BCS pairings react; more Overtime (cont.)
Wisconsin athletic director and former coach Barry Alvarez was one of the leading proponents of a Big Ten championship game, in large part because the conference was left "sitting at home" the first week of December while the nation focused on the SEC, Big 12 and others. A thrilling inaugural title game in Indianapolis on Saturday had viewers on the edge of their seats -- and sent Alvarez's Badgers back to Pasadena.
After losing to Michigan State on a Hail Mary in the teams' Oct. 22 meeting, Wisconsin almost suffered another cruel ending when it appeared Spartans receiver Keshawn Martin had returned a punt nearly all the way to the end zone with less than two minutes remaining. But a roughing the punter call on Isaiah Lewis nullified the return and allowed the Badgers to close out a back-and-forth 42-39 victory that featured four more Montee Ball touchdowns (he's now at 38, one shy of Barry Sanders' record), an MSU lateral for a score and dueling touchdown bombs from Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins.
So Wisconsin (11-2) returns to the Rose Bowl, where the storyline will once again be speed vs. brawn. The question last year was whether TCU's undersized but athletic defense could slow down Wisconsin's physical running game. (It did.) This year, the Badgers' defense is under the gun as it attempts to slow down Oregon (10-2) and lightning-fast running backs LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas.
"It's kind of the opposite ends of the spectrum -- they try to play as fast as they can, we try to slow it down as much as we can," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "It's going to be a unique experience."
There's no way this one will be a 21-19 affair. Obviously, the Badgers have one big thing going for them now that they didn't this time last year: Wilson, who makes it infinitely tougher for a good-but-not-great Ducks defense to contain Wisconsin. But the Badgers will likely have to score a bunch of points to win, because they've yet to face an offense remotely the caliber of Oregon's in the Big Ten.
Southern Miss' 49-28 rout of previously undefeated Houston in Saturday's Conference USA championship game cost the league an estimated $9.8 million BCS payout -- and the two schools their share. But the two coaches are about to get richer. A full-on sweepstakes has developed in pursuit of Houston's Kevin Sumlin, while Southern Miss' Larry Fedora could also end up elsewhere. Texas A&M will likely win the Sumlin chase, though UCLA is making a push.
Clemson (10-3) overcame its late-season slump to earn its first ACC title in 20 years. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (20-of-29, 240 yards, three TDs, no INTs) and receiver Sammy Watkins (157 all-purpose yards) returned to midseason form to help the Tigers earn a trip to Miami. "There have been a lot of walls built up around this program over the last 20 years," said coach Dabo Swinney, "and we knocked them down."
West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen earned a BCS berth in his first season as a head coach thanks in part to a characteristically ballsy play call. Holgorsen went for it on fourth-and-10 from the USF 42 last Thursday, and Geno Smith delivered with a 26-yard completion to Stedman Bailey to set up Tyler Bitancourt's game-winning 28-yard field goal. Cincinnati's ensuing win over Connecticut sent the Mountaineers (9-3) to Miami. "The way we pulled it out is who this team has become," said Holgorsen. "We figure out ways to win."
In his final game on the blue turf, Boise State's Kellen Moore was a near-flawless 28-of-33 for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 45-0 rout of New Mexico. The Broncos (11-1), who suffered their sole defeat on a last-second missed field goal against TCU, deserved something much better than another trip to Las Vegas, where they'll face a 6-6 Arizona State team that fired its coach. "This team is as good as any of the teams that we've had," said Chris Petersen.
The negative publicity stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal scared nearly every Big Ten bowl away from Penn State. Under normal circumstances, the 9-3 Nittany Lions would have been a sure bet for either the Capital One or Outback bowls, but the Insight (7-5 Iowa), Gator (6-6 Ohio State) and Meineke Car Care of Texas (6-6 Northwestern) all opted for teams with lesser records. Yet Penn Sate made out pretty well in the end: It's playing a 12-1 team (Houston) on the morning of Jan. 2 in the TicketCity Bowl, which is played in the Cotton Bowl.
Poor Bob Stoops. As if it's not bad enough his injury-riddled team crumbled down the stretch, his postseason reward will be extra tough to swallow. The Sooners (9-3) slipped to the fourth choice of Big 12 teams, landing them in the Insight Bowl, where Stoops must face his alma mater, Iowa. I'm sure he'll love those questions. Meanwhile, it marks OU's fourth trip in six years to Arizona, only this time the Sooners will overlap with the rival Cowboys, who will be in town for the Fiesta Bowl.
It's good to see that Texas A&M's athletics department is heading to the SEC on solid footing. Senior associate athletic director Jeff Toole posted anonymously on a message board that school president R. Bowen Loftin is a "putz." The school's board apparently overrode powerless athletic director Bill Byrne in firing coach Mike Sherman, who learned of his fate after pulling into a recruit's driveway. The cost of leaving the Big 12 and buying out Sherman could top $20 million.
The Champs Sports Bowl got the matchup it's been hoping for most of the season: Florida State (8-4) against Notre Dame (8-4), the schools' first meeting since 2002. These squads are a far cry from the 1993 editions that met in a famed 1 vs. 2 game, but like last year's Notre Dame-Miami Sun Bowl, the matchup will draw a huge viewership spike for the Dec. 29 game. One player who might not be there: Irish quarterback Dayne Crist, who decided this weekend to transfer for his final season.
After 15 years of "anyone, anytime, anywhere," Pat Hill is out as Fresno State's coach. Hill's early 2000s teams served as a precursor for future BCS busters like Boise State, constantly playing and beating major-conference foes. But his program had sunk to the middle of the WAC and had the worst season of his tenure this year, finishing 4-9.
TCU (10-2) became the first team to win three straight Mountain West championships. More impressively: The Horned Frogs have gone undefeated in league play all three years.
Northern Illinois (10-3) has come close several times in recent years, but Friday it finally got its first MAC title since 1983 thanks to Mathew Sims' walk-off 33-yard field goal to beat Ohio (9-4).
Sun Belt champ Arkansas State, which had never previously won more than six games in 19 FBS seasons, finished 10-2 with a 45-14 rout of Troy. Coach Hugh Freeze is now a leading candidate at Ole Miss.
UCLA got its waiver to go to a bowl (Kraft Fight Hunger) at 6-7. That knocked out Western Kentucky (7-5), which was only hoping for its first bowl in school history.
Remember, bowls are all about the student-athlete experience. It seems Ohio punter Paul Hershey isn't thrilled about his. "Idaho? Who the (bleep) wants to play there in December??" he tweeted Sunday, following up later with: "Hahaha I'm gettin a lot of hate for my tweet on the bowl bid. Punters don't like the cold. That's all I'm sayin."
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