What if ... one play had altered the course of college football history?
Had Florida quarterback Chris Leak managed to scramble for three more feet on a third-and-six play late in the fourth quarter against LSU in 2004, the fate of some of college football's most storied programs would have changed dramatically. I thought of this play this week as I read
Because it's June -- and because I'm tired of writing about the latest playoff plan saber-rattling -- I decided to examine how Leak making that first down might have affected college football's timeline. This is a completely whimsical exercise, and those who despise whimsy probably should click away. Those who want to know how one first down in one game in 2004 could create an all-Big Ten BCS title game, a national title for Lane Kiffin, a bronze statue of Mike Shula and 16-team superconferences should keep reading.
We'll start on a sticky (82 percent humidity) October night in Gainesville in 2004...
Up 21-17, Florida is backed up near its goal line. Fans howl because the Gators have just called an unsuccessful pass when they need to run as much clock as possible. On third-and-six, Leak drops back to throw and finds no one open. He tucks and runs. In this timeline, LSU safety Jesse Daniels hesitates an extra beat. He doesn't tackle Leak until after Leak has passed the first-down marker. Instead of punting, Florida runs out the clock and improves its record to 5-1. Even though he won the national title the year before, LSU coach Nick Saban feels his seat warming as the Tigers drop to 3-3 and fall out of the Top 25.
Two weeks later, the Gators -- now ranked in the top 10 -- win at Mississippi State. Coach Ron Zook is not fired the following Monday. Florida's week of practice is not disrupted, and the Gators are not playing for a lame-duck staff. Florida beats Georgia for the seventh consecutive season despite the fact that Georgia has the superior team. Tennessee still wins the SEC East by virtue of its win against Florida in Knoxville, but Zook receives a raise and a contract extension.
Because Florida doesn't need a new coach, Notre Dame is the highest profile program looking to make a hire. The hottest name in coaching is Utah's Urban Meyer, who, lo and behold, has called Notre Dame his "dream job." Shortly after leading the Utes to an undefeated season and a Fiesta Bowl berth, Meyer accepts the Notre Dame job. Saban, sick of getting criticized in Baton Rouge less than a year after winning a national title, decamps for the Miami Dolphins just as he did in our timeline. LSU hires Oklahoma State's Les Miles to replace Saban.
Mike Gundy takes over at Oklahoma State and uses some of T. Boone Pickens' largesse to make Florida assistants Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline an offer they can't refuse. (This happened in our timeline, but Fedora and Wickline were headed to Illinois with Zook.) The men take the jobs. Near Jacksonville, star quarterback recruit Tim Tebow laments the departure of Fedora, his favorite coordinator. Tebow turns his attention to his other favorite coach. After leading Nease High to a state title in 2005, Tebow opts to play for that coach. In a December press conference at his school, Tebow announces his intention to play for Mike Shula at Alabama.
During spring practice in 2006, John Parker Wilson beats out Tebow for the starting job in Tuscaloosa, but Shula realizes he needs to get his star recruit on the field and creates a special package of plays for Tebow. This pays its first major dividend in the second overtime at Arkansas on Sept. 23, 2006. After Wilson finds Nick Walker for a one-yard touchdown pass, Shula leaves his offense on the field and sends Tebow in at quarterback. The Arkansas defense, expecting an extra point try because Alabama had the ball first in this period, isn't ready when Tebow comes barreling across the goal line. Before Daniel Moore can even fire up his brush to paint Tebow's Tumble, Tebow has also led the Crimson Tide to an upset win in Gainesville on Sept. 30.
The loss to Alabama sends what should have been Zook's best Florida team into a tailspin. It loses to LSU, Auburn and Georgia in consecutive games. After the loss to Georgia eliminates the Gators from the SEC East race, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley fires Zook. The web page FireRonZook.com, dormant during Florida's 2005 SEC East title run, roars back to life to declare victory.
In South Bend, Meyer has finally made an uneasy peace with quarterback Brady Quinn. Early on, Quinn was a square peg in the round hole that was Meyer's spread option. After a 2005 loss to USC leaves Meyer in tears at his postgame press conference, Meyer tweaks the offense to better utilize Quinn's strengths. In February 2006, Meyer makes the most important addition to the offense when he signs a speedy receiver out of Virginia Beach, Va., named Percy Harvin. The Fighting Irish lose only to Michigan and USC in 2006 and reach a BCS bowl.
On Nov. 18, 2006, Ohio State and Michigan play a classic in Columbus that the Buckeyes win, 42-39. The drumbeat immediately begins for a rematch in the BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz. But there are other contenders, and the Wolverines will have to wait two weeks to learn whether they'll get another shot at the Buckeyes. USC enters its season finale at UCLA with only one loss. LSU enters the SEC title game against Tennessee with only one loss. At halftime in Atlanta, LSU fans gather below televisions mounted in the bathrooms at the Georgia Dome to watch the final seconds of UCLA's stunning upset of USC. Then they return to their seats to watch the Volunteers crush their national title dreams -- just as LSU crushed Tennessee's title hopes in the 2001 SEC title game.
