The Big Ten got two shots and couldn't do it. Ditto for the Big 12. Now come the Pac-10's 12-0 Oregon Ducks to challenge the SEC's latest offering, 13-0 Auburn, in a national championship matchup that will either reinforce or shatter a decade-plus of stereotypes about "Big Boy" Southern football and West Coast "finesse," superior SEC defenses and glitzy Pac-10 offenses.
Remarkably, in this the 13th year of the BCS system -- a period spanning 57 bowl games -- Auburn-Oregon marks the first SEC vs. Pac-10 meeting. You know what else is remarkable? The Tigers are the fifth different SEC team to reach the Big Game. Oregon, meanwhile, is the Pac-10's first not named USC.
Someone's going to make history on Jan. 10 -- and they're probably going to do it by scoring a lot of points.
"I really think the two best offensive spread coaches in the country are going at it," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Oregon's Chip Kelly and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "So it will be a heck of a game. Might be 60-55, something like that."
In the end, this year's championship matchup was largely devoid of the usual BCS-related controversy. For the first time in five years, two (and only two) major-conference teams went undefeated, and while TCU is left scratching its head after a second straight perfect regular season, the fact that its consolation is the Rose Bowl, or perhaps the fact that it just accepted an invite to the Big East, seems to have lessened the outcry. Perhaps it would have been different had Boise State made it through unblemished, too.
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The title game has an unmistakably different feel. Neither participant falls under the category of traditional brand-name program. This is not USC-Texas or Ohio State-Florida. It is Auburn-Oregon, two historically second-tier programs in their respective conferences -- but certainly not in 2010. The Ducks steamrolled their competition, scoring 49.3 points per game and winning all but one of their contests by at least 17 points. The Tigers kept it closer much of the way but made an emphatic final statement with their 56-17 SEC title game romp over South Carolina.
For much of the season, Oregon was viewed as the clear-cut team to beat. The Ducks moved to No. 1 in the AP poll on Oct. 17. They stayed there all the way until ... Sunday, when Auburn supplanted them. Now it's unclear who should be considered the favorite. The opening line at the Las Vegas Hilton on Saturday was Oregon by three. Within a half-hour, the spread had dropped to one -- essentially a toss-up.
But don't bother telling that to anyone in the Southeast, where it's a foregone conclusion that Cam Newton and the Tigers will roll. As you well know if you've watched a game on CBS this season, no other conference plays football like they do in the SEC. Seeing as the league is 6-0 in BCS title games, they do have a point. But this is the first time a Pac-10 team will provide the opposition, and there's one record you're not likely to hear much about in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa: Since 1992 -- the year the SEC expanded to 12 teams -- the Pac-10 holds a 13-12 advantage against the SEC.
"Everybody thinks that the SEC is tougher, that the Pac-10 can't compete with the SEC," said Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, whose team routed SEC member Tennessee 48-13 in Knoxville on Sept. 11. "So we'll just try to get ready for it."
Everything about Kelly's program -- from the kooky uniforms to the gimmicky (not my word for it) offense -- flies in the face of the SEC establishment. If you haven't heard much Oregon condescension from the South to this point, it's only because SEC fans were too busy mocking Boise State for much of the season. Don't worry. It's coming.
But just because the Ducks run a spread offense doesn't mean they're not physical. Their 37-20 win over Oregon State on Saturday was pretty much a clinic in downhill running, with tailbacks LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner methodically pounding the middle of the Beavers' defense. "They're both physical guys who can run fast," quarterback Darron Thomas said of his backfield mates. The matchup of Oregon's prolific run game against Nick Fairley and the Tigers' defensive front (which ranks 11th nationally in rush defense) will be fun to watch.
But really, one matchup will trump all others in Glendale: Cam Newton vs. the guys on the other team.
Newton's performance against South Carolina (335 yards and four touchdowns passing, 73 yards and two touchdowns rushing) was his finest to date, and his overall body of work through 13 games (a national-best 188.2 pass efficiency rating, which would set an NCAA record, 1,409 rushing yards and 49 total touchdowns) arguably eclipses both Vince Young's and Tim Tebow's most celebrated seasons.
