Coming up with a list of the top 7 moments to feature this week in college football was brutally difficult. Some of these are a series of games, others a specific national championship, and others are an unlikely or inspirational run to a national title. For the most part, I refined this list to postseason moments, or games that decided a national championship, simply because with such an overwhelming list of possible options to feature, I decided that the ones with the biggest impact would be the ones that had championship implications.
If you only recently became a college football fan, then Ohio State being near the top of the football world isn’t anything groundbreaking. Miami being a 6-9 win team wouldn’t make front page headlines either. However, neither of these truths used to be in the land of college football, as Miami once boasted a proud dynasty, and Ohio State was, at least relatively, the upstart newcomer hoping to challenge the beast. This 2003 National Championship was not only a thriller, but it represented a dramatic changing of the guard that quite simply threw the power structure into upheaval and ended a dynasty that had been in existence for 20 years, and particularly lethal for the previous two.
The 2002 Miami team had a tough act to follow, as they succeeded the ‘01 Hurricanes that went down as one of the best teams of all time. In the prior two seasons, Miami was 23-1 with a national championship and Sugar Bowl win to their name. Their dynasty had experienced a major resurgence after a lull in their dominance. Miami won the national title in 1983, and then they finished in the Top 10 in every season from 1985-1992, collecting titles in ‘87, ‘89’, and ‘91. However, the 2002 Hurricanes were up to the challenge of following their dominant predecessors, getting off to a 5-0 start, with their closest game a 23-point victory. They beat #6 Florida in Gainesville by 25 points. They survived #9 Florida State, 28-27, and then rolled through the rest of their schedule for a 12-0 record and #1 record. They were ranked #1 in the AP Poll for all but one week of the season. Only FSU and #17 Pittsburgh (28-21) came within a possession of the Hurricanes.
The Buckeyes hardly had as much pedigree to live up to as the Hurricanes, having not finished in the Top 25 since 1998; they were also nearly 35 years removed from their last national title in 1968. Despite their 7-5 season the year before, there was a sense of optimism heading into Ohio State’s season, and they were gifted a #13 preseason ranking. Their statement win came in Week 3, as the Buckeyes hosted #10 Washington State with College GameDay and a 104,000 fans in attendance. Ohio State thumped the Huskies 25-7, letting the college football world know they were there. Although the Buckeyes didn’t cruise through their schedule with the same level of dominance as Miami, largely due to their somewhat average offense, Ohio State steadily climbed the rankings.
They survived #17 Penn State, 13-7, and throttled #23 Minnesota, 34-3. Against Purdue and Illinois, in back-to-back road games, the Buckeyes struggled but managed to eke out victories both times, beating the Boilermakers 10-6, and escaping the Illini in an overtime thriller, 23-16. That brought them into “The Game”. The Buckeyes welcomed College GameDay back to Columbus, along with 105,539 fans, and they defeated the #12 Michigan Wolverines, 14-9, clinching their spot in the Fiesta Bowl and BCS National Championship game against Miami.
The 2003 BCS Championship and Fiesta Bowl to determine the national title matched strength against strength, as Miami’s offense was an unstoppable force, posting eight games of at least 40 points, while Ohio State had given up over twenty points just once, all the way back in their season opener. Due to Ohio State’s inconsistent offense, and Miami’s pedigree, the Hurricanes entered the game as 11 ½ point favorites. Miami struck first in the first quarter on their second drive, having held the Buckeyes without a first down on their first two offensive possessions. The Hurricanes got the ball on their 48-yard line, and quarterback Ken Dorsey went to work, delivering a 28-yard pass to Kellen Winslow Jr. and then, three plays later, a 25-yard touchdown strike to Roscoe Parrish for the 7-0 lead.
Ohio State’s offense continued to struggle, picking up just one first down in the opening quarter, but their dominant defense stifled Miami, keeping the game within reach. Ohio State got an interception that put them in golden field position at the Miami 37, but they stalled after one first down and tried a fake field goal attempt, getting stuffed for no gain. However, the Buckeyes picked off Ken Dorsey yet again, as safety Mike Doss collected a deflection and returned it 35 yards to the Miami 17. It wasn’t pretty, but Ohio State finally capitalized on their defensive prowess, grinding out seventeen yards of offense and punching it in from two yards out on a 4th and 1. The game appeared destined for a 7-7 tie, but the Buckeyes forced yet another turnover out of the Hurricanes’ potent offense, as Dorsey was sacked and fumbled the ball, letting Ohio State’s Darrion Scott recover it at the Miami 14. Maurice Clarett took advantage of the short field, running it in from seven yards out and a 14-7 Ohio State lead.
