Four teams have secured spots in the College Football Playoff, including two teams from the SEC.
The fourth spot to round out the field was determined in prime time, with Michigan beating Iowa to win the Big Ten championship and reach the playoff for the first time.
One obstacle potentially blocking Cincinnati from making Football Bowl Subdivision history was removed when Baylor beat Oklahoma State for the Big 12 championship. That heartbreak for the Cowboys was great news for the Bearcats, which beat Houston to finish the regular season unbeaten and will not have to sweat out the playoff selection committee’s final decision.
Over in the SEC, Alabama and quarterback Bryce Young put on a clinic against Georgia’s defense to claim another playoff berth. The Bulldogs’ disappointment is great news for the SEC, which can crow over placing two teams in the top four for the second time in the format’s history.
Those teams and others top the list of Saturday’s winners and losers:
The Crimson Tide defied the odds and beat Georgia 41-24 to win the SEC. The win should lock Alabama in as the top seed in the playoff and create a more favorable matchup in the semifinals. After months of being dismissed as very good but not great, and as Georgia was mentioned alongside the best teams and defenses in recent history, Alabama restored order to the SEC by dealing the Bulldogs a humbling defeat.
Here’s your Heisman Trophy winner. Young was already destined to claim the honor unless he’d completely wiped out in a lopsided loss to Georgia. Instead, not only did Alabama claim another conference championship but Young put together another outstanding display of touch and command with 421 yards and three touchdowns against the nation’s top-ranked defense. Before meeting Alabama, the Bulldogs’ defense had not allowed more than two passing touchdowns in any game and given up more than 300 passing yards just once.
Michigan struck early with two quick scores, one on a 75-yard trick play and the other via a 67-yard run, before Iowa slowed down the pace of play. Instead of grinding out a narrow win, however, the Wolverines added 21 points in the fourth quarter and won 42-3 for the program’s first Big Ten championship since 2004. The Wolverines are locked into the semifinals, perhaps as the top overall seed but no lower than second, after this long-anticipated breakthrough under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The 35-20 win against the Cougars will give Cincinnati a shot against some of the powerhouse programs in college football history. Who’s to say the Bearcats can’t keep rolling? They’ve lost just once in the last two years, to Georgia in last year’s Peach Bowl, and have been playing at a very high level since finding another gear against SMU last month. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has also been playing as well as ever, giving him an outside shot at joining Young as a finalist for the Heisman.
The Bears are the unexpected champions of the Big 12 after a memorable goal-line stand against Oklahoma State preserved a 21-16 win. The game’s final play will find a permanent home in the program’s highlight reel: Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson was bounced outside by Baylor pressure and eventually tackled just inches from the end zone to preserve the win.
Kenny Pickett and the Panthers beat Wake Forest 45-21 for the program’s first ACC championship. One of several players in contention for second place in the Heisman voting, Pickett threw for 253 yards and had one of the top plays of the weekend with his fake-slide touchdown run in the first half. As a program, Pittsburgh had been building toward this moment under coach Pat Narduzzi, but that growth had coincided with Clemson’s stranglehold on the conference. The Panthers took advantage of the Tigers’ down season and will reach a New Year’s Six bowl.
Winless during the pandemic season, Northern Illinois is back atop the MAC for the fifth time since 2011 after beating Kent State 41-23 in the conference championship game. After ranking near the bottom of the league in almost every key category heading into the weekend, the NIU defense was helped by the Huskies’ ball-control game plan and held Kent State to 391 yards of offense. The Golden Flashes went into Saturday ranked eighth nationally in yards per game.
And then there was a third out-of-nowhere conference champion: Utah State went from 1-5 in 2020 to the top of the Mountain West under first-year coach Blake Anderson after beating San Diego State 46-13. That final score was nearly as unexpected; the Aztecs were in the midst of the finest regular season in modern program history and were in line for the New Year’s Six had Houston beaten Cincinnati. Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns as the Aggies reached double-digit wins for the fourth time in program history, all coming since 2012.
It was a bittersweet Saturday for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who beat Appalachian State 24-16 to finally claim a Sun Belt championship after several near misses. But they did so in the program’s final game under coach Billy Napier, who accepted the same position at Florida. Napier oversaw an impressive four-year run for what has historically been a program near the bottom rung of the FBS: Louisiana lost the conference championship game in 2018 and 2019, while last year’s game was canceled following an outbreak of COVID-19 in Coastal Carolina’s program.
The loss does little to impact the Bulldogs’ championship hopes other than make that semifinal matchup a little more difficult: Georgia would’ve met Cincinnati with a win but may now face Michigan, should the Wolverines beat Iowa to win the Big Ten. Of far bigger concern is the impact on the psyche of a group of players and coaches who have been knocking on the door of a national championship under Kirby Smart but have not proven to themselves — or anyone else, for that matter — that they can beat Alabama.
Undone by four interceptions from quarterback Spencer Sanders and an inability to punch the ball into the end zone given multiple tries on Baylor’s doorstep, the Cowboys ended up less than a yard short of reaching the playoff. The final sequence of events will haunt Oklahoma State and coach Mike Gundy.
San Diego State
There was a path for SDSU to play in one of the major bowls, though that avenue closed after Cincinnati claimed the American championship. That Utah State scored 46 points stands out amid the Aztecs’ otherwise superb record on defense. Only twice all season had SDSU given up 30 or more points, one coming in a win against Utah, and the program hadn’t allowed more than 40 points in a game since the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl against Army.
The Demon Deacons will be disappointed by missing on the program’s first ACC championship since 2006, but that shouldn’t overwrite what has been a hugely successful year under coach Dave Clawson, who recently inked an extension that will keep him with the program for the near future. Wake had chances against Pittsburgh but was unable to draw within a possession in the fourth quarter before the Panthers’ iced the game with about 12 minutes left.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg