Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
03 Dec 2007
by Russell Levine
Even by the standards of this, the most unpredictable college football season in memory, the 36-hour stretch endured by LSU this weekend went beyond the realm of the bizarre.
Just hours before his team faced Tennessee in the SEC championship game, LSU coach Les Miles was forced to call an impromptu news conference to deny an ESPN report that we was about to accept the vacant Michigan job. By Sunday evening, Miles and his team were headed to the national championship game -- a result that was all but inconceivable at the kickoff of LSU-Tennessee.
LSU's opponent will be the equally unlikely Ohio State, which has been idle for two weeks since winning the Big Ten. That both the Tigers and Buckeyes lost their penultimate games disproves the notion that the Bowl Championship Series is unfair to teams that lose late in the season -- at least in a year as weird as this one.
Not only did LSU lose late, it lost twice, and will be the first twice-beaten team to reach the BCS championship. They are the first team with multiple blemishes on its record to play for a national title of any kind since Colorado finished atop the AP poll with a loss and a tie in 1990 -- the last season that could rival this one for strange results.
This is a season that, just hours into its first Saturday, had already seen an upset for the ages (Appalachian State over Michigan), and kept on delivering thrills until well past 3 a.m. in the East on its final day, as Hawaii capped off both a stunning comeback and a perfect 12-0 mark to earn a BCS invite.
Entering the weekend, the only speculation surrounding LSU was about Miles's future, talk that heated up after the Tigers' title-game chances seemingly died in a triple-overtime loss to Arkansas the week before. It was thought that Michigan would have to wait until after the January 7 national championship game to approach their favored candidate -- until the Arkansas result changed things. Last week, Michigan officials were granted permission to speak with Miles following the SEC championship.
According to reports, an official interview was to take place this week. Yet Saturday morning, ESPN reported not only was Miles expected to be named Michigan's coach next week, but that the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator John Tenuta would be part of his staff. This was hardly stunning news, as Michigan alum Miles-to-Ann Arbor speculation had been around for more than a year, increasing in volume following the Wolverines' early struggles this season.
Within hours, Miles appeared before the media to angrily denounce the report as inaccurate. Perhaps Miles didn't like having his hand forced by the early report. Perhaps the extension he was offered by LSU was simply too lucrative to ignore. Perhaps he decided that LSU is a better program from which to pursue a national championship.
Even if it was that last selling point that convinced Miles to stay, it's highly doubtful he still believed he could accomplish the goal this year. After all, LSU began play Saturday seventh in the BCS standings, the equivalent of being a lap down 490 miles into the Indy 500. The Tigers were without starting quarterback Matt Flynn, quickly fell behind 7-0, and only rallied for the 21-14 win on a defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Even after they departed the Georgia Dome with the SEC Trophy, the Tigers had little idea they were on their way to the national title game, as getting there would require both No. 1 Missouri and second-ranked West Virginia to lose that evening. Missouri was actually a slight underdog to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship, so the Sooners' 38-17 win was hardly a stunner. But the Mountaineers were four-touchdown favorites against 4-7 Pittsburgh, playing at home, and coming off a 66-point outburst in a Big East-clinching win over Connecticut a week earlier.
A Pittsburgh upset was so far-fetched, the only reason to believe it was even possible was because of all this season's turmoil, particularly in the No. 2 spot. Five times this year, the second-ranked team was beaten by an unranked opponent. West Virginia started sluggish, lost starting quarterback Pat White to a dislocated thumb early in the game, and never recovered against a fierce Pittsburgh defense and run game.
As it became obvious that Missouri would lose and West Virginia was in serious trouble, speculation immediately turned to who would join Ohio State in the title game. This was the BCS's doomsday scenario; Losses by both its top teams opened the door to teams that had not won their conferences. Twice before, with Nebraska in 2001 and Oklahoma in 2003, teams that didn't win their league titles qualified for the BCS championship. Both lost, and resulting changes in the BCS formula put more power in the hands of the human voters in an effort to avoid a similar scenario.
The voters responded -- resoundingly so. Just as last year, when pollsters elevated SEC champ Florida over Michigan in the final ballot, this year they chose to reward LSU and allow the BCS to avoid the embarrassment of having Georgia, which failed to even reach the SEC title game, or Virginia Tech, which lost 48-7 to LSU in September, beat out the Tigers for the No. 2 spot.
Analysts are likely to be quick to suggest that LSU will take apart Ohio State, the same way Florida made the Buckeyes look slow in a 41-14 thrashing in last year's title game. This season, it might be wise instead to expect the unexpected.
Since this is college column, I won't award the JLS to Sean Payton or Joe Gibbs this week.
Instead, the JLS goes to Arizona's Mike Stoops, for violating one of my time-management pet peeves. Trailing Arizona State by 10 in the final minutes, Stoops burned much of the remaining time in pursuit of a touchdown, rather than kicking a field goal as soon as he was in range.
Arizona took possession at the Arizona State 32 with 1:11 left to play. A first-down pass gained 15 yards. At that point, Stoops should have sent in the field goal unit. You need two scores regardless; kicking the field goal immediately gives you the best chance at victory. Instead Arizona took five more plays, and 25 more seconds, to score a touchdown.
Since Arizona failed to recover the onsides kick, Stoops' play-calling had no effect on the outcome. That doesn't make it correct -- unless all he wanted to do was cover the spread.
Rankings that may require further explanation: These rankings are not meant as an indictment of the final BCS standings. I do think Oklahoma is just as deserving of a title game berth as LSU, but not Georgia. I have always believed the BCS should require title-game participants to be conference champions, and I'm glad the voters enforced that ideal this year.
For this, the final regular-season poll, my primary factor in ranking teams is how they are playing right now. In other words, I'd take Oklahoma over everyone else on the list on a neutral field this week, and Georgia over everyone but Oklahoma. This week, I happen to think spots one through five are pretty narrow. Kansas suffers because Missouri lost.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Rutgers-Louisville, Virginia Tech-Boston College, LSU-Tennessee, Missouri-Oklahoma, Pitt-West Virginia, Arizona-Arizona State, Washington-Hawaii.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
123 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2007, 12:26pm by J