B/R's College Football Awards for the 2020 Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2020

B/R's College Football Awards for the 2020 Season

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    College football happened in 2020, after all.

    Sort of.

    Despite a global pandemic, wide-sweeping cancelations, rule changes to maximize College Football Playoff opportunities and the only certainty being uncertainty, a semblance of normalcy took place each week when college teams met on the gridiron.

    Some teams were able to get in an entire slate of games. Others? Not so much.

    Though the conference championships only ended this past weekend, bowls have already kicked off. It's been that kind of jam-packed, anything-goes season. As a matter of fact, the game of the year wasn't even on the schedule until two days before kickoff. That was the status quo for the year.

    Still, when there is a season, there must be superlatives. Five members of Bleacher Report's college football staffDavid Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepardtried to sort through the shenanigans and settle on the 14 awards.

    Everything from offensive and defensive player of the year to the top game and upset of the season were on the docket, and, unlike the College Football Playoff committee, we actually took the Group of Five heavily into consideration.

    Here are your B/R 2020 college football award winners.

Offensive Player of the Year: DeVonta Smith, Alabama Wide Receiver

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The last time a wide receiver won the Heisman Trophy was in 1991 when Michigan's Desmond Howard took home college football's top individual award.

    It's time for another one to bring home the hardware.

    While it wouldn't be a travesty if the award went to any of a trio of quarterbacks in Alabama's Mac Jones, Florida's Kyle Trask or Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, the best player in college football is Crimson Tide receiver DeVonta Smith.

    The superstar has experienced one of the best major college careers of any pass-catcher in the past few decades. It doesn't matter who's been throwing him the football, he's shined. From Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa to Jones, they've always been able to count on the long-striding senior.

    Smith returned for his final season in Tuscaloosa to emerge from the shadow of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and, boy, did he ever. Smith leads the nation with 98 catches and 1,511 receiving yards. His 17 touchdowns is just behind North Texas' Jaelon Darden.

    If you were looking for just one Heisman moment, there were plenty from which to choose this season for the Tide superstar, who was named team MVP, despite sharing the spotlight with Jones and elite running back Najee Harris.

    Perhaps his 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas was when folks started thinking, "It doesn't matter where you put this guy, he can impact the game from anywhere on the field." Even playing for college football's top program, his career stands among the likes of Julio Jones' and Amari Cooper's. 

    From his historic overtime scoring grab as a true freshman against Georgia to win the national championship to now, Smith has been a dynamic presence and a do-it-all star. He's the best player in the sport, and he deserves the Heisman Trophy.

Defensive Player of the Year: Zaven Collins, Tulsa Linebacker

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    It's hard to stand out on defense for a team that was a Group of Five afterthought much of the year. It's even more difficult to grab headlines when you're not one of the media darlings to start the season.

    Zaven Collins has done both in 2020.

    The superstar who hails from tiny Hominy, Oklahoma, is an unassuming star. At least until he gets on the field.

    Then he impacts the game in as many ways as a defender can, and he was the personification of a rugged, gritty Tulsa team that scrapped its way within a last-second field goal of upsetting Cincinnati in the AAC championship game.

    At 6'4", 260 pounds, Collins is hard to miss, and he's consistently around the football. He can move for his size and amassed 54 tackles, including 7.5 for a loss, four sacks, four interceptions and two pick-sixes this season to lead the surprising Golden Hurricane.

    Against SMU, his interception with 1:29 remaining preserved the victory. He returned an interception 96 yards for a game-winning touchdown in double overtime against Tulane. He was a consistent force, and it didn't matter who you put on Tulsa's schedule, Collins was going to show up and show out.

    "Unbelievable kid, unbelievable teammate, great leader," Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery told Cliff Brunt of the Associated Press (h/t Seattle Times). "Why is that guy not in the running for the Heisman? Tell me someone that has affected more games than that guy. I mean, if we want to talk about the best football players in college football, in my opinion, he's there."

