The 25 Biggest Takeaways from the 2013 College Football Season

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

The 25 Biggest Takeaways from the 2013 College Football Season

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    The 2013 college football season has come and gone, with Florida State bringing to an end the SEC's championship reign in the final title game of the BCS era. Now we move on to a supposedly better plan, the upcoming College Football Playoff.

    It was a season where realignment again played a role, as did another freshman phenom and an annoying new rule that most didn't understand and hardly anyone liked.

    We've previously chronicled the most memorable moments from this past season. Now it's time to give you what we took away as being the most important developments and observations from 2013.

Next Year's Heisman Winner Probably Didn't Play This Year

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    Prior to 2012, the Heisman Trophy had never been won by a player listed as a freshman, and hardly any first-year players had even been in contention for the award.

    Now, after back-to-back seasons where a redshirt freshman quarterback has taken college football's top individual honor, it makes you wonder who's going to win it in 2014—and if that person is even on campus yet.

    Both Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston were part of their teams the year before winning, but neither played. This means the next Heisman winner might have roamed the sidelines all season with a clipboard and no helmet, or possibly even no uniform.

    And while that description does fit FSU ball boy/rock star Frankie "Red Lightning" Grizzle-Malgrat, we're more talking about some recruited athlete who sat out 2013 to get stronger and become more acclimated to the college game.

    Start your guesses!

The Star Senior Is Becoming Endangered

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    There were 74 underclassmen who declared for the NFL draft following the 2012 season, a record that seems to get broken each and every year.

    The deadline for early entry is Wednesday, Jan. 15, and already we're well past 80 players, according to NFL.com.

    For some perspective, the 2003 NFL draft had only 43 underclassmen on the eligibility list.

    The early departures have become so prevalent (and likely will continue to be so) that using up all of your college eligibility in football is starting to take on the same connotation it has in college baseball: You must not be that good.

    Case in point, CBS Sports only lists 15 seniors among its top 40 draft prospects.

    It makes you want to cherish four-year players like Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr or UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.

'Big Game Bob' Can Back Up His Smack Talk

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    Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops got some Southern pulses to rise last spring when he downplayed the SEC's long run of national champions, noting that it didn't necessarily make the conference better than all the rest.

    Those comments once again became a topic of discussion when Stoops' Sooners were picked to face SEC torchbearer Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, an opportunity for him to put his money where his mouth was.

    And he did, in surprisingly dominant fashion.

    Oklahoma played by far its best game of the season, beating the Crimson Tide 45-31 and sending the defending BCS champs to their first back-to-back losses since 2008-09.

    No word on who the man often referred to as "Big Game Bob" is going to go after next.

Florida Might Lead the Charge for a 9-Game SEC Schedule

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    The Big 12 and Pac-12 are the only FBS conferences that play nine league games, while the Big Ten is scheduled to go that route beginning with the 2016 season.

    Other conferences have discussed the idea, but there are no definite plans to do so. However, after its embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern in mid-November, Florida might be wise to make a push for the SEC to start that dialogue up again.

    The loss to an FCS program came deep into the season, during a time on the schedule when most conferences play only within itself but when the SEC has traditionally had many of its teams face a perceived patsy at home. That plan backfired for the Gators, who probably would have rather faced someone like Arkansas.

The Targeting Rule Stinks and Needs to Go

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    We understand the point of the rule, what it's trying to prevent and who it's trying to protect.

    But seriously, college football's targeting rule is the worst thing since Crystal Pepsi, and it's got to go.

    Think about it: The rule calls for a player to be ejected if he targets an opposing player, which is supposed to mean leading with the helmet or hitting the other person's helmet area. A player kicked out in the second half of a game would also miss the first half of his next game.

    But if the infraction is reviewed—the only such penalty that can be looked at by replay officials—and it's determined that targeting didn't occur, the ejection is overturned. Yet the accused player's team still has to deal with the 15-yard penalty that came with the flag.

    Add in the fact that offensive players who deliberately lower their head when taking on an opposing tackler (sometimes drawing a targeting penalty) don't get flagged, and you've got a seriously flawed rule.

    The SEC has pushed for the NCAA to review the penalty, but that's not enough. It just needs to go.

