1. A team too good for 5 wins
Honestly, a 6-6 cutoff for a bowl is pretty arbitrary. Going by F/+ ratings, your average 5-7 power-conference team is midway between your average 7-5 or 8-4 mid-major. The only reason we cut things off at 6-6 is to make ourselves feel better about not sending a team with a losing record to a bowl.
|Regular season wins||Avg. F/+ rating (power conference)
||Avg. F/+ rating (Group of Five)|
We learned this year that having 40 bowls is a tipping point. While there were plenty of scenarios that could make for 80 bowl-eligible teams, three 5-7 teams -- Nebraska, San Jose State, and Minnesota -- got postseason bids.
The first surprise: the world kept spinning! College football didn't tilt off its axis and crash into another planet. Bowls have been as fun and, in most cases, close as in any other year.
The second surprise: 5-7 teams are 2-0. SJSU took down Georgia State with a fourth-quarter surge in the Cure Bowl, and Saturday in Santa Clara, Nebraska used a 30-0 run over about 22 minutes to roll past UCLA, 37-29, in the Foster Farms Bowl. (Minnesota is a five-point favorite in the Quick Lane Bowl as well.)
Apparently the universe didn't think Nebraska should finish with only five wins. As explained in the Foster Farms preview, second-order wins suggested Nebraska's win total should be closer to about 6.1, and at +17.9%, the Huskers were closer in profile to a 7-5 team. But thanks to a 2-6 record in one-possession finishes, the Huskers crept below .500 for the third time since 1961.
A bowl win couldn't redeem that, but with a top-40 F/+ rating, it could give Nebraska affirmation that it wasn't far from being a pretty strong team.
Now, with most of 2015's contributors returning -- quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., most skill position complements, and 11 of the top 13 tacklers -- this 6-7 team feels more like one a step from Big Ten West contention (as the numbers were suggesting even before the game), not one that bottomed out under a coach who shouldn't have been hired in the first place.
SB Nation presents: All 40 college football bowl games, in one song
2. 1,161 total yards ... in a Virginia Tech game
Frank Beamer's final bowl win came in the same place as his first: Shreveport. There's poetry there, especially since Shreveport is the epitome of college football, with its minor-bowl stature, fairgrounds, Southern placement, and hilarious sponsorships (Beamer won two different bowls in Shreveport: the Pouland Weed Eater Independence and the Camping World Independence).
There's also poetry to finishing with a sack (and a negative offensive play). Beamer rode defense and special teams to 238 Virginia Tech wins in 29 seasons.
But only the ending made sense. Beamer's final game was an absurd shootout with Tulsa, one that featured four touchdowns in the game's first 3:18. Tech went on a 38-7 run over the course of 19 minutes after scoring 38 points only once in its final nine regular-season games (and needing four overtimes to do it).
Tech went up by 24 midway through the second quarter, scored 10 more points for good measure, and STILL needed sacks by Dadi Nicholas and Luther Maddy on Tulsa's final drive to lock away a 55-52 win. The Hokies and Golden Hurricane combined for 1,161 yards, 57 first downs, and 14 touchdowns. As Beamer said in his postgame ESPN interview, "Well, it was different."
Beamer got one of the rarest things in college football: a happy final chapter. But happy doesn't mean normal, I guess.
3. Only 76 total points? Pssh
The beginning of the Independence Bowl was so crazy that it overshadowed what MTSU and Western Michigan were able to pull off in the Bahamas Bowl on Thursday. The teams scored three touchdowns in four minutes and were tied at 17-17 15 minutes in, and despite 21 fourth-quarter points from WMU in a 45-31 win, were *only* able to combine for 76 points and 1,055 yards. Yawwwwwwwwn.
After going 1-11 in his first season, PJ Fleck has engineered back-to-back eight-win seasons in Kalamazoo. With the way he's been recruiting, more will be expected.
4. A top-five special teams rating
Special teams are packed with small-sample randomness, and it should be no surprise that special teams ratings are, too. Shank a couple of kicks or break off a couple of big returns, and your efficiency ranking can fluctuate greatly.
There wasn't much fluctuation for Duke this year. The Blue Devils ranked first in special teams efficiency in 2014 and ranked fourth this season. Indiana ranked a healthy 23rd, but special teams made the difference in a thrilling 44-41 Duke win in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Indiana outgained Duke by 131 yards (667-536) and countered three turnovers with three takeaways. But the Blue Devils evened the tables by winning the field position battle (average starting field position: Duke 35, Indiana 27, which adds up to 136 hidden yards over the course of 17 possessions each), returning a fourth-quarter kickoff for a touchdown, and going three-for-three on field goals while Indiana's Griffin Oakes missed kicks of 56 and 38 yards.
And yes, I think Oakes missed the second kick, which wasn't reviewed.
This was a dynamite game packed with about 15 plot twists and nearly 10 lead changes. It ended in controversy with Oakes' missed field goal in OT, but Duke has now finished with at least eight wins for three consecutive seasons. The Blue Devils had never before pulled off that feat.
