In the nine previous years of F/+ rankings, the highest-ranked team with a losing record has often seen a significant bump the next year. In 2006, Tennessee went from 5-6 and 24th in the F/+ rankings to 9-4 and 10th. In 2010, Clemson went from 6-7 to 10-4. And in 2014, Utah went from 5-7 to 9-4. A couple of others (Alabama in 2007, Pitt in 2013) saw at least small bumps in the win-loss record.
That's the good news. The bad news: four other teams saw the bottom drop out. UCLA fell from 6-7 and 24th in 2007 to 4-8 and 85th in 2008. In 2009, Illinois fell from 5-7 and 43rd to 3-9 and 92nd. In 2010, Wake Forest fell from 5-7 and 43rd to 3-9 and 103rd. And in 2012, USF fell from 5-7 and 35th to 3-9 and 73rd.
Being a good team with a below-.500 record in no way guarantees you'll break through the next year. I guess that's something to keep in mind when looking at Miami, which finished 6-7 after a fun 24-21 loss to South Carolina in the Independence Bowl on Saturday. The Hurricanes are virtually guaranteed to hold the "best loser of 2014" mantle, and they will have plenty of exciting returnees next year, including a quarterback (Brad Kaaya) who will no longer be a true freshman. With such a young signal caller, it probably isn't a coincidence that the Hurricanes went 0-4 in games decided by 11 or fewer points.
Still, 2015 will be one hell of a crossroads for head coach Al Golden. I'm optimistic, but only so much. Miami will be without star running back Duke Johnson, though Kaaya will have weapons like running back Joseph Yearby and young receivers Malcolm Lewis, Stacy Coley, and Braxton Berrios. The defense should return eight of its top 12 tacklers from a top-40 unit that held South Carolina below its season averages.
Four different Cincinnati players took snaps at quarterback in the Bearcats' 33-17 loss to Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl: starter Gunner Kiel, walk-on Michael Colosimo, and two running-backs-as-wildcat-quarterbacks.
Kiel was injured on a sack in the third quarter, one that went for a touchdown when Nigel Williams took it 26 yards and got stripped before Greg Stroman picked up and took it the final 12 yards. It was his third turnover, and it put the dagger in before the cavalcade of quarterbacks began. Kiel threw two first-half picks -- one from Tech's 33 (which took Cincy points off the board) and one from Cincy's 35 (which set up a field goal). Despite a drastic yardage advantage at halftime, Cincinnati trailed, 13-10. Kiel threw for 244 yards in 35 minutes of action, but Cincy had only 10 points when he left.
After the fumble, Cincy found itself down 27-10. Kiel was out, as was backup Munchie Legaux, leaving Tommy Tuberville to decide between wildcats (primarily Shaq Washington, who finished with the unique combination of 100 receiving yards, 31 passing yards, and 13 rushing yards) and senior walk-on Michael Colosimo. Eventually, he turned to Colosimo, who did engineer a scoring drive and rush four times for 54 yards but completed three of 10 passes.
It would have been difficult for Cincy to make up a 17-point deficit against a fantastic Tech pass defense if Kiel had stayed healthy. Without him, it was just about impossible.
The recipe was consistent for Penn State's offense in 2014: try to establish the run game, fail, and put the offense on the broad shoulders of blue-chip sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg until he falters. After a 4-0 start, the Nittany Lions finished losing six of eight, with wins coming only against Indiana and Temple (and both of those were within one possession in the fourth quarter). Hackenberg didn't have enough help, especially considering he made his share of sophomore mistakes.
Penn State still couldn't run against Boston College in the Pinstripe; Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton combined to gain 83 yards in 20 carries -- 35 on one Lynch run and 48 on the other 19. Hackenberg was far from flawless; one of his four touchdown passes was a poor throw that was tipped by a defender to a receiver.
Still, he threw four touchdowns and completed 34 of 50 for 371 yards against a BC defense that came in ranking a respectable 41st in Passing S&P+. Freshman Chris Godwin, who had 198 receiving yards for the season before Saturday, had seven catches for 140. Sophomore Eugene Lewis and freshman DaeSean Hamilton combined for 14 catches and 133 yards. Hackenberg went sideline to sideline, then took shots deep when he had the chance. He was asked to manage the entire game (including sacks as passes, PSU had 52 pass attempts to 27 rushes), and he looked like the blue-chipper he was supposed to be.
