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July 16, 2011

Rivals at 10: The top 25

On Friday, we wrote about how difficult it was to put together a list of the top 25 college players during the Rivals.com era (2001 season through 2010 season).

Frankly, though, that was like doing first-grade math compared to picking the top 25 teams of the decade. (We did not rank programs; instead, it was best one-season teams). It took a week or so - and a ton of e-mail strings - but we finally finished.

Let the arguments begin.

25. UTAH 2004
RECORD: 12-0 overall, 7-0 conference
CONFERENCE: Mountain West
BOWL: Beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl
BUZZ: Teams such as Boise State, Utah and TCU now are commonplace in the BCS. Not in 2004. The Utes were the first team from a non-Big Six conference to reach a BCS game, earning an automatic bid by finishing in the top six of the BCS standings. Utah defeated only three teams with a winning record during the regular season - Texas A&M, New Mexico and Wyoming, who all finished 7-5. But QB Alex Smith was a Heisman finalist, a first-team All-American and the No. 1 selection in the NFL draft. This was Urban Meyer's last Utah team before he left for Florida.
24. PENN STATE 2005
RECORD: 11-1, 7-1
BOWL: Beat Florida State 26-23 in triple-overtime in the Orange Bowl
BUZZ: Penn State headed into 2005 having posted losing records in four of its past five seasons, and there were whispers that Joe Paterno finally had lost his touch. The 2005 team silenced the skeptics. Penn State made a stunning return to form that year and was one play away from a perfect season. The Nittany Lions' only loss of the season came 27-25 at Michigan, when Chad Henne threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham as time expired. Penn State's defense featured Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny at linebacker and Nagurski Trophy finalist Tamba Hali at end. An offense that had ranked 109th in scoring just a year earlier sprung to life and ranked 13th nationally at 34.4 points per game. The difference was a breakthrough season from QB Michael Robinson, who finished fifth in the Heisman balloting. You could make a case this team should be higher on our list, but it's worth noting that Penn State needed three overtimes to survive an Orange Bowl test from a Florida State team that lost five games that season.
23. OKLAHOMA 2008
RECORD: 12-2, 7-1
BOWL: Lost to Florida 24-14 in the BCS national championship game.
BUZZ: Heisman-winning QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray, TE Jermaine Gresham and a line with every player earning some kind of all-conference recognition highlighted an explosive offense that led the nation with a 51.14 scoring average. Bradford passed for more than 4,700 yards, Murray and Chris Brown both rushed for more than 1,000 yards and four receivers had more than 40 catches and at least six touchdowns. The Sooners scored at least 35 points in every regular-season game and exceeded 60 in each of their last five, including a 62-21 rout of Missouri in the Big 12 championship game that put OU in the national championship game against Florida. All of the Sooners' regular-season victories were by at least 14 points. But the offense bogged down in the championship game. Twice in the second quarter, OU was denied points after moving inside Florida's 10. Bradford, Gresham, DT Gerald McCoy and OT Trent Williams eventually would become first-round draft picks.
22. BOISE STATE 2009
RECORD: 14-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat TCU 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl
BUZZ: The Broncos set the tone for the season with an opening 19-8 win over Oregon, who finished the season in the Rose Bowl. Boise State finished the regular season as one of five undefeated teams, along with Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati and TCU. After defeating TCU in the first all-non-Big Six BCS game, Boise State was one of two undefeated teams left standing along with national champion Alabama. Boise State led the nation in scoring at 42 points per game and produced one first-round draft pick the following year, CB Kyle Wilson. Not bad for a young team - 10 starters from that season's Fiesta Bowl win over TCU will play for Boise State this fall.
21. OHIO STATE 2006
RECORD: 12-1, 8-0
BOWL: Lost to Florida 41-14 in BCS national championship game
BUZZ: The Buckeyes began the season No. 1 in the coaches' poll and carried that ranking all season into the BCS title game. But after scoring on the opening kickoff, Ohio State was shut down in a lopsided loss to the Gators. Buckeyes QB Troy Smith was sacked five times and completed just 4-of-14 passes for 35 yards with an interception and fumble. It was a dubious end to what was a Heisman-winning season for Smith. Ohio State had outlasted Michigan 42-39 in Columbus in the final regular-season game, a contest many saw as the de facto national title game. Nine opponents were held to 10 or fewer points, and the Buckeyes scored at least 37 nine times. Smith was joined on the roster by stars such as WR Ted Ginn Jr., LB James Laurinaitis, WR Anthony Gonzalez and DE Vernon Gholston.
