We are deep into bowl season and at the end of the calendar year so it is a good time to look back at the 2020 college football season. Just like anything in the world ... and sports ... in 2020, college football has been a mix of struggle and inspiration. The fact that we are even at a point where we are playing some bowl games and have scheduled the Playoff is quite a feat itself. A lot of people have done a lot of work to pull this season off.
Along the way, there have been great games, great moments, and great stories. History was made in more than one way and we got to see some teams in the spotlight that normally don't get there. We also have had a lot of weirdness, like the Rose Bowl being played in Texas and a 2-8 team accepting a bowl bid, which happened so often that we kind of accepted it as business as usual.
So let's look back on 25 moments and stories of the college football season that had us talking in 2020.
August seems like a lifetime ago, but just a few months back each FBS conference was trying to figure out if they were going to have a season ... and if so, then how. The Big Ten and Pac 12 decided to shut it down for the fall and possibly try again in the spring. The ACC and Big 12 started on time while the SEC waited until Week 4 to get going. All, for the most part, went to a conference-only format. As for the Group of 5 leagues, the MAC and Mountain West also decided to shut it down while the American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt began on time.
Some schools, like Old Dominion and UConn, decided to not play at all. Others, like Nebraska, were demanding to play despite their conferences' decision to postpone the season. Players, parents, and coaches across the country (particularly regarding the Big Ten) spoke out against delaying the season and threatened lawsuits if their kids were not allowed to play or to transfer to a school that was playing.
As the season began, the Big Ten, Pac 12, MAC, and Mountain West would decide to start up mid-season and squeeze in as much of a schedule as they could. Those leagues struggled with the flexibility to reschedule games and what constitutes an eligible conference champion (more on that later).
If there ever was a more evident moment in college football that shows a need for a centralized figure or office that helps decide uniformity among its membership, this was it. With everyone funneling towards a common ending to the season, to see how each league made its own decisions without being in sync with its partners was troubling. This isn't to say that what any of the leagues did was wrong, but that ten conferences had such varying ideas on what to do with the season ... then abruptly changing course ... calls for some sort of intermediary.
Still, we've made it through the season, which is something not everyone was sure would happen. That is a huge win for the sport and a testament to all the hard work players, schools, conferences, staff, etc. did over the last several months. Despite all the chaos, this is one of the biggest achievements college football has made.
Obviously, the clunky start of the season was due to the global pandemic, but that isn't the only way that COVID-19 impacted the college football season. Players and coaches missed games due to safety protocols. Games were postponed or outright canceled. Bowl games were canned. Schedules were fluid. Stadiums were nearly empty.
As I previously mentioned, the fact that we got to bowl season is miraculous. I may have panned the start to the season, but as it went along it was nice to see a notoriously stodgy sport that is leashed to traditions be able to be flexible, and make adjustments on the fly. The ACC ditched the division format. BYU went looking for games. Schools that weren't supposed to play were quickly matched up. Aside from an issue in the canceled Clemson-Florida State game, you really haven't heard much complaining of administrators and coaches erring on the side of safety. It hasn't been fair, yet everyone has adjusted admirably.
On November 28th, Vanderbilt's Sarah Fuller made history by becoming the first woman to play in a college football game for a Power 5 program. The women's soccer goalkeeper's debut was a squib kick to begin the second half in a game against Missouri. Two weeks later, she kicked two extra points in a loss to Tennessee, becoming the first woman to score in a Power 5 game. She was added to the roster before the Missouri game after Vandy's kickers were out due to being quarantined. She didn't have an opportunity to kick for a score in that game but remained on the roster when the quarantined kickers were activated. Interim head coach Todd Fitch put her in on kicks inside the 10-yard line, and she delivered.
The Big Ten was the poster child for reversing their decision to postpone the season and instead beginning their season in late October. The plan was for a 7 game regular season with an 8th game scheduled the same day as the Big Ten title game. At issue was that there was zero wiggle room for rescheduling games and it could put teams in a spot where they may only play four or five games and try to play for a conference or national championship.
The league decided to rule that as long as a team plays six games, they are eligible for the Big Ten championship game. There was the feeling that this wouldn't be much of an issue as long as Ohio State reached the requirement ... which was evident in the way the league disqualified Wisconsin as soon as they had the third game canceled.
Then Ohio State had games against Maryland and Illinois canceled. When Ohio State faced COVID issues that could cancel their game against Michigan State, they powered through and played the game. One week left in the season, and Michigan backed out of the Big Game which left Ohio State just under the requirement. The league quickly backtracked and reversed their decision on the six-game requirement in order to allow the Buckeyes to play in the Big Ten title game.
