver on that expectation. With Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram (the first Heisman winner in Alabama history) and steady Greg McElroy at quarterback, Alabama had the makings of a reliable offense, but it was Alabama’s defense that took the Crimson Tide to the next level. Alabama held three ranked SEC teams to fewer than 16 points on the way to Atlanta for a showdown with Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and the No. 1 Florida Gators. This one was no match as Alabama squashed the Gators, 32-13, to advance to the national championship game, where it took out Texas quarterback Colt McCoy early on and never gave the Longhorns much of a chance. Alabama ended up sending 11 players through the first round of the NFL Draft in the years that followed.
Sept. 5: Alabama 34, (7) Virginia Tech 24
Sept. 12: Alabama 40, FIU 14
Sept. 19: Alabama 53, North Texas 7
Sept. 26: Alabama 35, Arkansas 7
Oct. 3: Alabama 38, Kentucky 20
Oct. 10: Alabama 22, (20) Ole Miss 3
Oct. 17: Alabama 20, (22) South Carolina 6
Oct. 24: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
Nov. 7: Alabama 24, (9) LSU 15
Nov. 14: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 3
Nov. 21: Alabama 45, UT-Chattanooga 0
Nov. 27: Alabama 26, Auburn 21
Dec. 5: Alabama 32, (1) Florida 13
Jan. 7: Alabama 37, (2) Texas 21
6. Florida, 2008 (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Florida jumped out to a nice 3-0 start in 2008 with big victories over Hawaii, Miami and Tennessee, but Ole Miss stunned the Gators in the swamp in the fourth game of the season. From that point on, Florida was unbeatable. With Tim Tebow energizing the team with his leadership, Florida went on a tear with a decisive victory over Arkansas, a 30-point blowout of No. 4 LSU, a 39-point win over No. 10 Georgia, 50-point victory over No. 24 South Carolina, a 30-point thumping of No. 23 Florida State and then an 11-point triumph over No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Against No. 2 Oklahoma, Florida pulled away for a 24-14 victory to wrap up the national title.
Aug. 30: Florida 56, Hawaii 10
Sept. 6: Florida 26, Miami 3
Sept. 20: Florida 30, Tennessee 6
Sept. 27: Ole Miss 31, Florida 30
Oct. 4: Florida 38, Arkansas 7
Oct. 11: Florida 51, (4) LSU 21
Oct. 25: Florida 63, Kentucky 5
Nov. 1: Florida 49, (8) Georgia 10
Nov. 8: Florida 42, Vanderbilt 14
Nov. 15: Florida 56, (24) South Carolina 6
Nov. 22: Florida 70, The Citadel 19
Nov. 29: Florida 45, (23) Florida State 15
Dec. 6: Florida 31, (1) Alabama 20
Jan. 8: Florida 24, (2) Oklahoma 14
7. Tennessee, 1998 (13-0, 8-0 SEC)
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer
The first national champion of the BCS Era came one year after Peyton Manning moved on to bigger and better things in the NFL. Tee Martin took over as quarterback and Phillip Fulmer had plenty of talent around Martin to put together a strong season with a strong backfield with Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis and Peerless Price catching passes. The Vols’ defense held nine opponents to 18 points or fewer while racking up five wins against top 25 teams, including a confidence-boosting 20-17 victory over Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators. Paired up against Florida State in the BCS Championship Game, the Vols came out on top with a 23-16 win in the first BCS National Championship Game.
Sept. 5: Tennessee 34, (17) Syracuse 33
Sept. 19: Tennessee 20, (2) Florida 17
Sept. 26: Tennessee 42, Houston 7
Oct. 3: Tennessee 17, Auburn 9
Oct. 10: Tennessee 22, (7) Georgia 3
Oct. 24: Tennessee 35, Alabama 18
Oct. 31: Tennessee 49, South Carolina 14
Nov. 7: Tennessee 37, UAB 13
Nov. 14: Tennessee 28, (10) Arkansas 24
Nov. 21: Tennessee 59, Kentucky 21
Nov. 28: Tennessee 41, Vanderbilt 0
Dec. 5: Tennessee 24, (23) Mississippi State 14
Jan. 4: Tennessee 23, (2) Florida State 16
8. Alabama, 2011 (12-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Alabama took care of business left and right, whipping aside ranked opponents at ease – 27-11 vs. No. 23 Penn State, 38-14 vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 38-10 vs. No. 12 Florida – to remain on a collision course with division foe LSU. The much hyped Game of the Century between the top two teams in the country turned into a field goal extravaganza with Alabama coming up short, 9-6, in overtime in November. Little did we know at the time, these two teams would get a rare rematch in the BCS Championship Game despite Alabama not winning or playing for the SEC championship. Alabama, with a roster featuring nine first-round NFL Draft picks, would score their revenge in a big way by completely mastering LSU and keeping the Tigers from crossing the 50-yard line until the second half. This may have been Saban’s best defense.
Sept. 3: Alabama 48, Kent State 7
Sept. 10: Alabama 27, (23) Penn State 11
Sept. 17: Alabama 41, North Texas 0
Sept. 24: Alabama 38, (14) Arkansas 14
Oct. 1: Alabama 38, (12) Florida 10
Oct. 8: Alabama 34, Vanderbilt 0
Oct. 15: Alabama 52, Ole Miss 7
Oct. 22: Alabama 37, Tennessee 6
Nov. 5: (1) LSU 9, Alabama 6
Nov. 12: Alabama 24, Mississippi State 7
Nov. 19: Alabama 45, Georgia Southern 21
Nov. 26: Alabama 42, Auburn 14
Jan. 9: Alabama 21, (1) LSU 0
9. Oklahoma, 2000 (13-0, 8-0 Big 12)
Head Coach: Bob Stoops
The revival of Oklahoma football hit full force in 2000 when the Sooners showed off a fully equipped offense with quarterback Josh Heupel and defense early on and scored major victories in October. Oklahoma’s key three-game stretch with wins over No. 11 Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 Nebraska came by a combined score of 135-59. The Sooners later handed Kansas State another loss in the Big 12 Championship Game to clinch a spot in the BCS Championship Game against Florida State. Stoops’ defense shut down a potent FSU offense and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and scored a 13-2 victory for the national championship.
Sept. 2: Oklahoma 55, UTEP 14
Sept. 9: Oklahoma 45, Arkansas State 7
Sept. 23: Oklahoma 42, Rice 17
Sept. 30: Oklahoma 34, Kansas 16
Oct. 7: Oklahoma 63, (11) Texas 14
Oct. 14: Oklahoma 41, (2) Kansas State 31
Oct. 28: Oklahoma 31, (3) Nebraska 14
Nov. 4: Oklahoma 56, Baylor 7
Nov. 11: Oklahoma 35, (23) Texas A&M 31
Nov. 18: Oklahoma 27, Texas Tech 13
Nov. 25: Oklahoma 12, Oklahoma State 7
Dec. 2: Oklahoma 27, (8) Kansas State 24
Jan. 3: Oklahoma 13, (3) Florida State 2
10. Florida State, 1999 (12-0, 8-0 ACC)
Head Coach: Bobby Bowden
With Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick on offense, few teams could handle Florida State’s offense. The Seminoles scored 40 points or more in each of their first five games, which included victories over No. 10 Georgia Tech and No. 20 NC State. A 31-21 victory over No. 19 Miami helped push Florida State on its championship drive, and a season-ending victory over No. 4 Florida locked Bobby Bowden’s squad into the championship game, where it managed to outlast Virginia Tech quarterback Mike Vick in the Sugar Bowl for a 46-29 victory. This was Bowden’s second national championship team.
Aug. 28: Florida State 41, Louisiana Tech 7
Sept. 11: Florida State 41, (10) Georgia Tech 35
Sept. 18: Florida State 42, (20) NC State 11
Sept. 25: Florida State 42, North Carolina 10
Oct. 2: Florida State 51, Duke 23
Oct. 9: Florida State 31, (19) Miami 21
Oct. 16: Florida State 33, Wake Forest 10
Oct. 23: Florida State 17, Clemson 10
Oct. 30: Florida State 35, Virginia 10
Nov. 13: Florida State 49, Maryland 10
Nov. 20: Florida State 30, (4) Florida 20
Jan. 4: Florida State 46, (2) Virginia Tech 29
11. Clemson, 2016 (14-1, 7-1 ACC)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
A year after coming so close to a perfect 15-0 record and ending a championship drought, Clemson rebounded to get back to the championship stage in the 2016 season and take down the Alabama team that blocked them a year ago. In the ultimate revenge game, Deshaun Watson came alive in the second half and the Tigers dug out of a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to stun the defending champions on a last-second touchdown to Hunter Renfrow. Clemson also took down the season's Heisman Trophy winner (Lamar Jackson and No. 3 Louisville) to gain an edge in the ACC Atlantic Division, clipped No. 12 Florida State in Tallahassee by a field goal, held off No. 19 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game and shutout and demolished a one-loss No. 2 Ohio State, 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal game of the College Football Playoff. To top it all off, they put on a game for the ages against top-ranked Alabama as Dabo Swinney became the only active FBS head coach to own wins over each of his peers with a national championship ring already (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Bob Stoops).
