Oregon and Auburn are two pretty special teams - and not just because of their prolific, high-powered offenses. Both schools have reached the top stage quicker than anyone should’ve expected under the circumstances.
Why do I say that? Well, both the Ducks and the Tigers are led by quarterbacks in their first year as the starter (Darron Thomas and Cam Newton, respectively) and coaches in their second year at the helm (Chip Kelly and Gene Chizik, respectively). That’s pretty remarkable -- coaches don’t generally implement their system and identify the players they need that efficiently, regardless of how much talent is already in the program. And having a field general who’s adjusting to running the team for the first time and trying to earn respect in the locker room makes it even tougher.
Yet both teams have overcome the odds to put themselves in position to capture college football’s greatest prize.
Title-winning teams are usually built on experience and stability, the culmination of the hard work an established coach recruiting a strong class that gels and matures over four years. In fact, just five other teams in the Heisman Trophy era (since 1934) have ended the season ranked No. 1 featuring head coaches in their first or second year at the school and quarterbacks in their first or second year as the starter. These are the five, starting with the most recent.
No. 5: 2002 Ohio State
It seems like Jim Tressel has been roaming the sidelines at the Horseshoe for longer than a decade -- mainly because it didn’t take The Sweater Vest long to establish himself at Ohio State. Tressel’s first team in Columbus went 7-5, but the 2002 squad was ranked No. 13 in the preseason and added true freshman sensation Maurice Clarett. Junior quarterback Craig Krenzel threw for 2,110 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year as the starter and protected the football, but it was Clarett’s show. The season had two distinct halves: the first seven games, when Ohio State never scored fewer than 23 points and beat six teams by double digits, and the last seven, when five of the Buckeyes’ wins were by a touchdown or less. But Ohio State kept finding ways to win, ending its perfect season with the miraculous upset over Miami in the national title game.
No. 4: 2001 Miami
A coach can’t be handed a better situation than Butch Davis the one left Larry Coker after jumping to the NFL. The 2001 Hurricanes had no fewer than six first-round picks at the end of the year and featured the likes of Andre Johnson, Bryant McKinnie, Jeremy Shockey, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Sean Taylor, Willis McGahee ... you get the idea. At that point, it doesn’t really matter who’s coaching or quarterbacking. Junior Ken Dorsey had a 23-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his second year as the starting QB, and Coker, in his first, managed to not mess anything up. Miami was only really challenged twice -- an 18-7 win at Boston College and a 26-24 squeaker at Virginia Tech -- before crushing Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to secure the championship that seemed inevitable in September.
No. 3: 2000 Oklahoma
That’s right. This impressive feat happened three straight years at the beginning of the decade after occurring only twice in the previous 65 years. This team, Bob Stoops' second at Oklahoma, might’ve been the most unlikely on this list to win the national title. The Sooners had a winning record only once in the past six years and hadn't won 10 since 1987. But Oklahoma proved itself with an impressive three-game stretch in the middle of the season when it beat No. 11 Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska by a combined score of 135-58. Senior quarterback Josh Heupel made the most of his only chance to start, throwing for nearly 3,400 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for seven more scores. The Sooners smothered Florida State 13-2 in the Orange Bowl to capture their first championship in 15 years.
No. 2: 1989 Miami
Miami coaches have a history of leaving behind loaded rosters for their successors. Dennis Erickson inherited a team that had finished first or second in four of the previous six years and guided the Hurricanes to another championship. Junior Craig Erickson was passable in his first year as the primary field general, with 16 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. That squad also had future Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta as a freshman that filled in for an injured Erickson a couple of times and broke a school record with 485 yards in one of his three starts. Miami had maybe the best pair of defensive tackles in history with future top-3 picks Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland. Though the Hurricanes dropped a game during the regular season, they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish the year ranked first.
No. 1: 1942 Ohio State
Before Paul Brown became famous as the coach of the Cleveland Browns, he made a name for himself in three seasons at Ohio State. Brown’s high-powered offense only scored less than 20 points once in his second season: a 17-7 loss to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes’ only defeat. Junior George Lynn quarterbacked the Buckeyes, though the real stars were future Heisman Trophy winner and wingback Les Horvath and tackle Charles Csuri. Ohio State didn’t end up playing in a bowl game yet were still awarded the school’s first national championship.
It’s pretty clear that Auburn has joined some very select company -- and be deserving of that company. It’s also worth pointing out that only one of the coaches on the above list (Dennis Erickson) won a second title at his respective school, though Stoops and Tressel aren’t done yet. So make sure to savor Monday night, Tigers fans. Seasons like this don’t happen often.