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BCS Top 50: Best of the era, 5-1

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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 five:

5) So this BCS thing is going to be pretty confusing, huh?

Going into the final weekend of the inaugural BCS regular season in 1998, Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas State all sat undefeated. As the games unfolded, it was as if the college football gods wanted to explain to the mortals that any system they tried to implement would result in chaos, because that’s exactly what we got.

Tennessee was ranked first in the nation and held up their end of the bargain, knocking off Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game behind two fourth quarter touchdown passes from Tee Martin. Their spot in the Fiesta Bowl ensured, and it was just a matter of which team they would play.

BCS No. 2 UCLA was up first, traveling to Miami to play an 8-3 Hurricanes team. Behind 513 yards and five touchdowns from quarterback Cade McNown, UCLA held a 45-42 lead. But the Bruins defense could not get a final stop, allowing Edgerrin James to score from a yard out in the final minute. McNown managed to get down to the Canes 29, but his final pass attempt fell incomplete as time expired, UCLA’s 20-game win streak coming to an end, 49-45. James was a monster on the day, rushing for 299 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries. The Bruins would go on to lose in the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin.

That meant Kansas State, playing in the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas A&M, now had a chance to take on Rocky Top for the first title in school history. As the Wildcats went up 17-3 in the second quarter, their crowd was given another reason to cheer when the UCLA score was announced in the dome. Kansas State could not hold on to their 27-12 fourth quarter lead, a late fumble from Wildcats quarterback Michael Bishop helping A&M tie it up. Bishop almost made amends, his Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation connecting with Everett Burnett, but the receiver was downed at the two-yard line as the clock hit zero.

The two teams traded field goals in the first overtime, and after Kansas State only managed a Martin Gramatica 25-yard kick in the second extra frame, A&M had a shot at the upset. Bill Stewart’s defense was stout, driving the Aggie offense back to the 32 and putting them in a 3rd and 17. Brandon Stewart found Sirr Parker on a quick hit and the A&M running back did the rest of the work, sprinting for the game ending, conference title-winning score.

That left Kansas State, UCLA, Florida State and Ohio State all with one loss, but the computers and voters simply slid the No. 4 Seminoles up two spots, matching them up with Tennessee for the title. The Vols completed their perfect season in the Fiesta Bowl, winning 23-16.

4) Appalachian is hot hot hot

Appalachian State was the two-time defending I-AA national champion when they traveled to Ann Arbor for the 2007 season opener. Even with that pedigree, no one expected them to be able to hang with the No. 5 Wolverines, a team returning seniors Chad Henne, Jake Long and Mike Hart, the core of a squad that had been on the cusp of a BCS title the year before. Besides, a I-AA/FCS team had never defeated a ranked AP team since the divisions were split in 1978. Any sort of upset was so unfathomable Vegas didn’t even put a line on the game. This was also the first live event ever broadcast on the shiny new Big Ten Network.

Michigan moseyed down the field on their first possession, with Hart scoring a touchdown on the sixth play of the drive, but the Wolverines defense wasn’t ready for Mountaineer quarterback Armanti Edwards, who sliced and diced them for four first half touchdowns. Appalachian State led 28-17 at the half, as a confused Big House wondered what exactly was going on.

The second 30 minutes was an exercise on holding on for dear life, as Hart scored twice more, leaving his totals for the day at 23 carries, 188 yards and three touchdowns. His third touchdown – a 54-yarder – put the Wolverines up 32-31, at which point things got really weird. Edwards threw a pick on the first play of the ensuring possession, but the Mountaineer special teams came through in a huge way, blocking a 43-yard field goal attempt. With 1:37 left, Edwards orchestrated one final drive, setting up a 24-yard field goal that put the Mountaineers back in front, 34-32 with 21 seconds to play.

The Mountaineers defense sprung a leak, allowing Mario Manningham to gather in a 46-yard pass that gave the Wolverines a crack at a 37-yard, historic upset-denying field goal. But you know how this ends:

Michigan rebounded after the loss (and another bloody home defeat at the hands of Oregon) to win the Capital One Bowl over Tim Tebow and Florida, sending coach Lloyd Carr to retirement in style. Appalachian State won their third consecutive I-AA championship and became the first I-AA team to receive votes in the final AP poll, finishing 34th. They also won the title of best promotional video for a college, an honor they still hold to this day.

In a move by the Michigan athletic department that is either brilliant or insane, the Mountaineers return to the Big House on August 30, 2014.

3) Boise’s bag of tricks takes on Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson burst on to the college football scene in 2004, hitting the 100-yard mark in his first game on only 16 carries and never really looking back. He ran for nearly 2,000 yards as a freshman and probably would have won the Heisman if he didn’t split votes with teammate Jason White (Peterson finished second behind winner Matt Leinart, White third).

