The college football season ended two weeks ago tonight, and even with new episodes of Justified and Game of Thrones to help pass the time, the prospect of eight months of offseason seems positively unbearable. So, before we close the book on the 2014, let’s take one more look back at what we learned from the season that finally introduced us to the playoff. Then, because it’s never too early to start hyping next season -- and because humans can only take so much deflated-ball discourse -- we’ll examine the possibilities for college football in ’15.
What we learned in 2014
• The College Football Playoff was even better than we imagined, and it should change the way we evaluate teams.
Even after approving the playoff in 2012, the Lords of College Football kept telling us the BCS was a necessary step in the evolutionary process. They claimed it almost always got things right, and the move to a four-team playoff was simply to generate more excitement and cash in on a massive media rights deal.
But in 2014 the BCS would have produced an Alabama-Florida State national title game. Most would have assumed these to be the two best teams. Hardly anyone outside Ohio would have felt bad about Ohio State -- which had the same number of losses as Alabama -- being left out of the title game. Excluding Oregon might have produced more angst, but Florida State was undefeated and Alabama was the one-loss champion of the vaunted ESS EEE SEE. Using BCS logic, that’s an unassailable matchup.
Except it would have been wrong. Ohio State proved itself the best team, period. Oregon’s Rose Bowl annihilation of Florida State showed what the selection committee had suggested all along: An undefeated Power Five team isn’t necessarily the best simply because it is the only undefeated Power Five team. With so few data points and so few common opponents, it’s difficult to determine the best college football teams. It’s better to let them play it out on the field.
• The SEC West was not as good as its reputation, but it isn’t as bad as the bowl backlash suggests.
After LSU beat Ole Miss in late October, I wrote it might be dangerous to presume the best team in the SEC West was automatically the best team in college football. The remainder of the season and the bowls proved that to be true. While the division remains fairly stacked, the gap between the West and the rest of the Power Five closed in 2014.
Some of this has to do with the gap between Alabama and everyone else closing. Everything is cyclical, and it was crazy to think the Crimson Tide could continue to stack five-star recruit upon five-star recruit before a few elite high school players began choosing to go elsewhere. When Nick Saban was building his machine in Tuscaloosa, he might have gotten Robert Nkemdiche (from Georgia) and Joey Bosa (from Florida) to sign with Alabama. But once Saban had an entire roster of players with similar recruiting pedigrees, it only became natural for great high school players to begin seeking easier paths into the starting lineup. This year Nkemdiche (Ole Miss) and Bosa (Ohio State) helped their teams beat Alabama.
Meanwhile, LSU couldn’t find an effective quarterback. The aforementioned Rebels weren’t the same after losing receiver Laquon Treadwell in a loss to Auburn. Auburn eventually got caught in the teeth of one of college football’s nastiest schedules. The West was still good, but not prohibitively good the way it had been from 2011-13. The bowl results reinforced that.
That said, if you asked a college coach whether he’d have an easier time winning in the Big Ten East or the SEC West, he’ll still head north. That could change in the next few years, but the division remains hairy in spite of an embarrassing month.
• The end of the SEC’s total domination of the national title race is good for college football.
Florida State ended the SEC’s national championship streak by beating Auburn in the final BCS title game, but it still felt like the SEC had a stranglehold on the path to the title. Now it doesn’t. The SEC remains an obvious contributor of national title contenders, but those contenders don’t feel like they’re more likely to win than the contenders produced by the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
That’s good for business. The more fans feel their team has a legitimate chance for the title, the more they’re engaged. As we enter the 2015 season, fans of teams from each of the Power Five leagues will have legitimate national title hopes. It’s been a while since we could say that.
Speaking of next season, let’s look at some storylines that could dominate the fall.
What to look for in 2015
• The Big Ten is going to be a lot more exciting.
Ohio State’s national title defense is interesting enough -- especially given the quarterback situation -- but the introduction of Jim Harbaugh to the mix has made the Big Ten East a fascinating division. The Buckeyes and Michigan State will still likely slug it out at the top, but Harbaugh’s reclamation project at Michigan isn’t as difficult as the one he undertook at Stanford in 2007.
