2001 – National and Big 12 Recap

The Miami Hurricanes won the 2001 national championship, doing so in convincing fashion.  The Hurricanes, under first-year head coach Larry Coker, finished the season 12-0, the nation’s only undefeated team. Miami capped its unblemished season with a 37-14 demolition of Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.

Finding a worthy opponent for Miami to play in the Rose Bowl was left for the Bowl Championship Series computers, and – arguably – the computers failed to live up to the challenge.

Nebraska, despite not winning its Big 12 conference title (or even the North Division), edged out Colorado by .05 points in the BCS computations for the opportunity to face the Hurricanes as the No. 2 BCS team.  That the Cornhuskers did not justify the invitation in the lopsided loss to the Hurricanes left Colorado and Oregon, No. 3 and No. 4 in the BCS standings, to ponder what might have been.  The Ducks, 11-1 and Pac-10 Conference champions, took out their frustrations by dismantling Colorado, 38-16, in the Fiesta Bowl to finish No. 2 in the nation.

Despite lopsided losses in BCS bowl games, the Big 12 had a banner year.

Colorado won its first and only Big 12 championship with a 39-37 win over Texas to lead four Big 12 teams into the top ten of the final rankings.  The Buffs finished the 2001 campaign with a 10-3 overall record and a  No. 9 ranking.  Nebraska started the year with an 11-0 run and a No. 1 ranking before stumbling badly down the stretch.  Nebraska dropped its last two games by a combined score of 99-50, including a 62-36 loss to Colorado.

Still, the Cornhuskers could boast of their third Heisman trophy winner, quarterback Eric Crouch, and a final ranking of  No. 8.  Texas, a 47-43 winner over Washington in the Holiday Bowl, finished 11-2 and was ranked fifth.  Defending national champion Oklahoma completed its 11-2 season with a 10-3 win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, garnering a No. 6 final ranking.

In all, the Big 12 sent eight teams bowling.

Texas Tech fell to Iowa, 19-16, in the Alamo Bowl to finish 7-5.  Kansas State succumbed to Syracuse, 26-3, in the Insight.com Bowl to complete its season 6-6.  Texas A&M wound up with an 8-4 record after posting a 28-9 win over TCU in the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl, while Iowa State ended its season with a 14-13 loss to Alabama in the Independence Bowl to complete a 7-5 campaign.

Other than the four teams in the top ten, no other Big 12 team finished 2001 with a national ranking.

Preseason – 2001

Coming off of a 3-8 record in 2000, Colorado had to dig deep to find cause for justifiable optimism.

The Buffs tried to put a good spin on the 2000 debacle, pointing out how Colorado had faced the fourth toughest schedule in the nation during the year, including seven bowl teams.  The apologists went on to point out how Colorado had actually led in five of its eight losses, and six of the eight losses were by eight points or less.  A bounce here and a bounce there, the argument went, and who knows how the season may have turned out?

Still, 3-8 was 3-8.

The Buffs’ 2000 record was the worst in 16 years, and the 2001 schedule did not promise any easy wins.

The season opener was against Fresno State in the inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic.  The Bulldogs were predicted to win the Western Athletic Conference.  Up next were the Rams of Colorado State, winners of the previous two Rocky Mountain Showdowns.  In addition to carrying the burden of losing two straight to their in-state rivals, the Buffs knew that the Rams were coming into the game as defending Mountain West Conference champions, with predictions for similar success in 2001.

The remaining non-conference foes, San Jose State and Washington State, were not receiving much national attention, but had the potential to be dangerous.

If Colorado could survive the non-conference slate, the Big 12 was not doing CU any favors, again putting the Buffs in harms way.  After opening the conference campaign against Kansas, the Buffs had to face Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Texas in succession.  All three of those teams figured to be ranked in the national polls.

The good news for the Buffs was that almost everyone who played for Colorado in 2000 returned in 2001.  Only seven seniors who had lettered in 2000 were lost.  At the same time, 16 players made their first career start during the 3-8 campaign (tying for third most in the last 17 seasons), and ten true freshmen saw action in 2000, the most in CU history since at least the early 1950’s.