Injuries cost him time his sophomore and junior year seasons, but he was back on the field for Oklahoma’s postseason game to close out the 2006 season, a Fiesta Bowl match up against Boise State. The Broncos were 12-0 in their first season under Chris Petersen and became the first WAC team to play in a BCS game.

Despite being touchdown underdogs, Boise State led most of the way, containing Peterson to 52 yards and a touchdown through regulation while building up a 28-10 third quarter leader. The Sooners worked their way back, eventually tying the game at 28 with a two-point conversion. That is when things somehow got more ridiculous.

On the very next play of the ensuing drive, Broncos quarterback Jared Zabransky threw one of the worst passes you will ever see, an interception to Sooner defensive back Marcus Walker that was promptly returned for a touchdown. In 23 seconds, Boise went from up eight to down seven. Now trailing, Boise’s next drive stalled at the Oklahoma 42, as a sack and pair of incompletions set up fourth and 18. The Broncos countered with your garden-variety hook and lateral 50-yard touchdown, tying the game and sending it to overtime.

On the first play of overtime, the Sooner offensive line cleared a wide path for Peterson, who rolled 25 yards to the end zone for his second score of the game. Facing fourth and two, Boise needed a touchdown to tie, so they turned to another trick play, as wide receiver Vinny Perretta took the snap, sprinted right and delivered a strike to tight end Derek Schouman. Down 42-41, the Broncos decided to go for two. Both fan bases suffered through the anxiety of two time outs before Zabransky pump faked right, waited a beat and handed off to tailback Ian Johnson on a perfect Statue of Liberty play. Johnson cruised into the endzone for the win.

After celebrating with the Boise fans and his teammates, Johnson took the whole thing one step further, proposing to his girlfriend, Boise State head cheerleader Chrissy Popadics. She accepted, and the two married the following July.

2) 2006 Rose Bowl
1) 2003 Fiesta Bowl

When we started talking to college football enthusiasts about this poll, there was no doubt what the top two entries would be. Twice the defending national champ took a 34-game winning streak into the BCS Championship game and twice they were rebuffed in dramatic fashion by a heavy underdog. We’re debating two incredible games, so we will first discuss the greatness of Southern Cal/Texas before making the case for Miami/Ohio State as number one.

Both USC and Texas were undefeated heading into the 2006 Rose Bowl, clearly the two best teams in country with win streaks of 34 and 19, respectively. One backfield featured 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart and 2005 Heisman winner Reggie Bush, while the other featured 2005 Rose Bowl MVP and 2005 Heisman runner-up Vince Young. For some reason, ESPN decided to run a series leading up to the game comparing USC to the greatest teams of all time, despite the fact A) The Trojans still had to play the Horns and B) They were just 7-point favorites over the Big 12 champs.

It looked like the World Wide Leader was correct early, as USC led 7-0 after the first quarter. At that point, Texas got going, a pair of rushing touchdowns earning them to a 16-10 halftime lead. The offenses were warmed up after the break and the stars started to show off why they had been so decorated on the awards circuit. The Trojans scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions after the break, going up 38-26 as the Horns offense tried to keep pace.

But Texas had Vince Young, and just as he had dominated Michigan in the same field the year prior, he started to exert his will on an exhausted and overwhelmed opposing defense. He accounted for all 69 yards on a touchdown drive to make it 38-33, capping it off with a 17-yard run. As the Trojans attempted to ice the game, Pete Carroll was well aware of who would get his hands on the ball if the Horns regained possession. With just over two minutes remaining, he went for it on fourth and 2 from the Texas 45, handing it off to burly tailback LenDale White, who had accumulated 123 yards and three touchdowns on the night.

White needed two yards. He got one. And Texas took over again.

Young got the ball back and did everything one more time, accounting for all all 56 yards of the drive. Facing fourth and five at the USC eight-yard line, the Horns quarterback went out and won himself a championship:

Young’s final numbers on the night? 267 yards passing, 200 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns, while sturdy Texas tight end David Thomas had 10 big catches for 88 yards. On the other side, Leinart threw for 365 yards and a score, Dwayne Jarrett had 10 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown and the Bush/White backfield combined for 301 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.

So how is the Miami/Ohio State game ranked above that epic?

Because the Buckeyes were even bigger underdogs, going against a Hurricanes team that would send a dozen first round picks to the NFL draft. The 2001 Miami team is perhaps the finest team ever assembled, but the 2002 team was no slouch. They had Heisman finalist Ken Dorsey and his 38-1 career record at quarterback. His weapons on offense included Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson and Kellen Winslow II. On the other side of the ball, the Canes had Jonathan Vilma, Antrel Rolle, Sean Taylor, D.J. Williams, Jerome McDougle and Vince Wilfork.

