Final season of BCS brings questions, not controversy; more Overtime
More Overtime (cont.)
More Overtime (cont.)
More Overtime (cont.)
A collective sense of relief seemed to wash over the college football world around 11:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night, when Michigan State tailback Jeremy Langford broke free for a 26-yard touchdown to ice the Spartans upset of previously unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. It wasn't so much that the Buckeyes lost -- though there are certainly plenty of anti-Ohio State zealots out there who took glee in Urban Meyer's misery -- but that the result spared us the headache of enduring one last BCS uproar.
For all the preemptive worrying and lobbying the past month -- first over the fear of there being too many undefeated teams; then over whether a one-loss SEC champion should potentially leapfrog the undefeated Buckeyes -- the final season of the BCS ended in surprisingly clean fashion. The national championship game pits 13-0 Florida State, this season's most dominant team, against 12-1 Auburn, the nation's hottest squad fresh off back-to-back victories over top-five foes.
"I've been saying all fall, hang on everybody, chill out, it's going to work out," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said on Sunday night. "I wasn't concerned going into this weekend. I just felt like we'd have the two best teams going into Sunday evening."
In fact, after years and years of maddening controversies, the soon-to-be-defunct BCS actually ended its run with universally accepted matchups in four of the last five seasons (Alabama-Texas in 2009, Auburn-Oregon in '10, Notre Dame-Alabama in '12 and Florida State-Auburn in '13). "We've gotten it right way more times than we've created controversy," said Hancock.
Of course, the one exception -- the widely panned LSU-Alabama rematch after the 2011 campaign -- was one of the instigators behind the sport's eventual move to a playoff format.
Which brings us to the irony of 2013. Two teams proved plenty in the final season of the BCS. Four teams, on the other hand, would have been an absolute mess.
Put yourself in the forthcoming selection committee's shoes. Who do you pick? The final polls and BCS standings are in agreement that the top-four teams, in order, are Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State. There's no question, that field would make a lot of sense. The Seminoles and Tigers would be no-brainer selections, while the Crimson Tide were the season-long No. 1 until they lost the Iron Bowl in dramatic, unprecedented fashion. The 12-1 Spartans just knocked off an undefeated team to win the Big Ten.
But the selection committee will not be beholden to the polls. It will consider all contenders. And it will purportedly emphasize conference championships and strength of schedule. Beyond Florida State and Auburn, that means no fewer than four teams -- 11-1 Alabama, 12-1 Michigan State, 11-1 Big 12 champion Baylor and, most interestingly, 11-2 Pac-12 champ Stanford -- would have legitimate cases.
The Spartans, who jumped six spots in the polls following their 34-24 victory over the Buckeyes, may seem an obvious choice using traditional parameters. They're clearly a great team, boasting the nation's top-ranked defense after putting the clamps on Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller. Michigan State's sole loss came on the road in September to a decent Notre Dame team. However, the same arguments many made last week about Ohio State's soft schedule apply equally the Spartans, whose best win prior to Saturday came over 8-4 Iowa or 8-4 Nebraska, neither ranked in the final Top 25. Coach Mark Dantonio's squad played the country's 56th-toughest schedule, according to Sagarin.
Baylor would likely come in just behind Michigan State, with its best wins coming over 10-2 Oklahoma and 8-4 Texas, and its one loss a 49-17 blowout at 10-2 Oklahoma State on Nov. 23. The Bears' nonconference schedule was atrocious, though their video-game offensive numbers in nearly all their victories might carry some weight.
Still, compare Michigan State and Baylor's credentials to those of Stanford, a team that would never garner consideration in the current system because of its two losses. As champion of arguably the nation's toughest conference, it would be taken quite seriously in the playoff. The Cardinal, who on Saturday routed 10-3 Arizona State for the second time this season, played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule, per Sagarin. They won four games against opponents in the final BCS top 20 (10-2 Oregon, 9-3 UCLA and the Sun Devils twice) and six against foes in Sagarin's top 30, one of which, 8-4 Notre Dame, was the same team that beat Michigan State.
No other team in this discussion besides Auburn has more than two top-30 wins. Stanford has six. However, none of other potential candidates has a loss as damning as the Cardinal's 27-21 defeat at 5-7 Utah on Oct. 12. So, do you judge a team based on whom they beat? Or whom they lost to? And how wide does the schedule discrepancy need to be to merit choosing an 11-2 team over a 12-1 squad? These are the questions that will become commonplace around this time next year.
While we're at it, are we sure Alabama would be gift-wrapped a playoff berth? I had this discussion with another writer in the press box in Charlotte on Saturday night, and he said it "would not be a legitimate playoff" if the Tide were excluded. I can see his point. Many still believe the two-time defending national champs are the best team in the country, Chris Davis' miraculous 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown be damned. 'Bama won at 8-4 Texas A&M, clobbered 9-3 LSU and routed 8-4 Virginia Tech on a neutral field.
But that's about the extent of Alabama's résumé. It didn't win its division. Of course, SEC commissioner Mike Slive vehemently pushed for the playoff language to specifically include the "top-four teams," not "top-four champions," with this very scenario in mind.
In the end, my guess is the field would consist of Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State. Had Stanford's first loss come to 8-4 Washington -- not 4-8 Utah -- I might feel differently. No matter what the decision, though, there would surely be controversy.
Meanwhile, the final BCS Selection Sunday could not have been more uneventful. Onward and upward.
On the final day of the season, as it wrapped up its astonishing turnaround from a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) team in 2012 to a conference champion and national title game participant in '13, Auburn did not require a miraculous finish. The Tigers simply needed tailback Tre Mason to keep running.
In both his and the Auburn offense's most jaw-dropping performance to date, Mason carved up Missouri's previously stingy defense for an SEC title game-record 304 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. Auburn racked up 545 yards on the ground in its 59-42 victory over Missouri (11-2). According to ESPN's Mark Schlabach, Mizzou entered the game with the SEC's No. 2 rushing defense (119.1 yards per game allowed), and it exited with the No. 9 unit (151.8).
Mason came into the game averaging a more modest 19.8 carries per game, but on this night, backfield mates Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne could barely get on the field. "Well, whoever has the hot hand, we go with, and Tre wanted the football," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. "That's the thing about him. He's as tough as anybody, and you can see that look in his eye, keep giving me the football."
While Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston seemingly locked up the Heisman Trophy before he even took a snap on Saturday, the rest of the finalist field remained pretty much wide open. Following his huge game, don't be surprised if Mason -- who wasn't even on the national radar going into the weekend -- pulls a Mark Ingram or Tyrann Mathieu and vaults himself to New York. While not as consistent over the entire season as Boston College running back Andre Williams or Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Mason closed the year with five straight 100-yard performances to finish fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (2,137), seventh in rushing yards (1,621) and tied for third in rushing touchdowns (22). Unlike anyone with gaudier rushing totals, he helped his team secure a berth in the national championship game.
"You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today," said Malzahn after Saturday's victory. "Usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at [the Heisman], and you're looking at one of those guys right here."
Auburn will bring a historically powerful rushing attack to Pasadena on Jan. 6. According to AL.com's Jon Solomon, the Tigers' average of 6.46 yards per rushing attempt is the highest any SEC team has had since LSU in 1945 (6.8). On the flip side, Missouri racked up 42 points and 534 total yards in Saturday's game, so Auburn will also face Florida State as the nation's 95th-ranked defense (5.96 yards per play) -- by far the worst of any BCS title game participant.
Hence, the Seminoles, who rank first nationally in total offense and second in total defense, respectively, are the overwhelming favorites to hoist the crystal football. But the Tigers are amid a charmed season. You never know what history-making moment Auburn might produce next.
"This year it's been very unique," Malzahn said on Sunday night. "Our team has complemented each other. When our offense hasn't played well our defense has played well, and vice versa. So hopefully we can do that again."
In August 2012, I visited Michigan State for a preseason story. While on campus, I noticed that Rose Bowl logos dotted nearly every wall of the team's football complex. Dantonio's crew was coming off consecutive 11-win seasons at the time, and it was eyeing the program's first trip to Pasadena in 25 years.
Alas, the Spartans' inexperienced offense failed to develop during an underwhelming 7-6 campaign. This season, which opened with uninspiring wins over Western Michigan (26-13 on Aug. 30) and USF (21-6 on Sept. 7), appeared to bring more of the same.
Eventually, Dantonio figured out that third-year sophomore Connor Cook, not fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell, should be his starting quarterback. Tailback Jeremy Langford emerged as a worthy successor to departed star Le'Veon Bell. And man, that defense. The Spartans entered Saturday's Big Ten title game with the nation's top-ranked unit -- and that didn't change.
