NCF Nation: conference wraps 121613

For the first time in years, Florida State exceeded expectations.

The No. 1-ranked Seminoles, destined for the VIZIO BCS National Championship after finishing the season as the only undefeated team in the country, were predicted to play in the shadow of Clemson this season. FSU was picked by the media to finish second in the ACC's Atlantic Division, in large part because the program had to replace its starting quarterback, its entire defensive line, 11 NFL draft picks and six staff assistants.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJimbo Fisher took a Noles team that sent 11 players to the NFL after last season and made it better.
Didn't matter. Jimbo Fisher has Florida State back.

While Florida State was unstoppable, Duke was simply unbelievable. A school-record 10-win season. Upsets of Miami and Virginia Tech. Back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. The program's first Coastal Division title, and a spot in the prestigious Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, punctuated by a victory over rival North Carolina for the second straight season.

Duke's 45-7 loss to FSU in the ACC title game wasn't an indictment of the Blue Devils. Rather, it was further evidence that the ACC this year was indeed Florida State "and everybody else."

Nobody else in the conference -- save for Boston College's heroic effort -- even came close to the Noles this fall. They steamrolled Clemson in Death Valley -- early proof that quarterback Jameis Winston was unflappable. They bulldozed in-state rivals Miami and Florida, leaving no doubt which program has ascended to the top in the Sunshine State. And in spite of legal allegations that could have derailed the season, they produced a redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy front-runner.

And then there was the rest of the Atlantic Division.

Wake Forest suffered its fifth consecutive losing season, ending in the unexpected resignation of longtime coach Jim Grobe. NC State, in its first season under coach Dave Doeren, was winless in league play and ravaged by injuries. Maryland's mediocre season ended on a positive note, with the Terps getting to a bowl game for the first time under coach Randy Edsall, but they will leave the ACC still ensnarled in a lawsuit with the conference. Boston College's quick ascension and the jaw-dropping numbers of running back Andre Williams were the surprise of the division in the Eagles' first season under coach Steve Addazio.

For all of the clarity within the Atlantic Division race, there was as much confusion in the Coastal, which once again came down to the final week of the regular season.

Duke, though, left no doubt that it was the best team in the division and earned its title outright. While Clemson's fifth straight loss to South Carolina and Georgia Tech's loss to Georgia in the regular-season finales were disappointments, the ACC this year had two special teams exceed expectations -- and they're not done yet.

Offensive MVP: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. Winston was the best player in the country all season, setting FBS and ACC freshman marks with 38 touchdown passes and 3,820 yards. Winston also ranks first in the nation in QBR and passer rating, won the Davey O'Brien Award as the top quarterback in the country, the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and both ACC Offensive Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year honors.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAaron Donald was a relative unknown in August. Then he wreaked havoc on the ACC.
Defensive MVP: Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt. Donald went from an unknown before the season to the best defensive player in the nation, taking home four major awards -- the Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Donald also was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the nation in tackles for loss and ranks 13th in sacks. Of his 54 total tackles, nearly half have been behind the line (26.5).

Newcomer of the year: Winston. What makes the season he had more impressive is that he is a redshirt freshman and has played in only 13 career games. But Winston has looked like a veteran behind center and is a major reason why the Seminoles are playing in the BCS national championship game.

Biggest surprise: Duke. The Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division but ended up becoming one of the most surprising teams in the nation. Duke won a school-record 10 games, made a first-ever appearance in the ACC title game and is now going to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.

Biggest disappointment: NC State. Even though the Wolfpack went through a coaching change and returned a young team, nobody anticipated they would be one of the worst outfits in the ACC. Thanks in part to injuries and inconsistent play at quarterback, NC State went winless in league play for the first time since 1959 and posted its worst record since 2006.

