-by Braden Gall (follow on twitter @AthlonBraden)
Athlon Sports recognizes some of the best, worst, most unfortunate, bizarre and confusing teams, players and statistics of the 2011 season:
The Boy Named Sue Award: Collin Klein, Kansas State
"Son, this world is rough. And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough." Klein personifies this legendary Johnny Cash song. Kansas State hadn't won more than seven games since 2003, but behind Klein's bloody, gritty performances, the Wildcats are playing in the Cotton Bowl and have 10 wins. Klein finished third in the nation in scoring at 13.0 points per game — and just so everyone knows, passing touchdowns don't count towards scoring. His 26 rushing touchdowns are the second-highest total by a quarterback in history (Ricky Dobbs, 27). If it were not "For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye," Kansas State would have been just another 6-6 mediocre bowl team.
The 5th Down Trophy: USC Trojans
The Missouri Tigers got arguably the worst screw job in NCAA history, and it led to a national title for the Colorado Buffaloes. The Trojans lost to Stanford by one score in triple overtime and beat Oregon in Eugene, but never got a chance to prove that they were the best team in the league. This is possibly the best passing attack in the history of USC football. The Trojans led the nation in fewest sacks allowed with eight total surrendered all season. Matt Barkley's 39 passing touchdowns are a single-season school record, and Robert Woods' 111 receptions are not only a school record but a Pac-12 single-season record. The NCAA penalized the Trojans hard, but should have allowed for postseason play in 2011. The west coast's version of the rematch should have taken place over the weekend — in Los Angeles this time — and maybe the Trojans would be facing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
The “Sacko” Master: Pitt Panthers
Named for the last-place finisher in FX’s fantastically disgusting series “The League,” where the Sacko trophy was awarded to Dr. Andre Nowzik for finishing last in his fantasy league. College football's version of The Sacko has only one home: the Pitt Panthers. Todd Graham knows how to score points but apparently doesn’t know how to keep his quarterback upright. At 4.75 sacks allowed per game, the Panthers were nearly one full sack allowed per game worse than the 119th-ranked team (Miami, Ohio at 3.92). Pitt was sacked 57 times in 12 games for a nation-worst 368 lost yards.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda Award: Oklahoma State and Wisconsin
We have a split in the voting for this one. Had Oklahoma State not turned the ball over five times in a primetime overtime road loss to 6-6 Iowa State (following the tragic plane crash), the Pokes would be playing for a national title. The Cowboys finshed the season ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring at 49.3 points per game and 386.3 yards per game in passing. They beat eight bowl teams this fall.
Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring for the third straight season, and Russell Wilson is poised to have the most efficient season in NCAA history (191.6) if he can play another quality game in the Rose Bowl. Montee Ball has scored 38 touchdowns and is one away from another NCAA single-season record. His 1,759 yards lead the nation. However, the records, second straight Big Ten title and Rose Bowl might not help Badger faithful forget about two last-minute scoring throws that beat UW against Michigan State and Ohio State. Without those two passes, the Badgers are likely playing in the BCS national title game.
The Choking Tiger, Hidden Dabo Trophy: Clemson Tigers
First of all, the Clemson Tigers deserve all the credit for beating Virginia Tech in what was their best perfomance in over a month. However, the Tigers started 8-0, and had they not Clemson-ed their way to a 1-3 regular-season finish, might also be playing in the national title game. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in ACC in total offense (482.5 ypg) and scoring offense (40.7 ppg) and were No. 12 nationally in turnover margin and No. 2 in the ACC (+1.13) after eight games. In four games to end the season, Clemson committed 12 turnovers in four games (1-3), were outscored 130-74 and lost by an average of 19.7 point per game to three teams that combined for 11 losses. Getting run off the field by in-state rival South Carolina, giving the Cocks three straight wins over Clemson, certainly left a bitter taste. The Tigers finished last in the ACC against the run, eighth in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. The same Clemson team that stomped a very good Hokie team 38-10 should not have been embarrassed by NC State, Georgia Tech or South Carolina.
The Silver Slugger: Ohio State, Arizona, Washington State
There are plenty of quality jobs open in college football this year, but I am not sure anyone at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Arizona State, UCLA, North Carolina or Illinois could hit a home run like Ohio State, Arizona and Washington State have done. These three programs hired three head coaches who have a combined career record of 263 wins and 114 losses to go with 14 bowl wins. Mike Leach (84-43) and Rich Rodriguez (75-48) will easily recruit the speedy, talented skill players needed to fuel their high-octane spread attacks. With Chip Kelly, Lane Kiffin, Jeff Tedford and Steve Sarkisian already calling plays in the league, west coast defensive coordinators are in for plenty of sleepless nights.
Urban Meyer (104-23) and Ohio State, who ironically will be facing the Florida Gators in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, will return basically the entire defense and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Ohio State Buckeyes are the very early favorites to win the 2012 Leaders Division title. Needless to say, these three athletic departments hit massive, towering home run shots with their new head coaches.
