Most Important College Football Game for Each Top 25 Team During 2016 Season
How did each College Football Playoff team get in the final ranking? Click through to see the most important game each Top 25 team played during 2016.
Sometimes it is instantly evident that a game will hold significant weight for the course of the entire season. Other times it is hard to know in real time which games will prove pivotal until everything has rattled out and the regular season has come to a conclusion. Teams that seem like Top 25 fixtures early in the season inevitably tumble out of the running, while others start slowly and ramp up to Top 25 status over the course of the year.
Now that the College Football Playoff selection committee has locked in its final Top 25 rankings of 2016, it is time to look back and see which regular-season games were most important in determining where each team ended up in the hierarchy. Click ahead to see our picks for the make-or-break contests that defined the season for each Top 25 team.
Oct 8, 2016; Annapolis, MD, USA; Navy Midshipmen quarterback Will Worth (15) runs during the first quarter against the Houston Cougars at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
25. Navy Upsets Top-10 Houston 46-40 (Oct. 8)
This year the AAC West was once again supposed to belong to Houston. The Cougars were coming off a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State and were 5-0 after opening the season with a big win over eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma. They came to Annapolis as a 14.5-point favorite, but the Midshipmen managed to hold off a Houston comeback bid to seal their spot atop the division. The win was Navy’s first over a top-10 team since 1984, and it propelled the Midshipmen into the AP Top 25 for the first time in 2016.
Throughout the first half, the two division rivals traded points. Houston scored first on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Greg Ward Jr. to Steven Dunbar. After a long kickoff return, Navy needed just one play to reply on a 12-yard Chris High run into the endzone. Houston took a 20-17 lead midway through the second quarter, but the hosts kicked a 38-yard field goal on the last play of the half to knot things up at the intermission. Despite giving up nearly 500 yards of offense, the Midshipmen made some key stops and forced three turnovers to stifle the Cougars. Those turnovers resulted in 17 Navy points, including a Josiah Powell pick-six.
Had the Cougars won this contest, Houston would have hosted Temple in the AAC championship game after winning the tiebreaker against Navy and Tulsa. Instead, this upset launched the Midshipmen into the Top 25 and set them up to challenge Western Michigan for the Group of Five’s automatic bid into the Cotton Bowl for the second half of the regular season.
Dec 3, 2016; Annapolis, MD, USA; Temple Owls defensive back Nate Hairston (15) celebrates defensive back Delvon Randall (23) and wide receiver Ventell Bryant (1)after intercepting Navy Midshipmen quarterback Zach Abey (not pictured) pass during the second quarter at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
24. Temple Snatches AAC Crown in 34-10 Title Win over Navy (Dec. 3)
Unfortunately for Navy, they ran into Temple in the AAC championship game. The Owls opened the season 1-2 after losses to Army and Penn State, and they were just 3-3 at the midway point following a defeat at Memphis. But Matt Rhule’s team rattled off six straight wins on the back end of the season, including the win at home over South Florida that secured the AAC East, and managed to claw their way into a showdown with Navy in Annapolis for the conference crown.
Everything went right for Temple in the title game on the road. They scored a touchdown on the opening drive, a 12-play, 75-yard march that culminated in a 15-yard Jahad Thomas run for the points. The defense held Navy on downs the first time the Midshipmen had the ball, and the Owls turned the next drive into another TD. On the next Navy possession, Sean Chandler forced a Darryl Bonner fumble that was recovered by Avery Williams, and Temple made them play with Phillip Walker’s second touchdown pass of the game.
The teams traded field goals before the intermission, and Navy pulled within two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, but the result was effectively sealed by halftime. The win allowed the Owls to squeak into every Top 25 list for the first time of the season, and positioned them to play a bowl game against Wake Forest in… Annapolis, site of their last glory for the AAC title.
Nov 12, 2016; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (6) attempts to bring down Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) during the second half at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
23. Pittsburgh Comeback Stuns Clemson 43-42 (Nov. 12)
Pittsburgh had already knocked off one conference winner when they took down Penn State at home in non-conference play in September. They nearly defeated another team that contended for a Power Five crown when they narrowly lost to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Yet few people gave the Panthers any shot of taking down Clemson in South Carolina on the second weekend of November. Pitt, coming off losses to Virginia Tech and Miami, entered the game as a 22-point underdog against the College Football Playoff contender.
Instead, Pat Narduzzi’s squad scored the first point and the last points en route to dealing Clemson its only loss so far this season. Nathan Peterman threw for 308 yards and five touchdowns, James Conner rushed for 132 yards and a score, and Pitt held the Tigers to just 2.0 yards per carry and 50 total rushing yards. Late in the third quarter, Wayne Gallman’s third short-yardage TD run of the day put Clemson up 42-34. Conner scored his touchdown with 5:17 remaining, but a failed two-point conversion nearly derailed the comeback attempt. But the defense held to get the Panthers offense one last chance with 58 seconds remaining.
