As the BCS title race nears its final days, 'old-man football' wins again
Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia have all won by using 'old-man football' philosophy
Despite a down Big Ten, Ohio State's undefeated season should not be minimized
Plus: Florida's SEC success, my BCS forecast, Gene Chizik's Auburn ouster, more
It was one of those silly things that a college football player says the week of a big game. It gives the beat writers fodder for the rest of the week, it goes viral on Twitter, it comes back up in the postgame press conference and then, usually, it's forgotten.
But Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson's Sept. 3 comment that Georgia plays a boring style of "old-man football" never fully disappeared, even after the Bulldogs dispatched the Tigers, 41-20, and Richardson apologized. The words took on a life of their own, becoming a badge of honor in SEC country. And now, nearly three months later, the comment is particularly relevant. The 2012 national championship race is down to its final days, and old-man football has won again.
On Saturday in Atlanta, No. 3 Georgia (11-1), with its archaic practice of lining up under center and handing the football to a running back, will play for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against the reigning kings of old-man football, No. 2 Alabama (11-1). The SEC's de facto national semifinal game is a welcome departure from a year ago, when the LSU-Alabama national title matchup had already been preordained before the Tigers even kicked off in Atlanta.
Certainly, there is no shortage of offensive talent on either team. In fact, it may come as a surprise to many that the game will pit the nation's No. 1 (Georgia's Aaron Murray) and No. 2 (Alabama's AJ McCarron) rated passers. Georgia's freshman running back tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall averages an impressive 6.6 yards per carry, while Alabama's duo of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon averages 6.5.
But like so many SEC and national championship aspirants before them, the Tide and Bulldogs are filled with defensive ability. Despite a humbling date with Johnny Football a few weeks ago, Alabama ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense for a second straight year. Georgia, after struggling early, has not allowed more than 14 points in its past five games. ESPN's Mel Kiper currently lists three of the Bulldogs' starters (linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and tackle John Jenkins) on his projected first-round draft board.
And so, on Saturday, two talent-laden teams will attempt to establish the run, set up the play-action pass and shut down their opponent. In doing so, they'll be following a championship philosophy that coaches have followed for decades.
"We're both running pro-style attacks, running 3-4 defenses, [have] quarterbacks that have been highly efficient ... the running back tandems," Georgia coach Mark Richt said on Sunday. "There are a lot of similarities."
But old-man football is hardly relegated to the South these days. Last Saturday in Los Angeles, No. 1 Notre Dame booked its own trip to Miami with much the same formula. The Fighting Irish's return to prominence in 2012 caught the college football world by surprise, in large part because few outside of South Bend realized the amount of ammunition coach Brian Kelly had been stockpiling on defense.
Manti Te'o. Louis Nix. Stephon Tuitt. Kapron Lewis-Moore. Prince Shembo. Notre Dame, so lacking in athleticism on defense for so many years, now boasts a suffocating front seven that spent much of Saturday night's 22-13 victory at USC in the Trojans' backfield.
Facing a regular-season slate that included nine bowl-eligible teams (by comparison, Alabama faced six and Georgia five), the Irish allowed just two touchdown drives of 60-plus yards and two rushing touchdowns the entire year. On Saturday night, the Trojans had three straight attempts from the Irish one-yard line in the final minutes. They could not get into the end zone.
Technically, Notre Dame runs a spread offense, with one running back alongside Everett Golson in the shotgun, but the Irish utilize much the same physical, ball-control style as Alabama and Georgia. They ran the ball 42 times against USC, nearly all of it between the tackles, though mobile quarterback Everett Golson (nine carries, 47 yards) plays his own part in that attack.
"The entire game was managed how we manage each game," said Kelly. "We minimized the big plays and we ran the ball, and our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us. That's how we played the game all year. That's how we got to 12-0."
Old-man football prevailed elsewhere. Stanford (10-2), with its 35-17 victory over no-huddle proponent UCLA, advanced to Friday's Pac-12 championship game (where it will again face the Bruins), ending young-man football poster child Oregon's three-year reign atop the conference. Kansas State (10-1), seemingly the lone Big 12 team that does not throw the ball 45 times per game, will win its league's championship if it defeats Texas on Saturday.
Certainly there has been no shortage of highlights for fans of a more modern style, most notably the ascension of presumptive Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Those glued to the couch on Friday with a post-turkey hangover were entertained watching West Virginia dynamo Tavon Austin repeatedly catch those funky push passes from Geno Smith and dart through Iowa State's defense, or watching Arizona and Arizona State stage a frenetic back-and-forth version of what appeared to be touch football.
But Texas A&M is not heading to the BCS. The Mountaineers, Wildcats and Sun Devils each have five losses. On Jan. 7, Notre Dame and either Alabama or Georgia will play for the sport's biggest prize with a decidedly old-school approach. College football as a business has been in a constant state of flux these past few years, but on the field, some teams may never change.
And why would they? It's working.
When the game was over and Ohio State had completed an undefeated season with a 26-21 victory over archrival Michigan, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, so restrained in his praise for much of the year, finally indulged in a little chest-thumping.
"I think this team can play and compete with any team in the United States of America," he said.
We'll never know. Ohio State is banned from the postseason due to a two-year-old tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal and a coach who tried to cover it up. (In an awkward juxtaposition, that coach, Jim Tressel, was honored along with the rest of the Buckeyes' 2002 national title team during Saturday's game.) In the meantime, common sentiment is to downplay the Buckeyes' accomplishment due to the downtrodden state of the Big Ten. Even at 12-0, Ohio State stayed behind one-loss Alabama and Georgia in the latest AP Poll, essentially quashing the Buckeyes' already remote hopes of a split national title.
Unquestionably, Ohio State was far from dominant this season. It failed to crack the top 25 nationally in either total offense (47th) or defense (34th) and it won just three of its eight league games by more than a touchdown. (It did beat 10-2 Nebraska, 63-38.) Still -- do people not realize just how hard it is to go 12-0 against any schedule?
To put the Buckeyes' achievement in perspective, consider that Meyer's team recorded just the sixth undefeated season in the 124-year history of Ohio State football. While that number includes a few seasons where the only loss came in a bowl game (most notably the 1970 and 2006 teams), it also included a whole lot of years where the Buckeyes could not play in a bowl (the Big Ten did not allow teams to play outside of the Rose Bowl until 1975). That's not to mention that teams only played nine regular-season games well into the '60s, and the ones that played 10 games into the '70s.
How hard is it go undefeated? Ask Boise State, which, despite a lineup full of current NFL players and what many deemed a cakewalk schedule, came up a field goal short in each of the past two years.
Perhaps the greatest testament to how significantly the Buckeyes evolved over the course of the season is how they became less dependent on star quarterback Braxton Miller, who almost single-handedly carried the team early on. After rushing for at least 100 yards in six of Ohio State's first nine games, the sophomore averaged just 59.3 over the last three. He was solid against the Wolverines (14-of-18 for 189 yards, a touchdown and no picks; 57 yards on 20 carries), but by season's end, it was the Buckeyes' defense -- mediocre for much of the season -- leading the way. Ryan Shazier and Co. shut out Michigan in the second half and forced four turnovers.
"I didn't even think we'd be a team that would go 12-0 -- until this last part," Meyer told SI's Pete Thamel after the game. "You can't play average defense and be undefeated. After I saw the development of our defense, I said, 'This is a real football team now.'"
It's also an undefeated football team. Minimize that if you'd like, but there are 122 FBS teams that cannot say the same.