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Ten things we learned from bowl season

Mark Ingram (AP)
Alabama running back Mark Ingram (22) kisses the championshipe trophy after winning the BCS...
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Twenty days, 34 bowls, and countless hours spent on the couch with a remote control in hand absorbing it all -- as always, the college football bowl season didn't disappoint. What started with a Wyoming shocker over Fresno State ended with yet another SEC victory in the BCS Title Game. In between, there were a pair of overtime thrillers, some fantastic big performances out of the game’s brightest stars, and a few unlikely outcomes and finishes.

What’d I come away with from the past three weeks? Here are the 10 things we learned from this year’s bowl season:

1. In college football, you never know which snap is going to be your last. It was eerily fitting that the college football season ended almost the very same way it began -- with a star quarterback going down with a shoulder injury, forcing a freshman backup into the spotlight prematurely. When Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford went down vs. BYU on the first Saturday night of the college season -- and ultimately again vs. Texas in the first quarter of this year’s Red River Shootout -- the fleeting nature of this brutal sport came to light. The same could have been said after Tim Tebow was knocked out at Kentucky in October or when Cal running back Jahvid Best literally bounced on his head running into the end zone against Oregon State on Nov. 7. Tebow would return to the field two weeks later; Bradford and Best weren’t quite as fortunate.

It’s injuries like Colt McCoy’s on Thursday night, Bradford’s, Tebow’s and Best’s that help us understand decisions like Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead’s to leave early and enter the NFL. Is Snead ready? Probably not. Did he have an outstanding season worthy of early entry? Absolutely not. But he’s thought to be a first-day selection. With a college degree already in his hands, who are we to question his decision?

After all, if we’ve learned anything this year -- it’s that in an instant, it can all be gone. At the blink of an eye (or the snapping of a shoulder), millions of dollars can be flushed down the drain.

McCoy’s injury will go down in college football lore as one of the great “What ifs.” What if McCoy was healthy and played the entire game? What if McCoy led Texas to a score on that opening drive in a first quarter that seemed to be slipping out of Nick Saban and Alabama’s hands from the get-go? What if Mack Brown hadn’t called a timeout at the end of the first half and freshman Garrett Gilbert’s shovel pass wasn’t intercepted and returned for a touchdown?

As much as Texas fans will be lamenting these “What ifs” in the coming days, all college football fans have to wonder “What if?” as well. What if Texas played Alabama with a healthy McCoy? Would Thursday night’s contest been one of the all-time classics?

What if?

Alas, we’ll never know.

"I don't really know what it is. I just know I can't throw a ball. My shoulder is dead,” a teary-eyed McCoy said on national TV just minutes after the game.

You couldn’t help but feel for the kid. A season, hell, a career’s worth of buildup -- was all lost in an instant.

Thus is college football.

And that was never more apparent than in 2009.

2. The Big Ten has a spine, after all. After what’s felt like a decade’s worth of beatings from the SEC, Pac-10 and the Big 12 in both regular and postseason play, the Big Ten finally flexed its muscles and showed a little pride this bowl season. Pundits rolled their eyes when three Big Ten teams -- Ohio State, Iowa, and Penn State -- finished the regular season in the BCS Top 15 standings. But all three squads came out and beat power teams from BCS conferences in New Year’s Day or BCS bowls.

Add in an impressive win for Wisconsin over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl and a gutsy effort out of Northwestern vs. Auburn in the Gator, and you’ve got quite a little showing out of a conference that’s been beaten and bruised for quite some time. Terrelle Pryor’s back next year, so is Evan Royster, as is Ricky Stanzi and both of Iowa’s dynamic freshman running backs. Some of the conference's big defensive stars are returning, as well. Hey, maybe there’s some hope for the Big Ten, after all.

3. Jared Crick is a force to be reckoned with. Though I spent most of the 2009 season -- OK, all of it -- pumping up the Heisman candidacy of Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh (watching his 4.5 sack Big 12 Championship Game performance was like watching your kid dazzle as the lead in a grammar school play), it was fellow Huskers DT Jared Crick who impressed me most in Nebraska’s 33-0 Holiday Bowl whooping of Arizona.

