By Stewart Mandel
January 04, 2010

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- While it doesn't formally say so in the name, Thursday's "BCS National Championship Game" is most definitely a bowl game. Alabama and Texas both spent part of the day Saturday at Disneyland (ColtMcCoy's favorite ride was the Tower of Terror) and will both visit Rose Bowl staple Lawry's in the coming days.

NickSaban and MackBrown both held their arrival press conferences at Disneyland. If you're familiar with their personalities, you can probably guess which one was happier to be there.

"Is this fun?" Saban replied to that very question from a reporter. "You know, what's fun for me is practice. I really enjoy practice."

Said Brown: "We want them to enjoy Disneyland. It's one of the most wonderful places in the world for entertainment, and this is one of the rewards they get for winning, to be in the last game of the year."

You couldn't ask for two more diametrically opposite coaches on the sidelines Thursday night. Each has been wildly successful -- both have won BCS championships, both have won 25 games over the past two seasons -- but achieved that success with drastically different approaches.

Saban views anything that takes place outside the film room or the practice field as "clutter." He's here on a business trip.

"It was pretty funny when we were on the plane," said Tide linebacker CoryReamer, "looking back and seeing [Saban] having a computer and watching film while we were flying out here. He's always working."

Saban told his team: "It's all about how important the game is; what winning or losing the game means; the consequences of the game, positively or negatively."

Brown, on the other hand, feels "it's too hard to get here not to enjoy it." His star quarterback feels the same way.

"Our mentality is, No. 1, to have fun," said McCoy, the sport's all-time winningest quarterback. "This whole week we're going to enjoy practice, we're going to enjoy being in the National Championship [Game]. It's been our goal all year long to get here."

Though his attitude may seem casual, past history tells us Brown knows what he's doing. He won back-to-back Rose Bowls in 2005 and '06, the latter a national-title upset of USC. He treats every bowl game the same ("The Fiesta Bowl last year [against Ohio State] was just as important to us as this one. ... I felt the same way for the Alamo Bowl when we played Iowa, and Iowa was 6-6.") and he's got a five-year bowl winning streak to back it up.

"When it is time to work, our guys have to work," said Brown. "When it is time to play and laugh and enjoy it, we can do that. But you have to make sure that you keep your edge and that you keep your focus."

Saban, meanwhile, has had mixed experiences in BCS games -- he won the 2002 and '04 Sugar Bowls at LSU but got drubbed by Utah last year -- but it's hard to argue with his more technical approach. He emphasizes psychology and motivation with his players as much as he does Xs and Os, with every little labored detail of his team's preparation geared toward a singular, final goal.

"What you want to think about is, what do I have to do to play my best game, my best football of the season?" he said. "The first thing I did when we came back from the SEC Championship game in the first meeting is I drew a line on the grease board all the way across the room, the team meeting room, and I said it's 32 days until we play the game ... How you manage those 32 days is going to determine how you play in the game."

I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times more: The way teams perform in bowl games is often loosely reflective of their prior 12 to 13 games. The BCS Championship Game is no exception. Was USC really 36 points better than Oklahoma in 2004? Probably not. Was Florida that much more dominant a team than Ohio State over the course of the '06 season? Hardly. While motivation isn't a factor like in many of the early bowl games, you can't take a 32-day break between games -- during which time players take finals, visit their hometowns, tour the banquet circuit, talk to agents -- without it affecting preparation.

Between that, and the extra practice time to install new wrinkles, there's really no way to say what versions of the Longhorns and Crimson Tide we'll see come Thursday.

However, the last title game in which both teams played to their full capabilities also involved Texas -- the Vince Young Invitational four years ago -- and Saban's 2003 LSU title team largely stuck to its season-long script in its 21-14 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma.

Whatever the result, it will be highly surprising if Brown and Saban don't have their teams ready to play Thursday night.

For BCS organizers, one set of numbers matter nearly as much as the scores: television ratings. Through two games, this year's set is off to a rousing start. FOX got off to a pleasant start with its Florida-Cincinnati Sugar Bowl broadcast, which earned that game's highest rating (8.5) in three years despite losing millions of viewers after halftime of the Gators' runaway blowout.

But now comes the most intriguing ratings challenge since the BCS' inception: Monday night's TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl. I recently wrote a feature about the events that led to this historic matchup of BCS outsiders. It noted that Fiesta officials consulted with both FOX executives and a former high-ranking sports programming czar for affirmation that the game would draw an audience.

