Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Jan 2014
by Matt Hinton
In the reams of analysis prior to the BCS championship game, there wasn't much about "momentum." There was "destiny," of course, clearly in favor of Auburn after the Tigers' preposterous, hand-of-god victories over Georgia and Alabama. (Unless destiny was propelling Florida State, which outscored its regular season opponents by a wider margin than any team since World War II.) There was also "intensity," "motivation" and "adversity." (Adversity: had the Seminoles faced enough of it?) But momentum was the word on Monday night, right from the start. It was perpetual, volatile and decisive. Auburn seized it. Florida State wrested it away. Just when it seemed momentum had settled in the Tigers' corner, it reversed course, bestowing its final blessings on the Seminoles. On ESPN, no less an authority than Nick Saban praised his former assistant, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, for commandeering momentum when morale was at its lowest. On Twitter, Mack Brown tracked the elusive "mo" throughout the game.
How else to explain the light that came on for Florida State late in the second quarter, following a successful fake punt in its own territory? That momentum shifted at once: Down 21–3, the Seminoles capitalized on the fake by driving for a touchdown that cut the deficit to eleven points at the half, and proceeded to outscore the Tigers in the second half, 24–10. In retrospect, this was the play Saban (along with everyone else) pointed to specifically as the continental divide, the point at which all of the good vibes -– momentum, confidence, "in the zone," what have you -– abruptly began flowing away from Auburn's sideline and toward FSU's. What would have happened if Fisher didn't have the wherewithal and stones to make that call? Presumably his team would have stumbled through the rest of the game in the same demoralized haze that had driven him to such desperate measures to lift it. And if the call had failed? Then the white-hot Tiger offense takes over in Florida State territory, maxes out the momentum meter with another touchdown before the half, and America resigns itself to another anticlimactic championship blowout amid chants of "S-E-C!" The Seminoles owe everything to their coach's willingness to capture momentum at all costs.
That's how it was written in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, and that's how it will stand for posterity's sake. But the reality is messier, as it usually is. Consider that Florida State's first five offensive possessions prior to the game-saving, momentum-turning fake had yielded three punts, a fumble and a field goal. (Two of the punts followed three-and-outs.) Its first four possessions of the second half, after the fake? Three punts and a field goal, with two of the punts again following three-and-outs. Through ten full possessions -– six in the first half, four in the second -– these were the results:
First half: 156 total yards (including penalties), 10 points. Second half: 147 total yards (including penalties), 10 points. From there, the offense only saw the field for one more possession, a dramatic, 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown with 13 seconds left.
Auburn's production followed a similarly erratic but more or less evenly distributed pattern: On six offensive possessions prior to the fake punt, the Tigers gained 235 yards, including penalties; from that point on, they gained 214 yards. The difference on the scoreboard was largely a matter of field position –- whereas two of Auburn's three touchdown drives in the first half began inside the FSU 30-yard line, following a punt return and a fumble, respectively, in the second half the offense began every drive in its own territory. In fact, the Tigers' best drive of the night, a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown march to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter, began at peak momentum for FSU, following a go-ahead, 100-yard kickoff return by true freshman Levonte Whitfield. The drive immediately preceding Whitfield's return, covering 69 yards in 13 plays, was nearly identical except that Auburn settled for a field-goal attempt inside the FSU 5-yard line.
Right to the end, then, the Tigers looked very much like themselves against the nation's No. 1 defense –- their final rushing total, 232 yards, was the most by any opposing offense against Florida State, the ninth time in its last ten games Auburn has imposed a season-high on the ground -– and although it took a little longer, so did Florida State. The defense, uncharacteristically plagued by blown coverages in the first half, improved in the second by controlling the line of scrimmage, thereby freeing up the safeties on play-action and forcing the Tigers to grind out a living one first down at a time. Jameis Winston, would-be goat of the first half, got better protection in the second and finished 9-of-10 passing on the Seminoles' last two drives, securing the FBS record for points in a season (723) on his 40th and final touchdown pass. Otherwise, Auburn's much-maligned defense was much better than expected, especially against the run; the secondary also allowed FSU's receivers significantly less separation than they're accustomed to in man coverage. They struggled with a handful of drops, while the offensive line took its time getting up to speed against Auburn's pass rush schemes.