This has led to a lot of groaning about the Big Ten bending towards the will of Ohio State on fans on social media, the media, and others in the sports world. The optics are certainly bad and there are valid points on both sides of the argument. But make no mistake about it: the Big Ten wanted Ohio State in the title game.
One of the most stunning events that happened this year is Notre Dame bucking over a century of history and joining the ACC on a one-year basis. With everyone struggling to figure out how to have a season, most leagues decided on a conference-only schedule. That hurt an independent like Notre Dame, that would have to cobble together something that looked like a workable schedule. With the Irish's agreement with the ACC to have five opponents already scheduled in place, the school and the league decided to work together full-time in 2020.
The result has been a win-win. Notre Dame went 10-0 during the regular season and got the biggest win of the season (more on that in a moment). The Irish's ratings on NBC were the highest in 15 years and the ACC got more publicity plus two of the four teams in the College Football Playoff for the first time. While everything will probably go back to normal for the 2021 season, it was still great to see what the ultimate independent could do when playing in a conference.
Obviously, the lead story of this game was that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence didn't play due to contracting the coronavirus. Add in that several Tigers defensive starters didn't play meant that Clemson didn't have their best foot forward in this match-up of high ranking teams. Still, in 2020 nothing is completely fair so this game was still the biggest we've had all season long. When one of the biggest programs in the sport heads to one of the most iconic stadiums for a battle of top four teams, it is must-see viewing.
It was everything you wanted when two top four teams play. It was back and forth late, there were big-time individual performances and the game went down to the final play. Lawrence's replacement, D.J. Uiagalelei, threw for 439 yards and a pair of touchdowns; Clemson's Cornell Powell had 161 receiving yards; Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was disruptive. But the player of the game was Irish running back Kyren Williams, who ran for 140 yards and three touchdowns. His first touchdown came on the second play of the day. His second touchdown tied the game in the first overtime. His third won the game in the second overtime.
The #4 team toppled the top-ranked team in the nation for the biggest win of the season. Sure, in these days of social distancing it was a bit cringe-worthy to see the Irish fans storm the field but it still gave us a bit of normalcy in a season that lacked it. It also gave us the best rivalry of the season -- Clemson blasted Notre Dame in the rematch for the ACC championship. If they meet again for the rubber match, it will be for all the marbles.
A perfect storm collided when white-hot Jaret Patterson's Buffalo Bulls took on Kent State and their weak run defense on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Patterson rushed for 409 yards on 36 carries and punching in a record-breaking 8 touchdowns in the 70-41 win over the Golden Flashes. Technically, the eight touchdowns tied Illinois' Howard Griffith's mark, but he did it against a non-Division I program (Southern Illinois). Patterson's effort came just 11 days after he ran for 301 yards on Bowling Green.
Ball State and Western Michigan met in the regular-season finale with a spot in the MAC championship on the line. The Cardinals led 30-27 with six seconds left when Western Michigan, at midfield, used a series of desperate laterals to attempt to score on the final play. It looked chaotic at first, as the Broncos would go back about 25 yards as they kept pitching the ball back and forth. On the 13th lateral, the ball was fumbled and it looked as if Ball State landed on the ball. But they didn't. Western Michigan picked up the ball and kept running as Ball State's bench emptied onto the field to celebrate the win (as did Western Michigan's bench to congratulate them). Two more laterals and Skyy Moore broke through a sea of players to score a touchdown. What an amazing end to a game!
Except there were flags all over the field. After the 7th lateral, the ball was actually passed forward, which is a penalty. There were also penalties on both teams for the benches spilling on the field. Or something. Who knows, since ESPN+'s feed cut off during the ref's explanation. Even though it didn't count, it was one of the most fun scenes of the season. Hooray for MACtion!
Last year, you could make the argument that DeVonta Smith was the best receiver on an Alabama team that had Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. This year, he's the top receiver in the nation and could become the first receiver to win the Heisman trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. He's at or near the top in most major receiving statistics and has put up several huge games this season.
What makes this even more special is the fact that he's playing college football this season. Smith stunned many by coming back to Tuscaloosa for his senior season when it would make all the sense in the world for him to jump to the NFL. He would've been a good draft pick and he was losing Tua Tagovailoa as his quarterback, but he came back and put up one of the best receiving seasons in quite some time.