The Little Engine That Could: Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers started the season 0-4. It was going to be just another season in the FBS's newest team's eternal struggles. Yet, behind the running of the 5-foot-8 Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky has had its best season since it joined the FBS. The Toppers finished 7-1 in conference play with the one loss coming against Sun Belt champion Arkansas State. Rainey's 1,695 yards are No. 2 nationally behind Ball's 1,759, and he's posted his second straight 1,600-yard season. Western got snubbed in the bowl process and won't be playing in the postseason, but Willie Taggart deserves loads of credit for a 7-5 season. In two full seasons and one transitional year prior to 2011, WKU was an overall 4-32.
The Halftime Speech Award: Texas A&M Aggies
The Texas A&M Aggies had high preseason expectations and were expected to challenge the Oklahoma schools for a Big 12 title. And at halftime, TAMU was poised to win every game it played. Mike Sherman, who is no longer employed by the university, led his team to an average halftime lead of 14.6 points per game. The Aggies had at least a nine-point lead in 10 of 12 games and trailed only once all season at halftime (Oklahoma by 3). But Sherman's bunch allowed an average of 18.2 points per game after the break and were outscored 218-173 in the second half. Texas A&M lost to Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas at home, Oklahoma and Kansas State on the road and Arkansas in Arlington. And now it appears the entire athletic department could be looking for work.
Mailed It In Medal: Mack Brown, Texas
In an effort to make drastic changes, Brown hired new coordinators Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin. It didn't work. According to recruiting rankings, the Texas Longhorns have arguably the best collection of talent in the league. Here are the last four years of Texas' recruiting rankings:
2008: 2nd Big 12, 11th nationally
2009: 1st Big 12, 5th nationally
2010: 1st Big 12, 3rd nationally
2011: 1st Big 12, 2nd nationally
Texas is 12-12 over the last two seasons with the "best" roster in the Big 12. Last season, the Horns finished 88th in the nation in scoring, 66th in the nation in rushing, 116th in turnover margin and 58th in total offense. This year, the Horns finished 90th in turnover margin, 85th in passing offense, 88th in passer efficiency and eighth in the league in scoring. There is no lack of talent in the rest of the conference, and quarterback issues have clearly taken a toll on Burnt Orange nation. However, there is absolutely no excuse for the Longhorns to have 12 wins in two years with that roster. And the blame has to go directly to the top.
Deflated Balloon Prize: Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Texas Tech Red Raiders beat Oklahoma 41-38 on October 22 and were 5-2 on the season. Since that road win over the No. 1 Sooners, Texas Tech has lost five straight games by a combined 256-102, an average of 30.8 points per game. Tech finished 120th in the nation in rushing defense at 258.8 yards per game allowed, 115th in total defense, 117th in scoring defense and 101st in sacks. Clearly, Tommy Tuberville allowed the air to escape from the balloon following the signature win over Oklahoma.
Worst Team in the Nation: New Mexico Lobos
The NCAA officially tracks 17 major football statistics for all 120 teams in the nation. New Mexico, who finished 1-11 and fired head coach Mike Locksley, is ranked 100 or worse in 13 of those 17 stats. The Lobos finished last in the nation in scoring offense at 12 points per game and last in pass efficiency defense. They finished 119th in rushing defense at 246.9 yards per game, 119th in scoring defense at 41.7 points per game and 119th in punt returns at 1.33 yards per return. New Mexico lost by an average of 33 points per game (486-123) in their 11 losses. They were shut out three times and scored seven points or less in six games. Good luck, Bob Davie.
The Holiday Spirit Award: Akron Zips
Akron struggled under Rob Ianello. There is no doubt. So after a second straight 1-11 season and a winless league record, it is understandable that Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill would be looking to make a move. However, he could have had some class about it. Akron informed Ianello that he would no longer be the head coach of the Zips while he was en route to his mother's funeral. His mother, Rita, passed away on a Tuesday, and the family was traveling to eastern New York for the funeral when Ianello received word that he was fired the following Saturday. There is never a good time to hand out pink slips, but it could have been in a more appropriate manner. You stay classy, Akron.
The Hand That Fed You Trophy: Air Force Falcons
The Air Force Falcons finished No. 2 in the nation in rushing at 320.3 yards per game. However, Troy Calhoun's bunch clearly didn't learn much in practice about stopping the run. The Falcons finished 113th in the nation in rushing defense at 227.8 yards allowed per game. The seven wins are the lowest total of the Calhoun era, as the Falcons surrendered 266 yards rushing to Notre Dame, 212 to Wyoming, 204 to TCU, 201 to San Diego State and 142 to Boise State — all losses.
Take the Over: Baylor Bears
Robert Griffin III could be the Heisman winner and the nation's most efficient passer (192.31), but he didn't get any help from his defense. Baylor was No. 6 in the nation in scoring at 43.5 points per game on offense. However, the 9-3 Bears were 109th in scoring defense at 35.7 points allowed per game. In their three losses (Kansas State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State), Baylor allowed 50 points per game.
Against the Spread Trophy: Houston, Stanford, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech
These four teams led the nation against the spread in 2011 with a 10-2 record against the mark. Central Michigan finished with the worst record against the number at 1-11 this fall.