When Urban Meyer coached at Florida, he decreed that the support staff would print out any story or opponent quote that slighted the Gators. Offending passages would be highlighted and copies would be posted throughout the weight room. Some weeks, staffers couldn’t find anything remotely disrespectful. So they simply made up incendiary stories and posted them on the walls. They had no trouble finding insulting material before Florida played Ohio State in the BCS title game to close the 2006 season.
The Buckeyes were favored by seven, but the coverage leading up to the game made the line feel more like Ohio State minus-100. The Buckeyes had Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at quarterback. They had just outlasted Michigan in a classic that left a significant chunk of the college football-loving world wondering whether The Game should just be replayed in Glendale, Ariz., in January 2007. Everywhere Gators staffers looked, they found columns that questioned the wisdom of placing Florida in the title game. Almost everything written or said before the game predicted an Ohio State win.
We know what happened next, which is why this sentiment seems so strange now. But when the sun rose in Arizona on Jan. 8, 2007, Ohio State—the undefeated champion of the best conference in college football—was unbeatable. When it rose the next morning, the Buckeyes had been destroyed 41–14. Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss sat in his locker after the blowout and said something that would have seemed absurd a few hours earlier but seemed entirely plausible given the utter domination that had just transpired. "I can name four or five teams in the Southeastern Conference that could compete with them," Moss said, "and probably have the same outcome that we had."
The trouble with being unbeatable is that the designation leads to games against good teams with nothing to lose and a roaring inner fire stoked by weeks of disrespect. Ohio State learned the hard way against Florida. A year earlier, an allegedly unbeatable USC lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl. Three years before that, Ohio State shocked Miami. The Hurricanes suffered the same fate against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 1992 season and against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl following the 1986 season.
This week, Alabama coach Nick Saban must keep his team from buying the unbeatable narrative that has been built around the Crimson Tide. Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite against Washington in the Peach Bowl, but this is the precise environment that leads to an upset. No one outside friends and family has given the Huskies a chance to win, but Washington has the best quarterback, best receivers and best secondary of any team Alabama has played all season. Plus, at no point in Alabama’s run under Saban has the SEC been this down. That’s why Saban, in his first press conference after the playoff was set, heaped praise upon the Huskies. “This is the best team that we’ve played so far this year,” Saban said. “By far. Hands down.” It’s also why he warned his team’s fans against underestimating Washington; Saban didn’t want that attitude seeping into the locker room. “I hear a lot of people talking about Ohio State and Clemson and all that,” Saban said. “I don’t want to hear anybody talking about anything in our camp—our fans or our supporters—but this game. It’s a one-game season at this point against a very good team.”
Saban has to make sure the Tide don’t believe they’re unbeatable even if everyone else does. Think about all the supposedly invincible teams in the past 30 years of games that helped determine college football’s national champion. (In the playoff era, the pregame dynamics of semifinal are more similar to the BCS title game because the teams have almost a month to prepare. The time between the semifinal and the national title game is more similar to the time between regular-season games.) The 1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami and 2004 USC teams held up their end of the bargain and crushed their title-game opponents, but that list of title-game losers a few paragraphs up is much longer.
Perhaps no team was so thoroughly anointed before its title game than the 2005 USC Trojans. USC had won the Associated Press national title in 2003 after being left out of the BCS title game. The Trojans had rolled to the 2004 national title and came into the Rose Bowl matchup with Texas as seven-point favorites. But just as it would a year later, the line didn’t come close to matching the tone of the pre-game hype.
ESPN had spent much of December running pieces that attempted to determine how those Trojans stacked up against the best college football teams of all time. Practically every other outlet painted USC as an unstoppable juggernaut. Texas was also undefeated and quarterback Vince Young had finished second to USC’s Reggie Bush in Heisman Trophy balloting, but the Longhorns seemed like an afterthought. Again, we realize how silly this sounds now. But at the time, the game felt like a colossal mismatch.
