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January 3, 2007

Looking back at 2006 on the gridiron

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Now that the onslaught of New Year's Day bowls has come and gone, the hype for the BCS national championship game can really get started.

Before we take a look ahead, however, I wanted to take a look back at the highs and lows of the 2006 college football season.

Rivals.com already has announced its All-America teams, freshman All-America teams, national freshman of the year and coordinators of the year (Offensive and Defensive). But there still are a few more awards to hand out that couldn't fit into those categories.

What was the best conference this year?

What teams were the best at each position?

What was the most memorable play of the season?

And what play had the biggest impact on the national championship picture?

To get the answers to those questions and more, here's a look at the best and worst that the 2006 college football season had to offer.

Offensive player of the year: Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. Once known more as a runner than a passer, Smith reinvented himself as a senior. Smith ran for only 233 yards while throwing for 30 touchdowns with five interceptions on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Honorable mention: Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, Arkansas RB Darren McFadden.

Defensive player of the year: Michigan DE LaMarr Woodley. He turned into the biggest beneficiary of new defensive coordinator Ron English's aggressive scheme. Woodley recorded at least two sacks in five different games to emerge as the nation's most fearsome pass rusher. Honorable mention: Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis, Florida S Reggie Nelson.

Special teams player of the year: California WR/PR DeSean Jackson. The Golden Bears' leading receiver also set a Pac-10 record by returning four punts for touchdowns. Honorable mention: Wake Forest K/P Sam Swank, Oregon State PR Sammie Stroughter.

Coach of the year: Wake Forest's Jim Grobe: Picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division, the Demon Deacons instead won the conference title despite losing starting quarterback Ben Mauk and starting tailback Micah Andrews to injuries early in the season. Honorable mention: Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Boise State's Chris Petersen, Florida's Urban Meyer.

Best hires of the offseason: Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Boise State's Chris Petersen. While hiring an established head coach from another school creates a bigger splash, Wisconsin and Boise State proved this year that promoting from within eventually can pay bigger dividends. Petersen, a former Boise State offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins, led the Broncos to a perfect season in his first year as head coach. Bielema, an ex-defensive coordinator, became the first coach in Big Ten history to win at least 10 games in his inaugural season as head coach. Honorable mention: Rice head coach Todd Graham, Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English, Kansas State head coach Ron Prince, Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill.

Biggest play: Jarvis Moss' blocked field goal against South Carolina. Moss kept Florida in the national title race by getting his hand on Ryan Succop's 48-yard field-goal attempt in the final play of the Gators' 17-16 victory over South Carolina . Moss' big play became even bigger when a series of upsets earned Florida the right to play Ohio State in the national championship game. Honorable mention: Oregon 's controversial onside kick against Oklahoma, Eric McNeal's interception that clinched UCLA's victory over Southern California, William Gay's offsides penalty that gave Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito a second chance to make a game-winning field goal against Louisville. Oklahoma, Louisville and USC all have reason to believe they'd be playing for the national title if those plays hadn't occurred.

Best play: The hook-and-lateral that forced overtime in Boise State's Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Boise State faced fourth-and-18 from midfield in the closing seconds when Jared Zabransky made the seemingly puzzling decision to throw to Drisan James, who was shy of the first-down marker. James then calmly lateraled the ball to Jerard Robb, who raced the final 35 yards to give Boise State a game-tying touchdown with seven seconds left in regulation time of the Broncos' 43-42 overtime triumph. Honorable mention: The Statue of Liberty play on a two-point conversion that gave Boise State the overtime victory, Pittsburgh cornerback Darrelle Revis' 73-yard punt return for a touchdown against West Virginia.

Best game: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (OT). Sorry for the overkill, Sooner fans. But how can we overlook a classic that featured more thrills and chills than any game in recent memory? We had a comeback from an 18-point deficit, a game-tying hook-and-lateral, a fourth-down overtime touchdown pass by a backup quarterback, a game-winning Statue of Liberty and a postgame marriage proposal from a star running back to a cheerleader all in a span of about 30 minutes. Honorable mention: West Virginia 41, Rutgers 39 (3 OT). Ohio State 42, Michigan 39. Oregon State 33, Southern California 31. Louisiana State 28, Tennessee 24.

Upset of the year: UCLA 13, Southern California 9. All that stood between USC and an appearance in the BCS championship game was a victory over UCLA, which had lost its last seven meetings with its cross-town rival. UCLA ended that streak and dashed the Trojans' dreams with a furious pass rush. The upset ended USC's NCAA-record string of 63 consecutive games in which it had scored at least 20 points. The UCLA defense's dominance against USC looked all the more puzzling after Florida State's woeful offense lit up the Bruins in a 44-27 Emerald Bowl triumph. Honorable mention: Kansas State 45, Texas 42. South Florida 24, West Virginia 19. Cincinnati 30, Rutgers 11.

