San Jose State's undefeated run to a Mountain West title fits right in amidst a season that has been full of the unexpected
Central Arkansas and Austin Peay kicked off the 2020 college football regular season all the way back on Aug. 29 in the most cursed year of 2020. Late Saturday, 2,300 miles away in Corvallis, Oregon, Arizona State topped Oregon State 46-33 in one last dose of Pac-12 After Dark action.
Fittingly, the first offensive play of the year was a 75-yard touchdown run by the Governors' CJ Evans Jr. and it ended with a spectacularly improbable touchdown reception by the Beavers' Zeriah Beason.
Those two contests — and indeed those two plays — bookended a remarkable 112-day stretch of action for a sport that was in very real danger of never kicking off amid a global pandemic. Upon the conclusion of 17 long weeks full of twists and turns due to COVID-19, we've now arrived at something rather extraordinary: a chalky and rather expected College Football Playoff to occupy our attention and crown a national champion. The only controversy, really, was limited to a certain maroon-clad segment of the country surrounding Bryan-College Station and among those Group of 5 teams that never stood a chance anyway in this current system.
But don't let that final four that we've seen coming for six-plus weeks take away from the real journey we've all been on and what it entailed.
The final tale of the tape: 542 games involving FBS teams played. Including the Frisco Bowl that was scheduled for last Saturday, 136 games were either postponed and made up (42) or canceled (94). Some were in the former category before eventually making it to the latter.
The ACC had the most games that actually got played with 71. The Pac-12 checked in last with 31.
The SEC led the way in getting a rather nice 69 of their 71 scheduled conference-only games played (12 were postponed and made up). Conference USA and the Sun Belt each found a way to make up eight games while the ACC found spots for seven contests later in the calendar.
In terms of pure cancelations though, C-USA got hit the hardest with a whopping 28 games axed. That was followed by the AAC (15), Pac-12/Big Ten (13), Mountain West (10), ACC/Sun Belt (8), Big 12/MAC (5), plus two high-profile matchups with independents in BYU-Army and Liberty-Coastal Carolina.
Numbers don't tell the entire picture, but pretty clear what strategies worked and which didn't when it came to playing college football on the field in 2020.
Those cold hard facts also paper over, to an extent, what incredible stories unfolded from coast-to-coast.
Cincinnati won their first-ever AAC title, a feat that was also replicated in the Sun Belt with Coastal Carolina and in the Mountain West with San Jose State. Those three were among the five undefeated teams to hoist a trophy — representing half of the FBS leagues this season. It could have been more but #MACtion being #MACtion saw Ball State upset a double-digit favorite in Buffalo and USC fell on their home field to an Oregon team that didn't even win its own division (but has now won two Pac-12 titles in a row).
On the flip side, ULM, Vanderbilt, Arizona, UNLV, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, UMass, FIU and Kansas all went winless. Combined, that equals the amount of teams that went winless in the entire decade prior.
Three FBS programs opted-out entirely (Old Dominion, UConn, New Mexico State) from the entire experience while 15 FCS teams got in a paycheck game. Jacksonville State's 19-10 win over FIU was the lone FCS over FBS upset.
Multiple games were moved due to a hurricane, including LSU's meeting with Missouri from Baton Rouge to Columbia. Several contests were postponed and/or canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks after a hurricane. One game was canceled due to a player strike. Troy and Middle Tennessee played a home-and-home series (Sept. 19 in Murfreesboro, Nov. 21 in Troy) in the same season too.
Cal had a game canceled while on the bus two hours before kickoff, played a game on three days' notice on a Sunday. Just two Pac-12 schools got in their full slate of seven games (and neither made a bowl).
There were some uplifting tales nestled among the games too. Sarah Fuller was the first woman to ever play and score in a Power 5 game, doing so in the SEC no less after Vanderbilt's roster was decimated in late November due to both positive tests and everybody's latest fascination: contract tracing. Arizona State's Jackson He became the first mainland Chinese-born player to score a touchdown in FBS history.
San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel may earn this year's Cinderella Award, transferring from Arkansas after going winless in SEC play in 2019 to going undefeated in 2020 with the Spartans — the same squad he lost to in Fayetteville last September. San Jose State bussed over 300 miles to Humboldt State to even get a fall camp in and spent December away from home due to local regulations (too bad they couldn't do much away from the field while stuck in Hawaii and Las Vegas).
