The 2006 college football season spent the better part of three months looking like a throwback campaign, with Ohio State and Michigan dominating the headlines. But it ended by ushering in a new era of history. Florida’s ultimate national championship was the first of what would be seven straight years of an SEC team winning it all, beginning an era where the conference went from “one of the best” and often “the best” into the realm of “operating on a different plateau than everyone else.” Meanwhile, a stunning Fiesta Bowl win by Boise State gave the so-called “midmajor teams” a new respect that continues to this day.
Florida was one of three national contenders in the SEC and they were all characterized by tough defenses. The Gators, along with Auburn and LSU, all ranked in the top seven nationally for points allowed. All three were in the Top 10 to begin the season.
Chris Leak was Urban Meyer’s quarterback in Gainesville and Leak played well. A freshman by the name of Tim Tebow also got his share of snaps running out of the wildcat formation. The defense was keyed by All-American defensive back Reggie Nelson and pass-rushing lineman Derrick Harvey.
LSU had a pair of All-Americans on the defensive side of the ball, with tackle Glenn Dorsey and safety LaRon Landry. JaMarcus Russell threw 28 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions in leading the Tiger offense.
An early showdown between Auburn, who had gotten up to #3 in the polls and LSU, showed the role defense would play. Auburn came out with a 7-3 win. But the Tigers stumbled three weeks later in a 27-10 loss to a contending Arkansas team.
Meanwhile, Florida knocked off Tennessee 21-20 in September and got a big 23-10 win over LSU in October. The Gators, up to #2 in the polls, took a hit when they lost to Auburn 27-17 in mid-October. But Florida won out the rest of the way and got back to #4 in the national rankings by the time they met Arkansas for the SEC Championship.
While the SEC jousted, all eyes were focused on the Big Ten. Ohio State was the preseason #1 team and they lived up to their billing. Troy Smith completed 65 percent of his passes, averaging 8.2 yards-per-attempt, had a dazzling 30/6 TD-INT ratio and spread the ball around in a balanced attack. Smith was an easy winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Antonio Pittman ran for over 1,200 yards. Quinn Pitcock was an All-American on the defensive line, as was James Laurinaitis at linebacker. The Buckeyes had a big showdown game on September 9 down in Austin. Texas was the defending national champion and ranked #2. The Longhorns had won up in Columbus the prior year to jumpstart their title run.
But Ohio State got payback in a big way—an easy 24-7 win. And they kept right on rolling. The Buckeyes thumped ranked foes in Penn State and Iowa and were still undefeated and ranked #1 when Michigan came to Columbus on November 18.
The Wolverines didn’t start the season with the same kind of expectations, but a 47-21 blowout win in South Bend, over #2 Notre Dame on September 16, changed perception of the Maize-n-Blue in a hurry. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley was a playmaker, recording 12 sacks and 16 ½ tackles-for-loss, en route to the Lombardi Award. Leon Hall was an All-American in the secondary.
Michael Hart was a tough little runner who rolled up over 1,500 yards running behind All-American Jake Long, a future #1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Chad Henne, also with a pro career in his immediate future, played well at quarterback.
Michigan kept winning and worked their way to #2 in the polls. Their battle with Ohio State was the most-hyped in the long history of this storied rivalry. The winner of this game would punch their ticket to the BCS National Championship Game. The format of the time had only the top two teams playing for the title, outside of the traditional bowl structure.
The game was a shootout, but Ohio State got an early lead and then kept Michigan at arm’s length, ultimately holding on for a 42-39 win. The Buckeyes were going to Tempe to play for a title. The Wolverines were hoping that polls would keep them at #2 and earn a rematch. But that would depend on the events of the final two weeks.
National championship discussion from 2002-08 had to include Pete Carroll’s USC program. The Trojans had won titles in 2003 and 2004 before losing a heartbreaker to Texas the prior year. This year’s team wasn’t as loaded, but they still had 1,000-yard receivers in Steve Smith and All-American Dwayne Jarrett. USC got a nice early-season win over a ranked Nebraska team, 28-10 and were undefeated and up to #3 by late October.
Then the Trojans were stunned by Oregon State, 33-31 and dropped in the polls. USC began working their way back up, methodically dispatching good teams in Oregon and Cal in November, then hammering sixth-ranked Notre Dame 44-24 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. USC”s regular season finale would be against archrival UCLA on December 2, and the Trojans were considered the prime favorite to end up as Ohio State’s opponent in Tempe.
Notre Dame had been overmatched against Michigan and USC and didn’t live up to preseason expectations that had them at #2 in the initial polls. But the Irish still had a good year. Especially Brady Quinn, who threw over 3,400 yards with a 37/7 TD-INT ratio. Jeff Samardzija, a future major league pitcher, was Quinn’s prime target. Darius Walker ran for over 1,200 yards. Notre Dame’s soft defense kept them out of the national elite, but their explosive offense beat everyone else, and the Irish got a Sugar Bowl invite.
