Winners and Losers: The playoff field is predictable, the season wasn't

An unpredictable 2015 college football season ended with an anomaly.

Conference championship Saturday had drama: Michigan State scored a late second-effort touchdown to take the Big Ten title over Iowa and Clemson benefitted from a phantom offsides call on a late North Carolina onside kick to win the ACC championship. With Alabama taking care of business earlier in the day, the three winners will very likely join Oklahoma in the second College Football Playoff.

But the season wasn't nearly as easy to figure out when it started. Stanford, who won the Pac-12 title over USC on Saturday night, lost in Week 1 to Northwestern, a team that ended the season a surprising 10-2. A couple days before, North Carolina lost to South Carolina, a team that saw its coach, Steve Spurrier, abruptly resign halfway through the season as the Gamecocks struggled. Both Stanford and North Carolina entered championship week in the CFP top 10.

We figured the SEC West and Pac-12 South would be the toughest divisions. You can make the argument they were, but they didn't turn out like anyone would have imagined. Auburn, the team picked by media members to win the SEC, finished last in the SEC West. Every other team in the division was at .500 or above in the conference.

Meanwhile, every team in the Pac-12 South had at least three conference losses.

Spurrier's resignation, which happened at roughly the same time USC parted ways with coach Steve Sarkisian, was a sign of the flurry of coaching changes to come. Missouri, Georgia, Rutgers, Syracuse, Iowa State and more have found new coaches for various reasons. All while the Gamecocks haven't officially announced who will be the team's next head coach and LSU's Les Miles stayed in his position after his employer made his job status tenuous and looked for an upgrade.

And, as always, we had some crazy finishes too. No one will forget the way Michigan State beat Michigan off a dropped punt snap with seconds left. Georgia Tech blocked a Florida State field goal and returned it for a touchdown to drop the Seminoles from the ranks of the undefeated. BYU beat Nebraska on a Hail Mary in Week 1. Oh, and there was that crazy eight-lateral (and not at all legal) kickoff return for Miami that beat Duke.

The 2015 season was a fun one, and the ease with which you can pick the four playoff teams by simply looking at the standings without watching a lick of football throughout the year is misleading. There was nothing predictable about what happened over the course of the fall. If bowl season is anything like the previous 14 weekends, it's going to be a great next few weeks.

Here are your winners and losers.


Matt Johnson and Travis Greene, Bowling Green:

Bowling Green took care of business by beating Northern Illinois 34-14 in Friday night’s MAC title game. Matt Johnson and Travis Greene played a big part in that. Johnson, a senior quarterback, threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns, bringing his season total to 4,700 yards – a MAC record. That mark moves Johnson past the record set by some guy named Ben Roethlisberger back in 2003. Greene, a junior running back, put up a career high 183 yards and two touchdowns to help the Falcons win the conference title.

Georgia State: Georgia State needed a win over Georgia Southern on Saturday to clinch a sixth win and bowl eligibility. The Panthers were three-score underdogs, but showed that Vegas doesn’t know everything in a dominating 34-7 win. Nick Arbuckle threw for 346 yards in the win to help his team reach a bowl game for the first time in program history. Georgia State started the season 2-6, but reeled off wins in its final four games to reach 6-6.

Arkansas State:

The Red Wolves defeated Texas State 51-17 on Saturday to complete an undefeated run through its conference slate and capture its third outright Sun Belt Conference title.

Arkansas State is one of two programs in the conference to win three outright titles (2011, 2012, 2015). During that span, the Red Wolves have won 33 of 39 conference games.

“We want to win one more but we're going to enjoy this one a little bit,” coach Blake Anderson said. “To go undefeated in this league, as good of football as being played. The guys did a great job."

Arkansas State also set a couple records during the Texas State win. Money Hunter had a 99-yard interception for touchdown, which was the second-longest in school history. And quarterback Fredi Knighten set the school and Sun Belt record for points in a single season.

Kansas State: Like Georgia State, Kansas State needed a win on Saturday to reach the six-win mark and go to a bowl. Playing at home against West Virginia, the Wildcats overcame 13-3 halftime deficit and pulled out a 24-23 victory. KSU played for much of the game with backup quarterback (and sometimes wide receiver) Kody Cook and he threw a 77-yard TD to Deante Burton. KSU likely would have been extended a bowl invitation even if it lost (due to its high APR), but this win leaves no doubt.

Morgan Burns: The deciding touchdown in Kansas State's win came on a 97-yard kickoff return from senior Morgan Burns in the fourth quarter. It was his fourth kickoff return TD of the season and third in four weeks. Burns' four return TDs ties Brandon Banks for a single-season Kansas State record and also is the high mark this season nationally. Not a bad way to go out in your final home game, huh?


Treon Harris: It’s never fair to lay a loss at any one player’s feet. Football, after all, is a team sport. But it’s clear the Gators have struggled mightily with Treon Harris under center and those struggles reared their head again during the 29-15 SEC Championship game loss to Alabama.

In the game, Harris was 9 of 24 passes for 165 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He had 11 rushes for minus-4 yards. Harris had one positive play when he found C.J. Worton in traffic for a 46-yard touchdown toward the end of the game, but that didn’t really offset the lack of sustainable offense for the Gators all game.

Treon’s poor effort wasn’t unique to Saturday’s game. In the four games prior to Saturday’s, the Florida offense averaged fewer than 12 points per game and didn’t score a touchdown on offense during last week’s contest against Florida State.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst: The trend of politicians congratulating teams incorrectly continued Saturday night. Ernst, a U.S. Senator from Iowa, congratulated the Hawkeyes for winning the Big Ten. As you know from reading this post, Iowa did not beat Michigan State.

And we wonder why people dislike Congress.

ACC officiating: With 1:13 remaining and North Carolina down 45-37 to Clemson in the ACC title game, the Tar Heels attempted an onside kick and recovered it to start what could have been the game-tying drive.

However, officials declared North Carolina offside and the play was not reviewed. The Tar Heels did not recover the second onside attempt.

Here’s a good look at it. You be the judge.

Clemson was able to run out the clock and seal the victory, ACC title and likely lock up a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Baylor's QB situation: The injury bug bit Baylor at quarterback again on Saturday. The Bears were already down to third-stringer Chris Johnson, but he was injured late in the first quarter against Texas and missed the rest of the game due to a concussion. That put Baylor in dire straits with wideout Lynx Hawthorne coming in at QB. Art Briles switched mainly to wildcat formations in the second half, but the Bears couldn’t overcome a 20-0 halftime deficit and lost 23-17 at home to the Longhorns. The loss knocks Baylor out of contention to play in the Sugar Bowl.

Louisiana-Lafayette: Saturday was not a good day to be a Louisiana-Lafayette fan. The Ragin Cajuns lost at home to Troy in blowout fashion – a 41-17 decision after a 24-0 lead. The game was so bad that fans started playing beer pong in the stands just to pass the time. Ouch.