Bowl games don’t carry the prestige they used to, and with the arrival of a bona fide bracket to determine the national champion, the non-playoff games now feel more like glorified exhibitions than ever. Even as the final four threatens to suck up all of the air in the postseason, however, there are still coaches, players, and teams outside of the chosen few for whom the next few weeks will be very meaningful, for very different reasons. If you’ve gotten lost in the playoff hype, here’s a look at nine parties who have a ton at stake this postseason — either because of how their bowl game will define 2014, how it will set the stage for 2015, or both.
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer
Is Virginia Tech going to abandon the longest-tenured coach in the FBS if the Hokies finish 6-7 instead of 7-6? No, it isn’t.1 Will a victory in the Military Bowl alter anyone’s perception of the program’s larger trajectory? It will not. Regardless of what happens against Cincinnati, Virginia Tech will finish with at least five losses for the third year in a row2 and a losing (3-5) record in ACC play for the first time since it joined the conference in 2004. For most of the ensuing years, the Hokies were the de facto gold standard in a league that lacked an obvious kingpin amid Florida State’s lost decade; now that FSU has regained the crown, Virginia Tech is just another also-ran wondering how much longer it can tread water before having to set its aging captain adrift.
Beamer’s contract runs through 2018.
Between 1998, the year Michael Vick arrived on campus, and 2011, the Hokies suffered five losses in a season just once, in 2003.
At the very least, though, a win on December 27 would extend Beamer’s run of 21 consecutive seasons with a winning record — only FSU can boast a longer active streak — and would make it that much tougher for critics to move the line from “treading water” to “in over his head.” As long as the Hokies remain above .500, there’s still some semblance of hope, increasingly distant though it may be, that the ship can be righted.
North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora
For two years, Fedora managed to sustain the illusion of forward momentum at North Carolina without achieving anything in particular — he merely stayed one step ahead of the worst-case scenario. In 2012, Fedora’s first season as head coach, the Tar Heels overcame a looming NCAA investigation and a self-imposed bowl ban to finish a respectable 8-4; last year, they overcame a dismal, 1-5 start to win six of their last seven, good enough to propel them into the Top 25 to open 2014. But with great moderate expectations has come great frustration: At 6-6, the Heels are as stale as ever, and on a few occasions — namely blowout losses to in-state rivals East Carolina and NC State — they couldn’t even pass for mediocre. No one who saw the season-ending, 35-7 beatdown at the hands of the Wolfpack could have mistaken UNC for an outfit moving in the right direction.
Like Beamer, Fedora has a long offseason ahead of him regardless of the outcome of the Quick Lane Bowl, against 7-5 Rutgers. Unlike Beamer, Fedora doesn’t have two decades of goodwill to keep him off the proverbial hot seat. (His associate head coach for defense, Vic Koenning, has already been thrown to the wolves after overseeing the most generous defense in the ACC.) Again, the psychological membrane separating 7-6 from 6-7 is a flimsy one, but seeing as it’s the only thing standing between Fedora and the stigma of a losing season, it’s also one he has an interest in preserving.
Notre Dame QB Everett Golson
Whatever you expected from Notre Dame’s prodigal quarterback this season, you were right: Golson took his turn as both a bona fide Heisman front-runner and a turnover-prone flop, earning each distinction with aplomb as the Fighting Irish’s 7-1 start unraveled during a miserable, four-loss November. On the one hand, Golson was the indispensable engine of the offense, accounting for 37 of 51 touchdowns and 68 percent of Notre Dame’s total offense; on the other, he was responsible for 22 of 26 giveaways (14 interceptions, eight lost fumbles) and ended the regular season on the bench, watching the Irish trudge through a 49-14 humiliation at USC. The bipolar nature of Golson’s second half only added to the exasperation.
