Stetson Bennett and Other Top College Football "Cinderella" Stories

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2022

Stetson Bennett and Other Top College Football "Cinderella" Stories

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    It took approximately one quarter of game action for Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett to change the narrative surrounding him. He went from not being a good enough quarterback to win a national title to one of the biggest feel-good stories of the season in the wake of the Bulldogs' national championship.

    But, then again, isn't that how rags-to-riches stories fit for Hollywood scripts go?

    Bennett shrugged off a crucial third-quarter fumble to lead the Dawgs to two touchdown drives capped by scoring tosses, completed four of his passes after that blunder and emerged a national champion as the maestro of a decisive 33-18 win over Alabama.

    It's remarkable, really, if you consider his journey. Bennett grew up a rabid Dawgs fan in Blackshear, Georgia, and walked on in Athens. However, he then transferred to Jones County Community College in Mississippi before ultimately returning to Georgia.

    Time and time again, coach Kirby Smart recruited over him. Time and time again, Bennett showed Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken he belonged on the field.

    But Bennett isn't the only "Cinderella" story in the annals of college football lore; there are many teams, wins and players who belong right there with him. Let's take a look at some of the similar incredible stories from the sport we all love.

Baker Mayfield: From Texas Tech Walk-on to Oklahoma Heisman

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    Stetson Bennett got the team accolades, but perhaps the greatest walk-on ever took home individual hardware after a roller-coaster college career.

    Before Baker Mayfield was the No. 1 player selected in the NFL draft and a star signal-caller for the Cleveland Browns, he was a collegiate trying to find a home before the ease of the transfer portal.

    In 2013, Mayfield was a walk-on with Texas Tech, after choosing to go to Lubbock rather than follow through and commit to schools like Florida Atlantic, New Mexico or Rice (the only schools with reported offers to him, according to SB Nation's Alex Kirshner).

    Mayfield's talent was obvious almost as soon as he earned the starting job in coach Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense, but he only logged eight games because of an injury. Davis Webb took over and starred in his absence, and with the depth chart murky for the upcoming season, Mayfield transferred. 

    Things worked out for both parties. The Red Raiders began the Patrick Mahomes era the next year, and Mayfield went on to become a megastar in Norman after transferring to Oklahoma.

    In 2017, he led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff where they lost to Georgia in overtime in the semifinals. He had 43 touchdowns and just six interceptions that season and went on to win the Heisman Trophy and become the top pick in the draft.

    Few unheralded players have accomplished so much.

Boise State's Improbable 2007 Fiesta Bowl Win over Oklahoma

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    Following the 2006 season, then-coach Chris Petersen's undefeated Boise State Broncos were creating some national college football buzz heading into the Fiesta Bowl.

    Still, nobody really gave them that much of a chance to beat a powerful Oklahoma program that was rolling with Bob Stoops at the helm and Adrian Peterson bowling over defenders. Though the Broncos were just 7.5-point underdogs, many thought their storybook headlines would run out in the desert.

    Instead, they gave the nation a thrill-a-minute ride in a dramatic 43-42 overtime win.

    In the typical David and Goliath matchup, David flung rock after rock in building a 28-10 lead, but the Sooners stormed back with 25 unanswered points and held a seven-point lead in the waning seconds, looking like they'd pull it out with the Broncos facing a 4th-and-18 from midfield.

    That's when the first of two unforgettable trick plays happened.

    Boise State called for a hook-and-ladder. Quarterback Jared Zabransky took the snap out of shotgun and passed to Drisan James, who was short of the first-down marker, so he flipped the ball back to Jerard Rabb, who sprinted 35 yards to the pylon for the game-tying touchdown with seven seconds left.

    After Adrian Peterson gave OU the lead with a 25-yard run on the first play of overtime, the Broncos answered with a TD of their own. Then, Petersen called for a two-point conversion, and running back Ian Johnson took a Statue of Liberty handoff into the end zone for the dramatic win.

