Notre Dame’s renewed energy, Michigan’s belief, the Big 12’s future and more takeaways

College Football

Conference championship weekend: when a quarterback threw for 577 yards and four touchdowns, and lost.

When a historically good defense surrendered 41 points.

When a fake slide led to a 58-yard touchdown run.

When a freshman running back threw a 75-yard touchdown pass.

And to think, the week started with one of the wildest days in the coaching carousel.

Our reporters break down the past week in college football and shed a light on bowl season.

The awkward Oregon-Oklahoma Alamo Bowl Zoom

If it was a coincidence, it was one that might have summed up this season and the ripple effects of this wild coaching carousel particularly well. When the Valero Alamo Bowl matchup was announced Sunday, it wasn’t very difficult to draw a through line between the two teams.

On one side was Oklahoma, left behind by Lincoln Riley as he bolted for USC overnight, now helmed by out-of-retirement interim coach Bob Stoops. On the other side was Oregon, in the midst of a frenetic weekend, headed toward a similar fate.

As reports of Miami’s desire to pry away Mario Cristobal grew, Cristobal was still hell-bent on playing the part of Ducks head coach. He was out recruiting, throwing up the “O” in pictures with high school players, wearing Oregon gear in an awkward Alamo Bowl Zoom call with Stoops and talking about what a “great opportunity” this matchup was.

“It’s an honor to accept the invite to the Alamo Bowl and play such a great program,” Cristobal said, “a storied program and championship program like OU.”

Cliché notwithstanding, the subtext of it all might as well have been bolded and highlighted.

Cristobal was touting the prestige of a program that had just been spurned for another as he was in the process of doing the same to a team he spent the past few years turning into one of the best in the country. Cristobal’s move to Miami became official Monday morning, and suddenly Oregon was left with no choice but to stop pretending too. The Ducks pulled their staff from the recruiting trail and, not knowing which assistants Cristobal would take with him, were unable to immediately name an interim coach.

“Miami never reached out to me. The usual courtesy is to reach out to the institution and that never happened,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said Monday with a tone of displeasure for the process. He added, however, that his phone was blowing up about the open position. “There’s no shortage of interest.”

Just like Oklahoma and Notre Dame, which was left behind by Brian Kelly on his way to LSU, Oregon is having to swallow the fact it was broken up with. On paper, there was seemingly no reason for Riley, Kelly and Cristobal to leave their respective jobs.

But be it money, opportunity, home or simply a new challenge, it was a reminder that what is the better job is always in the eye of the beholder. In the same way those aforementioned programs hired Brent Venables and Marcus Freeman and now have a different vibe around them heading into their bowl games, Oregon will do the same. — Paolo Uggetti

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Marcus Freeman gets emotional as he thanks all those who helped him to get the Notre Dame head coaching job.

Marcus Freeman’s first swing as a head coach, and the renewed Irish

The Marcus Freeman era at Notre Dame begins with him finishing what Brian Kelly started in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

Freeman’s hiring has given the Irish a renewed energy at a time when most teams wouldn’t have it after losing their head coach to another elite program before the season even ends. But it became crystal clear he was the right choice in this moment after seeing the Fighting Irish’s reaction to him being introduced.

His reputation as one of the best young minds in the game has not only reinvigorated the Irish, but made Notre Dame likable to those on the outside, even if only temporarily. Freeman is the leader of young men whose coach left them when they still had a realistic shot at the College Football Playoff and a national championship. Even non-Notre Dame fans (without placing judgment on Kelly) could understand why people might be rooting for that group of players and their new coach.

It won’t be an easy task for Notre Dame, as Oklahoma State was just a yard away from potentially being in the College Football Playoff. But the two teams are meeting at the perfect time for what should make for a great game — the Irish played their best offense down the stretch, while the Cowboys bring one of the best defenses in college football and an appetite to avenge their Big 12 title loss with a PlayStation Fiesta Bowl victory.

This game isn’t going to make or break Freeman’s tenure at Notre Dame. He has yet to have an offseason with the team to put his own mark on the program.

However, it has been refreshing to see players seemingly feel like they’ve won in a situation — a coach leaving a program — where they typically lose. And if that’s any indicator for how Freeman’s tenure will go, Notre Dame is in good hands. — Harry Lyles Jr.

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Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reacts to his team making the College Football Playoff and looks ahead to the matchup with Georgia.

Michigan players never stopped believing

The entire season, Michigan has played as an underdog and had a chip on its shoulder from all the disbelief that the team could ever make it to the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines heard the criticism before, and even during, the season and used it to motivate them.

A week before the Big Ten championship game, the players were told the preseason odds that they would win the conference were at 2%, and they used that as fuel for the Big Ten championship game.

“Well, we didn’t find out the exact statistic until this week. But, yeah, 2% for the last week. We thought about 2% the last week,” quarterback Cade McNamara said after routing Iowa for the Big Ten title. “And, yeah, I mean, we knew that this team — guys on this team, this team is just — you know, we’ve gone under some scrutiny, we know that. And we’ve battled through. We’re just such a great group of guys who just care about each other, and we’ve really had the mentality of Michigan versus everybody.”

It wasn’t difficult for the team to block out the outside noise, and players used last season’s 2-4 season as even more fuel to prove everyone wrong. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said they got proof of how they felt when they beat Ohio State to make it into the conference championship game.

“When we beat them, we knew we’re a really good football team and we got a really good chance to win this next game because Ohio State was a really talented team,” Hutchinson said. “But, yeah, I think just beating Ohio State just for everybody’s mentals for sure, everybody’s minds, we overcame them and we were moving on to bigger and better things.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has said this is a special team the entire season and reiterated that after the game, saying there is no team he loves more than this team. He compared the qualities of the current roster to those of some of his past teams in college and the NFL that saw success.

So while most on the outside didn’t believe Michigan could get here, the players on the inside knew this was a different year and they would eventually reap the benefits of all their work.

McNamara carried the Big Ten trophy into the press room on Saturday night, and now he and his team will have a chance to prove just how good they are in the College Football Playoff semifinals against Georgia. — Tom VanHaaren

Staying the course

Much of the past week centered around the head coaches on the move: Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California and Brian Kelly from Notre Dame to LSU. They received blockbuster deals of $10 million or more, the kind of deals that would pique any coach’s interest.

The money in and around college football has become akin to “Monopoly” money, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.

Blaming coaches for taking on new opportunities isn’t fair. A lot of us look for new challenges in life. But let’s make sure players aren’t held to a different standard if they’re looking for new opportunities at other schools through the transfer portal, or even if they decide to opt out to pursue pro careers.

Commitment goes both ways.

Remember the coaches who stayed. Some stayed because they had other opportunities and parlayed those opportunities into new deals at their existing schools. The number of coaches making more than $5 million per year now is staggering, but with coaches routinely getting fired after two seasons, who can blame them for getting as much guaranteed money as they can?

Still, it’s refreshing to see guys like Dave Clawson stay put at Wake Forest. He was at the top of Virginia Tech’s list, but the Demon Deacons stepped up to keep him. Wise move, because Clawson has built a consistent winner in Winston-Salem and does it the right way. The same goes for Mark Stoops at Kentucky. He has built a consistent winner at a “basketball school” and has a chance to win 10 games for the second time in the past four years.

And what about Luke Fickell at Cincinnati? Had he been willing to engage with schools prior to the AAC championship game, he would have been a prime target at a number of schools, including Notre Dame and Oklahoma. But no way was Fickell going to do anything that might detract from a historic season at Cincinnati. The Bearcats are the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff, and Fickell wasn’t about to walk away from his players.

So yes, there’s still such a thing as loyalty in college football. — Chris Low

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Oklahoma State gets a new set of downs after a pass interference call, but the Baylor defense denies the Cowboys on four straight plays to win the Big 12 title.

The new-look Big 12 promises to be a fun league

The Big 12 had a bit of a rough weekend, with Oklahoma State’s College Football Playoff hopes ended just inches short of a goal-line dive by a two-loss Baylor team.

Combine that with Lincoln Riley’s abrupt departure from Oklahoma, when the only conference coach in the playoff era to make the CFP split for California, of all places, and things got pretty weird. Of course, nobody who cares about the Big 12 was truly broken up about Oklahoma getting blindsided by a breakup, given the Sooners had done the same to the league just months before.

Commissioner Bob Bowlsby talked to reporters in the press box before the Big 12 title game, and had an opportunity to pile on a little bit with Baylor and Oklahoma State, two of the “other” teams left behind by the Sooners’ and Longhorns’ impending defections, playing for a championship. But he took the high road.

“You don’t replace national brands like the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma,” Bowlsby said on Saturday. “We’ll be fine, but you don’t replace guys like that.”

The “fine” part is more intriguing. The game showcased two coaches at opposite ends of the spectrum. Mike Gundy, in his 17th year, made his first title game. Dave Aranda, in Year 2, won the league after finishing 2-7 last year and pulling all the right strings this offseason and into the year. Both did tremendous jobs this season with teams that got noticeably better.

Looking forward, the league has both schools, who have invested a lot in athletics and atmosphere, plus new blood in big schools like Cincinnati — an actual playoff team — and BYU, UCF and Houston, which played for the American title. Texas Tech is excited about its new coaching staff and TCU found a good fit in Sonny Dykes, who already has proved he can recruit Dallas-Fort Worth and build a program.