Peterman ran for nine yards before completing passes of 21 and four. Two incompletions later, Chris Blewitt was launching a 48-yard attempt with six ticks on the clock:
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) November 13, 2016
The win gave Pitt a second win over teams ranked in the top five of the final College Football Playoff Top 25. Though they didn’t make it into the Top 25 themselves until after Thanksgiving weekend games, there was no way the selectors could possibly leave the Panthers off their final list because of their high-impact wins.
Oct 8, 2016; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) sacks North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) in the second quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
22. Virginia Tech Beats North Carolina 34-3 in ACC Coastal Play (Oct. 8)
Sometimes the game that decided a division title game occurs in the final weeks of the season. And sometimes the pivotal contest occurs much earlier in the season and becomes the fulcrum that swings one team into a conference championship game and the other to the sidelines to wait for a bowl invitation. The October showdown between Virginia Tech and North Carolina, played in a deluge as Hurricane Matthew swept up the Atlantic seaboard, was one such game that ultimately made the difference in the ACC Coastal.
This might just be the ugliest game of the season that featured two Power Five conference contenders. The Hokies held North Carolina to just 131 yards on 62 snaps of the ball, as the Tar Heels insisted on letting Mitch Trubisky throw the ball 33 times. Sticking to the ground game, Virginia Tech gutted out 189 tough rushing yards and two touchdowns. Jerod Evans attempted half as many passes with better overall results, finishing 7-of-17 for 75 yards and two scores. Justin Fuente’s team enjoyed a 2-to-1 advantage in possession, finished +2 in turnover margin on, and thwarted all four UNC attempts to go for it on fourth down.
That win in Chapel Hill spelled the difference between staying home on the first weekend of December or heading to Orlando to play Clemson in the ACC championship game. In Fuente’s first season as the head coach in Blacksburg, this game pushed the Hokies all the way from 25th to 17th in the AP Top 25 and they entered the Coaches poll for the first time of the year at 19th.
Sep 24, 2016; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers tight end Ethan Wolf (82) catches a pass for a touchdown against the Florida Gators during the third quarter at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
21. Tennessee Exorcises Florida Demons in 38-28 Win (Sept. 24)
Tennessee had lost 11 straight to Florida entering their late-September showdown in Knoxville. And in the first half, it appeared as though the Gators were on course to make it an even dozen in the winning streak. Storming to a 21-0 lead in the first 25 minutes, Jim McElwain’s team was making the Volunteers look foolish at every turn. Neyland Stadium had little to celebrate other than a 28-yard field goal that at least prevented a shutout. Down 21-3 at halftime, the hosts seemed outmatched by the visitors.
Then the second half happened. Tennessee came out of the locker room a changed team. All you need to do to notice the difference in fortunes is to look at the split in Joshua Dobbs’ stats between the first half and the second half:
It wasn’t a perfect performance by the veteran Tennessee quarterback, but it was a turnaround that opened the door for a major comeback. Florida’s defense had no answer for the Vols in the second half, and the UT defense held firm on all but one drive in the second half to finish September undefeated.
While Tennessee didn’t manage to do enough to win the SEC East this year, this win vaulted the Vols to 11th in both major Top 25 polls. Butch Jones’ team ended the year on the outside looking in on the AP and Coaches rankings, but the College Football Playoff looked at wins like this earlier in the season and decided to push Tennessee onto their list.
Nov 24, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; LSU Tigers running back Derrius Guice (5) points to the crowd after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
20. LSU Finishes Short Season with 54-39 Win over Texas A&M (Nov. 24)
It was finally the year where time ran out on Les Miles in Baton Rouge, but LSU still managed to pull things together over the second half of a weather-shortened season. Under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Bayou Bengals entered the final game of the season with a bowl game in their future and had a chance to finish third in the SEC West. Of course, they had to travel to Kyle Field to take on a Texas A&M team that also could finish third in the division with a victory.
In hostile territory, the Tigers put up more than 600 yards of offense for their most balanced performance of the entire season. Danny Etling, the Purdue transfer who took over for Brandon Harris at quarterback, threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns while completing more than 70 percent of his passes. Derrius Guice, who had emerged as a stud running back due to injuries to Leonard Fournette, broke the LSU single-game rushing record with 285 yards and four scores. The defense forced a fumble late in the first half, and the Aggies never could pull back into the contest.
The win pushed LSU back into the penultimate College Football Playoff Top 25, and they consolidated that position even while sitting idle over championship weekend in early December. The 5-2 turnaround under Orgeron resulted in the school removing the interim label and giving him the full-time gig, and in a year where LSU could have fallen dramatically the A&M game represented their ceiling.
