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?
09 Oct 2006
by Russell Levine
In college football, a sport where champions are calculated as much as they are crowned, it takes a little chaos in September, October, and November to avoid anarchy in January.
An upset-free September had led to dire predictions of multiple undefeated teams. That is the ultimate doomsday scenario for the Bowl Championship Series, which relies on a combination of human and computer polls to set up a 1-vs.-2 matchup in its championship game.
But all it took was one chaotic Saturday to begin to clarify things. The day's play began with 13 undefeated teams and ended with nine -- and the promise of even fewer in the coming weeks. There was but one sizable upset, visiting Arkansas's stunning 27-10 thumping of Auburn, but one-loss Cal took out undefeated Oregon, and Tennessee and Clemson did the same to Georgia and upstart Wake Forest, respectively. Arkansas's win further clarified matters because it put the Razorbacks in control of the SEC West and likely knocked Auburn out of BCS championship contention.
Twice in its history has a team failed to win its conference and still qualified for the BCS title game, but in both cases (Nebraska in 2001 and Oklahoma in 2003) the schools lost their final games of the year, after they had built up a big enough lead in the BCS standings to withstand the defeat. Auburn's scenario is different -- it will be trying to climb back up the standings throughout the season's second half, likely without the benefit of playing in the SEC title game.
Eight of the nine remaining unbeatens hail from the six BCS automatic-bid conferences. Three are from the Big East (Louisville, Rutgers, and West Virginia), and a coming round-robin among the three means that at most one will remain perfect. In the Big Ten, Michigan and Ohio State are 6-0 and play each other to conclude the regular season. USC is the only undefeated team left in the Pac-10, but must still face Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame in back-to-back-to-back games to end its season. Florida likewise stands alone atop the SEC, but visits Auburn and plays Georgia in its next two contests. Missouri's 6-0 start is a nice story in the Big 12, but no one will pay much attention unless the Tigers beat both Nebraska and Oklahoma in the coming weeks. The WAC's Boise State is the ninth unbeaten, but the Broncos are playing for an at-large bid in any BCS game, not the championship.
Add it all up, and suddenly the doom-and-gloom predictions of four or five undefeated teams become a little more far-fetched. Remaining games already dictate a maximum of four unbeatens from the six BCS conferences, and that number is likely to drop due to the law of averages as much as anything else.
Of course, multiple undefeated teams do not result in the only problematic outcome for the BCS. In its first eight years, that situation has happened but once among BCS-conference teams: when Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma all ran the table in 2004, leaving Auburn shut out of the title game. Far more likely is the situation with only one unbeaten team, leaving a bunch of legitimate contenders for the second spot. That outcome has plagued the BCS three times. Still, having once-beaten teams argue about whose loss is more impressive is far more palatable than having an undefeated team question what it could have done differently to reach the championship game.
Even if the latter storyline plays out this fall, the likelihood is that the team left out of the mix would be the undefeated Big East champion, either Louisville or West Virginia (it would be a major stretch to think Rutgers could beat both the Cardinals and the Mountaineers). While both might wonder aloud what they could have done differently, the answer will be obvious to everyone not associated with either school: play a tougher schedule.
To its credit, Louisville played Miami this season; it just had the misfortune to catch perhaps the worst Hurricanes team in a generation. Of the other nine non-conference games Louisville and West Virginia played this season, the toughest opponent is perhaps Maryland, no better than a middling team in a weak ACC. West Virginia played Division I-AA Eastern Washington, as well as Mississippi State, one of the worst BCS conference teams in America. Louisville's SEC opponent, Kentucky, wasn't much better, and the Cardinals also took on Temple, which might be the worst Division I-A team of the last 30 years, as well as the likes of Middle Tennessee and Kansas State.
If all those clamoring for a playoff would take a step back and observe the larger picture, they might come to the same conclusion that many others have: College football already has a playoff. It's called the regular season. Win all your games, and the odds are very strong that you'll play for the championship. Only Auburn -- and the "mid-majors" from the WAC, the Mountain West, etc. -- can complain otherwise. Auburn's snubbing two years ago was a rare misfortune.
The playoff we have is not ideal, but neither is any proposal that has been floated. Even if all the major obstacles -- television contracts, the bowl system, extending the season, etc. -- are thrown out, there is still no good way to have an all-inclusive playoff system in a sport with 119 teams and a 12- or 13-game regular season. Creating an eight- or 16-team playoff might lessen the controversy since the arguments would be about "who's number 16" instead of "who's number two," but controversy would nonetheless remain.
College football is unique among major sports in how it determines its champion -- for good or bad. In the rush to make it just like every other sport, we should consider exactly what might be lost in doing so. Would Auburn's loss to Arkansas Saturday have meant as much if the Tigers knew they still had a good shot at making the playoff field?
As it stands, every game for the contenders is a must-win. Saturday channel surfers see brewing upsets on the score ticker and immediately seek out the game in question. Championship scenarios based on assumed results in dozens of games must be immediately recalculated.
College football is not just rife with controversy. Controversy is the oxygen that fuels the sport's fire, and maybe that's the way it should be.
No JLS for JLS this week. Sure, his Spartans looked ill-prepared to play Michigan this week, but it wasn't necessarily coaching decisions. Still, the Spartans have the look of a team that has packed it in and tuned out its coaches. The Michigan State performance against Michigan was a folly worth of Yakety Sax, including penalties aplenty, special teams blunders, and general signs of incompetence. It doesn't look good for JLS in East Lansing.
Instead, this week's JLS Trophy goes to Washington's Tyrone Willingham. This is a tough call because Willingham has made incredible strides with Washington this year and is generally proving that he's a pretty good coach. Also, upon further review, I've revised my analysis of the final-play sequence against USC (from this weekend's Seventh Day Adventure discussion thread.) The timekeeper did needlessly let about three seconds run off the clock, but it should have been a moot point. The umpire was standing over the ball, awaiting the winding of the clock. Washington knew enough to run a play and not attempt to spike the ball with just two seconds left. Yet somehow, the Huskies didn't get a play off, mostly because Willingham got caught up in arguing over the clock.
There was no need to argue. Five seconds or two seconds, they were still only getting one attempt at the end zone and the tie. Washington's complaints about the referees would carry a lot more weight if they got even remotely close to getting a snap off; instead the tackle was still getting into his stance as the final two seconds ran off. For this, I can only blame Willingham, and give him the JLS Trophy.
Still, I'm impressed with what he's done in Seattle. This is his element: program-building. His strengths were not a good match for the Notre Dame job. He's much better either competing at a place like Stanford where there are talent and academic hurdles to overcome, or resurrecting a downtrodden program like Washington by getting players to buy in.
Rankings that may require some explanation include:
129 comments, Last at 12 Oct 2006, 10:44pm by Peter