In college football, pretty much every game matters, at least if you are chasing championships. Some games, however, seem to matter more.
Often times, they not only reverberate through a present season, they also project themselves forward onto the following year. It can be a tough lesson learned or it can be a performance breakthrough, either teamwide or just for a key individual player. It also can be a horrible negative avoided or it can be the starting point of a potential cratering. We walk away from the game knowing what we just watched will be front and center when those teams meet again the following season.
That introduces our topic: Five meaningful games from 2014 that might reverberate all the way into the 2015 campaign.
California 31, Northwestern 24: This win was a big positive for the Bears, but it really was about disaster avoidance. Coming off a horrible 1-11 finish in Sonny Dykes' first season, Cal led 31-7 in the third quarter. The Bears were dominating a respectable Big Ten team on the road and looked good on both sides of the ball, particularly notable for a defense that was gawd-awful in 2013. Then things started to fall apart. The Bears yielded two touchdowns in a 25-second span and suddenly were up just a TD with 5:18 remaining with Northwestern driving. But linebacker Jalen Jefferson came up with a sack and interception to kill the Wildcats' drive, and the Bears held on to end a 16-game losing streak to FBS foes. If the Bears had lost, who knows how their season would have gone. A loss on a Hail Mary at Arizona two weeks later might have been a crushing blow that pushed Dykes onto the hottest of seats. Instead, this game reintroduced Cal to the living and set a hopeful tone in 2014 that could presage something bigger this fall, when the Bears could become a dark-horse contender in the North Division.
Arizona State 38, Colorado 24: This game was meaningful because Sun Devils QB Taylor Kelly suffered an injury that sidelined him for three games. We'll never know, of course, what Arizona State might have done in 2014 if Kelly hadn't gotten hurt, but the bigger meaning for this game projects to this coming season. If Kelly had stayed healthy, we never would have seen Mike Bercovici starting behind center, playing well with Kelly out, beating USC and Stanford, and keeping the Sun Devils in the South Division hunt. Bercovici's play surely built his confidence, as well as won over his coaches and teammates. It's why few project any drop-off at the position this fall, why the Sun Devils losing a three-year starter isn't viewed as a huge preseason question mark. That matters in the big picture, but it also will help the Sun Devils obtain a strong preseason ranking. While it's where you finish, not where you start, we all know that where you start matters in college football, and this game provided circumstances that will give the Sun Devils a boost in terms of preseason perception.
Utah 30, UCLA 28: We all know that Utah had a breakthrough season in the Pac-12 this past fall. We also know that coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill had a dustup that started before the season began and became a public feud after the season. If the former fact -- the Utes' breakthrough -- hadn't happened, the latter issue might have been more meaningful. In fact, Whittingham and Hill might have gone their separate ways. Recall that, after a solid 3-0 start, the Utes were upset at home by Washington State to open their conference schedule -- squandering a 21-point lead -- a game that would go on to become one of the most bizarre results of the season, but one that at the time seemed to suggest that Utah still wasn't ready for prime-time Pac-12 play. Then the Utes went to No. 8 UCLA and recorded this nail-biting upset that reverberated nationally, one that wasn't over until UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn missed two field goal attempts with no time on the clock. This was the first of three consecutive conference wins for the Utes, a streak that included a home win over USC that completed an L.A. sweep. The Utes and Whittingham have high expectations heading into 2015. Hard to say that would be the case if things had gone differently in this game.
UCLA 38, USC 20: If USC had won this game, it would have won the South Division and finished the regular season with a four-game winning streak. It would have had a puncher's shot against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Yet the Trojans not only lost this game, they got pushed around -- for a third consecutive time against the Bruins. For UCLA, this game made the 2014 season successful, even if it didn't match the preseason talk of national titles. It gave Jim Mora an immediate upper hand against Steve Sarkisian. It also created a big picture after the season that mostly overcame the rear-end-over-tea-kettle performance the next week against Stanford (see below), which handed the South Division title to Arizona. All that 2014 stuff is fine, but here's why this game flows so strongly into 2015: For the first time since 1989, both USC and UCLA could start the season ranked in the top 10. Further, while many are hyping USC as a national title contender, this loss to the hated Bruins is probably what's holding back those who are skeptical. Moreover, with the departure of Brett Hundley, Trojans QB Cody Kessler is the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. Biggest knock on his résumé? No marquee wins, including a pair of lackluster showings against UCLA.
Stanford 31, UCLA 10: This shocking defeat the final weekend of the regular season knocked then No. 9 UCLA out of the Pac-12 title game, making Arizona the South Division champion. Maybe the Bruins could have beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. But, failing that, they likely would have ended up in the Fiesta Bowl even if they'd gone down to the Ducks. But this game is not here because of UCLA. The Bruins own the 2014 meaning of this game, which is entirely negative. Stanford, however, owns the 2015 meaning of this game, which is entirely positive. After an up-and-down season, Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan was masterful in this game, passing for 234 yards and two touchdowns, completing 16 of 19 throws, while also rushing for 46 yards. His 98.3 QBR rating for the game was one of the best in the conference all year. This was the biggest win of what would become a three-game winning streak to end a mostly disappointing season on The Farm. The reason it is so meaningful for 2015 is that it strongly suggested that Hogan, who was dealing with the illness and passing of his father during the season, could take a huge step forward this fall, as could the entire Cardinal offense, which shined late in the year.