THE MATING RITUAL
For reasons of tradition--not to mention profit--the college
football elite protects the sanctity of the bowl system from
those who would prefer a postseason tournament. That said, let's
not forget the existing system's entertainment value. Would all
the jockeying for position in an eight- or 16-team playoff be
this much fun? Consider:
--After North Carolina's 50-14 thrashing of Duke last Saturday,
Tar Heels coach Mack Brown complained at length because it
appeared that the three Alliance bowls--the Fiesta, the Orange
and the Sugar--would ignore his 10-1 team. "We don't have a
system," Brown said. "We have favorites."
Perhaps Brown has forgotten that a bowl is more than happy to
reward excellence, but only after it obtains a title sponsor,
negotiates a TV contract and assures itself of good ticket
sales. The Alliance spot the Tar Heels could realistically hope
for would be in the Fiesta opposite the Big East winner, but if
you were running the Tempe, Ariz., bowl and had to fill a
73,656-seat stadium, would you take a second East Coast team or
your hometown Arizona State Sun Devils?
--Organizers of the Fiesta Bowl took over what is now the
Insight.com (ne Copper) Bowl earlier this fall but didn't find
out until mid-November that previous administrators of the game
in Tucson, which matches the sixth bowl-eligible team from the
Big 12 against the second bowl team from the WAC, had made a
side deal with the Pacific-10: If the Big 12 didn't qualify a
sixth team for a bowl--and unless Colorado beats Nebraska this
Saturday, it won't this year--then the Pac-10 would have the
option of sending its fifth eligible team to Tucson. As a
result, instead of competing for, say, Notre Dame, the
Insight.com Bowl will probably match Oregon against either Air
Force or the loser of the WAC championship game (Colorado
State-New Mexico). None of those teams has the national
television appeal of the Fighting Irish.
--Provided it wins at Hawaii on Saturday, Notre Dame seems
headed for the Independence Bowl, which matches an at-large team
against the fifth pick from the SEC. Louisiana State could be in
line for that berth, but the fact that the Irish and the Tigers
just played on Nov. 15--Notre Dame upset LSU 24-6--makes that
possible matchup less appealing for all involved.
--Purdue finished the regular season 8-3 overall and tied with
Ohio State for third in the Big Ten at 6-2; Wisconsin finished
8-4 and fifth in the conference at 5-3. The Boilermakers
embarrassed the Badgers 45-20 on Oct. 18. But this is the bowl
business. The Outback, a Jan. 1 bowl that pays $1.65 million per
team, will choose the proven commodity, Wisconsin, which three
years ago brought 30,000 fans to the game in Tampa. The Alamo, a
Dec. 30 bowl that pays $1 million per team, will take Purdue,
which hasn't been to a postseason game since 1984.
--Florida State had more at stake than a No. 1 ranking last
Saturday. The Seminoles' loss to Florida cost the six
participants in the Alliance bowls more than $400,000 each.
CBS's contract with the Orange Bowl, site of this season's
Alliance "championship" game, stipulates that the network would
reduce its rights fee for the game from $25.5 million to $23
million if the Alliance didn't deliver to the Orange Bowl a team
ranked No. 1 in at least one of the two major polls. Rose
Bowl-bound Michigan now tops both.
The Fiesta, the Orange and the Sugar pool their rights fees to
fund payouts to participating teams, and the reduction will be
borne equally by the six teams playing in those bowls. The
Orange will cut its per-team payment from $8.9 million to $8.5
million, and the Sugar and the Fiesta will each reduce theirs
from $8.6 million to $8.2 million.
Who says it's not about the money?
Though not even a box of Tide could cleanse the memories Alabama
fans have of coach Mike DuBose's ignominious first season, 'Bama
was right where it wanted to be last Saturday night: in
archrival Auburn's backyard, in possession of the ball and with
a 17-15 lead with less than a minute remaining. Best of all, the
Crimson Tide was poised to spoil the Tigers' bid to clinch their
first SEC championship game berth. So dire did Auburn's plight
appear that senior quarterback Dameyune Craig stood with his
back to the field, unable to watch.
At 4-6, 'Bama entered the showdown one loss from its worst
record since 1957. (As seems fitting in the zero-sum universe of
Alabama versus Auburn, that was the only year the Tigers won
even a piece of the national title.) The Tide's defense, the
cornerstone of its '92 national championship team, came into the
game ranked last in the conference and had not intercepted a
pass since Oct. 4. So mismatched were the opponents that Atlanta
sportswriter Jack Wilkinson dubbed this 62nd installment of what
is traditionally called the Iron Bowl "the Iron Deficiency Bowl."
