In the year 2011, a chain of events changed college football as we knew it.
When most people think of that year in college football terms, it usually comes down to one big thing: the LSU-Alabama “Game of the Century,” the subsequent rematch of that game in the 2012 BCS National Championship, and the post-BCS outcry that fueled the speedy development of the College Football Playoff just months later.
But that wouldn’t have happened the same way without one other game in between.
That game was on Nov. 18, 2011 in Ames, Iowa between the No. 2 team in the country, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and an unranked Iowa State.
Just two undefeated teams were in the mix for the BCS Championship.
No. 1 LSU had beaten then-No. 2 Alabama two weeks earlier in a 9-6 overtime slugfest.
Oklahoma State was also undefeated. All that was left for the Cowboys was a Friday night road game against Iowa State and a home game against then-No. 5 Oklahoma.
The Cowboys entered with heavy hearts, as a plane crash the day prior had claimed the lives of two OSU women’s basketball coaches. OSU players and coaches wore memorial emblems to Ames.
If OSU won out, it would be in the BCS Championship against LSU.
Oklahoma State, led by future first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden, was beating teams by an average of 25 points.
Iowa State entered with a 5-4 record, and a 2-4 mark in conference play. The Cyclones were 27-point underdogs.
“The week leading up [to the game] was kind of like, ‘We have this secret that nobody else knows that we know. We know that we match up really well with this team,’” says Jeff Woody, an ISU sophomore running back at the time, to SB Nation. “So it wasn't so much different as it was kind of exciting for us to be like, ‘Yeah we know what we’re capable of doing, we know how we match up, and nobody else in the world knows what we know.’”
Iowa State tied it up with 3:38 left.
OSU tried for a 38-yard field goal with under two minutes left, but missed. The Cowboy defense forced overtime.
In the second OT, the Cowboys got the ball first, and on first down, Weeden threw a pass that was tipped and picked off.
“They tried to throw a field side hitch to Justin Blackmon against Leonard Johnson,” Woody said. “And Leonard was physically beating up the Biletnikoff Award winner [Blackmon] at the line, and then he undercut the route and got an interception. It was one of those things where you were like ‘Oh my god, this is ours.’”
Three plays was all it would take, and they were all the same exact play, in fact.
“Ironically, it was the exact same formation, play call and cadence, all three times,” says Woody. “That’s one thing that [Tom] Herman always did was kind of like, ‘Eff you, stop it.’ That’s one of the things that Herman had the attitude of.”
That’s Texas head coach Herman, who was the offensive coordinator at ISU before helping Ohio State to a national title.
“I remember us playing really good defense. I remember the stars aligning,” Herman told SB Nation this week. “One of the best kickers in the country missed a game-winning field goal. And then I remember just handing the ball to Jeff Woody on an inside zone three times in a row, and then winning the game.”
On first-and-goal, a four-yard rushing touchdown from Woody would seal the upset and shake up the BCS.
“It’s protect the ball, protect the ball, forward lean, use your pads, use everything you can to keep that thing secure,” Woody said. “All of the sudden, the cut just presented itself, and lo and behold, I'm in the end zone as 50,000 people try to touch me.”
Alabama reclaimed the No. 2 spot behind LSU.
Third was Arkansas, which had a 38-14 loss to Alabama. Fourth was Oklahoma State. Arkansas would later lose to LSU.
On Championship Saturday, No. 1 LSU beat No. 16 Georgia in the SEC Championship (and thus moved one step away from claiming to be one of the best teams of all time), and No. 3 OSU beat No. 13 Oklahoma, 44-10.
On the field after beating OU, Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy argued on camera that OSU-LSU would mean an interesting contrast of styles, between the high-scoring OSU and the defense-and-special teams-first LSU, as opposed to two SEC teams who’d already played a low-scoring game earlier that year.
However, it wasn’t enough to give them more votes than Alabama in the polls that contributed to the BCS, leaving LSU at No. 1 and the Tide at No. 2.
