It was a college football season we won’t soon forget. Even if many of us might like to.
Because of COVID-19, the action started with a slew of aborted matchups, including the USC-Alabama opener that was to be played in Arlington, along with nonconference games like Houston-Rice, Texas-LSU, and Texas A&M–Colorado. Most teams managed to complete some kind of schedule, with cancellations and postponements right up to the end, including what was supposed to be the first bowl game of the season, the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl. This intended all-Texas affair between SMU and UTSA, set in the exotic winter vacation spot of Collin County, just wasn’t meant to be. Not that anybody needed a bowl game on December 19, given that there were still regular season games that day.
As of this writing, 18 bowls weren’t happening, but that left 27 in business, with 13 to play (including the two College Football Playoff semifinals) after Tuesday’s Alamo Bowl between Texas and Colorado.
If your usual response to a December college football game between a 6–6 team and a 7–5 team is something like, “Why does the Bill Miller Chopped BBQ Sandwich Bowl Presented by Empower Texans exist?” then this season may have been the one for you. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of fan who finds yourself saying, “I’m not sure if this Cheez-It Bowl needed to exist, but it’s college football,” then this season absolutely was the one for you. There was college football. It was on. Here are some of the things that made it surprising, ridiculous, disappointing, thrilling, awful, and sometimes even fun.
In 2020, the Worst Comes First
If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em
Because of the pandemic, every team in college football was bowl-eligible. That put 4–5 North Texas in the Myrtle Beach Bowl against Appalachian State, which doubled up the Mean Green with a 56–28 win. But what we’ll remember about the first bowl game to actually be played this year is not the final score, nor even the Mountaineers’ five hundred rushing yards, but rather this second-quarter brawl spurred by a late hit on UNT quarterback Jason Bean.
A brawl broke out between Appalachian State and North Texas after this hit on the Mean Green QB. pic.twitter.com/z4ktfJ8Hjn— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 21, 2020
UNT’s other quarterback, Austin Aune, who led the team in passing, was not available to participate in the Myrtle Beach Bowl for undisclosed reasons. Take a guess.
What about 3–5 in a pandemic?
“We’ll fire coaches at 8–4,” University of Houston president Renu Khator reportedly said when the school hired Major Applewhite in 2016. Applewhite’s predecessor, Tom Herman, had gone 22–4 in two seasons before heading to the University of Texas. Applewhite, who set UT records as the Longhorns quarterback in the late nineties and early aughts, coached the Cougars to records of 7–5 and 8–5, and then indeed got fired after 2018.
His replacement, Dana Holgorsen, was meant to reverse the trend of successful Cougars coaches (Herman, Kevin Sumlin, Art Briles) leaving for bigger pay and better jobs. UH and its best-known mega-booster, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, plucked Holgorsen from West Virginia with a $20 million contract. Holgorsen went 4–8 last year (purportedly on purpose, which inspired an epic tweetstorm by an angry former player) and lost star quarterback D’Eriq King to the transfer portal.
This season? 3–5.
If there was ever a time to get a participation trophy …
It was the year of the Sun Belt Conference, which went 3–0 against the Big 12 and 4–1 in bowl games.
Except in San Marcos, where Texas State went 2–10. While the program was by no means free of COVID, the Bobcats somehow managed to play twelve games without cancellations and finished their schedule by November 28. In other words, a normal college football season.
Doink of the year
Rice’s record on October 24 was 0–0. In their delayed season opener against Middle Tennessee, the Owls put together a ten-play, eighty-yard touchdown drive for a 34–31 lead with 34 seconds remaining … and then still gave up a field goal that pushed the game into overtime.
No problem: in the first extra period, MTSU failed to score, allowing Rice to play conservatively and let placekicker Collin Riccitelli seal the win.
Then this happened:
QUADRUPLE DOINK > DOUBLE DOINKpic.twitter.com/6T5DjLv1Tk— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 24, 2020
The Owls lost in the second overtime.
Why are these breakfast burritos so small?
With the state of New Mexico essentially shut down for sports, Frisco got its bowl game after all: on Christmas Eve, Houston and Hawai’i played the 2020 New Mexico Bowl, which is normally held in Albuquerque, which led to this unfortunate hashtag:
It's gameday in #Friscoquerque!@HawaiiFootball takes on Houston in the @NMBowl!#AtThePeak | #WinEveryDay pic.twitter.com/pkN2qwJiUE— Mountain West (@MountainWest) December 24, 2020
Texas Beats California
With the state of California unwilling to allow fans—including friends and family of players—at the Rose Bowl, the College Football Playoff moved one of its semifinal games to Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, so Alabama will get to play a game there after all.
In a press release announcing the move, the CFP said it made the decision as a result of “the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Southern California.” As Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde pointed out, not only was this a lie, but Tarrant County has a higher positivity rate than Los Angeles County.
The Texas Bowl
TCU’s January 1 contest with Arkansas became the latest cancellation this past Tuesday, a result of “a combination of COVID-19–related issues, injuries and other circumstances” that left the Horned Frogs unable to meet Big 12 roster thresholds.
Fans of Arkansas (3–7) somehow took this to mean that TCU (6–4) was skeered. Because: college football.