Granted, the Nittany Lions made enough mistakes to nearly hand BC the game. They lost two fumbles inside the BC 40 and punted three times from BC territory. They still trailed 21-7 late in the third. And they still needed a missed PAT by BC in overtime.
But Penn State was not aiming for perfection at Yankee Stadium. In the Lions' first bowl since 2011 (thanks to NCAA sanctions), they were just looking for a win. And thanks to Hackenberg, they got it. While we're talking hype ... yeah, he should get plenty of it.
It has still been 54 years since Duke won a bowl. For three consecutive seasons, the Blue Devils have gotten very creative in the ways they build hope before faltering.
In 2012, they built a 16-0 first-quarter lead against Cincinnati in the Belk, gave up 27 consecutive points, then tied the game with a 52-yard field goal in the fourth before giving up the game-winning points on an 83-yard pass with 44 seconds remaining.
In 2013, Duke took a 38-17 lead into halftime against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A and held a 48-45 lead late before Anthony Boone threw two picks in the final three and a half minutes. The first was returned for a touchdown and an A&M lead, and the second ended the game with 1:19 left.
In 2014, the Blue Devils took a different approach: let the other team build the early lead. Arizona State led 20-3 midway through the second and looked to be in complete control. But Duke scored on a 78-yard drive to make it 20-10, then forced a three-and-out; Jamison Crowder returned the ensuing punt 68 yards for a touchdown to cut ASU's lead to 20-17 at halftime.
On a fourth-quarter drive that featured two fourth-down trick plays, Crowder found Isaac Blakeney for a 12-yard score to put Duke up, 31-30, with five minutes left.
And then ASU returned a kickoff 96 yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown, then picked off Boone in the end zone with 45 seconds left. The game ended up about as close as you can get -- total yardage: Duke 400, ASU 392 -- but two Duke turnovers, both deep in ASU territory, negated clear special teams advantages for the Blue Devils.
This is a Northwestern-esque run of bad bowl fortune for Duke. The Wildcats lost tight bowls to UCLA (in 2005), Missouri (in 2008), Auburn (in 2009), and Texas Tech (in 2010) and hadn't won a bowl in 65 years until a Gator Bowl breakthrough in 2012.
Of course, since Northwestern finally got off the bowl schneid, the Wildcats have finished 5-7 in consecutive years. Maybe if Duke keeps losing medium-sized bowl games, the Blue Devils will keep going to medium-sized bowls games, huh?
When USC gets hyped as a top-10 team next year -- and it's a safe assumption that will be the case -- you'll know the play that made it happen. It wasn't Adoree' Jackson's 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, it wasn't any of the variety of throws made by quarterback Cody Kessler, and it wasn't any of Javorius Allen's runs. It was when Jackson went full Reggie Bush early in the third quarter, taking a swing pass and finding a speed nobody else had. Jackson weaved between defenders and left the entire Nebraska defense in the dust for a 71-yard score that put the Trojans up 31-17, en route to a 45-42 Holiday Bowl win.
For the game, Jackson had three catches for 71 yards, the aforementioned kick return score, and seven solo tackles as a cornerback. He was one of many Trojan true freshmen who spent 2014 living up to recruiting hype, and he will be one of the faces of next year's USC. The Trojans are done with scholarship restrictions and will put a deeper, more experienced squad on the field, even if they lose players like defensive lineman extraordinaire Leonard Williams to the draft.
If you want to remain skeptical of USC or get a jump on calling them OVERRATED!! in 2015, look no further than the defensive performance. Despite feasting on a banged-up Nebraska offensive line and holding Ameer Abdullah to 88 yards on 27 carries, the Trojans were victimized by Nebraska's shaky passing game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was sacked twice, and while he threw one pick, about four more passes hit Trojan defenders in the hands. He was shaky, but USC couldn't take advantage, and he finished with 381 passing yards -- 102 to De'Mornay Pierson-El (another strong-looking freshman), 81 to Jordan Westerkamp, 71 to Kenny Bell, and 61 to Abdullah.
If -- okay, when -- USC is hyped in the preseason, there will be some justifiable reasons. But any hype emanating specifically from this game is a mirage. USC was favored to win by a touchdown-plus, won by three, and got outgained in the process. This was fun, and Jackson is lightning in a bottle, but let's save the Bowl Bump for someone else.