So, who will you be rooting for on Jan. 7, America? Better question: Who will you not be rooting against?
The BCS title game between Notre Dame and Alabama is not just a matchup of two storied programs (a combined 18 official national championships, and about 27 more they claim), a clash of fantastic defenses (No. 1 and 2, respectively, in points allowed) and the A.C. Nielsen equivalent of winning the lottery (this will unquestionably be the highest-rated title game since USC-Texas.) It's a collision of two mythologies that nonpartisan fans across the country love to hate.
It's Notre Dame, the unduly hyped, perennially overrated golden child that thinks it's too good to join a conference, against Alabama, the reigning juggernaut of the unduly hyped, perennially overrated SEC -- the better-than-everyone conference for the past six years.
There are a whole lot of people out there, on a typical Saturday, who love nothing more than to see the Fighting Irish lose and Nick Saban to take one on the chin. This game, you only get to pick one.
I put out an informal Twitter survey on Sunday morning to gauge where on the spectrum the hate meter currently stands. Besides getting back a whole bunch of jokes about rooting for meteor strikes or the Mayans, it appears the anti-SEC crowd outnumbers the anti-ND crowd.
"It's like choosing between smallpox and the plague but I'm for ND just this once," wrote one respondent. "Wouldn't mind seeing the SEC knocked down a peg."
"SEC run must end," wrote another. "Who better to do it than God's team?"
Yes, the SEC backlash has grown that deep. It's become so prevalent that for possibly the first time since the 1920s, Notre Dame may (very briefly) become America's team.
"I don't know about that," Irish coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday night. "I think there's still a dividing line, where it's 50-50. I was in Atlanta [on Saturday, for ESPN's College GameDay] and the Georgia cheerleaders were booing me. ... I don't know that we picked up any more fans along the way."
Ah, but you're underestimating one factor, Brian. And that is, for once, your Irish are pegged as the cuddly underdogs. As my colleague Michael Rosenberg wrote from the seat to my right at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, it becomes infinitely harder to convince yourself Notre Dame can win after seeing the Crimson Tide in person.
I've covered the Irish twice (against Oklahoma and USC) and could not have been more impressed with the way they played, particularly on defense. But Saturday's SEC Championship Game was my first time seeing Alabama in person since its opener against Michigan, and it served as a convenient reminder (lest I'd forgotten during the three-month period in between) that the Tide are so ... darn ... big.
Complain all you want about favoritism in the polls, FCS foes, oversigning or whatever else. But trust me, tales of Alabama's superior athleticism are no media creation. I was reminded of that every time D.J. Fluker (6-foot-6, 335 pounds) plowed over a Georgia defensive lineman, every time Eddie Lacy (6-foot, 220 pounds) bulldozed a Georgia safety and every time one of the Tide's disproportionately sized linebackers came bearing down on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray.
Alabama will be installed as the favorite for a reason. But that hardly guarantees a Tide victory.
For one thing, Saban's 2012 team is far from invincible. Despite rushing for 350 yards, it needed a last-second C.J. Mosley deflection (and some questionable Georgia clock management) to survive the Dawgs on Saturday. As was the case against LSU and Texas A&M, quarterback AJ McCarron was sloppy at times (two first-half turnovers), though he did wind up throwing the go-ahead 45-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper. And well before Georgia's Murray threw for 265 yards and a score, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel showed there are sieves in this Tide defense that didn't exist in 2009 and '11.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has barely had a defensive breakdown all season. Granted, it has yet to face an offensive line as physical as Alabama's (because there isn't one outside of the NFL), but you can bet those defenders will not be intimated.
We'll have the next five weeks to further dissect the matchup, but in reality, that's a fruitless exercise. As we've seen year after year, the teams in the drawn-out BCS championship game often bear little resemblance to those that played in the first 12 or 13 games. There are too many variables to account for with such a long layoff. Coaches change jobs. Players go home for Christmas and eat junk food; others get distracted by agent and looming draft deadline decisions. Injured players get healthy and vice versa.
The only things we can be certain about with Notre Dame-Alabama are that a whole lot of people are going to watch it, and that a whole lot of those same people will be conflicted throughout. Here's one thing they can probably all agree on: After so many recent title-game clunkers, it would be fantastic if the Tide and Irish produced the type of classic that fans of so many previous generations enjoyed.
In March, we celebrate Cinderella. In December, we apparently rip her apart.
The vicious reaction so far to Northern Illinois' surprising Orange Bowl berth has been a bit odd. You would think the Huskies had knocked Alabama out of the national championship game rather than 10-2 Oklahoma out of the Sugar Bowl. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit went on television Sunday night and said: "The fact that Northern Illinois is in the BCS in 2012 is a really sad state for college football."
