Bill Connelly's second book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time (*The most interesting, innovative, and important, anyway) is due out this fall. It tells the story of college football's history through the lens of 50 particularly impactful teams. You can learn more here.
Football innovation spreads like a virus. Random coaching camps or hires create conversation, networking opportunities, and bursts of creativity. Two coaches interact, then go back to their schools and infect those staffs.
In 1989, new Iowa Wesleyan coach Hal Mumme hired an offensive coordinator named Mike Leach. That partnership would stretch to Valdosta State and Kentucky; Leach took the Oklahoma coordinator job, then spent 10 years coaching Texas Tech. Former assistants and players at Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tech tweaked their own versions of Leach's air raid. A few became major-college head coaches.
Twenty-five years after two coaches met in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and traded ideas on a campus of about 500 students, their vision of a pass-heavy, spread-out offense had proliferated throughout football.
Another chance interaction took place in 1988 in Durham, New Hampshire. At a clinic held by the University of New Hampshire staff, 34 of 35 high school coaches in attendance went to listen to defensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., son of Boston College's celebrated 1980s coach. That left two men in another session: 31-year-old UNH offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and a 24-year-old UNH alum and high school coach by the name of Charles "Chip" Kelly.
The two discussed the fundamentals of Crowton's pass-heavy attack. He would parlay its success into eventual head coaching opportunities (Louisiana Tech, BYU) and a brief stint as the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator. When Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti wanted a version of the spread at Oregon in 2005, he brought Crowton to work out the details.
Two years into the experiment, results were mixed. Oregon averaged nearly 35 points per game while surging to 10-2 and a No. 12 finish in 2005, but the Ducks faded miserably in 2006, losing four games in a row to finish a 7-6 campaign. They scored just 14 points per game during the losing streak.
Crowton was dealing with a quarterback controversy, with Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf alternating and struggling. Leaf's passes weren't going anywhere, and Dixon was throwing too many balls to the other team.
Dixon's dual-threat skill set wasn't being utilized in the 2006 version of the offense. He was a decent passer and a fantastic runner, but quarterbacks weren't asked to run much in Crowton's system.
Earlier in 2006, Crowton had consulted with an old friend about further spread ideas to implement in Eugene. And in 2007, that old friend replaced Crowton.
After a few years of bouncing around as a college assistant, Kelly became Johns Hopkins' defensive coordinator in 1993, then landed a gig at his alma mater.
He coached running backs at UNH until 1996, moved to offensive line for two years, then took over Crowton's old position, UNH offensive coordinator, in 1999.
The results were scattershot for a while (30 points per game in 2001, 18 in 2002), but by 2003, the Wildcats weren't looking back. They scored 34 points per game in 2004 and 42 in 2005. They won games in the I-AA playoffs for three straight seasons, going 30-9 from 2004-06 and pummeling FBS' Rutgers in 2004 and Northwestern in 2006. Kelly moved across the country, hesitantly agreeing to become Bellotti's coordinator.
You can't buy your way into college football's ruling class, no matter how much Nike money resides nearby. Oregon was on an unprecedented, sustained run; the Ducks had pulled off their first Rose Bowl bid in nearly 40 years in 1994, and when head coach Rich Brooks left to take over the NFL's St. Louis Rams, Bellotti, his offensive coordinator, took the reins. They had been to 10 bowls in 12 years and went 11-1 with a No. 2 finish in 2001.
Growth had stalled out, however. Since 2002, the Ducks were averaging only about 7.5 wins, and with Nike CEO Phil Knight plugging more money into the program (and helping to usher in an era of constantly changing uniforms), that wasn't good enough. Bellotti was under pressure to win and innovate, to produce a quality product unique to UO. Two years with Crowton were mixed. It was time to go further.
Kelly's offense was the spread id seen to completion.
