B/R's 2014 College Football Offseason Awards
Fall camps are in full swing across the country, which means we have officially made the transition from the college football offseason to the college football preseason.
But before we make the full segue to season mode, when everything becomes so forward-looking, let's take one more moment to reflect on the offseason that was.
This winter, spring and summer was, after all, a pretty important one for the current state and future of college athletics—football more than any other sport. It is one we will remember for a long time.
But it wasn't just what happened behind the NCAA's closed doors that stuck out to us the past six months. It was the signature personalities, the hard-to-believe stories and the standout performances that make college football the best sport in the world to cover.
So with that, let's hand out a little offseason hardware.
Winner: Power-Five Conferences Granted Autonomy
It won't play a part in the 2014 season, and we don't know for sure how or when it will start changing college sports, but the biggest story of the offseason came, nonetheless, when the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors voted to approve a new governance model that will allow the power-five leagues to make certain autonomous rules.
The New York Times outlined the 11 "areas of autonomy" that are permitted by the decision, chief among them the ability to raise scholarship amounts, provide financial travel aid to parents, offer better medical care to players and allow student-athletes to earn money through non-athletic pursuits (i.e. get a job).
All of these rules would give the five major conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—an even bigger advantage than they already have in recruiting players to their schools. These are financial benefits that smaller, less wealthy programs cannot afford to offer.
Which is why you'll hear a lot about the proverbial "haves" and "have-nots" when people discuss this issue over the next year (and beyond). Now that these allowances have been made, there is little reason to pretend the power-five schools and the group-of-five schools are on an even playing field, at which point there is also little reason to have them lumped under the same banner of "Division I" or "the FBS."
Those terms will need a new definition.
Winner: The 10-Second Runoff Rule
It is easy to forget (and shameful to admit) that we spent a good portion of the winter bickering over the 10-second run-off proposal.
The proposal, however, was not met with accord by the majority of Saban and Bielema's peers. According to Brett McMurphy of ESPN, only 25 of the 128 FBS head coaches supported the rule in an informal poll, while 93 came out in explicit opposition.
More than that, some came out wondering about Saban and Bielema's motives—about whether this was totally in the interest of player safety (as they claimed) or whether it was a competitive ploy.
"It's not about player safety," Florida head coach Will Muschamp told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com (via McMurphy). "To me, it's funny that everybody wants to argue whatever their point is. It's not really about what's good for the game. It's about, 'What's good for me at the end of the day.'"
Ultimately, the NCAA rules committee tabled the rule, which means that this was all much ado about nothing. But it still left a sour taste in the mouths of certain coaches across the country.
Were Saban and Bielema promoting an agenda?
Best First Impression
Winner: James Franklin, Penn State
Charlie Strong at Texas made a late push to steal this award, but even with a wave of dismissals and suspensions during fall camp, there was no way to top James Franklin's first impression at Penn State.
It all began at Franklin's introductory press conference, when he enlivened the school by explaining his recruiting philosophy. "We will dominate the state," he assured. "We will dominate the region."
A declaration such as that is simple to make but difficult to corroborate. Franklin, however, has made good on his word the past seven months, starting with a nice finish to the 2014 cycle before blowing the doors off the Big Ten with his start in the 2015 class.
Currently, Penn State sits at No. 6 overall and No. 1 in the B1G on the 247Sports team rankings. Only Alabama has more 4-star commits than PSU's 12, and its momentum shows no signs of stopping.
"Dominate" is the right word for what Franklin's been doing.
Biggest Player Lost for the Season
Winner: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri*
This one comes with an asterisk because Dorial Green-Beckham is enrolled at Oklahoma and applying to play immediately, which seems like a pipe dream despite the fact that OU is reportedly confident in his chances, per Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman.
Still, for Missouri's intents and purposes, DGB was lost for the season after allegedly breaking into his girlfriend's apartment and pushing her down a flight of stairs, which led head coach Gary Pinkel to dismiss him from the team in April, per Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com.
Green-Beckham was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2012 class and finally started to put all his tools together in the second half of last season. He could not be covered by Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, finishing with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns, and he was expected to take on an even bigger role in 2014.
Now, in addition to quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey and receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, Missouri must replace the one starting skill player it planned on returning.
This helps explain how a team that went 12-2, won the SEC East and came within a quarter of making the BCS National Championship Game went unranked in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
Best Rule Change
Winner: No 15-Yard Penalty After Overturned Targeting Call
Targeting was the biggest rule change of last offseason, and despite all the complaining that accompanied its arrival, for the most part it turned out successful. But there was one hard-to-ignore problem.