Let’s not forget in Harbaugh’s first season on The Farm, his Cardinal beat USC as 41-point underdogs. That alone should give the Buckeyes and Spartans pause.
Meanwhile, in the Big Ten West, Mike Riley will take over at Nebraska and Paul Chryst will take over at Wisconsin. Chryst’s hiring means the Badgers will look similar to the teams Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen fielded, but Riley is more of a wild card. The Cornhuskers fired a coach (Bo Pelini) who never won fewer than nine games and hired one who may have been on the hot seat following another bad year at Oregon State. The knock on Pelini was that his Huskers never won the games they weren’t supposed to win. Riley’s Oregon State teams did pull the occasional upset (e.g. a 35-27 victory over Arizona State in 2014), so we’ll see if the hire changes the Huskers’ chances in the Big Ten. They get Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, and the remainder of the schedule is quite manageable.
• The Pac-12 South should be just as exciting.
For a few weeks in 2014, it seemed every game involving a Pac-12 South team was required to end on a successful Hail Mary. From a viewership standpoint, that’s a great reputation to have. But with Oregon trying to replace Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 North, the South seems like the division that could produce a national title contender in ’15.
The obvious choice is USC, which brings back quarterback Cody Kessler and will finally have access to all 85 of its scholarships following the expiration of NCAA sanctions. But what about Arizona, which won the division in 2014? Or Arizona State, which brings back most of its defense and a quarterback (Mike Bercovici) who saw key playing time in 2014? What about UCLA, which loses quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks but returns almost everyone else? The Bruins, who have seemed perpetually young, will not be young any more. The quarterback competition this spring between Jerry Neuheisel, Josh Rosen and Asiantii Woulard could determine whether UCLA is prepared to take the next step.
• The playoff race won’t seem as alien.
After seeing the selection committee work through the final six weeks of the season, and after seeing the results of that deliberation play out in the semifinals and the title game, we should have a better understanding of how everything works. In other words, don’t expect anyone to eliminate a conference from the championship race in early September.
• If you want to start making plans, block out four free hours on Black Friday.
That’s when Baylor and TCU will face off in the rematch of the 61-58 thriller the Bears won in Waco on Oct. 11. That game eventually altered the course of the playoff committee’s deliberation and put the lie to the Big 12’s “One True Champion” advertising campaign.
This season the game might once again decide the conference title. (Assuming the league doesn’t decide to just give all 10 teams trophies.) TCU and Baylor bring back huge chunks of the rosters that combined to go 23-3 in 2014. The matchup should test the limits of the Amon G. Carter Stadium scoreboard, and should give selection committee members something to chew on besides leftover turkey.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves salivating over a game in late November? Of course. But what else are we supposed to do between now and September?
A random ranking
I was recently introduced to the How Did This Get Made? podcast, and now I’m burning through the back catalogue. In September 2012 the gang examined Road House. This inspired me to rank the top five quotes from Patrick Swayze’s finest work.
1. “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” -- Dalton, offering advice we all should follow.
2. “A polar bear fell on me.” -- Tinker
3. “I thought you'd be bigger.” -- Lots of people, but this one came from Double Deuce house band singer Cody, who is blind. (And played by Jeff Healey!)
4. “Calling me ‘sir’ is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. It don’t belong. I’m Emmett.” -- Emmett
5. “This place has a sign hangin' over the urinal that says, ‘Don’t eat the big white mint.’” -- Wade Garrett, referencing a sign that offers advice we all should follow.
1. Ohio State's quarterback situation could remain mysterious through spring practice, but Braxton Miller might have offered one clue at Saturday's national championship celebration in Columbus. Miller, who sat out all of last season with a shoulder injury and who seems the most likely of the three quarterbacks to transfer because he has already graduated, hinted that he might be staying. "Privilege and honor to be part of this team," Miller told a crowd of about 45,000. "Guess what? We've got another year to do it. So go Bucks."