NCAA College Football cover stars we missed for 11 years

Auburn's Freeze weighs in on evolving landscape of NIL power (3:49)

The Tigers' Hugh Freeze shares his perspective on the evolving college football landscape due to NIL, discussing potential solutions to the challenges. (3:49)

After 11 lonely years, our long national nightmare is over.

EA Sports officially released a new cover of its famed NCAA football game this week, the first in the series since NCAA Football 2014 came out in 2013. Better yet, the rosters will be (mostly) complete with actual current college football players, thanks to the NCAA's 2021 decision to allow name, image and likeness contracts.

Of course, the game's return doesn't make up for the time we spent without it -- the legendary players we missed, the defining moments never to be captured in ones and zeroes, and the countless number of times you could've blown off a week of work to take UL-Monroe to a College Football Playoff National Championship.

While we can't create a time machine to fix those missed opportunities, we can provide at least a little revisionist history, by working back through the past 11 years to determine who would have earned the honor of gracing the cover of each version.

First, a quick bit of context: During the game's run (from 1993, first as "Bill Walsh College Football" through 2013), the cover image couldn't include an active player. Typically, the new game sported a cover model who had flourished the prior season in college but had already left for the NFL -- Denard Robinson, Robert Griffin III, Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow, to name a few -- leaving them free to sell their images to EA. But here, we're imagining a world where the NCAA allowed NIL starting in 2014, making all players eligible for the cover image, even if they still had eligibility remaining. This also means that players such as Joe Burrow who took his talents to the NFL after his breakout season, would not make the cut as a hypothetical cover athlete.

With that said, here are our picks for the cover of each of the 11 missing seasons of EA Sports NCAA Football.

NCAA Football 15

Expected release: Summer 2014

The contenders: Florida State QB Jameis Winston, Florida State WR Rashad Greene, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds, Clemson DE Vic Beasley

It's a shame the game disappeared after the 2013 season, as NCAA Football 15 would've had its share of great options of incredibly popular first-year NFL players, from Aaron Donald to Jadeveon Clowney to Mike Evans to Kelvin Benjamin. The crop of returning players was a bit thinner, with some emerging stars like Gordon (1,609 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and Reynolds (2,403 total yards, 39 total TDs) just ahead of their prime. Mariota would go on to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy, but he entered that season in the shadow of Winston, who would have been the obvious choice if not for a series of off-field issues, including a sexual assault allegation, that likely would have deterred EA from choosing him.

The cover: Greene. Let's split the difference here. No Winston on the cover, but the honor instead can go to another member of the FSU national championship team. Greene was one of the true leaders of that 2013 squad, and he followed it up with an equally impressive 2014 in which he caught 99 passes for 1,365 yards and seven touchdowns.

NCAA Football 16

Expected release: Summer 2015

The contenders: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliott, QBs J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, Arizona LB Scooby Wright, Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey, Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott, Alabama RB Derrick Henry

Mariota, Amari Cooper, Todd Gurley and Landon Collins all would've been in the mix before the NIL era began, but the 2015 class offered one of the most diverse and deep lists of returning players worthy of cover status. Ohio State won the national championship in the first College Football Playoff in 2014, and the litany of returning stars -- Bosa, Elliott, Jones, Barrett, Braxton Miller, Von Bell -- was incredible. Wright's unique skill set made him an ideal cover model, while Ramsey might've been the most dynamic athlete in college football at the time. Prescott warrants consideration, too, for getting Mississippi State to the top of the first CFP rankings, and had the world known what a star he'd later become in the NFL, he'd probably be the obvious pick here.

The cover: Bosa. We love the idea of Jones, Miller and Barrett sharing the cover after Ohio State won a natty with its third-string QB, but we also envision Urban Meyer putting a stop to any additional media scrutiny -- even in the lighthearted form of a video game cover -- of his delicate QB situation entering the 2015 season. Instead, Bosa seems like the safe solution. He was dominant in the Buckeyes' title run in 2014, racking up 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss, and it was clear entering the 2015 campaign that he was destined to be an early NFL draft pick. Plus, it's good to give the defensive guys some love.

NCAA Football 17

Expected release: Summer 2016

The contenders: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, LSU RB Leonard Fournette, Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

This was a rare season in which the talent returning far exceeded the names headed to the NFL, so EA surely would've been pleased to have NIL open the doors to a better cover option than (no offense) Jared Goff or Eli Apple. In any case, the college options were plentiful and all deserving. Mayfield had thrown for 3,700 yards. McCaffrey was an all-purpose Superman. Cook was as electric of a runner as there was in the sport. Fournette was a high school legend who finally seemed poised to live up to the recruiting hype. Watson had come within a hair of leading Clemson past the vaunted Alabama machine for a national title.

