Top 12 BCS Games of All-Time

January 5, 2011

With the 2011 BCS National Championship a potential instant classic between Oregon and Auburn ahead next week, I figured now’s the time to do the list of the top 12 BCS bowl games of all-time. Hopefully next week’s matchup cracks this list. Odds are in its favor: although only four of the twelve championship games make the list, three of the five total championship matchups between two undefeated teams make the list.

I started this list before the Arkansas/Ohio State Sugar Bowl game last night. For parts of the game, I thought I’d have to adjust my list. Had Arkansas scored on their last drive, I would have, but this game just didn’t do it for me. Because the game was between two good but not great teams that were never serious contenders for the national title, the bar was set pretty high. Aside from Terrelle Pryor’s great first half, neither team played particularly well. Although the finish was briefly exciting after Arkansas’ blocked punt, Mallett’s interception keeps that game from cracking the list.

#121999 Rose Bowl: #9 Wisconsin 38, #5 UCLA 31

The first ever BCS game begins the list of the top 12 BCS games of all-time. Both teams entered this game at 10-1 but took very different paths to get there. UCLA was ranked #2 for most of the season and looked primed to face undefeated Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship. Instead, the Miami Hurricanes beat the Bruins 49-45 in a wild shootout on the last day of the season in a game that was postponed from September because of Hurricane Georges. Meanwhile, thanks to the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, Wisconsin avoided Ohio State completely and lost by 17 on the road to Michigan. The Badgers beat only three teams all season with a winning record – 9-4 Purdue, 9-3 Penn State, and 7-5 San Diego State – causing ESPN’s Craig James to call the Badgers “the worst team to ever play in the Rose Bowl.”

The two teams broke several Rose Bowl offensive records in a shootout. The Bruins were unable to slow down Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, as the running back rolled up 247 yards rushing and tied a Rose Bowl record with four touchdowns. Wisconsin had even less luck stopping the Cade McCown-led UCLA aerial attack. The Bruins chalked up a then-Rose Bowl record 538 total yards, 418 of which came through the air. A back-and-forth first half ended on a Matt Davenport field goal that gave the Badgers a 24-21 halftime lead. Ironically, it was a defensive play that proved to be the biggest moment of the game: Jamar Fletcher’s 46-yard interception return that put the Badgers up 38-28 with 14:08 left. The Bruins pulled within a touchdown on a Chris Sailer field goal but could come no closer. Cade McCown was sacked on fourth-and-3 on the Wisconsin 47 with less than two minutes left to preserve the first big upset in BCS history.

#11. 2006 Orange Bowl: #3 Penn State 26, #22 Florida State 23 (3ot)

You’d think a three-overtime game between the two winningest coaches in college football history would rank higher than this, but the game itself was actually pretty poorly played. Penn State finished the season at 10-1 and entered the game as 10-point favorites over #22 Florida State. The Seminoles lost their last three regular season games to finish 5-3 in the ACC and 7-4 overall; this was still good enough to win their division and they went on to upset 10-1 Virginia Tech in the conference championship game to qualify for the Orange Bowl.

The Nittany Lions jumped out to an early 7-0 lead in the game as the Florida State offense struggled. The Seminoles finally entered Penn State territory midway through the second quarter but a Drew Weatherford interception ended the drive. After the Seminoles stuffed Penn State’s offense on the ensuing possession, Willie Reid returned a Jeremy Kapinos punt 89 yards to tie the game with 4:09 left in the first half. The Seminoles forced the Nittany Lions to go three-and-out on the next drive; on the first play of the next possession, Weatherford hit running back Lorenzo Booker on a 57-yard touchdown pass for a 13-7 lead. In a sign of things to come, Gary Cismesia missed the extra point. With six seconds left in the half, Penn State’s Ethan Kilmer made a fantastic 25-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Michael Robinson to give the Nittany Lions the 14-13 lead heading into the half. Both offenses were even more inept in the second half. Penn State’s only scoring play came on an intentional grounding in the end zone by Weatherford for a 16-13 lead. Florida State finally tied the game at 16 with 4:08 left on a 48-yard Cismesia field goal. Amazingly, the Seminoles did not take a snap inside Penn State’s 25 for the entire game.

