The Biggest 'What Ifs?' of the 2019 College Football Season
What if there's an alternate reality in which the 2019 college football season—with just a couple of minor tweaks—is entirely different?
In a world in which North Carolina upsets Clemson, Oregon and Baylor hold on to their huge leads against Auburn and Oklahoma, respectively, and Tua Tagovailoa takes every meaningful snap for Alabama, you're looking at one heck of a change from the actual College Football Playoff picture.
These aren't outrageous what-if scenarios. We're talking about things like fluke injuries that instead don't happen, a key pass attempt that actually finds its mark and an officiating crew that sees what 99.9 percent of us saw instead of making a terrible ruling to overturn the call on the field—and, no, I'm not even talking about the Justyn Ross fumble/incompletion in the Fiesta Bowl.
Even if just one of these nine things had played out differently, the butterfly effect could have been massive.
What If Tua Tagovailoa Stays Healthy?
Injuries are always a colossal "What if?" in the violent sport of football, especially in college football, where one player missing one quarter of one game can undo a team's playoff dream.
Just this season—and just at the quarterback position—things might have played out much differently for the likes of Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, USC, UCF, Purdue and Texas Tech if they hadn't lost their starters to injury either in the preseason or within the first three games.
But there's no question Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is one of the biggest injury "What ifs?" of the past decade.
Prior to suffering an ankle injury against Tennessee in Alabama's seventh game of the season, the prodigious lefty was the front-runner for the Heisman, and the Crimson Tide were the favorite to win the national championship. They had scored at least 42 points and won each of their first six games by a minimum of three possessions.
While it was already clear at that point that the showdown with LSU would likely decide both the Heisman winner and the SEC champion, Alabama was expected to win at home with that unstoppable offense.
In that 46-41 loss to LSU—Tagovailoa's first game back after having less than three weeks to recover from surgery—he was good, but he wasn't a god. He threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, but the 52.5 percent completion rate was the second-worst of his career as a starter, and he committed two terrible, back-breaking turnovers that we never saw from him at full strength. There's no question his health impacted that game.
The next week, he suffered a season-ending hip injury against Mississippi State; two weeks later, backup Mac Jones threw two pick-sixes in the Iron Bowl loss, which booted Alabama well outside the playoff picture. If Tagovailoa is healthy for that game against Auburn, Alabama probably wins convincingly and maybe gets the No. 4 seed in the CFP instead of Oklahoma.
Lastly, there would have been no need for a press conference Jan. 6 to let us know Tagovailoa would be entering the NFL draft. It would have been the most obvious early-entry decision of this entire cycle.
What If North Carolina Converts the 2-Point Try Against Clemson?
Clemson steamrolled almost everything in its path this season, entering the College Football Playoff with an average margin of victory of 35.9 points. The Tigers scored at least 21 points in every game and did not allow 21 to anyone prior to facing Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
That's why arguably the biggest surprise of the entire season wasn't an upset, but rather the almost-upset that happened in Chapel Hill in late September.
Sam Howell led the Tar Heels 75 yards in four plays on the opening drive to take an early 7-0 lead over their ACC overlords. No one worried too much about it, though. Clemson would just win this one 42-7 instead of 42-0, right?
But when Travis Etienne fumbled midway through the second quarter to set UNC up for a 14-7 lead, things started to get interesting. And with each of Clemson's four third-quarter possessions that ended without points to keep the game knotted at 14, the pressure intensified even more.
This couldn't seriously happen, could it? The mighty Clemson losing to a true freshman quarterback and a coach who wasn't even on a sideline for the past five years?
At long last, Good Trevor Lawrence showed up for a touchdown drive to take a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter, followed by North Carolina putting together a 16-play touchdown drive of its own. Rather than take the extra point and hope for overtime, UNC went for two and drew up a triple-option that got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. After a failed onside kick attempt, that was that. Clemson survived and went undefeated.
If the Tar Heels had been successful, though, would they have even won the game? Clemson still had two timeouts and more than a minute left on the clock to get into field-goal range. Even on what had been a disappointing afternoon for Lawrence, you almost have to assume he would have been able to pull that off.
If not, would a loss have been enough to keep the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff? As weak as their schedule was, we'd still be comparing a one-loss Power Five champion to a two-loss SEC runner-up, as Georgia finished at No. 5. We'll never know for sure, but chances are Clemson would have sneaked in at No. 4, still giving us an all-Tigers showdown in the playoff—just in the semifinals instead of the national championship.
