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Year in review: Top 14 college football stories of 2014

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We're about ready to turn the page on 2014. Before we do, let's look back at the 14 biggest college football stories from 2014.


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14. Josh Shaw's soap opera

The skinny: Shaw, a senior cornerback at USC, was involved in one of the weirder tales in recent college history. He went into fall camp considered one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 and a key component for the Trojans. Then, he suffered an ankle injury -- but how that happened is what makes this a weird story. Originally, he told USC officials that he was injured jumping off a balcony to save his nephew, who was drowning in a pool; USC publicized his heroics on the school's website. Alas, Shaw lied -- he jumped off the balcony to avoid police after an argument with his girlfriend. He was suspended by the school as the police investigated a possible domestic-violence situation. Ultimately, no charges were filed and Shaw was reinstated in time to play in the final three games of the season. To top off this tale: Shaw was the defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

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13. State of euphoria in the state of Mississippi

The skinny: For one glorious Saturday, Oct. 4, the state of Mississippi was the center of the college football universe. ESPN's "GameDay" crew showed up in Oxford, Miss., for the Alabama-Mississippi game. The Rebels' defense did its job and Ole Miss beat the Tide on national TV. A few hours earlier, Mississippi State had throttled Texas A&M on national TV. Focus remained on the state for the rest of the season, too. Ole Miss got off to a 7-0 start before suffering the first of three losses; Mississippi State opened 9-0 before dropping two of its final three. Still, both qualified for "New Year's Six" bowls, with Ole Miss in the Peach and Mississippi State in the Orange. And fans from both schools always will have Oct. 4.

12. The resurrection of Lane Kiffin

The skinny: The guy is a lightning rod. There is no "gray area" with Kiffin: You either like him or intensely dislike him. This season, actually, Alabama fans love him. He was hired as Alabama's offensive coordinator in the offseason and he definitely has revved up the unit. There were two huge positives to the job for Kiffin. One is that he was able to work with high-caliber players in an attempt to rebuild his image. Second is that Tide coach Nick Saban has a no-media policy for his assistants; part of Kiffin's problems in the past were that he simply could not avoid antagonizing folks seemingly every time he opened his mouth. With no folks to antagonize because there were no media opportunities, Kiffin focused on the X's and O's and received high marks from everyone.

11. Todd Gurley and his star-crossed season

The skinny: He headed into the season as a highly hyped Heisman contender and lived up to billing early on, rushing for 773 yards and eight TDs in the first five games. But then the hammer dropped: He was suspended because he accepted money for his signature. He ended up missing four games. Then, in his first game back, he suffered a torn ACL and missed the final three games. He remains a high-level NFL prospect, though.

10. Melvin Gordon and his big season

The skinny: Wisconsin is known for its productive tailbacks, but Gordon took it to another level. The Badgers' junior tailback has run for 2,336 yards and 26 TDs heading into Thursday's Outback Bowl against Auburn, and he is 7 yards shy of moving into third place on the FBS single-season rushing list. He was the fastest player in FBS history to 2,000 yards, reaching the plateau on his 241st carry of the season; the previous record was held by Penn State's Larry Johnson, who did it on 251 carries in 2002. Gordon also set the FBS single-game rushing record with 408 yards -- on just 25 carries and in only three quarters of work -- against Nebraska (that record lasted all of one week). Every week was a newsworthy one: He has had 11 100-yard games and five 200-yard outings this season. He also has had nine games with at least two touchdowns. Gordon finished second in the Heisman balloting.

9. Division dominance

The skinny: The Pac-12 and SEC were the two best leagues this season, and each had a division that was markedly better than the other in the league. In the Pac-12, the South was stronger than the North; in the SEC, the West was better than the East. All seven members of the SEC West earned bowl bids -- the first time that every member of a conference's division has gone to the postseason. In addition, all seven members will finish with winning records. In the Pac-12, five of the six South Division members earned bowl bids -- and each of the five will finish with at least eight wins. In the first College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, the SEC West had four of the top six teams. The division had three of the top nine in the final rankings, and the Pac-12 South had five teams between 10th and 24th in the final rankings.

8. Marcus Mariota and his big season

The skinny: Mariota was another highly hyped preseason Heisman contender and he lived up to billing all season, dominating opponents and running away with the award. Mariota is third all-time in terms of highest percentage of possible Heisman points, second in terms of being named on the most ballots and third in terms of most first-place votes. Heading into the Rose Bowl playoff semifinal against Florida State, he has thrown for 3,773 yards and 38 TDs (against just two picks) and rushed for another 669 yards and 14 more scores. He has accounted for at least four TDs in 10 of the Ducks' 13 games.

7. The Big 12 conference race

The skinny: The Big 12 is the only one of the Power Five leagues that plays a complete round-robin schedule (that's because it's the only Power Five league with 10 members), and as such, the league touted its "One True Champion" mantra. On the face of it, the round-robin schedule is the best way to determine a champion, and the Big 12 can proudly point out that it is the only "big" league in which all the members play each other. But this season at least, the round-robin schedule appears to have backfired: Baylor and TCU tied for the conference title, and neither one made the playoff field. That has led to talk that the Big 12 needs to expand or, at the least, hope for an NCAA waiver that would allow it to play a title game (currently, only leagues with at least 12 members can have a championship game).

