The 2015 sports year began with Cardale Jones making his second career start. On New Year's Day in the Sugar Bowl, the fourth-seeded Buckeyes' opponent was almighty Alabama, seeking its fourth national title in six years. Jones passed for 243 yards and rushed for 43 more in a 42-35 upset win for Ohio State in the semifinal game. He followed with a 242 yards passing and 38 yards rushing performance in a 42-20 national championship game upset of Oregon.
In late November 2014, Jones seemed destined for a backup role behind redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett or a transfer decision. By January, thanks to an injury to Barrett, he etched a permanent spot in Columbus lore.
As much as 2015 was the year of Stephen Curry, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Jordan Spieth and the Chicago Blackhawks, there were lots of unexpected heroes.
The Super Bowl between the Patriots and Seahawks was full of big names like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman. The hero was an undrafted rookie who started one game in 2014. He attended three colleges, ultimately finishing at Division II West Alabama. He had no career interceptions before Feb. 1.
Malcolm Butler cut in front of Ricardo Lockette and placed himself in Super Bowl history forever. Brady, Gronk and Belichick were helpless in the waning moments. Butler, now headed to the Pro Bowl, was there to save the day with an interception.
In a recruiting class that featured Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen spent much of the 2014-15 season on the Duke bench. ESPN's No. 21-ranked 2014 recruit, he averaged 4.4 points in 9.2 minutes per game. Then in the national championship game against Wisconsin, with Okafor in foul trouble and Winslow struggling, Allen scored eight straight points in a 1:10 span, sparking an 11-3 run. The Blue Devils won, 68-63, claiming Mike Krzyzewski's fifth national title.
In 2012, Coach K used Andre Iguodala as a defensive specialist to help the U.S. win the gold medal at the Olympics. Iguodala was coming off an All-Star season with the Sixers. In 2013, he signed a four-year $48 million contract to play for Mark Jackson's Warriors.
Iguodala turned 30 in 2014 and Jackson's first-year replacement, Steve Kerr, moved Iguodala to the bench after he started all 758 games of his NBA career. Iguodala's stats took a tumble. His 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 26.9 minutes were all significant career-lows.
But the Warriors finished with the league's best record at 67-15. Iguodala saved his two season highs, 22 and 25 points, for Games 4 and 6 of the NBA Finals. He averaged 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 36.8 minutes (and had three starts) in the Finals. Iguodala shot .521 from the field and earned NBA Finals MVP honors over Curry and LeBron James.
At about the same time, three youngsters made hockey cool in Tampa Bay again. Steven Stamkos was supposed to be the face of the Lightning, but "The Triplets" line -- Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat took over. With speed and soft hands, the American, Russian and Czech lifted Tampa Bay over three Original Six teams, the Red Wings, Canadiens and Rangers in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Johnson co-led the NHL in postseason points with 23. Kucherov added 22 and Palat 16.
Carli Lloyd is 33 and has played on the U.S. National Team since 2005. In a sport that mostly garners attention in the U.S. only around major events like the World Cup and Olympics, Lloyd had been overshadowed by scorers such as Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
That changed on July 5 when Lloyd scored three goals in the first 16 minutes of the USWNT's 5-2 World Cup Final romp over Japan. Lloyd had just three goals in the tournament's first six games and four goals in three World Cups.
Zach Johnson went to Scotland after missing the cut and finishing tied for 76th in two previous tries at St. Andrew's. Down three strokes entering the fourth round of The Open Championship, Johnson turned up the gas for a Sunday 66. Along with Marc Leishman and Louis Oostuizen, the three held off Spieth, winner of the season's first two majors, and Jason Day, future winner of the season's final major, by one stroke.
Johnson, a 39-year-old from Iowa City, birdied the first two holes of the four-hole playoff, en route to his first Claret Jug. An emotional Johnson -- who cried in celebration -- proved his 2007 Masters win was no grand slam fluke.
Serena Williams was supposed to make history in Flushing Meadows. Weeks before her 34th birthday, arguably the greatest women's singles player of all time had her first crack at the calendar Grand Slam. Williams entered the U.S. Open at 48-2 on the season with the crowds behind her.
Enter two Italian 30-somethings, who stole the show. Roberta Vinci reached her first U.S. Open semifinal in 13 tries. The World No. 43 came back from a set down to shock Williams -- and the world -- 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. After the match, Vinci, a 300-to-1 underdog, delivered one of the all-time great on-court interviews:
"I beat Serena," she said, calling the moment the best of her life. "Sorry, guys. Sorry."
Of course this story is not complete without Flavia Pennetta. The No. 26 seed defeated No. 2 seed Simona Halep in her semifinal to also reach her first Grand Slam final. Boyfriend Fabio Fognini, who lost in the fourth round, flew back from Italy for the unexpected final. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hopped on an overnight flight to New York. For the first time -- male or female -- the U.S. Open would have an Italian champion.
Pennetta beat Vinci in two sets and then announced her retirement on the spot. In a tournament meant to be Williams' moment, an Italian journeywoman had the ultimate mic drop.
Across the street at Citi Field, the Amazin' Mets wrote their own underdog tale. Yoenis Cespedes hit 18 home runs with 61 RBI in 403 at-bats with the Tigers. After a trade deadline deal to the Mets, Cespedes hit 17 home runs with 44 RBI in 230 at-bats. The Cuban willed a Mets team that already had elite pitching to the postseason.
In October, the torch was passed to Daniel Murphy, who hit seven postseason home runs, including one in six straight games from Game 4 of the NLDS to Game 4 of the NLCS. Murphy was 9-for-17 in the Mets' NLCS sweep of the Cubs with four home runs and six RBI. Of course, Murphy cooled off in the World Series, and he has already left New York for the rival Washington Nationals. Cespedes is also a free agent, and he too may leave Queens for a more lucrative contract.
The Cubs' Jake Arrieta deserves a mention. The 29-year-old had never won more than 10 games in a season, but in 2015, he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and 0.86 WHIP for the NL Cy Young Award. After a loss to the Phillies on July 25 -- a Cole Hamels no-hitter -- Arrieta went 11-0, giving up six earned runs in 94.1 innings over 13 straight quality starts. He tossed his own no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on August 30. In the NL Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh, Arrieta threw a complete-game five-hitter with 11 strikeouts.
Neither the Mets nor the Cubs won the World Series. It was another traditionally miserable franchise, the Royals, that took the crown. Lorenzo Cain did not wow anyone with power, but he did the only thing that matters in baseball: Get on base. Cain reached base in all 16 Royals playoff games. Fittingly, he broke open the World Series with a bases-clearing double in the top of the 12th inning of the Game 5 clincher.
The legend of Ronda Rousey grew so big that there was all kinds of chatter about how she would fare against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Under the radar flew a former boxing champ-turned MMA fighter. Holly Holm, 9-0 before her fight with Rousey, had never finished a fight short of 1:18 in the second round. At UFC 193, 59 seconds into the second round, Holm KO'd Rousey with a head kick. With one blow, Holm went from another Rousey opponent to the woman who beat the unbeatable.
The 2016 versions of Butler, Pennetta, Murphy and the rest of these surprise stars are coming. Enjoy the ride. These are the athletes who make sports great.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.