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The 2020 college football season in photos

  DeVonta Smith's 84-yard punt return touchdown against Arkansas on Dec. 12 was a highlight of the 2020 season. He would go on to win the Heisman, the first receiver to do so since 1991. Michael Woods/AP Photo
College football in 2020 was unlike any other season in the sport's history, and it brought unfamiliar images to the game: athletes publicly campaigning for racial equality; game delays, postponements and cancellations around COVID-19 issues; stadiums largely empty, with few to no fans or school bands; and so many masks.
But the game still mostly looked like the game. There were big upsets, teams that surprised in good and bad ways, players and moments that grabbed our attention -- hello, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith! -- as well as the expected domination by Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
These are the images that we'll remember from the 2020 college football season.
Related: The sports year in photos 2020
June 13, 2020: Clemson players march for equality

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Months before the FBS season kicked off on Sept. 3, some players were leading by example. As the United States watched racial justice movements spread across the country following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Clemson players showed how the movement was being felt at the highest levels of the sport, with Black athletes and allies raising awareness. Mike Jones Jr., Cornell Powell, Darien Rencher and Trevor Lawrence organized a protest and march in South Carolina, speaking at Clemson's Bowman Field and leading a march of thousands.
Aug. 21: Big Ten parents rally to save the season

Quinn Harris/Getty Images
On Aug. 11, the Big Ten became the first Power 5 conference to postpone the football season, leading parents of players to fight for the season to resume in the fall. Randy Wade, the father of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, organized a rally of parents from different schools outside of the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois. The league would announce on Sept. 16 that its presidents and chancellors had unanimously voted to resume competition.
Aug. 29: An eerie glimpse of the season to come

Butch Dill/Getty Images
In the first Division I college football game of the season, Central Arkansas' 24-17 victory over Austin Peay provided a first look at the sport in a pandemic year, with a crowd of just 2,000 people and more on-field sounds picked up by microphones. Power 5 schools would kick off the following week.
Sept. 12: Louisiana stuns Iowa State -- and serves notice

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
In the first major upset of the season, the unranked Ragin' Cajuns knocked off the No. 23 Cyclones 31-14, though it turned out to be just the first step to Louisiana establishing itself as one of the powers in the Sun Belt Conference. The Cajuns finished the season as co-champions with Coastal Carolina, after the Sun Belt title game was canceled because of coronavirus issues. Iowa State, a program on the rise, ended up Fiesta Bowl champion and 10th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Sept. 26: K.J. Costello has a moment in the sun against LSU

Chris Parent/Collegiate Images/ Getty Images
One of the biggest surprises of the college football season was also one of the most short-lived. Costello, the senior Mississippi State quarterback, made Heisman watch lists immediately after tearing up Bo Pelini's LSU defense for 623 yards in a 44-34 win, a conference record for passing yards in a single game. Little did anyone know, that same defense wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight against anyone and Costello wouldn't make it to the end of the season as Mike Leach's quarterback after struggling the following two games with a combined seven interceptions.
Oct. 24: Michael Penix Jr. gives us the debate of the year

 Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports
In the Big Ten's opening week, Indiana upset Penn State -- which was expected to be at worst the second-best team in the Big Ten -- on a Penix 2-point conversion that fans will surely argue over for decades. Some believed Penix was clearly in the end zone, while others argued he wasn't even close to crossing the plane. Final score: 36-35.
Nov. 7: Dan Mullen, man of the fans (even when he shouldn't be)

John Raoux/AP Photo
The Florida coach made headlines for pushing the COVID-19 restrictions -- from requesting a stadium full of fans at home after losing to Texas A&M to ... jumping into the stands to celebrate with maskless fans after the Gators defeated Georgia 44-28 in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Nov. 7: Notre Dame fans storm the field

Matt Cashore/Pool/Getty Images
Mullen wasn't the only one testing COVID-19 protocols in Week 10. After Notre Dame's 47-40, double-overtime victory over Clemson -- a game in which the visiting Tigers didn't have Trevor Lawrence after he tested positive for COVID-19 -- thousands of fans flooded the field and packed together to celebrate. Notre Dame would implement mandatory coronavirus testing for students, as well as strict penalties for those who wouldn't comply. The win was the key step for Notre Dame -- a proud independent in a normal season -- in punching its ticket to the ACC title game -- the first conference championship game in program history.
Nov. 21: Michigan's season summed up in a single moment

