NCAAF season review: The Whole Nine Yards with Mia O'Brien
College Contributor Network
After a wild 2014-2015 season that saw the ups, the downs, the inaugural College Football Playoff, and even more antics from Jameis Winston, it's time to recap the year that was as well as the winners (and losers) from bowl season.
I got a lot of heat while home for the holidays for not including my home state school (and my grandfather's alma mater) in the Whole Nine Yards bowl season preview. And I guess Coach Flood's squad must've really wanted to prove me wrong with a 40-21 drubbing of UNC Chapel Hill in the Quick Lane Bowl -- a game in which the Scarlet Knights opened up with a 23-0 run. With the win, they finished the season 8-5, while the Tar Heels go 6-7 in 2014.
Now don't get me wrong: 8-5 is a very impressive record for the Scarlet Knights' first season in [an off-year for] the Big Ten. It's miles beyond where I personally anticipated this team finishing. But bear in mind that senior quarterback Gary Nova was still nine-for-20 in this game -- sure, he threw two touchdowns and over 180 yards, but he didn't even complete half his passes. The defense also gave up 482 total yards to the Tar Heels -- 263 in the air.
That's not to dismiss Rutgers' extremely bright future in the backfield (which is why they're on this list of "winners" from the 2014 Bowl Season). Freshman Robert Martin rushed for 100 yards and two scores out in Motor City, while classmate Josh Hicks chipped in 200 yards and a score of his own. They'll be the core of this offense next season -- especially with Nova gone and the quarterback carousel threatening to make its way back to Piscataway. One year of Big Ten play under their belt will be a feather in their cap, too, but, unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, as much as they came into the conference at the right time, several other teams will be hitting their stride right alongside them including...
8. Michigan State
Is it so much hitting a stride as it is reaching its peak? I, along with many others, thought that peak would come November 8, 2014 against the Ohio State Buckeyes, but it appears we were a year off.
Because after a 42-41, comeback win over No. 5 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl-and quarterback Connor Cook coming back next season-yeah, you could say the Spartans will be hanging around in 2015.
Although they and the Buckeyes will have more competition than in 2014, Michigan State should be more than up to the task. They do lose the bulk of their prized wide-outs and tailbacks (as well as their top two leading tacklers) to graduation, but the guys waiting in the wings -- particularly on defense and in the secondary -- should excite in 2015. Third-leading tackler R.J. Williamson (junior safety) and sophomore linebacker Riley Bullough (he of the interception to seal the Spartans' Cotton Bowl victory) are back, as are the fourth through seventh leading tacklers on this defensive unit. As the saying goes, the Spartans aren't rebuilding: they'll simply be reloading -- and they're already off to a fast start with the return of Cook.
7. Penn State
Anyone else sensing a trend here? For all the heat I gave them in the regular season (which many times was rightfully deserved), the Big Ten proved its legitimacy in the postseason. For the Nittany Lions, a trip to a bowl game was more than just a shot to prove the Big Ten haters wrong, as the New Era Pinstripe Bowl marked the team's first appearance in a postseason contest since January 2012 and what shall henceforth be known as the Sandusky Scandal.
Fresh off the NCAA lifting those sanctions, boy, did Penn State continue to make headlines in this one with a 31-30 overtime win at the House That Ruth Built over Boston College. For guys like senior kicker Sam Ficken, who booted the game winning, walk-off field goal, it was a truly poignant moment for those who opted to remain in Happy Valley even after the sanctions were brought down and the postseason remained in obscurity. For a program that was forced to rebuild from more or less the ground up because of the dozens of transfers, it's a sign that things may once again be "happy" in Happy Valley sooner rather than later. Sophomore Christian Hackenberg came into his own in the game, completing 34-of-50 passes and tossing four touchdowns. The Nittany Lion defense, meanwhile, held BC to less than 100 yards in the air (although their numbers were triple that on the ground).
And so Penn State finishes 2014 with a 7-6 record and, more importantly, a postseason win. It will be important for this team to remain focused on the here and now -- and what their young stars can do -- as they continue to weather the storm of criticism following the sanctions' lifting. Especially considering they'll be playing in the Big Ten East alongside two little teams by the names of Ohio State and Michigan State.
6. University of Southern California
Although they were technically freed of their own sanctions last June, it wasn't until late this season that many began to take notice of the sleeping giant that had awoken on the West Coast. Playing in the never-fun Pac-12 South, USC finished with a 9-4 record, but really picked things up around the midway point of the season, dropping then No. 10 Arizona and only falling to Utah and crosstown rival UCLA down the stretch.
