Don't anoint Alabama as the BCS champion just yet
This time, let's not bother waiting until after the game to lament how wrong we all were. Let's go ahead and do it now.
Notre Dame will beat Alabama in Monday night's BCS National Championship Game, at which point everyone who predicted that the Tide would roll -- myself included -- will slap ourselves for our stupidity. Stories will proclaim the Irish "stunned" the vaunted Crimson Tide. Headlines will call it an "upset for the ages." And all of this will happen despite the fact that there were no shortage of warning signs hinting that the underdog was better than advertised and the favorite more flawed than perceived.
We know this because the same ritual happens every few years.
In 2002, plucky Ohio State had no shot against mighty Miami. It didn't matter that the Buckeyes were 13-0 and had rarely let opponents into the end zone, while the Hurricanes had allowed 45 points to Virginia Tech in their regular-season finale. We were still all shocked when the Buckeyes won a 31-24 double-overtime thriller.
In 2005, ESPN ran segments before the game debating whether USC was the greatest team of all time. This happened even though Texas was also undefeated and averaging more than 50 points per game, and even though the Trojans had allowed 42 points earlier in the season to Fresno State. Vince Young and the Longhorns won 41-38.
In 2006, there was more pregame discussion about whether 12-1 Florida belonged in the championship than whether it stood a chance against season-long No. 1 Ohio State. This occurred despite the Buckeyes' decidedly lighter regular-season slate and their defensively lacking 42-39 victory over Michigan to close out the year. The Gators won a 41-14 rout.
Clearly no one has learned a thing, because here we are at the conclusion of the 2012 season, and the most popular college football topic for the past 38 days has been: "Does Notre Dame have any chance against Alabama?" Let's think about that for a second. Does an undefeated team that led the nation in scoring defense stand a chance against a team that lost once at home and came within a last-minute pass-deflection of possibly missing the title game altogether?
Much like those previous championship upsets, the mystique surrounding Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa juggernaut is so entrenched that respect for the 2012 Crimson Tide exceeds their actual on-field performance. No question, Alabama is a very good team. It absolutely deserves its place in this game. The Tide rank among the nation's leaders in virtually every defensive category, perhaps contributing to the perception that this year's 'Bama team is essentially an extension of last year's historically dominant championship squad.
But the Tide showed weaknesses. They made a powerful first impression with a season-opening rout of Michigan, and they reinforced their aura with a series of subsequent blowouts, including against their first four SEC opponents (5-7 Arkansas, 6-6 Ole Miss, 5-7 Missouri and 5-7 Tennessee). Still, when the schedule got tougher, Alabama appeared vulnerable. It needed last-minute drives to beat LSU and Georgia, and it lost a home game against Texas A&M.
There's no shame in any of those results. All three foes finished the regular season in the top 10. But the point is, the Tide have long since stopped being invincible, yet they're still treated as such -- and that's a bit puzzling. Miami in 2002 and USC in '05 came into their respective championship games on 34-game winning streaks. Ohio State in '06 had collected 19 straight victories. Alabama, by contrast, is currently sitting on a winning streak of three.
"To be honest," Saban said on Sunday, "I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations."
The Tide's most comparable BCS predecessor may be Florida State in 2000, a team that was considered a heavy favorite against top-ranked Oklahoma despite suffering a midseason loss to Miami. The 'Noles bore a similar mystique to the current Tide given their three straight BCS championship game appearances, whereas the Sooners had only returned to prominence after a decade-plus in the wilderness. Oklahoma all but shut out high-flying FSU, 13-2.
This Notre Dame team is a lot like those 2000 Sooners, who rose up seemingly overnight under second-year coach Bob Stoops. The Irish, under third-year coach Brian Kelly, shut down Pac-12 champion Stanford, Big 12 co-champ Oklahoma, Michigan and USC en route to producing a historically stingy defense of their own. So many of their defensive stats are staggering, including the fact that just 6.9 percent of opponents' drives ended in touchdowns -- a lower number than even Alabama in 2011.
