By Stewart Mandel
December 04, 2011

On Jan. 9, LSU and Alabama will play for the national championship. Right now, most fans are focused on the controversy and dissatisfaction surrounding the BCS' first intra-division rematch, an awkward scenario that has sparked more indignation over college football's flawed and frustrating postseason. Expect the bellyaching to continue for the next several days.

At some point, however, perhaps the complaining will subside long enough for us to focus on an equally rare occurrence: Les Miles' team is one win away from completing the most spectacular season of the BCS era.

On Saturday, a nation already up to its ears in SEC adulation watched with incredulity as top-ranked LSU went the entire first half of its conference championship game against No. 12 Georgia without gaining a first down and was down 10-0. Fans in Ohio, Oklahoma, California, etc., rubbed their hands eagerly in anticipation of an 11th-hour meltdown, one almost certain to preclude the SEC rematch that ESPN and CBS had told them was already scheduled.

And then, the Tigers did what they always do. Tyrann Mathieu returned a punt 62 yards for a momentum-turning touchdown before halftime. Three plays into the second half, defensive lineman Michael Brockers forced an Aaron Murray fumble that the Honey Badger recovered. Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford started running over Georgia's defense, Mathieu had another ridiculous punt return and before long it was a 42-10 blowout. This just eight days after LSU spotted third-ranked Arkansas a 14-0 lead only to roar back and win 41-17.

LSU (13-0) just completed the most impressive regular season I can remember. It beat the Pac-12 (Oregon) and Big East (West Virginia) champions within the first four weeks of the season by scores of 40-27 and 47-21, respectively. In the most hyped regular-season game in years, it went to Tuscaloosa and beat No. 2 Alabama in overtime. It beat five teams that finished in the Top 25 and three that finished in the top six, and it scored 40 or more points in nine of its 13 games. It is the first team ever to achieve a perfect 1.000 score (first place votes from every voter in two polls and six computers) in the BCS standings.

The Tigers are a certifiable juggernaut -- but they are not yet national champions, and they won't be unless they beat Alabama a second time. To many, that doesn't seem fair. I've made my case for why Oklahoma State deserved a shot over Alabama, but not enough voters agreed to erase a .0086 gap. So, that's that.

The funny thing is, sports fans seem to be perfectly fine with postseason rematches in almost any other scenario -- even ones where the result renders the entire preceding season meaningless. In 2007, the New England Patriots completed the NFL's first 16-0 regular season with a win on the final weekend against the New York Giants. Five weeks later the Giants, having lost six regular-season games, upset the still-perfect Patriots and got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It was hailed as an all-time classic.

The difference, of course, is that the Giants weren't given another shot at the Patriots by a set of voters and computers; they earned that shot by advancing in a playoff. College football is different. It's the one sport that continually trumpets the importance of its regular season and views the postseason as more of a celebration than competition. LSU-Alabama II makes a mockery of that talking point, asking us to accept that Every Game Counts -- but that this particular one merits a do-over.

Regardless of whether the rematch was the right choice, the Tigers will face a plenty worthy adversary in New Orleans, one that was similarly dominant outside of that Nov. 5 field-goal fest, albeit against a less staggering schedule.

And contrary to what some have already espoused, LSU needs to win the game to be considered national champion. Yes, the result in New Orleans will trump the result in Tuscaloosa. And no, AP voters should not grant the Tigers a split championship if they lose close in the rematch.

"The opportunity to go play for a national championship is a completely different scenario," Miles said Sunday night. "It's the same opponent, but with the title at stake."

No team in history has ever won a national title after losing its bowl game. This won't be the first.

Here's what will actually happen. We will spend the next few days on our annual tirade about this silly system and all the possible alternatives. (Note: If my desired plus-one were in place, LSU would play Stanford in one semifinal and Alabama would face Oklahoma State in the other.) We'll quiet down a bit in time to enjoy Christmas and the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and then, when the Tigers and Tide get to New Orleans, 1,000 reporters will spend a week asking the coaches and players questions they don't want to answer about the fairness of a rematch.

And then they'll play the game. We'll be reminded of just how good these teams are. The game will play out completely differently than the first one. The score will not be close to 9-6. For one, the first meeting will have taken place more than two months earlier; for another, this is football.

