2009 NCAA College Football Top 25: The 2009 Year in Review
2009 ends much like the previous three seasons before it, with an SEC team hoisting the crystal trophy as National Champions. However, I’ve come to a conclusion about the SEC’s dominance in the past four years after taking a good look at their five national champions since 2003. The SEC’s national championships aren’t the byproduct of an all-consuming conference like the national media wants to make us believe, it is the byproduct of two of the greatest coaches in the history of college football: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
Both men are directly responsible for all five national championships. Obviously, Saban coached LSU to the 2003 crown and Alabama to this year’s title. However, he also recruiting the majority of the major contributors on LSU’s 2007 championship team, which won a national title in spite of Les Miles’ coaching mistakes. Despite two losses, the sheer talent assembled by Saban (including 26 seniors!) was enough to garner a national championship.
At this point, with LSU having fallen back to the middle of the SEC pack after struggling the past two years and showing a major inability to properly execute basic aspects of the game like managing the clock, even Tiger fans have to give Saban due: 2007 was his team, led by another coach. Les Miles’ 17-9 record since that national title should be enough evidence to sway any non-biased observer.
Of course, the other two titles that were won by the SEC since then belong to a certain Mr. Meyer and we all know his accomplishments. Remember, Florida was a struggling middle of the pack team that bumbled their way to seven and eight win seasons before he got there, so don’t say that coaching doesn’t matter. Meyer’s nonstop recruiting combined with his incredible coaching ability produced more national titles in his first four years than legend Steve Spurrier managed in over a decade in Gainesville.
In the end, I believe that the massive success that the SEC has had can be attributed to three things: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and a commitment from the conference schools to try to catch up. While I have no doubt about the conference’s quality of play and athletes, the SEC has become the biggest conference name in college football thanks to the accomplishments of Saban and Meyer, who I believe will go down as two of the greatest to ever walk the sidelines.
SIX THINGS WE LEARNED THIS BOWL SEASON
While many people have been debating the merits of the Big East and Mountain West as players on the major college football level, this bowl season has done nothing but bolster their reputations as they posted the top two winning percentages during the postseason. The Big East went 4-2 and split with the SEC and ACC. Meanwhile, the Mountain West won the Bowl Challenge Cup with a 4-1 postseason mark, highlighted by a sweep of the Pac Ten and a dominating win over a ten win Houston team. While both leagues have some work to do at the top of their leagues (both lost in BCS appearances), both leagues deserve respect nationally.
After three seasons of never ending Big Ten bashing, the conference can finally hold its collective head up high going into the long offseason. Ohio State and Iowa both won BCS bowls and the conference’s 4-3 record was highlighted by four wins over AP Top 15 teams. In fact, Big Ten fans are actually somewhat disappointed: Northwestern’s kicking woes cost them a victory (and a head to head sweep against the SEC) in an overtime loss in the Outback bowl and Minnesota lost by one point after fumbling on a potential game-winning drive. In reality, the league was very close to an incredible 6-1 showing! In all, the Big Ten re-asserted themselves as a major player nationally and should be one of the country’s top leagues in 2010.
Before the bowl season, I anointed the Pac Ten as the best league in the country. Well, turns out I was a little hasty. What I should have said was that the Pac Ten’s competitiveness and high-scoring style of play made the league the country’s most exciting. In fact, there’s no disputing that point: The Pac Ten race was completely up for grabs through the final month of the year and every game was downright thrilling.
Unfortunately, I think that the reason that the Pac Ten was so exciting was because USC had a down year, making the rest of the league competitive in comparison. Without the Trojans dominating the West Coast, the league’s best team became the Oregon Ducks, who ended the season with losses the Big Ten and WAC Champions. Ugh. In the end, the Pac Ten was certainly better than their 2-5 bowl record would indicate but it wasn’t the country’s best in 2009.
When you talk about college football powerhouses, two of the first names that almost anyone thinks of are USC and Florida. Going into the bowl season, everyone expected that both schools would continue their dominant runs under their respective head coaches. However, things have changed almost overnight. Urban Meyer will be going on an indefinite absence due to health issues and Pete Carroll has left USC for the Seattle Seahawks.
