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Revisiting the 2010 college football season with advanced box scores

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A season of what-ifs ends with a massive what-if.

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

You know how we always say, “Every game matters,” in college football, even though some teams get mulligans for losses (while others don’t), and even though no game matters for mid-majors (i.e. half of FBS) these days? That line is usually delivered with tons of caveats, but in 2010, it was true.

  • Ohio State slipped up once, at a good Wisconsin, and failed to make the BCS title game.
  • Wisconsin slipped up only once as well, hit a late-year offensive hot streak the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, and still fell short.
  • LSU lost only at Auburn, and by only a touchdown, but couldn’t top fifth in the BCS rankings.
  • Andrew Luck and super-powered Stanford lost only at Oregon and couldn’t top fourth.

Margin for error was nil because the teams that ended up emerging refused to lose. Auburn pulled off a series of magic acts that only Auburn could pull off — S&P+ sees this Auburn team as basically an 11-win team and ranked them sixth in the updated rankings, only the Tigers won SEVEN games by a touchdown or less and won the national title. Oregon, meanwhile, whomped Stanford and survived a late-year Stuff Happens game at Cal.

If either Auburn or Oregon would have slipped, unbeaten TCU, winner of 25 consecutive regular season games, would have likely gotten a BCS title game bid despite its mid-major status.

That maybe makes this year feel somewhat orderly. It really wasn’t. I mean, it never is when Auburn is involved, but beyond that, a lot of the teams we assumed would be good this year, simply weren’t. The preseason top two teams (Alabama and Ohio State) ended up first and second in S&P+ despite a handful of losses, and preseason No. 3 Boise State did everything it could to back up its ranking. But preseason No. 4 Florida cratered offensively and went 8-5, preseason No. 5 Texas cratered even worse and went 5-7, preseason No. 8 Nebraska lost four games, No. 9 Iowa lost five, No. 13 Miami lost six, No. 14 USC lost five, No. 15 Pitt lost five, No. 16 Georgia Tech lost seven, No. 18 North Carolina lost five, etc.

The two teams that reached the BCS title game were preseason No. 11 (Oregon) and No. 22 (Auburn). That would have been like Michigan State (preseason No. 11) and Boise State (No. 22) playing for the national title in 2018. Wild. Let’s relive it.

Sept. 2: No. 14 USC 49, Hawaii 36

Lane Kiffin’s first USC team had the opposite problem as Florida and Texas — it didn’t have much of a defense. The Trojans ranked 45th in Def. S&P+, and while Hawaii’s offense turned out to be quite good itself (13th in Off. S&P+), the shootout nature of this game was a warning sign of sorts.

Sept. 4: No. 7 Oklahoma 31, Utah State 24

Oklahoma ended up rounding into form and winning the Big 12, but the Sooners were glitchy as hell early on, sandwiching an impressive pummeling of Florida State with way-too-tight wins over Utah State, Air Force, and Cincinnati.

Sept. 6: No. 3 Boise State 33, No. 13 Virginia Tech 30

BSU really, really, really needed this one for résumé purposes, and after letting the game slip away in the second half, the Broncos went out and got it back. This win continued to look pretty good as VT took the ACC title.

Sept. 9: No. 21 Auburn 17, Mississippi State 14

Heart-stopping win No. 1 for Auburn came on the second Thursday night of the season. MSU blocked a late field-goal attempt and drove into Auburn territory before stalling out on the final drive. Cam Newton: extremely mortal in his first start against a power conference foe.

Sept. 11: No. 24 South Carolina 17, No. 22 Georgia 6

Georgia was the anti-Auburn, figuring out creative ways to lose close games — four of them came by a total of 16 points or less. In this one, however, they simply couldn’t move the football. South Carolina really couldn’t either, but Marcus Lattimore did when it mattered.

Sept. 18: No. 6 Texas 24, Texas Tech 14

“Hmm ... something doesn’t seem right about this Texas team...”

Sept. 25: UCLA 34, No. 7 Texas 12

“...yeah. Something’s definitely not right.”

Sept. 25: No. 17 Auburn 35, No. 12 South Carolina 27

Auburn needed some turnovers luck to make the difference in this statistical tossup. (Look at those big-play numbers for some foreshadowing to the second Auburn-SC game later on...)

Oct. 2: No. 4 Oregon 52, No. 9 Stanford 31

This game had a lurch of a plot twist. Stanford started off impossibly well, bolting to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter and hitting a long field goal to go up 31-24 at halftime.

And then Oregon won the second half, 28-0.

Stanford started out the decade with an Oregon Problem, and then suddenly Oregon had a Stanford Problem midway through the decade. Rivalries are fun.

Oct. 2: No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 7 Florida 6

Florida didn’t start out the season looking flawed like Texas did — the Gators had outscored their first four opponents by an average of 38-14. But the Tide devoured their soul, and they never got it back. They went 3-5 to finish the regular season.

Oct. 7: No. 7 Nebraska 48, Kansas State 13

Anybody who watched this game — and that was quite a few people, since Thursday night football was still a pretty big deal at this point — was convinced that Nebraska had Tommie Frazier Incarnate at quarterback. Taylor Martinez’s first national impression was perfect. Nebraska, which had just announced it was leaving for the Big Ten after 2010, suddenly looked terrifying.

Oct. 9: No. 19 South Carolina 35, No. 1 Alabama 21

STEPHEN. DAMN. GARCIA. (And Alshon Jeffery.)

This was the first of three consecutive weeks in which the No. 1 team in the BCS rankings fell. A bunch of dominoes fell, and it was suddenly an Auburn-Oregon-TCU-Boise horse race.