The final few minutes of regulation saw the game descend from poorly played to downright bizarre. After Cismesia’s field goal, Penn State drove all the way to the Seminole 12 in the closing seconds only to have kicker Kevin Kelly miss a 29-yard field goal to win the game. On the first possession of overtime, the Seminoles moved backwards two yards and Cismesia missed a 48-yard field goal wide right. Kevin Kelly returned the favor with a wide left miss on a 38-yard field goal attempt. After both teams scored on 1-yard touchdown runs in double overtime, Cismesia bounced a 38-yard attempt off the right upright in the third overtime. On the Nittany Lions, Kelly mercifully made a 29-yard field goal to finally end the awkwardness.

#10. 1999 Fiesta Bowl (National Championship): #1 Tennessee 23, #2 Florida State 16

Ranked #1 for most of the season, Tee Martin’s Tennessee Volunteers seemed to be on a collision course with the national title game all season; eventually they would finish with a 12-0 record as the only undefeated team in the country. The 1-loss Seminoles snuck into the championship game after previously undefeated Kansas State lost in double overtime to Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship game – the first of many, many, many controversies for the BCS in its history.

The Volunteers dominated for large portions of this game but could never seem to put the Seminoles away. The game looked to be a snoozer early after Tennessee jumped out to a 14-0 second quarter lead over a sloppy Seminole team. Florida State crawled back to within 14-9 at halftime before a fourth quarter 79-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price and a Jeff Hall field goal put the Volunteers up 23-9 midway through the fourth quarter. Quarterback Marcus Outzen (who?!?) scrambled for a seven yard touchdown to bring the Seminoles back within 23-16 and a Travis Henry fumble gave Florida State the ball back down seven with less than two minutes to go. However, cornerback Steve Johnson intercepted a Outzen pass on the last-minute drive to seal the Volunteers’ first National Championship since 1967 in the inaugural BCS Championship Game.

*1999 doesn’t seem that long ago until you hear Gloria Estefan playing in the background of a local news’ highlight video. Now I feel old.

#9. 2011 Rose Bowl: #3 TCU 21, #5 Wisconsin 19

Although 12-0 TCU’s appearance in the Rose Bowl was the fifth time a non-BCS team played a BCS conference team in a BCS game, it was arguably the biggest test for a non-BCS team. In 2004, Utah played a terrible Big East team and Boise State in 2007 (Oklahoma), Hawaii in 2008 (Georgia), and Utah in 2009 (Alabama) were all matched against major teams that were all favorites that came into the game somewhat unmotivated by not meeting their national championship expectations. In this game, TCU was actually favored over an 11-1 Wisconsin team that actually surpassed expectations this year and came in motivated after winning seven in a row to win the Big Ten championship. Whereas the previous Little Guy/Big Guy matchups were tests to see if non-BCS schools could compete with the big schools, this matchup was the first test to see if one of these schools could be legitimate national title contenders.

Wisconsin opened the game with a 40-yard run by Montee Ball on the first play from scrimmage as fans quickly began to wonder if the Badgers would turn the game into a rout. Instead, the Horned Frogs held the offense to a field goal and promptly drove down the field for a touchdown of their own. After the two teams traded touchdowns on their next possession, the game had all the makings of a shootout. Wisconsin kicked a late first half field goal to pull back within 14-13 at halftime. Quarterback Andy Dalton took the Horned Frogs down for a touchdown on the first drive of the second half to put TCU up 21-13. Both teams’ defenses then clamped down and the teams exchanged several punts. Finally, running backs John Clay and Montee Ball rushed the ball nine times on a 10-play 77-yard drive that pulled the Badgers to within two with two minutes left.

Down 21-19, the Badgers were forced to go for two to tie the game. TCU’s All-American linebacker Tank Carder batted Scott Tolzien’s two-point conversion pass down at the line of scrimmage and the Horned Frogs recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the biggest victory for a mid-major in BCS history.

#8. 2000 Sugar Bowl (National Championship): #1 Florida State 46, #2 Virginia Tech 29

The first matchup between undefeated teams in the BCS Championship was surrounded by hype that wouldn’t be seen again until the USC/Texas game six years later. The game was an old vs. new matchup – literally and figuratively. Perennial title contender Florida State, led by 27-year old Heisman winner Chris Weinke, was ranked #1 in the preseason and never wavered en route to finishing 11-0. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech under Coach Frank Beamer was the new kid on the block. Led by dynamic freshman quarterback Michael Vick, the Hokies were ranked #14 in the preseason and slowly crept up the polls as they finished with their first undefeated season since 1954.