20. FLORIDA 2009
RECORD: 13-1, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Cincinnati 51-24 in Sugar Bowl
BUZZ: The defending-champion Gators went into the season ranked No. 1 and spent all but one week during the regular season atop the polls. Hopes were high that Florida could win back-to-back national titles in QB Tim Tebow's final season, but the offense was conservative and the Gators struggled past Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State during the regular season. The spotty offense caught up to them in the SEC championship game, a 32-13 loss to Alabama. The Tide went on to beat Texas for the national title. Florida remained a big story, though, because Urban Meyer announced on the day after Christmas that he was resigning. He changed his mind a day later, and Florida went on to hammer previously unbeaten Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. In his final college game, Tebow threw for a career-high 482 yards and was 31-of-35 with three touchdowns.
19. USC 2008
RECORD: 12-1, 8-1
BOWL: Beat Penn State 38-24 in Rose Bowl
BUZZ: Big things, as usual, were expected from the Trojans, and they won their first two games (over Virginia and Ohio State) by a combined 87-10. But then came a Thursday night game at Oregon State, where little Jacquizz Rodgers tore up the Trojans and led the Beavers to a shocking 27-21 upset. USC didn't lose again, but that loss kept them out of the national title game. Eleven wins were by double digits, including seven by at least 28 points, and 10 foes were held to 10 or fewer points; the Trojans had three shutouts that season and outscored opponents 488-117. USC had three tailbacks rush for at least 600 yards and had three receivers with at least eight TD receptions. In his only season as the starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez threw for 3,207 yards and 34 TDs.
18. LSU 2007
RECORD: 12-2, 6-2
BOWL: Beat Ohio State 38-24 in BCS national championship game
BUZZ: The Tigers became the first champion in the BCS era to have two losses, overcoming two triple-overtime setbacks (Kentucky and Arkansas) and escaping with victories in four games decided by seven or fewer points to still advance to the title game. QB Matt Flynn and DT Glenn Dorsey led LSU, which entered the year ranked No. 2, over top-ranked Ohio State for the title. LSU became the first two-time BCS champ in what was just Les Miles' third year on the job.
17. TCU 2010
RECORD: 13-0, 8-0
CONFERENCE: Mountain West
BOWL: Beat Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl
BUZZ: TCU had fallen to Boise State in its first BCS appearance, in the Fiesta Bowl the previous season, but the Horned Frogs claimed a bigger prize after the 2010 season. TCU became the first BCS non-automatic qualifying program to play in the Rose Bowl, and the Horned Frogs went on to beat Wisconsin. The Horned Frogs led the nation in total defense and allowed only 23 points in a six-game span at midseason. TCU finished the season ranked No. 2 in both major polls, its third consecutive top-10 finish.
16. UTAH 2008
RECORD: 13-0, 8-0
CONFERENCE: Mountain West
BOWL: Beat Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl
BUZZ: Four years after Urban Meyer led Utah to the Fiesta Bowl, his former defensive coordinator, Kyle Whittingham, arguably upstaged his former boss. During the regular season, Utah defeated three teams that finished the season in the polls - No. 7 TCU, No. 18 Oregon State and No. 25 BYU - but didn't get its due until it embarrassed SEC West champion Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. Though Meyer and one-loss Florida won the BCS championship that season, Utah garnered 16 of 65 first-place votes in the postseason AP poll. The Utes received one first-place vote in the coaches' poll, as Whittingham broke protocol to vote for his own team.
15. TEXAS 2009
RECORD: 13-1, 8-0
BOWL: Lost to Alabama 37-21 in the BCS national championship game.
