The 2014 season has been the Year of the Freshman Running Back, with five freshmen among the nation's top 30 rushers (and 18 of the top 100) heading into Tuesday. And then they raised the bar on Tuesday, which saw bowl wins by Georgia over Louisville (37-14), Notre Dame over LSU (31-28), and Stanford over Maryland (45-21).
Nick Chubb finished his freshman season with 1,550 rushing yards. That's the largest single-season total for any Georgia Bulldog not named Herschel Walker. Considering he wasn't even the most touted running back in Georgia's freshman class -- recruiting services rated Sony Michel slightly higher -- that's an incredible feat. It's made even more incredible considering he was a backup to one of the best players in college football, Todd Gurley, for half the season.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chubb's 2014 output: he played his best against the best run defenses. That's not how it typically goes for freshmen ... or sophomores, juniors, or seniors. He did torch some bad defenses, too -- against Kentucky and Vanderbilt (ranked 72nd and 78th in Rushing S&P+, respectively), he needed 21 carries to gain 248 yards. But he faced seven defenses ranked in the Rushing S&P+ top 25, and only No. 11 Missouri (3.8 yards per carry) and No. 22 Tennessee (2.9) held him in check. Against No. 2 Clemson, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 16 Florida, No. 18 Auburn, and No. 23 Louisville, he carried 107 times for 838 yards, 7.8 per carry.
Chubb's Belk Bowl performance may have been his masterpiece. Against an aggressive, efficient Louisville, Georgia struggled at times. Chris Conley caught a 44-yard touchdown pass early, but otherwise 24 Georgia pass attempts gained 152 yards. Backup quarterback Brice Ramsey completed just four of nine passes with a pick when he came into the game for injured starter Hutson Mason. Plus, backup running backs Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas gained just 38 yards in 16 carries.
But if Louisville's defense was elite (or close to it), Chubb didn't notice. With the offense stagnant and Georgia pinned deep in the third quarter, nursing a precarious 20-7 lead, Chubb ripped off an 82-yard run from the Georgia 3. Two plays later, Michel scored to basically put the game away. And when it was time to play keep-away, Chubb carried 13 times for 91 yards. On his final carry, an eight-yard touchdown run with 2:02 remaining, he passed Garrison Hearst on the single-season Georgia rushing list.
Of course, while Chubb's 1,500-yard season was impressive, it pales in comparison to that of Nameless Georgia Starting Running Back (NGSRB). In just six starts before suspension and injury derailed his season, junior Gurley rushed for 911 yards; in the other seven games, Chubb started and ran for 1,179. Combine that, and you've got a 2,090-yard, 19-touchdown season for NGSRB. Against this set of defenses, that probably earns you a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
The Music City Bowl was tied at 28-28 heading into the fourth. LSU had loaded up on big plays -- a 100-yard kickoff return by Leonard Fournette, a 75-yard pass from Anthony Jennings to John Diarse, an 89-yard rush by Fournette* -- while Notre Dame had ground out long touchdown drives: 15 plays and 66 yards, 11 plays and 75 yards, 10 plays and 59 yards. LSU was robbed of a fake field goal touchdown by an inexplicable replay review late in the first half, but this was a fun, wide open game.
In the fourth quarter, things tightened up. Notre Dame blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt, then went three-and-out. LSU got the ball back but managed only a few short runs and a short pass and punted with about six minutes left.
The Tigers wouldn't get the ball back.
Pinned at their 15 with 5:41 remaining, the Irish went to work. Quarterback Malik Zaire converted a third-and-2 with a seven-yard gain, then OTHER quarterback Everett Golson hit William Fuller for 14 yards on second-and-15. Zaire re-entered and converted third-and-1, then got his helmet knocked off. Golson came back in and found tight end Ben Koyack for 12 yards on third-and-10, then hit running back Tarean Folston for 16 yards. An eight-yard pass to Chris Brown got the ball to LSU's 22 with 40 seconds left. Zaire's turn again.
