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?
15 Oct 2007
by Russell Levine
This is fast turning into a college football season like no other in recent memory. Three straight weeks of stunning upsets have left the preseason polls in wreckage. Each of the top 10 teams in the AP preseason rankings has at least one loss, and together the group has been defeated 16 times in seven weeks.
Thus the preseason No. 11 team, Ohio State, is now atop both the polls and the first BCS standings, which were released Sunday afternoon. Behind the Buckeyes sits a pair of Cinderella teams -- South Florida and Boston College -- clinging to undefeated records, followed by a cluster of once-beaten powerhouses scrambling to get back into the top two spots.
Just as every year at this time, there will be predictions of impending BCS disaster, particularly with South Florida currently in position to go to the title game. Can a zero-cachet team from the Big East possibly hold off one-loss LSU from the SEC to play for the championship? What about Boston College from the pedestrian ACC?
All such arguments are more pointless than usual this season. To paraphrase Mark Twain's famous quip about the weather in New England, if you don't agree with the polls, just wait a week, they'll change.
One can argue the merits of college football's most peculiar method of selecting its "champion" -- the quotes being necessary when the NCAA doesn't acknowledge an official titlist in football's bowl subdivision -- but the three months leading up to the BCS selection show sure are entertaining. In a sport that relies on computer algorithms and human opinion, there is but one nearly assured method by which a team can keep its place at the championship table: by winning each and every week.
Often lost in the long history of BCS controversy is this reality: In the nine years the system has been in place, only once has a team from one of the top six conferences gone undefeated and been denied a place in the championship game: Auburn in 2003. A repeat this season seems unlikely. There are just five remaining major-conference unbeatens, and each has significant tests remaining. Ohio State faces road trips to Penn State and Michigan. Boston College travels to Virginia Tech this week and may have to face the Hokies again in the ACC championship. South Florida visits Rutgers Thursday night and also hosts Cincinnati and Louisville. Arizona State has yet to play Cal, Oregon, or USC. Kansas faces Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Missouri. The chances are slim that more than two of the five finishing with unblemished records.
The coaches of all five teams -- even poll laggard Kansas -- can tell their players that if they win out, they will play in the January 7 BCS championship, and do so with a straight face.
Ohio State is perhaps the most likely to remain perfect, a feat that would land the Buckeyes back in the championship game for a second straight year. Though the Buckeyes' toughest game has been a visit to 2-4 Washington, they have been the nation's most consistent team. The defense has been smothering, surrendering more than seven points just once, and the offense has improved each week.
The fact that five of the six major conferences are represented on the list of unbeaten teams is sure to raise the hackles of followers of the sixth. The SEC has enjoyed a deserved reputation as the nation's best conference in recent seasons, and its fans will no doubt point out that the toughness of the conference is the reason why all of its teams already have at least one loss. But SEC superiority is sometimes based as much on perception as on-field results, as its teams typically do not play non-conference games against highly ranked foes. LSU did destroy Virginia Tech for the SEC's best non-conference result this season, but those who would automatically assume that the SEC champ is better than the Big East champ may be missing the bigger picture.
South Florida, the current Big East front-runner, won at Auburn earlier this year. That's the same Auburn that won at Florida, the same Florida that is the defending national champs and which came within a Tiger's whisker of winning at LSU. While it's true that the week-to-week grind in the SEC is more difficult than in the Big East or Big Ten, it's also true that the conference is treated well by the BCS formula.
At No. 4, LSU is the highest-ranked one-loss team in the BCS standings. No. 6 South Carolina and No. 7 Kentucky are third and fourth, respectively, among once-beaten teams, and Florida (14th), Auburn (17th), and Georgia (20th) are the only two-loss teams in the BCS top 20.
The net result is that the SEC champion, provided it finishes with a 12-1 mark, has an excellent chance to qualify for the title game.
That may not be good enough in the eyes of SEC supporters who would cringe if undefeated South Florida or Boston College edged the SEC champion in the final BCS standings. Such a result would no doubt renew calls for a more inclusive playoff. But as has been often pointed out, college football already has a playoff: It's called the regular season. To make a change that would minimize the impact of Cal's loss to Oregon State or LSU's to Kentucky might do irreparable damage to the sport.