The cover: McCaffrey. It's a tough call between the Stanford star and the emergent Watson, who'd go on to win a national title over Alabama at the end of the 2016 season. But at the time, there was no more remarkable talent in the sport than McCaffrey, who was a unanimous All-American after amassing 2,019 rushing yards, 645 receiving yards and 1,070 return yards for a truly astonishing tally of 3,864 all-purpose yards -- 613 more than the previous record held by Barry Sanders.

NCAA Football 18

Expected release: Summer 2017

The contenders: Mayfield, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick

Mayfield had just posted his second straight season as a Heisman finalist, throwing for 40 touchdowns. Barkley had rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 18 TDs. Fitzpatrick was an emerging superstar on Alabama's defense. There were good options. But there was only one obvious choice.

The cover: Jackson. His skill set would've put him among the pantheon of the greatest video game stars of all time, alongside Tecmo Bo Jackson, Jeremy Roenick in NHL 94, Bald Bull from "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!" and former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jeff D'Amico, who we all once used to throw a perfect game against our college roommate in MLB '99. Every play with NCAA Football Lamar Jackson would've been a deep ball or a scramble, and he'd finish a season with 20,000 yards because there would've been no answer for him.

NCAA Football 19

Expected release: Summer 2018

The contenders: Stanford RB Bryce Love, Houston DE Ed Oliver, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor, FAU RB Devin Singletary, Arizona State WR N'Keal Harry, Clemson's defensive line of Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence

It seems like an oversight that Mayfield spent three seasons dominating the Big 12 without ever cracking our hypothetical NCAA Football cover, but alas, he'd moved on to doing insurance commercials in a Cleveland Browns uniform by now. Fitzpatrick, Jackson, Barkley, Derwin James and Rashaad Penny were all off to the NFL, too, though all would've been exceptional cover options under the old system. Instead, the battle for the cover starts with a number of elite backs. Love was fresh off rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 TDs. Singletary had a little Heisman hype, including a model race car mailed out to Heisman voters to push his campaign. Taylor had turned in the first of three straight seasons with more than 1,900 yards rushing in 2017. Oliver would've been a great option, too. He was a dominant force with his own Heisman campaign (a bobblehead on a horse). But the honor likely comes down to two options: The ascendant QB at Alabama or the dominant defensive front at Clemson, each member returning for one last ride that eventually ended with a national title.

The cover: Tagovailoa. As much fun as it would've been to see the Clemson D-linemen don their famous Power Rangers costumes on the game's cover, the buzz in the summer of 2018 was all about Tagovailoa. He'd come off the bench at halftime to rescue Alabama from the abyss in the national championship game, making him a rare combination of genuine star power and unknown commodity. The only problem with the choice is the reaction it would've undoubtedly engendered from Nick Saban, who wasn't entirely eager to stoke the flames of the supposed QB battle between Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts that summer. Of course, if NIL rules were in place in 2018, does anyone think Hurts would've stuck around to ride the bench anyway?

NCAA Football 20

Expected release: Summer 2019

The contenders: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor, Purdue WR Rondale Moore, Ohio State DE Chase Young, Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace, Alabama QB Tagovailoa and WR Jerry Jeudy, LSU DB Greedy Williams

Lawrence and Etienne made for a worthy tandem, both fresh off a national title with two years left at Clemson. Moore was a revelation as a freshman, electric as a receiver and a return man. Young was the second coming of Bosa, a force of nature at the line of scrimmage who racked up 9.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL, presaging an even bigger season in 2019. Tagovailoa and Jeudy had just been dismissed by Clemson in the title game, but there was still ample hype surrounding Alabama.

The cover: Lawrence. Not since Herschel Walker in 1980 had a freshman seemed so destined to win multiple championships as Lawrence at this point. He'd taken over as Clemson's starter in Week 5 of the 2018 season, posted dominant numbers, then led the Tigers to a national title while annihilating the unstoppable force of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alas, it was not to be, and by the end of 2019, Lawrence's title team didn't even seem nearly so dominant anymore after Joe Burrow & Co. set the standard in college football. Still, Lawrence was a bona fide star, and if there's anything we've learned from lifestyle magazines over the years, it's that hair as glorious as his belongs on the cover.

NCAA Football 21

Expected release: Summer 2020

The contenders: LSU CB Derek Stingley and WR JaMarr Chase, Alabama WR DeVonta Smith, Oregon OL Penei Sewell, Penn State LB Micah Parsons, Minnesota CB Antoine Winfield Jr., Ohio State QB Justin Fields

If scrubbing Lamar Jackson from the college football video game record books is the biggest loss from NCAA Football's 11-year hiatus, the lack of a 2020 edition is a close second. It's hard to overstate how many units would've sold at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown, when it looked for much of the summer as if no actual college football would be played. Instead of going for walks, starting home renovation projects or spending quality time with immediate family, we could've wasted away those long, tumultuous days challenging LSU's supremacy with plucky upstart Grayson McCall and Coastal Carolina and built a dynasty. Alas, it was not meant to be.