While the Spartans' 34-24 upset of Ohio State resonated nationally for its impact on the BCS title race, it was a seminal moment for the long-disregarded Big Ten program Dantonio spent the past seven years building. Michigan State will finally return to the Rose Bowl, and it got there not by replacing the Buckeyes, but by handing them their first loss in two years.
"You put your hands in with 120 people [at the end of practice], you say 'Big Ten champs' on one,' -- I can't tell you how many times we've said that in the last seven years," Dantonio said on Sunday. "That dream became a reality [on Saturday]."
The Spartans defeated one top-five opponent in Indianapolis, and now they'll face another in Pasadena. Over the past four years, Stanford has achieved much the same transformation Dantonio is attempting to bring about in East Lansing. Following Saturday's Pac-12 title victory -- in which they sacked Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly five times to raise their total to a national-best 40 -- the Cardinal earned a remarkable fourth straight 11-win season and BCS berth, and their second straight conference title. Just as Michigan State has worked to erase its "little brother" stigma, Stanford is now the top dog in a conference where it long lagged behind USC and others.
Both programs have followed the same blueprint: Win with nasty defense and a smashmouth offense.
"People that appreciate real football are going to love this game," said Cardinal coach David Shaw. "It's going to be blocking and tackling and running the ball and making big passes down the field and playing great defense and playing special teams and playing field position. ... I'm talking about it right now like it's next week because I know we're excited about it and Michigan State is excited about it. I think it's going to be a heck of a football game."
Saturday's Texas-Baylor game in Waco perfectly encapsulated everything that's upside down with college football in the Lone Star State these days -- starting with the fact that the temperature was 24 degrees at kickoff.
In the final contest at Floyd Casey Stadium, with the outright Big 12 title on the line, Baylor (11-1), the small private school that long resided in the conference basement, throttled Texas (8-4), the massive flagship public university that fancies itself a perennial contender. And no one was the least bit surprised by the result. The Bears held the 'Horns to 217 total yards in a 30-10 victory to clinch their first outright league championship since capturing the 1980 Southwest Conference. They also locked up their first-ever BCS bid, as Baylor will face UCF (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.
"I think that's a defining moment for our program," Bears coach Art Briles said after the game, "and hopefully it's one that we'll be able to repeat multiple times."
Briles has no shortage of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Quarterback Bryce Petty, who finished the regular season with 30 touchdown passes to just two interceptions, announced that he'll return for his senior year. In 2014, the team will move into brand-new $260 million Baylor Stadium, a 45,000-seat venue nestled on the Brazos River. Briles recently signed a 10-year contract extension reportedly worth more than $4 million per year. He's not going anywhere.
However, things aren't nearly as certain for the coach who Briles crushed on Saturday for the second time in three years. With his team now assured of a fourth straight season with at least four losses -- and more than likely a fifth, as the 'Horns will meet Oregon (10-2) in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30 -- Texas' Mack Brown has a decision to make. Brown, 62, can announce his retirement, allowing the school to give its former national championship coach a proper sendoff. Or, he can stand his ground against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Longhorns fans, thereby setting off a potentially awkward power struggle.
Brown declined to discuss his future after Saturday's game, which was reasonable enough given that he still had a shot to win a conference title just four hours earlier. But early-season losses to BYU (40-21 on Sept. 7) and Ole Miss (44-23 on Sept. 14) dampened excitement for a season that also included a blowout victory over rival Oklahoma. Texas has inspired little confidence that the program is trending upward, and newly hired athletic director Steve Patterson has usurped longtime overlord and loyal Brown backer DeLoss Dodds.
While it's doubtful Patterson will make a unilateral decision, it's hard to imagine any scenario at this point in which Brown returns for a 17th season. It's just a matter of who makes the call. Meanwhile, Briles and Baylor will enjoy their current status as the kings of the state.
Each week I've shown what the new big-six bowl lineup (including playoff matchups) would hypothetically look like if the new postseason format were already in place. For this exercise, I'll use the final BCS standings in place of the forthcoming selection committee's rankings.
