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  • Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma weren't the only teams that made 2018 memorable. This fall was defined by plenty of standouts, breakouts and beefs beyond the top four.
By Eric Single
December 24, 2018

Soon enough, this season will be remembered by what happens in the College Football Playoff, as four teams with a total of one loss between them square off for a national championship. But it is unfortunate that whatever thrilling finish lies ahead upstages the past three months of build-up, a collection of breakout performances and memorable moments worth appreciating. From an undefeated mid-major to some eye-popping special teams achievements to a national fascination with one quarterback’s facial hair, these teams and players defined the 2018 regular season.

Pleasant surprises

UAB

The University of Alabama–Birmingham shut its football program in 2014 because of budget difficulties, only to bring it back two years later after a groundswell of support from players and fans. Their first year back in 2017 was a solid one with the team going 8–5. This year, the Blazers shut out three opponents and used an eight-game winning streak to run away with Conference USA’s West division. They ended the regular season 9–3, and won their conference championship game, beating Middle Tennessee 27–25. Now that UAB has secured public funding to move the team out of rickety Legion Field and into a new downtown stadium within the next five years, the program’s going full blazes.

Syracuse

In their first two seasons under coach Dino Babers, the Orange had delivered one big upset per year—their 2017 win over No. 2 Clemson was a symphony in orange—but they also finished a disappointing 4–8 in both seasons. In ’18, with senior quarterback Eric Dungey healthy at last, Babers’s high-speed offense was able to get racing, averaging more than 40 points per game. This year the Orange lost to Clemson—though by only four points, on the road, and that result could have been different with a few favorable bounces. Syracuse also took a rough loss to Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium. But with a 9–3 record, Syracuse went from ACC also-ran to the conference’s second-best team.

Kentucky

In Week 2 the Wildcats went to Gainesville and took down Florida 27–16 in a cathartic win that exorcised the demons of their 31-year losing streak in the series. But even after that, few expected Kentucky to have staying power in the SEC East. Thanks to tireless junior running back Benny Snell Jr., sophomore QB Terry Wilson and a defense led by senior pass rusher Josh Allen, the Cats arrived at their November home game against Georgia with a shot at the division title. The Bulldogs took that game 34–17, and while Snell and Allen will be in the NFL next season, coach Mark Stoops will be back in Lexington after breaking through in his sixth year on the job.

Northwestern

This year the Wildcats had the Big Ten’s number—but no one else’s. Northwestern lost all three of its nonconference games (Duke, Notre Dame and Akron) but moved 15–1 in its last 16 regular-season conference matchups, with the lone loss coming in a second-half collapse against Michigan on Sept. 29. After sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin was forced into medical retirement by cervical stenosis on Sept. 24, freshman RB Isaiah Bowser (25) took over as starter and averaged 122.3 rushing yards over the final six games, including wins over Wisconsin and Iowa that gave Northwestern control of the Big Ten West.

Iowa State

The Cyclones had a September to forget, going 1–3, with their victory coming in a struggle over Akron. Their season opener was canceled by lightning. But freshman quarterback Brock Purdy, who turned down an offer from Alabama to come to Ames, where he began the season as a third-stringer, was elevated to starter in Week 4. Soon Iowa State was transformed into a team no one in the Big 12 wanted to play. Purdy led Top 25 upsets of Oklahoma State and West Virginia during a five-game winning streak. The Cyclones went 6–1 after September.

Pitt

Coach Pat Narduzzi’s team looked irrelevant after tough early losses to Penn State, UCF and North Carolina. But after being discarded, the Panthers rose up, grinding down defenses with the two-headed backfield of seniors Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison—the pair combined for 2,069 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns—and gritty playmaking from sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, who threw for 1,833 yards. During preseason media days Narduzzi raised eyebrows when he claimed that his team would reach the ACC title game. Turned out he was right.

Arizona State

It was hard not to laugh during Herm Edwards’s introductory press conference in Tempe last December. The former NFL coach turned commentator offered bewildering takes (“We don’t huddle anymore in our society. That’s the problem with it, to be honest”) and showed surprise that an ASU beat reporter worked for an outlet with the word “devil” in its name. (“I’m Catholic now, I’m a Christian. Watch out for them devils.”) The Sun Devils then showed their diabolical side with a Week 2 upset of Michigan State and finished 7–6, proving that Edwards, after nine years in the ESPN studio, could command the sidelines once again.

