Before today’s NFL players became household names and Super Bowl champions, they cut their teeth in the collegiate ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A. There are over 120 schools fielding football teams at this level, and several more are making the transition from the Football Championship Division (FCS), formerly referred to as Division I-AA.
Players such as Peyton Manning and J.J. Watt led their respective universities in heated rivalry games and postseason bowl games before being drafted into the NFL. Coaches such as Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, and Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano honed their craft and made a name for themselves at the college level.
But with all these changes, the past decade has been a tumultuous one for college football with plenty of highs and some significant lows. Records have been set and broken, championships and accolades have been won, and feats never before seen have been achieved. On the flip side, scandals have rocked many programs, players have been arrested, a heinous crime has been committed, and long-standing rivalries have been cast aside in the name of realignment.
Here are 20 of the most significant events — in rough chronological order — to have occurred in college football over the past 10 years:
WHO GOES TO THE TITLE GAME?
College football is unique in the way it produces a national champion. Unlike the NFL, or even lower-division college football, there is no playoff. For decades, the national champion was crowned by polls determined by human voters. Most of the time, the top two teams didn’t even play one another.
In an effort to fix that while still preserving the bowl system, the powers that be came up with the Bowl Championship Series. Comprised of the four biggest bowls (Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange), the BCS used a mix of computer and human polls to determine the top two teams in the country. The six major conferences, known as BCS or “automatic qualifying” (AQ) conferences had automatic bids to the prestigious BCS bowls. The system has been in place since the 1998 season, but it has not been without controversy. Seemingly every year, the formula and rules were tweaked, yet every year, some new issue would crop up.
In the 2000 season, No. 2 Miami was left out of the title game despite handing title-game participant Florida State its only loss of the season and being ranked higher in both human polls. Fourth-ranked Washington was also skipped over despite being the only team to beat Miami as well as also beating No. 5 Oregon State. The next season, Nebraska played for the title despite getting walloped by Colorado 62-36 in the final game of the regular season. The Cornhuskers didn’t even win their own division, let alone their conference, yet they were allowed a shot at the national title.
The biggest controversy came in 2004 when four teams finished undefeated. SEC champion Auburn was denied a chance at a national title when the computers chose USC and Oklahoma (Utah never received any consideration). In 2011, LSU played Alabama in a rematch of a regular season game. Many were outraged that Alabama was picked since they had already lost to LSU earlier that year, didn’t win their own division of the SEC and didn’t play in the SEC championship game.
The controversy was not just reserved for the title game, either. BCS berths meant a significant payday for schools, so there was always a backlash whenever a team missed out, especially when an AQ conference produced a mediocre champion who received an automatic bid.
The most egregious example occurred in 2010-11 when unranked and 8-4 Connecticut won a share of the Big East and received a berth in the Fiesta Bowl while Boise State, Michigan State, LSU, Missouri, and Oklahoma State all finished with 10 or more wins yet were left out of the BCS. UConn was outmatched and blown away in the Fiesta Bowl.
Further BCS controversy has come from the various polls used to determine the rankings. The computer formulas used are secret and not revealed, so there is no way to know how they are calculated and how accurate they are. Also, the Harris poll has come under fire on numerous occasions after it was discovered that some voters didn’t watch certain teams or didn’t know the results of some games.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE SPREAD OFFENSE
On the field, the biggest development of the past 10 years has been the rise of the spread offense. Originally seen as a gimmick offense used by undersized teams lacking the talent and depth to be more competitive with a traditional pro-style offense, the spread has become ubiquitous across large swaths of college football.
Even the SEC, with its dominating defenses, has come around and grudgingly accepted the spread after Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and guided Auburn to a national title while running a spread attack. Designed to get the ball to an offense’s best playmakers in space, the spread offense has numerous variations and is extremely difficult to defend because of all the mismatches it creates.
There are a multitude of schools that achieved great success with the spread: West Virginia and Oregon became national title contenders on the strength of powerful spread rushing attacks; Urban Meyer used a version of the spread at Florida to win two national titles; Missouri became a Big 12 contender; perennial-doormat Kansas utilized the spread offense en route to a No. 2 ranking and BCS bowl berth during the 2007 season; and Robert Griffin III won the Heisman and took Baylor to new heights while masterfully operating a variation of the spread.
Numerous records have fallen under the onslaught of prolific spread offenses, and the scheme’s success has infiltrated the ranks of the NFL as the New England Patriots incorporated spread elements into their record-setting offense.
