Lessons learned from the 2016 college football season

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Wednesday February 22nd, 2017

The 2016 college football season delivered a little bit of everything: Seismic upsets, predictable blowouts, high-stakes nail biters, multi-overtime marathons and more. From Cal’s comfortable win over Hawaii in Australia last August to Clemson’s thrilling victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game in January, so many interesting storylines emerged that it was difficult to keep track of them in real time. Recalling them now and deriving meaning from each one is even more challenging. As we dive deeper into the post-National Signing Day, pre-spring practice lull of the off-season, the details of last fall become fuzzier by the week. But SI.com managed to sift through the chaos in hindsight to draw some firm conclusions about what unfolded. Below is a list of 10 lessons learned from the 2016 campaign:

Ohio State doesn’t rebuild, it reloads

Last season was a barometer of Ohio State’s staying power as a national championship contender in the Urban Meyer era. The previous off-season it lost 12 players to the NFL draft, including three top-10 picks (defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott and cornerback Eli Apple). With only six starters and 29% of their production, according to SB Nation, returning from 2015, the Buckeyes needed to fill their depth chart mostly with unproven reserves.

Meyer and his staff rose to the occasion by guiding Ohio State to an 11–2 record, a critical (if controversial) win over Michigan in the game of the year, and the program’s second playoff berth in three seasons. While the Buckeyes were overmatched in their 31-point drubbing at the hands of eventual title winner Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, the fact that they got there reaffirmed Meyer’s status as a top-level talent developer, roster manager and strategist. In what many programs would have chalked up as a textbook rebuilding year following critical personnel losses, Ohio State came within two games of winning it all. The Buckeyes’ accomplishments in 2016 despite a two-deep stripped of star power and so many major contributors from 2015 provide license for pundits to give them the benefit of the doubt in the preseason going forward. It’s safe to assume Ohio State is going to be very good pretty much every year.

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The ACC is on the rise

Debates about conference supremacy have always felt kind of silly. Is top-to-bottom quality the best measure? Is producing playoff teams more important? In any case, the ACC helped itself with its performance in 2016. The biggest drivers of the conference’s newfound success seem to have been superlative quarterback play and coaching upgrades, but whatever the underlying causes, the results were spectacular.

The Tigers’ victory over the Crimson Tide in January and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson’s triumph in the Heisman Trophy race are the most conspicuous pieces of evidence pointing to the conference’s upward mobility, but there are other, arguably more important indicators. Including Clemson’s playoff wins, the ACC went 9–3 in the postseason, with Florida State and Miami recording particularly impressive results in their matchups against Michigan (Orange Bowl) and West Virginia (Russell Athletic Bowl), respectively.

If the bowl record doesn’t convince you, perhaps power ratings will. Eight ACC squads (Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, NC State) finished in the top 25 of SB Nation writer Bill Connelly’s S&P + rankings, at least three more than the SEC (5), Big Ten (4), Pac-12 (4) and Big 12 (2). In addition, the ACC Atlantic and Coastal checked in as two of the nation’s three best divisions, behind only the SEC West, according to statistician Jeff Sagarin.

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The Big 12 is falling behind

We entered the 2016 regular season analyzing obscure television clauses, potential revenue splits, school honor codes and academic standards while speculating over which programs the Big 12 would add. At the end of the regular season, months after the conference reached the unexpected conclusion that it would remain at 10 members, we began preparing for a playoff with no Big 12 participants. From TCU’s unexpected dip into irrelevance to Texas’s stretch of mediocrity and ham-fisted firing of former coach Charlie Strong, the Big 12 was overrun with negative storylines from Week 1 through bowl season.

Ohio State’s thumping of Oklahoma in Norman, the Longhorns’ loss to the lowly Kansas, Iowa State’s 56-point beatdown of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State’s controversial defeat to Central Michigan were four glaring low points, but in a broader sense, the conference was marginalized in the national conversation, reduced to throwaway references to the Sooners’ remote (and ultimately futile) bid at a spot in the CFP. Baylor’s implosion in the wake of a sprawling sexual assault scandal was another black mark, one that will linger into the future as lawsuits involving the school pile up and the Bears weather financial sanctions announced by the Big 12 earlier this month.

