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Posted: Monday December 8, 2008 12:06AM; Updated: Monday December 8, 2008 3:24AM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

BCS title game should be a classic

Story Highlights

Even the most casual followers of college football will be tuned in Jan. 8

The Sooners have wowed us with five straight 60-point scoring outbursts

The Gators' formula: a power running game, savvy QB and dominant D

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With Tim Tebow at the helm, the Gators averaged 45.2 points per game this year.
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We've wanted it since as far back as early October, and on Sunday it became official: A BCS championship matchup between the best of the SEC and the best (with an admitted asterisk) of the Big 12.

Oklahoma vs. Florida is, without question, the most intriguing BCS Championship matchup in three years. Even the most casual followers of college football will be tuned in Jan. 8 to watch this clash of star-studded powers. And they'll do so with an added curiosity factor that goes beyond the typical allure of a national championship game.

The overriding storyline of the 2008 season has been the extraordinarily powerful offenses of the Big 12 and the heated championship race they fostered. The overriding storylines of the 2006 and '07 season were the dominant defenses of the SEC.

Now, at long last, we'll get the answer to a fundamental question: Offense or defense?

There's no question the Sooners have wowed us with their historic run of five straight 60-point scoring outbursts (and 58 points the game before that). They've already scored more points (702) than any team in Division I-A history. Even Tom Brady would envy QB Sam Bradford's 48-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

But for Oklahoma to win a national championship, it will have to defy one of the sport's most sacred idioms: "Defenses win championships." At the very least, it will have to revise the old adage to: "Defense wins championships -- unless you happen to have a historically prolific offense."

Yes, the Sooners score points at an unprecedented pace. They're averaging a staggering 54.0 per game. The highest scoring rate of any recent BCS champion was the Vince Young-led 2005 Texas team, which averaged 50.2.

However, those Longhorns -- just like nine of the 10 BCS champions to date -- also fielded a top-10 scoring defense (16.4 points per game). The lowest defensive ranking of any previous champ was LSU's 17th-ranked scoring defense last season. (The Tigers ranked third in total defense.)

Oklahoma? The Sooners rank 57th in scoring defense and 65th in total defense.

Florida, on the other hand, has proven adept in both areas. No, the Gators do not score 54 points a game -- but they do score 45.2, which puts them just two spots below the Sooners nationally. And they've done it against a schedule that included 10 foes ranked in the top 40 in defense.

By contrast, the average defensive ranking of Oklahoma's 12 Division I-A opponents was 77th. More than half their opponents came in 86th or lower (out of 119). And now they have to face Florida's defense, which is ranked ... ninth.

"Florida will present different problems than others we've seen," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "The little I've been able to watch them throughout the year, their speed and skill is great at all positions."

As entertaining as it's been to watch Bradford, Colt McCoy and Graham Harrell put on dizzying shootouts all season, Saturday's Big 12 and SEC conference title games served up a friendly reminder of how championships are normally won.

Bradford, much like he has all season, used Missouri's hapless defense for target practice, throwing to one wide-open receiver after another. Meanwhile, Florida counterpart Tim Tebow had to earn nearly every one of his 273 total yards against top-ranked Alabama. Neither team gained more than 358 yards of offense -- halftime numbers for Oklahoma -- yet no one who watched the SEC game would have come away saying the teams' offenses were mediocre.

They just weren't astronomical like Oklahoma's. They didn't need to be.

Stoops concedes, "We've had some better defensive years -- I'm fully aware of that." But he also believes many of his team's and his conference's defensive statistics are misleading because the frenetic pace of OU's hurry-up offense often gives its opponents more scoring opportunities of their own. The Sooners do rank third nationally in sacks (42) and fourth in turnovers gained (32).

"Sometimes, it's hard to judge defenses because of how good the offenses are," said Stoops.

The one advantage each team possesses is that neither has seen anything remotely like the other. Florida has successfully defended some pretty good quarterbacks, most notably Georgia's Matthew Stafford, but no SEC offense can compare with the Sooners' hurry-up tempo or their stable of skill players.