Sugar: No. 1 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (Big Ten champ)
Rose: No. 2 Auburn (SEC champ) vs. No. 3 Alabama (BCS at-large)
Fiesta: No. 5 Stanford (displaced Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (at-large)
Cotton: No. 6 Baylor (displaced Big 12 champ) vs. No. 15 UCF (Group of Five)
Chick-fil-A: No. 9 South Carolina (at-large) vs. No. 10 Oregon (at-large)
Orange: No. 12 Clemson (ACC replacement) vs. No. 8 Missouri (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame)
I've asked playoff officials several times and been assured that no, the committee will not fuddle with seeding to avoid a regular-season rematch in the semifinals. So if these rankings were in fact the real deal, Alabama and Auburn would stage Iron Bowl II ... in California.
Stanford, as the next highest-ranked team, would get geographic preference in Arizona. The Cardinal would play a de facto Rose Bowl matchup with the Buckeyes, whose fans always travel well there. Baylor would make sense in the Cotton Bowl, and South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A. Clemson and Missouri would fulfill the Orange Bowl's contractual obligations. Finally, following Northern Illinois' loss, UCF would finish as the highest-ranked Group of Five team. To avoid a South Carolina-UCF rematch, I had to send Oregon farther east than I'd prefer.
Note in this system that Oregon makes one of the big-six bowls but Oklahoma does not -- at least one notable departure from this year's lineup.
• After last Friday night's 47-27 upset of undefeated Northern Illinois in the MAC title game, Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson joked, "We just won a championship, but now we might not be able to afford jockstraps for next season." That's because the Falcons' (10-3) win cost the Huskies (12-1) a BCS berth and, in turn, their conference about $10 million. Clawson might not have to worry about money, though -- he interviewed for the Wake Forest job on Sunday.
Bowling Green's defense contained NIU star Jordan Lynch, who ran for 126 yards but completed just 21-of-40 attempts for 219 yards with a touchdown. The defeat will likely cost him some Heisman votes, but Lynch -- who broke his own NCAA record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback (1,881) -- still seems a decent bet to make it to New York.
• Even when Bob Stoops' Oklahoma program seems down, the Sooners still find a way to win 10 games. Saturday's 33-24 upset of Oklahoma State (10-2) featured a fake field goal pass from holder Grant Bothun to kicker Michael Hunnicutt. Wide receiver Jalen Saunders had a 64-yard punt return score, and quarterback Blake Bell replaced an injured Trevor Knight and engineered a last-minute, game-winning drive. The Sooners ruined their rivals' BCS hopes while securing a Sugar Bowl berth that wasn't remotely on the radar 24 hours earlier. "'Big Game' Bob must be back," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops joked of his brother.
• Not even the staunchest Duke football fans -- and they do exist, as I found out this weekend -- thought the Blue Devils (10-3) stood a chance against Florida State. They were competitive for a quarter and were physically impressive on defense, but they ultimately fell 45-7. It's still been a storybook year for David Cutcliffe's program, and it will culminate with a Dec. 31 trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl to face Johnny Football and Texas A&M.
• Fresno State (11-1) fell short of a BCS bowl, but it did capture its first outright conference title since 1989 with Saturday night's 24-17 Mountain West championship victory over Utah State (8-5). It's a testament to the Aggies' 12th-ranked defense that the Bulldogs were held to nearly half their scoring average (45.3) and quarterback Derek Carr was picked off twice. Still, Carr threw for 404 yards. He completes the regular season with a staggering 4,866 passing yards with 48 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
• The Big Ten will need to pull some upsets to avoid another embarrassing New Year's Day. Outside of a fairly even Rose Bowl pairing, the conference's matchups on Jan. 1 include No. 8 South Carolina (10-2) against No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3) in the Capital One Bowl, No. 14 LSU (9-3) against unranked Iowa (8-4) in the Outback Bowl and No. 23 Georgia (8-4) against unranked Nebraska (8-4) in the Gator Bowl. Sending two teams to the BCS is good for the league's coffers, but often bad for its bowl record.
• The Dec. 28 Russell Athletic Bowl between No. 18 Louisville (11-1) and Miami (9-3) features some interesting storylines. Most notably, Cardinals star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returns to his home state to face the team he decommitted from in 2010 to sign with the Cardinals. It will likely be Bridgewater's final college game. In a sleazier subplot, the NCAA recently implicated Louisville assistant and former Miami recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt for his role in the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
• The AdvoCare V100 (formerly Independence) Bowl in Shreveport, La., doesn't often make for must-see television, unless it's played in a snowstorm. However, this year's matchup will pit the nation's top two rushers (one a possible Heisman finalist) when Boston College's Williams (2,102 yards, 17 touchdowns) squares off with Arizona's Carey (1,716 yards, 17 scores).
