Ohio State has a proud football tradition but coming into the 2002 college football season it had been 34 years since the Buckeyes won a national championship. In one of the sport’s great—and controversial—finishes—Jim Tressel brought the title back to Columbus.
The second-best defense in the country was what led Ohio State. The D had All-Americans in linebacker Matt Wilhelm and defensive back Mike Doss. The offense didn’t blow the scoreboard lights out, but Maurice Clarett was a good running back who rolled up over 1,200 yards. Craig Krenzel was a tough and underrated quarterback whose prime target was Michael Jenkins.
Playing a conservative style, built on defense, means you’ll likely be in a lot of close games. Ohio State was. And having the country’s best kicker in Mike Nugent didn’t hurt. The Buckeyes got a big mid-September win over 10th-ranked Washington State. They narrowly escaped Penn State, and their 2,000-yard rusher Larry Johnson, in late October. The season-ending grudge match with Michigan was a hard-fought 14-9 victory. The Buckeyes finished the season undefeated.
Surprisingly, Ohio State was not the only team in the Big Ten to run the table within the conference. Iowa jumped out, seemingly out of nowhere. Brad Banks was an exciting quarterback who finished second in the Heisman voting. Fred Russell was a 1,200-yard rusher and Maurice Brown a big-play receiver. The Hawkeyes had an All-American tight end in Dallas Clark, a future target for Peyton Manning with the Colts. And Eric Steinbach led the first of Kirk Ferentz’s many vintage offensive lines.
Ohio State and Iowa didn’t play each other, so they shared the Big Ten crown. The difference was that Iowa lost to Iowa State in September. At the time it seemed like a result that mattered only to the local rivalry. But it ended up being the difference between the teams that ranked #2 and #3 in the final regular season rankings. And the system of the time allowed for only the top two teams to play for the national championship. The Fiesta Bowl was hosting the title game this year, so the Buckeyes got the ticket to Tempe.
The Fiesta Bowl bid was seen at the time as simply being the right to lose to Miami. The Hurricanes were the defending national champions, they came into this season as the consensus #1 team in the polls and when Miami rocked sixth-ranked Florida 41-16 on September 7, the ‘Canes were off and running.
Ken Dorsey threw for over 3,300 yards, with future NFL star Andre Johnson as his primary target. Willis McGahee was one of the country’s elite running backs, piling up over 1,700 yards, running behind All-American lineman Brett Romberg.
If the Hurricanes had a weakness, it was that their defense finished #22 nationally—certainly not bad, but not dominant. That became most apparent in 56-45 shootout win over Virginia Tech that completed their undefeated season. But there were other spots where Miami looked a bit vulnerable. They escaped Pitt 28-21. And most notably, their October 12 game with Florida State came down to a last-second field goal. Conjuring up memories of the early 1990s, the Seminoles missed a kick at the end of the game and Miami won 28-27. And in the end, the Hurricanes, vulnerable or not, were headed for the Fiesta Bowl and a chance to repeat.
Florida State had opened the season at #3, but an upset loss to Louisville at the end of September had dropped them to #9 by the Miami game. The ‘Noles also lost to then-undefeated Notre Dame at the end of October. But while FSU would not be a serious national contender, they were still the best in the ACC. With future NFL receiver Anquan Boldin as the prime target, the Seminoles returned to the top of their conference after a down year in 2001 and would be headed back to a major bowl game.
When the regular season opened, Oklahoma was ranked #2, and the Sooners spent much of the year looking like Miami’s likely sparring partner in Tempe. OU had an explosive runner in Quentin Griffin, who ran for over 1,800 yards at a potent 6.6 yards-per-attempt. Defensively, Tommie Harris and Teddy Lehman were All-Americans in the front seven, while Brandon Everage and Derrick Strait led a ballhawking secondary.
But the Big 12 was stacked with good teams at the top. Texas, opening the season at #4, was one of them. Cedric Benson keyed the offense with 1,300 yards rushing, the holes being created by a line led by Derrick Dockery. Roy Williams was a top target for Chris Simms in the passing game.
Statistically, there was no better team in all the land than the Kansas State Wildcats, who finished second nationally on offense and first on defense. Darren Sproles, one day to become one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL, ran for over 1,400 yards. Ell Roberson was a versatile, dual-threat quarterback. In the secondary, Terence Newman won the Thorpe Award as the top defensive back in the country.
Colorado and Nebraska also opened the season in the national top 10, although some bad early losses quickly took them out of competing for anything other than the North Division title.
Oklahoma won the big regular season showdown with Texas, getting a 35-24 victory on that same October 12 afternoon that Miami survived Florida State. The Sooners blew out a surprisingly good Iowa State team. Oklahoma rolled Colorado in early November.
