Saturday, July 15, 2006

Revisiting 2001: A Seasonal Odyssey

Journey with me to the 2001 college football season. Oh how things were different just 5 short years ago. USC was beginning a new era under NFL failure Pete Carroll, Mack Brown still couldn't beat Oklahoma, Florida State had yet to finish outside the top 10 in 2 decades. Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, it looked as if the Rose Bowl's first turn to host the BCS title game would be a historical rematch of Miami versus Nebraska. Then all hell broke loose. Colorado thumped Nebraska by 26 points on the Friday after Thanksgiving. That opened the door for several one-loss teams to step up and assume the #2 ranking in the BCS. The very next day Oklahoma (10-1) was upset by archrival Oklahoma State (4-7). That loss coupled with their earlier loss to Nebraska enabled Texas put Texas into the Big 12 Championship Game. The next weekend, two more one-loss teams would play what amounted to an elimination game in the swamp. Florida (9-1) would host Tennessee (9-1) in an early season game that was postponed thanks to September 11th. Tennessee upset the Gators and looked to be in control of their own destiny heading into the SEC Championship game the next week against LSU. On the same day, Oregon (10-1) quietly concluded a superb regular season by squeaking by archrival Oregon State (5-6). On Championship Saturday, two more one-loss teams went down. Texas was upset by a Colorado team they had throttled by 34 points 6 weeks earlier in the Big 12 Championship Game. Tennessee was also upset in their title game by LSU. This left the BCS standings in absolute chaos. When the dust cleared, a team that didn't even win its half of the conference, would face Miami in the grand-daddy of them all for the national championship. Nebraska edged Colorado by five hundredths of a point (7.23 to 7.28) for second place. Oregon was a distant fourth at 8.67. So who deserved to play Miami for the national title? Determining who deserved to play Miami is not easy. Historically teams that play for the national title cannot have more than 1 loss. That limits the possibilities. Instead I will try to determine which team was the second best in the nation in 2001, not necessarily who deserved to play Miami. In my opinion, there were 12 candidates, some of them much more legitimate than others. We'll start with the best of the non-BCS teams, then examine the BCS pretenders, and finally examine the legitimate BCS contenders. Under each team 8 pre-bowl game statistics are listed: their record (conference record in parentheses), number of points scored and allowed, point differential, Pythagorean record, record in close games (those decided by 8 points or less), record against winning teams, road record, and finally opponent's cumulative winning percentage. This is all followed by a brief synopsis of their season summing up their case to play Miami.


Record: 12-1 (7-0)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 608 396
Point Differential: +212
Pythagorean: 9.54-3.46
Close Games: 5-0
Winning Records: 3-1
Road Games: 6-1
Opp Win%: .399 (59-89)

I left them out of the discussion earlier, but the Mountain West champion Cougars were actually undefeated heading into their season finale against at Hawaii on December 8th. Prior to the showdown with Hawaii (who finished 9-3), some BYU administrators had publicly contemplated suing the BCS if an undefeated Cougar squad were left out. After the game, such talk was moot. BYU scored 45 points which is good. However, they allowed 72 which isn't so good. In that game, Hawaii quarterback Nick Rolovich threw more touchdown passes (8) than Heisman winning quarterback Eric Crouch (7) had thrown all season. It was fitting BYU lost their final contest by such a large margin against the best team they would play in the regular season. They played a ridiculously easy schedule, and struggled to put away some bad teams. They beat UNLV (4-7) by 4, New Mexico (6-5) by 4, Wyoming (2-9) by 7, and Mississippi State (3-8) by 3. Their best win was over Utah (8-4). A BCS appearance by BYU would have likely been both a blowout and most undeserved.

Fresno State
Record: 11-2 (6-2)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 525 300
Point Differential: +225
Pythagorean: 10.27-2.73
Close Games: 2-2
Winning Record: 4-2
Road Games: 6-1
Opp Win %: (.489) 74-78

The Bulldogs weren't really a contender for the #2 spot in the BCS rankings, but I left them on here for 2 reasons. Foremost, they beat a team we'll discuss later, Colorado, in the Jim Thorpe Classic during the season's first weekend. Secondly, they were probably the best non-BCS team in 2001. Although the Bulldogs did defeat 3 BCS teams in 2001, 2 of those teams were having down years (Oregon State finished 5-6 and Wisconsin finished 5-7). Still give Pat Hill credit for his scheduling cajones. Unfortunately, 2 late October losses to Boise State and Hawaii prevented Fresno from even winning the WAC. Still, its fun to play the what-if game. What if Fresno managed to knock off those 2 teams and stood as the only other undefeated team besides Miami when the regular season ended? Would there victory over the Buffaloes allow them to jump both Nebraska and Colorado or would their weak schedule do them in?

BCS Pretenders

Record: 10-1 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 390 210
Point Differential: +180
Pythagorean: 8.94-2.06
Close Games: 3-0
Winning Record: 6-1
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .473 (61-68)

Under rookie head Ralph Friedgen, the Terraphins doubled their win total and won the ACC outright. Their success was the product of a down ACC (every other team had at least 4 total losses), some good luck in close games (3-0), and the victories by North Carolina and NC State over perennial league champion Florida State. The Terps were handled by 21 in Tallahassee, but did not stumble again in ACC play. The Seminoles on the other hand lost to both the Heels (in a stunning 41-9 rout) and the Pack. Maryland was a good team in 2001, but nowhere near elite status.

