Bowl season: College football’s winners & losers


By John Rowe - The Record (Hackensack, N.J.



After four bland NFL playoff games last weekend, football fans were starving for a quality matchup.

College football provided it with a national championship game classic between Clemson and Alabama that started on Monday night and finished Tuesday morning.

The only difference between this one and last year’s matchup of the same schools was that Clemson, not Alabama, won.

This one deserves all the curtain calls college football fans demand, but before we put a wrap on the sport until the fall, let’s take a look at the winners and losers this bowl season:

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Winners

—Dabo Swinney: The Clemson coach with the folksy name and the always active behavior on the sidelines now has the best team in the country, eight years after taking the job. Clemson’s first national title since 1981 is no fluke. Swinney, a former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, molded his program so it can be a national championship contender for years to come. The Tigers just might be.

—Hunter Renfrow: The former walk-on receiver has always been told he’s too small to play on this level. So for the second consecutive year, he ran circles around Alabama’s feared defense. Renfrow had four TD catches, including the game-winner in this one, against Bama. So much for the little man who couldn’t.

—Deshaun Watson: Those NFL scouts that have projected Watson as a second-round pick, at best, need to take another look at the Alabama-Clemson tapes. In the two games, Clemson’s quarterback threw seven TD passes and accounted for 941 yards. Plus he overcame two deficits in the final five minutes of his victory.

—The ACC: Once known more for its basketball prowess, the Atlantic Coast Conference amassed nine bowl game wins — four more than any other year. Clemson’s national title goes into the trophy case with all the titles won by Florida State and Miami in the past. There could be more looming in the near future.

—Sam Darnold: Put USC’s redshirt freshman quarterback at the top of the 2018 NFL draft list following his five TD passes and 450 yards through the air in the Rose Bowl. His poise in leading the comeback over Penn State piqued the interest of all the pro football types. He’s already being compared to past USC quarterback stars.

—Saquon Barkley: Don’t forget what Penn State’s star runner, who first said he was going to attend Rutgers, did in the Rose Bowl. He ran for two TDs and 194 yards, a school record for a postseason game. He’ll begin his junior season as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.

—P.J. Fleck: Western Michigan’s undefeated run ended in the Cotton Bowl, but Fleck was a big winner. He wasn’t interested in the Purdue job, but when Minnesota, a better Big Ten job, opened up, he jumped at it. He’s come a long way, in a short time, since his days as a Greg Schiano assistant coach at Rutgers.

—Jeff Monken: Army’s head coach enjoyed his holidays after his cadets ended their long losing streak to Navy and then beat North Texas, 38-31, in the Dallas Bowl to avenge a 17-point regular-season loss at West Point. After much searching, Army may finally have the coach who can lead it to future success.

—Troy Fumagalli: Wisconsin’s tight end, not a quarterback or halfback, was the Cotton Bowl MVP. He frustrated Western Michigan’s defense with his eight receptions, including a one-handed catch for a key late first down with his left hand — the one missing an index finger since right after his birth.

—Quinton Flowers: Flowers is a multi-talented athlete at South Florida who led the Bulls to an overtime win over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, running for 105 yards and three TDs and throwing for 261 yards and two scores. Plenty of highlight material.

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Losers

—Alabama’s defense: Going into the national championship game, some were calling the Tide’s defense the best in the history of college football. Clemson ended all that talk by scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter (Alabama had allowed 32 final-period points before that). Bama’s big defenders looked bushed down the stretch.

—Lane Kiffin: Mr. Flake added to his reputation by leaving Alabama the week before the national title game. He and Nick Saban said it was by mutual agreement, but the offensive coordinator was missing meetings because of his newest commitment as head coach of Florida Atlantic.

—Steve Sarkisian: It would be unfair to blame the Clemson loss on Kiffin’s successor, but you know some Bama fans will. Sarkisian, the former USC and Washington head coach, tried to guide freshman QB Jalen Hurts to victory and he would have if the Tide defense played up to its reputation on the final drive.

—The Big Ten: Michigan and Penn State both lost in the final minute, and Ohio State didn’t score against Clemson in the national semifinals. The Big Ten will be back, maybe as soon as next season, but at least all that bluster about it being the best conference in the country has been silenced for now.

—Lamar Jackson: The season couldn’t end any sooner for the Heisman Trophy winner. His performance in Louisville’s 29-9 loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl was an extension of his late-season problems. Maybe Swinney is right when he proclaims Watson the best player in the land.

—Jim Harbaugh: Sure, he’s needed only two seasons to turn around the program at his alma mater, but the overrated Wolverines lost three of their last four games, capped by the Orange Bowl defeat to Florida State. And let’s not forget Harbaugh has yet to beat Urban Meyer, who’s already won a national title at Ohio State.

—Urban Meyer: Meyer still deserves to be just below Saban in the listing of the best current coaches. Still, that shutout loss to Clemson was an embarrassment that Meyer has vowed will never happen again. Expect him to recruit hard leading up to the early February signing day.

—Brent Musburger: ESPN won’t fire the veteran broadcaster (they should) for his remarks on the Sugar Bowl telecast that Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon deserves a chance in the NFL even though he was caught on tape punching a woman so hard she suffered four broken bones on her face.

—Joe Moorhead: What was Penn State’s offensive coordinator, who otherwise had a very good season, thinking late in the Rose Bowl when he called for the pass that USC’sLeon McQuay III picked off and returned 32 yards with 27 seconds left to set up the game-winning field goal? Considering Trace McSorley was almost picked off the play before, why not settle for overtime?

—Rose Bowl: TV types continue to kneel at the altar of the bowl games’ “Grandaddy of Them All,” choosing to overlook the condition of the newly-installed turf that caused several Penn State and USC players to slip. Hopefully, nobody was injured because of it. Given all that goes into the game, the teams deserve a better playing surface.

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By John Rowe

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.