    Collins won't be in the conversation for the sport's top honor, but he should be an All-American, and B/R recognizes him as the sport's top overall defender. In a year in which few playmakers turned up on that side of the ball, Collins was a consistent, disruptive force. 

    You'll likely be watching him on Sundays next year.

Head Coach of the Year: Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    There was no better story in college football this year than the No. 9 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who turned in a spotless season despite being picked to finish last in their Sun Belt division by the coaches before the season started.

    It seemed like there was a Myrtle Beach party in the stands every game, and the college football universe fell in love with the program previously known for producing 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson and a 2016 College World Series championship.

    A big reason for all the success is third-year head coach Jamey Chadwell, who turned around a woebegone program in three seasons. After going 3-9 and 5-7 his first two years after turning Charleston Southern into an FCS powerhouse, he's done the same in the Sun Belt.

    This year, he seized the reins from perennial power Appalachian State, beating the Mountaineers and No. 16-ranked Louisiana and coming up with a victory over BYU in college football's game of the year. He also opened the season with a victory over the Big 12's Kansas Jayhawks.

    He's been rewarded with a new contract through 2027, according to ESPN.

    Everybody wants to talk about freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, and he was a huge reason for the turnaround. But Chadwell's entire program is healthy and performed well throughout 2020. The rushing offense was 15th nationally, and the defense was ranked No. 26.

    The East Tennessee native has been one of the biggest names in coaching this year, and he will be a coveted commodity this year and in the future for jobs. He's an offensive innovator who has now proved at two different levels he can rebuild programs.

    No matter who you put in front of the Chanticleers, they were ready for a fight, and they never backed down, even when COVID-19 issues arose at Liberty and they frantically put together a two-day turnaround for the game against the Cougars.

    Now, they will get another shot at the Flames in the Cure Bowl, and Chadwell's team will be ready.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Steve Sarkisian, Alabama Offensive Coordinator

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    If you want a college football redemption story, there is perhaps none better than that of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. 

    Most know of "Sark's" incredible rise to stardom—from BYU quarterback to offensive assistant under Pete Carroll at USC to head coach at Washington and then his dream job with the Trojans. Most also know of the prodigious fall, thanks to personal problems and alcohol.

    Robert O'Connell of the Deseret News chronicled the ups and downs in an article this past week.

    But Sark has latched on at Alabama as an offensive analyst under Nick Saban before getting promoted to offensive coordinator following Mike Locksley's head coaching hire at Maryland. And he's led the Crimson Tide to lofty heights in the two years since.

    Last year's Alabama offense was explosive in part because of Tua Tagovailoa, Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, but all those guys are gone this year. Sark perhaps orchestrated an even more explosive offense with Mac Jones at the helm, and he's been extremely impressive in both years in his role.

    He has a knack for distributing the ball to the amazing stable of talent coach Nick Saban has compiled, and Alabama is scary-good offensively.

    "Coach Sark does a really good job game-planning each week and coming up with the best ways to attack defenses, so big credit to him," Jones told SEC This Morning (h/t 247Sports) in October.

    Sark's name was mentioned alongside the Auburn job (according to Auburn Wire's Brian Stultz), and other programs such as Arizona could test the waters, too. If he elects to stay in Tuscaloosa, he has the potential to become the nation's highest-paid assistant coach, and he'd be deserving of every penny.

    With Saban sidelined with COVID-19 for the Iron Bowl, Sark took over, and the Tide didn't miss a beat. He's seemingly ready for his next head coaching job, but right now, he's drawing up masterpieces for the sport's foremost offense.

Senior Player of the Year: Kyle Trask, Florida Quarterback

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    DeVonta Smith is the most talented player in college football, but it would be ridiculous not to reward Florida quarterback Kyle Trask for everything he has accomplished during one of the wackiest rides of any college football player over the past few years.

    That's why he's earned the top senior of the year among B/R voters.

