College football’s regular season concluded with Navy’s win over Army on Dec. 12, leaving 41 postseason games as all that’s left of the 2015 campaign. This year produced plenty of memorable endings and clutch performances, including Miami’s return for a game-winning score against Duke, Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal for a touchdown to beat Florida State, Michigan State’s fumble return as time expired to beat Notre Dame, and Arkansas’ fourth-and-25 conversion against Ole Miss.
While the bowl season is just days away, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season and a small peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
Athlon Sports concludes its slate of regular season honors with the 2015 national awards, as well as a look ahead at some of the rising stars, top coordinator hires, best freshmen and programs to watch in 2016:
2015 Awards and All-Conference Teams
College Football’s 2015 National Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Henry was the catalyst behind Alabama’s offense in 2015, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 scores in 13 regular season games. The junior recorded at least 200 yards in four out of his final seven matchups, including 271 in a 29-13 victory over rival Auburn. Henry averaged a healthy 5.86 yards per carry and led the SEC with nine rushing plays of 30 yards or more.
2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
It’s a close call between Smith and Nassib for the defensive player of the year honor. The edge goes to Smith, as the junior recorded 113 tackles (nine for a loss), one sack, five pass breakups and one forced fumble. In addition to his lightning-quick athletic ability, Smith is instinctive and disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
2. Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State
3. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
4. Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
5. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
National Coach of the Year: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Kirk Ferentz version 3.0 was a huge hit in Iowa City. After a 19-19 record from 2012-14, Ferentz made a few tweaks and rallied the Hawkeyes to a 12-1 record and a Big Ten West Division title in 2015. Ferentz didn’t drastically alter his approach or make huge changes, but inserting C.J. Beathard as the full-time quarterback and being more aggressive with on-field calls were two changes that paid big dividends for Iowa. As a result, the Hawkeyes finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings and are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1991.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
4. Tom Herman, Houston
5. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Coordinator of the Year: Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
Riley was the perfect hire for an Oklahoma offense looking for a spark and a return to an Air Raid-style of attack. After a successful stint at East Carolina, Riley was hired by Bob Stoops after the 2014 season and guided the Sooners to an average of 47.2 points in Big 12-only matchups in 2015. Oklahoma averaged 6.95 yards per play and led the conference with nine plays of 60 yards or more.
2. Gene Chizik, Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
3. Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
4. Don Brown, Defensive Coordinator, Boston College
5. Brent Venables, Defensive Coordinator, Clemson
Best All-Around in 2015: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey was the nation’s best all-purpose player in 2015. The sophomore led the Pac-12 with 1,847 rushing yards and recorded eight scores and caught 41 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns. McCaffrey showcased his big-play ability on special teams, averaging 28.9 yards per kickoff return and completed two of three pass attempts for 39 yards and two touchdowns this season. McCaffrey's 3,496 all-purpose yards set a new FBS single-season record.
2. Jabrill Peppers, DB/AP, Michigan
3. Adoree’ Jackson, DB/WR, USC
4. Charles Nelson, DB/WR, Oregon
5. Tanner McEvoy, DB/WR, Wisconsin
Best Freshman in 2015: Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Not only was Peppers a standout performer for Michigan’s defense, but the redshirt freshman also emerged as an all-purpose threat by the end of the season. Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and finished second on the team with 10 pass breakups. He also accumulated 417 return yards, eight receptions for 79 yards and 72 rush yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Peppers will be an even bigger part of the gameplan for coach Jim Harbaugh in 2016.
2. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
4. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
5. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
6. Derwin James, S, Florida State
7. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
8. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Best New Coach Hire for 2015: Tom Herman, Houston
Houston’s H-Town takeover is just beginning under Herman’s watch. The Cougars finished 12-1 with an American Athletic Conference title and earned the Group of 5 spot in the New Year’s Six bowl pairings. Additionally, Herman is putting the finishing touches on an outstanding recruiting class. Houston is a program on the rise and a team that should receive plenty of consideration to start 2016 in the preseason top 25.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
3. Jim McElwain, Florida
4. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
5. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Best Coordinator Hire for 2015: Gene Chizik, Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
Since Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is our coordinator of the year, let's spread the wealth and give this honor to Chizik. The former Auburn head coach brought immediate improvement to a defense that ranked near the bottom of the ACC in points and yards per play allowed in 2014. The Tar Heels limited opponents to just 22.6 points a contest and 5.3 yards per play this season. Additionally, this defense surrendered only 23 plays of 30 yards or more after giving up 41 in 2014.
2. Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
3. Barry Odom, Defensive Coordinator, Missouri
4. Dan Enos, Offensive Coordinator, Arkansas
5. Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator, Florida
6. John Chavis, Defensive Coordinator, Texas A&M
7. Kendal Briles, Offensive Coordinator, Baylor
8. Alex Grinch, Defensive Coordinator, Washington State
9. Tom Allen, Defensive Coordinator, USF
10. Jeff Scott/Tony Elliott, Co-Offensive Coordinators, Clemson
Five Coaches on the Rise
1. Tom Herman, Houston
Herman was one of the nation’s best assistant coaches during his tenure at Ohio State (2012-14) and is arguably the top coach in the Group of 5 ranks after just one season at Houston. The Cougars went 12-1 in 2015 and claimed the American Athletic Conference title and a trip to the Peach Bowl.
2. Matt Rhule, Temple
Rhule generated plenty of interest from Power 5 programs this offseason, but the former Penn State linebacker will return to Temple in 2016. The Owls have won 18 games over the last three seasons, including a 10-3 mark in 2015 with an American Athletic Conference East Division title.
3. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Tulane’s hire of Willie Fritz is one of the best coaching moves of the 2015-16 carousel. Fritz has a track record of success, including a 40-15 record at Sam Houston State and a 17-7 mark at Georgia Southern.
4. Jeff Brohm, WKU
Brohm is one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Group of 5 ranks and led WKU to its best record (11-2 in 2015) since joining the FBS level. The Hilltoppers claimed the Conference USA title this season and ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense (44.2 ppg).
5. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Fleck has guided Western Michigan to a 15-10 mark over the last two seasons and back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.
Five Players on the Rise for 2016
1. Derwin James, S, Florida State
James saw an increased role as the season progressed for Florida State’s defense and should be one of the top defensive backs in the ACC next season. In 12 games as a true freshman, James recorded 77 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
2. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
With Joey Bosa expected to leave for the NFL, the Buckeyes will be looking to reload on the edges. Hubbard recorded 5.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss in his redshirt freshman campaign.
3. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
The Spartans won’t have Connor Cook at quarterback next season, but the rushing attack is capable of carrying the offense for coach Mark Dantonio. Scott led the team with 691 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman this season and scored the pivotal touchdown against Iowa to give Michigan State the Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
4. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
Talented true freshman led USC with 940 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in 2015. New coach Clay Helton wants to utilize the ground game more next season. Jones should benefit from Helton's tweaks on offense with a 1,000-yard season.
5. Blake Barnett, QB, Alabama
Barnett will have to win the job, but all signs point to this redshirt freshman as the next star for coach Nick Saban.
Three Programs on the Rise for 2016
Coach Chris Petersen has the Huskies trending up in 2016, as the offense should take a step forward with the sophomore duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The defense returns largely intact after holding opponents to just 17.8 points per game in 2015.
The Wolverines have to play Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s team can challenge for the Big Ten East title and a New Year’s Six bowl if it can find a quarterback.
The Hurricanes upgraded with the hire of Mark Richt, and the former Georgia coach will have an opportunity to work with quarterback Brad Kaaya in 2016. The defense needs work, but there’s enough talent for Miami to take a step forward in Richt’s first season.