Nov 19, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oregon Ducks wide receiver Darren Carrington II (7) makes a catch in the end zone against Utah Utes defensive back Brian Allen (14) for the game-winning touchdown with 2 seconds remaining in the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Oregon won 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
19. Utah Loses 30-28 to Oregon to Fall from Pac-12 South Race (Nov. 19)
Not every important game leaves happy memories for a Top 25 team. Heading down the stretch, Utah had a shot at winning the Pac-12 South for the first time since shifting conferences in 2011. The Utes were 8-2 as they welcomed Oregon to Rice-Eccles Stadium, and all they needed to do was beat the sub-.500 Ducks to set up a winner-take-all showdown for the division crown the following weekend against Colorado. Then Oregon snatched victory from the clutches of defeat, and Utah’s Thanksgiving weekend in Boulder lost a lot of its allure.
It looked as though Kyle Whittingham’s team had everything under control in the first half. The hosts scored first on a 24-yard TD run by Cory Butler-Byrd, and they held the Ducks to a single field goal to go to the locker room up 7-3 at the intermission. Joe Williams added a 12-yard score on the ground in the third quarter, and entering the last 15 minutes Utah was up 14-10. Suddenly the offenses warmed up in the fourth quarter, as Utah and Oregon traded touchdowns on the last five possessions of the game. Utah looked to have secured victory when Troy Williams found Evan Moeai for a 30-yard TD strike with less than three minutes remaining. Then this happened:
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) November 19, 2016
Darren Carrington’s circus catch put Oregon up by two with two seconds remaining, and Utah couldn’t work a miracle on the kickoff. While Utah had done enough over the course of the year to remain ranked, they dropped 10 spots down the College Football Playoff Top 25 and lost their chance to play for the Pac-12 South.
Sep 17, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) carries the ball against the USC Trojans during a NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
18. Stanford Picks Apart USC 27-10 (Sept. 17)
Stanford had one of the more roller-coaster seasons in 2016, as they lost their grip on the Pac-12 North yet still managed to set themselves up for a shot at another 10-win season pending their bowl game. They struggled at times against the better teams on their schedule, losing by 38 at Washington and by 26 at home to Washington State. They could muster no offense against Colorado in a 10-5 defeat in Palo Alto. Their only win over an eventual College Football Playoff Top 25 team came early in the season when they took down USC.
Of course, this was a Trojans squad that had not yet decided to go from Max Browne to Sam Darnold at quarterback. Then again, Stanford was still playing Ryan Burns at QB instead of Keller Chryst. Against a stout USC defense, Christian McCaffrey wreaked havoc. The all-purpose threat finished the game with 260 total yards and two separate highlight-reel touchdowns both in the air and on the ground. The Cardinal defense held USC more than 130 yards and nearly 23 points below their season averages on offense to rack up the most decisive victory of the year on the Farm.
As USC kept moving up the College Football Playoff Top 25, the selection committee saw fit to concurrently bump Stanford onto its list as well. The Cardinal closed out the regular season with five straight wins, fueling its return into the polls after tumbling out of the picture in October, but this game was the one that secured the final ranking for David Shaw’s crew.
Nov 19, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver D.J. Chark (82) is tackled by Florida Gators defensive back Teez Tabor (31) during the second half at Tiger Stadium. The Gators defeat the Tigers 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
17. Florida Wins Rescheduled and Relocated LSU game 16-10 (Nov. 19)
For the second straight season under head coach Jim McElwain, the Gators managed to hold off the rest of the pack to win the SEC East. They did so despite losing to Tennessee for the first time in 12 years, and entering their final game of SEC play Florida was still in danger of falling behind the Volunteers in the standings. Originally slated to play LSU on Oct. 8 in Gainesville, Hurricane Matthew led to the game’s postponement. A contentious rescheduling battle caused the game to shift to Baton Rouge on the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Forced to play their pivotal game on the road, Florida looked listless in the first half. Their opening drive took 10 plays to net just 13 yards, eating over six minutes of clock in the process. LSU scored on the ensuing drive on a Derrius Guice TD run, and Florida responded with a field goal. The defenses kicked into high gear, and the Tigers took a 7-3 lead into the locker room at the intermission. Florida took the lead on their first play of the second half as Austin Appleby hit Tyrie Cleveland on a 98-yard touchdown play. LSU tied the game on a short field goal early in the fourth quarter, but two more Eddy Pineiro chip shots were enough to give Florida the win on the road.
Had the Gators lost in Baton Rouge, the door would have been open for Tennessee to take the SEC East in its final game against Vanderbilt. The fact that the Vols lost to the Commodores made this game no less significant in retrospect, as it guaranteed Florida a shot at the league title and ensured the Gators would maintain its place in the College Football Playoff Top 25 even after closing the regular season with losses to Florida State and Alabama.