    As has been well-documented throughout his time in Gainesville, Trask didn't even start for his high school team, sitting behind good buddy and Miami transfer quarterback D'Eriq King. Still, he was a good enough prospect that the Florida Gators found him at the 11th hour and offered a scholarship.

    Even after Dan Mullen replaced Jim McElwain, though, it was Feleipe Franks' starting gig until an injury forced him off the field a season ago. Trask took over last year and elevated the program.

    This year, he has been a Heisman Trophy favorite all season, leading the Gators to the SEC East crown and within a score of beating Alabama in the SEC championship game.

    Yes, there were disappointing losses to Texas A&M and LSU along the way, but neither of those were Trask's fault. He was sensational throughout the year for an offense that normally had added pressure to light up the scoreboard with a subpar defense and so-so rushing attack.

    In 11 games, Trask completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 4,125 yards, 43 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. He averaged 375 passing yards per game, and his brilliant season rivaled that of LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow a year ago when he won the Heisman.

    Similarly, Trask came out of nowhere and made the leap from good to great quarterback. Now, he'll wait to see if he takes home the trophy.

    "I mean, it would mean everything to be a finalist," Trask said, according to 247Sports' Brad Crawford. "It's such an honor. Just to have been in the conversation this whole season has been an honor. Basically my message would just be to evaluate the level of play throughout the entire season."

Freshman Player of the Year: Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina Quarterback

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Two of the top quarterbacks in college football came out of the 2019 recruiting class and list their hometowns as Indian Trail, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte.

    You likely know about Tar Heels signal-caller Sam Howell. But, after Coastal Carolina's storybook season, you also know about little-known, 2-star redshirt freshman Grayson McCall, who waited his turn, then turned the Chanticleers into a mid-major powerhouse.

    The Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler wrote last week about how Howell was coveted by everybody out of Sun Valley High School, but McCall at rival Porter Ridge wasn't.

    "I was never 100 percent sure why Grayson wasn't more highly recruited," Porter Ridge coach Michael Hertz told Fowler. "He was a tremendous dual-threat QB for us. He had the size (6'3", 200). He had the grades. Maybe people felt he was more of a system quarterback or that he mainly just ran the ball. I don't know. When the lights came on, he was great for us every time."

    This year, he made things happen every game with his feet and his arm. He completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 2,170 yards, 23 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He added 473 yards and six scores on the ground.

    He showed up like a heavyweight fighter in game after game, and though Coastal wasn't really the quick-strike type, perhaps his biggest moment came in the season-ender when, after he'd thrown a costly interception, McCall led his team on a five-play, 75-yard drive in 45 seconds to beat Troy, 42-38.

    McCall rarely made mistakes, running coach Jamey Chadwell's offense to perfection. But when he did, he showed the leadership to put the team on his shoulders and carry it to the program's first undefeated season.

    He finished 24-of-29 for 338 yards and three touchdowns against the Trojans. He also torched Appalachian State for 269 yards and three touchdowns, and added 247 and three touchdowns against Louisiana. 

    He was the catalyst on one of college football's biggest feel-good stories.

Comeback Player of the Year: Jaelan Phillips, Miami Defensive End

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    Matt Gentry/Associated Press

    If you're picking up on the redemption theme that has been prevalent through college football and these awards with Steve Sarkisian and Kyle Trask, you'll love the one about Jaelan Phillips.

    Way back in the 2017 recruiting class, the weak-side defensive end from Redlands, California, committed to the UCLA Bruins and was the No. 1 overall player in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

    His career hardly got going, though, and he was forced to medically retire in 2018 after concussion-like symptoms, as well as ankle and wrist injuries kept him from living up to expectations in Westwood. After sitting out, though, he transferred across the country to Miami looking for a fresh start.

    After more than two years away from the game, Phillips got on the field this season and was a key component of coach Manny Diaz's defense and resurgent program, helping fill the gap along with fellow transfer Quincy Roche that was left when Gregory Rousseau elected to sit out the season.

