As the BCS title race nears its final days, 'old-man football' wins again
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.
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.
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.
I'll try not to let this turn into another conference realignment rant. But it's going to be tough.
On Saturday, now No. 4 Florida completed a surprising 11-1 regular season by running past archrival Florida State (10-2), 37-26. In doing so, the Gators achieved their fourth win this season against a current BCS top-15 team (No. 7 LSU, No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 10 South Carolina and No. 13 FSU), and their sole loss was to No. 3 Georgia. I've been a huge Gators skeptic all season (as Florida fans rightly remind me), which can happen when a team needs a last-second punt block to survive Louisiana-Lafayette. Still, you can't argue with that résumé.
In fact, Will Muschamp's team had the best season in the 2012 SEC. That may sound strange, seeing as Florida is not even playing for the conference title, but it's true. Welcome to the world of bloated 14-team conferences and unbalanced schedules.
In this year's top-heavy SEC, six teams (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, A&M and South Carolina) went a combined 30-0 against the other eight squads. Florida, which happened to draw a particularly tough schedule, went 3-1 against the other five heavyweights (not to mention its nonconference win over Florida State), whereas title-game combatants Alabama and Georgia each went 1-1. The Bulldogs beat the Gators straight up to earn their trip to Atlanta, but they didn't exactly play an even slate the rest of the way. This will change once the Dawgs and Tide face each other next week, but as of today, the SEC team most deserving of facing Notre Dame is Florida.
And they want to make these conferences even bigger?
Meanwhile, as much as I'd love to blame realignment for this week's otherwise sorry slate of conference championship games -- Florida State vs. 6-6 Georgia Tech (ACC), 10-2 Nebraska vs. 7-5 Wisconsin (Big Ten) -- the truth is, various teams' NCAA sanctions made those duds possible. Even the Pac-12 title game seems like a bit of a letdown with its highest-ranked team, No. 5 Oregon, sitting at home, but No. 8 Stanford earned the North crown by beating the Ducks. It's hard to say the same of South champ UCLA (9-3), which will have lost to the Cardinal six days earlier.
The one saving grace in all of this: The upcoming four-team playoff. As much as people groused this offseason about rectifying Alabama's winning the national title last season without winning its division, this year has offered a much more telling example why division or even conference titles are no longer a definitive case as to which was a league's best team. In 2014, Florida -- and possibly Oregon -- would get their shot.
At this point, you can safely pencil in Notre Dame, Oregon and Florida (which is guaranteed the SEC's second berth by finishing in the top four). The Fiesta will snatch up the 11-1 Ducks with the first at-large choice. Both spots in the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl's ACC spot are obviously dependent on conference championship game results, while Kansas State needs to beat Texas to secure its Fiesta Bowl berth, unless Oklahoma loses to TCU.
The Big East race got a lot more complicated after Rutgers (against Pittsburgh) and Louisville (against UConn) both slipped up this weekend. Rutgers still gets the nod if it beats the Cardinals on Thursday, but a Louisville win creates a potential four-way tie at the top with Cincinnati and Syracuse.
Finally, there's the possibility that Kent State will crash the party. A rash of losses by teams ranked ahead of them lifted the 11-1 Golden Flashes to No. 17 in the latest standings, just one spot from a guaranteed berth, and No. 16 UCLA could very well lose this weekend. The Flashes should get a boost if they beat 11-1 Northern Illinois in this week's MAC championship game. If all that happens, they'd likely go to the Orange Bowl at the expense of a second Big 12 team, with the Sugar Bowl taking the Big East champ. However, keep in mind there's a sizable gap in the BCS score between UCLA and Kent State and there's no guarantee they'd swap spots.
When I started this little experiment at the beginning of the year, I was curious how long into the season it would be before my ballot meshed with the mainstream consensus. I'm guessing we've reached that point.
A note on Collin Klein: He can still crack my ballot with a big game against Texas, but it's going to be hard to get back to No. 1 after laying that egg against a horrendous Baylor defense.
• For all that he accomplished at Stanford, Andrew Luck never won a Pac-12 title -- but redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan will get that chance. Hats off to Cardinal coach David Shaw, who brushed off a seemingly daunting transition this season thanks in large part to the nation's top-ranked rushing defense. In Saturday's division-clinching 35-17 win over UCLA, Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) held Bruins star Johnathan Franklin to 65 yards on 21 carries. Now it'll try to do it again on Friday night in Palo Alto.
