Dabo Swinney and "little ol' Clemson" made quite the statement in winning another national title
College football's bowl season attracts no shortage of criticism. From an oversaturation of games to lagging ticket sales, and the sometimes outlandish pay for executives overseeing an exhibition for amateurs, the negatives of the postseason are clear. Oh, and there's also the existential question of just how much the bowl system is needed now that college football has a playoff.
Yet, for all these laments, the sport's wholly unique postseason is part of the tradition. Look no further than the Rose Bowl Game, the origin point for the entire concept. The Rose Bowl's place in the current landscape might be downplayed by those who view the postseason as payoff championship or bust. Not so for the participants.
As Washington cornerback Jojo McIntosh put it: "It's the Granddaddy of 'Em All," he said. "Biggest game of the year."
For every senior playing his final collegiate game, or future stars getting invaluable snaps, their own bowl games are big in their own way. The 2018-19 bowl season had its share of negatives, sure — the cancellation of a bowl game is certainly odd — but the postseason also produced winners.
WINNER: "Little Ol' Clemson"
A beaming and teary-eyed Dabo Swinney said in his postgame interview on ESPN following a 44-16 deconstruction of Alabama that if "little ol' Clemson" could run the table to an undefeated national championship, "anyone can."
OK, so Swinney may have been caught up in the moment. Clemson's domination of Alabama in all three phases was unlike anything seen in Nick Saban's time with the Crimson Tide, doubling the largest margin of victory any opponent's had against the Tide.
The Tigers owned all three phases, with defensive coordinator Brent Venables calling a masterful game (and A.J. Terrell starting off the scoring with a pick-six of Tua Tagovailoa); Trevor Lawrence dealing for 347 yards and three touchdowns, including a 74-yard connection with Justyn Ross off what initially looked like a busted play; and even special teams, when a fake field goal snuffed out in the third quarter ostensibly ended any rally hopes Alabama held coming out of halftime.
Most jarring: Clemson set the tone on both lines. The Tigers' offensive line deserved shared Most Valuable Player honors — but Lawrence wasn't a bad selection.
To call the talent-laden, 15-0 Tigers "little ol' Clemson" misrepresents the statement Swinney's team made to close the season: This program is now a juggernaut.
LOSER: Programs That Aren't Alabama and Clemson Wanting a Shot at the Championship
The tone of the 2019 Alabama-Clemson matchup differed dramatically from the previous three, especially the previous two championship game meetings to end the 2015 and '16 seasons. However, the title tilt doesn't feel like the end of an era. The burgeoning Alabama-Clemson rivalry just might produce more sequels than Jason Voorhees.
With Lawrence, Ross and stars on the offensive line returning to Death Valley, Clemson is poised for another championship run in the 2019 season.
While Alabama suffered an unprecedented setback, Saban won't spend the offseason licking his wounds. The Crimson Tide return the Heisman runner-up Tagovailoa, and the cupboard in Tuscaloosa is just as well-stocked as at any time in this dynasty. If anything, Alabama will come back stronger than ever. The last time Alabama suffered a lopsided loss — or at least, lopsided by Alabama standards, a 14-point defeat to Oklahoma in the 2013 season's Sugar Bowl — it prompted significant changes to the offense.
Current Oregon head coach and former Saban assistant Mario Cristobal said last summer that the Sugar Bowl loss initiated dramatic changes in the Crimson Tide offense, beginning a process that led to the more free-wheeling style Alabama employed with Tagovailoa this season. Whatever this loss elicits from Saban, it will make the Crimson Tide better.
WINNER: Opponents of Playoff Expansion
Discussion of College Football Playoff expansion began before the tournament ever even kicked off. For many, the implementation of a four-team playoff is a step toward crowning the most legitimate champion possible, but it doesn't go far enough. How does the Big Ten Conference champion go three straight seasons without a playoff berth, for example? And will the current format ever extend an opportunity to a Group of 5 outsider? Spoiler: It won't.
