For the first time in the College Football Playoff era, no team in any of the Power 5 conferences survived the regular season without a loss. And while part of the sport’s allure is how dramatically one game can change the course of a season, the lesson of 2017 may be not to get too hung up on one blemish at the expense of the larger tapestry. Sure, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama are each far from perfect. But they’re perfectly suited to produced the most evenly-matched bracket in the history of the four-team tournament.
Of this year’s entrants, Oklahoma was the one most emphatically left for dead mid-season—now nobody wants to play the Sooners and their Heisman-winning QB. Clemson was expected to take a step back after losing Deshaun Watson to the NFL, but his replacement has proven to be just as irreplaceable. After losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Alabama’s presence in the top four, formerly a predictable constant, suddenly became a pitched controversy. And Georgia’s own loss to Auburn served as prelude to a redemptive rematch with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
We’ll look back on the fourth season of the playoff through the lens of the team who got as close to perfection as possible at the right time and stood at the center of Mercedes-Benz Stadium holding the trophy—and through the debates that will shape playoff races in years to come. But these other moments and memories deserve their own chapter. Below, a look at the best players, biggest disappointments and most rewarding surprises of the 2017 season beyond the playoff semifinalists.
Standout Individuals and Teams
This was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback, with USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen expected to take center stage as the big stars of the season, along with Mayfield. But it was the running backs stealing the show early in 2017, none more so than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. College football fans were well aware of Barkley’s story after his breakout 2016 season. His legend only grew this year, as Barkley ranked second nationally in all-purpose yardage; scored a touchdown in eight consecutive games, a Nittany Lions record; and became the first player in Penn State history to pile up more than 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. The tailback finished with 1,134 rushing yards and 594 receiving yards. He scored 21 touchdowns, the most in the Big Ten for non-quarterbacks. For the first two months of the campaign, he seemed to be a lock to become a Heisman finalist, but as his team faded down the stretch, he did as well, with quiet performances against Michigan State, Rutgers and Maryland.
Arizona was 2–2 and looked listless under embattled coach Rich Rodriguez when quarterback Brandon Dawkins went down with an injury on the first drive against Colorado on Oct. 7. In stepped the sophomore backup from Inglewood, Calif., who turned down USC because it didn’t want him taking snaps. That Saturday, Tate raced for 327 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries, completed 12 of 13 passes for 154 yards and another score, and led Arizona to a 45–42 win. Over the next month he eviscerated three other Pac-12 foes with his split-second cutbacks and blinding open-field speed, breaking free for a touchdown run longer than 70 yards in two of those games. Tate finished the regular season with 1,353 rushing yards to go with his 1,289 passing yards, then threw five touchdown passes in a 38–35 Foster Farms Bowl loss to Purdue.
In 2015 the Knights finished 0–12, losing by 23.8 points per game. That winter they hired Scott Frost, the quarterback of Nebraska’s 1997 national title team and an assistant at Oregon under offensive mastermind Chip Kelly. With a rich recruiting base in his Orlando backyard, Frost quickly built a high-flying attack that resembled the Ducks’—complete with a quarterback out of Hawaii, McKenzie Milton, in the role of Marcus Mariota. Central Florida’s average margin of victory during their 11–0 regular season: 25.8 points.
The Badgers beat every team on their regular-season schedule, thanks to a stout defense that overcame the loss of its leader, senior linebacker Jack Cichy, who tore his right ACL in August. A star emerged on offense: Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor raced for 200 yards in three of his first six games and ended third in the nation with 1,847 rushing yards. Taylor’s production allowed sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook to feel less pressure to win games with his arm. Though they never got the respect due from the College Football Playoff committee, which continuously put them low on its rankings because of their weak schedule, the Badgers had one of their most memorable seasons in years, finishing the regular season undefeated for the first time in school history and coming a few plays away from a Big Ten title.
Lamar Jackson (Again)
While Mayfield had sucked the drama out of the Heisman Trophy race by mid-November, last year’s winner quietly put together another stellar season as QB of a Louisville team that had bowed out of ACC contention by early October with losses to Clemson and NC State. As a junior Jackson held steady or improved on his eye-popping 2016 numbers, throwing for 3,489 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushing for 1,443 yards and 17 TDs in the regular season while cutting down on his interceptions (from nine to six) and upping his completion percentage (from 56.2 to 60.4).
After blowing a 20-point lead in a mid-October loss at LSU, the Tigers were effectively written off as a national title contender—Gus Malzahn’s team had also come up short at Clemson in early September, and no two-loss team had ever made the playoff field. In November, however, Auburn had an opportunity to get back in the championship race, with matchups against undefeated Georgia and Alabama. Beat the No. 1 team twice in three weeks and then win the SEC title game, and the playoff committee would have no choice but to break precedent. The last time the Tigers won the SEC West they needed two miraculous plays to knock off Georgia and Alabama; this time, none were required. Auburn wore down the Bulldogs with a steady diet of dark-horse Heisman candidate Kerryon Johnson in a 40–17 romp, then watched Alabama unravel in a 26–14 decision that brought the West crown back to the Plains for the first time since the infamous Kick-Six in 2013. The Tigers’ bid for a CFP spot ended one week later, when Georgia took the rematch in the championship game, 28–7.