"If you just look at NFL games, you always play teams in the playoffs you played in the regular season, and all those game play out differently," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday night. "There's so many good players on both sides of the ball, I think there's a lot of opportunity for the game to have a completely different flavor than the first one did."

It also has an opportunity to be one of the all-time greats. People don't want to hear that right now, especially after enduring so much buildup to the first somewhat disappointing meeting. But it's true. Either LSU will cement itself as one of the great teams the sport has seen, or Alabama will redeem itself by proving the Tigers mortal.

Either way, one team will rightfully be crowned national champion.

Contrary to what you might imagine, Mike Gundy didn't walk to the podium following his team's Big 12-clinching 44-10 rout of Oklahoma on Saturday and immediately begin stumping for a spot in the national title game. He got to that topic soon enough, but for a program that's spent its entire history waiting for a season like this one, the win had meaning beyond the BCS standings.

"For a number of years now, I've laid in bed and thought about the tough losses," Oklahoma State's coach said. "But I've also thought about giving that Big 12 trophy to Boone Pickens, seeing the smile on his face for what he started here. We're very excited for the next opportunity."

On Sunday, Gundy made it clear his team was disappointed with the final standings. "Any team in our situation would be," he said. But don't expect the Cowboys to be deflated. On the contrary, expect half the city of Stillwater to travel to Glendale, Ariz., for the program's first BCS bowl: a juicy No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup against Andrew Luck and 11-1 Stanford.

"What a great opportunity for two great quarterbacks [Luck and Brandon Weeden] to lead their teams in to a BCS bowl, and a team ranked third and fourth [to meet]," said Gundy. "There's a tremendous buzz here in Stillwater, I can tell you that."

As Gundy said, the groundwork for Oklahoma State's rise was laid by billionaire booster Pickens, whose $165 million gift helped the school build some of the finest facilities in the country and allowed Gundy to hire quality assistants like last year's offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, and successor Todd Monken.

"What a thrill for me at 83 years old," Pickens said after Bedlam. "It's a big deal. I didn't want them to get there before I ran out of time."

It's a big deal for Stanford, too. Last year's Orange Bowl trip was its national coming-out party, but it was against an overmatched Virginia Tech team in what became Jim Harbaugh's final game. First-year coach David Shaw, a former Cardinal player, now has a chance to secure the school's biggest postseason victory. And many more Stanford fans will be able to make the short trip to Arizona on New Year's weekend than made it to Miami last year for a Monday night game.

Both high-powered teams have a chance to gain national validation with a victory -- just not quite as much as they would have if they'd faced one of those SEC defenses.

Oh, Sugar Bowl. There you go again.

The same folks who went to bat for Ohio State's Tattoo Five last year in order to preserve the "integrity" of their matchup gave the authors of Death to the BCS more fodder Sunday with their shocking and, quite frankly, unjustifiable selection of Virginia Tech for the BCS' last at-large spot. Their decision was so unexpected that as of mid-afternoon Sunday, the Chick-fil-A Bowl was fully preparing to announce its expected matchup of Virginia Tech-Auburn. The 11-2 Hokies had barely even been mentioned as a possibility late Saturday or early Sunday, and with good reason: They lost the ACC championship game 38-10.

Before continuing, I fully realize and accept that outside of the championship game, bowls are entitled to select the matchups they feel will sell the most tickets and draw the most eyeballs. But don't insult our intelligence, Paul Hoolahan. Which do you think the country would rather watch: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech or Michigan vs. Boise State? And while Hokies fans will certainly travel, they won't travel in greater numbers than fans of Boise or 10-2 Kansas State, the team widely expected to take that last spot -- and the team more deserving of the honor.

The Sugar Bowl had first choice of at-large teams to replace LSU and was well known to covet Michigan. Fair enough. The Fiesta then took Stanford, at which point the Sugar again had its choice of available teams. Its options: No. 7 Boise State, in the last game of Kellen Moore's career; No. 8 Kansas State and the possibility of Bill Snyder's first BCS bowl in eight years; or No. 11 Virginia Tech, which, with all due respect to Frank Beamer, did not beat a single team that finished in the Top 25, got blown out both times it faced Clemson and played one of the least impressive nonconference schedules of any team in the country (Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall).

Why, Hoolahan? Why?

"I think Virginia Tech has proven over the years the caliber of football team that they are," he said. "Frank Beamer is obviously one of the winningest active coaches in the FBS right now. ... I think he's going to perform extremely well. I think that team will be a great performer for us."