Those desert wanderers weren't alone either in such a homeless plight either. New Mexico played all season away from Albuquerque as one of the first FBS teams ever to not even play a game in their own state. Stanford hit the road for all of December, spending 19 days in the Pacific Northwest, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles before a double-overtime win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl (which, well, won't actually host a Rose Bowl this season). The Cardinal deserve particular kudos for finishing 4-2 and overcoming their two best players opting out, didn't even get back to campus until late September, could barely practice as a team until the following month, had their starting QB pull a false positive on the eve of their first game and joined Colorado State, Miami (Ohio), Arizona State, and Washington State among the teams to play just a single home game.
Meanwhile, the Black Knights at Army had eight home games in West Point — more than 47 teams played total for the entire year. There were plenty of similar "only in 2020" quirks.
Rice/FIU (five) and Charlotte (six) had as many games canceled as they played. The 49ers didn't play a single game in November either. The Michigan State-Maryland matchup and the Old Oaken Bucket meeting between Indiana and Purdue were both canceled twice — the originally scheduled meeting and the Big Ten Champions Weekend version in late December.
SMU had three games canceled, all of which were in-state opponents. The Mustangs also were the first to have their bowl game canceled. At rival Houston, the Cougars didn't start until Oct. 8, played six straight weeks, then took nearly a month off before their final regular-season game.
Week 12 featured 18 games that were eventually canceled, including seven that were initially postponed.
The list of teams that actually got in a full slate (per their league regulations) of games: Georgia Southern, Texas State, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Alabama, Oregon State, UCLA, San Diego State, Nevada, Hawaii, Western Michigan, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Akron, Rutgers, Penn State, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State, Tulane, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt, North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, Duke, and Boston College.
To narrow it down further, those that played their full schedule as, well, scheduled: Texas State, South Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon State, Nevada*, Hawaii*, Western Michigan, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Akron, Rutgers, Penn State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Iowa State, Tulane, and Syracuse (*had games move locations).
You'll note the MAC had as many teams make it through their season unscathed (seven) as the entire country west of the Mississippi did.
Due to an NCAA ruling, technically all 127 programs were eligible to be selected for a bowl game and could even make it to a postseason contest that got canceled in a potential makeup scenario. However more than 20 teams opted out of a bowl game, LSU self-imposed a bowl ban and only 67 total managed to hit .500 or better — leading to a number of postseason games simply getting canceled.
TV networks also were affected by the constant stream of news and shifting sands. Not surprisingly, ESPN aired the most CFB games (72) but also had 12 impacted by cancelations or postponements. CBS Sports Network checked in second with 46 aired but had the most games taken off air (18) of anybody. Appropriately, there were as many games aired in China (one) as there were televised on the Pac-12 Networks. We also saw solo broadcasts on USA Network (thanks Tour de France!), Longhorn Network, BYUtv, ESPNews, and $54.99 PPV (really). Quite the collection.
The full rundown by network:
ABC — 46 aired, 7 not played
Fox — 31 aired, 7 not played
CBS — 14 aired, 4 not played
NBC — 5 aired, 0 not played
ESPN — 72 aired, 12 not played
ESPN2 — 44 aired, 9 not played
ESPNU — 28 aired, 9 not played
ESPN3 — 42 aired, 9 not played
ESPN+ — 33 aired, 5 not played
ESPNews — 1 aired
CBS Sports Network — 46 aired, 18 not played
FS1 — 42 aired, 7 not played
FS2 — 6 aired, 2 not played
FSNs — 14 aired, 2 not played
Stadium — 11 aired, 3 not played
ACC Network — 41 aired, 6 not played
Big Ten Network — 18 aired, 8 not played
SEC Network — 37 aired, 6 not played
Pac-12 Networks — 1 aired
LHN — 1 aired
BYUtv — 1 aired
USA Network — 1 aired
Spectrum Sports Hawaii — 6 aired
So yeah. It was all something. An unforgettable something.
The most irregular regular season in history followed by a bowl season that started roughly 36 hours later. What a sport. What a journey. What a finish.
Well, not just yet. There are some fun bowl matchups still left to entertain us this holiday season before the College Football Playoff takes center stage on New Year's Day. Maybe that's when we can get some drama with those top seeds as it was pure chalk from the Selection Committee with their rankings — the top four remained the same throughout the entire process.
The only curveball that got thrown was flipping the Alabama-Notre Dame Rose Bowl semifinal from Pasadena to Arlington, Texas. And, of course, upsetting a legion of believers to the Group of 5 cause by putting Oklahoma at No. 6 and Cincinnati/Coastal Carolina out of sight and out of mind.