“The Granddaddy of them all” is what we now call Jerry Jones
Despite being played in Arlington, Friday’s College Football Playoff Game between Alabama and Notre Dame will still be called the Rose Bowl (or rather, the “CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One.”)
All Alma Maters?
The defining moment of the University of Texas season was not its loss to Oklahoma, but rather the controversy over the team’s participation—or lack thereof—in singing “The Eyes of Texas.” It’s an issue that has yet to be truly resolved, within the football program, within the Longhorn marching band, or for the university in general.
The NFL, where there’s less pressure and more reasonable fans
Former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who reportedly declined to consider the (not actually vacant) University of Texas job because of health issues, is now said to be a candidate for two NFL jobs. In a story this week from The Athletic, three unnamed NFL executives questioned Meyer’s character, something that was scarcely mentioned when his name was in the Longhorns rumor mill.
The Best Things in Texas College Football
The Texas A&M Aggies
Literally the best team in Texas, and unlike in some years, no other team has much of an argument for being better than the Aggies. We don’t even need a game against UT!
But if A&M’s most accomplished team since 2012 wasn’t necessarily jobbed by the College Football Playoff, it’s still too bad that Jimbo Fisher’s fifth-ranked squad is headed for the Orange Bowl, where it will face off against Mack Brown and number thirteen North Carolina—the lowest-ranked team in a New Year’s Six bowl, and a school that hasn’t played in that caliber of postseason game since 1950.
A rematch of the Aggies’ 2013 Cotton Bowl against Big 12 champions Oklahoma would have been both closer to home—it’s easier to social distance if you never sit down, right?—and provided better bragging rights, given that the Sooners handled every Big 12 team in Texas.
The UT Longhorns
Was it a disappointing season? Sure. Was it a bad season? Not really. The 2018 team that got Tom Herman his contract extension was 10–4 with a bowl win over SEC also-rans Georgia. The 2020 team could have have wound up 8–3 (no way they were losing to 0–9 Kansas in a game that was canceled this month as a result of COVID protocols), and Tuesday night they capped off the year with a record-setting bowl win against Pac-12 also-rans Colorado. And for all the controversy—be it over “Eyes” or Herman’s status—they played as hard they did imperfectly.
There was also good stuff outside the lines. In a normal year, the story of walk-on wide receiver Kai Money, a star high school quarterback from Brownsville who caught a touchdown pass in the season opener against UTEP, would have been one of the game’s great feel-goods. This wasn’t a normal year, but watching Money’s moment still felt great.
And finally, the fact that UT didn’t fire its fourth-year coach, even as Auburn dumped its eighth-year, national championship–winning coach, was downright refreshing—assuming that the matter’s settled.
The UTSA Roadrunners
Having lost the chance to play SMU in Frisco, the Roadrunners wound up playing Louisiana at SMU—in the ServPro First Responder Bowl, held as usual in the exotic winter vacation spot of University Park.
The Roadrunners lost, but their 7–5 season under first-year coach Jeff Traylor should still be considered a success. It opened with a nationally televised, mid-afternoon win over Texas State in “The I-35 Rivalry,” and finished with running back Sincere McCormick being named Dave Campbell Texas Football’s college player of the year.
The Baylor Bears
Last year the Bears went 11–3, beat TCU and Texas, and lost the Big 12 championship game in overtime to Oklahoma. The coach of that team, Matt Rhule, is now running the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and new Baylor coach Dave Aranda’s squad went 2–7 this season, with four-year quarterback Charlie Brewer (another Lake Travis High product) opting to hit the transfer portal and spend his final year of eligibility playing for another school next season.
But at least the Bears were in a top ten somewhere, thanks to this R.J. Sneed catch:
The Sun Bowl
The state’s most picturesque and longest-running bowl game pulled the plug December 1, recognizing that the COVID case counts in El Paso were too high to keep things status quo.
This, of course, denied us the chance to bask in what would have been the best bowl game sponsor of the season, and I’ll stand on the Duke’s Mayo Bowl’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it: the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.
Let’s hope next year’s game is GRRREAT.
Houston Baptist and the Southland Conference
It wasn’t just the Big 12 and the SEC that played this season to save their budgets. Four Southland schools, three of them in Texas, decided to break off from the entire Football Championship Subdivision, which postponed its season until February. Their coaches and students were ready to play, and, perhaps more important, they had lucrative contracts to show up and lose to bigger schools. This all happened even as the conference is apparently falling apart, with Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State, and Lamar expected to join the recently revived Western Athletic Conference.
Of the trio of Texas schools that insisted on playing fall football, Houston Baptist was the biggest winner. The private school with a student body of fewer than three thousand undergraduates became a legitimate sensation with its near-upset of Texas Tech, which came down to a failed two-point conversion. The 1–3 Huskies weren’t quite as fortunate against North Texas (57–31) or Louisiana Tech (66–38), but thank God for Eastern Kentucky! Now everybody knows about them, and, especially, the fact that their stadium abuts a CVS.
And now, on February 20, the remaining Texas Southland teams—Lamar, Sam Houston, and Incarnate Word—will attempt to play more football, along with the rest of the nation’s FCS schools. The national championship game, featuring, as usual, North Dakota State and some other team, will be held in Frisco on the not at all as usual date of May 15.
It’s a nice time to visit Collin County.