What a season. College sports are known for their drama, and this football season had just that. You don’t even need to go back to the regular season to see it. This bowl season was one of the best in memory, and it was highlighted by probably the most competitive slate of BCS games in recent memory. The underdogs covered the spread in all five games, and the national championship was the only one that was won by the favorite.
Our title game participants weren’t even top ten squads in the preseason (showing once again why preseason bowls are useless), and UCF took its first foray into primetime. Missouri’s back in the national picture, South Carolina continues to succeed under the radar, and how about Michigan State. One of the best things about college sports today is that anyone can find its way to the top in any given year, and that happened once again.
So long to the BCS, but thanks for the parting gift. Now, on to the rankings.
- Florida State (14-0, 9-0; W 34-31 vs. Auburn): The conversations would’ve been a lot different if not for a 1:06 touchdown drive in the final minute-and-a-half of the last BCS Championship. Jameis Winston didn’t look like a Heisman Trophy winner most of the game, but he did what he had to do on that last drive (and really a lot of the 4th Quarter), making sure this Florida State team goes down as one of the best ever. Strength of schedule questions were the only thing that dogged the team, but they answered with a win against the clear number two team in the country. What more can you do?
- Auburn (12-2, 8-1; L 34-31 vs. Florida State): Any doubts about Auburn’s candidacy were answered with the effort they put in at the Rose Bowl. Tre Mason very well might be the true best player in the country, and he showed it with his start to finish mauling of the previously unshakeable Florida State defense. Auburn looked like a team of destiny for stretches of the last two months, and they’ll go down as a great team and an impressive comeback story.
- Michigan State (13-1, 9-0; W 24-20 vs. Stanford): Before the Spartans played Ohio State, few really knew just how good they were. Even after that game, the Buckeyes doubters discounted the B1G Championship. There’s no doubting them now. They beat an extremely strong Stanford team in an old school Rose Bowl, and they proved their legitimacy as a top team of 2013. You have to wonder what might have been had they not lost to a good but not great squad from Notre Dame.
- South Carolina (11-2, 6-2; W 34-24 vs. Wisconsin): The Gamecocks are a victim of their own conference. They’ve won eleven games in three straight seasons, a feat only four other teams can currently claim (Alabama, Northern Illinois, Oregon, Stanford), and they’re the only one of those that didn’t play in a BCS bowl game. They were challenged by a ready-to-go Wisconsin team, but they got to eleven wins once again, and they’re rewarded with the best ranking in school history.
- Missouri (12-2, 7-2; W 41-31 vs. Oklahoma State): If they hadn’t proved it yet, and they should have in the SEC Championship game, the Tigers showed that they were a legitimate force in 2013. Missouri succeeded first and foremost with a fast and strong defensive front, very SEC of them. In the Cotton Bowl they battled with Oklahoma State before that d-line caused the decisive strip sack, fumble return touchdown to clinch it.
- Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2; W 45-31 vs. Alabama): After the Sooners were dominated by Texas in the Red River Rivalry, no one could have guessed where they were headed. Bob Stoops has a way of quietly getting “bad” Oklahoma teams to 10 or 11 wins, though, and Oklahoma State and Alabama would argue there wasn’t too much bad about this squad. It will be interesting to watch the development of Quarterback Trevor Knight. He nearly matched his stats for the season in the dominant Sugar Bowl win against the Tide.
- UCF (12-1, 8-0; W 52-42 vs. Baylor): Include me among the converted doubters. The Knights had a real tendency in 2013 to play to the level of their competition. They had an impressive comeback to beat Louisville, but they also barely got by horrible teams like Temple, USF and SMU. You didn’t see any of those versions in the Fiesta Bowl. No, that UCF team was one of the nation’s best, and they showed that Baylor wasn’t quite ready for primetime this year. The Knights, whose program started in 1979, are the youngest BCS winner.
- Clemson (11-2, 7-1; W 40-35 vs. Ohio State): The script sure is changing for Clemson. Known as a team that can’t win a big game, the Tigers have victories over LSU, Georgia and Ohio State in the last year. Sure, they were soundly beaten in their two losses, but those two teams were also two of the best in the country. Dabo Swinney’s squad is losing the stigma of always dropping a game to a bad team too, and they’re getting better at stepping up to the big challenges. Now if they can snap that five-game losing streak to South Carolina they’ll fully be taken seriously.
- Alabama (11-2, 7-1; L 45-31 vs. Oklahoma): As many people said all year, this Alabama team just wasn’t as good as versions in the past. Were they still a great team? Absolutely. They are finishing in the top ten after all. The high point was the dominant win against LSU, but the defense just wasn’t up to par with the national championship squads. It was exposed against Texas A&M, and Oklahoma’s untested quarterback, Trevor Knight, did the same in the Sugar Bowl.
- Baylor (11-2, 8-1; L 52-42 vs. UCF): A very good team, just not a great one. Baylor had the best offense in college football, but the defense wasn’t able to get the job done when it really needed to. Let’s be honest, though. The Bears were a laughing stock just a few years ago, and now they’re one of the nation’s top ten. The strides they’ve made under Art Briles are impressive. The defense plays with a nastiness that borders on dirty at times, and if they put a little more effort into tackling technique it would make a big difference.
- Ohio State (12-2, 8-1; L 40-35 vs. Clemson): The Buckeyes were exactly what everyone wanted them to be. They were a good team with a weak schedule, and they couldn’t pull it out in the two biggest games of the season. Braxton Miller played extremely tough when he was obviously injured in the Orange Bowl, but even he wasn’t able to overcome a depleted and already awful defense. Urban Meyer will miss Carlos Hyde at running back next year, but the program is still on the way back up.