So to be clear: Virginia Tech is playing in this year's Sugar Bowl because of what it did ... before this year. Got it.

The truth is, commissioners from all potential parties were likely lobbying hard in the final hours. Boise State probably had no chance, both because Mountain West boss Craig Thompson is the sport's only openly pro-playoff commissioner and because Big Ten commish Jim Delany wants nothing to do with the Broncos. But why not Kansas State? You'd have to ask Hoolahan. Maybe Snyder's .657 career winning percentage just didn't cut it.

So the Big 12, universally rated as the nation's top conference, gets one BCS bid, while the ACC -- for the first time ever -- gets two. Congrats, ACC. And how's this for ridiculous: For beating the Hokies twice and winning its conference, Clemson gets to play No. 23 West Virginia in Miami, while Virginia Tech backdoors its way into a game against Denard Robinson and No. 13 Michigan. Lovely.

Wisconsin athletic director and former coach Barry Alvarez was one of the leading proponents of a Big Ten championship game, in large part because the conference was left "sitting at home" the first week of December while the nation focused on the SEC, Big 12 and others. A thrilling inaugural title game in Indianapolis on Saturday had viewers on the edge of their seats -- and sent Alvarez's Badgers back to Pasadena.

After losing to Michigan State on a Hail Mary in the teams' Oct. 22 meeting, Wisconsin almost suffered another cruel ending when it appeared Spartans receiver Keshawn Martin had returned a punt nearly all the way to the end zone with less than two minutes remaining. But a roughing the punter call on Isaiah Lewis nullified the return and allowed the Badgers to close out a back-and-forth 42-39 victory that featured four more Montee Ball touchdowns (he's now at 38, one shy of Barry Sanders' record), an MSU lateral for a score and dueling touchdown bombs from Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins.

So Wisconsin (11-2) returns to the Rose Bowl, where the storyline will once again be speed vs. brawn. The question last year was whether TCU's undersized but athletic defense could slow down Wisconsin's physical running game. (It did.) This year, the Badgers' defense is under the gun as it attempts to slow down Oregon (10-2) and lightning-fast running backs LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas.

"It's kind of the opposite ends of the spectrum -- they try to play as fast as they can, we try to slow it down as much as we can," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "It's going to be a unique experience."

There's no way this one will be a 21-19 affair. Obviously, the Badgers have one big thing going for them now that they didn't this time last year: Wilson, who makes it infinitely tougher for a good-but-not-great Ducks defense to contain Wisconsin. But the Badgers will likely have to score a bunch of points to win, because they've yet to face an offense remotely the caliber of Oregon's in the Big Ten.

• Southern Miss' 49-28 rout of previously undefeated Houston in Saturday's Conference USA championship game cost the league an estimated $9.8 million BCS payout -- and the two schools their share. But the two coaches are about to get richer. A full-on sweepstakes has developed in pursuit of Houston's Kevin Sumlin, while Southern Miss' Larry Fedora could also end up elsewhere. Texas A&M will likely win the Sumlin chase, though UCLA is making a push.

• Clemson (10-3) overcame its late-season slump to earn its first ACC title in 20 years. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (20-of-29, 240 yards, three TDs, no INTs) and receiver Sammy Watkins (157 all-purpose yards) returned to midseason form to help the Tigers earn a trip to Miami. "There have been a lot of walls built up around this program over the last 20 years," said coach Dabo Swinney, "and we knocked them down."

• West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen earned a BCS berth in his first season as a head coach thanks in part to a characteristically ballsy play call. Holgorsen went for it on fourth-and-10 from the USF 42 last Thursday, and Geno Smith delivered with a 26-yard completion to Stedman Bailey to set up Tyler Bitancourt's game-winning 28-yard field goal. Cincinnati's ensuing win over Connecticut sent the Mountaineers (9-3) to Miami. "The way we pulled it out is who this team has become," said Holgorsen. "We figure out ways to win."

• In his final game on the blue turf, Boise State's Kellen Moore was a near-flawless 28-of-33 for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 45-0 rout of New Mexico. The Broncos (11-1), who suffered their sole defeat on a last-second missed field goal against TCU, deserved something much better than another trip to Las Vegas, where they'll face a 6-6 Arizona State team that fired its coach. "This team is as good as any of the teams that we've had," said Chris Petersen.