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Michigan went 2-4 under Jim Harbaugh this season, its worst record since a 3-9 mark in 2008. But perhaps the best way to illustrate how difficult this season was for the Wolverines, who wouldn't play in a bowl game for the first time since 2014, is a triple-overtime game against Rutgers. Giving Michigan a game isn't something Rutgers typically does, let alone three OTs.
Nov. 28: Jaret Patterson makes a name for himself

Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire
The Buffalo running back, a player not many knew coming into the season, posted a historic performance against Kent State that basically broke Twitter. Patterson ran for 409 yards and an astounding eight touchdowns, tying former Illinois star Howard Griffith's FBS record set in 1990. Patterson finished the season with 1,072 yards in just six games.
Nov. 28: Nick Saban misses Iron Bowl, still delivers message

Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser/USA TODAY Sports
After having a false positive COVID-19 test in October, Saban tested positive again on Nov. 25 and had to skip the Crimson Tide's senior day and Iron Bowl against Auburn. But even from home, Saban made his presence felt: He recorded a video message for Alabama's seniors who were honored before the game. Alabama beat Auburn 42-13.
Dec. 5: Mormons vs. Mullets

Richard Shiro/AP Photo
Coastal Carolina and BYU in the game of the year? In a matchup that was scheduled on the fly -- a game widely referred to as "Mormons vs. Mullets" -- with hopes of boosting the chances there would be a Group of 5 playoff participant, the Chanticleers' defense stopped BYU one yard short of a touchdown that would have given the Cougars the victory.
Dec. 12: Who throws a shoe?!

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
No. 6 Florida was in position to knock off defending champion LSU after stopping the Tigers on a third down that would have resulted in a punt. Then Gators cornerback Marco Wilson inexplicably threw Tigers tight end Kole Taylor's cleat 20 yards downfield. The Tigers ended up kicking a winning 57-yard field goal for the 37-34 upset. Florida would finish the season No. 7 in the CFP rankings.
Dec. 12: Sarah Fuller makes history

Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports
Vanderbilt was one of the worst teams in the FBS during the 2020 season, but its kicker provided arguably its brightest moment. Fuller, the goalkeeper for the school's SEC women's soccer champs, became the third woman to score points in an FBS game, and the first to do so in a Power 5 game. "This whole time has been if I can do it, if I'm good enough to do it," Fuller said after the 42-17 loss to Tennessee in which she kicked a pair of extra points. "It wasn't if I was a girl or not. So that's something I've really appreciated."
Dec. 12: Army-Navy at West Point for the first time since World War II

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
For the first time since 1943, the Army-Navy game was held at West Point, with only cadets and midshipmen in attendance. Typically, the two would play the only game on the second Saturday in December at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, but they shared the date with the rest of college football during a revised schedule because of the pandemic. As Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the West Point superintendent and a former Army defensive lineman, told ESPN's Ivan Maisel: "This game must be played. We'd play this game in a parking lot if we'd have to."
Jan. 1, 2021: Najee Harris hurdles a human being

UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images
If a single play represented how impressive Alabama looked this season, Harris galloping over a Notre Dame defender in a 31-14 Rose Bowl win was the defining image. Harris more than lived up to the standard set by Alabama running backs under Nick Saban, rushing for 1,387 yards and 24 touchdowns, as well as 346 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 12 games this season.
Jan. 1: Ohio State dominates Clemson in the Sugar Bowl

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Between Justin Fields, Ryan Day and Randy Wade, Ohio State fought hard to play the 2020 season because the team felt it had as good of a chance as ever to win a national championship. The Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl blowout of Clemson showed why, dominating one of college football's most powerful programs of the past half-decade in a 49-28 win. In one of the greatest bowl performances by a quarterback, Fields threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception -- even after taking a brutal hit from Clemson linebacker James Skalski in the second quarter.
Jan. 5: DeVonta Smith becomes first WR to win Heisman Trophy since 1991