Ultimately, though, the story of the game in the end was what most of us expected it to be at the beginning: The triumph of the best team in the nation in 2013, on the arm of the best player. Not as a result of capturing a fleeting gust of inspiration to salvage their fragile psyches, but by being exactly who they've been all season long.
So it's going to be a long eight months in Ann Arbor. After three years under the reviled Rich Rodriguez, Michigan was a 7–6 mediocrity toiling in the Buckeyes' shadow; Rodriguez was fired following a humiliating bowl loss to Mississippi State. After three years under his successor, Brady Hoke, Michigan is a 7–6 mediocrity toiling not only in the Buckeyes' shadow, but also the Spartans'. Unlike Rodriguez, Hoke had some initial success, winning a BCS game in his first season in 2011. Hoke has equity, for now. But where each of Rodriguez's last two teams represented an improvement on his disastrous debut in 2008, Hoke's second and third seasons have represented a backslide into the same rut he inherited. By sticking with embattled offensive coordinator Al Borges, he's given fans good reason to wonder in 2014 how much urgency there is to get out.
Johnny Manziel • QB, Texas A&M
The man knows how to make an exit. Coming off the two worst games of his career to close the regular season, Manziel was back to his usual, exhilarating self in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, accounting for 455 total yards and five touchdowns in a wild, 52–48 win over Duke. Even the black hole that is the A&M defense was powerless to stop him: After falling behind 21–3 early in the third quarter, the Aggies proceeded to score touchdowns on six consecutive offensive possessions, on drives covering 75, 75, 64, 70, 65 and 67 yards, narrowing the gap even as the defense failed to force a single punt. Although it was the defense that accounted for the winning points, on a 55-yard interception return by Toney Hurd Jr., it was Manziel who stole the show, leaving one last minor masterpiece to hang alongside the rest.
Trevor Knight • QB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma fans had no idea what to expect from their quarterback in the Sugar Bowl, or even who their quarterback would be after a season-long game of musical chairs between Knight and Blake Bell that ended with no chairs and no winner. By halftime, though, there was no doubt: After two quarters, Knight had already led the Sooners to more offensive touchdowns (4) against the juggernaut Alabama defense than they had managed against Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State combined (3) en route to a stunning, 31–17 lead. For the game, Knight was 32-of-44 passing for 348, four touchdowns and an interception, good for a pass efficiency rating of 164.6 –- nearly 60 points higher than his rating in the regular season, when he was viewed primarily as a run-first threat on the option. With three years of eligibility remaining, his immediate future is secure. Not so much for Bell, who threw the game-winning touchdown pass at Oklahoma State, didn't take a snap against Bama and may not take another one at Oklahoma unless it's at another position.
Tyler Lockett • WR, Kansas State
Lockett remains wildly underrated nationally, due mainly to K-State's relatively obscurity and a diminutive frame guaranteed to keep him out of mock drafts. Against Michigan, though, he made the best of the national spotlight, finishing with 10 catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns (all in the first half) in a 31–14 rout. As a receiver and return man, he easily led the Big 12 in all-purpose yards, with half of that production coming in just three games against the blue-chip recruits of Texas (333), Oklahoma (440) and Michigan (194).
1. FLORIDA STATE (14–0). Seminoles averaged 51.6 points per game, the best number since the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers and fifth-best in FBS history despite ranking second in 2013, to Baylor (52.6 ppg). Of the other seven teams that have averaged 50 points over an entire season, none of them did it in the same season.
2. AUBURN (12–2). In 2012, the Tigers went 0–8 in SEC play, losing by an average margin of 24 points per game. In 2013, they came within seconds of winning the national championship despite beginning the season unranked and failing to appear in any poll until mid-October. And that is only scratching the surface of how interesting and entertaining this team was.
3. MICHIGAN STATE (13–1). No one could have foreseen this in September, but in retrospect, all that separated the Spartans from a perfect season (and a likely shot at the BCS title) was a bogus pass interference penalty against Notre Dame.