It took the idea of a no-huddle attack to a new level. It utilized a lot of the read option concepts that were coming back into vogue (a quarterback reads a defender and decides whether to keep the ball or pitch it), only it read all sorts of defenders and incorporated run-pass options. It chose speed over size. It spread from sideline to sideline so the defense couldn't hide its intentions, then ran over teams with old-school run-it-down-your-throat concepts. And when Kelly found a play that worked, his team would line up as quickly as possible and run it again.
No single element was unique. The wishbone utilized speed and options over girth, and coaches like Woody Hayes had grumbled about tempo moving toward 100 plays per game since the 1960s.
But this blur of an offense was relentless and anti-social, like Kelly himself. A Barry Switzer-esque bundle of charisma, he was not. But he would change the balance of power on the West Coast.
Dixon not only saw bench time in 2006, he frustrated his head coach by electing to pursue professional baseball in the summer of 2007.
Kelly spun this into a positive, citing the mental toughness that you develop in a sport like baseball, when failure is frequent. Whatever the circumstances, Dixon took to Kelly's system like a duck to water. (Sorry.) And he would put an end to any criticism by going almost failure-free in the first two months of the football season.
The Ducks opened the season against Houston, a team thriving behind its own version of the spread. Head coach Art Briles (who'd spent three years as a Mike Leach assistant) would take the Baylor job after winning 18 games in 2006-07, and his Cougars would keep up for a while in Eugene. They tied the game at 20-20 early in the third quarter, but the Ducks took charge. Dixon threw two third-quarter touchdown passes, then ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run. A three-yard score by Jeremiah Johnson put away a 48-27 win.
Next came a trip to Ann Arbor and a chance to show off the new offense to the world. Michigan had just lost a classic upset to Appalachian State, falling from fifth to unranked in a single week, but the Wolverines were still a name program, and the game was still on national television.
The final score was 39-7. It felt a lot worse. Oregon outgained the Wolverines, 624-365; Dixon completed 16 of 25 passes for 292 yards and rushed for 76 more. Jonathan Stewart and Johnson combined for 200 rushing yards. Oregon trailed 7-3 when Dixon connected with Brian Paysinger for an 85-yard touchdown. Michigan was a step slow the rest of the way. After a successful Statue of Liberty play (the quarterback fakes a pass and hands it to the running back behind his back), Kelly called a fake Statue of Liberty; in what became one of the most memorable moments of the Kelly era, Dixon faked a handoff and walked untouched into the end zone for a nine-yard score.
With three minutes left in the first half, Dixon completed a 61-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Jones. It was 32-7 at halftime, and the home fans booed their Wolverines into the locker room. Oregon showed mercy in the second half, but the statement was resounding.
Now ranked after falling out of the polls in November 2006, the Ducks returned home and rolled to a 52-21 win over Fresno State.
A week later, on the road against Jim Harbaugh's first Stanford team, Dixon threw four touchdown passes and rushed for another score. Stanford surged to a 31-21 lead late in the second quarter, but Oregon finished the game on a 34-0 run. Stanford would eventually rise to power as an anti-Oregon, getting mileage out of a plodding tempo and tightly packed, tight end-heavy sets. But the Cardinal weren't ready just yet.
The nation was paying attention. Oregon was up to 11th in the AP poll, and when No. 6 California came to Eugene on September 29, ESPN's College GameDay was waiting. The popular Saturday morning preview show was in Eugene for the first time in seven years.
In a surprisingly low-scoring affair (for a while), a 42-yard pass from Dixon to Cameron Colvin gave the Ducks a 17-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Cal scored twice to take the lead, but Dixon scored with seven minutes left to tie the game at 24-all. Cal went ahead on a one-yard Justin Forsett run with three minutes left, but Oregon charged back. Dixon drove the Ducks to the Cal 5 with 30 seconds left. He completed a short pass to Colvin near the left sideline, but instead of stepping out of bounds to stop the clock, Colvin went for the score. He was hit at the 1 and fumbled into the end zone for a Cal touchback. The Golden Bears held on, 31-24.