Kent Gidley/Heisman Trophy Trust/AP Photo
Following a breakout season in which he led the FBS in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and receiving touchdowns (20), Smith pulled off a feat not seen since Desmond Howard, winning the sport's top individual honor as a wide receiver. His Alabama quarterback, Mac Jones, who was third in the voting, labeled Smith "the most electric player in college football." The ceremony was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
DeVonta Smith's long climb from skinny recruit to Heisman Trophy winner
Tua Tagovailoa throws a perfect pass to DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard TD in OT, giving the Crimson Tide their fifth national championship under Nick Saban. (0:36)
Jan 6, 2021
  This story originally ran in November. It has been updated after he won the Heisman Trophy.
The skinny kid from Amite, Louisiana, stood on the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans and watched as Livonia celebrated a Class 3A state championship. Tears welled in his eyes, but he wouldn't look away. There, across the field, he saw players running around, hugging and high-fiving one another. And there he was, frozen on the losing side, in sweatpants, nursing a broken collarbone and refusing to walk away.
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Zephaniah Powell sat in the stands six years ago and noticed this kid in pain. One who hadn't played all game because of his injury, but who was as invested as anyone who took a snap that day. A coach at rival Sumner High, Powell knew exactly who he was: DeVonta Smith, or as he was better known around Tangipahoa Parish, Tay-Tay.
Smith, Powell recalled, had a "hunger in his eyes."
And a few months later, when Powell was hired to lead the Amite High program, he learned exactly what that hunger meant. It meant Smith grabbing every quarterback on the roster to throw him passes after practice. It meant him getting extra reps of squats and power cleans in the gym at night. It meant him running stadiums on the weekends.
It was grueling work, Powell remembers.
Smith has 56 catches for 759 yards and 8 touchdowns on the season for Alabama. Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire
"It's a nice little incline," he said of Russell Memorial Stadium. "It goes up pretty good."
Powell understood right away that while Smith was his best player, he was still hungry for more. Smith was determined to transform his body and outperform expectations. He refused to walk away from a defeat -- from a challenge -- back then, just as he does now.
A year ago, Smith could have walked away from Alabama. He'd already caught 118 passes and 23 touchdowns in three seasons in Tuscaloosa, including a school-record 14 scores in 2019. He was the reason the Crimson Tide had won a national championship, immortalized in paintings hung around living rooms across the state. In other words: He had nothing left to prove.
Smith ties Cooper's record against Mississippi State
Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith joins Alabama greats, as he ties Amari Cooper's TD record in win over Mississippi State.
What's more, the wide receivers he came to school with, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, were leaving for the NFL, along with quarterback and fellow junior Tua Tagovailoa. But something told Smith to stay.
We never saw him shed a tear during those heartbreaking losses to LSU and Auburn last season that ultimately knocked Alabama out of the College Football Playoff, but Smith told us exactly what they meant to him when he announced that he was returning for his senior season:
"I have unfinished business to take care of, and the only way to do that is to stay one more year."
Powell was walking the halls at school one day when he saw his star wide receiver abruptly stop, hit the floor and crank out 10 pushups as his classmates maneuvered around him.
"Tay, what's going on?" Powell asked.
"Coach," Smith answered, "I'm just trying to get bigger."
Smith currently ranks No. 8 overall in ESPN's "best available" rankings for the 2021 NFL draft. Alabama Athletics
Powell nodded.
"I understand," he said. "As long as you're not tardy for class."
Smith was a little over 6 feet tall but tipped the scales at 140 pounds at the time. He was teased regularly about his weight, Powell said, and rather than let it frustrate him, Smith took it as a challenge.
So whenever he saw his reflection, whether it be in a mirror, a window or a polished car door, Smith would drop whatever he was doing and crank out 10 pushups.
That's just the way he was, Powell said, calling Smith a quiet and cerebral kid. Others played checkers, he said. Smith played chess, thinking several moves ahead.
A common comparison Smith has received is that his style is reminiscent of a young Marvin Harrison. Like the former Indianapolis Colts star receiver, Smith isn't physically imposing, but he's ruthlessly effective.
Bama's overtime TD from all the angles
Alabama wins the CFP National Championship over Georgia as Tua Tagovailoa finds DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown in overtime.
"And that's a good comparison," Powell said. "But for us, DeVonta was Jerry Rice 2.0. Because Jerry Rice was the same way coming out of Mississippi Valley State University: He wasn't the biggest, he wasn't the fastest, he wasn't the tallest. But once you got him on that football field, he was technically sound."
Smith's routes were so precise. His hands were so strong. He got up to speed so quickly, and the way he ran, Powell said, was so effortless.
"It's like he's running on pillows," he said. "You can barely hear his feet."
Billy Napier, formerly the wide receivers coach at Alabama, remembers the sound of those footsteps well. Napier recruited Smith for what felt like four years, he said, trying and ultimately succeeding in fending off in-state LSU.
