In Friday's four bowls, the losing teams heading into the fourth quarter outscored the winning teams, 72-22. Washington trailed Oklahoma State by 27-14, Kansas State trailed UCLA, 34-21, Iowa trailed Tennessee, 42-7, and Houston trailed Pitt, 24-6. Only one of those came back to win (Houston), but three games became interesting.
Comebacks are what we will remember most about this bowl season (aside from, you know, the first Playoff). We had seen Central Michigan make up 34 points of a 35-point fourth quarter deficit in the Bahamas Bowl, and we had seen Michigan State come back from 20 down in the fourth. That KSU almost came back from down 31-6 at halftime, and that Houston DID come back from down 34-13 with four minutes left, just added to the lore.
James Castleman is a 300-pound defensive tackle for Oklahoma State. He put together a strong résumé in his senior season, logging eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, picking off a pass, and blocking a damn impressive three kicks.
In his last game, he got to add a second page to that résumé. He lined up as the world's biggest Wildcat in the first quarter of the Cactus Bowl, taking a shotgun snap and plunging for a one-yard score. And with the game in the balance -- with a 24-0 halftime lead having turned into a 30-22 game -- offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich sent him out on a pass route.
Castleman just told me "the check engine light came on" during his catch. #okstate— Carson Cunningham (@KOCOCarson) January 3, 2015
That's a 48-yard reception, complete with broken tackles. On a day that featured two of the best two-way players in the country -- UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson -- another guy took the crown.
This was a relaxed version of Oklahoma State that we didn't see much of during the regular season, running flea flickers, throwing long bombs, and employing defensive tackles in unique ways.
In a year of quarterback struggles, offensive line glitches, and timely defensive breakdowns, the Cowboys didn't look like they were going to make a bowl at all. They lost five in a row, all by at least 21 points, to fall from 5-1 to 5-6. In need of an upset in Norman to reach bowl eligibility, they trailed by 14 with five minutes remaining. But a long touchdown pass and an even longer punt return score sent the game to overtime, and they ended up winning Bedlam.
And given extra life, they decided to have fun.
UCLA was one of the most maddening teams in the country. Billed as a Pac-12 contender, the Bruins went out of their way not to look the part, winning their first three against decent-not-great competition (Virginia, Memphis, Texas) by a combined 18 points. Then they very much looked the part, destroying Arizona State by a 62-27 margin. And then they lost by two points at home to Utah.
The entire season was like this. Barely beat California and Colorado, then shut down Arizona. Throttle USC, then get destroyed by Stanford at home.
In that way, UCLA's 40-35 win over Kansas State was a 60-minute microcosm. For 30 minutes, the Bruins looked spectacular. They gained nearly 300 yards of offense in the first half, nearly held KSU to under 100, forced two turnovers, sacked Jake Waters four times, and took a 31-6 lead.
Then Kansas State scored on a 17-play drive to start the third. UCLA lost a fumble. Kansas State scored again. Another KSU score (following another ridiculously long drive) made it 34-28 with five minutes remaining.
This season could have been great for UCLA, but a 10-win season is nothing to sneeze at. The Bruins had won 10 back-to-back just once (in 1997-98) before 2013-14.
They pulled it off largely because they had Paul Perkins and opponents did not. As good as quarterback Brett Hundley was, with his 3,155 passing yards, 644 rushing yards, 32 touchdowns, and five interceptions, Perkins was almost as important. And his 67-yard run with 2:20 left in the Alamo Bowl allowed the Bruins to eventually close the deal. (KSU scored with 1:21 left to make it 40-34 and nearly recovered the onside kick, but Houston had used up all of the onside karma for the day, and UCLA ran out the clock.)
Perkins finished with 20 carries for 194 yards (a 9.7-yard average), and Hundley added nine non-sack carries for 110. KSU was able to handle the UCLA pass, so when the Bruins needed yards, they got them on the ground. That was the case for the year (Perkins finishes 2014 with 1,575 yards). Hundley will be in the NFL next fall, but Perkins should give UCLA an identity.
Under 27 percent of onside kicks had been successful in 2014, and that includes surprise kicks, which have better odds. Your odds of being successful on back-to-back onside kicks are around seven percent.
Never tell Houston the odds.
Pittsburgh scored on five consecutive possessions -- touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal -- to go up 34-13 late in the Armed Forces Bowl. But the Panthers managed to give up 22 consecutive points because they couldn't get their offense on the field. Houston scored with 3:41 left. Pitt whiffed on the onside kick. Houston scored on a fourth-and-13 lob with 1:58 left. Pitt whiffed even worse. Houston went 57 yards in four plays and converted the two-point attempt, and with its offense finally back on the field, Pitt's desperation response stalled.
Without a turnover, Houston scored three touchdowns in two minutes and 42 seconds. And in a bowl season full of comebacks, the Cougars made theirs stand out.
Man oh man, is Tennessee going to be drastically overrated next year...— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 2, 2015
Bowls are unreliable sources of information about the next season. But we can't help ourselves. For the next eight months, we will lean on our last memories.
And for Tennessee, that means we'll remember a stellar TaxSlayer Bowl performance over Iowa. The Vols led, 42-7, after three quarters. Running back Jalen Hurd made Iowa defenders look like middle schoolers, Joshua Dobbs completed 76 percent of his passes, and a Vol defense that was solid all year looked downright nasty.
Iowa scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the final a more respectable 45-28, but Tennessee controlled from the opening kickoff. The body language on Iowa players was reprehensible from the first quarter on, and while some of that is on Iowa -- needless to say, there's not a happy vibe emanating -- a lot of that was because it was immediately clear which was the superior team.
Tennessee looked great. And now we're going to overreact. By the second quarter, we were seeing "potential SEC East favorite" and "maybe top 15 in 2015" tweets. So allow me to remind you that the Vols didn't always look this good. They came in ranked 43rd in F/+, behind No. 39 Pitt, No. 40 Memphis, No. 41 Florida, and No. 42 BYU. They were 6-6, with home losses to Florida and Missouri and a 31-point loss to Ole Miss.
With Dobbs, they won three of four to finish the regular season, but even in that stretch they only looked great once, in a 50-14 win over Kentucky. That they came back to win at South Carolina was an excellent sign for a young team, and that they survived a sketchy performance to take down Vanderbilt suggested maturity.
Still, this was a borderline top-40 team that, with quite a bit of returning experience, should expect to approach a top-25 level next year.
But following Friday's dominance, a top-30 2015 might end up a disappointment. The bowl bump, one of the most unfair rewards for a strong bowl performance, could set the bar higher than the Vols can reach. Just ask 2012 West Virginia, which was rewarded for its 2012 Orange Bowl decimation of Clemson with a No. 11 preseason ranking and went 7-6. Or 2014 Oklahoma, which finished 2013 by beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, began this season ranked fourth in the country, then fell apart.
Offseason perceptions matter more than they should, when it comes to in-season perceptions. A top-30 performance in 2015, which would be accompanied by about eight wins or so (including a "breakthrough" against someone like Georgia), would represent another definable step forward for Butch Jones. But if we set the bar higher than that and make improvement seem disappointing, that's unfair.
Regardless, Tennessee looked awesome and gave us a hint of what a great Vol squad might look like. Let's just tap the breaks before we decide that's the version of Tennessee we should expect to see 13 times next year.