THE RISE AND FALL OF USC
For the greater part of the past decade, USC ruled the Pac-10 and the nation. The Trojans were a flashier version of what Alabama is now: perennial national title favorites loaded with All-Americans and future NFL draft picks. The Trojans didn’t rebuild, they simply reloaded.
Quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy his senior season. His replacement, Matt Leinart, also won a Heisman and a national title during his time at USC. His successor, Mark Sanchez, ended up being a top-5 NFL draft pick. USC was simply loaded, and in a city lacking an NFL team, they were the toast of the town. Hollywood stars even came to watch practices. Under Pete Carroll, the Trojans were regular fixtures in the top 10. After a 2-5 start his first season, USC went 67-7 over its next 74 games, including a stretch of 34 consecutive victories spanning 2003-05. The Trojans won a BCS national championship, lost in another title game, and narrowly missed out on a couple of other title shots after late-season losses. USC also was awarded a national title by the Associated Press in 2003 after being ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll but being left out of the BCS title game. The Trojans finished in the top four seven straight years, won six BCS bowls, produced 25 First-team AllAmericans, 53 draft picks, 14 first round draft picks, and three Heisman Trophy winners.
The school’s fall began in 2010, when the NCAA levied sanctions against the university after finding that former running back Reggie Bush received improper benefits. USC was forced to forfeit a number of victories and their national title, and the NCAA gave them a two-year bowl ban as well as a loss of scholarships. Carroll left for the NFL, and his replacement Lane Kiffin was unable to keep the Trojans from falling back to the pack. Kiffin was fired after the fifth game of the current season, a 62-41 blowout at the hands of Arizona State that left the Trojans 2-3 on the season.
The rest of the Pac-12 has caught USC, and the Trojans are no longer the conference’s flag bearers. That role has been taken up by Oregon and Stanford. USC entered the 2012 season ranked No. 1 in virtually every preseason poll, but failed to live up to expectations, finishing the season 7-6 and unranked.
THE LITTLE GUYS TIME TO SHINE
The 2005 Fiesta Bowl marked the first time a team outside of the six power conferences (Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac-12, and Big East) played in a BCS bowl. The game pitted Big East champion Pittsburgh against undefeated Utah of the Mountain West. The Utes steamrolled through their schedule, winning every game by at least 14 points and defeating five bowl teams by an average of over three touchdowns. Pitt proved no match for Utah as the Utes raced out to a 28-0 lead and eventually won 35-7.
Coach Urban Meyer left Utah after the season to take over at Florida and lead the Gators to two national titles while quarterback Alex Smith was drafted No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. While Pitt wasn’t a top-tier opponent, the game was significant in that not only was it the first time a mid-major was able to play in an elite bowl, the Utes showed they belonged. Utah’s victory cracked open the door for non-BCS schools and set the stage for more victories for the little guys in the years to come.
THE BIG 10 NETWORK
The creation of the Big 10 network in 2006 may not seem like a momentous event, but it has had arguably the most profound impact on college football in the past decade. It’s not the network’s viewership or programming that has changed football — the Big 10 Network is only available in about 90 million homes, and the top games are picked up by ABC or ESPN — but what the network set in motion.
The network has provided a financial windfall to every school in the Big 10, and that has started a money and arms race that has changed the football landscape. Other conferences started forming their own media networks in order to increase their own revenue, and that lead to the round of conference realignment that sent shockwaves across the nation, destroyed long-standing rivalries, and made conferences unrecognizable.
THE SEC DOMINANCE
No conference has dominated the past decade like the SEC. Home of the most passionate, and crazy, fans in all of college football, the Southeastern Conference has won the past seven BCS championships. In 2011, two SEC teams played for the title, and it is generally assumed that the winner of the SEC will get a spot in the title game, even with one loss. SEC teams have defeated champions from the Big 12, Big 10, Pac-12, and independent Notre Dame. Illustrious programs such as Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and the Fighting Irish have proven no match for the mighty SEC.
It hasn’t been just one SEC team, either. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and LSU have all won national titles over that span, and all except Auburn have won multiple titles. The conference’s reign doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon considering Alabama will be favored for a third-straight title in 2013, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Georgia and Florida were both top-five teams, and perennial bottom-feeder Kentucky currently has the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation all in 2013.
MID-MAJORS FIGHTING FOR THEIR CHANCE TO SHINE
The 2007 Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the first time a non-BCS school crashed the BCS party. Utah, under Urban Meyer and led by No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Alex Smith, had broken that barrier a couple years earlier and destroyed an overmatched and unranked Pitt squad.