Best nonconference game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. The marquee opening-weekend matchup did not disappoint as the two top-10 teams battled back and forth throughout the game. The turning point came after Georgia flubbed a chip-shot field goal attempt late in the third quarter that would have tied the game. Instead, the Tigers stretched their lead to 10 before thwarting a late-game rally. Tajh Boyd had one of his best games of the season, scoring five total touchdowns and racking up 312 total yards.

Best ACC game: Duke 27, North Carolina 25. Duke needed to beat hated rival North Carolina on the final day of the regular season to secure a spot in the ACC title game. As expected, this game went down to the wire. The lead changed six times, and Duke rallied in the fourth quarter for the victory. After North Carolina went up 25-24 with 7 minutes, 3 seconds to play, Duke went 66 yards in 11 plays to set up what became the game-winning 27-yard field goal from Ross Martin with 2:22 remaining.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

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The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.

History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.

But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.

Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.

The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.

There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.

Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.

But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.

Time for some superlatives ...

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.

Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.

Conference wrap: Big 12

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Dealing with the likes of Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones had become commonplace for Big 12 defenses in previous seasons. In 2013, defensive coordinators around the conference got their revenge, kind of, as the Big 12 scoring average dropped to 31.7 points per game, the lowest since 2010.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBryce Petty proved he was a worthy successor to past Baylor quarterbacks.
Uncertainty at the quarterback position was the overriding theme throughout the Big 12 except at one school: Baylor. The Bears featured the best quarterback in the league in Bryce Petty, the junior who took control of Art Briles’ offense and looked like a veteran in his first season as a starter while leading the Bears to their first Big 12 championship. While quarterback troubles handcuffed several offenses, playmakers such as Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, West Virginia’s Charles Sims and others around the conference still found ways to impact games.

The defenses became the foundation of Big 12 title runs as Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas used improved defenses to put themselves in title contention on the season’s final day. Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat were among the Big 12’s best defenders.

The season began with Oklahoma State as the favorite in a wide-open race but few foresaw the Bears’ 11-1 season and outright conference title. BU played the role as the Big 12’s most impressive team week after week until a disappointing loss in Stillwater but didn’t let it derail their hopes for a title, defeating TCU and Texas to capture the title when OSU lost to Oklahoma to end the season.

Things weren’t quite as rosy at TCU, where a combination of injuries and turnovers took the Horned Frogs out of the conference title race early in the year. Cornerback Jason Verrett & Co. did their job on defense but got very little help from the offense on the way to a disappointing season for a team that Big 12 players picked as the league favorite.

Offensive MVP: Petty. The quarterback position was the lone question about the Bears' offense heading into the season. Could their new triggerman excel like Griffin and Nick Florence? Petty passed the test with flying colors, passing for 3,844 yards and 30 touchdowns with just two interceptions.


Defensive MVP: Jeffcoat. The Longhorns’ senior didn’t run away from the competition for this award the way Petty did for the offensive version. But a strong end to the year and sitting atop top the Big 12 in sacks (12) and was second in tackles for loss (18) made him the Big 12's top defender in 2013.


Newcomer of the year: Sims. The Houston transfer didn’t envision the struggles he experienced during his lone season in Morgantown, W.Va. Yet, he was one of the league’s best and most consistent playmakers despite the musical chairs alongside him. His 129.1 all-purpose yards per game average was second in the Big 12.

Biggest surprise: Baylor. The Bears finished fifth in the Big 12 preseason poll as question marks about Petty and their defense dragged them down in the minds of many. Yet Petty and the defense rose to the occasion, becoming the driving forces behind the program’s breakthrough season that sees them playing in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.


Biggest disappointment: TCU. Bigger things were expected from Gary Patterson's squad. Injuries to Casey Pachall and Devonte Fields hurt TCU’s chances but sloppy, uncreative offense did more damage. While the defense played well enough to be in the title hunt, the offense dragged the squad into the bottom half of the Big 12 standings.