This also might be the year when EA was most convinced to go back to the old process and select a player who starred in the prior college football season but was now off to the NFL, because Burrow absolutely deserved a cover after his 2019 campaign. If we're sticking with our precedent of returning players, however, his LSU teammates Stingley and Chase made for exceptional consolation prizes. Stingley starred as a true freshman, anchoring that LSU defense, while Chase was the most dominant receiver on a team absolutely stacked with talent at the position. Parsons would've been a nice alternative after offensive players dominated the covers, and Sewell could've been a worthy hat tip to big men everywhere. Smith wasn't exactly heralded as a genuine superstar entering the 2020 season, but he'd racked up 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior and, by year's end, would become the first Heisman winner who wasn't a QB or running back since Charles Woodson.

The cover: Stingley. There were lots of good options here, but Stingley had the recruiting hype, on-field performance, and post-national title glow to warrant a cover, and it's nice to get away from the QBs and skill position guys on offense. That the rest of Stingley's LSU career didn't quite match the freshman hype -- largely due to injuries -- is unimportant here. LSU was the best team to grace a college football field in decades, and he had a strong argument to be considered its biggest returning star.

NCAA Football 22

Expected release: Summer 2021

The contenders: Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei, Alabama QB Bryce Young, LSU's Stingley, Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner, Iowa State RB Breece Hall

And so it is that we've reached the year in which actual NIL deals were happening around college football, even if EA would need another three years before it could take advantage of the rule change to release a new game. Still, NIL allowed players like Uiagalelei, Young and Stingley to become household names outside of just the college football world, enjoying national endorsement deals and a new level of prestige. But Dr Pepper is one thing. The cover of NCAA Football is another. Young hadn't taken a meaningful snap yet at Alabama, but his star turn was all but assured. Gardner, fresh off leading Cincinnati to the first playoff berth for a Group of 5 school, might've been an intriguing choice, too. A retrospectively amusing option might've been J.T. Daniels, who looked poised to take over at QB at Georgia in the summer of 2021, only to lose his job to a former walk-on -- who we'll get to in a bit -- a couple months later.

The cover: Uiagalelei. There's not a clear front-runner among the contenders, but Uiagalelei was probably the biggest name at the time. He'd started two games in relief of Lawrence in 2020 and looked terrific in both. He was a former five-star recruit. He had a big personality, big arm and already had inked some very big endorsement deals. It's almost hard to imagine now -- knowing how it all turned out -- but on the heels of Tajh Boyd, Watson and Lawrence excelling at Clemson, Uiagalelei seemed about as close to a surefire star as possible. But hey, maybe in 2023 at Florida State, he'll actually become one.

NCAA Football 23

Expected release: Summer 2022

The contenders: Georgia DT Jalen Carter, TE Brock Bowers and QB Stetson Bennett, Alabama QB Young and OLB Will Anderson, Kansas State RB Deuce Vaughn, USC QB Caleb Williams and WR Jordan Addison, Ohio State QB CJ Stroud, Miami QB Tyler Van Dyke, Texas RB Bijan Robinson, past cover winners

Georgia's run to a national title allows for plenty of options in Athens, with Bowers the clear headliner, Carter the defensive force, and Bennett the beloved underdog success story. Anderson was coming off one of the best seasons for a pass-rusher in recent memory, and Williams and Robinson had both flashed enough talent in the latter half of 2021 to be primed for even bigger things ahead. And then there's Young. The prior two Heisman winners to return to school the following year -- Winston and Jackson -- were our selections to grace the cover, so ignoring Young's win would be tough. In other words, this would've been among the deepest pools of cover candidates during the 11-year absence of the game, but it also would've marked the 20th edition of NCAA Football, and it's entirely possible EA would want to celebrate the occasion with a retrospective, perhaps featuring some past cover models such as Tommie Frazier (from the game's first cover), Woodson, Tebow or Reggie Bush.

The cover: Bowers, alongside the greats. This is the most elegant solution. Yes, EA should've celebrated its 20th installment by putting past stars on the cover, but the best way to blend the old with the new would be to add Bowers -- soon to be the game's most dynamic tight end -- to the group.

NCAA Football 24

Expected release: Summer 2023

The contenders: USC's Williams, Colorado WR/CB Travis Hunter, QB Shedeur Sanders and head coach Deion Sanders, Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU LB Harold Perkins, UNC QB Drake Maye

Williams was the defending Heisman winner. Perkins looked like he'd be the biggest star in the sport after a show-stopping freshman campaign. Harrison was already a star with ample name recognition. The entire Colorado story was a cash cow for everyone involved.

The cover: Williams. And perhaps this is the one time we're grateful for the game's absence because, as much as we think Williams would've been the deserving honoree to grace the cover, there's also a pretty strong chance the allure of a Coach Prime sales bump would be too hard to ignore, and frankly, Sanders didn't need any more hype. On the other hand, there's plenty of time for Prime to win the Big 12, watch as his son wins the Heisman, recruit a top-five class without leaving his office, and nab the cover of NCAA Football 26.