The ‘Huskers D forced Arizona into Holiday Bowl records for futility with just six first downs, a measly 109 yards of offense, 51 offensive plays and nine punts. The Wildcats didn't get into Nebraska territory until the first drive of the third quarter. Remember, this was a team that had beaten USC in Los Angeles less than a month earlier.

Crick, only a sophomore, was breathing down Arizona quarterback Nick Foles’ back from start to finish.

“He’s the next Suh,” Suh told reporters after Crick’s fine performance on Dec. 30.

At 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, Crick finished the year with 70 tackles, second only to Suh’s 82. He also had 9.5 sacks, second to Suh’s 12. With Suh facing double teams against Baylor on Oct. 31, Crick recorded a school record 5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss.

“(Suh) is a good player, but I’ll tell you what: The guy next to him isn’t far off,” said Bo Pelini at the Holiday Bowl. “He’s a hell of a player too. The other guy is only a sophomore.”

NFL scouts love Suh, but from what I hear, they really dig Crick too. He should be a preseason All-American heading into next year. Consider yourself warned.

4. The Pac-10 wasn’t very good this year. Though the 2009 season will be remembered as the most wide-open, most exciting, most confounding Pac-10 campaign of recent memory, the teams involved -- six of which were still Rose Bowl eligible heading into the campaign’s second-to-last weekend -- weren’t exactly up to snuff with years prior. It was a down year for USC, Cal never recovered from mid-season losses to Oregon and USC, Stanford lost a heartbreaker to Cal, and Arizona, Oregon State and Oregon lost spotlight bowl games by a combined score of 103-37.

The Pac-10 went 2-5 in postseason play this season, including two bad losses to non-BCS teams Utah and BYU. The Beavers and the Wildcats, particularly, looked unprepared and underwhelming in their December bowl efforts. I’m sure the conference will be back to its usual self in ’10, but ’09 just wasn’t its year.

5. There’s always a few of those “rink-a-dink” bowls that seem to steal the show. We learn this every year, but somehow we always forget it by the time the following December rolls around. We scoff and laugh at games sponsored by companies like PapaJohn’s and Little Caesar’s, but often times, it’s the bowls that you least expect to care about that end up being the best ones of the bowl season. This year’s two darlings? The Dec. 30 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl up in Boise and Wednesday night’s GMAC Bowl thrill ride.

The Humanitarian Bowl featured Bowling Green receiver Ronnie Barnes catching 17 passes for 219 yards and three TDs, setting the NCAA mark for receptions in a season with 155, 36 fourth quarter points, and a last second two-point conversion with no time on the clock resulting in an Idaho victory.

The GMAC, played in between Tuesday’s Orange Bowl and Thursday night’s national title game, featured a career-defining performance out of Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour, a game-tying, 47-yard field goal at the end of regulation, and two overtime sessions. I got more “Are you watching this?” text messages during those two games than any of the BCS bowls combined. Hate on the 34-game bowl schedule all you want. But give me a few games like the Humanitarian and the GMAC every year, and you won’t find me complaining.

6. Tim Tebow was a damn good college football player. Remember that. Because you may forget it soon. Trust me, the next three months will be filled with NFL scouts, draft experts, and talking heads dissecting Tim Tebow’s throwing motion, three-to-five step drop ability, and overall NFL prospects. I’m warning you now -- it won’t be pretty. Brian Billick hinted at this during the Sugar Bowl FOX telecast and other media members -- Phil Simms, included -- have noted it as well: Tebow’s mechanics aren’t exactly the NFL norm. Hell, they make Vince Young's and Kerry Collins’ releases look kosher.

The mock draft guys are going to come out and slice and dice Tebow’s mechanics and technique apart. After four years of never-ending positive media stories and an almost angelic public profile, Tebow’s about to endure three months of endless negativity. Before that all starts, let’s take some time to savor and appreciate him for what he was -- the greatest college football player of the decade, and perhaps the very best of his generation.

His Sugar Bowl performance was dominant and awe-inspiring; consistent with the rest of his four years as a Gator.

Tim Tebow was one of the all-time great college football players.

7. You shouldn't lock a concussed player in an electrical closet. It doesn’t matter whether said electrical closet is the size of a one-car garage or your garden-variety 8X8 box, it’s not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.

