The 10 biggest college football stories of the 2010s

Nick Bromberg

A ton of things happened during the 2010s in college football. Schools switched conferences left and right. The bowl system finally got a needed change. Multiple players won the Heisman in their first college football seasons.

If you want an example of just how quickly football can change, just take a look at the top 10 in the 2010 Heisman Trophy voting. Only two — Heisman winner Cam Newton and ninth-place Andy Dalton — have been on the field during a regular-season NFL game in 2019.

Yeah, things change a lot over 10 years of football. Just take a look at our 10 biggest stories of the 2010s as the decade comes to a close.

The College Football Playoff’s arrival

Simply put, the playoff is the biggest change in college football history. After 16 years of the BCS determining the top two teams in college football, the four-team playoff arrived in 2014 to give the top level of college football its first-ever postseason tournament to determine an undisputed champion.

It was a radical shift, even if the playoff kept the bowl system intact and didn’t come close to being implemented on the scale of the playoffs that have been determining champions at college football’s lower levels for years.

The current four-team playoff is contracted to run through the 2024 season. After that, it very well could expand again. When we look back at the 2020s in college football we could be writing about the implementation of an eight or 16-team playoff.

Conference realignment

The playoff happened largely because the power brokers in college football realized the money that could be made with a four-team playoff. And money was the primary driver of the flurry of teams switching conferences at the beginning of the decade.

Among myriad moves in the first five years of the 2010s, Colorado and Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Big Ten respectively in 2011. Then Missouri and Texas A&M left a year later for the SEC as the Big Ten added Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East, which ultimately dissolved (in football) and became the American Athletic Conference.

The added schools allowed the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC to start their own conference television networks and promise their members millions of dollars in new revenue. And while the Big Ten and SEC have largely delivered on that promise, the Pac-12 has lagged behind as its network has struggled for widespread distribution.

FILE - This Jan. 12, 2015, file photo shows Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott celebrating after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Oregon in Arlington, Texas. The Ohio State Buckeyes won their first College Football Playoff national championship. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Urban Meyer and Ohio State won the College Football Playoff after the 2014 season. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Urban Meyer’s retirements

Meyer has stepped away from coaching college football twice in the 2010s. Will he return to coaching in the 2020s?

Meyer, a coach with a 187-32 career record and a record of 83-9 at Ohio State, stepped down at Florida because of health reasons after an 8-5 season in 2010. He spent a year as a broadcaster with ESPN before taking over at Ohio State and promptly going undefeated in 2012 as the Buckeyes were facing a postseason ban.

As Meyer began his seventh and final season at Ohio State, he was suspended for the first three games of the season for his insufficient handling of domestic violence accusations against longtime assistant Zach Smith.

Less than three months after he returned from his suspension, Meyer announced that he’d be retiring from coaching after the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes beat Washington to send Meyer off with a win and into Fox’s pregame studio. Will he spend more than one season doing television this time?

The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State

The longtime defensive coordinator committed his heinous crimes long before the 2010s. But their public revelation in 2011 led to upheaval at Penn State.

As Sandusky’s crimes became public upon his arrest in November of 2011, other Penn State figures were forced from their positions for what they did or didn’t do as Sandusky committed his crimes.

Three days after Sandusky was arrested, Joe Paterno had his contract terminated by the school’s board of trustees and school president Graham Spanier resigned. Paterno, according to the grand jury report, had told his superiors at Penn State about an accusation of sexual abuse by Sandusky at Penn State’s facilities but had not gone directly to police.

Paterno died the following January because of lung cancer, 74 days after he was ousted as Penn State’s coach. Sandusky was sentenced later that year to effective life sentences in prison on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

The NCAA acted against Penn State too. The governing body fined the school, instituted a bowl ban and scholarship reductions and also cut wins from Paterno’s NCAA-leading total. As Penn State appealed the penalties, many were eased or rolled back entirely, including the scholarship reductions and bowl ban. In 2015, the NCAA restored the wins it took away from Paterno’s ledger.

Toomer’s Corner tree poisonings

Harvey Updyke confessed his crime on the Paul Finebaum Show.

One of the most bizarre stories of the decade started when a guy identified as Al from Dadeville called the sports talk show to say that he went to Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner to poison the famous oaks after the Tigers had beaten the Tide in 2010 on the way to the national title.

Sure enough, Al, err, Harvey, was telling the truth. A month after he called into the show in January 2011, Auburn said the trees had been poisoned and ultimately needed to be replaced. Not long after Auburn’s announcement, Updyke was arrested.

Updyke served six months in prison and was ordered to pay Auburn approximately $800,000 in restitution for his actions. As of this fall, he had paid just $7,000.

Alabama and Clemson’s dominance of the playoff

While Ohio State won the first playoff thanks to a semifinal upset of Alabama and a title game victory over Oregon, the first six years of the playoff came to be defined by two teams from the south.

Alabama and Clemson have won each of the four playoffs since the Buckeyes claimed the first tournament and that streak could extend to five if Clemson wins this year’s version.

Alabama gets the edge as the team of the decade thanks to its two BCS championships before the playoff’s existence. But, at the moment, it’s a tie between the two when trying to figure out who the team of the playoff era is so far. Both teams have two national titles and a run of five consecutive playoff appearances.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

The Johnny Manziel phenomenon

Texas A&M’s upset win over Alabama in 2012 introduced college football fans to the wonder that was Johnny Manziel’s redshirt freshman season. Manziel solidified his status as the Heisman favorite when the Aggies went into Tuscaloosa and beat the Crimson Tide 31-24. Manziel rushed for 92 yards and was 24-of-31 passing for 253 yards and two scores.

Manziel finished the season with 3,706 yards passing, 1,410 yards rushing and 47 total touchdowns, beating out Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o for the Heisman Trophy while becoming the first freshman to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.

Manziel’s sophomore season wasn’t as good. And it started with a cloud hanging over it after allegations that he got paid to sign autographs after he won the Heisman.

After a drawn-out process all offseason, Manziel ended up missing just the first half of the team’s season opener against Rice. While he threw for more yards and touchdowns than he did the season before, Manziel’s rushing output suffered and so did Texas A&M’s win-loss record. He was fifth in the Heisman voting before turning pro for an ill-fated run in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.

The Baylor sexual assault scandal

Baylor’s lack of response to sexual assault allegations at the school and numerous allegations of sexual assault against football players led to the dismissal of Art Briles as the team’s coach in May of 2016.

Briles, who hasn’t gotten a major coaching job since he was fired, was 65-37 in his time at Baylor and coached Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

But three players who played for Briles during the decade were charged with rape and others were accused of sexual assaults. Per a 2017 lawsuit, at least 30 football players were accused of over 50 sexual assaults from 2011 to 2014. And Briles’ dismissal came after an independent investigation into the way the school handled accusations of sexual assault.

Briles wasn’t the only person who lost his job because of the scandal. Athletic director Ian McCaw — now at Liberty — resigned. So did school president Ken Starr, the lawyer who came to prominence during Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s.

After former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe served as a placeholder coach in 2017, Baylor hired Matt Rhule to succeed Briles. The Bears went 1-11 in 2017 before heading to the Texas Bowl in 2018 and will play in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday.

Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend

Never has a woman who never existed captured the attention of the college football world more than Lennay Kekua.

Kekua, the alleged girlfriend of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, was outed as a catfish operation and not an actual person by the now-defunct sports site Deadspin in 2013.

Kekua, as the story went, died on September 11, 2012, just hours after Te’o’s grandmother passed away. The day after both his girlfriend and grandmother died, Te’o had 12 tackles in Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State. Te’o’s success so shortly after losing two people close to him was a heartwarming tale that began to define both his and Notre Dame’s season.

But Te’o had actually never met Kekua. They had only communicated long-distance. Once Deadspin tried to piece all the parts of Te’o’s too-good-to-be-true story did the story fall apart.

Jameis Winston’s tumultuous college career

Jameis Winston hoisted the Heisman Trophy after the 2013 season and became the second straight redshirt freshman to win the award.

Approximately a month before Winston was voted the Heisman winner, a Florida state attorney had announced that a sexual assault investigation had been opened surrounding a 2012 allegation against Winston. A week before Winston hoisted that trophy, that same state attorney said no charges would be filed against the QB.

In the spring of 2014, the New York Times published a lengthy report that detailed the Tallahassee police department’s lack of precision and protocol after the allegation was first reported in December of 2012.

Because of the serious allegations against him and his status as the defending Heisman winner, Winston entered the 2014 season as the most scrutinized college quarterback in the country. And yet he found himself embroiled in self-inflicted problems. He got caught stealing crab legs from a Publix just two weeks after the Times’ report regarding his sexual assault accusation was published and was ordered to complete community service.

Since the crab legs incident happened during the offseason, Winston’s FSU athletics suspension only applied to baseball. But Winston then got himself suspended for the Seminoles’ September game against Clemson after he stood on a table in the student union and yelled out a vulgar phrase.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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