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The SEC’s divisional imbalance is jarring

The SEC West lived up to its reputation as the nation’s best division, an unforgiving gauntlet headed by a dynastic juggernaut (Alabama) that offers virtually no easy games against weak opponents. Six of the West’s seven teams qualified for bowl games, five of them ranked in the top 27 nationally in S&P +, the Crimson Tide fell one Hunter Renfrow touchdown pass short of another playoff title and, as mentioned above, the division topped Sagarin’s ratings.

Those achievements stand in stark contrast to what the SEC East produced in 2016. Florida seemingly backed into a division title after Tennessee frittered away a 5–0 start with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and Georgia also fell to the Commodores. Gators coach Jim McElwain took advantage of weak competition to secure the program’s second consecutive league title game berth, but Florida's trip to Atlanta felt like a hollow reward in the wake of back-to-back losses to the Seminoles and Alabama by a combined score of 85–29.

Kentucky’s on-field progress after entering the season with coach Mark Stoops on the hot seat and Will Muschamp’s encouraging start with a talent-bereft roster at South Carolina are causes for optimism, but it’ll probably be a while before the SEC East catches up to the conference’s other division. No squads from the East made the top 14 of our way-too-early 2017 top 25, compared to three from the West (Alabama, LSU and Auburn).

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No more conference expansion talk!

Big 12 presidents agreed in October that the conference would not expand, bringing an end to an exasperating saga that began following a July board of directors meeting when outspoken Oklahoma president David Boren announced that “we want to move forward” with an evaluation of candidates. For the Big 12, this expansion episode was as embarrassing as it was unpredictable, complete with a stream of anonymously sourced articles about the vetting of potential new members and negotiations with television executives; a report about commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s intention to hold video conferences with at least 20 programs; and a sequence of contradictory statements from league presidents.

All of it seemed to drive home the above point about the Big 12’s decline in stature in the national landscape. While the conference fought to keep its head above water on the field, its administrators invited waves of criticism off it by turning the expansion process into a highly publicized casting call in which it hosted more than a dozen hopeful actors for auditions and then told all of them to go home without choosing one. Hopefully this is the last time the Big 12 looks into increasing its roster of programs before its grant of media rights expires in 2025. That’s probably wishful thinking, though.

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The nonconference season is important

The playoff selection committee’s criteria should become clearer as more seasons under the new system bring more difficult decisions about where to rank different teams. Yet one clear message from 2016 was that programs can’t waltz through September feasting on FCS pushovers and expect to be rewarded with an invitation to the final four. Nonconference schedules matter. Ohio State’s inclusion in the national semifinals seemed to underscore this point.

The Buckeyes, which dominated a 10-win Tulsa team in Columbus and scored a massive victory at Oklahoma in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, qualified for the CFP even though they dropped a head-to-head game against Penn State and watched the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten championship (keep in mind that the committee, according to its official protocol, is instructed to “place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and “head-to-head competition”). And not only did Ohio State make the field of four, it ranked ahead of Washington, a Power 5 conference champion that breezed through a putrid non-league slate (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State).

The Buckeyes’ placement in the CFP may have rankled Nittany Lions fans who felt their favorite program should have gotten in at Ohio State’s expense, but it also suggests the committee strongly considers how programs perform before conference play. That consideration should impel more programs to schedule challenging nonconference matchups without fear that losses will seriously harm their chances of competing for national titles.

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Alabama is not slowing down

The disappointing conclusion to the Crimson Tide’s season hardly diminished the feeling that the program is still rolling. Even though Alabama couldn’t outlast star quarterback Deshaun Watson and Clemson in Tampa, its run to the championship game amounted to a statement of continuity. The pieces will change from year to year, and offensive coordinators may come and go, but the Crimson Tide are going to keep winning big as long as Nick Saban is calling the shots in Tuscaloosa.

They entered 2016 with seven draftees and a starting quarterback to replace, but it quickly became clear that Alabama was well equipped to chase college football’s top prize again after claiming it the previous season. The trampling of USC in Week 1, the smooth ride through the SEC and throttling of the Gators in the conference championship game cemented the Crimson Tide’s position atop the Power 5 food chain. As other SEC programs stumbled around it, Alabama devoured everything in its path. It took one of the greatest players ever, Watson, delivering an epic performance to deny Saban his sixth championship ring (four of which have come with the Crimson Tide, one with LSU).