    Johnson proposed to his Boise State cheerleader girlfriend, Chrissy Popadics, on national TV afterward (she said yes, of course). Because that's how Hollywood stories end.

Appalachian State Upsets Michigan for a Miraculous FCS Win in 2007

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    The start of the 2007 year gave us the Fiesta Bowl. Nine months later at the beginning of the '07 college football season, the sport provided what at the time was arguably the biggest upset ever.

    Fifth-ranked Michigan started its season in the Big House against Appalachian State, a team fresh off back-to-back FCS titles under legendary coach Jerry Moore.

    This Wolverines team had just played in the previous year's Rose Bowl, and coach Lloyd Carr had what everybody thought was another strong team. But in the debut game on the new Big Ten network, the Mountaineers had their way with the Power Five powerhouse.

    Riding a 21-point second quarter, they built a 28-17 halftime lead. Michigan stormed back to take a 32-31 lead after a Mike Hart touchdown run with 4:36 remaining, and Appalachian State followed with a turnover.

    However, the Mountaineers blocked a 43-yard field goal, got the ball back with a little more than a minute and a half remaining and nailed a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds left to stun the world and shock the Wolverines.

    Star quarterback Armani Edwards passed for three scores and ran for another—a few highlights in a career full of them—before going on to a professional football career. 

    This win also helped pave the way for the Mountaineers to head into FBS, where it has become a Sun Belt Conference stalwart.

BYU's Improbable 1984 National Championship

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    BYU's 1984 national championship run was as improbable as any before or since. The then-WAC program is the last non-major conference program to win a championship, and it's even more remarkable when you consider everything swirling around the season.

    Yes, the Cougars entered the season with 11 consecutive wins, but longtime starter Steve Young left for the NFL draft, so legendary coach LaVell Edwards had to replace his leader among other key pieces.

    According to the Deseret News' Jeff Call, Sports Illustrated noted in its 1984 College Football Preview, "at last, BYU is in a rebuilding year. Quarterback Steve Young and tight end Gordon Hudson have moved on, along with the rest of the backfield and three all-WAC defenders."

    The Cougars entered the season unranked but opened with a 20-14 road win over third-ranked Pittsburgh in the first college football game ever televised by ESPN. A goal-line stand preserved their unblemished record against Hawai'i, and the Cougs continued to climb the rankings.

    At the end of the year, they were the top-ranked program.

    Second-ranked Washington was approached about meeting BYU in the Holiday Bowl, but the Huskies and coach Don James declined, opting instead to play Oklahoma in a nationally televised Orange Bowl, according to The Athletic's Christian Caple.

    That left BYU to play 6-5 Michigan, and though quarterback Robbie Bosco battled through injuries, he led his team to a 24-17 win and an undefeated record. They kept the top ranking and the national title, much to the chagrin of some media pundits.

    "How can you rank BYU No. 1? Who'd they play—Bo Diddley Tech?" Today Show host Bryant Gumbel famously asked, according to Call's story.

Hunter Renfrow: Another Walk-on Turned Hero

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    Hunter Renfrow only played four years at Clemson, but it felt like he was there forever.

    There's no question coach Dabo Swinney wishes the playmaker had remaining eligibility, too.

    Even with all the superstars the Tigers have deployed to face the nation during their magical recent run, Renfrow always worked his way into the starting lineup and, once there, produced in a huge way. After redshirting, he had 186 catches for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns from 2015-18.

    Clemson was a family tradition for Renfrow, whose mother and brother went there. At 5'10", 155 pounds, he was an unassuming playmaker who spurned offers from Wofford, Appalachian State, Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian to follow his dreams.

    After a productive redshirt freshman season, he scored two touchdowns in a 45-40 loss to Alabama in the 2016 National Championship Game. The very next year, he caught the game-winning score to topple the Tide in the title game.

    As a senior, he won the Burlsworth Trophy given to the sport's most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on, and then his Tigers went out and dominated 'Bama 44-16 to win their second title in three years.

