The best and worst of the year in college football

0:55 | College Football
How Deshaun Watson exacted revenge against Alabama
Thursday January 12th, 2017

The 2016 season offered us one of the great national title games in history, several breakout performances and plenty of thrills. Louisville's Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, but was he this season's biggest breakout star? Who made the best play of a season that had several great candidates?

Since there isn't a game to look forward to until August, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the past four months.

Best Game: Clemson vs. Alabama

The Tigers and Crimson Tide squared off in the first national championship rematch since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series, and the matchup definitely lived up to the hype. Alabama had been 97–0 when holding double-digit leads entering the fourth quarter under coach Nick Saban, but it couldn’t stop Clemson stud quarterback Deshaun Watson in the final frame. He tossed two touchdown passes, including a two-yard game-winner to former walk-on wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, to cap a scintillating performance (36-of-56, 420 yards, 3 TDs) against one of the most dominant defenses ever and cinch the Tigers’ first title since 1981.

Biggest breakout star: Sam Darnold

After redshirting last season, Darnold spent the summer battling veteran Max Browne for the starting job. By the end of the season, Browne had announced he was transferring to Pitt, and Darnold had led the Trojans to a nine-game winning streak, including a three-point victory over Penn State in an epic Rose Bowl. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was Jackson’s biggest competitor for this honor, but whereas Jackson faded down the stretch, Darnold thrived. He outplayed Washington’s Jake Browning in a 26–13 win in Seattle on Nov. 12, and no quarterback was better during the postseason than Darnold was against the Nittany Lions (33-of-53, 453 yards, five touchdowns).

Most disappointing team: Michigan State

Even though most observers pegged the Spartans as the third-best team in the Big Ten East Division entering the season (behind Ohio State and Michigan), a fall of this magnitude was unfathomable. After edging an overhyped Notre Dame team in South Bend on Sept. 17, Michigan State dropped nine of its final 10 games to finish 3–9 and 1–8 in conference play. The Spartans’ lone win against Big Ten competition came against lowly Rutgers. It’s not uncommon for teams to take a step back while retooling after talented players graduate or leave for the NFL, but this was a stunning descent for a program that had notched at least 11 wins in five of its previous six seasons.

Most surprising team: West Virginia

The biggest question surrounding the Mountaineers last summer was whether they would have a new coach in place by the end of the season. By the middle of October, an entirely different, more promising query took prominence: Could West Virginia make the College Football Playoff? The Mountaineers ultimately fell short, and a humbling loss to eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma in Morgantown on Nov. 19 drove home the gap that existed between coach Dana Holgorsen’s team and the nation’s elite. Still, this 10-win season will go down as a positive mark on Holgorsen’s résumé instead of the campaign that prompted his firing.

Best play: Central Michigan's game-winning TD against Oklahoma State

This play should not have counted; the officiating crew was suspended after it falsely awarded Central Michigan an untimed down at the end of the game. But the misapplication of a rule won’t stop us from admiring what took place on the field. With the Chippewas trailing trailing by three points, quarterback Cooper Rush took a snap in the shotgun around midfield and heaved the ball downfield to wide receiver Jesse Kroll. Kroll came down with the pass near the 10-yard-line and lateraled the ball to fellow wide receiver Corey Willis, who raced across the field and dove into the end zone for a touchdown. For Oklahoma State, this loss stings, but the play that led to it was awesome.

Best win: Pitt 43, Clemson 42

The Tigers had been tested before their meeting with the Panthers in Death Valley. Clemson beat Troy and Louisville by only six points, respectively, and needed overtime to get past North Carolina State. Yet while those teams ultimately couldn’t deliver a knockout blow against the Tigers, Pittsburgh slayed the eventual national champions thanks to a combination of powerful running from star tailback James Conner, an ill-timed interception from Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and a 48-yard field goal from a kicker whose surname (Blewitt) and missed extra point earlier in the game suggested he wouldn’t connect. The victory ended what was the nation’s longest active home winning streak at 21 contests.

Worst loss: Clemson 31, Ohio State 0

There is nothing wrong with losing to the best team in the country. It’s the margin of defeat and the stakes involved that earned the Buckeyes’ Fiesta Bowl flop this distinction. Quarterback J.T. Barrett completed only 19 of his 33 passing attempts for 127 yards and Ohio State managed only 88 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per carry as the Tigers’ fearsome front seven dominated in the trenches. This marked the first time in Urban Meyer’s coaching career that one of his teams had been shut out, and the first time in 23 years that the Buckeyes didn’t score a single point. It seems unlikely that it will happen again while Meyer is in Columbus.

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