Auburn football has often lived in the shadow of its rival from Alabama. With the Crimson Tide having won the national title in 2009 and opening up the 2010 college football season as the #1 team in the country, there was no reason to think this year would be any different. But it was. In spite of starting the year off the national radar, the Tigers got a historic season from Cam Newton, went undefeated and captured the national championship.
Newton completed 66 percent of his passes, averaged 10.1 yards-per-attempt and his TD-INT ratio was 30/7. As if this weren’t impressive enough, he also ran for nearly 1,500 yards. It seems almost redundant at this point to say that he won the 2010 Heisman Trophy.
Auburn had another 1,000-yard runner in back Michael Dyer and an offensive line anchored by All-American Lee Ziemba. The defense as a unit was a little more pedestrian, but they had a great playmaker in the trenches, with Lombardi Award-winning tackle Nick Fairley.
The Tigers gradually moved into the Top 10 and then squared off with Arkansas on October 16. The Razorbacks were having a big year of their own, led by quarterback Ryan Mallett and running back Knile Davis. The Auburn-Arkansas game saw points aplenty, and the Tigers won 65-43. They were up to #5 in the polls and a week later won a 24-17 decision over sixth-ranked LSU.
Alabama, led by the third-ranked defense in the country, stayed undefeated into early October, but fell from grace with a 35-31 loss to South Carolina. The Tide lost in November to LSU and Thorpe Award-winning defensive back Patrick Peterson.
Auburn was up to #2 in the country by the time the Iron Bowl arrived on Black Friday. The format of the time called for the top two teams to play in the national championship game, which would be held this year in Tempe. Auburn controlled their own destiny.
When they dug themselves a 24-0 hole against the Crimson Tide, it looked like a complete nightmare for Tiger fans. But in what would become known as “The Cam-back”, Auburn roared back and pulled out a 28-24 win. A week later in Atlanta they crushed South Carolina 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn was now ranked #1, and would play for the national title. Arkansas got a bid to the Sugar Bowl. Alabama was, uncharacteristically, left out of the major bowl picture and settled for a Citrus bid.
The Pac-10 had a pair of national contenders. After a decade that had been mostly dominated by Pete Carroll’s USC program, Carroll was gone to the NFL. Oregon and Stanford stepped into the power vacuum.
Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly, had the most potent offense in the country. LaMichael James was an All-American running back, rolling up over 1,700 yards and averaging nearly six a pop. Darron Thomas, a versatile quarterback, added almost 500 yards rushing of his own, while posting a 30-9 TD/INT ratio. The Ducks also played good defense, ranking 12th in the nation in points allowed.
Stanford was coached by Jim Harbaugh and ranked in the top 10 both offensively and defensively. Andrew Luck, in his junior year, had pro scouts salivating with his 71 percent completion rate, 9.0 yards-per-attempt and 32/8 TD-INT ratio. A physical running game was anchored by All-American offensive lineman Chase Beeler, and Stepfan Taylor racked up over 1,100 yards.
In the conference’s signature game on October 2, the Ducks posted an impressive 52-31 win over the Cardinal. Both teams finished the season in the national top 5. Stanford got an Orange Bowl bid. Oregon, at #2, earned the right to play Auburn for the national championship.
Auburn and Oregon weren’t the only undefeated teams. For the second straight season, Gary Patterson’s TCU Horned Frogs ran the table in the regular season. The best defense in the country included All-American defensive back Tejay Johnson. The offense, with future NFL starter Andy Dalton at the controls, and 1,000-yard rusher Ed Wesley, leading the way, was a top-five unit in scoring.
TCU beat a ranked team in Oregon State to start the season. By November, the Horned Frogs were in the top five. In a showdown game against sixth-ranked Utah, TCU delivered a dominating 47-7 win. The Horned Frogs were in the Mountain West at this time, and a potential debate over a major bowl bid existed with undefeated and third-ranked Boise State, then in the WAC. But the Broncos were upset 34-31 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, by Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada. The path was clear for TCU to go to the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten’s race for the Rose Bowl was an exciting three-team affair. Ohio State opened the season at #2 in the country. While this Buckeye team wasn’t as loaded as some of the editions that had come before, or would after, they still had a future NFL starter in Cameron Heyward in the defensive front seven. They had a multi-purpose quarterback in Terrelle Pryor. Ohio State had a balanced receivers’ group with Dane Sanzenbacher and Devier Posey. And they had an 1,100-yard rusher in Dan Herron.
