Some of them appeared on national television, even on Thursday or Friday nights.
Some of them were conference games, which are naturally very important to both teams.
It’s not as though “the games which shaped the 2015 college football season” weren’t important to the two teams at the time of kickoff. However, for purposes of placing these events in context, the games listed below were not billed as headline matchups for the coming week. At the time they were played, they were not viewed as games likely to affect the College Football Playoff race.
The point of this item is to unearth the games which might have been the ninth- or 15th- or 23rd-best games of a given week, the events which did not claim a large share of media attention, but figured prominently in shaping the playoff picture, the bowl picture, and in drawing the dividing line between success (a 9-3 season) and inconsistency (a 6-6 season), or between that 6-6 purgatory and pure misery (4-8 or 3-9).
It’s easy to get up for the big game of the week, one of the three or four featured attractions of a Saturday. What about the games in which the national media spotlight doesn’t shine as brightly? What happens in these games shapes a season just as much as the hyped showdowns: If you don’t survive the trap game or the letdown game, you don’t get to play for all the stakes later in the season as a 10-1 or 9-2 team. If you can’t win a close conference game against an average opponent, you’ll fall short of a bowl bid.
With this serving as prelude, here are… the games which shaped the 2015 season:
Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27 — DeShone Kizer played above and beyond expectations from the start.
Toledo 16, Arkansas 12 — In a game few of us paid attention to until the fourth quarter, Arkansas’ struggles under Bret Bielema continued.
Houston 34, Louisville 31 — Had the Cougars not won this game, their season might have been very different.
Temple 34, Cincinnati 26 — The Owls quickly showed that their win over Penn State in week one was no fluke.
Arizona State 34, New Mexico 10 — This game was close well into the second half. The Lobos grew from this, while ASU never could shake its struggles for a lengthy period of time.
Ohio State 20, Northern Illinois 13 — The Buckeyes’ offensive struggles were a constant companion this season… and they finally caught up with Ohio State in November.
TCU 56, SMU 37 — SMU could score, but it couldn’t stop anyone; the effects of TCU’s defensive injuries were felt early and often this past season.
Memphis 44, Bowling Green 41 — This enabled Memphis to become a playoff threat into November, before the Tigers lost their momentum.
Indiana 38, Western Kentucky 35 — This is why the Hoosiers made a bowl game and why WKU didn’t win the Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl bid.
Florida 14, Kentucky 9 — Even before Florida began to play well this season, the Gators were still able to beat Kentucky on the road. The Wildcats’ “almost” season was embodied in (and by) this game.
Iowa 27, Pittsburgh 24 — Who could have known how big this game would turn out to be?
Mississippi State 17, Auburn 9 — This result partly shows why the Bulldogs won eight games and Auburn could not produce a winning record this season.
Michigan State 24, Purdue 21 — Michigan State played to the competition throughout the season, but lived to tell about it. The Spartans have that magnificent capacity for rarely (if ever) falling off the ledge when they court disaster. They almost always dance around trouble.
Arizona State 38, UCLA 23 — A reflection of the Bruins’ continued capacity to not win at the rate they should.
Iowa 10, Wisconsin 6 — Yes, this game was very important in the Big Ten West, but no one could have known how large the outcome would loom a couple months later.
Oklahoma State 36, Kansas State 34 — In addition to helping Oklahoma State remain unbeaten heading into November, this result snapped Kansas State’s 49-game winning streak in games it led at the half.
Pittsburgh 17, Virginia Tech 13 — Why one team won eight and the other finished 6-6.
North Carolina 38, Georgia Tech 31 — If North Carolina had not pulled off a large comeback on the road, would its season have unfolded the way it did? Very probably not.
Illinois 14, Nebraska 13 — In many ways, this is the game which defined the 2015 season for Nebraska under Mike Riley; the Purdue game was worse, but this was a game Riley personally squandered with his decisions in the final minutes.
Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20 — The Vols’ inability to finish games was manifested (again) in this example.
Tennessee 38, Georgia 31 — This was an important game, but it wasn’t a meeting of two teams on the mountaintop. Georgia’s inability to protect a large lead typified the difficulties of a very unsatisfying 9-3 season for Mark Richt.
Washington State 45, Oregon 38 (OT) — This game marked Wazzu’s emergence under Mike Leach.
New Mexico 28, Hawaii 27 — If the Lobos had not won this game, would they have produced a winning season and clinched a bowl bid under Bob Davie?
Temple 24, East Carolina 14 — This was a Thursday night game, but Temple was questioned before moving to bigger and brighter spotlights later in the season. The Owls passed the test.
San Diego State 48, Utah State 14 — This result showed why one team won a Mountain West division and the other did not. Utah State’s level of performance fluctuated far too wildly for the Aggies to enjoy the kind of season they wanted.
Pittsburgh 23, Syracuse 20 — Why one team won eight games and the other endured a losing season.
Northwestern 30, Nebraska 28 — This kind of game showed why Northwestern made so much progress in 2015.
Oklahoma State 70, Texas Tech 53 — This game reaffirmed the Cowboys’ resourcefulness and re-emphasized how awful Texas Tech’s defense continues to be under Kliff Kingsbury.
Miami 30, Duke 27 — The botched call which will live in infamy.
UCLA 35, Colorado 31 — This, despite Colorado’s plus-55 differential in terms of the number of scrimmage plays.
Navy 29, South Florida 17 — When South Florida surged in November, this game retrospectively took on added importance; it also became a good win for the Midshipmen.
Iowa State 24, Texas 0 — After Texas’s offense rebounded for a brief period of time, this game reminded everyone how far Charlie Strong has to go in Austin.
Iowa 35, Indiana 27 — Why Iowa managed to go 12-0.
Northwestern 23, Penn State 21 — This reaffirmed the nature of Northwestern’s season, and it showed how poorly-coached Penn State was in yet another rough (because it was close) loss.
Houston 33, Cincinnati 30 — Houston did not play well, but it managed to survive. Had the Cougars not survived, Navy might have won the AAC West title.
New Mexico 14, Utah State 13 — Everything you need(ed) to know about these two programs in 2015.
Arizona 37, Utah 30 (OT) — Why Utah could not rise to the next level in the Pac-12 South.
Georgia 20, Auburn 13 — Even when Georgia performed horribly, it could still win at Auburn. This was and is Gus Malzahn’s worst loss of 2015.
New Mexico 31, Boise State 24 — The wildest box score of the season.
South Florida 65, Cincinnati 27 — This game measured how high one program had risen and how far the other team had fallen.
Indiana 47, Maryland 28 — This win saved Kevin Wilson’s job and enabled the Hoosiers to clinch a bowl bid a week later.
New Mexico State 37, Louisiana-Lafayette 34 — This shows how far ULL fell this season under Mark Hudspeth.
Mississippi State 51, Arkansas 50 — This game’s result affected how many pundits view both programs and their respective coaches.
Miami 29, Pittsburgh 24 — For all of The U’s failures and Pitt’s successes this season, last Friday’s game served as a noticeable reality check for both.