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College Football's Top 50 Innovations (30-11)

Penn State Football

Penn State 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.

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Top 50 Innovations: 50-31 | 10-1

College Football's Top 50 Innovations (30-11)

30. Get on Down(field)

Until 1977, offensive linemen who left the trenches before a pass was released were penalized and ridiculed for thinking they belonged downfield.

29. The Greening of Northwestern

In 1981, Northwestern was probably the worst job in all of football. But Dennis Green wanted the gig, becoming just the second African-American head coach in Division I-A history. (The first, Willie Jeffries, had coached at Wichita State, which stopped fielding a team after the 1986 season.)

Green’s ascension at a Big Ten school broke ground and led other schools in the ’80s to follow suit — although it was far from an avalanche.

28. Dress for Success

When Oregon played in the 1995 Rose Bowl, the craziest thing about the team’s uniforms was the presence of Donald Duck — courtesy of Disney — on the sleeve. Four years later, the Ducks and Nike founder Phil Knight began a trend that has turned college football into a game of fashion can-you-top-this. Oregon started to come up with uniforms that would appeal more to teenagers than alumni. Crazy socks, chrome helmets, “feather” designs on jerseys and all sorts of color schemes were introduced, sparking a movement throughout college football that made some schools unrecognizable.

27. Hashmarks Narrow

In 1993, college football proved it was just as addicted to high-octane offense as the NFL was. After more than four decades of having the field neatly divided into thirds by a set of hashmarks, the NCAA decided to push the lines in by just under seven feet per side, giving runners heading wide more room to turn, receivers a bigger area in which to operate and kickers a more direct shot at the uprights. As a result, spread formations proliferated, more points were scored, and defensive coordinators became endangered species.

26. Proposition 48

Proposition 48 was enacted in 1986 with the goal of creating minimum academic standards for incoming freshmen. Students had to have at least a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses and a 700 on their SATs. Those who didn’t hit both standards were ineligible to practice or play their freshman years on campus and could not receive scholarship money. Future amendments to Prop 48 upped the number of core classes and introduced a sliding scale that allowed students to have lower test scores if their GPAs were higher. The “partial qualifier” designation was introduced that allowed for students who reached either the GPA or SAT standard to receive a scholarship and practice but not compete. In 2016, the NCAA revamped the core requirements again and allowed those who didn’t meet them to practice and receive aid but not compete.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017

25. 11th… and 12th Games

When it came to the battle over whether it was a good idea to expand the number of games that a college football team could play, there was always one clear winner. 

The bottom line.

In 1970, after nearly two decades of playing 10 times a year — not counting bowls — teams were in action on 11 autumn Saturdays. Thirty-six years later, that figure grew again. 

Add in a potential conference title game and two possible playoff contests, and the collegians could suit up 15 times, or 50 percent more than their counterparts did in 1969. 

24. Bigger, Faster, Stronger

In the mid-1990s, college football was obsessed with speed, so much so that teams were taking safeties and making them linebackers and turning linebackers into ends, creating speedy units to out-maneuver even the most sophisticated attack.

Speed remains a coveted trait in all players, but coaches now want players who are both big and fast. And strong. The increased sophistication of training and nutritional approaches, not to mention the idea that sleep is actually a good thing, has allowed players to incorporate all three characteristics on both sides of the ball. Linemen like Jadeveon Clowney have tremendous power and quickness. Backs are faster and more armored than ever. Linebackers look like marble statues and can run 4.4 40s, and the outside guys might just take flight soon.

23. Hudl Up

The days of Billy Bob and Bubba having to send samples of their on-field work through the mail to college coaches hit life support back in 2006, when three Nebraska grads created Hudl. Now used by thousands of teams in 18 sports, it is best known as a video highlight aggregator that allows recruiters to view footage of prospects without heading to their mailboxes.

Instead of waiting for CDs to arrive or having to drive all over to see every potential recruit, coaches log onto a player’s Hudl account, watch some highlights and decide if he can help old State U win some games. Hudl also helps coaches in game preparation and player development, but college coaches love it because it brings the action directly to them, with no postage due.

22. Let Them Text!

During its existence, the NCAA has proven itself to be out of touch on a wide variety of topics, but its nine-year ban (2007-16) on college coaches’ ability to text recruits was one of its most shortsighted moves.

The text message is the preferred means of contact for teenagers, and eliminating the ability for coaches to connect with prospects through the players’ most natural communication method didn’t make a lot of sense. So, in April 2016, the NCAA made legal what it had been allowing other sports to do for several years: permit football coaches to text recruits. Some coaches were thrilled with the ability to increase contact. Others weren’t so happy. And the players?  

At least they don’t have to talk to anyone.

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21. SEC Championship Game

It made perfect sense. Once the SEC divided itself into two divisions following the 1992 additions of Arkansas and South Carolina, its leadership wanted to choose its champion with a stand-alone title game that would generate big interest — and bigger profits. In 1992, the league staged the first-ever conference championship game, with West winner Alabama beating East champ Florida, 28–21, at Legion Field in Birmingham. Florida gained revenge the next year, again at Legion Field. Since then, the game has been staged at the Georgia Dome and will move next door to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.

The SEC’s game helped fuel other conference expansion and eventual championship contests for the ACC (2005), Big Ten and Pac-12 (both 2011) and Big 12 (2017) as well as a collection of non-Power 5 conferences. They take place the first Saturday in December, allow teams to make their final arguments to the CFP Selection Committee and provide millions of dollars in revenue. 

