- From Oregon hiring Chip Kelly to the timeout before the Kick-Six, we picked the best 10 decisions across college football since 2007.
The most famous athletic feats in college football history make every highlight reel, but the sport is defined just as much by pivotal decisions as it is by standout plays: Tom Osborne going for two in the 1984 Orange Bowl, the pass interference call on Glenn Sharpe that gave Ohio State new life in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, Georgia Tech and Tulane deciding to leave the SEC. For all the year-to-year changes within coaching staffs, rosters and the rulebook, it’s hard to believe the effect one decision can have on the course of a program, a conference or a career. Below, we’ve collected the 10 best decisions of the past 10 years, from realignment coups to shrewd coaching hires.
The BCS was a constant source of college football angst for most of its 16-season existence. Its methodology frustrated many fans, for whom it seemed too vague, too subjective, too reliant on computers. The fact that it was something of a moneymaking scheme for its bowl directors certainly didn’t help, either. The BCS fueled conference realignment and relegated wealth to the power conferences. No matter your politics, it was hard to disagree with President Barack Obama when he appeared on Monday Night Football during his 2008 presidential campaign and told ESPN’s Chris Berman that he supported a college football playoff rather than the BCS.
What Obama called for that night was an eight-team playoff, and we’re not there—yet. Still, the College Football Playoff, which began in 2014, is more transparent than its predecessor, and the four-team format is far less arbitrary than the previous two-team model. Sure, it hasn’t solved all of the inherent problems in determining a champion; just ask Penn State, which won the Big Ten and beat Ohio State in the regular season only to watch the Buckeyes secure a playoff berth. Another critique of the BCS was the number of undefeated teams who were never ranked high enough to compete for a championship. Theoretically, the playoff should and sometimes will guard against that, but last winter 13–0 Western Michigan was sent to the Cotton Bowl. Still, the system in place now is better for college football and has room, potentially, to expand into something more.
Conference realignment has been perhaps the most powerful driving force in the last decade of college sports, but it hasn’t always worked out perfectly for the teams that have moved. Many programs have seen their national status barely bolstered by their new allegiances. Others (Missouri, TCU) enjoyed quick success before returning to the middle of the pack. And though Texas A&M hasn’t won a conference championship or made the College Football Playoff since it joined the SEC in 2012, its move will have the highest and longest-lasting payoff of any recently realigned team.
Moving into Texas was a huge boon for the SEC, opening up a massive recruiting market for the conference. And the Aggies, too, now have an edge in recruiting over their in-state Big-12 rivals. The bar has also been raised for A&M on the field; just consider that Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat after winning eight games each of the last three years. Every season since joining the conference, Texas A&M has held its own, and its football product is unequivocally better than it was in the Big 12.
This move made perfect sense—but the fact that Ohio State was able to pull it off is still astonishing in retrospect. The stars aligned for the Buckeyes towards the end of the 2011 season, when the former Florida coach decided that one year of retirement was plenty. Meyer left the game, citing health concerns, after the ’10 season; meanwhile, scandal was brewing at Ohio State.
In May 2011, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel resigned, and the program that had long been among the Big Ten’s crown jewels looked like it was in shambles. Luke Fickell took over as the interim head man, and then, barely more than six months later, Meyer accepted the job. He went undefeated in his first season in Columbus as the Buckeyes served a postseason ban and won the school’s sixth national title two years later.
When the so-called “Catholic 7” (the Big East’s non-FBS schools) announced they had voted to leave the conference in 2012 amid the realignment frenzy, the remaining schools did the right thing by selling the Big East name and forming their own rebranded conference. “The American” has a great ring to it, and under commissioner Mike Aresco, it has gradually established itself as a threat to the old guard.
Sure, the AAC is still rightfully listed among the Group of Five, but over the past few years, schools like Memphis, Houston, Navy, Temple and USF have put together standout seasons and beaten big-enough-name opponents that the conference has seemed like just a half-step down from the Power 5. Aresco has repeatedly voiced his desire for his conference to be the force behind a “Power 6,” and he’s backed up that claim. Despite its complete lack of geographic unity, the AAC is looking less like a stepping stone for teams and coaches and more like an institution that’s here to stay.
