Just a little over ten years ago at this time, the final NCAA BCS rankings were released. At 11-0, The Miami Hurricanes were the only undefeated team and earned the undisputed #1 ranking in each poll. The Oregon Ducks were one of only four one-loss teams at 10-1, and had done everything right other than their difficult, heartbreaking loss at home to Stanford, which also ended Oregon’s short-lived reign as possessing the longest home winning streak in the country.
In the few weeks prior, it had been total chaos surrounding the teams in the upper-rankings. All programs ahead of Oregon in the polls had been defeated. Tennessee fell to two losses after a collapse to Florida, Texas fell to two losses following the Big-12 Title Game where they got stomped by Colorado, Oklahoma fell to two losses by succumbing to arch-rival Oklahoma State n the Bedlam game, and Nebraska had fallen on Thanksgiving weekend to Colorado in a huge upset to disqualify them from winning the Big-12 Title.
Oregon’s run to 10-1 and an undisputed Pac-10 Title was hard-earned through last minute heroics and a never-say-die bravado, admired by every human poll even if they wore those funky uniforms and weren’t steeped in a decades-long tradition of excellence as a premiere program. The pollsters had unanimously voted Oregon #2 nationally, and it appeared every outside shot for the National Championship game had fallen into place for Oregon. The Ducks would be bound for their first ever national championship game, scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl that year, a double-bonus for the Duck players who had come to Eugene with dreams of earning a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Though Oregon was #2, they had to wait until the Bowl Championship Series (purely computer calculations) were released to find out their final bowl destination. As the final figures were released, all throughout Eugene and the state of Oregon folks were outraged to learn that the Nebraska Cornhuskers were Rose Bowl Bound. Not the Ducks. Nebraska was as low as #4 in every human poll, having not even won their conference championship. However, the BCS calculations automatically switched Oregon and Nebraska their spots from the human polls between #2 and #4.
Why? Why should a team that finished third in their own conference be given an opportunity to play in the national championship? It was a logical question, one that was resoundly answered by he human polls, but the computers didn’t listen to the outcry. What made Nebraska more special than Oregon? The Cornhuskers had lost at home to Colorado, getting blown out 63-32 by a team that had started the season by losing to Fresno State and had also lost to Texas in the regular season (before beating them in the Big-12 Title Game to knock the Longhorns out of the title race.)
Instead, Oregon was bound for Tempe, AZ to play Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite having two losses on the year, Colorado had as much buzz as any team in the country following back-to-back weeks defeating Nebraska and Texas to win the Big-12 title. So what if they had two losses, to the media’s eyes Colorado was playing as well as anybody in the nation at the time, and many called for Colorado to be in the national championship rather than Oregon or Nebraska.
Meanwhile amidst all the banter Miami sat back and waited, a team stacked with first round talent, but one that also had experienced its share of close calls. Against Boston College, it took a last second 100-yard pick six interception return by Ed Reed to preserve the victory, and in a game at Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick had led the Hokies to the game-winning touchdown over Miami only to see his tight end let the ball slip through his fingers in the corner of the endzone while being wide open for an easy grab. Miami had escaped, but with the roster of talent on the team, the Hurricanes were considered one of the greatest teams in college football history, an unstoppable force ready to steamroll whomever stood in their way, be it Nebraska or Colorado or Oregon.
ESPN and other news outlets packed Oregon’s practices in preparation for the matchup against Colorado to see what the coaches and players thought of being snubbed. What they got was a quote that they morphed and twisted completely out of context, letting it run rampant spreading like wildfire throughout the media.
“I liken the BCS to a bad disease, like cancer. Not to take anything away from Nebraska or Colorado – they’re great football teams – but one has two losses and the other didn’t win its conference championship. We’re No. 2 in both polls, but those things don’t have a lot of merit, obviously,” said Oregon head Coach Mike Bellotti, whose cancer remark was stated because at the time a close family friend of the Bellotti’s was going through chemotherapy for cancer treatment. In support of their friend, Bellotti had shaved off his trademark moustache in a sign of solidarity.
But the national news media didn’t get the reference. To them Bellotti hadn’t used an analogy, he had said that the BCS system IS cancer, and the news outlets for days ran wild with the story of the bitter coach out west who was pouting over being left out. Bellotti did have a point albeit abstract but understandable in the circumstances, it was something that maybe was wrong but they couldn’t do much about it except play the game they are preparing for. To the media and observers, it was the first gauntlet thrown, billboard material for Colorado to prep and the media to use as proof that Oregon didn’t belong with the rest of them after Colorado presumably ran over the Ducks like they had the Cornhuskers. Simply put, to save face in the media’s eyes, Oregon now HAD to win to be proven legitimate.
The scrutiny had been on the team all season, a backlash had existed from Oregon’s attempts to market the program beyond the state of Oregon. Billboards had been created, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and most outlandish of all one in Times Square New York touting Joey Harrington “Heisman.” The Heisman hype continued all season, but after a subpar performance on national television in brutal weather conditions in the Civil War, Harrington’s Heisman hype waned, he would finish 4th in the Heisman voting. Instead Nebraska QB Eric Crouch took the award, the only time in Heisman history the award intended as a single-season achievement was granted to a player on merits of his career work. Crouch looked downright embarrassed to accept it knowing he did not deserve it, his stats not on par with the other players up for the prestigious title of Heisman Trophy finalist. But his most memorable highlight, a trick-play halfback pass back t him that went for a 50 yard touchdown on national TV replayed over and over with his career stats on screen as if this lone single play was the only reason Crouch was receiving the award. Nebraska had been given the national title shot by the BCS, and now voters had given the Cornhuskers the Heisman Trophy as well. It was clear that voters were putting all their hopes on Nebraska as being the lone team that could perhaps contend with Miami.
However, the 2001 Oregon Duck Football players were far from quitters, and never looked back. The entire team was excited to get to represent the Pac-10 in the Fiesta Bowl. Though the disappointment lingered throughout Oregon during the bowl preparation, the Oregon Football players/coaches knew they had another chance to prove themselves worthy of national recognition if they could only prove themselves in the Fiesta Bowl. The team had in the back of their minds an outside shot to become co-national champions, and used that as motivation to play their best over a tough Colorado team. As the weeks slipped away, Joey Harrington and the rest of the senior class put the rankings behind them and worked hard to lead the team in their preparation for the biggest game in Oregon history. They knew a win over a very tough Colorado team would be huge for Oregon; giving them the chance to prove their national worthiness with a huge win, and even give them an outside shot at being co-national champions.
-TO BE CONTINUED…