It was the year that could have – and should have – been.
The Pac-12 Conference, which was favored in eight of its nine postseason matchups, went 6-3 between the December and January bowl slate. But unfortunately, one of those losses came in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Oregon, projected as a favorite to beat Ohio State in the title game, couldn’t eliminate the notion that it isn’t physical enough to win big games against opponents that play tough in the trenches by yielding 6.4 yards per play – 296 total from the backfield – to a confident offense that was led by a third-string quarterback, albeit a very good one.
Behind the Heisman-winning quarterback and potential No. 1 pick for the 2015 NFL Draft in Marcus Mariota, it was supposed to be the Ducks’ year to finally bring home a championship trophy to a conference that has longed for another since Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush beat Oklahoma 55-19** in the 2005 Orange Bowl.
Still, the Pac-12 gave us many reasons to smile; from a record-breaking season by one of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football history to games in which defense wasn’t mandatory to, well, this play that has been ESPN’s Worst of the Worst since November 8.
As we did with the Big Ten, let’s rank the Pac-12’s best games from the 2014 season.
*Honorable Mention: No. 24 USC 45, Nebraska 42
It wasn’t the best opponent USC had seen all year, but the Trojans’ win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl – in which it held a 45-27 lead late in the third quarter – was quite impressive. Despite going 3-for-14 on third down, USC compiled 515 yards of total offense and possibly cost Bo Pelini his job. With dark-horse Heisman candidate Cody Kessler set to return, USC is No. 4 in my way-too-early Top 25 rankings for 2015.
5. No. 11 Arizona 42, No. 13 Arizona State 35
Significance: There was a ton at stake. Not only were bragging rights on the line – the “Territorial Cup” dates back to 1899 – but the winner would go on to represent the Pac-12 South Division against Oregon in the conference championship. This was without doubt one of the biggest games college football had to offer in late November.
Game MVP: Freshman running back Nick Wilson cut up the Arizona State defense for 178 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries (7.4 ypc).
Best Stat: Though he was replaced by Mike Bercovici toward the end of the third quarter, Arizona held senior quarterback Taylor Kelly to a season-low 144 passing yards.
Quote from the Game: “Right after the game when I was walking out to shake Coach (Todd) Graham’s hand, I think either my wife or my son said: ‘Did you know UCLA lost?'” Rodriguez said. “That made me bounce a little more in the air.”
4. California 60, Washington State 59
Significance: If you consider their overall records, there probably isn’t anything significant about this game other than the fact that both teams combined for 14 less points than SMU scored all season long. Washington State had a 52-41 lead heading into the fourth quarter before Jared Goff threw three touchdowns in the final 14 minutes, giving Cal a surprising 4-1 start to the year. (The Bears went on to finish 5-7; Wazzu ended up 3-9.)
Game MVP: Connor Halliday broke the NCAA record with 734 yards passing, but Washington State lost the game. Jared Goff, who didn’t quite reach Halliday’s point of ridiculousness (he had 527 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions), was relentless during Cal’s comeback.
Best Stat: You ready for this? The two teams combined for 1,401 total yards of offense (8.4 yards per play). Were actual human beings playing defense, or were those paper mache dolls being mind-controlled by Roger Goodell? We’ll never know …
Quote from the Game: None available.
3. No. 3 Oregon 46, No. 7 Michigan State 27
Significance: As the reigning Rose Bowl champion, Michigan State entered this highly-anticipated contest with what was believed to be one of the most aggressive and physical defenses in the nation – a nightmare matchup for Oregon. However, the Ducks won the second half 28-3, making a “we’re here, and we will dominate” statement to the rest of college football.
Game MVP: Marcus Mariota propelled the Oregon offense in the last 30 minutes, finishing 17-of-28 for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Best Stat: Oregon’s 46 points are the most a Michigan State defense has allowed during a road game since it lost 49-18 to Penn State in 2008.
Quote from the Game: “Marcus [Mariota] and I were just in there hugging and talking,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “I should have to pay to watch that guy play.”
2. Arizona 31, No. 2 Oregon 24
Significance: For the second year in a row, Rich Rodriguez and company defeated Oregon during the regular season in which they entered as a major underdog – this time on the road. Oregon, which obviously would end up rebounding from the loss, was 4-0 and the No. 2 team in the country at the time, while Arizona was coming off close wins against UTSA, Nevada, and California. The Ducks, of course, would end up having the last
laugh quack in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Game MVP: When you beat a team like Oregon, it’s usually an all-around effort – and while that’s certainly the case here, co-MVPs Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson combined for 336 yards and four touchdowns to decide the Ducks’ fate that night.
Best Stat: Not only did the offense sputter to 4-of-14 on third down conversions, but Marcus Mariota’s Total QBR of 64.4 was his worst of the season.
Quote from the Game: “Last year it was really heartwarming because it was the seniors’ last home game and it was improbable, of course,” Rodriguez said. “This one, I don’t know if anybody picked us. I don’t know how many people were talking about us, but I bet you most of them weren’t thinking this was going to happen, not on the road.”
1. No. 2 Oregon 59, No. 3 Florida State 20
Significance: Florida State entered the College Football Playoff riding a 29-game winning streak while wearing its national championship crown from the previous season. Though Oregon was a favorite, I don’t think anybody – well, with the exception of myself – thought the result would be anything like this. Oregon forced five FSU turnovers and turned them into 34 points, leaving many Seminole fans scratching their heads and others wondering why TCU wasn’t the No. 3-seed instead.
Game MVP: Oregon had no problems moving the ball on Florida State, sticking to a balanced attack of 338 yards through the air and 301 from the ground. However, we can attribute this one to the defense; forcing a high number of turnovers equates to a deadly offense.
Best Stat: The 39-point loss was Florida State’s largest since December 3, 1983 when it lost to Florida, 53-14. The Seminoles went 8-4 that year.
Quote from the Game: “Everyone in this room, let’s be real – this game could have gone either way,” said Jameis Winston, who had two turnovers of his own. “We beat ourselves. We were never stopped at all.”
**On June 6, 2011, the BCS officially vacated USC’s 2004 national championship due to NCAA imposed sanctions.