Winners and Losers of College Football Bowl Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2014

Winners and Losers of College Football Bowl Season

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    On Monday evening, Florida State and Auburn put a tidy bow on the season and the BCS era, playing what should become an iconic game in college football history. The Seminoles scored the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left to come back and beat the Tigers, 34-31.

    With the completion of that game, the 2013 season is officially part of the past. We can now look forward to a new chapter of college football history, starting with the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014.

    Before we do, however, let's take a moment to pause and reflect on the last non-playoff bowl season. Right from the opening game between Washington State and Colorado State, it was clear that this could be a special slate of games—and it didn't disappoint.

    Here are some winners and losers from the past month.

Winner: Florida State

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    Florida State overcome a (very) sluggish start to beat Auburn, 34-31, in the final BCS National Championship Game. The Seminoles have now won three national titles in program history, including two in the BCS era.

    Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston struggled for most of the night, but he and the Seminoles offense came up big when they needed to most, marching 80 yards in 66 seconds to win the game. Winston's two-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds on the clock is a play you'll see re-run for decades.

    At the end of the day, though, this win wasn't about Jameis. He got most of the attention all season, but Florida State was always a deep, balanced, complete team, so this game was as fitting an end as any.

    Timmy Jernigan and the defense were dominant in the third quarter. Freshman Kermit Whitfield returned a kickoff for a touchdown that will live in BCS lore. Everyone played a part, and the entire Seminoles roster—not just one precocious freshman—earned the crystal trophy.

    As it was meant to be.

Loser: Destiny

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    After Monday's game, Auburn can't rightfully be called a "loser." The Tigers showed more pluck than most people gave them credit for, leading for most of the evening before losing at the last second to Florida State.

    To that end, we'll call "destiny" the loser of the night. It appeared to be there for some of the evening, when Auburn recovered three consecutive fumbles on kickoffs and punts. It appeared to be there once again, even later, when Tre Mason scored with 1:19 left on the clock.

    But in the end, destiny went for naught, ceding to the dominance of Florida State's offense on the game's final drive. As if spitting fate in the face, Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis was the guy who missed a tackle on Rashad Greene's 49-yard catch. Then he was the guilty party on a crippling third-down pass interference call.

    And then he was beat by Kelvin Benjamin for the deciding score.

    "I don't know what happened," Davis said about the questionable pass-interference call, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "I thought it was good defense, but I guess the ref didn't think the same."

    On another night, the balls might have bounced and the calls might have gone Auburn's way. That had been the story of the season. Auburn was billed as a "team of destiny," advancing to the national title game through divine predetermination, despite lacking blue-chip talent.

    On Monday, both of those things were proven untrue.

Winner: Blake Bortles

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    Blake Bortles overcame a few early interceptions to lead UCF to an upset win in the Fiesta Bowl, going for 394 total yards and four touchdowns in the triumph over heavily favored Baylor.

    In the process, Bortles continued stating his case to be one of the top 10 picks in April's NFL draft, which he declared for soon after the game. Compared to Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger for his combination of size, strength and mobility, productive games on big stages were seemingly all that lacked from his profile.

    But those things lack no more after the Baylor game, which marked a remarkable high for himself, his team and his program. All in all, it was a splendid night for the University of Central Florida, which will enjoy watching its now-former quarterback wreak havoc in the pros.

Loser: Derek Carr

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    Quite the contrary to Blake Bortles, Derek Carr is another "small" school quarterback who had a lot on the line in his bowl game, including the potential to be drafted in the top 10. And while we don't know if those hopes were killed against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl, if nothing else, they certainly took a hit.

    The Trojans made Carr look uneasy the entire afternoon, resulting in 54 pass attempts for just 216 yards. His biggest question mark entering the game was footwork in the face of pressure, and USC constantly forced him into bad throws by rushing and giving him antsy feet.

    Fair or not, the name "D. Carr" carries with it a certain stigma, and that stigma includes a woeful presence against the collapsing pocket. It ran Derek's brother David out of a starting job in Houston, and though he deserves to be evaluated independent of his kin, the younger Carr appears to have some of the same flaws. 

