Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Aug 2004
by Russell Levine
Of all the things that people criticize college football for, the lack of a postseason playoff at the sport's highest level -- Division I-A -- is right at the top of the list. The arguments for a playoff are many and don't need recounting here; the arguments against are often hypocritical (seasons that are too long, too much missed class time) and easily dismissed.
But there is one indisputable fact about the way college football crowns its champion -- it's unique in American sports and it presents a regular season more packed with meaning than any other -- and that fact doesn't get nearly enough attention.
At the beginning of the new season, the title contenders all share the same mission: win every game. Any school from the BCS conferences that does that knows it will play in the championship game. In its six seasons, the BCS has given us several controversial matchups in the title game, but never has an undefeated school from the BCS leagues been left out. Every year I read about how three undefeated teams at the end of the season could bring about the demise of the BCS, but until that actually happens, I'm not going to worry about it.
What the system leaves us with is effectively a full-season playoff. For schools such as Miami, LSU, USC, Oklahoma, Florida State and Michigan that begin every season with the realistic goal of a national championship, every weekend is a must-win game. The system isn't fair to everyone, but for the powerhouses from the power leagues, what a season it sets up. Fans can pull out the season schedule right now, before a single game has been played, circle all the "must-watch" games, and come December, they will have caught pretty much all of them.
With that thought in mind, consider the following a scheduling guide for the fall, along with Junkie's exclusive couch-potato factor (CPF) rating system for each weekend:
|Couch-Potato Factor Rating System|
|CPF||What it Means|
|1||A good weekend to visit the in-laws|
|2||Only 1-2 key games, TiVo time-shifting acceptable|
|3||Plan all activities around your TV time|
|4||Death in the family, anniversary, and birthdays are the only excuses|
|5||Everything will have to wait for Sunday|
Not every college football game is a "must-watch," of course. "Can miss" games include almost all of Notre Dame's schedule and pretty much any game played on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday, except the day after Thanksgiving.
A couple of years ago, the NFL got fed up with opening-week TV ratings that suffered because of the Labor Day holiday and decided to kick off a week later. ABC said nonsense, and with its partner ESPN decided to turn the long weekend into a five-day college football orgy. Now most people may think of Labor Day weekend as summer's last gasp -- a chance to go to the beach or head to a string of family barbecues. I consider it my birthright to set up camp in front of the TV set.
With that in mind, Labor Day weekend gets its own schedule breakdown. Using the TiVo Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down method, here's how to plan your weekend:
Three Thumbs Up -- Take the phone off the hook and refuse to leave the house.
Florida State at Miami, Monday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
In anyone's scenario, this is one of the key games of the entire season. Not only is it the third meeting between these bitter rivals in under a year, it's the first time they face off as conference foes as Miami makes its ACC debut. The conference wisely pushed this game to the start of the season to give the loser the entire year to recover and reposition itself for a title run, but the stakes are still enormous.
Two Thumbs Up -- Make sure you're got the TiVo programmed.
Oregon State at LSU, Saturday, Sept. 4, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
The defending co-champs, LSU, kick off the season with a potentially challenging home date against Oregon State. The Beavers lost Steven Jackson to the NFL draft and may be down a bit, but this is not a pushover game for LSU, which will be breaking in a new starting quarterback.
Notre Dame at BYU, Saturday, Sept. 4, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
The "sports leader" finishes up its season-opening tripleheader with an intriguing matchup of two schools in rebound mode. Notre Dame is like the Yankees -- you either love them or hate them, but everyone's got an opinion. I'm in the latter group, but even I'll admit college football is more interesting when the Irish are good, which they weren't last year. Ty Willingham's bunch tunes up for a home date with Michigan by traveling west to take on a BYU squad that forgot how to play offense last season.
One Thumb Up -- Channel flipper's delight. No need to plan your day around these games, but if you catch one while flipping channels, you'll want to settle in.
Texas A&M at Utah, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Utah, a mid-major with BCS aspirations, gets a national TV date and a chance to prove itself against the Aggies. Last year's A&M squad was humbled in a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma, but expect Dennis Franchione's boys to be better this season. A Utah win over a "name" school from the Big 12 will definitely help its case with the voters.
Wake Forest at Clemson, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Despite the increased competition in the ACC this season, Clemson has big goals. QB Charlie Whitehurst makes those goals possible. If he puts up huge numbers in the opener against surprisingly tough Wake Forest, a Heisman campaign will be born.
Syracuse at Purdue, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Purdue QB Kyle Orton is generating preseason Big 10 Player of the Year talk, and he gets his first chance to shine in a national-TV date against the Orange (no more Orangemen), who get a chance to rebuild in the watered-down Big East.
There are some intriguing matchups on this date, but only one "must-see" game, so if you need to schedule some family time in September, this Saturday might not be a bad choice. Remember, Sunday (9/12) is opening weekend in the NFL.
