Last week, we toasted the best of college football’s regular season. Today, we’re supplying the yang to that yin: the very worst of the year.
Worst Underachiever, Team: South Carolina
The Gamecocks began the season right where they’d ended each of the previous three: in the top 10, with visions of a long-awaited SEC championship looming just over the horizon. But that narrative died a swift and painful death on opening night, the casualty of a 52-28 ambush at the hands of Texas A&M, and yielded instead to a penchant for fourth-quarter flops. Against division rivals alone, the Gamecocks blew late, double-digit leads in losses to Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the last of which left even the Ol’ Ball Coach at a loss for words.
For the season, Carolina fielded the SEC’s most generous defense on a per-play basis, and capped its descent to 6-6 — its worst regular-season mark since 2007 — with a lopsided, 35-17 loss to in-state rival Clemson, whose starting quarterback happened to be a true freshman playing on a torn ACL. Uh, Coach?
Worst Underachiever, Individual: Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight
In retrospect, it was unfair to expect Knight to live up to the irrational exuberance that followed his breakout performance in Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, much less to elevate a guy with five career starts to the preseason short list for the Heisman. Despite the hype, 2014 Knight was barely distinguishable from the 2013 edition, when he struggled to hold down the starting job as a redshirt freshman: As a sophomore, he finished squarely in the middle of the pack among Big 12 starters in terms of passing efficiency, total offense, and almost every other relevant statistic before sitting out the last three games with a lingering neck injury. In Oklahoma’s three losses to ranked opponents (TCU, Kansas State, and Baylor), Knight threw an interception that led to an opposing touchdown in every game.
Worst In-Season Collapse by an Ostensibly Good Team (Tie): Oklahoma State and Notre Dame
Under Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State has consistently delivered one thing: points. From 2010 to 2013, the Cowboys averaged at least 39 points per game four years in a row. As of mid-October, OSU was riding a streak of 58 consecutive games with at least 20 points to its credit, and hadn’t given any indication of an impending crash en route to a 5-1 start. At that point, Oklahoma State was ranked 15th in the AP poll entering a crucial game against then–no. 12 TCU, and the bottom fell out: The Cowboys managed just nine points in a blowout loss in Fort Worth, and went on to score a grand total of 31 points in consecutive losses to West Virginia (34-10), Kansas State (48-14), and Texas (28-7). Amid their five-game losing streak, billionaire OSU booster T. Boone Pickens pointedly declined to register a vote of confidence in Gundy, while the coach reverted to form by getting testy with local reporters amid rumors that he’d begun looking for an escape route.
In the end, though, at least the Cowboys discovered a silver lining in true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph, who improved OSU’s output against Baylor (a 49-28 loss) in his first start and subsequently led a 38-35 upset over Oklahoma. Notre Dame’s descent, on the other hand, was straight down, from a high of no. 5 in the AP poll in mid-October — remember, the Irish’s down-to-the-wire loss at Florida State on October 18 was a collision of undefeated, top-five contenders — to the depths of a four-game losing streak to close the year. In the finale, USC rang up 577 yards of total offense in a 49-14 massacre, making the Trojans the seventh consecutive opponent to hang at least 31 points on a debilitated Irish defense.
After that game, coach Brian Kelly declared “all jobs are available” during bowl prep. That could extend to quarterback, where once-celebrated junior Everett Golson struggled in the wake of minor shoulder surgery, getting benched against USC and fighting well-documented turnover problems (most notably coughing up five in a 55-31 loss at Arizona State) as the corresponding big plays dwindled. The Music City Bowl is a far cry from where the Irish thought they’d be six weeks ago, to say the least.
Worst Game: Wake Forest 6, Virginia Tech 3 (Double OT)
Every so often, a game comes along that’s so bad, so defiantly unwatchable, that it’s almost fascinating in its futility. This was not one of those games. From Virginia Tech’s perspective, the loss embodied all of the worst habits of the conservative “Beamer Ball” ethos, resulting in a mortifying slog against a hapless doormat.1 Anyone who happened to tune in and lost the remote or something witnessed the first scoreless tie in a regulation FBS game since 2005. In all, the Hokies and Demon Deacons combined for 18 punts, four turnovers, and four missed field goals, three of them by Wake Forest’s Mike Weaver, including a failed 37-yard attempt to win on the last play of regulation. (The miss inspired Frank Beamer’s jubilant, much-mocked reaction seen above.) But the Hokies couldn’t even get that far: Their only two trips inside the Demon Deacons’ 35-yard line resulted in a pair of lost fumbles.