Fans throughout most of the nation have complained for weeks that ESPN favors the Big Ten over the other conferences. Now those fans are aghast at the thought of a rematch in the BCS title game. Michigan got its chance, they scream. Let someone else have a shot. That someone else is Big East champ Louisville, which went 11-1 with a loss at Rutgers. "Sure, Michigan didn't win the Big Ten title, but let's look at which team had the better loss," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says on ESPN after championship Saturday has concluded. "Michigan's only loss is to No. 1 Ohio State. Louisville lost to Rutgers. I don't have a lot of regard for that team."
Human voters and computers agree with Delany, and Michigan is placed into the title game. For weeks, fans complain that the Big Ten runs college football. These complaints are loudest in SEC country. The Southerners take a small measure of pride when Tennessee whips Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, but they claim en masse to be too disgusted with the process to watch the title game. Come Jan. 8, 2007, most of them watch anyway. The Wolverines hammer the Buckeyes in the rematch, and across the nation, pundits wonder aloud whether the Big Ten has grown too powerful. After the game, SEC commissioner Mike Slive releases an open letter to fans vowing to pursue a playoff that will provide a fair process for every conference.
Meanwhile, the SEC is still buzzing about Florida's hire. AD Foley considers Louisville's Bobby Petrino (Foley's actual second choice behind Meyer in 2004 in our timeline), but can't shake the feeling that Petrino has his eye on an NFL job. Foley offers the job to Boise State's Chris Petersen, who has just engineered a classic Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, but Petersen says no. Finally, on Jan. 4, 2007, the Gators call a press conference. Foley's hire?
Saban doesn't promise immediate results. He says something about "The Process." Gators fans, while excited, wonder if they should get their hopes up considering Saban went 1-4 against Florida while at LSU. Meanwhile, Zook has landed at Iowa State, where the Cyclones opted for head-coaching experience over the hot coordinator, Texas defensive guru Gene Chizik. In other coaching news, LSU's near-miss for the national title game convinces the administration to pay the staff handsomely. Given a fat raise, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher turns down the same position at Florida State. With the LSU job filled, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton remains at Oregon. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, still needing a coordinator, opts for a relatively unknown New Hampshire assistant named Chip Kelly.
Things only get crazier during the 2007 season. Defending national champ Michigan nearly gets upended by Appalachian State in its opener, but the Wolverines remember that defending national champs don't lose to FCS teams. On Sept. 29, Oklahoma's raging quarterback controversy reaches its conclusion. With the Sooners on the ropes at Colorado, true freshman quarterback Cam Newton (remember, Meyer wasn't at Florida to recruit Newton) replaces redshirt freshman Sam Bradford and leads the Sooners to victory. The combination of a stifling defense and Newton at quarterback proves too much for everyone in the Big 12 except Texas Tech, which shocks Oklahoma in Lubbock.
During his first trip back to Baton Rouge as an opposing coach, Saban nearly gets brained by a beer bottle walking into Tiger Stadium. His Gators, still very early in The Process, get clobbered by the eventual SEC champs. Still, LSU's national title hopes are derailed by triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas. After LSU exacts its revenge on Tennessee in the SEC title game, Miles announces he is leaving to replace Lloyd Carr at his alma mater, Michigan. Privately, Miles tells friends he has to make the move because a Big Ten team has a better chance of reaching the national title game than an SEC team. LSU replaces Miles with Petrino, who bolts on the Atlanta Falcons before completing his first season.
The Sooners crush Missouri in the Big 12 title game, and West Virginia's shocking loss to Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl locks in an Oklahoma-Ohio State matchup in the BCS title game in New Orleans. After the Pitt loss, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez leaves his home state to take over at Nebraska. The return of any kind of option football to Lincoln feels like a gift from the football gods. In January 2008, the Sooners edge the Buckeyes to give coach Bob Stoops his second national title.
A month later, celebrations ring out across Alabama as the Crimson Tide ink a monster recruiting class led by Foley, Ala., receiver Julio Jones. A caller to Paul Finebaum's radio show bursts into tears of joy. The feeling is shared across the state. After Tebow supplanted Wilson as the starter in 2007, the Crimson Tide offense improved, but it still needed something else. "Pawwwwwwwwwl," the caller sobs, "Timmy finally has somebody to throw to."
