Year in review: Top 10 moments of 2015; 10 bold predictions for 2016
It’s hard to believe another season of college football is almost behind us. Yet here we are, counting down the days until the second College Football Playoff kicks off on Dec. 31. If it’s anything like last year’s finish, we have plenty to look forward to.
In the meantime, let’s take a moment to reminisce about the year that was. SI.com compiled a list of the 10 biggest moments of the 2015 calendar in college football, from Ohio State’s national title to Steve Spurrier’s retirement.
And as the calendar gets ready to turn, what better time to look ahead to 2016? We project a handful of key moments to expect on the horizon. After all, there’s no true off-season in college football.
10 biggest moments of 2015
Jan. 1: Jameis Winston’s Rose Bowl fumble
Jameis Winston, Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback, had never lost a college game heading into a Rose Bowl semifinal matchup with Oregon on New Year’s Day. But the Ducks boat-raced the Seminoles early and built a 39–20 lead by the middle of the third quarter. With Florida State facing a fourth-and-five, Winston attempted to scramble, slipped and awkwardly tossed a fumble behind him. Oregon's Tony Washington quickly recovered the ball and scampered for a touchdown, pushing Oregon’s lead to 45–20. For Winston’s detractors, it was a moment of peak schadenfreude. The Ducks would go on to win 59–20, snapping Florida State's 29-game winning streak.
Jan. 1: Laquan McGowan’s touchdown in the Cotton Bowl
The novelty that is Baylor’s 6’7”, 390-pound Laquan McGowan first emerged on New Year’s Day when the Bears faced Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. During the third quarter, Baylor’s massive lineman squeezed into a No. 80 jersey—making him an eligible receiver—and surprised everyone by hauling in an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bryce Petty. McGown extended his arms wide in celebration as he crossed the plane, and just like that, a supersized legend was born in Waco.
Jan. 12: Ohio State wins first playoff championship
Had the season been played a year earlier, in the BCS era, an Ohio State national championship would have never been possible. But the first year of the College Football Playoff proved that a four-team bracket indeed produces the best team. A one-loss Ohio State squad landed in the selection committee’s final rankings at the No. 4 spot after thumping Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title. Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes followed by toppling mighty Alabama 42–35 in the Sugar Bowl before sinking Oregon 42–20 to win the national championship. The victory marked Meyer’s third national crown as a head coach.
Sept. 7: Braxton Miller’s spin move
If anyone doubted Braxton Miller’s ability to return from injury and switch positions, one play during Ohio State’s season-opening 42–24 win over Virginia Tech removed all doubt. The former quarterback, who missed the Buckeyes’ title run in 2014 due to a shoulder injury suffered in fall camp, switched to H-back for his final year in Columbus. In the third quarter against the Hokies, Miller proved his worth regardless of position: He made Virginia Tech defenders look downright silly with a video game-worthy spin move on a 53-yard touchdown run. Miller’s wild play signaled the true beginning of the college football season.
Oct. 12: Steve Spurrier resigns
The speculation had been rampant for at least a year. Steve Spurrier entered 2015 at age 70 and coming off his worst season at South Carolina (7–6) since ’09. Many wondered if the coach could stomach another season of rebuilding. After a 2–4 start to ’15 capped by a 45–24 loss at LSU, the legendary Spurrier officially announced his resignation. “It's time for me to get out of the way and give somebody else a go at it,” Spurrier said at his farewell press conference. The coach finished his career with six SEC titles—all at Florida—and the 1996 national championship.
Oct. 17: Michigan State-Michigan finish
Jim Harbaugh’s first marquee win as Michigan’s head coach was only moments away at the end of a matchup with rival Michigan State. Harbaugh’s squad held a slim 23–21 lead over the Spartans with just 10 seconds left, but needed only to get off a punt and avoid a touchdown on the return to win. After the Wolverines snapped, though, things quickly went awry. Michigan punter Blake O'Neill bobbled a low snap and fumbled the ball as a host Michigan State players swarmed the backfield. Spartans defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball and raced 38 yards to the end zone for the unlikeliest of touchdowns. The ensuing celebration was so rowdy that Watts-Jackson dislocated his hip under a pile of teammates.
Oct. 24: Georgia Tech’s winning return vs. Florida State
As Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal against Georgia Tech, every person in Boddy Dodd Stadium expected one of two results: A Seminoles win or a trip to overtime. Lance Austin had a third option in mind. After defensive end Patrick Gamble blocked Aguayo’s kick, Austin picked up the ball at his own 22 and returned the recovery 78 yards for the win. The Yellow Jackets stunned the ninth-ranked ‘Noles 22–16 in what many locals later dubbed “The Miracle on Techwood Drive.”
Oct. 31: Miami beats Duke on eight-lateral return
Eight laterals. That’s what it took for Miami to pull off an improbable 30–27 win over then-No. 22 Duke on Oct. 31. With six seconds left, the Blue Devils kicked off to give the Hurricanes one final return after Thomas Sirk’s one-yard touchdown run put Duke in front 27–24. Miami players flipped the ball around seven times before Corn Elder hauled in the final lateral and streaked down the left sideline for the 91-yard winning touchdown. "It was kind of like, just keep playing, just keep playing," interim Miami coach Larry Scott said afterward. The next day, the ACC suspended the game’s officials for missing errors that would have negated Miami’s touchdown. But the Hurricanes still got the win thanks to one of the wackiest plays of the 2015 season.
Nov. 21: Michael Geiger kick to beat Ohio State
#Collegekickers are people, too, and they can often celebrate better than anyone. Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger enjoyed perhaps the best reaction of the season when he iced a 17–14 upset over then-No. 3 Ohio State with a 41-yard, game-winning field goal on Nov. 21. In front of a stunned crowd at Ohio Stadium, Geiger responded by streaking across the field while spinning his arm like a crazed windmill. Asked about the kick later, Geiger said, “I (expletive) drilled it!" This is why we love college football.
