There is no secret that the 2020 season has been one of the strangest, wildest and controversial years in the history of the sport. The global pandemic has brought unique challenges as well as interesting opportunities that we may never see again in our lifetime.
But this isn't the only season that has been a bit crazy. Sure, it will take a lot to topple this season from being the oddest on record but there have been plenty of seasons that just didn't go as expected. There are a variety of reasons for these crazy seasons but all have left a mark on the sport for better or worse. Here are fifteen of the strangest college football seasons ever.
A lot that has happened in 2020 has been compared to 1918 ... including the college football season. The influenza pandemic forced cancellations of many games, and that was on top of World War I taking a lot of college-aged kids to the battlefield. Military organizations fielded teams made up of former college players to play against collegiate games. For example, former Illinois player and future Chicago Bears legend George Halas played for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
The combination of those two events nearly put a stop to the sport in October (the season's first month in those days). With the easing of war restrictions and quarantines ending, college football kicked into high gear in November. Students were back in school, and programs filled schedules on the fly. Michigan and Pittsburgh would end up splitting the national championship.
Some big names of note in 1918: Georgia Tech's John Heisman, Pittsburgh's Pop Warner and Notre Dame's backfield of Curly Lambeau and George Gipp. This was also Knute Rockne's first season as head coach.
The 1936 season was the first that the Associated Press would select a national champion (it was Minnesota) but there were some other, less known, media that would make this a crazy season.
A story arose that used the transitive property of winning to declare tiny Slippery Rock the national champ. It follows like this: Slippery Rock beat Westminster ... who beat West Virginia Wesleyan ... who beat Duquesne ... who beat Pitt ... who beat Notre Dame ... who beat Northwestern ... who beat AP champion Minnesota. Slippery Rock, who finished 6-3 and competed in the Pennsylvania State Teachers Conference, and their satirical "championship" was picked up by national wire services (1936's version of going viral) and became a running joke in college football for years. Even today, Slippery Rock's scores will be announced by public address announcers and find their way into papers and websites.
With the nation in the thick of World War II, much of college football was shut down. Eight SEC schools ... including Alabama, Florida and Auburn ... didn't have a team that season. The Pacific Coast Conference saw many of its members sit out. The schools that did play staggered the starts to their seasons and created vast differences in the amount of games played, similar to what happened in 2020. There were travel restrictions due to rationing and various sacrifices made to accommodate the war effort that affected the college football season.
The Associated Press did include service schools in their polls for the first time, as the War Department promoted teams made up from players on their training bases and flight schools. In 1943, the most successful ones were Iowa Pre-Flight, March Field, Bainbridge and Great Lakes Navy. In fact, Great Lakes Navy would beat #1 Notre Dame in the season finale ... though the Irish would still be voted #1 in the final polls.
Ah, Notre Dame. The Irish beat the #2 ranked team twice (Michigan, Iowa Pre-Flight) and the #3 ranked team twice (Army, Navy) to complete one of the toughest schedules in college football history.
Iowa opened the season beating five ranked opponents in six weeks, and ascended to the #1 ranking. They would lose to #3 Minnesota, then blowing out #3 Ohio State and Notre Dame to end the season. Iowa's loss was Missouri's gain as the Tigers took the #1 ranking into their final regular season game with Kansas. The Jayhawks blasted Mizzou, 23-7, but the Big Eight ruled Kansas halfback Bert Coan ineligible due to a recruiting violation when Coan was at TCU. Kansas forfeited the game and Missouri's loss was erased by the Big Eight conference. The NCAA counted the game as a Kansas victory and thus knocked Missouri from the #1 ranking.
Minnesota, despite losing to Purdue and beating only two ranked teams, would end up winning the AP national championship by a few votes over Mississippi and Iowa. The Gophers received 17 1/2 first place votes to the Rebels' 16 and Hawkeyes' 12 1/2. Missouri, despite its loss being reversed and finishing undefeated, finished 5th in the final poll and received zero first place votes.
In those days, the final polls happened prior to bowl games so Minnesota was named champion before losing the Rose Bowl to Washington. Missouri beat Navy in the Orange Bowl.