Certainly, on paper, the 12-1 Huskies are less deserving than their BCS-busting predecessors. For one thing, they're not undefeated. For another, they lack a signature nonconference win like previous BCS-bound Utah, Boise State and TCU teams. In fact, NIU's profile is not altogether different than that of Hawaii in 2007. We remember how that turned out.
But what is it about college football that makes us so adverse to the underdog? On Jan. 1, an unheralded team from DeKalb, Ill., will attempt to knock off a name-brand power in Florida State. Its quarterback, Jordan Lynch, who ranks one spot behind Johnny Manziel on the NCAA total offense list, will get a chance to shine on the big stage much like all those mid-major hoops stars of March. Is this really such a bad thing?
And that's before the remarkable story of Rod Carey, the Huskies' head coach since ... about 90 minutes before Herbstreit made his comments.
How's this for a life-changing weekend? On Friday night, Carey -- a second-year staff member who moved up to offensive coordinator after the Huskies' season-opening Iowa loss due to predecessor Mike Dunbar's bout with cancer -- called the plays for NIU's 44-37 double-overtime victory against Kent State in the MAC Championship Game. He and the Huskies arrived home from Detroit around 6 a.m. About five hours later, Carey's boss, Dave Doeren, called to tell Carey he was taking NC State's vacant head-coaching job.
A whirlwind interview process ensued, and on Sunday afternoon, when SI's Pete Thamel broke the news that NIU had cracked the top 16 in the BCS standings, Carey, 41, was meeting with school officials to finalize his hiring. He didn't even catch word about the Orange Bowl until seeing it on ESPN's selection show.
"I had pressing things," said Carey, a former Indiana offensive lineman. "We were talking about the future of the program, not one game. I had no idea until it came on that TV."
Nor has Carey had time to process the fact he'll be making his head-coaching debut against 11-2 Florida State in a BCS bowl game.
"If someone wrote a short book and could rewind time and could have followed me around around from [the beginning of the season], they wouldn't believe what they're writing," said Carey.
So -- what was that again about a sad state for college football?
If, like Herbstreit, you're of the opinion that Northern Illinois has no business playing in a BCS bowl, keep in mind that the Huskies are only the third lowest-ranked team in this year's lineup. For the third straight season, the Big East has produced a champion ranked lower than No. 20 in the final BCS standings (Louisville is No. 21), but even the Big East has nothing on the Big Ten this year.
In a perhaps a fitting end to an unquestionably miserable year for Jim Delany's conference, 8-5 Wisconsin will represent the league in Pasadena for third straight season. The Badgers clinched a spot following their stunning 70-31 demolition of Nebraska in Saturday's Big Ten championship game. Since the division's two best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) are ineligible for the postseason with NCAA sanctions, Wisconsin, 4-4 in conference play, becomes just the second unranked team to reach a BCS bowl (2010 Connecticut was the first) -- and the first to enter a game with five losses.
Frankly, it's embarrassing for both the conference and the bowl, and it's downright insulting to the college football public. Unlike NIU, Wisconsin isn't even one of the top teams in its own conference. In fact, the Badgers had the sixth-best record in conference play.
Before Saturday's game, Bielema called the Badgers "the best 7-5 team I've ever been a part of," and apparently he was right. Wisconsin, mind you, lost three overtime games in the last four weeks of the regular season, including to Ohio State and Penn State. It lost by a field goal in its other two contests, against Oregon State and Nebraska. Still, there was little indication that Wisconsin would explode for 539 rushing yards against the Huskers, including 216 on just nine carries from freshman speedster Melvin Gordon. Perhaps the Badgers are just now finding their stride, in which case they could be even stronger by New Year's Day.
Regardless, Stanford -- an actual top-10 team -- deserves better. The Cardinal's run to a Pac-12 championship is one of the most overlooked stories of the season. With Friday night's rain-drenched 27-24 conference title game victory over UCLA (9-4), coach David Shaw's team reached the 11-win mark for a third straight year. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan took over as starter in Week 11 and promptly led the team to victories over Oregon State, Oregon and, twice in six days, the Bruins. In doing so, he also led the Cardinal to a prize that eluded them during their three years with future No. 1 NFL draft pick Andrew Luck at quarterback.
"We play with a chip on our shoulder," said Shaw. "Part of that chip on our shoulder was to prove that we're not a one-man organization here. We're a team."
Obviously, a fluky set of circumstances allowed for an 8-5 team to even win its division, much less its league. But teams like Wisconsin and Georgia Tech this year, or UCLA last year, should really cause conferences to pause and take a look at what's become of conference championship games -- particularly given the stated emphasis going forward. This year's largely uninspiring BCS lineup includes four teams ranked No. 13 or lower in the final AP Poll. Fans and those teams' respective opponents deserve better.
