DEC. 26, 4:30 P.M. ET, FORD FIELD, DETROIT (ESPN)
Season highlights: In front of the third-biggest crowd in school history, quarterback Gary Nova played his best game since enrolling in 2011 -- with a career-best 404 passing yards and three TD passes -- as the Scarlet Knights knocked off Michigan 26-24. Rutgers fans leaped over railings and stormed the turf after their first Big Ten victory, which showed this team wasn’t just going to roll over in conference play. In their final game, against Maryland, Rutgers also rallied from a 35-10 deficit to win 41-38. It was the largest comeback in school history.
Season lowlights: Before the Penn State game, one player told reporters that a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever." For 57 minutes, Rutgers’ defense dominated -- but Christian Hackenberg drove the Nittany Lions 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Penn State won 13-10, as Nova tossed a career-high five interceptions. And against the top teams in the Big Ten -- Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- Rutgers was outscored 180-44.
Player to watch: Receiver Leonte Carroo. After the Big Ten receiver of the year, Michigan State’s Tony Lippett, Carroo might just be the next-best wideout in the conference. He’s a big-play threat who averages nearly 20 yards a catch, has gone over 100 yards in half the games this season, and is second in the conference in both touchdowns (10) and yards (1,043). He hasn’t just provided a boost to this passing attack; he has basically been the passing attack. Rutgers’ No. 2 receiving threat has just 313 yards, and no Scarlet Knight has even half of Carroo’s number of receptions (53).
Motivation factor: Nobody, save for Rutgers, thought Rutgers would make it this far. Nearly every expert and analyst -- including those from ESPN, CBS and BTN -- thought the Knights would finish last in the Big Ten East, so a bowl game definitely exceeds expectations this season. Rutgers didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes to the Big Ten, so this team is still fighting for respect. It made a good first impression, but it’s not satisfied quite yet. -- Josh Moyer
NORTH CAROLINA BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: Similar to last season, most of the high points of the season came after the midway point. Following a stretch of four ugly losses in a row, the Tar Heels won four of five games, beginning with an upset of Georgia Tech. They followed it with a win against Virginia that was decided by the backup quarterback’s arm and an onside kick. What UNC will remember most about the 2014 season is knocking off rival Duke. Not only did the Heels get the Victory Bell back in Tar Heels blue, the upset of the Blue Devils cost Duke the division crown.
Season lowlights: Where to begin with North Carolina? The Tar Heels were considered by many the favorite to represent the ACC Coastal in nearby Charlotte, but not once all season did they look the part. They allowed at least 34 points in every loss, and FCS foe Liberty and San Diego State nearly upset the Heels. The first loss finally came in an embarrassing defeat at Group of 5 member East Carolina, which hung 70 on Larry Fedora’s defense. Maybe the most disappointing part of UNC’s season came in the finale. A week after the Duke upset, fellow rival NC State blew North Carolina out in humiliating fashion.
Player to watch: Quarterback Marquise Williams became one of the conference’s stars in 2014 after winning the job in camp. He threw for 2,870 yards, added another 737 rushing and accounted for 32 touchdowns, and he was named ACSMA Second-Team All-ACC. Williams’ coming-out party was in October, when the Heels nearly upset Notre Dame in South Bend. Williams threw for 303 yards, rushed for 132 more and totaled three touchdowns. The following week he combined for 463 yards rushing and passing in the Georgia Tech upset.
Motivation factor: Certainly the Tar Heels do not want to finish the season with a losing record, but it is fair to question the team’s motivation following the rout at the hands of rival NC State. It looked as if UNC was content if its season ended after the Duke win. A meaningless bowl game might not do much to stir UNC’s spirit -- Jared Shanker