Worst Play That Was Initially a Great Play: Utah WR Kaelin Clay
Wake Forest lost its other seven ACC games by an average margin of nearly 20 points while unquestionably fielding the worst offense in the nation.
Clay had a career night in Utah’s November 8 date with Oregon, accounting for 331 all-purpose yards as a receiver and return man against the eventual Pac-12 champs. Unfortunately, he also immortalized himself on the all-time gaffe reel when, at the end of a 78-yard trek through the Ducks secondary, he inexplicably dropped the ball just short of the goal line. Note that I didn’t say he fumbled the ball. He just … dropped it.
The subsequent Oregon touchdown on the opposite end represented a 14-point swing in a game the Ducks would go on to win handily, 51-27. Hey, man, it happens to the best of them. It’s the dumbest possible mistake you can make on a football field, but it happens.
Worst Play by a Great Player: TCU QB Trevone Boykin
Boykin put together a phenomenal junior campaign, one good enough to earn him a fourth-place finish in the final Heisman vote, and it certainly didn’t hurt that no one managed to capture pro-quality footage of this ridiculous, off-the-crossbar gaffe in TCU’s September trip to SMU.
Of course, the apparent safety was negated by an offside penalty on the Mustangs, which is a perfect distillation of the kind of year it was for SMU (see below). The Horned Frogs won, 56-0, with Boykin accounting for 342 total yards and six touchdowns.
Worst Play, All Divisions: UMass in the Clutch
The situation: Massachusetts trailed Miami (Ohio) by one point, 42-41, with three seconds to play following a first-down completion to the Miami 6-yard line; the clock was momentarily stopped for the chains to reset, meaning all UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel had to do was hurry the offense to the line, take the snap, spike the ball, and wave on the kicker for a chip shot to win. Instead, well …
With that, the Minutemen inherited the nation’s longest active losing streak from Miami, in a game UMass led 41-14 in the first half. At least the distinction was brief: UMass went on to win three of its next four against the dregs of the Mid-American Conference, and Frohnapfel finished as the MAC’s leading passer in terms of yards per game. Maybe they’ll let him come back and make up the time management course next year.
Worst Hail Mary Defense: East Carolina
This was a banner year for improbable, last-ditch prayers: Arizona and Arizona State both won games on blind heaves as time expired against Cal and USC, respectively, and Central Florida did the same in its season-ending, league-championship-clinching comeback at ECU. After watching the Pirates rally from a 26-9 deficit in the fourth quarter to take a late lead, 30-26, UCF’s Justin Holman doused the comeback with a 51-yard bomb to Breshad Perriman on the final snap, cementing the Knights as cochampions of the American Athletic Conference.
Holman’s heave also met with what can be most generously described as token resistance from the East Carolina safeties, who misjudged everything — the timing of their jumps, the trajectory of the ball — so badly that Perriman was able to make the catch cleanly, with both feet on the ground, behind the entire secondary:
No. 39, DaShaun Amos, defended his apparent noneffort by explaining (via Twitter) that he was trying to avoid pass interference. Maybe. But even a 15-yard penalty would have been vastly preferable to the actual result.
Worst Loss: UConn 37, Central Florida 29
The only reason Central Florida had to share the AAC crown rather than claim the title outright was a truly bizarre setback at UConn on November 1, a result that makes no sense in any known dimension: In the end, it served as the Knights’ only conference loss2 and as the Huskies’ only conference win. It was also the only game in which UConn scored more than 21 points, and one of only two games in which UCF allowed more than 30. With a win, and a 10-2 record overall, the Knights might have challenged 11-2 Boise State for the major bowl slot reserved for the highest-rated Group of 5 champion. Instead, they’re bound for something called the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, and have no one to blame but themselves.
Worst Dressed: UCLA (for One Night Only)
Through a quirk of scheduling, UCF didn’t have to play either of its fellow cochamps, Memphis and Cincinnati.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
On most nights, UCLA looks as sharp as any outfit in the sport in its traditional gold-and-blue motif, which the Bruins get to wear only in the Rose Bowl, maybe half a dozen times a year. So why they’d opt to waste one of those opportunities on the charcoal-gray abominations they unveiled in a November 1 win over Arizona is beyond me. (My editor, too.) The standard response to that question usually invokes “recruiting,” as if 18-year-olds are so lacking in both taste and judgment that the school they choose might be influenced by the uniforms a given team wore that one time. Alabama, LSU, and Texas don’t seem to have any problem attracting recruits — neither does archrival USC, for that matter — and so far none of them would be caught dead decked out in an “alternate” color, especially one that barely even qualifies as a color. UCLA’s usual uniforms ain’t broke. Why try to fix them?