The Hokies started the game with a promising drive but came up empty on the scoreboard when Michael Vick fumbled in the Seminole end zone. Chris Weinke eventually struck first with 3:22 left in the first quarter on a 64-yard touchdown pass to eventual game MVP Peter Warrick. The Seminole defense then held Vick’s squad to their first three-and-out of the game before blocking the Hokies’ punt and returning it for a touchdown. Although Vick answered with a 49-yard touchdown throw to Andre Davis to cut the lead to seven, things quickly turned ugly for the Hokies. Weinke immediately responded with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Ron Dugans and, after another stop, Warrick returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown.

The Seminoles drove down the field twice more in the second quarter but couldn’t extend their lead. Despite this, they led 28-7 late in the first half in what looked to be a runaway victory. Then Michael Vick starting doing Michael Vick things, the Hokie defense buckled down, and three touchdowns and a field goal later, the upstart Virginia Tech squad found themselves up 29-28 after an Andre Kendrick touchdown run with 2:13 left in the third quarter. And just like that the young Hokies team crashed and burned. Weinke led the Seminoles on a long touchdown drive to retake the lead 36-28. Vick fumbled on the Hokies’ next possession and the Seminoles added a field goal to push the lead to 11. After another stop, Beamer called for a fake punt that the Seminoles sniffed out and stopped. They quickly punched another touchdown in for the final 46-29 margin.

#7. 2006 Sugar Bowl: #11 West Virginia 38, #7 Georgia 35

Nobody gave Big East champion West Virginia much of a chance against SEC champion in the 2006 Sugar Bowl. Though the Mountaineers finished 10-1, they were viewed as a huge underdog against 10-2 Georgia because of their weak Big East schedule. Additionally, Hurricane Katrina forced this game to be moved from the Superdome to the Georgia Dome, essentially turning the bowl into a home game for the Bulldogs. Oddsmakers made the Mountaineers a two-touchdown underdog heading into the game.

Apparently West Virginia didn’t get the memo. The Mountaineers caused two turnovers in the first quarter and scored touchdowns on their first four possessions to jump out to a stunning 28-0 lead just 16 minutes into the game. From there, the Big East champs hung on for dear life as the Bulldogs began to assert their will. Quarterback D.J. Shockley led Georgia on three second quarter touchdown drives and the Bulldogs cut the deficit to 31-21 by halftime. Shockley hit AJ Bryant on a 34-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to three at the end of the third quarter. Sugar Bowl MVP Steve Slaton (204 rushing yards) answered with a 52-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to extend the lead back to ten. Shockley responded right back with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Bryan McClendon to pull back within three.

The Mountaineers received the ball with five minutes left and drove to the Georgia 48 before facing a 4th and 6 with 1:45 remaining. Coach Rich Rodriguez made the call of the game, sending punter Phil Brady on a ten-yard scramble for a first down to seal one of the biggest upsets in BCS history.

#6. 2009 Fiesta Bowl: #3 Texas 24, #10 Ohio State 21

Like West Virginia, #10 Ohio State (10-2) was disrespected by most in the weeks leading up to the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. 11-1 Texas spent much of the season at the top of the polls and narrowly missed out on the national championship game to fellow Big 12 school Oklahoma, despite owning a victory over the Sooners during the season. The Buckeyes were a controversial selection to the BCS – many felt they were selected only because their fan base travels so well. They entered the game as 10 point underdogs to the Longhorns.

Also like the Mountaineers, no one gave the Buckeyes the memo on the underdog business. After Texas turned a 6-3 halftime deficit into a 17-6 halftime lead, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor took over, leading the team on three fourth quarter scoring drives. Daniel Herron rushed for a 15-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 21-17 lead with 2:05 left in the game.

Of course, that’s not the reason why this game comes in at #6 on this list. That would be Colt McCoy’s perfectly executed two-minute drill. McCoy completed 7 of 10 passes as he led the Longhorns on an 11-play, 78-yard drive capped off by a stunning 26-yard touchdown pass to Quan Cosby with 16 seconds left. Cosby took the short pass and broke a tackle before running untouched into the end zone to give Texas the 24-21 victory.

#5. 2000 Orange Bowl: #8 Michigan 35, #4 Alabama 34 (OT)

The 2000 Orange Bowl pitted traditional powerhouses Alabama (10-2 SEC Champion) and Michigan (9-2) – the first-ever BCS matchup between SEC and Big Ten schools, much to the delight of the Orange Bowl committee. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there’s a good chance that the legend of Tom Brady was born in this game as he twice led the Wolverines back from 14-point deficits to win the game in overtime.

