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The Narrative Of The 2014 College Football Season

The 2014 college football season was historic. It was the first time the sport had a multi-round playoff, as four teams would be selected at the end of the regular season. That proved significant. It would be the 4-seed, whose entry into the Playoff was hotly disputed, that ended up winning the national championship. Ohio State, down to their third-string quarterback by the time the season’s biggest games were played, captured their first title since 2002.

Ohio State was ranked #5 in the preseason, but the hopes for Urban Meyer’s team took a big blow before the first game was even played. Braxton Miller, their electrifying dual-threat quarterback was hurt in August practices. Then the Buckeyes suffered a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Labor Day weekend.

But J.T. Barrett would prove a capable replacement behind center. Barrett threw 34 touchdowns, averaging 9.0 yards-per-attempt, and ran for over 900 yards. The running game centered on the great Ezekiel Elliot, who rolled up almost 1900 yards at an explosive 6.9 yards a pop. The defense had All-American Joey Bosa leading the pass rush. The secondary trio of Von Bell, Doran Grant, and Tyvis Powell combined for 15 interceptions. And the Buckeyes slowly, but surely, worked their way back into the national picture.

Even with the Western side of the Big Ten having stars like Iowa’s Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff and Wisconsin’s All-American running back Melvin Gordon, the East was where the power was. And the primary challenge to Ohio State came from East Lansing.

Michigan State’s teams of this era were renowned for their defense, but this year’s Spartan squad could move the ball. Connor Cook threw for over 3,200 yards, with Tony Lippett as his prime target. Jeremy Langford ran for over 1,500 yards. While Michigan State was beaten decisively by Oregon on the same September 6 day that Ohio State lost, the Spartans also maneuvered their way back into the Top 10.

On November 8, Ohio State won a 49-37 shootout over Michigan State that decided the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes were moving back up the polls and had gotten to #6 and in striking distance by the time they faced Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. But the season finale against Michigan had produced another quarterback disaster. Barrett was hurt. He was gone for the year. Cardale Jones now had Buckeye hopes in his hands.

Ohio State needed to not only win, but make a major statement. A 59-0 shellacking of the Badgers served that purpose. With the nation on pins and needles wondering who would get the fourth spot, Ohio State got the call. Michigan State still got a major bowl bid and was headed for the Cotton.

Out west, Oregon was ranked #3 to start the season and had the aforementioned 46-27 win over Michigan State to get themselves off and running. Marcus Mariota had a spectacular year at quarterback. He threw for over 4,400 yards with a dazzling 42/4 TD/INT ratio. Mariota averaged 10.0 yards-per-attempt and ran for almost 800 yards on top of it. He won the Heisman Trophy.

Mariota’s primary target was Byron Marshall and the offense included a 1,300-yard rusher in Royce Freeman. The Ducks scored the fourth-most points in the country. The defense wasn’t great, but it was decent and led by the secondary. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was an All-American and Erick Dargan was a ballhawk who intercepted seven passes.

UCLA had been the team anticipated to challenge Oregon out west, but the Bruins never really put it together, even though linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Butkus Award. Arizona, with a great linebacker of their own, the Lombardi Award-winning Scooby Wright, was who stepped up.

The Wildcats were unranked when they handed Oregon a 31-24 upset loss on the first weekend of October. Arizona didn’t sustain that pace, losing to UCLA and USC, but the Wildcats got key wins over ranked teams in Utah and Arizona State in November to reach the conference championship game. Oregon bounced back and surged down the stretch, highlighted by a 51-27 thrashing of the Utes.

It got the Ducks back to #3 in the polls and  a revenge date with Arizona on the first Saturday of December. Oregon controlled their Playoff destiny in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and they took full advantage—a 51-13 beatdown that punched their ticket.

As usual, the SEC was loaded with contenders. And, as usual, Alabama led the way. The Crimson Tide had the nation’s sixth-best defense, led by All-American defensive back Landon Collins and passrusher Xzavier Dickson. A two-headed running attack saw both T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry get close to the 1,000-yard mark. And quarterback Blake Sims made a living targeting Amari Cooper, an All-American receiver who went over 1,700 yards.

Auburn had come within a few plays of winning the national title in 2013, and were back for more this season. All-American offensive lineman Reese Dimukes paved the way for Cameron Artis-Payne to rush for over 1,600 yards. The defense had playmakers in the secondary, with both Jonathan Jones and Jermaine Whitehead intercepting six passes. The Tigers opened the season ranked #6 in the polls, with the Crimson Tide at #2.

Everyone expected Alabama and Auburn to fight it out in the SEC West. What no one foresaw is that both Ole Miss and Mississippi State would rise up, giving the division a credible claim, at least for a little while, to having the four best teams in the country.

Dak Prescott began making a name for himself at Mississippi State as a dual-threat quarterback, and Josh Robinson ran for over 1,200 yards. The Bulldogs had a playmaker in the front seven, as Preston Smith recorded nine sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss.

The Rebels had the nation’s best defense. Senquez Golson was an All-American in the secondary, and he had an amazing ten interceptions. Marquis Haynes applied the pressure. It was Ole Miss who made the early statements. They knocked off Boise State in the neutral-site Georgia Dome to open the season. And on October 4, the Rebels upended the Crimson Tide, 23-17. The battle for the West was on.

Auburn got a big non-conference win over Kansas State, and then hammered LSU on the same early October day that Ole Miss knocked off Alabama. It was a part of a big day overall in the SEC West, as Mississippi State hung a 48-31 win on then-#6 Texas A&M.

Mississippi State was up to #3 in the polls and Auburn was #2. They went head-to-head on October 11, and the Bulldogs came out with a 38-23 win. Ole Miss kept pace by drilling A&M. Alabama began their climb back up on the polls by dropping a 59-0 beatdown on the Aggies, who kept fading away.