Yet, for any demand that exists advocating playoff expansion, the contingent citing college football's brief regular season as the ultimate playoff is just as vociferous. Want to make the field out of the Big Ten? Don't give up a combined 104 points to Iowa and Purdue in back-to-back seasons. SEC runner-up making a case? Don't lose twice (and especially not once by three touchdowns).
In 2018, those who opposed playoff expansion have their strongest argument yet. There won't be any claims to a split national championship this year, with UCF losing the Fiesta Bowl to LSU. Advocates for Georgia politicked harder than any midterm campaign this past autumn, but the Bulldogs' Sugar Bowl loss to Texas dampened the social-media shade some Dawgs through at Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
And as for Oklahoma and Notre Dame, the two semifinal losers? Their defeat shouldn't necessarily be seen as a reflection on those teams: Oklahoma battled back from a deep, early hole against Alabama to produce an entertaining second half. Notre Dame of the 2018 playoff wasn't the same Notre Dame that got blasted from the opening whistle by Alabama in the 2013 BCS Championship Game, giving Clemson a tough first 20 minutes or so before a series of misfires turned the tide.
Instead, what the semifinals revealed is that a wide chasm exists between Alabama and Clemson, and the rest of college football. That isn't to infer one or the other cannot be beaten, but there is a reason the two have met in three of the past four national title games. In this season in particular, the semifinals proved to be little more than a formality to reach the exact same title game the old BCS system would have produced.
I don't think anyone should be surprised by this. pic.twitter.com/8cX2H4V0Ep— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) January 7, 2019
LOSER: Silicon Valley
The week leading up to Alabama-Clemson IV included no shortage of coverage on the championship buzz emanating from America's tech hub — or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
Championship game tickets to Levi's Stadium dipped to all-time playoff lows in the days leading up to the title tilt, tangible evidence of issues plaguing the San Francisco 49ers' home venue. Among them is the stadium's turf quality, a recurring problem since it opened in 2014. It's one thing to have empty seats in what is ostensibly a made-for-TV product — and let's be honest, TV is the reason the playoff exists — but playing on a subpar surface is inexcusable.
Don't expect the championship to return to Silicon Valley any time.
WINNER: Program-Record Setters
A variety of teams concluded the 2018 season setting program-bests for wins.
Army: Not only did the Black Knights win a program-record 11 games in 2018, they put an emphatic exclamation point on the season. Army's 70 points in an Armed Forces Bowl trouncing of Houston tied West Virginia's 2012 Orange Bowl mark for the most scored in a bowl game.
Coming into the postseason, Army sat at No. 22 in the Associated Press poll. It's already guaranteed its best final ranking since 1958 as a result but could climb as high as No. 18, which would match the 1957 Black Knights' season-ending spot. That puts head coach Jeff Monken in elite company with Red Blaik, the Hall of Famer coach whose World War II-era Army teams might be the most dominant in college football history.
FIU: Considered a high-potential program for its location, FIU took an important step toward maximizing that potential in 2018 with a program-high nine wins. The Panthers capped a 9-4 campaign with a 35-32 defeat of Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl, improving to 17-9 in head coach Butch Davis' two years at the helm. This marks just the second time in the program's 16-year history it posted back-to-back winning records, dating back to Mario Cristobal's 2010 and '11 squads.
Fresno State: Fresno State built a reputation as perhaps the most high-profile giant killer of the BCS years. Head coach Pat Hill employed a philosophy of "any time, anywhere," scheduling tough non-conference games and stepping to any challenge with the goal of bolstering Fresno State's profile.
At the same time Hill built Fresno State's reputation, Jeff Tedford was a short drive to the northwest in Berkeley, transforming then-Pac-10 punchline Cal into a conference title contender. Tedford was renowned for his work with quarterbacks, most notably the Aaron Rodgers-led team in 2004 that came a single drive away from playing for a national championship.
Tedford brought some of that same acumen to Fresno State when he took over in 2017, helping Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion maximize his ability. But it was through the establishment of an elite defense that the Bulldogs reached unparalleled program heights in Tedford's second season, winning the Mountain West Conference championship for the first time since 2013; and reaching 12 wins for the first time in program history.
