Orlando, Fla. bowl season of embarrassing blowouts and horrendous mismatches, the 2002 Florida Citrus Bowl was one of the worst. While the difference in the rankings of Michigan and Tennessee was just eight spots, the play on the field indicated a much greater difference.
And if you thought that the Wolverines had a chance to win this game, you were kidding yourself.
I was just as surprised by the Volunteers” 45-17 rout as anybody else. Michigan hasn”t been run off the field like that since Donovan McNabb and Syracuse did it to them in 1998. But if you take a closer look at the two teams and that score isn”t so shocking.
Michigan lost two conference games finished second in a very mediocre year for the Big Ten which ends the season with just two (two!?!) teams in the Top 25. At no point was there a team from the conference that was even dreaming of the national title.
In the SEC, both Tennessee and Florida were California dreamin”. The Volunteers ended the Gators” hopes by defeating them in The Swamp, but then flopped against Louisiana State in the SEC title game. That flop cost Tennessee not only a national title shot, but also a place in a BCS bowl game.
In the end, the SEC had two blowout BCS winners and five teams ranked in the top 25 No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 8 Louisiana State, No. 13 South Carolina and No. 25 Georgia.
Michigan had not faced a team of this caliber in its previous Citrus Bowl games. The Wolverines” opponents, Arkansas and Auburn, were at best the third-best team in the conference and maybe even the fourth or fifth best. But this year, in a stacked SEC, the Wolverines had to face the second-best team in the conference and one of the top teams in the nation.
In short, Michigan was completely outmatched.
The Wolverines succeeded in its defensive plan to make Tennessee one-dimensional, holding Tennessee under 100 yards and All-American Travis Stephens to just 38 yards. But Michigan had no answer for the Volunteers” powerful passing attack. Quarterback Casey Clausen passed for 393 yards three scores in the rout.
The size and speed of Tennessee”s receivers separated it from Michigan and the SEC from the Big Ten. The Wolverines looked as though they were running in sand and the Volunteers” receivers flew by them.
In the third quarter, Clausen hit his 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end Jason Witten, who then outran the Michigan defensive backfield for a 64-yard touchdown. After the game, safety Cato June said the reason he didn”t catch Witten is because he took a bad angle.
In the fourth quarter, it was the same story as wide receiver Kelley Washington caught a quick out and turned it into a 37-yard score, again leaving the Wolverines in his wake.
Illinois was demolished in a similar fashion. The Illini hadn”t seen a team as fast as Louisiana State before the Sugar Bowl and paid for it. Illinois fell behind 34-7 before finishing with a bit more respectable 47-34 loss.
Like Michigan, the Illini could not stop the passing game and allowed Tigers” quarterback Rohan Davey to pass for a Sugar Bowl-record 444 yards and running back Domanick Davis who replaced injured starter LaBrandon Toefield to rush for 122 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record four touchdowns.
The Big Ten ended its bowl season 0-3 against the SEC, the only close game being a valiant 28-point comeback by Ohio State against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
The 2002 bowl season exposed Michigan”s and the Big Ten”s lack of speed. Traditionally, southern teams rely on it more than northern teams, but the difference wasn”t as great. In addition, northern teams and specifically the Big Ten could keep teams on their heels with a power running game. Against Tennessee, Michigan”s young offensive line was no match for the Volunteers” front four.
Next season, with the addition of the Music City Bowl to the Big Ten tie-ins, there coul d be potentially four Big Ten-SEC matchups.
For the sake of the national survival of the Big Ten, teams will need to find some of that southern speed, or at least find a powerful running game.
Otherwise, the conference will be doomed to another embarrassing end of season.
Jeff Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.