Alabama opened the scoring on two second-quarter touchdown runs by Shaun Alexander before Brady hit David Terrell on a 27-yard touchdown pass with 57 seconds left in the half to cut the halftime deficit to 14-7. The Wolverines held Alabama on the first possession of the second half and Brady quickly threw a long bomb to Terrell to tie the game at 14. Alabama again responded – Alexander punched in his third score on the night and Freddie Milons added a 62-yard punt return to put the Crimson Tide up 28-14. Brady responded again, leading the Wolverines on two more touchdown drives to make the score 28-28 at the end of the wild third quarter.

Brady put the Wolverines in position to win the game in regulation, but the Crimson Tide blocked Hayden Epstein’s 36-yard attempt as time expired. In overtime, Brady hit tight end Shawn Thompson on the first play from scrimmage for a 35-28 lead. Alabama quarterback Andrew Zow responded right back with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Carter to pull back within one. But kicker Ryan Pflunger pushed the extra point wide right to give the Wolverines the stunning 35-34 overtime victory. Brady would finish with a Michigan bowl record 369 yards passing and four touchdowns.

#4. 2005 Rose Bowl: #4 Texas 38, #13 Michigan 37

In this game, it was the higher seeded team that was selected amid controversy. The Rose Bowl was expected to pick previous #4 Cal (10-1) to fulfill the typical the traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup. Instead, Texas coach Mack Brown publicly campaigned for votes after Cal looked less than impressive in a 26-16 victory over Southern Miss in the last week of the season. Voters eventually gave the Longhorns (also 10-1) enough votes to pass the Golden Bears for the all-important #4 spot and the automatic bid under the Kansas State Rule. #13 Michigan (9-2) was the subject of no such controversy as they won their second consecutive Big Ten title to claim the Rose Bowl berth.

The Longhorns entered the game as heavy favorites but the game turned into an epic back-and-forth affair. In the first half, Texas’s Vince Young had a touchdown run and a touchdown pass and Michigan’s freshman quarterback Chad Henne answered with two touchdown passes of his own (both to Braylon Edwards) to send the game to halftime tied at 14. After the Longhorns received the second half kickoff, Young began to work his magic, taking off on a 60-yard touchdown run on third and 10 from his own 40. Not to be outdone, Henne threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Steve Breaston on third and 10 on the next possession. The Wolverines forced a Texas punt on the next possession and Henne led the Wolverines on another scoring drive, hitting Edwards for a third touchdown pass to put the Wolverines in the lead for the first time. Garrett Rivas added a field goal following a Young interception to put Michigan up 31-21 and set up a wild fourth quarter.

With 9:45 left in the game, facing yet another 3rd and 10, Young scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run, his third of the game, to bring the Longhorns back within three. Henne embarked on another long drive, but couldn’t put Texas away as the Wolverines had to settle for a Rivas chip shot field goal. Now down 34-28 at his own 31 with six minutes left, Young hit Tony Jeffrey with a 19-yard pass, Dusty Magnum with a 27-yard pass, and took the ball himself for a 23-yard touchdown run to put the Longhorns back on top 35-34 just 1:15 later. Breaston returned the ball all the way to the Texas 43 on the ensuing kickoff, but the Texas defense held Henne’s offense to another field goal. Now down 37-35 with three minutes left, Young worked a little more magic, keeping the ball five times on a 9-play, 45-yard drive to put the Longhorns in field goal range. Dusty Magnum’s 37-yard kick was good as time expired and the Longhorns came away with the dramatic 38-37 victory.

Young was eventually named offensive MVP of the game after rushing for 192 yards and 4 scores and passing for 180 yards and 1 touchdown. For his part, Henne passed for 227 yards and tied a Rose Bowl record with 4 touchdown passes. Breaston set a Rose Bowl record with 315 all-purpose yards – 77 receiving and 238 return yards.

#3. 2007 Fiesta Bowl: #8 Boise State 43, #10 Oklahoma 42 (ot)

The first true David vs. Goliath matchup in BCS history didn’t disappoint. Undefeated WAC champion Boise State finished in the top 12 to claim the automatic bid for non-BCS conferences. Oklahoma claimed the Big 12 Championship but finished 11-2 in a moderately disappointing season by the Sooners’ own high standards. Still, this game was a huge test for non-BCS schools as it marked the first time a mid-major met a traditional powerhouse in a BCS game (undefeated Utah was unfortunately paired with a pretty awful Pittsburgh team in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl). Although Boise State was two spots higher in the BCS standings, it was clear who the public thought would win – Oklahoma went off as a 7 1/2 point favorite.