"He's probably the best football player I've ever seen," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after Saturday's game -- and he coached on the 2005 Texas team led by Mr. Young.
It's been speculated that Auburn-Oregon will draw a lower TV rating than recent championship games simply because neither is the type of bluebood brand that draws in the general sports fan. I find that hard to believe. If anything, it might draw more interest from the many NFL-centric fans who watch the college game only occasionally.
The fascination with Kelly's breakneck offense has spread (no pun intended) throughout the sport all season, with NFL coaches studying it and publications like TheWall Street Journal and TheNew York Times dissecting it. And then there's Newton, who's garnered more recent attention, both good and bad, than any athlete this side of LeBron James and Tiger Woods. With the success another noted dual-threat quarterback, Michael Vick, is having this season, and with sports fans' perennial curiosity to see the Next Big Thing, all sorts of people who don't normally watch SEC football on Saturdays will be tuning in.
And for those of us who already know not just Newton but Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who've witnessed the transformation of Oregon's offense under the strong-armed Thomas ... well, we're pretty darn curious, too. What happens when the best of the Southeast finally meets the best from the Northwest? A lot of points, and a lot of bragging by someone.
Will it be a little weird to see TCU purple in one of the Rose Bowl end zones on Jan. 1? Sure. Are the honchos in Pasadena miffed not to be getting Pac-10 runner-up Stanford? Not as much as you'd think.
Organizers have known all year they'd be getting a non-AQ team (provided the Big Ten or Pac-10 champion made the national championship game). Now that the day is here, and now that the matchup is AP No. 3 (TCU) vs. No. 4 (Wisconsin) -- everybody's pretty pumped, including the participants.
"We all strive to play for the national championship," said Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, "but we feel we're playing a team that's worthy of a national championship in Wisconsin. [The Badgers] are probably playing as good a football as anybody at the end of the season."
From a football perspective, this is the Rose Bowl's best matchup since it hosted the Texas-USC title game in 2005. It's the first time since then that both entrants are top five teams and both are on such a collective hot streak -- a combined 19-game winning streak, during 12 of which the winner scored at least 40 points. Most notably, it's the matchup of Wisconsin's powerful, smashmouth running game against Patterson's perennially dominant rushing defense (No. 3 nationally this year).
"They're a little bit different than the routine stuff we see in the Big Ten," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "We don't see TCU much, obviously, but I would always kind of grab some NFL scouts, as they came through [campus], all those people commonly said was how well coached they are, how hard they play and how fast they play."
In an ideal world, the Horned Frogs would get a shot at the title. But there's no understating just what a milestone this will be for TCU. Two years ago, Patterson's program had yet to reach a BCS bowl. Now it's playing in the most prestigious of them all, in a fabled venue that most BCS-conference teams outside the Big Ten and Pac-10 never get to see, and it's doing so on the cusp of its move to the Big East (where, ironically, its chances of playing in another Rose Bowl will be almost zero).
"This is the last piece of the puzzle," said Patterson.
With all due respect to Connecticut (to which I'll give plenty later in this column), the presence of an unranked 8-4 team in the Fiesta Bowl is the big fat fire hose watering down this year's bowl lineup. Spin all they want, there's no way the BCS overlords can defend the side of their system where an inarguably mediocre team goes to one of the most prestigious bowls while a team like Michigan State -- which, like UConn, tied for its conference title, only at 11-1 -- goes to the Credit Card Bowl and a top 10 team like Boise State goes to a bowl played on Dec. 22.
If you want to get a peek behind the curtains of the bowl business, check out Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan's very diplomatic but frankly ridiculous-this-is-even-necessary description of deciding between 11-1 Ohio State and 11-1 Michigan State for his game's at-large spot.
"[AD] Mark Hollis, Coach [Mark] Dantonio, the entire Michigan State operation basically put together a marketing plan and a sales pitch that was really nothing short of outstanding. My hat's off to them. They really made a very convincing appeal. ... But in the final analysis, when we looked at the higher-ranked Ohio State, we did have some background and experience with Ohio State having been in our championship game and games prior to that. So there was a little more familiarity, and of course that made the decision a little bit easier."
