Which U.S. state is the best in college football?
Florida, Michigan, Texas, South Carolina, Ohio battle for top spot
Take a deep breath. Check your pulse. Is your heart still racing? Are you still trying to recover from the crazy college football season that ended just days ago?
If nightmares of blocked kicks still keep you up at night, or you find yourself daydreaming about a last-second Hail Mary pass during a meeting at work, you’re not alone. The 2015 season was a classic — No, a marathon of classics — that kept fans on the edge of their seats for 15 weeks. From BYU's Week 1 desperation heave win over Nebraska to Navy’s come-from-behind victory over Army in Week 15, this year was one of the most exciting in recent memory.
But now the regular season is over, the playoff bracket is set and a record 80 teams are preparing for the fast-approaching bowl season. Is it even possible that December and January could live up to the standard by the last three months?
Slideshow: Meet all 80 bowl teams
Wait, hit the brakes. Before we look ahead to bowl games, let’s make sure we give the last four months their due.
College football gave us blocked kicks and Hail Marys and triple overtime games. An Oregon team favored by 10 points lost at home by 42. An Ohio State team that won last year’s playoff with a third-string quarterback had its season foiled by a backup quarterback. Arkansas converted a late fourth and 25 with a pass, lateral, fumble, recovery and ensuing score to knock off Ole Miss and hand Alabama the SEC West title.
A handful of teams in the country were very good and a couple of teams (ahem, Kansas) were historically bad. But when Army’s final pass fell incomplete Saturday evening, putting the finishing touch on the wild journey, we earned a chance to catch our breath.
Now, we can look back and crown all of 2015’s “bests.” Clemson was the best team, the Big Ten the best conference and Derrick Henry the best player. But which was the best state in college football? Of the 50 U.S. states, 35 will send at least one team to a bowl game, while 12 send at least three teams. Some states (like Georgia) will send several mediocre teams to bowls, while others (like Iowa) send one elite team.
It’s not all about numbers, though more teams does translate to more chances to win bowls, conferences and championships (I’m looking at you, California). Taking both the quantity and quality of teams into account, here are the five best college football states from the 2015 regular season.
5. South Carolina
Bowl teams: Clemson
South Carolina only has one team playing in a bowl game -- and two FBS teams total -- but it's impossible to leave the state with the nation's top team off this list.
Clemson put the state of South Carolina on its back this season, finishing as the only undefeated team in the country and the No. 1 school in every single College Football Playoff ranking released by the committee. Clemson swam its way into the top five by knocking off then-No. 6 Notre Dame during a Week 4 monsoon and took over the top spot three weeks later when it beat Miami, 58-0.
Once the Tigers reached the top spot, they never gave it up. Clemson solidified its ranking again and again by beating three top-10 opponents, the only team to do so.
Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson finished third in Heisman voting after gaining a total of 4,399 yards and 41 touchdowns. He led an offense that scored over 40 points six times, but Clemson was far from one-dimensional. Dabo Swinney’s defense finished in the top 20 in total defense and recorded 38 sacks and 14 interceptions.
That balance made Clemson impossible to beat.
Conversely, there's the other team in South Carolina: South Carolina. Steve Spurrier's team had a season to forget, so much so that he retired on Oct. 12 with the Gamecocks sitting at 2-4.
Without Spurrier, things got even worse. South Carolina lost its final five games, including a home loss to The Citadel, which lost four games in the FCS this season.
But even though South Carolina finished last in the SEC and did its best to drag down the state, Clemson's unblemished record, ACC championship and No. 1 ranking pushed South Carolina to the fringe of this list.
Bowl teams: Akron, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Ohio, Ohio State and Toledo
Our list continues with a state that has the second-most FBS teams in the entire country: Ohio. No state will send more teams to bowl games this season, as six teams from Ohio head south (and west) for one last hurrah.
Ohio’s heaviest college football presence lies in the Mid-American Conference, which can nearly field an entire division out of schools from Ohio. As 75 percent of Ohio's FBS teams play in the conference, the state’s yearly success relies heavily on how the MAC standings shake out.
This year, Toledo and Bowling Green combined to win 19 games and put the MAC on the national radar. Bowling Green knocked off two Big Ten teams in the non conference season while Toledo went into SEC territory and knocked off Arkansas. The Rockets jumped out to a 7-0 and briefly represented the MAC in the College Football Playoff rankings.
