2009 BCS Championship Game Notebook

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 9, 2009

As Florida celebrates another title, it's worth taking a fresh look at the 11-season BCS era.

Mr. Zemek's e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com

The end of another college football season demands an annual checkup on the BCS Championship Game. This was the eleventh title tilt of the BCS era, and the third time that the sport has played its last game no earlier than Jan. 7. Once again, it's important to re-examine the quality of a season's last ride.

For all its promise and potential, Gators-Sooners—a perfectly spirited and physical contest played with admirable amounts of passion on both sides—nevertheless failed to live up to expectations. We're left with an enduring and not-so-surprising reality that has defined BCS championships: Only when both teams are undefeated and untouched by controversy do these showdowns soar. After another year, it's time for a brief BCS history lesson.

Three times in the BCS era, the national title game has involved two entirely untainted teams. In the 2000 Sugar Bowl, Virginia Tech and Florida State did battle in New Orleans. In the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, unblemished Ohio State tackled mighty Miami in suburban Phoenix. In the 2006 Rose Bowl, triumphant Texas toppled USC in Pasadena. Those three games provided the BCS system with its perfect scenario, the one and only scenario in which Roy Kramer's creation actually works: two and only two unbeaten teams at the end of the regular season.

It's true that the 2005 Orange Bowl between Oklahoma and USC offered two unbeaten outfits, but the gridiron heroes from Auburn and Utah also sported unblemished records that season, drenching Sooners-Trojans in a considerably copious amount of questions. Yes, USC crushed Oklahoma to appear worthy of an undisputed title, but any fair process would have enabled Auburn and Utah to have a shot against the Men of Troy. At any rate, the point remains: The 2004 season—culminating with OU and USC in Miami—did not represent an occasion when college football had a clear-cut title tilt. Only three times in the past 11 seasons has the sport received manna from football heaven.

In those three untainted encounters, college football witnessed—by far—the best championship games of the BCS era. Florida State's win over Virginia Tech featured Michael Vick's sensational swashbuckling, and Peter Warrick's wondrous performance. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl was, quite simply, one of the greatest emotional thrill rides in college football history. The 2006 Rose Bowl, plainly put, saw Vince Young play the best game in the Granddaddy's long and colorful existence, dating back to 1902. College football historians would not even begin to debate the contention that Hokies-Noles, Buckeyes-Hurricanes, and Longhorns-Trojans stand far above the other eight title tussles of the BCS era. No other game even remotely matches this fabulous threesome. The only question would be how to rank this trio of top-notch games (some have Ohio State-Miami as No. 1, while others would put Texas-SC in the top spot).

What does this prove? The same thing that gets reaffirmed each time the BCS system doesn't get its one rosy circumstance: A title game tinged with controversy—no matter how slight—is a title game that won't deliver the goods.

The BCS era is unique in college football history because it involves a politicized race to the national title game. Notice the precise semantic distinction: The BCS politicizes the race to the national title game, not the race to the national championship itself. In the old poll-and-bowl system, the national title chase was extremely (and unquestionably) politicized, but the race to the bowl games actually offered more consistency and certainty. While the Rose Bowl's Pac-10 vs. Big Ten arrangement still existed in the old days, the other New Year's Day bowls also possessed conference tie-ins. The Big 8 champion went to the Orange, the SEC champion to the Sugar, and the Southwest Conference champion to the Cotton. Under the old system, here are the matchups that probably would have emerged:

Rose: USC-Penn State; Orange: Oklahoma-Alabama; Sugar: Florida-Utah; Cotton: Texas-Ohio State.

No, the four matchups wouldn't have solved all the sport's postseason problems, but all told, it would have been better than the current crop of BCS bowls, which didn't get big box office ratings. You would have had a very tough time voting for a clear national champion under the above scenario, but at least the matchups would have been good, and the sport's champion would have been decided at the end of a breathtaking New Year's Day stuffed with football.

In the BCS era, things are different on many levels, usually in a negative way.

While the old system politicized the national championship more than anything we see these days, the BCS system has generated a lot more controversy surrounding the national championship game, which exists at the heart of the whole process. This is where the point about controversial title games enters the picture.

Because the BCS promised to put the two best teams on the field at the end of every season, any taint in the proceedings puts an enormous amount of pressure on the questionable team to perform well in a BCS title game. Florida State was viewed to be a very shaky selection for the first BCS showdown against Tennessee in January of 1999. The Seminoles stunk up the joint in a very ugly 23-16 loss. Florida State once again made the proverbial "big game" under a cloud of controversy in the 2001 Orange Bowl, and got shut out on offense against Oklahoma. In the 2002 Rose Bowl, a Nebraska team that made the title game despite failing to win its own division (yes, division!) got clobbered by Miami.

Sense a trend here? It only continues in the seasons that didn't provide a perfect scenario for the BCS title game.

