Preseason Weekly Affirmation: The Decade

Staff Columnist
Posted Aug 26, 2009

Little if any consensus was established on the topic of how to refer to this decade--the aughts, oughts, or 2000s?--but one thing we know is that the ride is about to end. The revolving-door nature of college football makes the present day's intrigues the foremost topics of conversation, but before moving into 2009, it's worth looking back at the first nine years of this sport's 21st-century life.

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Why look back at a decade before it's officially done and dusted? Why engage in retrospection before a season and not after it? The simple answer to these questions is that the sport of football--for all its advances and innovations over time--is still subject to the same kinds of decisions, principles and tension points that always get our juices flowing. In 1972, 1982, 1992, or 2002, a 4th and 1 from the opponent's 17 with a four-point lead at the 6:27 mark of the fourth quarter always presented a coach with a brain-testing choice. No matter the decade, there's nothing like a good, vigorous football debate in a country where the gridiron rules the athletic jungle.

To put a finer point on this preamble, the need to assess a decade before the start of its final season is rooted in the knowledge of life's yangs alongside its yins. Indeed, the memory of a stimulating pigskin discussion also makes one lament the occasions when football talk has turned sour. For all the times when a spirited back-and-forth made you cherish college football, there have surely been times when the lessons of history eluded the grasp of your co-worker who (probably) rooted for your foremost rival. It is the Weekly Affirmation's hope that your football discussions with friends, family, fellow alumni, and co-workers will acquire a fruitful form in 2009, and one way to improve the chances of satisfying your craving for NCAA knowledge enhancement is to recall a decade's more significant and noteworthy moments. Yes, 2009 will surely leave its own imprint on the history of a sport that celebrates its 140th anniversary this year, but before the first game kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 3, why not re-learn some lessons in the dog-day heat of August? Why not relive nine-tenths of the decade that was in college football?

The 2000 season serves as a reminder that head-to-head results have been discarded numerous times under the Bowl Championship Series system. Before there was "Texas 45, Oklahoma 35" in 2008, there was "Miami 27, Florida State 24" in the year that made the state of Florida famous for electoral controversies not confined to presidential politics.

What else did the 2000 season reveal? Well, for one thing, it showed that a team could lose at least three regular-season games (Purdue) and still gain a BCS bowl berth. Gee, didn't Virginia Tech do the same thing last season? And oh, the 2000 trek also gave us the sight of Rick Neuheisel winning the Rose Bowl, but with a wayward Washington team that added to the workloads of local police officers in Seattle. In 2009, the Huskies will want to regain the winning ways that Ty Willingham could never deliver, but with the off-field results Mr. Willingham brought to a cleaned-up program.

Other 2000 tidbits: Steve Spurrier's most recent SEC championship... Alabama crashed and burned after a monster 1999 campaign... Michael Vick played football and was actually lauded--imagine that... Bill Snyder of Kansas State coached against Tennessee's Phil Fulmer in a bowl game... Butch Davis spent his last season at Miami, then in the Big East... Notre Dame scored a dubious BCS bowl bid and got toasted by Dennis Erickson, who was coaching in Sun Devil Stadium, his current "home office" (creepy).

The 2001 season proved to be the most absurd chapter in the sorry BCS era, which is saying something. A national title game participant not only failed to win its conference, but its own division. Moreover, that team lost its de facto division championship game by 26 points. But golly gee, because TCU scored a 14-12 win at Southern Mississippi in a September 11-based makeup game on December 7, 2001 (now there's a real man's way of deciding a national title game participant!), the decimal points shifted enough to put Nebraska into the Rose Bowl over Big 12 champion Colorado and, more outrageously, reigning Pac-10 titlist Oregon, who would summarily smack the Buffaloes in the Fiesta Bowl and lay claim to being the second-best team in the country.

2001 also gave college football fans the worst Heisman heist in recent memory, as the award slid into its all-too-familiar role of "best high-profile white-skinned senior quarterback on a title contender" prize. If Nebraska's Eric Crouch--who buttered his bread on the strength of one touchdown catch in a high-stakes showdown against Oklahoma--had been the sophomore that Florida's Rex Grossman was, the balloting wouldn't have been very close. But because Crouch was a senior, he managed to take home college football's most famous individual honor, which unfortunately is as shrouded in sketchy voting practices as are the polls that ruin the chase for what is still a largely mythical national championship.