Sept. 3: Clemson 19, Auburn 13
Sept. 10: Clemson 30, Troy 24
Sept. 17: Clemson 59, South Carolina State 0
Sept. 22: Clemson 26, Georgia Tech 7
Oct. 1: Clemson 42, (3) Louisville 36
Oct. 7: Clemson 56, Boston College 10
Oct. 15: Clemson 24, NC State 17 (OT)
Oct. 29: Clemson 37, (12) Florida State 34
Nov. 5: Clemson 54, Syracuse 0
Nov. 12: Pitt 43, Clemson 42
Nov. 19: Clemson 35, Wake Forest 13
Nov. 26: Clemson 56, South Carolina 7
Dec. 3: Clemson 42, (23) Virginia Tech 35
Dec. 31: Clemson 31, (3) Ohio State 0
Jan. 9: Clemson 35, (1) Alabama 31
12. Alabama, 2012 (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Coming off a national championship season with a loaded roster once again, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide set the tone right out of the gate with a complete dismantling of No. 8 Michigan, 41-14, in Arlington. That was followed by two straight shutouts, including a 52-0 blasting of Arkansas. Everything was running smoothly for Alabama until a November afternoon when SEC newcomer Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel scored a wild upset in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama was one play away from avoiding the upset. Alabama remained in the national title hunt though and snuck back into the BCS Championship Game where it dominated and overpowered undefeated top-ranked Notre Dame, 42-14.
Sept. 1: Alabama 41, (8) Michigan 14
Sept. 8: Alabama 35, Western Kentucky 0
Sept. 15: Alabama 52, Arkansas 0
Sept. 22: Alabama 40, FAU 7
Sept. 29: Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14
Oct. 13: Alabama 42, Missouri 10
Oct. 20: Alabama 44, Tennessee 13
Oct. 27: Alabama 38, (13) Mississippi State 7
Nov. 3: Alabama 21, LSU 17
Nov. 10: (15) Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24
Nov. 17: Alabama 49, Western Carolina 0
Nov. 24: Alabama 49, Auburn 0
Dec. 1: Alabama 32, (3) Georgia 28
Jan. 7: Alabama 42, (1) Notre Dame 14
13. LSU, 2003 (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Before Nick Saban arrived on the scene to return Alabama to its place among college football’s elite, Saban’s first job in the SEC ended with a bang. In 2003, Saban’s LSU Tigers led the nation in defense and allowed just 11 points per game. With Joseph Addai running the football and a steady passing attack, the Tigers made their case for the rightful title of national champion with victories over four ranked teams in SEC play and a BCS championship victory over Oklahoma. LSU settled for a share of the national title after the AP gave USC its No. 1 spot, but nobody in Baton Rouge is complaining.
Aug. 30: LSU 49, UL Monroe 7
Sept. 6: LSU 59, Arizona 13
Sept. 13: LSU 35, Western Illinois 7
Sept. 20: LSU 17, (7) Georgia 10
Sept. 27: LSU 41, Mississippi State 6
Oct. 11: Florida 19, LSU 7
Oct. 18: LSU 33, South Carolina 7
Oct. 25: LSU 31, (17) Auburn 7
Nov. 1: LSU 49, Louisiana Tech 10
Nov. 15: LSU 27, Alabama 3
Nov. 22: LSU 17, (15) Ole Miss 14
Nov. 28: LSU 55, Arkansas 24
Dec. 6: LSU 34, (5) Georgia 13
Jan. 4: LSU 21, (3) Oklahoma 14
14. Auburn, 2010 (14-0, 8-0 SEC)
Head Coach: Gene Chizik
Auburn’s national championship run may have been a flash in the pan, but it was an incredible flash in the pan. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton towered over the competition and was unbeatable and unflappable, but he was not alone. Auburn was loaded on defense, led by Nick Fairley. Teams could score on Auburn’s defense, but the Tiger offense was ticking with Newton’s Heisman run. The highest-scoring Auburn team in school history put 65 points on No. 12 Arkansas and rallied from a deep hole in the Iron Bowl against Alabama before dropping 56 points on No. 18 South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn capped the 2010 season with a BCS Championship win over Chip Kelly and Oregon thanks in large part to Michael Dyer managing to defy gravity to keep a run alive.
Sept. 4: Auburn 52, Arkansas State 26
Sept. 9: Auburn 17, Mississippi State 14
Sept. 18: Auburn 27, Clemson 24
Sept. 25: Auburn 35, (12) South Carolina 27
Oct. 2: Auburn 52, UL Monroe 3
Oct. 9: Auburn 37, Kentucky 34
Oct. 16: Auburn 65, (12) Arkansas 43
Oct. 23: Auburn 24, (6) LSU 17
Oct. 30: Auburn 51, Ole Miss 31
Nov. 6: Auburn 62, UT-Chattanooga 24
Nov. 13: Auburn 28, (9) Alabama 27
Dec. 4: Auburn 56, (18) South Carolina 17
Jan. 10: Auburn 22, (2) Oregon 19
15. Ohio State, 2002 (14-0, 8-0 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Jim Tressel
Today Ohio State is regularly in the national title mix, but it was not always that way. Jim Tressel changed the way we view Ohio State starting with the 2002 season. Fueled by freshman running back Maurice Clarett and a particularly strong defense, the Buckeyes rolled through their regular season schedule, which was highlighted along the way by a 25-7 victory over No. 10 Washington State, a 13-7 victory over No. 17 Penn State, a 34-3 win over No. 19 Minnesota and a 14-9 victory over No. 12 Michigan. That helped place Ohio State in the role of underdog against the defending national champions, the supremely talented No. 1 Miami Hurricanes, in a classic Fiesta Bowl overtime thriller. The game was not without controversy of course with a pass-interference call against the Hurricanes that is still intensely debated to this day, but Ohio State claimed the only BCS title by a Big Ten team nonetheless. This Ohio State team sent 14 players through the 2004 NFL Draft, in addition to five each in ’03 and ’05.
Aug. 24: Ohio State 45, Texas Tech 21
Sept. 7: Ohio State 51, Kent State 17
Sept. 14: Ohio State 25, (10) Washington State 7
Sept. 21: Ohio State 23, Cincinnati 19
Sept. 28: Ohio State 45, Indiana 17
Oct. 5: Ohio State 27, Northwestern 16
Oct. 12: Ohio State 50, San Jose State 7
Oct. 19: Ohio State 19, Wisconsin 14
Oct. 26: Ohio State 13, (17) Penn State 7
Nov. 2: Ohio State 34, (19) Minnesota 3
Nov. 9: Ohio State 10, Purdue 6
Nov. 16: Ohio State 23, Illinois 16
Nov. 23: Ohio State 14, (12) Michigan 9
Jan. 3: Ohio State 31, (1) Miami 24
16. Ohio State, 2014 (14-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Ohio State’s most recent national championship managed to defy plenty of odds and naysayers. Of course, this also was the expectation when Ohio State hired Urban Meyer. After getting through a brief postseason ban and missing out on a Big Ten title the previous season, Meyer’s Buckeyes in 2014 were supposed to be one year away from competing for a national title. The preseason loss of Braxton Miller meant Ohio State had to work with a backup QB in J.T. Barrett for the majority of the season, and that inexperience may have cost Ohio State early on with a home loss to Virginia Tech. After the loss though, the Buckeyes went on a roll and scored their biggest wins at the perfect time. A 49-37 victory over No. 7 Michigan State thrust the Buckeyes back in the national title chase and a 59-0 blowout of No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game with Ezekiel Elliott and third-string QB Cardale Jones leading the way gave the Big Ten champs enough of a push to sneak past co-Big 12 champions Baylor and TCU for the fourth and final College Football Playoff spot. Ohio State then took out SEC champion Alabama and Nick Saban in the Sugar Bowl and pulled away from Pac-12 champion Oregon and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota to lay claim to the first College Football Playoff national championship.
Aug. 30: Ohio State 34, Navy 17
Sept. 6: Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21
Sept. 13: Ohio State 66, Kent State 0
Sept. 27: Ohio State 50, Cincinnati 28
Oct. 4: Ohio State 52, Maryland 24
Oct. 18: Ohio State 56, Rutgers 17
Oct. 25: Ohio State 31, Penn State 24 (2OT)
Nov. 1: Ohio State 55, Illinois 14
Nov. 8: Ohio State 49, (7) Michigan State 37
Nov. 15: Ohio State 31, Minnesota 24
Nov. 22: Ohio State 42, Indiana 27
Nov. 29: Ohio State 42, Michigan 28
Dec. 6: Ohio State 59, (11) Wisconsin 0
Jan. 1: Ohio State 42, (1) Alabama 35
Jan. 12: Ohio State 42 (2) Oregon 20
17. Alabama, 2015 (14-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
The 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide grew from a losing experience the previous two seasons. Two years ago Alabama had been trounced by Oklahoma and in the first year of the College Football Playoff top-seeded Alabama was taken out by a red-hot Ohio State. In 2015, Alabama finished the job it could not do either of the previous two seasons. Despite an early loss to Ole Miss, Alabama used the best offensive line in the country to protect Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and let the nation’s best front seven handle business on defense. Alabama racked up a big season-opening win against No. 20 Wisconsin in Arlington (35-17), destroyed No. 8 Georgia in Athens (38-10) and dismantled No. 4 LSU and derailed Leonard Fournette’s Heisman campaign while laying the final pieces of the track for Henry’s run. This time the Playoff would see a different ending with a complete manhandling of Big Ten champion Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl (38-0) and a thrilling 45-40 victory over No. 1 and previously unbeaten Clemson despite a performance for the ages from Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson. This win saw Nick Saban call a perfectly timed and executed onside kick to help seize the momentum and his Crimson Tide charges showed the ability to break big plays in the clutch to grab Saban’s fourth national title in seven years at Alabama. Saban is responsible for five of the national titles on this list.