The first major shock of the 2008 season comes in South Bend in Week 2 when Miles chews a long plug of Notre Dame Stadium grass and calls a fake field goal that lifts Michigan to a win over the Fighting Irish. The Michigan loss is the first of six on the season, and the Notre Dame faithful begin losing their patience with Meyer. While he has consistently brought in highly regarded recruiting classes, Meyer has only one BCS bowl appearance to show for it. After the regular season, Notre Dame officials decide to give Meyer one more chance to turn around the program.
Penn State's loss to Iowa and Ohio State's loss to Illinois keep the Big Ten from placing a team in the BCS title game for the third consecutive year. In Tennessee, the Volunteers go 5-7, but thanks to an SEC title in 2006 and an SEC East title in 2007, coach Phillip Fulmer's job is spared. Auburn's Tommy Tuberville is not so lucky. To replace Tuberville, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs hires Lane Kiffin, who has just been fired by the Oakland Raiders.
Meanwhile, in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech stage a race for the ages as all three finish 11-1. Oklahoma wins the tiebreaker and advances to the BCS title game. There, it will face Alabama, which beat preseason No. 1 Georgia twice -- once in Athens and once in the SEC title game.
After Tebow and Newton finish No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in Heisman Trophy balloting, the nation wants to see the matchup on the field to determine whether voters chose correctly. Alas, the dual-threat head-to-head never takes place. Newton is arrested in mid-December in connection with the theft of a laptop from an Oklahoma dorm. Stoops has no choice but to dismiss his star. Since Bradford transferred to Tulsa after the 2007 season, the Sooners have few options at quarterback. Stoops yanks the redshirt off Landry Jones, who gives a valiant effort but ultimately succumbs to Joe Kines' suffocating Alabama defense. Tebow, Jones and tailback Glen Coffee are too much for Oklahoma's defense, and the Tide claim their first national title since 1992. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore orders work begin immediately on a statue of Shula to be placed alongside the statues of Gene Stallings, Bear Bryant, Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Shula and his staff are too busy celebrating the national title to notice that Kiffin has changed the recruiting dynamics in the Yellowhammer State. Shula holds on to quarterback AJ McCarron and offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, but Kiffin convinces cornerback Dre' Kirkpatrick and linebacker Nico Johnson to come to the Plains. Down the road in Tallahassee, the Signing Day party is in full swing as the Seminoles celebrate the signature of Deerfield Beach, Fla., quarterback Denard Robinson. Finally, offensive coordinator Kelly has the triggerman he needs to make his offense move at the speed of light. In Gainesville, Saban tents his fingers and smiles after landing Pensacola, Fla., tailback Trent Richardson. Between Richardson and Mark Ingram, the back Saban signed out of Michigan the previous year, the Gators might have the nation's best backfield in 2009.
The season begins with another Miles victory over Meyer, and Notre Dame fans begin begging for a change. After the Irish limp to the end of another 6-6 season, they get it. Meyer is fired in favor of Brian Kelly, who leads Cincinnati to a 12-0 record but leaves following a BCS controversy that I'll explain in a few paragraphs.
Saban's Signing Day suspicion is correct. Thanks to a ferocious defense and the one-two bludgeoning of Ingram and Richardson, the Gators roll to an SEC East title. Unfortunately for Saban, he can't win his own state title. With Robinson in control of Kelly's offense, FSU is unstoppable. The Seminoles edge the Gators in a thriller in The Swamp. The following week, they win their first ACC title since 2005.
But who will the undefeated Seminoles play? Kiffin's Tigers shock SEC West champ Alabama in late November, and the stunned Crimson Tide lose to Saban's Gators in Tebow's final SEC game. The odds-on favorite to make the title game is Texas, but the Longhorns suffer their first loss in the Big 12 title game as Ndamukong Suh dominates and Rodriguez's Nebraska offense scores just enough.
Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State all finish 12-0, but one group of voters splits on which of the three is most deserving and a slightly larger group places Texas in the title game on the basis of a superior schedule. Feeling the system is rigged against the Big East, Kelly leaves for Notre Dame. Politicians in Texas and Idaho threaten an investigation into the BCS, but the Texans quiet down when they realize the system worked in favor of their wealthiest school.
With a month to prepare, Texas defensive coordinator Chizik draws up a plan that slows Kelly's FSU offense. Unfortunately, Florida State's athletic defense bottles up Colt McCoy, and the Seminoles give Bowden his third national title. After the title, the real drama begins in Tallahassee. Bowden is supposed to retire after winning the title and hand the program to Kelly, but Bowden decides he has no desire to quit while on top. Seething, Kelly begins searching for a new job. He doesn't lack for suitors, but he has competition.
Athletic directors still haven't forgotten the magic Meyer worked at Utah, and he receives offers to coach in 2010, but he decides to take a year off and work for ESPN. Pete Carroll jumps ship at USC ahead of whatever sanctions the NCAA's Committee on Infractions can drop on the Trojans. USC officials strongly consider Kiffin, who had a good first year at Auburn, but ultimately they decide to hire Kelly, whom they feel has an offense that will revolutionize the game.
