As 2016 nears an end, it’s time to reflect on the year’s 20 biggest stories in college football, on and off the field, over the past 12 months.
Save for a handful of bowl games, including the most impactful ones of all, the book on the 2016 college football season is about to close. It was a typically tantalizing campaign, flush with shockers, memorable moments and breakthrough performances from both players and teams.
Before the ball drops and the curtain lowers on 2016, let’s all belt out a few lines from ‘Auld Lang Syne’, imbibe a glass of our preferred bubbly, and toast the most enduring and unforgettable storylines of the past year in college football.
20. Oregon Dynasty Officially Over
The Ducks’ run of nine straight seasons with at least nine wins ended with a mighty thud and a hire outside the organization for the first time since Rich Brooks was plucked off the UCLA staff in 1977. Willie Taggart takes the reins of a program searching for the old magic after going 4-8 with a young squad that couldn’t stop anyone.
19. McCaffrey Skips Sun Bowl
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey saved his biggest splash of 2016 for after playing his final college game, opting to sit out the Sun Bowl with North Carolina. Yeah, just a single player in a single bowl, but his decision could have a ripple effect that impacts future players who suddenly contract a not-so-rare case of bowl flu.
18. Michigan State Veers Off Course
After winning at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons, the ultra-consistent defending Big Ten champs unexpectedly sunk to their worst season since 1982, when Mark Dantonio was still a JUCO defensive coordinator. At 1-8 in league play, Michigan State rubbed elbows with the likes of Purdue and Rutgers near the conference cellar.
17. Tennessee Starts Fast, Flames Out
The Vols were arguably the oddest team of 2016. They raced out to a 5-0 start, rallying from deficits and defying the odds late in games. And then they ran out of magic, finishing in a three-way tie for second in an SEC East they were expected to capture. Losses to South Carolina and Vandy, in particular, will put Butch Jones in the eye of the hot seat storm in 2017.
No one in college football was more inspirational than Pitt RB James Conner, who first beat cancer and then beat opposing defenses for more than 1,000 yard on the ground. His indomitable spirit, embodied in images of the junior practicing with a surgical mask, will be one of the lasting legacies of the 2016 campaign.
15. Colorado Wins Pac-12 South
In an outcome that even the most wide-eyed, delusional Buff optimist wouldn’t have predicted, Colorado rose from last place predictions in the preseason to the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 2. Mike MacIntyre spearheaded a most remarkable turnaround for a program that hadn’t even enjoyed a winning season in 11 years.
14. Army Beats Navy … Finally
Following 14 long and painful years of taking a backseat to rival Navy, the Black Knights mercifully broke through with a 21-17 win in Baltimore. The victory was met with a mixture of joy and relief for cadets, from those at M&T Bank Stadium to those stationed across the globe.
13. Texas Wins Herman Derby
Each year, one young coach becomes the target of every Power Five AD looking to fill an opening at the top of the staff. That upwardly mobile guy in 2016 was Tom Herman, who used two seasons at Houston to catapult to Austin and one of college football’s highest profile gigs. With the Horns, Herman now has a shot to compete for national titles and widespread notoriety.
12. Big 12 Doesn’t Expand After All
After putting a cross-section of programs, mostly from the AAC, through a dog and pony show, the Big 12 ultimately decided in October to stand pat at 10 programs. While probably the right decision for the league, it was yet another PR misstep for a conference that has, unfortunately, degenerated into a punchline the past few seasons.
11. Western Michigan Runs Table, Keeps Coach
It’s hard to tell what was a bigger surprise, the 13-0 Broncos earning a Cotton Bowl berth or them keeping P.J. Fleck from leaving Kalamazoo. Both were extraordinary developments for a squad that defeated a pair of Big Ten opponents in September, won the MAC for the first time since 1988 and now plays Wisconsin in a New Year’s Six bowl game.