Nov 19, 2016; Morgantown, WV, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Jordan Parker (9) recovers a fumble during the second quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
16. West Virginia’s Big 12 Dream Ends in 56-28 Loss to Oklahoma (Nov. 19)
Like Utah, West Virginia’s most important game of 2016 wasn’t a victory but a defeat that ended conference title hopes. On a snowy day in Morgantown, the Mountaineers had a chance to shift the balance of power eastward with its first Big 12 crown since moving to the conference in 2012. Instead, Oklahoma stampeded West Virginia, doubling up the score in a 56-28 rout that ensured the league championship would remain in the state of Oklahoma for another season.
The WVU defense held the Sooners on the opening drive of the game, but then handed the ball right back on a fumbled punt. Six plays later, Samaje Perine punched in the touchdown from a few yards out and the blowout was on. Oklahoma scored touchdowns on four of its next five possessions to open up a 34-7 lead by halftime. Things turned from bad to worse in the third quarter, as Jordan Evans intercepted Skyler Howard deep in Oklahoma territory and returned the pick 80 yards for a defensive touchdown. Justin Crawford rushed for 331 yards in the defeat, but never managed to find the endzone.
The loss wasn’t enough to knock the Mountaineers out of the College Football Playoff Top 25, but it prevented them from climbing into the top ten. Dana Holgorsen’s team closed out the year with wins over Iowa State and Baylor to get to 10-2, but the Mountaineers were left with a lot of what-if scenarios to think about after missing their chance to take the Big 12 title and threaten for a spot in the playoffs.
Dec 2, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver Corey Davis (84) runs the ball for a TD in the first half against the Ohio Bobcats at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
15. Western Michigan Survives Ohio 29-23 for MAC Title (Dec. 2)
For Western Michigan, every game built greater significance as 2016 moved on through the autumn months. With each passing week that the Broncos remained undefeated, the stakes continued to stack up. But for any Group of Five team, a shot at playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls is tied to winning a conference championship. So even after WMU won all of its first dozen games, they still had to beat Ohio for the College Football Playoff committee to invite them to the Cotton Bowl.
Against the Bobcats, Western Michigan struggled to score through the first 20 minutes of the game and again during the entire second half. Over an eight-minute span before halftime, Zach Terrell found Corey Davis and Carrington Thompson for WMU’s only touchdowns of the game. Though they went to the locker room up 23-7, the Broncos were still in for a fight after the intermission. Ohio pulled back two touchdowns in the third quarter and pulled within three points midway through the fourth. The Bobcats were driving for a winning score in the final minute when Greg Windham’s pass was picked off by Robert Spillane to seal the WMU victory.
The win gave Western Michigan its first MAC title since 1988 and ensured that their first 12 wins would not come in vain. While they would have been sweating it out under the BCS system hoping to reach the top 12, the only stipulation in the current system is that the Group of Five champion ranked highest in the College Football Playoff Top 25 makes it in. In a year where Boise State and Houston were the overwhelming preseason favorites to contend for the berth in the Cotton Bowl, P.J. Fleck’s team stayed perfect and are headed to the Metroplex as a result.
Sep 24, 2016; Auburn, AL, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Danny Etling (16) looks for a receiver on the last play of the game against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium. The play was later overturned and the Auburn Tigers beat the LSU Tigers 18-13. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
14. Auburn Kicks Six To Outlast LSU 18-13 (Sept. 24)
After opening the season 1-2 with losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn’s seat was starting to get mighty warm on the Plains. As September wound down, Auburn prepared for a visit from an LSU team sitting at its own crossroads. They were unable to do much against a stout Bayou Bengals defense, but Auburn still managed to take down LSU in a game that proved the last one of Les Miles’ coaching career in Baton Rouge.
Auburn was able to grind out nearly 400 yards of offense, but Malzahn’s offense was unable to get the ball across the goal line. Instead, they depended on the leg of veteran kicker Daniel Carlson for all of their points. Carlson went 6-of-6 kicking the ball, booting field goals of 51, 29, 29, 31, 37, and 29 yards. The Tigers defense came up strong against LSU, holding the visitors just 4-of-13 on third downs and forcing a fumble deep in Auburn territory. LSU still had a chance to win the game on a final drive, but time ran out 10 minutes from the goal line as Miles and crew mismanaged the clock one final time before being terminated.
The win over LSU turned things around for Auburn, serving as the start of a six-game winning streak in the heart of the season. It took a full fortnight, but the win helped propel Malzahn’s team into the AP and Coaches Top 25 polls and opened the door for the Tigers to earn the SEC’s Sugar Bowl berth this season. Had they lost, Auburn would have finished fourth instead of second in the SEC West.
Sep 17, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball against the Florida State Seminoles during the second half at Papa John
13. Louisville Topples Florida State 63-20 (Sept. 17)
Early in the season, it was hard to get a solid read on Louisville. The Cardinals had toppled Charlotte and Syracuse in their first two games by a combined score of 132-42. But given the level of competition they had faced, it was hard to verify any level of dominance. Thus when Florida State headed to Louisville in mid-September for a top-ten showdown, the game served as a referendum for which ACC Atlantic team would prove Clemson’s toughest challenger in 2016.