Sept. 5: Alabama 35, (20) Wisconsin 17
Sept. 12: Alabama 37, Middle Tennessee 10
Sept. 19: (15) Ole Miss 43, Alabama 37
Sept. 26: Alabama 34, UL Monroe 0
Oct. 3: Alabama 38, (8) Georgia 10
Oct. 10: Alabama 27, Arkansas 14
Oct. 17: Alabama 41, (9) Texas A&M 23
Oct. 24: Alabama 19, Tennessee 14
Nov. 7: Alabama 30, (4) LSU 16
Nov. 14: Alabama 31, (20) Mississippi State 6
Nov. 21: Alabama 56, Charleston Southern 6
Nov. 28: Alabama 29, Auburn 13
Dec. 5: Alabama 29, (18) Florida 15
Dec. 31: Alabama 38, (3) Michigan State 0
Jan. 11: Alabama 45, (1) Clemson 40
18. Florida, 2006 (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
The rise of the Tim Tebow hype train hit its stride in 2006, but the Gators had more to offer than just Tebow. Florida’s stacked defense with Derrick Harvey, Reggie Nelson and Jarvis Moss set the tone every time the Gators stepped on the field. The Gators were tripped up once during the regular season, by Auburn, but Florida scored victories over ranked Tennessee, LSU and Georgia to remain in the hunt for a national title shot. A victory over Florida State followed by a 38-28 win against No. 8 Arkansas placed Florida in the BCS Championship Game as a significant underdog against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the Gators’ defense treated Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith like a rag doll, sacking him five times and limiting him to just 35 yards through the air.
Sept. 2: Florida 34, Southern Miss 7
Sept. 9: Florida 42, UCF 0
Sept. 16: Florida 21, (13) Tennessee 20
Sept. 23: Florida 26, Kentucky 7
Sept. 30: Florida 28, Alabama 13
Oct. 7: Florida 23, (9) LSU 10
Oct. 14: (11) Auburn 27, Florida 17
Oct. 28: Florida 21, (25) Georgia 14
Nov. 4: Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19
Nov. 11: Florida 17, South Carolina 16
Nov. 18: Florida 62, Western Carolina 0
Nov. 25: Florida 21, Florida State 14
Dec. 2: Florida 38, (8) Arkansas 28
Jan. 8: Florida 41, (1) Ohio State 14
19. LSU Tigers, 2007 (12-2, 6-2 SEC)
Head Coach: Les Miles
The 2007 LSU Tigers were the only national champion since the start of the BCS era to win a national title with two losses, but LSU more than made up for it with an impressive list of victories. That included a 48-7 shelling of No. 9 Virginia Tech and victories over No. 14 South Carolina, No. 7 Florida, No. 19 Auburn and No. 18 Alabama. The only losses suffered by LSU each came in triple overtime, against Kentucky and Arkansas. LSU still managed to sneak into the BCS Championship Game following an SEC title game victory over No. 15 Tennessee as chaos captivated the college football world. Against No. 1 Ohio State, LSU quarterback Matt Flynn tossed four touchdowns and the defense shut down the Buckeyes enough for a 38-24 national championship victory for Les Miles.
Aug. 30: LSU 45, Mississippi State 0
Sept. 8: LSU 48, (9) Virginia Tech 7
Sept. 15: LSU 44, Middle Tennessee 0
Sept. 22: LSU 28, (14) South Carolina 16
Sept. 29: LSU 34, Tulane 9
Oct. 6: LSU 28, (7) Florida 24
Oct. 13: (18) Kentucky 43, LSU 37 (3 OT)
Oct. 20: LSU 30, (19) Auburn 24
Nov. 3: LSU 41, (18) Alabama 34
Nov. 10: LSU 58, Louisiana Tech 10
Nov. 17: LSU 41, Ole Miss 24
Nov. 23: Arkansas 50, LSU 48 (3 OT)
Dec. 1: LSU 21, (15) Tennessee 14
Jan. 7: LSU 38, (1) Ohio State 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)
The 2016 college football season concluded on Monday night in Tampa, Fla., as Clemson defeated Alabama 35-31 to take home the program’s first title since 1981. While the party in Death Valley won’t end anytime soon, plenty of other programs had seasons to remember in 2016.
With every game officially in the books, it’s time to take a look back at last year’s records and the win improvement or regression from all 128 teams in 2016. Colorado, Army, Eastern Michigan and Georgia Tech were just a few of the programs that improved their win total by six games this season. On the other side, Michigan State (minus-nine) and Marshall (minus-seven) were two of the teams that regressed the most in the win column.
College Football's Most Improved Teams from 2016
|Team||2015 Record||2016 Record||
|New Mexico State||3-9||3-9||0|
|San Diego State||11-3||11-3||0|
|San Jose State||6-7||4-8||-2|
Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship loss was not something Alabama fans are used to. A fan base that had grown so used to simply winning the big game experienced heartache for the first time on the big stage. And Nick Saban — who came in with a 5-0 record in national championship games — left with the look of a wounded football coach.
But make no mistake, Alabama will be back. Indeed, back and better than ever. The Crimson Tide return a proven star at quarterback in 2017 and the secondary will be loaded. The running backs will be a year better, and so will the young offensive line. Remember what Saban did after losing the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma at the end of the 2013 season? He adapted. That’s what the great ones do, and that’s what Saban will do this time around.
Here are a few key storylines to watch surrounding Alabama this offseason.
QB Jalen Hurts
RB Bo Scarbrough
RB Damien Harris
WR Calvin Ridley
WR ArDarius Stewart
OT Cam Robinson (may leave early for NFL)
OG Ross Pierschbacher
C Bradley Bozeman
OT Jonah Williams
WR Gehrig Dieter
OG Korren Kirven
TE O.J. Howard
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
DE Da’Shawn Hand
DT Da’Ron Payne
LB Rashaan Evans
DB Marlon Humphrey (may leave for NFL)
DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
DB Ronnie Harrison
DB Anthony Averett
DB Tony Brown
DE Jonathan Allen
DE Dalvin Tomlinson
LB Tim Williams
LB Ryan Anderson
LB Reuben Foster
P JK Scott
K Adam Griffith
PR Eddie Jackson
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
1. The Evolution of Alabama’s Offense
Of course, the main story regarding Alabama’s offense over the past couple weeks has been about Lane Kiffin leaving for Florida Atlantic. That certainly had an effect on the offense. Kiffin has a fantastic offensive mind. But new coordinator Steve Sarkisian really isn’t a step down. Some would argue he’s an upgrade. This is a guy who was a former head coach at USC (sound familiar?) and has a proven track record of developing quarterbacks. He already knows the Alabama offense and did a respectable job calling plays in the national championship game. Another offseason will only help Sarkisian as he gets to work with Jalen Hurts, who returns as the top quarterback in the SEC. Besides him, Alabama returns its top two running backs, two star receivers and a ton of depth on the offensive line. There’s a good chance this offense will evolve to become even better than it was in 2016.
2. Who’s Next in the Front Seven?
It can’t be dismissed that Alabama is losing an abundance of talent in the front seven this year. This will be the biggest question mark for the Crimson Tide heading into the 2017 season. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, who is maybe the best player in college football, and Dalvin Tomlinson, as well as linebackers Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster are all key departures. Not only will it hurt to lose that much talent, but it also hurts from a leadership and experience standpoint, as most of those guys are seniors. The good news for Alabama is that it has depth — the best depth in college football. Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand will be key pieces on the defensive line and Rashaan Evans returns at middle linebacker. The two-deep roster is still going to be stacked. It might just take a while to get everyone on the same page.
Alabama has been on top of the mountain for so long. It has been the gold standard in college football since 2009. But even the great ones fall from time to time. It’s not easy being the team that everyone is always chasing. Alabama has been defeated before — by Oklahoma, Ohio State and Ole Miss in recent memory — and now by Clemson. This one probably stings the most for the players because they lost a national championship game. But every time Alabama has fallen, it has gotten back up. The Crimson Tide are going to have a roster full of angry talent, hungry for redemption. Watch out, because that is going to make Alabama even more dangerous. There is no one better than Saban at getting the most out of his players. You can bet that he won’t let them forget the night they lost to Clemson.
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.
After two sensational years, Clemson reached the ultimate pinnacle with its 35-31 victory over Alabama in a classic championship game Monday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. At this moment, it is hard for anyone wearing Orange to think ahead to the fall.