    It's remarkable Phillips was able to have the kind of season to help him fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL. He declared for the draft just a couple of days ago. Phillips announced the news on Twitter with a "Forever a Cane" message and video.

    The 6'5", 266-pound defender took a while to shake off some rust from his long layoff, but when the game slowed down for him, he was one of the nation's most disruptive players off the edge, finishing with 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

    He likely projects as a defensive end at the next level but displayed the type of athleticism that makes him a versatile player who can slot in at linebacker, too, if necessary. His comeback is remarkable, and while it was a big enough deal returning at all, few would have predicted this.

    It took a little longer and a different team, but Phillips lived up to his top prospect status, after all.

Transfer Player of the Year: D'Eriq King, Miami Quarterback

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    While it's taken a couple of seasons for Manny Diaz to build his program in Coral Gables, he's gotten it jump-started with transfers. Perhaps nobody outside of Florida's Dan Mullen knows how to lure quality players from other programs to be difference-makers more than Diaz.

    Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche were big pieces of the puzzle defensively for The U this year, but there was no bigger impact transfer on any team in the country than quarterback D'Eriq King, who landed with the Hurricanes after a terrific career at Houston.

    King was an instant playmaker in first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee's system, and he provided a spark to an offense desperately needing one after a 2019 season that saw N'Kosi Perry, Jarren Williams and Tate Martell stink up the joint under center.

    King completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions while rushing for 520 more yards and four touchdowns.

    With eligibility thrown out the window for this year, it's even possible King comes back to Coral Gables another year and helps bridge the gap with the young quarterbacks on the roster. That would be incredible considering, with King at the helm, the Hurricanes were in contention for the ACC all year.

    "People I've talked to and I know D'Eriq is held in high regard and very well-respected among everybody that is involved in the process of going to the next level," Lashlee told 247Sports' Christopher Stock a couple of weeks ago in regards to the NFL. "That definitely is a goal of his."

    There hasn't been any discussion on turning pro yet for King, and he will turn his attention to the bowl game after helping Diaz's program take a large leap toward capturing the glory days of The U.

    Luring King to Miami will be looked at as a major turning point if Diaz can rebuild the dynasty.

Group of Five Player of the Year: Zach Wilson, BYU Quarterback

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    George Frey/Associated Press

    This award very easily could have gone to Zaven Collins, Grayson McCall, Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder or even Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson. It was an incredible year for Group of Five stars.

    But the top playmaker, and one of the most electrifying players in all of college football, was BYU junior signal-caller Zach Wilson.

    He would throw the ball up any time, any place to any of his receivers, and he is the key reason the Cougars were one of the most exciting teams to watch throughout the year.

    If and when Wilson possibly gets selected in the first round of the NFL draft next April, he'll start proving he was more than just a good college player who beat up on inferior teams. Wilson can make all of the passes, and he will etch his name next to the other greats who've played football in Provo.

    The Athletic's Stewart Mandel told the Salt Lake Tribune's Norma Gonzalez that Wilson should have a special place in Cougars history.

    "I would hope that he's remembered fondly like that, if for no other reason than, given the most difficult circumstances possible, he turned in this great season for a team that had to re-create a schedule and play through some extremely difficult circumstances. [He] just brought a lot of excitement to BYU football this year. I hope he goes down as one of their all-time greats just for that."

    Wilson completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 3,274 yards, 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. It was routine for him to wind up and sling passes 60 yards downfield and let Dax Milne, Gunner Romney and others go up and get it.

    His emergence helped save Kalani Sitake's job and also escalated the process for the coach to build his program into a healthy one that has quality players all over the field. Wilson made it all tick and is a student of the game who matches talent with being a dogged competitor. 

Most Exciting Player of the Year: Kyle Pitts, Florida Tight End

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Tight end is typically one of the least exciting positions on offense. But Kyle Pitts is not a normal tight end.