But each time Toledo climbed into the top 25 — both times at No. 24 — it quickly fell victim to midweek upsets. The Rockets could have given Ohio a second ranked team, but instead finished third in the MAC West and fell short of a 10-win season thanks to a canceled game against Stoney Brook.
Rival Bowling Green went on to win the MAC championship, but the absence of a power five conference title was most glaring for Ohio.
The Buckeye State might be home to eight FBS teams, but only one plays in a power five conference. Within those borders, Ohio State is king.
Urban Meyer’s crew entered the season as college football’s first-ever unanimous No. 1 team. Following a national championship run behind third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, most expected the Buckeyes to be the best team in the land.
Instead, Ohio State sleepwalked through the first 10 weeks of the season, struggling with teams like Northern Illinois and Indiana. OSU was 10-0, but it was an underwhelming 10-0, if that’s even possible. Most importantly, when the first test of the season finally knocked on their door, the Buckeyes couldn’t get the job done.
Michigan State walked into the Horseshoe on Nov. 21 without its starting quarterback and bullied the more talented Buckeyes. J.T. Barrett led the offense to only 14 points, leaving Ohio State vulnerable to a last-second Michael Geiger field goal that snatched away any dreams of a Big Ten title.
The Buckeyes went out with a bang, picking up their first ranked win of the season in The Game in Ann Arbor, but an 11-1 finish wasn’t enough to win the Big Ten East. If they knock off No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, it would be too harsh to call Ohio State’s season a failure, but the team that showed up at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 28 was capable of accomplishing so much more.
Regardless of the sky-high preseason expectations, it wasn’t Ohio State’s 11 wins that kept Ohio from moving up on this list. The state as a whole earned only one victory against teams that finished the season ranked in the top 25. The added absence of a playoff team or a power five conference championship planted Ohio firmly at No. 4.
Bowl teams: Florida, Florida State, Miami, South Florida
A reemergence of Florida’s three-headed football monster earned it the No. 3 spot on the list. It was a great season for power five teams in the Sunshine State as the futures of Florida State, Florida and Miami all took a turn for the better (though they did so in different ways).
Despite the vanquished hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff and winning a second national title in three years, Florida State’s 10-win season paced the state of Florida. The Seminoles watched the country’s top player at the most important position leave for the NFL draft and still managed to finish in the top 10.
Running back Dalvin Cook took over the FSU offense with a revolving door at quarterback left in Jameis Winston’s wake. Cook put up some of the best numbers in America, rushing 211 times for almost eight yards per carry and scoring 18 touchdowns. He flourished on the big stage, averaging 200 yards against Miami, Clemson and Florida.
When Cook wasn’t at his best, Florida State’s offense looked awful, scoring an average of 15 points in games that he rushed for fewer than five yards per carry.
FSU’s one hiccup came on Oct. 24, when it traveled to Georgia Tech and lost to a team that hadn’t won in five weeks. Georgia Tech played even with Florida State until the final play, when the Yellow Jackets returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown as time expired. It was a terrible loss for the Seminoles, as Georgia Tech wouldn’t win a game the rest of the season (finishing 3-9).
Jimbo Fisher’s team bounced back, winning four of its last five games, with one close road loss to Clemson, and was rewarded with a fourth straight New Year’s Six bowl.
An even more impressive coaching job took place about 150 miles southeast of Tallahassee, where Jim McElwain kicked off a new era at the University of Florida.
McElwain hit the ground running in Gainesville, winning his first six games and jumping into the AP top 10 after crushing then-No. 3 Ole Miss, 38-10, at the Swamp. The Gators jumped into national relevance for the first time since 2012 and even looked like the favorites to win the SEC.
Everything started to unwind on Oct. 12, when McElwain announced starting quarterback Will Grier would miss the remainder of the season due to a positive test for performance enhancing drugs. Grier’s suspension brought a phenomenal freshman season -- 1,204 passing yards, 65.8 percent completion rate, 10 touchdowns and three picks -- to a screeching halt and left Treon Harris to fill his role.
It didn't go well.
In seven games as the starter, Harris completed just 51.9 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Florida lost its perfect record in the first game without Grier and finished just 4-3 down the stretch with near losses to Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic — two teams that finished a combined 7-17.
A 27-2 loss to Florida State wrapped up the disappointing second half and cast a shadow over what was still an excellent season for the Gators.