But just as we're slow to notice cracks in a reigning juggernaut's armor, we're also reluctant to embrace a newcomer to the national hierarchy. We're overly cautious, even more so when the program in question is Notre Dame, the source of so much false hype over the past two decades. Rather than marvel at the Irish's near-flawless performance at Oklahoma, we fixate on their near-disastrous letdown against Pittsburgh the following week.
Because that's another thing about college football fans: We hate teams that win ugly. That 2002 Ohio State team made people incredulous with its week-in, week-out escapes against the likes of Purdue and Illinois. It got to the point where it seemed inconceivable the Buckeyes could turn around and beat Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Jonathan Vilma and company. And it's been much the same way for Notre Dame in 2012, with its close calls against Purdue (20-17), Stanford (20-13 in overtime), BYU (17-14) and Pitt (29-26 in triple overtime).
"It's a little frustrating knowing that we're 12-0 and people still don't give us credit for being 12-0," said Irish receiver T.J. Jones.
Of all the factors that might determine Monday night's outcome, style points is not one of them. But here are a few that should be sending warning signals.
• Alabama's unanimous All-America center, Barrett Jones, who injured his foot in the Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game, was wearing a walking boot as recently as Thursday. That's a bit disconcerting considering he's tasked with blocking beastly Irish defensive tackle Louis Nix on Monday night. Jones said on Saturday he was getting close to 100 percent, but he's been unable to fully participate in practice over the past month.
Suddenly, the Tide's strongest unit -- its star-studded offensive line -- enters the game with a giant question mark. Yet for whatever reason, most folks don't seem overly concerned about it. No one even asked Saban about it during his pregame press conference on Sunday. That wouldn't be the case if AJ McCarron was nursing a hand injury -- and this injury seems equally noteworthy.
• Reporters have repeatedly referred to Alabama as the "more experienced team." Presumably, they're referring to the Tide's previous BCS title game appearances. But in reality, the Irish list 24 junior or seniors on their two-deep depth chart -- the exact same number as Alabama. And while the Irish might be new to BCS games, they do play on national television every week. They're not exactly fish out of water. "They enjoy the attention," said Kelly. "That's why they go to Notre Dame."
Many of the aforementioned championship underdogs were buoyed by strong senior classes. Notre Dame's group, led by stalwarts like linebacker Manti Te'o, offensive linemen Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. and safety Zeke Motta, has much the same feel.
• McCarron, who ranks second nationally in pass efficiency, was the breakout star of last year's BCS title game, so quarterback is viewed as one of the Tide's biggest advantages this year. And while his interception in the end zone sealed Alabama's loss to Texas A&M, he threw the game-winning touchdowns against LSU and Georgia.
Historically, however, quarterbacks have not been dominant figures in the BCS championship game. Heisman-winning signal-callers like Chris Weinke, Jason White, Troy Smith and Sam Bradford faltered in the big game, while largely unheralded players like Craig Krenzel, Matt Mauck and the oft-maligned Chris Leak led their teams to victory. Everett Golson, while still suspect as a passer, is more athletic and talented than any those aforementioned championship quarterbacks. His modest production to date does not necessarily render him the hindrance that many perceive; in fact, he could well reprise the role of the unexpected difference-maker that McCarron played last year against LSU.
But enough with the football analysis. It's a futile exercise to begin with. The teams have not played in more than a month. They've dealt with a million distractions. These drawn-out title games rarely play out as expected, so why should we think this one will be different?
Yet in the rush to anoint Alabama, there's one significant historical trend that's gone completely overlooked. In the 14 previous seasons of the BCS era, no team has won consecutive titles. Florida State in 2000, Miami in '02 and USC in '05 all came within a game of repeating. All were upset. As much as Saban preaches The Process, it's tough for 18 to 23 year olds to avoid complacency when they've already been here and done that. And as much as Notre Dame will deny it, six weeks of hearing they can't hang with the best of the SEC is absolutely fueling these Irish players.
Heck, it's affecting everyone else, too.
I know Alabama is more talented. I know Saban is 3-0 in BCS championship games. I know it's scary to put faith in a team with an inconsistent first-year quarterback.
But I also know I've watched this movie several times before. I already know how it ends.