The Spread Is Here to Stay

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    The national champions didn't run it, but they nearly lost to it.

    College football's most dominant program over the last few seasons has been terribly troubled by it and might finally look into using it.

    What are we walking about? The spread offense, the college game's latest schematic trend, but one that's probably going to have quite a long shelf life.

    Just look at the success teams that run the spread (and have the right personnel for it) have had:

    • Auburn went from 3-9 to the BCS National Championship Game in one season after Gus Malzahn brought in the spread.
    • Clemson has won 10 or more games the past three years, thanks heavily to the spread.
    • And schools like Baylor, Ohio State and Oregon make for some of the most exciting teams to watch thanks to their ability to spread defenses out and do damage with both the run and pass on any given play.

    Some schools have learned to adapt to defending the spread, but unlike gimmicky offenses such as the option or the wishbone, the spread attack combines both effectiveness and (most importantly) a marketable product.

    The spread is here to stay.

The Coaching Carousel Remains a Wild Ride, Even with Fewer Riders

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    As of Monday, 19 of the 126 schools that fielded FBS football teams in 2013 made a coaching change, down from 31 the year before and the fewest since 18 jobs changed hands in 2008.

    And though the vacancies at Alabama-Birmingham and Vanderbilt could lead to further movement, overall the coaching carousel that has become so prevalent in today's game wasn't nearly as chaotic.

    But it's still been a fun ride full of twists and turns and countless "reports" featuring "sources" and "persons familiar with" things they weren't willing to say on the record. Major openings such as Penn State, USC and Texas helped keep the ride from getting dull, while Bobby Petrino's second stint at Louisville also provided plenty to talk about.

Fresh Blood Is Good for the Game

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    The Associated Press' preseason Top 25 poll for 2013 included all of the usual suspects we've come to expect greatness from in college football. You know, the big boys from the big-boy leagues, teams that get votes based as much on legacy as expected performance.

    Us media types are as much to blame as anyone for this.

    When the AP released its final poll hours after the BCS National Championship Game, though, that ranking was nearly unrecognizable from the one put out in August.

    The teams that finished second, third and fifth (Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri, respectively) were unranked to start the year, while preseason No. 10 Florida, No. 20 TCU and No. 22 Northwestern all ended up with losing records.

    The Fiesta Bowl featured two complete upstarts in Baylor and Central Florida, while the national title game pitted a predicted-to-be-good-but-not-this-good Florida State against an Auburn squad that was 3-9 the year before.

    Add in conference or division titles by Duke and Rice, and we had quite a bit of upheaval atop the college football rankings. And we loved every minute of it.

Michigan State Brought Sexy (Defense) Back

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    The old mantra that "offense sells tickets and defense wins championships" held true again in 2013, for the most part, with national champion Florida State displaying a very solid defensive unit that shut down most opponents and kept Auburn's high-powered spread attack from running rampant.

    But Michigan State was the team that really brought to the forefront how defense can lead to a big year, as the Spartans leaned on that side of the ball to post their best season since the 1960s.

    MSU finished second in total defense, second in rushing defense, third in passing defense and third in scoring defense en route to a 13-1 season and a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.

    The Spartans were so strong on defense it enabled their inexperienced offense plenty of time to develop and grow, so that when the postseason came along, that unit was able to hold its own and contribute equally to the Rose Bowl win as well as the victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Lane Kiffin Got Singled Out

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    When USC canned Lane Kiffin just five games into the season, it looked like just the start of a possibly bloody coaching execution squad.

    Texas' Mack Brown, Florida's Will Muschamp and other well-known coaches entered 2013 on the hot seat, and as the year went on, those seats seemed to get even hotter.

    Yet Kiffin ended up being the only coach from any of the five major FBS conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC) to be relieved of his duties, either during or after the 2013 campaign. While several other positions opened up, it was due to retirement or resignation, often from a coach jumping from one gig to another.

    What makes Kiffin's unique situation so ironic is that, despite getting fired, he ended up with arguably a better situation when Nick Saban hired him as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Known as a great recruiter and a pretty good coach, Kiffin no longer has to worry about being the face of a program and can just do his job.