That takes away two of the elite leaders in college football and has sent shockwaves across the college football landscape. Who will replace Carroll at USC? Did he leave because of impending sanctions from the Reggie Bush mess? How long will it be until Meyer returns (if ever)? What we do know is that two of the country’s elite programs will be experiencing a serious loss of leadership and it is going to be tough to imagine either school continuing their elite status without the men who brought their programs back to glory in the first place.
Despite a season where the SEC boasted two elite teams and a bunch of so-so groups, the league has to go down as 2009’s best. 2-0 in BCS bowls and 6-4 overall, the SEC had yet another strong showing in the postseason and can claim the crystal trophy for the 4 th consecutive year. Their bowl season also was highlighted by victories over the champions of three conferences: The Big East, Big XII and Conference USA. While this year certainly won’t go down as the best season that the league has produced, it was still the best in the country in 2009.
There were three head coaches fired this season whose win-loss record certainly wouldn’t seem indicate that they were in any trouble. Kansas’ Mark Mangino was fired despite taking the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl in 2007. Jim Leavitt was fired from USF after leading the Bulls from their first day of existence to an upper tier Big East team that won bowl games (the Bulls were 8-5 this year). Finally, Mike Leach was fired one year after being named Big XII coach of the year and his release came after Texas Tech’s tenth consecutive bowl season!
What were the transgressions that got coaches whose combined record was 80 games over .500 at schools that aren’t traditional powers? Surprisingly enough, it was mistreatment of players.
Mangino was fired for some extremely insensitive comments about some of his players’ backgrounds in tough environments, purported telling some of his black players that he would send them ‘back to the hood.’ While support from his team was split, Kansas made the decision to move on and Mangino was let go.
Leavitt was fired for supposedly slapping a player for poor effort at halftime of a game earlier this season. After 13 seasons of building the Bulls into a national player, an angry outburst cost him his job. Remember, this is the same guy who led the Bulls to an incredible #2 national ranking at midseason in 2007.
Finally, Leach was fired for his treatment of a player who had suffered a concussion. While Tech’s internal politics also played a major role, the fact of the matter is that the ‘cause’ in his contract for his firing was his decision to ignore given medical advice.
In the end, it seems unlikely that all three schools will be able to continue to have the high level of success that they’ve maintained under their former coaches, but the decision was made to remove their program architects out of concern for the health and well-being of players.
While the days of coaches routinely hitting players in practice is thankfully long gone, this is a clear indicator that the virtual dictatorship that many coaches run will be under increased scrutiny in the coming years and that can only be a good thing for the players who put their bodies on the line every day for their university.
TWO THINGS WE WISH WE HAD LEARNED THIS BOWL SEASON
Show of hands: How many people believed that Texas had a chance to beat Alabama the second Colt McCoy got injured? I hear crickets……… What was really incredible was that despite a first half that went about as badly as possible for the Longhorns, Texas had the ball back with time to drive down the field before Alabama finally made a play to put the game out of reach.
That leaves us with one major unresolved question: Would Texas have beaten Alabama with a fully healthy Colt McCoy? I think that the early events which led to Texas taking a 6-0 lead would probably have resulted in at least one of their first two series ending in a touchdown and I also think that Texas’ defense wouldn’t have been as clearly demoralized as they were in the first half. In fact, I think that Texas came out as the more game-ready team and Alabama had a surprising amount of trouble slowing down a true freshman through the air as the game wore on.
What has also been quite humorous has been watching the talking heads on E! SPiN answer this question. Uniformly, they say ‘Yes’ if they picked Texas before the game and ‘No’ if they picked Alabama! Well, here’s a new take on it: I picked Alabama to win the National Title and I fully believe that Texas would have rode a hot start to a National Championship had McCoy played the entire game. And it is a damn shame that we never got to find out who the better team really was.
This is a question that we will unfortunately never get answered, though I’m inclined to say ‘no’ after a mistake-ridden Fiesta Bowl. Now, I’m a fan of defensive games but only when the defenses actually are the difference-makers. I hate to say it, but the Fiesta Bowl was not one of those games. The reason that TCU and Boise combined to score only 27 points was because both teams made a lot of unforced errors and it was a pretty sloppy game.
But poor execution aside, I’m still really disappointed in the Powers That Be for creating a game that runs counter to the spirit of the BCS expansion. The extra game was added in 2006 to give the little guys a chance to show that they could compete with the elite teams in the country and all we got was the Mid-Major National Championship. I couldn’t be more disappointed.
THE FINAL TOP 25
All year, I’ve done my best to represent a team’s on-field achievements through these rankings. In the end, I’m not subscribing to the ‘Team X would beat Team Y on a neutral field’ thought process. These final rankings represent each team’s accomplishments on the field, especially against difficult competition.
#1)Alabama Crimson Tide (14-0)
Bowl Result: 37-21 Victory versus #2 Texas in the BCS Championship
Alabama is only the 2 nd team to go 14-0 and win the National Championship in the history of college football (Ohio State was the first in 2002). Thanks to a relentless defense and a power running offensive attack, the Crimson Tide deservedly find themselves atop the rankings at the end of the season. Congratulations to the undisputed National Champions.
#2)Texas Longhorns (13-1)
Bowl Result: 37-21 Loss versus #1 Alabama in the BCS Championship
Texas was oh so close to finding themselves in Alabama’s spot. Even after the loss of Colt McCoy early in the game, the Longhorns clawed back to within a field goal late and had possession of the football. While they fell short, this team still had a fantastic season and has nothing to hang their heads about.
#3)Florida Gators (13-1)
Bowl Result: 51-24 Victory versus #3 Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl
Florida’s only blemish was a lost to the National Champions. Not too bad. Even better was their season-finishing shellacking of a very overrated Cincinnati team in the Sugar Bowl. In a way, this season was the end of an era: Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes are graduating and Urban Meyer is about to embark upon a leave of absence that may or may not be permanent due to health issues. Either way, all of the key players from this dominant era went out in style and the Gators were one of the elite teams in America again.
#4)Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2)
Bowl Result: 26-17 Victory versus #7 Oregon in the Rose Bowl
Ohio State slayed the demons of three consecutive BCS bowl losses with a Rose Bowl victory over Oregon. Even better, Terelle Pryor finally became the force that so many people have expected him to be with a dominant performance on the ground and through the air. Ohio State’s season was highlighted by victories against five teams that won ten games this season, setting an NCAA record in the process. 2009 was a fantastic year that could go down as the kick off to two dominant years with Terelle Pryor as an upperclassman. Beware the Buckeyes in 2010.
#5)Boise State Broncos (14-0)
Bowl Result: 17-10 Victory versus #4 Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl
Boise State will go down as the forgotten 14-0 team. The only other two teams in the history of college football that ended up with that mark were crowned national champions. However, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the Broncos because they only played two major opponents this season and the vast majority of their schedule was filled with patsies. If the Broncos want to become a true contender for the national title, they need to play a much more aggressive non-conference schedule and join a tougher league. 2010 is a step in the right direction: Their non-conference schedule includes trips to Virginia Tech and Oregon State.
#6)Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2)
Bowl Result: 24-14 Victory versus #10 Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl
The Hawkeyes truly deserve recognition for an amazing season. Iowa defeated four bowl-bound teams on the road during the regular season and could have ended up undefeated had they not lost quarterback Ricky Stanzi to injury in November. After dominating ACC Champion Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl by holding Tech’s high powered offense to only 155 yards, no one is questioning how good this extremely tough Hawkeye team really was. 2009 might have been the best year during Kirk Ferentz’ hugely successful tenure in Iowa City.
#7)Texas Christian Horned Frogs (12-1)
Bowl Result: 17-10 Loss versus #6 Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl
After a solid regular season that saw the Horned Frogs largely dominate on both sides of the football, their showing in the Fiesta Bowl has to be extremely disappointing. The Frogs looked really nervous in the first half and couldn’t get anything going on offense all game in their loss against Boise State. In the end, this season will be remembered fondly in Forth Worth once the pain from their Fiesta Bowl loss wears off. TCU is certainly not a flash in the pan and should be a player in 2010 as well.
#8)Cincinnati Bearcats (12-1)
Bowl Result: 51-24 Loss versus #5 Florida in the Sugar Bowl
After living on the edge for the last month of the season, Cincinnati’s terrible defense finally ate them alive in the Sugar Bowl. Florida ripped the overmatched Bearcat defense for 51 points and anyone who watched this game could see the enormous athletic difference between the two teams on the field. While the Bearcats were at a major disadvantage without Brian Kelly, the simple truth is that they weren’t going to beat the Gators anyways. Still, there is no doubt that 2009 was the best season in Cincinnati history thanks to an undefeated regular season. Can the Bearcats continue their success without Brian Kelly?