Leading the Buffs’ offense was sophomore quarterback Craig Ochs.

Named starter midway through the 2000 season, Ochs set numerous freshman records in passing for 1,778 yards and seven touchdowns.  The running game had a number of talented backs, led by senior Cortlen Johnson and freshman Marcus Houston.  Houston had dazzled in his first three games in 2000 before being injured, and had been granted a medical red-shirt year.  The medical red-shirt meant that Houston would still have four years of eligibility remaining to play for Colorado. If Houston was not ready to return to form, Bobby Purify and Chris Brown were primed to make names for themselves.

The receiving corps would be manned by seniors John Minardi, Roman Hollowell, and Cedric Cormier.  Minardi was expected to see the most passes, while Hollowell’s primary contributions would come by way of kickoff and punt returns.  The wideouts would be complimented by senior tight end Daniel Graham.  Graham already possessed numerous team receiving records, and was poised to pass his position coach, Jon Embree, for several more.

The offense, though, would only go as far as the offensive line could carry it.

Thin and inexperienced in 2000, the line was anchored by All-Big 12 and All-American candidate guard Andre Gurode (the Buff senior was listed on no fewer than five preseason All-American teams, as was listed as a preseason candidate for the Nagurski Award, given annually to the nation’s top interior lineman).  Fellow senior Victor Rogers lined up next to Gurode at tackle, spearheading a line which looked to be much improved from 2000.

The defense was led by pre-season All-American linebacker Jashon Sykes.

Sykes had made second-team All-American as a sophomore before slumping in 2000.  Sykes came into the 2001 campaign ready to show his detractors that he was a talent who could play on Sundays in the future.  To assist Sykes was a defensive front led by senior defensive tackle Justin Bannan, while senior safety Michael Lewis took on the task of leading the suspect secondary.

In 2000, Colorado’s defense had surrendered an average of 422.1 yards per game, 2nd worst in the Big 12, and a lowly 99th in the nation.  For the Buffs to improve, the defense would have to step up.

Colorado’s head coach Gary Barnett chose to see the Buffs’ cup as half full.

At a meeting of Big 12 coaches in Dallas in July, Barnett was asked if he felt his team could rebound and be considered as a dark-horse for the league title.  “Naw, we’re better than a dark-horse,” Barnett replied.  “We’re a contender.  We fully expect to be back in Dallas on December 1st (for the Big 12 Championship game).”  Barnett conceded that his prediction would raise some eyebrows, suggesting, “Now that’s a sound bite.”

Barnett carried his bold statement a step further, taking senior captains Andre Gurode and Michael Lewis, who were on hand for the media event, on a tour of Texas Stadium, site of the league title game, before returning to Boulder.

Nationally, the prognosticators either believed Barnett, or allowed the Buffs to live off of the goodwill of the past decade.  Despite coming off of a 3-8 season, the Buffs nearly cracked the 2001 preseason poll, coming in with enough votes to be listed at 27th.

Overall, the Florida Gators received enough support to be tabbed as the No. 1 team in the nation, but Miami was right behind.  In fact, Miami received more first place votes than Florida (33-20), but was listed at No. 2 based on overall points.  Defending national champion Oklahoma was picked to be the No. 3 team in the nation, receiving ten first place votes, followed closely by two Big 12 rivals.  Nebraska came in at No. 4 (four first place votes), with Texas being ranked No. 5 (five first place votes).  The only other Big 12 team to receive national recognition in the preseason poll was Kansas State, ranked 13th.

In addition to Nebraska, Texas, and Kansas State, the only team on Colorado’s 2001 schedule ranked in the preseason poll was Colorado State, tabbed as the 24th-best team in the nation.  As a result, while it was a tough slate, the Buffs’ 2001 schedule seemed easier than the one which had led to four opening losses in 2000.  In fact, a 5-0 opening run prior to hitting the KSU, Texas, Texas A&M trifecta seemed plausible.

It was a new year.  The Buffs had a stable full of returning talent.  The schedule was less arduous.  Perhaps the No. 27 ranking wasn’t out of line.  Perhaps there was reason for optimism.

Then the Buffs played their first game …

Here is a YouTube video highlight reel for the 2001 season … 


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