BUZZ: BCS computers denied the Longhorns a shot at the national championship in 2008, but they came back strong and might have won it all in '09 if not for one injury. All-American QB Colt McCoy and WR Jordan Shipley led the nation's No. 3 scoring defense, while E Sergio Kindle and FS Earl Thomas keyed a defense that led the nation by forcing 37 turnovers. The Longhorns had to grind out a 16-13 victory over archrival Oklahoma, but won every other regular-season game by at least 10 points. Texas escaped a monumental upset in the Big 12 championship game when a second was added after the game clock had apparently run out, allowing the Longhorns to kick a last-play field goal for a 13-12 win over Nebraska, which set up a date with Alabama for the national title. The Longhorns took an early lead, but McCoy sustained a shoulder injury on Texas' fifth offensive play and did not return; the Longhorns eventually lost.
14. OREGON 2010
RECORD: 12-1, 9-0
BOWL: Lost to Auburn 22-19 in the BCS national championship game.
BUZZ: The Ducks won the Pac-10 championship in 2009 and were expected to be powerful again, but the season appeared in jeopardy when QB Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team during the offseason. No problem: Sophomore Darron Thomas stepped in and played at an all-conference level, while speedy RB LaMichael James rushed for 1,731 yards. Oregon's offense averaged 47 points to lead the nation and was so explosive some opponents had players feign injuries in an attempt to slow the Ducks down. Oregon scored at least 37 points and won by double-figures in 11 of its regular-season games. The Ducks scored eight non-offensive touchdowns, including four on punt returns by CB Cliff Harris. The defense also forced 37 turnovers, the second-highest total in the country. In the national championship game, Oregon twice was denied touchdowns on penetrations inside Auburn's 5 but still was tied with just two minutes remaining. Auburn prevailed on a short field goal on the game's final play.
13. FLORIDA 2006
RECORD: 13-1, 7-1
BOWL: Beat Ohio State 41-14 in BCS national championship game
BUZZ: Florida was a somewhat controversial pick for the title game, as the Gators were far from dominant during the regular season. But despite allowing Ted Ginn Jr. to return the opening kickoff for a TD, the Gators mauled Ohio State for the championship, which came in Urban Meyer's second season at Florida. The Gators lost 27-17 at Auburn in mid-October but won their next three games by a combined 14 points to take the SEC East title. The clinching win was a 17-16 affair over visiting South Carolina, a victory that was sealed when DE Jarvis Moss blocked a last-play field-goal attempt. The Gators got a shot at the national title only because USC closed the regular season with a stunning loss to UCLA. The Gators allowed 189 points that season, and a defense that eventually had eight players drafted was at its best against Ohio State, holding the Buckeyes to 82 total yards and sacking Heisman winner Troy Smith five times.
12. USC 2003
RECORD: 12-1, 7-1
BOWL: Beat Michigan 28-14 in Rose Bowl
BUZZ: The Trojans opened the season with a dominating 23-0 win at Auburn but stumbled in Game 4, losing 34-31 at California. The Trojans regrouped and didn't lose again, scoring at least 37 points in every game the rest of the way until the Rose Bowl. The Trojans finished third, behind LSU and Oklahoma, in the final BCS standings, so they were left out of the national title game. The Associated Press voters still gave the title nod to USC when the season was over. The defense had its issues, but the offense was prolific, scoring 534 points. There was a seven-week stretch in which USC scored between 43 and 52 points in every game. Three players rushed for at least 500 yards, including true freshman Reggie Bush (521), and WRs Keary Colbert and Mike Williams combined for 164 catches, 2,327 yards and 25 TDs. Redshirt freshman Matt Leinart had a huge season, throwing for 3,556 yards and 38 TDs.
11. LSU 2003
RECORD: 13-1, 7-1
BOWL: Beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl
BUZZ: Having to "share" the national championship with Associated Press champion USC never sat well with LSU fans. Nick Saban pulled the program out of the doldrums and back into the national elite; this was LSU's first national title since Paul Dietzel's "Chinese Bandits" team of 1958. Saban's reputation as a defensive mastermind was on full display, as LSU led the nation in total defense and scoring defense. DT Chad Lavalais was a Nagurski and Outland finalist and an All-American. Future first-round draft picks at safety (LaRon Landry) and end (Marcus Spears) also starred for the Tigers' defense.
