In a literal sense, the college football postseason is one meaningful game preceded by 34 exhibitions.
Maybe that’s true to a degree, but the bowl season has a way of setting the storylines for the offseason. After all, this is the only college football anyone is going to see until August, unless you start counting spring games.
Here’s who gained and lost the most through bowl season.
Bowl Season Winners and Losers
Winner: Florida State
Have we seen the beginning of a sea change in the college football postseason. Certainly, switching from the BCS to the College Football Playoff will be a major storyline, but Florida State may be the nation’s top program in the new era. Florida State won the final BCS championship and is likely the preseason No. 1 in the first year of the playoff. Heisman winner Jameis Winston will be a redshirt freshman, and all but 14 players on the depth chart from the title game signed between 2011-13.
Loser: The SEC
Florida State ended the SEC’s streak of seven consecutive national championships, but Alabama’s loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl gave the SEC an 0-2 record in the BCS. The league still finished 7-3 in bowl season, but the SEC doesn’t pride itself on merely winning Capital One Bowls and Cotton Bowls.
Winner: Trevor Knight’s emergence
Oklahoma’s flip flopping at quarterback due to injuries and ineffectiveness cast a shadow over the season for the Sooners up until kickoff in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. Trevor Knight’s bowl performance did more than ensure he’ll open 2014 as the starter; it likely makes Oklahoma the preseason Big 12 favorite and Knight one of the country’s rising stars. It’s tough to overstate how shocking Knight’s performance was in New Orleans. Since September, Knight had passed for a total of 260 yards. Against Alabama, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards with four touchdown passes as the Sooners converted 5 of their first 7 third downs. Against a defense that had allowed only three 40-yard pass plays all year, Knight had a pair of touchdown passes for at least 40 yards.
Loser: AJ McCarron’s sendoff
The Alabama quarterback has had one of the great careers in college football history, but forgive him if he never wants to see a redshirt freshman dual-threat quarterback ever again. Knight upstaged McCarron in his final game, but McCarron had his own problems — not that they were all his fault. Protection fell apart all night in the Sugar Bowl as McCarron finished 19 of 30 for 387 yards with two touchdowns, but also three turnovers. The final, a fumble on his last play, yielded the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Winner: Clemson’s validated season
This is the end of an era for the Tigers with quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins moving on (and perhaps offensive coordinator Chad Morris). Clemson made sure their tenures ended with a meaningful 40-35 win over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Boyd finished with 505 yards of total offense, and Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns.
Loser: Ohio State against top teams
The Buckeyes were poised to go to the national championship game into the first weekend of December before the 34-24 loss to Michigan State. By the end of the season, we learned the only thing more suspect than Ohio State’s schedule was the Buckeyes’ defense. Against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson, Ohio State allowed an average of 539 yards per game and seven yards per play over the final three games of the season.
Winner: Bob Stoops’ vindication
The Oklahoma coach took a well-earned victory lap after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Stoops hasn’t been shy about saying he’s not really buying into the depth of the SEC. If Oklahoma lost big to Alabama — an outcome that wouldn’t have been shocking — Sooners fans probably would stop buying into “Big Game Bob.” Instead, Oklahoma upset the Tide 45-31. This wasn’t one of Stoops’ best teams in Norman, but it still went 11-2 and will finish in the top 10 for the first time since 2010. Stoops has earned the right to speak his mind a little more.
Loser: Texas A&M’s paper-thin defense
Texas A&M will need to find a new identity in 2014 if Johnny Manziel heads to the NFL Draft as expected. The Aggies’ defense has been a liability all year but never more than in the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. The Blue Devils scored at will, putting up 38 points and 365 yards on 36 plays before halftime. The Aggies came back to win 52-48, but the offseason will have more questions than answers.
