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.
20 Biggest Stories Of 2016 (cont.)
10. Washington Wins Pac-12, Earns Playoff Berth
The Huskies were supposed to be much improved in 2016, Chris Petersen’s third year in Seattle. But they soared past the bar, becoming the first team other than Oregon or Stanford to win the Pac-12 North. The program that last won a league title at the start of the century now has a chance on Saturday to dethrone defending national champion Alabama in Atlanta.
9. Michigan-Ohio State Matches The Hype
It was billed as the game of the year. It unfolded like the game of the year. In a de facto playoff quarterfinal matchup in Columbus, the Wolverines and Buckeyes needed double-overtime to decide this year’s winner of the storied rivalry. OSU survived, 30-27, to punch a ticket opposite Clemson in this Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl.
8. Big Ten Emerges As Nation’s Premier League
Dogged as too slow and too shallow only a few seasons ago, the Big Ten displaced the SEC as college football’s top league in 2016. Michigan and Ohio State competed for playoff berths, Wisconsin surprised out of the West and Penn State topped them all by shockingly winning the league crown. Half of the top eight teams entering the postseason came from the Big Ten.
7. Notre Dame Wins Just Four Times
The Irish began the season as a top 10 team and a threat to compete for a playoff berth. In the end, even bowl-eligibility proved too elusive for a squad that fired its defensive coordinator in-season and ended the year in an utter state of disarray. The starting quarterback has already declared for the NFL Draft, the backup is transferring and Brian Kelly could jump to the NFL if an offer surfaces next week.
6. Hot Seat Melts Strong
The long speculated ousting of Charlie Strong came to fruition at the end of the coach’s third season in Austin. After three consecutive seven-loss seasons, punctuated by an unthinkable Nov. 19 loss to Kansas, the Longhorns decided to go in a new direction, hiring ballyhooed Tom Herman in December to build upon what Strong started.
5. Miles Out, Orgeron In At LSU
That Les Miles failed to finish the year in Baton Rouge was hardly a surprise considering how his previous season ended. That Orgeron parlayed a 5-2 finish into the permanent LSU gig qualifies as a mild upset. The Tigers performed at a higher level for everyone’s favorite interim coach, whose first chance to make a statement comes in Saturday’s Citrus Bowl versus Louisville.
4. Lamar Blossoms Into A Superstar
No individual shined brighter than Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, who captured the nation’s attention with a torrid start that ultimately culminated in the youngest-ever Heisman Trophy winner. The sophomore was part-quarterback, part-running back and part-world class sprinter, shredding defenses for 51 total scores and 1,538 yards on the ground.
3. Bama Wins Third Straight SEC Crown … With A True Freshman Under Center
Alabama is one of two teams yet to lose this season and the heavy favorite to repeat as the national champ. But unlike the last two seasons, when the new starting quarterbacks were seniors, this year’s offensive leader is a year removed from Channelview (Tex.) High School. Nick Saban is now two wins away from tying Bear Bryant for most national championships by a coach at this level.
2. Penn State, Not Ohio State Or Michigan, Wins Big Ten
On the evening of Sept. 24, Penn State was 2-2, having just been thumped by Michigan, 49-10. There were murmurs James Franklin might be in trouble. A little over two months later, the Lions were celebrating a rousing comeback win over Wisconsin to incredibly capture the Big Ten title. Penn State’s return to prominence helped elevate the league’s brand, as well as a program still not fully recovered from severe NCAA penalties years earlier.
1. Win-At-Any-Cost Culture Dooms Baylor And Art Briles
Baylor essentially scripted a blueprint of how not to run a football program, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to years of allegations of sexual misconduct by Bear players. It was a sad and deplorable example of what happens when an athletic program becomes too big to fail. Briles paid the price with his job and his legacy in Waco, which was still growing before he was unceremoniously canned in late May.