It’s hard to gauge how serious coach Brian Kelly is about fostering an honest-to-god competition between Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire, who had barely set foot on the field before coming off the bench against the Trojans. But both quarterbacks are expected to play in the Music City Bowl, putting Golson in position to either (a) slam the door shut on the QB derby against LSU, or (b) ensure that he’ll be looking over his shoulder throughout spring practice and beyond.3 For a senior-to-be who will have 24 career starts under his belt if he gets the call in the bowl game, any lingering doubt entering 2015 will be a bleak omen.
Texas QB Tyrone Swoopes
Golson has applied for feedback on his draft status, but an early exit would be a stunning development.
From the outside, Texas’s quarterback situation appears pretty placid. Unlike Golson, Swoopes has the “full support” of his head coach and no apparent challengers to his status as starter. In fact, since coming off the bench in place of injured opening-day starter David Ash, Swoopes has taken every single snap this season.4 No one in a position to know has given any hint that Swoopes is on the bubble. But I live in Austin, and I can assure you beyond any doubt that among Texas fans, “on the bubble” is the province of dyed-in-the-wool optimists. Everyone else has seen enough.
Ash subsequently retired due to multiple concussions.
It hardly matters that Swoopes is only a sophomore, or that he’s in his first year in a new system. These days, the learning curve for college quarterbacks isn’t nearly as steep as it used to be, and Swoopes hasn’t shown any demonstrable improvement over the course of the season. (He was last seen committing five turnovers in a 48-10 rout against TCU.) Still, a certain percentage of the skeptics can still be placated by a revelatory turn in the Texas Bowl, which would at least give them a modicum of reassurance that the light is beginning to come on for Swoopes. Otherwise, the pressure is already on coach Charlie Strong to pursue a junior-college prospect or a graduate transfer — the free agents of the college ranks — in search of a quick fix for 2015. Win or lose against Arkansas, after a deflating 6-6 regular-season debut, Strong can’t afford to sink another season into a project.
The Big Ten
If you thought Ohio State’s ascension into the final four was some kind of repudiation of the Big Ten’s deflated national rep, think again: Although the B1G placed 10 teams in bowl games, second only to the SEC, all 10 are listed as underdogs according to Vegas, including the Buckeyes (plus-9) in their semifinal showdown with Alabama. (By contrast, Pac-12 teams are favored in seven of eight bowl games, and SEC teams are favored in nine of 12.) Those odds are only slightly more pessimistic than the Big Ten’s actual record in the postseason over the past two years, which stands at a dismal 4-10; since 2006, Big Ten teams are 21-40 in bowl games, worst of any Power 5 conference.
This year, as usual, Ohio State is carrying the biggest burden. But Nebraska (plus-7 vs. USC), Maryland (plus-14 vs. Stanford), Wisconsin (plus-6.5 vs. Auburn), Michigan State (plus-3 vs. Baylor), and Iowa (plus-3.5 vs. Tennessee) are all carrying the banner against noteworthy opponents as well, with a collective opportunity to defy the experts and move the needle in a positive direction for a change. If they don’t, and the smart money is right, another round of obits for the Big Ten’s national relevance won’t be far behind.
Most of the buildup to the Peach Bowl will spin the game as the culmination of a banner season for the Rebels, which it will be: The last time Ole Miss played in a bowl game as a top-10 team was 1963. In the long run, though, the meeting with TCU may turn out to be even more interesting as a catalyst: If anything, the roster is built to peak next year. Although the Rebels will lose a handful of high-profile seniors from the current lineup,5 a whopping 43 players on the official two-deep are set to return in 2015, including the top four tailbacks, four of the top five receivers, four of five starters on the offensive line, and a dozen regulars on the nation’s no. 1 scoring defense. They’ll also be anchored next year by a quartet of former five-star recruits (wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and safety Tony Conner) who came in together as the core of a touchstone recruiting class in 2013, which has already proven crucial in bringing Ole Miss’s talent level up to par in the blue-chip-laden SEC West. Year 3 has always loomed as the flash point for that crew.