But in the blink of an eye, it will be September and Clemson will be raising a banner in Memorial Stadium. The new champions will have many moving parts and here are some things to watch before they kick it off again on Sept. 2 versus Kent State.
OT Mitch Hyatt
OG Tyrone Crowder (could declare for the NFL Draft)
OT Jake Fruhmorgen (if he returns to the team)
OT Sean Pollard
OG Taylor Hearn
WR Deon Cain
WR Hunter Renfrow
WR Ray-Ray McCloud
RB Tavien Feaster
RB Adam Choice
RB C.J. Fuller
QB Deshaun Watson
RB Wayne Gallman
WR Artavis Scott (said after the game that he hasn't decided whether he will declare for the draft)
WR Mike Williams
TE Jordan Leggett
C Jay Guillermo
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
DE Christian Wilkins
DT Dexter Lawrence
DT Scott Pagano
DE Clelin Ferrell
DE Austin Bryant
MLB Kendall Joseph
LB Dorian O’Daniel
S Van Smith
CB Ryan Carter
DT Carlos Watkins
LB Ben Boulware
CB Cordrea Tankersley
S Jadar Johnson
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
1. Developing the Next Quarterback
There won’t be another Deshaun Watson, that’s obvious. Junior-to-be Kelly Bryant will enter spring practice at the top of the depth chart now that the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist is off to the NFL and backup Nick Schuessler is out of eligibility. Like Watson, Bryant is a dual-threat option and will be able to run the current Clemson system. But he has played sparingly in two years and will likely be challenged by Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper, and five-star recruit Hunter Johnson. Clearly, after three years of Tajh Boyd followed by three years of Watson, the next Tigers quarterback has some big shoes to fill.
2. Who is the Next Lockdown Corner?
The Tigers seamlessly moved from Mackensie Alexander to Cordrea Tankersley as the team’s top cornerback and the defense didn’t miss a beat. The 2017 Tiger defense will again be nasty, but just how nasty could hinge on finding another top corner. Ryan Carter came on the scene with a very strong junior season, but the true answer may be one of the younger Tigers. Many hoped sophomore Mark Fields would earn the starting spot opposite Tankersley in 2016. While that didn’t happen, he has been a valuable reserve and his time may come. Also, 6-foot-2, 185-pound Trayvon Mullen flashed some serious potential as a true freshman. This spring, Fields and Mullen will be put in a position to see if they can cover the best receiver on the other team.
3. Finding New Leaders
Not only is Clemson losing a great deal of talent, a good chunk of the team’s leadership will be moving on as well. Obviously, Watson was far more than just a skilled quarterback. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott (hasn't declared his draft intentions yet) guided the younger receivers over the past two years. And Jay Guillermo was the rock in the middle of a good offensive line. Carlos Watkins, Ben Boulware and Cordrea Tankersley were multiple-year starters that were inspirations for other Clemson defensive players. Dabo Swinney has lost leaders in the past and guys like Christian Wilkins, Kendall Joseph and Van Smith have played a lot of football and appear to be ready to take on a bigger role.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
TAMPA, Fla. — Agony and ecstasy are on polar ends of the spectrum but in the sport of college football, the two are never far from each other on every snap, every drive and every game. Few programs know that better than Clemson, whose long climb toward the mountain top in the sport has seen them come so close to the former, only to find heartbreaking ways to reach the latter.
On Monday night and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning though, the Tigers found themselves pinching each other amid the orange and purple confetti falling onto the field of Raymond James Stadium. No longer was the team coming up just short or writing an ending they would rather forget. No longer would they be muttering ‘What if?’
No longer, most importantly, would Clemson be stuck in that perpetual climb toward the mountain top. For the first time in 35 seasons, the Tigers were able to look around and find themselves atop the entire college football world holding the one thing that has eluded the program in recent years: a national title.
Clemson beat Alabama 35-31 in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, capping an unprecedented rematch of last year’s final two in as thrilling a fashion as the moment deserved.
“Eight years ago our goal was to work our tails off and eventually get Clemson back on top, and tonight that's a reality. It truly is,” head coach Dabo Swinney said, grinning ear-to-ear. “The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight. We saw the top of it last year, didn't get quite there. Tonight we took that next step. It was really the only thing we hadn't done in the last eight years, and we got it done.”
Getting it done is an understatement, as the Tigers inched and clawed their way down the field against Nick Saban’s undefeated Crimson Tide that would make them earn every yard. The defending champions had gotten the better of the two last year in the thrilling back-and-forth affair out in Glendale but this year the script was re-written in ways that were both predictable and unpredictable at the same time.
After three mostly meandering quarters of smash-mouth football between a pair of heavyweight defenses, things finally started to loosen up in the closing minutes of the fourth. Clemson had not led all game long before mounting a six-play, 88-yard drive that was nearly capped off by Offensive Player of the Game Deshaun Watson leaping into the end zone in a fashion that would have made Vince Young proud. The quarterback had stepped out at the one however, allowing veteran tailback Wayne Gallman to leap across the goal line for an improbable four-point lead against the nation’s best defense.
The Tide never seemed flustered nor overwhelmed by the moment despite a stagnant offense that was mostly contained aside from one big play to tight end O.J. Howard — the same player who tormented the Clemson defense a season ago. A timely trick play to Howard injected some life into the team at midfield and then freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts showed why he has a promising future by weaving through the defense on his way to a 30-yard score.
It was a familiar feeling that had hallmarks from last year’s title game and a scenario Saban no doubt would have taken: a three-point lead with 2:01 on the clock and his swarming defense loaded with NFL talent on the field to protect the lead.
That’s just what Watson wanted as well, embarking on a career-defining drive that covered 68 yards on nine plays to go into the history books as one of the great comebacks the sport has seen on its grandest stage. He fired darts all the way down the field to his deep stable of receivers before eventually finding the smallest player on the field in former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, who was wide open in the end zone after rubbing his man off Artavis Scott.
“I just flashed back from last year when they scored, and when we scored, and we were down five but we ran out of time. But I just smiled right when they scored. I saw the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew,” the quarterback said. “I just told my guys, hey, let's be legendary, let's go be great. I told myself, they left too much time on the clock. Last year they ran out the time, but this time they left us a little bit too much.
“I kind of smiled (on that last play), and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him.”
Swinney had often talked in the lead up to the game that this was a championship bout between college football’s heavyweights who have dominated the sport the past two seasons. The energetic coach never backed down from the challenge, of beating his alma mater where he won a ring 25 years ago or of topping the master himself in Saban (gunning for a fifth title over eight seasons in Tuscaloosa).
And after coming ever so close time after time, Swinney and his team finally delivered a knockout punch to finish standing with that championship trophy in the end.
“I was thinking on the bus ride over just how far we’ve come as a program to get to this stage,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, a former Tigers wideout himself and the son of another Clemson coach. “The day coach Swinney was promoted to interim head coach and he promoted me to receivers coach, I went home and told my wife that I was so excited and I saw on the ticker on ESPN that 0 of the last 29 interim coaches went on to get the full-time head coaching job. To go from that, to now, and winning a national championship is absolutely incredible.”
It’s a credit to Swinney as much as his players for never wavering in the goal of bringing home the title to a small town in South Carolina. As a walk-on with the Tide under Gene Stallings, nobody ever gave him much of a chance to succeed but he wound up playing key roles as a player and then later as a coach. Many thought he would be out the door once the season was over following the dismissal of Terry Bowden but he’s persevered to transform the once wayward program into one of the elites.
“I wish I could say that he’s changed or he’s different, but he hasn’t. That is what makes him special,” former signal-caller Tajh Boyd said in a joyous locker room after the game. “He’s a dreamer. But it’s not just the fact that he is a dreamer, it’s the fact that he has a plan. ‘This is what we’re going to do to get to the point we need to, this is how we’re going to do it, just trust me and we’ll get there.’ I trusted him and believed him and now they’re here.”
The Tigers were so close last season, and yet so far away from where they wanted to be. While they returned the bulk of the team that pushed the Tide to the brink and gathered all the accolades to begin the season, they were in dogfight after dogfight as the year went on. Clemson needed a missed field goal against NC State to survive one week, and needed a loss to Pitt to jumpstart it in the second half of the year.
In the end though, the Tigers caught fire and truly developed into the team they thought they could become.
“The theme of the playoffs was chasing greatness, right? That's what it was. And when I came to Clemson as an assistant, I truly saw the greatness and the potential of Clemson University,” said Swinney. “There was no upset tonight. That's the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win the game tonight I don't want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don't win the dadgum game. I don't want to hear one word about it. This is an expectation.”
An expectation that Swinney has had from the first day he stepped on campus and one he can finally say he’s delivered to the Clemson family.
Stat of the Week
Dabo Swinney joins Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher and Bob Stoops as the only active coaches to have won the national title. Swinney is 5-1 against that group the past two seasons, including a 3-0 run this year that includes wins over the four programs who have combined to win the past seven national championships.