8. The UNC defense is going to be downright nasty next year. Earlier this week, five key players from UNC’s No. 6 nationally rated defense announced they’d be coming back to school for their senior seasons in 2010. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, defensive backs Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams, and linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter will all be suiting up for the Tar Heels next season.

For ACC opponents, that’s a scary thought. Austin and Carter, both All-ACC selections, would have likely been late first- or early second-round NFL Draft picks. Burney and Williams combined for 11 interceptions this season, and Sturdivant led the Heels with 79 tackles. Unless any of the five stars change their minds, UNC will have 10 of its top 12 tacklers back in ’10. "The major reason ... is because we've got a chance to be special," Williams said this week. "I think there's a lot of unfinished business that we've got." My early pick for 2010’s ACC champions? Look no further than Chapel Hill.

9. Give a top-notch coach four weeks to prepare and both the Pistol and the Triple Option can be stopped. Both Chris Ault’s Nevada Wolfpack “Pistol” offense and Paul Johnson’s Triple Option at Georgia Tech were silenced in bowl games this postseason. Nevada was embarrassed by SMU on Christmas Eve, falling 45-10 in the Hawaii Bowl. Though Nevada running backs Vai Taua (academically ineligible) and Luke Lipincott (toe injury) were out for the game, Nevada still only rushed for 137 yards, hundreds of yards shy of the Wolf Pack’s regular season 362.3 average. June Jones’ Mustangs held the much ballyhooed Pistol offense to just 314 yards of offense.

Meanwhile, in the Orange Bowl, Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes held the Yellow Jackets to 143 rushing yards and a season-low of 155 total yards. Tech averaged 307 rushing yards per game in ’09. They had only 32 yards rushing at halftime.

“This was a different challenge,'' Ferentz said of stopping the triple option, "Our whole group up front did a good job.''

Umm, you think, Coach?

The Nos. 1 and 2 ranked rushing offenses were both silenced this bowl season. Give good coaches four weeks to prepare and scheme for niche offenses and that sort of thing happens.

10. The SEC is King. Those “SEC … SEC … SEC” chants you heard booming from the crowd at the end of Thursday night’s title game? It’s become an annual tradition. Say what you want about the “media bias” that certain fans claim favors the SEC, but the conference reigns supreme year in, year out. SEC teams are now 6-0 in BCS Title games, and have won the last four BCS titles and five in the last six years. The Pac-10 and Big Ten have combined for two.

I'm not an SEC homer by any means. But that's some impressive stuff.

Face it: It's the SEC and everybody else.

Schrager’s Bowl Season Awards

Offensive MVP: Tim Tebow, Florida
Defensive MVP: Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Most Exciting Game: Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl -- Idaho 43, Bowling Green 42
Least Exciting Game: International Bowl -- South Florida 27, Northern Illinois 3
Best Broadcast Crew: Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan, FOX: Fiesta Bowl--Boise State 17, TCU 10
Best Trick Play: Boise State fake punt: Fiesta Bowl
Worst Trick Play: Alabama fake punt: BCS Title Game

Schrager 2009-2010 All-Bowl Team:

QB: Tim Tebow, Florida; 482 yards, 3 touchdowns
RB: Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss: 184 yards, 2 touchdowns
RB: Jared Tew, Air Force: 173 yards, 2 touchdowns
WR: Freddie Barnes, Bowling Green: 17 catches, 219 yards, 3 touchdowns
WR: Ryan Broles, Oklahoma: 13 catches, 176 yards, 3 touchdowns
TE: Kyle Efaw, Boise State: 4 catches, 75 yards
OT: Anthony Davis, Rutgers
OT: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
G: Mike Iupati, Idaho
G: Rodney Hudson, Florida State
C: Maurkice Pouncey, Florida

Defense:
DL: Jared Crick, Nebraska
DL: Jerry Hughes, TCU
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DL: Marcell Dareus, Alabama
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
LB: Scott Lutrus, Connecticut
LB: Rolando McClain, Alabama
DB: Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska
DB: Joe Haden, Florida
DB: Brandyn Thompson, Boise State
DB: Chris Thomas, Air Force

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