SBNation's Bill Connelly is Kickstarting a book on his 50 best* college football teams of all time, where the asterisk indicates that it's not the true "best" teams but the ones he finds most interesting. Bill's a great writer, so I'd recommend giving his campaign a look.
The teams that I personally find most interesting are the ones that have the best counterfactuals. A perfect example is 2007 Oregon, a team Bill plans to cover in the book. If Dennis Dixon doesn't blow out his knee, the Ducks probably win out and Dixon would've won the Heisman. If Dixon's ACL had stayed in one piece, Tim Tebow probably doesn't ever win a Heisman (his '08 numbers were down from '07) and he certainly doesn't break the award's sophomore barrier. Les Miles doesn't get a national championship because it's Oregon vs. Ohio State for the BCS title, and therefore there is no two-loss champ in the BCS era. The SEC doesn't have a national championship streak as much as Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have a shared era—which is mostly true anyway, but '07 LSU was a bridge to frame it as an SEC streak. Plus, the uptempo spread option gains more legitimacy earlier. I could go on, but the '07 Ducks aren't what this post is about.
No, I'm going back a few years before to the 2001 Florida Gators. That team was probably Steve Spurrier's second-best behind his 1996 national champions, even though the 1995 team went undefeated before being steamrolled by Nebraska and the '01 team didn't even win the SEC East. Bill said he's going to cover Spurrier's 1992 team, so I'm here to blather on about the 2001 outfit.
Like with 2007 Oregon, it comes down to one player's health: Earnest Graham. If you look at Graham's game log from the 2001 season, you'll notice something: they're all wins. The Gators dropped two games that season, but neither came with Graham on the field. He was the thunder to Robert Gillespie's lightning, and the Gators' run game was awful without him.
The team's first loss came on the road in the rain at Auburn by a 23-20 margin. Without Graham, UF rushed for -36 yards. Even if you adjust for sack yardage, it still comes out to -27 yards as the Tigers only sacked Rex Grossman once for a nine-yard loss. Was Graham worth an extra four points? I think so. Florida probably wins that game with him healthy and therefore a functional rushing attack.
The other loss was even bigger. Because of the September 11 attacks, UF's game against Tennessee was postponed until the end of the season. Instead of being in September when Graham was healthy, it came a week after Graham hurt his knee against Florida State. Graham said someone twisted his knee in a pileup after he was tackled, and Spurrier attempted to prosecute FSU's Darnell Dockett for it.
The following week, Florida's non-Grossman players combined to rush for just 61 yards on 16 carries against the Vols. The final score: 34-32 Tennessee. Again, a healthy Graham easily could have been the difference. Florida's defense could have tried holding Travis Stephens to under 226 yards of course, but even without that, UF's best running back being able to go probably would've made the difference.
Florida trounced SEC West champ LSU 44-15 in Baton Rouge that year. Even though the Tigers upset Tennessee to win the 2001 SEC Championship Game, Florida probably wins the hypothetical rematch and gets Spurrier a seventh SEC title. The undefeated Gators would've then gone up against one of the best teams of all time, 2001 Miami (FL), in the national title game. Florida did beat the teams' only common opponent by more—UF beat FSU by 24, while Miami beat FSU by 22—so it'd probably have been a closer game than what we got with Nebraska losing big. The Gators probably still lose, but it would've been close.
OK, so time for consequences. If Earnest Graham doesn't get hurt, Florida probably goes undefeated pre-bowl in 2001. That just might have been good enough to make Grossman the first sophomore to win the Heisman six years before Tebow broke that barrier. Eric Crouch getting a lifetime achievement award Heisman over Grossman that year remains one of the biggest robberies in the award's history, but helming an unbeaten team in the national title game might have been enough for Grossman. Spurrier would've been not just the first Heisman winner to coach up a Heisman winner with Danny Wuerffel, but he'd have done it a second time with Grossman.
More importantly, Spurrier probably doesn't leave Florida after the 2001 season. There are two big reasons why he took off at that time besides his desire to try the NFL. One is that he felt the school didn't have his back in his crusade against Dockett. The other, bigger reason is that he had just coached up one of his best teams—one as good as his '96 champions in his mind—and spoiled Gator fans gave him crap about the team not winning any titles that year. If Graham never gets hurt and I'm right about the consequences of it, both of those rationales for leaving disappear.
I still think Spurrier would leave to go see if he could hack it in the NFL, but his departure would've been pushed back at least a year since Grossman stuck around through the 2002 season. And speaking of that 2002 season, it's possible to imagine Spurrier's Gators beating Ole Miss (they lost 17-14 under Ron Zook) and therefore winning the East to prevent Mark Richt from winning his first SEC title. With only one SEC title to his name instead of two, does Richt get the hook sooner at Georgia? Maybe.
Of course, Spurrier leaving for the NFL later disrupts the rest of his career timeline. He might've gotten a better situation than Dan Snyder's Washington and stayed in the league for an extra year or two. Even if he still only stayed in the NFL two years, if he had waited to leave Florida until after the 2003 season, he's not there for South Carolina to hire after Lou Holtz retired. The best coach in Gamecock history suddenly never becomes a Gamecock at all.
If Spurrier was still insistent on returning to the SEC East after the NFL, might Kentucky have canned Rich Brooks after 2005—when Brooks had gone 4-8, 2-9, and 3-8 in his first three seasons—to try to get Spurrier? Would Spurrier have jumped at the chance to excel at a place where Bill Curry, a guy he never forgave for not retaining him at Georgia Tech decades earlier, failed? Maybe. It's a particularly intriguing thought considering UK was about to make a leap in quality, particularly on offense. Spurrier running an offense with Andre' Woodson throwing to Stevie Johnson, Kennan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr., and Jacob Tamme sounds pretty dangerous to me.
We also can't forget that Spurrier leaving at a different time would've changed Florida's head coach hiring schedule. There is no guarantee that Zook still gets the job after Spurrier in this alternate timeline. It's also very unlikely that Florida would've hired Urban Meyer out of Bowling Green post-2002 or after one year at Utah post-2003. It's been reported in a few places that Florida's backup in case Meyer went to Notre Dame was Bobby Petrino. I think Petrino was already hired by Louisville by the time Spurrier would've resigned after 2002, given his post-2001 timeline. Might UF have pried away the Louisville head coach after his 9-4 campaign in 2003 though? I wouldn't count it out, although the recency of November 2003's JetGate might've soured Jeremy Foley on it.
It's hard to go too far with counterfactuals with Spurrier since he was never predictable. He stayed longer at South Carolina than I think a lot of people expected, and certainly no one saw him up and quitting in the middle of a season. Still, the last 15 years of the SEC East could have been completely different if one running back didn't sit out two games.
I'm sure you have similar stories for your favorite team, so feel free to share them in the comments.