We’re less than a week removed from watching Alabama players celebrate their 45–40 victory over Clemson in one of the better national championship games in recent memory, but it’s not too early to reflect on the 2015 college football season that was. To honor the players, teams and results that made this year great, SI.com is presenting 10 awards to put all that happened into context.
So, who or what is worthy of hardware? Read on to find out.
Biggest breakout star
Winner: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey was one of the most highly regarded prospects in Stanford’s recruiting class of 2014, but he was limited to 42 carries and 17 receptions as a freshman. To say he made a “sophomore leap” in 2015 would be a massive understatement. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey tallied 2,019 rushing yards, 645 receiving yards and 1,200 return yards; his all-purpose total (3,864 yards) broke the NCAA record set by former Oklahoma State star Barry Sanders. McCaffrey led Stanford to an 11–2 mark, a Rose Bowl win and the No. 3 spot in the final AP Poll.
Biggest impact transfer
Winner: Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon
Adams headlined SI.com’s preseason list of transfers who could make the biggest impact with their new teams, and all he did was outperform expectations this fall. The former Eastern Washington star led the nation in passing yards per attempt (10.2) and pass efficiency rating (179.1) while helping Oregon lead the Pac-12 in points per game (43.0). Had Adams been able to stay on the field—he was limited to 10 games because of a broken finger—the Ducks may have had an outside shot at reaching the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season. Adams’ lone year of FBS football amounted to a daunting task: following in the footsteps of a Heisman Trophy winner and a program legend (Marcus Mariota). Adams did as good a job as any rational Oregon fan could have wanted.
Biggest source of unfulfilled hype
Winner: Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
In a column from SEC Media Days in July, SI.com’s Andy Staples referenced Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston’s breakout season in writing, “it isn’t completely crazy to expect big things from Johnson, who has looked more polished than most of the SEC’s passers in his limited appearances.” Johnson was voted second-team All-SEC this preseason, and one member of SI.com's panel predicted he would win the Heisman. The point is, a lot of people believed Johnson would be very good this season. He was not. The junior completed less than 60% of his passing attempts and threw five touchdowns against six interceptions over three games before being benched in favor of redshirt freshman Sean White.
Biggest flop team
Sorry to pile on here, Tigers fans. This was a particularly rough year on the Plains. Auburn topped a preseason SEC power poll compiled by AL.com and was voted to win the conference championship. Not only did the Tigers fall well short of that goal, but they also barely escaped FCS opponent Jacksonville State (27–20 in overtime on Sept. 12), beat only one Power Five foe that finished with a winning record after September and dropped four of their final six regular-season contests. Along the way, a quarterback with no previous experience (White) supplanted the player Auburn’s coaching staff hyped in the preseason (Johnson), and the team’s leading returning receiver (D’haquille Williams) was kicked off the roster. At least the Tigers didn’t lose the bowl game they played about two hours from campus.
Biggest surprise team
New coach Jim McElwain inherited an offense featuring an uncertain quarterback situation, limited skill-position talent and a thin offensive line. Then, just when the Gators seemed to have found an answer at quarterback, the NCAA suspended Will Grier for a performance-enhancing drug violation in October. However, Florida still won 10 games, crushed Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and clinched the SEC East. The Gators dropped their final three outings (to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan), but that hardly diminishes what the program achieved in McElwain’s debut season at the helm.
Winner: Stanford WR Francis Owusu’s touchdown catch against UCLA
The Cardinal ran a trick play on Oct. 15 that produced one of the best catches in recent memory. Early in the third quarter of Stanford’s showdown against UCLA, tailback McCaffrey handed the ball off to fellow back Bryce Love, who pitched it to quarterback Kevin Hogan. Hogan promptly launched the ball toward the end zone, where Bruins defensive back Jaleel Wadood was covering Owusu. Hogan’s throw was short, but Owusu stayed with it, pinning the ball to Wadood’s back while falling backward. Describing the play after the fact, Stanford coach David Shaw said, “I don’t understand what happened, to be honest.”
Most shocking result
Winner: Northwestern 16, Stanford 6 (Sept. 5)
A Northwestern team with a first-year starting quarterback (Clayton Thorson) coming off a 5–7 season stunned a Stanford squad regarded as one of the Pac-12’s top playoff contenders in Week 1. McCaffrey was limited to 12 carries for 66 yards, while second-team all-conference quarterback Hogan threw for only 155 yards with an interception. The Cardinal did not score a touchdown. This result was shocking at the time, but it is even more ridiculous in retrospect, given that the Iowa team Stanford dismantled 45–16 in the Rose Bowl routed the Wildcats 40–10 in Evanston, Ill., in October. And, no, “body clocks”—the Cardinal played in an early game after traveling from the West Coast—is not a sufficient explanation.
Biggest statement game
Winner: Utah 62, Oregon 20 (Sept. 26)
Who thought Utah would win this game, much less by 42 points? The Utes’ 62 points in this contest were the most Oregon has ever yielded at Autzen Stadium. Utah came into this game undefeated, but there was little evidence to suggest it would pummel the Ducks on their home field. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson passed for four touchdowns and ran for another, and the Utes also scored thanks to a creative bit of deception on a punt return. This was an utter obliteration, and it completely warped the Pac-12 pecking order. Oregon would fall out of the national title race, while Utah would go on to win its next two games.
Best first-year coaching job
Winner: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
McElwain was also strongly considered here, but Harbaugh gets the nod because of the Wolverines’ strong finish: Florida lost its last three, while Michigan won five of its last six, including a 41–7 beatdown of the Gators in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Jan. 1. It was reasonable to expect Michigan to improve in its initial season under Harbaugh, but he has the Wolverines well ahead of schedule. They won 10 games, and their three losses came to teams that finished No. 4 (Ohio State), No. 6 (Michigan State) and No. 17 (Utah) in the AP Poll. Harbaugh is also compiling a recruiting class that is currently ranked No. 3 in the FBS, according to Scout.com.
Worst first-year coaching job
Winner: Mike Riley, Nebraska
There weren’t many great candidates from which to choose, and Riley’s first year in Lincoln, Neb., was far from a total disaster. However, it was a disappointment considering the track record of Riley’s successor (Bo Pelini). Nebraska won fewer than nine games for the first time since 2007, and it only qualified for postseason play because there weren’t enough teams with at least six wins to fill 41 bowls. To be fair, the Cornhuskers lost five games by five points or fewer, and they scored a huge victory over eventual playoff participant Michigan State (39–38 on Nov. 7). Still, the situation was dire enough that Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst felt compelled to give Riley a vote of confidence after a 10-point loss at Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue on Halloween.