So there you have it. Not that there's anything wrong with the decision to take the Buckeyes, but apparently one of the factors was "unfamiliarity" with Michigan State, like buying a new brand of deodorant. Either way, the Superdome will be packed, because Arkansas fans, who will be enjoying their first BCS appearance, have already bought up their allotted 17,000 tickets and asked for more.
It's less certain what kind of crowd the Orange Bowl should expect by hosting a West Coast private school, Stanford, which doesn't normally sell out its own stadium and where classes start the same day as the game (Jan. 3). At least Stanford-Virginia Tech should be fun for TV viewers, as two definitively blue-collar programs square off, and potential No. 1 pick Andrew Luck goes up against the nation's eighth-ranked pass defense.
• With Oklahoma's 23-20 win over Nebraska on Saturday, Bob Stoops improved to 7-1 in Big 12 championship games. He won those seven conference titles with six different quarterbacks. The latest, sophomore Landry Jones, threw a 49-yard touchdown to spark the Sooners' rally from 17 down and finished 23-of-41 for 342 yards against the nation's second-ranked pass defense. "He's had a special year," Stoops said of Jones, who's thrown for 4,289 yards.
• After dispatching Florida State to win its fourth ACC title in seven seasons, Virginia Tech (11-2) heads to the Orange Bowl with a chance to break several school records. The Hokies could achieve their first 12-win season and 12-game winning streak (Michael Vick's 1999 team won 11) and quarterback Tyrod Taylor's senior class would finish as the winningest in school history (currently at 42). "Those two losses we had at the beginning of the year make these 11 wins and the ACC Championship seem even greater," said Frank Beamer.
• The Washington Huskies, once 3-6, rallied to earn the school's first bowl bid in eight years with a 28-21 Apple Cup win over Washington State. Running back Chris Polk dashed for 289 yards and quarterback Jake Locker, who suffered so many setbacks this season, threw the go-ahead 27-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining. "The moment Jake decided to come back [for his senior year], this is what he was envisioning -- this moment," said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team is heading to San Diego.
• Remember back in September when Arizona beat Iowa in what seemed at the time a clash of Big Ten and Pac-10 contenders? As it turned out, they were just a pair of disappointing 7-5 teams waiting to happen. The Wildcats' Territorial Cup loss to the Sun Devils (6-6) -- in which Arizona State blocked Alex Zendejas' extra-point attempts at the end of regulation and the second overtime to prevail 30-29 -- marked Arizona's fourth straight loss to end the regular season.
• Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis, who much like his team has suffered through a disappointing season, finally returned to his old self with a staggering 42-carry, 261-yard performance in the snow at Cincinnati. Note that in the same game a year ago, Lewis carried 47 times for 194 yards against the Bearcats. The stakes were much lower this time. The Panthers finished the regular season 7-5, while Cincinnati, 12-1 a year ago, went 4-8 in Butch Jones' first season.
• Kudos to Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, whose team completed the biggest turnaround of the season (from 1-11 to 9-4) with a thrilling MAC Championship Game upset of No. 24 Northern Illinois. Down 21-20 and facing a fourth-and-20 in the final minute, Austin Boucher's pass over the middle deflected off a Huskies defender and into the hands of Miami receiver Chris Givens for the first down. Two plays later, Boucher threw the winning score.
• This year's annual reminder that bowl games aren't truly about "rewarding the student-athletes" comes courtesy of the Outback Bowl. Ever the contrarian, the Outback selected 7-5, home-state Florida -- the Gators' worst team in 22 years -- over 9-4, SEC East champion South Carolina, which crushed Florida at the Swamp. The Gamecocks' reward for earning their first trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game? A return trip to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A bowl.
• In a surprise, the Insight Bowl passed up a chance to stage an intriguing Iowa-Nebraska Big Ten rivalry preview, opting instead to take Missouri. The fact that the Arizona game snubbed the Tigers last year probably had something to do with it, but so does the fact that the Fiesta Bowl (which runs the Insight) works closely with the Big 12. Think the conference might have had an opinion? As a result, Nebraska ends up with a Holiday Bowl rematch against the same Washington team it beat 56-21 in September.
