Tigers, Ducks survive 2010 BCS bus ride
In an effort to figure out how we got to this point, let's take a tour of the 2010 college football season. Just for fun, let's make it a bus tour. First stop: Birmingham, Ala., late July. It's the three-day carnival of the absurd known as Southeastern Conference media days. There's Nick Saban, standing up and calling unscrupulous agents "pimps."
Agent issues have hijacked the summer. North Carolina is immersed in problems that ultimately will scuttle a season that began with ACC and even national title aspirations. Saban's star Alabama defensive end, Marcell Dareus, will miss two games. Nobody knew it at the time, but one of the top attractions at SEC media days, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, was on his way to a four-game suspension of his own.
The other prime topics of discussion in Birmingham: whether Alabama and Florida have placed a stranglehold on the conference; whether anyone can stop the Crimson Tide from repeating as national champions; and whether loopy Les Miles can keep his job at LSU.
Not much discussion of Auburn. Or Cam Newton, the team's new starting quarterback after leaving Florida under a legal cloud and transferring to a junior college. The Tigers are picked to finish third in the SEC West. Ten media members picked them to win the division, compared to 157 who picked Alabama.
Next stop: Dallas, for the final Big 12 media days as we know it. Nebraska is leaving the league for the Big Ten, amid a firestorm of recrimination and finger-pointing. (Colorado is leaving as well, for what will be the Pacific-12, though nobody notices.) At this meeting, the Cornhuskers and league officials play nice. They won't a few months from now.
Next stop: New York City. In a mold-breaking move to increase exposure on the East Coast, the Pac-10 flies all its coaches cross-country for media face time. They do photo ops and interviews in the Big Apple, then hop a bus to ESPN in Bristol, Conn.
When they return to the West Coast for the more traditional media day, Oregon is the preseason pick to win the league, even though there is uncertainty about who will replace Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback. Smart media.
"Preseason rankings don't mean anything to us," Ducks coach Chip Kelly says.
Postseason rankings do. He'll like those.
Next stop: Arlington, Texas, Sept. 4. TCU holds off Oregon State 30-21. Nobody will see the Horned Frogs have to sweat again for more than two months.
Next stop: Landover, Md., Sept. 6. On Labor Day night, Boise State stages a scintillating last-minute drive to beat Virginia Tech, setting the stage for a season-long presence in the top five and at the forefront of the BCS debate. Sides are chosen nationwide. Are you on the bus, or off?
Next stop: Starkville, Miss., Sept. 9. On a Thursday night, Mississippi State did what later would seem inconceivable: it held Auburn to two touchdowns and 17 points. But the Bulldogs could manage only 14, and when Leon Berry dropped a pass deep in Auburn territory that could have set up the tying or winning score in the final minute, the Tigers had their first of what would be several close calls.
Next stop, Tuscaloosa, Columbus, Norman, South Bend on Sept. 11. Huge day of name-brand games: Penn State at Alabama, Miami at Ohio State, Florida State at Oklahoma, Michigan at Notre Dame. Much hype. Much discussion. Many sweeping pronouncements made.
The Crimson Tide are unbeatable. Denard Robinson will win the Heisman. Oklahoma is awesome. Michigan is back. Etc.
In the end, a bunch of hot air. None of the day's results would matter from a national championship perspective. Only Ohio State and Oklahoma would finish in the top 10.
Instead, the most meaningful action transpired in Knoxville and Blacksburg. Oregon steamrolled Tennessee, grabbing the nation's attention. And FBS James Madison stunned a hungover Virginia Tech, doing lasting damage to Boise State.
Next stop, Disasterville. The kind of broken-down town in which you wouldn't expect to find a bunch of bluebloods, but here they are. Texas, routed at home by UCLA on Sept. 25, the first crack in a 5-7 collapse. Florida, crushed at Alabama on Oct. 2, on its way to a sobering 7-5. USC, stunned by Washington the same day, on its way to 8-5. Georgia, 1-4 after losing at Colorado on Oct. 2, on its way to 6-6.
And so on. By the time the final AP Top 25 is released, seven of the 11 winningest programs in college football history -- Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee, USC and Georgia -- are not ranked. Neither are programs that won five of the past eight national titles (Miami, USC, Texas, Florida).
Nothing lasts forever. Especially this year.
