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?
10 Nov 2008
by Russell Levine
Last week in this space, I advised Penn State fans to relax; that their third-place position in the BCS standings was likely to work itself out.
Well, that didn't take long, did it?
Penn State's dream season came crashing down with a last-second loss at Iowa, leaving the Nittany Lions on the outside of the national title picture looking in. Penn State fans are likely anything but relaxed this week as they wonder how the national title shot eluded them despite the easiest remaining schedule among the contenders.
You know what? They should still relax. It's silver-lining time.
Apart from Penn State fans, the entire college football world is relieved to have the Big Ten out of national title picture. The conference has yet to recover from the damage inflicted by Ohio State's inability to compete in either of the last two BCS championships. Penn State won't get a chance to improve the conference's rep, but perhaps more importantly, it won't be able to drag the league down any further, either.
Comparitive results with USC vs. Oregon State aside, Penn State did not look to be on the same level as the Big 12 or SEC contenders, especially as the season wore on. The Nittany Lions' high-powered offense was stymied for a half by lowly Michigan (and yes, those words hurt), stymied for nearly the full 60 minutes at Ohio State, and hardly looked explosive against Iowa, which came in with a 5-4 record.
Those worried that Joe Paterno now won't have the opportunity to go out on top should also let it go. For one, Paterno has shown no indication that he plans to step down. The feel-good retirement scenario is something for the media to write about; Paterno does not appear to care. Besides, if Paterno's goal was merely to go on the heels of a successful season, an 11-1 mark and a Rose Bowl berth sounds pretty good. The Lions haven't played in Pasadena since the 1994 season, and their fans will gladly load up the charter flights for a return -- especially if the opponent is USC -- which appears likely.
When I was at Penn State a few weeks ago, many fans brought up to me the 2005 Michigan-Penn State game, a contest won by the Wolverines on a fourth-down, last-play touchdown pass. That would turn out to be the only loss for the Nittany Lions that year, as they went on to win the Big Ten and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl (the Rose Bowl hosted the USC-Texas BCS championship that year). The fans' issue is that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr successfully lobbied the officials to have two seconds put back on the clock and the winning score came with one second remaining. There's no need for me to recount here the multitude of reasons why that argument is ridiculous. Instead I'll just say here what I told those PSU fans: Michigan did you a favor. Had Penn State finished undefeated that year, it very likely would have been shut out of the title game as USC and Texas went wire-to-wire atop the polls that season. My point was that 12-1 and a win in the Orange Bowl was much preferable than 13-0 and No. 2 in the polls.
I think the same thing could apply this year. Not only was Penn State potentially going to get shut out of the BCS title game at 12-0 -- a scenario I found unlikely, but nevertheless possible -- but they likely would have been heavy, heavy underdogs had they made it. I'll put the question to Penn State fans directly. Would you rather finish 12-1 with a win in the Rose Bowl or 12-1 with a loss in the BCS title game?
Elsewhere as the BCS turns, we now have the clearest picture yet of the championship scenario. If Texas Tech wins out, the Red Raiders will be in the title game opposite the winner of the Alabama-Florida SEC championship (assuming neither the Gators nor the Tide drop a game before then).
Where it gets interesting is if Oklahoma beats Texas Tech in two weeks. Assuming the Sooners can also beat Oklahoma State and there are no other shockers, that would create a three-way tie in the Big 12 South between Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech, with each having gone 1-1 against the other two. Things could come down to the fifth tiebreaker to determine the division's representative in the Big 12 championship: the BCS standings.
The highest-ranked team would get the bid. Texas probably has the edge, but it's possible it could be Oklahoma despite having lost to the Longhorns.
USC remains alive for the title game, but the Trojans are going to need a lot of help to overcome their current standing in the polls -- something like the Big 12 South champ losing in the conference title game -- and get to Miami.
