The list of the 10 best programs of the decade reflects the power shift to the South. Only two teams come from schools not considered part of the Sun Belt (the geography, not the conference). The Southeastern Conference led with three schools, none of which is the current national champion. Two schools play in non-AQ conferences, reflecting their rise in status. And three of the schools finished the decade in different conferences than they started it.
1. USC. It’s easy to forget what college football felt like without the Trojans dominating the left side of the map. When Pete Carroll resurrected USC, he brought flair, flash and a lot of fleet feet back to a campus that had been unable to sustain any magic for two decades. After two national championships, seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, 102 victories, a 34-game winning streak that matched the longest streak in the past 40 years, and three Heisman winners, it is clear that USC achieved what no other school could match. The Trojans made the decade their own.
2. Florida. The Gators started the decade with a beloved coach and ended it with one. When Steve Spurrier walked out after the 2001 season, yet another season of double-digit wins, it appeared that a successful era had ended. When Ron Zook won, but not enough, in three seasons, everyone wondered if another successful era could start. Urban Meyer arrived for the 2005 season, and quarterback Tim Tebow arrived in 2006. The rest — two national championships, one Heisman, a slew of All-Americans and an even 100 victories — is orange-and-blue history.
3. Oklahoma. Bob Stoops left Steve Spurrier’s staff at Florida, and with his mixture of toughness, discipline and pragmatism, he swept Oklahoma to the Big 12 and the national championship in 2000, only his second season in Norman. The Sooners went on to win five more conference titles and finished the decade with 110 victories. They reached the BCS National Championship Game three more times without winning it. Quarterbacks Jason White and Sam Bradford won Heismans. More importantly, Stoops rejected overtures from Florida and from the NFL. He had found a home.
4. Texas. The Longhorns enjoyed their greatest decade since the 1960s under coach Darrell Royal. More than 20 years after Royal retired, Mack Brown arrived, embraced the former coach and built a fence around the state’s best high-school talent. Texas won the 2005 national championship with Vince Young, a quarterback from Houston. They won 45 games in the four seasons after with Colt McCoy, a quarterback from Tuscola. Texas won 110 games in the 2000s. The Horns enter the next decade with a string of nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins and a coach at the top of his game.
5. Ohio State. The Buckeyes have never been as dominant in the Big Ten as they are now, thanks to coach Jim Tressel, who arrived for the 2001 season. Not even Woody Hayes won like this; Woody, after all, had to battle Bo. No program sustained a challenge to Ohio State in this decade. The Buckeyes won the 2002 national championship and at least a share of six Big Ten championships. They played in a BCS bowl in seven of the past eight seasons. Quarterback Troy Smith won the 2006 Heisman. The Horseshoe became a bigger (102,329), modernized showplace. And they won 102 games. If nothing else, this decade will be difficult to match.
6. LSU. The program may have stumbled through most of the 1990s, but Nick Saban looked south from Michigan State and saw potential. He saw a talent-rich state with only one state school in a major conference. Saban took the LSU job in 2000, won an SEC championship in 2001 and, in 2003, won the national championship. When Saban scratched his NFL itch after the 2004 season, Les Miles arrived from Oklahoma State, took the talent that Saban assembled and kept winning. In 2007, the Tigers became the first two-loss national champion ever. After 99 victories in the decade, let the good times roll.
7. Boise State. Once the major conferences cracked open the door to the BCS, the Broncos burst through it. The 43-42 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2006 season brought first-year coach Chris Petersen and the Broncos fame. The 17-10 victory over TCU in the Fiesta Bowl three years later capped a 14-0 season and brought Boise State newfound respect for a newfound decade. No FBS school won more games in the 2000s (112) or more conference titles (eight) than did Boise State. Now, if the Broncos can only get more teams to play them …
8. Georgia. The Bulldogs’ success in the decade — two Southeastern Conference championships, a share of four SEC East titles — reflected the quiet, steely nature of head coach Mark Richt, who arrived after the 2000 season. They won 98 games while in the shadow of Florida. They won 98 games with a mixture of hard-nosed defense and two outstanding quarterbacks, David Greene, who set an FBS record with 42 victories (broken in 2009 by Colt McCoy), and Matthew Stafford. One other characteristic: Richt’s teams win close games. His Dawgs are 20-9 in games decided by five points or fewer.
9. Virginia Tech. When the ACC decided to expand, it took three teams from the Big East: Miami for its success, Boston College for its media market and Virginia Tech because the state’s governor promised to raise hell if the league didn’t. Guess which school proved the most valuable? In six seasons, the Hokies have won three ACC championships. They also provided the ACC with its only BCS bowl victory in the 2000s (20-7 over Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl). Virginia Tech won 99 games in 10 years under coach Frank Beamer, which leads to another question: What took the ACC so long?
10. TCU. The Horned Frogs began the decade in limbo and ended it in a BCS bowl. They climbed through three conferences — from the WAC, which they won in 2000, to Conference USA (2001-04) to the Mountain West, which they won in 2005 and again in 2009. When Dennis Franchione left for Alabama after the 2000 season, defensive coordinator Gary Patterson took over in 2001 and made TCU known for its defensive speed. The Horned Frogs climbed to as high as No. 4 while going 12-0 in the 2009 regular season and reached a BCS bowl for the first time. As the decade concluded, no one argued that TCU ranked No. 2 in Texas.