Commentary

'Tis the season for end-of-year awards

Originally Published: December 6, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The BMOC is in a giving, end-of-the-regular-season awards kind of mood …

20. Coach of the year

The finalists:

Kevin Sumlin, Houston -- Sumlin's team began the season unranked, unnoticed and unknown. The Sagarin computer ratings had the Cougars at No. 68. They were coming off a 5-7 season. Nobody outside the Houston city limits could name a player on the team other than sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum. That was a 12-1 record ago.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles has smoothly navigated his Tigers through a number of issues both on and off the field this season.

Les Miles, LSU -- Bar fights, arrests, bail bondsmen. An episode of "Dog The Bounty Hunter"? No, the first week of LSU's season. Not only did the Mad Hatter steer his program through a law-enforcement mess that saw starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson suspended indefinitely for his role in a parking lot fight, he then led the Tigers to a win against then-No. 3 Oregon. There was other off-the-field ridiculousness, including the suspension of star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu for failing a drug test. But despite it all, Miles led LSU past everyone on the Tigers' big-boy schedule: Oregon, at West Virginia, Auburn, at Alabama, Arkansas and the SEC championship against Georgia (at Atlanta, by the way -- a hunker-down-you-hairy-Dawgs gathering place).

Lane Kiffin, USC -- The Trojans weren't eligible for the Pac-12 title game or a bowl game. And who knew whether USC athletic director Pat Haden was even that crazy about Kiffin? They barely beat a dreadful Minnesota team, had to hold their breath against Utah, later lost to Arizona State, held on against a below-average Arizona squad … and then applied the afterburners to become one of the best teams in the country during the second half of the season. A 10-2 record (they also lost to Stanford in triple overtime) when you have zilch to play for? Impressive.

Brady Hoke, Michigan -- A 5-0 start in 2010, followed by a 2-6 finish (a 37-7 loss to Ohio State) and the dismissal of Rich Rodriguez. Hoke arrives and the Wolverines go 10-2, beat Ohio State and go from the 77th-ranked team in scoring defense a season ago to seventh-best in 2011 (17.17 points per game this season vs. 33.83 ppg last season). Someone made a difference, and that someone was Hoke and his staff.

Mark Richt, Georgia -- Wrote an Atlanta columnist after the Bulldogs began the year with losses against Boise State and South Carolina: "[I]t will take a miraculous finishing kick for the Bulldogs to have a successful season and possibly save Richt's job. What does that amount to? Try 9-1 in the next 10 games … [I]f the Bulldogs do anything less than win the SEC East, which may take a 9-1 finish, Georgia may make a change." Richt and UGA didn't go 9-1 to finish the regular season; they went 10-0 and won the SEC East. And there's no dishonor in losing to No. 1 LSU in the SEC championship.

Bill Snyder, Kansas State -- Not only were the Wildcats not ranked in the preseason polls, they weren't in "Others receiving votes." At 10-2, they're receiving them now, aren't they?

Al Golden, Miami -- Would Golden have taken this job had he been told the full depth of UM booster scandal? Golden stayed put and squeezed six wins out of a program that began the season in total disarray.

Luke Fickell, Ohio State -- The first-time head coach was put in a near-impossible situation, what with the fallout from Jim Tressel's dismissal, player suspensions and the cloud of NCAA investigations. Fickell did the good-soldier thing and did it well.

The winner: Miles.

19. Worst use of social media

The finalists:

Jeff Toole, Texas A&M senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer -- Using the screen name, UtayAg, and thinking he was doing so anonymously on the fan website TexAgs.com, Toole ripped into school president R. Bowen Loftin, this past summer, calling him a "hopelessly underqualified puppet" and a "putz." However, according to the San Antonio Express, Toole forgot that he had identified himself a year earlier on the site. Oops. Toole was outed by another poster, issued a public apology Nov. 29 ("I know better and it was a very serious lapse in judgment." Gee, you think?) and was disciplined by A&M AD Bill Byrne, but wasn't fired.

Terrelle Pryor, former Ohio State quarterback -- When news of Tattoogate (the selling of OSU-provided merchandise for cash and tattoos -- an NCAA no-no) became public last December, Pryor tweeted: "I paid for my tattoos. GoBucks." The tweet disappeared from Pryor's Twitter page soon afterward. In June, Pryor disappeared from Ohio State, forgoing his senior year for the NFL supplemental draft.

Byrne, Texas A&M AD -- Tweeted Byrne during the Aggies' visit to Texas Tech for the Oct. 8 game: "Someone vandalized our buses in Lubbock. Excrement inside and outside of buses plus spray painted vulgarities on outside. Classy." Texas Tech officials later called Byrne's tweet "careless," and said washable shoe polish was used on the windows of one bus (later removed and cleaned) and that fish bait, not excrement, was found (and removed) from the floor of a bus.