Next stop, Upset Land. On Oct. 9, Alabama is beaten -- and fairly handily -- by the Head Ball Coach and South Carolina. It would be a breakthrough victory for the Gamecocks, on their way to their first SEC East title. And it would be a revealing defeat for the Tide, on their way to two more losses.
A week later, the stands at Camp Randall Stadium empty on Ohio State after the No. 1 Buckeyes are beaten by Wisconsin. The Badgers would be on their way to a special season of their own, culminating in a likely Rose Bowl bid. The Buckeyes will have to see whether they have one more shot at a national title with Terrelle Pryor.
And a week after that, Oklahoma's stay atop the BCS standings is ended at Missouri. The goal posts from that one wound up at local institution Harpo's -- not a short walk from Faurot Field. The Sooners' national title hopes went with them.
That same night in Auburn, they paper the trees on Toomer's Corner in celebration of beating LSU and watching Newton take over the Heisman race. Then they partied some more after watching the Sooners surrender the top spot. From that point forward, the BCS standings became an Auburn-Oregon production, with Boise State and TCU in loud and persistent pursuit.
But the controversies were just heating up.
Next stop, Trouble. This is basically where we spent all of November.
On Nov. 4, ESPN.com reported that the NCAA was investigating Newton and his family. The allegation: Cam's father, Cecil Newton, used middleman Kenny Rogers to solicit $180,000 from Mississippi State in return for Newton signing to play for the Bulldogs.
That's followed by a FoxSports.com story about Newton's alleged academic improprieties while at Florida. Other stories related to the pay-for-play scheme surface in succession.
Suddenly the entire season is thrown into turmoil. Will Newton continue playing? Will he be deemed ineligible? Will wins be vacated? Should Auburn be penalized by Top 25 voters for this? Should Newton be penalized by Heisman voters?
The season is held hostage.
Next stop, DramaLand, Nov. 26. On the day after Thanksgiving, undefeated Auburn and undefeated Boise State are pushed onto a collision course with season-wrecking defeat. One survives. One crashes.
The Tigers come back from a 24-0 deficit to beat the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa -- one of the great victories in Auburn history, and one of the most ghastly losses in Alabama history.
Later that night, Boise busts out in Reno. Senior kicker Kyle Brotzman pushes a 26-yard field goal attempt inches wide on the last play of regulation, then misses another short one in overtime and the Broncos are shocked by Nevada. It's their first regular-season loss since 2007, and it ends the most compelling run a non-AQ school has made at a national title in the BCS era.
The next day, TCU puts the wraps on a 12-0 season by demolishing New Mexico. But the Horned Frogs, now the lone unbeaten other than Auburn and Oregon, will need help to break into the top two. The help will not come.
Next stop, The Loophole.
On Dec. 1, the NCAA sets Cam Newton free. For the time being.
Auburn and NCAA investigators agree that Cecil Newton violated NCAA rules. But in a ruling that drew nationwide condemnation and mockery, the punishment is superfluous. Lacking sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or Auburn knew about the pay-for-play scheme, the quarterback's eligibility is restored one day after it was secretly revoked.
Newton is free to play against South Carolina in the SEC championship game. And, unless something new and damning arises, he is free to play thereafter, as well.
Next stop: Corvallis, Dec. 4. One last hurdle for the Oregon Ducks, as rival Oregon State is all that stands between them and a shot at their first national title. The Beavers are hanging around, down 16-7, and have forced an Oregon punt.
That's when Chip Kelly continued a 2010 running theme: coaches taking gambles. He called for a fake punt, and upback Michael Clay took a short snap 64 yards. That set up a touchdown to make it 23-7, and the Ducks had all the points they needed to proceed to the national title game.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Auburn is doing its part. Regardless of how you feel about Newton, his ability to play brilliantly through a fairly unprecedented controversy is incredible. He caps an extraordinary season by tearing apart South Carolina, throwing for four touchdowns and running for two and prancing around the Georgia Dome like he owns the place.
Cam Newton will be in New York on Saturday for the Heisman presentation, almost assuredly joined by Oregon running back LaMichael James -- who is on probation after an altercation last spring with his girlfriend. Then, next month, their teams will play for the national title.
For a season that began with rule-breaking and controversy, this ending seems fitting. Unsettling, but fitting.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.