No timeout, no Chris Davis, no Kick-Six; it’s as simple as that. The play that’s regarded as one of the best (if not the best) in the history of the college game would never have happened had Malzahn not called that timeout with one second left in the 2013 Iron Bowl. Auburn’s staff didn’t think Alabama kicker Adam Griffith had the leg to make a 57-yard field goal—why not put Davis, a quick defensive back, in the end zone? Really, the Tigers had nothing to lose, and considering Alabama’s field goal unit was made up mostly of offensive linemen, in the right situation, a little speed might go a long way. You know the rest.
Really, this decision goes back all the way to 2007, when the Ducks hired New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator for the same job in Eugene. That was quite a jump for Kelly, who assumed Oregon’s head coaching position two years later and reached a BCS bowl in each of his four seasons at the helm, going 46–7 overall. It was the best four-year run in the team’s history, and even though he was gone by the time the Ducks played in the national championship game after the 2014 season, it was largely because of Kelly that they got there. He made the team a national power and significantly elevated the program—and the teams he put on the field were as fun to watch as any of their time.
This game pitted No. 1 (LSU) against No. 9 (Florida), and it may have been Miles’s best coached game while leading the Tigers. Tim Tebow led Florida to a 17–7 halftime lead, and the Gators looked completely in control. With 10:15 to go in the game, LSU scored a touchdown to cut to deficit to 24–21. Then, after a quick Florida drive, LSU got the ball with just more than nine minutes left, embarking on an eight-minute, 11-second drive that included two fourth-down conversions and produced the game-winning score in a 28–24 win. Miles elected to go for it a total of five times on the day and converted all five—an almost unheard of success rate. That aggressive mentality in desperation mode paid off in a victory that helped keep LSU on track for its eventual national title.
The legendary coach retired after the 2005 season, his 17th at Kansas State. The Wildcats were coming off two consecutive losing seasons, but from 1993 to ’03, they had made 11 straight bowl games and posted seven seasons with double-digit wins. Ron Prince took over in ’06, leading the team to 7–6, 5–7 and 5–7 records in three years. That didn’t cut it, and so the man after whom Kansas State had recently renamed its stadium returned to the sideline ahead of the ’09 season, at age 69. Although his team hasn’t been a consistent contender, it has made bowl games every year since ’10, including the Cotton Bowl and Fiesta Bowl in back-to-back years. Kansas State has been one of the Big 12’s most consistently good teams, thanks to its move getting nearly an entire additional decade out of a revered coach.
We’re back to realignment, with what I believe to be the second-best move of any wayward team. The Utes came to the Pac-12 in 2011 from the Mountain West, jumping from the Group of Five to the Power 5. Since then, they’ve played in bowls in four of six seasons, winning all of them, and they’ve ended the season in the Top 25 each of the past three years. There’s been a constant upward trajectory for coach Kyle Whittingham’s team, and from the Pac-12’s perspective, getting into another major media market (one that makes complete geographic sense) was a smart move.
This move came in April 2016, on the heels of a ’15 season that saw three sub-.500 teams earn bowl berths. With a record 41 postseason games, there simply weren’t enough winning teams to fill the bids, so Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State got nods with 5–7 records. (That same year, 5–7 Missouri announced it would not accept a bowl bid despite the fact that its APR, the tiebreaker among 5–7 teams that would decide who was offered, suggested that it would earn an invitation.)
These moratoriums have been put in place before, and they’re necessary. A bowl berth needs to mean something in college football, and though fans’ appetite for games seems insatiable, it’s safe to guess that no one needs, say, the Fresh Step Kitty Litter Bowl in Starkville, Miss. (This is not a real bowl. I made it up. I think.) This latest ban will be lifted in ’19, and we should all hope it doesn’t result in an explosion of new bowls like the last moratorium, from ’11 to ’14, did. Forty-one is sufficient.