2001 – Game 14 – Colorado v. Oregon – January 1, 2002 – Fiesta Bowl
When the Associated Press poll came out the weekend after the Colorado win over Texas game, in the Big 12 championship game, the Buffs had moved up from #9 in the polls to #4. Ahead of the Buffs were unanimous #1 Miami, #2 Tennessee (up from #5 after defeating then #2 Florida), and #3 Oregon. Just behind the Buffs at #5 was Nebraska. In the Bowl Championship Series standings, Miami and Tennessee were #1 and #2, followed by Nebraska and Colorado.
The only game of consequence left to be played was the Southeastern Conference championship game. #2 Tennessee was set to play #21 LSU, the surprise winner of the SEC West. All Tennessee had to do was take care of business, handle the Tigers, and the Rose Bowl would match #1 Miami v. #2 Tennessee. The BCS would have fulfilled its role of placing the best two teams in a championship game.
In a season where nothing seemed to go according to form, the two-touchdown underdog Tigers handled Tennessee, 31-20, to win the SEC title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Miami was a lock for the Rose Bowl. What was left for the BCS was to pick an opponent for the Hurricanes from amongst three less than perfect candidates:
1) #2 Oregon. 10-1 on the season. Pac-10 champions. But the Ducks had only defeated one ranked BCS team, defeating Washington State, 24-17, losing to its other ranked BCS opponent, Stanford, 49-42. Strength of schedule all but eliminated the Ducks in the eyes of the computers;
2) #3 Colorado. 10-2 on the season. Big 12 champions. But the Buffs had two losses, and no team had ever played for the national championship with two losses, much less ever won the title. Still, Colorado was the hottest team in the nation, having just knocked off two top five teams, Nebraska and Texas, in successive weeks; or
3) #4 Nebraska. 11-1 on the season. The #1 team in the nation for a good portion of the season, the Cornhuskers had only one blemish on their record. But what a blemish it was – a 62-36 thrashing by Colorado. How could the computers put a team in the national title game which had not even won its own conference? Or even its own division?
When the final BCS standings were announced December 10th, the answer came – Nebraska. The Cornhuskers out-pointed the Buffs by the minuscule margin of .005. The final score, once the polls, computers, strength of schedule, and quality wins were tallied, stood at: Nebraska, 7.23; Colorado, 7.28. Nebraska would play Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
How small was the final margin? As it turned out, the Tennessee/LSU game was not the only important game played on the last weekend of the season. In a game made up from the lost weekend after September 11th, TCU upset Southern Mississippi by two points. If TCU, Nebraska’s opening game opponent, had lost, Nebraska’s strength of schedule would have dropped by .28, more than enough to put Colorado into the Rose Bowl. A review of the season’s results produced a series of similar “what if?” scenarios, but it no longer mattered. Nebraska was in; Colorado and Oregon were out.
“It’s hard to be gracious at this moment,” said Gary Barnett after the announcement, “but we will obviously accept and be excited about playing Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.” CU running back Bobby Purify echoed the players’ sentiments, “It’s disappointing because we feel we are a better team than Nebraska. We feel we are better than most teams right now. We’re just going to have to go out and play well against Oregon and prove to the nation how good we really are.”
And what about the Oregon Ducks? A conference champion (unlike Nebraska) with only one loss (unlike Colorado), many felt that the Ducks were the recipient of the greatest slight. “I thought this morning we were in,” said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. “I saw both polls and knew we were #2 in both polls. I thought, ‘What a great deal’. I was gut shot when I watched the TV and saw it.”
Talk began almost immediately of a split national title. If Miami defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, there would be a unanimous choice. If Nebraska were to upset the Hurricanes, however, there was room for a split. The USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ poll was obligated to award its national championship to the winner of the Rose Bowl. The writers for the Associated Press poll, however, had no such contractual obligation. With #2 Oregon facing #3 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, the possibility remained that the winner of the Fiesta Bowl would be awarded a piece of the national championship pie.
On New Year’s Day, 2002, one team in the Fiesta Bowl played like it wanted to prove it deserved to play in Pasadena.
Unfortunately for Buff fans, that team was Oregon.
