It was an impressive showing in bowl games for the Big Ten... except for Michigan
An outstanding postseason with the first overtime games in both College Football Playoff National Championship and Rose Bowl history put a fitting cap on what was an unforgettable 2017 college football campaign.
Preseason No. 1 Alabama ascended to the mountaintop for the fifth time under head coach Nick Saban, which might suggest a ho-hum season on the surface. However, the 2017 season featured more twists over the course of the fall than any since 2007, and concluded with more controversy than any since '08.
WINNER: Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts
Tagovailoa (above, right), Alabama's highly touted freshman quarterback, played in mop-up duty throughout the 2017 campaign, while Hurts led the Crimson Tide to a second consecutive College Football Playoff. Hurts registered some impressive rushing statistics, and was serviceable enough in the passing game for much of the season, but Georgia shut him down in both facets during the first half of the national championship game.
Long known for his conservative yet effective approach, Nick Saban made a gamble at halftime that proved his coaching acumen when he pulled hurts for Tagovailoa. The freshman validated his coach's confidence with a performance for the ages, culminating in a deep touchdown pass sure to live in the annals of college football history alongside such moments at Hail Flutie and Vince Young's run.
Because sports culture is such in this age that there is no living in the moment, talk of a quarterback controversy began even before Tagovailoa's star turn. But Hurts was unfazed, offering his unwavering support throughout the second half and overtimes, and praising his teammate in a difficult postgame interview. Both quarterbacks left Atlanta as winners.
LOSER: Long-suffering Georgia Fans
Georgia last won a national championship in 1980, but in building up a double-digit-point lead — a rarity against any Nick Saban-coached team — it seemed the Bulldogs' wait was over.
Instead, an eventual overtime loss provided a double-edged jab for Georgia faithful. First, the national championship was played in Atlanta, host city of the 2012 SEC Championship Game, against the same opponent: Alabama. In that contest, Aaron Murray led a drive in the waning moments that came just yards shy of giving the Bulldogs the win — a win that almost assuredly would have propelled Georgia into a very winnable BCS Championship Game against Notre Dame.
Second, Tagovailoa's throw to DeVonta Smith bore an uncanny resemblance to Todd Blackledge's pass to Greg Garrity, which won the 1983 Sugar Bowl for Penn State — and denied Georgia its second national championship in three years. Prior to this season, it was the last time the Bulldogs played for college football's crown.
WINNER: Big Ten
For years in the 2000s and 2010s, the Big Ten was the target of derision for its often anemic performances in the postseason. But in a 2017 campaign during which the conference's East division was touted as arguably the best in college football, the Big Ten delivered. The conference ran roughshod over its competition, winning its first seven games.
While early bowl season contests are often dismissed as inconsequential, the Big Ten scored victories in marquee matchups with Ohio State winning the Cotton Bowl, Penn State the Fiesta Bowl, and Wisconsin the Orange Bowl in a rare, true road game.
It was almost a perfect postseason for the Big Ten. Almost.
A remarkable 8-0 bowl season came down to the first game of 2018 for the Big Ten, with Michigan facing an overachieving South Carolina bunch in the Outback Bowl. And the Wolverines appeared to have a perfect postseason well in hand for the Big Ten, building a 19-3 lead.
But blown opportunities and a fumble deep in Michigan territory that gifted the Gamecocks back-to-back touchdowns saw the Wolverines' bowl bid unravel. South Carolina outscored Michigan 23-0 to win, rendering the Maize and Blue the only blemish on the Big Ten's docket — and sending Jim Harbaugh into the offseason with mounting questions after a disappointing 8-5 finish.
The SEC was hardly dominant in its postseason, finishing below .500 at 5-6. Still, the boisterous masses that chant the league's initials, declare "It Just Means More" and posit that "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference" head into the offseason with plenty of fodder.
Not only did the SEC become the first conference to send two teams to the College Football Playoff — an honor for which the league's more zealous followers have been campaigning since its launch — it also became the first with two teams in the title game.