• The 77-year-old Sun Bowl in El Paso, which could have been stuck with a stinker due to the lack of eligible Pac-10 teams, instead finagled pitting old and future rivals Miami and Notre Dame, both 7-5. This is the first year of the game's ACC partnership (thus the Miami end) and the Champs Sports Bowl used its Big East pick on 9-3 West Virginia in order to free up the Irish. "This city will go crazy," Sun Bowl CEO Bernie Olivas told the El Paso Times.
• Seeing as Miami's cleaned-up culture renders the old "Catholics vs. Convicts" tagline outdated, my new suggestion: The APR Bowl. Or, "Catholics vs. Coachless." (I stole that last one from Twitter.)
• It's not the BCS, but No. 10 Boise State (11-1) could have done worse than a Las Vegas Bowl date with No. 20 Utah (10-2). It originally looked like the Broncos would be relegated to playing a 7-5 ACC team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl before a deal was brokered.
• Michigan AD Dave Brandon has said he will wait until after Michigan's bowl game to evaluate Rich Rodriguez's job status. The 7-5 Wolverines will meet 8-4 Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Many an SEC coach has been fired for losing to the once-lowly Bulldogs.
• Fresno State's 25-23 win over Illinois last Friday, coupled with Wisconsin's Sept. 11 victory over San Jose State, caused the first Gordon Gee Murderer's Row vs. Little Sisters Big Ten-WAC Challenge to end in a tie.
• With its Conference USA championship victory over SMU, UCF (10-3) earned a Liberty Bowl date with 6-6 Georgia. While at Georgia Tech, Knights coach George O'Leary went 3-5 against the Dawgs.
• Poor Temple. A year after earning their first bowl berth in 30 years, the 8-4 Owls were one of two bowl-eligible teams left out. (The other: 6-6 Western Michigan.) Note that Al Golden's team beat Fiesta Bowl participant Connecticut.
Cam Newton hits the awards circuit this week, which means more stories about the NCAA's controversial decision to reinstate Newton without penalty will continue to appear. The question is, will they then fade away, or will the sins of his father follow Newton all the way to Glendale?
The Newton pay-for-play scandal was unusual in its details and unprecedented both in its timing and in the star wattage of its subject. But the nearly four weeks of relentless outrage from Auburn fans over the reports and speculation about Newton's status were nothing compared to the immediate and nearly uniform national backlash after the NCAA's decision. When has an NCAA eligibility investigation ever elicited fervent opinions from the likes of Jim Delany, John Swofford, Pat Haden and even basketball sneaker maven Sonny Vaccarro?
The NCAA "missed an opportunity to step up" and crack down on third-party brokering of players, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told TheNew York Times. Jo Potuto, a Nebraska law professor and former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, told USA Today: "I'm a former prosecutor, and I think, with regard to deterrence and trying to keep a handle on these sorts of behavior, I would have come down the other way."
The NCAA itself, usually so reticent to discuss investigations, even took the unusual step of releasing a statement from president Mark Emmert acknowledging the criticism and attempting to explain (without mentioning specifics) the rationale behind the decision. It was no use. The NCAA enforcement process is so maddeningly confusing to anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of it that nothing would have helped.
Long story short: There was no specific bylaw in the NCAA's behemoth rulebook that says a player is ineligible if a parent shops his son to another school but doesn't actually receive anything. A violation of some sort did occur, but the staff must interpret each case based on the circumstances and decide whether or not it merits punishment. In this case, the fact that the NCAA couldn't prove the player had knowledge of his father's scheme caused it to take mercy.
This was a no-win situation for the NCAA. Whatever justification it offers, the public still sees it as the same organization that dealt USC massive sanctions based on similarly egregious accusations (even though it's a different arm entirely that investigates a player's active eligibility) and took months to render decisions on players like A.J. Green and Marvin Austin earlier this year as opposed to the rather conveniently swift resolution of Newton's case. (Though again, those guys took stuff; Newton, as far as we know, did not.)