Ole Miss stumbled with losses to LSU and Auburn. Alabama won a tight 20-13 decision over LSU. When Auburn lost to Texas A&M a week later, the door was opening back up for the Tide.

By mid-November, Mississippi State was, quite improbably, the #1 team in the nation. Alabama was back to #4. The Tide beat the Bulldogs 25-20. Then ‘Bama outgunned Auburn 55-44. Alabama’s turnaround to get back on top of the West was complete. They went on to beat Missouri 42-31 in the SEC Championship Game.

The Crimson Tide got the #1 seed in the Playoff and were paired up against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Major bowl invites still came for Mississippi State and Ole Miss, to the Orange and Peach respectively.

Florida State was the defending national champion, and the preseason #1 team. Jameis Winston, after winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, was back at quarterback. Winston struggled with consistency, throwing 18 interceptions. But he had the nation’s best tight end in Nick O’Leary and a 1,300-yard receiver in Rashad Greene. All-American offensive lineman Tre’ Jackson paved the way for Dalvin Cook to rush for over 1,000 yards. And if a game was close, FSU had the country’s best kicker in Roberto Aguayo.

The Seminoles weren’t nearly as dominant as they had been in the ’13 title run. But they knew how to win and the competition in the ACC wasn’t great. Louisville had the Thorpe Award winner in Gerold Holliman. But Clemson was still a year away from becoming a real national power. It was Georgia Tech, with quarterback Justin Thomas exquisitely running the triple option, that would challenge the ‘Noles.

Florida State won close games over Clemson and Notre Dame, stayed undefeated and reached the conference championship game. Georgia Tech also knocked off Clemson, and the Yellow Jackets made a big statement on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when they beat eighth-ranked Georgia.

The ACC Championship Game was a thriller, but Florida State survived one more time. They beat Georgia Tech 37-35. The Seminoles had a lot of doubters, but they were still the champs and had no losses. They would play Oregon in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Tech settled for an Orange Bowl invite.

It was the Big 12 that was the conference left out of the Playoff, but there was no shortage of contenders. Baylor had the nation’s most prolific offense. Bryce Petty threw the ball all over the lot, averaged 9.0 yards-per-attempt and was only intercepted seven times. Corey Coleman and KD Cannon were 1,000-yard receivers, and Shock Linwood was a 1,200 yard rusher. Spencer Drago led the way up front as an All-American lineman. And while the defense had issues, they had a top pass rusher and playmaker in end Shawn Oakman.

Oklahoma opened the season in their usual role as the Big 12 favorite, but the Sooners weren’t quite up to snuff in 2014. Instead, TCU came out of nowhere. The Horned Frogs had the second-best offense in the country, with Trevone Boykin throwing for over 3,900 yards and running for over 700. Josh Doctson was a 1K receiver. And TCU could play defense—All-American linebacker Paul Dawson spearheaded a unit that ranked eighth nationally in points allowed.

One offense that TCU couldn’t contain was Baylor’s. In an electrifying October 11 showdown, the Bears won a wild 61-58 affair and were in position to make the Playoff. But one week later, Baylor had a letdown and lost to West Virginia. Both the Bears and Horned Frogs kept winning, each getting victories over Oklahoma and Kansas State. The Big 12 did not have a championship game, so Baylor and TCU ended the year as co-champs. And though each woke up on the morning of the Playoff announcement with high hopes, they ended up #5 and #6 respectively. The Bears would go to the Cotton Bowl to play Michigan State, while the Horned Frogs were paired up against Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.

The New Year’s Six major bowls were filled out by Boise State, the best of the so-called “mid-major” conferences. The Bronco offense was led by 1,800-yard rusher Jay Ajayi and finished ninth nationally in points scored. The defense gave up its share of points, but they had playmakers. Kamalei Correa had 12 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss in the front seven. Darian Thompson and Donte Deayon combined for 13 picks on the back end.

After losing to Ole Miss in the opener, Boise State rolled to a 10-2 regular season record, losing only to Air Force in October. The Broncos knocked off Fresno State to win the Mountain West title and punched a ticket to the Fiesta Bowl.

Boise State had made magic in the Fiesta Bowl before, stunning Oklahoma in 2006, and winning this event again in 2009. The Broncos did it one more time in 2014, beating Arizona 38-30.

In a back-and-forth Cotton Bowl, Baylor missed a chance to make a statement to the Playoff Committee. They dropped a 42-41 thriller to Michigan State. TCU didn’t miss their chance—they hammered Ole Miss 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. The Rebel humiliation was one part of what would be the SEC West showing cracks—Mississippi State was handled with surprising ease by Georgia Tech, who captured the Orange Bowl 49-34.

It was time for the Playoff bowl games. Florida State’s flaws were put on gaping display in the Rose. Oregon and Mariota rolled to a 59-20 rout. While no one had expected a rout of nearly 40 points, the decisive Duck win wasn’t unexpected. What was unexpected was what went down in New Orleans that night. Ohio State spotted Alabama a 21-6 lead. Then Buckeyes simply took over. They intercepted three passes. Elliot ran wild, going for 230 yards. Ohio State won 42-35.

The CFP Championship Game was played in Dallas. And to everyone’s surprise, it followed the same template as the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State spotted Oregon the lead, this time 21-7. Then the Buckeyes just started doing whatever they wanted. This time Elliot rolled up 246 yards. They recovered three fumbles. The Buckeyes had moved out to a 28-20 lead after three quarters. They put it away with two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, winning 42-20.

It was a surprise ending to the first year college football had a Playoff. The Ohio State Buckeyes were back on top of the world. And Urban Meyer had his third national championship.