Several days before the game, DuBose, a former Tide linebacker
and the first Alabama native to coach his alma mater's team,
looked back on the season with chagrin. "I'm just as frustrated
and disappointed as anybody," he said. "I don't know if people
are willing to be more lenient with me because I've been here."
Given the last 60 seconds at Jordan-Hare Stadium, they won't be.
The Tide suffered through a disastrous final minute of
questionable decisions and embarrassingly poor communication
along its sideline.
00:51. On third-and-eight from its own 36--and with Auburn
having only one timeout--Alabama calls a screen pass.
Quarterback Freddie Kitchens connects with fullback Ed Scissum,
but Scissum must twist his body to make the reception.
Off-balance, he fumbles as he is tackled. The Tigers recover at
the 'Bama 33.
The admirably candid DuBose, a former defensive coordinator who
doesn't wear a headset during the game, later admits he didn't
know that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had called for a
pass instead of a safer rushing play. If he had known the call,
would he have gone with it? "No," DuBose says.
00:21. Auburn kicker Jaret Holmes lines up for an attempt at a
game-winning 39-yard field goal. Alabama, with two timeouts
remaining, burns both in an effort to freeze him. "They messed
up," says Holmes, a senior. "They gave me time to visualize it
going down the middle." Holmes's kick is perfect. The Tigers
00:15. Holmes squibs the kickoff. Scissum picks up the ball at
his own 20 and returns it 25 yards. A 15-yard face-mask penalty
moves it to the Tigers' 40.
00:06. Crimson Tide freshman placekicker A.J. Diaz, who has
never attempted a field goal in a college game, is sent in to
try a 57-yarder. (Alabama, having squandered its timeouts trying
to ice Holmes, cannot afford to attempt a quick pass to move
into better range.) Later, DuBose says he decided before the
game to go with Diaz, whom 'Bama had used occasionally on
kickoffs, if the Tide needed a long field goal. Diaz, though,
says he "had no clue I'd be kicking tonight until about 10
seconds before I attempted the kick." Diaz's try, though true,
comes up about 10 yards short.
DuBose deserves time to succeed, especially given 'Bama's
recruiting class for next season. The Tide has oral commitments
from two of the best players in the South: quarterback Tyler
Watts of Pelham, Ala., and defensive lineman Kindell Moorehead
of Memphis. But some heads will roll in Tuscaloosa this winter.
Expect DuBose to make as many as five changes to his staff after
the season ends. He kept the '96 group of assistants largely
intact at the request of his predecessor, Gene Stallings, only
to discover that it can be difficult to be the boss of men you
used to work alongside.
Will Arians, the architect of the infamous third-down pass play,
be back? "Yeah," Arians said after the game. He then paused and
added, "If I still have a job."
Although Mississippi State saw its dreams of an SEC championship
shattered in last Saturday's 17-7 loss at Arkansas, the defeat
didn't detract from what the Bulldogs have done in 1997. Picked
by many to finish last in the SEC West after star linebacker
Earnest Garner was sidelined by a rare muscle disease and
standout running back Keffer McGee drowned before the season
began, Mississippi State defeated both Alabama and Auburn on the
road in the same season for the first time and will end up no
worse than tied for third in the SEC West. "I can't say enough
about these players," coach Jackie Sherrill said before the
Razorbacks game. "They've overcome a lot this season and yet
accomplished so much."
Tragedy has been a constant at Mississippi State this year.
Shortly after spring practice Garner, the Bulldogs'
second-leading tackler in 1996, was found to have polymyositis,
a rare connective-tissue disease characterized by painful
inflammation and degeneration of the muscles. The disease, which
can be fatal, caused the 6'3" Garner to drop from about 266 to
226 pounds in approximately two months and required that he
spend several weeks in a hospital. He is now on medication to
control the disorder, but he has sat out what would have been
his senior season, and he may never play football again.
On Aug. 5, just as the Bulldogs were getting over the shock
caused by Garner's illness, McGee drowned in a swimming pool at
a Starkville apartment complex. A fifth-year senior who was
working toward his MBA, McGee had led Mississippi State with
1,072 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 1995 and had
successfully rehabilitated an injured right knee that forced him
to sit out most of the '96 season. "I've never coached a young
man with such command and influence over his teammates,"
Sherrill said. "When he walked into the room, it was like when
Coach [Bear] Bryant walked into a room. It was a devastating
loss for the program."
