My favorite college football stories of 2013

Tuesday December 24th, 2013

Gus Malzahn and Nick Marshall have led Auburn's improbable journey to the BCS championship game.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We love college football for its traditions, rivalries and exciting finishes. But we also love it for its unpredictability. The prevailing narrative entering the 2013 season was that Alabama would cruise to a third straight BCS championship. Auburn and Missouri were picked at or near the bottom of their respective SEC divisions, as was Duke in the ACC Coastal. Louisville was supposed to dominate the American Athletic Conference, and Ohio State the Big Ten. Jameis Winston did not appear on any preseason Heisman Trophy lists.

My favorite stories from the year reflect what actually happened.

1. Gus Malzahn and the Miracles. On Nov. 16, Auburn beat Georgia 43-38 on a 73-yard deflected Hail Mary that quickly became known as the "Miracle at Jordan-Hare." It was the type of once-in-a-generation play that Tigers fans would cherish for years to come. Only two weeks later, however, Auburn managed to top it, knocking off nemesis Alabama on Chris Davis' 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown as time expired. Auburn's charmed season will culminate next month with the most improbable run to the BCS National Championship Game in the event's 16-year history. One year ago, Auburn finished a miserable 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season in which its dysfunctional offense could not have inspired less confidence. Following coach Gene Chizik's ouster, the school brought back Malzahn, the offensive wizard who helped Chizik and Cam Newton win the 2010 national title. With the help of juco transfer quarterback Nick Marshall and stud running back Tre Mason, Auburn didn't just improve -- it produced the nation's most powerful rushing attack, gashing Missouri for 545 yards in the SEC title game. The Tigers' nine-win improvement is tied for the biggest one-year turnaround in FBS history, and they've still got another game left to play.

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2. Baylor's pointsplosions. Any football fan above the age of nine remembers when Baylor was the annual Big 12 doormat, garnering national attention only when it changed coaches. Robert Griffin III changed that image by capturing the 2011 Heisman, but coach Art Briles' program has continued to defy skeptics by furthering its upward trend. For the first half of the '13 campaign, the team long known as a punching bag appeared unbeatable, putting up 70-plus points four times in its first six games and averaging nearly 700 yards of total offense deep into the season. Quarterback Bryce Petty emerged as the master of the deep ball and running back Lache Seastrunk the leader of a speedy backfield. The Bears eventually fell back to earth due to injuries and a back-loaded schedule, most notably in a 49-17 loss at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23. But Baylor still finished 11-1 to win its first outright conference championship since the Mike Singletary era and reach the Fiesta Bowl against UCF. The Bears' final offensive numbers: 53.3 points and 623.8 yards per game, both just shy of setting FBS records.

3. Johnny Football playing football. To be clear, Johnny Manziel's first eight months of 2013 -- when oversleeping at a passing academy somehow became a national headline -- would not make anyone's list of favorite stories. But once the reigning Heisman winner returned to the field (after a one-half suspension against Rice stemming from an NCAA investigation into Manziel signing autographs), he quickly reminded everyone why he is so fun to watch. On Sept. 14, in the long-anticipated Alabama-Texas A&M rematch in College Station, Manziel defied critics and put the offseason drama behind him with an epic 562-yard, five-touchdown performance in the Aggies' 49-42 loss that provided no shortage of memorable highlights. On Oct. 12, he engineered two last-minute scoring drives to secure a 41-38 win at Ole Miss. And on Nov. 9 he racked up 446 passing yards and five touchdowns in his Kyle Field finale against Mississippi State, a 51-41 victory he celebrated with the student section afterward. A thumb injury contributed to two subpar performances in season-ending losses to LSU and Missouri, but Manziel still delivered enough Heisman-esque moments this fall to earn a repeat trip to New York.

4. The rise and near-fall of Famous Jameis. Surpassing even the loftiest hype surrounding the former five-star recruit, Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston made an unforgettable collegiate debut. On Monday night, Sept. 2, he went 25-of-27 for 356 yards with four touchdowns in a 41-13 rout of Pittsburgh. It touched off an eventual Heisman campaign for Winston and undefeated season for the Seminoles, highlighted by a 51-14 win at third-ranked Clemson on Oct. 19 in which the quarterback threw for a season-high 444 yards. The nation got a taste of the 19-year-old's outsized personality when ABC broadcast his impressive pregame speech to teammates. However, Winston's story took a dark turn in mid-November, when news broke that a woman had accused him of sexual assault 11 months earlier. Local police stopped pursuing the case last winter, but the state's attorney office quickly reopened the investigation. Ultimately, state attorney Willie Meggs decided there was not sufficient evidence to press charges against Winston. The whole episode made for an uncomfortable subplot to an otherwise uplifting season in Tallahassee.