The idea of a Texas win was so foreign outside the Texas locker room that Longhorns defensive end Rodrique Wright seemed surprised when a reporter asked him before the game if Wright considered the Rose Bowl a chance for Texas to make history. “I haven't heard anyone say that,” Wright said. “Everyone is talking about this is USC making history. But we win on Wednesday, what do we do? I think there's going to be a lot of stories that are going to have to be rewritten.” Wright nailed his prediction. When Young crossed the goal line on a two-point conversion with 19 seconds remaining to ice the Longhorns’ 41–38 win, every DELETE key in the press box was pressed.
Washington coach Chris Petersen loves laying in the weeds, and his team isn’t likely to complain publicly even if players seethe in private. And they should be. This week in Atlanta, it feels as if the questions asked of the Huskies have ranged from “How awesome do you think Alabama is?” to “Can you explain position by position how awesome Alabama is?” The Huskies have remained diplomatic. “If you really want to hear that, that’s on you,” linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “But regardless, we can win this game if we focus.”
It’s better to look back at what players and coaches said after their games. “You start messing around with people's pride, and I try not to watch, but for 30 days we have been watching it, too,” Meyer said after Florida beat Ohio State. “I agree. I think Ohio State is a tremendous team. There are a bunch of NFL players on that team and a great coach. I’ve also got to take care of my football team. You start rubbing that for a day or two and we’ll get over it. You do it for 30 days and you have a bunch of tigers.” Jim Tressel, the coach Meyer beat that night, found himself in a similar situation four years earlier when Ohio State shocked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. “Our guys know what they are capable of and what they can accomplish,” Tressel said after Ohio State’s 31–24 double overtime win. “Our guys had every confidence going into the football game that we would compete. We knew they were a great football team and we had not played them before. So you didn't know for sure exactly what the match-up would be. I would say it was a pretty even matchup. Two great heavyweights slugging it out. We came up with the win.”
College football’s insular nature makes it easier to misjudge these matchups. In the case of Saturday’s Peach Bowl, Washington didn’t play any challenging opponents in its non-conference schedule. Alabama crushed USC 52–6 to open the season, but the fact that Trojans coach Clay Helton chose the wrong starting quarterback in preseason camp makes it difficult to compare the Max Browne-led team Alabama beat with the Sam Darnold-led one that beat Washington. Meanwhile, the SEC didn’t have a group of elite teams as it has for most of the past 10 years. LSU has lost four games heading into its bowl game. Texas A&M lost five. Ole Miss, which pushed Alabama more than any team this season, finished 5–7. An improv comedy routine by Florida linebackers Brandon Siler and Brian Crum in the locker room after that Florida-Ohio State game—though a little too reliant on the transitive property—illustrates how conference perception can get punctured in games that help determine the national title. Remember, going into that game, the Big Ten was considered the best league in America. The SEC didn’t become the Ess Eee See until after that game.
Crum: They played Bowling Green, Illinois, um, Cincinnati.
Siler: Oh, they had a tough game. Remember? Michigan State. That was a tough game they had. How many games did Michigan State win?
Crum: Like two or three.
Siler: Oh, that was a tough game, though. OK, I feel you.
Crum: And then the team they went to wire with, Michigan, got their [butt] whipped by USC.
Siler: Did they? So Michigan lost to USC. Now, who did USC lose to?
Siler: Now, who did UCLA lose to? Stay with me, Crum.
Crum: Florida State.
Siler: Six-and-six Florida State?
Crum: Six-and-six Florida State.
Siler: Dang, man. It's tough in that world.
Crum: That's a tough conference.
Will two Washington players perform a similar routine early Saturday evening? Not if Saban and Alabama’s veterans can convince the rest of the team that pregame perception means little with 29 days between games. “I just look at it like this. They’re here for a reason,” Alabama senior tight end O.J. Howard said. “We’re both top teams. They’re not here just because they picked them out of a hat. They deserve it.”
All the Tide players had better believe that. Because they’ll need to be ready for a group of Huskies who have spent most of this month hearing how badly they’ll get beaten. That may be true, or it may the catalyst that inspires an upset.