#9) Penn State Nittany Lions (11-2)
Bowl Result: 19-17 Victory versus #15 Louisiana State in the Capital One Bowl
Penn State had struggled in its two previous showings against top opponents but the Nittany Lions stepped up to the table in the Capital One Bowl and defeated LSU. Penn State’s defense was excellent all year long and their offense was enough to lead them to their 2 nd consecutive 11 win season. Since coming out of a two year slump in 2005, Penn State is 51-13 with a 4-1 bowl record. That’s really impressive. Joe Paterno’s golden years have been very good to Penn State football.
#10) Oregon Ducks (10-3)
Bowl Result: 26-17 Loss versus #8 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl
Oregon rebounded in major way from their season-opening debacle at Boise State and earned their first Pac Ten Championship in a decade. The Ducks were driven by an explosive offense that wasn’t slowed down until they ran into Ohio State’s powerful defense in the Rose Bowl. Despite the loss, Chip Kelly’s first season was an unqualified success and the Ducks appear to have the pieces in place for a success extended run in the Pac Ten.
#11) Pittsburgh Panthers (10-3)
Bowl Result: 19-17 Victory versus North Carolina in the Car Care Bowl
Pittsburgh was a big concern heading into the postseason after losing their final two regular season games and falling from the BCS all the way to the Car Care Bowl. However, Pitt showed up to play and rode freshman Dion Lewis on a long drive for a last minute game-winning field goal. Pittsburgh was also a young team this year and should build off of their first ten win season in nearly three decades next fall as one of the top contenders for the Big East.
#12) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (11-3)
Bowl Result: 24-14 Loss versus #9 Iowa in the Orange Bowl
The season might not have ended the way that the Tech faithful would have hoped but the Yellow Jackets will still go down in the record books as the 2009 ACC Champions. Georgia Tech played a solid non-conference schedule and rode a great rushing attack to the best season since the school’s national championship in 1990.
#13) Virginia Tech Hokies (10-3)
Bowl Result: 37-14 Victory versus Tennessee in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl
While the Hokies fell short of the ACC crown this season, they won ten games for the 6 th consecutive season thanks to a dominant blowout victory against Tennessee in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. Expect this young team to be a force in 2010 with so much talent returning, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
#14) Wisconsin Badgers (10-3)
Bowl Result: 20-14 Victory versus #14 Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl
Remember in the preseason when people thought that Brett Bielema might be in trouble as Wisconsin’s head coach if they didn’t have a great season? Well, Bielema produced his best year since his 12-1 debut in 2006 and the Badgers capped off their resurgence with a physically dominating victory against the Miami Hurricanes. This young team will have legitimate Big Ten Championship dreams next season and tailback John Clay should be an early favorite for the Heisman.
#15) Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-4)
Bowl Result: 33-0 Victory versus #20 Arizona in the Holiday Bowl
The Blackshirts are back. Nebraska boasted the country’s most dominant defensive line, led by superstar tackle Ndamakung Suh and finished the season with a top 5 defense. This was the classic example of a team that got better as the season wore on and the Cornhuskers capped off a successful year with a 33-0 blasting of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. The Huskers are officially going to be a major player in the Big XII next year.
#16) Central Michigan Chippewas (12-2)
Bowl Result: 44-41 Victory in Double Overtime versus Troy in the GMAC Bowl
You don’t often see MAC teams ranked in the top 25 at the end of the season. However, Central Michigan had an exceptional year, highlighted by a victory at Michigan State, an undefeated mark in the MAC and a double overtime victory over Sun Belt Champion Troy to cap off of the year. CMU is one of only seven teams to win 12 games this season.
#17) Miami Hurricanes (9-4)
Bowl Result: 20-14 Loss versus #16 Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl
Miami is another team that returned to the national consciousness in 2009, putting together Randy Shannon’s best season. The brightest spot on their team had to be the play of quarterback Jacory Harris, who showed the ability to be a top quarterback. While Miami was physically dominated by Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, they should be one of the favorites heading into the 2010 season thanks to a very young team that brings nearly everyone back.
