The race for college football’s national championship boiled down to picking two teams after the regular season to play in a pre-determined bowl game. In the 2001 college football season, the Rose was the showcase event. And the race for those two spots took place on two distinct tracks. The race for #2 was wild and chaotic, particularly over the final two weeks. And the race for #1? It was marked by stability and dominance. The Miami Hurricanes rolled into Pasadena and then rolled right out with a championship trophy, producing a season that’s on the short list in any discussion of the best of all-time.
Miami’s defense was the best in the nation and led by a future NFL Hall of Fame defensive back in Ed Reed. The offense ranked third nationally. Clinton Portis ran for over 1,200 yards. Quarterback Ken Dorsey spread the ball around with a balanced receiving corps that included future NFL stars in Andre Johnson and Jeremy Shockey. Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie won the Outland Trophy. Up and down the lineup, these ‘Canes were loaded.
The Hurricanes opened the season ranked #2 in the polls. They hammered their traditional rival, Florida State, 49-27 in October. Miami rolled a decent Syracuse team that had Dwight Freeney at defensive end, 59-zip in November. The ‘Canes were ranked #1 and riding high as the calendar reached Thanksgiving and the final tests arrived.
In the pursuit of the other spot in Pasadena, four different teams in the Big 12 all had serious chances. Oklahoma was the defending national champion and ranked #3 in the preseason polls. The Sooners had the nation’s second-best defense and swept the key awards on this side of the ball. Rocky Calmus won the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in the country, and Roy Williams took home the Thorpe Award, for defensive backs.
Texas was ranked #5 in the preseason polls. They had their own Roy Williams, this one a receiver who would become a first-round draft pick. Cedric Benson ran for over 1,000 yards. Chris Simms, the son of former New York Giants quarterback and CBS game analyst Phil Simms, was behind center. Defensively, Quentin Jammer was an All-American in the secondary.
Oklahoma and Texas played their annual Red River Rivalry game on October 6 and the Sooner defense prevailed, 14-3. In an era when the Big 12 was split into North and South divisions, this game gave OU a leg up in the race for the South.
Up north, Nebraska had big expectations of their own. The Cornhuskers were ranked #4 to open the year. They had a versatile quarterback in Eric Crouch. With over 1,500 yards passing and over 1,100 more rushing, Crouch won the Heisman Trophy. The running game got further support from Dahrran Diedrick, who racked up nearly 1,300 yards running behind All-American offensive tackle Toniu Fonoti.
Oklahoma and Nebraska were both undefeated and ranked 2-3 in the polls when they met on October 27. The Cornhuskers won 20-10. It was the win that put Crouch ahead to stay in the Heisman race. And it put Nebraska in the driver’s seat to make it to Pasadena.
For much of the season, Colorado lurked below the surface. Gary Barnett’s team had a balanced running game, the best tight end in the country with Daniel Graham, and an All-American up front in Andre Gurode. The Buffs got a nice 31-25 win over Texas A&M in October, a battle of ranked teams. But a week later, Colorado was hammered, 41-7 by Texas. The Buffaloes didn’t look to be on a level with the conference’s best. But they still had a path—their Black Friday game with Nebraska would decide the North Division.
The SEC was also a part of the maneuvering for #2. In fact, Florida opened the season at the top of the polls. The Gators had the most prolific offense in the nation. Rex Grossman completed 65 percent of his passes, throwing for almost 3,900 yards and 39 touchdowns. He had big-time receivers in Reche Caldwell and All-American Jabar Gaffney. Florida had great talent in the trenches, Mike Pearson on offense and Alex Brown on defense.
The Gators made an early statement by blowing out ranked Mississippi State, 52-0 in September. They destroyed LSU 44-15 a week later. They beat Georgia 24-10 and crushed Lou Holtz’s South Carolina team 54-17. Only a 23-20 loss to Auburn in mid-October marred their record. But when the Gators pummeled Florida State 37-13, they went into Thanksgiving weekend very much alive for both the SEC and national titles.
Tennessee was in the hunt at both the conference and national level themselves. Travis Stephens was one of the nation’s top running backs, rolling up over 1,400 yards. Kelley Washington and Donte’ Stallworth were a good 1-2 receiving combo for quarterback Casey Clausen. John Henderson was an All-American at defensive tackle.