Biggest surprise (player): Kentucky QB Andre' Woodson. After throwing just six touchdown passes and six interceptions last year, Woodson entered spring practice having to fight for a starting position. Not only did he win the job, Woodson threw for 3,515 yards and 31 touchdowns with just seven interceptions to lead Kentucky to its first bowl victory since 1984. Honorable mention: Tennessee QB Erik Ainge, Wisconsin RB P.J. Hill, Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman, Kansas RB Jon Cornish.

Biggest surprise (team): Wake Forest. There's a reason Jim Grobe is our coach of the year. Wake Forest didn't blow out many teams that stunning 30-0 triumph at Florida State was a notable exception but the Demon Deacons' senior-laden roster allowed them to win close games time and time again. They didn't bother to listen to everyone who expected their bubble to burst each week. Honorable mention: Boise State, Rutgers, Arkansas, South Florida, Brigham Young, Rice.

Biggest disappointment (player): Michigan State QB Drew Stanton. He was considered a dark-horse contender for the Heisman Trophy when Michigan State won its first three games, but Stanton never recovered after the Spartans blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead against Notre Dame. Stanton threw six touchdown passes and two interceptions in Michigan State's first three games, then had eight interceptions and four touchdown passes the rest of the year as the Spartans staggered to a 4-8 finish. Also considered: Alabama RB Kenneth Darby, Ole Miss QB Brent Schaeffer.

Biggest disappointment (team): Miami. The preseason pick to win the ACC had to ring in the new year in Boise. Although Miami's defense was just about as good as ever, the Hurricanes never solved their struggles on offense and went 7-6 in a tumultuous season that cost Larry Coker his job. Also considered: Alabama, Florida State, Iowa.

Top transfer (from Division I school): Florida CB Ryan Smith. The former Utah player has intercepted eight passes tied for the lead among BCS players in his first season at Florida. The Rivals.com third-team All-American picked off two passes each in victories over Alabama and Louisiana State. Honorable mention: Ole Miss RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman.

Top transfer (from junior college): Oklahoma State RB Dantrell Savage. He emerged as the Cowboys' top running back and rushed for at least 112 yards in five of his last seven games. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry while rushing for 820 yards and eight touchdowns. Honorable mention: South Carolina LB Jasper Brinkley, Ole Miss LB Rory Johnson, Arizona State RB Ryan Torain, Kansas State DE Rob Jackson.

Freshman sleeper: Wisconsin RB P.J. Hill. The Rivals.com national freshman of the year also is our top freshman sleeper. Although it's hard to believe now, Hill was a two-star prospect coming out of Poly Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y. Hill rushed for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman to lead Wisconsin to a 12-1 record. Honorable mention: Southern Mississippi RB Damion Fletcher, Indiana QB Kellen Lewis, South Florida QB Matt Grothe, Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner.

Best offensive player from outside a BCS conference: Hawaii QB Colt Brennan. The junior quarterback set an NCAA single-season record with 54 touchdown passes and also led the nation in passing efficiency. His big year helped Hawaii tie a school record with 11 wins. Honorable mention: Rice WR Jarrett Dillard, Boise State RB Ian Johnson, Brigham Young QB John Beck, Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe, Brigham Young TE Jonny Harline.

Best defensive player from outside a BCS conference: Utah DB Eric Weddle. We're marking him down as a defensive player even though he also was one of Utah's top offensive players by the end of the season. This defensive back/running back scored five touchdowns on offense and three more on defense. Honorable mention: Western Michigan LB Ameer Ismail, Texas Christian DE Tommy Blake, Central Michigan DE Dan Bazuin, Boise State LB Korey Hall, San Jose State DB Dwight Lowery.

Best BCS conference: SEC. The Big East has the better bowl record and the Big Ten won two head-to-head bowl matchups with the SEC. But it's tough to argue with the depth of a conference that featured four teams with double-digit wins (Florida, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas). The conference also featured enough upsets and near-upsets (Vanderbilt's win over Georgia, LSU's overtime escape of Ole Miss) to show that even its worst teams can put up a fight. Honorable mention: Big Ten

Worst BCS conference: ACC. The ACC has redeemed itself somewhat in the postseason with bowl victories by Florida State, Miami and Maryland, but that can't make up for this league's horrible regular-season performance. When two of the nation's most disappointing teams (Florida State and Miami) are in your league, that says something about the quality of the conference. Also considered: Big 12. The easy answer is to give this to the always-disrespected Big East, but that conference has fared much better than the Big 12 in bowl games.

Best non-BCS conference: Mountain West: Brigham Young, Texas Christian and Utah gave this conference three teams that would have been extremely competitive in a BCS conference. Brigham Young buried Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, and Texas Christian was one of the nation's hottest teams at the end of the season. Honorable mention: Western Athletic Conference.