Referees could go review a targeting call to confirm it, and if the replay deemed it wasn't targeting, they would revoke the mandatory ejection and allow the flagged player to stay in the game. However, the 15-yard penalty remained despite this admission of a clean play.
How does that serve any purpose?
Many people asked the same question, and to the NCAA's credit, it listened. During its annual meeting in February, the rules committee amended the targeting rule so that a 15-yard penalty does not have to be assessed if the replay shows there wasn't any wrongdoing.
Consider it a victory for common sense.
Winner: Jameis Winston Crab Legs
Jameis Winston was cited for stealing crab legs from a supermarket this offseason, a crime that was innocuous enough to keep him out of actual trouble but funny enough to ensure he would go viral.
And viral is what he went in the moments, days and weeks after the citation, leading to an onslaught of crab leg-related Photoshops and even the hilarious Korean animation treatment (seen above).
This story has been the gift that keeps on giving.
(And it's 100 percent free of charge!)
Best Offensive Spring-Game Performance
Winner: Will Gardner, Louisville
Yes, it came against second- and third-stringers, which nullifies at least a small fraction of its impressiveness, but Will Gardner's spring-game performance was the best of the cycle nonetheless.
Teddy Bridgewater's former backup flashed a strong arm and confidence in the exhibition, lighting up the box score with 542 yards, four touchdowns and one interception on 32-of-37 passing.
In short, he was the quintessential Bobby Petrino quarterback.
But Gardner has more than just coaching working for him. The Cardinals could make a compelling case for having the nation's top receiving corps, a unit led by 6'3" DeVante Parker but also including Eli Rogers, James Quick, Michaelee Harris and tight end Gerald Christian.
This passing game comes ACC-ready.
Best Defensive Spring-Game Performance
Winner: Tavaris Barnes, Clemson
Redshirt senior Tavaris Barnes, a career backup, proved during Clemson's spring game that it's never too late for a breakout.
Playing beside what could be the deepest, most talented defensive line in the country, he set a school record with five sacks in the exhibition, constantly wreaking havoc in the backfield.
Technically, his "sacks" only required touching the quarterback instead of tackling him, but the way Barnes sliced through Clemson's (admittedly young) offensive line was a full-contact endeavor.
Add him to the long list of linemen keeping Clemson's opponents awake at night. It now reaches eight or nine deep.
Biggest Sign of the Apocalypse
Winner: No Texas Players Selected in NFL Draft
It's not just that Texas is used to having players selected in the NFL draft; it's that Texas is used to having a lot of players selected in the NFL draft. It's used to them coming off the board early, too.
Before getting shut out entirely in 2014, the Longhorns had had at least one player drafted every year since 1937 and at least three players drafted every year since 2003. The last time it didn't reach that mark (2002), both players it did have drafted went in the top five!
Alas, players such as Mike Davis, Chris Whaley and (most surprisingly) Jackson Jeffcoat did not hear their names called on May 8-10, capping off the Mack Brown era with a final, embarrassing nadir.
Now excuse me while I go stock up on canned goods.
Most Exciting Quarterback Battle
Winner: Everett Golson vs. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
One player returns after a season-long academic suspension but led his team to the national title game as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
The other player is a current redshirt freshman who looks good enough to follow in those footsteps at a young age.
Does any quarterback competition have riper storylines?
Ultimately, the battle between Everett Golson (the incumbent) and Malik Zaire (the challenger) is a good problem for Notre Dame to have. No matter who starts Week 1 against Rice, the 2014 backup should be better than the 2013 starter (Tommy Rees).
Still, there is plenty of intrigue in finding out who this year's starter will be. Golson has the edge in experience, but Zaire is the better runner and is brimming with self-confidence.
Given what we've seen redshirt freshman quarterbacks do the past two seasons—beyond Golson's national title run, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston have won back-to-back Heisman Trophies—there is no reason to think the younger player can't succeed.
If Zaire is ready, he'll be given a shot.
Update: Welp. So much for that.
But whatever. I stand by this pick. It was fun while it "lasted."
Best New Uniform
Winner: Florida State
Let's disqualify Oregon for this category after the Ducks debuted their "new" uniforms against Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The look is sharp, but it technically came out during the postseason, not the offseason.
Instead, we'll recognize the sleek, new design at Florida State, which at one point looked to be a nightmare but salvaged itself well.