4. STANFORD (11–3). Cardinal get beaucoup bonus points here for recording six wins against opponents ranked in the OFI top 20 – twice as many as any other team. Quality wins deserve to be rewarded. But no, I still cannot begin to explain how they lost to Utah.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA (11–2). Although the SEC accounts for seven teams on this list, South Carolina only beat one of the other six (Missouri, in overtime). Its other quality wins all came outside of the conference, against Central Florida early, Clemson late and Wisconsin in the bowl game.
6. MISSOURI (12–2). Tigers tied a school record for wins, the best of the lot coming in a Cotton Bowl comeback over Oklahoma State. Mizzou is one of five teams in the top ten that began the season unranked in any poll.
7. ALABAMA (11–2). The most impressive player on the field in the Sugar Bowl was freshman tailback Derrick Henry, who gained 104 of his 161 yards from scrimmage on a pair of long touchdowns in the second half. But why only nine touches?
8. OREGON (11–2). In an amazing feat of offensive engineering, the Ducks' top four tailbacks (Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner, De'Anthony Thomas and Ayele Forde) all averaged exactly 6.2 yards per carry for the season.
9. CENTRAL FLORIDA (12–1). UCF beat Baylor by a wider margin in the Fiesta Bowl (10 points) than it managed in all but two conference games, including come-from-behind wins over Memphis, Temple and South Florida.
10. BAYLOR (11–2). Bears finished well short of the FBS record for total offense, after all, but still led the nation and stand as only the second team ever (along with the 1989 Houston Cougars) to average 600 yards per game over an entire season.
11. OKLAHOMA (11–2). Inevitably, the Sooners' wins over Oklahoma State and Alabama have made them a hot commodity in knee-jerk 2014 projections, which means at least eight months of positive vibes for a change after two solid years of malaise. Beyond that, buyer beware.
12. CLEMSON (11–2). For all the references to "Clemsoning" in his tenure, Tajh Boyd leaves with career wins over Auburn, Florida State, Virginia Tech, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State, and the Tigers just secured their best finish in the AP poll (8th) since 1982.
13. OHIO STATE (12–2). Buckeyes were one quarter away from playing for a national championship, but finish with a single victory (vs. 9–4 Wisconsin) over a team that won more than seven games.
14. UCLA (10–3). Like Marcus Mariota and Oregon, Brett Hundley's decision to return to school will keep the Bruins in the national conversation throughout the offseason.
15. OKLAHOMA STATE (10–3). Cowboys finished cold against Oklahoma and Missouri, losing both in the final minute, but in the longer run their September 28 loss at West Virginia remains the single most inexplicable result of the season.
16. LSU (10–3). Freshman Anthony Jennings did not look like the future against Iowa, completing just 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards and an interception in his first career start, but if tailback Jeremy Hill opts to return for his junior season whoever winds up at quarterback will have some significant margin for error.
17. ARIZONA STATE (10–4). It didn't get the attention that the BCS upsets did, of course, but for anyone who saw either team over the last six weeks of the regular season, the Sun Devils' 37–23 loss to Texas Tech was the most bizarre result in any bowl.
18. LOUISVILLE (12–1). Gut instinct says the Cardinals deserve to be much higher, but strength of schedule is an albatross. Miami is the only team Louisville beat all season that spent any time in the polls, and the Hurricanes were permanently bounced from the rankings weeks ago.
19. NOTRE DAME (9–4). First-half wins over Michigan State, Arizona State and USC look a lot better now than anyone could have foreseen at the time, but any Notre Dame season that ends in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers is a disappointment by definition.
20. WASHINGTON (9–4). Huskies are ranked in the final polls for the first time since 2001, under coach Rick Neuheisel, a testament to just how far submerged this program was when Steve Sarkisian arrived in December 2008. Five years later, Sarkisian's successor, Chris Petersen, could not ask for a better situation.
21. USC (10–4). Sarkisian's new team put the Lane Kiffin era to bed with a decisive, 45–20 thrashing of Fresno State, driving home one last time just how much better it was after Kiffin was out of the picture.