OK, enough negativity. On Jan. 3 in Glendale, Ariz., 11-1 Kansas State will face 11-1 Oregon ... and it's going to be awesome. For one thing, there was a time not long ago when these two were jostling for a spot in the national championship game. Moreover, they were originally supposed to play this season before Oregon asked to reschedule and K-State decided to bail.
"From my standpoint -- maybe not everybody else's -- didn't fit our scheduling philosophy," Bill Snyder said on Sunday night, and it's no secret what his scheduling philosophy is.
But forgive Snyder for a moment because here's the thing about this year's Fiesta Bowl: It's Chip Kelly versus Bill Snyder. How cool is that?
It's Kelly's practice-fast, play-fast Ducks against Snyder's make-no-mistakes Wildcats. It's Win the Day against 16 Goals for Success. It's just a fascinating contrast. The question is, will anyone still notice by the time the game rolls around?
As the four-team playoff inches nearer, undercards like this one already feel a bit devalued. If this were 2014, Oregon and K-State would have likely battled for the last playoff spot. Instead, they're playing an exhibition four days before the BCS title game. This is a contest where motivation could become a factor.
For Kansas State, winning the Big 12 and reaching the Fiesta Bowl are really big deals. The Wildcats hadn't accomplished either feat since 2003, the peak before the fall toward the end of Snyder's first tenure. He returned specifically to build the program back to this level.
But Oregon, on the other hand, will play in its fourth straight BCS game, and the first three included two Rose Bowl berths and one national title game appearance. The Ducks will return to the same stadium where they lost to Auburn two years ago.
"I just think it's a strange process to begin with, when you lose, how you lose, all that other stuff," said Kelly. "The longer you're in it, the more you probably think a playoff is the right way to go."
Which brings us to one last point: This may very well be Kelly's last college game before taking an NFL job. Heck, it could be Snyder's last game, too. He's going to retire again at some point. So enjoy both of them while you can. All the better they're facing each other.
• Some 11th-hour maneuvering by the Big Ten and SEC to protect their conference championship game losers turned the normally appealing Capital One Bowl into a consolation match between Georgia and Nebraska. However, the Cotton (Oklahoma-Texas A&M) and Chick-fil-A (Clemson-LSU) bowls could be two of the most entertaining games this postseason, while Michigan's Denard Robinson will try to get the best of an elite defense one final time. The Wolverines will play Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
• Though Oklahoma missed the BCS, the Sooners (10-2) claimed a share of the Big 12 title with Saturday's 24-17 win at TCU (7-5). The victory gave 14th-year coach Bob Stoops' his eighth conference crown; Stoops has never gone two straight seasons without one. For the third consecutive week, Oklahoma's win came down to the final seconds, with the Sooners breaking up a fourth-down pass in the end zone. "We like to make them interesting around this place," said quarterback Landry Jones.
• In his last game as Florida State's defensive coordinator before taking over at Kentucky, Mark Stoops watched his defense hold Georgia Tech's triple-option offense to 183 rushing yards in Saturday's 21-16 ACC championship game victory. The 'Noles' season was a disappointment to many, but they finished 11-2 and earned their first ACC title and BCS berth since 2005. Meanwhile, the next defensive coordinator charged with slowing the Jackets (6-7): USC lame duck Monte Kiffin, in the Sun Bowl.
• Teddy Bridgewater's gutsy performance last Thursday against Rutgers -- he played with a broken wrist and could barely plant to throw because of a sore ankle -- will go down as the defining image of Louisville's (10-2) BCS run. The Cardinals will face Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Rutgers (9-3), meanwhile, just can't get over the hump. Two Gary Nova interceptions in the final 4:39 doomed the Scarlet Knights to the Russell Athletic Bowl, where they'll play Virginia Tech. But hey, there's always the Big Ten.
• Cincinnati (9-3) earned a share of its fourth Big East title in five years with a 34-17 win over Connecticut (5-7), and now, much like the last coach to win back-to-back crowns for the Bearcats (Brian Kelly), it appears as if Butch Jones may be heading out of town. The third-year coach was seen interviewing at Purdue on Sunday and will interview at Colorado on Monday, according to the Denver Post. These apparently are not the most clandestine coaching searches out there.
• Baylor, 1-5 in the Big 12 at one point, could not have finished any stronger. Following a 52-24 upset of then-unbeaten Kansas State and a 52-45 win over then 7-4 Texas Tech, the Bears (7-5) topped Oklahoma State (7-5), 41-34, to notch their third straight seven-win season for the first time since 1949-51. After rushing for just 181 yards in his first seven games, Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk averaged 138.6 over his last five, including his 178 yards on 16 carries on Saturday.
