Skip to main content

College Football's Top 50 Innovations (10-1)

ESPN College Football

ESPN College Football

The Athlon Sports era began with the publication of our first SEC preview magazine in 1967, and the intervening half-century has brought so many seismic shifts to the college football landscape that we wonder if our founder, Jerry McCoin, would even recognize the sport that inspired him to launch a company. In honor of our golden anniversary, here are the 50 most impactful changes, innovations and outright breakthroughs to hit college football in the last 50 years.

Image placeholder title

Top 50 Innovations: 11-3031-50

College Football's Top 50 Innovations (10-1)

10. SEC Expansion

Find somebody who remembers the old Southwest Conference wistfully and ask how he feels about Arkansas. Prepare for a fusillade.

Had the Hogs not decided to bolt the SWC back in the summer of 1990, the venerable league might have stuck together, at least for a little longer than it did. Once the only non-Texas school left, the Southwest Conference was doomed — and the SEC was on its way to undisputed top dog status. The SEC decided to expand in May 1990, just about the time Penn State was surrendering its independent status to join the Big Ten. Instead of adding one school, the SEC wanted to bring aboard two, so that its expanded footprint would be more attractive to advertisers and TV executives, and it would be able to stage a lucrative conference title game, per a little-known NCAA regulation.

Finding a partner for Arkansas wasn’t easy. Neither Texas nor Texas A&M was interested. Florida State — also an Independent at the time — chose the ACC, in part due to its animosity toward SEC member Florida. Miami went the Big East route to help its basketball program. That left South Carolina, which was so eager to become a member that it voted preemptively to accept an invitation, which came in late September. For the 1992 season, the SEC consisted of 12 teams, changing the college football landscape forever.

9. Spread Offenses

It’s hard to pinpoint the specific inventor of the spread-’em-out attacks that enjoy so much favor today. Some credit Rusty Russell, who in 1927 as the head coach of the Masonic Home and School for Orphaned Boys in Fort Worth, Texas, deployed an attack that spread his undersized charges across the field. TCU coach Dutch Meyer wrote a book about the spread — his version was a double-wing set-up — that influenced future coaches like Don Coryell and Mouse Davis. But when it comes to the modern, one-back “basketball on grass” scheme, credit belongs to California high school legend Jack Neumeier, who pioneered the attack in the early ’70s.

Today, teams across the nation hope to outflank defenses by making them defend the entire field. Offenses try to create mismatches, employ tempo to create confusion and fatigue and value skill players over everything. The results have been more passes, more points and fatter stat lines than ever before, while allowing less talented teams to compete.

8. Recruiting Websites

The information used to come in slowly, like dispatches from far-off lands. Fans had to wait until Signing Day to be sure who they had.

Around the turn of the century, websites sprang up to cover the recruiting world and give fans information on what prospects their favorite schools were pursuing and what chance they had of landing them. Recruiting sites tell fans and coaches what top prep players are thinking. How was that campus visit last weekend, Bubba? “I loved the ice cream in the cafeteria.” What schools are in your top five, Ace? “Alabama has just replaced Tennessee.” Since coaches can’t comment on players they are recruiting, and local newspapers don’t have the resources to chase down every local player and provide weekly updates on his preferences, these sites have filled the need.

7. Overtime

When the SEC announced in 1992 that its conference title game — the first ever in FBS history — would go to overtime if the teams were tied in regulation, many fans braced for what they thought would be a first. In reality, OT had been part of the college landscape for 16 years, dating back to the D-III playoff game between Buena Vista and Carroll. Divisions I-AA, II and III ended tie games in 1981, but it wasn’t until the ’95 bowl season that the big boys joined the fun. That was an experiment. In 1996, it became the law of the land. Many have expressed dissatisfaction with the format, which gives each team a chance to score from the 25-yard line. But the system manufactured considerable excitement and strategic questions, which were enhanced when the NCAA instituted a rule in 1997 that forced teams to go for two points after TDs in the third overtime.