Louisville wasted no time against the Seminoles, scoring its first touchdown in less than three minutes on the opening drive and building up a 35-10 lead by halftime. Lamar Jackson vaulted to the top of Heisman charts with his performance against the FSU defense. The sophomore dual-threat quarterback finished the day with 216 passing yards, 146 rushing yards, and five total touchdowns. Meanwhile the Louisville defense held Florida State under 300 total yards of offense even though the Seminoles had four more minutes of possession.
The win lifted Louisville from 10th to third in the AP Top 25, and the Cardinals also moved from 10th to fourth in the Coaches poll. Even after later losses to Clemson, Houston, and Kentucky knocked Louisville out of the running for the College Football Playoff and a New Year’s Six berth, this win assured them of a high ranking in the Top 25 and the school’s first Heisman.
Sep 17, 2016; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys wide receiver James Washington (28) makes a catch as Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Avonte Maddox (14) defends during the first half at Boone Pickens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports
12. Oklahoma State Knocks Off Pitt 45-38 (Sept. 17)
When people think of Oklahoma State’s 2016 season, they will probably first draw attention to the Sept. 10 loss to Central Michigan on a play that technically went against the rulebook as written. But the game that came a week later was far more significant for their long-term positioning in the Top 25. The Cowboys managed to do something that top-five schools Clemson and Penn State were unable to do — won against Pittsburgh.
The two teams traded points all game long. Pitt held the lead for less than a minute and a half, going up 10-7 in the first quarter on a 48-yard Chris Blewitt field goal. Oklahoma State responded with Ben Grogan’s 45-yard kick on the next drive. Once James Washington scored on a 29-yard TD pass from Mason Rudolph early in the second quarter to go up 17-10 the Cowboys would not trail again in the contest. The Panthers pulled level twice more in the third quarter, first on a fumble return and then on a 50-yard Quadree Henderson TD run. The defenses had their day in the fourth quarter, and the deciding points came following an 86-yard passing play from Rudolph to Jhajuan Seales that took OSU to the 1.
Rennie Childs punched in his fourth score of the day, and Nathan Peterman was picked off on Pitt’s next drive to seal the win. While the Cowboys would not yet climb into the Top 25 polls after this win, the takedown of the Panthers opened the door for Oklahoma State to stay highly ranked even after falling to Oklahoma in the Bedlam game to end the year.
Sep 5, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) sacks Mississippi Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (10) during the second half at Camping World Stadium. Florida State Seminoles defeated the Mississippi Rebels 45-34. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
11. Florida State Comes Back to Beat Ole Miss 45-34 in Orlando (Sept. 5)
Even with a new starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, the Seminoles were expected to contend for the ACC and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ranked fourth in both the AP and Coaches preseason Top 25 lists, Florida State had even received first-place votes in the first ranking of the year. Yet Florida State’s year could have collapsed before it even really got off the ground, as they needed a second-half comeback just to get through the season opener.
Opening the year with a neutral-site game against Ole Miss in Orlando, the Seminoles found themselves in a 15-point hole at halftime. Chad Kelly had already thrown three touchdown passes for the Rebels, and only a late FSU touchdown in the final minute prevented the deficit from looking even worse. After the break, though, Florida State turned on the heat. Including the score right before halftime, the Seminoles put up 33 unanswered points to claw out an insurmountable lead. Ole Miss scored just once more in the fourth quarter, but could never pull back within single digits against a defense that forced four turnovers and allowed Ole Miss less than 20 minutes of possession.
While Florida State failed to finish better than third in the ACC Atlantic, this win still opened the door for Jimbo Fisher’s team to play in a New Year’s Six game for the sixth straight season. A statement win on neutral turf gave FSU a bigger win than anything that division rival Louisville could muster despite having a better conference record, and thus the Seminoles got the nod ahead of the Cardinals for the ACC’s spot in the Orange Bowl despite the head-to-head loss.
Nov 26, 2016; Boulder, CO, USA; Utah Utes defensive back Boobie Hobbs (1) attempts to tackle Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Kabion Ento (17) in the first half at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
10. Colorado Prevails 27-22 Over Utah to Take Pac-12 South (Nov. 26)
Entering the second half of the season, Colorado was 4-2 yet was still something of a riddle. Their four wins had come against Colorado State, FCS Idaho State, and the two Oregon schools, while they had lost road games at Michigan and USC. Then the Buffaloes went on a five-game winning streak in the second half to set up a shot at winning the Pac-12 South for the first time since moving from the Big 12 in 2011. First they had to beat the other neophyte to the league, or else the Trojans would end up in the conference championship against Washington.