5. Duke wins its division. What can I say? I'm a softie for nerdy schools. As bad as Baylor was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Duke was even worse. Its year-by-year records from '00 to '07: 0-11, 0-11, 2-10, 4-8, 2-9, 1-10, 0-12 and 1-11. Coach David Cutcliffe arrived before the '08 campaign and began a long rebuilding project that achieved its first milestone last year, when the Blue Devils won six games and reached their first bowl game since '94. It turned out they were only getting started. With a school-record 10-win season, including victories over ranked foes Miami and Virginia Tech, Duke won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time. While the Blue Devils proved no match for top-ranked Florida State in Charlotte -- and may suffer a similar fate against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- Cutcliffe is deserving of every accolade he's receiving, and Duke some long-awaited respect for its accomplishments.

6. Condi vs. the cavemen. In early October, the names for the new College Football Playoff selection committee began to leak out. Some, like former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne or Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, were exactly what many expected. But one in particular caused quite the stir. The appointment of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a onetime provost and current professor at Stanford, flabbergasted a great deal of the college football public. Questioning the inclusion of a non-traditional football expert is one thing, but prominent TV analyst David Pollack, former Auburn coach Pat Dye and others took it one step further, suggesting a -- gasp! -- woman had no place on the committee. Rice did a series of interviews after the official announcement illuminating that A) she helped hire two football coaches at Stanford and B) she knows what she's talking about. Still, it's already clear that after 16 years of mocking the illogical BCS standings, many are just as dubious of letting 13 highly educated and respected football followers deliberate in a room and pick the four-team field.

7. The return of Coach O. The wild September night in which USC AD Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin at an airport following the Trojans' 62-41 loss at Arizona State provided no shortage of schadenfreude for some, but seeing someone get fired is hardly a favorite pastime of mine. However, some good came out of the early-season change. The imminently likable Ed Orgeron, appointed as the Trojans' interim coach, made the most of his second chance (after a disastrous 2005-07 tenure at Ole Miss). He injected a forlorn program with hearty doses of fun and a whole lot of food (cookies, Popeye's, In-N-Out Burger), and his team responded: It went 6-2, including winning five straight at one point, under his watch. UCLA crushed the Trojans in their regular-season finale on Nov. 30, and Haden ultimately chose another former Pete Carroll assistant, Steve Sarkisian, for the full-time gig. But Orgeron's stint was fun while it lasted, especially watching him lead the band after a 20-17 upset of Stanford on Nov. 16.

8. Lynch for 6. The phrase MACtion -- used to describe the wild shootouts that conference's teams often stage in their annual Tuesday or Wednesday night games -- went viral a couple of years ago. But Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch turned a clever amusement into must-see television with his Houdini-like escapes, 300-yard rushing performances and general one-man dominance in the Huskies' push for a second straight BCS berth. NIU fell one game short, losing to Bowling Green in the MAC championship, but not before Lynch broke his own record for single-season rushing yards for an FBS quarterback with 1,881. He became the rare mid-major player to reach New York. In fact, Lynch's third-place Heisman finish was the highest for a non-AQ player since Hawaii's Colt Brennan also came in third in 2007.

9. Mean Green. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is typically associated with his perpetual scowl, but the seventh-year coach provided plenty of smiles for long-suffering Spartans fans this season. Michigan State had made notable strides in recent years, building a top-flight defense and dominating its rivalry with Michigan, but it had yet to take the final step and play in a BCS bowl. The Spartans emphatically ended their 26-year Rose Bowl drought by ending Ohio State's 24-game winning streak in an extremely entertaining Big Ten championship. While the result cost the Big Ten a spot in the BCS title game, it showed that the oft-maligned league is not a one-team conference, after all. Tune in on Jan. 1 to see Dantonio scowling from the sidelines in sunny Pasadena.

10. Pacific Heights. Living in Northern California, I covered a slew of Pac-12 games in October and early November. While none of the league's teams ultimately contended for the national title, the quality of football was fantastic. Among the standouts: Washington-Stanford, UCLA-Oregon, Oregon-Stanford, Stanford-USC, Arizona State-UCLA. Every week was a grind, reminiscent of vintage SEC races, before Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M ushered in scores in the vicinity of 59-42. Sure, the Pac-12 programs cannibalized each other, but eventual champion Stanford's 26-20 win over then-undefeated Oregon on Nov. 7 -- a game it led 26-0 in the fourth quarter -- served as a nice showcase for the physical defenses blossoming out west.

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