Top moments of the college football season

The long and Longhorns’ season is over, the Rose Bowl is empty and Alabama and Texas fans are slogging toward home (once they clear airport security). We pause to recollect and reminisce about some of the top memories and moments of this inspiring, tiring and expiring college football season.

Home sweet home

1 Joy returned to a proud program that survived an Xs and O’s downturn in the last decade that included NCAA probation, scandals involving coaches Mike DuBose and Mike Price, Dennis Franchione’s treasonous departure to Texas A&M, and Mike Shula’s mediocrity. Alabama defeated Texas on Thursday, 37-21, to capture its first national title since 1992. The Crimson Tide became the third team in college football history to finish 14-0, following Ohio State in 2002 and Boise State last Monday. Expect Coach Nick Saban to keep the Tide rolling in 2010.

Whistle blowers

2 Remember when players were the newsmakers? Not this year, as coaching news, some of it bizarre, dominated the headlines. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, 80, was nudged off a cliff into retirement. Wise-guy Charlie Weis was fired at Notre Dame after five mediocre seasons and replaced by Brian Kelly, who quit on undefeated Cincinnati to take over in South Bend. Florida Coach Urban Meyer, citing health reasons, shockingly resigned the day after Christmas and then “un-resigned” the next day. Texas Tech fired Mike Leach after it was alleged he had ordered an injured player locked in an equipment shed, and South Florida fired Jim Leavitt for allegedly striking one of his players.

Boise State/ Texas Christian

3 A decade ago, the notion of undefeated champions of the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences meeting in a major bowl game in the NFL’s “Monday Night Football” time slot would have been laughable -- but it happened in the Fiesta Bowl. It marked the first time schools from leagues without automatic bids advanced to BCS bowls and the teams ended up playing each other Monday in a game won by Boise State, 17-10. More important: Both should enter next season in the top 10. Boise State has 21 starters from its 14-0 team returning, giving the Broncos a legitimate chance to earn a national title bid.

Tragedy strikes

4 The Connecticut football team was stunned in mid-October after starting cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death after a dance following the Huskies’ homecoming victory against Louisville. Howard had gone to Connecticut to escape the violence of Miami, his hometown. After Howard’s death, the Huskies suffered three losses by a total of 10 points before scoring a rousing, 33-30 overtime victory at Notre Dame on Nov. 21. Connecticut ended the season at 8-5 with four straight victories, including a win over South Carolina in the bowl.

One second more

5 The end of the Texas-Nebraska Big 12 Conference title game on Dec. 5 could not have been more dramatic. Trailing 12-10, and already in position for the winning field-goal attempt, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy took a center snap in the final seconds and rolled to his right. McCoy finally let loose a pass, later admitting he thought the clock stopped when the ball crossed out of bounds. Nebraska thought it had won after the clock struck zero, but a replay review showed there was one second remaining when McCoy’s pass hit the ground, allowing Hunter Lawrence to kick the 46-yard field goal that sent Texas to the BCS championship game.

The ‘slip’ of Troy

6 You can’t really call a 9-4 finish the “fall” of Troy, right? Still, it was a different season at USC, which ended its streak of seven straight Pacific 10 Conference titles and BCS bowl-game appearances. USC settled for a Emerald Bowl victory against Boston College. Trojans Coach Pete Carroll took a huge chance starting true freshman Matt Barkley at quarterback, a gamble that looked as if it was going to pay off until Barkley and the Trojans stumbled down the stretch with staggering defeats against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.

Mark of excellence

7 Hard to believe a school with Alabama’s football tradition would have never produced a Heisman Trophy winner, but that was the case until sophomore tailback Mark Ingram’s name was called in New York on Dec. 12. Ingram won the award by only 28 points over Stanford tailback Toby Gerhart, the closest race in Heisman history. Ingram was the definition of longshot candidate; he entered the season as a relative unknown. Ingram finished with a school-record 1,658 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, including two scores and 116 yards in Thursday’s national title victory at the Rose Bowl.

Quack comeback

8 Oregon entered the season not ranked in the top 50 of Phil Steele’s respected preseason magazine, then opened with a humiliating Sept. 3 defeat at Boise State. The nationally televised game ended with tailback LeGarrette Blount throwing a punch that decked Boise State’s Byron Hout. Remarkably, though, the Ducks rallied to win the Pac-10 title with a 10-2 record and appeared in their first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season. First-year Coach Chip Kelly was named Pac-10 coach of the year. Despite losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, Oregon should enter 2010 as a national title contender and the Pac-10’s team to beat.

A man named Suh

9 No defensive player had a better season than Nebraska nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, who was as hard to stop as his name was to pronounce. Suh was a star before Nebraska’s Big 12 title game loss to Texas, but his performance against the Longhorns put him in another stratosphere of excellence. Suh almost single-handedly ended Texas’ title-game dreams with 12 tackles, including 4 1/2 sacks against Texas’ McCoy. Suh had more sacks on McCoy than any teamteam recorded in any game against Texas. Suh ended up a Heisman Trophy finalist and the probable No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft.

Number Ten as in ‘Big’

10 The Big Ten didn’t get mad, it got better. One year after finishing 1-6 in the bowls and having to hear all spring and summer how soft and outdated it had become, the Big Ten punched back in 2009 and ended up with a conference-best three top-10 teams in the final Associated Press poll. Big Ten schools played with hunger and tenacity in the bowls, scoring impressive wins, including Penn State over Louisiana State (Capital One), Wisconsin over Miami (Champs Sports), Ohio State over Oregon (Rose) and Iowa over Georgia Tech (Orange).