Monday, December 14, 2015

Five Plays that Defined the 2015 Season

By Jean Neuberger

Every season, hundreds of college football teams line up for a three-month, 12-game haul in the hopes of gaining a spot in the College Football Playoff.

This year, it was an easy selection. Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma were the right picks. It was a relatively easy night for Jeff Long and his committee.

However, looking back at the regular season, six critical plays were needed to make this year's selection such a simple one. Had these plays not happened, controversy would've reigned supreme over the college football world.

Here are the six plays that defined the 2015 college football season.

1) Clemson stops Notre Dame's 2-point conversion. It was a rain-soaked night in Clemson, and despite Notre Dame out-gaining the Tigers 432-296, Clemson led thanks in part to 4Irish turnovers, including 3 fumbles. Down 24-16, Notre Dame pulled within two on a pass from Deshaun Kizer to Torii Hunter, Jr. However, going for the tie, Kizer was stopped trying to run it in himself by Clemson DT Carlos Watkins.

Watkins stopped any hopes for the Irish, closed the book on the term "Clemsoning" and launched the Tigers down the path to their undefeated season. Granted, they caught a few breaks along the way (a phantom call late against North Carolina comes to mind). But the Tigers stand alone at the top, and that's thanks to Watkins. Had the Irish won, they would've been another one loss team in what would've been a logjam for that last spot.

2) Michigan State's miracle. We've all seen the play. The Spartans were beaten. Michigan had them on the ropes and just needed a good punt to pin them deep and ... you know the rest.

Michigan State beat both Michigan and Ohio State without leading for a single second of the game, rather only as time expired. Call it luck, but you have to give the Spartans enormous credit. Football is a game in which you have to play the full 60 minutes. If anyone reminded us of that this season, Michigan State did that and then some. Michigan State is also credited with the next two plays.

3) Michigan State's game winning FG against Ohio State, played a huge part in how the Big Ten would shape out at the end of the season. If Ohio State had forced it into overtime and won, the Buckeyes would've had a strong chance of making it in the playoff to defend their national title. Then again, Iowa might have taken the Buckeyes down themselves, allowing the Hawkeyes to have joined Clemson as undefeated members of football's Final Four. However, Michael Geiger made things easy on the CFP committee, nailing the last second field goal and sticking a fork in Ohio State's title hopes.

4) L.J. Scott's game-winning touchdown. It was a remarkable, gutsy, grinding 22-play, nine-minute drive. And it ended in the way only a drive like that could: a lunging Scott throwing every last ounce of strength he had to put the ball into the end zone and send MSU to the playoff. If the Spartans hadn't done the drive, Iowa's playing Clemson on New Year's Eve. If Scott hadn't made the lunge, it would've set up an extremely tense, all-or-nothing scenario for both teams that frankly, would have been impossible to predict the results. However, Scott's lunge stamped what has been a season for the ages for Michigan State.

5) The Hog-and-Ladder. It was the one play not made by a team in the CFP, but it determined the fate of the SEC. Hunter Henry's lateral on 4th-and-25, in overtime, that was tipped by OT Dan Skipper to RB Alex Collins, run past the first down marker and fumbled, only to be recovered by WR Dominique Reed, was the play that lifted Arkansas to finish a stunning 53-52 upset of Ole Miss. Had it gone in any other way against the Hogs, Ole Miss would likely be SEC champion and Notre Dame and Iowa would be making strong cases for a CFP spot. However, the Arkansas win propelled Alabama to the front of the SEC West, and the Tide never looked back in winning the SEC and locking the #2 spot.

I must add that, Arkansas had failed on its first two point conversion attempt, only to have the play nullified by a face-mask against the Rebels. However, none of that, and nothing Alabama did, would mean anything without the 4th-and-25 miracle.

6) Steven Parker stops TCU's 2-point attempt. It's funny that both Clemson and Oklahoma survived close games by stopping a crucial two-point conversion. In Oklahoma's case, it was even more critical as TCU's was for the game, thus a huge component in the Big 12 picture. OU's Steven Parker broke up TCU QB Bram Kohlhausen's pass attempt to Shaun Nixon, giving the Sooners a huge 30-29 win and sending them to an in-state title clash with Oklahoma State, which OU won in a rout. The Sooners nearly blew a 17-point lead, but Parker's breakup was the play that saved the season for Oklahoma.

Football is a game of inches. Seasons can be defined in plays. Six of them helped decide the playoff teams. Several more will decide who will emerge as national champion.

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