    Renfrow has kept right on going in the NFL. This year, he had 103 catches for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns for the Las Vegas Raiders. There's no reason to doubt anymore; Renfrow may not have been highly thought of coming out of high school, but Cinderella's glass cleat fits.

Cam Newton and the 2010 Auburn Tigers

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    Remember how fun those out-of-nowhere national championship runs were? College football fans (those who don't love Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and some of the current blue-bloods) yearn for those days.

    One such instance happened in 2010 when Auburn coach Gene Chizik struck gold with JUCO transfer (and former Florida) quarterback Cam Newton, and everything fell into place perfectly.

    Newton put together one of the most miraculous individual seasons in the history of college football, completing 66 percent of his passes for 2,854 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions while running for 1,473 more yards and 20 additional touchdowns.'s Bill Connelly recently ranked Newton as the second-greatest college quarterback over the past three decades, calling him "the greatest single-season supernova the sport has seen."

    The 6'5", College Park, Georgia, phenom wasn't the only player on that team, though. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley had a similarly colossal impact on a defense that improved as the year progressed, and role players everywhere became stars.

    Though AU had close wins against Mississippi State (17-14), Clemson (27-24 in OT), South Carolina (35-27), Kentucky (37-34), LSU (24-17) and a wild 24-point comeback to topple Alabama 28-27 in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers wouldn't be denied.

    They capped an improbable run with a 22-19 win over Oregon for the title, Newton became the top pick in the draft and Chizik reached the peak of his coaching career.

This Year's Cincinnati Playoff Run

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    Cincinnati may have changed the landscape of college football forever with its run to the College Football Playoff this season.

    Though the Bearcats ran out of magic dust in a semifinal loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, coach Luke Fickell's team because the first program from the Group of Five to earn an invitation to the sport's final four from the playoff committee.

    After that loss, Fickell grew emotional when reflecting on the accomplishment.

    Perhaps they've opened the door for future mid-major juggernauts to follow suit if those teams schedule well out of conference and run the table.

    Cincinnati won't be among them, most likely. The Bearcats will be rebuilding in 2022 following the departure of many key pieces, and then they'll be off to the Big 12. So, the next time they are in the playoffs is likely to be when they're a major-conference team.

    That's what Fickell has helped accomplish for a program that has experienced success under Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and Tommy Tuberville, but never anything like what this regime has done.

    The Bearcats handed Notre Dame its only regular-season loss, throttled Indiana and ran the table in the AAC, dispatching quality opponents such as Houston, SMU and UCF. Yes, they faced scrutiny throughout the year from pundits who questioned their presence at the top of the ranks.

    But with quarterback Desmond Ridder and a dynamic secondary with NFL prospects Colby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner bolstering the unit, they proved to the world they belonged.

J.J. Watt Rounding out the Guys Whose Improbable Roads Took Them to Glory

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    J.J. Watt's true greatness has crystalized with his All-Pro NFL career. 

    Before all the injuries, he was as close to unblockable as anybody can get in the pros. Nobody could do anything with him, and his college career at Camp Randall was similar.

    Before Watt won three AP Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first five NFL seasons with the Houston Texans, he was winning the Lott Award in college and carrying the rugged Wisconsin Badgers defense to a Rose Bowl win.

    But nothing came easy. After a high school career in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, he began his career as a scholarship tight end for the Central Michigan Chippewas, catching two passes. But he wanted a bigger role, and he wanted to play for his home-state Badgers.

    So, he sat out the 2008 season, choosing to walk on with the Badgers and switch positions to play defensive end. As a sophomore, he immediately made an impact, registering 44 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

    He was incredible in his final year with the Badgers, finishing as a first-team All-American with 62 tackles, including 21 for a loss and seven sacks. He also had an interception.

    When the Texans took him, it was met with a near-universal "meh" from Texans fans. As it turned out, when he was healthy he was one of the best defenders of the past 20 years and an incredible ambassador for the franchise.

    Watt's Cinderella story is one of a self-made superstar who improved even into his pro career, much like Hunter Renfrow.

Howard Schnellenberger Turns Miami into a Name Brand in 1983

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    Way back before Miami was "The U", it was a middling-to-terrible program that considered either shuttering football altogether or moving down to Division I-AA back in 1978.

    Instead, they gave Division I-A football one more shot by hiring Howard Schnellenberger, a cigar-smoking, mustached man with a swagger and a knack for luring top talent to Coral Gables.

    According to Bruce Feldman's book 'Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment, he vowed to win a national title within five years by installing a pro-style offense and focusing on recruiting in South Florida. Following a 5-6 record in 1979, Schnellenberger led the Hurricanes to seasons of 9-3, 9-2 and 7-4 records before the 1983 season. 

    Needing to replace star quarterback Jim Kelly, Schnellenberger chose Bernie Kosar over redshirt freshman Vinny Testaverde. The 'Canes started the season unranked and lost 28-3 to Florida. They wouldn't lose again, reeling off 10 consecutive victories to earn a spot in the Orange Bowl opposite top-ranked Nebraska.

    Miami stopped a two-point conversion to win that matchup 31-30, and the fifth-ranked Hurricanes got the help they needed when second-ranked Texas lost in the Cotton Bowl and fourth-ranked Illinois lost in the Rose Bowl. The 'Canes finished the year overtaking third-ranked Auburn to earn the title.

    It was Schnellenberger's final season in Coral Gables, giving way to the productive Jimmy Johnson era and blazing the road to what would become a dynasty.

Johnny Football

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    Johnny Manziel may have wound up a lightning rod for criticism and struggled in a stunted NFL career, but that shouldn't take away from one fact:

    He was a one-of-a-kind talent during his time at Texas A&M.

    As brilliant as he was in College Station, it's easy to forget he had to win the starting job during preseason camp in August 2012. Once he did, he took the college football world by storm.

    By the end of the season, the redshirt freshman became the first freshman ever to win the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, the Manning Award and the Heisman Trophy. He became a record-setter who unseated mighty Alabama that year and had a majestic performance in a Cotton Bowl win.

    That season, he became only the fifth player ever and the first freshman to throw for at least 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a season.

    This is a dude who was a lower-level recruit from Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, who some teams—including Mack Brown and Texas—were recruiting to play safety. Instead, he was a star dual-threat quarterback who ran Kevin Sumlin's Air Raid to perfection.

    As a sophomore (his second and final season with the Aggies), he threw for 4,114 yards, 37 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and ran for 759 more, yet finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year when the award went to Jameis Winston.

    Manziel was an incredible story.

Zeb Noland: From Coach to Quarterback

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    Guys like Stetson Bennett winning the national championship and Baker Mayfield blossoming into a Heisman Trophy winner will deservedly get much of the headlines when it comes to these feast-from-famine stories.

    But something else happened this season that seemed to be straight out of a Disney movie.

    While it didn't end with a national championship, any personal hardware or even with him being the starting quarterback for all of the season, what South Carolina backup quarterback Zeb Noland did this year is no less remarkable.

    Riddled by injuries and defections at the quarterback position to start the season, first-year coach Shane Beamer asked Noland if he would suit back up. The graduate student was in his first year with the program, helping coach wide receivers after playing 2020 with FCS power North Dakota State after much of his career came backing up Brock Purdy at Iowa State.

    Noland was mediocre at best a season ago for the Bison, completing 51 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and six interceptions. He'd thrown six touchdowns and two interceptions in 2017-18 with the Cyclones.

    The Georgia native started sporadically for the Gamecocks throughout the year, and he was more than serviceable. He wound up completing 56 percent of his passes for 690 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception.

    With his team in a dire situation, Noland came through with a major assist.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports ReferencePlayer and recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.