Looking back on the college football season that was, one can say it was a rather uneventful one. Probably the biggest single event was Joe Paterno’s 400th career win, a feat that no coach had ever achieved. The season also included an upset of a ranked Virginia Tech team by an FCS opponent, James Madison University, as well as a stretch of three weeks when the #1 ranked team lost on the road (Alabama at South Carolina, Ohio State at Wisconsin, and Oklahoma at Missouri). The biggest story of the season was Oregon’s offense that did what Boise State did to WAC teams to its Pac-10 opponents. The biggest stories of the season came off the field and before the season would even start.
The 2010 college football offseason was dominated by four major stories. The first being the departure of Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford, three names synonymous with the quarterback position towards the end of the decade. The three combined for a 104-21 record as starters, 370 total touchdowns, and finished in the Heisman final cut 6 times winning the award two times. Sam Bradford is currently the starting quarterback of the 7-9 Saint Louis Rams who have been trying to find their identity since the departure of Kurt Warner in 2003. McCoy is on the constantly rebuilding Cleveland Browns and had a 2-3 record as a starter filling in for the injured Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme. As we all know Tim Tebow was drafted surprisingly early by the, now former, Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, he has since made limited appearances, including several starts and a comeback win against the Texans in Denver.
The second story was very predictable and ever-present, TCU and Boise State’s constant complaining about the way college football is structured and about the “Separate but Equal Bowl” or the “Fiasco Bowl” that took place in Glendale last January when the programs teams received BCS invites only to play each other. The two teams got their chance to make a national statement by being ranked 3rd (BSU) and 6th (TCU) in the preseason AP poll and by playing several ranked opponents form BCS conferences. Texas Christian would end up finishing the regular season undefeated and ranked 3rd in both human polls as well as the BCS rankings, and ended up taking on and defeating Wisconsin. Boise state was as dominant as it’s ever been against all of its “Little Sisters of the Poor” opponents but slipped in overtime against their rival Nevada on Thanksgiving Friday and won the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas facing fellow non-AQ team, Utah.
One of the biggest college sports stories of the year was conference realignment. After a heartbreaking loss to UT in the 2009 Big 12 championship game, Nebraska administration along with their fiery head coach Bo Pelini and Tom Osborne the legendary head coach-turned US Representative- turned Athletic Director were out for blood. In their eyes Texas and Dallas based businesses were controlling the conference. The Big 12 was a good match for Nebraska but after failing to negotiate a protected yearly rivalry game with Oklahoma and after being on the short end of an 11-1 vote to move the Big 12 Championship game for an extended period of time to the Palace in Dallas instead of maintain a north-south location system, the differences began to grow. On June 11, 2010 Nebraska announced that they were moving to the Big Ten conference starting with the 2011 season. This move triggered a wave of changes that included Colorado and Utah announcing their moves to the Pac-10 conference. At the height of the chaos and speculation, it was predicted that the Big 12 conference would cease to exist with the Texas schools joining the Pac-10 or the SEC, Oklahoma and the northern teams like Missouri moving the Big Ten. The SEC and ACC were also expected to carve up the Big East, but by July the school that arguably started the confusion, Texas, stated that they would do everything to keep the Big 12 from dissolving, mostly to preserve their financial interests that came with a TV contract.
The idea of pay-for-play deals and improper benefits has been going on constantly and resulted in sanctions at Baylor, Alabama, and South Carolina among others, but the public became aware of its extent and NCAA’s willingness to control the situation when one of the most glamorous programs in all of sports, University of Southern California was hit. It all began when in the offseason the successful coach Pete Carroll spontaneously departed for an NFL job with the Seahawks much like Ron Meyer departed Southern Methodist in 1981 after experiencing a feeling of impending doom in the context of his program’s extravagant recruiting techniques. During the summer the NCAA found USC guilty of one of the worst athletic transgression, “lack of institutional control” which included supposed payments, gifts, and improper treatment towards Reggie Bush and his family. The punishments handed down were severe; they include a two year postseason bowl ban, a loss of 30 scholarships over the next three years, as well as vacating football wins from December, 2004 through the 2005 season (including the BCS title game win over Oklahoma) and basketball wins from the 2007-2008 season. In addition, Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J Mayo were ordered to be disassociated from the program, Bush also voluntarily vacated his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
It was hugely ironic when the telecast of the 2010 Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN was followed by an ESPN Films 30 for 30 episode titled “Pony Excess”. The 30th episode in a critically acclaimed sports documentary series about the 30 biggest stories of the “ESPN era” described the horrendous recruiting violations of Southern Methodist University in the 1970s and 80s. Even though ESPN is strictly a news outlet and does not state its agenda, it made a clear point about violations in college football on Saturday, December 10th.
In the opening weeks of the season, a new dominant quarterback emerged at Auburn in Cam Newton. Newton began his college career at Florida where he remained in the shadow of Tim Tebow and at one point was suspended after criminal charges were pressed against him after he purchased a stolen laptop and it was found to be in his possession. Following a transfer to Blinn College, in 2009 Newton became the #1 ranked junior college quarterback and transferred to Auburn. The 2010 regular season ended with Auburn being 13-0 with an SEC championship as well as a #1 BCS ranking followed by a win over Oregon in the BCS National Championship game.
In 2010 Newton was the most dominant player in the college game and deserving a unanimous Heisman victory. The one thing that could have kept it from him was the issue of eligibility. The second half of Newton’s season was dominated by alleged involvement in a pay-for-play scheme supposedly orchestrated by his father. The case became very public and one of the most discussed issues in the college football community, it lead to the firing of a stadium technician at Alabama’s Bryant Denny Stadium who chose to play songs aimed at Newton in warm-ups before the Iron Bowl, these included Take the Money and Run and Son of a Preacher Man. On December 1, Newton was declared ineligible, Auburn immediately applied to have him reinstated, and three days later he was, just in time for the SEC Championship game against South Carolina where he continued his dominance. The reinstatement made Newton eligible for the Heisman Trophy which he won with 729 first place votes (Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the runner up, got 78).
The point that ESPN may have tried to get across with their choice of programming is that recruiting violations have become a part of the game and that the NCAA became afraid to fully prosecute the guilty parties. The SMU death penalty turned a powerful program into one that would not make a bowl game for over a quarter of a century. Programs that are not successful on the field do not generate revenue for the league. The biggest piece of criticism against the SMU death penalty as that the program was used as a scapegoat when team like TCU and Texas were committing similar infractions. Money has always been a big part of the college game but it became even bigger in the 70s when teams all over the country realized that they had to outspend southern schools in order to out-recruit them. After the death penalty, SMU became an example for legal recruiting of high school athletes and of institutional control, even though some believe that the penalty was too harsh. The pay-for-play situation will continue to spiral out of control unless the NCAA begins to hand out more sanctions similar to those given to USC last year and Ohio State about a month ago.