6. The emergence of J.T. Barrett

The skinny: Normally, you'd expect a team that loses an experienced quarterback who happens to be a leading Heisman contender in August to stumble around in the fall. Not so for Ohio State. Senior Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in August, and into the breach stepped redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. Barrett was magnificent. He accounted for a Big Ten-record 45 touchdowns this season, and his 34 TD passes are the most in a season in school history. In addition, Barrett was on track to become the first 3,000-yard passer/1,000-yard rusher in Big Ten history. Alas, he, too, was hurt, going down in the regular-season finale against Michigan. That, in turn, led to Cardale Jones stepping up and guiding the Buckeyes to a win in the Big Ten championship game; Jones also will be at the controls in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. As for Barrett, because he played so well, there is talk that Miller -- you know, the guy who was the Heisman contender just four months ago -- will play his final college season elsewhere.

5. 'Help wanted' signs at Florida, Michigan and Nebraska

The skinny: One season after premier programs Penn State, Texas and USC made coaching hires, premier programs Florida, Michigan and Nebraska did the same. Florida and Michigan grew tired of middling offenses and fired Will Muschamp and Brady Hoke, respectively. Nebraska grew tired, period, of Bo Pelini and fired him, too. Florida hired Jim McElwain from Colorado State and Nebraska hired Mike Riley from Oregon State; more on the guy Michigan hired next.

4. Jim Harbaugh goes 'home' to Michigan

The skinny: "The Victors" is Michigan's fight song, and in this case, to the victors belong the spoils. Harbaugh's decision to leave the NFL and return to college coaching at his alma mater was a huge coup for Michigan -- and for the Big Ten and college football, too. Nothing against Nick Saban, Pete Carroll (when he was at USC), Jim Mora, Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino, but when those guys took college jobs after failed stints in the NFL, pro teams weren't clamoring for them. Harbaugh is different: He had a number of NFL suitors but chose to return to college anyway. His hiring makes Michigan nationally relevant immediately, and though it seems unlikely he can get Michigan turned around in one season, it is fair to expect the Wolverines to contend for the Big Ten in 2016. In addition, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry -- which has been a "rivalry" on paper only for a while (Ohio State has won 10 of the past 11 meetings) -- will be in full bloom again.

3. Florida State's perfect record

The skinny: The next two entries go together. Florida State won the final BCS championship game in January, which capped off a 14-0 season. The Seminoles kept winning this season and are 13-0 entering the Rose Bowl national semifinal against Oregon. But the Seminoles have been far from dominant and they really haven't put together a consistent 60 minutes of football. Seven of their 13 wins have come by six or fewer points -- they won all but one game last season by at least 14 points, including nine by at least 30 -- and they needed almost miraculous finishes to beat Clemson and Notre Dame. But they did win, and they are the only unbeaten team in the nation. The College Football Playoff selection committee wasn't impressed, as FSU was ranked third in its final poll. Never has a major-college program won 29 in a row over parts of three seasons and been questioned as much as the Seminoles. The players have admitted it's a motivational tool. Then again, very few teams ever have won 29 games in a row, and that is perhaps the most overlooked part of all this: In this age of parity, Florida State has won 29 consecutive games.

2. The continuing saga of FSU QB Jameis Winston

The skinny: This is part two of the FSU entry. Winston's year deserves its own space. He has been as heavily scrutinized as any college athlete in recent memory. Shortly after winning the Heisman and being cleared in a sexual assault investigation in December 2013, Winston guided the Seminoles to a win in the final BCS national championship game in January 2014. He then joined the baseball team and also went through spring practice with the football team. In April, he was accused of stealing crab legs from a Tallahassee grocery store; he apologized and made restitution. After a few months of hearing jokes about that incident, Winston was suspended for the Clemson game in September for making lewd and vulgar comments in FSU's student union. A month later, FSU announced it was investigating reports that Winston received money for his autographs; it later came out that many of the items appeared to be forged. All the while, talk of the sexual assault investigation -- which emanated from an incident in December 2012 -- never went away, and Winston had to appear at a school code-of-conduct hearing in December; he was cleared, though his accuser's attorney has said the case isn't necessarily over. Oh, yeah, amid all this -- and talk of whether he will turn pro -- he has guided the Seminoles to another perfect regular season and into the playoff.

1. College Football Playoff

The skinny: There really is no explanation necessary: After seemingly two decades of fans clamoring for a playoff, it is here. And it is glorious. Yes, there was controversy over the four teams that were selected and, yes, there already have been calls for an eight-team playoff, including from ACC commissioner John Swofford. But let's wait and see how a four-team entity works. Let's also rejoice that a playoff actually is happening.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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