Colorado couldn’t get anything going on its opening drives, fumbling away their first chance with the ball and then giving up the first points to Utah on a 55-yard punt return by Boobie Hobbs. The Utes missed a chance to extend the lead to 10 on their next possession when Alex Phillips missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. At that point the Buffaloes snapped out of their funk on offense, scoring on the next three drives to take a 13-7 lead into halftime. Utah would tie things up on a pair of 22-yard Phillips field goals in the third quarter, but a Sefo Liufau touchdown pass and a Kenneth Olugbode fumble return made the difference. The Utes scores with 1:34 remaining, but a failed two-point conversion ended the comeback bid.
Sefo Liufau finished with 329 combined passing and rushing yards and two scores as Colorado fended off Utah’s challenge and stayed ahead of the Trojans for the Pac-12 South title. While they fell to Washington and dropped from a New Year’s Six invite to the Alamo Bowl, Mike McIntyre’s team finished the job to remain among the ten best in the final College Football Playoff Top 25 despite the blowout loss to the Huskies.
Nov 12, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Darreus Rogers (1) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Huskies during the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
9. USC Deals Washington 26-13 Loss in Seattle (Nov. 12)
USC was ranked 20th in the preseason AP Top 25 and 17th in the Coaches poll. But a 1-3 start to the season dropped the Trojans out of the rankings, and they remained out of the national picture through the month of October and into November. Even after rattling off five straight wins to get to 6-3 and become bowl eligible, pollsters had little reason to vault Clay Helton’s team back into their Top 25 lists. Heading to Seattle on the second weekend of November, USC was a 7.5-point underdog and few expected them to take down the undefeated Huskies.
The two teams traded field goals in the first quarter, but that masks a growing confidence from young starter Sam Darnold at quarterback. The QB shook off an early interception on USC’s opening drive to finish the first half 13-of-17 for 185 yards and a touchdown. Darnold also rushed for 14 yards and was responsible for 11 first downs before halftime. Washington struck quickly on a 70-yard Jake Browning TD pass to John Ross in the third quarter, but the Huskies would get no closer on the scoreboard. Darnold finished with 287 yards as the Trojans bled clock on the ground, and Ronald Jones II led all rushers with 93 yards and a score.
USC ultimately failed to win the Pac-12 South ahead of a Colorado team that it beat head-to-head, but the Trojans won the bigger prize in the end. While the Buffaloes won the division, they finished behind the Trojans in the College Football Playoff Top 25 and dropped from the Rose Bowl to the Alamo Bowl. Thanks to this high-profile win by USC, they will be the Pac-12 team at the Granddaddy of Them All for the first time in eight years.
Sep 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy (48) reacts after stopping LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) short of a first down in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
8. Wisconsin Takes Down LSU 16-14 at Lambeau (Sept. 3)
There weren’t high expectations for Wisconsin entering the 2016 season. Neither major Top 25 poll had the Badgers ranked in the preseason, and they were 12.5-point underdogs against LSU in their season opener. Even though they were playing in their home state in the first college game held at Lambeau Field since 1983, few gave Wisconsin any hope of even keeping pace with a tough Tigers team. Instead, a tight victory set the tone for a season that ended with a spot in the Big Ten championship.
Through the 20-plus minutes of the game, the two defenses were shining brightest. Wisconsin finally got on the board after recovering a Derrius Guice fumble deep in LSU territory, converting the turnover into three points. Rafael Gaglianone kicked another field goal after the Badgers defense forced a turnover on downs on the next drive, and Wisconsin added to its lead on the first drive of the second half as Corey Clement punched the ball into the endzone. Les Miles’ Tigers turned things around on a Tre’Davious White pick-six and another touchdown on a short field after a Wisconsin fumble.
Gaglianone, who was sidelined just three games into the season after requiring back surgery, came up the hero at Lambeau. Wisconsin chewed up more than four minutes of clock with its power-running game, getting into position for a 47-yard field goal. With 3:47 remaining, Gaglianone punched through his third field goal of the game. The Badgers defense intercepted Brandon Harris in the final minute as LSU marched within range of a game-winning kick of its own, and Wisconsin never left the Top 25 for the rest of the year.
Dec 3, 2016; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Geno Lewis (5) scores a touchdown against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the second quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
7. Oklahoma Embraces the Bedlam 38-20 for Big 12 Title (Dec. 3)
Just like last year, it all came down to Bedlam for the Sooners. And just like last year, Oklahoma dominated their in-state rival to claim the Big 12 title. The win over fellow top-ten school Oklahoma State vaulted two-loss Oklahoma all the way up to seventh in the final College Football Playoff Top 25. For a while it looked as though the Cowboys would be the ones claiming vengeance in Norman, but Bob Stoops’ team pulled it together and ran away with a convincing win by the end.
