Everything you need to know following conference championship weekend
Conference championships. They went roughly as we expected, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of excitement. The College Football Playoff should be set now, and even the New Year’s Six participant from the Group of Five conferences looks set.
Here are the top takeaways from this weekend in college football:
- Penn State keeps up its end of the bargain
Penn State had to beat Wisconsin to have any hope of reaching the College Football Playoff, and they did just that with a win that clinched the Big Ten title last night. Quarterback Trace McSorley was once again impressive, and if nothing more he is setting the stage for Penn State to be big a player in next year’s College Football Playoff picture. He went four-for-seven on passes travelling 20 yards or further downfield, including three touchdowns. Crucially, his offensive line protected him well enough that he was under pressure on just eight of his 33 dropbacks. Wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Saaed Blacknall were both outstanding, combining to catch all 14 passes thrown their way for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely to be enough for the Nittany Lions to make the College Football Playoff. While some will point to the fact that they beat the Ohio State Buckeyes, and that’s an argument I definitely understand, their two losses earlier in the year mean that they really don’t have anyone to blame but themselves. Regardless, they end the year as Big Ten champions, and will play in a prestigious bowl game with the chance to prove the playoff committee wrong if they do indeed elect to omit them from the top four in the final rankings.
- Clemson closes the door on any Penn State playoff hopes
Penn State had to win, but after Washington’s emphatic win over Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship on Friday night, they needed Clemson to slip up in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. That didn’t happen, and instead Clemson walked away with their second-straight ACC title and likely another appearance in the College Football Playoff. It wasn’t easy, and as the 42-35 score line suggests, they were made to work for it, but by hanging on to win their conference title, Clemson proved they deserve their seat at the table.
DeShaun Watson was outstanding, keeping alive any slim hopes he has of stealing the Heisman Trophy from Lamar Jackson with a clinical performance. He went 23-for-34 for 288 yards as a passer, and was also Clemson’s leading rusher with 85 yards and two scores. All in all he accounted for five touchdowns, but is was Clemson’s defensive superstar who sealed the deal. With Virginia Tech driving with the chance to force overtime, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley stepped in front of a Jerod Evans pass to snag his second interception of the game and all but seal the deal.
- Bedlam takes a quarter to liven up
Who had 58 points total for Oklahoma versus Oklahoma State? No? How about a three-point first quarter? While it took some time to get going, it was an exciting game that saw Oklahoma win the Big 12 Championship for the second year in a row. They are highly unlikely to make the College Football Playoff, but it was still a strong finish to the season from quarterback Baker Mayfield, who continues to write himself into Sooners folklore and has graded higher this year than he did a year ago.
Having one of his best games of the year, Mayfield went 13-of-19 for 288 yards, but saw four of his six incompletions come as the result of dropped passes by his receivers. He was only under pressure on six of his 21 dropbacks, but still found a way to complete 80.0 percent of his passes on those plays for 133 yards and three touchdowns. With a PFF grade of 83.1, he is at least giving Heisman voters something to think about with how well he’s played down the stretch. His top target, wide receiver Dede Westbrook, left the game injured, but still managed to average a ridiculous 11.10 yards per route run when he was on the field.
- Washington leaves little doubt
Really all Washington should have needed to do on Friday night was pick up the win and take home the Pac-12 Championship, but their performance against Colorado on Friday night left little doubt as to the top team on the West Coast. I highlighted their running backs, and in particular Lavon Coleman, as potential X-Factors on the PFF College podcast, and with Jake Browning producing the lowest game grade of his Washington career at 47.0, it was absolutely needed.
Coleman and Myles Gaskin, with PFF grades of 73.7 and 74.0 respectively, powered Washington to victory behind impressive blocking by left tackle Trey Adams (79.3) and left guard Jake Eldrenkamp (81.1). Both of them rushed for over 100 yards, and they combined to force 13 missed tackles, with 159 of their yards coming after contact. With the strength of the performance of the left side of their offensive line, it’s not surprising to note that they picked up 156 yards on runs to the left of their centre. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King proved their worth with another strong showing, combining to allow just one catch from the seven times they were targeted.
