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The Narrative Of The 2015 College Football Season

By Nick Saban’s standards, the three years since Alabama’s last national title constituted a major drought. An early loss in the 2015 college football season had people asking whether or not the Tide were on the downswing. But by year’s end, Saban and ‘Bama had another national championship.

A defense that ranked third in the nation in points allowed was the key. Alabama had All-Americans in the front seven with defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. They got a combined 22 ½ sacks from Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams. Eddie Jackson intercepted six passes in the secondary.

Jake Coker was manageable at quarterback, and Calvin Ridley was a good receiver. But the real key to the Tide offense was simply giving the football to Derrick Henry. Running behind a line that included All-American Ryan Kelly, Henry rolled up over 2,200 yards and won the Heisman Trophy.

A 35-17 win over a ranked Wisconsin team got Alabama’s season off and running. But two weeks later came a big bump on the road. The Tide played Ole Miss, a team that had knocked them off a year earlier. The Rebels had a potent offense, with Chad Kelly at quarterback and Laquon Treadwell racking up over 1,100 yards receiving. They had a talented pass-rusher at defensive end with Marquis Haynes getting ten sacks. And on September 19, Ole Miss did it again—they beat Alabama 43-37.

For two long weeks the questions about the Tide lingered. A 38-10 obliteration of eighth-ranked Georgia in early October started answering those questions. Alabama beat ninth-ranked Texas A&M 41-23. On November 7, there was a big showdown with fourth-ranked LSU. It was a battle of great running backs, as Leonard Fournette was an All-American for the Tigers. But the Tide was more complete, and they won 30-16.

In the meantime, Ole Miss had lost at Florida, and on November 7, the Rebels lost again to Arkansas. The door was back open for Alabama in the SEC West. They hammered ranked Mississippi State and beat Auburn. The Tide closed it out by winning the SEC Championship Game 29-15 over Florida. Alabama was going back to the four-team College Football Playoff. Ole Miss would still get a Sugar Bowl bid.

Down in the ACC, Deshaun Watson was leading the way for Clemson. He completed 68% of his passes, threw for over 4,100 yards, ran for over 1,100 more and was 1st-team All-American. Wayne Gallman added to the Tiger running game with over 1,500 yards. A terrific pass-rushing duo in Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd keyed the defense, while defensive back Cordea Tankersley intercepted five passes.

Clemson was primed to challenge Florida State. The Seminoles had gone undefeated in each of the previous two regular seasons, winning a national title in 2013 and making the first edition of the Playoff in 2014. FSU had a good defense this time around, keyed by All-American defensive back Jalen Ramsey and playmaking linebacker Demarcus Walker. They had an explosive running back in Dalvin Cook, who went for nearly 1,700 yards and averaged better than seven yards a pop.

But Florida State was held back by some instability at quarterback. They lost at Georgia Tech. Meanwhile Clemson won a big 24-22 battle with sixth-ranked Notre Dame. And in another big November 7 game, Clemson beat FSU 23-13. The balance of power had shifted in the ACC and would stay that way for several years. The Tigers stayed undefeated, closed out the conference championship by beating North Carolina 45-37 and punched a Playoff ticket. Florida State still went on to hammer Florida 27-2 and get a Peach Bowl nod.

Ohio State was the defending national champion and expectations were soaring, as the Buckeyes were ranked #1 in the preseason polls. They had the country’s second-best scoring defense, led by All-American end Joey Bosa. The Buckeyes had a powerful running game, with Ezekiel Elliot clearing 1,800 yards at better than six per carry. Taylor Decker was an All-American up front. Head coach Urban Meyer had two proven quarterbacks in Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who would split time. Ohio State went deep into November undefeated, and their Playoff spot seemed all but assured.

But Michigan State was lurking. The Spartans had high expectations themselves, starting at #5 in the polls. They had a disrupter at defensive end in Shilique Calhoun, a balanced running game and Connor Cook throwing to Aaron Burbridge. Sparty won a high-profile showdown with seventh-ranked Oregon, 31-28, in September. In October, Michigan State stunned Michigan 27-23 on a blocked punt return in the game’s closing moments. Even though the Spartans lost a one-point heartbreaker to Nebraska, Michigan State still controlled their own destiny when they went to Columbus on November 21.

Cook was injured, which made the result even more stunning. The Spartan defense hung in there, and Michigan State ultimately pulled out a 17-14 upset on a late field goal. A week later they closed out the Big Ten’s Eastern Division title by beating Penn State and Lombardi Award-winning defensive end Carl Nassib, 55-16.

Over in the West, Iowa was undefeated. The Hawkeyes did it with mistake-free offense and a defense led by defensive back Desmond King, who won the Thorpe Award. Iowa beat Wisconsin on the road and went 12-0.

