The final whistle has blown and a true champion has been crowned. It’s fitting, in the last year of the BCS, that a school who spent many of the formative years of the bowl championship series dominating the top 5 be the last to hold up the crystal football. Congratulations to the Florida State Seminoles, who won the 2013-2014 national championship in dramatic fashion, with the final points coming from the hands of Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Credit the Auburn Tigers as well, the SEC made a valiant effort to keep their impressive championship streak alive, thanks to a beastly 195 rushing yards from Heisman finalist Tre Mason, only to see it be too little, too late. This year’s national title game was everything right with the BCS. It’s easy to fault the system, but when you realize the sole purpose of the BCS is to pit the first and second best teams in the nation against each other, it got more right than wrong. Forget the disasters slotting “BCS bowls”, conference pecking orders and the like, when it came to crowning a champion, the system’s accuracy was pretty spot on. Is there any doubt that Florida State reigned supreme this year? Is it far-fetched to think that Auburn really was the second best team in the country? Both are likely true and on its deathbed, the BCS dealt a fair hand.
Perhaps the biggest story after Florida State’s impressive season, is the idea that maybe the SEC is slowly falling back to earth. Auburn fell short in keeping the SEC’s championship streak alive, but Oklahoma sent shock waves through college football by knocking Alabama and Nick Saban off the throne, sending the Tide home without a trophy after dominating college football for the last five years. Make no mistake about it, the SEC is the best football conference in America, but the gap between the SEC and number two is no longer a canyon. To nobody’s surprise, the SEC West finished highest in Sagarin’s end of season conference rating, but sandwiched in between the SEC West and East were both of the very good Pac-12’s divisions. Oregon and Stanford are talented enough to play any team in the nation, at any place, at any time, and come away with a win. Perhaps both schools sympathized with the “SEC meat grinder” argument that’s been beaten like a dead horse the past decade after running the Pac-12 gauntlet. Stanford and Oregon had national championship talent, but settled for an Alamo Bowl (Oregon) against a downtrodden and checked-out Longhorn team and a Rose Bowl loss (Stanford). This, coming off of embarrassing losses to ugly squads like Utah and a mediocre Arizona team throughout the season, dashed hopes of winning it all. In August, it seemed that only Stanford or Oregon could stop each other from reaching Pasadena, but when there’s no off days in conference play, anything can and did happen. Credit Ed Orgeron for putting a dagger in Stanford’s hopes at a national championship and salvaging some sense of pride at USC before being washed away in the coaching shuffle. Perhaps even more affected by the collective strengthening of the Pac-12 are the next tier of teams, programs like UCLA, Washington and Arizona State, who might not have the firepower to bring their A games week in and week out in conference. No longer can the Bruins or Devils circle two games on their schedule and coast through the rest. Let’s also take a moment to give credit where it’s due to Mike Leach, who did a wonderful job at Washingon State this year. The Cougars were one of the worst handful of teams in all of FBS D-1 last season and won four conference games in 2013, including an impressive win against USC and a road win in Tucson against Arizona, before losing their bowl game in a shootout against Colorado State (CSU had a similar turnaround this year). The offseason has already been red-hot for the Pac-12. Washington might be in for a rough 2014 campaign as their head coach bolted, in conference, for USC. It’s not a spectacular hire for USC, but a very solid one that could prove to be a great one down the road. For the Huskies, it’s gotta sting to lose your head coach in conference. Will next year be the year USC reclaims the division? Is Mike Leach gunning for football dominance in the Evergreen State? Oregon and Stanford will undoubtedly be at least in the national title discussion this offseason, could next year be “the year” of the Pac-12?
As impressive as the Pac-12 was in challenging the SEC this season, the rest of college football was comparably awful. The Big 12 had one of the absolute worst years top to bottom in recent memory. Not to take the luster way from “Big Game” Bob Stoops and the Sooners in defeating Alabama on the national stage, but the Big 12 was, for the lack of a better word, bad. There were three legitimate teams in the Big 12 this season, Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State. For my money, Oklahoma State was the most complete team in the conference, mostly guided by Clint Chelf’s late season push as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation and a very underrated secondary, led by future pro Justin Gilbert. Still, it’s hard to articulate what Art Briles has done in Waco. For those outside of Big 12 country, Baylor brings memories of RGIII and his miraculous Heisman season, this year’s BCS appearance and some sense of relevancy. Despite their recent success, Baylor may be the worst football program historically in the Big XII. Art Briles was the hottest name in the head coaching search for the Texas vacancy for a reason. Briles has turned Baylor into a powerhouse program that’s found its niche in recruiting certain types of athletes to fill a unique, explosive and unpredictable offense that can go blow for blow with anyone in the country. Their loss to UCF screamed “Big 12 football”, all offense and placeholder defense, but for most of the season, Baylor was a break a way from maybe playing for a national title. That’s saying something. Art Briles shares a lot in common with Bill Snyder, who, all things considered, may be the best coach in all of college football, period for what he’s done with as futile a program in Kansas State. Both the Wildcats and Bears are the dregs of college football history, the magic that both of their coaches have created at their respective programs cannot be understated. In glossing over the successes of the Big 12, it’s easy to forget its shortcomings. In year one, the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs of TCU seemed to be welcome additions to the conference. In year two? Both are a disaster, to put it mildly. West Virginia conceded a win to Kansas to give the Jayhawks their first conference win in three years. TCU lost Casey Paschall, preseason first team all-conference quarterback, for a crucial stretch of the season against both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas Tech won their first seven games of the season, before losing five in a row in conference. Iowa State was robbed of a victory against Texas, but the Cyclones join Kansas at the bottom of teams in BCS qualifying conferences. Taking the enigma that was Texas aside, the group of Texas Tech to Kansas is as poor as any BCS conference in the nation.