Jared Zabransky and the Broncos came out on fire early, stunning the Sooners by jumping out to a 14-0 lead eight minutes into the game. Oklahoma cut the lead to 14-10 just before halftime but Zabransky answered with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Drisan James with 32 seconds left in the second quarter to send the Broncos to the locker room up 21-10. Early in the second half, Boise’s Marty Tadman intercepted a Paul Thompson pass and returned it 27 yards for a score to give Boise its biggest lead of the night. From there, Oklahoma began to slowly chip away at Boise’s lead – an Adrian Peterson touchdown run and a Garrett Hartley field goal cut the lead to 28-20. The Sooners got the ball back on their own 23 with 2:40 left and one last chance to tie the game. Thompson was fantastic on the drive, going 5-for-5 passing and hitting Quentin Chaney for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:16 left to pull the Sooners to within two.* The Sooners actually tried the ensuing two-point conversion three times: an incomplete pass on the first try was negated by a defensive pass interference call and an illegal shift on the second try negated a successful Sooner conversion. Finally, Thompson hit Juaquin Iglesias on the third try to tie the game at 28.

* Poor Thompson – no one remembers the incredible comeback that Oklahoma made just to take the lead.

Then came the chain of events burned in every college football fan’s memory. On the first play after the kickoff, Zabransky hit a wide-open Marcus Walker for a 34-yard touchdown pass – the only problem, of course, was that Walker played for Oklahoma. The Sooners scored 15 points over 14 seconds of game time to stun the Broncos and take their first lead of the game. Boise got the ball back with 54 seconds left and quickly drove to the Sooner 42-yard line, but a sack and two incomplete passes made it 4th and 18 at midfield with just 18 seconds remaining. Then came possibly the most exciting play in BCS history: Zabransky hit James a few yards short of the first down marker; as four Sooner defenders closed in, James lateraled to Jerard Rabb, who ran untouched before diving into the end zone to pull Boise back within one with seven seconds left.* Anthony Montgomery hit the extra point to send the game into overtime.** Adrian Peterson scored on the first play of overtime to put the Sooners up 42-35 and the Broncos began the most exciting 7-play, 25-yard drive in history. Facing a third and 8 on the 23, Zabransky hit tight end Derek Schouman for a nine-yard gain to the Sooner 14. Two quick rushes gave Boise a 3rd and 1 at the 5-yard line, but Ian Johnson was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage to set up a 4th and 2. Not content to run a standard play, Coach Chris Petersen sent Zabransky in motion and put wide receiver Vinny Perretta in the Wildcat formation. Perretta rolled out and hit Schouman for a six-yard touchdown. Petersen decided now was the time to go for two – Johnson scored untouched on a perfectly run statue of liberty play, threw the ball into the crowd, proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend, and assured that this would be the most memorable non-championship game in BCS history.

* This has to be hands-down the most successful hook and lateral play in football history – off-hand, I can’t even think of one that worked at all, let alone one that worked for a touchdown on 4th and 18 in the closing seconds of the game.

** I always wondered why Boise didn’t just pull out the statue of liberty play here.

#2. 2003 Fiesta Bowl (National Championship): #2 Ohio State 31, #1 Miami 24 (2ot)

The Boise/Oklahoma game might have been better than this game, but I’m a bit biased since I was in attendance for the 2003 championship game. And you can’t really fault me for putting a double overtime championship game at #2 on the list. Although both teams entered the game undefeated, they each took different routes to get there. The defending champion Hurricanes rolled off 34 consecutive victories heading into the game, most of them dominant victories. The Buckeyes were the decidedly less impressive Cardiac Kids of the 2002 season: six of their 13 wins came by a touchdown or less, and they needed overtime to beat a 4-6 Illinois team and a last-minute 34-yard fourth down touchdown pass to beat 4-5 Purdue. Because of this, the Hurricanes entered the game as 12-point favorites.