Alabama will have to account for more NFL-related departures and major offensive coaching staff turnover this off-season, but you can count on it entering the fall at or near the top of the polls and every power rating before embarking on another run to the playoff.

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The AAC is clearly better than the rest of the Group of Five

The division between the Power 5 and Group of Five conferences is plain on several fronts, including fan support, coaching salaries and recruiting. But one can argue that the distinction is reductive as it pertains to what actually takes place on the field. The American Athletic Conference, technically part of the Group of Five, remains a cut above the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West, Conference USA and the Sun Belt. MAC program Western Michigan’s invitation to a New Year’s Six Bowl last season (it lost the Cotton Bowl, 24–16, to Wisconsin) obscured the American’s collection of quality programs.

Houston, which handled Big 12 champion Oklahoma in September and looked like a playoff threat through the first month of the season before losing a close game at Navy, was the AAC’s marquee attraction, but the conference placed two different programs in the final playoff rankings (Temple and the Midshipmen at 24 and 25, respectively) and included six programs that finished in the top 55 nationally in S&P+. By contrast, the other four Group of Five leagues featured seven programs combined in that range. Also, the ACC West ranked higher than every other Group of Five division in Sagarin’s ratings, and the AAC East ranked higher than every one except the MW Mountain. The AAC is a strong league with talented coaches that merits its own category in college football’s Division I taxonomy.

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The Pac-12 balance of power has shifted

Prior to last season, either Oregon or Stanford had won the Pac-12 every year dating to 2008. While USC languished amid a rotating cast of coaches and NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, and UCLA repeatedly failed to meet expectations, the Cardinal and Ducks lorded over the West Coast with two radically different formulas (supersonic offense for Oregon, bruising physicality for Stanford) that, for a long time, seemed impervious to challenges from other conference members. That changed in 2016, when Washington pulled off the rare feat of eclipsing outsize preseason hype.

The Huskies served notice of the changing of the guard in the Pac-12 by bludgeoning the Cardinal, 44–6, in late September, and their 70–21 evisceration of the Ducks in Eugene the following week accentuated their ascent to the top of the league totem pole. Washington couldn’t hang with Alabama in the playoff semifinals, but a 24–7 loss to one of the most dominant teams in college football history doesn’t override the broader message coach Chris Petersen’s squad sent in 2016: Washington is a national power again, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

And yet, the Huskies will have a hard time beating out a different Pac-12 program for a playoff bid in 2017. The Trojans are tracking towards another New Year’s Six Bowl after winning their final nine games to close 2016, including a 13-point triumph over Washington in Seattle in November. It would be foolish to discount the Cardinal in the league title race, and Oregon’s future looks rosy with Willie Taggart at the helm, but expect the Huskies and USC to run the show in the Pac-12 in 2017 and possibly beyond.

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The Big Ten East is a beast

Ohio State and Michigan made good on their preseason rankings as top 10 teams in 2016. Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines notched double-digit victories, qualified for New Year’s Six Bowls (with the former advancing to the national semifinals) and finished in the top five nationally in average point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule. None of that was surprising; we already knew Ohio State and Michigan were great. Yet the Big Ten East revealed last season that its strength does not derive exclusively from its two flagship programs led by iconic coaches.

After getting out to a rocky 2–2 start, a stretch that so unnerved Penn State fans that athletic director Sandy Barbour felt compelled to publicly comment on coach James Franklin’s job security, the Nittany Lions ripped off a nine-game winning streak to earn a date with the Trojans in the Rose Bowl. With stud running back Saquon Barkley and starting quarterback Trace McSarley back to front offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s devastating up-tempo attack, Penn State should begin 2017 as, at worst, a co-favorite to win the division.

Meanwhile, Maryland delivered a promising first season under rookie coach D.J. Durkin and followed up by signing the most decorated recruiting class in program history this February. Chris Ash is still hard at work digging Rutgers out of a deep pit of futility, but one also-ran doesn’t counterbalance the East’s overall depth. And even if Michigan State can't rise to its 11-plus-win standard under Mark Dantonio in 2017, improvement on last season’s 3–9 campaign feels like a sensible expectation.

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