Still there was considerable doubt and skepticism about whether a mid-major school could hang with one of college football’s big boys. In 2007, undefeated Boise State of the WAC faced mighty Oklahoma, No. 8 in the country and champions of the Big 12. The Sooners were loaded with future NFL players and were led by stud running back Adrian Petersen.
Everyone thought that Boise State would be overmatched and that the game would be a blowout, but it ended up being arguably the greatest game in college football history. The Broncos were not intimidated and raced out to a 28-10 lead in the third quarter. Oklahoma battled back and tied the game at 28-28 with under 1:30 to go. On the first offensive play following the tying score, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, putting Oklahoma up 35-28 with about a minute left. The crowd was stunned, and it appeared that the Sooners had pulled off the comeback. Little Boise State put up a good fight, but ultimately, it was not enough. Nobody informed the Broncos, however, as Zabransky regrouped and led his team down the field. On fourth-and-18 with 18 seconds remaining, Zabransky threw a 15-yard pass to Drisan James. In a designed play, James drew Oklahoma defenders toward him before lateraling the ball to Jerard Rabb, who sprinted 35 yards for the tying touchdown.
Petersen put the Sooners up in overtime with a 25-yard touchdown run on the first play, setting the stage for more Boise State heroics. On fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line, Boise State called a halfback pass that was good for a touchdown. Eschewing an extra point in favor of going for the win, Boise State went for two and used another trick play called “Statue.” Zabransky faked a screen pass to the right with his right hand while holding the ball in his left. The defense bit on the fake, and halfback Ian Johnson took the handoff and strolled into the end zone untouched, giving Boise State a wild 43-42 victory and making the Broncos the only undefeated team that season. The game showed that the elite mid-major teams could play with the big boys and further opened the door for non-BCS schools to play in BCS bowls.
APPALACHIAN STATE VS. MIGHTY MICHIGAN
FCS squads defeating their FBS brethren is always a surprise, but no upset was more shocking than Appalachian State beating Michigan to open the 2007 season. The Mountaineers were the two-time defending FCS champions and ranked No. 1 at that level, but Michigan is one of the blue-bloods of college football.
The Wolverines are the winningest program in FBS history, and they came into the 2007 ranked No. 5 and touted as a national title contender. Michigan rallied from a 28-17 halftime deficit, but Appalachian State took a 34-32 lead with 26 seconds left in the game and blocked a game-winning field goal attempt to seal the stunning victory. Appalachian State became the first FCS team to beat a ranked FBS squad and went on to win their third-straight FCS national championship. Michigan dropped out of the AP poll entirely, becoming the first top-5 team to ever drop out of the rankings in one week.
No team has been as successful over the past 10 years than the Alabama Crimson Tide. Under Coach Nick Saban, Alabama has trampled the rest of the nation. The Crimson Tide have won over 80 percent of their games in Saban’s six seasons at the helm, going 63-13. Alabama has won the SEC twice and captured three national titles, including 2011 and 2012.
The Tide is heavily favored to win it all again in 2013 to make it three in-a-row. The team has produced one Heisman Trophy winner, 16 consensus All-Americans, and 33 NFL draft picks. Of those 33 players drafted, an astounding 14 were first-round selections.
TIM TEBOW’S SUPERIORITY IN COLLEGE
Tim Tebow is one of the most controversial figures in the NFL, but before he enflamed the passions of NFL fans and made Skip Bayless a household name, he established himself as one of the greatest college football players of all time.
During his career at Florida, Tebow was a member of two BCS championship teams and became the first underclassman ever to win the Heisman Trophy after being awarded the trophy in 2007. He set SEC records for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns, and Tebow became the first player in FBS history to run and pass for 20 touchdowns each in a single season. His 23 rushing touchdowns were also a record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in one season, and he set the SEC’s all-time record for career touchdowns.
Despite all the records and gaudy statistics, Tebow is best-known for his tireless work ethic and tremendous leadership ability. After a loss to Mississippi, Tebow gave a legendary post-game speech where he apologized for the loss and promised that nobody would harder than him and that no team would play harder than Florida would the rest of the season. The Gators responded and made it to the BCS championship game where they defeated Oklahoma after a fiery halftime speech from Tebow.
CHANGING THE NON-BCS PERCEPTION
The 2009 Sugar Bowl lacked the theatrics of Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl victory two years prior, but it arguably had a greater effect on the perception of non-BCS programs. The game pitted undefeated Utah of the Mountain West against 12-1 Alabama of the SEC.