January 1, 2002 – Fiesta Bowl #2 Oregon 38, #3 Colorado 16
Oregon gave the nation reason to wonder if the nation’s second best team had been given the opportunity to play Miami in the Rose Bowl, dominating Colorado, 38-16. Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns as the Ducks routed what had been the nation’s hottest team. “We made a statement today,” said Harrington, “We showed we deserved to be playing for a share of the national championship.”
After Colorado seized a 7-0 first quarter lead on a one-yard plunge by fullback Brandon Drumm, Oregon scored the next 38 points. Receiver Sammie Parker caught nine passes for 162 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put the Ducks up for good. In routing the Buffs, the Ducks never had a touchdown drive longer than three minutes.
The Buffs did have their chances. With the score tied 7-7, the Buffs had the ball at the Oregon 40-yard line. The Duck defense held on second-and-two and third-and-one, though, and the Buffs were forced to punt. One play after the CU punt, Harrington hit Parker for a 79-yard score and the game’s momentum was shifted for good.
That Joey Harrington had success against the CU secondary was not a complete surprise. What was unexpected was how the Oregon defense, ranked 81st in the nation, shut down the Buffs. Colorado was held to 49 yards rushing, forcing the Buffs to throw. Neither Bobby Pesavento nor Craig Ochs could generate any success through the air, combining for three interceptions. “Oregon did not get our best shot tonight … and I don’t have an explanation,” said Gary Barnett. “They stepped up to the challenge,” said Buffs’ receiver and return man Roman Hollowell. “We’d been running the ball really well, and they just stopped us.”
Some 18,000 CU fans made the trip, but had little to cheer for on the afternoon. The 38-16 setback was the Buffs’ worst ever in a bowl game, and put an end to a six game winning streak for Colorado in bowl games. Still, the 10-3 record was much better than had been forecast, and the Buffs were not going to dwell on their last game. “Obviously, we’re disappointed but at the same time we’re not going to throw away everything good that happened away because of this loss,” said senior safety Robbie Robinson. “I refuse to look back on this season and my experience as a Buffalo and characterize it by this loss.”
Fiesta Bowl – Postscript
Oregon’s hopes of sharing the national title were quickly doused a few days later as Miami throttled Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, 37-14, to claim an undisputed national championship. On the heels of their embarrassing losses, the Cornhuskers and Buffs fell to #8 and #9 in the final polls, falling behind Big 12 rivals Texas and Oklahoma, which finished #5 and #6, respectively.
The Buffs had a large senior class which had led them to the Big 12 championship. This meant that the Buffs would have a number of holes to fill for 2002, especially on the offensive line, in the defensive secondary, and at wide receiver. The good news was that the Buffs were able to parlay their Big 12 title into one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
The cycle was set to begin anew. For Gary Barnett and the Buffs, the questions heading into the 2002 campaign would be tough: Was the 2001 season portend of great things to come, or an aberration? Would Craig Ochs rise to the challenge? Would the re-built secondary be able to handle the passing offenses it would face in 2002 opponents such as CSU, UCLA, Texas Tech and Oklahoma? Would the loss of two great offensive linemen in Andre Gurode and Victor Rogers (and their coach, Steve Marshall) reduce the rushing opportunities for CU’s stable of running backs?
Still, considering that the questions coming into the 2001 campaign centered on the possibilities of mustering a winning season and the future of Gary Barnett as the CU head coach, such questions were tolerable. After all, the Buffs had the entire off-season to bask in the glow of their new title – Big 12 Champions.
- The Buffs did not score in the second quarter of the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, marking the first time in 16 quarters that Colorado did not score, dating back to the first quarter of the 1996 Cotton Bowl (ironically enough, also against Oregon. The Buffs did recover from the first quarter drought in 1996, though, blowing out the Ducks, 38-6).
- Colorado entered the Fiesta Bowl in 2002 on a six game bowl win streak. With the loss, the Buffs’ string, sixth-longest all-time, came to a close.
- The 22-point loss to Oregon marked the largest margin of defeat for the program in a bowl. The worst defeat prior to the Fiesta Bowl was a 24-3 setback to Auburn in the 1972 Gator Bowl.