This article is part of our CFB Barometer series.
It's the most wonderful time of the year. That's right, it's College Football Bowl Season. There's an added twist this time around, as the first College Football Playoff will unfold before our very eyes. The two semifinals on New Year's Day will feature matchups of Alabama-Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon-Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The winners will clash Jan. 12, 2015 for all the marbles.
The biggest story of the past week, though, was not the teams that clinched berths in the playoff, but those that were left out. Baylor and TCU were the two notable snubs, as the Big 12 received no love from the selection committee. A variety of reasons have been given for their exclusion. The lack of a Big 12 championship game played a big factor, as the schools both finished 11-1. Another issue resulted from the teams having played to a 61-58 Baylor win in Waco in mid-October. In essence, despite the motto of the conference, no true champion was crowned, and the two squads basically split the vote and canceled each other out.
There will always be gripes in any format, but it looks as though the playoff includes the correct four squads. Is an eight-team playoff a viable solution, though? Would that lessen the sting for some schools? That conversation remains for another time. Let's look at some of the players to watch in this year's Bowl Edition of the College Football Barometer.
Dwayne Washington, RB, Washington - Washington has taken the reins of the UW running game over the last three contests. Over that span, Washington has rushed for at least 100 yards and a touchdown in every game. Perhaps even more indicative of Washington's recent success, Dwayne has 383 rushing yards and five touchdowns over his last three tilts. By contrast, in the first 10 games of the year, the sophomore had 272 yards and three scores. The Huskies have only lost to ranked opponents this season; they will not face one in the Cactus Bowl when they clash with the 6-6 Oklahoma State Cowboys. OSU allowed 32.0 points per game this season and yielded a staggering 304 yards rushing with four touchdowns on the ground to archrival Oklahoma in its last game.
Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers - The Scarlet Knights will clash with the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Quick Lane Bowl in what has all the makings of a shootout. Nova passed for 347 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-38 victory over Maryland in the regular-season finale. Likewise, the Scarlet Knights defense has been Swiss cheese over the second half of the year, allowing at least 37 points in five of the final six games. UNC has been just as bad on the defensive side of the ball this season, surrendering 38.9 points per contest. That places the Tar Heels 119th in the nation in points allowed. Nova is not always consistent, but he shouldn't find much resistance in this game.
Devontae Booker, RB, Utah - A junior-college transfer, Booker came out of virtual anonymity to rush for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns for the Utes. He also proved an extremely capable receiver, snagging 39 passes for 282 yards and two more scores. Booker notched six 100-yard games, punctuated by a 229-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece at Oregon State on Oct. 16. It will be interesting to see how Utah's opponent in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Colorado State Rams, responds after losing their head coach to the University of Florida. Coach Jim McElwain piloted a 10-2 Rams season, but left for greener pastures. The Rams have a potent offense under the direction of gunslinger Garrett Grayson, and Dee Hart is no slouch running the football, either. However, the Rams have not faced an imposing defensive squad like Utah, and the Utes will look to punish CSU on the offensive side of the ball with Booker as well.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU - Fournette didn't win the Heisman trophy, and he didn't have an Adrian Peterson-type freshman season, either. However, Fournette came on strong as the year progressed, finishing with a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale at Texas A&M. The Tigers face a slumping Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense that has been gutted out on the ground in recent weeks. The Irish have lost four in a row and have surrendered more than 200 yards rushing in each of the last three games. That certainly bodes well for Fournette in the Music City Bowl, as the freshman is the lead dog in a run-heavy attack for LSU. The Tigers have struggled at quarterback as well, meaning Fournette could be primed for a monstrous output.
Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State - Jones was simply dazzling in Ohio State's 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a statement win for the Buckeyes, which allowed them to leapfrog TCU and enter the College Football Playoff. Amazingly, the Buckeyes are on their third starting quarterback this season. Somehow, some way, the Buckeyes will play in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day at 12-1 with a chance to take home the national championship. The Buckeyes lost Braxton Miller to a season-ending shoulder injury just days before the season was set to begin. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in and put up arguably the best statistics for a quarterback in conference history, but suffered a gruesome ankle injury against Michigan and will also be sidelined for the remainder of the season. That leaves Jones, who has thrown just 36 passes in his Ohio State career, but certainly looked right at home in the thrashing of Wisconsin. A big quarterback the size of Cam Newton, Jones will have his work cut out for him against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama allowed just 16.6 points per game this season and did not allow more than 23 points in a game. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes were held to less than 30 points just once in 2014. The success of Ohio State will hinge on the sophomore Jones, as Ohio State has not seen an opponent quite like this.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor - The Bears feel slighted, much like their Big 12 brethren at Texas Christian. Despite being held out of the College Football Playoff, they will still face a stiff test from the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl. MSU is 10-2 and held opponents to 19.9 points per game. However, the Spartans were blasted in their two losses by superior offensive teams in Ohio State and Oregon. In those games, the Spartans allowed 47.5 points per game. Will the Bears come out flat due to the colossal disappointment of being shunned for the playoff, or will they come out guns blazing and torch the Spartans? Petty will be the catalyst, one way or the other.
