Sports, Thrill of Victory

The best and worst of the 2014 college football season

The first year of the College Football Playoff promised to deliver an exciting season filled with lots of story lines, and it certainly did. Today, we take a look back at the season.

Best story lines (in no particular order)

The Ohio State quarterback situation.

Cardale Jones OSUFirst, the Buckeyes lose two-time All-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller before the season even started, which (we thought) took care of OSU’s national title chances. Then, J.T. Barrett earned National Freshman of the Year honors as he took OSU to the verge of national title before getting hurt in the fourth quarter of the final regular season game, which (we thought) would snuff the dream again. But no, Cardale Jones came in and debatably out-played both as the Buckeyes destroyed Wisconsin in the conference title game, clearly got the best of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and then dominated Oregon in the national title game.

I can’t say it with certainty, but I’m guessing there’s never been a sequence of events quite like that in college football history.

The fall of the NCAA single-game rushing record—twice.

In this day, offensive records don’t last long, as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine proved. On Nov. 15, Gordon torched Nebraska for 408 yards on just 25 carries in just three quarters, breaking LaDainian Tomlinson’s record of 406, which had stood since 1999. Perhaps UW coach Gary Anderson wishes he’d let Gordon play the fourth quarter, since OU’s Perine broke that mark by 19 yards on 34 carries against Kansas the next week.

The rise and fall of the Southeastern Conference.

After a seven-year run of winning national titles, Florida State pulled the rug out from under the SEC in last year’s title game when it beat Auburn. But the league, and particularly its Western Division, looked loaded coming into the season. As we entered November, the College Football Playoff committee had Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State ranked in its top four, and that excluded Alabama, the team that many felt was the best squad in the country. Everybody knew this couldn’t last because there were too many games left between the league’s powers and too many undefeated and one-loss teams elsewhere.

SEC logoStill, the league seemed strong enough that two teams in the playoff seemed a real possibility. What happened instead was that the league cannibalized itself, with the damage coming outside those four teams (Texas A&M shocked Auburn, LSU and Arkansas destroyed Ole Miss), and then the final death blow came when Ole Miss flattened MSU in the regular-season finale. That left Alabama as the last SEC team standing when it came to the playoff, and of course the Crimson Tide got thoroughly out-played by Ohio State.

From there, the league sent 12 teams to bowls, and won seven of those games… not a bad performance, except that only three SEC teams were underdogs and the cream of the crop in the West (MSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Auburn) all lost, with Ole Miss getting absolutely undressed by TCU in the Cotton Bowl.

It’s enough to have college football fans questioning the league’s continued superiority going forward. The good news is this: if so, less SEC dominance might make for more interesting seasons going forward, and perhaps a chance to build more interest in the game nationally.

The scoring

Points per game had already risen 10 percent from 2009 to 2013, but 2014 brought in an era of offensive dominance unlike we’ve ever seen. Fifty-eight teams averaged 30 or more, and while the NCAA hasn’t released official numbers for the season, if you average the scoring totals of the 128 FBS teams, the average team scored 29.1 points per game.

It got even more out of hand in bowl games; 39 times, a team scored at least 30 points, and 21 times, 40 or more.

The parity

Critics of the College Football Playoff said that four teams wouldn’t be enough, that teams No. 5, 6, and so on would be complaining about being left out once final selections were made. I considered this somewhat of a silly argument; over the years, it’s seemed to me that you generally have one to three top teams nationally that separate themselves from the rest of the field. And since what the playoff was supposed to do was to decide a national champion fair and square, who really cares what Nos. 5 and 6 think, since they’re usually a step or two down from the top two or three teams, anyway?

Well, the committee picked the wrong year to start this, because the season gave us six teams—Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, TCU and Baylor—that were pretty hard to distinguish from one another. To me, FSU looked like the weakling of the bunch, and perhaps Oregon proved that sentiment to be correct, but could you imagine the outcry if the Seminoles, the defending national champs who were riding a 29-game winning streak, were left out of the system?

Parity wasn’t just concentrated at the top; of the 39 bowl and playoff games, the underdog won 19 times.

The best and worst of 2014

Biggest surprises 

TCU, Ohio State, Arizona, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Boise State. TCU wasn’t even in the preseason Top 25 rankings, and nobody expected the Horned Frogs to do what they did after defensive end Devonte Fields, the Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, was kicked out of school. Arizona wasn’t ranked in the preseason, but won 10 games. Arkansas snapped a long SEC losing streak and was better than its 7-6 mark indicated, as was Tennessee, which found something late in the season in quarterback Josh Dobbs. Meanwhile, Gary Pinkel, who lost a slew of key players from the previous year’s team, kept it rolling in Columbia by winning 11 games and the SEC East. Boise State, also unranked in the preseason, quietly won 11 games after dropping its season opener.

NDLSUBiggest disappointments 

Oklahoma, South Carolina, Stanford, Iowa, Auburn, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Bowling Green, Vanderbilt. Auburn got victimized by a tough schedule, and Notre Dame, by season-long suspensions to key players. Stanford lost a bunch of tough-luck games, while the Carolinas and Bowling Green couldn’t defend anybody. Had Oklahoma been able to hit big kicks it normally makes, perhaps the Sooners, the nation’s biggest disappointment, wouldn’t have lost interest by season’s end. Vanderbilt went from back-to-back 9-4 seasons to a 3-9 campaign which included narrow wins over UMass and Charleston Southern.

Offensive Player of the Year

His career didn’t end as he hoped, but it’s hard to deny the accomplishments of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw for 4,454 yards and 42 touchdowns against just four interceptions, ran for 770 yards and 15 scores, and even caught a TD pass. For his career, Mariota threw an incredible 105 touchdowns in three seasons, against just 14 picks. Honorable mention goes to Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin running back who ran for 2,587 yards (7.5 per carry) and 29 touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Year

Louisville’s Gerod Holliman intercepted 14 passes this year; for context on what an unbelievable stat that was, the second-place finisher in his own conference had four. That tied an all-time college football record. Honorable mention goes to Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, who won a ton of post-season awards after finishing with 153 tackles, 14 sacks, and a strip of Mariota that preserved UA’s regular-season upset of Arizona.

Coach of the Year

It’s pretty much impossible to pick between Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and TCU’s Patterson, and so I won’t.

Final rankings

  1. Ohio State (14-1)
  2. Oregon (13-2)
  3. Alabama (12-2)
  4. TCU (12-1)
  5. Michigan State (11-2)
  6. Baylor (11-2)
  7. Florida State (13-1)
  8. Georgia Tech (11-3)
  9. Georgia (10-3)
  10. Ole Miss (9-4)
  11. UCLA (10-3)
  12. Mississippi State (10-3)
  13. Arizona (10-4)
  14. Arizona State (10-3)
  15. USC (9-4)
  16. Missouri (11-3)
  17. Wisconsin (11-3)
  18. Boise State (12-2)
  19. Clemson (10-3)
  20. Auburn (8-5)
  21. Utah (9-4)
  22. Kansas State (9-4)
  23. LSU (8-5)
  24. Stanford (8-5)
  25. Marshall (13-1)