Since the end of college football’s regular seasons fans have been spending a lot of time talking and tweeting and wringing their hands about players, coaches and teams that failed to live up to their expectations. We need a new head coach. We need a new coordinator. If we could just get Coach X or Transfer Y then “we” would be playing for the national championship on Monday night. It is a breathless exercise.
But who exceeded expectations in 2014? Don’t they deserve a little love, a little attention?
So here are five people or teams who defied conventional wisdom during the 2014 season:
1) Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech: People keep trying to write off CPJ and his “high school” offense but it is almost impossible to stop if he has the right quarterback (which he does in Justin Thomas) and a defense that forces turnovers (plus-11 turnover margin), which is what Ted Roof’s group did. Who finished better than the Jackets (11-3) with wins over Clemson (10-3), Georgia (10-3), a two-point loss to No. 3 Florida State (13-1) and a win over No. 7 Mississippi State (10-3) which was ranked No. 1 for four weeks?
2) The Big Ten: The Big Ten has to be on this list. When Michigan State lost to Oregon and Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, most of the world believed it would be the conference left out of the first College Football Playoff. Now Ohio State (13-1) is in the national title game. The Big Ten went 5-5 in bowls but picked up three huge wins over Alabama, Auburn, and Baylor on New Year’s Day. And now the entire conference has been energized with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
3) Mark Helfrich, Oregon: After Oregon lost to Arizona (31-24) on Oct. 2, remember how many people said that Helfrich was no Chip Kelly and that he was out of his depth as coach of the Ducks? Since then Oregon has reeled off nine victories in a row by an average of 27.4 points, including a 39-point troucing of No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl. Oregon is a much more physical team now. That’s the stamp Helfrich (24-3) has put on the program.
4) The College Football Playoffs: The numbers don’t lie. Last week’s national semifinals in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl drew the two largest cable television audiences ever as about 28 million homes watched each game. That surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. It will be interesting to see what happens next season, when the semifinals move to Dec. 31 (Cotton, Orange).
5) Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri: The SEC has been getting beat up pretty good lately but it is worth noting that some teams did do better than expected and are on the cusp of a return to the national conversation.
Arkansas went 6-6 against one of the toughest schedules in the country and then dominated the bowl game with Texas. The Hogs established their identity and proved power football still works.
Tennessee (7-6) needed to win its bowl game with Iowa and did it impressively (45-28). The Vols upgraded their skill positions this season and now will do the same for the line of scrimmage with another highly ranked recruiting class coming up.
Missouri defied the odds by winning its final three games at Texas A&M, at Tennessee and at home against red-hot Arkansas to capture the SEC East championship for the second consecutive year. I didn’t think Missouri could do it, something my Missouri friends remind me about on a consistent basis.