UAB: Conference USA champion UAB set its new high-watermark for success well before blasting MAC champion Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl, 37-13. The Blazers matched last year's FBS-level best of eight wins just days after Halloween, then the next week, tied the nine wins the 1993 team reached playing an iffy, Div. I-AA independent schedule.
How UAB then got to 10 and 11 wins to set a new standard truly solidified Bill Clark as the easy choice for national Coach of the Year. The Blazers rallied on the road to beat Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Champion, then dominated Northern Illinois in the bowl game. Northern Illinois has been a symbol for non-BCS/Group of 5 conference greatness for the better part of a decade, s that 11th victory carries some additional symbolism for the future state of Blazers football.
Washington State: Plenty of precedent suggested Washington State might understandably sleepwalk through its Alamo Bowl matchup with Iowa State. Past Pac-12 teams like Cal in 2004 or Colorado in '16 that were snubbed for BCS/New Year's Six bowl bids laid eggs in the postseason. After having its shot at a conference championship denied against rival Washington, the denial of a New Year's Six berth provided double disappointment.
However, a lack of precedent sparked the Cougars in San Antonio. The 2018 team became the first at Washington State ever to win 11 games in a season. A final top 10 ranking is a possibility for the first time since 2003, and Washington's loss in the Rose Bowl might make Washington State the highest-ranked Pac-12 team when all is complete.
WINNER: Northwestern's Streak
Northwestern football reached its first bowl game in 1948, beating Cal in the Rose Bowl, 20-14. The Wildcats went another 68 years before winning in the postseason.
The program endured nearly seven decades and nine games of bowl heartbreak, including a run of three straight, one-score losses (including two in overtime) from 2008-10. But Northwestern broke through in 2012 with a 34-20 defeat of Mississippi State. Six years later, the Wildcats claimed their fourth bowl win in five tries, and third in a row, by a similar score: 31-20 over Utah in the Holiday Bowl.
Times have certainly changed for Northwestern football under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who highlighted the program's outgoing seniors in particular.
"36 wins over the last four years, raising the bar and the standard of our program, Big Ten West championship," Fitzgerald said following the Holiday Bowl. "[Reseting] what is now the expectation every year in our program."
Not only did Northwestern win an unprecedented third straight bowl game in rain-soaked San Diego, but the Wildcats' rally from down 20-3 in the third quarter provided one of the most memorable moments of this postseason. The comeback included a touchdown pass to offensive lineman Trey Klock.
LOSER: Utah's Streak
After its 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the topic of the conference's runner-up having never before won its ensuing bowl game was presented to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"We've had bowl games where guys take it seriously. They do a great job in preparation, and I don't expect this year to be any different," he said, citing the program's streak of five consecutive bowl wins and 14 wins in the last 15.
For as good as Utah's been in the postseason, especially under Whittingham, its winning streak ended at the Holiday Bowl, while the Pac-12's runner-up curse continues. Since the Pac-12 Championship's inception in 2011, the second-place finisher is now 0-8.
WINNER & LOSER: Big Ten West (Except Purdue)
The Big Ten Conference abandoned its ill-fated "Leaders and Legends" divisional structure with the beginning of the 2014 season. In the five campaigns since, the East has dominated the league championship, with Ohio State winning in 2014, '17 and '18; Michigan State in '15; and Penn State in '16. Add the intrigue surrounding Michigan football under Jim Harbaugh, and the Big Ten East has been the conference's clear leader — no pun intended.
While the East continues to set the standard, the West's bowl season suggests wholesale improvement for the division in 2019. It went 4-1 in the postseason, including Northwestern's comeback win, and concluding with Iowa scoring an impressive victory against SEC West representative, Mississippi State. Chalk up Minnesota's rout of Georgia Tech and Wisconsin's romp against Miami, and the Big Ten West scored bowl wins over three of the other four Power 5 conferences.
The only Big Ten West team to lose this postseason was Purdue — and it lost spectacularly.