But had the NCAA gone the other way and tried to suspend Newton on the eve of the SEC Championship Game, it would have faced a whole different headache full of injunctions and appeals. Or it could have kept on investigating and let the questions and speculation grow ever heavier between now and Jan. 10. Clearly it felt pressure to act.
Let's be honest: No one outside of Auburn, Ala., believes the Cecil Newton scheme began and ended with one call to Mississippi State. But no one -- not the NCAA, not the SEC, not the media -- has any proof to the contrary. Both Emmert and SEC commissioner Mike Slive promised to close the "loophole" in the rulebook that allowed Newton to go unpunished, but not before he'll win a Heisman and play for the national title. You're entitled to your opinions about the player, but as of today, the adults on both sides look far worse than the kid.
Fans have every reason to be furious that the BCS allows for an unranked, four-loss Connecticut team to play in one of the five major bowl games. But hate the system, not the team, because the rise of Randy Edsall's program from FCS to BCS is pretty darn heartwarming, whatever the circumstances.
I remember visiting Storrs during preseason camp in 2004, when the Huskies were preparing to begin their first season in the Big East (a year earlier than expected due to the departures of Miami and Virginia Tech). UConn had moved up from I-AA just four years earlier, had moved into brand new 40,000-seat Rentschler Field just a year earlier (upgrading from its old 16,000-seat venue) and barely yet resembled a BCS-conference program. With the football complex still under construction, Edsall held his weekly news conference in a dormitory lounge. Among the topics that day, the team's beat writers asked Edsall to explain how the bowl eligibility process works.
The Huskies' quarterback that season was a guy NFL fans are long familiar with, Dan Orlovsky, who did in fact lead Connecticut to its first bowl game that season (the Motor City Bowl against Toledo). Edsall, the Huskies' coach since 1999, endured two losing seasons before sharing a Big East title with West Virginia in 2007 and producing two eight-win seasons after that. Edsall has long been respected throughout the profession (and has turned down numerous overtures over the years), but his team remained largely under the radar.
The turning point may have come late last year, when the Huskies went to South Bend and knocked off Notre Dame -- their first victory since the stunning murder of cornerback Jasper Howard -- after which Edsall gave a heart-wrenching postgame interview to NBC.
The 2010 season did not begin well, with losses to Michigan, Temple, Rutgers and Louisville. But behind Jordan Todman, the nation's No. 2 rusher, and playmaking linebacker Lawrence Wilson (who had a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown Saturday night against USF), the Huskies won their last five games, capping that stretch with Dave Teggart's game-winning 52-yard field goal to clinch the BCS spot.
It took 10 years for the Huskies to get to this point, and now, their crowning achievement comes mixed with a heavy dose of backlash.
"It's kind of been the story ever since we made this jump [to I-A], to be the underdog. I know I get a little bit more fired up when people think that you can't do something," said Edsall. "... the rules are what they are. The Big East has an automatic qualifying spot with it, we win the Big East, we go. There have been other 8-4 teams that have won their conferences and gone to the BCS. So don't get on UConn for what the system is."
Mini-previews for three big bowl games:
• Wisconsin vs. TCU (Rose Bowl), Jan. 1: If you were talking to someone brand new to college football, how would you explain the various rules and tiebreakers that allowed these teams to get here? You wouldn't. It's too hard. You'd just tell them to sit back and watch the redheaded quarterback from TCU, because he's really good.
• Ohio State vs. Arkansas (Sugar Bowl), Jan. 3: Ryan Mallett proclaimed himself a legend. Terrelle Pryor recently lamented on Twitter that: "Damn I must be the worst QB/player" after being left off the All-Big Ten teams. Their respective talent levels lie somewhere in between and should make for an intriguing duel.
• Auburn vs. Oregon, (BCS Championship Game), Jan. 10: Darron Thomas isn't contemplating any such QB battle himself. "I'm not really worried about Cam Newton," he said. "I'm just worried about [Auburn's] defense." For all the talk about fireworks, one of the sides' defenses will ultimately determine the outcome.