Tweet of the Semifinals
Me. In a National Championship Game. I'm just waiting on that moment.— Deshaun Watson (@DeshaunWatson4) January 8, 2013
Superlatives of the Week
Title game’s best player: Deshaun Watson
Revised Heisman five: 1. Watson, 2. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 3. Jonathan Allen (Alabama), 4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 5. Sam Darnold (USC)
Team of the postseason: Clemson
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the postseason: Mike Leach, Washington State
Play of the Week
Hunter Renfrow welcome to history. https://t.co/opLhldYSza— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 10, 2017
I was a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll this season and voted on the best teams in the country every single week. This is my final ballot of the 2016 season.
5. Penn State
7. Florida State
8. Ohio State
11. Oklahoma State
12. Western Michigan
14. Virginia Tech
Best of the rest: South Florida, West Virginia, Colorado, Tulsa, Utah, Temple, San Diego State, Kansas State, Western Kentucky
My way too early Top 25 for 2017 after the national championship game, before National Signing Day, and without knowing every departure for the NFL Draft.
2. Ohio State
3. Florida State
5. Penn State
9. Oklahoma State
15. Kansas State
19. South Florida
20. Washington State
21. Boise State
23. Notre Dame
25. West Virginia
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)
Colin Cowherd is the king of hot takes. This one may have been a little too hot, even for him.
The FS1 commentator said a little bit ago that Clemson was a fraud and would get beat yet again by Alabama. Obviously he was wrong, and Dabo Swinney remembered just how wrong he was. After the Tigers' 35-31 win over the Crimson Tide, the colorful coach couldn't hold back.
It's hard not to like Dabo. Unless maybe you're Colin Cowherd. pic.twitter.com/P1Q5f3Csfc— jasmine (@JasmineLWatkins) January 10, 2017
Let your haters be your motivators.
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (Jan. 12-15) golf tournament: the 2017 Sony Open in Hawaii? Our fantasy-golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Justin Thomas ($10,500)
Thomas' last six finishes: T6, T8, 1, T23, T4, 1. If he were any hotter, his caddie would need an asbestos bib.
Jimmy Walker ($9,900)
The reigning PGA Champion won the Sony in 2014 and '15 and finished T13 last year. Just about the safest play on the board.
Brandt Snedeker ($9,700)
As you can see, we're suggesting that you front-load your roster this week. Sneds lost this event in a playoff last year and is coming off a solid showing at Kapalua.
Jerry Kelly ($6,800)
Kelly is old enough for the Champions Tour (he turned 50 in November), but don't let that dissuade you from a sneaky value pick. He has four top-15 finishes here in the last five years.
David Toms ($6,700)
Another Champions-eligible vet who can't be counted on for weekly consistency, Toms still shows game in brief bursts. He won the Sony in 2006 and finished T-2 in '09.
Ricky Barnes ($6,300)
Barnes opened with a 63 at the 2016 Sony before fading, and his four top 10s in 2016 marked his best showing since 2010.
INFO ON THE EVENT
When: Jan 12-15
What: Sony Open in Hawaii
Where: Waialae Golf Course in Honolulu, Hawaii
Par 70 (35-35); 7,044 yards
Defending Champion: Fabian Gomez
College football’s 2016-17 bowl season is officially over. Monday night's championship game featured a thriller between Alabama and Clemson, as the Tigers scored in the final seconds to knock off the Crimson Tide from the top spot. In addition to the national championship, the Rose Bowl between USC and Penn State and the Orange Bowl matchup with Florida State and Michigan were two of the better games this postseason. With all 41 postseason games in the books, it's time to take a look back at the bowl season and highlight some of the top performances. As expected, there were no shortage of standout performances from every position and some tough choices to make on all three sides of the ball.
The bowl season had several big-time performances from players at every position, but here are Athlon Sports' picks for the 2016-17 All-Bowl Team.
College Football's 2016-17 All-Bowl Team
Anthony Wales (RB)
Taylor Young (LB)
San Diego State
San Diego State
For the second year in a row, college football’s national championship game produced a thriller and a title game that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. However, this year’s version produced a new champion, as Clemson knocked off Alabama 35-31 to claim the program’s first national title since 1981. The epic battle between the Tigers and Crimson Tide is arguably one of the best championship games since the start of the BCS era, rivaling the Texas-USC showdown in the Rose Bowl after the 2005 season.
Clemson entered this game as a touchdown underdog and looked to be in trouble early after Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough scored twice to give the Crimson Tide a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. However, the Tigers battled back behind quarterback Deshaun Watson. An 87-yard drive midway through the second quarter produced a touchdown run by Watson, cutting the lead to 14-7 before halftime. These two teams went back-and-forth in the third quarter, which included a 68-yard strike from Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts to tight end O.J. Howard to give coach Nick Saban’s team a 24-14 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
Despite the 14-point deficit and a suffocating defense on the other side, Clemson continued to chip away behind Watson. A four-yard strike to Mike Williams cut the lead to 24-21 with 14 minutes remaining and another drive later in the quarter resulted in a Wayne Gallman one-yard plunge to give the Tigers a 28-24 lead. The final four minutes produced plenty of back-and-forth drama. A stagnant Alabama offense went 68 yards on six plays, with Hurts scoring on a 30-yard run to take a 31-28 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
However, while Alabama’s defense was the best in the nation in 2016, it just didn’t have enough at the end to slow down Watson or Williams in the clutch. The Tigers quickly moved 68 yards over nine plays, as Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining to give Clemson a 35-31 edge and the national championship.
After falling just short in Glendale, Ariz. last year, Dabo Swinney’s team had the right answers this time around. Clemson gashed the nation’s best defense for 511 overall yards and 99 snaps took a toll on the Crimson Tide’s depth on defense. Additionally, the Tigers went 4-for-4 on red zone trips, converted 7 of 18 third downs, allowed only three points off two turnovers and put the clamps on Alabama’s rushing attack after a rough start.
Clemson didn’t need a national championship to solidify its place among the nation’s best programs in recent years. However, this win only adds to the impressive resume Swinney has pieced together since taking over the job in 2008. The Tigers have won 28 games over the last two years and are bringing the title trophy back to Clemson after a victory in Tampa on Monday night.
What went wrong for Alabama? For a good chunk of the first half, everything was going in favor of the Crimson Tide. The ground attack was hitting on all cylinders behind Bo Scarbrough, and the defense wasn’t giving up big plays to Clemson’s offense. However, Alabama’s offense struggled to find consistency for most of the night, and the defense was simply too tired at the end after facing 99 plays. The Crimson Tide are in great shape to win it all in 2017, but this team was just a stop away from going back-to-back and claiming the program’s fifth national title under Saban.
CFB National Championship Awards
Offensive MVP: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Is there really any doubt? For the second year in a row, Watson was the best player on the field in the national championship game. The junior completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three scores and added 43 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
Defensive MVP: Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson
A couple of Clemson defenders deserve a mention here, but let’s give the nod to Boulware. The senior is the emotional leader for the defense and was critical in getting the defense in the right position to make plays against Alabama’s offense on Monday night. Boulware ended the game with six tackles (two for a loss) and one pass breakup.
Unsung Hero: Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
It’s hard to call Renfrow an unsung hero since the sophomore caught the game-winning touchdown pass. However, in addition to his 10 catches for 92 yards and two touchdown catches, Renfrow tackled Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson after a fumble recovery, likely preventing another touchdown by the Crimson Tide defense.
If you ever needed a reason to play until the final seconds, this is it. New Mexico was up on Nevada 90-76 in the final minute of their game on Saturday and everyone thought it was over ... except the Wolf Pack that is.
They began an improbable 14-point comeback in just a minute to send the game into overtime.
Nevada trailed New Mexico 90-76 with just over a minute left last night. What happened next was one of the most insane comebacks you'll see. pic.twitter.com/PEqe0wmbqK— March Madness 2017 (@Madness2017) January 8, 2017
After losing by 105-104, the Lobos won't soon forget this one.
The 2016 college football regular season featured dozens of memorable, individual performances. Your humble author has gone to the liberty of channeling his inner Eric Roberts, and pared the season's top games down to the best-of-the-best.
Performances that put the special in special teams, demonstrations of defensive dominance and – SPOILER – a lot of Lamar Jackson headline the 17 best individual games of '16.
Tennessee DE Derek Barnett at South Carolina, Oct. 29: Three sacks, two quarterback hurries
Wyoming RB Brian Hill at Nevada, Oct. 22: 289 rushing yards, three touchdowns
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson vs. Charlotte, Sept. 1: 17-of-23 for 286 passing yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions; 119 rushing yards, two touchdowns
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey at Cal, Nov. 19: 284 rushing yards, three touchdowns
Toledo QB Logan Woodside at BYU, Sept. 30: 30-of-38 for 505 passing yards, five touchdowns
17. San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey vs. Cal - Sept. 10
Pumphrey, college football's new rushing king, set the tone for his standout senior season with a 281-yard, three-touchdown outpouring against Cal.
"The numbers he put up speak for themselves," Cal wide receiver Chad Hansen said of Pumphrey in his postgame press conference, via GoAztecs.com "He’s a great player. Great, great player."
16. Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp at Washington State - Sept. 3
This countdown may be reserved for the FBS, but Kupp deserves recognition on two fronts. First, he won the 2015 Walter Payton Award -- the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Second, Kupp torched a Power Five opponent.