Newton has spent a year at a Texas junior college trying to rehabilitate his image. He could enter the NFL draft based on his performance at Oklahoma, but he worries a year in the JUCO ranks has hurt his draft status. After a second spin through the recruiting process, Newton signs with Auburn. The Tigers are immediately installed as the preseason No. 1 team. With Tebow gone at Alabama and Kiffin riding a recruiting hot streak, the Tigers seem unstoppable.
After the Big Ten decides to explore expansion, realignment dominates the spring and summer of 2010. Nebraska officials consider leaving the Big 12 but ultimately decide to remain to bask in the glow of a conference title. The Big Ten instead scoops up Missouri. Texas officials, tired of fighting with the Cornhuskers, decide to entertain another offer. Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Colorado accept Commissioner Larry Scott's invitation to join the Pac-10.
With the landscape shifting rapidly, Delany and Slive realize their leagues must also grow. Slive talks Texas A&M out of the Pac-10 and into the SEC. The Pac-10 replaces Texas A&M with Utah. Sensing weakness in the ACC, the SEC also grabs Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech. The Big Ten then takes Nebraska, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech from the ACC. Three conferences (the Big Ten, the Pac-16 and the SEC) rule college athletics. The remaining Big East football schools and ACC schools merge, also adding Kansas, Kansas State and TCU to form a middle class between the haves and the have-nots.
Back on the field, the old conference alignments exist for one more season. In Palo Alto, Andrew Luck enters his second season as Stanford's starting quarterback. Luck and Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh know this is their year to win the Pac-10 before the Longhorns and Sooners arrive. The Cardinal do just that, crushing everyone in their path. On the other side of the country, Kiffin's Auburn team is doing the same thanks to Newton. After Ohio State loses at Wisconsin, everyone else is playing for BCS bowls, because the title game is out of the question. Still, the also-ran bowls aren't without controversy. LSU coach Petrino complains to anyone who will listen because Ohio State had five players' suspensions moved to the 2011 season and allowed them to play in the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl win against Petrino's Tigers.
The narrative heading into the BCS title game is pure good versus evil. Wiseguys in the press box take bets on whether Harbaugh will punch Kiffin in the face at midfield. In the end, Kirkpatrick intercepts Luck and returns it for a touchdown to seal the national title for the Tigers. Harbaugh's and Kiffin's postgame handshake is described in written accounts of the game as "brief" or "terse." Shortly after, Harbaugh takes the San Francisco 49ers job. Stanford hires Meyer. In a news conference, Cardinal athletic director Bob Bowlsby assures fans Meyer will not struggle at Stanford the way he did at Notre Dame.
With the best programs consolidated into three conferences beginning in the 2011 season, the BCS has outlived its usefulness. Led by the Pac-16's Scott, the leaders of college sports huddle in the offseason and hammer out an agreement to stage an eight-team playoff that will bring in an estimated $1 billion in television revenue each year. The champions of the three major conferences receive automatic bids to the playoff, and a selection committee made up of respected former coaches will choose the other five teams.
With Kelly's USC team ineligible for the title because of NCAA sanctions, Meyer's Cardinal lose the Pac-16 title game to Oklahoma State. Petrino's Tigers beat Saban's Gators to win the SEC title, and Russell Wilson leads Wisconsin past Miles and the Wolverines in the Big Ten title game. When the bracket is announced the following day and Stanford and Florida make the playoff as at-larges and Michigan doesn't, Miles delivers an impassioned speech on ESPN that will be studied by linguists for decades. His message? Who really knows? But he uses the word "chest" 57 times in seven minutes.
After Florida beats Oklahoma State and LSU beats Wisconsin in the Final Four, fans of the old bowl system grouse about the matchup. The national title game -- held at Jerry Jones' Football Emporium and House of Chicken and Waffles in Arlington, Texas -- isn't only a rematch of the SEC title game. It's also a rematch of a regular season game between cross-divisional rivals Florida and LSU. The new system hasn't only produced a rematch. It has produced a re-rematch.
The game still draws a respectable rating as Florida's Richardson explodes for 150 rushing yards and LSU quarterback Tyler Wilson picks apart the Gators for 432 passing yards -- capped by a 32-yard strike to Reuben Randle with 14 seconds remaining to seal the win. Petrino holds the Waterford Crystal football aloft as confetti falls.
A few months later, the East Baton Rouge Sherriff's Department receives a report of a motorcycle crash on a rural road. The information isn't entirely clear. Did the motorcycle have one passenger or two?
Some things never change -- no matter how many yards Chris Leak gains on that play.