- Oregon (11-2, 7-2; W 30-7 vs. Texas): The Ducks actually showed up for the Alamo Bowl, something many weren’t sure they would do. When it seemed clear they had no national title shot it seemed like Oregon took the foot off the gas pedal. That cost them a spot in the Pac 12 Championship and probably a BCS game for a fifth straight year. Oregon isn’t going away, but it needs to figure out how to take that final step to win a championship.
- Stanford (11-3, 8-2; L 24-20 vs. Michigan State): The Cardinal are churning out 11-win seasons, but they still haven’t got that title shot. They just seem to have some kind of letdown every year. This year it was Utah and USC, last year it was Washington. If David Shaw can get them up for every game the way they do against Oregon we’ll see Stanford play for a title yet.
- Louisville (12-1, 6-1; W 36-9 vs. Miami): One bad half was likely all that stood between Louisville and a spot in the national championship. Imagine that for a second. The voters were excited for that half, no doubt. Just like Ohio State, many felt the Cardinals were nowhere near worthy of playing for the national title, and they were probably right. This was still a very good team though, and they showed it in a bowl game beat down of Miami.
- Oklahoma State (10-3, 7-2; L 41-31 vs. Missouri): The Cowboys were simply outgunned in the Cotton Bowl. In an exciting bowl season, Oklahoma State-Missouri was one of the best we saw, and Mike Gundy’s team just didn’t have enough to get the job done. This team will likely be favored to win the Big 12 next year, and they would have done it this year without a confusing loss to West Virginia.
- LSU (10-3, 5-3; W 21-14 vs. Iowa): It’s amazing how 10-3 can seem like a bad season. The Tigers have been so good lately that this seemed like a down year at LSU. Had Zach Mettenberger played the bowl game, they likely would have dominated Iowa, but they still got the win, and the school got yet another double digit win season (plus a win over Auburn).
- UCLA (10-3, 6-3; W 42-12 vs. Virginia Tech): I undervalued the Bruins most of the season, but I think this is about where they belong. Jim Mora’s teams has been playing little brother to USC for awhile now, but they proved this year, both in record and head-to-head, that the tables have turned in the battle of Los Angeles. UCLA will continue to challenge for the Pac 12 North, and they had one of the year’s most intriguing stories in LB/RB Myles Jack.
- Wisconsin (9-4, 7-2; L 34-24 vs. South Carolina): The Badgers definitely seem like better than a four-loss team. Of course, that’s because their losses came to South Carolina, Ohio State and Arizona State (though that was very much thanks to a referee mistake). Take out an inexplicable loss to Penn State, and Wisconsin would be more highly respected. They took the Gamecocks and Buckeyes down to the wire, and their power running attack won’t go away.
- Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4; W 52-48 vs. Duke): The Legend of Johnny Football just used bowl season to write a new chapter. You can’t say Johnny Manziel doesn’t play well under the bright lights. Two of his best regular season games were his two match ups with Alabama, and his two bowl game performances were unreal as well. This time he brought the Aggies back from a 38-17 halftime deficit, and he did so once again despite his horrible defense.
- Duke (10-4, 6-3; L 52-48 vs. Texas A&M): Even in a loss, the performance Duke gave in the Chick-fil-A bowl legitimized them as one of the better teams of 2013. There were some doubts about the Blue Devils, especially after their blow out loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship, but they answered a lot of those questions in keeping up with Texas A&M. David Cutcliffe has something going at Duke, and it would be kind of a shame if he left for another job.
- Texas Tech (8-5; W 37-23 vs. Arizona State): What a way to end the year for Kliff Kingsbury’s team. After a 7-0 start, Tech lost to the best of the Big 12, then rallied for a dominant win against one of the Pac 12’s best in the Holiday Bowl. The Red Raiders are in good hands with their coach, but they still have some work to do in order to compete with the best teams in the conference.
- Arizona State (10-4, 8-2; L 37-23 vs. Texas Tech): The Sun Devils have a bit of a reputation as a team that loses games it isn’t supposed to, but this year was different. Arizona State played well and advanced to the Pac 12 Championship. The biggest letdown: their performance in the Holiday Bowl. Texas Tech lost five straight on its way to that game, but the Red Raiders dominated them from start to finish.
- USC (9-4, 5-3; W 45-20 vs. Fresno State): Talk about a weird season at USC. The Trojans got off to an awful start with Lane Kiffin, he was fired, and everything got better. USC’s dormant offense came out of hibernation under Ed Orgeron, and an 8-4 record seemed like a minor miracle. Then, even with Orgeron’s departure before the bowl game, the Trojans rallied together and whipped Fresno State.
- Notre Dame (9-4; W 29-16 vs. Rutgers): Say what you want about the Irish, but they did beat three teams ranked ahead of them in the polls. The losses aren’t bad either for the most part. Oklahoma and Stanford were two of the four, proving Notre Dame wasn’t the bunch of bums they were made out to be. Of course, they weren’t exactly challenged in a bowl game win over 6-6 Rutgers.
- Washington (9-4; W 31-16 vs. BYU): The head coach left for USC. The new coach is an established winner at Boise State. Regardless, the Huskies manhandled the same BYU team that set records in their dominant win over Texas. Washington’s on the right track, and I’d be surprised if they don’t keep improving in the coming years.
Others in consideration: Nebraska (9-4; W 24-19 vs. Georgia); Vanderbilt (9-4; W 41-24 vs. Houston); Texas (8-5, 7-2; L 30-7 vs. Oregon); Northern Illinois (12-2, 8-1; L 21-14 vs. Utah State); Georgia (8-5, 5-3; L 24-19 vs. Nebraska)