His 12 receptions for 203 yards and three touchdowns set the tone for Eastern Washington's second win over a Pac-12 opponent since 2013.
15. Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk vs. New Mexico State - Oct. 29
Some programs go literally years without a punt returned for a touchdown. UCLA, for example, hasn't had one since 2005. Christian Kirk took two back in a single game in 2016.
Both of his returns against New Mexico State exceeded 70 yards. I'm winded just typing that.
14. Oklahoma State DT Vincent Taylor vs. Texas - Oct. 1
Rare is the occasion when a couple of PATs set the scene for one of the best performances of a football season. In the case of Oklahoma State's Taylor, however, two blocked kicks tell only part of the story.
On one of his two blocked PATs against Texas, Taylor scooped the ball and headed down field. Channeling an option quarterback, he tossed a lateral to teammate Tre Flowers, who took the assist to the house for two points. The score gave the Cowboys momentum in a Big 12 win.
13. Utah LB Hunter Dimick at Arizona State - Nov. 10
Hunter Dimick became such a permanent fixture in the Arizona State backfield on Nov. 10, he should have had to pay a hotel tax. Dimick led the charge for Utah on a night in which the Utes accrued an eye-popping 22 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks, accounting for 6.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and an FBS season-high 5 QB takedowns on his own.
12. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Louisville - Oct. 1
Big-time players come through in the clutch. Watson proved that in a pivotal win over Louisville.
The Heisman Trophy runner-up didn't play a perfect game. Of the contests listed here, he may have had the most unimpressive from a purely statistical standpoint, throwing three interceptions.
But his five touchdown passes were integral to the Tigers' victory -- a victory that, with the benefit of hindsight, we see was necessary for Clemson getting back to the College Football Playoff. What's more, Watson struck for two of his five scores in the final seven minutes. Clutch.
11. Alabama DE Jonathan Allen vs. Texas A&M - Oct. 22
You just know the best player on the best defense in college football is bound to have at least one of the season's top games. For Alabama's Allen, it came in a showdown of undefeateds.
Texas A&M visited Bryant-Denny Stadium with designs on a landscape-shifting upset. What the Aggies got was a whole lot of Allen in the backfield. He got to quarterback Trevor Knight for a sack, four hurries, and took a fumble to the house for a touchdown.
10. Utah RB Joe Williams at UCLA - Oct. 22
A little more than a month before steam-rolling the UCLA defense, Williams was retired. A series of injuries to Utah running backs brought him back on the field, much to the delight of head coach Kyle Whittingham, who said of the running back's return: "What a blessing."
Blessing for the Utes, curse for the Bruins. Williams set what was then the FBS season-high for rushing yards in a game with 332.
9. Louisiana Tech WR Carlos Henderson at UMass - Oct. 15
Has does a wide receiver follow up a 232-yard, three-touchdown performance? If you're Louisiana Tech's Henderson, your encore is a 326-yard, five-touchdown game.
Henderson followed up a monster night on Oct. 6 against Conference USA rival Western Kentucky with an even more impressive showing at UMass. He didn't quite reach the NCAA record for receiving yards in a game -- coincidentally held by another Louisiana Tech product, Troy Edwards -- but he did set the benchmark for pass catchers in the 2016 season.
8. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook vs. Clemson - Oct. 29
Cook was twice denied an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. No one game from his standout career made a better case for him to go to New York than his performance against rival Clemson.
Cook rolled off nearly nine yards per carry en route to 169 for the contest. His four touchdowns account for nearly one-quarter of all the rushing scores the Clemson defense has allowed in 14 games this season.
7. Arizona State RB Kalen Ballage vs. Texas Tech - Sept. 10
Call the direct-snap formation used in Tempe whatever you want, so long as you don't call it the Wildcat. It's dubbed the Sparky there, and in an early-season matchup with Texas Tech, it landed Ballage a spot in college football history.
Ballage rushed for seven touchdowns out of the set, and caught an eighth score to tie an NCAA record in the Sun Devils' 68-55 win.
6. Washington QB Jake Browning at Oregon - Oct. 8
Washington snapped a 12-year losing streak to rival Oregon in emphatic fashion, and Browning set the pace. The Hukies' quarterback went 22-of-28 for 304 passing yards with a ridiculous six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Browning also scored a couple of rushing touchdowns for eight on the afternoon -- one of which quite literally pointed to the end of Oregon's dominance in this series.
5. Texas RB D'Onta Foreman at Texas Tech - Nov. 5
In an otherwise down year for Texas football, Foreman elevated his game to a level rarely seen in Austin. He joined the illustrious 2,000-Yard Club in 2016, with an incredible 341 coming in the Longhorns' 45-37 win at Texas Tech.
Foreman averaged more than a first down on every touch that afternoon -- 10.33 yards per, to be exact -- and crossed the goal line a season-high three times.
4. USC CB/Ret. Adoree' Jackson vs. Notre Dame - Nov. 26
Get you somebody that can do both, raps Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee on the chart-topping hit, "Black Beatles" -- lyrics that apply nicely to USC's do-everything star.
Jackson demonstrated he's a Jack-of-all-trades in a rout of rival Notre Dame, hitting the Irish for touchdowns of 52 yards on a reception; 55 yards on a punt return; and 97 yards on a kickoff return.
3. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes vs. Oklahoma - Oct. 22
Numerous record-setting quarterbacks have called Lubbock, Texas, home. None have ever had the kind of performance Mahomes put together in the 2016 season.
Mahomes passed for a staggering 734 yards in a 66-59 loss to Oklahoma. While that was a record-setter, a Texas Tech quarterback piling up huge numbers through the air is nothing new. Add his 85 rushing yards, and consider he scored seven total touchdowns, and Mahomes set himself apart from every Red Raider to man the air-raid before him.
2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson at Syracuse - Sept. 9
It's the game that launched a Heisman candidacy. While Jackson's Week 1 performance against Charlotte commanded attention, his show-stopping game against ACC competition truly put the nation on notice.
Jackson used the unfettered spotlight of a Friday night contest to deluge poor Syracuse with 610 yards of total offense -- 411 passing and 199 rushing -- with five touchdowns. For most players, it would be considered the game of a lifetime. In most seasons, it would stand out as No. 1.
Lamar Jackson isn't most players, nor was his 2016 any average season.
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson vs. Florida State - Sept. 17
Rarely can one point to a mid-September game as the moment a Heisman winner sewed up his stiff-arm trophy. And, indeed, Jackson had to do more to ensure he claimed the hardware in December.
However, this Week 3 contest put the Louisville quarterback so far ahead of the pack, there would be no catching him.
On an afternoon when Louisville honored late hometown hero Muhammad Ali, Jackson paid homage by KO'ing Florida State in a fashion similar to The Greatest's 1965 fight with Sonny Liston. Jackson's total stats against Florida State weren't as gaudy as the previous two weeks against Charlotte and Syracuse, but rushing for four touchdowns and passing for a fifth against the Seminole defense is a whole different level of excellence.
Truly, it was the day Lamar Jackson shook up the world.
Wonder no more about the NFL playoff scenarios, the NFL playoff bracket is set. Here's a quick look at which teams will be facing off in the coming weeks. (Courtesy of NFL.com)
Wild Card Playoffs take place on January 7-8 and Divisional Playoffs happen on January 14-15.
NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
Saturday, January 14
NFC: 4:35 PM (ET)
Seattle at Atlanta (FOX)
AFC: 8:15 PM (ET)
Houston at New England (CBS)
Sunday, January 15
AFC: 1:05 PM (ET)
Pittsburgh at Kansas City (NBC)
NFC: 4:40 PM (ET)
Green Bay at Dallas (FOX)
TAMPA — Often copied, rarely duplicated and consistently discussed, Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s "Process" about building and running a team at a championship level is about as well known in college football circles as the spread offense by this point.
There are numerous books on it, to say nothing of the in-depth features that have appeared on nearly every major website and radio station trying to dissect it. It’s a favorite talking point for television analysts and is as much a part of the lexicon in the state of Alabama as “Roll Tide” is.
"I think what we're trying to say when people talk about the process is there's a certain way that you go about whatever it is you're trying to accomplish, and you define that so everybody clearly understands what their role is," Saban said at Media Day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. "Everybody has got to buy into it, or it doesn't really work."
It is that last point that led the waves of reporters at Amalie Arena to flock not to Saban’s podium, but to roll up 10-deep in front of the team’s new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It was a striking visual because, for the first time in what must be two decades, the biggest media throng at a press conference was not reserved for the sport’s most towering figure, but rather for somebody who was out of work six months ago and persona non grata from just about any coaching position.
Saban’s decision five days ago to install Sarkisian as the team’s offensive coordinator one game early is easily one of the most surprising moves at the biggest stage in all of college football. The only comparable situation was nearly 20 years ago when David Cutcliffe left Tennessee for Ole Miss after the 1998 season.
The Volunteers had nearly a month to navigate that situation however. Alabama will have less than a week this time around and will be playing a team that pushed them to the very brink 12 months ago.