    The 6'6", 246-pound Pennsylvania native is about to make a whole lot of money in the NFL because he's so much more than "just" a tight end. He has developed his body over the course of his career in Gainesville, and he's turned into a darn good blocker.

    But Pitts is going to cash a large check because he is a mismatch waiting to happen any time the ball is in the air. With Kyle Trask putting up video game numbers this year, Pitts was his biggest weapon.

    Not even Alabama could guard him in the SEC championship game where he posted 129 yards and a score on seven catches. That brought his total for the season to 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. Any time the Gators got in the red zone, they looked Pitts' way.

    Whether it was a fade pass, a jump ball or Florida needed him to go beast mode over the middle and plow into a helpless defensive back or blow by an overmatched linebacker, Pitts did it all. At the next level, coaches will likely move him around by playing him in the slot and splitting him out wide.

    Urban Meyer called Pitts the "most dominant" player in college football and compared him to Chase Young on Fox Sports (h/t 247Sports' Austin Nivison).

    Florida coach Dan Mullen knew he had one of the game's best playmakers and utilized his immense talents. Pitts opened the season by torching Ole Miss for eight catches, 170 yards and four touchdowns and never looked back. 

    He scored in all but two games and posted multiple-touchdown performances three times.

Best Single-Game Performance of the Year: Jaret Patterson Against Kent State

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    Getty Images
    Getty ImagesGregory Fisher/Getty Images

    When undefeated Buffalo took on undefeated Kent State back on November 28, it was billed as the battle for the MAC East title and the chance to represent the division in the conference championship game.

    It turned into the Jaret Patterson show.

    Though the running back had quietly posted a brilliant season in 2019, few people around the nation had heard of the Bulls' offensive star. That was until coach Lance Leipold unleashed him on the Golden Flashes in a 70-41 win.

    Patterson wound up with an incredible 409 yards on 36 carries and scored eight touchdowns, tying Howard Griffith's scoring record that was set in 1990. Patterson is the first to accomplish that against an FBS opponent.

    With a chance to break Oklahoma's Samaje Perine's rushing record of 427 yards in the game's final series, Leipold took him out 19 yards away from his ninth touchdown.

    "I did not know any of that," Leipold told the Buffalo News' Rachel Lenzi afterward. "I didn't know. When you start talking about, and another big ballgame next week, I think eight touchdowns is enough that we're going to give him the ball. I didn't know he had eight. I didn't even know we had 10 rushing touchdowns. When we score, we start thinking about, 'how can we slow them down?'

    "But for the eight touchdowns and the 400 yards and how close he was to the national record? I wish I would have known, a little bit."

    Despite falling just short of history, it was still an all-time day. Patterson posted arguably the most dominant individual performance by a running back ever, and though the Bulls went on to lose the MAC championship game to a Ball State team that focused on shutting him down, Patterson had a remarkable season.

    You haven't heard the last of the electric junior, who may be shredding NFL defenses next year. He could follow in Khalil Mack's footsteps as star Bulls who shine in the pros.

Best Play: Indiana's Michael Penix Jr.'s 2-Point Conversion Winner vs Penn State

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    Once we finally got Big Ten football after a delay caused by COVID-19, everybody was treated to the play of the year.

    Little did the college football world know then it would set the stage for one of the coolest Power 5 stories in all of college football and set a powerhouse program on a downward spiral.

    After a classic back-and-forth bout between Indiana and Penn State that saw quarterback Michael Penix Jr. score the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime, Hoosiers coach Tom Allen elected to go for the win trailing 35-34 at the end of the second overtime.

    Penix had done it before, after all.

    Lining up for the two-point try, Penix was flushed out of the pocket, ran to his left and turned on the jets when he hit the edge. With Nittany Lions defenders in pursuit of him, Penix lunged for the pylon from the 3-yard line.

    Somehow, he was able to stretch out the football, keep his knee off the ground and nudge the pylon with the ball for the game-winning conversion and a 36-35 win that gave the Hoosiers their first victory over a Top 10 opponent since 1987.

