Top Plays of the 2020 College Football Season
There are a lot of different ways to approach putting together a list of the top plays in a given college football season.
The highlight-reel route is one, focusing on the jaw-dropping catches and teeth-rattling hits that elicited "oohs" and "ahhs" over the course of the year.
If you lean toward the plays that carried the most significance, your list might include solely game-winning touchdowns and game-saving defensive plays.
My approach was to ask a simple question: Which plays from the 2020 season are college football fans most likely to still remember five years, 10 years, 20 years from now?
The result was a mix of trick plays, wild finishes and memorable blunders.
Let's start with a few honorable mentions before diving in.
As is the case with any football season, this one featured hundreds of memorable plays—from highlight-reel catches by wide receivers and defensive backs to trick plays, blunders and everything in between.
Here are a few that were seriously considered for this list but didn't make the cut:
- Liberty's fumble inside the Coastal Carolina 1-yard line that helped send the Cure Bowl to overtime
- Western Michigan's onside kick recovery and fake-spike touchdown to beat Toledo
- Northwestern's Brandon Joseph's interception against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game
- E.J. Williams' one-handed catch for Clemson versus Notre Dame in the ACC title game
Again, those are just a handful of the dozens of plays worthy of honorable mentions.
And as we head into the list itself, we trimmed it to the seven plays for which the 2020 season will be best remembered.
7. Najee Harris' Hurdle vs. Notre Dame
Perhaps there is some recency bias here, but this feels like it's going to be one of the plays from this season that we're recalling years from now.
It's not the first time Alabama running back Najee Harris has hurdled a defender, and it might not even be the last time he does so in a Crimson Tide uniform with the national championship game coming up Monday.
"I don't even remember the first hurdle really," Harris told reporters. "But it was just a way. I got tired of getting chopped in the legs and the ankles. It hurts. So I guess I just started hurdling."
It was the perfect embodiment of Alabama's dominance in a 31-14 victory over Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
It also stands as the signature highlight for one of the most productive players in the nation.
For now at least.
6. Oregon State's Fake QB Sneak Trick Play
Who doesn't love a good trick play?
It came down to a fake quarterback sneak by Oregon State and the fake-spike touchdown by Western Michigan for top-trick play honors, and the uniqueness of the Beavers' entry was enough to claim a spot on our list.
In the grand scheme of things, it was an inconsequential play.
Oregon State lost to Arizona State 46-33 to finish another trying season with a 2-5 record.
In that sense, the Broncos' fake spike may have been more deserving of this spot since it went for a game-winning touchdown.
The fake sneak, however, is a far more unique play, and the Beavers ran it to perfection.
Wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey took a direct shotgun snap through the legs of quarterback Chance Nolan with the defense focused on Nolan on 4th-and-1, and Lindsey hit wide-open tight end Teagan Quitoriano for a 46-yard gain.
That set up a touchdown two plays later and stands as the trick-play highlight of the year.
5. A Lateral-Filled Finish to Western Michigan vs. Ball State
It wasn't quite "The band is on the field!" but it was close.
And then it didn't count.
The final play of a big game between Ball State and Western Michigan to decide who would play in the MAC championship was ultimately wiped out by a flag, but there is little doubt it stands as one of the most memorable moments of the 2020 season.
A 22-yard field goal from Ball State kicker Jack Knight put the Cardinals up 30-27 with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter, setting up the wildly entertaining final moments.
As time ticked down, Western Michigan turned to the old reliable move of wild backward laterals in an effort to keep the final play of the game alive, and when Ball State appeared to recover a fumble, the Cardinals stormed the field to celebrate.
The Western Michigan sideline followed suit thinking the game was over while the Broncos players kept the lateral chain moving, and Skyy Moore eventually emerged from the chaos to score what briefly looked like the game-winning touchdown.
However, there were flags on the play for an illegal forward pass, as well as unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for both teams leaving their sidelines, and Ball State managed to escape with the win.
Words don't do the absurdity of what unfolded justice, so I encourage you to click the link above if you haven't seen the play.