More importantly for this team is next season. After getting their feet wet in the postseason -- and by facing some real competition -- this is a ready-made, Trojan unit filled with returners (from rising senior quarterback Cody Kessler to freshman phenomenon Adoree' Jackson to sophomore safety -- and fifth leading tackler -- Su'a Cravens).
They do lose a lot on defense -- particularly at linebacker -- but while the next man steps on defense, a veteran offense can carry this team through the early part of next season; and against the likes of Oregon and Arizona, putting up points is pretty important.
5. Georgia Tech
Another victor over the heralded SEC West, the Yellow Jackets didn't nearly get the press time they deserved in a 2014 season that saw them go 11-3. Fortunately, their 49-34 win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl puts them on the radar for 2015 -- just as sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas will begin his junior year. Going up against the "Big Dog" -- pun intended -- of the season, Dak Prescott, Thomas ran for an Orange Bowl record 452 yards, threw for another 125, and accounted for four touchdowns on his own. With the departure of Jameis Winston from the ACC... yeah, you could say this kid will be running the table in 2015. Literally.
While it's a big win for the Yellow Jackets, it's an exclamation mark on the "season that could've been" for Miss State. The former No. 1 team in the nation lost three of its last four, and even if it was at the hands of Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia Tech, it's still a heartbreaking conclusion following a 9-0 start.
4. Texas A&M
I gotta say, if there was one team throughout the 2014 season I always felt for, it was the Aggies -- and it certainly wasn't because they were living in a Johnny Football-less World.
In what, at least in the regular season, appeared to be the toughest division in all of college football, Texas A&M salvaged an 8-5 record (3-5 in conference) and got to play spoiler a bit with wins over Arkansas and Auburn. Bear in mind that this team was relying on the power of its freshmen class all season -- from true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen to its leader in sacks, Myles Garrett, to its leader in all-purpose yards Speedy Noil. If there's any team that's primed to rise from the ashes of the SEC West bloodbath, it very well could be the Aggies.
3. Boise State
I was gonna pick the Broncos in the Fiesta Bowl. Seriously, my heart was telling me to, I pick them every year, I mean how can you not love a team that plays on blue turf? But alas, I went with the safe pick, the Arizona Wildcats, they of that early season in over national runner-up Oregon.
And then the Broncos-like the Big Ten, like the ACC-proved us all wrong. The Pac-12, like the SEC, was beatable all along.
There was a Statue of Liberty play, but there weren't a lot of tricks, as it was solid defense that paved the way for Boise State. The Wildcats were held to just 157 yards on the ground and Anu Solomon was picked off twice.
Look, everyone's going to begin the 2015 season saying the same thing: the Broncos will never play for a national title because they play in the Mountain West, their style is unorthodox, and, yes, some will blame it on the blue turf. But with a big chunk of its defensive unit coming back next season -- and junior tailback Jay Ajayi, who scored three touchdowns in the game -- they very well could be making their fourth trip to Arizona next season.
Although I would argue that Baylor deserved the No. 5 ranking when the College Football Playoff seedings were announced (if not a spot in the top four), the Horned Frogs proved that their early season loss was just a hiccup with a 42-3 drubbing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.
Not only did TCU hold another hero of the 2014 season, Bo Wallace, to a mere 109 yards, but they held the Rebels to NINE rushing yards total. NINE. As in less than 10. Incredible. Meanwhile, the team of Trevone Boykin and company amassed 423 yards on the day, with Boykin tossing three touchdowns.
With the junior dual threat most likely coming back next season (and Bryce Petty graduating at Baylor), it's safe to say the Horned Frogs will be the early front runner in the Big Ten next season.
1. Ohio State
I mean, what else am I supposed to say that hasn't been written?
In a bowl season (and, in many cases, regular season, too) headlined by under dogs, who would've guessed that a Braxton Miller-less, a J.T. Barrett-less, an Urben Meyer-led (okay, well, maybe that last one's not too far off) Buckeyes team would win the national championship? Not even Cardale Jones could've predicted this finish, especially this time a year ago; after all, at that point, he was just trying to stay out of the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Meyer notched his third national championship and the Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff, held together with tape and rubber bands by the time they crossed the finish line but still fighting. They'll be the favorite to win it all again in 2015 -- who would pick against a team with three returning quarterbacks with big-game experience? -- even with a stronger Big Ten around them. Meyer will go down as the biggest winner in 2014, but the hard part of the season is still ahead, as he must now decide who he'll start under center.
Mia O'Brien is a senior at Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications, where basically everyone calls her "Mobrien." She's a fan of country music, a good debate, and French dressing -- in no particular order. For sports updates, random musings, and many a creative hashtag, follow her on Twitter: @OBSportsLive16