Yes, Boise State had defeated a powerhouse BCS program, but many felt that it just a one-time thing, especially after Hawai’i was routed by Georgia the next season. Oklahoma was good but not great that year; no way could the Utes stand up to the onslaught of the Crimson Tide. It was going to be a blowout, and it was, only not in the way everyone thought.
Utah crushed Alabama, storming out to a 21-0 lead en route to a 31-17 victory. Utah’s defense swarmed Alabama, registering eight sacks and holding the Tide to a measly 31 yards rushing and 208 yards of total offense. It was Utah’s second BCS victory in as many tries, and the win gained widespread respect for elite mid-major teams.
Just a year later, Boise State would return to the BCS to play TCU in a historic game; it was the first time two non BCS schools had been invited to BCS games in the same season. Both TCU and Boise State would be viewed as national title contenders over the next couple of years, and that is in large part to Utah’s showing against Alabama and the respect the Utes earned throughout the nation.
OREGON DUCKS ARE THE COOL KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Through most of the Pac-12’s history, Oregon has been an afterthought. Between 1950 and 1999, the Ducks won only one conference title. The program started to rise under Mike Bellotti, winning conference titles in 2000 and 2001 and appearing regularly in the top 25, but the program really came to prominence once Chip Kelly took over in 2009.
Behind their frenzied, up-tempo offense, the Ducks ran all over opponents. Oregon has made four straight BCS bowl appearances, including a title game loss to Auburn to end the 2010 season. The Ducks have become one of the best programs in the country and are regular fixtures in the top 10.
Oregon’s facilities are top-notch, and the school’s relationship with Nike — company founder Phil Knight is an Oregon alum and prominent booster — has paid huge dividends. Oregon seemingly has a new uniform every week, and that has launched the trend of schools having special alternate uniforms. It gives Oregon a leg up in recruiting as top high school athletes want to play for one of the coolest programs in the land. Oregon lacks the rich and lengthy history of traditional powers, but the Ducks have sure made up for it in a hurry, fitting for a program that strives to move as fast as possible.
MASSIVE COLLEGE FOOTBALL REALIGNMENT
By far the biggest story of the past decade in college football is conference realignment. The summer of 2010 set off a flurry of moves as schools jockeyed to strengthen their own individual positions.
That summer, Nebraska — a founding member of the Big 12 — left the conference to join the Big 10. The Big 12 seemed on the verge of collapse after it was widely-reported that Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech would join Colorado in moving to the Pac-10. That ultimately fell through, but the Pac-10 did pluck Utah from the Mountain West to join Colorado and create the Pac-12. The next few years saw Texas A&M and Missouri leave the Big 12 to join the SEC while the Big 10 added Rutgers and Maryland.
The biggest losers were the Big East, Conference USA, and WAC. The Big East overplayed its hand in negotiating a new television contract and added an unwieldy group of schools that stretched all across America. Members grew unhappy, and 13 members of the league left. Among the league’s football schools, Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse left for the ACC; Rutgers went to the Big 10; TCU jumped ship to the Big 12 before ever playing in the Big East; West Virginia also joined the Big 12; and Boise State and San Diego State reneged on their decisions to join the league and remained in the Mountain West.
Conference USA’s ranks were severely depleted after seven members accepted invites into the Big East. That pales in comparison to what happened to the WAC. After being raided by bigger conferences, both the Mountain West and Conference USA needed to replenish their losses, so they turned to the WAC. By the time it was over, the WAC had only two football schools for the 2013 season, meaning the end of the WAC as an FBS football conference.
THE LONGHORN NETWORK
At the end of summer in 2011, ESPN and Texas debuted the Longhorn Network, a network devoted solely to University of Texas-related programming. The network was highly controversial and drew the ire of many schools across the country. Those schools felt it gave Texas an unfair advantage when it came to recruiting, especially after it was reported that the network was considering airing high school sports events. That was one of the big reasons why Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC, resulting in the cessation of a football rivalry that dated back over 100 years.
Fellow Big 12 schools balked at having their games on the Longhorn Network, upset at the prospect of their fans giving money to Texas just so they can watch the game. Many people also expressed concerns about the partnership with ESPN since it blurs the lines between journalism and entertainment. If there is a negative story about Texas, will ESPN it fairly since it has a financial stake in the success of the network?
The Longhorn Network hasn’t been all that successful thus far, but it does serve as an example of how much influence media rights have on athletic programs. Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M all left the Big 12 partly due to fears that Texas would grow too powerful, and the big reason Texas didn’t join the Pac-12 was because the league didn’t want to cede more money and media rights to the competition.