College Football Needs Relegation and Promotion

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    Many European professional sports leagues use promotion and relegation to keep things interesting from year to year, with the best teams from a lower division switching places with the worst of the upper tier.

    Based on yet another banner year of FCS triumphs over FBS teams, college football might want to give this a go.

    Three of the four teams to make the FCS playoff semifinals notched a victory over an FBS opponent this season, as three-time champ North Dakota State took out Kansas State, runner-up Towson downed Connecticut and semifinalist Eastern Washington got past Oregon State.

    Add in FCS playoff qualifiers Eastern Illinois (San Diego State), Fordham (Temple) and McNeese State (South Florida), and you've got some prime candidates for promotion to FBS if such a system existed.

    As for relegation? Consider that California and Purdue failed to defeat a team from their own subdivision.

Buyouts Are Getting Bigger

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    College football coaches have jumped ship from their "dream jobs" and abandoned lucrative long-term contracts for even more lucrative, longer-term deals at other schools—and will continue to do so. But their bosses might finally be wising up to trying to slow this trend, if this most recent coaching carousel is any indication.

    The buyout portion of contracts looks to be on the rise, with many coaches hired at new schools in the past two months agreeing to deals that come with a pretty steep price for quitting prior to the end of the contract's term.

    Arkansas State got this ball rolling in mid-December when, in reaction to losing yet another coach to a bigger school after just one season, it signed Blake Anderson to a five-year deal worth $700,000 that includes a buyout penalty of $3 million if Anderson were to go somewhere else following the first two seasons.

    James Franklin's six-year contract at Penn State reportedly contains a $5 million buyout for the first two seasons, though since his salary is $4 million in that first year, the escape clause isn't that significant an increase.

    The biggest buyout yet, though, came attached to Bobby Petrino's seven-year, $24.5 million deal to return to Louisville. Seeing as Petrino has had a reputation of bolting from jobs, including the one he's just been rehired for, it wasn't surprising to see athletic director Tom Jurich attach a whopping $10 million buyout to the first four years of that contract.

The Bad Keep Getting Worse

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    There are always going to be bad teams in any sport. Some teams have to lose in order for there to be good teams with lots of wins. Parity, while good for PR, isn't always good for the overall game if there aren't clear powers rising to the top.

    That being said, the bottom of the barrel—at least in terms of within the major conferences—might have hit an all-time low in 2013.

    There were five teams from the six BCS conferences that failed to win a game in their league this past season. The ACC (North Carolina State, Virginia) and SEC (Arkansas, Kentucky) had two apiece, while California (Pac-12) and Purdue (Big Ten) also laid a goose egg in terms of conference wins.

    That number stood at five in 2013, at four in 2012 and at three in 2011. In 2010, there were no BCS conference teams that failed to knock off at least one league foe.

    One note to take into consideration, though: Of those six teams, only Virginia had a coach who wasn't in his first year on the job.

The Palmetto State Plays the Country's Best Football

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    The state of South Carolina hasn't won any national titles lately, but FBS representatives Clemson and South Carolina have made this member of the original colonies a hotbed of college football consistency and success the last few seasons.

    Both the Tigers and Gamecocks have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons, with both clubs going 11-2 in 2013. That included a heads-up meeting, with South Carolina taking the annual showdown of Palmetto State powers, while only one of the other setbacks—Carolina's loss at Tennessee—could be considered a "bad" loss.

    Whether this trend of success will continue depends on how well both schools deal with the loss of so many star players, either to graduation or early entry to the NFL. Odds are, though, that each will again be challenging for 10-win seasons.

The Land of Enchantment Remains the FBS Doormat

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    On the other end of the success spectrum is the state of New Mexico, whose two FBS programs combined went 5-19 in 2013. That included New Mexico beating New Mexico State, while the other four wins came against opponents with two or fewer victories or from the FCS ranks.

    The Land of Enchantment has been a success wasteland for quite some time, actually. UNM last had a winning season in 2007, failing to surpass four victories in any one year since then, while NMSU last fielded a non-losing team in 2002.

