December 24, 2008

Fortune fickle for some, friendly for others

Sometimes people look back with regret. Sometimes they look back with relief. The difference may depend on the color of the jersey or the logo on the helmet.

Oh, what might have been.

Some disappointed teams can look back and agonize over how close they came to a good or even spectacular season. Others may reflect on the good fortune that turned potentially average teams into winning ones. A fumble here, a tipped pass there and coaches may have been retained and championships could have been won.

Consider Tennessee, which this past offseason gave former coach Phillip Fulmer a deal that called for a raise and contract extension for eight regular-season victories.

Fulmer was fired during a 5-7 season that included losses to UCLA, Auburn and Wyoming by a combined 11 points.

Tennessee lost a fumble at UCLA's 6 in a 27-24 overtime loss. Auburn recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in a 14-12 victory over the Volunteers. Wyoming which should never beat Tennessee returned an interception for a touchdown for the winning margin in a 13-7 victory.

If Tennessee had won those games, Fulmer likely still is the Volunteers' coach and Lane Kiffin, his successor, might be the head coach at Washington.

"People don't like to hear this, and I don't like to say it, but a couple of fumbles and an emotional win over Wyoming and we would have just won our eighth game," Fulmer said after a season-closing 28-10 victory over Kentucky. "Hell, they would have had to give me an extension and a raise."

Texas might have raised the Big 12 championship banner and quarterback Colt McCoy might have raised the Heisman Trophy if not for a untimely bobble of a potential clinching interception against Texas Tech.

The Longhorns led 33-32 late in the fourth quarter when a Graham Harrell pass deflected off the hands of wide receiver Edward Britton and hovered in the air like an old balloon. Freshman safety Blake Gideon closed in for the interception, but the ball slipped through his grasp. Harrell threw a winning 28-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play.

The loss prevented Texas from reaching the Big 12 title game and likely the BCS National Championship Game. The loss also probably cost McCoy the Heisman.

But McCoy said no blame should be put on Gideon.

"Blake is fine. You can't put anything on him," he said recently. "So many things could've happened. Unfortunately, people remember that play. That's tough, especially for a freshman. But he came in as a true freshman and meant so much for this football team."

Indeed, in the third quarter, McCoy threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Earlier in the game, wide receiver Jordan Shipley dropped an apparent touchdown pass. On the drive in which Texas took a late lead, McCoy stepped out of bounds at the end of a run to stop the clock. Texas also could have used more time before snapping the ball on the play that provided its final lead and left Tech with less time for a comeback.

Ole Miss also made a great comeback this year. After three consecutive three-win seasons, the Rebels are 8-4. But it could have been much better.

A questionable pass interference penalty led to Wake Forest beating Ole Miss on a last-second field goal. A fumble at the goal line was pivotal in a 23-17 loss to Vanderbilt. Two weeks later against South Carolina, three turnovers - including a fumble at the Gamecocks' 6 led to another loss.

Ole Miss still wouldn't have won the SEC West, but the Rebels whose four losses were by a combined 19 points were tantalizingly close to going 11-1.

Rose Bowl foes USC and Penn State did go 11-1. Yet both were agonizingly close to playing for the national championship.

USC's only loss was 27-21 to Oregon State, which took a 21-0 lead at halftime when an apparent interception bounced out of the hands of USC cornerback Kevin Thomas and into the hands of Beavers wide receiver James Rodgers.

Penn State held a two-point lead over Iowa with less than four minutes remaining. But a Daryll Clark interception and a pass interference penalty against the Nittany Lions eventually led to a last-play field goal in the Hawkeyes' 24-23 victory.

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has been under criticism for an 8-4 record that could have been much better. The Mountaineers lost twice in overtime and couldn't hold an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 19-15 loss to Pittsburgh.

It works the other way, too.

Virginia Tech, which had more than its share of misfortune throughout the season, won games over Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia by three points each en route to winning the ACC championship.

The Hokies were aided by two personal-foul penalties on the drive that led to Dustin Keys' winning field goal against Georgia Tech, which lost three turnovers. After the Hokies had taken the lead, Yellow Jackets quarterback Josh Nesbitt overthrew Roddy Jones, who had gotten open behind Virginia Tech's secondary.

North Carolina, with starting quarterback T.J. Yates lost to a sprained ankle in the third quarter, blew a two-touchdown lead to the Hokies, who grabbed three interceptions in the fourth quarter.

And in a win over Virginia, the Hokies escaped when Dorian Porch intercepted a pass by Cavaliers quarterback Marc Verica in the end zone with just more than two minutes remaining.

As with Virginia Tech, Utah is heading to a BCS bowl thanks to some good fortune.

TCU missed two short field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter in a 13-10 loss. Utah also staged an improbable comeback by rallying from an eight-point deficit with two minutes remaining to beat Oregon State 31-28.

But that comeback was nothing compared to those of Buffalo, which won five of its eight games in dramatic fashion en route to the MAC title.

The Bulls prevailed in overtime three times and also defeated Temple 30-28 on a final-play, 35-yard "Hail Mary" pass from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt. Temple had taken the lead with 38 seconds left. Buffalo also benefited from five turnovers, including two fumbles returned for touchdowns, to defeat Ball State in the MAC title game.

Without those strokes of good fortune Buffalo wouldn't be headed to a bowl and the Bulls would be pondering what might have been.

Instead, they're focused on what was.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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