    It was a momentum-building play that was the catalyst for Indiana's entire year. Despite losing star quarterback Penix to a season-ending injury, the Hoosiers kept their positive vibes going all year and finished with a 6-1 record. The only loss came in a hard-fought battle to Ohio State.

    The Hoosiers would have represented the Big Ten East in the championship game had the league not changed its minimum games played requirement and allowed the Buckeyes in.

    Meanwhile, Penn State dropped the season's first five games before rallying with four consecutive victories to end the year. 

Biggest Upset of the Year: LSU over Florida by a Shoe String

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    With Florida rolling toward a pivotal SEC championship showdown against Alabama with a shot at the College Football Playoff on the line, playing rival LSU at home in the last regular-season game of the year was a shade more than an afterthought.

    The Bayou Bengals had an awful year, and with all their secondary woes, there wasn't much hope they'd be able to slow down Kyle Trask and Co. enough to beat the Gators in the Swamp.

    But Florida's awful defense allowed LSU to hang around for most of the game in the fog. Then, late in the fourth quarter, the Gators stopped Tigers tight end Kole Taylor six yards shy of the first-down marker in what looked like a sure punting situation.

    Instead, Marco Wilson flung Taylor's shoe, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Moments later, Cade York bombed a school-record 57-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 37-34 lead. Evan McPherson's game-tying try missed, and the sixth-ranked Gators suffered an awful loss.

    According to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, LSU coach Ed Orgeron joked with reporters after the game that he thanked the Tigers trainer who loosened up the shoe so it could wriggle off.

    "I don't know," UF coach Dan Mullen said, according to Scarborough. "I guess that's a penalty. I have no idea what happened."

    It may be hard to believe the defending national champion beating the Gators would be considered the largest upset of the year in college football, but it was that kind of year on the bayou.

    After losing lots of players to the NFL, passing game coordinator Joe Brady to the Carolina Panthers and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to the Baylor Bears as head coach, LSU also dealt with opt-outs by receiver Ja'Marr Chase, defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin and others.

    By the end of the year, there were freshmen playing all over the field. The Tigers rallied for a 5-5 record but had no business hanging with the Gators, who were expected to be a shoo-in for the win.

Best Game of the Year: BYU's Last-Second Loss Against Coastal Carolina

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    As the nation prepared to watch an undefeated Coastal Carolina team face off against Hugh Freeze's resurgent Liberty Flames, which had just one loss to a strong North Carolina State team, the news leaked in the middle of the week leading up to the game that Liberty was dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.

    Like so many other games before and after, the much-anticipated showdown had to be postponed because of the virus. 

    That's when Coastal got on the horn with a BYU program that had to rebuild its schedule virtually from scratch because of the virus and wanted to know if the Cougars were interested in traveling to Conway, South Carolina, on short notice.

    They obliged, and college football's game of the year was born.

    Nursing a 22-17 lead in what had been a slugfest where the defenses had constantly made huge plays and two superstar quarterbacks in Zach Wilson and Grayson McCall were largely held in check, the Chanticleers were trying to keep BYU out of the end zone.

    With two seconds left from the 18-yard line, Wilson dropped back and found favorite target Dax Milne over the middle after he flashed open around the 3-yard line. But safety Mateo Sudipo and a host of Coastal defenders slung him back at the 2-yard line, denying him on the goal line.

    The crowd rushed the field, and the Chanticleers kept an incredible, undefeated season in tact.

    Jamey Chadwell reflected on the outcome this week, telling ESPN's broadcast crew during the Myrtle Beach Bowl between Appalachian State and North Texas:

    "It was an unbelievable night for us," he said. "To be able to turn around in two days and play that game, not only win it but, in front of everybody the way that game went down, I think that's one when we look back on our program and what we're going to be in the next few years, I think that game more than anything will solidify and propel us to what I hope is becoming a consistent champion every year."

    The game gave us one of college football's lasting memories of an unforgettable season.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.


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