25 Games That Changed the Landscape of College Football
The landscape of college football is about to change yet again, and the playoff era will be met with cautious skepticism. Every era has had its dark and light sides, and people are naturally going to be nervous about change.
The game has evolved exponentially over the past 150 years, and there is usually a game (or series of games) that finally causes the move. Some of the improvements have been equivalent to mere changes in the wind, but others have been tectonic shifts that have rocked the sport at its foundation.
Here are 25 games that changed the landscape of college football, presented in chronological order.
*In the event a photo from the actual year could not be found, a current photo of both teams was used, if possible. This was to avoid misleading black-and-white photos not associated with the featured teams.
1869: Rutgers vs. New Jersey
This was the first official college football game ever played. While it resembled soccer and rugby more than the present-day college football, it's still the beginning.
Obviously, this changed the landscape of college football for the sole reason that there was no college football beforehand. Though passing and six-point touchdowns were still far into the future, the beginning was by far the biggest change to the face of college football.
1875: Tufts vs. Harvard
Football began to become recognizable as the sport we love today with this game, though there was still more than a century of development in store. Unlike the 1869 Rutgers game, players were allowed to run with the ball here.
Forward passes were still not sanctioned, but this game further distanced American football from its rugby roots and similarity to soccer. Later, the pass would make football into the game that we would all recognize if we went back and watched it.
January, 1892: Mercer vs. Georgia
Georgia took on Mercer in what was the first game inside the state borders of Georgia. This was also one of the first games played anywhere in the Deep South. Though the SEC's formation was still 40 years into the future, this is where it all began.
The South took to football and ran with it, and those teams have been running with the football ever since. Northerners may regret teaching football to the Southerners, but it's a little late for all that, isn't it?
September, 1892: Mansfield State Normal vs. Wyoming Seminary
The first game played at night under lights. Anyone who's a fan of night games has this game to thank for it. To take it a little further, if you like watching your team on television, but they aren't that good, just think about what your time slot (and your whole Saturday) would be like without night games.
Channel surfing is already difficult if you're trying to keep up with more than just a few teams. Imagine if teams all had to finish before dark. Edison hit the jackpot when he figured out light, and football hit the jackpot when they were bright enough to play it under the lights at night.
1893: Army vs. Navy
First documented use of a football helmet. Prior to the game, Joseph Mason Reeves was warned by a doctor that one more head injury could have dire consequences.
A local shoemaker made a leather helmet for him, and he voluntarily wore it in the game for protection. Eventually, that piece of gear would inspire many other pads, guards and padded clothing that now protect the players.
This is a classic example of the old adage: "Necessity is the mother of invention."
1902: Rose Bowl
For everyone who loves college football's postseason, this is the game that started it all: the 1902 Rose Bowl. There is a reason that it's called the "Grandaddy of Them All," and that's because it was the first.
The Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Las Vegas and countless other bowls throughout the year have served to provide fans with meaningful games that don't normally occur during the season. It's a reward for the programs who do well, and the selectors generally provide a lot of close and exciting games from December through January.
The Rose Bowl is the most prestigious by name and age, but it also gets proxy credit for every bowl that ever happens. After all, it was the original.
1903: Minnesota vs. Michigan
The Little Brown Jug was the first trophy of any college football rivalry game, and it inspired the dozens of significant trophies we know today. This particular trophy turns 110 this coming season, but there are many that are almost as old.
Rivalry weekend has blown up into one of the biggest weekends of the season, and rivalries basically support the idea of the bowl system. Cross-conference, in-state, cross-divisional and cross-country battles take place each and every season.
The jug's story is unique aside from its age, as well. As the story goes, Fielding Yost was worried about a contaminated water supply. He had a student go get him a jug to drink from. The end of the game was hectic, and the jug was left behind.
A Minnesota custodian found it and went to the head coach to tell him Yost left it behind. Coach L.J. Cooke painted it brown and told Yost that he'd have to win it back. In retrospect, that might not have been the best choice of words.
Michigan wins a lot of games.
1905: Washburn vs. Fairmount
While the 1906 season gets all the press for the forward pass, this game was the "experimental rules" match that was held to see how feasible the proposed rule changes were.
As a result of this game, the forward pass was officially legalized, and the 1906 season thus featured the first sanctioned forward pass. That never would have happened if this game hadn't proved that it would further the sport.
If you like your air-raid offenses with lots of yardage, these are the guys you should thank.
1907: Chicago vs. Illinois
One of the greatest traditions in college football is that of dotting the "I" in the script Ohio formation. No, that didn't start in 1907. What did happen was the first halftime show with a marching band.
As halftime shows have evolved over the years, we all owe our love of the festivities to the University of Illinois. Illinois' forward-thinking director certainly did us all a favor with that; otherwise, we'd be subjected to whatever pop star was the flavor of the week.
Think about a Justin Bieber halftime show, and then thank Illinois that you haven't had to see one yet.
1916: Cumberland vs. Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech stomped Cumberland 222-0 in this horrible example of football. While Georgia Tech is generally regarded as beating up on a helpless squad (a true statement, because Cumberland had nixed its football program but forgot to tell Tech), part of the reason this happened was that the media was trying to make margin of victory the most important factor in choosing teams for the extremely limited postseason.
