Michigan State upsets Ohio State to bring fitting end to BCS era
INDIANAPOLIS -- We have some good news about the Bowl Championship Series: We can stop complaining about it. Finally. Forever. Say goodbye to the whole overblown, occasionally successful, always frustrating, intellectually dishonest thing that claims to be a "national championship."
Auburn will play Florida State for the last BCS title. They may or may not be the two best teams in the nation, but they are the two teams that were clearly left standing at the end of the final BCS season, so there is no controversy. This is the right matchup, the only matchup.
You can thank Michigan State for knocking off undefeated Ohio State. That sums up the BCS era, doesn't it? Two teams that won't play in the title game decided who will. They did it, naturally, in a domed stadium built for an NFL team, in a conference championship game that is only possible because of expansion that happened for money.
In the hallway outside the Spartans locker room, I asked Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio if he realized he was one of the most popular people in Auburn, Ala., right now.
"Auburn, Alabama?" Dantonio asked.
And said: "Well ... you know, that's what they think."
He laughed. The truth is, right now Dantonio doesn't give a damn about the Tigers, or the Seminoles, or the BCS rankings, or even the Buckeyes' dashed dreams. Why should he? His team is going to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions. His team won something real, something decisive, something it has been chasing for all seven of his seasons at the helm, and for 19 more before that.
And the hope is that next year, that's how the national championship will feel. We will have a four-team playoff and a committee that exists solely to pick those four teams. There is real hope that it won't be about lobbying, power, mythology or the faux intellectual idea that if you assign numbers to your opinions, your opinions matter more.
Dantonio's boss understands. Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis serves on the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee. He knows what a real national championship looks like.
"To have four teams in a playoff that leads to a championship game [adds] so much validity to the process," Hollis said. "I don't know [which teams are ranked fifth and sixth] this year. They would complain about it. But it is different than three one-loss teams or three undefeated teams."
Michigan State saved the BCS this year. And the beauty of it was that the Spartans just did not care. On the field at Lucas Oil Stadium afterward, offensive lineman Donovan Clark celebrated with a rose in his mouth, then told a teammate: "I love you, man."
I love you, man. That is the soul of college football, and it gets lost in all the BCS arguments and even in the discussion about amateurism. I asked Clark afterward about messing up Ohio State's national title hopes, and he said, "It isn't about that."
The act of watching a football game has become disturbingly like following a court case -- you observe the evidence, then watch the instant replay to see if you saw what you think you saw, and then you wait to see if the replay official will confirm that everybody else saw what you think you saw. College football has become one big blown-up version of that. You watch the games, then you wait to see if the BCS rankings confirm what you think you saw.
Michigan State clearly deserved to beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game. The Spartans were just as good as Ohio State all season, and they were slightly better at key moments on Saturday.
But what if the Buckeyes had won? We would have had an enormous argument between undefeated Florida State (which played a weak schedule), undefeated Ohio State (which played a weak schedule) and Auburn (which played a tougher schedule, but lost one game, and which also apparently won the miracle-play lottery this year).
It would have been a loud argument, and arguments are fine. But they are no way to determine a champion. And if the Buckeyes had come back again and beaten Michigan State on a spectacular a last-second play, the discussion would not have been about how spectacular it was, but whether Ohio State "deserved" a title shot when it had needed that kind of play to beat the Spartans.
As it is, the Seminoles are No. 1, the Tigers will be No. 2 and most people would take Alabama over either one on a neutral field next week. In its final season, the misguided BCS provided a taste of what college football should be. The Iron Bowl provided the kind of regular-season magic that the sport does so well, and it had a real influence on the national title picture.
We can only hope that's how the four-team playoff will work. Hollis said the basketball committee brings "data into the mix," and analyzes it, but then brings "subjectivity to the process." The committee talks about circumstances and about why certain games went the way they did, to make sense of the numbers.
The BCS has always struggled with that. You had some subjectivity, and you had data, but the BCS tried to dump them both in a pot and pretend it produced a national title matchup. The problem is that the data was not really interpreted -- numbers were just plugged into computer formulas that often didn't make much sense -- they were just a reflection of what the computer formula guy thought should matter. And too many voters in Coaches' and Harris polls really didn't look at the numbers intelligently, either because they weren't qualified or didn't have time.
A four-team playoff can legitimize the national champion. It can also keep the bowl system intact. The bowls get bashed a lot, but every player and coach I've ever talked to enjoys them. They are a goal and reward for teams that will probably never play for the national title. As Hollis said, that was the dilemma for playoff proponents all along: Preserving the bowls while sensibly determining a national title.
"How do you make those two things live together?" Hollis said.
They will live together now. At least, we hope so. We will have more moments like the one here in Indy, when a Michigan State offense that was frankly awful in September made some big plays against the mighty Buckeyes.
"I had no doubt that would happen," Dantonio said. "We are a resilient group of people. I also know other teams could have been in this situation. We got good people who pushed forward and grind it out. We have a complete team."
We will have more players like Ohio State star Carlos Hyde, who said, "Man, it hurts. To be that close to the national championship my senior year, and to fail, it hurts."
We will have more athletic directors like Hollis, saying "The Rose Bowl has been such a goal for us that ..."
And he paused.
And we will have more great teams like Florida State and Auburn, and their coaches won't have to worry so much about saying their teams are great.
These are the right teams for this game this year, and there is some poetry in the Tigers getting some help on the final day to get into the title game. In 2004, Auburn went undefeated in the Southeastern Conference but finished No. 2 in both polls, because USC and Oklahoma also went undefeated and played for the national title.
This year, the trophy should not be shaped like a question mark. The Tigers and the Seminoles earned this chance. And the team that made it happen doesn't care one bit.