One dynasty dethroned in shocking fashion. Another perhaps reclaiming former glory. A new team of destiny. Another pretender exposed at the 11th hour.
The first step into the playoff era is a year away, so fans will have to make do with another postseason filled with bowl games – mostly of the consolation variety. While the BCS finale between undefeated Florida State and surprising Auburn has potential, the other bowls will have to work hard to live up to what was an outstanding regular season.
Around here, it’s largely the Big 4-Big Ten bowl challenge.
Clemson – despite demoralizing losses to Florida State and South Carolina – drew our region’s only major bowl slot, getting a marquee showdown with an Ohio State team that seemed destined (until late Saturday) for the BCS title game. The only other time these programs faced each other was when a frustrated Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes got himself fired for punching Clemson’s Charlie Bauman after his interception sealed the Tigers’ win in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Is it too much to hope for the unlikable Urban Meyer to repeat history?
South Carolina will make its sixth appearance since 2001 in the seemingly interchangeable Capital One/Outback Bowl, this time against Wisconsin. Perhaps Jadeveon Clowney can deliver another bone-shuddering hit on his way to the NFL.
Georgia drew an unsatisfactory bowl rematch with an underwhelming Nebraska team in the Gator Bowl. The only new wrinkle is that Hutson Mason will be trying to do what Aaron Murray did last year.
Georgia Tech pulled the short straw and got one of the SEC’s weakest bowl eligible teams (Ole Miss) in Music City.
With all that coming after a month-long layoff, let’s continue to savor a memorable season that was:
MOST EXCITING TEAM: Hands down, it was Georgia, thanks in large combination to a gritty offense and a dreadful defense. Only three games all season were not up for grabs late in the fourth quarter and two went to overtime. The Bulldogs rallied from deficits of 20 (Auburn and Georgia Tech) and 18 (Missouri) and blew leads of 20 (Florida), 14 (Tennessee) and 13 (Vanderbilt). Then there were the ebb-and-flow shootouts with Clemson, South Carolina and Louisiana State. Never a dull moment against eight bowl-bound foes.
TOP COMEBACK: Georgia Tech rallied from down 20-7 to beat North Carolina, proving the triple-option wasn’t just for leaders. Georgia climbed from a gaping 20-0 hole on the road behind its backup quarterback to win in double overtime at Georgia Tech. But the most dramatic and meaningful comeback was when Connor Shaw came off the bench with a sprained knee and South Carolina trailing 17-0 late in a must-win at No. 5 Missouri. Shaw engineered three fourth-quarter scoring drives as the Gamecocks won 27-24 in double overtime.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Georgia Tech’s season went down the wrong path when it failed (again) to figure out how to beat even a mediocre Virginia Tech. The most heralded Palmetto showdown devolved into a dud as Clemson seemed to grow increasingly scared of spiralling rivalry failure. But the biggest letdown of all was the instantaneous collapse of the No. 3 Tigers against No. 5 Florida State that transformed Death Valley from ground-shaking to crickets.
WORST LOSS: There are really only two choices here and they happened almost simultaneously in Tennessee. Thanks to a couple of dubious targeting penalties and four turnovers in the final 15:19, Georgia choked away a late lead at Vanderbilt. But ultimately the more significant defeat was South Carolina yielding two fourth-quarter field goals to lose 23-21 at Tennessee. The first win over a ranked team by the Vols in 19 tries since 2009 ended up costing the Gamecocks the SEC East title.
BEST GAME: You couldn’t have asked for a better opener than the 38-35 Georgia-Clemson thriller. The Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry showdown was loaded with drama. But the all-time classic was the 44-41 Georgia-LSU battle between former teammates Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger when the two teams basically alternated scoring on 11 consecutive possessions until the Bulldogs finally stopped Mettenberger on fourth down in the final minute to end it.
MEMORABLE MOMENT: It’s hard to have a better walk-off collegiate moment than former Augusta Christian star William Banks breaking 53 yards to set up Georgia Southern’s winning touchdown against Florida in the Eagles’ final game before moving up to Division I-A. But nothing can beat the 109-yard missed field goal return by Auburn’s Chris Davis with no time left to end Alabama’s dynasty quest.
UNFORGETTABLE LOWLIGHT: If Auburn ends up winning the BCS title next month, they can thank Georgia linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons for helping deliver it to the Tigers. Harvey-Clemons tipped a surely failed fourth-and-18 pass away from teammate Trey Matthews and straight into the hands of Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis for a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left. I called it the “Alley-Oops” but folks on the Plains are hailing it as the “Immaculate Deflection.”
BEST SENIOR: This has to be a three-way tie between arguably the three best quarterbacks to ever play at Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia. Tajh Boyd was mostly magnificent at Clemson, but failing to never beat the Gamecocks will weigh heavy. Connor Shaw was the ultimate gamer for the Gamecocks, proving better than we ever thought he could be. And Aaron Murray was a classy competitor who never quit until his knee gave out after breaking most SEC passing records despite never winning a championship. This region’s fans never had it so good.
COSTLIEST INJURY: They’re a big part of the game and every team has to handle them, of course. But Georgia had more catastrophic injuries to key skill players than any team should have to endure. The two biggest, however, were in consecutive weeks to star running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Those two losses led to the midseason slide that ruined the Bulldogs’ championship chances. If just one of them had been healthy against Missouri and Vandy, who knows how things would have turned out.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Vad Lee didn’t pan out as hoped at the helm of Georgia Tech’s option offense. Injury (and perhaps motivation) kept Jadeveon Clowney from being the Heisman-caliber disruptive force that was envisioned. But nobody had a worse year than Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Even having to replace eight NFL departures is no excuse for sending out a defense that never seemed to improve.
It will be hard for 2014 to measure up by comparison to this memorable season.