The 1966 season is one of the more controversial years in college football, primarily by how the champion was crowned. Alabama was the defending two-time champion and began the season ranked #1. Despite not playing in Week 1 of the season, the Crimson Tide dropped to #4 in the following poll. Alabama would go on to an 11-0 record ... the only undefeated and untied record in college football ... and included spanking #6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. Yet the Tide would finish ranked #3.
The top two spots would go to Notre Dame and Michigan State, who played a "Game of the Century" in East Lansing. There was an outcry that ABC would not televise the game nationally due to NCAA rules. The network would get around this rule by showing the game in every state but two, and naming it a "regional telecast". With the score 10-10 late in the game, Notre Dame would run out the clock to preserve the tie. After that game, the AP named Notre Dame #1 while the Coaches Poll had Michigan State in the top spot. The Spartans season was over, but Notre Dame would go to Los Angeles and bludgeon USC, 51-0. Both schools would finish 9-0-1, with Notre Dame refusing to play bowl games and Michigan State ineligible to play in the Rose Bowl due to their trip to previous season. Notre Dame would be voted #1 by both polls.
Three of the top five teams didn't play in a bowl and the Heisman trophy winner, Steve Spurrier, wasn't on national television during the regular season.
The University of Miami was just a middling program until Howard Schnellenberger came along in 1979, making their 1983 national championship appearing out of nowhere. After going 7-4 the previous season, the Hurricanes entered '83 unranked and didn't enter the rankings until Week 5. They shot up the polls and eventually reached #5 entering their Orange Bowl showdown with a dominant #1 Nebraska, who averaged 52 points per game. The game was close throughout, with the Cornhuskers scoring a touchdown with less than a minute remaining to trail 31-30. Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game, Nebraska went for two and the win. Miami broke up the pass and toppled the 'Huskers.
With #2 Texas and #4 Illinois losing their bowl games, Miami leaped over #3 Auburn in the rankings and won their first national championship, leading to complaints from the Tigers and the SEC. Auburn, featuring Bo Jackson, had beaten #4 Georgia, #5 Florida, #7 Maryland, #8 Michigan and #19 Alabama during the season. Miami had only beaten two ranked teams -- Notre Dame (#13) and West Virginia (#12) -- before their Orange Bowl win.
It also wouldn't happen in today's game as Nebraska and Texas dominated the top of the rankings but would play in separate bowl games (as was the norm at the time). Miami wouldn't of even made the current College Football Playoff format if it existed at the time.
In the current College Football Playoff era, it seems next to impossible for a team outside the power conferences to win a national championship. In 1984, it was possible, as a BYU team that won a WAC in which every other team lost at least 4 games would capture college football's biggest prize. BYU played just one ranked team -- #3 Pittsburgh in the opener -- however, that team would finish the season a disappointing 3-7-1. None of the other top ranked teams would bother to play BYU in the lesser Holiday Bowl, so the Cougars faced 6-5 Michigan instead. BYU would win, and as the land's only unbeaten team would finish #1 in both polls.
Being #1 was unlucky that season. #1 Auburn lost to Miami in the Kickoff Classic. A week later, newly minted #1 Miami would lose to Michigan. Three weeks later, #1 Nebraska lost to Syracuse. #1 Texas tied Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout on a controversial miss call. Washington and Nebraska (again) had their turns at #1 but would lose as well. BYU, despite its easy schedule, would win its first national championship.
Oh, and there was that Doug Flutie Hail Mary, too.
This was a pivotal season for college football that has had repercussions to this day. Colorado and Georgia Tech (yes, the Yellow Jackets) were split national champions, a controversy that helped create the Bowl Coalition in 1992, a precursor to the Bowl Alliance, BCS and the College Football Playoff.
Colorado began the season 1-1-1 after losing to Illinois and tying Tennessee. The Buffaloes would eventually benefit from two controversial plays that resonate to this day. The first play was the "Fifth Down" against Missouri. Down 31-27, Colorado somehow received a fifth down when the referees lost track of the plays. On the extra down, Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson barely got the ball into the endzone as time expired, giving the Buffs the win. Immediately after the play, the officials realized their mistake and met to discuss what to do. After over 20 minutes of meeting, the ref announced the touchdown stood.
