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?
20 Nov 2006
by Russell Levine
Let the debate begin.
It's entirely possible that Ohio State's 42-39 win over Michigan Saturday decided absolutely nothing between these two bitter rivals. Not when the teams remain on track to meet again in seven weeks in the January 8 Bowl Championship Series title game in Glendale, Arizona.
Welcome to college football in the BCS era, where a loss is not always a loss (have to check with the computers first). When the new BCS standings were disclosed Sunday afternoon, they looked exactly as they had before Saturday's game. Ohio State is No. 1, with the Wolverines still No. 2, making the much talked-about rematch a distinct possibility. In fact, the top five spots were unchanged.
College football is stuck between its tradition-rich past and the modern forces -- money, TV, TV money -- that want to drag it into a future that resembles every other sport. The BCS is a tenuous compromise between the two. It has scrapped certain traditions, such as rankings-be-damned conference bowl tie-ins, to create a championship game, yet still falls short of an outright playoff.
The system is far from perfect. Since the BCS isn't a playoff, it will never be able to definitively determine a champion. College football diehards seem to accept this. Many don't want their sport turned into a copycat version of the NFL, yet they get caught up in the BCS arguments that spring up every year.
Two weeks before it determines its championship matchup, the BCS is headed for perhaps its most controversial year ever. The only thing that is certain is that 12-0 Ohio State, which finished its wire-to-wire run atop the polls and claimed the outright Big Ten championship, as well as its fifth win in six tries against the Wolverines, will play in the title game.
With Rutgers' loss to Cincinnati spoiling the Scarlet Knights' Cinderella season and with undefeated Boise State not in contention for the title game due to its small-conference status, the list of contenders for the second spot in the championship game has been realistically trimmed to five: Notre Dame, Arkansas or Florida from the SEC, USC, and Michigan. The three one-loss teams from the Big East, Rutgers, Louisville, and West Virginia, have fallen too far back to compensate for the perceived weakness of the conference.
If ranked in descending order of their chances to reach the title game, that list might look like this: Michigan, USC, Arkansas/Florida, Notre Dame. The voters in the two human polls dropped Michigan just one spot, to third, behind USC. But Michigan is No. 2 in five of the six computer rankings (USC is second in the other), which was enough to keep Michigan second overall.
One wonders how the standings might look had the Wolverines not scored a late touchdown to trim the final margin against Ohio State to three points. In a game overshadowed by the untimely death of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler on Friday, the Wolverines were mostly outplayed and had few answers for incomparable Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, who surely sewed up the Heisman Trophy by throwing for 316 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan's third-ranked defense.
Seemingly out of the contest at halftime, the Wolverines summoned the resolve to make a game of it in the second half and might have pulled off the comeback if not for an untimely penalty. A roughing-the-passer call against Michigan's Shawn Crable extended the final Ohio State touchdown drive after the Wolverines appeared to have stopped the Buckeyes on third-and-15. Any pivotal call in a game of this magnitude is bound to be controversial, but replays proved this one correct. Crable arrived a half-beat late and made helmet-to-helmet contact with Smith, drawing the appropriate flag.
Still, even had Michigan held there -- when they trailed 35-31 -- you got the feeling that Smith and the Ohio State offense would have found whatever answers they needed to extend their recent dominance in the series.
Few would have predicted such offensive fireworks in a series that has for decades been ruled by defense. But the wild nature of the contest, which resembled last year's epic Texas-USC Rose Bowl, may help create the rematch. It's doubtful that a staid Ohio State win, say by a 17-13 count, would have left anyone clamoring for Round 2. Instead, the teams produced the type of game that is likely being discussed at water coolers around the nation this morning.
Next week's visit by Notre Dame to USC now becomes the most important game remaining this regular season. USC's margin behind Michigan for the coveted second spot in the BCS is razor-thin, and the Trojans will get a boost in the computers should they beat the Irish. But it may not be enough for USC to just win. The Trojans may need to post a rout, lest their result suffer in comparison to Michigan's 47-21 win in South Bend in September.
No. 5 Notre Dame's players, coaches, and fans believe the Irish are also in the title-game picture, but their best argument seems to be "we are Notre Dame." Win at USC, and they finish with the same record has Michigan, to whom they lost by four touchdowns at home. Even the voters who put West Virginia ahead of Louisville 10 days after Louisville beat the Mountaineers remembered that result. Michigan remains ahead of Notre Dame in both polls.
The SEC, which is probably the strongest overall conference, will have a tough time getting its champion to the title game. Should Arkansas beat Florida in the SEC championship (presuming they get by LSU this Saturday), the Razorbacks won't have any chance to get to Glendale unless USC also loses. The Trojans crushed Arkansas, 50-14, in the season-opener. And even if USC does fall, Arkansas would be third in line behind Michigan and Notre Dame. Florida has a better chance but is hurt by a lack of a compelling non-conference win -- the Gators won't get a boost from their annual grudge match against 6-5 Florida State next week -- and a series of recent ragged victories.
In football-mad Ohio, a vote recount that will determine a House seat was suspended Saturday in deference to the Ohio State-Michigan game. Much like the politicians awaiting the outcome of that race, the Wolverines will now spend the next two weeks waiting to learn if they will indeed be granted a rematch against the Buckeyes.
In the meantime, they will spend Tuesday mourning Schembechler at a memorial service at Michigan Stadium. Perhaps it's best the old coach didn't live to see Saturday's game. Three things sacred to Schembechler took a beating that day: defense, and the absolute sanctity of both the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl. He'd have a hard time embracing this new world in which his beloved Michigan could lose the Big Ten title and yet still win the national title or have to accept the Rose Bowl as some sort of consolation prize.
Update: I wrote the above after viewing the BCS standings release Sunday afternoon. Between then and now, BCS experts like Brad Edwards and Jerry Palm have weighed in to say that USC is actually in better position to reach the title game than Michigan, because a win by any margin over Notre Dame will bump the Trojans to No. 2 in the computers. While this may be true, I maintain that the voters, who will ultimately determine the matchup, will closely evaluate USC-Notre Dame against Michigan-Notre Dame. If the Wolverines pick up a few more points in the human polls, we will have a rematch.
I'm sure a few of you think Lloyd Carr might deserve this award, either for changing his mind about going for two early in the fourth quarter when trailing by five, or for his decision to throw deep on third-and-one later earlier in the half. Sorry, I didn't have a problem with either call. With the rate of scoring in that game, I felt it was too early to go for two (although Carr's indecision forced Michigan to kick the extra point from the hash), and Mike Hart had been stuffed on a couple of earlier short-yardage attempts, so I didn't mind the aggressiveness.
Instead, this week's award goes to Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, which is tough because his Bearcats are coming off their biggest win of the season, a 30-11 upset of Rutgers. Dantonio gets the trophy because his gaffe nearly allowed Rutgers to get back in the contest. Leading 17-3, Cincinnati had a first down at its own 24-yard line with just 22 seconds left in the first half. The Bearcats opted to run a play rather than take a knee and head to the locker room. The resulting fumble was recovered by Rutgers, which promptly turned the ball right back over on an interception in the end zone. But that doesn't lessen Dantonio's sin. It's something you see often in college, coaches opting to run the ball rather than just take a knee when trying to kill the clock. So what if 99.9 percent of the time it doesn't matter? This play is the reason why you don't do it. Had Rutgers scored a touchdown there and comeback to win in the second half, Dantonio's call would have been the primary reason.
Congratulations on the win, but enjoy your JLS Trophy, Mark Dantonio!
Rankings that may need some further explanation include:
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
128 comments, Last at 23 Nov 2006, 4:01pm by nick