BCS Championship Game Notebook

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 9, 2007

The Florida Gators represent the biggest story on a night that crowned a champion, but the second most significant development from the BCS Championship Game is that it drew a clear line of distinction between the regular season and the bowl season.

Look at the difference between the regular-season Gators and the team that showed up in Glendale. Look at the regular-season Buckeyes--the team that strolled and swaggered to a 12-0 mark--compared to the lifeless bunch that got drilled and demolished after standing in quicksand for sixty minutes against Florida's flotilla of fleet-footed flyers. Consider the emotion possessed by Jim Tressel's team against Michigan, and then assess Ohio State's flatlining failure against the Gators. All these realities point to a few safe and solid conclusions about the world of college football.

First of all, as long as bowl games--and not playoff systems--decide national titles, we're going to have a mess in this sport. Why? Because the team with the bigger emotional edge is the team that wins these title games. With the possible exception of USC against Oklahoma in 2005 (though the Trojans were the underdog and, moreover, a team that drew considerable pregame motivation from bulletin board material provided by Sooner defensive lineman Larry Birdine), the underdog has soared in this contest over the past five years. The last time a clear title game favorite rolled to an expected victory was 2002, when Miami crushed Nebraska. Otherwise, these BCS coronations have turned into upsets. The pattern is pronounced and plain: underdogs get pissed in these kinds of games, and the supercharged emotions affect the on-field events.

As much as Ohio State might have wanted to win another football title under Jim Tressel, the fact of the matter was that Florida pursued victory with much more intensity and hunger. The Gators played like junkyard dogs; the Buckeyes strolled through the motions like satisfied suburbanite homemakers. It's not meant to be a knock on Ohio State; the point is that the Gators used the ultimate motivational source in contemporary athletics--"being disrespected"--and played it to maximum effect. Ohio State possessed exceptional talent, but with an opponent as hungry and focused as the Gators were in Glendale, there wasn't much the Buckeyes could do about it.

Stepping beyond the BCS title game, let's look at the other major bowl games for a second. Boise State had a lot more on the line than did Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Guess who won. Wisconsin felt slighted going into a Capital One Bowl against Arkansas. Guess who won that Big Ten-SEC battle. Penn State and quarterback Anthony Morelli were steaming mad heading into the Outback Bowl against a (seemingly) more gifted Tennessee team. Guess who won. Louisville was expected to crush Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, but got outplayed for three quarters before rallying to prevail in the fourth. USC played to preserve its reputation in the Rose Bowl against a Michigan team that was clearly disappointed to be in Pasadena, not Glendale, for New Year's celebrations. Notre Dame might have been ultra-motivated heading into the Sugar Bowl against LSU, but the Tigers had home cooking plus a post-Katrina sense of urgency. As a result, the Bayou Bengals didn't fall asleep at the wheel. Motivation levels are everything and then some in bowl games. It's what clouds the issue when fans debate conference strength and team superiority.

This is all an elaborate way of saying something simple: with a playoff, teams would compete on equal emotional levels.

In a playoff, Michigan would be as motivated as USC. In a playoff, Florida wouldn't feel quite so disrespected. In a playoff, Ohio State would show more life. In a playoff, Boise State would have to win more than one game. In a playoff, a lot of emotional edges and disadvantages that surface in the one-shot world of bowl games would be appreciably reduced, maybe even eliminated. This desire to create what I refer to as "emotional evenness" is emerging as the biggest and most genuinely compelling reason for the creation of a playoff.

If we had a plus-one or even a Final Four after the bowls, the bowls themselves would become a bigger deal, for one thing; no team would be unhappy to play in a bowl that would become a de facto "National Quarterfinal." The resulting semifinals and title game would similarly involve teams that wouldn't find the need to play the "disrespect" card. If teams entered title games based on victories in previous playoff rounds and not controversial polls, the emotional unevenness of BCS title games would disappear. In this sense, a world with a playoff system would feature fairer matchups and produce a more authentic national champion. Today in college football--and this Florida-Ohio State game proved as much--an unequal emotional playing field is what often turns a big game into a big letdown.

The 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC was the exception that proves the rule: in college football title games, uneven emotions produce lopsided scores and boring television events that throw the nature of the regular season into question. Ohio State and Michigan--who seemed to be at the top of the sport from Labor Day through Thanksgiving--got undressed in bowl games by motivated opponents. Conversely, Florida, USC and Boise State looked like world beaters in their bowl games. Now, America wants to see the Orange and Blue Bowl between Boise State and Florida. It's a game in which both teams would be equally motivated, but it's a game the country won't get to see. Perhaps, the sport's power brokers will eventually realize that even emotions make for more authentic measurements of football superiority. When teams play games in which they're not disrespected (or, in other cases, depressed), football fans get a more accurate indication of quality...on a ballclub, throughout a conference, and throughout all of Division I-A competition. The biggest emerging argument against bowl games (and in favor of a playoff) is this whole concept of emotional evenness, and the sport of college football needs to devote some attention to the matter.

Other quick notes from this championship game...

Jim Tressel did not make a bad call on 4th and short from his own 29 late in the first half. Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis have made careers based on fourth-down gambles. Urban Meyer, in fact, used a fourth-down conversion from his own 29 to help his team beat South Carolina in November. Tressel's decision was great; it's his play call that was poor (a Troy Smith bootleg would have done the trick)....

... You rarely heard the names of Florida's corners and safeties on Monday night. Given that reality, the Gator secondary enjoyed a quietly dominating game against Ohio State... at least, if it's even possible to be quietly dominating. With Buckeye receivers being blanketed on virtually every play, there were few tackles or interceptions for the Florida secondary to make. The back line of the Gators' defense truly anchored the 41-14 rout. There's a reason Troy Smith pulled the ball back and took so many sacks...

... It seems so counter-intuitive to say this, but it's undeniably true: the only times Chris Leak didn't succeed were the times when he tried to push the ball downfield. After a season of keeping things short against SEC defenses, Leak employed the same patient methods against Ohio State, but with markedly better results. The simplicity, even the conservatism, of Florida's short-passing game made the Gators' 41-point output that much more amazing.