College football's showcase day, now headlined by two College Football Playoff games, lived up to any and all expectations. Let's look at the key numbers from January 1's five bowls.
The Citrus Bowl began with Missouri nursing a 19-17 lead over Minnesota. The Tigers had overcome a slow start (Maty Mauk threw interceptions on the first two possessions) and an incredible Maxx Williams touchdown to take the lead on a gritty Mauk touchdown run, but everything still hung in the balance.
Against a team that loves nothing more than to wear you down in the fourth quarter, Missouri wore down Minnesota. Fourth quarter rushing yards: Missouri 151, Minnesota 13. First, Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard touchdown run after pummeling blocks from center Evan Boehm and guard Connor McGovern. Then, Marcus Murphy raced 69 yards to set up a touchdown pass from Mauk to Bud Sasser. The Minnesota defensive front that had dominated the first quarter gasped for air.
When the clock ran out on Missouri's 33-17 win, the Tigers had outrushed the run-heavy Gophers, 337-106. Minnesota stayed in the game because of some impressive passing from Mitch Leidner -- 21-for-31 for 258 yards, one touchdown, and only two sacks -- but as the Tigers did during the six-game win streak that finished the regular season and won them the SEC East title, they gutted things out.
And by allowing just three points in Minnesota's final five possessions following Williams' touchdown, they sent defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, recently named Missouri State's head coach, out a winner.
Even if Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had surpassed Barry Sanders' 2,628-yard single-season rushing record, it would have come with an asterisk, as Gordon got three extra games to attack the mark, despite having a similar number of carries. And he came up 41 yards short.
But the only way Gordon can fall short on anything is if you compare him to what might have been the best college running back of all-time.
In Thursday's preview, I said Auburn would likely stack the box to stop Wisconsin's running game because the Badgers couldn't even pretend to throw. And Badger quarterback Joel Stave completed just 14 of 27 passes for 121 yards, a sack, and three interceptions.
Did it matter?
Goodness, no. Gordon rushed 34 times for 251 yards and three scores, and backup Corey Clement added 105 yards on 15 carries.
eAnd with Auburn up three points and the Badgers having failed on six of their last seven drives, Gordon gave us one last incredible highlight.
At the 45-yard line, Gordon juked the wrong way and didn't fool the Auburn defender close to him. And it didn't matter. He just changed direction and outran him to the end zone regardless.
Gordon's mix of vision, agility, underrated strength, and untouchable speed have made him a gift to watch for the last three years, first as a big-play understudy for Montee Ball, then as a co-No. 1 with James White, then as a featured back. He has already declared for the NFL, as all running backs should (perhaps no position has a shorter shelf life than the running back). Before leaving, he carried his team one last time, this time to a 34-31 overtime win.
With 23 minutes left in the Rose Bowl, the day's first Playoff semifinal, Florida State's Travis Rudolph caught an 18-yard pass from Jameis Winston to cut Oregon's lead to 25-20. The Seminoles had blown some early scoring opportunities and had given up a quick Oregon drive to fall down by 12 points in the third quarter, but the perseverance meme that had defined FSU's season looked like it might continue.
It did not.
The dam that had shown cracks throughout FSU's season broke, and it flooded Tallahassee. Darren Carrington scored on a 56-yard pass from Marcus Mariota to make it 32-20. Dalvin Cook lost his second fumble of the quarter, and Mariota found Carrington for another score. Jameis Winston lost a fumble that launched a thousand memes, and Tony Washington returned it 58 yards for a touchdown. Winston threw a tipped interception, and Mariota scored six plays later. Jesus Wilson lost a fumble, and Thomas Tyner went in for a score.
In the span of about 13 minutes, Florida State turned the ball over four times, and Oregon scored five touchdowns.
The Seminoles had made a habit of playing sloppy ball until they could no longer afford to, removing all margin for error before hitting the accelerator. But they hadn't played a team anywhere near as good as Oregon. The Ducks showed toughness early, stuffing the 'Noles on an early goal line stand and allowing 13 points on five first-half scoring opportunities. And when judgment came, Oregon had none of FSU's "do just enough" routine.
When a team pulls off a few squeakers to get to within shouting distance of the national title, the end of the run is often disastrous. Notre Dame won six games by nine or fewer points in 2012, reached the BCS Championship, and lost by 28 points to Alabama. Florida's offense struggled to find fifth gear in 2009, and the Gators won four games by 10 or fewer points against teams with seven or fewer wins, then lost by three touchdowns to Alabama.
The regular season is good at weeding out pretenders -- it's hard for even tremendous teams to win 12 or 13 in a row -- and even when Auburn pulled off a series of magic acts in 2010, with six one-possession wins in the regular season (and almost a seventh in the BCS Championship), the Tigers at least matched the good fortune with clear improvement.