Other than that, a boring conclusion to a rather boring national title chase that seeming will lead us to an expected fifth playoff-era meeting of Alabama and Clemson with hardware on the line. Apt for where the sport currently is overall with two elite programs operating at a level above everybody else.
Those will be larger conversations we can partake in after one well-earned champion lifts up that trophy on Jan. 11 down in South Florida after a season truly unlike any other. Here's to hoping such an endeavor will remain conscripted to the history books going forward and we'll kickoff the 2021 campaign as scheduled in late August with fantastic spreads at tailgates and packed stadiums.
We'll be sure and savor such a return to normalcy even more than most years after what everyone went through in 2020.
Tweet of the Week
Play(s) of the Week
The final play of the 2020 “regular” season: pic.twitter.com/ac7g9nkxJ1— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 20, 2020
Stat of the Week
Oklahoma and Clemson are the first teams to win six consecutive league titles among the current conferences. The last time it happened before this was… the Sooners in the old Big 8. OU captured their 50th conference crown, most in FBS history.
The Tigers also joined Alabama as the third team to ever win double-digit games every year for at least 10 straight years. Florida State (1987-2000) is the only other program in CFB history to do that.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Kayshon Boutte, LSU
Team of the Week: San Jose State
Goat of the Week: Clay Helton, USC
Here's my last top 25 for the regular season of the teams that played this fall:
3. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State
6. Texas A&M
7. Coastal Carolina
14. Iowa State
15. San Jose State
19. North Carolina
25. Ball State
Of note, pre-snap reads went 29-14 against the spread in picks during the regular season. Hope you cashed in.
CFP Semifinal: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (Rose Bowl – Arlington, Texas)
Two things are going to influence outside opinion about the Irish: that memorable BCS championship blowout featuring these two schools and their lasting impression of getting run out of the building by Clemson in the ACC title game. But this group is good in the trenches (unlike 2013) and has a veteran QB who can make plays in and out of the pocket. They'll play much better down in Dallas than most expect but hey, nobody is stopping this Crimson Tide machine in the end. The Pick: Notre Dame +20
CFP Semifinal: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Sugar Bowl – New Orleans)
A rematch of last year's thrilling Fiesta Bowl semifinal will be tough to live up to down in New Orleans. Neither side seems quite as good as they were in 2019 but the Tigers are once again hitting their stride at the right time of the year. Trevor Lawrence is just the kind of QB who can feast on Ohio State's weakness over the middle of the field and I could see Travis Etienne having a big night too. Justin Fields does his best to keep the Buckeyes in it for three and a half quarters but the Tigers will prove to be too much in the end. The Pick: Clemson -7
Cotton Bowl: No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Florida
Do you like points? Do you like explosive plays? Do you like two of the best offensive minds in the game scheming against a pair of overmatched defenses? Well, have a gander at this fascinating meeting between the Sooners and Gators. The latter figures to have a few more players opt out than the Big 12 champs, which have been hitting their stride the past few months and make just a few more plays at their home away from home in AT&T Stadium. The Pick: Oklahoma +3
Orange Bowl: No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 13 North Carolina
No shortage of storylines here, between Mack Brown facing off against the Aggies once more or A&M playing a team who was, in part, responsible for Notre Dame getting into the top four over them. The Tar Heels should be plenty motivated and it wouldn't be surprising if that offense takes off to a double-digit lead at some point. The Aggies haven't had the best of luck in major bowl games (last win against a top-15 foe in this spot was 1990 BYU) but can eke out a victory in this one. The Pick: North Carolina +5
Fiesta Bowl: No. 25 Oregon vs. No. 10 Iowa State
Brock Purdy heads back home to the Phoenix area for a big spot between two of the real up-and-coming head coaches on the national stage. This has the makings of a classic that just goes back and forth from start to finish before the team with the ball last wins it with a walk-off. Book at least four turnovers total in the game before the Ducks nab a much-needed W for the Pac-12. The Pick: Oregon +3.5
Peach Bowl: No. 8 Cincinnati vs. No. 9 Georgia
Be prepared to actually watch some defense being played in this one. Kirby Smart is certainly looking to try and motivate his crew and avoid another repeat of that Sugar Bowl loss against Texas. Even if he does get the 'Dawgs fired up, how many youngsters will he have to play after guys opt out for the NFL? Cincy Cinderella gets the job done in a manner not unlike conference mate UCF did to Auburn in a similar spot. The Pick: Cincinnati +8
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of @SanJoseStateFB)