• Bedlam was never a more fitting name for the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry than on Saturday, when Sooners quarterback Blake Bell's four-yard touchdown run with four seconds remaining forced overtime. Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2 Big 12), which never led in regulation, won 51-48. Over the past two weeks, the Sooners' Landry Jones has thrown for a combined 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, and he's led game-saving, last-second touchdown drives in each. "The guy was, again, fabulous out there tonight," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
• A sophomore helped Penn State produce a satisfying finale for its much-appreciated senior class. Running back Zach Zwinak rushed for a career-high 179 yards in the Nittany Lions' (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4). Zwinak, who finished the year with 1,000 yards, emerged at midseason and helped fill the void left by USC transfer Silas Redd. Who would have guessed in August that Penn State would win more games than Redd's new team?
• Another year, another reminder of the massive gap between the SEC and ACC. In addition to Florida's takedown of Florida State, a less-than-full-strength South Carolina (10-2) team cooled off rival Clemson (10-2), 27-17, with previously torrid Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd completing just 11-of-24 attempts. "When we play Clemson, they don't seem to play very well," said Steve Spurrier, as if on cue. Elsewhere, Georgia stomped Georgia Tech, 42-10, and Vanderbilt hammered Wake Forest, 55-21, to make it a clean 4-0 sweep for commissioner Mike Slive's league.
• Speaking of Vanderbilt, the Commodores continued their rise under second-year coach James Franklin by winning six straight games to close out the regular season, the program's longest winning streak since 1955. Vandy's 8-4 record is its best since 1982, and its five games scoring 40 or more points are the most for the Commodores since 1915. "When you're throwing numbers out about breaking records from 1952, 1948 and 1915, to me that's impressive," said Franklin.
• Considering it's the flagship university in a state that's produced Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel, among others, Texas' (8-3, 5-3 Big 12) continued quarterback woes are astounding. David Ash and Case McCoy combined to throw three interceptions in a 20-13 Thanksgiving night home loss to TCU (7-4, 4-4). Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs, which had struggled to date in their first Big 12 season, served a reminder just how stout they can be defensively.
• Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) quietly carries a six-game winning streak into Saturday's Big Ten title game, where it will play for a return trip to the Rose Bowl, the site of both the Huskers' last BCS game in 2001 and their Sept. 8 loss to UCLA, which now looms as a potential opponent. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has his share of critics, but this marks his third 10-win season in four years and his third conference title game in that same span. Now he just needs to win one.
• Baylor's 52-45 win over Texas Tech -- just another typical Baylor game featuring 1,241 yards of combined offense -- assured the Bears (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) of a third straight bowl berth. It also means that nine of the conference's 10 teams have reached bowl eligibility, a testament to the Big 12's incredible depth. Baylor handed Kansas State its sole loss to date, yet the Bears are tied for with West Virginia for seventh place. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5) dropped four of its last five games.
• The upset of the weekend took place in last Friday's Apple Cup, where Washington State (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12) rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Washington (7-5, 5-4), 31-28, in overtime. The win puts a final ray of positivity on Mike Leach's otherwise disastrous first season with the Cougars, while it also intensifies the offseason pressure on fourth-year Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian can't seem to turn the corner, even in a year that included wins over top-10 foes Stanford and Oregon State.
• Miami (7-5, 5-3 ACC) heads into a self-induced early offseason with a 52-45 win over Duke (6-6, 3-5) that perfectly embodied their all-offense, no-defense season. Freshman standout Duke Johnson ran for 176 yards to finish the year with 2,060 all-purpose yards. Given their extreme youth, Al Golden's 'Canes exceeded most expectations, and their future looks bright -- unless of course the NCAA imposes mass scholarship reductions. An apparently
• Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze took over a 2-10 team from a year ago and made it bowl eligible. On Saturday, the Rebels (6-6, 3-5 SEC) ended a four-year Egg Bowl drought by blasting Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4), 41-24. Quarterback Bo Wallace and receiver Donte Moncrief connected for touchdowns of 77, 21 and 16 yards. "You could see the game getting away from them in the second half and that's the best feeling I've had since I've been here," said Ole Miss cornerback Charles Sawyer.
• It took a 29-yard Cody Journell field goal as time expired, but Virginia Tech (6-6, 6-6, 4-4 ACC) survived Virginia (4-8, 2-6), 17-14, to assure the Hokies of their 20th consecutive bowl berth. Cavs fans will likely spend the offseason excoriating coach Mike London, who bewilderingly chose not to call two timeouts as the clock ticked down prior to Tech's obvious impending field goal.
• With a 45-9 rout of Idaho, Utah State (10-2, 6-0 WAC) won its first outright conference title in 76 years. Meanwhile, San Jose State (10-2, 5-1) -- just two years removed from a 1-12 season -- topped former BCS aspirant Louisiana Tech (9-3. 4-2), 52-43, for its first 10-win season since 1987.