Wisconsin had one of the most dominant running games in the nation. Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi paved the way for both John Clay and James White to rush for 1,000 yards and for Montee Ball to come up just four yards short of the 1K mark. That running game was augmented by the high-percentage passing of Scott Tolzien, and the defense was led by the great J.J. Watt at end.
Michigan State had their own two-pronged rushing attack. Edwin Baker cleared 1,200 yards and future NFL mainstay Le’Veon Bell was just starting to emerge as a change-of-pace back. And speaking of NFL mainstays—Kirk Cousins was at quarterback and giving Sparty a legitimate passing game. The defense, long the hallmark of this program under Mark Dantonio, was anchored by All-American linebacker Greg Jones.
Michigan State drew first blood in the league, when they beat Wisconsin 34-24 in early October, and then followed that up by beating Michigan, 34-17. Ohio State rose to the top of the polls by mid-October, but that ranking did not survive a trip to Camp Randall. Wisconsin posted an impressive 31-18 win. A week later, the Badgers survived a good Iowa team on the road, 31-30. The Hawkeyes did both the Badgers and Buckeyes a solid by pounding the Spartans 37-6.
The end result was a three-way tie atop the standings. This was the last year prior to the existence of the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl to face TCU. Ohio State was ticketed for the Sugar Bowl to play Arkansas. And though Michigan State didn’t get a major bowl bid, they got something almost as good—the chance to play Alabama in the Citrus.
Virginia Tech won the ACC title and its accompanying Orange Bowl bid. The Hokies had a terrific playmaker in the secondary, with Jayron Hosely intercepting nine passes. Tyrod Taylor, with an NFL future ahead of him, was an efficient quarterback. His TD-INT ratio was 24/5, and he ran for 659 yards. The Hokies dropped a non-conference heartbreaker to Boise State, 33-30 on Labor Day night in Washington D.C. But they bounced back. The key win in the regular season was a 31-17 victory over Miami in November, and Virginia Tech sealed the deal by beating Florida State 44-33 in the conference championship game.
Three Big 12 teams, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas started the season in the Top 10, and the conference had the Butkus Award winner in Texas A&M’s Von Miller. But only the Sooners became a real national contender. Ryan Broyles was one of the country’s top receivers, catching 131 passes from Landry Jones and producing over 1,600 yards. Demarco Murray, a future star with the Dallas Cowboys, ran for over 1,200 yards. All-American Quinton Carter led up the defensive secondary. An upset loss to Missouri in October cost OU their hopes of playing for a national title. But they beat Texas, beat then-#10 Oklahoma State, and won the Big 12 title with a 23-20 win over Nebraska.
Oklahoma was Fiesta Bowl-bound to face an unlikely opponent—the University of Connecticut. Jordan Todman led the Huskie offense with nearly 1,700 yards rushing. The key sequence of games started when Connecticut beat West Virginia 16-13 on October 29. Two weeks later, after a bye week, they beat Pitt 30-28. In a year where Connecticut, Pitt, and West Virginia shared first place in the old Big East, that was enough to get the league’s automatic major bowl spot at 8-4.
The bowl undercard had some good matchups. Boise State blew out Utah 26-3 and finished in the top 10. Alabama salvaged some pride by burying Michigan State 49-7 to finish at #10 and set the stage for what would be back-to-back national championship runs.
TCU and Wisconsin played a fantastic Rose Bowl to start the run of the sport’s marquee games. The Horned Frogs preserved a 21-19 win when they stopped a two-point conversion late in the game. That evening in Tempe, Oklahoma took care of business by crushing UConn 48-20.
Stanford made their own major statement when they blasted Virginia Tech 40-12. The victory sent Harbaugh to the NFL and the San Francisco 49ers. Luck would surprise observers by choosing to come back for his senior year. Ohio State knocked off Arkansas 31-26 in a good Sugar Bowl game.
That set the stage for the final battle in Tempe. Auburn and Oregon went back and forth, and the game was tied 19-19 in the closing minutes. Dyer took off on a big 37-yard run that would spark controversy as to whether he was down after just gaining a few yards. The play stood and set up Auburn for a winning field goal. With a 22-19 triumph, Auburn was national champs.
For the fifth straight year, the SEC had won the national championship. Moreover, Auburn was the fourth different conference program to do it in a streak that began in 2006 and would extend through 2012. The era of SEC dominance was well underway and 2010 was Auburn’s turn.