As the story goes, an updated logo was leaked before the spring game in early April, and the Internet did not hide its collective disapproval. Out of context—i.e. without the rest of the uniform—it seemed frivolous and cartoonish and did not make a whole lot of sense.
But much of that was forgotten with the reveal of the fully updated uniform, which brings a modern twist to a classical look. The logo is still a downgrade (in my opinion), but it can be forgiven as a conduit to a new era, which includes an apt new sleeve and collar pattern.
As Phil Hecken of Uni Watch so tidily summed it up, "[the uniform] wasn’t broken before, but they fixed it anyway."
Biggest 2014 Recruiting Storyline
Winner: Malik McDowell's National Letter of Intent
For the second consecutive offseason, a 5-star prospect's mom turned national signing day into a melodrama.
Last year, that 5-star prospect was running back Alex Collins, whose mother absconded with his national letter of intent before he could send it in to Arkansas. This year, it was defensive lineman Malik McDowell's mom who told Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press that she "had a bad experience" at Michigan State and refused to sign the LOI when her son announced his commitment to the Spartans.
Ultimately, things worked out for McDowell—just as they did for Collins—and he got his mom to relent just in time for enrollment.
With two starters gone at defensive tackle and another player (Damon Knox) recently banged up, the 6'6", 292-pound monster might be counted on to contribute as a true freshman just like Collins was, too.
Hottest Class of 2015 Recruit
Winner: Blake Barnett
The summer before a high school prospect's senior season is almost as important as the season itself. With camps such as Nike's "The Opening" taking place, they have a rare opportunity to play in front of college scouts and national recruiting directors all at once.
As a result, Barnett's recruiting stock continued to skyrocket, as it has been since he first really emerged on the scene last fall. Once considered a relative unknown, he now checks in as the No. 20 overall player and top dual-threat quarterback of the cycle.
Barnett's eventful offseason also included a flip from Notre Dame, where he committed in November, to his current school, Alabama.
Winner: J.J. Watt on the No. 1 Overall Draft Pick
Mired in debate over whom his team should take with the No. 1 overall draft pick, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt made his intentions known with a tweet on the morning of the first round.
Was it Jadeveon Clowney he wanted as a pass-rush partner? Nope. Blake Bortles for stability on offense? Uh-uh. Johnny Manziel to sell some tickets for his home-state team? Yeah, right.
Watt wanted a real college football icon.
He wanted "Red Lightning":
Red Lightning, of course, is Florida State's ball-boy-turned-Internet-sensation-turned-psuedo-celebrity who's famous for sprinting down the sidelines whenever the Seminoles make a play.
The Texans really could use his motor.
UCLA has slowly improved in the two years since Jim Mora Jr.'s arrival. It played in the Pac-12 Championship Game two seasons ago and last year posted its first 10-win season since 2005.
But now is the first time it truly feels like UCLA has "arrived."
The Bruins are being mentioned on the short list of contenders for the College Football Playoff, and they just debuted at No. 7—one spot ahead of reigning Rose Bowl champion Michigan State—in the first release of the Amway Coaches Poll. They are expected to be one of the deepest, most complete teams in college football.
What's more, they boast a couple of legit Heisman contenders. Or at least that's the case if you listen to Bleacher Report's lead writers.
Barrett Sallee predicted a Heisman for quarterback Brett Hundley, and Adam Kramer got linebacker/running back/wrecking ball Myles Jack's take on his own burgeoning chances in July.
"Why not?" Jack asked Kramer.
That's a motto that could suit this whole team.
And the hype train has only picked up steam during the offseason.
Winner: Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Technically—technically—this all started before the offseason, when Bo Pelini responded to his Twitter parody account, @FauxPelini, with a demand to have his cat returned during the national title game.
From there, though, he's only gotten better.
First came the tales from the recruiting trail, where he held an impromptu wrestling match with prospect Tanner Farmer.
Later came the alternate jersey unveiling, where Pelini hid beneath a visor and long sleeves and put on a funny, histrionic display.
All the while, he has wriggled back into Nebraska's good graces, distracting people from the audio file that Deadspin leaked last season (NSFW) where he curses out the fanbase and the rumblings that he might be fired after a sixth straight four-loss campaign.
Does anyone even remember any of that stuff? Or has Pelini been so lovable this offseason that we've agreed to tamp it down into the darkest corner of our hippocampus, to ignore Pelini's past for the sake of our own, unimpeded amusement?
Because honestly…I think I like it better that way.
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT