November 18, 2009
Once again we're gobsmacked by the routine passage of time: Ten years has passed like that, and to commemorate the artificially grouped events therein, the Doc Sat team is counting down the best of 2000-09. Today's category: Best sleeper.
Matt Hinton: Oklahoma (2000).
We have the idea now of the Sooners as one of the few true national juggernauts, just as they were for most of the second half of the last century, with seven top-10 finishes and six Big 12 championships in nine years. When Bob Stoops took over in 1999, though, OU was five years removed from its last winning season and more than a decade from its last conference title -- and that was in a different conference, the old Big Eight. Three coaches had come to Norman since the great, irascible Barry Switzer was forced out amid a wave of scandal in 1988, and the third, John Blake, had finished the Sooners' descent to the cellar with a 3-8 debacle in 1998.
In his first year, Stoops doubled that win total to seven and had OU back in a bowl game; in year two, sitting at No. 17 in the preseason, he took Oklahoma on one of the great three-week runs in history with back-to-back-to-back wins over Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska in October -- all by double digits, all over teams that finished the season ranked in the top 12 -- en route to an undefeated regular season, the Big 12 championship and a 13-2 Orange Bowl win over Florida State to clinch the national championship. Stoops hasn't fared as well in three subsequent trips to the BCS title game, but this year's injury-racked slide notwithstanding, Oklahoma's still standing as a powerhouse a decade after his arrival.
Doug Gillett: Wake Forest and Rutgers (2006).
Historically speaking, these two programs were a couple of the doormattiest doormats to ever march onto (or get blown off of) a I-A football field. Only five of Wake's 30 coaches prior to Jim Grobe finished their tenures in Winston-Salem with winning records, while Rutgers had been to only two bowl games in its 137-year history and was 19-39 through Greg Schiano's first five sesasons.
Yet both Deacons and Knights somehow charged to 11-win seasons in '06, the most in either school's history. Wake did so through a combination of luck (five victories by a touchdown or less, including the hilarious 9-6 ACC Championship win over Georgia Tech featuring zero touchdowns) and some very clutch performances by quarterback Riley Skinner, who took over after starter Ben Mauk was lost for the season in the first game. Rutgers ran out to a 9-0 start on the fleet feet of tailback Ray Rice and were ranked as high as No. 7 after their memorable Thursday night upset over eventual Big East champ Louisville. Wake finished with its first conference title since 1970 and an unlikely BCS bid in the Orange Bowl, Rutgers was one overtime at West Virginia from the Big East championship and finished with the highest poll finish (No. 12) in its long history.
Honorable mention: As much as we all like to chortle at Lou Holtz these days, as a Georgia grad I am honor-bound to remind everyone that on Sept. 9, 2000, he led a South Carolina team just off a 21-game losing streak to a 21-10 upset over the Bulldogs, the start of a completely unexpected 8-4 campaign that culminated in a tie for second place in the SEC East and an Outback Bowl drubbing of Ohio State. Yes, Virginia, at one time Sweet Lou knew what he was doing, and a good portion of the SEC (not to mention OSU coach John Cooper, fired after the Outback loss) paid for it.
Chris Brown: Kentucky (2006).
Rich Brooks's first three seasons at Kentucky were nothing short of disastrous, and his future wasn't looking up with a new athletic director looking over Brooks' shoulder. Quarterback Andre Woodson had been a woeful disappointment as a sophomore in 2005 and seemed likely to cede the position to touted redshirt freshman Curtis Pulley. In the opener, BCS-bound Louisville hung over 50 on the 'Cats, and it looked like another can't-wait-until-basketball year in the Bluegrass.
By the end of the year, Kentucky had triumphed in conference wins over Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and upset ranked Georgia, finishing the year with a surprise 28-20 victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl, UK's first bowl win since 1993. As surprising as the 'Cats' 8-5 record was, it was the performance of Andre Woodson that shocked the SEC: Under tutelage of longtime Tennessee assistant Randy Sanders, Woodson morphed into the SEC's leading passer and total offense leader, exploding with 31 touchdown passes (the next year he would throw 40), to just seven interceptions. This year, Kentucky is looking for its fourth straight postseason trip (and win) despite the glaring absence of a quarterback anywhere near Woodson's caliber. Here's to Rich Brooks and to schools being patient: It might have taken the old man a few years to right the ship, but for Kentucky standards (and for fans of the 68-year-old's, uh, throwback personality), it was worth it.
Holly Anderson: Mississippi State (2007).
Hardly world-beaters at 8-5, I know, but the perpetually sad-sack Bulldogs rebounded from a nationally-televised, 45-0 loss to LSU to open the season to upset bowl-bound Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama under first-year coach Nick Saban, and finished with a stunning comeback to beat Ole Miss, end Ed Orgeron's three-year reign over the rival Rebels and snatch a Liberty Bowl berth. The subsequent win in Memphis was MSU's first bowl triumph since 2000, and just listen to Sylvester Croom's postgame comments and tell me your heart doesn't stir a little:
Croom was fired a year later following a 45-0 beating at the hands of rejuvenated Ole Miss and new coach Houston Nutt. But the Bulldogs will always have 10-3 over Central Florida to remember him by.
Honorable mention: Is it too soon to say Temple? After one good loss (Penn State) and one bad loss (Villanova) to open the '09 season, the Owl have rolled to eight straight wins, are undefeated in MAC play, and barring some sort of gargantuan collapse against Kent State or Ohio U. in their last two games, are barreling to a showdown with Central Michigan for the MAC title game.