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Ness Notes: 2009 CFB Season in the Rear View Mirror

   by Larry Ness - 01/13/2010

It’s seems like just yesterday that South Carolina beat North Carolina St 7-3 and Boise St beat Oregon 19-8. In fact, the date was September 3, 2009 and those two games were the marquee contests of CFB 2009's opening day (night) of action. September 5 marked the first Saturday of the season and shockwaves resonated across the nation when 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma was injured the the first half of the then-No. 3 ranked Sooners' game with then-No. 20 BYU. The Cougars would upset the Sooners 14-13 in that game and Bradford would sit out the team's next three contests. He would return to lead a rout of Baylor on October 10 but the following week, in Oklahoma's annual showdown with Texas, Bradford reinjured his shoulder and was done for the year.

Truth be told, after Oklahoma lost to BYU back on September 5, most close followers of the sport anticipated that the 2009 BCS championship game would pit the winner of the SEC championship game (Alabama vs Florida) against Texas. While all three schools had a handful of 'scares,' that's exactly what happened. Then, in the year's biggest game, No. 1 Alabama vs No. 2 Texas in the Rose Bowl on January 7, Texas Colt McCoy was injured on the game's fifth play. The Tide would go on to win 37-21 and the win gave Alabama its eighth major poll national championship, tying Notre Dame for the most ever.

Alabama coach Nick Saban became the second coach (Urban Meyer) to win two BCS national championships and with his first title coming with LSU in 2003, became the first head coach to win BCS titles with different schools. In fact, he's the only head coach to have won a national title at more than one school since polls first appeared with the introduction of the AP poll back in 1936. Alabama finished 14-0 (as did Boise St) and those schools join Ohio State (2002) as the only three to have posted 14-0 records in Division I-A history (now FBS) . However, let me return the beginning of the year.

Florida was named preseason No.1 in the coaches' poll (no sense talking about the AP poll, as it isn't part of the BCS standings), garnering 53 of the 59 first-place votes. Texas came in No. 2 (four 1st place votes), Oklahoma No. 3 (one 1st place vote), USC No. 4 (one 1st place vote) and Alabama No. 5. The SEC had five schools in the top-25 (four in the top-10), with last year's preseason No. 1 (Georgia) getting ranked No. 13. It was interesting to note that the MWC placed as many schools in the preseason top-25 (three) as the Big 10. Boise State (WAC) was the highest-ranked school from a non-BCS conference at No. 16. Boise's ranking ties the highest preseason ranking of any non-BCS school (BCS' first year was back in 1998) and the four schools from leagues without automatic BCS bids (TCU is 17th, Utah 18th and BYU 24th) represents the most-ever in a preseason poll from outside the six BCS conferences.

Also of note is that the Big East did not place a single team in the coaches preseason top-25. It marked the first time that a BCS conference got shut out of the top-25. It should be noted that no school has begun a season unranked by the coaches and gone on to play in the BCS title game (12 years). More recently, no school not in the coaches' top-10 during the preseason has reached the title game over the last six years. It matters where a team is placed during the preseason, as it is very difficult to "come out of nowhere" and overtake the established schools.

That being said, both Alabama and Utah defied conventional wisdom in 2008 by beginning the season unranked and becoming a major part of the national title 'picture.' Utah finished as college football's only unbeaten team in 2008 at 13-0, including its impressive 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide won their first 12 games and took the nation's No. 1 ranking into the SEC championship game before losing to Florida (a win would have had them in the BCS title game). TCU also began the 2008 season unranked but would finish at No. 7 in the season's final poll, after beating then-unbeaten Boise State 17-16 in the Poinsettia Bowl. Boise State was also unranked in last year's preseason pool but would finished ranked No. 13.

So how did the coaches do last year? Actually, not so well. Georgia was last year's preseason No. 1 but the Bulldogs would go on to lose 41-30 at home to Alabama (trailed 31-0 at the half), 49-10 to Florida at Jacksonville and 45-42 at home to Georgia Tech (led 28-12 at the half). Georgia would beat Michigan State 24-12 in the Citrus Bowl (trailed 6-3 at the half) to finish 10-3 and ended the year ranked No. 10. The coaches hardly got that one right. That may be too critical but consider the following.

How many of last year's preseason teams ended up in the top-25 at year's end? The answer is just 12 (less than half). That means that 13 schools chosen by the coaches to be among the coming year's top-25, didn't live up to expectations. Six of the 13 didn't even finish with a winning record, with 3-9 Michigan (ranked 24th in the preseason) and 4-8 Wisconsin (ranked 12th), being the "worst offenders." Just one school (9-4 West Va, which opened at No. 8) of the 13 which failed to end up in the final top-25 even won more than eight games.