The winner: In a landslide, Toole (If the name fits …).

18. Vegas moment of the year

The finalist:

[+] EnlargeUSC sideline reacts to the game-ending blocked kick
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillMass confusion on the field led to mass confusion in the sportsbooks.

Utah vs. USC at the Coliseum. Final play in regulation. Eight-and-a-half-point underdog Utah lines up for a game-tying 41-yard field goal.

Coleman Petersen's kick goes up … and it's blocked by USC Matt Kalil! Torin Harris picks up the ball and returns it for a Trojans touchdown! Bedlam ensues as the USC bench rushes from the sideline and mobs Harris in the end zone. USC wins 23-14.

But wait. The Trojans are penalized for excessive celebration, meaning the TD is disallowed. Final score: 17-14.

I covered that game. My first two thoughts when I looked at the scoreboard: (1) really? They negated the TD because of a celebration call? (2) can you imagine if you were in Vegas and had bet on USC to cover the spread? That penalty just cost you a winning ticket.

Las Vegas sports books paid off the Utah tickets. But two hours later, the Pac-12 office reversed the ruling, saying it was an unenforceable dead ball foul and that the USC touchdown should have counted. Final score: 23-14.

USC bettors rushed back to sports books. Some books paid off the bets, others didn't.

17. Upset of the year

The finalists:

Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (2OT) -- The Cowboys, ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings and positioned perfectly for a national championship appearance, were 27-point favorites against Iowa State. Instead, they committed five turnovers, lost the game and ultimately blew their chance for a Jan. 9 title matchup against LSU.

Texas Tech 41, Oklahoma 38 -- OU was ranked No. 3 and owned a 39-game home win streak. Tech had given up a combined 89 points the previous two weeks in losses to Texas A&M and Kansas State. So, of course, Red Raiders quarterback Seth Doege threw for 441 yards and four touchdowns as Tech outdid the Sooners in almost every statistical category. Following the victory, Tech lost its next five games and was outscored 264-102.

South Florida 23, Notre Dame 20 -- Not only did the 16th-ranked Fighting Irish lose their season opener at home, but they lost it to former ND player and assistant coach, Skip Holtz, whose old man, Lou Holtz, has a statue at Notre Dame Stadium. On the plus side, America was treated to new and interesting shades of red and purple as ND coach Brian Kelly screamed at his players.

The winner: Iowa State.

16. Flop of the year

The finalists:

Illinois -- A 6-0 start, an 0-6 finish and walking papers for coach Ron Zook.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireTexas A&M's late-game collapses cost coach Mike Sherman his job.

Texas A&M -- Ranked No. 8 in the preseason AP poll and No. 9 in the coaches' poll, the Aggies finished 6-6, including losses in four of their last five games. Four of those six defeats came in games in which A&M blew halftime leads of nine points or more. A week after the season-ending loss to Texas (A&M led 16-7 at halftime), Sherman was fired.

Mississippi State -- So much for being a factor in the SEC race this season. The Bulldogs finished 6-6 overall and 1-4 in the West Division (thank you, Ole Miss).

Texas Tech -- The Red Raiders were 5-2 on Oct. 23 -- and never won again.

West Virginia -- Suing the Big East? Really?

Maryland -- Nobody picked the Terrapins to win a national title, or even the ACC. But a 2-10 record under first-year coach Randy Edsall, including one of the great second-half collapses of all time in the season-ending loss at North Carolina State? Brutal.

The winner: Maryland.

15. Flop of the year (non-team division)

The finalists:

The Big East -- Member defections. Reduced to rattling tin cup in Boise, Idaho. No team with 10 wins. Doesn't deserve automatic BCS bowl invitation. Isn't it great to be commissioner John Marinatto?

Conference realignment -- In most cases, no loyalties, no conscience and no shame.

The BCS -- So in review, every regular-season game didn't count, did it?

The winner: BCS.

14. Comeback of the year

The finalists:

North Carolina State -- Down 41-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter of its game against Maryland, the Wolfpack scored 42 consecutive points and won 56-41. It was the greatest comeback in school history and second-best in ACC history.

[+] EnlargeKeenum
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesCase Keenum's return to the field this season was a major victory for the Houston star.