10. MIAMI 2002
RECORD: 12-1, 8-0
BOWL: Lost 31-24 to Ohio State in double-overtime in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title
BUZZ: This team was just about as good as the 2001 Miami squad that won the national title. Miami outscored opponents 527-248 in 2002, although it did have a couple of close calls (a 28-27 victory over Florida State decided by a missed field goal at the final gun, a 28-21 triumph over Pittsburgh). The "Who's Who" list of future NFL talent on this team included Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Kellen Winslow Jr., Jonathan Vilma, Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Roger McIntosh and D.J. Williams. Ken Dorsey remained in control of the offense. The only real difference is that this version of the Hurricanes couldn't quite close the deal. If McGahee doesn't get hurt against Ohio State or Glenn Sharpe never gets called for pass interference in overtime of that game, this team might have ranked second or third on our list.
9. OHIO STATE 2002
RECORD: 14-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Miami 31-24 in double-overtime in Fiesta Bowl for BCS national title
BUZZ: Going into the season, the Buckeyes weren't viewed as the favorite in the Big Ten, much less a national title contender. But behind a killer defense led by S Mike Doss and a physical offense paced by steady QB Craig Krenzel and the running of freshman sensation Maurice Clarett, Ohio State shocked the world by winning the school's first national crown since 1968. In the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State knocked off a Miami team that was an 11.5-point favorite; UM was the defending national champions and had won 34 games in a row. It was one of the greatest upsets in college football history and it made Jim Tressel a national champ in just his second season on the job.
8. FLORIDA 2008
RECORD: 13-1, 7-1
BOWL: Beat Oklahoma 24-14 in BCS national championship game
BUZZ: The Gators ran Urban Meyer's version of the spread option with aplomb and outscored opponents 611-181. They scored at least 26 points in every game and at least 30 12 times. All 13 wins were decided by double digits, and the Gators became the first team in SEC history to win six consecutive league games by at least 28 points. Included in that run were a 30-point victory over No. 4 LSU, a 39-point rout of No. 8 Georgia and a 50-point demolition of No. 24 South Carolina. The defense wasn't too shabby, either, allowing more than 21 points just once (a 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss); Florida held foes to 15 or fewer points 10 times, including allowing only 14 to an Oklahoma team that had averaged 51.1. Seven UF offensive starters in the title game already have been drafted - and that does not include Percy Harvin, who didn't start the game because of a slightly sprained ankle. He rushed for 122 yards and a score as a reserve that night.
7. AUBURN 2004
RECORD: 13-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Virginia Tech 16-13 in Sugar Bowl
BUZZ: Coach Tommy Tuberville was feeling a bit of heat heading into the season, but he led Auburn to a perfect record and a final No. 2 ranking after the Tigers had opened the season No. 17 in the AP poll and No. 18 in the coaches' poll. Many felt the Tigers deserved a shot to play for the BCS crown, but Auburn was denied a berth after finishing No. 3 in the final BCS standings, behind USC and Oklahoma. Auburn had a cavalcade of stars, including four first-round draft choices: RBs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, QB Jason Campbell and CB Carlos Rogers.
6. AUBURN 2010
RECORD: 14-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Oregon 22-19 in BCS national championship game
BUZZ: Behind one of the greatest single-season efforts in college football history by QB Cam Newton, Auburn won its first national championship since 1957 after beginning the season No. 22 in the AP poll. Newton was a living highlight reel in the Tigers' no-huddle/spread option attack, running and throwing with equal aplomb en route to winning the Heisman. The Tigers also benefitted from an opportunistic defense led by T Nick Fairley that time and again rallied for big plays in the second half of games for coach Gene Chizik, who was in his second season on the Plains.