If you see a postseason game between Wake Forest and Louisville, it feels like it should be the Sweet 16 of the Southeast Regional in March Madness. But in 2006, that was the matchup in the Orange Bowl. The Cardinals won the Big East, while the Demon Deacons took home the ACC.
In a year where the traditional powers of the ACC weren’t up to snuff, Wake Forest’s good defense was enough to keep them churning along. A key 21-14 win over Boston College in early November was vital to putting Wake in the ACC title game. And their no-offense/good-defense personality delivered them from there, as the Deacons beat Georgia Tech 9-6 to get their major bowl spot.
Louisville did it with a little more pizazz. Brian Brohm was the quarterback and the receiver combination of Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia combined to produce over 2,220 yards. The Cardinals had the fourth-most prolific offense in the country. They knocked off Miami 31-17 in mid-September.
By November, the Big East race was coming down to Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers, the first two both in the top 5 and with a sequence of big Thursday Night games on tap.
Louisville won an electric 44-34 shootout over West Virginia but gave it back a week later with a 28-25 loss to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights then lost badly to unranked Cincinnati on November 18 and re-opened the door for the Cardinals to get the conference’s automatic major bowl bid and ultimate Orange Bowl placement.
Texas had to replace the legendary Vince Young after their national championship run. Freshman quarterback Colt McCoy had been a little too green in the season-opener against Ohio State, but he got settled into what proved to be an outstanding four-year run in Austin. By October, McCoy was leading the Longhorns past Oklahoma 28-10 and by November, Texas was back up to #4 in the polls.
But the Longhorns stumbled and lost twice to unranked teams down the stretch. Oklahoma, with the great Adrian Peterson in his final year as a college running back, was able to swoop back in. The Big 12 was still using division splits and the Sooners snatched the South away from the Longhorns at the wire, then beat North champion Nebraska in the league title game.
Oklahoma was going to the Fiesta Bowl and awaiting them was little Boise State. The Broncos went undefeated with a high-powered offense that ranked second nationally in points scored, dropping nearly 40 a game. Jared Zabransky averaged 9.0 yards-per-attempt. Ian Johnson rushed for over 1,700 yards. On the flip side, Boise State hadn’t beaten anyone of note. There was considerable doubt as to what would happen on New Year’s Night against Oklahoma.
In the meantime, December 2 was when the matter of the #2 team in the nation had to be settled. With everything in front of them, USC blew a game to UCLA and lost 13-9. Michigan’s hopes for a rematch soared. Florida had prime-time to make its case. They beat Darren McFadden’s Arkansas team 38-28. Whether it was that game in particular, or whether voters were just skeptical of leaving out the SEC champ in favor of a Big Ten rematch, Florida got the nod to play Ohio State. Michigan would go to the Rose Bowl to meet USC.
The Cotton Bowl wasn’t in the major bowl structure at this time, but it still provided a venue for the SEC’s best to make a statement. Auburn beat Nebraska 17-14. On the flip side, Wisconsin beat Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl, while Penn State knocked off Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. Big Ten or SEC? That debate would go on into the major bowls.
Big Ten weakness began to show in the Rose Bowl, where USC ran over and around Michigan in a 32-18 game that wasn’t even that close. And SEC made a thumping statement in the Sugar, when LSU blasted Notre Dame 41-14. Louisville beat Wake Forest in a non-descript 24-13 Orange Bowl game.
Then there was the matter of the Fiesta Bowl. It’s quite likely the most famous non-championship bowl game ever played. Boise State went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma, trading blows in a back-and-forth shootout that went to overtime. In OT, Oklahoma led 42-35. Boise State answered with a touchdown and then went for two. The Broncos ran the famous “Statue of Liberty” trick play. Ian Johnson scored. As Boise celebrated, Johnson proposed to his girlfriend. It was a game and a story for the ages.
All that was left was to pick a national champion—or officially crown Ohio State, as the narrative had it. And when Buckeye return man Ted Ginn took the opening kickoff to the house, it looked like the rout might be on. It was—but in reverse. That was about the last thing that went well for Ohio State that night and the last thing that went wrong for any SEC team playing in a national title game for seven years. Florida’s speed took over. In a shocking development, the Gators turned it all completely around and won 41-14.
From 2006-12, Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn would all win at least one national championship. In 2013, Auburn came within a play or two of keeping that streak going. Not until 2014 was a national title settled without an SEC team present—after which, the conference just picked up where they left off. A new era of college football began with Florida’s 2006 national championship.