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?
30 Oct 2006
by Russell Levine
Saturday's upset by Oregon State of USC, the first regular-season loss for the Trojans in more than three years, signaled the tumbling of the dominoes in college football's championship chase.
The first two months of the season are spent setting up the tiles, as various scenarios play out with the weekly machinations of the human polls and the computers that make up the Bowl Championship Series standings. By the time the fallout from an upset such as the USC loss is evaluated, whole new scenarios have emerged.
Consider that just last week, the primary concerns of college football observers were that there would be three or more major-conference teams to finish undefeated, or that a one-loss team would finish above an undefeated Big East team in the final BCS standings. USC's loss helps those fears to abate, but a new troubling possibility has emerged. Could the Ohio State-Michigan loser earn a rematch in the national-championship game?
Next week is sure to bring some other issue for the much-maligned BCS. All of it serves to enforce the notion that it's somewhat pointless to worry too much about BCS scenarios until the calendar turns to late November.
That's not to suggest nothing was gleaned on Saturday. Far from it. Clearly, the big loser on the day was USC, which saw a 38-game regular-season winning streak snapped. The Trojans had been flirting with disaster of late, beating Washington State, Washington, and Arizona State by combined 19 points the last three weeks. Against the Beavers, USC finally dug itself a hole it couldn't get of, though the Trojans tried mightily. They committed four turnovers, allowed a punt return for a touchdown, and spotted Oregon State a 33â€“10 lead before rallying to get within two points with seven seconds remaining. But a two-point conversion pass from John David Booty was batted away harmlessly, leaving USC on the outside of the championship picture looking in. The Trojans still have a good chance to reach the Rose Bowl, but will need lots of help to climb back atop the list of once-beaten teams.
The other team that took a hit Saturday was Notre Dame. The Irish began the day in ninth place in the BCS standings, but ranked behind three other teams with just one loss. Notre Dame dominated Navy in Baltimore, earning its 43rd consecutive win over the Midshipmen, but still had far from a triumphant day. USC's loss means that Notre Dame won't be facing a top-three team when it takes on the Trojans to conclude the regular season. A win over highly ranked USC might have been enough to bump the Irish over some of the other one-loss contenders, but that seems unlikely now that USC has been beaten. It will become an even longer shot should the Trojans fall again to either Oregon or Cal.
USC's loss wasn't bad for everyone, however. The Oregon State celebration was loud and long, but there were also plenty of cheers coming from Big East campuses, particularly at West Virginia. USC's loss moves the idle Mountaineers to number three in the BCS standings. With the top two teams, Ohio State and Michigan yet to play each other, West Virginia should reach the title game if it wins all of its remaining contests.
West Virginia has taken heat for its soft schedule. Its toughest non-conference opponent was Maryland (which did the Mountaineers another favor Saturday by beating Florida State to improve to 6-2) but West Virginia had enough support among the human voters to reach fourth in the BCS standings last week. The human polls, where West Virginia is a solid no. 3 this week, count for two-thirds of the BCS formula. The other third is an average of six computer polls, which have not looked as kindly on the Mountaineers. Their computer average was just 14th last week, but that number will improve when West Virginia plays the other top teams in the Big East, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers.
West Virginia's game at Louisville Thursday night was long considered the game of the year in the Big East, but with the door open for the Mountaineers to reach the BCS title game, it now stands as one of the games of the year, period. Louisville, too, has BCS title game aspirations, and by moving up to fifth in the latest standings, the Cardinals have lessened the risk of getting jumped by a one-loss SEC team or the Ohio State-Michigan loser.
That last possibility illustrates the other piece of the USC fallout from Saturday. When Michigan moved into second in the BCS standings -- behind only Ohio State -- last week, speculation began that the loser of their contest could earn a rematch in the championship game. It seemed like a long shot at the time, especially with undefeated USC just a shade behind Michigan in the standings.
While still unlikely, a Michigan-Ohio State rematch would no longer be classified as a long shot after the USC loss. There is a large gap between those two and every other team in the BCS, and it's possible that if the game between the two on November 18 is a close one, the loser might remain second in the human polls, which would probably be enough to keep it in the top two of the BCS.
A word of caution to those who think it can't happen simply because "history has proven that losing late hurts more than losing early." I'm not sure that rule would apply if you lose a close game at the end of the season, on the road, to the top-ranked team. If Michigan loses say, 23-21, in Columbus, will the voters really drop them much below No. 2? Would you?
Since Michigan would likely hold its position in the computers in such a scenario, it's also possible the voters will drop the Wolverines lower than they otherwise might in order to prevent a title-game rematch. Even if that doesn't happen initially, the Big Ten's schedule could come into play here. There are still two weekends of play following the Michigan-Ohio State game, during which teams like West Virginia (which plays Rutgers on Dec. 2) and the SEC contenders (in their conference championship game) have further opportunities to state their case. In other words, just because 11-1 Michigan might be No. 2 on November 19 doesn't mean they'll be No. 2 come December 3, when BCS bids are handed out. You want to hear complaining? If an idle Michigan slips out of the title game because voters effectively decide to nullify a rematch, the BCS could be in for one of its worst years ever.
I doubt the rematch scenario would apply to Ohio State. The Buckeyes will be favored against Michigan and they will be playing at home. The voters will punish them for any kind of a loss more than they would Michigan.
Much will be said and written about the possibility of a rematch this week, most of it attached to some variety of complaint about the BCS. As college football observers argue and fret over the potential "nightmare scenarios," one wonders if the people in charge of the sport know don't exactly what they're doing.
The BCS is charged with an impossible task: fairly picking two of 119 teams to play for a championship in a sport without a playoff. Criticism is a given, and the next nice thing written about the BCS will be the first. But all the analysis, complaining and debate only serves to drive interest in the sport with the most peculiar championship chase of all. Where else but in college football could a two-point conversion play in Corvallis, Oregon, create joy in the streets of Morgantown, West Virginia?
Miami's Larry Coker has all but accepted his impending dismissal. How else could he justify passing on the Hurricanes' best opportunity to tie Georgia Tech and send the game to overtime?
Coker failed to learn the lesson of Arizona State's Dirk Koetter a few weeks back, opting to kick off deep when trailing Georgia Tech by a touchdown with 2:37 left. Miami had just a single timeout, and by the time Georgia Tech punted, there were just 29 seconds left.
Was Coker quitting on his team? Or did he just not understand the nature of the new clock rules? Either way, he can take his JLS Trophy with him as he searches for a new job this offseason.
Further explanation required for the following:
This is the week I finally gave up on trying to rank the SEC teams by degrees of separation (Arkansas beat Auburn who beat Florida who beat Tennessee). I'm ranking them by who I think would win a matchup between the teams on a neutral field this week. I believe Florida is the best of the lot in the SEC, and that's why they moved up seven spots -- not because they were so impressive in a seven-point win over Georgia.
We'll learn more about West Virginia Thursday night than we have all year. I think they're deserving of the high ranking, and they should play in the national championship game over any one-loss team should they go undefeated.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
64 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2006, 3:54am by Vinny