Worst non-BCS conference: Sun Belt: This league gained some much-needed credibility when Troy threw a scare into Florida State and Georgia Tech in the regular season and waxed Rice in the New Orleans Bowl. But Troy and Middle Tennessee were the only conference teams to finish with winning records. Also considered: Conference USA.

Best comeback (player): Northern Colorado P Rafael Mendoza. Less than two weeks after he was stabbed in his kicking leg, Mendoza returned to action and booted a 58-yard punt. Mendoza's backup, Mitch Cozad, was arrested in connection with the stabbing and charged with first-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault. Honorable mention: Penn State LB Paul Posluszny (returning from a knee injury), Boise State QB Jared Zabransky (leading the Broncos to a perfect season one year after throwing 16 interceptions).

Best comeback (team): Texas Tech 44, Minnesota 41 (OT). Texas Tech trailed 38-7 at halftime of the Insight Bowl before pulling off the biggest comeback in Division I-A bowl history. Alex Trlica made a 52-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime, then Shannon Woods' 3-yard touchdown run clinched the victory. Minnesota coach Glen Mason was fired two days after the stunning collapse. Honorable mention: Michigan State 41, Northwestern 38.

Best receiving corps: Southern California. When Dwayne Jarrett was bothered by a shoulder injury, Steve Smith showed he's one of the nation's best receivers in his own right. Once Jarrett returned to full strength, it gave the Trojans a dynamic duo rivaled by few other schools. Their third, fourth and fifth receivers tight end Fred Davis, Patrick Turner and Chris McFoy - combined to catch 74 passes for 806 yards and seven touchdowns. Honorable mention: Ohio State, Florida, Louisiana State, Notre Dame.

Best group of running backs: Arkansas. Felix Jones rushed for over 1,000 yards and gained an astounding 7.3 yards per carry, yet he wasn't even the best running back on his team. That's what happens when you're playing in a backfield that includes Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden. Honorable mention: Clemson, Nebraska, Rutgers, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, California.

Best offensive line: Oklahoma. Rivals.com third-team All-Americans Chris Messner and Duke Robinson led a line that helped the Sooners continue to run the ball effectively after preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone. Oklahoma also allowed only 16 sacks all season. Honorable mention: Arkansas, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan, Clemson, Southern California, Brigham Young.

Best defensive line: Michigan. Rivals.com defensive player of the year LaMarr Woodley and second-team All-America defensive tackle Alan Branch helped give the Wolverines the nation's toughest run defense. Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and Notre Dame combined for minus-7 net rushing yards against the Wolverines. Honorable mention: Florida, Louisiana State, Rutgers, Texas, Texas Christian.

Best linebackers: Penn State. Paul Posluszny recovered from a knee injury and regained his All-America form by midseason to join forces with Dan Connor and Sean Lee. Penn State held Michigan to 17 points and limited Ohio State's offense to 14 points (though the Buckeyes won the game 28-6 by returning two interceptions for touchdowns). Honorable mention: Virginia Tech, Florida State, Ole Miss, Florida, Georgia Tech, South Florida.

Best secondary: Florida. No duo combined for more interceptions than Gator safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Ryan Smith. Nelson's knack for delivering big hits and bigger plays made him the nation's toughest defensive back this season. Honorable mention: Louisiana State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Virginia Tech.

Most unpredictable player: Kansas State QB Josh Freeman. You expect inconsistency from a freshman starting quarterback, but this guy's season was unusually topsy-turvy even by those standards. Freeman threw eight interceptions and no touchdown passes in his first eight games. He then threw six touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his next three games and led the Wildcats to a stunning upset of Texas. Just when you thought he was on the verge of stardom, Freeman threw five interceptions and no touchdown passes as Kansas State dropped its final two games.

Most unpredictable team: Clemson. The Tigers beat both teams that played in the ACC championship game, but they failed to win their division and finished 8-5 despite having one of their most talented teams in school history. The team that laid an egg against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl hardly resembled the squad that blew out Georgia Tech midway through the season. Honorable mention: Arizona, Missouri. The Wildcats beat Brigham Young and California but lost to Washington and UCLA this year. That inconsistency ended up costing the Wildcats a bowl berth. Missouri won its first six games, then ended the regular season with a loss to an Iowa State team that hadn't posted a single Big 12 win up to that point.

Rule that must be changed next season: The rule limiting BCS berths to a maximum of two teams from each conference. This rule prevented an 11-1 Wisconsin team from playing in a BCS bowl. Wisconsin finished 12-1 after beating Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl, but we'll never know how good the Badgers were this season because they never played Ohio State in the regular season and didn't get a BCS test. Also considered: The timekeeping changes aimed at speeding up the games. Those alterations also shortened the games and made it tougher for teams to come from behind in the final minute.

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