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BCS Top 50: Best of the era, 10-6

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The 2013 season is the last of the BCS era, an experiment that began in 1998 and proceeded to enrage nearly every college football fan along the way. Despite the flaws in the process, the underlying awesomeness of college football shined through time and time again, gifting us memorable games, plays and athletes over the last decade and a half.

Over the course of the week, we’re going to present you with the BCS Top 50, the best plays, players, storylines and games of the BCS era.

A few points of order:

  • Yes, there is another season of football still to be played, but the BCS will be buried and forgotten without ceremony at the conclusion of this season. This is our chance to honor it while it still lives.
  • There was an attempt to be as thorough as possible with opinions coming from a host of different college football fans, but there will probably be something you thought definitely needed to be on the list that won’t appear. We’ll have a whole post at the end of the week where you can vent about the best stuff that was left off. We’re looking forward to that – seriously.

Without further delay, the first half of the top ten:

10) Newton is stronger than Iron

Going into the 2010 Iron Bowl, Alabama had never lost a game when leading by 24 points and Auburn had never won a game when trailing by 24 points. The 9-2 Tide were defending national champions had a 22-game home win streak. When Cam Newton and the No. 2 Tigers arrived, they were greeted by the strains of “Take The Money and Run” and Bama fans throwing fake cash in the air, mocking Newton for the pay-for-play controversy that surrounded him all season.

It looked like a Crimson Tide rout to start, as Alabama led 21-0 before Auburn even had a first down, at one point holding a 314-2 advantage in total yards. But two red zone turnovers from Bama kept the Tigers in it, and after trailing 24-0, Newton started to find his groove. First was a 36-yard touchdown to Emory Blake before the half, then a pair of scores in the third quarter, including a 70-yard toss to Terrell Zachery and a one-yard run. A Tide field goal blunted some of the momentum and made it 27-21 Bama, but early in the fourth Newton connected on a 7-yard strike to Philip Lutzenkirchen for a 28-27 lead. Tide quarterback Greg McElroy (who was paramount in building the early lead, with 335 yards in the first half) was knocked out of the game with a concussion, essentially ending Alabama’s chance at one last miracle rally. The one-point lead held, and Newton bounced around the edge of Bryant-Denny Stadium, celebrating and shushing the crowd that had mocked him all game.

The Tigers went on to defeat South Carolina for the SEC Championship and Oregon for the BCS title. Newton, cleared by the NCAA although not in the court of public opinion, won the Heisman and went first overall in the following spring’s NFL draft. The young quarterback who came in for McElroy but ended the game 0-for-4? A.J. McCarron, who managed to scrap together a rather respectable career.

9) Marathon men

Tony Dorsett’s career rushing mark of 6.082 yards sat peacefully for over two decades, with no competitor even coming with 400 yards of it. In 1998, Ricky Williams was close. The Texas tailback had rushed for 990 yards as a freshman, then 1,272 as a sophomore before posting a ridiculous 1,893 yard, 25-touchdown junior campaign. Going into the Thanksgiving weekend game with rival A&M, Ricky needed only 11 yards to set the record. He did it in style:

Dorsett was on hand to help honor Williams, who finished the game with 259 yards on 44 carries in a 26-24 upset of No. 6 A&M. Williams went on to win the Heisman by what was a historically large margin at the time. Williams’ record of 6,279 yards, however, would hold for less than a year.

Boosted by an absurd freshman season where he ran for 2,109 yards, Wisconsin tailback Ron Dayne was hot on the heels of both Dorsett and Williams. In the second quarter of the regular season finale against Iowa, Dayne still needed 23 yards to break the record when he took a handoff from Brooks Bollinger and ran into the history books:

Dayne rushed for 216 yards on the day, setting a career mark of 6,397, and went on to win the Heisman. What makes both Dayne and Williams’ totals more impressive is that they were playing fewer games than today (only 11) and bowl games weren’t factored in. (If you do count in Dayne’s postseason exploits, his record shoots up to an almost unfathomable 7,125.)

The closest a player in the 21st century has gotten was DeAngelo Williams, who tallied 6,026 yards at Memphis between 2002 and 2005. No active player in college football is within three thousand yards of the record.

8) Vick vs. Warrick

The 2000 Sugar Bowl was a bit of a mismatch on paper. While Virginia Tech was only a 5.5-point underdog to Florida State, the Seminoles had finished in the top five for 12 consecutive years going into the 1999 season, where they were the preseason No. 1. The Hokies program had never finished in the top five, but they did have one potential advantage in a redshirt freshman quarterback named Michael Vick.