After exchanging punts in the first quarter, Ken Dorsey led the Hurricanes on a 52-yard scoring drive to give them an early 7-0 lead. The rout looked to be on for much of the first half as the anemic Buckeye offense could only manage one first down on their first four possessions. Then the Buckeyes defense stepped up – safety Mike Doss intercepted a Dorsey pass and returned the ball to the Miami 17 with five minutes left in the first half. Ohio State’s offense still could not muster many yards and took seven plays to move the 17 yards before quarterback Craig Krenzel scored on 4th and goal from inside the 1 to tie the game at 7. On the first play of the next possession, the Buckeye defense sacked Dorsey, causing a fumble that they recovered. Running back Maurice Clarett punched it in two plays later and Ohio State took a stunning 14-7 lead into the half.

A Mike Nugent field goal and Willis McGahee touchdown run made the score 17-14 Ohio State heading into the fourth quarter. Both teams traded long drives early in the fourth but came up empty when Miami’s Todd Sievers and Nugent each missed a field goal. The Hurricanes advanced the ball to the OSU 31 on the next drive, but the Buckeyes recovered a Roscoe Parrish fumble to get the ball back with five minutes left. The Buckeyes could only manage one first down and punted the ball back to the Hurricanes with 2:30 left. Parrish was able to atone for his fumble, as he returned the ball 50 yards to the Buckeye 25. Miami was unable to move the ball and had to settle for a Sievers 40-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime.

In overtime, Miami quickly scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Winslow II. The Buckeyes answered with a dynamic 11-play, 25-yard drive to tie the game. The Hurricanes stormed the field after stopping the Buckeyes on fourth-and-3 from the 5-yard line, but an extremely late, questionable pass interference call gave the Buckeyes new life. Although the drive is most remembered for the controversial call, Krenzel actually saved the Buckeyes earlier in the drive with a 17-yard completion to Michael Jenkins on fourth-and-14 from the 29. After Clarett scored in double overtime, the Hurricanes wasted no time in driving to the Buckeye 2 yard line. Miami was unable to convert on their first three plays – Ohio State stuffed two runs and a Ken Dorsey pass fell incomplete. On fourth and goal from the 1, two Buckeyes came into the backfield untouched and Dorsey’s desperation throw harmlessly hit the ground and the Buckeyes held on for the biggest upset in BCS National Championship Game history.

#1. 2006 Rose Bowl (National Championship): #2 Texas 41, #1 USC 38

Even with my own bias towards the Miami/Ohio State championship game, I couldn’t justify putting it above this thriller. This matchup was by far and away the most anticipated game in BCS history. Unlike most heavily hyped games, this one lived up to its billing (and then some). Both teams went wire-to-wire in the top two spots in the BCS rankings, the only time that has happened to date. Two-time defending champions USC came into the game on a 34-game winning streak; Texas had the second-longest winning streak in the nation at 19 games.* The Trojans were led by 2004 Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and 2005 Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush. The Longhorns were led by quarterback Vince Young, still steaming from his runner-up finish to Bush for the Heisman Trophy. Prior to this highly anticipated matchup, many commentators speculated that USC would go down as the best team in college football history with a win in this game.

* Texas has been in four BCS games, three of which crack the top six BCS games of all-time. The fourth, the 2010 BCS Championship Game, might have made the list had starting quarterback Colt McCoy not gotten hurt in the first half. The lesson? Apparently the Longhorns should always be in a BCS game.

After a quick three-and-out to begin the game, USC punted the ball to the Longhorns. Aaron Ross fumbled the punt and the Trojans recovered and quickly scored for an early 7-0 lead. From there, the first half was all Texas – the Longhorns scored 16 unanswered points; only a Marco Danelo field goal on the last play of the first half could slow Texas’ momentum as Texas went to the locker room up 16-10.

In the second half, both teams’ offenses took over. The Trojans forced a Longhorn punt and Leinart took the team on a 62-yard drive, capped by LenDale White’s touchdown run to give USC the lead back. Young answered right back with his own long drive, finishing it himself with a 14-yard touchdown run. USC again answered when White rushed for his third touchdown on a fourth-and-one from the 12 yard-line to put the Trojans back on top. After another long drive, the Longhorn offense was the first to crack when David Pino missed a 31-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter. Reggie Bush took over for White on the next drive, taking the ball in from 25 yards out to give the Trojans their biggest lead of the game at 31-23 with 11:19 to go. The Longhorns could only manage a field goal on the next drive, and Leinart made it four-for-four in the second half for the Trojans with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Jarrett to give USC a seemingly insurmountable 38-26 lead with 6:42 left.