That begs the question, how did this current season's preseason rankings fare? Much better. Every school ranked in the top-10 in the preseason finished in the final top-25 poll except Oklahoma and Bradford's injury was directly responsible for that. In all, 18 of the preseason's top-25 teams found their way into the final poll. No. 1 Alabama opened at No. 5 in the preseason poll, No. 2 Texas at No. 2, No. 3 Florida began at No. 1, No. 4 Boise St at No. 16 and No. 5 Ohio St at No. 6. Other than Oklahoma, the only top-15 schools to not "make the grade" come the final poll were No. 12 Cal and No. 13 Georgia (both the Bears and Bulldogs finished with 8-5 records).

The biggest goof by the coaches was in the surprising strength of the Big East. The first BCS conference to get shut out of a preseason top-25 finished with three schools in the final poll. Cincinnati, No. 3 in the final BCS standings and a missed Texas FG against Nebraska away from playing in the BCS title game, finished No. 9 in the final coaches' poll with a 12-1 record. Pitt finished at No. 15 with a 10-3 record, giving the school its first 10-win season since Dan Marino led the Panthers to an 11-1 record back in 1981. West Virginia finished 9-4 on the year and No. 22 in the final poll.

Bowl recap:

Favorites finished the 2009-10 bowl season 16-18 SU and 13-19-2 ATS (40.6 percent). Playing every underdog (using closing lines) left a bettor plus-4.7 net games. Under bettors eked out a profit as well, with 19 of the 34 games (55.9 percent) staying under the total for a net profit of plus-2.5 games. With 34 bowl games (68 schools) we saw eight, 6-6 teams play in the postseason. Two of those schools, Iowa State and Minnesota met in the Independence Bowl (Cyclones won 14-13) while the other six went 4-2 SU and ATS, including Bobby Bowden's Florida State team.

The Seminoles' 33-21 win over West Virginia upped Bowden's career bowl record to 22-10-1 and his .682 bowl winning percentage is the best in NCAA history among coaches to coach in at least 20 bowl games. The Seminoles finished the season 7-6, giving Bowden his 33rd straight winning season at FSU after a 5-6 mark in his first year in Tallahassee. His overall record sits at 389-129-4, leaving him second all-time to Joe Paterno. Joe Pa wrapped up his 44th season on the sidelines at Penn State with a 19-17 win over LSU, his 394th career win. It was also his 24th career bowl victory, extending his own NCAA record.

The MWC had the best overall winning percentage of any conference going 4-1 SU and ATS, with the league's best team, TCU, suffering the lone loss (to Boise St). The Big East went 4-2 SU and ATS, while the SEC finished 6-4 SU but 4-6 ATS. Don't be too critical of the SEC's overall record as Alabama's win in the BCS title game gave the SEC its fourth straight national title and makes the conference 6-0 all-time in BCS championship games. The Big 10 went 4-3 SU (5-2 ATS), giving that conference its first winning bowl season since 2002 and it was a welcome sight after last year's 1-6 SU (3-4 ATS) mark.

The MAC went 1-4 SU and 0-3-2 ATS this bowl season but the conference was also involved in arguably this year's two most exciting bowl games. Bowling Green lost 43-42 to Idaho in the Humanitarian Bowl when the Vandals went for two and the win after scoring a TD with just four seconds remaining in the game. Central Michigan, playing as a ranked team (No. 25) for the first time in school history (and led by QB Dan LeFevour), ended the MAC's 14-game bowl losing streak (1-12-1 ATS) with a 44-41 double-overtime win over Troy in the GMAC Bowl.

The Pac 10 was a dismal 2-5 SU and 3-4 ATS during the recently completed bowl season while the ACC went 3-4 SU and 2-5 ATS. Ga Tech lost 24-14 to Iowa in the Orange Bowl, as the ACC fell to 2-10 all-time in BCS Bowls. Putting that in perspective, Boise State of the WAC owns two BCS Bowls wins all by itself. Speaking of the Broncos, they entered the 2009 season with 98 wins for the decade, second behind Oklahoma's 102. However, after all the dust had settled on this first decade of the new millennium, it's Boise St which owns the most wins of any FBS program from 2000-09 with an overall mark of 112-17 (.868). The Sooners, who struggled to an 8-5 mark in 2009, rank second at 110-24 (.821).

I'll be back on Friday with notes on the NFL's upcoming divisional round of the 2009 postseason.

Good luck, Larry

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