Worst Unit on an Otherwise Competent Team: Penn State’s Offensive Line
Penn State led the Big Ten in scoring defense, boasted a first-round talent at quarterback, and still finished in sixth place in the B1G East. How is that possible? Because the front five couldn’t block for shit: For the season, the Nittany Lions finished dead last in the league in both rushing offense and sacks allowed, both by significant margins. In Big Ten play, the ground game averaged just shy of 75 yards per game (including sacks) on 2.2 yards per carry, and the Lions failed to reach 20 points in regulation in a single conference game.
At their worst, near the end of a 29-6 debacle against Northwestern, a pair of hapless PSU linemen supplied the ultimate lowlight when they were caught blocking each other as tailback Bill Belton was dropped (again) for one of the Wildcats’ nine tackles for loss on the afternoon. Picture, thousand words, etc.
To be fair, everyone in and around the program knew full well that the O-line was going to be a mess well before the season began; a spring knee injury to senior Miles Dieffenbach left the Lions with a single returning starter up front (left tackle Donovan Smith) and a pair of freshly converted defensive linemen (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) to fill the void at guard. But a performance as bad as the one that followed transcends injuries and NCAA-imposed scholarship cuts. By midseason, blue-chip sophomore Christian Hackenberg looked like a broken quarterback as Penn State limped to six losses in its last eight games, and by the end, the inevitable transfer rumors were beginning to swirl.
Worst Way to Lose: Washington State
In the waning hours of October 4, Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday set an NCAA record against Cal by single-handedly passing for 734 yards on 70 attempts … only to watch his team lose, 60-59, when kicker Quentin Breshears shanked a chip-shot, 19-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds. This actually happened, exactly as described.
In fact, having watched this game unfold at the time, I would argue that it had to happen. Altogether, the Cougars and Bears combined for 1,401 yards of total offense, 60 first downs, 16 total touchdowns — 12 touchdowns in the second half alone — and 10 different players with at least five receptions apiece. The offenses, and the quarterbacks in particular, had their run of the place.
And yet: After Halliday passed Washington State into a first-and-goal opportunity at the Cal 4-yard line with 25 seconds remaining, the Cougars suddenly decided to play it safe, opting for back-to-back handoffs that failed to crack the goal line. Breshears came on for the decisive kick on third down, with 19 seconds to play, marking quite possibly the first time in his career that gonzo coach Mike Leach has deliberately taken the outcome out of his quarterback’s hands and put it on his kicker’s foot. It will probably (hopefully) be the last. His team’s total output of 812 yards stands as the highest from a losing team in FBS history.
Worst Moment by an Already Doomed Coach: Brady Hoke, Michigan
Four games into the season, Michigan had already suffered lopsided losses at the hands of Notre Dame and Utah, and patience in Ann Arbor was already frayed. But whatever thin veneer of sympathy may have remained for Brady Hoke evaporated in the fourth quarter of another fiasco-in-progress against Minnesota, when the embattled coach reinserted sophomore quarterback Shane Morris in a 30-7 game after Morris had limped off looking groggy and probably concussed, following a brutal hit by Minnesota’s Theiren Cockran. (After much public-relations rigmarole, Michigan eventually confirmed that Morris had suffered a “probable, mild concussion,” a weaselly, ass-covering concession that escalated an already volatile situation.) After the hit, Morris rose to his feet, nearly collapsed, and briefly had to be supported by his teammates, but somehow managed to wave off trainers and stay in the game to throw a near-interception on the following play.
At that point, Morris was (mercifully) replaced by the usual starter, Devin Gardner, who had remained nailed to the bench throughout another miserable performance by the offense. A few plays later, though, Gardner’s helmet popped off at the end of a tackle, requiring him to leave the field for a play. Accordingly, third-stringer Russell Bellomy moved to go in, only to be recalled in favor of Morris, whose prompt return on the heels of an obvious head injury was met with incredulity by ESPN’s commentators and much of the crowd in the Big House.
After the game, Morris left the field on a cart and Hoke set fire to the last shred of goodwill by professing ignorance as to his starting quarterback’s condition. That left two possible explanations for his decision — malevolent indifference or abject incompetence — both of which are (and proved to be) fireable offenses.
Hoke lasted two more months before being publicly fitted for the catapult, which was about a month longer than his unctuous boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, who resigned on Halloween as the most despised man in the state. After the Morris incident, though, it was never a question of if regime change was imminent, only of when.