The rematch was met with widespread backlash.
Many thought Oklahoma State blowing out its opponents was worthy of the No. 2 spot, especially after what it did to wrap up the regular season against Oklahoma. Bama had a more forgivable loss than OSU did, but the two had played comparable overall schedules, and OSU in the BCS would’ve meant no rematch.
Bill Connelly argued in favor of the rematch, with a somewhat unique perspective:
Not a single other team in the field [besides LSU] has an airtight title case. You could certainly suggest that Oklahoma State's overall resume is better than Alabama's, but the Tide didn't go and lose to Iowa State. You can suggest that the country doesn't want to see a rematch, but the country probably didn't want to see a UConn-Butler finale in last year's NCAA basketball tournament. The country doesn't get to decide who plays for the title based on aesthetics or personal preferences.
The Alabama-LSU rematch, a boring, 21-0 Bama victory, resulted in the BCS Championship’s lowest-ever television ratings to that point.
The All-SEC affair, the first championship pairing of teams from the same conference, drew a 13.8 overnight rating on ESPN. The previous record low was a 14.3 for Miami-Nebraska at the 2002 Rose Bowl.
The figure is down 14.3% from a 16.1 overnight for last year's Auburn-Oregon matchup, ESPN's highest-rated telecast ever. Last year's game came down to Auburn kicking a field goal on the last play to win.
The game was also down 24% from Alabama's last national championship when the Crimson Tide defeated Texas in 2010.
Something had to give.
Hours after the game was played, the Sporting News was reporting the 2012 offseason would be spent building a playoff system. Two months later, conference commissioners met to discuss the post-BCS playoff. By May, we were down to debating the details.
By the time the next season kicked off, just about everything but the bowls that would eventually become the New Year’s Six had been hammered out. The Playoff would begin in 2014.
It’s possible some of those wheels were already in motion. With the BCS’ contract expiring in 2013, there likely would’ve been some change anyway, since the BCS had evolved nearly annually anyway.
But a sport that had gone 143 years without a top-level playoff and 14 with a system of computers and polls determining its champion had one just a few months after an unpopular BCS rematch.
"It left a distaste in people's mouths," College GameDay host Chris Fowler said in 2013. "I don't know if it was a final push for the playoffs. It was certainly another piece of dissatisfaction with the BCS, and people outside of the SEC region certainly had SEC fatigue. I think that contributed to the rematch not being very popular for a lot of people."
The new system was designed to be very much not the BCS.
You can still see traces of the all-SEC title game’s fallout. The Playoff selection committee’s first listed preference is conference champion status, which would’ve ruled out SEC West runner-up Bama as a No. 2 seed in 2011.
The Playoff system shuns advanced statistics, probably overcompensating to avoid reminding people of the BCS’ poorly designed computer system.
A playoff was coming eventually.
But had Iowa State not upset Oklahoma State almost five years ago, the chain of events that caused the postseason model to develop so rapidly might have taken much longer than just a few months.
Imagine the butterfly effect, if OSU had gone on to likely lose to LSU, starting with either Gundy having as many national championships as Oklahoma archrival Bob Stoops or Les Miles having nearly as many as Nick Saban:
Alabama’s dynasty would still mostly be in effect, but Saban wouldn’t have the same air of inevitability.
And that’s before you play out any recruiting scenarios that could’ve tipped in Miles’ favor if you change the 2011 season’s championship, which would’ve meant Miles being able to claim one of college football’s best teams ever.
Oh, and college football maybe doesn’t have a playoff yet.
So, how does Woody feel about having a pretty significant part in changing the college football postseason as we knew it?
“I feel like Dr. Pepper kind of owes me some money, because Larry Culpepper didn’t invent the Playoff. I joke with myself like, ‘Hey, we did that!’”
“We can’t obviously take credit for it being completely done,” Woody continued. “But to know that you had a hand in pushing over something that everybody hated for 15 years and creating this type of new model, it’s a badge of pride. I’d be lying if I said it wasn't.”