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Alonzo Adams/Associated Press
What if there’s an alternate reality in which the 2018 college football season—with just a couple of minor tweaks—was entirely different?
In a world in which Vanderbilt upsets Notre Dame, Georgia’s fake punt works, Kelly Bryant never transfers and a Major League Baseball team tells Kyler Murray he’s not allowed to play football, you’re looking at one heck of a change from the actual College Football Playoff picture.
These aren’t outrageous what-if scenarios. We’re talking about things like a fluke injury that instead doesn’t happen, a key pass attempt that actually finds it mark and a Miami team that sticks with one darn quarterback instead of trying to swap starters every week.
Even if just one of these eight things had played out differently, the butterfly effect could have been massive.
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Mike Stewart/Associated Press
After steering Clemson to last year’s College Football Playoff in his first season as a starter, Kelly Bryant gradually lost his starting job to freshman Trevor Lawrence.
Credit to head coach Dabo Swinney for playing it right and essentially treating the first four weeks of the season as an extended tryout period. Also, props to Swinney for showing Bryant respect by letting him know, “Hey, we’re going to roll with the freshman from here on out” at a point when Bryant could still transfer without losing a year of eligibility.
How much differently would things have played out if Bryant stuck around, though?
Remember, Lawrence suffered a first-half injury in the near-loss to Syracuse in the first game after Bryant announced he was transferring. We all made our jokes about him parachuting to the rescue or coming out after halftime with his signature music (whatever that may be) like the triumphant return of a WWE star.
But what if he had been on the roster as the available backup?
It was Chase Brice who led the game-winning drive, but there were never any illusions that he was going to become the starter unless Lawrence was seriously injured. If it had been Bryant, though, there would have been an entire industry of sportswriters asking if Swinney had made the right call and wondering aloud if Bryant had reclaimed his starting job with a season-saving performance.
Instead, Lawrence returned the following week and has been excellent, and Bryant will be taking his talents to the Missouri Tigers for the 2019 season.
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Most of us forgot about this one as the season wore on and Virginia Tech became an afterthought at the national level, but Josh Jackson’s broken leg has to be one of college football’s biggest in-season injury-related what-if situations of the past decade.
Prior to that injury, the Hokies were 2-0 with an impressive road win over Florida State and a 45-point blowout of William & Mary. They were ranked No. 13 in the AP poll. And despite being in the fourth quarter of a battle with Old Dominion, they had not yet trailed in a game to that point in the season.
After Jackson’s injury, the Hokies gave up touchdowns on three consecutive lengthy drives to suffer one of the most embarrassing losses in program history.
They temporarily rebounded with a nice road win over Duke the following week, but they crashed and burned from there, losing five of the next six and scoring 28 points or less in each of those games.
The young defense is what made Virginia Tech so bad for most of the season. The Hokies were absolutely gutted in the running game by both Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, and they allowed just under 38.0 points in games 5-11. Losing the starting quarterback three weeks into the season didn’t change the fact that watching this team play defense was like watching a paper bag try to hold water.
But the Hokies might have been able to keep pace with good offense had Jackson been available. Their defense was no worse than Ohio State’s or Oklahoma’s, and both Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray played well enough for those teams to go 12-1 and win their conference championships. Jackson probably isn’t as good as either of those Heisman Trophy finalists, but he could’ve made a difference.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Notre Dame had several close calls during its undefeated season, beating Michigan, Ball State, Pittsburgh and USC by one-possession margins. But the 22-17 win over Vanderbilt was the one time an opponent got the ball into Notre Dame territory late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game.
Vandy had several close calls earlier in the contest, fumbling into the end zone on one 75-yard drive in the first half and terminating another long drive early in the second half with an interception at the Notre Dame 1. Had either of those possessions resulted in a touchdown, this game would’ve played out much differently. But scoring against the Fighting Irish defense wasn’t easy for anyone this season.
The Commodores got into a groove late in the third quarter. A 20-yard punt return put them in position to score their first touchdown of the game, and they marched 75 yards down the field on the following possession to trim Notre Dame’s lead to 22-17.