Ben Grogan put Oklahoma State on the scoreboard first with a chip-shot field goal for the only points of the first quarter. Then Baker Mayfield hit Dede Westbrook on a 69-yard scoring play to open the second quarter, and Oklahoma kicked a field goal of its own on its ensuing drive to go up 10-7. It looked like the Pokes had snatched back a 17-10 halftime lead at halftime when Mason Rudolph ran in a six-yard score with 1:34 left, but the Sooners responded with a 76-yard TD drive that took just 1:01 to execute.
Tied after the break, Oklahoma made the necessary adjustments to dominate their rivals. Rudolph ended the game completing just 44 percent of his passes for less than 200 yards. For the Sooners, Samaje Perine stole the show. Perine showcased the burst that allowed him to set the NCAA single-game rushing record last season, finishing with 239 yards and a touchdown. The win gave Oklahoma the Big 12 title and the league’s spot in the Sugar Bowl.
Sep 17, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5) breaks a tackle by Colorado Buffaloes tight end Chris Bounds (43) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won 45-28. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
6. Michigan Takes Down Pac-12 South Champ Colorado 45-28 (Sept. 17)
Michigan finished the regular season as the highest-ranked team with two losses in the College Football Playoff Top 25. A big reason why the Wolverines placed sixth in the final rankings came down to a run of three straight games where they knocked off Power Five division winners. The streak started with a win at the Big House that seemed solid if unspectacular at the time. What we did not know then was that Colorado would emerge as the Pac-12 national champion, which caused this contest to grow in significance with each passing week of the regular season.
The visiting Buffaloes actually rolled up a 21-7 lead in the first quarter on Michigan. Sefo Liufau went 8-of-10 in the quarter with two touchdown passes to Devin Ross, while Derek McCartney returned a fumble for another score. As the Wolverines sputtered on offense, only a blocked punt returned for a touchdown kept them from remaining scoreless. Led by De’Veon Smith’s 87 yards and a TD, the Michigan backfield combined for 168 yards and three scores to fuel the comeback. Michigan went into the locker room up up 24-21 after 17 unanswered points in the second quarter.
Liufau threw a 70-yard strike to put Colorado back up on the first drive after halftime, but once he was knocked out of game the Buffaloes failed to score again. Over the next two weeks the Wolverines routed Penn State and survived Wisconsin, but looking back this is the game that ultimately kept Michigan at the head of the two-loss pack in the final Top 25.
Oct 22, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Garrett Sickels (90) sacks Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
5. Penn State Upsets Ohio State in 24-21 Comeback (Oct. 22)
Entering the 2016 season, there were few people who gave Penn State a chance at winning a stacked Big Ten East. The Nittany Lions were expected to reach a bowl game, but few anticipated that they would go on a hot streak that led them all the way to the conference title. At the midway point of the season, they were 4-2 and preparing for the biggest showdown of their season. The result of that game would flip the script in the Big Ten and pave the way for James Franklin’s crew to play for and win the conference crown.
Through three quarters it looked as though Ohio State was going to run away with the result in Beaver Stadium. Trace McSorley had completed just five of his 18 attempts through the first 45 minutes for 95 yards, as the Buckeyes held the Penn State quarterback completely in check. Up 21-7 entering the final quarter, what transpired next was nothing short of a miraculous turnaround of fortunes.
McSorley went 3-of-5 in the final quarter, throwing for 59 yards and adding a rushing touchdown as well. The Nittany Lions pulled within 21-17 on McSorley’s touchdown run and a 34-yard Tyler Davis field goal. With four and a half minutes left, Ohio State lined up for a field goal to restore a touchdown lead. Instead, the kick was blocked and Grant Healy returned the ball 60 yards for the winning points. The 24-21 comeback opened the door for Penn State to pip Ohio State and Michigan for the Big Ten East and facilitated their rise up the Top 25.
Sep 30, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies linebacker Connor O’Brien (29) sacks Stanford Cardinal quarterback Ryan Burns (17) during the first quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
4. Washington Beats Stanford 44-6 to Take Over Pac-12 North (Sept. 30)
For the past few seasons, Stanford has owned the Pac-12 North. Entering the season, Washington was highly touted as the team that could take down the Cardinal this season and compete for a College Football Playoff spot out of the conference. Entering the game, though, the Huskies had played three scrubs in Rutgers, Idaho, and FCS Portland State along with a close call at Arizona. Stanford arrived in Seattle as the higher-ranked team in the AP Top 25 after a 3-0 start.
By halftime the game was entirely out of reach, as Washington stormed to a 23-0 lead in the first two quarters. Over the course of the contest Stanford managed just 213 total yards of offense against a stout Huskies defense. The Cardinal, normally a fairly disciplined team under David Shaw, committed 11 penalties in Seattle and fumbled the ball twice. Meanwhile, Myles Gaskin rushed for 100 yards and two scores while Jake Browning completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 210 yards and three TDs.