Napier recalled the first time Smith came to a camp at Alabama, still an underclassman in high school. Smith's size was a major question mark with coaches worrying about his durability. But there were intangibles there, Napier said.
There was a physicality that came from playing defense. There was a toughness that seemed ingrained in him.
Those who have crossed paths with Smith note the "hunger in his eyes" and dedication to the game. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports
"What you saw was a guy that was very skilled and a guy that could get open and make plays and was very productive regardless of the talent level," Napier, now the head coach at Louisiana, said. "Even at a young age, you put him up against the best cover guys and he could get open."
Said Powell: "Because of his slight build people are going to overlook him. But DeVonta likes it that way because the next thing you know he's got six catches and 200 yards."
Napier was struck by Smith's hand size.
Mike Locksley, who would take over for Napier as receivers coach at Alabama, said it was as though Smith never dropped a pass that was within his reach. As a freshman, Smith went up against future pros Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who were older than him, and he'd hold his own, bringing in more than his fair share of 50-50 balls.
"When the ball was in the air," Locksley said, "he would find a way to get the ball and make the play."
Napier was only weeks on the job as head coach at Louisiana, trying to build a staff from scratch, when he stopped what he was doing to watch a game in Atlanta that had gone into overtime.
Alabama and Georgia had gone back and forth all night, and now his former team was on the ropes, trailing by a field goal with a national championship on the line. Tagovailoa took a poorly timed sack, and hope was fading.
Then, on second-and-26, Napier watched as the freshman, Tagovailoa, drew back and found another freshman, Smith, racing down the sideline for the winning touchdown.
Jones delivers a deep bomb to Smith for an Alabama TD
Mac Jones drops back and finds DeVonta Smith on the 42-yard completion for an Alabama touchdown.
Napier was proud.
"A lot went into that," he said.
Powell was at home in Louisiana, lying in bed and watching the game on TV when Smith etched his name into history. Powell screamed, sending his sleeping wife into a panic. They had a newborn baby. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Is everything OK?"
Powell kept screaming and pointing at the TV. Then he called the other coaches on staff and suddenly they were all crying.
That's Tay-Tay.
Is this really happening?
Sights and sounds of Alabama's title-winning throw
Get all the looks, calls and reaction to Tua Tagovailoa's game-winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith, giving Alabama the CFP National Championship.
It was, and Powell said it was a testament to how Smith had kept his head on straight. Even though Smith didn't play much as a freshman, he never let himself get frustrated. He kept working, asking to be put on special teams as a gunner on punt coverage.
"A kid that was frustrated couldn't have gone out against the University of Georgia and caught the winning touchdown," Powell said. "A frustrated kid wouldn't have been locked in."
Fast forward about a year from that seminal moment, and Smith was still locked in. He told reporters at the time that he didn't want to talk about the Georgia game or his touchdown catch. He said he didn't care and, "It's a new year. We're moving on."
And that's who Smith is in a nutshell. He might not be flashy like his former teammates Jeudy and Ruggs. Entering this season, he continued to get lost in the hype surrounding fellow wideout Jaylen Waddle, who was as dynamic a player as there is in college football.
Smith, left, and Alabama's wide receivers have not skipped a beat since Jaylen Waddle was lost for the season against Tennessee. Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images
But then, four games and one kickoff into the season, Waddle was knocked out for the year with a broken ankle against Tennessee, leaving Smith as the last of the so-called Ryde Outs standing.
According to CBS, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calls Smith "Rubber Band Man" because of the way he can contort his body to catch passes. But losing Waddle brought new meaning to the nickname: Smith, a senior among primarily freshmen and sophomores at the position, had to be the one to hold the group together.
He doesn't say much. He never has. But he set an example by going right back to work. A week after the Tennessee game, Smith made a statement with 11 catches for 203 yards and four touchdowns against Mississippi State.
If there's a trademark beyond Smith's strong hands, it's his consistency. You can watch, Powell said, and you'll see that it doesn't matter who he's going up against.
"If it's a Western Carolina all the way up to a Clemson," he said, "they're going to get the business."
DeVonta Smith's rapport with QB Mac Jones yielded four touchdowns in Saturday's win over Mississippi State. Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports
Heading into the title game, Smith has 1,561 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns, including three scores against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff.
As a Heisman Trophy winner, he has secured his legacy now.
Folks around Tuscaloosa have taken to calling him Smitty, and he's no longer the string bean cranking out pushups in the hall, having bulked up to a respectable 175 pounds. But Powell said he's still Tay-Tay to everyone back in Tangipahoa Parish.
He never was able to win a state championship for Amite. But he got a title at Alabama, and he's hungry for another.


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