After Justin Yoon missed a 32-yard field goal, Vanderbilt started another long drive, getting down to the Notre Dame 31 before stalling out. On both 3rd-and-4 as well as 4th-and-4, quarterback Kyle Shurmur was unable to find his favorite target, Kalija Lipscomb.
If Shurmur had been able to navigate the last-minute upset, though, would an 11-1 Notre Dame have gotten into the College Football Playoff?
Say what you will about the BCS rankings of yesteryear, but at least we would’ve had some idea of just how big the gap was between No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 5 Georgia in the final standings. Even if the Fighting Irish had lost that game, they still got wins over seven bowl teams, plus 5-7 USC and Florida State. That’s a darn fine resume that would’ve made for a compelling debate.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Ohio State went 12-1, won the Big Ten and finished at No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings—one spot behind a Georgia team that suffered two losses and didn’t win its league.
A big part of that was the proverbial eye test. For most of the season, the Buckeyes did not look good, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on more than one occasion. Blowing out Michigan in the regular-season finale was a great look, but they needed that 23-point win just to counterbalance the hideous 29-point loss to Purdue.
But the oft-unmentioned part of the problem was that the rest of the Big Ten simply wasn’t as good as expected.
Wisconsin opened the season as the highest-ranked team in the conference, but it never put together so much as a three-game winning streak, finishing 7-5 with home losses to BYU and Minnesota. Michigan State was equally disappointing, starting out at No. 11 before losing five games and forgetting how to play offense down the stretch.
Even the good teams had their awful moments.
Michigan got pummeled by Ohio State and lost to Notre Dame in its only legitimate nonconference test. Penn State needed overtime to avoid a home loss to Appalachian State, did lose at home to Michigan State and got creamed at Michigan. And in addition to the aforementioned loss to Purdue, Ohio State looked like the furthest thing from a national championship candidate in close wins over Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Moreover, the league struggled as a whole in nonconference play. In Week 2, Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska all lost home games against unranked opponents, and Michigan State was upset at Arizona State. One week later, Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska all did it again, and this time, Wisconsin, Maryland and Illinois joined the club.
Maybe if Ohio State’s defeat hadn’t come against a team that lost at home to Eastern Michigan—or if its Big Ten title hadn’t come against a team that lost at home to Akron—the league champ might’ve gotten enough respect to sneak in as the No. 4 seed.
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It’s ironic that a guy named Smart made the most boneheaded decision of the entire season.
That would be Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who drew up a fake punt on 4th-and-11 with three minutes remaining in a tie game in the SEC championship.
As much as any of us can appreciate not wanting to give back the ball to Alabama in that situation, it was just a terrible decision. You might be able to steal a couple of yards on any fake, but 11 is too much—especially when Alabama’s defense was clearly prepared for it and showed no signs of trying to block the punt.
But what if it had worked?
What if Georgia had been able to catch the most consistently disciplined program off guard and Justin Fields took the ball inside the Alabama 40 for a first down?
Maybe the drive would’ve stalled out anyway. After all, Georgia had only managed three first downs on five possessions in the previous 22 minutes at that point, and Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 30-yard field goal earlier in the half. But at least the Dawgs would’ve been able to bleed more time off the clock to take the game to overtime, and a loss might have been acceptable enough to the CFP selection committee to keep UGA at No. 4.
Maybe the Bulldogs win the game in regulation and punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff and incite a riotous debate about whether Alabama deserves to go to the playoff as a non-champion for a second straight year.
Or maybe they still manage to lose the game in regulation anyway. Who knows? But if the Dawgs had just punted it away and trusted their defense to keep Jalen Hurts from going 80 or more yards, they would’ve had a much better chance of winning the game and getting a shot at the national championship.
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It was a rough year for the Miami Hurricanes. They opened the season at No. 8 in the AP poll and were on the shortlist of viable candidates for the College Football Playoff, but they went 7-5 despite playing just one game against a team that finished in the CFP Top 25 (LSU).
Don’t blame the defense, though. Miami ranked second in the nation in total yards allowed per game (268.3) and got to bust out the turnover chain 24 times. In particular, the secondary was impenetrable, as the ‘Canes ranked first in passing yards allowed (140.8 per game) and second in passer efficiency rating (100.64) while finishing the season with five more interceptions (15) than touchdowns allowed (10).