The Big Ten Championship Game was #4 Iowa and #5 Michigan State in a de facto national quarterfinal, with a Playoff berth on the line. In a hard-fought defensive game, the Spartans pulled out a 16-13 win with a grinding 20-play drive late in the fourth quarter. They were going to the Playoff. Iowa still went to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State had to settle for the Fiesta Bowl.

There were four potent offenses in the Big 12. TCU and Baylor had each narrowly missed the Playoff in 2014. The Horned Frogs and Bears were both ranked in the top 4 to start the season, and they would end up with the two All-American wide receivers, Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman, respectively.

But Oklahoma was never far from the surface in this league. Baker Mayfield had an explosive year at quarterback—68% completion rate, 9.4 yards-per-attempt and a 36/7 TD/INT ratio. His primary target was Sterling Shephard, who averaged 15 yards a catch. Samaje Perine ran for over 1,300 yards. The OU offense ranked fourth nationally in points scored. The defense wasn’t great, but with playmakers that included Eric Striker at linebacker and Zack Sanchez and Jordan Thomas in the secondary, it was good enough to win. Oklahoma struck quickly, with wins over ranked opponents in Tennessee and West Virginia, before an upset loss to Texas set them back.

Oklahoma State had no problem putting points on the board with the Mason Rudolph-led offense. James Washington was a big-play receiver, averaging over twenty yards a catch. A problematic defense could be bailed out by pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, who finished with 13 sacks and 17 tackles-for-loss.

November was when the four top teams all squared off. The Cowboys struck a blow when they knocked off TCU 49-29. Oklahoma beat Baylor a week later. The Sooners won a one-point thriller over the Horned Frogs, 30-29. It all came down to the Bedlam rivalry game on November 28. Oklahoma and Mayfield outgunned Okie State in a 58-23 rout. The Sooners had swept their three big conference foes and secured the final Playoff spot. The Cowboys went to the Sugar Bowl. TCU and Baylor had to settle for minor bowl spots.

The Pac-12 didn’t have a Playoff team, but they had a fantastic all-around player in Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who ran for over 2,000 yards and added more than 600 receiving yards. The physical Stanford offensive line was led by Outland Trophy-winner Joshua Garnett.

Stanford wasn’t highly regarded when the season began, but they beat sixth-ranked USC 41-31 in September. The Cardinal then rolled past a ranked UCLA team, 56-35. Another key conference rival, Oregon, faltered in losses to Utah and Washington State. Thus, Stanford could survive a 38-36 loss to the Ducks and still capture the Pac-12’s North Division. The Cardinal finished the regular season with another 38-36 thriller—this time it was a win, against Notre Dame. And Stanford easily took home the rematch with USC for the Pac-12 Championship, 41-22. The Cardinal was Rose Bowl-bound.

Speaking of Notre Dame, the two-point losses to Stanford and Clemson were the only blemishes on the Irish resume. They had the Butkus Award winner at linebacker with Jaylon Smith, and an All-American on the offensive line in Ronnie Stanley. C.J. Prosise was a 1,000-yard rusher and William Fuller a 1,200-yard receiver. The Irish got a nice win in September over Georgia Tech, beat then-unbeaten Temple in November, and landed in the Fiesta Bowl.

The New Year’s Six bowl games were filled out by Houston and their all-purpose quarterback Greg Ward. He avoided mistakes, completed 67% of his passes and ran for over 1,100 yards. The Cougars won key November games over ranked opponents in the American Conference, nipping Memphis 35-34 and beating Navy 52-13. It set up a conference title game showdown with Temple, with a major bowl bid as the prize. The Coogs won 24-13 and would get a crack at Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

Houston and Florida State kicked off the run of major bowls on New Year’s Eve, and the Cougars continued their special season with a comfortable 38-24 win. That was the appetizer for the Playoff semi-final bowl games, the Cotton and Orange.

Neither one was competitive. Clemson comfortably handled Oklahoma 37-17, while Alabama dropped a 38-0 beating on Michigan State. The Tigers and Tide would play for the national title in Phoenix.

But first, there were three more big games on January 1. Ohio State’s offense couldn’t be stopped in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. The final was 44-28 and college football fans were left to wonder what might have been had they just taken care of business against Michigan State. It was part of an anticlimactic New Year’s Day, with Stanford crushing Iowa 45-16 and Ole Miss breezing past Oklahoma State 48-20.

So far, the postseason’s biggest games had been duds. But the championship showdown would make up for it. The offenses of Alabama and Clemson kept trading blows. The difference was special teams. The Tide returned a kickoff for one touchdown, and they surprised the Tigers with an onside kick early in the fourth quarter. With an exciting 45-40 win, Alabama was back on top. And an era where they and Clemson would define the top of college football had begun.