• The negative publicity stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal scared nearly every Big Ten bowl away from Penn State. Under normal circumstances, the 9-3 Nittany Lions would have been a sure bet for either the Capital One or Outback bowls, but the Insight (7-5 Iowa), Gator (6-6 Ohio State) and Meineke Car Care of Texas (6-6 Northwestern) all opted for teams with lesser records. Yet Penn Sate made out pretty well in the end: It's playing a 12-1 team (Houston) on the morning of Jan. 2 in the TicketCity Bowl, which is played in the Cotton Bowl.

• Poor Bob Stoops. As if it's not bad enough his injury-riddled team crumbled down the stretch, his postseason reward will be extra tough to swallow. The Sooners (9-3) slipped to the fourth choice of Big 12 teams, landing them in the Insight Bowl, where Stoops must face his alma mater, Iowa. I'm sure he'll love those questions. Meanwhile, it marks OU's fourth trip in six years to Arizona, only this time the Sooners will overlap with the rival Cowboys, who will be in town for the Fiesta Bowl.

• It's good to see that Texas A&M's athletics department is heading to the SEC on solid footing. Senior associate athletic director Jeff Toole posted anonymously on a message board that school president R. Bowen Loftin is a "putz." The school's board apparently overrode powerless athletic director Bill Byrne in firing coach Mike Sherman, who learned of his fate after pulling into a recruit's driveway. The cost of leaving the Big 12 and buying out Sherman could top $20 million.

• The Champs Sports Bowl got the matchup it's been hoping for most of the season: Florida State (8-4) against Notre Dame (8-4), the schools' first meeting since 2002. These squads are a far cry from the 1993 editions that met in a famed 1 vs. 2 game, but like last year's Notre Dame-Miami Sun Bowl, the matchup will draw a huge viewership spike for the Dec. 29 game. One player who might not be there: Irish quarterback Dayne Crist, who decided this weekend to transfer for his final season.

• After 15 years of "anyone, anytime, anywhere," Pat Hill is out as Fresno State's coach. Hill's early 2000s teams served as a precursor for future BCS busters like Boise State, constantly playing and beating major-conference foes. But his program had sunk to the middle of the WAC and had the worst season of his tenure this year, finishing 4-9.

• TCU (10-2) became the first team to win three straight Mountain West championships. More impressively: The Horned Frogs have gone undefeated in league play all three years.

• Northern Illinois (10-3) has come close several times in recent years, but Friday it finally got its first MAC title since 1983 thanks to Mathew Sims' walk-off 33-yard field goal to beat Ohio (9-4).

• Sun Belt champ Arkansas State, which had never previously won more than six games in 19 FBS seasons, finished 10-2 with a 45-14 rout of Troy. Coach Hugh Freeze is now a leading candidate at Ole Miss.

• UCLA got its waiver to go to a bowl (Kraft Fight Hunger) at 6-7. That knocked out Western Kentucky (7-5), which was only hoping for its first bowl in school history.

• Remember, bowls are all about the student-athlete experience. It seems Ohio punter Paul Hershey isn't thrilled about his. "Idaho? Who the (bleep) wants to play there in December??" he tweeted Sunday, following up later with: "Hahaha I'm gettin a lot of hate for my tweet on the bowl bid. Punters don't like the cold. That's all I'm sayin."

Robert Griffin III is often described as humble, and those who have interviewed him would surely agree. But in the moments following his team's 48-24 clobbering of Texas, which gave the Bears their first nine-win season in 25 years, the Baylor star let his guard down in a postgame interview with ESPN's Samantha Steele.

"I could be wrong," Griffin said, "but I think Baylor won its first Heisman tonight."

He got my vote. In fact, he made the final decision much easier than expected. With a 15-of-22, 320-yard passing, four-touchdown (two passing, two running) day, Griffin finished the regular season No. 1 in pass efficiency, with a 192.3 mark that would shatter the NCAA record. He threw for 3,998 yards (10.8 per completion), 36 touchdowns and six interceptions while rushing for another 644 yards and nine scores. He led a last-second rally against one ranked foe (TCU), threw a last-second touchdown to beat another (Oklahoma) and led Baylor -- yes, Baylor -- to a 9-3 record. Let's be frank: He is Baylor.