After all, do fans really want to see college football turn into another version of the NFL, where Sunday's win by the Patriots over the Cowboys in a much-hyped battle of undefeated teams is, ultimately, essentially meaningless in the Super Bowl chase?
For good or for bad, the frustration that comes with BCS controversy is the same ingredient that fuels the majesty of the best regular season in all of sports.
Kentucky's Rich Brooks nearly came in for a JLS Trophy this week, when an ill-timed timeout allowed LSU to attempt a game-winning 58-yard field field goal as regulation time expired. But that mistake didn't end up costing the Wildcats, so we'll let Brooks enjoy his win in peace.
Brooks's counterpart in that game, LSU's Les Miles, is also in for some scrutiny for his play-calling on the Tigers' final possession of overtime. Yet Miles pretty much employed the same strategy he used to beat Florida a week earlier, so it's tough to kill him for going with his bread-and-butter.
There was much discussion in the SDA comment thread of giving the award to Cal's Jeff Tedford after his redshirt-freshman quarterback inexplicably opted to run, costing the Bear's a chip-shot field goal attempt to tie their game against Oregon State. Tedford does deserve some blame for that situation. He's got to drill it into the quarterback's head that he absolutely, under no circumstances, can run the ball. Yet, at some point, it's up to the player to understand the situation and execute. There were 14 seconds left in the game, too much time for Cal to attempt the field goal right there, so running another play was the right call.
Yet Tedford does not escape scrutiny for another decision in the game, one that was largely lost based on how the contest ended. Cal had just scored a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead with 43 seconds left in the first half when Tedford opted to call for a squib kick, despite the fact that Oregon State had all three timeouts remaining. The Beavers got the ball at their own 42, and moved 23 yards in four plays to kick a 52-yard field goal. What's more, they only needed a single timeout to do it. Forty-three seconds is an eternity in college football, and you cannot concede possession near midfield with that much time remaining. Those three points ended up being the difference in the game.
It is for that decision, and not the final play, that Tedford earns this week's JLS Trophy.
Rankings that may require further explanation: There's a point in every college season where the straight logic of "Team A beat Team B, therefore must be ranked higher" is forced out the window. We have reached that point.
This is the week I attempted to rank the teams based less on last week's results and more on a combination of their season resume to date and whom I think would win on a neutral field. Thus, LSU remains above Kentucky. I apologize, UK fans, but if those two teams were to meet again in the SEC championship, I'd feel pretty confident in an LSU pick. (Then again, my SDA picks have reverted to 2005 cover-your-eyes bad levels, so take that with a grain of salt).
Ohio State is largely untested, true, but the Buckeyes are tremendous on defense and have shown weekly improvement on offense. If they fail an upcoming test at Penn State, I will punish them much more than I did LSU for losing at a quality team like Kentucky.
You could make the same arguments about Arizona State and Kansas. Fair enough. Kansas we may never really learn the truth about. Their schedule contains only one true test: vs. Missouri to end the regular season. I'm punishing them for their joke of a non-conference slate. Arizona State still has to play all the top teams in the Pac-10, so the Sun Devils will have their chance to make a dramatic rise in my rankings.
Southern Cal's ranking is based on the resume. The blowout of Nebraska means less each week, and they have not really played well all year. If they put it together, they're a threat to beat anyone above them, but the season is halfway over and we haven't seen a complete effort from the Trojans. Thus, they plummet.
Michigan is back in the poll, hooray. Despite my misguided proclamation that the Wolverines weren't making any progress, they completely dominated a pretty good spread offense in Purdue and have now won five straight. We'll know much more after a road trip to Illinois this week.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Florida State-Wake Forest, Hawaii-San Jose State, Purdue-Michigan, LSU-Kentucky, Arizona-USC, Georgia-Vanderbilt, Oregon State-California, Louisville-Cincinnati.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
93 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2007, 3:16pm by Ben Johnson