We looked destined for an OU-Miami championship game, something that would have awakened the echoes of the late 1980s, when these programs played big regular season or bowl games for three straight years. But on November 9, the Sooners were stunned by unranked Texas A&M. For good measure, OU lost the Bedlam rivalry game to unranked Oklahoma State
Texas had beaten Kansas State in October and the double losses by OU would have given the Longhorns an opening to reach the conference championship game. But Texas was knocked off by unranked Texas Tech.
When all was said and done, OU, Texas, and Kansas State all finished the regular season in the top 10, but they all—along with their conference brethren—had knocked each other out of the national picture. Oklahoma closed out the conference championship with a 29-7 win over Colorado, which is why the Sooners got a major bowl spot, while the Longhorns and Wildcats settled for matchups on the undercard.
In our own day it seems hard to fathom a world where the SEC not only doesn’t win the national championship but doesn’t even really have a serious contender. But that was the case in 2002. Florida’s early loss to Miami took them out of the running quickly. The Gators turned around and immediately blew out Tennessee, who was ranked #4 in mid-September.
Georgia stepped up. The fourth-ranked defense in the nation was led by strong safety David Pollack, headed for a future in the NFL, and later on ESPN’s Gameday. Musa Smith ran for over 1,300 yards and Terrence Edwards was a 1,000-yard receiver. Georgia beat Alabama 27-25 in early October. The Dawgs knocked off Tennessee 18-13 a week later. Even though Georgia lost the Cocktail Party rivalry game with Florida, the Gators had lost to both Ole Miss and LSU. The Bulldogs won the SEC East and then crushed Alabama in a championship game rematch to win the league title. Georgia was up to #4 in the country when the regular season closed.
Out west, USC and Washington State jousted at the top of the Pac-10. The Trojans had big-time star talent. Carson Palmer was the quarterback, and he won the Heisman Trophy. Troy Polamalu, one day to become one of the NFL’s great strong safeties in Pittsburgh, was an All-American on defense. Mike Williams and Keary Colbert were explosive receivers.
The Trojans lost early to Kansas State, ending any national title hopes. But they delivered October blowouts of ranked teams in Washington and Oregon. In their season-ending rivalry games against UCLA and Notre Dame—both ranked—USC won by a combined score of 96-34. The Trojans were one of the hottest teams in the country going into bowl season.
But one team USC had not beaten was Washington State. The Cougars were led by quarterback Jason Gesser, who threw for over 3,400 yards and 28 touchdowns. Up front, defensive tackle Rien Long won the Outland Trophy. After that mid-September loss to Ohio State, Washington State knocked off USC 30-27 in early October. They got big wins over Arizona State and Oregon. Washington State rose as high as #3 in the polls in late November before a 29-26 loss to Washington in the Apple Cup game relegated the Cougars to sharing the league title with the Trojans. But with the head-to-head win, Washington State was still going to the Rose Bowl.
There were only four major bowl games at this time. After the Ohio State-Miami matchup in the Fiesta Bowl, there were some odd alignments. The Rose Bowl, rather than taking Iowa to replace the Buckeyes, opted to have Oklahoma come up to Pasadena to play Washington State. That created an Iowa-USC matchup—seemingly made for the Rose Bowl—instead, being played in the Orange Bowl. The Georgia-Florida State game in the Sugar Bowl made more logical sense.
As a conference the Big 12 showed its bona fides. On the undercard, Kansas State and Texas both won. Oklahoma dismantled Washington State 35-14 in Pasadena. Georgia beat Florida State 26-13. And USC continued its scorching end to the regular season, by hammering Iowa 38-17. The Bulldogs, Trojans, and Sooners finished 3-4-5 in the final polls, with Texas and K-State right behind.
That left the Battle in Tempe. Back in 1986, Miami had come to this very venue as a heavy favorite against an underappreciated, defense-first team from the Rust Belt. That year, it had been Penn State. This time, it was Tressel’s Ohio State. And the game followed a similar script. The nation watched in shock as the Buckeyes seemed to control much of the game. Then the Hurricanes rallied. Overtime was forced.
In the first overtime, Miami scored on their possession. When a fourth-down pass from Krenzel fell incomplete, it looked like it was over. Hurricane players began to celebrate. Then a very late flag was thrown for pass interference. The call itself was defensible, if controversial. But the lateness of it certainly looked bad. Ohio State tied the game. They won it in the second overtime, 31-24.
The debate over the penalty persists to this day. What also persists is that this is one of those seminal moments in college football history. Not only had Ohio State won a national championship, but after years of lurking in Michigan’s shadow, the Buckeyes began to routinely win conference titles and at least be in the national title hunt. Miami, on the other hand, began to fade from the national scene. Ohio State continues to be in the national conversation to this day. Miami never really has again. No one would have guessed that on a night in the desert that ended the 2002 college football season.