4. A Hail Mary Touchdown Pass by a Third-String Quarterback
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane found their way into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings for the first time in a decade during a season that included upset wins over UCF and SMU, and they pushed undefeated Cincinnati to the brink in the AAC Championship Game.
Despite that success, they were almost upset by a middling Tulane team Nov. 19.
After starting quarterback Zach Smith exited with a torso injury in the first quarter, backup Seth Boomer was carted off the field with a leg injury at 2:02 of the third quarter, and Tulsa was down to its third-string quarterback while facing a 14-0 deficit.
A redshirt sophomore and former 3-star recruit, Davis Brin took charge and threw for two touchdowns while running for another in his first meaningful game action.
The final touchdown came on a 37-yard heave to JuanCarlos Santana as time expired, helping tie things at 21 and sending the game to overtime.
The two teams traded field goals before Zaven Collins notched a 96-yard pick-six to seal Tulsa's victory.
The play boasted the unlikeliest of heroes and one of the most shocking finishes of the year.
3. Marco Wilson's Shoe Throw
Just when you think you've seen it all.
High-powered Florida was heavily favored going into its game against disappointing LSU, but the score was knotted 34-34 as the clock ticked toward two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers' Max Johnson passed into the flat on 3rd-and-10, and the Gators swarmed, stopping Kole Taylor six yards short of the first down.
Immediately following the stop, however, Florida cornerback Marco Wilson picked up Taylor's shoe, which had fallen off, and threw it down the field.
Fresh set of downs.
From there, the Tigers bled the clock, and Cade York nailed a go-ahead, 57-yard field goal with 23 seconds to play. The Gators moved the ball quickly on the ensuing possession, but Evan McPherson missed a 51-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
It wasn't one for the highlight reel, but the shoe throw was undoubtedly one of the enduring plays of the season.
2. BYU Falls 1 Yard Short at Coastal Carolina
It's only fitting that the best game of the season ended with one of the most memorable plays of the year.
In this matchup between two 9-0 Group of Five success stories, No. 14 Coastal Carolina hosted No. 8 BYU in a game that only came about after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Liberty program created an opening in the Chanticleers' schedule.
The game lived up to the hype. Coastal Carolina held a 22-17 lead early in the fourth quarter after running back CJ Marable scored his second rushing touchdown.
The four subsequent drives featured four punts, and BYU took over at its 18-yard line with 55 seconds remaining and one final shot to win the game.
After failing to move the ball for much of the second half, Zach Wilson and the Cougars came to life, moving 64 yards in six plays to set up the final play of the game.
The snap came from the Chanticleers' 18-yard line, and Wilson hit go-to receiver Dax Milne over the middle. He gained 17 yards but was dragged down by Mateo Sudipo while fighting for every inch as time expired.
The decisive play in the best game of the year.
1. Michael Penix Jr. Dives for Victory vs. Penn State
This was voted "Best Play" in B/R's college football awards article, so it's only fitting it occupies the No. 1 spot on this list.
The gift of hindsight tells us Indiana was far superior to Penn State, but the general consensus was quite the opposite when the two teams met Oct. 24 in their season openers.
The Nittany Lions began their season ranked No. 8 in the AP poll, while the Hoosiers had been picked to finish seventh in the conference in the preseason media poll.
When Indiana turned the ball over on downs while trailing by one with less than two minutes to play, it looked like Penn State would sneak out a victory. Instead, Nittany Lions running back Devyn Ford unwisely scored a 14-yard touchdown on the first play of the subsequent drive, giving the ball back to the Hoosiers with 1:42 to play.
They marched 75 yards in seven plays, and Michael Penix Jr. punched in a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line with 22 seconds remaining to cut the gap to 28-26. Penix then scored on a draw on the ensuing two-point conversion to send the game to overtime.
Penn State scored first in overtime, and after Indiana answered with a nine-yard strike from Penix to Whop Philyor, coach Tom Allen decided to go for the win.
When Penix was flushed out of the pocket on the two-point try, he made a beeline for the left corner of the end zone, finishing with a full-extension dive from the 3-yard line and just tapping the pylon with the ball before he landed out of bounds.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.