College football winners and losers: Ohio State/Alabama debate, Lane Kiffin, more

The fighting is over. The College Football Playoff field is set. Soon, there will be bowl games. Lots and lots of bowl games. Oh -- and Army-Navy. But the 2017 college football regular season is in the books. 

It went by fast, as it always does. It seems like only yesterday when Penn State running back Saquon Barkley put up 358 all-purpose yards on Iowa ... or when Florida State was actually, you know, ranked. A lot has happened in a short amount of time. As we've done every week for the past three months, let's take a few moments to reflect on everything that made this season so special. 

With only bowl season remaining, it's time to look back at the best and worst from not only Week 14, but the rest of what made 2017 so memorable. Here are our biggest winners and losers from the past few months. 

Winners

Clemson: Dabo Swinney has built a program so dominant that its third straight College Football Playoff appearance was practically an afterthought in the Alabama-Ohio State debate (more on that later). The Tigers also have a chance at three straight national championship appearances and back-to-back titles. If somehow Clemson wins it all again, it would be time for a serious discussion about which program is actually the best in college football -- and whether there's a new dynasty. That's what we could be witnessing a month from now. 

Big dreamers: I wrote previously that Texas A&M and UCLA instantly upped their chances of emerging as sleeping giants for hiring Jimbo Fisher and Chip Kelly, respectively. Add Nebraska to that list with Scott Frost returning home. Granted, Nebraska is in a bit of a different situation, for better and for worse. It has a more recent history of success than A&M and UCLA, but a more difficult recruiting situation. There's no nearby pool of top-end talent from which to mine. Nebraska recruits nationally, but that's both a blessing and a curse. Still, Frost was a proven program builder at UCF and he knows what to sell for Nebraska. Competing for Big Ten titles is no longer just a dream for this frustrated but proud program, it will soon be a reality. 

Miami's turnover chain: Some gimmicks are bad, like Tennessee's turnover trash can. (To be clear, the Vols were not the sole proprietor of this trashy #brand of coaching motivation, but given Butch Jones' propensity for clichés, it made them an easy target for ridicule.) But some gimmicks are outstanding. Miami's turnover chain falls, thankfully, into the latter category. It was so quintessentially "The U" -- a perfect throwback to the program's culture -- that it was endearing, and it's hard for Miami to be described as endearing. 

It was the most fun a shtick could be and the players loved it. It got so big that it spawned second-rate knockoffs and even sushi rolls. We're to the point now where the chain is so famous that people will find any reason to mock it. So congrats, Miami. You may not be back, but you've definitely made it. 

FAU: And the most ingenious coaching hire of 2017 goes to ... FAU and Lane Kiffin? Congratulations if you had those odds this time last year. Be sure to collect your winnings in the back. In one season, Kiffin has surpassed Jim Harbaugh as the most entertaining follow on Twitter, made FAU a national talking point as a program outside the Power Five and, oh yeah, won a Conference USA championship while going undefeated in conference play. Some of these things depend on the other. FAU wouldn't be the darling it is now if Kiffin hadn't won nine straight games. Still, this was unquestionably a perfect hire for FAU. It has the coverage every program craves and the on-field success to boot. CBS Sports' own Dennis Dodd gave this hire an A- last year ... and somehow that still seems too low in hindsight. New grade: A+. 

The Kinnick Wave: This was the human interest story that went beyond college football. It grabbed the sports world by the heartstrings and didn't let go. There's no much else to say about Iowa's best new tradition that hasn't already been said, but allow me this: it's a visual reminder of the broader ideas at work in this world. We get so caught up in football sometimes that we need a moment to remind ourselves about not only what's important, but what's good. In a single gesture, my sometimes-wavering faith in humanity is restored.  

Losers

Conference championship games: Yeah, conference championships took it on the chin this year. The Big Ten Championship Game didn't matter at all. Despite the fact that Ohio State played one more game than Alabama, somehow the two went from having "very little separation" in the playoff race to the Crimson Tide being the "clear" No. 4 team on Selection Sunday. Committee chair Kirby Hocutt painted himself into a corner with that explanation -- which is easy to do in that job -- but let's be honest: Ohio State was left out of the playoff because it got stomped by Iowa ... which ... fine. That's understandable. 

But you could infer from Hocutt's rationale that the Big Ten title could mean something significant. It didn't. And if you want to examine the fallacy of conference championships even more, look at the Big 12. The rematch between Oklahoma and TCU didn't cost the Sooners a playoff spot, but it did cost the Horned Frogs a New Year's Six bowl appearance. Swinging in the opposite direction of the Big Ten title, you could say the Big 12's extra game meant too much. And in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn, which beat Alabama, lost out on a playoff spot because it lost to Georgia. So by association, the Iron Bowl didn't mean anything. I'm not saying conference titles need to mean everything -- lord knows the deeper issue is misaligned divisions -- but shouldn't they mean something?

