January 19, 2011

Buchanan: Twenty offbeat stories for 2010

In many ways, the 2010 season could be classified as a breakthrough year.

Auburn broke out of a drought and won its first national championship since 1957. Ohio State broke a nine-game losing streak to SEC teams in bowls. Michigan State broke through and won a share of the Big Ten championship for the first time in 20 years. Texas just broke down, ending a nine-year streak of 10-win seasons and failing to reach a bowl for the first time since 1997.

Yet, those stories -- even Auburn's national title -- were almost overshadowed in a controversial and sad season in which rules, laws and hearts were broken.

Key players were forced to sit out games and, in some instances, the entire season. Others were allowed to play despite committing similar transgressions.

Some star players were dismissed from their teams after running afoul of the law. A coach was disciplined for instructing players to fake injuries. One of the game's greatest coaches walked away. Another decided to keep going.

A coach survived a heart attack, but tragically three programs grieved when students did not survive accidents or illness.

We've touched on on-field successes and disappointments in our season-ending league breakdowns. Here's a final look at 20 offbeat stories -- some controversial, some tragic, some humorous, all memorable -- from the 2010 season:

In early November a report surfaced that Auburn quarterback Cam Newton's father, Cecil, had demanded $180,000 from Mississippi State for his son to play there. Cameron Newton denied having any knowledge. There was no evidence that the Newton family ever received money, but NCAA rules stipulate that if a player or anyone representing a player sought illegal benefits, that player would be ruled ineligible. While Auburn eventually ruled Newton ineligible, the NCAA immediately restored his eligibility, though it said its investigation would continue. Newton went on to win the Heisman and led Auburn to the national championship.

Several players at various schools were suspended after it was learned they had attended an agent-sponsored party in Miami. Among the casualties of "Agentgate" were North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin and defensive end Robert Quinn and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, who were suspended for the entire season. Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus was suspended for two games. The matter outraged coaches, especially Alabama's Nick Saban, who compared the agents to pimps and called for the NFL to take action against agents who preyed on athletes. Curiously, there seemed little to no outrage directed at the players who violated NCAA rules by accepting free travel and lodging to attend the party.

Georgia's A.J. Green, one of the best receivers in the nation, came under scrutiny because it was said he attended that infamous Miami party. But Green wasn't there and had pictures to prove it. But the NCAA found Green guilty of selling his '09 Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000, a violation of NCAA rules. He was suspended for the first four games of the season (Georgia went 1-3 in them). That punishment seemed to make sense until

Five Ohio State players -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas -- were found to have exchanged memorabilia for cash and services in violation of NCAA rules. The NCAA handed down five-game suspensions -- but announced the suspensions wouldn't take effect until next season. All five played in the Sugar Bowl and had major roles in the Buckeyes' 31-26 victory over Arkansas, Ohio State's first bowl win in 10 tries against an SEC team.

Florida coach Urban Meyer retired for the second consecutive year -- but this time, he meant it. Citing a desire to spend more time with family, Meyer announced he was resigning in early December, though he stayed on to coach the Gators to a win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. Health issues also were a concern for Meyer, who last year resigned for one day before changing his mind. Florida hired Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as Meyer's replacement.

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster confronted Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema for opting to go for a two-point conversion with a 25-point lead. Brewster was fired days later. Colorado blew a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter against Kansas, and coach Dan Hawkins was fired soon after. Those programs were among 20 that have made coaching changes this offseason. That doesn't include West Virginia, which hired Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen as the coach-in-waiting; Holgorsen takes over in 2012. And Pittsburgh is counted just once, though it fired two coaches this offseason -- Dave Wannstedt in early December and Mike Haywood, who was hired away from Miami (Ohio) to replace Wannstedt, on Jan. 1 after he was involved in a domestic-violence incident. Pitt's new coach -- for now, anyway -- is Todd Graham, who had been in charge at Tulsa.

Despite all the coaching changes, at least one thing remained constant: Joe Paterno, 84, remains at Penn State. He announced his intentions of returning in 2011 for a 46th season as the Nittany Lions' head coach. Penn State lost to Florida in the Outback Bowl in Meyer's last game. Meyer is 46, meaning he was 1 when Paterno became Penn State's head coach.

The conference shuffling that began in the offseason with Nebraska announcing it would join the Big Ten and Utah and Colorado joining the Pac-10 continued during the season. The Mountain West, which already had lured Boise State away from the WAC, extended membership invitations to Fresno State and Nevada in August (later, the league added Hawaii, as well). The WAC sued those programs, forcing them to wait until 2012 to join the MWC. Meanwhile, the WAC announced it will add FCS members Texas-San Antonio and Texas State for football in 2012. BYU announced it would leave the Mountain West to go independent. Finally, on Nov. 30, TCU announced it was leaving the MWC to join the Big East in 2012.