Case Keenum, Houston -- Until the NCAA granted Keenum a sixth year of eligibility (who says the lugs in Indianapolis don't have hearts?), Keenum figured his college career ended in the Rose Bowl, against UCLA, on Sept. 19, 2010. That's the day he tore the ACL in his right knee while trying to make a tackle after an interception. Two months later he attended UH's senior day on crutches. But thanks to the NCAA ruling, Keenum leads or has broken just about every meaningful passing record this season. "It's going to be a great year," he told the Associated Press, after learning of the NCAA decision this past January. He wasn't kidding. The loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship was a major downer, but at least he ended his career at home with -- ta-da! -- a touchdown pass.

Northern Illinois -- Down 20-0 at halftime, the Huskies tied the game with less than 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter and then won the game (and the MAC championship) on a last-second field goal.

Almost anybody who played Texas A&M -- and that's why Mike Sherman is getting a buyout.

The winner: Keenum.

13. Class act of the year

The finalists:

UCLA players -- This past Wednesday, after their final practice of the regular season was complete, the Bruins hoisted lame-duck coach Rick Neuheisel on their shoulders and carried him off the field. Neuheisel had been fired two days earlier after a 6-6 finish and a 50-0 loss to crosstown rival USC. As he was carried off the field, Neuheisel playfully spelled out "U-C-L-A" with his arms. But when later asked about the players' heartfelt gesture, he had to pause to compose himself.

Sherman -- According to the Austin American-Statesman, Sherman was informed of his firing by Texas A&M shortly before a scheduled home recruiting visit with Houston-area quarterback Matt Davis of Klein Forest High School. Sherman still took the time to call Davis, tell him he had been dismissed and then offered a piece of advice. Tweeted Davis about the call: "Coach Sherman just almost brought me to tears. The one thing I love about him is he said, 'Matt, A&M is a great place and I still think you should go there and do great things.' A true man."

The Heisman candidates -- There's an "I" in Heisman, but you never heard it from this year's group of star players. From Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, to Stanford's Andrew Luck, to Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, to Boise State's Kellen Moore, to Alabama's Trent Richardson, to Wisconsin's Montee Ball, to USC's Matt Barkley, to Baylor's Robert Griffin III, to Oklahoma's Landry Jones, to Oregon's LaMichael James, to Houston's Keenum and others -- they all lettered in humility. Best of all, they were sincere about it.

The winner: the Bruins.

12. Worst prediction of the year

The finalists:

Me -- In the preseason podcast with Ivan Maisel, I said Florida quarterback John Brantley would be this season's breakout player. Instead, the fifth-year senior was in and out of the lineup with injuries, threw for just 1,912 yards and 10 touchdowns. Not surprisingly, Florida finished 6-6.

Me -- Also in the preseason podcast, I said the Dec. 3 OU-versus-Oklahoma State matchup would be the game of the season. Turns out it really didn't mean squat in the national championship equation.

Me -- Here's the problem with podcasts: Nobody erases the contents. So apparently I said Notre Dame was "for real" and that the preseason hype surrounding the Fighting Irish was deserved. What I meant to say is that Notre Dame would win eight games, beat only one team (Michigan State) in the top 25 of the BCS standings and play in another non-BCS bowl.

The winner: me.

11. Best prediction of the year

The finalist:

It's not much, but I did say on the preseason podcast that USC would beat Oregon at Eugene, that Georgia would surprise us and, in my absolute stone-cold lock, that Luck would not return to Stanford for his senior season.

[+] EnlargeMaryland uniforms
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesBoth Maryland's uniforms and its play on the field this season were widely panned.

10. Worst uniforms of the year

The finalists:

UCLA -- Unveiled for the USC game, the all-white unis inspired the Bruins to a 50-0 loss.

Maryland -- It's like someone painted a Rorschach test on the Terps.

Georgia -- It will take years of hypnosis therapy to forget what the Bulldogs wore in the opener against Boise State. Memo to UGA: Never mess with uni perfection. You looked like the cast from "Tron."

The winner: Maryland.

9. Best defensive player of the year

The finalists:

Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback, LSU -- Mathieu is 5 feet, 9 inches of Mohawk, attitude and playmaking skills that force you to breathe slowly into a brown paper bag.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Boston College -- He leads the planet in tackles. The tackling dummies at BC can't wait until he graduates.

Devon Still, defensive tackle, Penn State -- Seventeen tackles for losses. A tidy 4½ sacks. In this strange, bizarre Nittany Lions season, Still's performances are worth remembering.

The winner: Mathieu.

8. Best game of the year

The finalists:

Stanford 56, USC 48 (3 OTs) -- Watch Andrew Luck throw a crucial, potentially game-losing interception that USC returned for a TD with 3:08 left in regulation. Watch Luck drive Stanford 76 yards for the game-tying score with 38 seconds remaining. Watch Luck and USC quarterback Matt Barkley combine for 614 yards and seven touchdowns.