Ohio State ended 2013 in a sort of thud that only the Buckeye faithful could understand. Ohio State was poised for a shot at the national title against Florida State with one game left. We all know what happened next. Ohio State lost the Big 10 championship game and then lost a spectacular Orange Bowl against the resurgent Tajh Boyd and Clemson Tigers to limp into the offseason and fight another day. Much of the latter half of the season was spent on either defending or discrediting Ohio State’s shot at a national title. The stench of the last decade remained in the air for many, while another camp felt that the rejuvenated Buckeye program led by demigod Urban Meyer and Heisman dark horse Braxton Miller were the group to bring one of college football’s most storied programs back to the promised land. Last season saw Notre Dame “return”, why couldn’t this be the year that the Big 10 made a statement? The season didn’t end favorably for Coach Meyer and college football fans rolled their eyes collectively as Ohio State wilted in the spotlight. Next. The real story in the Big 1o was Michigan State. On top of the Big 10 championship, the Spartans won an impressive Rose Bowl in Stanford’s backyard. The Spartans were a truly formidable team this year that should be remembered for more than being the foil to Ohio State. The rest of the Big 10? Rather forgettable. Nebraska has yet to find its identity in their new home and Northwestern mimicked Texas Tech in spiraling out of a hot start to the season. Along with Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana did the conference no favors by plunging well beyond the basement.
Duke was one of the true feel good stories of 2014, perhaps soured by a beatdown in the ACC title game and heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl leading one to wonder what Duke did to deserve playing Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel back-to-back. Still, the Blue Devils made their first championship game in program history, a feat that shouldn’t go unappreciated. Florida State ruled the ACC Atlantic after destroying a very good Clemson team on the road, but riding the strength of the Seminoles being the best team in the country, both Clemson and Duke represented their conference well in bowl season. Similar to the Big 12 and Big 10, it’s the other teams in the ACC that are holding the credentials of its champion back. Maryland went from a suave top 25 pick to a doormat, Viriginia is reaching Colorado levels of awfulness and North Carolina State and Wake Forest could struggle in the MAC. As a bookend, the new and shiny All-American Conference produced one of the year’s most surprising squads in Central Florida and one of the more disappointing in Louisville. UCF was led by future first rounder Blake Bortles and Louisville sputtered along with maybe the number one overall draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, who has been the object of many a GM’s affection for two seasons. Still, with one of the most sought after coaches in the nation, Charlie Strong, and a possible number one overall pick, there was plenty left on the table for the Cardinals this season. Don’t worry though, Bobby Petrino is riding his Harley back into town and there’s good reason to believe Louisville will be right back into contention for a conference title sooner rather than later.
Florida State had sputtered around the top 25 the past few years, usually falling short of being “back” to their heyday of the late 90s and early 2000s. This year, the Seminoles put together one of the most impressive seasons in college football history, setting the single season points record. There’s little debate that FSU was the best team in all the land this last year and their most important piece is returning for at least one more season in Tallahassee. Moving forward into a playoff, it will be interesting to see how conference strength plays into the elusive three and four picks in finalizing the field. There’s a few mere feet between the SEC and Pac-12, but the rest of the college football landscape seems to be lagging well behind. Will teams like Baylor or Oklahoma State pay the price for the futility of their conference, in spite of their own talent? There’s little time to ponder these questions as planning and preparation for 2014 beings as early as last season ended. National signing day is near and there will be no shortage of coaches bumping in, out and around the nation, as Lane Kiffin was just announced as the offensive coordinator for Alabama in the first of many new personnel shifts heading into the fall. Charlie Strong accepted the most lucrative job offer in the nation and is undoubtedly all in on turning the ship around in Austin. James Franklin, the hottest young name in college coaching, bolted for Penn State. What schools will win the offseason arms race? With schools like USC, Georgia and Texas rebuilding their staffs, there’s going to be a lot of money thrown around before the fall. Time to refresh the calendars, start from scratch and get ready for another season of college football. The victory celebration for the ‘Noles could be very short-lived.