The win reconfigured the pecking order in the Pac-12 North, even as Stanford went on to win nine games over the regular season. A win by the Cardinal would have created a three-way tie in the division with each team 1-1 against the others. Washington vaulted into the top five of the AP Top 25 after that win, positioning themselves for a run at the College Football Playoff.
Nov 26, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Curtis Samuel (4) celebrates after scoring the game winning touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines in the second overtime at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won the game 30-27 in double overtime.Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
3. Ohio State Beats Michigan 30-27 in Double Overtime (Nov. 26)
One could make a solid argument that Ohio State’s 21-point victory over Oklahoma on Sept. 17 was more important in terms of bolstering their strength of schedule. After all, that was a win over a Power Five conference champion, on the road, in a showcase non-conference affair. Had Oklahoma won, they and not the Buckeyes would likely be in the College Football Playoff instead of the Sugar Bowl. And it was Ohio State’s best win over the year over a Top 25 opponent, the only time they truly managed to assert their will over another highly regarded foe.
But no game is ever quite as important to Ohio State as the annual showdown against That School Up North. Had Michigan won, they would have reached the Big Ten championship game and Ohio State would be out of the Playoff. Instead, a Buckeyes win sent Penn State to the title game and allowed Urban Meyer’s team to get in on the merits of earlier wins like that Oklahoma rout. Against the Wolverines, Ohio State was outplayed for long stretches, but rallied to force the first overtime game in the rivalry’s long history thanks to a 23-yard Tyler Durbin field goal with one second left on the clock.
In overtime the teams traded touchdowns, the most consistent offensive output that either team experienced all day. Then Ohio State’s defense held firm in the second overtime, holding the Wolverines to a 37-yard Kenny Allen field goal, and got the ball with the chance to win. A controversial J.T. Barrett first down kept their drive alive:
On the next play, Curtis Samuel busted 15 yards for the winning score, and neither team ended up in the Big Ten championship. The win knocked Michigan down to the Orange Bowl, while even without a conference title this 11th win sent the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.
Oct 1, 2016; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Kendall Joseph (34) attempts to bring down Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) during the second quarter at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
2. Clemson Outlasts Louisville at Home 42-36 (Oct. 1)
In its bid to return to the College Football Playoff in 2016, Clemson was always going to need to win the ACC title. While a team like Ohio State can get the benefit of the doubt thanks to a deep schedule, the Tigers weren’t going to get that same benefit even if they did play tough Auburn and Troy teams out of conference. In the end, their position in the Top 25 was determined by this instant classic in prime time on the first day of October.
As Deshaun Watson hit Artavis Scott with a short touchdown pass to make it 28-10 seconds before halftime, it looked as though the Tigers were going to rattle off an easy victory at home over the Cardinals. Then Bobby Petrino’s team came out of the locker room and steamrolled the Clemson defense. Lamar Jackson bolstered his Heisman case that night by leading Louisville to 26 unanswered points and an eight-point lead, ending with 457 combined yards and three scores.
But in a battle that ultimately decided which 7-1 team got to play in the league championship game against Virginia Tech, Watson proved the more resilient quarterback. He finished the night with three interceptions, but he also threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns and added another 91 rushing yards. Wayne Gallman added another 110 yards and a TD on the ground, and Clemson came back with scores on their final two drives. The defense held firm, stopping a Louisville comeback bid a few yards short of the goal line, and Dabo Swinney’s crew secured the tiebreaker.
Sep 17, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough (9) moves past Mississippi Rebels linebacker DeMarquis Gates (3) during the fourth quarter of the game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Alabama won 48-43. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
1. Alabama Survives Ole Miss Comeback Attempt in 48-43 Win (Sept. 17)
In 2015, Ole Miss came to Tuscaloosa and dealt Alabama its only loss of the season as Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns. The Crimson Tide mounted a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the Rebels in the end. This year the return journey to Oxford nearly derailed Nick Saban’s quest for a wire-to-wire run atop the Top 25 and a perfect regular season, but the Tide managed to prevent Ole Miss from starting a proper winning streak.
Down 24-17 at halftime after trailing by double digits for most of the first half, the Crimson Tide rallied to survive their biggest road test of 2016. No team managed to keep the score within single digits of Alabama this season except Ole Miss, but once the two teams came out for the second half the Rebels were unable to keep pace any longer. This time around Hugh Freeze’s team was the one trying to come back in vain, as Kelly threw for 421 yards and three scores this time around in the losing effort.
By surviving their first SEC test of the season, Alabama weathered the biggest storm they would see during the regular season. While a single loss was never going to doom the Tide from reaching the College Football Playoff, hanging on to remain undefeated allowed Saban’s crew to ensure that it nabbed the top seed and got to stay close for their semifinal against Washington at the Peach Bowl.
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