Rematch hysteria aside, title game winner will be true national champ
LSU is a juggernaut, but it needs to beat Alabama twice to be the champion
Oklahoma State got a rough break, but it'll relish Big 12 title and BCS berth
Plus: Sugar Bowl's unjustifiable selection, Rose Bowl's stellar pairing, more
On Jan. 9, LSU and Alabama will play for the national championship. Right now, most fans are focused on the controversy and dissatisfaction surrounding the BCS' first intra-division rematch, an awkward scenario that has sparked more indignation over college football's flawed and frustrating postseason. Expect the bellyaching to continue for the next several days.
At some point, however, perhaps the complaining will subside long enough for us to focus on an equally rare occurrence: Les Miles' team is one win away from completing the most spectacular season of the BCS era.
On Saturday, a nation already up to its ears in SEC adulation watched with incredulity as top-ranked LSU went the entire first half of its conference championship game against No. 12 Georgia without gaining a first down and was down 10-0. Fans in Ohio, Oklahoma, California, etc., rubbed their hands eagerly in anticipation of an 11th-hour meltdown, one almost certain to preclude the SEC rematch that ESPN and CBS had told them was already scheduled.
And then, the Tigers did what they always do. Tyrann Mathieu returned a punt 62 yards for a momentum-turning touchdown before halftime. Three plays into the second half, defensive lineman Michael Brockers forced an Aaron Murray fumble that the Honey Badger recovered. Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford started running over Georgia's defense, Mathieu had another ridiculous punt return and before long it was a 42-10 blowout. This just eight days after LSU spotted third-ranked Arkansas a 14-0 lead only to roar back and win 41-17.
LSU (13-0) just completed the most impressive regular season I can remember. It beat the Pac-12 (Oregon) and Big East (West Virginia) champions within the first four weeks of the season by scores of 40-27 and 47-21, respectively. In the most hyped regular-season game in years, it went to Tuscaloosa and beat No. 2 Alabama in overtime. It beat five teams that finished in the Top 25 and three that finished in the top six, and it scored 40 or more points in nine of its 13 games. It is the first team ever to achieve a perfect 1.000 score (first place votes from every voter in two polls and six computers) in the BCS standings.
The Tigers are a certifiable juggernaut -- but they are not yet national champions, and they won't be unless they beat Alabama a second time. To many, that doesn't seem fair. I've made my case for why Oklahoma State deserved a shot over Alabama, but not enough voters agreed to erase a .0086 gap. So, that's that.
The funny thing is, sports fans seem to be perfectly fine with postseason rematches in almost any other scenario -- even ones where the result renders the entire preceding season meaningless. In 2007, the New England Patriots completed the NFL's first 16-0 regular season with a win on the final weekend against the New York Giants. Five weeks later the Giants, having lost six regular-season games, upset the still-perfect Patriots and got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It was hailed as an all-time classic.
The difference, of course, is that the Giants weren't given another shot at the Patriots by a set of voters and computers; they earned that shot by advancing in a playoff. College football is different. It's the one sport that continually trumpets the importance of its regular season and views the postseason as more of a celebration than competition. LSU-Alabama II makes a mockery of that talking point, asking us to accept that Every Game Counts -- but that this particular one merits a do-over.
Regardless of whether the rematch was the right choice, the Tigers will face a plenty worthy adversary in New Orleans, one that was similarly dominant outside of that Nov. 5 field-goal fest, albeit against a less staggering schedule.
And contrary to what some have already espoused, LSU needs to win the game to be considered national champion. Yes, the result in New Orleans will trump the result in Tuscaloosa. And no, AP voters should not grant the Tigers a split championship if they lose close in the rematch.
"The opportunity to go play for a national championship is a completely different scenario," Miles said Sunday night. "It's the same opponent, but with the title at stake."
No team in history has ever won a national title after losing its bowl game. This won't be the first.
Here's what will actually happen. We will spend the next few days on our annual tirade about this silly system and all the possible alternatives. (Note: If my desired plus-one were in place, LSU would play Stanford in one semifinal and Alabama would face Oklahoma State in the other.) We'll quiet down a bit in time to enjoy Christmas and the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and then, when the Tigers and Tide get to New Orleans, 1,000 reporters will spend a week asking the coaches and players questions they don't want to answer about the fairness of a rematch.
And then they'll play the game. We'll be reminded of just how good these teams are. The game will play out completely differently than the first one. The score will not be close to 9-6. For one, the first meeting will have taken place more than two months earlier; for another, this is football.
"If you just look at NFL games, you always play teams in the playoffs you played in the regular season, and all those game play out differently," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday night. "There's so many good players on both sides of the ball, I think there's a lot of opportunity for the game to have a completely different flavor than the first one did."
It also has an opportunity to be one of the all-time greats. People don't want to hear that right now, especially after enduring so much buildup to the first somewhat disappointing meeting. But it's true. Either LSU will cement itself as one of the great teams the sport has seen, or Alabama will redeem itself by proving the Tigers mortal.
Either way, one team will rightfully be crowned national champion.
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