The reason for Lane Kiffin’s early retirement to Boca Raton was simple, no matter what early statements said to the contrary. His focus was elsewhere in the run up to the Peach Bowl and the Tide’s game plan suffered in that rather shaky win over Washington. He did not buy into everything that Saban was saying in December. Comments to Sports Illustrated about the program, staff meetings and the head man himself that came out shortly before the semifinal game didn’t help things and Kiffin feeding a reporter news about missing another bus was probably the final straw in the relationship between the two very different personalities.
As a result, we’re about to see if Saban’s meticulous “process” — one that spells out every role and often every minute of a staffer’s job — is up to the ultimate test against another elite program for that illustrious golden trophy. It has been a process that has delivered ring after ring to Tuscaloosa over the past eight years. It’s one that has seen coaches come and go at all levels. But it hasn’t quite been one that has ditched play-callers a week before the biggest game of the season.
"Sark has done this for a long time, and he's called plays for a long time. He's got a lot of experience, he's got a lot of knowledge. I think he's very well organized in his approach, and I'd tell him what I tell any coach: we've prepared to do certain things in certain situations, let's stick with the plan," Saban said. "Until we have to adjust the plan, that's what the players know, that's what we've practiced, that's what we need to go out and try to do, and that's going to give us the best chance to be able to execute and be successful. I think he'll do that."
That’s subtle speak for saying a Kiffin-for-Sark exchange is much more of a calculated decision than a leap of faith, especially at this stage in the season. The Alabama head coach wouldn’t be as successful as he has been without navigating that calculus over the past several years and it’s a testament to what Saban has established in Tuscaloosa that just about every one of his players barely batted an eyelash at the move upon first hearing of it.
Nearly to a man, the team didn’t say they were shocked or surprised at what unfolded last Sunday night and into the formal announcement on Monday. Most of the Crimson Tide offensive players had to struggle to even come up with a few noticeable differences about practice this week, falling back on saying things were simply a little more energetic or up-tempo — but overall just as smooth as before.
"It didn’t affect myself or anyone on the team as much as everyone wants it to affect us. Everybody keeps talking about it," left tackle Cam Robinson said, almost exasperated at answering another question about the OC changeover. "We just come out and work. We don’t care who the offensive coordinator is. We get the game plan and come out and work.
"I mean, y’all honestly think Coach Saban would change the way we prepare or the process we go through week in and week out? No. He’s not letting that happen. Our preparation is the same, the way we prepare is the same, our mindset is the same. Nothing has changed because we have a new offensive coordinator."
That probably has equal parts to do with the regimented process the players go through in preparation for their 30th game over the past two seasons as the two coaches at the center of attention this week. Sarkisian and Kiffin were cut from the same cloth as young coaches under Norm Chow and Pete Carroll during the Trojans’ dynasty nearly a decade ago. Both put up with the idiosyncrasies of Al Davis up in Oakland and been among the youngest head coaches in college football at marquee programs. Each has a good reputation for calling plays and a similar approach to blending up-tempo spread concepts with a traditional pro-style attack.
Even Clemson isn’t expecting many changes when the Tide take the field with a new face on the sidelines. While Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables did note that the staff has gone back and watched film of USC from 2014 and early ‘15, he cautioned the staff that they couldn’t go "chasing ghosts" to prepare for something different when so much will be the same.
So while everything is very much unexpected from the outside, there really is the feeling that this is nothing more than a title change at Alabama to both teams playing in the title game.
"I don't think I could have foreseen this four months ago when I was contemplating doing TV to get into this situation," said an energetic Sarkisian at his first public event since being let go by USC last season. "But being part of the program for the last four months, seeing Lane work, being around the office, game planning, working with the coaches, it's not just so foreign where I'm just coming in from the outside and trying to pick up from where they've left off. I’ve been around this thing. When you start calling plays, you start calling plays. You don't get caught up in everything going on outside, you focus on what's going on in between the lines. That's the mindset I'll have."
A thinner, healthier looking Sarkisian acted like a natural taking questions on Saturday despite the sudden thrust into the spotlight. He paused for loudspeaker announcements, he said hello to familiar faces in the national media, and he didn’t shy away from answering questions about his abrupt tenure in Los Angeles nor his subsequent journey away from football while he dealt with personal demons.
But as Sarkisian explained his duties as an “offensive analyst” and what his role will be in coaching young quarterback Jalen Hurts, he fell back into the mantras of his new mentor 50 feet away saying many of the same words.
"I don't want to take away from what this really is about. This is about our team. This is about our players," said Sarkisian. "This is about the job and the situation that they've put themselves in to go out and win a national championship. To do it for a second consecutive year would be an amazing accomplishment. That's where my focus is."
For good reason too. After being pushed to the brink by Clemson a season ago, Saban knew that he needed everybody all in on the title game in 2017. Kiffin clearly wasn’t. Sarkisian clearly was given where he was both personally and professionally.
Now we’re about to find out if all those minutes that have been accounted for, all those roles clearly defined, all those game plans precisely laid out will pay off. While everybody in the program insists that not much has changed in swapping out coordinators, this isn’t exactly like a manager bringing in a relief pitcher in baseball during the Game 7 of the World Series.
Can a coach who’s been on the job for days, and around the program for just a few short months in a limited role, step in and fill maybe the most important shoes in the program on Monday night? That titanic Alabama-Clemson rematch and the ultimate outcome in it will come down not to whether Steve Sarkisian is ready for being thrust into duty, but rather if his boss’ process is truly as dominant as ever no matter what’s thrown at it.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
If you haven’t seen the seniors on the Athlon Sports FCS Postseason All-America Team on Saturdays, you might catch them on Sundays next season.
It would all start with Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who could have been drafted last spring, but returned for his senior season and wound up finishing his career with 428 receptions, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 touchdown catches – all Division I records.
The FCS is often good at producing NFL-bound players along the offensive line and at defensive end/outside linebacker, so keep an eye on offensive tackles Julie’n Davenport of Bucknell and Jessamen Dunker of Tennessee State as well as Northern Iowa defensive end Karter Schult, who won the 2016 Buck Buchanan Award, and Missouri State outside linebacker Dylan Cole.
The All-America team suggests how much the talent level is widespread across the FCS. Sam Houston State is the only team with two selections as the 29-player team features 28 different schools from 11 different conferences.
Athlon Sports 2016 FCS Postseason All-America Team
Sam Houston State
Sam Houston State
North Carolina A&T
South Dakota State
North Dakota State
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Cooper Kupp photo courtesy of Eastern Washington University Athletics)
James Madison entered November without a win over a top-25 team, but that changed in the money portion of the season as the Dukes won their second FCS national championship.
Behind first-year head coach Mike Houston, James Madison beat nationally ranked teams in six of its final seven games, including a playoff sweep of New Hampshire, previously unbeaten Sam Houston State, five-time defending national champion North Dakota State and then Youngstown State, 28-14, in the FCS title game.
"You're the best team in the nation. At the end of the year, every college football program in the country has this goal,“ Houston said.
So is the NDSU dynasty over and it’s an all-new FCS? Not necessarily, but James Madison and its terrific talent just may be the team to beat again next season.
As far as this season, the Dukes earned their national championship considering who they beat from November on.
Here is the final 2016 Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll:
1. James Madison
(14-1, 8-0 CAA Football)
Preseason Ranking: 14
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 5
The seniors helped lead the way in the championship game win over Youngstown State. Running back Khalid Abdullah rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns while earning the most outstanding player award, and linebacker Gage Steele had six tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup. The Dukes won their final 12 games, losing only to an FBS program (North Carolina) this season.
2. North Dakota State
(12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 1
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 1
The Bison played the toughest schedule in the FCS, with their 27-17 loss to James Madison in the national semifinals their 10th game against a ranked opponent. Oddly, their two losses came within the friendly confines of the Fargodome. Consider head coach Chris Klieman’s squad quite motivated this offseason.
3. Youngstown State
(12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 22
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 14
Bo Pelini helped the former FCS power get back to an elite level in his second season coaching in his hometown. The Missouri Valley Conference squad overcame a lot of adversity and fourth-quarter deficits this season, but the Penguins were fairly non-competitive in the national title game.
4. Eastern Washington
(12-2, 8-0 Big Sky)
Preseason Ranking: 12
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 2
Cooper Kupp is NFL-bound as the most accomplished wide receiver in FCS history and sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud set the subdivision’s single-season record with 5,160 passing yards. The Eagles were denied a trip to the FCS championship game by a last-second loss to Youngstown State in the national semifinals.
5. Sam Houston State
(12-1, 9-0 Southland)
Preseason Ranking: 2
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 4
The Bearkats were the only FCS team to go unbeaten in the regular season, but they were swamped by James Madison, 65-7, in the national quarterfinals. Head coach K.C. Keeler will welcome back a lot of talented players, including quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, who threw for an FCS-record 57 touchdowns this season.
(10-4, 6-2 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 19
The Terriers won the South Carolina FCS title with wins over Charleston Southern and The Citadel in the playoffs. Their senior-laden team will be hard-pressed to replace fullback Lorenzo Long after he led the Southern Conference with 1,424 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
(10-4, 5-3 CAA)
Preseason Ranking: 4
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 11
The Spiders won two playoff games after losing starting quarterback Kyle Lauletta to an ACL tear in the regular-season finale. Shortly after the season, head coach Danny Rocco resigned to move across the CAA to Delaware and the Spiders quickly hired Chattanooga's Russ Huesman, their defensive coordinator on the 2008 national championship team.