6-6 Bowl Teams Came to Play

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    Many complaints have been made over the years that there are far too many bowl games and that rules allowing teams with .500 records to be bowl-eligible just dilutes the product and makes for some very bad games.

    Tell that to the seven 6-6 teams that qualified for bowls this season. Collectively, they went 5-2, with only Rutgers and Washington State losing. And WSU led by 15 points with three minutes left before, well, playing like a team that went 6-6 often does.

    The other five 6-6 winners (Mississippi State, Oregon State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse) all came out victorious against opponents with at least eight—and sometimes 10—wins.

    Compare that to the seven-win teams that went 5-7 in their matchups, two of which were against each other.

MACtion Was Way Overhyped

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    The normally ignored Mid-American Conference got a boost of attention in 2012 when it had two schools vying for a possible BCS bowl appearance, with Northern Illinois ultimately getting invited to the Orange Bowl.

    The Huskies didn't win that game, but simply their presence (as well as the return of electrifying quarterback Jordan Lynch) gave the MAC plenty of publicity heading into 2013.

    That notoriety continued as some MAC teams knocked off schools from bigger conferences early in the season—while one of its doormats, Akron, nearly pulled off a shocker before falling short at Michigan. Meanwhile, Lynch kept breaking records and had NIU poised for another BCS-buster appearance.

    The little league that no one usually cares about even parlayed its late-season dominance of weeknight games on ESPN into a catchphrase that became a Twitter hashtag, #MACtion.

    Then NIU lost in the conference title game, killing the league's shot at another BCS payday, and then the MAC went out and lost all five of its bowl games.

    So, does that mean MACtion became inMACtion?

The New AAC Was Better (and Worse) Than We Expected

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    The shuffling of schools from one conference to another left us with a (sort of) brand-new conference in 2013, with the Big East getting replaced by the American Athletic Conference. It was a blend of Big East clubs that hadn't managed to find a new place—or couldn't get out until later—and whatever schools it could pluck from Conference USA.

    On paper, the AAC looked like Louisville's for the taking—and without much resistance. But some of the new teams provided a few surprises, namely Central Florida's upset win at Louisville that it parlayed into a BCS appearance.

    But as nice as the Knights' success was, most of the rest of the AAC turned out to be a bunch of stinkers. Newcomers Memphis and SMU were pretty bad, while holdovers Connecticut, Rutgers, South Florida and Temple somehow got worse despite a watered-down schedule.

    And with Louisville and Rutgers (two of the league's five bowl teams) going elsewhere for 2014, to be replaced by even more C-USA reinforcements in the form of East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa, it's no surprise the AAC has dropped out of the top tier of FBS conferences.

Central Florida Won the Realignment Sweepstakes

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    Central Florida was not a key piece of the conference realignment puzzle. Rather, the commuter school from Orlando was more of a stopgap measure that the foundering (and soon-to-be-renamed) Big East plugged in to keep its league from dissolving.

    But after the dust settled on the 2013 season, it was clear that UCF benefited the most from all of the changes, in the form of a huge BCS and who knows how many millions' worth of national exposure.

    Other shifters made big strides this past season, particularly Missouri, but most of them were already well-established programs that were looking to move up the food chain a little.

    But UCF? Before this season, it was probably only known for being the school that gave George O'Leary a job after his resume-padding cost him the Notre Dame gig.

Big-School Coaching Washouts Had a Banner Year

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    Dan McCarney is the winningest (and losingest) coach in Iowa State history. Larry Coker won the 2001 BCS title with Miami (Fla.). Terry Bowden won a pair of SEC division titles at Auburn. And Dennis Franchione posted nine-win seasons at four different FBS schools, including Alabama and Texas A&M.

    None of those men are coaching in major conferences nowadays, though, as each got booted out by schools that expected more and weren't willing to wait for past success to come back slowly.

    Instead, each of those coaches are at schools on the lower end of the FBS, and they're doing quite fine, thanks for asking.

    McCarney, now at North Texas, led the Mean Green to its first bowl appearance since 2004, and one on New Year's Day at that, beating UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Coker got the UTSA program started a few years ago, and this season had the Roadrunners finish 7-5 in their final year transitioning to the FBS.