Other 2001 tidbits: Nick Saban won his first Sugar Bowl with LSU... Illinois reached its first of two BCS bowls in the decade, this one in a dignified and legitimate manner... Maryland captured the ACC under Ralph Friedgen... Larry Coker would win a national title in convincing fashion, but as the polite gentleman would find out, national titles don't buy you as much leverage or patience as they used to... USC went 6-6 under first-year head coach Pete Carroll, losing to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl; Utah's coach that day? No, not Kyle Whittingham; no, not Urban Meyer; try Ron McBride... After the 2001 season, in the final days of the year, George O'Leary lies on his resume, and Notre Dame won't know coaching peace for the rest of the decade; one would need to have a Beer Summit every day in South Bend, given that school's immersion in roiling emotions over the past several years.

In 2002, the BCS worked properly for the first time in the decade, an event that would sadly prove to be an oddity more than a harbinger of future success. Unbeaten No. 2 Ohio State was able to play unblemished No. 1 Miami for the whole ball of wax, and what a deliciously dramatic duel unfolded in the desert. The Fiesta Bowl didn't showcase Miami's very best stuff--Ohio State's defense had a lot to do with that--but the Hurricanes and Buckeyes competed desperately as they battled their nerves and teetered on the brink of ultimate defeat. Maurice Clarett became a ball-hawking defender extraordinaire; Craig Krenzel brought his blood-and-guts boldness to Tempe, Ariz.; Kellen Winslow (Jr.) wowed the Sun Devil Stadium crowd in the latter stages of the competition; and just for good measure, a late flag thrown by the officials (debate rages on today about the quality of the call) aborted a just-initiated Miami victory celebration and allowed Ohio State to stay alive. The Buckeyes did just that, and eventually overtook the Canes in double overtime, 31-24.

As cleanly as the 2002 national title was decided, it has to be said that a black cloud (maybe a black and gold cloud) hung over the season. Iowa tied Ohio State atop the Big Ten, but because the league's rotating schedule did not pair the Eyes of Hawk and Buck, the conference sent its BCS title game representative to Tempe, and the Hawkeyes to Miami for an Orange Bowl date with ascendant USC. It's not a problem that the Big Ten refuses to schedule a conference title game; what is a problem is the league's lack of scheduling continuity, which is a beast in an 11-team league. Jim Delany has to either make a move to 12 teams with a conference title game, or find a way to fill the loophole in his scheduling plan. Given the Big Ten's lack of early-December (and pre-bowl, rust-preventing) football, here's a suggestion: Have league teams schedule only two non-conference games, and accompany that provision with the institution of a full 10-game league schedule. In the two weekends after Thanksgiving, conference schools can play their 10th and final Big Ten opponent.

Other 2002 tidbits: Michael Johnson. In the end zone. Over a flat-footed Horace Willis. At Auburn. What an unforgettable catch in a magical season for the SEC champion Georgia Bulldogs, finally back in the Sugar Bowl after a tormenting 20-year absence... Interestingly enough, the Rose Bowl didn't seem to mind having Oklahoma (and not Iowa) play Washington State in its Pasadena pageant; where was this flexibility in the 2007 season, when the community of college football fans demanded--but didn't receive--a Georgia-USC Rose Bowl?!?

The 2003 college football campaign brought us airtight and everlasting proof of the inability of the BCS system to handle anything but the one and only golden scenario: two and only two unbeaten BCS conference teams at the end of the regular season. The carnage created by the Oklahoma-LSU-USC kerfuffle was considerable: In one corner of the controversy, a non-conference champion (again from the Big 12, the conference that has truly lucked out in these kinds of situations, much more than the SEC) punched a ticket to the title game. In another corner of this confounding case, USC--despite taking care of business in its final regular season game against Oregon State--dropped out of the race for the Sugar Bowl. In a third dimension of this dizzying series of developments, the decimal-point doctors who monitor the BCS formula and its seemingly endless amount of permutations--while able to offer clues to this mystery, clues that emerged in games played from Syracuse to Hawaii--were not equipped to tell Americans the exact point spreads that would have led to a potentially different set of outcomes.

One of the lasting weaknesses of the BCS is that it can never provide precise scenarios imbued with the clarity fans crave. You never have heard a commentator or newsman say, before the final weekend of the regular season, "If team X beats team Y by 30 or more points in today's SEC Championship Game, it will be in the BCS title game; if it wins by 29 points or fewer, team Z will instead play for the national championship." Any system that claims to be able to handle the complexities and plot twists of a college football season needs to tell the country exactly what must happen in the final few weekends of the season. Since the BCS will be with us for the next five seasons (at minimum), one of the many needed tweaks (beyond those mentioned above) is to offer the possibility of suspending the full formula after Thanksgiving, and then having the equivalent of an NCAA Tournament Selection Committee make finite pronouncements about what needs to happen in the last two weeks of the season. Simplicity is sorely needed in a sport whose seasons regularly defy easy categorization.