5. 30 exceedingly well-played minutes (and 30 other pretty good minutes)
Whether a game is well-played or not is a "you know it when you see it" thing. The yards and points don't necessarily tell the tale.
Receivers are making leaping grabs instead of dropping passes. Drives are getting shut down by defensive plays, not offensive mistakes.
The first half of the Heart of Dallas Bowl between Washington and Southern Miss may have been the most well-played of the bowl season. At one point, Washington's Jake Browning completed 14 of 15 passes for 190 yards. Southern Miss' Nick Mullens completed nine of 10 for 140. Washington led 21-17 at halftime, and it took strong defensive play to keep the offenses to only that many points.
Washington pulled away, going on a 17-0 run to take a 41-24 lead. The Huskies would hold on for a 44-31 win, outgaining the Golden Eagles by 205 yards and affirming a high computer rating. But Southern Miss acquitted itself well.
Saturday was another bad day for the "too many bowls" crowd. This was really good football.
6. 36 inches of annual snowfall > zero inches
Pullman, Wash., averages 36 inches of snowfall per year. Miami averages "what is snow?" (Seriously, it snowed for the first time in Miami in 1977.)
So when you find out snow was whipping around for most of the Sun Bowl between Washington State and Miami, and when you find out that the Cougars won, 20-14, maybe that's all the explanation you need.
To be fair, Miami rallied.
Neither team moved the ball well. Wazzu averaged 4.9 yards per play, and after scoring a touchdown on their first drive, the Hurricanes went scoreless for eight straight possessions, which included an interception, a turnover on downs, and six consecutive punts.
But the Hurricanes scored early in the fourth quarter to cut Wazzu's 20-7 lead to six points. And with the Wazzu air raid grounded (last eight drives: two turnovers on downs, five straight punts, end of game), Miami created scoring opportunities on each of its last two drives. But after a touchdown was called back, Robert Barber stripped Mark Walton of the ball short of the end zone, and Wazzu recovered. With three minutes left, Shalom Luani picked off a Joe Yearby pass on a trick play (note: probably not best to ask a running back to throw a pass with a slippery ball), and Wazzu ran out the clock.
Asking two teams to play in a driving snow storm in El Paso made this far more of an exhibition, but it was pretty fun. The win earned Wazzu its first nine-win season since 2003. The most the Cougars had won in any TWO seasons since 2006-07 was nine. Well done, Mike Leach. A pirate can thrive in any weather conditions.
7. 1 touchdown in many chances (and 1 win)
Marshall kept dropping the dagger. The Thundering Herd advanced into UConn territory in seven of eight possessions in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but after scoring a touchdown on their second drive, they could manage only four field goal attempts and a turnover on downs.
UConn scored 10 points on just two scoring opportunities, and despite being outgained by 176 yards and suffering a field position disadvantage, the Huskies got the ball back with a chance to win with 1:44 left. But after Bryant Shirreffs found Hergy Mayala for 15 yards to get to the Huskies' 40, Marshall's pass rush took over. Gary Thompson sacked Shirreffs on first down, and Chase Hancock and DJ Hunter hurried him on third down. Mayala couldn't reel in a tough pass on fourth down, and despite blowing countless opportunities to put the game away, the Herd finished with a 16-10 win and their third straight 10-win season.
Remember three years ago, when head coach Doc Holliday was considered an underachiever? Yeah, me neither.
8. Visions of 1969
The last time San Diego State won 11 games in a season was in its first at the FBS level. Don Coryell's Aztecs went 11-0 in 1969, laying waste to the PCAA (average score in six conference games: SDSU 50, Opponent 20) and taking down Boston U. in something called the Pasadena Bowl.
(Why can't the Rose Bowl host more than one bowl game? The Citrus Bowl hosts three!)
SDSU would continue to thrive in the 1970s, going 10-1 under Coryell in 1972, then 45-8-2 from 1973-77 under Claude Gilbert. If the have-nots had gotten their way in the early-1970s, and an eight-team playoff had come to fruition, the Aztecs may have been the biggest beneficiary.
Instead, the program hit the skids. Dennis Stolz managed one good season (1986), as did Al Luginbill (1991). Ted Tollner managed two (1996, 1998). But between 2000 and 2009, the Aztecs averaged 3.8 wins per season, bottoming out at 2-10 in 2008.
Brady Hoke planted the seeds of a rebuild in two years, and in the five seasons since Hoke left, Rocky Long has maintained a program as healthy as it has been in 40 years.
The 2015 season was his masterpiece. SDSU won the Mountain West and won 11 games for the first time in 46 years. The Aztecs saved their best for last. Against a fragile Cincinnati, they played a game indicative of their success: timely offense combined with swarming defense and awesome special teams.
Rashaad Penny set the tone with a 100-yard kick return, and Cincinnati gained just 279 yards, 73 of which came on its final drive. Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore took four sacks and threw three picks, and Cincinnati punted six times.
SDSU's Donnell Pumphrey and Chase Price combined to rush 38 times for 167 yards, and that was more than enough. This game was the SDSU id on full display, and after a 1-3 start, the Aztecs won 10 straight games to finish the season.