The SEC’s dominance of college football was in full-swing, with the conference having won five straight national titles with four different schools. The 2011 college football season took that to a new level—the SEC swept both spots in what was then a simple two-team national championship game. In the end, Alabama captured the second title of the Nick Saban Era.
Alabama did with the nation’s best defense. The Tide had All-Americans at linebacker with Don’t’a Hightower, and defensive back with Mark Barron. A potent running game saw Trent Richardson roll up nearly 1,700 yards and average almost six yards per carry. The offensive line was anchored by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones. A.J. McCarron was basically a system quarterback, but he didn’t need to be much more than that.
LSU was built around a similar profile. The Tiger defense ranked second in the nation, and their excellence was built on a great secondary. Morris Claiborne won the Thorpe Award, and Tyrann Mathieu was an All-American. The great LSU defense carried an offense that used a quarterback tandem of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson.
The Tigers made the season’s first big splash. Opening at #4 in the polls, they played a Labor Day Weekend showdown with third-ranked Oregon. LSU won 40-27. A week later Alabama, ranked #2 in the preseason polls, easily handled Penn State. The powers-that-be in the SEC were off and running
The SEC had more than a few quality challengers to the behemoths of the Western Division, and they were led by Arkansas. Bobby Petrino’s wide-open offense produced an 1,100-yard receiver in Jarius Wright. While the Hog defense wasn’t great, they had playmakers—Alonzo Highsmith Jr., Jake Bequette and Jerry Franklin all had double-digit sacks. Tramain Thomas intercepted five passes.
But Alabama and LSU were on a different level. The Tide blew out Arkansas 38-14 at the end of September. Alabama rolled 12th-ranked Florida 38-10 a week later. LSU kept pace. They won another big non-conference game against 16th-ranked West Virginia, 47-21. LSU blew past Florida 41-11.
The stage was set for a prime-time showdown on November 5. LSU was #1 and Alabama was #2. It was expected to be a defensive game, and that’s exactly what transpired. No one got in the end zone. The Tiger kicking game was a little bit better. They won 9-6 on the road.
LSU still had work to do. Arkansas rose as high as #3 in the polls, until the Tigers handed the Hogs a 41-17 beatdown on the Friday after Thanksgiving. LSU then rolled Georgia 42-10 in the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers were an easy choice for what was then called the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) National Championship Game.
And Alabama? Well, the Tide didn’t sink very far in the polls, and they got a little help in the form of some upsets. They were able to rise back to #2 in the final rankings. That earned them the spot opposite LSU in New Orleans to play for the national championship.
Oklahoma State came closer than anyone to interrupting the SEC power play. The Cowboys did it with an explosive offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring. Brandon Weeden completed 72 percent of his passes and racked up over 4,700 yards. Justin Blackmon was an All-American receiver, catching 122 balls for over 1,500 yards. Joseph Randle cleared the 1,200-yard mark rushing, and the offensive line was led by All-American Levy Adcock.
The Cowboys were ranked #9 in the preseason polls. Texas A&M, then in the Big 12, was another Top 10 team in the early going. Oklahoma State nipped the Aggies 30-29 in September.
Oklahoma had been the nation’s preseason #1. The high-octane Sooner passing game had Landry Jones throwing to All-American Ryan Broyles. OU looked the part early on. They beat then-#5 Florida State 23-13 in September. The Sooners blew out Texas 55-17 in October. But they stumbled against unranked Texas Tech on October 22, and fell from the national championship race.
Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State team kept rising. They beat Texas 38-22. The Cowboys blew out Baylor and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. Okie State outgunned ranked Kansas State 52-45. After Alabama’s loss to LSU, it was Oklahoma State that moved to #2 in the country.
Then, disaster struck. In a Friday night game against unranked Iowa State, the Cowboys lost 37-31. The national championship dream died in Ames. Oklahoma State still bounced back to blow out Oklahoma 44-10 in the Bedlam Rivalry game and claimed the Big 12 title. They would head to the Fiesta Bowl.
The Pac-12 had seen both Stanford and Oregon reach major bowl games in 2010. The Cardinal and Ducks were both among the nation’s elite again this year. Chip Kelly’s offense in Oregon had a dynamic running game. LaMichael James ran for over 1,800 yards at an electrifying seven yards a pop. Kenjon Barner added 939 more yards. Darron Thomas had a 33-7 TD/INT ratio at quarterback and the Duck offense ranked third nationally.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was the most hyped player in all of college football. And while living up to the hype was impossible, Luck got as close as any reasonable person could expect to meeting those expectations. He completed 71 percent of his passes, at 8.7 yards-per-attempt, and a 37/10 TD-INT ratio. The Cardinal offense was also physical, with All-American offensive lineman David DeCastro leading the way for 1,300-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor.
