The college football regular season is over, 14 weeks of unexpected plot twists and turns that have left us where we are today, with a few bowl games left, and four teams that can be crowned national championship.
It really is amazing how fast it all flew by, and now that the regular season is in the books, what were the biggest shockers of the year?
We’ll get to disappointments tomorrow, but first, here were the 11 most pleasant surprises of the college football season.
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Ohio State Buckeyes
Yes, I know it feels preposterous to list Ohio State as a pleasant surprise. Many (myself included) picked them to make the playoff in the preseason.
Still, let’s not short-change what Ohio State did either, or how far they’ve come. This is a club which lost a staggering 16 starters off last year’s team, including five first round picks and a dozen guys that were drafted overall. Yet somehow they managed to navigate the toughest schedule in college football, pick up three wins against teams that finished in the Top 10 nationally and are the brink of another potential national championship.
No, the Buckeyes aren’t the traditional “surprise.” But when you consider everything they lost off last year’s team, they are a pleasant surprise none the less.
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Western Michigan Broncos
It’s a similar situation with Western Michigan. Considering that this club went 8-5 the last two seasons and were picked by the media to win the MAC West in the preseason, some would say their season hasn’t been a “surprise.”
But look at the Broncos through a different perspective. If I had told you on September 1st that only two FBS teams would finish the regular season undefeated, how many guesses would it have taken you to get to Western Michigan? My hunch is it would have taken you awhile, which is why they’re on this list.
Sam Darnold, USC quarterback
Considering the Trojans started the year ranked in the Top 25 and finished in the Top 10, putting them on a list like this seems pretty hit-or-miss. At least until you look back to how the Trojans have gotten here.
After a 1-2 start, USC inserted Darnold as their starting quarterback and never looked back. Yes, he lost his first game as a starter but then ripped off eight-straight wins after that. That included handing Washington and Colorado their only Pac-12 regular season losses of the year.
Look for Darnold to have a breakout game nationally in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. And don’t be surprised if he starts near the top of everyone’s 2017 Heisman list.
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West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll, behind schools like Texas Tech and TCU -- a pair of clubs the Mountaineers beat by over 50 points combined.
Add it up, and WVU was undoubtedly one of the most pleasant surprises in college football this season. And the school awarded coach Dana Holgorsen with a fat contract extension.
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Because Wisconsin has sat in the Top 10-15 in the polls for so many weeks now, it’s easy to forget where they began the season. And where they began is unranked and a double-digit underdog to LSU in their opener.
Of course the entire trajectory of the Badgers’ season changed by beating the Tigers on opening night (which also marked the beginning of the end for Les Miles in Baton Rouge) and they never really looked back. By Week 2 they were in the Top 10, and proved to be a thorn in the side of the Big Ten East, losing to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State by a touchdown each.
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Jalen Hurts, Alabama quarterback
Fine, fine, I’ll admit it: I was one of those dopes who picked against Alabama in the preseason. Shame on me. But in my defense, when you’re breaking a third-straight, first-year starter at quarterback you’re bound to take a step back, right? Apparently not if you’re Alabama.
The crazy thing is, not only did Alabama break in a new quarterback, but he was a freshman, and it didn’t impact the Tide at all. If anything it actually made them more dangerous, with Hurts’ dual-threat ability adding an extra dimension to the Crimson Tide’s offense. On the season Hurts threw for 22 touchdowns and rushed for 12 more, leading an offense which averaged over 40 a game.
The scary part? Hurts is only a freshman, and the rest of college football has to deal with him at least two more years. And for those already asking: No, I will not be betting against Alabama to start next season.
Ed Orgeron, LSU head coach
Do me a favor, close your eyes and think about this for a second: If I had told you on September 1st that Ed Orgeron would finish the season as LSU’s full-time head coach, what would your reaction have been? Would you have laughed at me? Had me admitted to the hospital for medical testing? Check my birth certificate to make sure I wasn’t a long lost descendent of the Orgeron clan?
When you put it in that perspective, Orgeron might be the single most baffling story of the entire college football season. Remember, this is a guy who is best known as “that dude from the Blind Side” and in football circles was seen as little more than a fire-breathing defensive line coach. And now he has the keys to one of the 5-6 best jobs in the sport.
And to be clear, he deserves it. After taking over for Miles, Orgeron went 5-2 overall and breathed new life into the program. Only time will tell if he is the right fit long-term. But he’s the perfect fit right now.
It’s hard to know exactly where to put the Huskies on this list, since some (myself included) touted them as a national championship contender in the preseason.
But actually becoming a championship contender after 14 games is a pretty difficult task, especially when you finish 12-1 in the Pac-12, win the conference title game by 30 points and put up 70 points on an Oregon team you haven’t beaten an over decade.
Want a different perspective on how far Washington has come in such a short time? They opened at 75-1 to win the national championship this winter, behind schools like Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ole Miss who aren’t even bowl eligible. They are now 12-1 in Vegas.
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Lamar Jackson, Louisville quarterback
Prior to the season we at FOX Sports did a ranking of the Top 100 players in college football entering the year. Not only was Jackson not on the list, I personally fought to keep him off. How could we justify putting a guy who completed just 54 percent of his passes in 2015, with 12 touchdowns and eight picks on a list of the Top 100 players in the sport?
Obviously I was wrong, as Jackson emerged as one of the most fascinating and galvanizing forces in college football this year, tossing 30 touchdowns and adding 21 touchdowns on the ground. Even more impressive he finished ninth in college football in rushing yardage this year, ahead of guys like Saquon Barkley, Myles Gaskin, Leonard Fournette and others.
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Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions were picked a respectable fourth in the Big Ten East this year, but what is most “surprising” about their entire run isn’t where it started, but where it stood in the middle of the season. After four games Penn State was just 2-2 overall and were coming off an embarrassing 39-point loss to Michigan. Many were calling for James Franklin’s job.
That’s also what makes Penn State’s turnaround so spectacular. Since then the Nittany Lions have won nine straight, upset No. 3 Ohio State, and took down the toughest division in college football on their way to a Big Ten title. I think they should be in the playoff. However, 11-2 and a spot in the Rose Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize either.
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The Colorado narrative has been talked about at length this year. But it still is amazing to reflect back on to what they did this year.
Remember, the Buffaloes hadn’t even been bowl eligible in nine years, and in Mike MacIntyre’s first four seasons at the school they were 10-27 overall. They hadn’t won more than one Pac-12 game during that stretch either, and were picked to finish dead last in the Pac-12 South this preseason.
Instead, they went on to finish 10-3 overall and at 8-1 won the Pac-12 South. The Buffaloes are, without a doubt, the most pleasant surprise in college football this season.