• Congratulations to Rice (10-3) for winning its first outright conference title since 1957. The Owls beat Marshall (9-4) 41-24 in Saturday's Conference USA championship game.
• Northern Illinois found a decent landing spot after missing out on the BCS. Rather than return to Detroit or head to Mobile, Ala., the Huskies will face Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 26.
• With its 31-6 win over USF (2-10), Rutgers (6-6) gets the chance to play Notre Dame (8-4) in the Pinstripe Bowl. On Sunday, Scarlet Knights head coach Kyle Flood fired three assistants.
• Florida Atlantic (6-6) finished the season 4-0 following the dismissal of coach Carl Pelini over alleged drug use. However, interim coach Brian Wright's team was not selected for a bowl.
• Other eligible teams that will stay home for the holidays: Western Kentucky (8-4), Toledo (7-5), Troy (6-6), Central Michigan (6-6), Louisiana-Monroe (6-6), San Jose State (6-6), South Alabama (6-6) and Texas State (6-6).
Don't worry. Four new bowls -- in Boca Raton, Miami, the Bahamas and Montgomery, Ala. -- open for business next year.
Every year without fail, the haphazard bowl selection process produces a couple of matchups fans can't believe someone would purposely stage with a straight face. The Gator Bowl -- arguably the biggest good 'ol boy organization in an industry filled with them -- frequently delivers.
This season, the folks in Jacksonville will pit 8-4 Georgia against 8-4 Nebraska. If that sounds familiar, it's because the programs just played each other in the Capital One Bowl a year ago. As Bulldogs receiver Michael Bennett (@MBennett_82) tweeted out (but later deleted): "Nebraska again? You kidding me?"
Oh, and did we mention both the Dawgs' (Aaron Murray) and Cornhuskers' (Taylor Martinez) decorated four-year quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries? (There's a chance Martinez returns for the bowl.)
"I don't know why anybody would complain" about a rematch, said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Of course, he's paid to say that.
To be fair, the Gator Bowl -- which had sixth choice of Big Ten teams and seventh choice of SEC squads (including those leagues' BCS teams) -- was partially limited by the bowls in front of it. Most assumed the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, with the pick before the Gator, would take the Huskers for a matchup with former Big 12 divisional rival Kansas State. It snapped up 7-5 Michigan instead. Texas A&M could have fallen to Jacksonville if Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Bowl took Georgia. It did not.
Still, the Gator chose Nebraska over an 8-4 Minnesota team that beat the Huskers and has not played in a New Year's Day bowl since 1962. It opted for Georgia over an 8-4 Vanderbilt team that beat the Dawgs and has never played on New Year's Day. The Gophers will instead return to the Texas Bowl for a second consecutive season, while Vandy fell all the way to the BBVA Compass Bowl, because it's not a big-name program and it's assumed its fans won't travel well.
Newsflash: I'm not sure how many Nebraska or Georgia fans will make the trek to this one.
There is a ray of hope. Starting next year, every conference begins new contracts with its bowl partners, and the paradigm changes. Both the Big Ten and SEC have said they will essentially assign teams to bowls, based on a loose pecking order, to avoid this very situation.
So enjoy this one, Gator Bowl. Next year you might get Indiana-Vandy.
Louisville's quarterback vanished from the Heisman race in October, but not many contenders could make a throw like this.
The only Heisman mystery left is who finishes second. Winston hurdled over the rest of the field -- and this Duke defender.
Mini-previews for three BCS bowl games:
• Stanford vs. Michigan State, Jan. 1: What better matchup for the 100th Rose Bowl than to pit two teams that play 1940s-style football? Cardinal workhorse Tyler Gaffney will meet the nation's top-ranked rushing defense. Spartans quarterback Cook will brace for the Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov sack machine.
• Alabama vs. Oklahoma, Jan. 2: In 2010, the last time 'Bama fell short of the BCS title game, it took out its frustrations in a 49-7 Capital One Bowl rout of 11-1 Michigan State. That was also a year in which Auburn played for the national championship. Congrats on the BCS bid, Oklahoma, but this could get ugly.
• Florida State vs. Auburn, Jan. 6: First-year Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has done a phenomenal job to date. He has his work cut out slowing Malzahn's powerful rushing offense. Auburn's 83rd-ranked pass defense (7.4 yards per attempt), meanwhile, could have a tough time stopping Winston.