Other 2003 tidbits: Michigan won the Big Ten... Ohio State won another Fiesta Bowl... Miami and Florida State met in the Orange Bowl, marking the second of three meetings in a 12-month span, due to Miami's move from the Big East to the ACC... Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, only a sophomore, loses the Heisman Trophy balloting to Oklahoma's Jason White... Ole Miss wins the Cotton Bowl--sounds familiar, at least to people not named Ed Orgeron... Jeff Tedford and Cal defeat Pete Carroll and USC; talk about a time-capsule rarity.

The 2004 season can be summed up thusly: "Preseason Coaches Poll: 1) USC; 2) Oklahoma; 18) Auburn." Lemme guess: Who ended up No. 3 and shut out of the Orange Bowl, despite an unbeaten record in the S---E---C?

If the Orange Bowl train wreck wasn't bad enough, the 2004 season was marred by Utah's unhappy fate. Unbeaten behind the leadership of a fellow named Urban Meyer, the Utes were rewarded for their stellar season with four-loss Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, instead of No. 3 Auburn in a game that would have cleansed the college football fan's palate. And to think that some folks view the BCS as a wonderfully impartial, objective, scientific and apolitical system...

Other 2004 tidbits: Michigan won the Big Ten (notice a theme?)... Vince Young played a sensational Rose Bowl, in one of the storied event's greatest performances... Jeff Tedford might not be an elite coach, but he sure is a man of integrity and decency: The Cal boss admirably refrained from politicking for a Rose Bowl berth, insisting (by his lack of words) that his team's performance should do the talking. This noble and admirable stance was rewarded with.......... a Holiday Bowl bid against Texas Tech. Meanwhile, the coach who did more than a little campaigning for Pasadena was Texas's Mack Brown. No, Mack wasn't doing something improper, but the contrast with the restrained Tedford made Cal look better by comparison. At any rate, file away this episode with the 2008 season in mind... Also note that, as was the case in 2001, Southern Miss affected the BCS bowl lineup more than it had a right to. By drawing Cal into an ugly and relatively close game in early December, the Golden Eagles evidently made the Golden Bears look mediocre in front of a national television audience. With most of the nation's coaches actually able to sit down and watch football (that's the unique world of early-December college football), Cal didn't win allies with its 26-16 triumph. Again, the bowl system proves to be just as political under the BCS as it was in prior years... Ty Willingham, once viewed as a Jackie Robinson-type figure in the history of college football, is no longer welcomed at Notre Dame after only three seasons. To this day, a vocal contingent of Irish fans--perhaps not speaking for the university, but certainly voicing a thought that's more than a fringe element--would prefer to avoid hiring black head coaches in the future, due to the headaches racial politics and their attendant controversies can bring... Nick Saban betrays LSU fans on Christmas Night, and shortly thereafter, a man named Bobby Petrino flirts with LSU before proclaiming his undying love for Louisville (cough, cough).

In 2005, the BCS (barring something improbable in 2009) worked properly for the second and last time in the decade, delivering the Texas-USC classic in the Arroyo Seco. ESPN's Bill Simmons, thinking like an NFL man and unable to forgive Pete Carroll for wrongs done to his beloved New England Patriots, ripped Carroll's decision to go for the first down on 4th and a short two in the game's final, memorable minutes. Yes, the choice was laden with some intrigue, and it demanded a bit of thought, but the world of college pigskin is different from the pro game, which left Carroll with no realistic alternative. Credit a gassed Texas defense for rising up to make a gritty, gallant stand. Anyone with an appreciation for the uniqueness of college football should not have found Carroll's decision to be deficient. And oh, by the way: Vince Young--who should have won the Heisman Trophy in '05--proved to be peerless in Pasadena, making his previous season's Rose Bowl heroics against Michigan seem like an early-September game against Rice.