The truth is, no one knows for sure the level of interest because this is the first BCS matchup of its kind. But administrators from the non-AQ leagues will be nervously awaiting the numbers Tuesday. Future hopefuls will undoubtedly be judged by them.

"As much as both Boise State and TCU would like to win by three touchdowns, from a television ratings standpoint, we need it to be a one-score game going into the fourth quarter," said WAC commissioner KarlBenson. "I do think it's going to get a tremendous early audience."

His confidence is based largely on the fact that the Fiesta will be running unopposed, in the traditional Monday Night Football time slot. Others are more skeptical. "Cinderella teams just don't rate well," TV consultant NeilPilson told the Wall Street Journal. "There's just no real loyalty factor there."

Historically, he's right. The four games to date involving non-BCS teams all rate among the 10 lowest BCS broadcasts, with the Oklahoma-Boise State classic faring the best (8.4). It's worth noting, however, that the other three -- Utah-Pittsburgh (7.4), Georgia-Hawaii (7.0) and Utah-Alabama (7.8) -- were blowouts.

My guess: Barring another blowout, this one will outperform the four previous games and possibly even fare best among FOX's three games this year. Love it or hate it, people have been talking about this game since the day it was announced and many are genuinely curious about TCU (whose league plays most of its games on second-tier cable networks).

The game will have one less TV viewer, though: Me. Following Monday morning's media session here, I'm taking a 24-hour jaunt to Phoenix to cover it in person.

A year after bottoming out with a 1-6 bowl record and running its BCS losing streak to six, the Big Ten has already enjoyed a somewhat redemptive bowl season, with Ohio State (against No. 7 Oregon), Penn State (against No. 13 LSU) and Wisconsin (against No. 14 Miami) all beating top 15 foes. An Iowa win over Georgia Tech in Tuesday night's Orange Bowl would give the league a second BCS win and, believe it or not, its first winning bowl season since 2002.

To do that, the Hawkeyes are going to have to slow down JoshNesbitt, JonathanDwyer and the rest of the Jackets' triple-option attack. On paper, they have all the pieces to do it -- speedy defensive ends (AdrianClayborn, ArmonBinns) to collapse on Nesbitt, sound linebackers (PatAngerer, A.J.Edds) to stuff the inside runs. On other hand, it's hard to forget the image of Ohio State runners DanHerron and BrandonSaine gashing Iowa's D for 200 yards in their Nov. 14 overtime clash.

Iowa defensive coordinator NormParker, a self-professed "old guy" (he's 68), is apparently having a blast preparing for Tech's offense. At a press conference in Miami last Friday, he gave reporters an enthusiastic primer on the triple-option using a juice bottle, a Starbucks cup, an empty glass and a Poland Spring bottle as props.

The two most entertaining bowl games to date were decided by a pair of ballsy ploys the teams' coaches likely never would have attempted during the regular season. For Idaho's RobbAkey, it resulted in a dramatic victory. For Northwestern's PatFitzgerald, a heartbreaking defeat.

Idaho's 43-42 Humanitarian Bowl shootout over Bowling Green featured five fourth-quarter touchdowns. When wide-open Falcons star FreddieBarnes hauled in a 51-yard score with 32 seconds left, it sure looked like Bowling Green would win 42-35. But Idaho quarterback NathanEnderle came right back with a 50-yard completion followed by a 16-yard touchdown to a diving MaxKomar -- who'd dropped several passes earlier in the game -- with four seconds left.

Akey -- who'd already won a lot of new fans with his halftime proclamation to "Watch the second half, you're gonna love it!" -- wasn't playing for overtime. Endlerle found PrestonDavis in the back of the end zone for a game-winning two-point conversion. "We thought, Why make everybody wait for overtime?" said Akey. "Let's get it done now."

Northwestern's Fitzgerald ordered up his own remarkable two-pointer late in regulation of Friday's drama-filled Outback Bowl -- receiver AndrewBrewer, a former quarterback, took a reverse and threw to BrendanMitchell to tie Auburn 35-35 with 1:15 left. But that was just the beginning of a wild sequence of events.

The Wildcats recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and had a chance to win in regulation, but kicker StefanDemos missed a 44-yard field goal. Twice in overtime, Auburn, having gone up 38-35, appeared to have won (first on Northwestern quarterback MikeKafka's fumble, later on another Demos miss) only to be waved off (replay determined Kafka was down, and Auburn was penalized for running into Demos, who injured himself on the play).

