February 29 isn’t a meaningful date on the college football calendar. In most years, it isn’t even a date at all.
The only significant college football day in February is the first Wednesday — national signing day. By the end of the month, all the major coaching moves are wrapped up. Only a handful of teams are on the field for spring practice.
But Feb. 29 — known more commonly as Leap Day — represents a significant snapshot. Think of it as a down marker in college football’s drive through history.
So, as Leap Day dawns for the first time in four years, let’s begin by rewinding.
Here’s what college football looked like on Feb. 29, 2012:
Texas A&M was a month from its first spring practice session under coach Kevin Sumlin. The SEC-bound Aggies’ biggest question was at quarterback, where four players would compete: Jameill Showers, a slight favorite entering spring ball, as well as Matt Joeckel, Matt Davis … and a rollicking freshman named Johnny Manziel.
Brady Hoke had led Michigan to an 11-2 record in his first season, highlighted by a Sugar Bowl championship and the team’s first win against Ohio State since 2003. Hoke’s first full recruiting class ranked No. 7 nationally. The buzz began for the rivalry between Hoke and new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
USC shared the good vibes. The Trojans were coming off of a 10-2 season under Lane Kiffin, and they had signed a small but talented recruiting class (ranked No. 13 nationally) featuring wide receiver Nelson Agholor and defensive lineman Leonard Williams. The postseason ban was gone; quarterback Matt Barkley was returning; and USC seemed likely to restore its place atop the Pac-12 and in the national title mix.
The push to enhance athletes’ rights and profitability was mostly quiet. The Ed O’Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA wouldn’t go to trial for more than two years. Kain Colter wouldn’t spark the unionization push at Northwestern for two years. The Big Ten had initial discussions in 2011 about increasing scholarship values to full cost-of-attendance figures, but progress was slow nationally.
A mostly unknown NFL assistant named Bill O’Brien was settling in — as best he could — at Penn State after a historically turbulent stretch there. Besides O’Brien, other new coaches included Jim McElwain at Colorado State, Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State (replacing Hugh Freeze, who vaulted to Ole Miss), Charlie Weis at Kansas and Garrick McGee at UAB.
A standings scan from the previous season showed TCU atop the Mountain West; Maryland last in the ACC Atlantic Division; Rutgers tied for fourth in the Big East, a game behind both Louisville and West Virginia; Missouri and Texas A&M in the middle of the Big 12; Temple in second place in the MAC East Division; and Louisiana Tech winning the WAC, which would dissolve after the 2012 season.
After an all-SEC national championship game that left few happy outside the Southeast, the major conference commissioners began substantive discussions to change the postseason model and consider playoff options.
Not everything has changed in four years — Alabama was celebrating a national title back then, too — but it has been a transformative period for college football.
What will the sport look like on Feb. 29, 2020, the next time Leap Day surfaces? Here are several areas to watch.
Teams to watch
On Leap Day 2012, Ole Miss was reeling from a 2-10 season (0-8 in the SEC) and Ohio State was coming off of its first seven-loss season since 1897. Duke lingered in the basement of the ACC Coastal Division, and Memphis finished last in Conference USA’s East Division. Fortunes can change in four years, so which teams will be surging by Feb. 29, 2020?
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald identifies five: Florida, Michigan, USC, Washington and Texas. “There’s no way Texas is going to be down that long,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s way too much talent, way too many developed high school players down there.”
Few would be shocked if those blue bloods recaptured their form. Others that could be generating more national buzz in 2020 include Virginia Tech (new coach Justin Fuente provides the offensive acumen to boost a program with typically elite defense and special teams); UCLA (long overdue facilities upgrade should help, and recruiting already has been elevated); North Carolina (sleeping giant finally pledges more to facilities, which should make the job attractive even if Larry Fedora departs); and Georgia (longtime underachiever in talent-stocked region should put it all together under Kirby Smart). Add in San Diego State if you’re looking for a Group of 5 team that could make some noise.
College football became more of a speed-and-space game the past four years, and it should remain on the same trajectory, especially as more high schools spread the field. Baylor coach Art Briles sees increased opportunities and a greater demand for athletes who can play sideline to sideline. “Having big skill guys can almost be a detriment,” said Fitzgerald, who added that players such as ex-Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, will become anomalies.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi thinks that unless the NCAA restricts the lineman downfield rule, the number of “RPO” — run-pass option — offenses will increase with speed as the top priority. “It’s becoming basketball out there,” he said.