Kansas State 53, Texas A&M 50 (4 OTs) -- Collin Klein accounted for six K-State TDs in the comeback win.

North Carolina State 56, Maryland 41 -- I repeat: the Wolfpack scored 42 consecutive points in less than 21 minutes.

Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 -- Hail, Denard Robinson, who threw the game-winning TD pass with 2 seconds left to play. Hail, coach Brady Hoke for going for the win instead of the game-tying field goal.

TCU 36, Boise State 35 -- For the second year in a row, a missed field goal cost the Broncos a chance at an undefeated season and a possible BCS championship run.

Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (2 OTs) -- The night OSU's national championship hopes ended.

Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7 -- The Wildcats broke a 26-game losing streak to UT -- and did it with a wide receiver making his first college start at quarterback.

LSU 9, Alabama 6 (OT) -- Just kidding.

The winner: Iowa State over Oklahoma State.

7. Best play of the year

The finalists:

[+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State's Hail Mary to beat Wisconsin was the play of the season.

Hail Mary I -- Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins' desperation throw into the end zone bounced off the face mask of MSU's B.J. Cunningham and into the hands of former backup QB Keith Nichol, who bullied the ball across the plane of the goal line for the 37-31 victory against Wisconsin.

Hail Mary II -- Wisconsin was done in again by a long, last-seconds pass from Ohio State freshman Braxton Miller to freshman wide receiver Devin Smith. The 40-yard heave with 20 seconds remaining gave the Buckeyes a 33-29 win -- and gave the Badgers back-to-back heartbreaking defeats.

The Interception -- Bama's Michael Williams had the ball -- and maybe a go-ahead touchdown -- when LSU safety Eric Reid somehow wrestled the ball away from the Crimson Tide tight end as they fell to the turf at the Tigers' 1-yard line. The interception came with the score tied 6-6 and about 11 minutes left to play.

Honey Badger -- Anything involving Mathieu and a punt return.

The winner: Hail Mary I.

6. Most inexplicable losses of the year

The finalists:

Texas Tech 41, Oklahoma 38 -- Let's face it, this wasn't one of the Sooners' vintage defensive teams, but still …

SMU 40, TCU 33 (OT) -- And the Mustangs won it at TCU.

UAB 34, Southern Miss 31 -- Yes, the same Southern Miss team that just crushed Houston in the C-USA conference championship. And yes, the same UAB team that later fired coach Neil Callaway.

Florida Atlantic 38, UAB 35 -- And this was one of the reasons he got fired. FAU finished 1-11 this season.

The winner: UAB over Southern Miss.

5. Story of the year

The finalists:

Luck stiff-arms the NFL and returns to Stanford -- He would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He would have been Cam Newton and the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. And he probably would have been miserable. Luck wanted to live his age. He wanted to spend another season on The Farm as Joe College. You can't blame him for that. In fact, you ought to give him a standing O.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Greg Ashman/Icon SMIJoe Paterno's tenure at Penn State came to a shocking end this season.

Penn State fires Joe Paterno -- The news of his unceremonious dismissal (done over the phone) still boggles the mind. JoePa fired? JoePa? A distinguished, history-making coaching career was done in by self-admitted inaction and a clumsy, ill-conceived power play. Paterno spent 46 seasons as the Nittany Lions' head coach and won more games than anyone in major college football history. But Paterno, by his own admission, said he didn't do enough after learning of child molestation allegations involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno sealed his own fate when he attempted to dictate his departure terms to the school's board of trustees.

BCS system -- There are three scenarios that have always haunted the BCS: (A) a regular season that ends with multiple undefeated teams; (B) a regular season that ends with one unbeaten but multiple one-loss teams, and (C) a split national championship. This year we got B, as well as the first real indication that the BCS, as we know it, might be undergoing major reconstructive surgery in the future. Undefeated LSU made it easy on one side of the BCS championship bracket, but the other side became an awkward, inexact and unfortunate beauty pageant between one-loss Alabama and Oklahoma State. (Minutes after OSU beat OU late Saturday night, an email from the school's sports information office pinged in: Please find attached some key facts on Oklahoma State and why the Cowboys deserve to play in the BCS title game.) And has Stanford coach David Shaw mentioned lately that he doesn't understand why the Cardinal is ranked behind OSU? So we end up with an LSU-Bama rematch and confirmation that the BCS, for all its good intentions, has flaws that can't be fixed -- no matter how many times it goes under the knife.

The winner: Paterno firing.

