One thing's certain: Tide, Horns will be ready to play on Thursday
Saban and Brown are preparing for the same game, but in very different ways
BCS television ratings are off to a good start, but the biggest test still remains
After going 1-6 last season, the Big Ten has three bowl wins over top 15 foes
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- While it doesn't formally say so in the name, Thursday's "BCS National Championship Game" is most definitely a bowl game. Alabama and Texas both spent part of the day Saturday at Disneyland (Colt McCoy's favorite ride was the Tower of Terror) and will both visit Rose Bowl staple Lawry's in the coming days.
Nick Saban and Mack Brown both held their arrival press conferences at Disneyland. If you're familiar with their personalities, you can probably guess which one was happier to be there.
"Is this fun?" Saban replied to that very question from a reporter. "You know, what's fun for me is practice. I really enjoy practice."
Said Brown: "We want them to enjoy Disneyland. It's one of the most wonderful places in the world for entertainment, and this is one of the rewards they get for winning, to be in the last game of the year."
You couldn't ask for two more diametrically opposite coaches on the sidelines Thursday night. Each has been wildly successful -- both have won BCS championships, both have won 25 games over the past two seasons -- but achieved that success with drastically different approaches.
Saban views anything that takes place outside the film room or the practice field as "clutter." He's here on a business trip.
"It was pretty funny when we were on the plane," said Tide linebacker Cory Reamer, "looking back and seeing [Saban] having a computer and watching film while we were flying out here. He's always working."
Saban told his team: "It's all about how important the game is; what winning or losing the game means; the consequences of the game, positively or negatively."
Brown, on the other hand, feels "it's too hard to get here not to enjoy it." His star quarterback feels the same way.
"Our mentality is, No. 1, to have fun," said McCoy, the sport's all-time winningest quarterback. "This whole week we're going to enjoy practice, we're going to enjoy being in the National Championship [Game]. It's been our goal all year long to get here."
Though his attitude may seem casual, past history tells us Brown knows what he's doing. He won back-to-back Rose Bowls in 2005 and '06, the latter a national-title upset of USC. He treats every bowl game the same ("The Fiesta Bowl last year [against Ohio State] was just as important to us as this one. ... I felt the same way for the Alamo Bowl when we played Iowa, and Iowa was 6-6.") and he's got a five-year bowl winning streak to back it up.
"When it is time to work, our guys have to work," said Brown. "When it is time to play and laugh and enjoy it, we can do that. But you have to make sure that you keep your edge and that you keep your focus."
Saban, meanwhile, has had mixed experiences in BCS games -- he won the 2002 and '04 Sugar Bowls at LSU but got drubbed by Utah last year -- but it's hard to argue with his more technical approach. He emphasizes psychology and motivation with his players as much as he does Xs and Os, with every little labored detail of his team's preparation geared toward a singular, final goal.
"What you want to think about is, what do I have to do to play my best game, my best football of the season?" he said. "The first thing I did when we came back from the SEC Championship game in the first meeting is I drew a line on the grease board all the way across the room, the team meeting room, and I said it's 32 days until we play the game ... How you manage those 32 days is going to determine how you play in the game."
I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times more: The way teams perform in bowl games is often loosely reflective of their prior 12 to 13 games. The BCS Championship Game is no exception. Was USC really 36 points better than Oklahoma in 2004? Probably not. Was Florida that much more dominant a team than Ohio State over the course of the '06 season? Hardly. While motivation isn't a factor like in many of the early bowl games, you can't take a 32-day break between games -- during which time players take finals, visit their hometowns, tour the banquet circuit, talk to agents -- without it affecting preparation.
Between that, and the extra practice time to install new wrinkles, there's really no way to say what versions of the Longhorns and Crimson Tide we'll see come Thursday.
However, the last title game in which both teams played to their full capabilities also involved Texas -- the Vince Young Invitational four years ago -- and Saban's 2003 LSU title team largely stuck to its season-long script in its 21-14 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma.
Whatever the result, it will be highly surprising if Brown and Saban don't have their teams ready to play Thursday night.
Fiesta Bowl Facing Great Ratings Challenge
For BCS organizers, one set of numbers matter nearly as much as the scores: television ratings. Through two games, this year's set is off to a rousing start. FOX got off to a pleasant start with its Florida-Cincinnati Sugar Bowl broadcast, which earned that game's highest rating (8.5) in three years despite losing millions of viewers after halftime of the Gators' runaway blowout.
But now comes the most intriguing ratings challenge since the BCS' inception: Monday night's TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl. I recently wrote a feature about the events that led to this historic matchup of BCS outsiders. It noted that Fiesta officials consulted with both FOX executives and a former high-ranking sports programming czar for affirmation that the game would draw an audience.
The truth is, no one knows for sure the level of interest because this is the first BCS matchup of its kind. But administrators from the non-AQ leagues will be nervously awaiting the numbers Tuesday. Future hopefuls will undoubtedly be judged by them.
"As much as both Boise State and TCU would like to win by three touchdowns, from a television ratings standpoint, we need it to be a one-score game going into the fourth quarter," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson. "I do think it's going to get a tremendous early audience."
His confidence is based largely on the fact that the Fiesta will be running unopposed, in the traditional Monday Night Football time slot. Others are more skeptical. "Cinderella teams just don't rate well," TV consultant Neil Pilson told the Wall Street Journal. "There's just no real loyalty factor there."
Historically, he's right. The four games to date involving non-BCS teams all rate among the 10 lowest BCS broadcasts, with the Oklahoma-Boise State classic faring the best (8.4). It's worth noting, however, that the other three -- Utah-Pittsburgh (7.4), Georgia-Hawaii (7.0) and Utah-Alabama (7.8) -- were blowouts.
My guess: Barring another blowout, this one will outperform the four previous games and possibly even fare best among FOX's three games this year. Love it or hate it, people have been talking about this game since the day it was announced and many are genuinely curious about TCU (whose league plays most of its games on second-tier cable networks).
The game will have one less TV viewer, though: Me. Following Monday morning's media session here, I'm taking a 24-hour jaunt to Phoenix to cover it in person.
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