And, unlike the 2011 season when Alabama met LSU in a BCS Championship Game rematch, the Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs delivered an instant classic. That should curb the grumbling that became prevalent after that 2011 campaign.
This fact tells the entire story: The Pac-12's bowl season was the worst for any power conference ever. But, let's add some details, anyway.
Utah kicked off the Pac-12's bowl season with a blowout win over West Virginia — the lone victory in a 1-8 postseason. The Utes dominated a Mountaineer bunch without quarterback Will Grier, putting something of a damper on the win. Nevertheless, it goes in the ledger as a W, just as a close losses for Arizona — which rallied to take the lead before Purdue's game-winning score in the Foster Farms Bowl — or Stanford — which had a big lead evaporate vs. TCU — goes down as Ls.
Likewise, conference champion USC played an excellent defensive game against Ohio State, but turnovers and special teams gaffes made for a more lopsided score than the Trojans would have wanted. Washington battled back from an offensively anemic performance to challenge Penn State before ultimately losing. UCLA led Kansas State at halftime but was thoroughly demolished in the second, while Arizona State was simply overmatched by NC State.
Washington State was without Luke Falk in the Holiday Bowl vs. Michigan State, but it didn't matter; the Spartans were simply better in all phases. So, too, was Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl vs. Oregon.
The 1-8 finish sends the Pac-12 reeling into an offseason of change, one highlighted by new head coaches at Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA.
WINNER: New Mexico State
When New Mexico State last went bowling, Dwight Eisenhower was transitioning out of the White House and John F. Kennedy was President-Elect. Hawaii — home to a Rainbow Warriors football program with which New Mexico State once shared a conference — had been a state for all of one year.
The Aggies made up for lost time in their first postseason since 1960, however, beating Utah State 26-20 in overtime in a thrilling Arizona Bowl. Thousands of New Mexico State fans made the trip to Tucson from Las Cruces, with the contest drawing almost 40,000. That crowd got to see senior running back Larry Rose III go out with a bang, as he ran in the game-winning touchdown to provide one of the coolest moments of this postseason.
LOSER: The Alabama-Clemson Trilogy
If New Mexico State demonstrated how rewarding a wait can be, the finale(?) of the Alabama-Clemson series proved their can be too much of a good thing. In the pantheon of trilogies, this College Football Playoff rivalry mirrored The Godfather: The first two installments were instant classics, but the third was a dud that fell apart midway through.
Clemson could not move the ball against a stingy Alabama defense, but the Tigers' own excellent defense kept them in striking distance. That is, until a Da'Ron Payne interception in the third quarter set up an eventual touchdown catch by the defensive lineman — certainly one of the more exciting sequences of the bowl season, but one that rendered the Sugar Bowl a snoozer.
One team finished the college football season undefeated: the UCF Knights. The American Athletic Conference champions stormed through much of the regular season before closing out with two of the most exciting, hard-fought wins of 2017. The Knights went ahead and made it a trio of thrilling finishes to cap a perfect campaign, building a first-half lead against Auburn before losing it in the third quarter, then storming back to win in an excellent Peach Bowl.
By beating an Auburn bunch that boasted double-digit-point wins over national champion Alabama and national runner-up Georgia, UCF finished with a compelling case for the title. The university athletic department staked that claim with a parade, bonuses for the coaching staff and a banner declaring the team 2017 national champions.
LOSER: The Group of Five's Championship Hopes
Despite UCF's declaration to the contrary, this season made it abundantly clear that the Group of Five conferences' hopes of ever competing for a College Football Playoff bid are razor thin. UCF, the nation's sole unbeaten, was ranked No. 12 in the final playoff poll, behind several two-loss teams and even one three-loss team.
Mississippi State moving ahead of the Knights at one juncture sent a resounding message that the committee has no interest in entertaining even the possibility of a Group of Five team challenging for the playoff. While Houston in 2016 might have suggested to the contrary — beating Oklahoma to open the season and peaking in the top six of the AP poll — that suggests a precedent in which a team must win a New Year's Six bowl one season and go undefeated the next. It's an unlikely standard.