The Heisman Trophy voting: I have another axe to grind with college football, this one in regards to the Heisman: change your voting format. There are three spots on a Heisman ballot and that's not nearly enough, especially in seasons like this when there's almost no drama. We know Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is going to win. We've known for a month. But don't let the worst-kept secret in the sport prevent a handful of other players deserving of recognition from being flown to New York for a couple of days. This year's finalist list is great, make no mistake. Mayfield, reigning winner Lamar Jackson and Stanford running back Bryce Love are all deserving finalists. But so is San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, who only led the nation with 2,027 rushing yards. And so is Saquon Barkley, who is second in the nation in all-purpose yards. And so are a number of other players on both sides of the ball. Expand the voting list by two or three spots and let a few other guys get the limelight for a minute. ESPN has an hour to kill for the Heisman presentation anyway. 

Oregon: To be clear, I'm not saying Oregon belongs in this category for losing coach Willie Taggart to Florida State. I'm saying it stinks royally for Oregon that it lost Taggart after one year. Taggart would have jumped from just about any job to take FSU. It just so happened that the Ducks were the unlucky ones. Oregon is now changing coaches for the third time in five years after enjoying two coaches -- Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti -- from 1977 to 2008. The turnover has been a mixture of circumstances. Chip Kelly left for a shot at the NFL, which is understandable. Mark Helfrich took Oregon back to the national championship game, but was fired two years later. Taggart took his dream job after one season. Going insular worked for a while in Eugene, and when it works, there are few situations better. Now the Ducks have to start over to find someone who will be a more long-term solution. 

Tennessee: Remember when #GRUMORS were the sanest part of Tennessee's coaching search? It's been more than three weeks since Tennessee fired Butch Jones and only now, with Phillip Fulmer as athletic director, is the search nearing an end. Maybe. The timeline of events, from fans revolting and spreading questionable (if not entirely fake) news about Greg Schiano's past at Penn State, to John Currie's botched hiring process, has been a sight to behold. It's like a car accident from which you can't pull yourself to look away. If the Vols somehow land a hire that turns out to be sustainable in the long term -- Fulmer's No. 1 job is to unite the base -- it will be nothing short of a miracle. For now, it feels like an unmitigated disaster. 

Best of the rest

Jimbo Fisher's fully guaranteed contract: I'm not joking when I say I spent an entire evening chortling to myself at the news that Texas A&M gave Fisher a 10-year deal worth $75 million, of which Fisher is entitled to every last penny. The numbers are so absurd I couldn't help myself. But I'm not here to tell you whether it's a bad or a good deal. If Fisher wins a national championship, that money spent will be worth it all (see: "Big dreamers" above). But the other side of this deal is that the risk is incredible. Part of me likes to fantasize in worst-case scenarios, too. For example, if Fisher were to lose every game he coached with A&M, he would still be entitled to more than $20,000 a day, every day, for the next decade. Even Charlie Weis thinks that's steep. 

Arizona State: The Sun Devils fired and replaced Todd Graham, who finished second in the Pac-12 South this season with wins over in-state rival Arizona and Washington, with Herm Edwards, a television personality who's been out of the game for nearly a decade (and out of the college game for far longer). Edwards was a career sub-.500 coach when he was in the game and is (ironically, given the facts just stated) famous for saying "You play to win the game!" Also, there's a legitimate question as to whether he knows that his new team is nicknamed the Sun Devils. That's quite a transition. 

Texas coach Tom Herman: The Longhorns still have a chance to secure their first winning season since 2013 with a Texas Bowl win over Missouri, but Herman's debut was a mixed bag. The overall theme was that Texas came oh-so-agonizingly close to big wins against USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but never finished the job. 

Iowa State: The Cyclones' dream season tapered off a bit towards the end of the year, but they'll take 7-5 with a super fun Liberty Bowl against Memphis and a new extension for coach Matt Campbell any day. One of college football's coolest success stories might not just be a flash in the pan. 

Northwestern: I know coach Pat Fitzgerald gets a lot of credit for the continuity this program enjoys, but are the Wildcats the least-talked about 9-3 team in college football? They've won seven straight games. Fitzgerald is a wonder. 

Pitt: The Panthers just locked up coach Pat Narduzzi for another seven years, meaning No. 2 teams around the country need to be on alert. 

UAB coach Bill Clark: Clark has yet to win a major coaching award this season, so I'll make one up for him. To coach Clark, who was there for the death of a program, its rebirth and now its bowl berth. You are CBS Sports' Winners and Losers Coach of the Year. 

Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello: Moving Costello to full-time starter at quarterback was the best thing coach David Shaw did all season. Running back Bryce Love is the Heisman finalist, but Costello did a better job of opening up the offense downfield in the passing game. He had 869 yards with seven touchdowns and one pick in his five starts in November and December. 

Syracuse: Hey, remember when the 'Cuse beat Clemson and Dino Babers was suddenly a hot coaching candidate? Yeah, about that. The Orange were a royal pain in the butt at times, but didn't win a game for the rest of the season.  

Tulane: We often celebrate games of the year and wins of the year, but this is a serious candidate for loss of the year. The Green Wave missed out on bowl eligibility because it came up inches short of the goal line as time expired in a 41-38 loss to SMU. The call on the field was that Tulane was marked down short of the goal line and official review upheld the call. A different angle of the run suggests this was the right call, but that doesn't lessen the sting for Tulane. If there's a more painful loss out there this season, I haven't seen it. 


CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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