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?
26 Nov 2007
by Russell Levine
Of all the upsets this season has produced -- from Appalachian State over Michigan on September 1 to Arkansas over LSU on Friday -- the greatest surprise of all may be that we are just two games away from a relatively controversy-free Bowl Championship Series.
Should the newly minted numbers 1 and 2 teams -- Missouri and West Virginia, respectively -- win their final games, they will meet for the national title in New Orleans on January 7. The only real dissent would come from Ohio State, as the Buckeyes would have been denied a spot despite having the same record as the Mountaineers and Tigers. But while Ohio State lost its penultimate game, Missouri and West Virginia would each enter on seven-game winning streaks.
Of course, both Missouri and West Virginia could lose next week, sending the BCS into complete chaos, as a team that didn't win its conference would likely be matched against Ohio State for the championship.
In yet another bit of controversy-avoidance, it looks like the BCS bowls will be forced to include the nation's only undefeated team, Hawaii, provided the Warriors can knock off Washington at home next week. Hawaii's win over Boise State Friday night, in what was billed as the biggest game in Western Athletic Conference history, was enough to move the Warriors to number 12 in the latest BCS standings -- the spot at which a BCS at-large invite is guaranteed.
It's a good thing for Hawaii that the guarantee exists, otherwise there's little chance the Warriors would be included. Beyond creating a championship game between the top two teams every year, the BCS was created by the major conferences to help them fashion attractive bowl matchups -- for both ticket sales and TV ratings -- as well as keep most of the lucrative BCS bowl money in the hands of those leagues. Only twice has a school from outside the six BCS conferences been included: Utah in 2004 and Boise State last year. That both brought plenty of fans to the games (in both cases, the Fiesta Bowl) and both won does little to boost Hawaii's appeal.
With the Sugar Bowl their most likely destination, game officials in New Orleans can't be too thrilled at the prospect of selling tickets to Hawaii fans who would face roughly a 4,500-mile trip to the game. While Boise State was able to bring plenty of fans south to Glendale, Ariz., for the Fiesta Bowl last season, the prospect of inviting Hawaii to New Orleans is like a dinner check that nobody wants to pick up.
Yet WAC commissioner Karl Benson is confident that Hawaii could represent itself just fine.
"Hawaii has historically had great fan following when they play on the mainland," Benson said. "This year when they played UNLV in Las Vegas, they had 12,000 to 15,000 fans there, and maybe only 2,000 made the trip from the state of Hawaii."
There's another reason for Hawaii's appeal, Benson said, and it has to do with the "cult of Colt," as in Brennan, the Warriors' record-setting quarterback.
"Colt Brennan is cult figure," Benson said. "It would be easy for fans to adopt Hawaii for the day. Put on an Aloha shirt and go to the Superdome and root for the underdog."
Benson has been down this road before, sweating out Boise State's BCS rank last season, although the Broncos removed much of the drama by reaching number 12 by mid-November and moving steadily upward.
Whether or not the Warriors can complete their undefeated season and reach the BCS, the program's turnaround over the past nine years under coach June Jones is remarkable. When Fred von Appen was fired following an 0-12 campaign in 1998, the possibility of the school dropping football altogether was not out of the question. Enter Jones, a former Hawaii quarterback and NFL head coach. His run-and-shoot offense propelled Hawaii to a 9-4 record in 1999, the single-biggest one-season turnaround in NCAA history.
Though Jones has largely maintained that level of success (just two losing seasons in nine years), the economics of Hawaii football remain a challenge. Finances have threatened the program before; the school dropped the sport in 1961, only to revive it a year later.
The NCAA tries to help ease the burden by granting a "Hawaii exemption" -- teams traveling to the islands are allowed to schedule and extra game to help defray the cost, likewise giving Hawaii an extra gate opportunity. Yet even that doesn't always help. Athletic director Herm Frazier struggled to finalized this year's 12-game schedule (one less than the permissible maximum) until earlier this year. He ended up having to grant home dates to a pair of Division I-AA opponents after other schools backed out of commitments. ESPN even tried to broker a game with Michigan in Ann Arbor, but in a bit of irony, the Wolverines opted for a game with Appalachian State.
The resulting soft slate, which ranks near the bottom of NCAA's strength-of-schedule metrics, is the prime evidence cited by those who feel Hawaii doesn't merit BCS inclusion even at 12-0. According to BCS expert Jerry Palm, it no longer matters. On his Web site Sunday, Palm said Hawaii is a virtual certainty for the BCS if it wins next week.
That will come as welcome news to Benson, who has taken the high road even as the BCS announced a tweak last week that seemed directly aimed at keeping Hawaii out. Asked how he would react if undefeated and BCS-eligible Hawaii was denied an invite, he opted for an approach rarely employed by the team's ultra-aggressive coach: He punted. "You'll have to ask me about that on December 2," he said, indicating the date BCS bids are handed out.
There were some questionable decisions in a few big games over the weekend. Neither Kentucky nor LSU managed the clock particularly well in games they would eventually lose in triple-OT.
Clock follies are nothing new for LSU's Les Miles, of course.
(As an aside: Gee, shaky decision-making; losing a couple of games to teams you should beat; an offense that is predictable by formation and personnel ... why does that all sound so familiar? While Miles would fit right in at Michigan with that M.O., maybe I should be happy that the Wolverines are rumored to be looking in another direction -- although, just for the record, I'm not.)
Seeing as both Miles and Kentucky's Rich Brooks have been honored in this space before (and speaking of people who won't be the next Michigan coach), I'm going a different direction this week. The JLS Trophy goes to Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, for re-inserting a concussed Tavita Pritchard back into the Cardinal's game against Notre Dame.
Pritchard was obviously woozy after taking a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, but when his replacement, T.J. Ostrander, was also injured, Harbaugh allowed Pritchard to return to the game less than 10 minutes of game clock after his injury. ABC sideline reporter Jack Arute pointed out that the Stanford medical staff had not diagnosed (emphasis mine) Pritchard with a concussion, but that he had been woozy and unable to stand following the hit, and that the trainers had taken his helmet away.
That Pritchard hadn't officially been diagnosed or that he only remained in the game a few snaps matters not. Given what is known today about head injuries, risking the health of a player for a few snaps in a game between bottom-feeder teams is outrageous. Actually, it would be just as outrageous if the same scenario were to occur in the national-title game.
Harbaugh, who hasn't been shy about getting on his high horse regarding student-athletes, should be ashamed of himself.
Rankings that may require further explanation: I think Missouri has a pretty compelling case, and another chance to prove itself this week. West Virginia, Georgia, and Southern Cal are all playing better right now than at any point during the season. Tough to know where to put Kansas, given that Missouri was far and away the best team they've played. I've chosen to keep them relatively high.
As usual, tons of guess work beyond the top five. Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Southern Cal-Arizona State, Arkansas-LSU, Texas-Texas A&M, Boise State-Hawaii, Virginia Tech-Virginia, Tennessee-Kentucky, Connecticut-West Virginia, Florida State-Florida, Missouri-Kansas.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
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