Winner: Bo Pelini’s offseason
The sarcastic remarks were a little too easy as Nebraska entered the Gator Bowl against Georgia with four losses — the mark Bo Pelini has hit exactly in each of his six seasons with the Cornhuskers. Fate, it seems, won’t let Pelini get to five losses. Indeed, such a mark would only help the Cornhuskers to fire him, if they wanted to. Instead, Nebraska’s defense twice stopped Georgia on fourth down inside the 20 in the fourth quarter in the 24-19 win. Including those defensive stands, Pelini’s defense held Georgia to 2.2 yards per carry with four sacks and an interception. Pelini may still enter 2014 coaching for his job, but at least he won’t go into the offseason following his worst year as a head coach.
Loser: Minnesota in crunch time
Minnesota letting a bowl win slip away is getting to be a tradition. After trailing 14-3, Minnesota took a fourth quarter lead on Syracuse in the Texas Bowl before surrendering a long punt return that set up the Orange to win 21-17. A year ago, Minnesota led Texas Tech by a touchdown in the fourth quarter before the Red Raiders scored 10 points in the final 1:10 to win 34-31. And in 2006, Minnesota had one of the biggest bowl collapses in history by giving up a 31-point lead to Texas Tech, ending the tenure of former coach Glen Mason. The Gophers have lost six consecutive bowl games, with the last win coming in 2004.
Winner: The SEC’s returning tailbacks
Bowl performances from LSU’s Jeremy Hill (216 yards, two touchdowns vs. Iowa) and Georgia’s Todd Gurley (183 yards from scrimmages vs. Nebraska) weren’t totally unexpected, but Alabama, even in a loss, showed the depths of their running back talent. Derrick Henry had carried the ball 27 times all season before facing Oklahoma, but he was turned out to be just a dynamic mix of strength and speed as Hill and Gurley. Henry rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on only eight carries and delivered one of the highlights of the game with his 61-yard touchdown catch, his first career reception, on a swing pass. If 2013 was the year of the quarterback in the SEC, the 2014 season might be a return to form for the league’s tailbacks. Hill, Gurley and Henry will all return.
Loser: The Big Ten’s substitute quarterbacks
Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan all had to go to backup quarterbacks during bowl season with only the Wolverines preparing to play in the postseason without their starting quarterback. The results were not good. Freshman Shane Morris was 24 of 38 for 196 yards with an interception in the 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Making matters worse, he was also the only player to rush for more than 14 yards. Iowa freshman C.J. Beathard was 4 of 7 with a touchdown and an interception after replacing starter Jake Rudock. Badgers backup Curt Phillips threw two picks after Joel Stave left the Capital One Bowl with a shoulder injury
Winner: The Pac-12’s returning quarterbacks
Want to energize a fanbase for the upcoming season? How about a dominant performance by a quarterback followed by the quarterback announcing he’ll return to school. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota returned from the knee injury that hampered his running ability late in the season to rush for 133 yards on 15 carries in a 30-7 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl. He also completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards with a touchdown. UCLA’s Brett Hundley may have been even better, rushing for 161 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries plus 16-of-19 passing for 226 yards and two touchdowns in the 42-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion also will return to school after a bowl win over Boise State. Oregon will remain in the title hunt with Mariota back, but UCLA remains a team worth watching with Hundley returning.
Loser: David Shaw’s second-half decisions
The Stanford coach will have two calls that may gnaw at him all offseason from the second half of the Rose Bowl. On a fourth and 3 from the Michigan State 36 with 4:16 left in the third quarter, Shaw opted to roll the dice early, but Tyler Gaffney was stopped for a three-yard loss. Then, with the game on the line on a fourth and 1 in the final moments, Shaw went to fullback Ryan Hewitt, who was stuffed at the line. Two years ago, Stanford lost the Fiesta Bowl when the Cardinal missed a 35-yard field goal on third and 2, preserving a tie and allowing Oklahoma State to win in overtime.
Winner: Connor Cook’s progression
Back in September, three Michigan State quarterbacks combined for one measly offensive touchdown against USF at home. The Spartans will enter 2014 with quarterback one of the team’s top strengths. Cook was 22 of 36 for 332 yards with two touchdowns and an interception as Michigan State put the game in his hands in the 24-20 Rose Bowl victory. The Spartans will need the offense to open 2014 fully formed as the defense will have its share of rebuilding without Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen and Max Bullough.
