"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
28 Nov 2005
by Russell Levine
It's conference championship game week in college football, when the 12-team superconferences hold their one-game playoffs to determine their champions and Bowl Championship Series representatives. The ACC joins the fray this season, becoming the third of the six power conferences (along with the SEC and Big 12) to do so.
Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer came up with the idea for these superconferences, which were supposed to transform the sport. But it's probably safe to assume that when the ACC decided to go to 12 teams, commissioner John Swofford expected something more compelling than Saturday's matchup of 10â€“1 Virginia Tech -- a worthy enough participant, to be sure -- and 7â€“4 Florida State, which will limp into Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium on a three-game losing streak.
The Big 12 can't be overly thrilled, either, as it sends 11â€“0 and second-ranked Texas against a 7â€“4 Colorado team that lost its last two games and only backed into a berth in the title game when Iowa State fell to a mediocre Kansas squad in overtime Saturday.
In the ACC, Swofford and the ABC executives who agreed to televise the game had a right to expect something more. The league was Florida State's personal playground throughout the 1990s.The Seminoles were so dominant that the regular season was rendered largely meaningless.
Surely the addition of Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech over the course of 2004â€“05 -- along with the development of better programs at Maryland and North Carolina State -- would produce a better regular season followed by a highly talked-about pairing of teams featuring gaudy regular season records.
That was the theory, anyway. But conference championship games, born in 1992 when Kramer exploited an NCAA loophole to create one for the newly expanded SEC, have been a mixed bag when stirred together with Kramer's other gift to the college football landscape: the BCS.
During the seven-year BCS era, there have been complaints that these league championship games hurt the chances of the of the SEC and Big 12 champions to win national titles because they are forced to win an extra game. But the evidence doesn't really support the argument. Three previous BCS champions -- Tennessee in 1998, Oklahoma in 2000, and LSU in 2003 -- won conference championship games on their way to national championships. Oklahoma in 2004 is the only team to win a conference championship game before losing in the BCS championship game.
The Big 12 has also disproved the "extra win" requirement, as Oklahoma played in the BCS championship in 2003 despite being upset in the Big 12 championship. In 2001, Nebraska qualified for the BCS championship despite failing to reach its own league title game.
While it's true that a few national-championship contenders have been derailed in their league title games -- Kansas State in 1998 and Tennessee in 2001 come to mind -- more often the problem has been that the divisional play leading to the championship game ends up denying a more worthy team a chance to play for a BCS berth.
The BCS allows for two at-large berths to one of the four BCS bowls (the Orange, Rose, Fiesta, and Sugar.) In the seven years of the BCS's existence, only one of the 14 at-large spots has gone to the loser of a conference title game: Oklahoma in 2003, when the Sooners were the only unbeaten team in the country before being upset by Kansas State, allowing Oklahoma to remain in the top two positions of the BCS standings.
That trend will continue this year unless Colorado pulls off a monumental upset in the Big 12 championship, perhaps allowing Texas to still sneak in as an at-large team.
Furthermore, the league games haven't been that compelling. The average margin of victory in 13 SEC title games is more than 15 points, with only two games decided by fewer than seven. In nine years, the average margin of victory in the Big 12 title game is 18 points, with only three games decided by seven or fewer.
Knowing all this, why would the ACC follow Kramer's lead to expansion and a championship game? The simple answer is: "because it can." Like nearly every decision in big-time college athletics, this one is driven by the pursuit of revenue and exposure. ABC and CBS have been ready and willing to pay big money to televise the championship games, which have also attracted corporate sponsors like Dr. Pepper. The SEC title game has been played at Atlanta's Georgia Dome since 1994 and usually sells out months in advance. While the Big 12 game hasn't been quite as successful as a gate attraction, it still adds plenty of dollars to conference coffers.
The ACC was heretofore known for its basketball prowess, but Swofford's move to add Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech made an unspoken statement that the league would cast its lot and future earning potential with football. A big part of that was the ability to play a lucrative championship game.
So, even if the inaugural matchup is unappealing, and the ACC's new two-division format prevents 9â€“2 Miami from any realistic shot at an at-large BCS berth, Swofford can still say the decision has raised his league's profile by stretching its footprint beyond the Southeast and adding a major media market in Boston.