- Davis’ strong first half powers Western Michigan to New Year’s Six bowl appearance
It felt a little bit ridiculous that it was even up for debate whether Western Michigan would be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game after a 13-0 season, but Navy’s loss to Temple ended any chance of them being left out in the cold. Western Michigan kept up their end of the bargain with a close win over Ohio in the MAC Championship Game on Friday night. While the game was close in the end, the Broncos looked dominant in the first half, with wide receiver Corey Davis — the No. 5 player on the PFF big board — looking impressive as always.
Davis dropped two passes but reeled in eight receptions for 144 yards, including a long catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter that highlighted the skills that make him a strong candidate to have success at the next level. Davis ends the season having averaged 3.60 yards per route run — the second-highest mark in the nation — and will provide an exciting player to watch when the Broncos take the field in their bowl game. Ultimately, Western Michigan’s schedule means that they aren’t going to get serious consideration for the College Football Playoff, but in earning a New Year’s Six bowl appearance, they have the opportunity to make the committee look very silly if they can pick up the win and end the year 14-0
- Alabama is still Alabama
The fact that Alabama winning the SEC Championship with ease feels like a complete non-story is a testament to just how good they’ve been in 2016. The best team in the nation, they had put 16 points on the scoreboard in the first quarter despite not picking up a first down, with touchdowns coming in the form of an interception return by Minkah Fitzpatrick, and a blocked punt return by freshman running back Joshua Jacobs.
Their trio of running backs in Bo Scarborough, Damien Harris and Jacobs combined to force nine missed tackles on 24 carries, and the Alabama formula for success of strong defense and a strong running game looks set to continue into the College Football Playoff. The defense was once again incredible against Florida, with the usual suspects of Reuben Foster and Jonathan Allen having strong games. Allen was a force as a pass-rusher, picking up two sacks and two quarterback hurries on 36 snaps. While those two frequently get the headlines though, it’s worth highlighting once again just how good Dalvin Tomlinson has been against the run. With four tackles resulting in a defensive stop from just 16 snaps in run defense, he was an absolute force, producing a run stop percentage of 25.0 percent in the game.
- Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky put up the points in the Conference USA title game
If Bedlam didn’t provide the triple-digit points total many were hoping for, the Conference USA Championship tried to fill the void, with Western Kentucky taking home the title in a 58-44 shootout. Running back Anthony Wales was the star of the show for the winners, rushing for 209 yards and four touchdowns and forcing four missed tackles. The quarterback and wide receiver duo of Mike White and Taywan Taylor were outstanding once again, and Taylor finishes the season averaging 3.76 yards per route run — the best mark of any wide receiver in college football this year.
He wasn’t the only dominant receiver in action in the game though, and Carlos Henderson’s 3.44 yards per route run average is the third-best mark in the nation. Against Western Kentucky he picked up 202 yards on nine receptions, with receptions coming against four different Hilltoppers’ defenders in coverage. Their 10-3 record might not seem outstanding, but when you consider that Western Kentucky’s three losses came against Alabama, Vanderbilt, and a three-point loss to Louisiana Tech midway through the year, coupled with the fact that they are on a seven game winning streak, they are a team not many teams will be looking forward to squaring off against in a bowl game — particularly given their strength on offense.
PFF Stats of the Week
- Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield had an adjusted completion percentage of 89.5 percent against Oklahoma State, going 13-for 19 with four drops. Mayfield finishes the year at 79.6 percent — the second-highest adjusted completion percentage in the nation.
- Mayfield was joined by Sooners’ running back Joe Mixon in putting up eye-popping stats this week. Mixon averaged 9.36 yards after contact and forced five missed tackles on 11 carries, good for an elusive rating of 360.1.
- Two wide receivers, Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor and Penn State’s Saeed Blacknall saw their quarterbacks have a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on throws when they were targeted.
- Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley was outstanding in coverage on Saturday night, allowing just two receptions for 23 yards in coverage, and picking off two passes. That was good for a passer rating of 0.0, meaning it would have been smarted for Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans to throw the ball away than it was to throw into his coverage.