And then Vince Young started doing Vince Young-like things. Young went 5-for-6 on the next drive and rushed the ball twice for 25 yards and a touchdown to bring the Longhorns back within five. On the ensuing possession, coach Pete Carroll made the most controversial call of the game: needing a first down to secure the victory, Carroll went for it on fourth-and-two from the Texas 45-yard line with 2:20 left. LenDale White was stuffed and the Longhorns took over. Young drove the Longhorns inside the USC red zone before facing a 4th-and-five from the 8 with less than thirty seconds left. Young took the shotgun snap and, finding his receivers covered, took off towards the right side of the end zone. Young won the foot race, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 19-seconds left. Young again ran it in for the two-point conversion and Leinart’s desperation drive came up short to give the Longhorns the dramatic 41-38 victory.

Orange Bowl Recap; Sugar Bowl Preview

January 4, 2011

Orange Bowl: Stanford 40, Virginia Tech 12

At least this game was close for a half. I expected that Stanford would stop Tyrod Taylor’s Hokies more times than Virginia Tech would stop Andrew Luck’s Cardinal. I just didn’t expect just how many stops Stanford was capable of.

Stanford looked like the better team in the first half. They entered halftime up only 13-12, but 9 of the Hokies’ points came on Tyrod Taylor’s touchdown pass after an insane scramble and a Stanford offensive lineman taking the single most boneheaded safety I’ve ever seen. You just got the feeling that Stanford would eventually take the game over.

And they did. The second half turned into one of the more dominating performances I’ve seen in a BCS game – offhand, I can’t remember a team dominating a half like this in a BCS game since USC destroyed Oklahoma in the first half of the 2004 Championship Game. Some stats from the second half (discounting each team’s last drive meant to kill the clock and get the waterboys some playing time) to help put this in perspective:

Virginia Tech: 5 drives, 56 yards, 5 sacks, 4 punts, 1 interception, 0 points

Stanford: 4 drives, 4 touchdowns, 22 plays, 315 yards, 5 plays of 50 yards or more, gained positive yardage on 17 of 22 plays

Complete and total domination. Yesterday I argued that Stanford is playing better than any team in the country, would probably be in the title game if Oregon had to come to Palo Alto this year, and everyone would agree with the previous two statements if the team had “USC” written on the front of their jerseys. The Cardinal hammered this lesson home last night at the expense of Virginia Tech, putting up a season-high 40 points on the Hokies and holding them to a season-low 12 points.

This leads to a larger point about the BCS. Playoff proponents will undoubtedly spend the offseason pointing to Mountain West champion TCU finishing the season undefeated but not getting the chance to play for the National Championship. And rightly so: TCU’s win over Wisconsin was undoubtedly the best win ever by a non-BCS team in a BCS game. While undefeated Utah’s victory over 1-loss in the Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl was impressive, it was easier for pundits to discount because Alabama came in unmotivated after a loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game cost them a chance at the National Championship. There was no such excuse for Wisconsin here – they peaked at the end of the season, came out motivated, and presented a tougher matchup for TCU than any other 1-loss team because of their size. TCU is simply a better team than Wisconsin and proved it in the Rose Bowl.

But with all that said, Stanford might even present a better argument for a playoff than TCU. Stanford is a perennial basement dweller in the Pac-10. Jim Harbaugh deservedly gets a ton of credit for leading the Cardinal to an 8-5 record last season and a 12-1 record this season after eight consecutive losing seasons between 2001 and 2008.* But Harbaugh should probably get even more credit – Stanford is a school everyone is familiar with, so we sometimes forget just how terrible they have been throughout history. Since 1971, the Cardinal have qualified for a grand total of one Rose Bowl – the bizarre 1999 season when they finished the regular season unranked with an 8-3 record that was somehow good enough to win the Pac-10 Championship.** Their bowl appearance this year was only their 11th of the past forty years. They have finished with double-digit wins only three times in school history – 12 this year and 10 in both 1940 and 1926.

* Seriously, is there anyone in the world in any profession with a higher stock than Jim Harbaugh right now? I remember coach’s with high stock before, but nothing like this – ESPN is reporting that he will have his pick of head coaching job between the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, or his alma mater University of Michigan Wolverines. This is insane – the guy was coaching at FCS mid-major University of San Diego four years ago and now can PICK which job he wants between any of the three most desirable coaching jobs on the market right now. Well done, Mr. Harbaugh, well done.