When the Tar Heels run game was clicking during the season, they were so difficult to beat. In the Heels' season finale against Miami, they were impossible to stop. Michael Carter rushed for 308 yards and two touchdowns against the Hurricanes, while Javonte Williams piled up 236 yards and three TDs. Their combined 544 yards rushing set an NCAA record (all levels) for total rushing yards by two teammates in a game. It broke the FBS mark, which was set earlier in the year by Buffalo's Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks. The two averaged 11.6 yards per carry and the signature moment of their dominance was best displayed by Williams' ridiculous run 43-yard run where he hurdled one defender, bulldozed another, and spun on a third. North Carolina won the game, 62-26.
Florida and LSU were going back and forth in an entertaining matchup between a Gators team who had eyes on a College Football Playoff berth and the Tigers, who were struggling during their post-championship season. With the game tied 34-34 with less than three minutes to go, LSU's offense struggled to move down the field in a thick fog to set up a game-winning field goal. The Gators stopped LSU on 3rd down at the Tigers' 30-yard line when, for whatever reason, Florida defensive back Marco Wilson decided to throw the shoe of an LSU player 20-yards down the field. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct to keep the drive alive near mid-field.
While in field goal range, the Tigers ran the ball twice before calling their final time out with 32 seconds remaining (why not just run the clock down?). On the next play, the Tigers threw a pass in the flat that lost two yards. As LSU was running their kicking unit on to attempt a 57-yard field goal ... Florida inexplicably called a timeout. That allowed LSU to take their time to set up for a field goal, which they hit with 23 seconds left.
Florida's offense took over with two time outs and LSU allowed Heisman contender Kyle Trask to pass for big chunks of gains as the Gators quickly got into field goal range. Evan McPherson, who connected on 87% of his attempts, missed a 51-yarder as time expired in the foggy swamp.
The SEC never disappoints with head-scratching mistakes at the end of the season (see: Moore, Elijah).
How 2020 was it that a hastily scheduled December game between BYU and Coastal Carolina in Conway, SC was must-see football that impacted the national championship race?
Both schools were rolling along with undefeated seasons and getting next to zero respect from the national audience for doing so. Coastal Carolina was scheduled to play Liberty in a game that ESPN's College Gameday was traveling to. BYU's season was essentially over but was willing to add games whenever they were available. When Liberty had to sit out due to virus protocols, BYU quickly stepped in and agreed to play all the way across the country against a team that is ranked in the top ten.
One of the silver linings of 2020 was the flexibility that existed when it usually didn't before. BYU had a dark horse Heisman candidate, and undefeated season and could have just coasted into a nice bowl game. Instead, they stepped into a dangerous game with hardly any preparation and performed well in a really great game. BYU had a 4th quarter lead until the Chanticleers' CJ Marable punched in a touchdown to give Coastal Carolina a 22-17 win.
We didn't get Ohio State-Michigan among some other big games. It was nice to see two of the "lower tier" programs hook up for a battle and gave us a thrilling time. It also gave us the slogan, "Mormons vs. Mullets".
The Alabama-Mississippi game was one of the most entertaining of the season. The game had the interesting storyline of Lane Kiffin facing off against Nick Saban ... years after Saban told Kiffin to leave for the FAU head coach job a week before the national championship game. No one thought that the Rebels could hang with the Tide -- but they did.
Mississippi struck first with a touchdown on the opening drive. Alabama answered with a DeVonta Smith TD grab. Mississippi touchdown. Alabama touchdown. Mississippi touchdown. Alabama touchdown. Halftime.
The control changed a bit in the second half. A Najee Harris 33-yard touchdown run gave the Tide their first lead, 28-21. Then Mississippi scored on a 68-yard touchdown grab by Kenny Yeboah. Here we go again: 'Bama TD. Ole Miss TD. Bama TD. Ole Miss TD. Bama TD.
And that's when the Rebels ran out of gas.
Alabama held the Rebels to a field goal halfway through the fourth quarter to hold a 49-45 lead. Smith would catch another touchdown pass and Najee Harris tacked on a TD run to end up with a 63-48 win. There were 1,370 yards of total offense, Harris rushed for 206 yards, Smith caught 13 passes for 164 yards, Yeboah had 181 receiving yards and just one turnover despite all that offense.