The Vols opened the season at #8 and also beat LSU and South Carolina. Normally, the Tennessee-Florida game would have been played in September and had the SEC East all but settled as we turned the corner into Thanksgiving. But the tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks had postponed early season games and Vols-Gators would take place at the end of the year rather than the beginning.
LSU was awaiting the winner. The Tigers had a big-time receiver in Josh Reed. But they weren’t in the national title mix and it seemed they would be out of their league in the SEC Championship Game. Although this up-and-coming head coach named Nick Saban certainly looked promising.
Oregon was staking their own claim out west. The Ducks opened the season ranked #7 and were led by quarterback Joey Harrington. With a 27-6 TD/INT ratio, and a 59 percent completion rate, Harrington was on his way to being a high pick in the NFL draft. He got support from Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, each of whom went over the 1,000-yard mark rushing. Oregon got close wins over Washington State in October and UCLA in November. They sewed up the Pac-10 title and were one of the one-loss hopefuls angling for the #2 spot in the polls.
The Big Ten and the ACC did not have national title contenders, but they had nice stories. Illinois, with future NFL receiver Brandon Lloyd, stepped up and won the conference title. Maryland did the same, led by over 1,200 yards rushing from Bruce Perry and All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson. Oddly, both the Illini and Terps lost what might be considered their signature conference game—Illinois to Michigan, and Maryland to Florida State. But they won everywhere else and were going to be headed for major bowl games.
What major bowl games everyone was headed to would be dependent on what happened over Thanksgiving weekend, and then over two weeks in December. And on Black Friday, the chaos started.
Colorado beating Nebraska constituted a surprise. What was stunning was the complete demolition the Buffs put on the Huskers. The final score was 62-36, with the Colorado offense doing most anything it wanted. With Nebraska’s loss, the #2 spot was open for taking.
Later that afternoon the Big 12 continued delivering shocks. Oklahoma, sitting at #4, was upset by Oklahoma State 16-13 in the Bedlam rivalry. A Big 12 Championship Game that looked certain to be an Oklahoma-Nebraska rematch, possibly with the Rose Bowl at stake, was now a Colorado-Texas rematch—and no one knew exactly what would be at stake.
As for Miami? The Hurricanes took on 12th-ranked Washington and blasted the Huskies 65-7.
Florida was now #2 and had the first chance to step into the new vacuum at the top. They had Tennessee at home in a rivalry that the Gators usually owned. But not this time. The Vols won a shootout, 34-32.
Now, Texas, who was #3, had the door open. Later that night, they lost a 39-37 shootout with Colorado. The Buffaloes, with two losses, were, quite improbably, the champions of the Big 12 and the primary author of all this chaos.
As for Miami? The Hurricanes got a stiff test from a good Virginia Tech team. But Miami survived, 26-24, and clinched their Rose Bowl ticket.
Tennessee was now on the clock. The Vols were #2 and only #21 LSU in their way on December 8. Naturally, Tennessee lost, 31-20.
The chaos was complete. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee had all blown chances at keeping this simple.
So, who would be Miami’s opponent? Oregon held the 2-spot in the AP poll. Colorado had a lot of public sentiment behind them, the way they finished the season. But the system of the time used a complex computer algorithm to create the rankings—and the rankings could not be deviated from.
The computers spit out…Nebraska. Suffice it to say, this was not a result that left anyone pleased. The AP reserved the right to crown its own champion, and with Oregon-Colorado paired up in the Fiesta Bowl, there was speculation that the writers’ poll might rebel in the event the Cornhuskers upset the mighty Hurricanes.
In the run-up to the Rose Bowl, a lot of the teams that had missed chances took their opportunity to make amends. Texas went to the Holiday Bowl and won a shootout with Washington. Oklahoma headed for the Cotton Bowl and won a defensive struggle over Arkansas. Tennessee blew out Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Florida crushed Maryland in the Orange Bowl. LSU knocked off Illinois in the Sugar Bowl.
The Fiesta Bowl saw Oregon make a major statement. The Ducks hammered Colorado, 38-16. But would it matter for the national championship?
As for Miami…the Hurricanes really took care of business in the Rose Bowl. The final score was 37-14 and even that doesn’t really convey what a mismatch this was. It was 34-0 by halftime. Miam called off the dogs, spent the second half celebrating, and took home the national championship.
The process of picking a #2 team left everyone unsatisfied. But the biggest takeaway from the 2001 college football season is that it really didn’t matter—Miami was, by far, the best in the land. And one of the best of all-time.