    At least for now, that is.

Winner: Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins

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    It was a touching farewell for Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, who each enjoyed stellar nights in the final game of their respective college careers.

    Boyd had 505 total yards and six total touchdowns, including a career-high 127 yards on the ground. Watkins broke career and Orange Bowl records with 16 catches for 227 yards. They were both truly sensational for all 60 minutes, leading the Tigers to a 40-35 victory over Ohio State.

    Few players this good have been as embattled as Watkins and Boyd. For all their statistical merit, Clemson always ends up as something of a punchline, a team that can't quite get over the hump.

    They did so and then some in their farewell to college football, and they'll rightfully be remembered as two of the best players in ACC history.

Loser: Urban Meyer and Luke Fickell

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    Urban Meyer won his first 24 games in Ohio State, a fact the Buckeye faithful, at the time, was not quick to let anyone forget.

    But now, the floodgates appear to have opened. OSU lost by double digits to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and then to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, a game they seemed to have plenty incentive to win. And both times, it was Luke Fickell's defense that let it down.

    Now, instead of coming off a national title appearance, Ohio State enters next season shrouded in questions. The incoming class of recruits is just as good as ever, so the talent will be there once again, but until this staff proves capable of coaching up a defense, there's a limit on how seriously we can take them.

    What's that old adage about offense winning games and defense winning championships? Folks in Columbus know that all too well.

Winner: Johnny Manziel

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    If that was indeed the end for Johnny Manziel, his career went out with a bang, not a whimper.

    Trailing Duke 38-17 at halftime, Mr. Football led an impassioned charge in the final two quarters, helping Texas A&M climb all the way back and win 52-48. He finished with 455 total yards and five total touchdowns in (ostensibly) his final collegiate game, going out with a truly signature performance.

    No one is quite sure what the future holds for Manziel at the next level. But if he does indeed leave for the NFL, he at least gave us one last reminder of his greatness. He's the kind of college football player we'll talk about for generations.

    This game just solidified that.

     

    *Honorable Mention to Teddy Bridgewater, for whom much of the same could be said. 

Loser: AJ McCarron

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    On the flip side of Johnny Football, AJ McCarron's career ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Known as the consummate winner—having come out victorious in 36 of his first 38 starts—McCarron ended his time at Alabama with back-to-back losses.

    Not that he played particularly poorly against Oklahoma. McCarron threw for 387 yards and two touchdowns, though he did also have two uncharacteristic interceptions. Still, he appears to be a loser of circumstance more than a loser of consequence.

    McCarron finally earned all sorts of individual recognition this season, winning prestigious awards like the Maxwell. But he will always be remembered, first and foremost, as a guy who won football games in spite of his own numbers.

    Losing the final two games of his career is an ugly blemish.

Winner: Henry Josey

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    Had Missouri defeated Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, Henry Josey's story is one you would all be more familiar with.

    In a nutshell, Josey was enjoying a fine start to the season in 2011, but he suffered one of the sickest, most gruesome knee injuries college football has ever seen. It was unclear if he would ever again grace the football field.

    It took 659 days of rehab, but Josey was finally able to play in 2013, and play he did. He capped off a fantastic junior season with a 92-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Cotton Bowl, including the game-winning score from 16 yards out.

    We're all winners in this one—every single one of us. Josey is just the biggest.

Loser: #MACtion

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    Woe is #MACtion, which captivated the country for much of last season before falling off a cliff in 2013.

    Still, with only the cream of the conference eligible to play in the postseason, there was hope that the Hustle Belt would be able to redeem itself. Without the dregs of UMass and Miami (OH), or the triad of Directional Michigans, surely the MAC would be able to compete.

    Alas, that was not to be the case, as "the little league that couldn't" went 0-5 in bowl games this season. Conference champion Bowling Green lost to Pittsburgh, conference powerhouse Northern Illinois lost to Utah State and conference dark horse Ball State lost to Arkansas State of the Sun Belt.