Other 2005 tidbits: Bush Push in South Bend... Ohio State won another Fiesta Bowl over--guess who?--a Notre Dame team that yet again received a dubious BCS bowl bid (Auburn? Oregon?)... West Virginia, listless early in the season and adrift early in the fourth quarter of a midseason game against Louisville (down 24-7), sees quarterback Adam Bednarik go down with an injury. Enter Pat White. Mountaineer football will never be the same: West Virginia 38, Georgia 35, in the Sugar Bowl... Joe Paterno wins the Big Ten 11 years after previously turning the trick in 1994. He beats old buddy Bobby Bowden in a prolonged Orange Bowl rich in nostalgic warmth... Les Miles proves to be a mountain of a man and a stand-up presence in guiding the LSU football family through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath... Mike Shula won the Cotton Bowl, which is apparently a sign of impending doom for SEC West head coaches. David Cutcliffe won the 2004 Cotton Bowl at Ole Miss; Tommy Tuberville of Auburn would, at the end of the 2006 season, win the Cotton Bowl; and don't forget that Houston Nutt won the 2000 Cotton Bowl when at Arkansas--the Right Reverend must be sweating now that he's bagged another Cotton-pickin' win in Dallas with Mississippi. (PS--Nick Saban had the good sense to lose the 2003 Cotton Bowl to Texas; LSU would win the national title the next season.)

In 2006, politics once again worked their way into a BCS climax, but weirdly, in appropriate fashion. The notion of Ohio State and Michigan playing on Nov. 18, and then again in Glendale, Ariz., 51 days later, would have left a sour taste in the mouth of almost every college football observer. Florida deserved and received the opportunity to try its luck against the Bucks, and boy, did Urban Meyer's Gators make the most of it. Chris Leak, maligned through much of his tenure as the starting quarterback in Gainesville, became a widely-admired and appreciated national champion after Florida waxed Ohio State at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The 2006 season's other lasting memory was the unforgettable imprint left by the greatest game in the sport's history, at least from this person's perspective. Boise State's 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma in that season's Fiesta Bowl had it all: The David-versus-Goliath confrontation; the huge start by the underdog; the late comeback by the favorite, including three two-point conversion attempts to tie the game, the third one succeeding after flags on the previous two tries; an Oklahoma pick-six that seemingly buried Boise near the finish line; BSU's back-from-the-dead hook-and-lateral stunner at the end of regulation, reminiscent of Dolphins-Chargers in the 1981 NFL Playoffs; Adrian Peterson's man-sized touchdown run in overtime; Boise coach Chris Petersen's double-whammy trick-play bonanza, featuring a fourth-down halfback option pass for a touchdown and then a Statue of Liberty that snookered the Sooners on the game-winning two-point try; and finally, after the game had ended, Bronco star Ian Johnson proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader, who accepted. Not bad for a night of football.

Other 2006 tidbits: Rutgers's win over Louisville on Thursday Night Football marked the resurgence of the Scarlet Knights under their passionate coach, Greg Schiano; the game stood alongside Michigan-Ohio State as the game of the regular season in college football... Speaking of OSU-Michigan, Wolverine legend Bo Schembechler died the day before the latest and greatest installment of the rivalry he did much to enhance... Michigan reaches its third Rose Bowl in the past four seasons. Normally, that would be considered a good thing in Ann Arbor (it was good enough for Schembechler, after all), but not these days, as Lloyd Carr would soon find out... An onside kick in Eugene, Ore., was erroneously viewed to be legal by the Pac-10 officiating crew, and a replay review man named Gordon Riese didn't overturn the call; Oklahoma fans will never forget that afternoon in Autzen Stadium... Lost in their Fiesta Bowl setback against Boise State was the fact that those very same Oklahoma Sooners managed to overcome the injustice in Oregon and win the Big 12 title, coming from behind to nip Texas at the wire... Wisconsin, though 11-1 and ranked sixth in the nation, didn't get a BCS bowl bid because of the still-existing BCS rule that prohibits a single conference from having three or more teams in the BCS lineup. One year's Wisconsin is evidently another year's Texas Tech... Wake Forest wins the ACC under talent-maximizing mastermind Jim Grobe... Bobby Petrino leaves Louisville, his professions of love notwithstanding... Nick Saban plainly says he's not going to Alabama from the Miami Dolphins, then winds up at Alabama from the Miami Dolphins... Rich Rodriguez flirts with Alabama but then professes his undying love for West Virginia (cough, cough).

In 2007, all hell broke loose. Other than Kansas (!), no BCS conference team lost fewer than two games. At the end, LSU was able to play--and win--its second national title game of the decade in the comfy confines of its home-state Superdome. Continuing the home-cooking theme, Florida would win the national title next year in Miami, much as USC was able to gain the 2003 AP national title on home soil against Michigan. Again, the more things change in college football, the more they manage to stay the same.

With not even a plus-one able to arbitrate the craziness of a college football season, fans were left wondering why USC-Georgia and Oklahoma-Virginia Tech matchups never materialized in that year's bowl games, with Big Ten third-place team Illinois sneaking into the Rose, and Missouri--the Big 12 North Division champion--being overlooked in favor of Kansas, who produced a terrific season under Mark Mangino. Arizona State--another victim of the Pac-10 Conference's horrible TV deal under (now former) commissioner Tom Hansen--did not receive a BCS bid, meaning that only two teams in the league (Oregon State in 2000, USC in 2002) have received an at-large BCS bowl bid in the 11-year BCS era, a woeful track record.