Oct. 9: No. 12 LSU 33, No. 14 Florida 29

I was leaving the Mizzou-Colorado game that Saturday evening and got a text that just said “Les did it again.”

What a wild-ass day in the SEC.

Oct. 16: Texas 20, No. 5 Nebraska 13

There is a certain poetry in Texas — a particularly hapless version of Texas, no less — going to Lincoln in the fall after Conference Realignmentpalooza 2010 and completely shutting down what had begun to look like the best Nebraska offense in 15 years.

Oct. 16: No. 18 Wisconsin 31, No. 1 Ohio State 18

A huge, primetime upset of a top-ranked team begins with a kick return score...

Oct. 23: No. 18 Missouri 36, No. 3 Oklahoma 27

...and then another one starts the same way.

OU was No. 1 in the BCS standings, at least, which means three top teams have gone down in three weeks, and Mizzou might be a title contender.

Oct. 23: No. 5 Auburn 24, No. 6 LSU 17

Meanwhile, the eventual champ grits out another one.

Oct. 30: No. 14 Nebraska 31, No. 7 Missouri 17

Missouri is no longer a title contender. Roy Helu Jr. probably got drafted a round higher because of this game.

Nov. 6: No. 12 LSU 24, No. 5 Alabama 21

This lost officially knocked Bama out of title contention and made Nick Saban just 2-2 against Les Miles. he would fall to 2-3 the following November. (His recorded ended up A Lot and 3.)

Nov. 13: No. 1 Oregon 15, Cal 13

A chink in the armor? Oregon was averaging 54.7 points per game heading into this one but had to gut things out. (And then they scored 85 points over the next two games.)

Nov. 13: No. 6 Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20

LOL I HAD COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN WISCONSIN HUNG 83 ON INDIANA.

Having already scored 70 points on Austin Peay earlier in the season, Wisconsin scored 83, 48, and 70 over the last three games of the regular season. There was a lot of talk about how, if a playoff existed, the Badgers might have been the favorites.

Speaking of ... the battle for that last spot, between 11-1 Wisconsin, 11-1 Ohio State (which lost to Wisconsin), 11-1 Michigan State (which beat Wisconsin), and 11-1 Stanford (which lost only to Oregon) would have been very interesting. Sparty doesn’t get the nod, but I’m not completely sure who gets it between the other three. Probably the Badgers, but no guarantees. We’d have probably gotten semifinals of Auburn-Wisconsin and Oregon-TCU.

Nov. 26: No. 2 Auburn 28, No. 9 Alabama 27

So I’m going to need to write about November 26, 2010, at this point. This was, of course, the game in which Auburn fell behind 24-0, at one point having been outgained 341-2. And while the Tiger defense — Nick Fairley, Eltoro Freeman, etc., held Bama to three points over the final 38 minutes, and Auburn charged back with a couple of big Newton passes and a lot of efficient Newton runs ... this was still an extremely statistically unlikely Auburn win. Post-game win expectancy: 16%.

Then ... that evening ... we ended up with something even less likely.

Nov. 26: No. 19 Nevada 34, No. 3 Boise State 31

This was truly one of the best games I’ve ever watched. Nervous and exciting and wild for 59 minutes ... and then it found another gear.

Nevada’s post-game win expectancy: 8%. That means that there was only about a 1.3% chance of both Auburn and Nevada winning with the statistics that these two games produced. Meanwhile, there was about a 77.3% chance that Alabama and Boise State win.

If Bama and Boise win, we quite possibly end up with a Boise-Oregon BCS title game. (TCU was ahead of BSU in the BCS standings at the time of this game, but since Nevada was a top-20 team, my guess is that would have moved BSU ahead. Maybe.) What if BSU wins the damn national title? In the middle of conference realignment fever? What does that change about how things play out conference-wise? A pair of mind-blowing, highly unlikely results set us on our current course.

Dec. 4: No. 2 Auburn 56, No. 18 South Carolina 17

Very, very uneventful Championship Saturday, highlighted mostly by this rematch blowout. After generating almost no big plays whatsoever in the first game, Auburn (Darvin Adams, mainly) made all sorts of them here and turned SC’s lone SEC title game appearance into a laugher.

Dec. 26: FIU 34, Toledo 32

Post-game win expectancy for FIU: TWO PERCENT.

Jan. 1: No. 15 Alabama 49, No. 7 Michigan State 7

Sometimes Nick Saban’s teams respond to late-year setbacks by starting flat in the bowl and getting jumped on (a la Utah in 2008 or Oklahoma in 2013). And sometimes ... they do this. This one was over by about the second play of the game.

Jan. 1: No. 9 Oklahoma 48, No. 25 UConn 20

Only field position kept this from being about a 50-point OU win.

Jan. 1: No. 3 TCU 21, No. 4 Wisconsin 19

Mercy, this was just a tight, physically, well-played college football game. An idyllic game in the most idyllic venue in the sport. (And if there HAD been an Auburn-Wisconsin, Oregon-TCU playoff this year, I might have picked TCU.)

Jan. 3: No. 5 Stanford 40, No. 12 Virginia Tech 12

After losing to Oregon, Stanford ripped off eight straight wins, five of them by 25 or more points. The Cardinal were one of many teams playing killer ball at the end of the year.

Jan. 4: No. 6 Ohio State 31, No. 8 Arkansas 26

I had completely forgotten that Jim Tressel’s final game (not that we knew it was the final one at the time) came against Ryan Mallet, Bobby Petrino, and Arkansas.

Jan. 10: No. 1 Auburn 22, No. 2 Oregon 19

A what-if finish to a season of what-ifs. (And yeah, Dyer was down. Of course he was.)