20. Three and Out

Until 1990, players had to spend four years on campus or be that long removed from high school graduation before they could apply for a spot in the  NFL Draft. In ’90, that changed. All of a sudden, juniors, or redshirt sophomores, were allowed to join the fun. Players liked it, because it brought them a year closer to getting paid — provided they were selected — although some still wished they could go even earlier. Coaches weren’t thrilled by it, because top talent was leaving a year early. And fans were devastated when the best of the best moved on a year (or two) early. Lawsuits have been filed to allow players even earlier access to the NFL, but none has succeeded. Other models have been floated, but none has gained enough support to pass. The compromise doesn’t have anybody entirely happy, but it still seems to have worked out pretty well.

19. Facility Arms Race

Back in 1980, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was tired of having to take his teams to California — and any other bowl destination — early, just so his team could get away from nasty winter weather. So, U-M constructed the first indoor practice facility.

More than 35 years later, that simple, carpeted shed has spawned a facilities arms race that has touched every FBS team, not to mention plenty of FCS schools, too. Each year, a new gold standard opens, with player comforts that seem decadent. The new, $55 million Clemson building has a nap room, a barbershop, a bowling alley, putt-putt, an arcade and a fun slide. It isn’t quite as opulent as Oregon’s $68 million, 145,000-square-foot showpiece, but it should give the Tigers quite a recruiting advantage — at least until the next school builds a facility that includes a skydiving simulator.

18. The Wishbone

When Texas went 0–1–1 in its first two games running Emory Bellard’s newfangled offense, many felt the gimmick would die a quick and quiet death. Thirty Longhorn wins later, the Wishbone was rolling along. Before long, many of America’s top teams — including Oklahoma and Alabama — were unleashing squadrons of backs on overmatched rivals and rolling up the yards, points and wins. Texas won the 1969 national championship and went undefeated the following regular season. Oklahoma won three national titles (1974, ’75, ’85) using the offense, and Alabama won back-to-back titles (1978-79) unleashing a passel of backs out of the formation.

17. Big Ten Network

ESPN’s inability in 2004 to reach an agreement over rights fees with the Big Ten led the conference to seek its own outlet for programming. The league turned to FOX to create a network to broadcast some of its games and promote its members.

In late August 2007 — a year after the Mountain West created the mtn. — the Big Ten Network was launched as a joint venture between the conference, which owned 49 percent of the channel, and Fox. Thanks to favorable distribution agreements, BTN gained a strong footing almost immediately, and other leagues developed an immediate case of network envy.

Related: College Football 2017 All-America Team

16. Hurry-Up Offense

When Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost’s 1902 Michigan team would end a play, quarterback Boss Weeks would call out signals for the next play while still under the pile. The Wolverines outscored opponents 644–12 and won their second straight national title. What John Heisman had started at Auburn in the 1890s — offense at a frenetic pace — had evolved.

In the early 1990s, Hal Mumme introduced a fast-paced, no-huddle attack at Iowa Wesleyan, helped by assistant Mike Leach. Mumme took his attack to Kentucky, and his ideas and disciples spread out all over America. Today, teams attack at breakneck paces, trying to tire out defenses and create mismatches that lead to quick scores and as many plays as possible.

15. The BCS

There have been worse ideas throughout the history of college football than the BCS — but there haven’t been many. 

What began in 1992 as the Bowl Coalition morphed into the Bowl Alliance before beginning life in 1998 as the much-reviled Bowl Championship Series. A combination of polls and computer rankings was used to pit the top two teams in the country against each other. That goal was accomplished several times, but there were seasons when disaster reigned.

In 2001, Colorado hammered Nebraska, 62–36, in the regular-season finale, but the Cornhuskers went to the BCS title game ahead of the Buffaloes — and were ripped by Miami. Two years later, Oklahoma earned a BCS berth, even though it had been blown out by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.

The BCS died in 2014, when the College Football Playoff was created, thereby ending an inherently flawed system and a national punchline.

14. Film Study

The image of a coach sitting in a darkened room running grainy, black-and-white game film back and forth is as much a part of college football lore as marching bands and mascots. And over the past 20 years, technology has provided ever-increasing convenience and versatility to the video aspect of preparation. Coaches can have a full game video downloaded onto their computers before they leave the stadium. Thanks to software programs, they can access any possible combination of plays and situations. Teams can provide players with position-specific packages that they can watch on computers and tablets. Americans may spend too much time in front of screens, but for college football, more is definitely better.

13. Instant Replay

If you dislike instant replay, you can thank the controversy at the end of the 2001 Michigan-Michigan State game for the whole mess. Had there not been outrage over what Wolverine fans thought were clock shenanigans that allowed the Spartans one final play, the Big Ten wouldn’t have begun investigating the concept of replay, which the NFL had begun in 1986.

The conference began using it on an experimental basis in 2004. The next year, all but two FBS conferences employed it.

12. Targeting

As the 21st Century dawned, the game faced a crisis, thanks to mounting evidence that linked head trauma with significant future issues, such as dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and Alzheimer’s disease. After significant debate — and some denial — protocols were established to protect those who had suffered concussions, both in the form of treatment guidelines and on-field regulations.

The biggest came in 2013, when the targeting rule was instituted. Its goal was to eliminate the type of hits that caused head injury, whether the excessive contact was intentional or not. In addition to a 15-yard penalty, the targeting foul included an ejection. If the player were kicked out in the second half, he would have to sit out the first half of the next game. There was criticism, but player safety became more important as a result.

11. Bigger Ten

Penn State coach Joe Paterno tried to create a conference comprised of Independent schools in the East, but the Big East’s rise as an elite college basketball league ended that dream, and the Nittany Lions remained Independent on the gridiron until the late 1980s. That’s when the school began negotiations with the Big Ten. In late ’89, the two sides agreed that PSU would join, a move that was made official in early 1990. Penn State began playing Big Ten football in 1993, and the move triggered 20-plus years of a spinning national realignment carousel that didn’t stop until 2014, when Rutgers and Maryland officially started play in the Big Ten.