Other 2007 tidbits: Wisdom-bearing, poet-quoting, virtue-upholding, honor-bearing Lloyd Carr--the least-appreciated great coach in college football history, according to very unofficial and intangible measurements--stepped down at Michigan, but not before a glorious sendoff in a Capital One Bowl win over Heisman winner Tim Tebow and Florida... Les Miles--not unethical, mind you, but certainly foolish in a way that insulted the intelligence of both fans and writers--allowed a phone-call-filled tap dance with Michigan to continue far longer than it should have... Rich Rodriguez would bolt for Michigan weeks after a devastating season-ending loss to Pittsburgh that took the Mountaineers out of the running for that year's BCS title game, and--by most accounts--psychologically wounded the West Virginia boy who had excelled in Morgantown... Bobby Petrino lacked the cojones and the integrity needed to finish his one (and likely only) NFL season with the Atlanta Falcons, bolting in the middle of the night--Robert Irsay style--and making an "Indianapolis Colts Mayflower moving van" beeline for Arkansas, where he could feel the SEC West love and snuggle closer to the man he once tried to overthrow at Auburn, Tommy Tuberville... Navy broke its 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame, leaving the annually overachieving Midshipmen with nothing left to strive for except a BCS bowl under brilliant and brainy boss Paul Johnson... Kentucky cracked the top 10, while South Florida, Boston College and Kansas occupied No. 2 for a brief while, and Missouri topped the charts at No. 1 before a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game... A person who identified himself as "a man" because he's 40 years old launched into the YouTube tirade of the decade. Mike Gundy overplayed his hand, but received a net benefit in terms of publicity as a result; columnist Jenni Carlson of The Daily Oklahoman, who was on to something with her perceptive reportage and had been sniffing out a relevant story, used unfortunate phrasings in an awkwardly-worded piece that didn't do justice to the digging she performed. In the end, the columnist possessed a better feel for the totality of the situation than the coach did, but because she made the kinds of missteps that a public sensitive to media bias was not (and still isn't) ready to forget, Carlson lost the public-relations battle with Gundy. The events represented a sad commentary on the ways in which the press is viewed these days, but they also offered a lesson in how the world works. Fan-writer interactions continue to be a poorly understood facet of the larger college football industrial complex; here's wishing they improve in the next decade.

And now, we arrive at 2008. Evidently, the Big 12 didn't think that using in-division point differential was a legitimate, clean, clear, and objective way to resolve the fifth tiebreaker in a three-way divisional tie... Evidently, Sam Bradford's gaudier numbers obscured the fact that Colt McCoy did far more of the heavy lifting for Texas, against a tougher schedule that included a daunting four-week gauntlet of OU, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech... Evidently, Lloyd Carr knew what he was going at Michigan... Evidently, Paul Johnson's a stud in the Peachtree State... Evidently, Ken Niumatalolo will keep Navy in good hands... Evidently, Pete Carroll owns January more than even Joe Paterno does... Evidently, Tim Tebow can lead a bunch of his peers with uncommon conviction... Evidently, Frank Beamer knows how to survive in this business, and endure far more criticism at Virginia Tech than he should ever have to deal with... Evidently, Brian Kelly of Cincinnati possesses a sharp offensive mind at the highest levels of competition... Evidently, South Florida still can't handle the second half of a season... Evidently, Steve Spurrier isn't recruiting quarterbacks who possess thick skin or a high football IQ... Evidently, Vanderbilt fans can now die in peace... Evidently, Utah and Boise State have been the best non-BCS conference teams of the past decade... Evidently, TCU's Gary Patterson knows a thing or two about resilience and persistence... Evidently, Oregon State's Mike Riley is the Jim Grobe of West Coast football... Evidently, Turner Gill and Buffalo produced a sweetly poignant and deeply beautiful sports story... And quite evidently, the sanctity of the regular season was not enhanced at all by the Bowl Championship Series, which sent Oklahoma--loser by 10 to Texas on a neutral field in the Cotton Bowl stadium--to the Big 12 and national title games.

How will history repeat itself in 2009? The first nine years of this decade offer many templates, but it wouldn't be surprising if this wacky sport--governed as poorly as Major League Baseball has been--throws another knee-buckling curveball to close out the first decade of the 21st century.