Record: 10-1 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 356 238
Point Differential: +118
Pythagorean: 7.94-3.06
Close Games: 4-0
Winning Record: 3-1
Road Games: 4-1
Opp Win %: .488 (62-65)

Aside from the fact that their head coach was not in his first season, the Illini owe much of their success to the same factors as Maryland. A down Big 10 (no other team had fewer than 4 losses), some good luck in close games (4-0), and some upsets over the league's best team helped the Illini capture the Big 10 crown. After being handled by the Michigan Wolverines in late September 45-20, the Illini looked to be playing for second place. However, the Wolverines lost to Michigan State by 2 in early November, and followed that up with a loss to Ohio State at the end of the month by 6. Illinois kept winning and took the Big 10 title outright. Like Maryland, they were good, but not elite.

Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 371 268
Point Differential: +103
Pythagorean: 8.20-3.80
Close Games: 2-1
Winning Record: 4-3
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .567 (80-61)

Despite 3 conference losses, the Tigers won the SEC by upseting Tennessee in the championship game. Clearly not the best team in the conference, they lost at home to Florida by 29 points.

Record: 10-2 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 396 280
Point Differential: +116
Pythagorean: 8.33-3.67
Close Games: 2-1
Winning Record: 5-2
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .589 (86-60)

Despite the fact that they won the Big12, Colorado was not the best team in the conference, and definitely not the second best team in the nation. Before upsetting Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, they had lost to the Longhorns by 34 points. In 4 of the 6 BCS conferences, the best team clearly did not win (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC).

BCS Contenders


Record: 10-1 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 374 240
Point Differential: +134
Pythagorean: 8.15-2.85
Close Games: 5-1
Winning Record: 3-1
Road Games: 5-0
Opp Win %: .508 (64-62)

Finally a deserving BCS champion. The Ducks did have some good luck in close games (5-1), but were clearly the best team in the Pac 10. Still, their point differential was not that great and their schedule strength was pretty weak. I'm not including the bowl game because this writing is intended to be a summation of the regular season. However, they did trounce Colorado by in the Fiesta Bowl.

Record: 11-1 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 449 189
Point Differential: +260
Pythagorean: 10.63-1.37
Close Games: 0-0
Winning Record: 5-1
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .546 (77-64)

Ah the team that started this whole mess. Before their loss to Colorado, this looked like the Nebraska of old. They hadn't really been challenged except by Oklahoma in a game they eventually won by 10 points. Of course, besides Oklahoma, the best team they had played prior to Colorado was either Iowa State (7-5) or Texas Tech (7-5). That coupled with the Colorado curb-stomping keeps prevents them from landing the #2 slot.

Record: 10-2 (6-2)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 387 166
Point Differential: +221
Pythagorean: 10.58-1.42
Close Games: 1-1
Winning Record: 4-1
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .510 (73-70)

The defending champs had their chance until an unthinkable slip up at home against Oklahoma State. Oklahoma had a solid point differential and defeated Texas, but the slip up to a team as bad as Oklahoma State seals the argument against them. Those Cowboys finished 4-7 and their other victories were over Louisiana Tech (7-5), Baylor (3-8) and non-Division IA Northwestern State.

Record: 10-2 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 470 164
Point Differential: +306
Pythagorean: 11.09-0.91
Close Games: 0-1
Winning Record: 4-2
Road Games: 5-0
Opp Win %: .510 (73-70)

The beneficiary of Oklahoma State's upset over Oklahoma. The irony in everything is that Texas was likely headed for a BCS bowl if Oklahoma hadn't been upset. Instead they got a rematch with a Colorado team that previously beaten by 34 in the Big12 Championship. A win there could have propelled them to the Rose Bowl. However, the upset loss relegated them to the Holiday Bowl. A very good point differential keep them in the conversation despite the upset by Colorado.

Record: 10-2 (7-1)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 355 234
Point Differential: +121
Pythagorean: 8.74-3.26
Close Games: 4-1
Winning Record: 6-2
Road Games: 5-0
Opp Win %: .594 (85-58)

Before their loss to LSU, the Vols only blemish was to Georgia by 2 points. That was the only close game the Vols would lose. They scraped by LSU the first time by 8, beat South Carolina (9-3) by 7, beat Kentucky (2-9) by 2, and narrowly escaped Florida in the Swamp by 2. The Vols are a solid candidate, but their relatively small point differential keeps them out of the #2 slot.

Record: 9-2 (6-2)
Points Scored Points Allowed: 482 155
Point Differential: +327
Pythagorean: 10.3-0.70
Close Games: 0-2
Winning Record: 5-2
Road Games: 3-1
Opp Win %: .557 (73-58)

Florida was good in 2001, very good. In Steve Spurrier's final season they whipped Marshall (11-2) by 35. They won at LSU by 29. They won at South Carolina (9-3) by 37. They beat Florida State (8-4) by 24. Unfortunately, the bounces in close games did not go their way. They lost to Auburn (7-5) by 3 and to Tennessee by 2. 5 points separated Florida from an undefeated season. Despite their 2 losses, in my opinion Florida was the second best team in 2001. They had the highest point differential of any team besides Miami, they played a tough schedule and dominated several good teams, and their losses were close games to good team. Would they have beaten Miami in the 2001 Rose Bowl? Probably not, Miami was on another level in 2001, but Florida had the best chance of any other team.

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