In late November, Ohio State president Gordon Gee, an outspoken opponent of a playoff, said that teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences don't deserve a shot at the national championship because they face inferior competition. "We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day," Gee said. TCU, a member of the non-AQ Mountain West, completed an undefeated season with a 21-19 victory over Big Ten tri-champion Wisconsin, a team that defeated Ohio State 31-18. Afterward, electronic billboards appeared in Columbus congratulating TCU for its Rose Bowl victory. The message was signed, "Little Sisters of the Poor."

Rutgers junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down while trying to make a tackle on a kickoff return during an Oct. 16 game against Army. He had nine hours of emergency surgery to stabilize his spine after two vertebrae were fractured. He has made progress and has regained some movement in his shoulders and feeling in his hands.

That wasn't the only tragedy. On Sept. 6, Wyoming freshman linebacker Ruben Narcisse was killed in a car crash; three other Wyoming players were injured in the accident. On Oct. 27, Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan, a videographer who taped practice sessions for the Irish football team, was killed when the hydraulic scissor lift he was on toppled over during strong winds. On Nov. 2, Mississippi State redshirt freshman defensive end Nick Bell -- who had started two games earlier in the season -- died of cancer.

Fortunately, there was good medical news, too. Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, the 2008 ACC defensive player of the year, returned to the field after missing the '09 season while undergoing treatment for a rare form of bone cancer. Herzlich helped the Eagles post a 7-6 record by notching 65 tackles and grabbing four interceptions.

Just hours after Michigan State scored a touchdown off a fake field goal to beat Notre Dame 34-31 in overtime on Sept. 18, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack. Dantonio had surgery to have a stent put in a blocked blood vessel. He returned to the sideline for the Spartans' Oct. 9 game against archrival Michigan. The Spartans prevailed 34-17 and went on to share the Big Ten championship with Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini blew a gasket -- maybe two -- during the Huskers' 9-6 loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 20. His first tirade was directed at officials for calling 16 penalties against the Huskers. One of them was on Pelini for unsportsmanlike conduct. He also screamed at quarterback Taylor Martinez, who apparently phoned his father from the sideline. The scene was so distasteful that Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman voiced his displeasure with the coach and said it was an issue that had to be addressed. Pelini later apologized.

While other frustrated opponents had difficulty finding a way to slow Oregon's high-powered, fast-paced offense, California got creative. Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi instructed nose tackle Aaron Tipoti to fake an injury. Video hit the internet showing Tipoti moving to his position, looking to the sideline, then collapsing onto the field. Cal suspended Lupoi for a game as punishment.

Three replay-booth staffers, including a BYU employee, were suspended by the Mountain West Conference for botching a replay review that helped BYU defeat San Diego State 24-21 on Oct. 9. Replay clearly showed BYU RB JJ Di Luigi's knees were not on the ground when he lost a fumble that San Diego State recovered. But the replay crew incorrectly ruled that his knees had touched. BYU scored five plays later to take a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

Boise State was ranked fourth on Nov. 26 and appeared headed for a BCS game. The Broncos only needed a short field goal to stave off an upset bid by Nevada. But usually reliable Kyle Brotzman, who had converted 14-of-18 field goals at that point in the season, missed from 26 yards in the final seconds of regulation. In overtime, Brotzman -- who had become the leading scorer in WAC history earlier in the season -- missed from 29 yards, and Nevada went on to win 34-31. Boise State settled for a bid to the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, where the Broncos crushed Utah 26-3 to finish 12-1.

Twice Tennessee celebrated what appeared to be last-second wins only to lose when time was put back on the clock. The first occurred Oct. 2 when LSU, at the Volunteers' 1-yard line, botched a snap as time ran out. But Tennessee had too many players on the field. Given another play, LSU's Stevan Ridley scored on a 1-yard run for a 16-14 win. In the Music City Bowl, an official ruled the game over after North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates frantically tried to get the Tar Heels lined up for a clock-stopping spike. But replay officials ruled that a second still was on the clock when Yates spiked the football. That allowed Casey Barth to kick a tying 39-yard field goal to force overtime, and the Tar Heels eventually won 30-27.

Just before the season began, Texas coach Mack Brown asserted that the 2010 Longhorns defense could be the best he had had in his 13 seasons in Austin. Turns out the Longhorns struggled in run defense and had difficulty forcing turnovers. The offense had even bigger issues. As a result, Texas' streak of nine consecutive 10-win seasons came to an end, and one season after playing for the national title, the Longhorns failed to reach a bowl game after a 5-7 finish.

For the first time in history, all three service academies appeared in bowl games in the same season. Navy went 9-4 and lost to San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Army finished 7-6 and defeated SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. Air Force went 9-4 and defeated Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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