5. ALABAMA 2009
RECORD: 14-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Texas 37-21 in BCS championship game
BUZZ: Alabama made it through the SEC unscathed and delivered wins over No. 7 Virginia Tech, No. 9 LSU, No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Texas on its way to winning the national title. The 32-13 whipping of Florida ended the Gators' 22-game winning streak and ranks among the most impressive single-game performances of the past decade. Alabama outscored opponents 449-164. Alabama's roster featured Heisman winner Mark Ingram and fellow first-round picks Julio Jones, Rolando McClain and Marcell Dareus. McClain won the 2005 Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, while DT Terrence Cody was a two-time consensus All-American.
4. USC 2005
RECORD: 12-1, 8-0
BOWL: Lost 41-38 to Texas in the Rose Bowl for the BCS national championship
BUZZ: The defense wasn't dominating but most folks didn't think that mattered because the offense was lethal. USC led the nation in total offense (579.8 yards per game) and was second in scoring offense (49.1 points per game). USC scored at least 50 points seven times, including a 70-17 rout of Arkansas, a 66-19 wipeout of UCLA and a wild 50-42 shootout against Fresno State that was one of the 10 best regular-season games of the decade. RBs Reggie Bush and LenDale White combined for 3,042 yards and an incredible 40 rushing touchdowns. Bush won the Heisman and scored 19 total touchdowns. QB Matt Leinart threw for 3,815 yards and 28 scores; he also scored six rushing TDs, including the memorable game-winner on the last play against Notre Dame. WR Dwayne Jarrett had 91 receptions for 1,274 yards and 16 touchdowns. But while the offense did its job all season, the defense had more than a few letdowns, especially in the national title game against Vince Young and Texas, and the Longhorns won a classic for the national championship.
3. TEXAS 2005
RECORD: 13-0, 8-0
BOWL: Defeated USC 41-38 in the Rose Bowl for the BCS national championship
BUZZ: Texas had not won a national championship in 25 years and defending national champion USC, with two Heisman winners, was being hailed as perhaps the greatest college football team ever. All that changed when Texas QB Vince Young scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes to lead a rally that lifted the Longhorns to a 41-38 victory over the Trojans. That capped a dominant season in which Texas led the nation with a 50.15 scoring average and allowed just 16.4 points to rank eighth in scoring defense. The Longhorns posted a 25-22 come-from-behind victory at Ohio State early in the season, but scored at least 40 points in every other game; they also won every other regular-season game by double figures, including a 70-3 pummeling of Colorado in the Big 12 championship game. Seventeen starters eventually would move on to the NFL, including first-round selections Young and defensive backs Michael Huff and Michael Griffin.
2. USC 2004
RECORD: 13-0, 8-0
BOWL: Beat Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl for the BCS national championship.
BUZZ: Heisman-winning QB Matt Leinart and RBs Reggie Bush and LenDale White led an offense that averaged more than 38 points per game, but the Trojans were even stronger defensively. Led by four All-Americans - Ts Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and LBs Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu - USC ranked in the top 10 in every national defensive statistical category; the Trojans were first in rushing defense and turnover margin and third in scoring defense. USC, which opened the season ranked No. 1, outscored opponents by an average of 25.2 points per game. The title-game rout was the eighth game that the Trojans won by at least 30 points.
1. MIAMI 2001
RECORD: 12-0, 7-0
BOWL: Beat Nebraska 37-14 in Rose Bowl for BCS national championship
BUZZ: Coach Larry Coker was in his first season, and he became the first first-year coach to win it all since Bennie Oosterbaan at Michigan in 1948. Miami's roster might have been the most star-studded in college football history: UM's starting lineup for its Rose Bowl rout included 11 first-round draft picks (CB Phillip Buchanon, WR Andre Johnson, DT William Joseph, DE Jerome McDougle, RB Willis McGahee, OT Bryant McKinnie, S Ed Reed, CB Mike Rumph, TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Jonathan Vilma and LB D.J. Williams). The starting lineup that night also featured second-round pick Clinton Portis at running back and Maxwell Award winner Ken Dorsey at quarterback. Miami C Brett Romberg would win the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center the following season. No wonder they breezed to a 12-0 record while outscoring teams 512-117. Miami won 11 games by double digits, and the Hurricanes allowed more than seven points in just four games and had three shutouts. They were held to fewer than 33 points just twice and scored at least 45 five times.
NOTE: Rankings and team capsules by staff writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.

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