The 2001 Oregon Ducks entered the season with their eyes set on the same thing that the 2012 Oregon Ducks had their eyes set on — a spot in the national championship. With Heisman hopeful Joey Harrington entering his final season, and Mike Bellotti coming off a 2 loss season and a PAC 10 Championship, a spot in the BCS Championship Game seemed poised to happen.
The Ducks started the season ranked 7th and rose to as high as number 4 in the BCS standings. An all too familiar mid-season loss to the Stanford Cardinals delivered a deadly blow to their national championship hopes, but the Ducks battled back with a strong finish and wins at ranked opponents Washington State and UCLA. Going into the Civil War game against their arch rival Oregon State Beavers, the Ducks still had a chance to reach the title game as a one loss team. The Ducks defeated the Beavers 17-14 and it was all up to the computers to determine who would play the undefeated and stout Miami Hurricanes, led by Ken Dorsey, Andre Johnson, Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, Jeremy Shockey, and the late Sean Taylor.
After defeating the Beavers, the Ducks stood at #2 in both the AP and Coaches’ poll. Standing in their way was two loss Big 12 Championship Colorado, who had just narrowly defeated the Texas Longhorns, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (also of the Big 12), led by Heisman Winner Eric Crouch.
Selection Sunday was a debacle and fans were outraged at the decision to put Nebraska in the title game. Oregon fans felt robbed, as did the Colorado fans. On the other hand, Nebraska fans were full of joy and maybe a little shocked that their team was picked. No one had Nebraska in the championship game. The Big 12 Champions Colorado had just defeated Nebraska 62-36 a week earlier. How could a team that got throttled by a team in their own conference a week prior be placed in the National Championship? The Cornhuskers didn’t even win their conference.
The BCS system had been implemented as a “fix” 3 years prior, and it was already broken. Nebraska lost to Colorado, Colorado had two losses, and the only team that was left was the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks were #2 in both human polls, yet they didn’t receive a spot in the title game? Despite all the protests, it was a done deal that BCS ranked #2 Nebraska (ranked 4th in both human polls), and they would face the feared Miami Hurricanes in the national championship held at the Rose Bowl. The one loss Oregon Ducks (ranked #2 in human polls and #4 by theBCS) would face Big 12 Champion Colorado (ranked #3 in all polls) in the Fiesta Bowl.
Joey Harrington and the back field duo of 1000 yard rusher Onterrio Smith and future Seahawk Maurice Morris stood strong and were ready to compete in the Fiesta Bowl. All the Ducks could hope for was a Nebraska win and a share of the national championship. However, they first had to defeat Colorado to become Fiesta Bowl champions and they not only defeated the Buffaloes, they crushed them. On New Year’s Day 2002 at Sun Devil Stadium, Joey Harrington put on a Heisman-like performance; going 28 for 42, throwing for 350 total yards, and completing 4 touchdowns in the rout of Colorado. After being down 7-0, the Ducks scored 38 consecutive points. Colorado quarterback Bobby Pesavento was picked off three times by Steve Smith. Smith’s three interceptions still remain a Fiesta Bowl record. The score read 38-16 when the clock hit zero. After the game, talk rose of a shared national Championship if Nebraska won the Rose Bowl. Harrington was quoted saying, “Realistically, we can only hope for a share. The way the system is set up, the winner of the Rose Bowl is going to get the coaches’ poll. Who knows who’s going to win that game. If Nebraska does win, I do believe that we deserve a share.” And so it was set — two days later the world would find out whether Nebraska was worthy.