In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame's 38-36 loss at Stanford, the kind of stomp-on-your-heart loss that through history the Fighting Irish have given way more than they have received, coach Brian Kelly made the statement: "We're two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford."
My first reaction, borne of sarcasm honed in a lifetime of press boxes, was: Well, yes, and I am two Pulitzer Prizes away from winning two Pulitzer Prizes. A lot of games turn on one play.
Then, overcome by a wave of late-onset maturity, I considered Kelly's point. Notre Dame lost because a last-minute sack-and-strip of Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan turned into a face-mask penalty on the Irish that moved Stanford within one completion of field-goal range. An error created by effort, not a missed assignment, and suddenly the Irish had to fly home in the dead of night carrying a payload of crushed dreams.
It has been that kind of season. A number of teams finished the season one play away and four teams are in the College Football Playoff because of one play. In a lot of those cases, it wasn't a normal play, but one that turned on one or two crazy bounces of everyone's favorite oblate spheroid.
With that in mind, here are the 10 plays that defined the season -- 10 plays so unusual, so hard-drive memorable, and in a lot of cases, lucky, that we are left to consider how different the season would have played out without each of them.
1. WHAT PLAYER, last name Henry, is responsible for Alabama winning the SEC? You can make a pretty good case for Derrick Henry, what with his 1,986 rushing yards, which set an SEC record. Me, I'm voting for Hunter Henry, the Arkansas tight end who caught a pass on fourth-and-25 in the waning moments against Ole Miss and set into motion a play that never gets old -- unless you're a Rebels fan. Not only did Henry's blind fling backward bounce cleanly, but it bounced cleanly right to Razorbacks tailback Alex Collins, who ran 31 yards. And fumbled, which Razorbacks receiver Dominique Reed recovered. Of course. Without that play, Arkansas doesn't win the game, Ole Miss wins the SEC West, Alabama doesn't win the SEC, and man, does the College Football Playoff selection committee have a headache.
There's no way to describe how Michigan St. just beat Michigan on the game's final play. You just have to watch it. http://t.co/YRIFcG0uuH— ESPN (@espn) October 17, 2015
2. THINK OF ALL the bounces, literal and otherwise, that had to go Michigan State's way on the last play of the Michigan game. With nine seconds to play and the Wolverines leading 23-21, coach Jim Harbaugh had to decide to punt from the Spartans 47. Michigan punter Blake O'Neill had to mishandle the snap and then not have the presence of mind to fall on the ball and minimize the damage. O'Neill had to try to kick it, and the ball had to bounce easily to Jalen Watts-Jackson, who had to have a convoy of Spartans in front of him, including a block by Jermaine Edmondson to take out Michigan corner Wayne Lyons inside the Michigan 10. Without all of that, all Michigan State's amazing victory over Ohio State does is slow down the Buckeyes on their way to the Big Ten championship game.
John Kreifels is suspended for at least EWU's upcoming game at Northern Iowa, with the possibility of a longer... http://t.co/QtSr8sgjAs— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) September 9, 2015
3. OREGON QUARTERBACK Vernon Adams Jr. had led the Ducks to a 54-35, fourth-quarter lead when his former Eastern Washington teammate John Kreifels hit him with a cheap shot. Kreifels was ejected for targeting after diving headfirst into Adams, breaking a finger on the quarterback's throwing hand. Adams played the following week, a 31-28 loss at Michigan State, but he wasn't the same, and Oregon sat him four of the next five games. By the time he returned to the lineup, the Ducks stood 3-3 and too far out of the Pac-12 North race, much less the playoff, to fulfill preseason expectations. As sweet as the mid-November 38-36 victory at Stanford was, it reminded Oregon fans of what might have been.
4. WITH IOWA CLINGING to a 10-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter and Wisconsin at the Hawkeyes 1, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave tripped and flubbed a handoff to tailback Taiwan Deal. Defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie fell on the ball at the Iowa 5. The Badgers came no closer to that winning touchdown than the Iowa 34. Without the Stave fumble, if the Badgers scored and won, they would have tied the Hawkeyes for the Big Ten West, won the tiebreaker, played Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Iowa probably wouldn't be going to its first Rose Bowl in 25 years.
What a finish in Norman! TCU stormed back and went for 2 and the win with :51 left. The Sooners had other ideas. https://t.co/qNjConLMoG— ESPN (@espn) November 22, 2015
5. OKLAHOMA, WITH QUARTERBACK Baker Mayfield running the offense, sprinted to a 23-7 halftime lead over TCU. After Mayfield showed symptoms of a concussion, the Sooners' offense stopped producing. The Horned Frogs, trying to remain in contention for the Big 12 title, climbed back into the game, and with 16 fourth-quarter points, pulled within 30-29 with 51 seconds to play. TCU coach Gary Patterson had the momentum but chose to decide the game right there and go for two points. Bram Kohlhausen rolled to his right and tried to loft a touch pass over leaping safety Steven Parker. Had it been a finger roll, it wouldn't have reached the rim. Parker batted the ball and the Horned Frogs' chances away.
6. WE WILL NEVER know if Notre Dame would have made the CFP with a victory over Stanford. But we know that if Irish defensive lineman Isaac Rochell hadn't got his hand caught in Kevin Hogan's face mask, then the Cardinal wouldn't have had the ball at their 43-yard line, which allowed Hogan to throw a 27-yard pass to Devon Cajuste, which put Conrad Ukropina in position to kick a 45-yard buzzer-beating field goal to win the game. And we know that the Irish were No. 6, and they were that close to beating No. 9, on the road, and what might that have been worth to the playoff committee?
7. MARQUISE WILLIAMS THREW three red-zone interceptions in North Carolina's opener at South Carolina, the last on fourth-and-goal at the Gamecocks 8 with 3:29 to play, allowing the overmatched home team to escape with a 17-13 win. Had the Tar Heels gone 12-0 with two FCS victories, they would have been in position to make the playoff. But between those victories and the loss to a four-win South Carolina team, North Carolina never had a chance.
North Carolina didn't recover a late onside kick because of what Chris Fowler deemed a "phantom offside call." pic.twitter.com/KbPRpzrb5V— ESPN (@espn) December 6, 2015
8. ESPECIALLY AFTER THE ACC championship game. Without the phantom offside call on North Carolina's onside kick with 1:08 to play, Clemson still would have led 45-37, and the Tar Heels still would have had to cover 50 yards to score a touchdown, and still would have had to convert a two-point try, and still would have had to win the game in overtime in order to knock the No. 1 Tigers out of the playoff. Together, that's a long shot, to say the least. But it would have been nice to see the Tar Heels try, especially because they executed the onside kick to perfection, which is more than you can say for the officiating crew.
Michigan State's 22-play, game-winning drive -- the longest by any team in two seasons -- was capped off by this TD: https://t.co/MSjV2cGUNZ— ESPN (@espn) December 6, 2015
9. MICHIGAN STATE TAILBACK LJ Scott broke one of the Ten Commandments of running when he removed the ball from its high and tight perch and stretched it toward the plane of the goal line. Scott had twisted out of one Iowa tackle and was getting blasted by two others, one of whom -- Hawkeyes defensive end Melvin Spears -- came directly across the goal line and delivered a Muhammad Ali-worthy jab in the direction of the ball. Spears missed by the narrowest of margins, and, oh, what a finish that would have been. What would have been more historic than a 22-play drive for the winning touchdown? A 22-play drive for the winning touchdown that falls inches short thanks to a heady defensive play.
HAIL MARY! Trailing by 1, BYU's prayers are answered w/ a 42-yd TD pass on the last play at Nebraska. Wow. WATCH: http://t.co/PgkMuk91Of— ESPN (@espn) September 5, 2015
10. YOU WANT TO think about what might have been? Let's say one of the multitude of Nebraska defenders in the end zone knocks down the 42-yard Hail Mary by BYU freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum with no time on the clock. Nebraska hangs on to win 28-27. What doubts might never have appeared in the Huskers' heads? How many of their next four losses, by a total of eight points, might have turned into victories? Nebraska had more talent than its 5-7 record shows. But after that opening loss to the Cougars, the Huskers couldn't get out of their own way.