#18) Southern California Trojans (9-4)
Bowl Result: 23-14 Victory versus Boston College in the Emerald Bowl
Pete Carroll’s final season as the USC head coach turned out to be a bit of a rebuilding year. With a true freshman quarterback, the Trojans did quite well to win on the road early at Ohio State and close the year with an Emerald Bowl victory. The big question now is: Where does USC go after losing one of the greatest coaches in college football to the NFL?
#19) Ole Miss Rebels (9-4)
Bowl Result: 21-7 Victory versus #18 Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl
Much like SEC West rival LSU, Ole Miss fell short of preseason expectations. The Rebels were many people’s favorites in the West heading into the year but a stop and start type of season resulted in only eight wins. However, the Rebels emerged victorious in the Cotton Bowl thanks to six 4 th quarter turnovers by Oklahoma State and allowed Houston Nutt to post his 2 nd consecutive 9-4 record.
#20) Louisiana State Tigers (9-4)
Bowl Result: 19-17 Loss versus #11 Penn State in the Capital One Bowl
It is tough to say that a season is disappointing when you win nine games but the fact of the matter is that LSU didn’t defeat a single team this season that finished with more than eight wins. Since winning the 2007 National title with Nick Saban’s recruits, Les Miles has underwhelmed with a 17-9 record and zero signature wins. LSU needs to prove itself next season or the natives will be getting restless with their polarizing head coach.
#21) Brigham Young Cougars (11-2)
Bowl Result: 44-20 Victory versus #24 Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl
The Cougars had another exceptional season, beginning with a shocking upset over Oklahoma and finishing with a blowout victory over ranked Oregon State in Sin City. The Cougars were 2-1 against BCS conference opponents and most importantly, they defeated archrival Utah to close out the regular season.
#22) Utah Utes (10-3)
Bowl Result: 37-27 Victory versus California in the Poinsettia Bowl
Speaking of Utah, the Utes had a very strong season, capped off by a victory over Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. Utah won 10 games for the second consecutive year and their bowl victory was the 5 th straight under Kyle Whittingham. Utah is very deserving of a top 25 finish in 2009.
#23)Navy Midshipmen (10-4)
Bowl Result: 35-13 Victory versus Missouri in the Texas Bowl
Navy has been a consistently strong team for the better part of the last decade but their run has only produced one final top 25 ranking, way back in 2004. That changes now after they posted their 2 nd ten win season since former coach Paul Johnson began their renaissance in 2003. Navy won their 2 nd consecutive game at Notre Dame and capped their ten win season with a victory over Missouri in the Texas Bowl. If the Big East was smart, it would be looking at Annapolis the next time it looks to expand.
#24) Texas Tech Red Raiders (9-4)
Bowl Result: 41-31 Victory versus Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl
Despite the upheaval surrounding the firing of coach Mike Leach, Texas Tech rallied against Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl to finish the season with nine wins. The Red Raiders’ season was highlighted by a dominant victory over Oklahoma and the 10 th and final season under Leach was yet another successful year. While I was concerned about their future, the hiring of former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville should ensure Tech’s position as a contender in the Big XII for years to come.
#25) West Virginia Mountaineers (9-4)
Bowl Result: 33-21 Loss versus Florida State
The Mountaineers had the toughest matchup of the postseason: They had to face Florida State in Bobby Bowden’s final game. It really wasn’t a shocker that West Virginia lost because the Seminoles simply weren’t going to lose in their legend’s last outing. That said, it was still a successful season for WVU, highlighted by a victory over archrival Pitt on Senior Day. West Virginia seems firmly entrenched as a consistent winner under Bill Stewart.
THE CONFERENCE RUNDOWN
As always, the major topic of discussion for the eternally long offseason will revolve around conference strength. While the ‘My Conference is Better Than Yours!’ argument can get tiring, it has also become a very important part in picking the participants in the national championship game. And the best conference in 2009 is………..
AND FINALLY…….A LOOK TOWARDS 2010
While any look towards next season is by definition premature, every college football fan is already hopeful that their team will cap off the 2010 season by dethroning Alabama atop the national scene. Remember, college football has a ton of turnover due to graduation and things can look very different from year to year. However, entering 2010 there is going to be a very familiar face at the top……….
By Matt Baxendell
Bax is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell