Bowden, spread, Tebow mark decade

Editor's Note: Each day this week, ESPN.com will look back at the best in college football over the past 10 years. On Monday, Ivan Maisel provides an overview of the first decade of the 21st century.

The decade began with Bobby Bowden sitting atop the world of college football, having just won his second national championship. It ended with the Florida State coach driving a spear into the ground, a ritual to illustrate the finality of a great career.

The passing game turned spread from a verb into a noun. The spread offense spread across the game. Scores went up. The blood pressure of defensive coaches went up. Fullbacks became as rare as VHS. The nickelback played more, unless defenses went ahead and called him a linebacker. The spread acted a lot like the common cold. Stopping it is difficult because no two are exactly alike.

The spread rendered the passing records at the beginning of the decade obsolete. One of the best coaches to use the spread, Urban Meyer, began the decade in obscurity and, after winning at Bowling Green, Utah and two national championships at Florida, ended it in limbo.

Gators quarterback Tim Tebow became the most loved and hated player in the SEC, which means in all of football. The SEC finished the decade as the first conference to win four consecutive national championships.

Tebow became one of eight quarterbacks to win the Heisman. Three Heismans went to USC Trojans, one of many illustrations of how Pete Carroll's team dominated the sport. The Trojans finished in the top five in seven consecutive seasons.

USC began the decade in mediocrity and spent most of it in greatness. Alabama sunk into mediocrity for most of the decade and ended it in greatness. Notre Dame began the decade in mediocrity and ended it the same way.

In 2008, Michigan suffered its first losing season since 1967.

In 2009, Michigan suffered its second losing season since 1967.

Speaking of replay, Big Ten officials began using it in 2004 and everyone else in 2005. Replay has improved the game.

Whether realignment improved the game depends upon how much you like Big East football.

In 1999, Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College finished 1-2-3 in the Big East. Midway through the new decade, they walked out of the door -- 1-2-3 -- and joined the ACC. The Big East raided Conference USA, and so the food chain continued. As the decade ended, the Big Ten acknowledged that it may start the realignment dance all over again.

The 2000s began with two of the best coaches in college football coming off a high-scoring national championship game. You say they were Bowden of Florida State and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech after the Seminoles' 46-29 defeat of the Hokies in the Sugar Bowl. I say they were Paul Johnson of Georgia Southern and Jim Tressel of Youngstown State, after the Eagles' 59-24 defeat of the Penguins in the I-AA national championship.

Bowden has retired, as has the name "I-AA." When the decade began, LaVell Edwards, Lou Holtz, Don Nehlen, John Cooper and George Welsh still roamed the sidelines. Now they roam the College Football Hall of Fame.

Johnson and Tressel proved they can win in the FBS (née I-A) as much as they won in the FCS. Boise State has done the same. The Broncos, who didn't join I-A until 1996, spent the decade proving that mid-major powers can evolve into major powers.

For that, Boise State, as well as Utah and TCU, have the BCS to thank. The commissioners didn't want to include the smaller, less powerful conferences in their postseason party. The Mountain West, the WAC and others opened the door wider only after the threat of congressional intervention.

Once the less powerful teams arrived, they quickly proved they belonged. The Mountain West went 2-1 in the BCS. Its only loss came at the hands of the WAC, which also went 2-1. Their inclusion has proven to be the best thing that the commissioners were ever dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing.

Say what you will about the BCS -- and most of us have -- but the much-maligned postseason format improved over the course of the decade. The fiascoes of 2003 and 2004 forced the conference commissioners who control the BCS to rejigger the formula. Nothing they ever do will solve the dilemma of having more than two unbeaten teams, as when five teams went unbeaten in the regular season in 2004 and in 2009.

More importantly, no champion the BCS ever produces will satisfy playoff proponents. If public opinion is any measure, college football moved closer to a playoff over the course of the decade. But the number of university presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches who are interested in a playoff remains a minority.

After 2006, the NCAA achieved the dream of every rapacious corporate chieftain. It figured out a way, even as ticket prices went up, to give the public less product. When spread offenses spread the length of football games well past three hours, the NCAA shortened the game. The decision pleased TV executives and few others.

By the end of the decade, more fans seemed to want as much college football as they could get. Internet traffic soared. Viewership increased. It appears that the sport couldn't be healthier.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.