Individual standouts

Sam Ehlinger

After spending a decade out on the range, it feels like the Longhorns have come home, and much credit goes to their poised sophomore quarterback. Ehlinger set a Big 12 record for passes without an interception, a run of 308 attempts that ended in the regular-season finale, a 24–17 win over Kansas. An Austin native, Ehlinger led Texas to a victory over Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown and put his team in the program’s first Big 12 title game since 2009.

Rondale Moore

A prized recruit out of Trinity (Ky.) High—which just happens to be the alma mater of Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm—Moore made an immediate splash in his debut against Northwestern, breaking Purdue’s single-game all-purpose-yards record by racking up 313 of them, 302 in the first half. The record had been set in 1972 by Otis Armstrong, a future NFL All-Pro. Moore didn’t slow down afterward, exploding for 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win over Ohio State on Oct. 20 and scoring five touchdowns over his final three games. The last game in the run was a 28–21 win over Indiana, which made the 6–6 Boilermakers bowl eligible.

Laviska Shenault

The sophomore star wideout made a name for himself during the Buffaloes’ season-opening five-game winning streak, spending weeks as the nation’s leading receiver as he scored 10 touchdowns over five games. From stretching defenses vertically (as he did in the final minutes of a comeback win over Nebraska) to making tacklers miss in the open field (which he did as a runner out of the Wildcat formation), Shenault did everything for Colorado—which became clear after he injured his toe, missing three games, and the Buffs spiraled into a seven-game losing skid.

Jonathan Taylor

The Badgers, ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll, were one of 2018’s bigger disappointments, finishing 7–5, but at least Taylor delivered on the promise of his breakout freshman campaign. The sophomore ran for 1,989 yards—290 more than the nation’s second-leading rusher in the regular season—and 15 touchdowns while being the only playmaker of note on a team that struggled with consistency. His eye-popping 321-yard day in a triple-overtime win over Purdue on Nov. 17 also marked the fourth time in ’18 that he scored three touchdowns in one game.

Braden Mann

Everything’s bigger in Texas—even the punts. A year after the Longhorns’ Michael Dickson (now with the Seahawks) redefined elite punting at the college level, the Aggies took the wraps off a player who rose to Dickson’s level. A junior who had handled kickoffs in his first two years in College Station, Mann was the only player in the nation this year to average more than 50 yards per punt (51.1). His single-game punting average against Alabama (60.8 in five kicks) set an NCAA record, and he uncorked an 82-yarder against Kentucky on Oct. 6 that was the longest punt in the country this year.

Cole Tracy

He was plucked from tiny Assumption College, a Division II school in Worcester, Mass., where football games draw fewer than 3,000 fans. But Tracy transferred to Baton Rouge and played big in the bigger SEC all year. The senior hit four field goals in a season-opening rout of Miami and drilled a 42-yard game-winner against Auburn two weeks later. He also connected on all nine of his attempts in the Tigers’ two biggest home wins of the season, against Georgia and Mississippi State. There were other Mr. Bigs in 2018 too: Tracy was one of eight FBS kickers to connect on three attempts of 50 yards or more.

Best Beefs

LSU vs. Texas A&M

After the Aggies’ rollercoaster 74–72 win over the Tigers on Nov. 24, the highest-scoring game in FBS history, the A&M bench, including receivers coach Dameyune Craig, streamed onto the field. Craig had been fired by LSU coach Ed Orgeron in February 2017. Jawing near the Tigers’ sideline turned into shoving and then an exchange of blows between LSU staffer (and former NFL running back) Kevin Faulk and Cole Fisher, a student manager and nephew of A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. The chaos—and the resulting Zapruder-like breakdown of the video—will add heat to this budding SEC West rivalry.