Loser: The MAC
Credit the MAC for being good TV, all the way up to the GoDaddy Bowl on Sunday, but world-beaters MAC teams are not. Northern Illinois may have started 2-0 against the Big Ten, but the MAC went 0-5 in bowl games. Only one of those bowl losses came to a major conference team (Bowling Green to Pittsburgh).
Winner: Louisville’s Sunshine State credibility
The Cardinals aren’t going to contend for the ACC next season with Teddy Bridgewater off to the NFL and Charlie Strong to Texas. But the new Cardinals coach has a nice head start. Even with Bridgewater gone, Louisville has its core of veterans back. And if the new coach continues to recruit Florida aggressively — as Strong and Bobby Petrino did — he can brag about Louisville easily defeating the Gators and Miami in bowl games the last two seasons.
Loser: Paul Johnson’s offseason
Not that Paul Johnson’s disposition will show much difference, but this isn’t going to be a fun offseason for the Georgia Tech coach. The Yellow Jackets collapsed to lose 41-34 in double overtime at home to Georgia, their fifth consecutive loss in the series. Then the Yellow Jackets lost 25-17 to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. Days later, CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman reported Johnson was unhappy at Georgia Tech, and he had hoped a buyout would be on its way (Johnson denied it). With a 28-25 record since the 2009 ACC title, Johnson might not have to wait long.
Winner: Dan Mullen’s peace of mind
In the SEC, someone has to be the hot seat coach of the year (hello, Will Muschamp). Mississippi State’s Mullen appeared to be headed that way with precious few big wins, but the Bulldogs ended the season in a high note — three consecutive wins including Ole Miss and a Liberty Bowl rout of Rice to ensure a fourth consecutive winning season for Mullen.
Loser: Arizona State’s showing
Every postseason a handful of teams look like they’d rather be home for the holidays or in a better bowl game. Arizona State was that team this year. The Sun Devils, who were playing as well as anyone leading up to the Pac-12 title game, trailed 27-6 to Texas Tech at one point and botched clock management at the end of the first half. An embarrassing episode in an otherwise good year for Todd Graham.
Winner: Texas Tech’s big upset
The Big 12 was involved in the three biggest bowl surprises with Oklahoma defeating Alabama in the Sugar and UCF defeating Baylor in the Fiesta. The third was Texas Tech’s 37-23 win over Pac-12 South champion Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Kliff Kingsbury’s year-long quest to find a quarterback culminated with freshman Davis Webb completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards with four touchdowns. The Red Raiders had lost five in a row entering bowl season.
Loser: Washington State’s collapse
Bowl season began in dramatic fashion, though it didn’t look like it would start that way. Washington State took a 35-13 lead in the second quarter of the New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State, but the Rams continued to chip away at the lead. Washington State helped by rushing for minus-10 yards and fumbling twice to lose 48-45.
Winner: Steve Sarkisian’s quarterback situation
Sarkisian inherited Jake Locker when he took the Washington job, and at USC he’ll inherit another incumbent quarterback ready to take the next step. Cody Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Kessler completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in his final seven games of the season.
Loser: Charlie Strong’s outlook
The Alamo Bowl served in part to show how far Texas has to go to be a national title contender under new coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns’ defense played about as well as it possibly could, holding the Ducks to one offensive touchdown in the first half. Yet the Longhorns still lost by 23. Case McCoy was dreadful, completing 8 of 17 passes for 48 yards with two touchdowns. One of Strong’s first jobs will be to groom Tyrone Swoopes or incoming freshman Jerrod Heard for the position.
Winner: January bowl games
The final year of the BCS brought memorable games, especially for underdogs. Oklahoma, UCF, Clemson and Michigan State all defeated favorites in their BCS games. All together, bowls on Jan. 1 or later were decided by an average of 9.2 points. Pulling that average up was North Texas’ 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Loser: December bowl games
A few games were close, but the December bowl games were mostly duds settled by an average of 15.7 points per game.