Not every conference has taken the same approach. When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, creating an 11-team league, most figured it was just a matter of time until the league added a 12th team, split into divisions, and played a championship games. But 13 years and one failed overture to Notre Dame later, the Big Ten remains a gang of 11. Perhaps the Big Ten, with a presence in larger media markets than the SEC, Big 12, or ACC, hasn't felt the same push to inflate its profile. Then again, the league has garnered four at-large BCS berths since 1998, more than any other conference, meaning added bowl revenue has helped to offset the lost revenue from not having a title game.
It's ironic that on Saturday, while the ACC, Big 12, and SEC are staging their ho-hum championship games, most fans will train their eyes on Los Angeles and the Pac-10, where 11â€“0 USC faces 9â€“1 UCLA in the day's best game.
The Pac-10, with just two at-large BCS berths since 1998 (the Big 12 and SEC have three each; the ACC and Big East none) has made no visible effort toward expansion, and has remained content to allow its champion to be determined over the course of the entire regular season rather than in a single, made-for-TV event. If Florida State or Colorado pull off upsets later in the day, ACC and Big 12 officials might wish they had done the same.
This week's winner of the John L. Smith Trophy comes from a little bit under the radar, probably because it didn't exactly turn out to be a deciding factor in his team's loss. Still, the question must be asked, what was Dave Wannstedt thinking in the second quarter of Pittsburgh's loss to West Virginia Thanksgiving night?
Pitt would go on to lose 45-13, but the score was just 14-13 West Virginia midway through the second quarter when Pitt faced a third-and-18 at its own 47-yard line. Tyler Palko threw a screen pass to Derek Kinder that gained 14 yards, leaving the Panthers with a fourth-and-4 on the West Virginia 39 -- certainly a decent position to consider going for the first down. But West Virginia was flagged for offsides on the play, giving Wannstedt the option of trying again on third-and-13 from the Mountaineers' 48.
For some reason, Wanny elected to decline the penalty, which would be fine if he planned to go for it on fourth down, but Pitt punted the ball anyway. Huh? I thought the object of offensive football was to make first downs and score points? Why would a coach ever turn down the opportunity to take another crack at a first down, instead opting to give the ball back to the opposition?
Wanny's actually done a good job this year turning the Panthers around after a miserable start, but he earns the JLS Trophy for that head-scratcher.
1. Southern Cal (1): USC-UCLA: take the over.
2. Texas (2): It was a rivalry game, on the road; those things happen.
3. Penn State (3): Fiesta vs. Notre Dame would be sweet, but probably Miami-bound.
4. Virginia Tech (5): There's still a statement to be made vs. FSU.
5. Louisiana State (4): Not pretty, but 10-1 counts for something.
6. Ohio State (7): Sorry Oregon, I think the Buckeyes are taking your bid.
7. Notre Dame (6): Trust me, BCS bowl officials aren't debating their worthiness.
8. Auburn (8): Al Borges's stock is rising.
9. Oregon (9): Would it kill the Pac-10 to find a better spot for its #2 team than the Holiday Bowl?
10. Georgia (10): Team doesn't wow you with anything they do, but they're effective.
11. Miami (Florida) (11): No BCS soup for you.
12. UCLA (13): Three weeks to prepare for USC. Expect some trick plays.
13. Alabama (14): DNP.
14. West Virginia (15): They should fare better than Pitt did last year.
15. Florida (18): Urban's offseason just got a little easier.
16. Louisville (17): At least Petrino's not such a hot property anymore.
17. Fresno State (12): Wow, talk about a letdown.
18. TCU (18): DNP.
19. Boston College (21): DNP.
20. Wisconsin (22): Nice job in the islands.
21. Georgia Tech (19): Calvin Johnson is awesome.
22. Michigan (23): DNP.
23. Clemson (24): DNP.
24. Texas Tech (25): DNP.
25. Oklahoma (NR): The program's demise was overrated.
Dropped out: Florida State (21)
Games I watched: Parts of Pitt-West Virginia, LSU-Arkansas, Wisconsin-Hawaii, Florida State-Florida, Notre Dame-Stanford, Georgia-Georgia Tech.
Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun
35 comments, Last at 01 Dec 2005, 5:24pm by Richie