Highlighting the winners and losers of the 2015-16 bowl season.
As the final piece of confetti dropped to the University of Phoenix Stadium turf Monday, another college football season officially concluded. Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s fifth national championship since the 2003 season gave the ’15 campaign an ending that felt an awful lot like many of those written in the last 12 years.
But 2015 was hardly a repeat of seasons past, as the year’s bowl season proved. An unprecedented number of bowls -- 41 -- and the second season of the College Football Playoff made for new storylines. Some of the subplots that closed out this season write the early chapters for the 2016 campaign.
WINNER: Viewers of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game
Fans’ lasting memory of the 2015 college football season will be Monday’s national title tilt between Alabama and Clemson, a matchup fit for the sport’s biggest stage.
The Crimson Tide’s win was the most competitive national championship since Florida State and Auburn two seasons ago, but played at a much higher level for the duration. The final-minute finish brought back memories of the last title game played in Arizona, the 2011 BCS Championship Game between Oregon and Auburn. However, Monday’s contest provided more excitement for the full 60 minutes.
Alabama-Clemson was arguably the best national championship game since the epic 2006 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas. From the torrid, back-and-forth pace, to star players Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson showing up in a big way, this year’s championship had everything a viewer could want.
LOSER: TV Executives
The potential challenges of hosting the College Football Playoff semifinal matchups on New Year’s Eve were a hot topic throughout the 2015 offseason, and the concerns of naysayers were confirmed when the Orange and Cotton Bowls returned viewership ratings almost six points below the previous year. The Cotton Bowl drew a rating of 9.9, the Orange a 9.3.
In contrast, last season’s Sugar Bowl semifinal between Ohio State and Alabama garnered a 15.3 viewership. The Florida-State Oregon Rose Bowl Game scored a 15.5. Initial reports following Monday’s championship suggest the lag in viewership carried over to the finale.
Source: Last night's CFP championship game pulled a 15.8 overnight rating on ESPN, down 15 percent from last year.— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) January 12, 2016
The 2016 editions of the Rose and Sugar Bowl drew record highs this season, per SportsTVRatings.com, but the Playoff is Disney’s centerpiece. To that end, BroadcastingCable.com reports ESPN owes advertisers $20 million in lost revenue for the New Year’s Eve setback.
WINNER: The SEC
The 2015 regular season was not good to the SEC. Though Alabama was dominant much of the season, the conference lacked another standout team, as evidenced by losses to The Citadel, Toledo, Texas Tech, Memphis and an especially painful missed opportunity against Oklahoma, as well as near-misses versus Georgia Southern and Florida Atlantic.
Bowl season was the cure-all for college football’s most boisterous conference, however. A combined 9-2 record, capped with Alabama’s 45-40 defeat of Clemson in the national championship game, gave SEC proponents reason to puff their chests after a humbling few months, dating back to the 2014-15 bowl season.
LOSER: The Rest of the Power 5
The four Power 5 conferences not named the SEC had varying degrees of success in bowl season. The Pac-12 finished above .500 with its record 10 postseason participants, but Jan. 2 losses by Arizona State and Oregon denied the Conference of Champions a boastful offseason at 6-4.
Arizona State and Oregon’s setbacks were the Big 12’s gain, but West Virginia and TCU winning on what was ostensibly the last day of bowl season only improved the conference to 3-4 overall.
The Big Ten finished, appropriately, an even 5-5. A .500 mark isn’t exactly terrible, and the conference scored some impressive victories. Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan were all dominant against high-profile opponents. However, Northwestern and Michigan State’s lopsided losses to the SEC ensure a spring and summer of negative narrative about the once-burgeoning Big Ten revival.
WINNER: Nebraska and the Rest of the 5-7 Teams
The proliferation of bowl games in 2015 left more postseason invitations than eligible teams. Three 5-7 regular-season finishers -- Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State -- all received bowl invites, the most ever in a single season. And all made good on their unlikely opportunities.
Nebraska scored the most impressive win of the trio, dominating a UCLA team that was just a few weeks removed from an 8-3 mark and top 20 ranking. The Cornhuskers used a 326-yard rushing onslaught to wear down the Bruin defense in a 37-29 win. Nine different Nebraska ball carriers toted the rock for positive yardage in the deluge.
With its impressive bowl victory, Nebraska set a positive tone for head coach Mike Riley’s second season.
Fellow 5-7 finishers San Jose State and Minnesota defeated Georgia State and Central Michigan, respectively. Both used stout defensive efforts to give their head coaches, Ron Caragher and Tracy Claeys, their first career bowl wins.
The Bruins’ Foster Farms Bowl loss to Nebraska concluded a final month collapse, which began with a home defeat against Washington State. Rebounding at Utah put UCLA in position to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game, but head coach Jim Mora’s first career loss to rival USC denied the Bruins a shot at the Rose Bowl Game.