Whether that will change is up for debate. Briles expects football to be an even faster game despite some challenges to the style he and others have popularized. “The tempo deal, I don’t see that being touched,” said Briles, adding that fast-paced, high-scoring offenses enhance college football’s appeal to fans and television. “I don’t know why you would make a good game bad.”
There’s still a place for size, though. Sumlin said the size-speed combination is a requirement to compete in the SEC, especially along the lines. “The player-development side will continue to grow,” he said.
Despite a spike in injuries to standout quarterbacks in 2015, coaches expect mobility to remain a priority. “When you can get that true dual-threat guy, it puts so much stress on a defense,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d look to continue seeing that.”
More moves seem likely, especially if the Big 12 green-lights another push and aims to have its membership total reflect its league name again. The seismic shifting of the past six years — “The football financial reactionary alignment,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis calls it — is likely over. But some university presidents, such as Memphis’ David Rudd, think another realignment round is “inevitable,” especially as the revenue gap widens between the Power 5 and the Group of 5.
“If it’s not outright realignment, I think there will be some teams passed around,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said.
Between Leap Day 2012 and today, college football once again flirted with an early signing period for recruiting, only to back off. The amount of electronic correspondence between coaches and prospects was also debated.
Briles expects an early signing period to pass in the next four years, saying, “Everything’s earlier anyway. The players are a lot more aware of what’s going on and where they feel comfortable.” Leach, meanwhile, is leery about altering the recruiting calendar, and Fitzgerald wants the entire model evaluated “holistically” to see how each group is affected.
Narduzzi thinks staff size will be addressed in the next four years as some recruiting departments are “out of control.” Narduzzi also hopes football will adopt college basketball’s rule to prohibit teams from hiring the high school coaches of coveted recruits.
Hollis thinks the contact policies should be altered so coaches and prospects can assess whether there’s a fit. “Many of the rules allow time, but they don’t allow interaction,” he said. “It should be done with more impactful time where the conversations can truly take place.”
A concept that gained steam around Leap Day 2012 is here to stay after two successful editions. The only question for Leap Day 2020 is whether the playoff will expand. The initial playoff contract keeps the event at four teams for the first 12 years, but many expect growth sooner. Briles, whose team finished fifth in the inaugural playoff, expects an eight-team event by 2020. Leach wants the event to mirror the NCAA basketball tournament with 64 teams and thinks 16 teams should be the minimum by 2020.
“They’ve been quote-unquote locked into a lot of things for a long time,” Leach said, “but the money and the excitement will drive [expansion] at some point.”
Sumlin isn’t so sure. He thinks the four-team model will be even more popular in 2020. With a growing focus on athlete time demands, the prospect of adding postseason games seems unlikely.
“Although people want to expand it,” Sumlin said, “it’s going to be difficult to play a conference championship and three or four more games.”
The playoff-selection methods could also evolve. A traditional selection committee has worked well, but the group hasn’t faced many dilemmas. This past year revealed little about the committee’s thought process; it had four fairly obvious choices. “Maybe you have a value points system: winning a conference title, beating top-10 teams, things along those lines that brings some objectivity to the table,” Briles said. “Right now, it’s very subjective and borderline opinionated.”
And what does the future hold for bowl season itself?
“Probably not as many bowl games,” Sumlin said. “The bowl system will help a lot of teams, but probably the number of wins will go up and you can still reward teams that play well.”
Player safety and specifically head injuries were the focus of rule adjustments in recent years as football faced intense scrutiny about its perils. The much-debated targeting rule isn’t going anywhere and will continue to be modified, but players could be entering the college game with more refined skills to limit injuries. “We’re trying to take the head out of the game at the grassroots level with grade school and high school football,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to start to see a return on the investment. It’s definitely going to be a safer game [in 2020].”
The replay system likely will look different, whether it’s more centralized at league offices or incorporating input from on-field officials through enhanced technology. “Right now, there’s too many replays that we get wrong,” Leach said. “Replay should never be wrong. There has to be a way to do it independently. The way the NFL dabbled is an interesting approach.”
Will a college coach be earning $10 million in 2020? Back on Leap Day 2012, Texas’ Mack Brown was the game’s highest-paid coach, having earned $5.19 million for the 2011 season. Alabama’s Nick Saban currently occupies the top spot at $7.087 million, followed by Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, another $7 million man. If both coaches remain in the college game — along with other high earners such as Meyer, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher — it’s possible to see a coach with a salary approaching or exceeding eight figures.
“You’ve got to make a decision,” Hollis said. “Once you start using comparable data, somebody always wants to have a few more wins, so they’re willing to pay a couple hundred thousand and then a couple million.”