Nov. 28: Les Miles’s “last” game
Would Les Miles stay or go? That was the question heading into LSU’s game against Texas A&M, which followed two weeks of speculation surrounding Miles’s job security. The Tigers had reportedly decided to fire Miles after 11 seasons regardless of the team’s finish. But after a 19–7 win over the Aggies, Miles’s players carried the coach across the field and chanted his name during an emotional postgame celebration. Minutes later, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva sheepishly announced Miles would return for another season.
10 predictions for 2016
The Heisman race will be even more exciting than it was in 2015
Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy in one of the closest races in several seasons, and next year’s crop of candidates should be even deeper. Sophomores made up four of the top seven vote-getters this fall, meaning Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are just two of several players who will make another run at New York next season. Expect a fun race in 2016.
Dakota Prukop will have a Vernon Adams effect on Oregon
Oregon has become the landing spot for transfer quarterbacks. The latest, Dakota Prukop of Montana State, will blossom into a star with the Ducks. The 6’2”, 205-pound dual-threat passer picked Oregon over Alabama as his destination after recording 3,822 total yards and 39 total touchdowns in 2015. Alongside returning skill players like running back Royce Freeman, Prukop will follow fellow transfer quarterback Vernon Adams and shake up Oregon’s offense in 2016.
The ACC Coastal will be the best coaching division in college football
No conference upgraded its coaching profile more than the ACC this off-season, and the majority of those new hires take over teams in the Coastal Division. Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech), Mark Richt (Miami) and Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) joined a crop of proven coaches in David Cutcliffe (Duke), Larry Fedora (North Carolina) and Pat Narduzzi (Pittsburgh). The Coastal has been the weaker side of the ACC for a couple of seasons, but it will prove itself anew with revamped staffs next year.
Several SEC West coaches will be on the hot seat
With the exception of Alabama’s rise in 2015, the SEC West capped a rather underwhelming regular season. That’s why several coaches will face more pressure in 2016. Kevin Sumlin turned a 5–0 start into an 8–4 season at Texas A&M, and he’ll lose his top two quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, to transfers this off-season. Gus Malzahn’s Auburn squad finished 6–6 after being picked to win the entire conference in the preseason. Meanwhile, Les Miles’s job is safe for now at LSU, but he’s 14–10 in SEC play in the last three years. All three could be coaching for their jobs next year
Charlie Strong will turn his Texas tenure around
In 2014 Charlie Strong went 6–7 in his first season in Austin. This year, Strong led the Longhorns to a 5–7 finish behind an offense that ranked seventh among Big 12 teams (5.7 yards per play). That’s not the trend diehard fans expect of Texas. But the hire of Tulsa offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will be just what Strong’s offense needs. Texas is set to return a talented group of rushers with sophomore D'Onta Foreman and freshman Chris Warren, and Gilbert’s Tulsa squad averaged 35.9 points per game in 2015. Gilbert will help Strong find a sweet spot between quarterbacks Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, and the Longhorns will be headed in the right direction after next year.
A high-profile coach will leave for an NFL job
At least one college coach will leave to take over an NFL team after 2016. The question is, who? With Notre Dame falling short of the playoff, could Brian Kelly finally make the jump to the NFL? Kevin Sumlin’s mediocre tenure in College Station has many Texas A&M fans questioning the program’s future, which means Sumlin might leap at a pro opportunity. Both coaches have been connected with NFL jobs in the past, and 2016 might be the time to strike.
Alabama will ink the No. 1 recruiting class—again
Okay, maybe this isn’t the boldest of predictions. But that’s a testament to the machine Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa. Since 2007 Alabama has finished outside the top five in Scout.com’s rankings only once (’11). That streak won’t end in 2016. With four top-100 recruits like five-star JUCO offensive tackle Charles Baldwin and five-star defensive tackle Kendall Jones currently committed, look for the Crimson Tide to jump for their current spot at No. 2 and finish atop the recruiting world once again on National Signing Day.
Jacob Eason will make a big impact at Georgia
New Georgia head coach Kirby Smart got his first big win since landing in Athens on Tuesday, when highly touted quarterback recruit Jacob Eason reaffirmed his commitment to the program. Eason, the top pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016, quelled concerns that Mark Richt’s dismissal soured his commitment to the Bulldogs. Now Smart enters his first season at Georgia armed with one of the best freshmen in the nation to pair with returning running back Nick Chubb. Eason could be the most hyped quarterback in the SEC next season, and he’ll deliver on expectations by keeping Georgia in the SEC East race.
Urban Meyer won’t have to worry about a quarterback controversy
With Cardale Jones set to leave Ohio State after this season, J.T. Barrett enters 2016 as the presumed starter at quarterback. That’s a welcome change for the Buckeyes, who played musical chairs with Jones and Barrett this year without as much success. But in ’14 Barrett, a first-year starter, set a school record with 3,772 total yards and a Big Ten record with 45 total touchdowns. Everyone in Columbus knows what Barrett can do when healthy. If he gets hurt, however, Meyer had better hope rising sophomores Torrance Gibson and Joe Burrow can provide the same spark.
Bill Snyder will retire at Kansas State
The Wizard of Manhattan, who turns 77 next fall, said this month he’s likely to return to Kansas State for his 25th overall season in 2016. Unfortunately, that will be the end of Snyder’s magic. The longtime coach is 193-100-1 heading into the Wildcats’ Jan. 2 Liberty Bowl matchup with Arkansas, but his current 6–6 team is already assured its worst record since ’10. Another down year will force Snyder to call it quits after roaming the Kansas State sidelines for a quarter-century.