With the Wildcats down to unused freshman walk-on kicker SteveFlaherty, Fitzgerald opted to go for the win on fourth-and-goal at the five. On a rushed fake field goal, he pulled out a "fumble-rooski" play devised by the late RandyWalker, Northwestern's former coach. On a rushed fake field goal (even ESPN's cameramen were caught off-guard) holder DanPersa left the ball between the legs of receiver ZekeMarkshausen, who took off running to the right. Auburn's NeikoThorpe wasn't fooled and stopped him two yards short. Game over.

"I said a month ago we were going to come here to play to win," said Fitzgerald, whose team was trying to end a 61-year bowl-win drought. "I'd do it again and twice on Sunday."

Kudos to both men. Bowl games are all about cutting loose -- on and off the field.

Bobby Bowden couldn't have scripted his final game any better. Playing before a packed house at the Gator Bowl, Bowden got to plant the spear at midfield, got a new car (courtesy Toyota), got to reunite with 300-plus former players, got a 33-21 victory over West Virginia, got a ride on his players' shoulders and got a kiss on the lips from wife Ann at the end of his postgame press conference.

"Time to go home, baby," she told her 80-year-old husband. Her gain is our loss.

• We now know the secret to all those explosive Pac-10 offenses this season: They weren't exactly facing stellar defenses. Ohio State quarterback TerrellePryor (against Oregon), Oklahoma's LandryJones (against Stanford) and Utah's JordanWynn (against Cal) all had their best games of the season against Pac-10 bowl foes. Even Nebraska's offense posted nearly 400 yards against Arizona.

• Despite losing stars JamesLaurinaitis, MalcolmJenkins and MarcusFreeman, Ohio Sate wound up fielding its most consistent defense in years, capped off with a dominant Rose Bowl performance (holding Oregon to 17 points). Buckeyes fans will wait to find out whether defensive ends ThaddeusGibson and CameronHeyward put off the NFL draft. Both are considered possible first-round picks.

• Boy did Cincinnati's defense implode down the stretch. After allowing just 12.9 points per game during their first eight contests, the Bearcats gave up 45 to Connecticut, 36 to Illinois and 44 to Pittsburgh. Then came Mr. Tebow, who diced the Bearcats for 533 total yards in a 51-24 rout. Just think: Had the SEC and Big 12 title games gone differently, that might have been the national-title matchup.

• In the aforementioned Outback Bowl, Northwestern's Kafka compiled one of the strangest stat lines you'll ever see: He threw for 532 yards and four touchdowns on 47-of-78 passes (a bowl record for attempts), but he also tossed five interceptions, including one in the end zone that Auburn's WalterMcFadden returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Northwestern gained 625 yards in the loss.

LesMiles' performance in a new SportsCenter commercial isn't nearly as comical as his team's repeated clock-management issues. Yet again, LSU looked lost while attempting a last-second drive against Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. After taking over at their own 41 with 48 seconds left, down 19-17, the Tigers got off just four plays, committing a costly late-hit penalty along the way.

• Saturday's ugly Ole Miss-Oklahoma Cotton Bowl included 12 combined turnovers (including six by Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter alone) and 16 penalties. The one saving grace: Rebels star DexterMcCluster, who totaled 223 all-purpose yards, burst for an 86-yard touchdown run early and notched the go-ahead score on a direct snap with 4:03 left in Ole Miss' eventual 21-7 win.

• Nebraska finally produced the kind of rushing attack it's been lacking all season in its 33-0 Holiday Bowl pasting of Arizona. Freshman running back RexBurkhead (at times operating out of a new Wildcat package) went for 89 yards on 17 carries and quarterback ZacLee notched season highs of 18 attempts and 65 yards. Not that the Huskers needed it; their defense held the Wildcats to 109 yards.

• With his team's Chick-fil-A Bowl rout of Tennessee, Virginia Tech coach FrankBeamer completed his sixth straight 10-win season (surpassed nationally only by Texas) and ninth in the past 11 seasons. Meanwhile, running back RyanWilliams completed a phenomenal freshman season by breaking the Hokies' single-season rushing record (1,655) and the ACC record for total touchdowns (22).

