Dec. 2, 2004
By Brian Curtis
Senior Editor, CSTV
Preseason expectations can set teams up for success (USC), and also for failure (Missouri). Some players carried the burden of attention gracefully and with distinction (Arizona State's Andrew Walter) while others could not, or did not, live up to the hype (Kansas State's Darren Sproles). I don't really blame the teams and players. I mean, really, it's us in the media who create all of those preseason poll rankings, All-American and Heisman candidate lists and jump on the bandwagons so early.
The following are my thumbs up award winners for the 2004 season and a brief peek ahead to 2005.
As of this writing, the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the nation has yet to lose and has only been in a handful of close games. Just when the loss of Mike Williams before the first game looked devastating, Pete Carroll and his staff simple found new guys to step up. Matt Leinart has played exceptionally under center, and his performance against Notre Dame was Heisman-worthy. Reggie Bush electrified crowds; Shaun Cody stopped anything coming his way; Dwayne Jarrett made Trojan fans ask, "Mike Who?" In two days we will know if USC is indeed, perfect, as they book their trip to Miami. Sure, they're loaded, but running the table against teams like Cal, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, is not easy. Keep this in mind: USC has won 20 straight games and is 23-1 the last two seasons.
The start of the season for the defending BCS champions was not pretty. They escaped a mediocre Oregon State team only because the OSU kicker couldn't hit an extra point. They did not look dominating early on as they rotated Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell at quarterback. They traveled to Auburn and lost by one point on a controversial and rarely seen penalty call on a jumping kick-blocker. Their only big loss came at the hands of Georgia, who routed the Tigers in October in Athens, 45-16. Still, Saban led LSU to a 9-2 record, including a stunning comeback on the road at Florida. They have lost just one more game than last year, when they were many people's darlings. They've quietly gone about winning.(As a fair disclaimer, I must tell you that Nick Saban and I co-authored a book that will be released next month, but any objective journalist would admit Saban has done a tremendous job.)
There were a lot of worried people in the Big Ten offices at the start of the season, as the conference introduced instant replay as a one-year experiment. Independent officials upstairs in the booth were the only ones that could stop a game to review plays. After some initial kinks, the system appears to have worked, and despite pessimists, the games were not slowed by much and were not decided by instant replay. Coaches and athletics directors in the Big Ten liked the use of replay this year, and we may see it again soon.
They not only boast the top team in the nation, but they also have the No. 4 team in one-loss Cal. In fact, the Bears only loss came to the No. 1 team. If Auburn and Oklahoma fail in their remaining game, it's conceivable that USC and Cal could meet for the national title. Add in Arizona State, which rebounded from a dismal 5-7 in 2003 to a respectable 8-3 in 2004, and the conference had three legitimate programs. UCLA is on the upswing, Washington will win again and Mike Stoops has Arizona going the right way. And remember this: despite what I originally thought, stats guru Jeff Sagarin actually rates the PAC-10 as the toughest conference in the country, with the mighty SEC coming in at sixth.
Let me get this straight. Last year, in the middle of the season, the Auburn president and athletic director secretly met with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about taking over for Tuberville. The plan costs both men their jobs and Tuberville is the one left standing. Not only that, his Tigers haven't lost since last year. They upgraded their defense, got excellent play out of QB Jason Campbell and rode the backs of Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams to an undefeated season. Along the way, they went into Knoxville and beat a very good Tennessee team, nipped LSU as time expired and manhandled a tough Georgia team late in the season. The SEC is a strong conference and it is rare that any team runs the table. Auburn did it. They still must beat the Vols again on Saturday to have a shot at the Orange Bowl, but regardless of how they finish, Tuberville deserves a lot of credit.
Bobby Ross and Paul Johnson
Many questioned the sanity of the 67-year old Ross when he returned to the sidelines at West Point, a place that hasn't won many football games lately, including none last season. Not only did the Cadets stop that streak, they posted multiple wins this year, more than anyone could have imagined and things look bright for 2005. All Johnson did was lead the Midshipmen to a 5-0 start and an 8-3 season overall, with bowl executives offering everything but the kitchen sink. Navy was just 1-11 two years ago. Ross and Johnson have done remarkable jobs in places where winning is not easy and the young men they coach have more to worry about than Saturday's opponent.
It's been a very long time since the college game saw a freshman with the running ability of Peterson. Touted as the nation's top recruit, the youngster did not disappoint. He ran for over 100 yards in ten games and rushed for over 200 in four. And he did this on a team with a solid running back, Kejuan Jones, a Heisman winner at quarterback, Jason White, and a slew of talented receivers. He also ran through some strong defenses, including Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. He probably won't win the Heisman next week in New York, but he will surely get a ton of votes. And imagine next year.
Some other thumbs up winners...
John Stocco (Wisconsin/QB) who stepped up big-time in leading the Badgers to a 9-0 start
Karl Dorrell (UCLA) earned a contract extension this year with a very good season
Boston College despite their collapse against Syracuse, the Eagles won eight games, will head to a high-level bowl game and graduated 100% of their players
Ron Zook (Florida) He showed class and heart in completing the season and beating rival Florida State on the way
South Carolina Steve Spurrier may not win them a title, but you can be assured they'll get a lot more media coverage
Pat Tillman (ASU) May he rest in peace
Urban Meyer (Utah) Going undefeated in any conference is not easy; BCS buster guy
Boise State They just keep winning, and winning, and winning...
Chris Low (Reporter, Tennessean) broke the Spurrier to SC story
And looking ahead to 2005, my very early Top 5 teams:
Brian Curtis will serve as an analyst and insider in all of CSTV's football programming and is CSTV's Senior Editor. To ask Brian a question or comment on his column, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Brian's latest insiders' book,Every Week A Season, on sale now at all major bookstores and online.
Brian's previous column: Breakign Down the Coaching Carousel.