Despite beginning the postseason with a huge victory — keeping head coach Jeff Brohm in the fold despite overtures from his alma mater, Louisville — the Boilermakers ended with a dud. Auburn set a bowl record with an astounding 56 points in the first half. Gus Malzahn called off the Tigers, and the still-ugly final score of 63-14 was not wholly indicative of just how lopsided this Music City Bowl matchup proved to be.
The blemish aside, the Big Ten West carries positive momentum into 2019. Defending divisional champion Northwestern was young this season, thus returning a veteran corps; Minnesota will be more experienced in P.J. Fleck's third year. Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue return some of the nation's best players at their positions in running back Jonathan Taylor; tight end T.J. Hockenson; and wide receiver Rondale Moore. After heartbreaks abound in Scott Frost's first year, Nebraska could be a Top 25 team a season from now.
LOSER: Power Six
The restructuring of college football's landscape in the transition from the BCS to the College Football Playoff left the American Athletic Conference excluded from the conversation. In its first season, the American maintained the auto-bid status its successor, the Big East, enjoyed — and UCF beat Baylor in a Fiesta Bowl that kicked off a run of three straight wins in the marquee bowls for the conference (five straight, if you count West Virginia's 2012 Orange Bowl and Louisville's '13 Sugar Bowl).
With its high-profile wins, including Houston and UCF over Florida State and Auburn in the 2015 and '17 seasons' Peach Bowls, and a much higher winning percentage against the Power 5 than its Group of 5 counterparts, the American adopted the nickname, "Power Six."
UCF's pursuit of back-to-back undefeated seasons ended with a 40-32 loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, however, snapping the American's New Year's Six streak (and UCF's winning streak at 25 games). The Knights' loss dropped the American to 2-5 on the postseason; not the worst bowl mark for a conference — that was the MAC at 1-5 — but a damaging blow to the Power Six claim.
It's not all bad for the American, though. Cincinnati beat Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl to reach 11 wins for just the third time in program history, and likely guaranteeing the conference two teams ranked the final Top 25. Houston rebounded from its historically lopsided, 70-14 loss to Army with the hiring of Dana Holgorsen as head coach. But overall, the 2018 postseason became a lost opportunity for the American.
WINNER: The 2019 Hype Train
College football's season is the shortest among all major American sports. With just a three-month regular season, that leaves nine months of debate, projection, and anticipation, which in turn, lends the sport to more hype than other leagues have.
Certain programs generate greater hype than others based on visibility and lineage. A few such programs set the early tone for the 2019 offseason hype machine with their season-concluding bowl performances.
Florida: A proven program-builder in the SEC, Dan Mullen transformed perennial cellar-dweller Mississippi State into a Top 25 fixture. His first season as head coach in Gainesville suggests he'll have the Gators back at the apex of college football in short order, culminating in a Peach Bowl blowout of Michigan.
Texas: Is Texas Back? might be the phrase most indicative of the college football offseason hype machine. Since losing the 2010 BCS Championship Game to Alabama, Texas has gone through a series of ups and downs, with every peak prompting conversation of the Longhorns' return to greatness. Never since that 2009 season has Texas had as much reason to believe it's again poised for the upper echelon as it does now.
A regular season that included a win over rival and playoff participant Oklahoma set the stage for the Longhorns' impressive, Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. With a bevy of talent back in Austin for 2019, Texas will get no shortage of playoff buzz in the next eight months.
Texas A&M: The Texas-Texas A&M rivalry ended on the field in 2011, but it's still waged in the college football echo chamber. With Texas primed for an offseason of hype, it's only fitting that Texas A&M will be prominently featured in the conversation, too.
Jimbo Fisher's debut season in College Station opened with promise, as the Aggies took Clemson to the wire in Week 2. Back-to-back losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, however, dropped them to 5-4, creating a looming feel of deja vu. But A&M avoided the late-season collapses that plagued Kevin Sumlin's teams, winning its final four — including a remarkable, seven-overtime shootout over LSU, and blasting a top 15-ranked NC State bunch in the Gator Bowl.
A&M's strong finish and another year under Fisher's system will gain the Aggies plenty of offseason buzz.