The second half got off to a wild start, as the Buckeyes forced a punt and then faced a 3rd and 15 at their own 37-yard line. Ohio State’s Craig Krenzel unleashed a 57-yard bomb to Chris Gamble, putting Ohio State on the Miami 6, but Krenzel followed that up by tossing an interception. Sean Taylor picked off Krenzel and was in the midst of a big return, but Clarett caught up to him and stripped the ball, recovering it and keeping the Ohio State offense on the field. They didn’t move the ball much further, but they got close enough for Mike Nugent to knock a field goal through the uprights for a 17-7 advantage.
After a few punts, Miami got their offense rolling once more, with the Dorsey to Winsolow connection on full display. The duo worked together for two receptions for 30 yards, and Willis McGahee rolled in from nine yards out, cutting the deficit to 17-14 at the end of the third quarter. After an Ohio State punt, the two squads exchanged missed field goals, bringing the game into its final seven minutes. The Buckeyes recovered a Miami fumble, and they successfully drained the game clock to close to 2 minutes left, but then Parrish returned a punt 50 yards, giving Miami the ball at the Ohio State 26 with 2:02 left. The Hurricanes ran three plays and gained just three yards, but Todd Sievers banged a 40-yard field goal as time expired to send the game to overtime at 17-17.
Miami got the ball to start overtime, and their offense went to work, punctuated by the trusty Dorsey-Winslow connection, as the pair linked up for a 7-yard touchdown pass. A penalty, sack, and incompletion forced Ohio State into an ugly do-or-die 4th and 14. The Buckeyes came through, but not without controversy. Krenzel found Michael Jenkins for 17 yards, but replays appeared to show offensive pass interference by Jenkins, which would have forced the Buckeyes into a 4th and 24. However, it was not called, and the Ohio State drive continued. Ohio State was forced into another fourth down however, this one a more manageable 4th & 3 from the five yard line. Krenzel threw incomplete, and Miami began to storm the field, only to have their elation quashed by the field judge, who tossed a late flag for defensive pass interference. It was a controversial call to say the least, but it gave Ohio State a fresh set of downs, and three plays later, the Buckeyes punched it in.
The second overtime was just as thrilling, as Ohio State scored a touchdown to start, this time unaided by controversial penalty calls. They pounded the Miami defense with their run game, and Clarett finished it off with a 5-yard touchdown sprint, putting Ohio State ahead once more, 31-24. Miami converted a 4th and 3 on a pass from Dorsey to Wilson, and they got down to the Ohio State 2 with a first down. However, the Buckeyes stopped three straight runs, giving Miami 4th and 1 from the 1-yard line. Dorsey was hit as he threw, and his pass fell incomplete, giving the Buckeyes the national championship in overtime, punctuating an epic contest with a legendary goal-line stand.
To this day, the controversial pass interference call that kept Ohio State alive in the first overtime remains a heated debate among sports fans. Some consider it one of the worst calls ever made on a football field, while others believe it was absolutely the correct call. Either way, the game ended in favor of Ohio State, which in turn sent the two programs in different directions. The Hurricanes had a solid 2003 campaign, going 11-2, but they have not won 11 games since then, and only once have they picked up 10 victories. They’ve finished the year ranked just five times since 2004, and they have not finished in the Top 10. Meanwhile, Ohio State has been ranked at the end of all but one season since 2003, and they’ve ended in the Top 5 in 12 different seasons. Big games are often hyped as a ‘changing of the guard’, but this may have been one of the most dramatic shifts in power in sports history, and it took a double-overtime classic decided by a gutsy goal-line stand to do it.
The NFL talent on the field was absolutely ridiculous, as 18 of the starters became first-round picks, while 58 of the 100 players who touched the field would go on to play in the NFL, 50 as draft selections.