Luckily, this was a good year to slip up. Everybody else was doing the same. Because of the Ducks' impressive display, and because of other losses, they had actually risen to ninth in the rankings by the time they hosted Washington State on October 13. Dixon completed 21 of 28 passes for 287 yards in a 53-7 rout, then stepped aside as Stewart and Andre Crenshaw rushed for 364 yards in a 55-34 romp at Washington.
Now fifth in the country, Oregon again welcomed GameDay for a huge battle against No. 9 USC.
This was still an awesome USC team. The offense was struggling through injury issues at quarterback, but the Trojans would allow just 16 points per game, second-fewest in the country. The key to the game would be remaining patient, and Oregon succeeded. The Ducks gained only 339 yards, but Dixon completed 64 percent of his passes, and the defense picked off USC freshman Mark Sanchez twice. Stewart and Dixon grinded out 179 yards on the ground, and Stewart's two second-half touchdowns gave Oregon a 24-10 lead. Sanchez threw a touchdown pass with five minutes left, but a late interception by Matthew Harper sealed a huge win.
Oregon entered November fourth in the country, the program's highest poll standing in six years. The Ducks would rise to second the next weekend, and Dixon would enter the season's home stretch as a Heisman favorite. Oregon was turning the football world on its ear.
And then came a Thursday night trip to Tucson.
The entire 2007 season turned football on its ear, actually. Some seasons are blips, years in which everything we thought we knew is brought into question. The 1984 and 1990 seasons were particularly wild, with top team after top team falling from atop the ladder. But 2007 was one of the zaniest in memory.
It began on the season's first Saturday. The Big Ten Network had launched on August 30 -- it would soon be one of the driving forces of a crazy round of conference realignment -- and on its third day of existence, it televised Appalachian State's spectacular upset of Michigan. The Mountaineers roasted Michigan with their version of a run-heavy spread, then blocked a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
That was the first of many astounding results. On October 6, No. 2 USC fell to 41-point underdog Stanford. The next week, new No. 2 Cal lost to Oregon State. Five days later, new No. 2 USF lost to Rutgers. Two weeks after, No. 2 Boston College lost to Florida State.
By the end of the season, everyone from Kentucky to Rutgers to Hawaii had spent time in the top 10, seven different No. 2s had lost over a nine-week span, and upstart Missouri had beaten upstart Kansas to move to No. 1 in the BCS standings. The Tigers and West Virginia each came within a half of playing the other for the national title.
Seemingly the only non-chaotic outcome was the finale. So many teams fell from the top that LSU, the preseason No. 2 team, circled back to No. 2, then beat Ohio State in the BCS title game.
2007 reflected a sea change for college football.
In the ACC, Florida State was limping along in Bobby Bowden's final years, and Miami was a national afterthought as leadership shifted from Larry Coker to Randy Shannon. There was such a power void that Jim Grobe's Wake Forest Demon Deacons were able to surge to a conference title in 2006.
In the Big 12, Nebraska had grown unstable under Bill Callahan. In 1997, the Huskers replaced Tom Osborne with right-hand man Frank Solich; he did well, but apparently not well enough. He was replaced by the NFL's Callahan, who would finish under .500 in both his first (2004) and last seasons in charge. The Cornhuskers were outscored, 117-45, in losses at Missouri and Kansas, against whom they had gone 48-0 from 1979-2002. And with Kansas State struggling after Bill Snyder's temporary retirement and Colorado falling directionless, Mizzou and Kansas stepped into the Big 12 North void.
In the SEC, Alabama had gone 26-24 in four years under Mike Shula and was starting over under high-priced Nick Saban, who had won a national title at LSU in 2003 before heading to the NFL. Tennessee was beginning to labor under Phillip Fulmer; after losing 14 games in seven seasons between 1995-2001, the Vols lost 25 in six from 2002-07.
And out West, USC was losing its stranglehold on the Pac-10. The excellent Trojans were growing increasingly prone to upsets. They fell at Oregon State in both 2006 and 2008 and, of course, lost to Stanford in between.