This has been a great season for the Group of 5. We've already mentioned Coastal Carolina and independent BYU, but there was plenty of exciting football played in leagues that typically don't get much run. Cincinnati spent much of the year flirting with a College Football Playoff spot. Louisiana took down Iowa State in Ames. Liberty took down Virginia Tech and Syracuse and nearly toppled NC State, which turned out to be their only loss. Buffalo, thanks to Jaret Patterson, and Marshall have also been in the mix.
San Jose State finished the season 7-0 and Mountain West champs! San Jose State!
While none of these teams made the playoff, it still was a great season for leagues that missed out on the opportunity to face the big dogs. With the Power 5 cutting out nearly all of the non-conference games, these smaller leagues and programs were set to have a tough time getting exposure this season. They certainly hit on nearly every opportunity that presented itself.
Iowa State also had a historically great season by winning the Big 12 (or any conference) regular-season title outright for the first time ever. They played in their first-ever Big 12 championship game, which they lost to Oklahoma.
But it was the first game against Oklahoma that made waves. The Cyclones stood up to the mighty Sooners, scoring a touchdown with four minutes left to take a 37-30 lead, and then picking off Spencer Rattler in the end zone to preserve the win. It was the Cyclones' first win over Oklahoma in Ames since 1960. Yes, it had been 60 years since Iowa State knocked off Oklahoma at home -- a span of 24 games -- which broke the longest home losing streak to an opponent in college football history.
It was also the first time Oklahoma lost consecutive games since 1999.
Look, there have been some hurt feelings all season long in college football. It began before the season even started when Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and other Big Ten bigwigs openly complained about the conference's decision to postpone the season. When they reversed course, a lot of people had an opinion about the Big Ten's eligibility to make the College Football Playoff. One of those people included Clemson's, Dabo Swinney.
It began when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey complained when the ACC canceled late-season games to allow Clemson and Notre Dame to rest a week before their meeting in the ACC championship game. Swinney defended the ACC by saying if the league was trying to protect both schools, then why didn't they just cancel the title game too? From there, Swinney was the highest-profile person to take a dig at Ohio State making the playoff after playing just six games:
"It's almost like you've got to have 120 hours to get a business degree and yet these people over here only need 60 hours to get a business degree. I think any time you step in between the lines, the game of football, there's a lot that can happen — a lot. I mean, heck — in 2017, we lost to a three-win or four-win Syracuse team and still went to the Playoffs. So anything can happen. Guys can get hurt. There's a lot. So I think the fact that we're going to have 11 games as well as the SEC teams — I mean, you look at Florida and Texas A&M and Alabama. I mean, these teams are going to have 11 games this year. It's incredible and I think the Big Ten had the same opportunity and they chose not to play."
Clemson and Ohio State face off in the Sugar Bowl.
Sometimes a quote can take on a life of its own. ESPN college football analyst Joey Galloway referred to the Northwestern Wildcats as "a bunch of Rece Davises running around out there." It was a joking line to his colleague and a backhanded dig to the Wildcats as being unathletic.
Then Northwestern beat Wisconsin, 17-7, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald trolled Galloway in the post-game interview, saying “how about these Fighting Rece Davises right here, huh, Joey Galloway? How about the Fighting Rece Davises?” Fitzgerald would go on to say that it fueled his team as some took offense to it (others found it funny). The players even chanted Rece Davis' name as they ran off the field. They even wore shirts with Davis' name on it in Northwestern colors.
One of the best stories of the football season is San Jose State. The Aztecs went 7-0 and won their first Mountain West championship when they defeated conference power Boise State in the title game. What makes this all the more compelling is that the Aztecs were forced away from their home in mid-November due to coronavirus protocols. So San Jose State played their final two "home" games ... including the championship game against Boise State ... in Las Vegas.
This is a program that had gone 8-29 in Brett Brennan's first three seasons as head coach, including a pair of 11-loss seasons. They hadn't won at least seven games since 2012 and hadn't won a conference championship since they won the Big West in 1991. They were picked to finish 10th in the 12-team Mountain West in the preseason poll, yet would win all seven of their games by at least 10 points.
When the Big Ten season began, Penn State was on the shortlist of national championship contenders while Indiana was an up-and-coming program that was looking for consistent success. When the two opened their season in late October, the two gave us one of the best finishes to a game all season. Penn State stormed back from a 17-7 halftime deficit to take a 28-20 lead with less than two minutes left in regulation. Penix completed five passes in the final drive and punched in a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining. Needing a two-point conversion, Penix ran that in as well, tying the game.