The RG3 Heisman bandwagon gained a lot of new passengers in the last few weeks, but we'll find out Dec. 10 whether he gained enough to edge out more familiar candidates Luck and Trent Richardson. The final vote could well be as close as Alabama-Oklahoma State, though it would seem late surges from another running back (Montee Ball) and another SEC player (Tyrann Mathieu) may have hurt Richardson's chances.

Griffin vs. Luck is a tough comparison, in part because they play in such different systems. It should be noted, however, that Luck actually attempted four more passes (373) than Griffin (369), but wound up with 828 fewer yards. Stanford coach Shaw went to bat hard for Luck last week, hitting the media circuit and giving a power point presentation to help quantify Luck's intangibles (he calls plays at the line, he helps set up Stanford's running game, etc.). But Griffin has both numbers and intangibles. Like Luck, he completely transformed a dormant program, serving as a charismatic, articulate ambassador for his school along the way.

But for me, it comes down to this: In his biggest game of the season -- playing Oregon for a shot at the Pac-12 championship -- Luck had his worst game of the year. In his three biggest games of the season -- a coming-out opportunity against TCU, a chance for the school's first win over Oklahoma and the in-state grudge match against Texas to secure the best possible bowl berth -- Griffin came up huge, throwing for a combined 11 touchdowns and one pick.

That fits my definition of "outstanding." We'll see if the rest of the electorate agrees.

As bowls welcome their 2010-11 participants, you'll likely read myriad quotes from bowl executives about how pleased they are with their selections. You'll read about nebulous "committees" of volunteers that chose the teams. That may be true of longstanding, independent bowls like the Gator or Cotton. But when it comes to lower-rung games like the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and the BBVA Compass Bowls, it's a train wreck.

Part of the problem this year was Conference USA's extremely fluid situation. Earlier in the week, when it seemed likely Houston was heading to the BCS, a source told me that league's bowl picture was "clear as mud." Southern Miss' win only made things muddier, because with the Big East taking its spot in the Liberty Bowl due to a convoluted deal with the SEC, the conference had to find suitable spots for both the Cougars (which ended up with a pretty sweet deal, facing 9-3 Penn State on Jan. 2) and Eagles (which got shipped to Hawaii to play Nevada). Meanwhile, a source at a bowl with an at-large opening told me: "It's nutty out there ... lots of horse trading going on."

Somehow, all of that horse-trading resulted in 8-4 San Diego State, a Mountain West team, ending up in the New Orleans Bowl, normally a C-USA destination; Missouri, a Big 12 team, taking the MWC's spot in Shreveport; the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl staging a game between two teams with interim coaches (UCLA and Illinois); and the BBVA Compass Bowl pitting 6-6 Pitt against 6-6 SMU. That last one's particularly interesting because, according to multiple sources, the Birmingham game didn't want the Panthers back for a second straight year, and Pitt was so opposed to the idea it threatened to boycott. Seriously.

So how did that matchup still end up happening? One word: ESPN. Its subsidiary, ESPN Regional, owns six of those low-rung bowls, including the Beef 'O' Brady's and BBVA Compass games. And lest anyone tell you otherwise, head honcho Pete Derzis ultimately decides who plays where. He's the reason Marshall is playing in St. Pete instead of Pittsburgh and why SMU is in Birmingham instead of ... somewhere else.

The bowls are purportedly for the "student-athletes," and arguably they still are in places like Pasadena and Orlando. In Birmingham or St. Petersburg, however, they're for three hours of television programming, and the teams are ancillary figures.

Mini-previews for three big bowl games:

Oregon vs. Wisconsin (Rose Bowl), Jan. 2: Wilson has certainly proven to be the most valuable free-agent pickup since ... well, Cam Newton. The Badgers won't win a national title, but their first Rose Bowl win in 12 years would be nice. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly gets another attempt at his first big nonconference win.

Oklahoma State vs. Stanford (Fiesta Bowl), Jan. 2: It's the Fiesta Bowl's first No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup in a decade (Oregon-Colorado), and at first glance it should be an offensive shootout. But don't overlook Jamie Blatnick, Shaun Lewis and the Cowboys' defense. They can put some pressure on Luck.

LSU vs. Alabama, (BCS Championship Game), Jan. 9: The game hasn't even been played and the SEC has already won its sixth straight national title. Ah, but an SEC team will also lose a BCS title game, staining its thus-far spotless 7-0 record in the Big One. Finally, the voters found someone to beat the SEC.

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