Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

06 Dec 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Threesome

by Russell Levine

By picking the consensus nos. 1 and 2 teams in both the human and computer polls to play in its title game, the BCS proved it can pick the correct pairing. What it can't do is fit three teams into two spots.

Even though Saturday's wins by all the three schools atop the rankings did nothing to derail the expected Orange Bowl matchup between USC and Oklahoma, the final BCS standings issued yesterday still contained a nasty surprise for California and an early Christmas gift for Texas.

As expected, by winning their final games, no. 1 USC and no. 2 Oklahoma advanced to the national championship game. Auburn, which defeated Tennessee in the SEC championship Saturday to finish 12–0, will have to settle for a matchup with Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl following the Hokies' victory over Miami for the ACC title.

Idle Utah held onto its top-six ranking and became the first team from outside the six major conferences to win an at large bid to the BCS. The Utes will face Big East champ Pittsburgh, which defeated South Florida Saturday, in the Fiesta Bowl.

The aforementioned Cal Bears only wish they were so lucky. They struggled to a 10-point win over Southern Miss, choosing to take a knee in the final seconds rather than push for an additional score. As a result, a handful of poll voters switched their fourth-place votes to Texas from Cal, vaulting the Longhorns over the Bears and into the BCS's final at-large slot. Texas will face Michigan, the Big Ten champions, in the Rose Bowl.

It's possible that Cal's show of sportsmanship cost it in the polls, but the Bears were more likely victims of the weather. A September hurricane postponed their game against Southern Miss until Saturday, allowing many voters to see the Bears on national TV for the first time. Sadly, they picked a bad time to struggle, and will play in the Holiday Bowl instead of the Rose as a result.

Naturally, most of Saturday's focus was on the top three teams. Public opinion notwithstanding, this final weekend of play was not really an opportunity for statement games; it was already known that wins of any margin by all three would leave Auburn on the outside of the championship picture.

Auburn fans may have held out hope that an impressive performance against Tennessee, coupled with an ugly win by Oklahoma over Colorado in the Big XII title match, might convince enough poll voters to vault the no. 3 Tigers over the Sooners and into the Orange Bowl. But even if that opportunity had existed, the Tigers' uneven 38–28 win over the Vols would not have done the trick. Auburn started fast, scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions, but spent much of the rest of the game holding off Tennessee.

Auburn's performance may help dampen the controversy over this latest nightmare scenario for the BCS, which has for the first time an undefeated team from a major conference that will not play in its title game.

USC is fortunate it didn't need a statement performance Saturday. The Trojans barely hung on to beat cross-town rival UCLA, 29–24. The biggest loser in this game was Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart, pegged by many as the Heisman Trophy leader following his performance in last week's win over Notre Dame.

Leinart was held without a touchdown pass for the first time since becoming USC's starting quarterback at the start of the 2003 campaign Meanwhile, his top competitors for the award -- backfield mate Reggie Bush and Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- were both enjoying big days. Bush broke off two long touchdown runs, showcasing the speed that made him college football's biggest home-run threat this season, while White threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns in Oklahoma's 42–3 romp over Colorado.

Many pundits predicted that Leinart's 400-yard, four-touchdown day against Notre Dame on November 27 would be enough to win him the Heisman. But White may have closed the gap Saturday as Leinart struggled. If so, White, the 2003 winner, would become just the second two-time winner of the award, following Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1974–75.

If there was one team that did author a statement performance Saturday, it was Oklahoma, which looked unstoppable against the Buffaloes. The Sooners now head into the national championship game with more momentum than they had last year, when they were upset in the Big XII title game by Kansas State before losing to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

White and the Sooners have benefited immensely this season from the presence of freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, who had 172 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado. He has not only transformed the Sooners from a one-dimensional passing team into a balanced offensive machine, but he has been impressive enough to merit Heisman consideration himself.

Among the 24 non-BCS bowl games, a few stand out. The Liberty Bowl will pair undefeated Boise State against 10–1 Louisville in an epic offensive shootout. Boise State has scored at least 55 points in four straight games; Louisville did it for the fifth straight game on Saturday. Another game of note is the Peach Bowl, which features ACC runner-up Miami against Florida in a battle of Sunshine-State rivals.

The biggest question surrounding the Peach is who will be on the sidelines. Florida announced Saturday the hiring of Utah coach Urban Meyer, while outgoing Gator coach Ron Zook is expected to be named the head man at Illinois. Zook may opt not to coach Florida in the Peach Bowl, but his replacement will not be Meyer, who will be on the Utah sidelines in the Fiesta Bowl.

The coaching carousel illustrates a major problem with college football's calendar. With a month or more of dormancy between the conclusion of the regular season and the top tier bowls, schools anxious to get a jump on recruiting move quickly to hire new coaches, putting upwardly mobile candidates like Meyer in the awkward position of interviewing for jobs before completing the season at their current school.

The coaching turnover will be the most interesting thing to watch in college football over the next month, unless you count the playoffs in all NCAA divisions except I-A, something that most fans will look upon longingly while they wait for the latest BCS controversy to play out in the bowls.

This article also appeared in Monday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 06 Dec 2004

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