Florida State never improved. The Seminoles' run game got better, but the defense never came around. The combination of injuries and inexperience in the front seven, combined with a downright disappointing secondary, threatened to do them in repeatedly, as did general offensive sloppiness. That they got to 13-0 was a testament to Jimbo Fisher's in-game coaching ability and the ability of players like Winston and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to make huge plays late in games.
But 13-0 isn't 14-0. And a 29-game win streak, while incredible, isn't 30. If you're not worthy of the title, you'll be found out. FSU was the best team in college football last season, but it might not have been one of the 10 best in 2014.
Oregon was by far the best team the Seminoles played, and after a slow start, the Ducks' offense lived up to the hype in terms of not only tempo, but play-calling, execution, speed, depth, and everything else. And when the FSU offense had to press, Oregon's defense stepped up. That FSU made mistakes was one thing; it was another for Oregon to take complete advantage.
You're looking … a little unstable, Buckeyes.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 2, 2015
I wrote that soon after Alabama took a 21-6 lead in the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl semifinal. A camera followed Ohio State's Jalin Marshall on the sideline as he fought off an emotional meltdown. The Buckeyes had blown a couple of goal-to-go situations, settling for field goals against a team field goals don't usually beat. It was beginning to look a bit dire for Urban Meyer's squad.
Then Cardale Jones hit Marshall for two 26-yard gains, and after losing five yards on eight previous goal-to-goal downs, the Buckeyes scored following consecutive three-yard gains by Ezekiel Elliott. After Alabama went three-and-out, Jones blew up the middle for 27 yards, and on a picture perfect trick play with 12 seconds left in the first half, receiver Evan Spencer threw a perfect pass and Michael Thomas made a perfect, just-barely-inbounds catch. Instead of being down 15 (or worse) at half, Ohio State was down just 21-20.
The combination of the late-half scores, playful play-calling, and Jones' aloof (in a good way) nature -- I'm not sure what it would take for him to look like he isn't having fun -- relaxed Ohio State. And in the second half, it was time for the team on the other sideline to grow unstable. A perfect zone blitz baited Bama quarterback Blake Sims into a Steve Miller pick six, and after a bad punt gave the Tide a golden opportunity to take the lead, down 34-28, Sims forced the ball into coverage and was picked off at the Ohio State 1. Alabama worked into Ohio State territory four times in the fourth quarter but scored only once.
Ohio State didn't even need to work the ball into Bama territory. They put the game away with a lightning bolt.
Alabama hadn't allowed more than 183 rushing yards in a game all season. Elliott rushed for 230 yards in just 20 carries. In Friday's preview, I wondered what would give, Alabama's incredible run defense or Ohio State's top-ranked run offense. It was the former.
Down 21-6, Ohio State went on a 28-0 run. And a perfect block, a hesitant angle from the safety, and a big back with big speed sent Ohio State into what should be an incredibly fun Playoff final.
There's something about Michigan teams in bowl games, apparently. (Well, two out of three. Sorry, WMU.) Barely a week after Central Michigan scored 34 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to nearly overcome a five-touchdown deficit in the Bahamas Bowl, Michigan State uncorked something even more impressive.
Down 41-21 to Baylor heading into the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl (partially because of the fattest of fat-guy touchdowns), the Spartans not only scored three touchdowns in four possessions, they kept Baylor off the board.
Baylor had scored on seven of eight possessions heading into the final stanza, and while State had done a good job of slowing the game down and holding Baylor to eight possessions in the first place, the Bears had still taken total command.
But Baylor kicker Chris Callahan hit the upright on a 46-yard field goal, and State scored on the ensuing possession. State recovered a surprise onside kick but threw an interception, and with the dagger in hand again, Baylor turned the ball over.
With 4:55 left, Jeremy Langford scored to cut Baylor's lead to 41-35, but again Baylor looked like it was ready to put the game away. Bryce Petty found Levi Norwood for a 31-yard gain, then he hit Corey Coleman for 26 yards to the State 7. But Coleman was called for a face mask penalty during his run, and the Bears were backed up to the 22. After a false start and a four-yard loss on second down, Baylor had to settle for a 43-yard field goal instead of something much shorter. Marcus Rush blocked it, R.J. Williamson returned it 36 yards into Baylor territory, and Chris Callahan got destroyed, and with a minute left, State needed to go just 45 yards for the win.
They went 45 yards. Cook found Keith Mumphery for 18 yards, then Tony Lippett for 17. And on third-and-goal with 17 seconds left, State completed the comeback.
Two sacks and an interception finished Baylor off, and with outgoing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (recently named Pitt head coach) and Mark Dantonio celebrating a win for the final time, we got ... feelings.
And here’s Dantonio and Narduzzi in tears together, via USA Today Sports Images: pic.twitter.com/GWEgI0g0kJ— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) January 1, 2015
It was a pretty good day for the Big Ten, huh?