A new era in college football has begun

Frank Scicchitano

The winds of change blew across the college football landscape this past season.  For the first time since 1998, the fate of the nation’s top teams was not left in the hands of the controversial BCS computer system. 

Instead, we, as fans, were treated to a refreshing and exciting playoff format that not only made the major bowl games more meaningful, but also changed the outlook of the entire season as well. 

While analysts and writers debated which teams deserved a spot in major college football’s inaugural version of a “final four”, players and coaches kept their focus on the National Championship trophy no matter how the postseason was formatted.

In addition to the success of the long-awaited playoff system, the 2014-15 season gave us plenty of exciting storylines that made this past season very special and have college football fans already looking forward to next year.

Here are some notable highlights from this past season that you may or may not have heard about as well as a few early predictions looking ahead to the 2015 season.

Freshman of the Year: Before quarterback J.T. Barrett went down with a knee injury in Ohio State’s final regular season game against Michigan, the redshirt freshman had put together an unforgettable season replacing former starter Braxton Miller, who was lost for the season after a shoulder injury in preseason camp.

Barrett accounted for 45 touchdowns before his injury and broke Miller’s school record for most total touchdowns by a quarterback in a season (36), which he set in 2013.

Although he was not on the field when Ohio State went on their improbable run to a national championship, Barrett was still a major reason that the Buckeyes were in a position to qualify for the College Football Playoff at the end of the regular season.

After losing to Virginia Tech in early September, Barrett led the Buckeyes to wins in his next ten starts with the offense averaging more than 47 points per game over that span.

Based on his production throughout the regular season, Barrett is the early favorite to win the starting quarterback job for Ohio State in 2015 and will certainly be in the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation.

Defensive MVP: With one of the most recognizable names in college football, Arizona’s sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III put together an impressive season that earned him the Bronco Nagurski award for the nation’s top defensive player as well as the Lombardi Award for best college lineman or linebacker.

Wright III led the nation with 29 tackles for a loss and finished second in total tackles and fourth in sacks.  As a whole, Arizona’s defense was nothing to write home about, but this young linebacker was the glue that held it together enough for the Wildcats to win the Pac-12 South and earn a bid to the conference title game.

Next season, Wright III will have a shot to once again establish himself as one of the nation’s top defensive players and could potentially be one of the top linebackers chosen in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Unsung Hero: Georgia running back Nick Chubb has Bulldog fans turning the page on former Heisman-hopeful Todd Gurley and looking into a very bright future.

Yes, Gurley was one of the most dominant running backs in the SEC, but his showcase season was halted by an off-the-field issue that resulted in him being suspended for four games in the heart of Georgia’s conference schedule.

Chubb shocked everyone when he took over for Gurley and rushed for 671 yards and five scores in his absence.

During the his return against Auburn, Gurley went down with a season-ending knee injury and Chubb came in to finish off the Tigers with 144 yards and two touchdowns.

His final act was a 266-yard thrashing of Louisville in Georgia’s bowl game.  Chubb finished just 17 yards shy of Herschel Walker’s school record for most rushing yards in a single game. 

Chubb is the latest example of the idea that every player on a team’s roster must be prepared to step in at any given time and be productive.  Behind a strong running game, Georgia will continue to contend in the SEC East.

“We were all fooled by…” Kenny Hill and Texas A&M.  The Aggies started the season with an impressive 52-28 victory over then-number-nine South Carolina, a game that saw Hill break former A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s single-game passing record by throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns.

The sophomore gained national attention from as he passed for over 1,700 yards and threw 17 touchdowns in his first five games as a starter.  Texas A&M raced off to a 5-0 start and was ranked as high as sixth in the country before dropping three straight games to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama respectively.

Hill threw six interceptions in the losses and eventually lost his starting job.  The Aggies finished the season 8-5 and proved how easily we can be deceived by a team’s weak non-conference schedule.

Worst Luck.  On November 15, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards as the Badgers defeated Nebraska 59-24.  That total set a new NCAA Division I FBS record for most rushing yards in a single game, breaking the previous record of 406 yards set in 1999 by TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson. 

Gordon’s record-breaking performance was one for the ages until it was topped a week later by Oklahoma freshman running back Samaje Perine, who shattered the mark set a week earlier by going for 427 yards against Kansas. 

To make matters worse, the Heisman Trophy finalist fell just 41 yards shy of Barry Sanders record for most rushing yards in a single season despite rushing for over 250 yards in the 2015 Outback Bowl, his final collegiate game.

Team to Watch.  TCU entered the 2014 unranked, but by the time the regular season came to a close, the Horned Frogs had played their way to a number six ranking and were very much in the conversation for the fourth spot in the College Football Playoff.

After being left out of the playoffs, TCU went into the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve with a chip on its shoulder and absolutely blasted Ole Miss.  Their defense swarmed the Rebels and held them to just 129 yards of total offense in the 42-3 rout.

Gary Peterson, a head coach known more for defense than offense, will have ten starters returning to an offensive unit that finished in the top five nationally.  Included in that list is quarterback Trevone Boykin, who amassed over 4,500 total yards and scored 41 touchdowns in his first full season as the starter.

TCU will be a preseason favorite to win the Big 12 conference in 2015 and could very well receive some votes for the number one spot in next season’s initial polls.

Team to Beat.  It is going to be hard to bet against the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2015.  Head Coach Urban Meyer will enter spring camp with three championship-caliber quarterbacks at his disposal, which should make for an intriguing competition in the offseason to see who will come away with the starting job.

In addition to outstanding depth at the skill positions on offense, superstar defensive lineman Joey Bosa will be returning to anchor the Buckeye’s defense and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Josh Perry, is eligible to return as well. 

Most importantly, Meyer’s success in just three seasons at Ohio State may be positioning the Buckeyes for a long-term run similar to what Alabama has endured under head coach Nick Saban.  He should have no trouble securing the top recruits in his home state of Ohio and his previous success at Utah and Florida give him an edge over other Big Ten coaches in recruiting in different parts of the country.

Ohio State needed third-string quarterback Cardale Jones to lead an improbable run at this season’s national championship, but 2015 will have a different feel in Columbus.  The Buckeyes’ talented young roster will now have plenty of big-game experience and they will now be expected to remain at the top of college football.

It will have a major target on its back, but Ohio State has an excellent shot to win college football’s second playoff championship next season.