The other interesting facet of the BCS this season is the fate of the mid-majors. Utah's win over TCU last Thursday kept the Utes in position for an at-large bid, and also removed the possibility of TCU becoming the first-ever non-BCS league school to garner a bid despite a loss (the Frogs lost to then-No. 1 Oklahoma earlier this year).
But Utah is not alone. Undefeated Boise State is also in position to qualify for an automatic bid this year (by finishing in the top 12 of the BCS standings). So, will we see multiple mid-major teams in the big-money bowls?
Don't count on it.
The BCS provision that allowed Hawaii and Boise State to qualify the last two years merely covers the highest-ranked eligible non-automatic qualifier. So if Utah were to finish at No. 7 and Boise State at No. 10, only Utah would be guaranteed a berth. There is no ticket guarantee large enough to get Boise State into the BCS as a second mid-major team, not with so many quality "name" schools likely to be eligible. Boise State's only path is to hope for a Utah loss (presumably to BYU in the season finale).
If they get shut out, the Broncos won't be the only team complaining. Another BCS rule limits each conference to a maximum of two participants. That means one of Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech is going to get shut out. (Put your money on the latter if the Raiders lose to Oklahoma). SEC fans will no doubt want to add a likely snub of Georgia to the list, but the Bulldogs haven't done much to deserve a bid. The SEC will get its two bids (Florida and Alabama) and it won't deserve another.
If you're doing the math in your head, we're now up to nine of the 10 bids (the six BCS conference champs, plus Utah/Boise State, plus one at-large team from the Big 12 and one from the SEC). Who's going to ge that final bid? It will come from the Big East, the Big Ten, the ACC, or the Pac-10.
Unless Oregon State gets the Pac-10's automatic bid, in which case USC would probably bet the final at-large choice, the answer is Ohio State. Assuming the Buckeyes win out, they'll be 10-2 and on their way to the BCS. They might even find an SEC squad waiting. Alabama-Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, anyone?
It wasn't a banner week for poor coaching decisions. Very few strategic moves stood out in the games I watched.
So it is with that caveat that I award this week's JLS Trophy to LSU's Les Miles. His team was lucky to reach overtime after blocking a 29-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. The kick would not have been the final play had LSU opted to use its timeouts while Alabama was position itself for the potential game-winning kick, but that's an argument for another day.
My issue with Miles came in the OT, when he had a shaky quarterback throw deep on the first possession, leading to an interception and the Alabama win. LSU was facing third-and-6 at the 21-yard line when Jarrett Lee threw deep into the end zone. The receiver was bracketed by two defenders and Rashad Johnson made an easy catch for his third interception of the game -- the fourth overall by Lee, who finished 13-of-34 on a miserable afternoon.
Given the way Lee was playing, and the fact that Alabama's offense isn't exactly explosive, Miles might have gone with a safer call there, say a screen or a short crossing pattern, or even a draw. Instead, ever the gambler, he threw deep and the game was lost.
This season, I am again voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog, and now available on CBS Sportsline. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for a revised ballot later in the week .
Rankings that may require further explanation: I feel even better about Texas Tech at No. 1 after they bounced back from a program-defining win to lay a beating on Oklahoma State. I think Florida is playing better than everyone but the Red Raiders right now, but I can't ignore the Ole Miss loss as they compare to undefeated Alabama and once-beaten Texas and Oklahoma. I did give the Gators the nod over USC this week, however. The big drop-off starts after the Trojans at No. 7. The margin between Utah at No. 8 and Oregon State at No. 25 is about as thin as it could be. I've tried to apply steady logic in how I ordered things, but I'm sure there are some oversights in there as well.
Games I watched at least part of: TCU-Utah, Nevada-Fresno State, Michigan-Minnesota, Georgia-Kentucky, Alabama-LSU, Notre Dame-Boston College, Cal-USC, Oklahoma State-Texas Tech, Cincinnati-West Virginia, Florida-Vanderbilt.
21 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2008, 8:24am by Kibbles