THE SHAME OF PENN STATE
Unfortunately, not all of the stories on this list are positive, and the worst is unquestionably the sordid affair that happened at Penn State University. In the fall of 2011, it was revealed that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been indicted on charges of sexual abuse against young boys. The scandal rocked the university community, especially after more and more details emerged that suggested a cover up by university officials. Sandusky was convicted, and university president Graham Spanier, senior vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley were all charged with various crimes for allegedly covering up Sandusky’s actions and failing to report it to the authorities.
Legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired and had his name stricken from several trophies and awards. Further, Penn State was stripped of 112 wins from 1998-2011, meaning Paterno was no longer the winningest coach in NCAA history. The NCAA hammered the program with sanctions that included a four-year postseason ban, $60 million fine, and a limit of 65 scholarships a year for four years. Paterno succumbed to lung cancer just a couple months later in January of 2012.
LEGAL FAILURES OF THE NCAA
In 2010, Nevin Shapiro — a major Miami athletics booster — was convicted of securities fraud and money laundering. Shapiro made allegations about NCAA violations. An investigation was conducted, and it seemed like an open-and-shut case.
However, the NCAA botched it terribly. NCAA investigators improperly obtained information through Shapiro’s defense attorney; the attorney was given questions to ask during a deposition for a case unrelated to the NCAA. The investigation of Miami was compromised, and it was a huge black eye for the NCAA. The organization has come under fire and its integrity called into question.
JOHNNY “FOOTBALL” MANZIEL
Known as “Johnny Football,” Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel went from an unknown to becoming the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. He led the Aggies to an 11-2 finish, completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 3,700 yards and 26 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions while also rushing for 1,400 yards and another 21 touchdowns. Manziel set the SEC record for total offense, surpassing previous Heisman winners and first-round NFL draft picks Tim Tebow and Cam Newton.
Manziel also became just the fifth player in history, and first freshman, to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He is the first freshman to ever win the Davey O’Brien Award given to the nation’s best quarterback and was a first-team All-American. He set numerous NCAA and SEC records and led A&M to an upset over No. 1 Alabama, the Tide’s only loss of the season.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND COLLEGE ATHLETES
Social media has burst onto the scene over the past few years, and college football has not been immune. Services like Facebook and Twitter allow for instantaneous transmittal of information, which can be good and bad.
Breaking news stories are revealed in real-time, and fans can get the latest information faster than ever before. The downside is that once something is on the Internet, it can’t be taken back, and when one is dealing with young college kids, the smartest decisions are not always made. Johnny Manziel created a firestorm when he vented on Twitter about getting a ticket in College Station. Numerous recruits have tweeted dumb things or posted unwise comments on Facebook and suddenly found themselves embroiled in controversy.
Anyone with a cell phone can record images of a player or coach doing or saying something they’ll later regret. Social media has provided fans with even greater access to their teams and favorite players, but that can be a double-edged sword. Highly-touted recruits get bombarded with tweets and Facebook messages from fans eager to convince them to commit to their school of choice or from fans furious that the recruit chose another school. Opposing fans can harass players and/or their significant others.
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Every level of college football decides its national champion via a playoff, except for the FBS. That is going to change starting in 2014 when a four-team playoff makes its inaugural appearance.
No longer will teams be at the whim of faulty computer formulas or unqualified voters. Like the NCAA basketball tournament, a selection committee will be selected to choose the participants. That committee is currently in the process of being formed.
Many people are pushing for a larger playoff format, but the four-team system represents a significant step for playoff advocates and a seismic change for college football’s postseason.
THE NCAA’S GREEDY BUSINESS MODEL
Of all the items on this list, this one could have the greatest impact and change college athletics as we know it. Ed O’Bannon, and former basketball player at UCLA, sued the NCAA and accused the organization of violating antitrust law.
The lawsuit revolves around the NCAA licensing the likenesses, names, and images of players and not providing them with any form of compensation. For instance, EA Sports’ popular NCAA Football video game features former players on its cover and uses likenesses of current players, but they don’t see a dime. Texas A&M sells a ton of No. 2 jerseys, yet Johnny Manziel doesn’t receive any money from those transactions.
Basically, college football players generate billions of dollars in revenue for their schools and the NCAA, but the players get no share of it. Nobody knows exactly what the repercussions will be if the lawsuit is successful, but everybody agrees that the current business model will be shattered. Athletes could end up getting paid, the NCAA could be dismantled, and a new governing body would be formed. There would be employment and tax implications to consider as well, so this lawsuit could really open up a huge can of worms.