Fast forward to the Orange Bowl, where Notre Dame's Raghib Ishmael returned a punt 92 yards for the go-ahead touchdown ... or so it seemed. A flag was thrown for a clipping penalty which all but ended the Irish's hopes. Colorado won the game 10-9.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech ended the year as the only undefeated team (they did tie North Carolina) and had a win over top-ranked Virginia on their resume. The Jackets' would blow out Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl and ended up receiving one more vote in the Coaches Poll and giving them a share of the national championship.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 caused the the postponement of college football games. Initially, the SEC was set to press on, announcing that their games would be go on as scheduled and received instant backlash for their decision (they would ultimately also postpone that weekend's games). One of those postponements would impact the chaos that ended the season.
A stacked Miami team was on a collision course to play Nebraska in the BCS championship game at the Rose Bowl -- the first time since 1919 that the Rose Bowl wouldn't feature a Big Ten or Pac 10 team. Nebraska coughed up that showdown with a loss to Colorado in the regular season finale, 62-36. Florida would ascend to the #2 spot but would lose to Tennessee in their rivalry that was rescheduled from the 9/11 weekend. Tennessee would end up losing to LSU in the SEC title game which created a pool of teams (including #2 Oregon) vying to be selected to become Miami's sacrificial lamb. The BCS computers spit out #4 Nebraska as Miami's opponent, despite the Cornhuskers not even competing in their own conference championship (#3 Colorado won the Big 12 title). Miami pounded Nebraska, 37-14 to win the national championship.
Also, this was the first season that Florida State didn't win the ACC championship since joining the league in 1991.
The entire point of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was to eliminate split national championships by using a ranking system to match the two best teams in a bowl game against each other. That system failed in 2003. USC, LSU and Oklahoma had all lost during the season (Oklahoma lost in the Big 12 title game) which made a tense situation of which two would play in the BCS title game. USC was ranked #1 in both the AP and Coaches polls and seemed to be a lock for one of those spots.
But when the BCS rankings came out (which included various computer rankings), USC was ranked 3rd behind Oklahoma and LSU. LSU would beat Oklahoma, 21-14, in the Sugar Bowl to win the BCS championship. USC would beat #4 Michigan, 28-14, in the Rose Bowl which would set up a controversy the system was supposed to control. The voters in the Coaches Poll were required to vote for the BCS championship game winner #1, yet three voters went against protocol and gave their votes to the Trojans (LSU was named the national champion by the poll). The AP poll has no requirement to do anything for the BCS and continued to vote USC as the #1 team in the final poll, also making them national champions.
The biggest change occurred off the field as 18 schools changed conference membership and shook the stability of college athletics. The most notable changes were the creation of a 12-team ACC (hello, Boston College) and the Big East raiding Conference USA, who in turn raided the WAC, who raided the Sun Belt. This would be the catalyst for a larger change less than a decade later that would drastically change the conference landscape.
Steve Spurrier was back in college coaching with a new gig at South Carolina. Urban Meyer took over at Spurrier's old gig, Florida. Charlie Weis began his Notre Dame era. There was an outstanding Heisman race as Reggie Bush (and his "Bush Push" against Notre Dame) would win the trophy over Vince Young and defending winner (and teammate) Matt Leinart. Of course, Bush would eventually vacate the award after it was deemed he received improper benefits while at USC.
Those three players treated us to arguably the greatest college football championship game of all time as Young's Texas Longhorns beat USC in a back-and-forth battle in the Rose Bowl. For once, the BCS game wasn't controversial as the best two teams played for the title in the best backdrop possible. We also had Penn State beating Florida State in three overtimes in an Orange Bowl that matched up legendary coaches Joe Paterno an Bobby Bowden.
What could be more strange to college football than a season where everything seemingly fell into place? Even as the world of college football was changing behind the scenes.
Before 2020, 2007 was the gold standard of crazy college football seasons. For starters, the national champion was LSU -- the first time a team that had lost two games during the season won the title. How? Well, there were an extraordinary amount of upsets during the season that created a void of elite teams. For example, the only BCS school to finish with one loss was Kansas. Yes ... Kansas.
The season started with a bang as FCS school Appalachian State went into Ann Arbor and beat #5 Michigan, in what possibly may be the biggest upset in college football history. That began a trend of thirteen times an unranked team beat a top ten team during the season ... crushing the previous record. Notre Dame lost to both Army and Air Force.
