After sixth straight title, SEC fatigue may yield changes in BCS
NEW ORLEANS -- As the confetti fell, the silver-haired man stood quietly near the foot of the platform, just as he has for so many years, watching the celebration swirl. "It does not get old," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive as another of his teams passed around the crystal football.
As always, Slive was speaking for a very large, very passionate regional audience. For almost everyone else, the SEC's continuing dominance certainly does get old -- and that's not the only thing.
Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU on Monday night was the league's sixth straight BCS championship. It also might have represented the conclusion of the evolution and reordering of the sport's hierarchy. We knew the score going in, but the all-SEC matchup marked the pinnacle, the complete concentration of power. And perhaps, it was a catalyst for significant change to college football's postseason structure.
Only a few hours after the last stragglers had cleared Bourbon Street Tuesday morning, conference commissioners met at the Windsor Court Hotel just blocks from the French Quarter. Nothing much happened. No momentous decisions were made. But it was the first step in laying the groundwork for what could be a very important offseason.
The BCS' TV deal with ESPN runs for two more seasons. Negotiations on a new deal will begin soon. Before those begin in earnest, the structure of college football's postseason must be settled. Unlike in the past, it appears there is a willingness -- and maybe something more -- to consider alterations to an always controversial system that has not gotten better with age.
"Everything you can imagine will be discussed," said BCS executive director Bill Hancock during a news conference Monday morning. "Everything from format, who plays who, to where they play, to the business aspect of it ... it's all going to be on the table."
Anything could happen, or nothing, Monday night might only reinforce the notion it's time for change.
Not many outside Slive's constituency wanted to see LSU vs. Alabama in the BCS championship. Though it has happened before (Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl, Oklahoma in the '04 Sugar Bowl), many did not cotton to the idea that a team that didn't win its conference championship -- or in Alabama's case (and Nebraska's, way back when), its division -- could play for the national title. The more rankling issue, though, was the all-SEC rematch.
When it was set last month, whispers about the necessity for change grew louder. It was as if once the SEC's complete and utter dominance had been fully realized, when the BCS championship game became a closed loop, power-brokers were finally compelled to consider something different. (And here we should note that while Slive reveled in Monday's exclusive event, he has been pushing the plus-one four-team playoff format for years. If he'd had his way, we wouldn't have been in this situation.)
The way the game played out Monday night -- a defensive battle that was either a classic struggle or a long, hard slog, depending upon your taste -- might hasten change, too. As college football has evolved elsewhere into an era defined by defense-optional shootouts, Alabama and LSU reminded us, again, that it's touchdowns that should be optional. "Big-boy football," Les Miles called it before the game. It is played in the SEC, and almost exclusively in the SEC, and that fact is not coincidental to the league's dominance.
The lasting memory of the '11 season -- or at least the last memory -- will be of a swarming, snarling pack of defenders in crimson, asserting dominance, pounding LSU into submission. And of LSU's defense putting on nearly as dominant a performance. It's as if, to emphasize the SEC's supremacy, we were force-fed a very large dose of big-boy football.
"It's not gonna be no track meet," Alabama running back Trent Richardson kept telling people before the game, and it was not. It was a bone-crushing, soul-sucking affair. And as Jeremy Shelley kicked field goal after field goal after field goal, it was hard to shake the feeling that fans without a rooting interest in either team were being punished for daring to enjoy those salacious shootouts played earlier in the bowl season -- the 45-38 Rose Bowl that kept our heads turning like a tennis match, or remember the Alamo Bowl, which actually got a defensive coordinator fired -- as if the fast-break stuff being played elsewhere was actually football.
Like everyone else associated with Monday's all-SEC affair, Richardson proclaimed the gospel before and after the game. "This is the toughest conference," he said. "We really try to play smash-mouth, hard-nosed football. ... I don't see nobody else being No. 1 or No. 2."
Alabama is No. 1. LSU is No. 2. Nobody is arguing. But what was nice to see, finally, was a touchdown. You know, just because. By the time Richardson supplied one, we'd seen five field goals -- same as in the teams' regular-season meeting, but these all came from Shelley -- and nothing else was necessary. Boxes of T-shirts and caps were being delivered to the Alabama bench, ready to be distributed. Crimson and white confetti was set to drop.
But with 4:36 left, Richardson took a handoff and bounced outside. Thirty-four yards later, he found the end zone. After 115 minutes of touchdown-free football, how'd it feel to finally break the plane?
"I don't know how heaven feels," Richardson said, "but it was probably the second thing next to heaven, getting into the end zone after eight quarters."
How'd others feel? Strangely, let down. The touchdown was a meaningless ornament. The point had already been pounded home. Based on its resume, Oklahoma State deserved a shot at the national title. But the BCS got it right. Rematch or not, we understood the two best teams were playing, and it didn't matter how they played. Still, the lingering images from Monday will serve as a reminder that the rest of college football has been pounded into submission, shut out of the national title discussion. And under the current system, what's to argue?
On the field, at least, there's not much reason to expect significant change. Despite Monday's loss, LSU will start next season ranked No. 1 in most polls. Arkansas will be highly ranked, too. And South Carolina. After winning its second national title in three years, Alabama probably won't drop off much. Although USC and/or Oregon appear ready to mount a challenge, the SEC's domination could -- and probably will -- continue. It's the status quo.
Two years ago, just after Alabama had beaten Texas to earn the SEC's fourth straight national championship, Slive watched the celebration and said, "It never gets old." From his standpoint, nothing much has changed since.
But the always dysfunctional system has only gotten older, and it has not aged well. And finally, the status quo might no longer be acceptable to the power-brokers, whose whispers about "BCS fatigue" seem to coincide, conveniently, with the SEC's complete takeover. Revolution is probably too much to hope for, but we might be about to see evolution.
One thing felt different Monday from after all those other recent national championships. "I would like to have both teams win," said Slive -- though sorry, even he couldn't figure out how to make that happen. And the SEC's closed loop is why something else was missing. We never once heard the familiar chant of superiority: "S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!" It was implied.
Let's hope change to the BCS is, too.