Florida fell a pair of touchdowns short of a miracle upset in the SEC Championship Game, but finished the year with 10 wins and a top-20 ranking. The Gators also added an SEC East title to their resume and could pick up a third win over a ranked team if they beat Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
Even without conference titles or playoff appearances, Florida State and Florida enjoyed successful seasons. Miami was a different story.
The Hurricanes crept out to a 4-2 start and flew under the radar before suffering the worst loss in program history to Clemson. Embattled Head Coach Al Golden was fired the next day amid heavy criticism from fans and former players.
It looked like the season was hurtling toward disaster, but Interim Coach Larry Scott righted the ship and led Miami to an impressive 4-1 finish down the stretch. The Canes finished the season 8-1 against unranked opponents, but lost to the top three teams in the ACC by a combined 101 points.
Miami’s biggest win came a week after the regular season ended. Despite national uncertainty about the allure of the coaching job, Miami landed former Hurricane Mark Richt to take over as head coach. He was pushed out at Georgia, but Richt entered the offseason as one of the most highly regarded free agent coaches.
Will Manso: Canes hit grand slam with Mark Richt
Football in Florida is defined by the success of the three teams above, but we can't ignore a fourth team that crippled the state’s chance to rise in these rankings. Central Florida was one of only two FBS teams (Kansas) to finish the season 0-12. The Knights forced Head Coach George O'Leary to resign in late October and the team responded by losing its final four games by a combined score of 185-47.
Fortunately for Florida, this list doesn’t use the 'you're only as strong as your weakest link' approach.
Bowl teams: Central Michigan, Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan
Unlike the other states on this list, which each have at least seven FBS teams, Michigan has only five within its borders. But this season, the Mitten State demonstrated how quality can often trump quantity.
Besides Eastern Michigan, the third-worst team in the country, every FBS team in Michigan will play in a bowl game. The group is highlighted by Michigan State, which won double digit games for the fifth time in six seasons. The Spartans won road games against Michigan and Ohio State, beat Oregon at home and knocked off Iowa to win the best conference in the country.
Michigan State relied heavily on a balanced rushing attack to survive the latter quarter of the season as Connor Cook battled with a right shoulder injury. LJ Scott stole the headlines when he stretched over the goal line against Iowa to hand the Spartans a Big Ten title, but Gerald Holmes and Madre London are also crucial pieces of a dangerous trio who wear down defenses by the end of games. That’s the formula that allowed MSU to score on last-minute drives to beat Ohio State and Iowa.
The 26-day layoff before the national semifinal game will only help the Spartans' offense, as Cook’s shoulder should be good to go against Alabama. MSU won four games without Cook at full strength, but the senior quarterback gives the Spartans a lethal balanced offensive attack.
MSU's four wins over top 15 teams are the most in the country. As a result, Mark Dantonio's team will get its first taste of the College Football Playoff as the No. 3 seed. If not for a questionable ending to the Nebraska game — Michigan State’s only loss of the season — MSU would have earned the top overall seed.
Instead, the Spartans enter the final four as huge underdogs, a position they’ve grown accustomed to throughout the last half-decade. Could Michigan State win the title? Well, the Spartans haven't lost a postseason game since 2010 and finished each of the last two seasons ranked in the top five. I wouldn't bet against them.
But what truly separates Michigan from the 47 states ranked lower on the list — Ohio, Alabama, Iowa and Indiana, especially -- is a second top-tier team to compliment the first.
The resurgence of the Michigan Wolverines developed into one of the best stories in college football this season as Head Coach Jim Harbaugh took over a team that won only five games last season and pulled it to within two plays of winning 11.
A pick-six against Utah and a kick-six against Michigan State snatched two big wins from Michigan, but Harbaugh's group still came away with nine wins. The Wolverines knocked off BYU and Northwestern -- teams that finished a combined 19-5 -- by a total score of 69-0. They won all four of their Big Ten road games and found a way to win on Saturdays when they didn't play their best football (something they haven't been able to do in seven years).
Harbaugh's impact shone brightest through the improvement of transfer quarterback Jake Rudock. The graduate student was basically pushed out of Iowa after starting for two years and there wasn't much of a market for his services during the offseason.
When Michigan's season started, it was clear why Rudock attracted so little interest. He threw three picks in his first game, five in his first three games, and missed a slew of easy throws downfield. The offense fell on the shoulders of De'Veon Smith and an anemic running game that averaged only 4.1 yards per carry this season. That recipe simply wasn't going to work.