Bowlsby was asked if he’d been paying attention to those teams, such as Cincy and Houston, and responded with a smile, saying, “What do you think?”

While there’s no doubt Bowlsby’s right about the departure of two marquee brands, the future of the Big 12 looks fun. Forget the money and posturing for TV deals (for now), and focus on the quality of what promises to be an entertaining product.

The Big 12, which was on life support just months ago, has had a nice little rally to end the year. — Dave Wilson

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Utah heads to the Rose Bowl after a dominant 38-10 win over Oregon to win the Pac-12 title.

The Pac-12’s bright future

During the final minutes of the Pac-12 championship game, I approached commissioner George Kliavkoff on the sideline and told him that the atmosphere reminded me of Big Ten title games I had covered over the years.

Kliavkoff had a big smile, and justifiably so.

The Pac-12 not surprisingly missed the CFP for the fifth straight season, but last week was a very good one for the struggling league.

USC finally acted like a blue-blood program and went all in to hire an A-list coach in Lincoln Riley. Then the Pac-12 held its first championship game in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, an excellent site for fans to visit. Utah fans came out in force, dominating the crowd of 56,511. There were seats available, but the building had great energy, even for a game with little drama or national implications.

Looking ahead, it’s easy to envision similar atmospheres when USC, Washington, Arizona State and other teams make the trip to Vegas. Kliavkoff’s leadership and approach is off to a good start around the league. Another playoff-less year is painful, but the Pac-12’s long-term outlook finally looks a bit brighter. — Adam Rittenberg

Jameson Williams‘s case to be WR1 in the 2022 NFL draft

In a long-awaited matchup in the SEC title game, it was the Alabama offense that got the best of a historically great Georgia defense that had been allowing 6.9 points per game. The Crimson Tide put up 41 points, as Alabama’s duo of quarterback Bryce Young and wide receiver Jameson Williams proved to be too much.

Williams, who was once sandwiched in the middle of the Ohio State wide receiver depth chart, has proven himself time and time again as Bama’s go-to option, and now could be the top wideout off the board in the 2022 NFL draft. He finished with 184 receiving yards and two touchdowns on seven catches, including a 67-yard score that was the longest TD reception in SEC championship game history.

There’s a strong case to be made that Williams, who has 68 catches for 1,445 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in his first season at Alabama, has been the most impressive player at the position in college football in 2021. He’s also going to compete against his former Buckeyes teammates Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave at the top of April’s draft.

Williams is a three-level threat who stresses defenses vertically. He’s the only player in program history with four or more touchdown catches of 75-plus yards, and his speed brings a different element to the table.

With the College Football Playoff matchups set, Williams will have another opportunity to showcase his game-breaking ability against an experienced Cincinnati secondary that also has another likely first-round pick in cornerback Ahmad Gardner, who has yet to surrender a touchdown reception as the nearest defender in coverage during his three-year career with the Bearcats. Scouts will have a front row seat on Dec. 31 to watch the back-and-forth matchup between two likely top-25 draft picks. — Jordan Reid

Levi leaving Louisiana a champion

Billy Napier gets a lot of credit for building Louisiana into a Sun Belt juggernaut, as he should. He came in with a detailed plan and executed it to perfection, going 40-12 in four seasons and earning the opportunity to move on and become the next head coach at Florida.

But watching the Ragin’ Cajuns beat Appalachian State and win the conference championship on Saturday, I was reminded of another person who deserves credit for the program’s resurgence.

Fans chanted, “Billy! Billy!” in honor of Napier’s final game.

They should have taken a moment and chanted, “Levi! Levi!” as well.

Levi Lewis was masterful in his final game at Cajun Field on Saturday, escaping pressure over and over again, and coming up with big plays. He looked like a poor man’s Michael Vick the way he flicked his left wrist and threw a 27-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Two possessions later, he ran 56 yards for another touchdown — the longest run of his career, which felt fitting.

Afterward, Napier nearly got choked up talking about what Lewis meant to him.

“That kid is one in a million,” he said.

Never mind Lewis’ school-record 73 passing touchdowns or the fact that he’d thrown only four interceptions all season long. Napier was emotional over Lewis the person — what a hard worker he was and how he’d become a leader, affecting his teammates in a positive way.

During their four years together, Napier and Lewis grew close. They trusted one another. It got to the point that Lewis even sounded like Napier and carried himself like a coach on the field.

“When he speaks,” Napier said of Lewis, “they listen.”

Lewis made Napier a better coach, and Napier made Lewis a better quarterback. Theirs was a partnership that benefitted one another and their university. — Alex Scarborough

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