Michigan at Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Granted, this storied rivalry doesn't have quite the impact on the championship picture it did back in the days when both teams were ranked in the top
ten or even top five. But any time you have the two winningest programs in history -- not to mention the two best fight songs -- on the same field, college football fans should want to tune in. This year's matchup in South Bend is heavy on the revenge factor for Notre Dame, which absorbed a 38-0 pasting at the hands of the Wolverines last season -- the largest margin of victory in the history of the series.
You'll want to clear off your calendar for this date, which presents the best slate of games for the month.
Nebraska at Pittsburgh, 12 p.m. ET, ABC
Bill Callahan takes his Nebraska west coast offense for its first nationally televised test drive. By this point, after opening games against Western Illinois and Southern Miss, Husker fans will either have anointed Callahan a saint or be calling for his head.
LSU at Auburn, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Shouldn't there be a rule against having teams with the same nickname (Tigers) in the same conference? I mean, even the CFL only has one team named "Roughriders" these days. Regardless, this Tiger tale is the first of many titanic SEC clashes. Geaux Tigers! War Eagle!
Florida at Tennessee, 8 p.m. ET, CBS
I should have mentioned that you wouldn't need to wait long for the second great SEC matchup of the year. And with the average length of games on CBS, you probably won't get much more than a 20-minute break between the end of LSU-Auburn and the kickoff of this one. Funny how all Tennessee had to do to start beating the Gators was get rid of Peyton Manning. Make sure you flip over to TBS during commercials to get a look at
Clemson QB Charlie Whitehurst in a stern road test at Texas A&M (7 p.m. ET start).
If you must be away from your TV in the month of September (and I wouldn't recommend it), this might be the week to do it -- unless you follow the Big Ten.
Iowa at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Hawkeyes own a two-game winning streak against Michigan and handed the Wolverines one of their worst losses in recent memory the last time they faced off at the Big House. Michigan, the preseason conference favorite, should be ready to go for this one. Iowa is once again breaking in a new QB, but so are the Wolverines. The winner gets a leg up in the conference race.
Conference play is under way, the leaves are falling, but October is a bit of a slow month in the heart of football season. The first weekend offers one very important SEC matchup.
LSU at Georgia, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Georgia is a trendy pick to win the SEC and perhaps even the national championship. The bulldogs have been steadily improving in recent seasons, but if they are to ascend to those heights, they need a program-defining win. Defending co-champs LSU provide the first opportunity of the young season.
West Virginia at Virginia Tech, TBD
When this game was originally scheduled, it was to be just another Big East conference clash between the Mountaineers and Hokies. But with Virginia Tech's departure for the ACC, this becomes a non-conference border skirmish. It's also a chance for West Virginia to prove that it would have been good enough to contend for a BCS bid even if the Big East hadn't been decaffeinated by the departures of Miami and VaTech.
Texas-Oklahoma should be on everyone's must-see list.
Texas vs. Oklahoma, 12 p.m., ET, ABC
This is getting serious for Texas and coach Mack Brown. Four straight losses to OU in the Red River Shootout -- two of them by ridiculously wide margins -- have Brown on the hot seat despite annual 10-win seasons. Not only have the Sooners humiliated the Longhorns on the field, but coach Bob Stoops pulled a recruiting coup by landing the two most highly touted prospects in Texas last year -- running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Rhett Bomar. If Oklahoma runs it up on Texas once again, Brown is going to feel the noose tightening around his neck with each score. Texas fans, who seem to think a national championship is their destiny, are getting impatient.
LSU at Florida, TBD, CBS
Tennessee at Georgia, TBD, CBS
The SEC's round-robin tournament between top contenders LSU, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia continues. By this point in the season, favorites for the league crown have probably emerged and they're all likely to be on display in this pair of contests.
Cal at USC, TBD
What school handed eventual co-champ USC its only defeat that season? That would be the surprisingly tough Cal Bears, who pulled off a stunning upset in triple-OT. Coach Jeff Tedford has the makings of a solid program at Berkeley provided he doesn't bolt for the NFL, but a second straight upset over the Men of Troy is probably too much to ask for.
We've hit the mid-October lull.
* Oklahoma at Kansas State, TBD, ABC
Missouri at Texas, TBD
* Depending on the winner of the Texas-Oklahoma game. If Oklahoma has defeated the Longhorns, they'll probably be rolling towards and undefeated season at this point and you'll want to watch them against Big 12 contender Kansas State. It was the Wildcats that humiliated the Sooners in last year's Big 12 title game, so the revenge factor bears watching. If Texas emerges from Dallas with a win, make sure to catch the Longhorns against Missouri and potential Heisman QB Brad Smith, a poor man's Michael Vick.
Take the weekend off and consider working on the house. Every college team needs a bye week, and so do fans. Without a marquee clash on the docket, bank some family time or significant other brownie points and recharge your batteries for the season's stretch run.
Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
Georgia vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Any game that bills itself as the "world's largest outdoor cocktail party" deserves your attention. Will Georgia be a contender or pretender? Will Florida coach Ron Zook be looking over his shoulder for Steve Spurrier? We should know the answers to those questions at this point, but even if both schools have disappointed, this rivalry is always played on the edge.
In October, this Saturday would be a 2, but the games count more as the season starts to wind down.
Clemson at Miami, TBD, ABC
If it has managed to navigate a brutal schedule, Clemson will arrive at this date with a chance to prove itself one of the ACC's new heavyweights. Road dates at the Orange Bowl are never easy, especially for a Clemson squad that has relatively little big-game experience. Recruits come to Miami to play in big games, something they do two or three times every season, which makes a Clemson upset unlikely.
On the strength of Nebraska-Oklahoma alone.
Nebraska at Oklahoma, TBD, ABC
The conference merger/expansion trend that began in the 1990s and continues unabated today has given us super-leagues like the Big 12 and SEC and a Big Ten that can't count. It has also robbed us of one of America's greatest rivalries. Because they are in different divisions of the Big 12, Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer meet every season. Along with Miami-Notre Dame, OU-NU was the "must-watch" rivalry of the 1980s, but it faded as first Oklahoma and now Nebraska slipped from national prominence and the Big 12 divided them. Here's hoping Callahan's air attack can restore this feud's lost luster.
Any true college fan knows where they'll be on this date.
Michigan at Ohio State, 1 p.m. ET, ABC
For my money, November 20 is the best date on the entire college football calendar, because it's officially "Rivalry Week." Without a single other game on the schedule, Michigan-Ohio State alone would make this Saturday mandatory TV viewing, but there's also Florida at Florida State (TBD, ABC), the Oregon-Oregon State "Civil War" (7 p.m. ET) -- although it's hard to declare anything civil when one team's fans have been known to hurl bags of urine at those rooting for the other side -- and even the Washington-Washington State "Apple Cup" (8 p.m. ET, ABC) for the serious college junkie. These games are played with such emotion and intensity that the records truly don't matter.
Back to the day's marquee contest -- Michigan heads to Columbus with a first-year starter at QB, always a tough task. For the decade-plus of the John Cooper era at OSU, the Buckeyes thought they could win this game every year, while the Wolverines believed it. That changed as new coach Jim Tressel beat "that school up north" in his first two tries. Did last year's win over OSU restore Michigan's supreme confidence against the Buckeyes? Michigan's Lloyd Carr is one of the best big-game coaches in America, so his squad will be ready to play with a likely Big Ten title and BCS berth on the line.
Thanksgiving is built around family, food and football. Does it get any better than that?
West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Thursday, Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
The NFL has usurped Thanksgiving football from the college game, but the "Backyard Brawl" is more worthy of your viewing time than the Lions. Why? Because this is another of the most bitter rivalries in all of college football, and also because the Big East title and a BCS bid will likely be on the line.
Friday, November 26
Sleep off all that turkey and stuffing, then roll out of bed in the late morning and roll right into some great college matchups. Texas-Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) may have more pageantry than any other rivalry game, while Colorado-Nebraska (12 p.m. ET, ABC) has maintained its intensity even through the recent struggles of both programs. There's also Arizona-Arizona State (3 p.m. ET) for good measure --which is as likely to produce a pre-game brawl as any game all year.
Notre Dame at USC, Saturday, Nov. 27, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
The Irish and the Trojans cap off Thanksgiving weekend with their annual clash. On paper, this looks like no contest, as USC has routed the Irish the last two seasons. If Notre Dame struggles again this year, Willingham could be fighting for his job against USC. No matter the records, this one is worth a tune in just to hear "Conquest," "Fight On" and "The Notre Dame Victory March" about 475 times apiece.
December, the month that shouldn't be. Call me a traditionalist, but I hate December football. The college regular season should end Thanksgiving weekend, make room for the NFL stretch run, and re-emerge on New Year's Day. But expanded schedules for TV and conference championships have made the first Saturday of December mandatory TV viewing. There's simply too much on the line to miss anything.
Army vs. Navy, 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Start your day with Army-Navy. If you're a college football fan, you don't need to know any more.
Virginia Tech at Miami, 1 p.m. ET, ABC
USC at UCLA, 4:30 p.m. ET, ABC
VaTech-Miami is now an ACC rivalry game, and it usually delivered the goods in the Big East. So does USC-UCLA, although it hurts me that both schools no longer wear their home uniforms.
SEC Championship Game, 6 p.m. ET, CBS
Big 12 Championship Game, TBD, ABC
I hate these made-for-TV title games, but with one or both of the Orange Bowl participants likely to emerge, you must tune in.
So there you have it folks, three-plus months of fight songs, cheerleaders, tradition, tailgating, and Tim Brando's strangely haunting haircut in a nutshell. Let the games begin!