Kiffin’s never-boring tenure as Alabama offensive coordinator ended just days before the last national championship game after his candid comments about head coach Nick Saban’s program in an interview with Sports Illustrated, which allowed him to get a head start making a splash as the new coach of lowly Florida Atlantic, winners of just three games the previous year. What started with a monotone FAU hype video that came off like a hostage tape turned into an endless string of awkward comments, in-jokes and jabs at former employers that the Internet ate up every step of the way. Meanwhile, the Owls rebounded from a tough September slate and tore through their Conference USA schedule, surpassing even the most optimistic turnaround schedule—and stoking the rumors that Kiffin might be back on the sideline of a more established program sooner than anyone could have predicted.
Smashing Freshman Debuts
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
Dobbins began the season as the backup, then introduced himself to the nation with 205 total yards in a season-opening win over Indiana and emerged as the Buckeyes’ lead back, finishing with 1,364 rushing yards and helping Ohio State win their second Big Ten title in four years.
Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri
Drew Lock quietly had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the country, and Okwuegbunam became his favorite red zone target, leading all freshman receivers with 11 touchdowns.
A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College
Dillon injected life into a floundering offense, finishing with 1,589 rushing yards and 14 TDs. His emphatic stiff-arm of a Louisville defender on his way to a 75-yard TD run on Oct. 14 was one of the highlights of the year.
The State of Iowa
Iowa State knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman 38–31 on Oct. 7 thanks to a dream afternoon for little-used senior QB Kyle Kempt, then held No. 4 TCU’s offense out of the end zone in a 14–7 Oct. 28 win over the Big 12’s last unbeaten team. The Cyclones briefly held the top spot in the conference rankings before fading to the middle of the pack with three November losses. Matt Campbell, a rising star in the coaching ranks, earned a six-year, $22.5 million extension after the first winning season in Ames since 2009. Meanwhile, one of the most stunning upsets of the season took place in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes were in the middle of a disappointing season, having lost three of their last five entering their game against No. 3 Ohio State, but throttled the Buckeyes at home, 55–24.
The Spartans played some unsightly football this year but somehow managed a six-win turnaround from 3–9 to 9–3, highlighted by a weather-delayed 27–24 win over Penn State that lasted a total of seven hours and three minutes. The onlookers who stuck it out learned that the Nittany Lions weren’t ready to play for a championship and that Mark Dantonio in the rain is the surest bet in sports.
Clemson limped into a Friday-night game in the Carrier Dome playing a banged-up Kelly Bryant at QB, and by the time Bryant suffered a concussion late in the first half, it was clear that the defending national champs were in deep trouble. Eric Dungey operated the Orange’s Air Raid to perfection, and Cole Murphy’s fourth-quarter field goal for a 27–24 win ended the Tigers’ unbeaten season.
The defense-optional Sun Devils turned in one of the biggest late-night double-takes of the year when they edged Washington 13–7 to throw the Pac-12 wide open. Three of the league’s best QBs—Jake Browning, Khalil Tate and Oregon’s Justin Herbert—traveled to Tempe and came away empty-handed.
The Panthers know how to ruin a dream season better than anyone, as 2007 West Virginia and 2016 Clemson can attest. Coach Pat Narduzzi said as much after Pitt led unbeaten Miami at halftime on Black Friday, and his charges backed him up with the type of close-out performance rarely seen from a 4–7 team, slamming the brakes on the Hurricanes’ hype train with a 24–14 win.
A great deal of buzz surrounded the two rivals in Los Angeles. Sam Darnold returned from his Rose Bowl star turn in 2016, poised to lead USC to a national title while positioning himself to be next spring’s No. 1 draft pick. UCLA’s Josh Rosen had every NFL scout’s attention as well. Meanwhile, Washington, Stanford and Washington State all had high hopes of turning promising 2016 seasons into loftier results in ’17. By November those hopes were abandoned: The Pac-12 played itself out of the CFP conversation through inconsistent performances and epic upsets. Darnold and Rosen’s NFL stock remains high, but after USC lost to Notre Dame and UCLA’s implosion cost coach Jim Mora his job, the hype for their end-of-season meeting was decidedly muted.
The sight of star sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois being carted off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with a left patella tendon injury punctuated a season-opening 24–7 defeat to Alabama from which the Seminoles—No. 3 in the preseason rankings—never recovered. After that devastating start Florida State had to wait three weeks for its next game as Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Southeast. When the Seminoles finally returned to the field they lost four of their next six games.
The SEC’s middle tier
While the conference elite—Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn—enjoyed memorable seasons in the national title hunt, the middle tier endured a tumultuous year that was reflected by a flurry of coaching changes. Texas A&M laid out the stakes clearly for Kevin Sumlin—win more than eight games or else—and the Aggies merely fought their way to 7–5, sealing Sumlin’s fate amid a rash of injuries and other mitigating factors. (He was fired on Nov. 26.) Tennessee grew tired of Butch Jones’s cliché-ridden shtick as the Vols kept inventing progressively crueler ways to lose, eventually cutting Jones loose on Nov. 12 in the middle of an 0–8 SEC campaign. Bret Bielema’s Arkansas rebuild didn’t move fast enough for boosters who wanted Malzahn to return to his home state; Bielema was sacked on Nov. 24. Ole Miss dropped Hugh Freeze on July 20 after finding calls to escort services on his school-issued phone, then asked assistant coach Matt Luke to keep the program together as NCAA sanctions rolled in. On Oct. 29, Florida fired Jim McElwain as the team’s SEC title chances sunk in the wake of quarterback turmoil and a fraud case that implicated a handful of key contributors.