Oregon’s early loss to LSU would be fatal to their national title hopes, but the Ducks bounced back. Stanford racked up big wins over ranked teams in Washington and USC, scoring 121 points in the process. A November 12 showdown between Oregon and Stanford would settle the conference championship. The Ducks won it 53-30. They were going to the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal, with only that loss on their resume, went to the Fiesta Bowl to play Oklahoma State.
Wisconsin led the way in the race for the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl spot. Russell Wilson had transferred to Madison for his final year of college football and was outstanding. Wilson completed 73 percent of his passes at 10.3 yards-per-attempt. His TD/INT ratio was a dazzling 33-4. All-American running back Montee Ball led a powerful running game, with over 1,900 yards.
The Badgers ranked sixth nationally on offense and 13th on defense. But a couple of heartbreaking last-minute losses at Ohio State and Michigan State put their pursuit of the conference title in jeopardy. They were able to bounce back and win out. A winner-take-all game with Penn State settled what was then called the Leaders Division title and the Badgers won 45-7.
Michigan State and Michigan fought it out in the Legends Division. The Wolverines had the sixth-ranked dense in the country. The offense had the nation’s best center in David Molk. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for over 1,000 yards. Denard Robinson’s passing was spotty, but he ran for over 1,100 yards. As for the Spartans, All-American defensive lineman Jerel Worthy led up a stingy unit. The offense had future pros in Kirk Cousins at quarterback and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield.
Sparty beat the Wolverines 28-14 in October. That was the difference in the division race. In the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin and Michigan State played a thriller. The Badgers pulled it out 42-39 and earned the Rose Bowl bid. The Spartans were robbed by the system—the Sugar Bowl ignored the regular season results and chose Michigan.
Clemson and Virginia Tech each made major bowls out of the ACC. The Tigers had the country’s best tight end with Dwayne Allen. They also had an array of skill-position talent—Andre Ellington ran for nearly 1,200 yards, while both Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins were big-time receivers. With Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Dabo Swinney’s team scored enough to overcome what was a bad defense.
Virginia Tech was the opposite—the seventh-best defense in the country, orchestrated by the great coordinator Bud Foster, overcame a struggling offense. Florida State was the early favorite in the ACC, while Boston College had Butkus and Lombardi-Award winner Luke Kuechly. But the Seminoles fell by the wayside, and the Eagles weren’t a conference contender.
Clemson and Virginia Tech met in the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers won a 38-10 blowout to get the ACC’s automatic Orange Bowl bid. The Hokies still got the consolation of being chosen to play Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.
West Virginia rounded out the field of major bowl teams. Playing in the old Big East Conference, the Mountaineers had two big-play receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The duo combined for nearly 2,500 yards in combined receiving yards. West Virginia went 9-3 and shared the conference championship with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers had the tiebreaker and got the league’s automatic place in the major bowls. They were going to the Orange Bowl.
Boise State, led by quarterback Kellen Moore, had made a noble run at the national elite before a narrow 36-35 loss to TCU cost them a major bowl spot. The Broncos found solace by blasting Arizona State 56-24 in the Maaco Bowl and finishing in the Top 10.
The SEC showed its dominance went well past its top teams. Arkansas beat Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, while South Carolina manhandled Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. The Razorbacks ended up #5 in the final polls, while Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks clocked in at #9.
Oregon and Wisconsin kicked off the run of major bowls on New Year’s Day in Pasadena. Both offenses were in high gear. With a spot in the national top 5 on the line, the Ducks pulled it out, 45-38.
Later that night in Tempe were more offensive fireworks. Weeden and Luck traded blows in the Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma State pulled it out 41-38 and finished #3 in the final rankings.
Michigan and Virginia Tech didn’t have the same offensive firepower, but their Sugar Bowl battle two nights later was no less thrilling. A controversial catch-or-no-catch call in the end zone in overtime went Michigan’s way. The Wolverines pulled out a 23-20 win.
West Virginia and Clemson both had poor defenses, so the high-scoring Orange Bowl was no surprise. What was a surprise was the utter meltdown of the Tigers–WVA rolled to an astonishing 70-33 win. It started a reputation for big-game failure that would dog Clemson for the next five years, until they won it all themselves.
All that was left was for the rematch in New Orleans. As championship battles go, this would be as anticlimactic as any sport has ever seen. The LSU offense was completely inept, doing nothing to move the ball. The Tiger defense did their best to hang in, but the Tide had clearly made some adjustments from the November battle and were able to put points on the board. Alabama won 21-0 in a game that didn’t even feel that close.
It had taken some breaks down the stretch, but Nick Saban’s program had sent a message—if you let us off the mat, be ready to pay the price. Alabama was national champions again.