Most notably Bo Wallace at quarterback, All-Americans Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson in the secondary, and Deterrian Shackelford and Serderius Bryant at linebacker.
The glaring question mark in that forecast is at quarterback, where long-in-the-tooth senior Bo Wallace will (finally) cede the job to an anonymous sophomore after his grand finale.6 But it’s not like Wallace is an irreplaceable Hall of Famer, and anyway, figuring out his replacement is a question for next summer. For now, the Rebels have a chance to leave an indelible impression that their time has only just arrived.
Another potential candidate in next year’s QB derby, Clemson transfer Chad Kelly, is most likely out of the running after allegedly threatening to shoot up a club in Buffalo with an AK-47.
Now, take everything you just read in the Ole Miss section and apply it to the Rebels’ opponent in Atlanta, only more so. The Horned Frogs are also in town to toast an unexpected breakthrough in 2014 — their ascension from Big 12 punching bag in 2013 to justifiably aggrieved playoff aspirant was the most dramatic turnaround of the season — and are also poised to break even bigger in 2015: Essentially everyone who touched the ball for the nation’s no. 2 scoring offense this season is expected back, including the linchpin of the operation, All–Big 12 quarterback Trevone Boykin; everyone who blocked for them is expected back, too, with the lone exception of left tackle Tayo Fabuluje. Barring unforeseen attrition, TCU is on track to carry over a truly astonishing level of statistical firepower amounting to more than 6,000 yards from scrimmage in 2014 alone. No other team will come close to that number.
And if that number happens to come attached to a bowl win over a top-ranked, blue-chip SEC defense, then the Frogs will be very much in the running to open the season at no. 1, and Boykin will come in at or near the top of every Heisman short list. All we need to see first is just how high that ceiling goes outside of the shootout-friendly confines of the Big 12.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Volunteers fielded the greenest team in the nation in 2014, by far, ultimately throwing twice as many true freshmen into the fire (23)7 as seniors (11); by year’s end, first- and second-year players outnumbered seniors on the official two-deep against Vanderbilt by a margin of 25 to four. But that didn’t stop this roster from delivering Tennessee’s first .500 regular season since 2010, or from trading punches with Georgia, Florida, and Missouri in close losses. And the losses to the Bulldogs (by three points) and Gators (by one) came before coaches settled on sophomore Josh Dobbs as the obvious answer at quarterback in late October.
All of which is to say that the Vols were better than a team that young had any right to be against such a brutal schedule — the non–SEC East portion of the slate included predictable wipeouts at the hands of Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Alabama — and that the investment stands to pay off sooner rather than later: Another competent effort, this time in the TaxSlayer Bowl (né Gator Bowl) against Iowa, will make Tennessee a chic dark-horse pick to win the East next year. If nothing else, the youth movement has already given UT fans more reason for optimism than they’ve had since … since … oh my god. Since Lane Kiffin?
On the whole, 2014 was a catastrophe for Oklahoma State, a five-alarm collapse that left OSU’s oil-drenched sugar daddy, T. Boone Pickens, feeling chilly toward coach Mike Gundy, and Gundy reportedly looking for an escape route. After a 5-1 start, the Cowboys were roundly trounced by the top half of the Big 12 (TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas, and Baylor) by a combined 133 points, and stood to miss a bowl game altogether for the first time since Gundy’s debut season in 2005.
Instead, the Cowboys rallied behind true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph for a come-from-behind, overtime upset at Oklahoma to close the regular season, and suddenly there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Although Rudolph has a long way to go in terms of accuracy and consistency, he was an instant improvement over the much-maligned Daxx Garman, under whose stewardship the offense fell to depths unprecedented in the Gundy era. With Rudolph effectively entrenched as the new starter, the Cactus Bowl against Washington will be an opportunity to finish on a high note, chalk up the losing streak as a temporary spasm, and hit 2015 looking like an outfit T. Boone can be proud of again — or least not like something so embarrassing that he’d take his name off the stadium.