What If Georgia Had Finished Some Drives Against South Carolina?
It has been three months, and I still cannot understand how Georgia lost at home to South Carolina.
The Bulldogs nearly doubled the Gamecocks in first downs (30 to 16). Georgia had seven drives of more than 35 yards compared to only one such possession for South Carolina. Even though Jake Fromm committed four turnovers, the Dawgs should have done enough to score more than 17 points.
However, they consistently stalled out in plus territory.
Georgia had five drives during regulation that ended inside the South Carolina 45 without points—and then went scoreless in both overtime possessions from the SC 25. The Bulldogs had little to no difficulty moving the ball on their side of midfield, but they forgot how to offense once they got close to the red zone.
If everything else about Georgia's season played out the same way, it might have made the playoff by winning this game and finishing 12-1.
There would have been a much fiercer debate over the No. 4 slot than the foregone conclusion we ended up with, and it's a debate the Bulldogs probably win. They had victories over Florida, Auburn and Notre Dame, each of which ended up ranked in the final CFP Top 15. Oklahoma merely won a pair of nail-biters against a Baylor team that didn't have any great wins of its own. And Georgia's lone loss to LSU was much more forgivable than Oklahoma's misstep against Kansas State.
Maybe the Dawgs still would have been left out in favor of the 12-1 Big 12 champions, but at least it would have given us some indication of how much emphasis the playoff selection committee puts on winning a conference championship. In that scenario, that's the only real argument in Oklahoma's favor.
What If the AAC Refs Hadn't Screwed Over Memphis at Temple?
Unless you have a three-screen setup or you're an alumnus of either Memphis or Temple, odds are you didn't watch a second of this game and might not know what happened. That's because this Oct. 12 contest kicked off at the same time as both the Red River Rivalry and the aforementioned Georgia-South Carolina game that unexpectedly became a must-watch affair in the second half.
Here's a quick recap: Memphis committed turnovers on three of its first four possessions and trailed 16-0 early in the second quarter before that high-octane offense finally started putting points on the board. The Tigers cut the deficit to 23-21 in the span of less than 15 minutes and then had the ball in Temple territory, trailing 30-28 with less than three minutes remaining.
On 4th-and-9 from the 43, quarterback Brady White was under a ton of pressure in the pocket and threw a lame duck off his back foot to star tight end Joey Magnifico, who made an acrobatic diving catch at the 30. It was ruled a catch on the field, and all of the replays appeared to confirm it was a catch.
Except for whichever replay the officials were watching, that is, because they overturned the call and handed the ball back to Temple. The game would end 30-28 for Memphis' only loss of the season (prior to the Cotton Bowl).
While it's not a guarantee that Memphis would have won the game if the call on the field had been upheld, it's worth noting Riley Patterson was arguably the best kicker in the nation this season, nailing 23 of 25 field-goal attempts, including an 11-of-12 conversion rate from 40-plus. Put that offense and that kicker at the 30 with two minutes left, and you're going to get at least three points far more often than not.
The Tigers still ended up representing the Group of Five in the New Year's Six, but how close to the CFP conversation might they have come if they had been able/allowed to complete this comeback?
The selection committee never had to pay Memphis any mind until the latter half of the Top 25, but a 13-0 Memphis with wins over Cincinnati (twice), SMU, Navy, Temple and Ole Miss would have definitely warranted Top 10 consideration. It also would have gotten quite the bandwagon following from the UCF/Group of Five apologists who desperately want to see one of the "little guys" get the chance to play for a title.
What If Chase Young Doesn't Get Suspended—Or Faces a Longer Suspension?
I'm not looking to rehash the debate about how dumb the NCAA's rules sometimes are, but this is an intriguing hypothetical all the same.
Chase Young was suspended for allegedly taking a loan from a "family friend" to fly his girlfriend out for last year's Rose Bowl—a debt he later repaid in full. He ended up being suspended for two games (vs. Maryland, at Rutgers) because of it.
Ohio State was no worse for wear without its stud defensive lineman for those contests, pounding the Big Ten East basement dwellers by a combined score of 129-35.
But could he have won the Heisman—or at least kept Joe Burrow from setting a record for the most lopsided vote ever—if he had been allowed to play in those two games?