4. Worst call of the year

The finalists:

Toledo 30, Syracuse 29 -- Oops, that's what the score should have been. Instead, both the on-field refs and the replay officials in the booth must have had their corneas removed before the game. That's the only explanation for them botching a Syracuse late extra-point attempt that clearly was outside the upright.

The game went to overtime, where -- sigh -- Syracuse "won" 33-30.

Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17 -- Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino ripped the refs for a pass interference call that … Wait, what am I doing? Nothing can top the Toledo-Syracuse call.

The winner: Botched extra-point call.

3. Toughest vote of the year

The finalists:

The Heisman Trophy -- Choose the most outstanding player in the country.

The Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award -- Choose the college football-related person who displayed the most courage on or off the field, including overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster or living through hardship. Rutgers' Eric LeGrand was the 2010 presentee, so that should give you an idea of how amazing these people are. This year's nominees are: Middle Tennessee State's Shane Blissard and the MTSU athletic trainer (Robbie Stewart) who saved his life after the walk-on suffered a ruptured spleen during a tackle; Alabama's Carson Tinker, who survived a tornado that took the life of his girlfriend, destroyed his house and threw him 100 yards into a field; Texas' Blaine Irby, who returned to football after suffering a "limb-threatening" knee injury three years ago that had doctors saying he had a less than 5 percent chance of ever walking normally; Florida's David Lerner, who won the starting punting job and a scholarship despite battling the debilitating effects of Crohn's disease (a gastrointestinal disorder that ravages the digestive tract); Miami's Michael James, whose life was turned upside down when his 47-year-old mother was killed in a car accident; Michigan State's Arthur Ray Jr., who returned to the field this season after battling bone cancer in his left leg the previous four years; and Missouri Western's Shane Simpson and Jack Long, who rescued a 17-month boy from a locked car on a 95-degree day as the child vomited and began to lose consciousness. The child survived.

The winner: any of those Courage Award nominees.

2. Player of the year (aka my Heisman ballot)

The more I researched their stats, their seasons, their schedules and their intangibles, the more I realized there aren't any wrong answers here. You can make a compelling, legitimate case for more than a half-dozen players this season. That's why this was one of the most difficult Heisman ballots I've ever had to complete.

The finalists:

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireTrent Richardson has carried Alabama to the national championship game.

Ball, Wisconsin -- His touchdowns and rushing yards (against quality opponents, by the way) are remarkable.

Barkley, USC -- Barkley was good enough to become the first player to win a Heisman while his team was under NCAA sanctions.

Griffin III, Baylor -- His skills and performances are electric. And the guy is tougher than three-day-old chicken-fried steak.

Keenum, Houston -- I'm not going to lie: Keenum didn't play his best in the loss against Southern Miss. But his season and career numbers were no fluke. "System" quarterback? Give me a break. You've still got to have talent to run the system, right?

Luck, Stanford -- Can you be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the heir apparent to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and not win the Heisman?

Mathieu, LSU -- The one-game suspension didn't help, but find me another player who scares opposing coaches more than this guy.

Moore, Boise State -- I didn't forget you, KM.

Richardson, Alabama -- YouTube his run against Ole Miss earlier this season. Or his game against LSU. And remember, he put up these numbers without Bama having much of a passing game.

The winner: (in order on my ballot) Richardson, Ball, Luck.

1. Team of the year (pre-bowls)

10 -- Wisconsin
Rose Bowl-bound Badgers petitioning NCAA for rare "Can't We Have Russell Wilson For One More Season, Pretty Please?" exemption.

9. Boise State
One point separated the Broncos from an undefeated season and -- who knows? -- maybe a BCS championship appearance.

8. TCU
And these are the guys who ended Boise's undefeated season. I probably should have had Gary Patterson on that earlier list of coach of the year finalists. Consider this a makeup call.

7. Oregon
Probably too high, but I've got a soft spot for things that quack.

[+] EnlargeCollin Klein
Scott Sewell/US PresswireCollin Klein and Bill Snyder made Kansas State a force to be reckoned with this season.

6. Kansas State
Based on talent, are the Wildcats the sixth-best team in the country? No way. But I wouldn't want to play them.

5. Stanford
Luck's final season at Stanford and Shaw's first as its head coach was a combo to remember.

4. USC
I know, the Trojans lost to Stanford. Deal with it. What I wouldn't give to see these guys play LSU.

3. Oklahoma State
I've become a huge Mike Gundy admirer this season. Or should I say, "I'm a fan!"

2. Alabama
If the Tide stinks it up in The Rematch, then me and Nick Saban have some 'splaining to do.

1. LSU
If the Tigers played the Indy Colts right now, what do you think the spread would be?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter