Top college football stories of 2010
Conference realignment gave the sport its most radical makeover since 2003
Cam Newton's on-field brilliance and off-field drama dominated the season
Plus: The fall of Troy, AgentGate, the rise of the dual-threat QB and more
Technically, Alabama won a national title on Jan. 7, 2010. But for the purposes of this article, we're considering only the 2010 season and the events that preceded it.
1. Conference realignment. It started when the Big Ten announced its intention to expand, then exploded in June with the stunning news that the Pac-10 was attempting to create a 16-team superconference centered on Texas. For 11 days last summer, fans and media were waiting 24/7 for the next ripple. In the end, the Big 12 held on to Texas and survived (albeit with 10 teams), but the sport still underwent its most radical makeover since the ACC raided the Big East in 2003. In 2011, Nebraska will join the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah the soon-to-be Pac-12, and both leagues will stage conference championship games for the first time. Meanwhile, BYU went independent, TCU joined the Big East and the Mountain West annexed four WAC teams (Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii). And we all learned never to trust the words "A Kansas City radio station is reporting ..."
2. Cam Newton -- on and off the field. On the way to leading Auburn to a berth in the upcoming BCS National Championship Game, the former Florida backup and junior college transfer dazzled viewers with his rare combination of size, speed and passing accuracy, becoming the first player in SEC history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 while also attaining what is currently an NCAA-record pass efficiency rating. But the eventual Heisman winner became a media sensation for all the wrong reasons when it was revealed that his father, Cecil, attempted to shop Cam to Mississippi State for $180,000 during his recruitment from junior college. The NCAA ultimately deemed Newton eligible, but the allegations made for a controversial Heisman coronation and will presumably hover over the national title game as well.
3. The fall of Troy. First, revered coach Pete Carroll shocked USC fans by leaving for the Seattle Seahawks in January and was replaced by one-time prodigy Lane Kiffin. Then in June, more than four years after Yahoo! Sports first reported allegations that former Trojans star Reggie Bush and his family received hundreds of thousands in extra benefits during Bush's last two seasons at USC, the NCAA finally rendered its verdict against the school -- and it wasn't pretty. Before he'd even coached a game, Kiffin was handed a two-year bowl ban and docked 30 scholarships over the next three years. The Committee on Infractions made clear it was sending a message. "High-profile athletes demand high-profile enforcement," said committee chair Paul Dee. In September, Bush -- who has never admitted to any wrongdoing -- announced he would forfeit his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
4. The Great Boise State Debate. From the moment Kellen Moore threw a game-winning touchdown pass on Labor Day night against Virginia Tech, the upstart program with the blue turf became the unwitting victim of backlash from fans of the major conferences, primarily the SEC. While some viewed the possibility of a Boise State national title game appearance as a potential boon for playoff advocates, many more considered it a slap in the face that the Broncos would even be considered while playing a WAC schedule. Even Ohio State president Gordon Gee stepped into the fray with his infamous "Little Sisters of the Poor" comments. The issue was rendered moot when Nevada upset Boise on Thanksgiving weekend (and Oregon and Auburn remained undefeated), but third-ranked TCU will represent the sport's disenfranchised by making an unprecedented appearance in the Rose Bowl.
5. Oregon's offense. In their first game of the season, the Ducks hammered New Mexico 72-0. They followed it up with a 48-13 win at Tennessee and a 69-0 rout of Portland State. People began taking notice not just of how many points Chip Kelly's team was scoring, but of how quickly it was scoring them. The biggest eye-opener: a 52-31 win over then-unbeaten Stanford on Oct. 2 in a game the Ducks trailed 21-3 in the first half. "The [up-tempo] style they play is like nothing that anybody's ever seen," USC's Kiffin said shortly before Oregon ran away from his team, 53-32. From the breakneck pace to the strange flash cards on the sideline, Kelly's offense continues to fascinate people across the sport heading into Oregon's first trip to the BCS championship game.
6. AgentGate. Over a period of days in July, NCAA investigators swooped down on Chapel Hill, Athens, Tuscaloosa and other Southern campuses over a slew of allegations involving players receiving benefits from agents and other third parties. North Carolina wound up suspending numerous key players for an extended period, most notably star defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Georgia receiver A.J. Green missed four games for selling his game-worn jersey to a runner. Later, former NFL agent Josh Luchs spilled the beans to Sports Illustrated over payments he made to at least 30 former standouts. The stir elicited a national discussion (highlighted by Nick Saban's comments likening agents to "pimps") over an age-old problem, but it remains to be seen whether any substantive changes to agent-athlete behavior will result.
7. Dual-threat quarterbacks. Highlighted by Newton, an exciting new crop of fleet-footed quarterbacks took the sport by storm. Unlike the Auburn star (who is likely off to the NFL after this season), the other members of the group could be staples next season and beyond. Michigan sophomore Denard Robinson electrified Wolverines fans by storming out of the gate with 197 rushing yards against Connecticut and 502 total yards against Notre Dame. Even with injuries, he accounted for nearly 4,000 total yards on the season. Nebraska redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez ran for three touchdowns in an early-season rout of Washington and burst for 241 yards and four scores in a Thursday night showcase against Kansas State. (Injuries limited him down the stretch.) In today's game, nothing is more valuable than a quarterback who can beat you with both his feet and his arm, and suddenly, the sport seems to be bursting with them.
8. The downfall of Florida and Texas. They started the 2009 season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 nationally, respectively, and wound up winning 13 games apiece. Less than a year later, the Gators were sulking their way to a 7-5 season, their worst in 22 years. The Longhorns -- having previously posted nine straight 10-win seasons -- inexplicably fell to 5-7. Offensive ineptitude marred both teams, with Florida's John Brantley and Texas' Garrett Gilbert struggling to fill the voids left by their predecessors, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy. Fans of both teams crucified their coaching staffs. Earlier this month (and less than a year after stepping down before abruptly changing his mind), Florida's Urban Meyer announced he was resigning because of burnout. Meanwhile, Texas' Mack Brown fired longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis (and lost coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp to Florida, where he will succeed Meyer) and has begun what could be a rough rebuilding process.
9. All hail The Hat. The legend of eccentric LSU coach Les Miles grew tenfold in 2010 thanks to a series of memorable last-second miracles and one particularly special sideline shot. Long criticized for his repeated game-management gaffes, Miles almost committed an unpardonable sin in an Oct. 2 game against Tennessee when the Tigers appeared to fumble away a potential game-winning score near the goal line. He was bailed out when the Vols were penalized for having 13 men on the field. A week later, a fake field goal marked by a lateral that came within inches of being ruled an incomplete pass set up the winning score at Florida. But in his crowning moment, LSU won at Alabama thanks in part to a risky fourth-and-one reverse. Just before the play, CBS cameras caught Miles eating some blades of grass on the sideline. And apparently, it's a regular thing. "The grass in Tiger Stadium tastes best," Miles said. Hey, it works.
10. Gone too soon. Tragedy struck several football programs this season. Mississippi State defensive end Nick Bell, 20, was diagnosed with brain cancer on Oct. 1, underwent emergency surgery weeks later when it was discovered the disease had spread through his body, and died on Nov. 2. Notre Dame student assistant Declan Sullivan, 20, died on Oct. 27 when the hydraulic scissor lift from which he was shooting practice fell over amid 50 mph winds. The school is investigating the incident. And Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand remains in a rehabilitation facility, paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a spinal-cord injury sustained while making a tackle on a kickoff in an Oct. 16 game against Army. LeGrand is now breathing on his own, and last week it was reported that he's regained some feeling in his hands -- welcome news in what has at times been a dark season.