Best game: Bedlam. Few people gave Oklahoma a chance to knock off OSU, which entered the game with the chance to make its second Fiesta Bowl berth in three years. But OU answered a late touchdown from the Cowboys with a touchdown of its own in the game’s final moments to destroy OSU’s Fiesta Bowl dreams and catapult OU into the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Conference wrap: Pac-12

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It’s tough to put a grade on the 2013 edition of Pac-12 football. When we look back 20 years from now, all that will probably stand out is that the Pac-12 had just one BCS bowl team in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series. So with Stanford carrying the flag for the league, its performance against Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio takes on a greater importance.

But this year, perhaps more than any other, the Pac-12 showed why it is one of the toughest, if not the deepest, conference in all of college football. It passed the nonconference test, going 31-6 against non-league competition -- with wins over teams from the SEC, Big Ten and ACC. It crushed the Mountain West, going 10-0 against the West Coast’s little brother conference. And three more meetings in the postseason could extend it to 13-0.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkDavid Shaw has Stanford atop a very deep conference.
Speaking of bowls, a record nine Pac-12 teams are in the postseason, 75 percent of the league. Washington State is bowling for the first time since 2003. Colorado is making headway. Utah appears right on the cusp of breaking through.

There were thrilling upsets. (Utah, Washington State and USC all get thumbs up.) There was the Week 1 Oregon State debacle. There were All-Americans, national award winners and a style of football that is uniquely Pac-12.

The influx of big-name coaches has raised the ante over the past few seasons, and that trend continued this year, with Steve Sarkisian’s move to USC and Chris Petersen’s ingress to Washington.

The South was nasty, and will be again next year. Arizona State has staked its claim. But UCLA is right on the Sun Devils’ heels, as are USC and an Arizona squad that has the potential to be very, very scary in 2014.

The North belongs to Stanford until proven otherwise. The Cardinal's recipe for beating Oregon has yielded fruit for two years. But with Marcus Mariota back for another season, you certainly have to expect the Ducks to be a top-10 team. And Petersen’s arrival makes Washington an instant player for the division.

The best thing the Pac-12 can go is finish strong in the postseason, win its BCS bowl game and head into the playoff era with plenty of momentum.


Offensive MVP: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey
was arguably the most consistent skill player in college football this season, posting at least 100 yards in every game he played and finishing with 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns on 322 carries (5.3 average). He also caught 26 passes and a touchdown.

Defensive MVP: With 14 sacks, Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy was the Pac-12 and the national leader in getting at the quarterback. He also ranked third nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss. Murphy posted 58 total tackles, blocked a kick, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Newcomer of the year: Plenty of fantastic options, including ASU receiver Jaelen Strong and Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. But it was UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack who made the biggest splash. The Bruins' true freshman posted 70 tackles with five for a loss, an interception and two forced fumbles. He also blocked a kick. As a running back he carried 37 times for 269 yards with seven touchdowns.

Biggest surprise: Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said he thought the Cougars would start being a consistent winner by 2014. Coach Mike Leach had his own timetable. In just his second season in Pullman, Leach has the Cougars in a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- and they recorded a marquee win on the road at USC in Week 2 that ultimately helped them become bowl-eligible.

Biggest disappointment: There was no great redemption story for Lane Kiffin. In fact, the Trojans looked like a significantly improved team after he was removed from his coaching duties. Hopes were high that Kiffin would be able to turn the Trojans around after an abysmal 2012. But a 62-41 loss at ASU in Week 5 was the straw that broke the back of his fairly underwhelming tenure with the Trojans.

Best game: At the quarter pole, we went with Oregon State at Utah. At the midway post, we went with Oregon State at Utah. And now in the season wrap, we’re sticking with that. That game, now more than ever, spells out the importance of every single week. Oregon State would be home for the holidays without that dramatic 51-48 overtime victory. And because of said dramatic overtime defeat, the five-win Utes are out of the postseason again. From a pure tension and excitement level, that game was tough to beat.

SEC 2013 wrap

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That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.

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