But it's also been a long time since Oklahoma's defense faced a power-running attack the caliber of Florida's -- and the Sooners have certainly never faced as unique a hybrid threat as Tebow. While the Gators' spread formations may look similar to those of Oklahoma's own playbook, no one in the Big 12 runs the ball as relentlessly as the Gators.

"It's almost an insult when you hear someone say, 'Well, your offense is a gimmick offense.' No, it's not," said Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose team ranks 11th nationally in rushing offense (229.8 per game). "Maybe it looks a little different, but our focus is on the front five blocking people and running as hard as we can. We happen to have a 235-pound quarterback that runs very well, so we utilize him."

The Gators' formula is the same as that of so many champions before them: A power running game, a savvy quarterback and a dominant defense. Oklahoma seems most reminiscent of USC's renowned 2005 team, which averaged 49.1 points per game and which, for 12 games was able to use its explosive offense to mask a fairly ordinary defense (48th nationally) -- until it ran into Vince Young.

As a fan, one can only hope that Oklahoma-Florida comes close to matching the big plays and drama of that now-classic Rose Bowl duel, with Tebow and Bradford playing the roles of Young and Matt Leinart. On paper, however, one can't help but look at the aforementioned numbers and think back to Florida's 41-14 rout of Ohio State two years ago, in which Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong managed to shut down another supposedly unstoppable offense.

Just as that game wound up serving as a referendum on both the SEC and Big Ten, this year's game will undoubtedly do the same for the SEC and Big 12, one way or the other. That's unfortunate. Whether or not the SEC's best team prevails for a third straight year, there's no question the Big 12 has been the more competitive conference this season -- so much so that it produced this year's bout of BCS controversy a week early.

The nation's season-long fixation with the Big 12, coupled with the preexisting respect for the SEC, is the primary reason we managed to finish with a logjam of seven one-loss teams from the major conferences, yet little beef -- no pun intended -- outside the state of Texas. So eager was the public (and, in turn, the pollsters) to see a Big 12-SEC showdown that they seemed to unofficially exile USC (11-1) following its Sept. 25 loss to Oregon State. People unabashedly celebrated when Iowa bounced Penn State (11-1) out of the picture.

"It has been an extraordinary year in college football," BCS coordinator John Swofford said Sunday night. "I'm not sure when we've ever had [so many] teams bunched together to the degree that we had this year, and particularly in not only a single conference but a single division of one conference. That says a lot about the Big 12 and the quality of play in the Big 12 this year."

You'd love to be able to quantify that during bowl season, but once again, the BCS' outdated selection process has robbed us of the chance to see those other contenders play in truly meaningful bowl games.

As if getting squeezed out of its conference title game wasn't insulting enough, No. 3 Texas (11-1) gets the reward of playing 10th-ranked Ohio State (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl. No. 4 Alabama (12-1), having completed a rare undefeated regular season in the SEC, finds itself in the unsatisfying predicament of facing 12-0 Utah in the Sugar Bowl. (If the Tide win, it's because they're supposed to; if they lose, they bring unmitigated shame on their conference.)

Meanwhile, USC's players can't possibly be thrilled with making a fourth straight trip to Pasadena, where the Trojans' orgy of athletes will undoubtedly do to Penn State what they've done in every other non-championship game under Pete Carroll: Show off what might have been. As for the Cincinnati-Virginia Tech Orange Bowl ... well, it's a football game.

"[USC and Penn State] are in similar situations," said Trojans coach Pete Carroll. "We played a game during the year that we didn't get, and it weighed heavily on the voting. ... The BCS does what it does. We play the games. This is the opportunity that we're afforded."

How much more jacked would you be right now if you could see Texas and USC rematch in the Fiesta Bowl? Or watch a vintage Sugar Bowl matchup (and always-appreciated Big Ten-SEC showdown) of Penn State and Alabama?

Better yet, how would you like to see at least two of the bowl games serve as semifinals for the championship game? You know -- a plus-one?

Back on planet earth, we're left with Florida-Oklahoma and a bunch of exhibition games.

Hopefully the Gators and Sooners will provide a classic befitting a season that has already provided so many memorable moments. All that has to happen for that dream to come true is for the Sooners to defy all of modern football history.

 
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