This was Tech's way of proving that points don't tell the whole story. Almost 100 years later, we have the BCS formulas, and people still don't have the equations perfectly correct. If they did, then 55-19 national championship games simply wouldn't happen.
1921: West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh
This game was college football's first live, commercially sponsored radio broadcast. Anyone who was a fan of a team that wasn't exactly local knew the pure joy of a good color commentator blaring away at the amazing things happening on the field at any given time.
The truly great ones could paint a picture so vivid that a modern fan would be disinterested in the television broadcast. In fact, if you're watching a game with announcers that are favoring the enemy, it's still fun to watch the game on mute and turn the radio up.
College football has become a cash cow, and broadcasting was the step that changed the landscape from sports to business.
1926: Rose Bowl
This is the game that put Southern football on the map. The Rose Bowl selectors would go on to invite Alabama to the 1927 and 1931 Rose Bowls just to try to prove that the Southerners didn't belong on the same field as the traditional powerhouses.
Alabama didn't lose a single one. The combination of "unbeatable" power teams and Alabama's refusal to lose forced the rest of the nation to concede that the South was rising again, even if it wasn't how they thought it would happen.
Eighty years later, the SEC is enjoying a seven-title streak courtesy of the rest of the country's inability to outlast any of the top teams of the conference. Times will change again, of course, but this is where the national respect started.
1939: Waynesburg vs Fordham
In 1939, college football saw its first televised game between Waynesburg and Fordham. This game may seem less important than the first nationally televised game, but success starts small.
Without a successful broadcast of any game, national television was naturally going to be out of the question. There were glitches in the beginning, but it wasn't long before televised football games were regular occurrences.
1941: Oklahoma City vs. Youngstown State
This game yielded the first official penalty flag thrown in college football history. Though its inventor had thrown them in games before, it was merely used as a signal to calm crowds down. Fans had accused him of being biased, and the "bandanna tied around a heavy metal nut" allowed fans to see that there was a penalty before the play developed.
The Youngstown State vs. Oklahoma City contest was the first time the flag was used for the intention of persuading others to use it as well. Thus, the penalty flag was born. Today, it's yellow as opposed to red and white, but it's still the source of great debate every season.
1948: Cotton Bowl
Long before the 1958 Tangerine Bowl first broke the color barrier in the Deep South, a duo of African-Americans did it in one of college football's oldest bowls. The 1948 Cotton Bowl featured a Penn State team with two African-Americans whose teammates had decided to stand in solidarity whatever came their way.
After unanimously choosing not to play against Miami (which had rescinded Wally Triplett's scholarship upon learning that he was not white) in 1946, the Nittany Lions went on an undefeated tear that pushed them right into the postseason the following year.
The issue? The Nittany Lions weren't sure if there was a bowl that would be willing to invite them in full force. The Lions decided that the 1947 season would have no votes. In response to the offer for a team meeting to vote, Steve Suhey said it best, "We are Penn State, there will be no more meetings."
The Cotton Bowl allowed the Lions to bring their complete roster in 1948, and Penn State played SMU to a 13-13 tie. (How's that for proof of equality?) The Deep South would keep African-Americans out of its bowl games for another decade, but Penn State fired the first shot in Dallas, Texas.
1951: Drake vs. Oklahoma A&M (Oklahoma State)
In one of the most heinous on-field acts in college football history, Drake's African-American halfback, Johnny Bright, was targeted repeatedly by Oklahoma A&M. According to the account at Drake.edu, Bright was knocked unconscious three times in the first seven minutes by Wilbanks Smith.
Smith broke Bright's jaw on the third impact, and Bright would still throw a touchdown pass before leaving the game due to the jaw injury. Drake withdrew from the Missouri Valley conference due to the fact that it refused to take action against Smith.
As a result of this event, the NCAA created rules against illegal blocks and also implemented a mandatory facemask rule, forcing all teams nationwide to install the mask on every helmet.
1956: Sugar Bowl
Pittsburgh took on Georgia Tech, and the Panthers brought the first African-American player to the Deep South with them. Bobby Grier would end the game as its leading rusher, with 51 yards, but the Panthers would take a loss.
There are many discussions about whether it was or wasn't a racially motivated loss, but the Sugar Bowl coordinators did come up with a solution to the problem: They simply didn't invite any teams from the Southeastern, Southwest or Atlantic Coast Conference for the next decade.
That was the beginning of a huge shift in college football, but it would be years later before true integration happened.
1963: Army vs. Navy
We are back to the technological advances on the field. In 1963, the Army-Navy game featured the first use of instant replay. It wasn't as instant as it is today, of course, but we are spoiled nowadays.
The first use wasn't to settle a dispute about a call; it was merely to whet the nation's appetite for the possibilities that technology had made real. Army's one-yard touchdown at the end of the game was replayed along with the announcement: "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!" by Lindsey Nelson, the CBS announcer assigned to the game.
While it wasn't a home run at first, it's difficult to imagine a questionable call that can't be reviewed.