8. South Dakota State
(9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 8
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 7
A win over co-Missouri Valley champ North Dakota State at the Fargodome in mid-October highlighted the Jackrabbits’ season. No opposing team – the Bison included – will be anxious to to deal with the triumvirate of quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide reveiver Jake Wieneke next season.
9. Jacksonville State
(10-2, 7-0 Ohio Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 5
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 3
Gamecocks coach John Grass hasn’t lost an OVC game in his three seasons, but sandwiched around his team’s 2015 national runner-up finish are two second-round fizzles at home – this year against Youngstown State. They swept the OVC’s postseason awards: Grass (coach), quarterback Eli Jenkins (offensive), defensive end Darius Jackson (defensive) and safety Marlon Bridges (freshman).
10. The Citadel
(10-2, 8-0 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: 10
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 6
First-year head coach Brent Thompson led the SoCon champion Bulldogs to a perfect conference record for the first time in school history. Behind senior fullback Tyler Renew, they paced the FCS in rushing yards per game (348.2).
(9-4, 6-2 CAA Football)
Preseason Ranking: 20
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 12
Head coach Andy Talley enjoyed a fitting final season before heading into retirement as the Wildcats won a home playoff game and reached the second round. His defense led the FCS in fewest points (15.0) and yards (259.8) allowed per game.
12. Coastal Carolina
(10-2 FCS Independent)
Preseason Ranking: 9
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 13
Injuries led to a merry-go-round at quarterback in the Chanticleers’ final season on the FCS level. When they move to the Sun Belt next season, they won’t get to lean on departing running back De’Angelo Henderson.
(9-4, 6-2 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: 7
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 9
With Russ Huesman off to Richmond, the Mocs hired up-and-coming head coach Tom Arth from Division III semifinalist John Carroll. He inherits a team that won a playoff game for the third straight season, but it will lose a dominant senior trio in defensive end Keionta Davis, offensive lineman Corey Levin and running back Derrick Craine.
14. North Dakota
(9-3, 8-0 Big Sky)
Preseason Ranking: 15
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 8
Third-year head coach Bubba Schweigert was rewarded with a contract extension through 2021 after leading the Fighting Hawks to a perfect season and co-championship in the Big Sky as well as their first FCS playoff appearance. Safety Cole Reyes was named the conference’s defensive player of the year.
15. Charleston Southern
(7-4, 4-1 Big South)
Preseason Ranking: 6
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 10
A difficult season of quarterback injuries and player and coach suspensions ended with a first-round playoff loss to Wofford. Still, the Buccaneers rallied to win a share of their second straight Big South championship. Coach Jamey Chadwell has stepped down to become the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina.
16. Central Arkansas
(10-3, 8-1 Southland)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 15
The loss of a strong senior class a year ago didn’t hold back the Bears from an outstanding season under head coach Steve Campbell. Often overlooked, wide receiver and return specialist Jatavious Wilson ended his career with 5,649 all-purpose yards, which was fifth among active FCS players this season.
17. New Hampshire
(8-5, 6-2 CAA)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 24
Don’t call it a lucky 13 because the Wildcats earned their way into playoffs for the 13th straight season. Once there, head coach Sean McDonnell’s squad pounded Lehigh in the first round. Cornerback Casey DeAndrade concluded a standout four-year career with 62 passes defended.
(9-3, 6-0 Patriot)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 16
The Patriot League champion Mountain Hawks rolled off nine straight wins before falling to New Hampshire in the playoffs. Quarterback Nick Shafnisky, the league’s offensive player of the year, was surrounded by 1,000-yard rusher Dom Bragalone and two 1,000-yard receivers, Troy Pelletier and Gaitlin Casey.
19. Grambling State
(11-1, 9-0 SWAC)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 21
The Tigers won only one SWAC game in the two seasons before Broderick Fobbs took over as head coach, but they’ve captured 25 in his three regular seasons. It got better in the postseason as they beat Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game and North Carolina Central in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
20. North Carolina Central
(9-3, 8-0 MEAC)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 17
A late celebration penalty and blocked extra point helped cause the MEAC champion’s 10-9 loss in the Celebration Bowl. But like Grambling State and Fobbs, all the Eagles know is success in conference play under third-year head coach Jerry Mack, having gone 21-3 with three titles.
21. San Diego
(10-2, 8-0 Pioneer)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: Unranked
The non-scholarship Toreros earned the Pioneer Football League’s first-ever win in the playoffs by avenging a September loss to Cal Poly. Senior running back Jonah Hodges had a spectacular final season with 2,104 all-purpose yards and 20 touchdowns.
22. Illinois State
(6-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 11
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 18
The Redbirds were the second team to earn an at-large playoff bid with a mere 6-5 record (after Western Illinois last year), but they blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of their first-round loss to Central Arkansas. Still, they had wins over Northwestern and South Dakota State this season.
23. Cal Poly
(7-5, 5-3 Big Sky)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 20
After a big first half of the season, the Mustangs failed to beat the better teams in the second half, ultimately falling to San Diego in their playoff rematch. Fullback Joe Protheroe will look to build on a banner junior campaign next season.
(8-2, 6-1 Ivy)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 25
The Tigers shared the Ivy League title for the second time in the last four years under head coach Bob Surace. They handled rival Penn, the other co-champion, in the head-to-head meeting. All-around threat John Lovett was named the league’s offensive player of the year.
(7-4, 4-4 CAA)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: Unranked
The Great Danes and Fordham (8-3) were the last two teams left out of the playoff field. With wins over Buffalo, Northeast Conference champ Saint Francis and New Hampshire, and the return of 1,400-yard running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, head coach Greg Gattuso’s squad is trending upward.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by James Madison Athletics)
College football’s 2016-17 coaching carousel received a late surprise, as California fired coach Sonny Dykes on Sunday. Dykes went 19-30 over four years with the Golden Bears and guided the program to an 8-5 mark with an appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl in 2015. Although Dykes didn’t have an overall winning record during his career, he inherited a mess from former coach Jeff Tedford and the program showed marked progress after a 1-11 record in 2013.
With the late firing, California likely has a good idea of which coach it wants to hire. However, this program has its share of obstacles. There are budget concerns to overcome, and the Pac-12 North isn’t getting any easier with the recent improvement of Washington, Washington State and Stanford’s run under coach David Shaw.
Who might replace Dykes at California?
6 Coaching Candidates to Replace Sonny Dykes at California
Beau Baldwin, head coach, Eastern Washington
Baldwin is a bit of a longshot, but the California native is one of the top coaches in the FCS ranks and has guided Eastern Washington to an 85-32 record since 2008. Under Baldwin’s direction, the Eagles have made the FCS playoffs in four out of the last five years. Additionally, Eastern Washington claimed the FCS national title in 2010. Baldwin is regarded for his work on offense but has never coached at the FBS level.
Troy Calhoun, head coach, Air Force
Considering Calhoun coaches at his alma mater and has a good run going in Colorado Springs, it would take a lot for the former AFA quarterback to leave. Calhoun is 77-53 at Air Force since 2007 and has guided the Falcons to bowl appearances in nine out of 10 seasons. He also spent time in the NFL with the Broncos and Texans and coached as an assistant at Ohio and Wake Forest. Calhoun’s experience working at a tough job (AFA) and maximizing resources is also something that could be appealing to California.
Chip Kelly, former 49ers head coach
Kelly is likely to generate a lot of buzz for this job after he was fired following a 2-14 record as the 49ers head coach in 2016. While Kelly went 28-35 during his career as a NFL head coach, he recorded a 46-7 mark at Oregon from 2009-12. Kelly’s high-powered offense would be an excellent fit at California and the Pac-12 once again.
Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina Panthers
Hiring Rivera from the NFL is unlikely, but he’s worth a mention in this space as a former California player. The California native played with the Golden Bears from 1980-83 before a stint in the NFL with the Bears (1984-92). Rivera joined the coaching ranks in 1997 with the Bears and made additional stops with the Eagles and Chargers before becoming a head coach with the Panthers in 2011. Under Rivera’s direction, Carolina is 53-42 and guided the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl 50. Leaving the NFL is unlikely, but Rivera has strong ties to this program.
Jake Spavital, offensive coordinator, California
Spavital was promoted to interim coach after Dykes was fired on Jan. 8. The Oklahoma native is a rising star in the coaching ranks and joined the California staff after two seasons at Texas A&M (2014-15). Spavital worked as the play-caller for the Golden Bears in 2016 and guided the offense to an average of 37.1 points per game. Spavital is just 31 years old and has no previous head coaching experience.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin
Wilcox has plenty of experience in the Pac-12 thanks to stints at California (2003-05), Washington (2012-13) and USC (2014-15). The Oregon native played his college ball with the Ducks and has worked as a defensive coordinator for 11 straight years. After working with the Trojans for two seasons, Wilcox was hired at Wisconsin prior to the 2016 season. Under Wilcox’s direction, the Badgers ranked third in the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 15.6 points per game. Wilcox has no previous experience as a head coach.