Keep in mind, the suspension came right after Young annihilated Wisconsin with four sacks and two forced fumbles. During that game, it sure felt like everyone was coming to the conclusion that he was the best player in the country and perhaps the leading candidate to be taken with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Despite those two DNPs, Young led the nation in sacks with 16.5. There's a good chance he would have eclipsed 20 if he had been allowed to destroy the porous offensive lines of Maryland and Rutgers. The Terrapins ranked 122nd nationally in sacks allowed per game at 3.17, and the Scarlet Knights were below average with a mark of 2.17.
Twenty sacks certainly would've gotten more attention from Heisman voters, considering it hasn't been done since Louisville's Elvis Dumervil in 2005. Maybe Burrow still runs away with the vote, but there's no question Young would have received more first-place and second-place votes than what he ended up getting.
Alternatively, what might have become of Ohio State if Young had been out for more than two games?
We were initially told he would be suspended for four games. If that had stood, it means he doesn't get nine tackles, 3.0 sacks and two forced fumbles against Penn State in the only close call the Buckeyes faced during the regular season.
If they had lost that game, Penn State would've won the division, leaving the Buckeyes to either "settle" for the Rose Bowl for a second straight year or controversially get into the playoff ahead of Oklahoma despite not even playing for a conference championship. At any rate, Ohio State wouldn't have been the No. 2 seed.
Even if the Buckeyes beat Penn State but still don't have Young for the Big Ten championship—or get a rusty version of him after not playing for a month and a half—perhaps it makes enough of a difference for Wisconsin to hang on to its 21-7 lead instead of getting blown out 27-0 in the second half.
What If LSU Doesn't Convert on 3rd-and-17 Against Texas?
When Texas hosted LSU in Week 2, the Longhorns got out to a slow start, scoring on just one of seven first-half possessions to enter the break facing a 20-7 deficit.
But in the second half, this turned into a battle of heavyweights absorbing one haymaker after the next. LSU went three-and-out to start the third quarter, followed by nine consecutive scoring drives. Texas repeatedly threatened to catch the Tigers, but Joe Burrow and Co. kept the Longhorns at bay.
With less than three minutes remaining in regulation, it looked like Texas' opportunity had finally arrived.
LSU was leading 37-31, but it faced a 3rd-and-17 inside its own 40. If Texas could prevent a huge gain, its red-hot offense would get the ball back down by six with plenty of time remaining to drive the length of the field and win the game.
Instead, Burrow had an early Heisman moment. He stared down a Texas blitz, calmly stepped up in the pocket to evade the pressure and threw an off-balance pass right to Justin Jefferson one yard beyond the line to gain. That would've been just about enough to seal the deal, but Jefferson proceeded to take the ball 61 yards down the sideline for his third touchdown of the night. It proved to be the difference in a 45-38 game.
LSU was already ranked No. 6 in the nation, but that play unofficially signaled this team as a title contender.
Had LSU lost to Texas and finished 12-1 with an SEC championship, it still would have made the playoff—but probably as the No. 3 seed, drawing Clemson right away in Arizona instead of destroying Oklahoma in SEC country.
Bonus LSU-related hypothetical: In October, what if Florida's Kyle Trask had just taken the checkdown option to Lamical Perine instead of forcing a pass into the end zone and getting picked off on 3rd-and-1 from the LSU 16 in a 35-28 game? The Gators had moved the ball well against the Tigers defense all night, but they got careless at the game's most crucial juncture.
What If Oregon Wins the Season Opener Against Auburn?
There are a lot of "Imagine if that team hadn't laid an egg in that one game" hypothetical scenarios, but an Oregon win over Auburn in Week 1 isn't far-fetched revisionist history.
The Ducks scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives and should have done so on the other one. They had 1st-and-goal from the Auburn 3, but Bryan Addison inexplicably dropped a third-down pass that hit him right in the numbers, and then Camden Lewis pushed a 20-yard chip shot wide right.
Midway through the second quarter, Oregon fumbled inside the Auburn 10, blowing another golden opportunity for points.
Nevertheless, the Ducks led 21-6 with 20 minutes remaining and appeared to have all of the necessary momentum to pick up a key nonconference victory. At any rate, Auburn's true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, was showing no signs of leading a comeback. He had completed just six of his first 21 pass attempts, and two of the misses were interceptions.
