National and Big 12 Recap

Ohio State won its fifth national title at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, defeating Miami, 31-24, in two overtimes. The 2nd-ranked Buckeyes, 13-point underdogs to the Hurricanes, were led by freshman running back Maurice Clarett. Clarett scored on a five-yard run in Ohio State’s second overtime possession, and when Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the 14-0 Buckeyes were the nation’s only undefeated team. In defeating Miami, Ohio State captured its first title – and the Big Ten’s first outright title – in 34 years. The Buckeyes also snapped the Hurricanes 34-game winning streak, the nation’s third longest such streak since 1950.

The Heisman Trophy in 2002 went to USC quarterback Carson Palmer, who led the Trojans to an 11-2 record and a No. 4 final ranking.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma captured its second conference title in three years, dominating Colorado, 29-7, in the title game played in Houston. The Sooners went on to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in school history, defeating Washington State, 34-14, to finish 12-2 and garnering a No. 5 final ranking. Joining Oklahoma in the top ten were two other Big 12 competitors. The Texas Longhorns finished No. 6 after completing an 11-2 campaign with a 35-20 win over LSU in the Cotton Bowl. Kansas State, meanwhile, finished at No. 7 after defeating Arizona State, 34-27, in the Holiday Bowl. Only one other Big 12 team finished with a national ranking, that being Colorado, in at No. 20 after a 30-27 overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Alamo Bowl.

While four Big 12 teams were ranked in the final top 25, four other conference schools went bowling. Texas Tech finished 9-5 after defeating Clemson, 55-15, in the Tangerine Bowl. Iowa State, 6-1 and ranked 9th in the nation early in the season, limped home with a 7-7 record after falling, 34-16, to Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl. Oklahoma State, sky-high after defeating rival Oklahoma for the second consecutive year, completed an 8-5 season with a 33-23 win over Southern Mississippi in the Houston Bowl. Nebraska, a preseason top ten team, and ranked as high as No. 8 in September, completed a 7-7 season with a 27-23 loss to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl. It was the first non-winning season for the Husker Nation since 1961.

Preseason – 2002

The 2001 season had been a roller coaster ride for Colorado. Rising from the depths of a season-opening loss to Fresno State, the Buffs ran off five straight wins. Appearing to have their ship corrected, the Buffs stumbled badly in Austin against Texas. Left for dead, the Buffs again ran off five straight wins, including victories for the history and memory books over Nebraska and Texas. Finally, with an outside chance at a most unusual national championship, Colorado fell flat in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon.

What, then, to make of the defending Big 12 champions?

Would they again rise to the occasion, becoming the first-ever repeat champions of the Big 12? Or would the burden of higher expectations be too much to overcome? The personnel would be there, but what of the senior leadership which, after a heart-breaking season-ending loss to Nebraska in 2000, had led the Buffs from a 3-8 record to a 10-3 championship season?

On offense, the question marks were in the offensive line and at wide receiver. Gone to the NFL were All-Americans Andre Gurode and Victor Rogers from the line, along with all-world tight end Daniel Graham. The line did return three starters: senior center Wayne Lucier; senior tackle Justin Bates, and junior guard Marwan Hage. Quinn Sypniewski and Beau Williams would attempt to fill Graham’s shoes at tight end.

The receivers had only junior Derek McCoy returning as a proven starter. Junior John Donahue looked to be the starter on the other side, with transfer D.J. Hackett and several freshman vying for playing time. Donohoe was optimistic, stating, “I think the coaches are confident in me; I just want to make the big plays more often.”

The offensive backfield was an embarrassment of talent.

Junior quarterback Craig Ochs, returning from what for him was a disappointing 2001 season, was ready to take his game “to the next level”, according to coaches. Due to injuries, Ochs had missed most of Colorado’s run to the Big 12 title, and was anxious to prove his leadership. Behind him was possibly the best backfield in the nation. Juniors Chris Brown and Bobby Purify would share time with sophomore Marcus Houston. Both Brown and Purify had surpassed 900 yards in 2001, and everyone was anxious to see what an injury-free season for Marcus Houston would produce. Setting the stage for the trio was senior fullback Brandon Drumm, looking to receive All-American recognition for his blocking skills. As Chris Brown put it: “You just follow (number) 33 and he’ll lead the way. Drumm’s pretty much punishing somebody, somewhere.”

The defensive line finished the spring as a work in progress.

Senior Tyler Brayton was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, and was seeming to flourish in his new roll. Three juniors, Gabe Nyenhuis, Marques Harris, and DeAndre Fluellen looked to fill the remaining three spots in the line. The changes in the line prompted defensive line coach Chris Wilson to declare, “I don’t talk about D-tackle or D-end anymore. I’ve just got D-linemen.”

The bright spot for the Buffs on defense was at linebacker, where several candidates for conference and national honors would suit up. Senior Drew Wahlroos moved from the outside to the inside, while senior Joey Johnson made the reverse position change. Johnson would battle senior Kory Mossini for playing time in the fall. The other linebacker position would be manned by junior Sean Tufts, who had a breakout season in 2001.

The secondary, once again, would be a question mark for the Buffs. Seniors Donald Strickland and Rod Sneed returned, along with juniors Medford Moorer and Phil Jackson. But this group had allowed a number of big plays in 2001, and had lost senior safety Michael Lewis to the NFL.

The kicking game was set, with senior Mark Mariscal returning at punter, and senior Pat Brougham moving from kickoffs to place kicker. The spring concluded without a named kick returner to replace Roman Hollowell, but a number of candidates were available.

The schedule was onerous, but not insurmountable. The Buffs again opened the CSU in Denver. The Rams were coming off of a 7-5 season, but were picked by most publications to win the Mountain West Conference in 2002. Colorado would then play San Diego State and USC in Boulder. The Aztecs did not appear to pose a threat, and the book was still out on the Trojans. USC had stumbled to a 6-6 record in 2001, but Southern Cal in 2002 was expected to compete for the Pac-10 title behind senior quarterback Carson Palmer and second-year head coach Pete Carroll.

After three games in the state of Colorado, the Buffs would travel to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA. Like USC, the Bruins were an unknown quantity heading into the season. After a 6-0 start to the 2001 campaign, the Bruins had stumbled badly, falling to 7-4.

In conference, the Buffs traded out games with Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State for games with Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma. Overall, the Big 12 looked to start the season where it left off in 2001, with Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado all ranked in the top ten in the country. Also looking for national recognition would be Texas A&M, Kansas State, Texas Tech, and Iowa State.

When the preseason Associated Press poll came out, the Buffs were ranked 7th. Of Colorado’s opponents, only three were ranked – Oklahoma (#2), Nebraska (#10), and USC (#20). From the Big 12, the only other school receiving preseason recognition was Texas, ranked 4th.

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