** Most surprising fact I found in this research? In John Elway’s four years there, Stanford had one winning season (6-5 in 1980), a 20-23 overall record, and zero bowl appearances. Lest you think that Elway’s college career was overrated, the Cardinal went 1-10 the year after Elway graduated. Now THAT is a bad program.

This year, Stanford caught lightning in a bottle. Thanks to a unique combination of an excellent coach, one of the best quarterbacks in the country who happened to have the academic qualifications required to attend Stanford, and a team of hard-nosed role players led by two-way player Owen Marecic, Stanford had their best season in the last seventy years (and probably best in school history). Next season, their coach will move on to much greener pastures, their quarterback will leave school early to be the #1 pick in the NFL draft, the 15 fans that made the trek to the Orange Bowl* will move on and Stanford will again descend into mediocrity. There’s no program-building here: this was Stanford’s one great season and they won’t make a BCS bowl until the next time the planets align in their favor.

* Was that stadium even half full last night? You’d think an academic destination school like Stanford would have a diaspora throughout the country – shouldn’t there be at least a handful of Stanford alums in South Florida?

So yeah – it’s unfair to TCU that they didn’t get a chance to play in the National Championship Game, but Gary Patterson has built a program down in Fort Worth that will be good for some time – so good in fact that the Big East invited TCU to join in 2012 to save their own BCS bid. The Horned Frogs will be a fringe National Title contender for some time; Stanford, meanwhile, won’t even be in the discussion. At the end of this season, the Cardinal are arguably playing better football than any other team in the country. They reached the Top 5 for the first time since before World War II. But they were denied a chance for a Championship because they had the audacity to have their one magical season in an even year: if only they waited until 2011, they would have played Oregon at home and probably gone undefeated. Instead, they’ll have to wait another seventy or so years until another unique confluence of events makes Stanford a title contender again. Now THAT is unfair.


Sugar Bowl: Ohio State vs. Arkansas

On to the Sugar Bowl, or the Noika Who-Cares-About-This-Game-We-Already-Know-The-SEC-Is-Better-Than-The-Big-Ten Bowl. My initial inclination was to go with Ohio State in this game because I just don’t think Arkansas is all that good. But then the Big Ten takes that collective dump on New Year’s Day and now my head’s spinning. On the other hand, didn’t we already know that the Big Ten was bad? I picked against the conference in four of their five losses on New Year’s Day. I only missed my Michigan State upset pick over Alabama, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise – I even argued in my preview that Michigan State was either going to win straight up or Alabama was going to destroy the Spartans by multiple touchdowns, I just happened to pick the wrong result.

This seems like a perfect game to tackle from a different angle – instead of trying to decide which team to pick, I’ll try to decide which team not to pick. In bullet-point form:

Why Not to Pick Ohio State:

– 0-9 all-time against SEC teams in bowls and 0-4 since 2000.

– The Big Ten sucks. They are not very good in BCS games (this was going to be an asterisk, but I decided instead to make it a whole post later)

– The Buckeyes played only one game against a team that finished the regular season in the Top 25 – a 31-18 loss at Wisconsin.

– The Big Ten sucks.

– The SEC is 7-3 in the Sugar Bowl – the only BCS bowl game in SEC country – since the inception of the BCS.

– Depending on who you talk to, Arkansas might be the second-best team in the country. They lost only to Auburn and Alabama and blew fourth quarter leads in both games.

– The Big Ten sucks.

Why not to pick Arkansas:

– They have the worst defense of any BCS team. Cam Newton put up 65 points on the Razorback defense. Even though Terrelle Pryor is only half as good as Newton, half of 65 is still a lot of points.

– They needed overtime to beat East Carolina in their bowl game last year.

– Might only be the fourth best team in the SEC. They finished the season in a near dead-heat with Alabama and LSU (each of the three teams went 1-1 against the others) and were fortunate to get both teams at home this season (they beat LSU and lost to Alabama).

– After he threw two interceptions in the last five minutes to blow the Alabama game, can we really trust Ryan Mallett?

– Although they played a much tougher schedule, they didn’t really do much better than Ohio State. They beat LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State (in double overtime), but lost to Auburn and Alabama for a 3-2 overall record against the top 25.

That’s 7 to 5 for Arkansas…and yes I stand by my triple-count of how bad the Big Ten is. For the first time this season I’m going to change my bowl pick from my initial selection. The Razorbacks win 35-24.