22. TEXAS A&M (9–4). The defense was a calamity in every respect, but especially against the run, yielding more than 200 yards on the ground (including sacks) in nine different games. In eight of those nine games, both teams combined for at least 78 points.
23. WISCONSIN (9–4). Tailbacks James White and Melvin Gordon are the first teammates ever to rush for 1,400 yards apiece in a single season, but it was no breakthrough: Despite harboring BCS hopes as late as Thanksgiving, the Badgers finished 0–3 against ranked opponents and lost on New Year's Day for the fourth year in a row.
24. GEORGIA (8–5). Bulldogs were a disappointment after opening in the top ten, but how good could they have been if healthy? September wins over South Carolina and LSU were followed by a plague of injuries that affected the starting quarterback, top two tailbacks, four of the top five receivers and multiple starters on defense, eventually forcing more than half of the opening-day lineup to miss at least one game. Four of UGA's five losses came by a combined 17 points.
25. OLE MISS (8–5). Rebels basked in upsets over Texas and LSU, as well as a bowl win with only six senior starters, but skin-of-the-teeth losses to A&M and Mississippi State (especially Mississippi State) prevented the season from reaching its full potential.
– – –
In: Ole Miss.
Out: Fresno State.
Waiting: Arizona, Fresno State, Vanderbilt, Duke, Nebraska.
The postseason's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. DENICOS ALLEN • LB, Michigan State
Allen finished with seven tackles, two tackles for loss and one forced fumble in the Rose Bowl, helping grind the Stanford offense to a halt despite the absence of All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. After marching 77 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, the Cardinal didn't see the end zone again on offense, managing a grand total of eight first downs on their final eleven possessions.
2. SHAYNE SKOV • LB, Stanford
Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense did its part to keep the offense in the game by forcing six punts and two turnovers, one of which it took back for a touchdown itself, to no avail. (Despite Connor Cook's efficiency, the Spartans' only touchdown of the second half -– the game-winner, as it turned out -– came on a short-field drive following a Stanford fumble at its own 27-yard line.) As usual, Skov was the most active member of an outstanding, veteran group, ending his final college game with nine total tackles, three TFLs and a sack.
3. LB JOHN TIMU and DE HAU'OLI KIKAHA • Washington
Timu and Kikaha combined for 23 tackles, four sacks and two takeaways against BYU –- an interception for Timu, a forced fumble by Kikaha -– helping hold the Cougars to just 16 points in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Although BYU gained 473 total yards, it took 97 plays (!) to reach that number, and the offense did not come close to scoring after halftime.
4. MARIO EDWARDS • DE, Florida State
While the offense continued to struggle in the third quarter, the defense stiffened against the Auburn option, forcing three consecutive punts and an interception on the Tigers' first four possessions of the second half. No one had a bigger role in that stretch than Edwards, who spent more time in the backfield than any other FSU defender with three tackles for loss and one sack.
5. BRIAN SUITE • S, Utah State
Before the Poinsettia Bowl, Utah State's defense ranked among the top ten nationally according to both F/+ and S&P+, and lived up to the hype by holding Northern Illinois more than 200 yards below its season average for total offense in a 21–14 upset. Suite, a junior, led the way with eleven tackles, a forced fumble and an interception of Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch, who was held to a season-low 255 yards of total offense.
HONORABLE MENTION: LSU safety Craig Loston ended his college career with three tackles for loss, one sack and an interception in an Outback Bowl win over Iowa. ... Louisville linebacker Preston Brown wreaked havoc in the Russell Athletic Bowl, turning in a team-high seven tackles with two tackles for loss and one sack in a 36–9 blowout over Miami. ... In the Las Vegas Bowl, Fresno State safety Derron Smith was credited with 18 tackles and an interception in a losing effort against USC. ... North Carolina linebacker Norkeithus Otis had seven tackles against Cincinnati, including two tackles for loss, one sack and a pair of QB hurries in a 39–17 rout in the Belk Bowl. ... And despite finding himself on the receiving end of Logan Thomas' forearm in the first half, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack finished with two tackles for loss, one sack and an interception in the Bruins' Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
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