The Biggest What-Ifs of the 2020 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2021

The Biggest What-Ifs of the 2020 College Football Season

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    At the end of every college football season, every team in the country can be left wondering about a negative.

    For many programs, it's a crushing lossespecially one in which the team surrendered a lead. Others might be thinking of an injury or unexpected absence that affected the roster, something all too familiar in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Even successful programs are not immune to looking at hypotheticals. What if they had a more dominant year? What if a midseason breakout player had been a larger factor earlier?

    Yes, there's no guarantee that any of these best-case scenarios could've been true. Given what transpired in the season, though, they linger as the biggest hypotheticals of 2020.                 

What If Key Players Didn't Opt Out?

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    We are not begrudging any players or saying they made an improper choice to sit out the 2020 season.

    Yet when several All-Americans weren't on the field, how could we not wonder about their absences?

    LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons headlined the group. Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau, Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman, Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley opted out too.

    It's impossible to know exactly how they would've altered the season. For example, each of LSU, Penn State and Virginia Tech struggled in many ways beyond replacing a star player.

    But maybe Pac-12 champion Oregonwhich lost a few top defenders, along with Sewell—would've had a better record and a stronger case for a College Football Playoff berth. Georgia may have avoided a loss. Miami would've had a more disruptive defense.

    "What if?" is the only answer we have.     

What If Oklahoma Hadn't Lost Twice?

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Late in the regular season, Oklahoma was one of the highest-performing teams in the country. However, the Sooners had realistically fallen out of College Football Playoff contention in early October after back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State.

    Flip one result, and perhaps the CFP picture would look different.

    It's possible Oklahomaat 9-1 and a Big 12 championwould've held the No. 3 seed ahead of Ohio State (the Sooners finished sixth in the final CFP rankings). The selection committee continually cites "body of work," so OU's larger sample size could've kept the team ahead of the Buckeyes.

    Note: While it didn't happen for either Notre Dame or Texas A&M, neither team won a conference title. One-loss Clemson, which won the ACC, landed in front of Ohio State (finished the regular season 6-0) in the final Top 25.

    The championship game between Alabama and Ohio State could've been a CFP semifinal. And either Clemson or Oklahoma would be preparing for that winner.       

What If JT Daniels Started Earlier for Georgia?

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Six months ago, Georgia appeared to have a ridiculous amount of talent at quarterback. Jamie Newman transferred from Wake Forest, JT Daniels arrived from USC and the Dawgs already had D'Wan Mathis, Stetson Bennett and Carson Beck.

    Newman, however, opted out. Daniels was cleared from a knee injury in September but didn't enter a game until late November.

    In the meantime, the offense badly lacked a passing attack.

    Georgia benched Mathis in the opener at Arkansas. Bennett initially played well but threw six interceptions in his last three starts, which included losses of 16-plus points to Alabama and Florida. Mathis threw two picks in the latter game too.

    Daniels opened the final four contestsall winsthrowing 307.8 yards per game and 10 touchdowns to only two interceptions.

    Considering the struggles of Florida's secondary in 2020, even a decent Georgia passing game could've flipped that rivalry game and, in turn, the SEC East.       

What If the Ball Bounced Texas' Way?

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Among teams with multiple losses, there's a strong argument for Texas as the non-contender closest to actually being one.

    The Longhorns finished 7-3 but lost to TCU because of a fumble at the goal line, fell to rival Oklahoma in quadruple overtime and missed a game-tying field goal as time expired opposite Iowa State. The losses came by a combined 13 points.

    After that frustrating year, the program moved on from Tom Herman to Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as head coach. Would it have happened if Texas reached the Big 12 Championship Game?

    Look, this wasn't a great Texas team, so it's no surprise the Longhorns failed to consistently win close games. They were, however, in position to win all 10.      

What If Trevor Lawrence Played in South Bend?

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    Because of a positive coronavirus test and subsequent return-to-play protocols, Trevor Lawrence could only watch the November showdown between then-7-0 Clemson and 6-0 Notre Dame.

    Clemsonwhich also missed a few key defenders that nightnearly won behind freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei anyway, but the Irish pulled out a 47-40 victory. That triumph is a major reason why Notre Dame made the CFP instead of Texas A&M.

    Hindsight isn't kind to the Irish, though. They lost to a Lawrence-led Clemson 34-10 in the ACC Championship Game.

    Given that lopsided score, Lawrence alone may have changed the showdown in South Bend, Indiana. And if Notre Dame ultimately had two losses, it wouldn't have been a candidate for the final CFP spot.

    Perhaps the national championship would be identical, but Alabama would've played a different team in the semifinals.      

What If Tony Elliott Called Plays in the Sugar Bowl?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Clemson's defense has zero excuse for its dreadful performance in the 49-28 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. That can be inarguably true while wondering how much difference it made that Clemson didn't have play-caller Tony Elliott available.

    Because of COVID-19 protocols, Elliott did not travel to New Orleans. Passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and head coach Dabo Swinney shared control of the offense, and it didn't go well.

    Clemson scored two early touchdowns but had a three-possession span of 10 plays, 32 yards, three punts and zero points in the second quarter. The score shifted from 14-14 to 35-14 in favor of Ohio State.

    That stretch largely shaped the outcome.

    To say Elliott's absence made all the difference would disingenuous, given that Ohio State racked up 639 yards. Still, it's fair to suggest Elliott—a two-time national champion as a play-caller—would've had a better feel for Ohio State's defense in real time.     

What If Jaylen Waddle Didn't Get Hurt?

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    In exciting news for everyone but Ohio State, Jaylen Waddle is returning to practice, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com. While not a certainty, the wide receiver could return for the national championship next Monday.

    No matter what happens, Waddle's right ankle injury altered the perception of Alabama's offense—and, in particular, the Heisman Trophy race.

    In the seven contests after Waddle's injury, DeVonta Smith improved from dangerous to practically unstoppable. He racked up 1,085 yards and 16 touchdowns during that span. Had both Smith and Waddle—the team's leading receiver at the time—been healthy and shared production, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones likely would've won the Heisman instead of Smith.

    More importantly, yes, the Crimson Tide would have Waddle and Smith at full strength for the title game. Amazingly, though, that might not actually reach "what if?" territory.