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The 2003 Fiesta Bowl changed the course of college football history

The two teams involved in the national title game have been on very different paths ever since

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Tonight at 8 p.m. EST, ESPN will be airing a special broadcast of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl — the BCS National Championship Game between Ohio State and Miami. The three-hour TV event will feature several of the game’s players taking part in the broadcast, including former Buckeye safety Mike Doss and former Hurricanes linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

With the rebroadcast of a game fans of college football know so well, especially fans of the teams involved, it seems like a good time to take a look at just what kind of impact that massive title game had on the landscape of the sport. To this day, that game has left a lasting impact on both programs, and the trajectory of the two college football giants would be changed forever.

The Game

Just last week, our own Brett Ludwiczak gave an excellent breakdown of the road each team took to get to the national title game that year. If you are interested in the buildup leading into this matchup, definitely check that out. While Brett also detailed the events that occurred in the game itself, it is certainly worth discussing again here.

It was a battle of undefeateds out in Tempe, AZ, as the No. 1-ranked Miami Hurricanes took on the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes. Both teams had left no doubt that they deserved to be on this national stage with their play during the regular season, but the boys from Columbus were heavy underdogs heading into the matchup. The Canes were riding a 34-game winning streak, and while not as dominant as their 2001 squad, remained the best team in the country.

Miami struck first, with quarterback Ken Dorsey completing a 25-yard TD pass to Roscoe Parrish late in the opening quarter to put the game’s first points on the board. Ohio State would answer late in the second quarter, as QB Craig Krenzel took it himself up the middle on the goal line to tie the score at seven apiece. After a Hurricanes fumble on their ensuing drive, the Bucks were able to capitalize quickly and take their first lead of the afternoon on a Maurice Clarett TD run. They added to this lead out of the break with a Mike Nugent field goal, and just like that, OSU, shockingly to most, led 17-7.

Miami was obviously not done yet, and responded later in the third quarter with a Willis McGahee rushing score. Ohio State would cling on to its slim three-point lead for almost the entirety of regulation, but a Canes field goal as time expired sent the national title game to overtime with the two teams locked at 17-17.

Miami got the ball first to start the OT period, and found the end zone on a 7-yard pass to Kellen Winslow, putting the pressure back on the Buckeye offense. This possession was an absolute rollercoaster, as after a sack had forced OSU to convert on 4th-and-14 — which they did on a Michael Jenkins catch for 17 yards — they were once again faced with a fourth down scenario, this time from the 5-yard line.

What ensued was one of the most controversial calls in college football history. The pass intended for Chris Gamble fell incomplete, seemingly sealing the deal on a National Championship for the Hurricanes, but it was not to be. A late flag came in for what was called pass interference on Miami, and so the game continued.

While the call was correct, it came incredibly late, stunning fans of the guys in green and orange. Krenzel later rushed in another TD to tie it up, and after Clarett scored on the next Ohio State possession, the Silver Bullets made an excellent defensive stand to win the Fiesta Bowl in double-OT.

It was an incredible game between two largely talented opponents, but the Buckeyes managed to come out on top. Fans at the time were obviously aware of the phenomenal matchup they had just watched, but they were not aware of the implications that moment would have on college football history. The course of history for both teams involved in that game was changed forever on that fateful January night.

The fall of The U

Miami burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s. After not being ranked in the AP Poll since 1974, the Hurricanes became a fixture in the Top 25 for the greater part of the next two decades. Having not won a single national title in the program’s history, which dated back to 1926, Miami would go on to win five National Championships from 1983-2001.

The U had developed into a football factory, and would later go on to produce some of the biggest names and NFL talents, including guys like Warren Sapp (1995 NFL Draft), Ray Lewis (1996), Edgerrin James (1999), Reggie Wayne (2001) and Ed Reed (2002), among many others. The program had developed a swagger about it, and quickly became a perennial powerhouse in the college football landscape.

In that impressive span from 1983-2001, Miami won nine or more games in a season 18 times in 21 years. They were winning big bowl games seemingly each and every new campaign, with five Orange Bowl victories, two Sugar Bowls and one Rose Bowl over that time frame. The Canes had just finished an undefeated season in 2001 that ended in a national title before heading into that 2002 season that culminated in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. That was when things began to take a turn in Miami.

The team really had one more impressive season left in them in 2003, where they finished 11-2 and defeated Florida State in the Orange Bowl, but things went south once the program joined the ACC in 2004.

Since the conference switch, Miami has won double-digit games just once, occurring in 2017. Not only were they not winning as many games as they were previously accustomed, but they were starting to see some straight up terrible years. After finishing with a sub .500 record just once dating back to 1980, the team has finished at or below .500 four times since 2007, and has won less than nine games in a season 10 times since 2006.

It’s tough to say that one game against one team could break a college football dynasty, but that is pretty much what happened to Miami after the loss to Ohio State in the BCS title game in 2003. OSU was not the cause of the program’s ultimate collapse, but they got the ball rolling downhill. On the flip side, the Buckeyes experienced a much different future following their big victory...

The Buckeye Boom

Prior to securing the program’s seventh claimed national title in that 2002-03 season, Ohio State football had hit a lull. While the school claims having won a title in 1970 after being named a co-national champion before bowl season, the Buckeyes’ last true championship victory had not come since 1968 in the days of Woody Hayes. OSU had a ton of great seasons under both Earle Bruce and John Cooper to follow, but just couldn’t secure that elusive trophy.

The Jim Tressel era began a year prior to that 2003 Fiesta Bowl win with a mediocre 7-5 season, but he would turn things around quickly. In just his second year as Ohio State’s head coach, he was able to lead the team through an undefeated regular season, knocking off No. 12 Michigan in the Big Ten finale before going on to beat No. 1 Miami to bring a National Championship back to Columbus.

That big win on a such a massive stage against an opponent of that caliber sparked a new era of Ohio State football. Since that 2002 season, the Buckeyes have finished the year with double-digit wins in 16 of the last 18 campaigns — with one of those outliers being the sanction-ridden fallout in 2011 when the team went 6-7. Like the Miami team that dominated during their hay day, OSU was now in the upper tier of the college football world.

Similarly to the Canes, the sustained success brought with it an influx of all-star caliber players to Columbus. In the year’s that have followed, Ohio State has become nothing short of an NFL factory, producing names like Santonio Holmes (2006), Malcolm Jenkins (2009), Ryan Shazier (2014), Joey Bosa (2016), Ezekiel Elliott (2016) and many, many more in recent times.

The Bucks have only managed to secure one national title since that Fiesta Bowl win — the 2014 National Championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. The team isn’t taking home the trophy every single year, but they have quickly become one of the few programs in the country who have the chance to compete for a title year in and year out. They are undisputedly one of the most talented teams in any given season — much like the Miami teams of old.

It is almost as if the two programs changed bodies in that title game in 2003. The U went from a feared and respected football program to the bottom dwellers of the ACC, while Ohio State went from a team that had been successful in the past to a highly competitive entity with the capability — and usually the probability — to win each and every time they take the field.

Did the Buckeyes actually break the Hurricanes? Did that win over Miami actually help build Ohio State into what it’s come today? It’s tough to know for sure, but one thing is for certain: the trajectories of the two storied college football teams were flipped on their heads after the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.