The egg laid in the Foster Farms Bowl compounded UCLA’;s season-ending disappointment. The Bruins did not receive a single vote in the final Associated Press Top 25, the first time in Mora’s four seasons as head coach they garnered zero poll support to conclude the campaign.
WINNER: The Heisman Trophy
Heisman Hangover is a mythical affliction that can impact both winners -- Troy Smith and Sam Bradford come to mind -- and finalists alike. Manti Te’o’s BCS National Championship Game flop is a notable, recent example.
In this year’s postseason, however, all three Heisman finalists produced at the highest level. Winner Derrick Henry rumbled to 158 yards and three touchdowns to cap his campaign, while runners-up Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey played arguably the best games of their illustrious careers in bowls.
Watson passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for another 73 yards in Monday night’s national title game. McCaffrey electrified the Rose Bowl with 368 yards of total offense, scoring on the first play from the scrimmage with a 75-yard reception. He later returned a punt for a touchdown, making him just the third player in college football history to score via run, pass, reception, kickoff return and punt return in the same season.
LOSER: Bowl Game Matchups
This year’s bowl season was plagued by a number of bad matchups, which made for some lopsided contests. The Jan. 2 shootouts between TCU-Oregon and Arizona State-West Virginia saved what was a brutal run in the post-Christmas bowl games. Sixteen of the contests played between Dec. 26 and Jan. 2 were decided by double digits.
The frustrating part for many observers is that more intriguing matchup possibilities existed. A Rose Bowl Game pitting Stanford against Ohio State, and a Fiesta Bowl featuring Notre Dame vs. Iowa likely would have produced more competitive games.
While Michigan was rocking Florida, and Tennessee was beginning its hype for 2016 with a rout of Northwestern, one couldn’t help but wonder how a Wolverines-Volunteers or Wildcats-Gators game might have gone.
WINNER: Keenan Reynolds and Kenneth Dixon
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds and Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon were engaged in a season-long chase for the NCAA career record in touchdowns from scrimmage. Former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball set the record in 2012, leaving Madison with 83.
Dixon surpassed Ball on the first night of bowl season, scoring four times -- twice on the ground and twice on receptions -- in Louisiana Tech’s defeat of Arkansas State. His four scores gave Dixon a final career tally of 87.
Having established a new record at the end of the regular season, Reynolds again set a new mark in the Military Bowl with three rushing touchdowns. He exits college football with a remarkable 88 touchdowns scored from scrimmage, all of which came via the run -- another NCAA record. And, were that not impressive enough, Reynolds set the new career touchdown mark in a game wherein he led in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards.
LOSER: Kenneth Dixon’s Jersey
En route to his record-setting night, Dixon had to change out of his No. 28 when the stitching was ripped out. When he broke the record, Dixon was actually sans number.
WINNER: Frank Beamer
Frank Beamer’s legacy at Virginia Tech is virtually unparalleled. In an era of coaches jumping for more attractive opportunities, be it the NFL or with programs offering more prominent stages, Beamer remained committed to Blacksburg for nearly three decades.
It’s only fitting Beamer said farewell on a high note.
His Hokies outlasted Tulsa in the Independence Bowl, 55-52, one of the most exciting of the postseason entries.
LOSER: The American Athletic Conference
Beamer’s replacement, Justin Fuente, engineered a minor miracle with his quick turnaround of Memphis. However, without its head coach, a dream season that included brief flirtations with the New Year’s Six (if not a Playoff bid) came to a disappointing conclusion in a 31-10 loss to Auburn.
Reggis Ball was dismissed from the program shortly after the game, the result of his stealing the game ball from an equipment manager.
Memphis’ loss was one of six for the American Athletic Conference. The league enjoyed a great regular season, scoring wins over such opponents as Ole Miss and Penn State. However, bowl losses for Memphis, Temple, South Florida, Tulsa, Connecticut and Cincinnati put an unfitting bow on an otherwise strong campaign.
Only Navy and Houston won, but Houston’s bowl victory was a biggie.
WINNER: Houston Cougars
The Group of 5 is now 2-0 in New Year’s Six bowls, thanks to Houston’s dominant, 38-24 defeat of Florida State. The Cougars capped a 13-1 season ranked No. 8 in the final AP Poll, and the retention of head coach Tom Herman for another year promises big things for the program.
Houston returns star, dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. in 2016, making it the team to beat in the American once again. With a schedule that includes Oklahoma and Louisville, Houston could build a resume impressive enough to threaten crashing the College Football Playoff, should the Cougars navigate 2016 undefeated -- something no team could do in ’15 after Clemson’s loss to Alabama.