    Jordan Lynch still went to New York for the Heisman ceremony, a feat no one can take away from the MAC in 2013. That's about the only memory it wants to keep.

Winner: Kliff Kingsbury

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    The luster of Kliff Kingsbury's coaching debut washed away in a heartbeat. After starting the year 7-0—and subsequently becoming America's new Golden Boy—he lost his final five games of the season, some in very ugly fashion.

    Because of that, Texas Tech was a heavy underdog against Arizona State, whom many ascribed 30-plus points in their confidence pools. The Sun Devils would surely be mad after losing the Pac-12 Championship Game, and they would take it out on the fraudulent Red Raiders.

    Not so fast, my friend.

    Kingsbury coached his best game of the season in the Holiday Bowl, not just waking his kids up to play with gusto, but also tailoring a taut, sound game plan. Tech boat-raced Arizona State from the opening whistle and didn't look back, giving the program some powerful momentum heading into next season.

    It gave them some optimism, too.

Loser: Mike Leach

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    Mike Leach isn't a true loser, since even getting to a bowl made him and Washington State winners for the season. The former Texas Tech coach was playing with house money.

    Still, losing the way he did—against Colorado State, no less—left a sour taste on the tongue after a nice bounceback season in Pullman. The Cougars led 45-30 with three minutes left, but they somehow grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Washington State won six games on the strength of its improved defense, which made it look like Leach had turned some sort of corner as a coach. But that unit regressed in a big way on the postseason stage, allowing Colorado State to gain 595 yards of total offense.

    Leach is still a winner for the season, but he was a loser for the day.

Winner: Connor Cook

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    For much of the season, Michigan State wasn't taken seriously—quarterback Connor Cook in particular. The Spartans were winning in spite of their signal-caller, not because of him. Eventually, both his and their luck would run out.

    In some ways, those critiques were kind of fair. Cook was spotty for much of the year, especially in putting up just 14 points against Purdue. But when MSU needed it most, he and the offense answered the bell in a big way.

    Cook threw for 332 yards on just 22 completions against the vaunted Stanford defense in the Rose Bowl, winning game MVP honors en route to a 24-20 win. The performance came one game after torching Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it gave the Spartans some genuine hope of contending for a national title next season.

    Even with the personnel losses on defense, the return of Pat Narduzzi would ensure that unit's stability. If Cook continues to play as he has, there's no telling how good this team can be.

Loser: Shane Morris

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    Shane Morris wasn't bad, per se, against Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, showing some glimpses of mobility and future competence. But he still missed a golden opportunity.

    Brady Hoke and co. were basically begging Morris—a top-three quarterback from the class of 2013—to step in and usurp the job from Devin Gardner, who struggled for most of the year. If he played well enough, he could have made a big statement to start as a sophomore next season.

    Throwing for 196 yards on 38 passes is not "well enough."

    The Wolverines were embarrassed as a team against Kansas State, losing 31-14 in a game that was even more lopsided than the final score would indicate. That is the first thing that will come to mind when Morris' name is mentioned as a starting candidate during spring and fall camp.

    He'll need to make some major improvements.

Winner: Bob Stoops

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    "Big Game Bob" is no longer a sarcastic jibe. After winning in Stillwater to advance to the Sugar Bowl, then promptly beating Alabama in New Orleans, Bob Stoops is officially, once again, a legitimate big-game head coach.

    The Sooners came out with a near-perfect offensive game plan against Alabama, and much of that has to be given to Stoops' credit. He refused to announce his starting quarterback before the game, but he got redshirt freshman Trevor Knight ready for action, and the rewards were bountiful.

    Now Stoops is getting rumored looks from the NFL, which wouldn't necessarily have not happened without a huge Sugar Bowl victory. Still, beating Alabama by two touchdowns on a national stage—no matter how deceptive the final margin—is the kind of thing that will always get the attention of the pros.

    "Big Game Bob" is back.