• In his final home game, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith rediscovered his September mojo against hapless Kansas (1-11). He tied Tee Martin's FBS record for completion percentage (95.8) by connecting on 23-of-24 passes for 407 yards in the Mountaineers' (7-5) 59-10 rout of the Jayhawks. In fact, every single one of Smith's passes was caught; the lone incompletion was an interception. "I'm excited about the way we finished," said coach Dana Holgorsen.
• After his team clinched bowl eligibility on Saturday with a 27-3 win over USF, Pitt running back Ray Graham was asked about possible bowl destinations. "Any bowl, except Birmingham," he said. "Three times in a row. I think they may not even allow us in there." Oh, they are. The Panthers (6-6) are indeed heading to the BBVA Compass Bowl for a third straight season, this time to face Ole Miss (6-6).
• Following a week of realignment flux, Conference USA enjoyed a thrilling championship game on Saturday. Tulsa (10-3) punched its ticket to the Liberty Bowl with a 33-27 overtime win against UCF (9-4) that was highlighted by Trey Watts' game-tying 54-yard punt return with 5:06 remaining (the extra point was blocked). The Golden Hurricane, under second-year coach Bill Blankenship, notched their first conference title since 2005, back when Steve Kragthorpe was head coach.
• First-year Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn finished with a bang. The Red Wolves (9-3) captured their second straight Sun Belt title by blanking Middle Tennessee State (8-4), 45-0. Strangely, Middle Tennessee was not selected for a bowl.
• Boise State (10-2) is Las Vegas Bowl-bound for the third consecutive season, as it will look to win big in Nevada twice in one month. Chris Petersen's team avenged its fateful 2010 loss in Reno with a 27-21 win over the Wolf Pack (7-5).
• Prior to Saturday's loss to Baylor, Oklahoma State had an outside shot at the Cotton Bowl. Instead it will face Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl -- which is played in the Cotton Bowl.
• Ah, conference realignment. A year ago, Syracuse upset West Virginia in a run-of-the-mill Friday night Big East game. This year, they're meeting in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Despite boasting the nation's No. 1 scoring offense and a 9-3 record, and despite playing in a memorable shootout against Texas A&M on Oct. 13, Louisiana Tech will not play in a bowl this month. Depending on how you view the situation, either the bowl system did the Bulldogs wrong, or Louisiana Tech's administration took a Shreveport-style riverboat gamble and lost.
This much we know: At one point, Louisiana Tech had an invite to play in-state foe Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. It's been reported that the school turned it down, perhaps thumbing its nose at the hated Warhawks, but AD Bruce Van De Velde swears that's not the case. Instead, it appears the school was holding out for better offers, either to face a Big Ten foe (Purdue) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl or Conference USA's champion (Tulsa) in the Liberty Bowl. Van De Velde says the Independence Bowl pressed him to make a decision on Saturday, but he wanted to wait, so the bowl moved on. (It took 8-4 Ohio.)
And then, much to Louisiana Tech's horror, both options fell through when the Big 12 did not get a second BCS at-large berth, sending Oklahoma State to Dallas and at-large Iowa State to Memphis. Apparently other bowls with openings had already selected other teams.
"It was not only a failure of the bowl system but it's also because our league, the WAC, has disintegrated," Van De Velde told CBS Sports. "... We thought we were in good position, but it didn't turn out that way when [the Orange Bowl] took Northern Illinois, and it just filtered all the way down."
Obviously, Bulldogs players were crushed, and if you're wondering who they blame for the snafu ... well, long snapper Josh Cuthbert tweeted: "Oh yeah and way to go athletic director #yousuck," and re-tweeted a fan who wrote: "can an AD be fired for turning down free money??? Should be!!!!"
Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin may have put it best, telling Yahoo! Sports: "When adults are involved, they tend to screw things up." The kids certainly deserved better.
The quarterback for Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor threw a touchdown pass unlike any you've ever seen in an NCAA quarterfinal playoff victory.
Nebraska's first trip to Indianapolis was mostly a debacle, but at least this happened.
Mini-previews for three BCS bowl games:
• Florida State vs. Northern Illinois, Jan. 1: If new NIU coach Carey is looking for pointers on how to slow down the Seminoles, he ought to call old NIU coach Doeren, who should ask a few of his new NC State players. The Wolfpack did, after all, upset Florida State back on Oct. 6.
• Oregon vs. Kansas State, Jan. 3: Oregon is synonymous with the shotgun zone-read and mobile quarterbacks, but it was actually Kansas State that first took the concept mainstream with Michael Bishop in 1997-98. Collin Klein will look to use that formation to confound the Ducks' defense in his final college game.
• Notre Dame vs. Alabama, Jan. 7: The pressure is entirely on Alabama, which became the favorite to defend its title as soon as it dismantled Michigan back on Sept. 1. The Irish are looking to play the role of Ohio State against Miami in 2002, Texas against USC in 2005 -- or Alabama against Miami in 1992.