1965: Orange Bowl
Alabama was undefeated heading into the 1964 postseason...but so was Arkansas. Since the AP named its national champion before the bowl games, Alabama got the title for that season. Everything seemed fine until the 1965 Orange Bowl came along.
Alabama lost to Texas (a team Arkansas had already beaten that season) in that bowl game, but the Tide still retained the national title. As a direct result of this game, the AP decided to stop awarding championships before all games were played.
Beginning with the 1965 season, the final AP poll has always been released after the bowl games. It still wasn't a playoff, of course, but it was better than voting a team No. 1 and finding out you were wrong.
This system saved a lot of embarrassment, all the way up to the point when the BCS started bringing the facepalms back.
1970: USC vs. Alabama
This was the final nail in the coffin for segregation on football fields in the South. USC brought a fully integrated team to Alabama (the first one ever to play in the state), and the Trojans ripped Alabama up like confetti.
USC toppled the Tide 42-21, and the citizens of the state of Alabama recognized what was going on. Six touchdowns had all been scored against the Tide by African-American players, and the sociopolitical barrier that had allowed Bear Bryant to recruit just one non-white player in all his years with the program was crashing down right in front of those ticket-holders.
After the complete decimation by USC, Bryant was allowed to recruit players he saw fit to recruit, regardless of race, and the tools were in place for him to turn the '70s into another decade of dominance for the Tide.
This was the final racial wall to come down on football fields in the South. It was a classic case of "right answer, wrong reason" as far as politics is concerned, but sports scored another huge victory over racial tension that day.
1984: Boston College vs. Miami (FL)
Everybody knows what you're supposed to do when you're down by eight or fewer points with just enough time to get off one more play: You either throw a Hail Mary, attempt a 1,000-lateral play or both.
Doug Flutie's execution of the Hail Mary was one of the best in history, and now it's a staple in almost everyone's playbook. It wasn't the first Hail Mary thrown, but it was equivalent to the shot heard 'round the world.
Now, the "Flutie effect" is talked about in many financial classes, publications and forums, including Forbes. Instead of looking at sports as a necessary evil, directors, chancellors and presidents can all focus on creating a successful sports program to help raise awareness and application rates for their schools much better than any ad campaign could.
1992: SEC Championship Game
This game changed the face of college football, and it ushered in an era of growth that defined a generation. The secondary result was the SEC's growing strength that appears insurmountable at the moment.
The Tide started things off on the wrong foot in that game, as Alabama was falling behind Florida and losing its tenuous grip on the national title game against Miami with each passing minute.
A late pick-six broke the game open for Alabama, and the conference championship era began. If this game hadn't turned out the way it did, there wouldn't be a championship weekend in early December.
Plus, the NCAA's rule that a conference has to have 12 teams to hold a championship game is what started programs talking about the realignment that is currently going on all over the country.
1995: Las Vegas Bowl
The 1995 Las Vegas Bowl was a close contest between the Toledo Rockets and Nevada Wolf Pack. The Rockets came out on top due to the experimental overtime rules that were being considered for official adoption beginning with the 1996 season.
Toledo took Nevada to overtime to claim the 40-37 win, making this the first overtime game in college football history. As the Las Vegas Bowl was the first of the season, it was also the first possible game to go into the extra period.
The overtime thriller secured the policy's spot, and the NCAA made it an official rule before the 1996 season started. Since that day in 1995, there hasn't been a tie in college football, and that's how it should be.
2005: Fiesta Bowl
The 2005 Fiesta Bowl was the first BCS bowl game to invite a team from a non-AQ conference. The Utah Utes obliged their fans by tearing the Pitt Panthers apart, 35-7.
This opened up a relaxed set of rules that made allowances for non-AQ teams to qualify for automatic bids. Utah was not the last team to qualify, as Northern Illinois just did the same thing in 2012 (although the Huskies didn't win).
Boise State gets a lot of credit for being a perennial potential BCS-buster, but Utah returned to the BCS bowls following the 2008 season and took down a one-loss Alabama team which only dropped the game against the eventual national champion.
Utah was the original BCS-buster, and that will never change.
2012: BCS National Championship Game (2011 Season)
Alabama and LSU met in "The Rematch," which garnered a lot of heated articles about how 'Bama didn't deserve a second shot against LSU. While that debate would be fun to bring up again, it happened. It's in the past.
However, it did change the landscape of college football. Not even six months later, the incoming college football playoff was announced. It will begin in 2014 and run through 2025. It will include four teams each season, and pretty much all the rest of the details are still fuzzy (though they're clearer than a year ago).
Whether Alabama deserved a shot or not, nobody can argue that Oklahoma State was definitely not capable of beating LSU...well not rationally, anyway. Yes, the Cowboys lost to Iowa State. Yes, that cost them their shot.
Everybody else that had the opportunity to pass Alabama by winning lost at least one more game. However, the gurus in charge knew that rematches weren't going to fly. Sure, people watched the game, but they lost a lot of viewership that didn't care to see the SEC stack another title on the pile.
The playoff will absolutely fix one thing: the fact that only two teams are allowed to compete for the title. How well it fixes that issue will depend completely on the selection process.
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