• Just when you thought SteveSpurrier couldn't possibly hit a new low at South Carolina, the Gamecocks went and laid an egg against Connecticut in the Bowl. Playing before 30,000 diehards who made the trip to Birmingham, Ala., South Carolina notched just 205 yards in a 20-7 loss. "We didn't take it as serious as we were supposed to," said lineman GarrettAnderson.

• There's just something about JuneJones and Hawaii. His new team, SMU, made the most of its first bowl trip in 25 years, smashing Nevada 45-10 in the Hawaii Bowl. The Mustangs hadn't topped 35 points in the regular season, and quarterback KylePadron's 460 yards topped his previous high by more than 100.

• Air Force showed why it's ranked first in the country in pass defense, intercepting Cougars star CaseKeenum six times and holding him to a season-low 222 yards in a 47-20 Armed Forces Bowl rout. The Falcons' win coupled with Navy's upset of Missouri in the Texas Bowl makes this the first time since 1985 that two service academies won bowls in the same year.

• A TCU victory Monday would give the Mountain West its first 5-0 bowl season. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the MAC really needs Central Michigan to beat Troy on Wednesday -- the league has now lost 14 straight bowl games (including four this season) dating to 2006.

• People sometimes wonder why I gush so often about the Rose Bowl. Here's why.

• People sometimes wonder why I complain about there being too many bowls. Here's why.

Bowl-week festivities have led to all manner of infamous incidents at various games over the years, from Miami players' staged walkout of a Fiesta Bowl steak-fry in 1986 to Virginia Tech linebacker VinceHall's jet ski injury prior to last year's Orange Bowl.

This year's East Carolina Liberty Bowl dessert fracas may take the cake (hah!).

Coach SkipHoltz suspended junior running back JonathanWilliams and redshirt freshman running back LeonardPaulk for Saturday's game after the two brawled in front of a banquet room full of people at the Liberty Bowl's annual awards luncheon last Thursday. One player had the other in a headlock, nearly turned over a table and had to be separated by assistant coaches, according to reports.

The cause of their dispute? A dessert. Seriously.

Williams and Paulk weren't the only Pirates who will leave Memphis with a bad taste (hah again!) Kicker BenHartman missed a pair of potential game-winning 39-yard field goal attempts in the final 69 seconds of regulation, then missed another try from 35 yards on the first possession of overtime. Arkansas' AlexTejada --- whose own late-game misfires helped cost the Razorbacks games against Florida and LSU -- redeemed himself with a 37-yarder to win the bowl, 20-17.

We know how Texas Tech fans feel about their coach's controversial dismissal: They're not happy. A Facebook group called "Team" Leach had drawn 46,000 members as of Sunday night. Pro-Leach signs filled the Alamodome for Saturday night's Red Raiders win over Michigan State, including the obvious "Bring Back Leach" sentiment, but as running back BaronBatch said: "Leach ain't coming back."

The only connection between the school and The Pirate in the months and (possibly) years ahead is a sure-to-be contentious wrongful termination suit that's sure to bring out even more dirt-slinging by both sides. In the meantime, Leach may have to sit out of coaching next season while waiting for the smoke to clear. If and when it does, look for him to latch on with a mid-major or possibly a low-profile BCS school (here's looking at you, Washington State).

Florida's two-time national champion coach may not be on the sideline next fall, either, but if so, it will be of his own volition. While rumors run wild about the possible length of Meyer's forthcoming leave absence, it seems clear even Meyer himself doesn't know. He's yet to figure out how exactly what steps he plans to take to improve his mental health. He's continues to stick with the "In my gut, I'll be back next season" line, but that seems solely for recruiting purposes. As Florida president BernieMachen -- who originally proposed the idea -- told's AndyStaples: "It could be six months, it could be a year, or it could be never."

Florida is expected to announce some of the details of Meyer's sabbatical soon (when he's leaving; what if any decision-making role he'll have while Steve Addazio is in charge), but Florida is facing a highly unusual situation. Its 2010 recruiting class remains largely in place at this point (it even picked up commitments over the weekend from Under Armour All-Americans ChrisDunkley and game MVP DominiqueEasley), but the 2011 class figures to suffer the longer Meyer's status remains in limbo.

We knew Connecticut's MayaMoore has good hands. But check out her football counterpart's amazing one-handed grab in the Pizza Bowl South.

The UCLA linebacker makes it into this space for the second time this season for a leaping interception that turned into the game-winning score of the EagleBank Bowl.

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