Another bloated bowl season, after 40 games, has winnowed down to the only college football matchup that truly has captured the fancy of fans since the postseason schedule was set Dec. 4.
We’ll learn Monday whether this year’s College Football Playoff championship game between top-ranked Alabama (14-0) and second-seeded Clemson (13-1) can measure up to last year’s classic that ended with the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 triumph. To get to this rematch in Tampa, in which the CFP seeds and team records are reversed from last year, we waded through 40 undercard matchups that taught us some unexpected lessons. Among them:
▪ The ACC and Big 12, considered the nation’s softest Power 5 conferences throughout the regular season, deserved more respect than they received from September through November. Teams from the ACC (8-3) and Big 12 (4-2) won at least two-thirds of their bowl games. More-heralded teams from the SEC (6-6), Pac-12 (3-3) and Big Ten (3-7) fell far short of that mark, with the Big Ten completely soiling its regular-season reputation as the nation’s strongest conference in 2016.
▪ Texas’ teams cannot flip the focus fast enough to Feb. 1 and national signing day for high school prospects. The sooner the state’s 12 FBS programs can distance themselves from 2016’s collective record of 65-85, including a 1-5 mark in bowl games, the better. The state’s lone bowl winner was Baylor (7-6), which broke a six-game losing streak by defeating Boise State 31-12 in the Cactus Bowl. As things stand, fans should prepare for all 12 of the Lone Star State’s major-college teams to finish unranked for the first time in 49 years when The Associated Press releases its postseason poll Tuesday. The state’s best records belong to unranked Houston (9-4) and unranked Texas A&M (8-5), both of which lost their bowl games.
13 Bowl participants that finished the season with losing records, including three teams from Texas (TCU, North Texas, UTSA) and one team that won its bowl game to finish 6-7 (Mississippi State).
▪ The oversaturated bowl market is out-of-control. The 2016 postseason yielded another attendance drop based on data compiled by the Football Bowl Association. Average attendance fell by 4.94 percent, from 43,018 per game last year to 40,893 this season. The Miami Beach Bowl had the lowest announced crowd (15,262) of any matchup in the continental U.S.
▪ There are too many unworthy participants. A whopping 13 bowl teams, including three schools from Texas, finished their seasons with losing records. The roll call includes TCU (6-7), North Texas (5-8), UTSA (6-7), South Carolina (6-7), Vanderbilt (6-7), Indiana (6-7), Maryland (6-7), Mississippi State (6-7), UCF (6-7), Central Michigan (6-7), South Alabama (6-7), Louisiana-Lafayette (6-7) and Miami, Ohio (6-7). Perhaps more stunning, Mississippi State won its bowl game to post its 6-7 record.
As things stand, the bloated bowl system is capped at 40 games because of an NCAA-mandated freeze on new bowls through 2019. After that, bowl executives, conference commissioners and athletic directors will huddle to see what changes, if any, will be made to the system.
As for the 2016 postseason, here’s a list of awards for this year’s participants:
Most Underrated Team: Unranked San Diego State (11-3), the Mountain West champion, hammered Houston 34-10 in the Las Vegas Bowl to emerge as one of 11 teams to win at least 11 games. The Aztecs relied on running back Donnell Pumphrey, who ground out an FBS-best 2,133 yards in his senior season to become the NCAA career leader for rushing yards (6,405). San Diego State ranks among the nation’s top 20 teams in 22 statistical categories, including total offense, scoring defense, rushing offense and turnover margin.
Most Overrated Team: No. 21 Iowa (8-5) failed to score a touchdown in its 30-3 loss to No. 20 Florida in the Outback Bowl. It marked the Hawkeyes’ fifth consecutive bowl defeat, with the last three (2014-16 seasons) by a combined 73 points.
Best Conference: The ACC, with its 8-3 mark, ruled the roost based on winning percentage (.727). The Big 12 and Sun Belt, both at 4-2, finished with .667 marks.
Worst Conference: The MAC finished 0-6, including Western Michigan’s 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The next-biggest struggler was the American Athletic Conference, at 2-5 (.285 winning percentage).
Heisman Hangover Award: Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy recipient, secured this distinction in a big way. The Cardinals (9-4), who averaged 42.5 points per game, were held without a touchdown for the only time this season in a 29-9 loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Big Spotlight Award: USC quarterback Sam Darnold, a redshirt freshman, threw for 453 yards and a Rose Bowl-record five touchdowns in leading the Trojans to a 52-49 comeback victory over Penn State in the most entertaining bowl of the postseason.
Best New Development: UTSA, in its sixth season with a football program, earned the first bowl berth in school history. The Roadrunners dropped a heartbreaker to New Mexico, 23-20, in the New Mexico Bowl but became the latest program from the Lone Star State to get a taste of college football’s postseason.
5 Touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl by Sam Darnold, Southern California’s freshman quarterback. It’s the most in the 115-year history of any matchup in the “Granddaddy of them All.”
Worst New Development: Three notable players skipped their teams’ bowl games to protect themselves from potential injuries heading into the NFL Draft: LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Baylor running back Shock Linwood. While understandable, and likely a sound business decision for Fournette and McCaffrey, the decisions blur the lines about the minimal level of commitment fans should expect from star players in their final seasons. Expect more of this behavior, not less, going forward.
Most Stunning Result: Baylor, which entered bowl week with a lame-duck coaching staff and a six-game losing streak, pulled it together to knock off a Boise State team seeking to build on a 10-win season. But the Bears prevailed, 31-12, in the Cactus Bowl.
Least Stunning Result: Top-ranked Alabama, the nation’s lone remaining undefeated FBS team, defeated Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl in its CFP semifinal matchup.
Most Dominant Team: Clemson controlled every aspect of its CFP semifinal against Ohio State, 31-0, in the Fiesta Bowl. For those keeping score at home, Big Ten participants in the CFP playoff bracket have been outscored 69-0 the past two seasons.
Least Dominant Team: Central Michigan was blown out by Tulsa 55-10 in the Miami Beach Bowl. The contest was so lopsided that Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery let punter Dalton Parks, a senior, take a fourth-down snap at quarterback on the team’s final drive because CMU was unable to force a punt by the Golden Hurricane’s offense, which rolled for 581 yards.
Best Postseason Celebration: Kansas State players dumping a cooler filled with colorful confetti, rather than ice-cold Gatorade, on their 77-year-old coach, Bill Snyder, after the Wildcats defeated Texas A&M 33-28 in the Texas Bowl.
Worst Postseason Celebration: Oklahoma teammates throwing fake punches at running back Joe Mixon after Mixon scored a touchdown in the team’s 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. A 2014 video of Mixon punching a woman in a Norman, Okla., deli, which earned the running back a one-year suspension from the team, was finally made public in December and has triggered the ire of many college football fans. The celebration was in poor taste and incredibly insensitive to the victim of Mixon’s punch, who suffered broken bones in her face.
Alabama vs. Clemson
7 p.m. Monday, ESPN