In overtime, the Nittany Lions needed just four plays to score a touchdown and take a 35-28 lead. On their fifth play of overtime, Penix found Whop Philyor for a 9-yard touchdown, and Indiana was set to send the game into double overtime. Well, except that the Hoosiers were going for two and deciding the game right then. Penix went back to pass, then scrambled to his left and ran towards the pylon. He stretched his right arm just as he was heading out of bounds. The officials ruled it a successful two-point conversion, giving the Hoosiers the upset win. It was so close that even replays couldn't verify if he got to the pylon or if he was a blade of grass short.
When Mississippi State beat LSU in the season opener, it opened a lot of people's eyes about Mike Leach's Air Raid offense and its effectiveness in the Southeastern Conference. Stanford transfer K.J. Costello went off in his first start with the Bulldogs, completing 36 of 60 passes for and SEC-record 623 yards and 5 touchdowns. He didn't just set the record -- he crushed Eric Zeier's previous mark of 544 yards. The fact that he set it at the home of the defending champions made it all the more impressive.
However, similar to Penn State earlier, LSU wasn't the team we thought they would be. Then again, neither would Mississippi State. After this jaw-dropping performance, Costello would only throw for 660 yards the rest of the season. In the Bulldogs' next game, he threw the ball 59 times but three were intercepted and Mississippi State lost to Arkansas by seven. He threw four picks in a 24-2 loss to Kentucky. Needless to say, the rest of the season didn't go the way the opening game went.
Still, Leach and Costello will always have Baton Rouge.
It has been a horrible year for Syracuse in 2020. The Orange finished the season in 15th place in the 15-team ACC and lost to Liberty along the way. But the moment that will define this season happened on Thanksgiving weekend against NC State. Down 36-29 and with no timeouts, the Orange had a 1st-and-goal on the nine-yard line.
1st down: Syracuse ran the ball for two yards. NC State called a timeout with 30 seconds left.
2nd down: Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper ran for no gain.
3rd down: Culpepper is sacked for a loss of 11 yards. Six seconds left
4th down: Culpepper spikes the ball to stop the clock with one second left. Turnover on downs.
Even under the most difficult circumstances in our lifetime, the Army-Navy game still has the ability to bring nostalgia and a sense of pride. This year's Army-Navy game was held at West Point for the first time since World War II. Despite the limited capacity of fans, the cadets who were in attendance cheered loudly, including when President Donald Trump was on hand for the pre-game coin toss. The game was a hard-fought, physical (and chippy) struggle that looked haunting when the fog rolled in. Army would hold on for a 15-0 victory.
Though Jackson State hasn't played a game yet (the SWAC postponed fall sports and is hoping to have a spring football schedule in 2021), Neon Deion has had a huge impact in college football. Sanders' hiring in September placed a vocal and high profile legend in the FCS and at a Historically Black College and University. Whether he becomes successful at winning football games or not, Sanders has already been a beacon for the great aspects of HBCUs and the so-called lower tier of major college football. He's been a hit at selling himself, his program, and the FCS to some high-end prospects during recruiting that he has already become a force on the recruiting trail. No matter what, he will be a positive influence on the young men he brings into the program.
Tulsa's Zaven Collins has been one of the best defensive players you probably didn't hear of. In the Golden Hurricane's game against Tulane, he made one of the signature plays of the 2020 season. After a scoreless first half, Tulane took a 14-0 lead heading into the final quarter. Tulsa fought back but would trail 21-14 with just six seconds remaining and the Hurricane on the Green Wave's 37-yard line. Davis Brin threw a Hail Mary that somehow found JuanCarlos Santana in the corner of the endzone to tie the game and sent it to overtime.
After the two teams exchanged field goals in the first OT, Tulane drove the ball to the four-yard line. Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt threw a short pass that was picked off by Collins and returned 96 yards for a Tulsa game-winning touchdown.
Hardly anything about 2020 screamed "normal" ... but there is one thing that did. The Power 5 champions.
Clemson won the ACC championship for the sixth straight time. Alabama won the SEC. Ohio State won the Big Ten title for the fourth straight season. Oklahoma won their sixth straight Big 12 championship. Oregon won back-to-back Pac 12 championships. Pretty normal.
Add in historic program Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff features four teams that have combined for 18 appearances in the playoff ... and won 5 of the 6 previous championships. The four programs are 14-9 in the playoff, with 8 of those 9 losses coming to one of the other schools.
We have a rematch of one of last year's semifinals and, if the seeds hold to form, we could have the fourth Alabama-Clemson championship in the last six years. In a season of so much upheaval and change, the end of the story really didn't change.