• With a 35-27 upset of first-place Tulsa (9-3, 7-1 C-USA), SMU (6-6, 5-3) earned bowl eligibility for the fourth straight season. Marshall (5-7, 4-4) narrowly missed out, falling 65-59 in overtime to East Carolina (8-4, 7-1).
• Fifty-one weeks after upsetting undefeated Houston to win last year's Conference USA title, Southern Miss fell to Memphis, 42-24. The Golden Eagles finished 0-12.
In the end, Gene Chizik's short-lived tenure at Auburn played out almost exactly as predicted in
Sunday's announcement that Auburn was dismissing its long-embattled head coach came as no surprise after the three months of seemingly endless chatter that accompanied the Tigers' 0-8 SEC campaign. Still, it's a unique and astonishing downfall for a coach to go from 14-0 to out of a job in less than 23 months.
Make no mistake, Chizik had to go, even at an estimated buyout of $7.2 million (mitigated if Chizik lands another job). "I decided we can't risk falling behind another year and hoping for improvement," AD Jay Jacobs said on Sunday. It wasn't just the losing. Auburn, which ended its year with a 49-0 Iron Bowl loss to Alabama, showed no sign of improvement in the two years post-Cam Newton and no particular vision from Chizik or his rebuilt staff. Factor in yet another NCAA investigation into the program's recruiting practices, and no coach, no matter how many rings, could have survived that climate for another year.
Still, something like this has never happened before. No coach has ever been fired within two years of winning a national championship, just as no team that's ever won the SEC championship game has endured a subsequent winless conference season. It's an almost incomprehensible implosion.
The easy route is to simply proclaim that Chizik's brief success was the product of one-year wonder Newton, and that the career 38-38 head coach was exposed without him. But it's more complicated than that. First of all, as transcendent as Newton was, he did not win 14 games that year by himself. Secondly, the quarterback's departure might not have doomed Chizik as much as that of renowned offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and a massive rash of academic and disciplinary casualties. Chizik had lost 43 percent of his first two signing classes by last January, many of the players four- and five-star recruits.
The next Auburn coach will face the same tall task that Chizik did four years ago: Recruiting head-to-head with Nick Saban. That person will need to hire some exceptional recruiters, but another innovative offensive mind like Malzahn would also certainly help. It's unrealistic to think the Tigers will rebuild to the point of beating Alabama and LSU (as they did often under Tommy Tuberville) solely on talent.
Elsewhere on Black Sunday for college coaches, Boston College anticlimactically fired fourth-year coach Frank Spaziani, who regressed as he went from 8-5 to 7-6 to 4-8 to 2-10; Purdue pulled the plug on fourth-year coach Danny Hope, who could not crack the 6-6 mark; in a surprise, NC State dismissed sixth-year coach Tom O'Brien, making a point in its press release to note "O'Brien compiled a 22-26 ACC record and was 11-19 against ACC Atlantic Division opponents (1-14 on the road and 9-5 at home)." And in a truly surprisingly ouster if only for brevity, Colorado pulled the plug on Jon Embree after just two admittedly wretched seasons (he went 4-21).
Compared to some of those records, Chizik looks like a Hall of Famer. He'll make a very good defensive coordinator for someone (unless he chooses to take an extended vacation with that $7.2 million). In the meantime, he becomes part of an answer to a trivia question. He's now one of three ex-Auburn coaches, along with Terry Bowden (in 1993) and Tuberville (2004), to post an undefeated season only to later wind up leaving in discord.
Early in the season, Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browing wowed us with his exploits in an upset of Arkansas and a near-upset of Auburn. On Saturday, he endured a less heroic moment.
With just 28 seconds remaining and the Warhawks (8-4) up 17-10 on FIU (3-9), Browning fumbled the snap as he was about to take a knee in the victory formation. The Golden Panthers recovered, and two plays later, freshman quarterback E.J. Hilliard threw a 58-yard touchdown to send the game to overtime.
Mercifully for Browning and Louisiana-Monroe, they prevailed, 23-17.
"That's probably the craziest ending in 30 years that I've ever been around," said Warhawks coach Todd Berry, who had received a Gatorade bath prior to the fumbled snap. "Just shocking."
You'll be seeing Browning again soon enough, as Louisiana-Monroe is headed to its first-ever bowl game.
He's made his final case on the field. Let the creative promotional campaign begin.
He's made his final case on the field. Let the creative promotional campaign begin.