The Bulldogs unofficially dedicated the season to McGee's
memory. His name and jersey number, 21, have been painted on the
turf behind the south end zone at Scott Field. Players wear his
name on their jerseys and helmets, and his football gear hangs
behind plexiglass at Scott Field and at the Bulldogs' practice
facility. "We think about him every day," says senior defensive
end Greg Favors, who has a team-high seven sacks this season.
"Losing Keffer and Earnest was a big blow, but it brought us
together as a team. We knew if we persevered and never gave up,
things would get better."
Mississippi State closes out the regular season at home this
Saturday against archrival Ole Miss. Win or lose, Favors says,
the Bulldogs have learned something valuable from the setbacks:
"Keffer's death and the other things we've gone through have
taught us to take life one day at a time."
Would any voting coaches care to explain how Ohio State fell
seven places to No. 11 in the USA Today/ESPN poll after losing
at Michigan by six points?...
Now that Air Force has concluded its regular season with a 10-2
record, senior All-WAC linebacker Chris Gizzi can stop getting
the weekly supply of stitches on the bridge of his nose. A cut
that was opened in preseason practice has never healed because
Gizzi reopened it playing every Saturday. Over the course of the
season Gizzi's nose required some 100 stitches....
It looks as if Georgia senior Hines Ward will fall short in his
quest to reach 1,000 yards each in rushing, passing, receiving
and kickoff returns. To achieve the quadruple, Ward must throw
for 82 yards and amass 175 kick-return yards in the Bulldogs'
finale against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
1. PAT SULLIVAN Texas Christian gave its coach, who announced
his resignation in October, a rousing send-off by defeating I-30
neighbor Southern Methodist 21-18 for the Horned Frogs' first
(and only) win of the season.
2. TENNESSEE The Volunteers, given up for dead in the
national-championship hunt after their 33-20 loss to Florida in
September, now are on track for an Orange Bowl showdown with
Nebraska. If Michigan falters in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, the
Vols will be playing for the national title, which they haven't
won since 1951.
3. HAL MUMME Tip your helmet to the first-year Kentucky coach.
He lost games by 27, 35 and 28 points on the way to a 5-6 season
and received a new five-year contract and a 45% raise.
1. TEXAS TECH University chancellor John Montford vowed to shave
his head if the Red Raiders beat Oklahoma and clinched a share
of the Big 12 South title. Not close, and no shave: The
heretofore terrible Sooners thumped Tech 32-21.
2. CALIFORNIA The Golden Bears not only lost the centennial Big
Game to Stanford, 21-20, but also--thanks to Washington State's
Rose Bowl berth--became the conference team with the longest
Rose Bowl drought. Cal hasn't played in Pasadena in January
3. BLACK COACHES Ron Dickerson resigned at Temple, and
Louisville fired Ron Cooper. The six remaining black Division
I-A coaches should survive, but will this year's black coaching
candidates get the Ron-around?
SYRACUSE (8-3) AT MIAMI (5-5)
With Syracuse's path to the Big East title now clear, you can
almost hear coach Paul Pasqualoni tightening the screws on his
Orangemen. Businesslike is too frivolous a word for Coach P,
especially when the stakes are this high. Syracuse is winless
against Miami in Big East play, but the Orangemen's defense
should slow the Hurricanes' running game, allowing quarterback
Donovan McNabb to run and pass Syracuse into the Fiesta Bowl.
ARIZONA (5-5) AT ARIZONA STATE (8-2)
An Arizona win would knock Arizona State out of Fiesta Bowl
contention, but the Wildcats most likely will come up short.
Their Desert Swarm defense long ago deserted them, and the
surging Sun Devils have averaged 38 points during a five-game
OLE MISS (6-4) AT MISS. STATE (7-3)
The Egg Bowl is here, and speaking of eggs, the Bulldogs laid
one last week against Arkansas. The incentive to beat Ole Miss
may overcome State's disappointment over having played itself
out of the SEC championship game, but the Rebels, behind
fifth-year quarterback Stewart Patridge, don't beat themselves.
That's bad news for the mistake-prone Bulldogs.
PENN STATE (9-1) AT MICHIGAN STATE (6-4)
The longest five weeks of coach Nick Saban's career ended when
his Spartans defeated Illinois 27-17 last Saturday for their
first win since Oct. 11. But the Nittany Lions, who smell a
Sugar Bowl berth, have looked like their September selves in
blowouts of Purdue and Wisconsin. The talent level tips in Penn
NEBRASKA (10-0) AT COLORADO (5-5)
This game is on Friday because it's the Big 12's marquee
matchup. That explains the conference's ills nicely. The
Buffaloes, hurt by injuries on defense and by quarterback John
Hessler's happy feet, aren't in the Cornhuskers' class.
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