Clint Trickett, QB, West Virginia - Trickett struggled down the stretch, failing to throw a touchdown in his final two starts before succumbing to a head injury. The concussion sidelined him for the final game and a half in the regular season, which allowed backup Skyler Howard to shine. Over that span, the sophomore Howard passed for 483 yards and five touchdowns. As a result, the Mountaineers could have a full-fledged quarterback controversy on their hands. It remains to be seen if Trickett will be cleared to play for the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M, where points should be easy to come by. Both teams feature high-octane spread attacks with offensive-minded coaches and subpar defenses. As a result, whoever gets the starting nod at quarterback for West Virginia should feast on the Aggies defense. Stay tuned.
Aaron Green, RB, TCU - Trevone Boykin gets the pub for the Horned Frogs, and rightly so. However, Green was a superior playmaker for TCU in 2014, particularly since starter B.J. Catalon went down with a shoulder ailment. Catalon had 10 touchdowns and three 100-yard outputs in eight games prior to the injury. Since then, Green has more than picked up the slack. Over the final four games of the season, Green scored in every contest while posting 100 yards in three of the four games. That included 171 yards on the ground against a stellar Kansas State defense. Catalon may return for the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl against a stout Ole Miss defense, though, which would certainly cut into Green's numbers. While a rusty Catalon should still take a backseat to the dynamic Green, it remains to be seen how the touches will be divvied up if both are healthy. As such, proceed with caution when deploying Green, who could end up as a big-play boom-or-bust option with Catalon on the field and opposite the imposing "Land Shark" defensive unit.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson - Watson may be the quarterback of the future for the Tigers, but he will not play in the Russell Athletic Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. That's because Watson suffered a torn ACL against South Carolina and underwent surgery to repair the ligament. It turns out that Watson played the entire game with the injury, an amazing, seemingly impossible feat. The freshman showed excellent promise at times during his first season with Clemson, tossing 14 touchdowns to two touchdowns. He also rushed for five scores, but battled an assortment of injuries throughout the year, including surgery on his hand in which he had screws put in. Watson could be ready for the 2015 campaign, but it will be a stretch. Regardless, the Tigers will have to lean on underwhelming Cole Stoudt against the Sooners.
Clive Walford, TE, Miami - The Canes face the ol' ball coach Steve Spurrier and his South Carolina Gamecocks in the Independence Bowl. Miami will be without arguably its top target in the passing game, though, as Walford suffered a meniscus injury and underwent surgery on his knee last week. A Mackey Award Finalist, Walford snagged 44 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. With less than a month between the surgery and the bowl game, and Walford's likely ascendance to the NFL as a hybrid WR/TE in the mold of former Hurricane Jimmy Graham, there appears little reason for the senior to risk further injury. With Herb Waters also out with a neck injury, outstanding freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya will have to lean on deep threat Phillip Dorsett even more. Malcolm Lewis, Braxton Berrios and disappointing sophomore Stacy Coley should also figure more prominently into the mix.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State - It's safe to say Hackenberg suffered from the dreaded sophomore slump. The Nittany Lions QB tossed just eight touchdowns as compared to 15 interceptions this season. Breaking down the numbers even further, Hackenberg had four touchdowns and 11 interceptions in the last 10 games of the year. Those numbers were a far cry from the 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions thrown over his entire freshman campaign. Hackenberg also failed to throw for even 200 yards in each of the final five games of this year's regular season. His task will not get any easier against a Boston College team that has been stingy on defense. The Eagles are 18th in the country in terms of points against, surrendering just 20.5 points per tilt. They held Florida State to just 20 points at home Nov. 22. In other words, the Pinstripe Bowl could be another woeful performance for Hackenberg.
Grant Hedrick, QB, Boise State - The Broncos were the Cinderella darlings of the BCS era, punctuated by the Statue of Liberty play in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and the subsequent proposal by Boise State player Ian Johnson to his head cheerleader girlfriend at the back of the end zone. The Broncos are back in the Fiesta Bowl, and once again will be underdogs, this time against the Arizona Wildcats. Hedrick, the starting quarterback for the Broncos, has played better as the season has progressed. In the final six games of the season, Hedrick has totaled 20 touchdowns and thrown just three interceptions. However, he has not faced a team with the talent of Arizona during that recent string of stellar outputs. It may be poor judgment to go against the Broncos in the Fiesta Bowl due to past precedence, but call this one a gut feeling. The Broncos could be in for a rude awakening against a potent, hungry Arizona squad.