Don’t blame the running game either. Though Miami was no Clemson or Georgia Tech, it did average 5.19 yards per carry (23rd nationally out of 130 FBS teams) and nearly 200 rushing yards per game (43rd). Given the team’s prowess on defense, that would have been plenty if the Hurricanes had a competent passing attack.
But they didn’t.
Head coach Mark Richt bounced back and forth between senior Malik Rosier and redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry to no avail. The former finished with a 119.0 PER; the latter an equally rough 118.5. Rosier didn’t take quite enough snaps to qualify, but Perry’s PER ranked 99th nationally out of 100.
Collectively, Miami completed 51.9 percent of its pass attempts and averaged just 177.3 yards per game. And over the second half of the season, the ‘Canes had three passing touchdowns and never went over 190 yards in a contest.
As a result, they had a four-game losing streak in which they held all four opponents to 27 points or fewer. With some semblance of an aerial assault, they easily could have won each of those games, finishing 11-1 and getting to face Clemson in the ACC championship.
Given the weakness of their schedule, even winning that matchup most likely would not have been enough to get into the playoff. But at least the ACC title game might have been worth watching.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
None of us realized it at the time, but one of the most important games of the season kicked off at 10:30 pm ET on a Friday night in September.
That game was Washington State at USC, and it was a fantastic battle between Gardner Minshew II and JT Daniels. Both quarterbacks finished with three touchdowns, and neither team committed a turnover in a contest that seesawed back and forth all night.
The Cougars trailed by three in the closing minutes when Minshew got them into field-goal range. However, with help from a bad snap, Jay Tufele blocked Blake Mazza’s 38-yard attempt, sealing the 39-36 win for the Trojans.
But what if the redshirt freshman hadn’t gotten his left hand on that ball and it had sailed through the uprights, sending the game to overtime? Could USC’s defense be trusted to stop Minshew, or would Washington State have won that game?
If the Cougars had been able to get the job done, they would’ve entered the Apple Cup with an 11-0 record, knowing they had already clinched their spot in the Pac-12 championship, thanks to Washington’s two Pac-12 losses to Oregon and California.
Maybe that level of comfort and confidence doesn’t change the outcome of that snow-globe game, but if they had rallied from that loss to knock off Utah the following week, they would’ve finished 12-1 with a power-conference championship and just the one defeat—which could have been partially written off because of the weather.
That team would’ve been seriously in the running for the playoff.
Instead, that dream was erased by a USC team that didn’t win another game all season against a bowl team.
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Alonzo Adams/Associated Press
Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics invested a sizable chunk of change in Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, making him the No. 9 overall draft pick this past June and giving him a signing bonus of $4.66 million.
As part of the deal, they gave Murray the green light to play one more season of college football—in which the former 5-star recruit would finally get the chance to be the full-time starting quarterback and prove that he knew what he was doing when he turned down the chance to go pro in baseball straight out of high school.
By now, you know how that story ends. Well, the regular-season portion of the story, at least. Murray led Oklahoma to a 12-1 campaign and a spot in the College Football Playoff, winning the Heisman along the way.
So what would’ve happened if the A’s told him to quit football?
If nothing else, the Heisman would have gone to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa—unless we’re grossly underestimating the potential of OU’s backup quarterback, Austin Kendall. Chances are Kendall wouldn’t have been as capable of leading this offense (one of the greatest we’ve ever seen), meaning that instead of 12-1 Big 12 champions, maybe Oklahoma goes 8-4 with losses to Army, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia.
We’re going pretty far down the rabbit hole at this point, but now you’re talking about Army at 11-1 and maybe sneaking into the New Year’s Six conversation. Texas Tech would’ve gone 6-6, and maybe Kliff Kingsbury would’ve kept his job as head coach.
And West Virginia would’ve faced Texas in the B12 championship with neither one boasting an impressive enough resume to reach the CFP. That would’ve opened the door for Georgia to play for a title.
Basically, everything about this college football season would’ve been slightly different if an MLB franchise hadn’t been cool with its top pick risking injury in a different sport.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.