Out of nowhere, Oregon's offense went into a deep freeze while Nix caught fire, leading Auburn on three touchdown drives for a 27-21 come-from-behind victory.
As a result, we spent most of October and November discussing the fact that Oregon (and the Pac-12 in general) had no quality wins. Even if it had been 11-1 Oregon vs. 11-1 Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game, there was a strong argument to be made that the winner didn't belong in the Top Four.
If the Ducks had been able to hold on for what should have been a convincing win over Auburn, though, it likely would have secured the No. 4 seed instead of Oklahoma. Perhaps Oregon's stout defense would've at least tried to slow down LSU too.
What If Baylor Hadn't Blown That 28-3 Lead Against Oklahoma?
Aside from what could have been for Alabama with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa, this one takes the cake as both the most incomprehensible and biggest ripple-effect "What if?" of the season.
Even though Baylor was 9-0 and in the CFP conversation, Oklahoma was a heavy favorite on the road against the Bears in mid-November. The Sooners had struggled in their previous two games against Kansas State and Iowa State, but most everyone expected "the real Oklahoma" to make an appearance in a statement victory.
Instead, Baylor forced a three-and-out and two OU turnovers in the process of scoring 28 unanswered points in less than 10 minutes, opening up a 28-3 lead early in the second quarter.
By halftime, it was 31-10, and it seemed like it was all over except for the shouting. But Oklahoma had five consecutive drives of more than 50 yards, scoring 24 second-half points on those possessions to take the lead.
Meanwhile, Baylor only had two first downs in the first 29 minutes of the second half—both were the result of Sooners penalties, and neither did anything to help the Bears. They only took two snaps in Oklahoma territory after halftime. Linebacker Nik Bonitto broke up a pass on one of them, and he grabbed an interception on the other to end the game.
Oklahoma outgained Baylor 368-69 in the second half en route to a 34-31 victory.
If Baylor had been able to hang on to that four-possession lead, what a nightmare scenario it could have created for the selection committee for the No. 4 seed. It would've been 11-2 Oklahoma and 11-2 Oregon as conference champions as well as 12-1 Baylor and 11-2 Georgia without a conference title jostling for that final spot.
Considering Baylor took Oklahoma to overtime in the Big 12 title game despite losing starting quarterback Charlie Brewer early in the second quarter, maybe the Bears—despite their laughably awful nonconference schedule—get the last spot in that scenario. Hard to say. It's very likely the Sooners would have been left out, though.
What If Any of Oklahoma's Coin Flips Had Gone the Other Way?
The regular-season game against Baylor was the biggest one for Oklahoma, but it felt like we spent the entire second half of the year watching the Sooners hang on by a thread.
Just like the Clemson-North Carolina game, what if Iowa State had converted its two-point attempt against Oklahoma? The Cyclones scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to cut the deficit to 42-41 with 24 seconds remaining, but Brock Purdy threw into double coverage for an interception on the do-or-die try.
What if TCU had been able to finish off its comeback bid at Oklahoma? The Horned Frogs had the ball in Oklahoma territory down by four late in the fourth quarter, but Max Duggan threw a game-ending interception on fourth down. Not only would that have eliminated Oklahoma from the playoff hunt, but it also would've gotten TCU into a bowl game.
Or what if Baylor had won the Big 12 championship? The Bears had the ball at the Oklahoma 10 in a 23-20 game with less than four minutes to go and settled for a game-tying field goal. If they instead finish that drive off with six or get the job done in overtime, Oklahoma is out, and there's a good chance Baylor gets the No. 4 seed instead.
Here's a big one in the opposite direction: What if Oklahoma's defense hadn't been an outright catastrophe in the loss to Kansas State? The Sooners allowed six rushing touchdowns and 48 points to a Wildcats team that had two rushing touchdowns and 49 points in its previous three games combined. If that doesn't happen and Oklahoma finishes 13-0, it maybe gets the No. 3 seed ahead of Clemson, switching up the semifinal pairings and giving us a different national championship.
And what if Oklahoma—instead of losing Delarrin Turner-Yell, Ronnie Perkins and Rhamondre Stevenson—had been at full capacity for the Peach Bowl against LSU?
Nah. Who am I kidding? That last one wouldn't have made any difference.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.