The spread had something to do with this. With most elite recruiting teams still catering to old notions of the pro-style offense and 4-3 defenses, the spread was proving capable of creating mismatches for teams with two- and three-star talent.
It wasn't a coincidence that teams like West Virginia, Missouri, Kansas, and Oregon rose to power, however briefly. But a lot of older powers had grown stagnant as well. This year presented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for so many programs.
Of course, chaos might not have reigned for quite as long in 2007 if not for Dixon's knee.
"Dennis is going to be fine. He would have gone back in if we felt he was needed."
That's what Bellotti told the press after Oregon's 35-23 win over No. 6 Arizona State.
A crowd of 59,379, the largest to ever attend a game in the state of Oregon, saw its party mellowed with a late scare. Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils entered 8-0, having just taken down California at home, but the Ducks put together one of their most complete performances of a pretty complete season. They went up 21-3 early in the second quarter on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Dixon to Jaison Williams, already Dixon's third scoring strike of the game. His fourth made the score 35-16 heading into the fourth quarter.
Two minutes into the fourth, Dixon took a shot to his left knee and limped off of the field. It dampened the mood for a team that was about to move to second in the country.
A well-timed bye week allowed Dixon to rest his leg, and then the Ducks traveled to Tucson to face 4-6 Arizona on a Thursday night ESPN game. In pregame warmups, Dixon told coaches he was feeling great, and barely two minutes in, he ripped off a 39-yard touchdown. Oregon went up 8-0 after a surprise two-point conversion (another Kelly staple). With six minutes left in the first quarter and Oregon driving, Dixon planted his left leg to attempt a shovel pass and crumpled to the ground.
The three scariest words in football: "non-contact injury." Dixon had a torn ACL, and it turned out he had actually suffered it against Arizona State. Having just watched its leader taken out of the game, a stunned Duck squad gave up a 24-0 run before rallying. They were down just 31-24 late in the game, but an Arizona field goal put away a 34-24 upset.
It's one thing to watch your national title hopes go down the drain. It's another to watch your Heisman-favorite quarterback leave with an awful injury. It is yet another to do both on the same night.
Dixon's injury came after a run of issues. Paysinger, Johnson, and others had been lost in recent weeks. Oregon fell into a definitive funk. The Ducks gained just 148 yards in a 12-0 loss to UCLA the next week; three Oregon quarterbacks combined to go 11 for 39 with three interceptions, and Stewart gained 33 yards in 13 carries. (UCLA proceeded to nearly steal Oregon's coach; Bellotti interviewed for the vacant Bruin gig in December before electing to remain.) They rallied at home against Oregon State on December 1, turning a 21-7 deficit into a 28-21 lead, but the Beavers prevailed in overtime, 38-31.
The final chapter was bittersweet. With time to recover, Oregon went to El Paso and stomped South Florida, another former No. 2 team from earlier in the season, in the Sun Bowl. The Ducks led 18-14 at halftime but exploded for four third-quarter touchdowns and rolled to a 56-21 win. It was a reminder of what Oregon was capable of ... and a reminder of what could have been.
This wasn't the end of Oregon's run. The Ducks went 10-3 in 2008, and Bellotti retired to become UO athletic director. Kelly was the no-brainer replacement and won 46 games in four seasons, reaching the 2010 BCS title game and losing in the last second to Auburn. He would leave for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the program to deal with a few NCAA violations, but his replacement, Mark Helfrich, got Oregon right back to the title game in 2014. (They lost to Ohio State.) Oregon finished in the AP top 5 four times in a five-year span from 2010-14.
The 2007 run was just the beginning.
Still, the regret was palpable, the what-ifs immense. In 2007, Oregon helped to reinvent football -- over the next decade, even Saban's Alabama would adopt aspects of offensive tempo and change his defense to account for the spread-‘em-out attacks that had become so lethal -- but was deprived of a defining moment because of a left knee ligament.
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