The "Curse of the #2" became a catchphrase as the 2nd-ranked team would lose seven times in the final nine weeks of the season. Those teams: USC, California, South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas and West Virginia. Yep, South Florida, BC and Kansas were ranked that high. Three times during the season, the #1 and #2 ranked teams lost on the same day (it hadn't happened once in the prior 11 years). And that happened twice in the final two weeks of the season!
At one point, Missouri vs Kansas was the biggest game of the season. LSU jumped five spots in the BCS rankings in the final week to miraculously get a spot in the title game.
The BCS bowls looked strange as Illinois played in the Rose Bowl, Kansas in the Orange Bowl and Hawaii was in the Sugar Bowl. In all five BCS bowl games, the lower ranked team upset the higher ranked opponent. Including LSU, ironically ranked #2, who beat #1 Ohio State to become the first and only 2-loss national champion.
Bonus fact: We also got the classic "I'm 40" rant from Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy.
The 2011 season was more about what happened off the field. North Carolina fired Butch Davis just before the season started due to an improper benefits investigation would eventually unearth widespread academic misconduct that rocked the entire athletic program. Ohio State was rocked by a scandal where players traded items for gifts or favors. Five Buckeyes were suspended and head coach Jim Tressel resigned. The biggest story, however, was the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that appalled the nation. The AD and president were charged with perjury as part of a cover-up of Sandusky's behavior while with the program. While head coach Joe Paterno wasn't found to be part of a cover up, his inaction would ultimately cause the school to fire him on November 9th. He died of lung cancer 74 days later.
We also saw the beginning of a conference realignment shakeup that would impact college athletics for years to come. Colorado and Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively. During the season, the Big 12 suffered another blow as Texas A&M and Missouri announced they would be leaving for the SEC. The ACC announced that Syracuse and Pitt would leave the Big East, ultimately crushing that league's football presence.
On the field, we had another version of the Game of the Century between #2 Alabama and #1 LSU. The Tigers would win that game, 9-6, but would fall in the rematch in the BCS championship game (a game that helped lead to an eventual playoff system). Baylor's 50-48 win over TCU which launched RGIII's Heisman season
The 2013 season began with widespread changes as a massive conference realignment began with Syracuse and Pittsburgh joining the ACC and the Big East turning into The American Athletic Conference. The WAC, which had been around for 50 years, discontinued football.
After a loss at Arizona State, USC head coach Lane Kiffin was pulled off the team bus outside LAX and into the terminal and fired. Ed Orgeron would take over and lead the Trojans to a 6-2 finish but Washington's Steve Sarkisian accepted the permanent head coaching position ... which caused Orgeron to resign and Clay Helton take over for USC's appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
On the field was just as crazy. Georgia Southern went into The Swamp and beat Florida. Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch set the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game ... twice ... by piling up 316 yards against Central Michigan and then 321 yards against Western Michigan. And the the end of the season happened.
Ohio State, who had been dominant the previous year under a postseason ban, went into the Big Ten title game a win away from a BCS berth. Michigan State stunned the Buckeyes to end their hopes at a national title. And then there was Auburn. Against Georgia, the Tigers completed a 4th-and-18 miracle pass for a 73 yard touchdown with 25 seconds left for what would be dubbed "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare". Two weeks later, Auburn would return a missed field goal attempt as time expired for a touchdown in "the Kick Six" against Alabama, ending the Tide's title hopes.
Auburn would earn a spot in the BCS championship game against Heisman winning freshman Jameis Winston and his Florida State Seminoles. The two played an absolute classic. Florida State stormed back from a 21-3 deficit to take a 27-24 lead off a kickoff return for a touchdown. The two teams traded touchdowns in the final minutes, which ended with Winston's 2-yard TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin for the win.
When all is said and done, the 2020 season may be the strangest of all time. Obviously the world as well as sports has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The season began with the Big Ten and Pac 12 (among other conferences) postponing their entire seasons, which in turn created a fierce outrage from those schools' players and parents. Both those leagues would eventually start back up in the middle of the season with extremely light schedules. Notre Dame joined the ACC for a one year run. Most leagues played conference-only schedules. Games were being postponed or outright canceled (so were bowls). The season was played with fluidity unseen in the sport for generations, while stadiums held limited or no fans.