Dan Mullen vs. Mississippi State

Mullen took the Bulldogs from SEC West doormat to bowl participant during his nine years in Starkville. Then he bolted for Gainesville, where he had won a national title in 2008 as Tim Tebow’s offensive coordinator. Mississippi State fans eagerly awaited Mullen’s return on Sept. 29, and the game turned out to be as tense as the build-up: Florida scored the game’s only touchdown, on a trick play, and suffocated the Bulldogs in a 13–7 win. In the end, after midseason stumbles, both teams closed strongly, giving Gators and Bulldogs fans reason to look forward to next year.

Chase Winovich vs. 2017

Michigan fifth-year senior Chase Winovich declared this after a 38–13 victory over Wisconsin on Oct. 13: “The revenge tour has officially commenced.” The long-locked defensive end vowed to get back at the teams that had beaten the Wolverines in 2017. His team made good on his words, picking off Michigan State and Penn State as Winovich worked the postgame microphone like a seasoned professional wrestler. But then came a blowout loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale, and the tour fell one stop short.

Texas vs. Horns Down

Inverting the Hook ’Em Horns gesture is a common move for UT bashers, and it continues to rile up the Longhorn faithful. When West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V flashed the Horns Down after a long touchdown reception, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Mountaineers were also penalized for doing it after the game-winning two-point conversion. “I remember every single team/player that disrespects the rich tradition of the University of Texas by putting the Horns down,” Texas QB Sam Ehlinger tweeted. “Do not think it will be forgotten.”

UCF vs. the playoff committee

The Knights went undefeated in the regular season—as they had in 2017—and months of grassroots protests and campaigning (the school did lure ESPN’s College GameDay to Orlando for the first time as the Knights beat Cincinnati) made UCF the poster child for every non–Power 5 school that wanted a chance to compete for the title. Still, the Knights would have needed a string of upsets to make the final four. And instead of a dream coming true, UCF got a nightmare as star quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome right-knee injury in the first half of a Nov. 23 win over South Florida. The Knights will go to the Fiesta Bowl.

Viral stars

Gardner Minshew's mustache

If Gardner Minshew II had stuck with his decision to transfer from East Carolina to Alabama instead of to Washington State last summer, would the world have been exposed to the power of the Mississippi Mustache? The senior quarterback brilliantly directed coach Mike Leach’s breathless Air Raid offense as the Cougars scored 38.3 points per game and the gunslinging Minshew led the nation in passing yards—while fans donned fake mustaches in solidarity. Only an Apple Cup loss to Washington kept the surprising Cougars from playing in the conference title game for a chance for their first Rose Bowl trip in 16 years.

North Texas’s punt return

Keegan Brewer settled under a punt in the first quarter of the Mean Green’s game against Arkansas on Sept. 15, caught it casually and momentarily stood still as if he had signaled for a fair catch. But he hadn’t. He sold the ruse long enough for the Razorbacks to think the play was dead and jog to the sideline, leaving Brewer with 90 yards of open turf. The play, dubbed Peter Pan, had been kept a secret even from teammates; special teams coordinator Marty Biagi and Brewer had planned it for months, but it was only revealed to the entire team the day before the game. The Mean Green cruised to a 44–17 win, but the highlight went national even before game was final.

New Kirk

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa’s coach for the last 20 years, is by and large devoid of flash. But in 2015, his looser alter ego, New Kirk, emerged, and the Hawkeyes responded with a 12–0 regular season. The ’18 team was less successful, but it was fun too. Against Minnesota, Iowa ran for a fourth-and-goal score out of a wild, oddly bunched formation. After the Hawkeyes downed Nebraska on a last-second field goal, Ferentz did his on-field postgame interview with cuts on his face courtesy of quarterback Nate Stanley, who had head-butted him in the chaos of the celebration. It was the look of a new man.

Tyler Trent

The morning of Purdue’s prime-time home game against Ohio State on Oct. 20, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi reported on the inspiring story of former Purdue student and current Boilermakers superfan Tyler Trent. The 20-year-old had to pull out of school when his bone cancer intensified, but he willed himself to travel to Ross-Ade Stadium for the game against the Buckeyes. Students chanted “Cancer sucks” before the game, and Trent was the center of the postgame celebrations on the field and in the locker room after Purdue romped to a surprising—and inspirational—49–20 win.

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