6. College Football Playoff

For decades, fans had been dreaming about an actual college football playoff that would end the debates and establish a definitive national champion. After years of bowl selection shenanigans and the nightmare that was the BCS, the dream became a reality in 2014 with the establishment of a four-team “tournament” with participants chosen by a 13-person selection committee.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Many people wanted at least eight teams. That way, all of the Power 5 conference champions could be included, along with a few at-large schools. But once the final game was completed, there was no arguing, no poll splits and no complaining. College football had a singular winner. At last.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

5. End of Monopoly

For just about as long as television brought college football into America’s living rooms, fans were beholden to the NCAA’s decisions regarding which networks could carry which games. From 1965-81, ABC was the sole outlet for Saturday’s heroes, and any school or conference with the temerity to negotiate its own deal was considered a member in “bad standing.” So, the schools obeyed, and fans were left to watch a game or two every weekend.

That changed in 1984, when thanks to a suit brought by Oklahoma and Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA practice violated the Sherman Antitrust Act that prohibited monopolies. The decision freed schools from the NCAA negotiating yoke and led to the establishment of the College Football Association and deals with other networks to broadcast games. Soon, a small menu would become a smorgasbord of TV options for fans.

4. Freshman Eligibility

When Jack Mildren came to Oklahoma in 1968, he wasn’t allowed to play for the Sooners, even though the Texas high school star’s recruitment had been big enough to be the subject of a Sports Illustrated article. No freshmen were eligible back then, so Mildren and his fellow newcomers played Monday nights for the Boomers, OU’s team of first-year players.

In 1972, the NCAA made freshman football players eligible. That year, running back Joe Washington was among the impact newcomers able to play. The reason for the switch was simple: It was getting too expensive to maintain teams like the Boomers. Those who asserted that freshmen needed a year to acclimate were overruled by those looking to trim the budget — and get the Jack Mildrens and Joe Washingtons of the world on the field faster.

3. Integration of the SEC

Kentucky football wasn’t any good in the late 1960s, so it’s something of a footnote that defensive back Nate Northington broke the color barrier for SEC football, seeing time for UK in its 1967 opener against Indiana. One week later, Northington’s three minutes on the field — he re-injured the shoulder he had dislocated the week prior — against Ole Miss marked the first integrated SEC game.

Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt all had African-Americans on their rosters before John Mitchell made an appearance for Alabama in a 1971 game at USC. But since Bama was a bigger name, Bear Bryant gets the credit for being the league’s integration pioneer. Once Alabama added black players to its roster, the rest of the SEC followed, and the conference’s course was changed forever. Instead of having the best African-American athletes leaving southern states to play at big-time schools up north or at historically black colleges, they went to the SEC. From 1936-70, four different SEC schools won five national titles. From 1971 on, six SEC members have captured 15 national crowns.

2. Scholarship Limits

In the old days, big college programs would bring in as many freshmen as they could, stage a two-week training camp and keep the ones they wanted. There were no limits, no rules and no excuses.

In 1972, Title IX changed that. The federal regulation, which mandated that schools receiving federal money — in other words, practically all of them — had to offer equal opportunities to male and female students, forced the NCAA to impose a 105-person limit on rosters. In 1978, that number dropped to 95, and 14 years later it fell to 85, today’s limit. Because schools now had caps on the number of freshmen they could import, more programs had more access to more players. Teams that had previously been unable to dream of competing with the best in their conferences now had the opportunity to gain ground. Further, women’s athletic programs, which had been afterthoughts before Title IX, became far more robust as colleges devoted more resources to them in an attempt to comply with the federal mandate.


It was every sports fan’s dream: A 24-hour channel devoted entirely to sports. Three-minute local TV reports and newspaper accounts would no longer dominate the distribution of athletic news. ESPN would change all of that. On Sept. 7, 1979, Bill Rasmussen bought some satellite time, set up headquarters in Bristol, Conn., and aired the first-ever SportsCenter.

College sports would never be the same.

The first big step the network took was to acquire rights to the NCAA basketball tournament’s early-round games in 1980. Four years later, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision that broke up the NCAA’s monopoly on deciding who could broadcast college football games and how many were allowed to air, ESPN made a big move into the sport. 

Since that time, ESPN has become the undisputed heavyweight college football champ. Its inventory of college games across all conferences — and multiple channels — together with its pre- and post-game programming, recruiting coverage and spring football attention dwarfed what other networks were able to air. ESPN’s alignment with ABC Sports under the Disney umbrella gave it even more authority, as well as a national outlet for programming.

The network’s financial resources, multiple platforms and mighty promotional ability made ESPN synonymous with college football. Its ability to lock up long-term deals with major conferences will allow it to hold on to that distinction for years to come.