Then, when Michigan really needed him down the stretch, Rudock turned into a different player. He threw for nearly 1,300 yards in the final four games and completed close to 70 percent of his passes. If Rudock finds himself on an NFL roster next season, it might be the single greatest coaching feat of Harbaugh's career.
Michigan is the only state in the nation with two top-15 teams, and that trend will continue thanks to a pair of top-five coaches. Should MSU win the title and U of M knock off Florida in the Cirtrus Bowl, Michigan could make a push for the top spot on this list.
Bowl teams: Baylor, Houston, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech
Texas’ traditional powerhouse teams struggled in 2015, but three of the state’s smaller schools finished in the top 20 and turned an embarrassing season into a major success.
Chapter two of the Charlie Strong experiment took a step backwards as the Texas Longhorns finished with a 5-7 record and failed to reach a bowl for the first time in five years. Texas did knock off playoff-bound Oklahoma and No. 17 Baylor, but a 7th-place finish in the Big 12 erased any good feeling from those wins.
Rival Texas A&M’s season was also disappointing, but for different reasons. The Aggies fared much better than Texas against weaker competition — 8-1 against unranked teams — but got blown out in big games against Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU. Texas A&M faded from contention early and finished fifth in the SEC West with no wins against ranked opponents.
To make matters worse for the Aggies, starting quarterback Kyle Allen announced his intention to transfer out of College Station after throwing for 2,210 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. A week later, Allen's backup, Kyler Murray, announced he would also transfer. That leaves Jake Hubenak -- 27 passes in 2015 -- as the only quarterback on the roster with any pass attempts.
As the state’s most prominent programs, Texas and Texas A&M have to be more competitive than the 13-11 record they posted this season. When both schools finish in the bottom half of their respective conferences, Texas football suffers.
Luckily, the rest of the state picked up the slack. Well, a quarter of the state, at least.
Houston came out of nowhere under first-year Head Coach Tom Herman to win 12 games and an American Athletic Conference championship. In fact, the Cougars came within three points of an undefeated season and an outside chance at the College Football Playoff.
Greg Ward Jr. completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns this season while rushing for over 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. The junior led Houston to wins over Memphis, Navy and Temple en route to the AAC title and earned a matchup with Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
TCU and Baylor were much less fortunate at the quarterback position, but still managed to win 10 and nine games, respectively.
Trevone Boykin began the season as a Heisman candidate and didn’t disappoint early, throwing for 28 touchdowns and five interceptions during an 8-0 start to the year. But Boykin seemed off during a four-interception effort against Oklahoma State, when the Horned Frogs got stomped by 20 points. He was injured the two following weeks, a major reason why TCU nearly lost to 0-12 Kansas and fell a two-point conversion short of upsetting Oklahoma.
Baylor’s quarterback woes were even more crippling. The Bears raced out to a 7-0 start under Seth Russell, beating opponents by an average of 36 points, but a neck injury suffered during a win over Iowa State cut the junior’s season short.
Jarrett Stidham kept the Bears above water, sandwiching an Oklahoma loss between wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. It was only after Stidham was also lost to injury that Baylor really fell apart. Third-stringer Chris Johnson completed only seven passes in a loss to TCU and Lynx Hawthorne, normally a wide receiver, was even worse against Texas, throwing two costly picks in the upset loss.
Imagine what wide receiver Corey Coleman -- who finished the season with 74 catches for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns -- could have done in a full season with a healthy Russell.
But even with those injuries at quarterback, TCU and Baylor landed inside the top 20 of the final rankings.
Less than half of Texas’ teams (five of 12) qualified for bowl games, but the body of work from Houston, TCU and Baylor — the only state trio to finish in the top 20 — was enough to bump Texas just ahead of Michigan for the No. 1 spot.
Texas sent more teams to bowls, doubled Michigan's number of eight-win teams and might have finished with two teams in the top 10 if it weren't for quarterback injuries. The middle-tier teams are as strong as ever, and if the stalwart programs get back on track, Texas will be No. 1 on this list for a long, long time.
The perception of these states will certainly change during the bowl season, especially when the New Year’s Six and playoff games come around. Even states left off this list, like North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Oklahoma, could certainly jump into the top five if they dominate their bowl matchups.
But through 15 weeks, with every regular season game and conference championship in the books, these were the top five college football states of 2015.
Now we’ll see if they can hold their spots for one final test. Let the postseason begin.
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