Zaire carried twice for eight yards -- his 21st and 22nd carries of the afternoon -- to set up Kyle Brindza for a 32-yard field goal attempt at the buzzer. Despite three quarters of explosiveness, and despite typical Les Miles-related special teams zaniness, this ended in strangely orderly fashion. Brindza made the field goal, and that was that.
Notre Dame ran out the final 5:41 with 14 snaps and two quarterbacks and took the Music City Bowl, 31-28.
A two-quarterback rotation rarely works long-term, and it's going to be an interesting spring with Zaire and Golson battling it out for the Notre Dame starting job. But for one afternoon in Nashville, it worked. Golson didn't get too many snaps, but he completed six of 11 passes for 90 yards and went 4-for-5 on the game-winning drive. Zaire was conservative but efficient, completing 12 of 15 passes (for just 96 yards) and rushing 22 times for 96 more. He also threw a nice block on a short Folston touchdown run in the second quarter.
LSU's offense was atypically explosive, averaging 8.4 yards per play and gaining 436 yards. But Notre Dame played ball-control football, running 77 plays to LSU's 52, converting 11 of 17 third downs, and rushing for 263 yards against a defense that came in ranked 15th in Rushing S&P+. This was easily the most spirited game Notre Dame played since the Florida State loss in October, and while the Irish were aiming higher than 8-5 this season, it's a happy 8-5 thanks to the program's first win over an SEC squad since 2005. (It was only a two-game SEC losing streak.)
* Fournette was incredible, and he just stole Christian Hackenberg's Heisman bowl bump, but thanks to Chubb, he wasn't even the best freshman running back of the day.
We're never going to have more than 12 games in the college football regular season. Or at least, we shouldn't. But there's no question that a 12-game slate gives us some confusing results.
Stanford began the season ranked 11th in the preseason AP poll and projected even higher in our F/+ ratings. The Cardinal were the two-time defending Pac-12 champions and expected to give Oregon a serious run for its money in the West Coast wing of the title race.
But in nine scoring opportunities (i.e. first downs inside the opponent's 40), Stanford scored 10 points in a three-point loss to USC. And in four opportunities, they scored 10 points in a 16-point loss to Arizona State. And they lost by three points to both Notre Dame and Utah.
Four frustrating losses and a blowout against Oregon made this a crippling disappointment of a season for David Shaw's Cardinal. But with the spotlight off, Stanford began to dominate. They handled Cal in Berkeley (seven opportunities, 38 points), then went to UCLA and smoked the Bruins by three touchdowns (six opportunities, 31 points). And in the season finale, a virtual home game against Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl, they finished with a third straight dominant performance and a 45-21 win that wasn't as close as the score would suggest.
Stanford scored touchdowns on four of five first-half possessions. Kevin Hogan spread the ball and completed 14 of 20 passes for 189 yards, and six different Cardinal players ended up with at least four carries. Freshman running back Christian McCaffrey finished with seven carries for 57 yards and four punt returns for 81 yards, Hogan threw in 55 rushing yards on six non-sack carries, and tight ends Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada combined for five catches and 99 yards. This was a balanced, unstoppable Stanford offense.
The Stanford defense was the Stanford defense. Ranked eighth in Def. F/+ heading in, the D was almost never the reason for Stanford's struggles. And they feasted on Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown, sacking him six times and limiting him to 4.3 yards per attempt (including sacks). Star Terp Stefon Diggs, back from injury, caught 10 of 12 passes for 138 yards; everybody else caught five of 15 for 67. Stanford went up 42-7 early in the fourth quarter -- which is like anybody else going up 70-10 -- before letting off the gas and allowing garbage time scores.
In a vacuum, bowl performances mean almost nothing. But when combined with your last few performances of the regular season, they can become part of a trend.
For Maryland, there wasn't much of a trend. The defense was up and down in the stretch run, though the offense was mostly down. Stanford, however, will hope three games counts as a trend. Against Cal, UCLA, and Maryland, the Cardinal looked like the Cardinal were supposed to look all season. We'll see what that means for 2015.