The favored Noles jumped out to an early lead, as quarterback Chris Weinke and receiver Peter Warrick helped drive Bobby Bowden’s squad to a 28-7 advantage late in the second quarter. At that point, Vick and the Tech defense started to go to work. Vick was all over the field, tormenting the Seminoles defense, while Bud Foster’s defense kept the Noles off the board. The combined efforts resulted in an electric 22-0 run that gave the underdog Hokies a 29-28 lead going into the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t capture the third quarter magic, as the veteran Weinke connected on two fourth quarter touchdowns for a 46-29 win.

It was a monumental victory for Bowden and the Noles, who had lost two of the last three championship games. They became the first team in the history of the AP Poll to start the season No. 1 and carry that ranking all the way to end. While Vick’s play was transcendent (97 yards rushing a score, along with 225 yards and another touchdown through the air), it was Warrick, with his six catches for 163 yards and two receiving touchdowns along with a 59-yard punt return score that earned Player of the Game honors and the “Sports Illustrated” cover.

7) Tebowmania is going to run wild on you

It’s a shame that the circus that continues to surround Tim Tebow’s NFL career has caused some to forget what a magnificent player he was in college. Consider:

  • He won two national championships at Florida, one as a starter and one as a change-of-pace/short-yardage option behind Chris Leak.
  • He was the first sophomore to win the Heisman, accumulating a staggering 32 passing touchdowns and 23 rushing touchdowns during the 2007 season.
  • Gave “The Promise” speech after a 2008 loss to Ole Miss, which is now on a plaque in Gainesville.
  • The Jump Pass.
  • Went 26-2 as a starter in his junior and senior years.
  • Won the Maxwell Award twice, an achievement recorded by only one other player (Notre Dame’s John Lattner in 1952 and 1953).
  • Three-time Heisman finalist and two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
  • When he exited college, he owned five NCAA, 14 SEC and 28 Florida records.
  • Was considered so wholesome and virtuous that he helped distract from the fact a lot of his teammates were being arrested.

You may be suffering from Tebow fatigue, but blame that on the NFL media, not the Florida quarterback.

6) Bush Push

The Notre Dame/USC rivalry is rare in college sports, as it’s one of the few long-standing annual encounters that doesn’t involve teams that share a state or border. In the early part of the 21st century, the Trojans were simply toying with the Irish, beating them by a combined score of 140-37 between 2002 and 2004. But there was renewed hope for the 2005 match up in South Bend, with Tyrone Willingham gone and Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense lighting up the scoreboards and helping the Irish to a 4-1 start and No. 9 ranking.

“College GameDay” was on hand as Heisman winner Matt Leinart, Heisman favorite Reggie Bush and the Trojans rolled into town, riding a 27-game winning streak. The Irish had a history of ending lengthy win streaks (Oklahoma football’s record 47 straight in the 50’s, UCLA’s incredible 88-game hoops run in the 70’s), but Pete Carroll’s team had their eye on a third straight national title.

Notre Dame’s game plan was to keep the ball away from the powerful Trojan offense, and they succeeded, limiting Southern Cal to just over 21 minutes of possession time. The Irish defense managed to shut down Leinart (zero touchdowns, two picks) and LenDale White (10 carries for 26 yards), but they had no answer for Bush, who racked up 160 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 15 carries. Bush’s third score put USC up 28-24 with five minutes remaining, but Irish quarterback Brady Quinn got the ball back and led a brilliant drive, going 4-for-4 for 53 yards and scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 5-yard rush.

USC got the ball back with 1:58 remaining and went nowhere, setting up a 4th and nine. With Notre Dame Stadium shaking, Leinart completed his biggest pass of the game, finding Dwayne Jarrett streaking down the sideline for a 61-yard completion to the Irish 13. A couple of Bush carries got the ball to the two, but a Leinart sneak was snuffed out. The clock in the stadium hit zero with the scoreboard saying 31-28 ND, so players and fans began to storm the field in celebration. The officials ruled that Leinart had gone out of bounds and put a few seconds back on the clock. Instead of going for a tying field goal attempt and overtime, Carroll elected to go for it. Leinart again went for the sneak and again was stopped short, but this time Bush gave him a shove, pirouetting his quarterback into the end zone for the 34-31 win.

Bush won the Heisman that December, but Southern Cal would fall in the Rose Bowl to Texas. Notre Dame got a small measure of vengeance when the NCAA hit the Trojans with sanctions related to Bush receiving improper benefits, meaning that the 2005 win was technically vacated.

[ Bonus October 15, 2005 fact: The USC/Notre Dame kicked off at 3:30 p.m. ET. Starting at the exact same time was Penn State at Michigan (where Mario Manningham's touchdown as time expired handed the Nittany Lions their only loss of the season) and Louisville at West Virginia (a triple overtime Mountaineers victory that served as the debut of the Pat White/Steve Slaton backfield). Rough day for remotes.]

The top five will post at noon ET.

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