    Franchione, back at Texas State where he coached in the early 1990s, got his 200th career win while the Bobcats went 6-6 as they finished up FBS transition. And Bowden, now at Akron, went 5-7 with the Zips to give that school its best record since 2008.

Coaching Michigan Is a Thankless Job

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    When Lloyd Carr retired (which is the polite way of saying he was pretty much forced into doing so) as Michigan's coach after the 2007 season, it was looked at as an opportunity for the school to move forward and return to greatness under a new leader.

    But three years' worth of Rich Rodriguez didn't satisfy Wolverine Nation, as despite an improved record each year, Rodriguez was fired following the 2010 season.

    In came Brady Hoke, the former San Diego State coach who was considered more of a "Michigan Man" because he'd previously been an assistant at the school. Hoke went 11-2 in his first season, but since then has logged years of 8-5 and most recently 7-6, including a loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

    And the fans, once again, are not happy.

    Hoke just hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama to be Michigan's offensive coordinator, a move that can both help the Wolverine's sputtering scoring attack and possibly help appease Wolverine Nation.

    But will it be enough?

The Pelini Family Had a Rough Year

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    The Pelini family had two FBS head coaches in it at the beginning of the 2013 season. By midyear, though, one was gone and the other was on the proverbial hot seat.

    Carl Pelini resigned in late October from Florida Atlantic, midway through his second season, amid allegations he and an assistant coach used drugs. He rescinded his resignation about a week later, but school officials declined the move and eventually hired Charlie Partridge to take over the program heading into 2014.

    Bo Pelini, Carl's younger brother, went 9-4 in his sixth season at Nebraska, leading the Cornhuskers to a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He's won at least nine games in every year at the school, but in September, he was washed up in a whirl of controversy after Deadspin released audio of Pelini from a two-year-old postgame tirade during which he cussed out the Nebraska fanbase.

    Talk about a family that couldn't wait for the calendar to turn over from 2013.

College Does Overtime the Right Way

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    When a game goes to overtime, it's because the teams are so evenly matched—at least on that day or night—that 60 minutes of play wasn't enough to determine a winner.

    So why try to have it end as soon as possible? If the game's that good, let it have the chance to go on forever.

    That's how college football's overtime system works, and it's why it's far superior to that of the NFL. Even with the recent pro tweaking that allows for situations where both teams can get a chance to score, the college system is better.

    One team gets the ball on the opponents' 25-yard line. Then the other team does. If it's not tied after that, it's over. If it is, well, then...more football!

    Several key games went into overtime in 2013, often needing two or more OTs to complete. One of the year's best contests required a second overtime, with South Carolina handing Missouri its first loss with a 27-24 double-OT road victory.

    Under the NFL system, Missouri's touchdown at the start of the first overtime would have ended it right there, without South Carolina getting a chance to match or surpass that.

Turnover Margin Matters Most

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    There are so many different statistics associated with football that it's hard to say which one, above all others, is most important.

    But for the 2013 season, at least, we've found that stat: turnover margin.

    Of the 70 teams that played in bowl games, only nine of them made it through the year by turning the ball over more than they forced takeaways. And only one of the 25 best teams in terms of turnover margin failed to make a bowl game.

    Houston was the FBS' best when it came to this stat, finishing its 13-game season with a plus-25 turnover margin, while BCS champion Florida State was third with a plus-17 margin in 14 games.

Even the Most Meaningless of Bowls Matters, to Someone

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    Colorado State hadn't been to a bowl game since 2007, while its New Mexico Bowl opponent, Washington State, was in its first bowl since 2003.

    The Heart of Dallas Bowl also featured two schools ending long bowl droughts, with North Texas (2004) and UNLV (2000) earning bids for the first time in quite a while.

    Add in Tulane, which got to end an 11-year bowl hiatus by playing in the New Orleans Bowl in its home city, and you've got five reasons why all bowl games have some level of importance and mean something to someone.

    Need more evidence? Think of some of the teams that traditionally have gone bowling but didn't this year: Florida, TCU, West Virginia. What do those schools have in common? Massive disappointment, not to mention added pressure on their coaches heading into 2014, pressure that would have been at least a little less intense had 2013 ended with a bowl game.