The Canes were favored by 11.5 against an undefeated Buckeyes team that had survived November by the skin of their teeth, winning their final three games by a total of 16 points. Jim Tressel’s squad had leaned all season on an impressive defense, strong special teams and an offense that came through when needed. Against the Canes, that’s exactly the formula they relied on to ground the heavy favorites.

It was not a rosy start for the Buckeyes. After trading punts, Miami rolled down the field for a touchdown, with Dorsey finding Roscoe Parrish for a 25-yard score. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel was picked off by Taylor and it seemed like the rout was on. But the Buckeyes settled down, with safety Mike Doss intercepting Dorsey and setting Ohio State up inside the Miami red zone. It took a Krenzel fourth down sneak to tie it at 7, but they were on the board.

On the next drive, Dorsey was sacked on the first two plays, the second time coughing up the ball. Again given amazing field position by their defense, it took the Buckeyes offense just three plays to score from the Canes 14, a Maurice Clarett touchdown putting them up 14-7 at the half.

Perhaps the most absurd sequence of the game happened in the third quarter, when a Krenzel bomb to Chris Gamble got the Buckeyes down to the Canes six-yard line, but Sean Taylor picked off Krenzel in the end zone. As he was returning it down the left sideline, Clarett made perhaps the best defensive play of the game, ripping the ball away from Taylor and keeping the Ohio State offense on the field. They settled for a Mike Nugent field goal, and now had to protect the improbable 17-7 lead.

A McGahee touchdown made it 17-14, but the Canes’ star tailback would not finish the game. Early in the fourth quarter, McGahee’s knee was turned the wrong way on a hit from Buckeye safety Will Allen (it’s on the internet if you want to find it, but this is not a recommendation), rupturing three ligaments in the tailback’s leg. The two teams traded field goal misses, and Miami looked to get one last shot to tie it up as the Buckeyes were forced to punt (after the officials ruled a Gamble catch incomplete and missed the defensive holding earlier in the route) with less than three minutes remaining.

A 50-yard return from Parrish set the Canes up at the Ohio State 26 and it looked like the upset would be averted, but they couldn’t move the ball against the Buckeye front and settled for a 40-yard field goal attempt. Kicked Todd Sievers was good as time expired, and the game plunged into overtime.

Dorsey and the Canes scored easily to start the session, using a 7-yard scoring grab by Winslow. The Buckeyes’ possession was considerably more dramatic. A penalty and a sack immediately put Krenzel in a fourth and 14, but he found Michael Jenkins along the sideline to convert the first down. Facing another fourth down, Krenzel looked for Gamble in the corner of the endz one, but the ball fell incomplete. The Hurricanes started to storm the field and fireworks began booming in Sun Devil Stadium, but a late flag fluttered in, canceling the celebration. (Terry Porter’s call is still the source of considerable bitterness from Hurricane fans, and it would be wise to not mention it if you’re visiting the Coral Gables area.)

Given an extra life, Krenzel punched it in and pushed the game to a second bonus frame. The Buckeye scored with relative ease, a 5-yard Clarett touchdown giving OSU a 31-24 lead and putting the pressure on Miami. Dorsey converted a fourth and three to Winslow, and after a pair of Buckeye penalties, the Canes had a first and goal from the two. After an incompletion sandwiched between two stuffed runs, the Canes had one more shot at the end zone. Dorsey dropped back for the pass, but was immediately pressured by linebacker Cle Grant. He flung the ball towards the end zone but it fell harmlessly to the ground (with no flags thrown), giving Ohio State the upset win.

The case for a slim Fiesta victory over Rose is as follows:

1) The Fiesta was, according to the spread, a bigger upset by 4.5 points.

2) The Fiesta took two overtimes to decide, which means we got more football, which is great.

3) There is really one truly memorable moment from the Rose, although it’s an amazing one with Young’s game-winning sprint to the end zone. You can make a good case for three from the Fiesta: The McGahee knee injury, the Clarett strip of Taylor and the controversial flag on Sharpe.

4) The Fiesta actually featured a little bit of defense, as the Buckeyes forced five turnovers against an offense loaded with NFL talent and led by a Heisman finalist. While Young’s ridiculous stat line should be featured in football history books for the rest of time, it did come against a USC defense that had its struggles during the season, allowing 415 yards and 28 points to Arizona State, 417 yards and 31 points to Notre Dame and 427 yards and 42 points to Fresno State.

Again, we’re debating shades of awesomeness because these are two of the best games in the history of the sport. Re-watching these games (thank you, YouTube) was an absolute delight, and you can’t go wrong with either.

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