2002: The Year in Review
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002
The Seminoles bumbled, the Gators tumbled and the Bulls grumbled -- about the cockamamy bowl system.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes rumbled through another unbeaten season.
Florida was a microcosm of the unpredictable, exhilarating world of college football in 2002. And this season -- and next -- we gorged on an extra game, as schools were allowed to schedule 12 in the regular season.
Here's a look at some of the memorable and pivotal moments of 2002.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY: Defensive end David Pollack set the tone for Georgia's breakthrough season Sept.14 when he beat two blockers, stripped South Carolina quarterback Corey Jenkins in the end zone and recovered the ball before it hit the ground for the winning points in a 13-7 victory. "You can't ask for a better play from a player," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "I've never seen a play like that."
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAY: FSU was looking to run out the clock and regroup in the locker room with 27 seconds to go in the first half Oct. 3 against Clemson. Running back Greg Jones had other ideas. Resembling a vintage Earl Campbell or Eddie George, Jones barreled through tacklers and went 65 yards to the 5. The Seminoles scored on the next play to take the lead at halftime on their way to a 48-31 win. "We couldn't tackle No.6," Tigers coach Tommy Bowden said of Jones.
MOST PAINFUL OCCASION: USF watched its bowl hopes evaporate Dec.6 as Cincinnati pulled away from East Carolina in the fourth quarter. Had the Bearcats lost, the 9-2 Bulls would have gone to Hawaii. Instead, they were snubbed by all 28 bowls.
MOST SPECTACULAR FINISH: The players doused coach Guy Morriss in the waning moments, and why not? Kentucky led defending SEC champion LSU on Nov.9 in Lexington. With a few seconds to go, the Tigers had the ball on their 25. At the snap, Kentucky fans stormed the field. LSU quarterback Marcus Randall launched it 65 yards. Three Wildcats defenders tipped it into the arms of LSU's Devery Henderson, who sprinted the final few yards into an end zone filled with Kentucky fans to complete one of the most incredulous Hail Marys ever.
MOST DEVASTATING FINISH: When Chris Rix fluttered a pass up for grabs and Talman Gardner outleaped two defenders to put maligned FSU in field-goal position with a chance to defeat mighty Miami on Oct.12 in the Orange Bowl, it seemed fate -- at last -- was with the Seminoles. Tampa's Xavier Beitia trotted on to attempt the winning 43-yarder. He hooked it left. Miami 28, FSU 27. A crouched Beitia, his face awash in disbelief, was the season's portrait of agony.
NOT A HEISMAN MOMENT: Iowa State's scintillating quarterback, Seneca Wallace, leaped to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy chase after his many-times-replayed, traversing touchdown run Oct.12 against Texas Tech. The Cyclones collapsed in the second half of the season, and Wallace became an afterthought.
NOT A HEISMAN MOMENT II: Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich's made-for-the-Heisman moment also was for naught. Leftwich, playing with a severe shin injury, rallied the Thundering Herd against Akron on Nov.2. The image of a gimpy Leftwich being hastily carried downfield by his lineman after completing a long pass long will be remembered, but it didn't get him invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony -- perhaps because Marshall lost the game to the sub-.500 Zips.
BEST QUOTE: USF coach Jim Leavitt, after his team defeated Houston in the season finale, on what it would take to get the independent Bulls into a bowl: "Maybe I need to run naked through the streets of Tampa with a sign that says we need to go to a bowl."
A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS: While Penn State running back Larry Johnson was enjoying a record-setting season, brother Tony experienced one of the most exasperating. The Nittany Lions wide receiver made a pair of sensational catches near the sideline -- one in overtime against Iowa, the other with less than a minute to go in regulation at Michigan -- that seemed to tilt each game toward Penn State. Replays indicated Johnson made both catches, yet both were ruled incomplete. Penn State lost both in overtime.
THE TOUCHDOWN JESUS EFFECT: Overmagnified Notre Dame didn't screw up the BCS, but the Fighting Irish did determine the Heisman winner. Carson Palmer's brilliant season finale vs. Notre Dame vaulted him to the top of a five-pack of contenders. Had Miami, instead of USC, closed its season against Notre Dame, Ken Dorsey or Willis McGahee likely would have won the Heisman. Had Iowa or Penn State ended against Notre Dame, Brad Banks or Larry Johnson probably would have won. Palmer won because of the Notre Dame mystique as much as anything else.
BIGGEST TEASE: After Florida's convincing 30-13 win in the rain Sept.21 at Tennessee, new coach Ron Zook and quarterback Rex Grossman appeared headed for big things. It didn't happen. Aside from one great win over Georgia, Florida never displayed the mojo it had in 12 seasons under Steve Spurrier.
BEST ESCAPE: Ohio State vs. Purdue ... or vs. Illinois ... or vs. Cincinnati ... or vs. Michigan. Heck, the Buckeyes even won a game without an offensive touchdown (13-7 vs. Penn State). What's next, six field goals and a safety to beat Miami 20-19 in the Fiesta Bowl?
It would be a fitting cap to a fabulous season.