In the 2004 Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma and LSU were entangled in a very heated debate with USC. The Sooners and Tigers played a sloppy game ultimately taken by Nick Saban's squad. In the 2005 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma and USC reached the ultimate destination at the expense of Auburn and Utah. Oklahoma wound up feeling the pressure of having to justify its selection, one year after the title-game clunker against LSU. The Sooners folded like a flour tortilla against the Trojans.

In the 2007 BCS title game, Ohio State crumbled against a Florida team that wanted to prove its worth. Last year, the Buckeyes—similar to Oklahoma in 2005—felt the heat that accompanies teams who stumble in the BCS spotlight. As soon as Ohio State experienced adversity against LSU, the Scarlet and Gray—mindful of their Florida failure a year earlier—faltered against the Bayou Bengals. The 38-24 loss proved to be so psychologically devastating for the Buckeyes that they openly admitted how hurt they were after another big-game loss to USC this past September.

This brings us to the present year, and last night's messy affair in Miami.

In Dolphin Stadium, both Florida and Oklahoma committed lots of mental errors. The two teams played hard, but not all that well. The Gators committed several false starts and roughed a punter right after wasting a timeout. Tim Tebow threw two picks and played a subpar first half. The Sooners committed a few key holding penalties, had a field goal blocked, endured red-zone horror shows, and bobbled a pass that turned into a crushing fourth-quarter interception. It took a full quarter for both teams to feel somewhat comfortable on the field, and even then, neither side proved to be particularly consistent for a very extended period of time. This was a ragged game, especially from the Sooners, who still looked the part of a team wrestling (unsuccessfully) with big-game demons that have yet to be slain. There's more than a little reason to claim that the political dimension of a Bowl Championship Series race—with its Harris polls and computer formulas and Big 12 South three-way ties (among other crazy scenarios college football throws at its voters each season)—militates against a high-quality championship game. It's definitely something the sport needs to examine as it plots a way forward (if it ever has the guts to do so).

The Late Start, and Other Notes

In addition to the (not-very-high) quality of the 11 BCS title games on record—and more specifically, the eight games somewhat touched by controversy—the BCS also has to consider the harmful effect a late kickoff is having on this event. No, this is not a reference to the 8:20 p.m. start time in Miami for Gators-Sooners; it's a reference to the Jan. 8 date on which the game was played.

For the first eight years of the BCS era, the championship game came just two or three days after New Year's Day. It wasn't until the 2006 regular season (with the BCS bowls in January of 2007) that college football instituted the official "BCS Championship Game" as a fifth bowl game, while the fab four—Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta (in place of the now-diminished Cotton Bowl)—remained in place. With the new lineup of five BCS bowls came the later date for the grand finale. This year's game was played on Jan. 8, as was the case for the 2007 matchup between Florida and Ohio State. Last season, the LSU-Ohio State title game was played on Jan. 7.

It should surprise absolutely no one that none of the last three BCS championship games—played roughly a full week after New Year's Day—have involved crisp, precise play from both participating teams. Of the six teams to play for the whole enchilada in the past three seasons, only Florida in '07 maxed out from start to finish. (LSU played really well for the last two and a half quarters of last season's championship game.) One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that longer layoffs are hurting the on-field product. College football needs to figure out a way to compress the big bowls starting with the 2010 regular season, when a BCS contract acquires a new broadcast partner (ESPN). New Year's Day needs to become more relevant, and title games need to be played no later than January 3.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops had his team ready to play against Florida on Thursday night, as shown by his team's superior first half. With that having been said, Stoops did make one critical mistake in the heat of battle. On the third-and-goal the Sooners faced midway through the second quarter, OU's staff really lost focus. In any short-yardage situation, an offense needs to line up quickly and initiate a power-based running play before the defense can get ready. Quarterback sneaks or simple dive plays need to start before a defense can line up or catch its breath (or both). When linebackers are still surveying the formation—and have not yet loaded the tackle box—an offense has to strike.

The Sooners and quarterback Sam Bradford didn't do this on one of the handful of plays that markedly affected the rest of the proceedings. Instead of immediately snapping the ball and catching the Gators off-guard with an up-tempo approach, OU's offense looked to the sideline for a play call, taking up a solid 30 seconds of real time. By this point, the Gators were able to regain their legs, and sure enough, Sooner running back Chris Brown got stuffed. On the next play, the same result emerged, and a drive went down the drain. OU used a no-huddle to tire the Gators' defense during certain parts of the first half, but in goal-line situations that demanded a faster pace, Stoops slowed down his offense at great cost to his team.

Finally, one man's make-believe top 5 ballots. With Florida and Oklahoma littering Dolphin Stadium with mistakes, college football has another train wreck on its hands, because the sport didn't get the thunderously clear verdict that would put a national title debate to bed. Consider that Florida was basically playing a home game Thursday against Oklahoma, much as LSU had a home game against Ohio State the year before. Even with the home cooking, Florida hardly dominated… and was lucky to emerge from the first half with a 7-all score. There's a political way to handle the season-ending rankings, and there's a merit-based way to view the sport's pecking order for 2008-'09. This writer doesn't have an actual ballot, but if he did, here's how it would look in the worlds of politics and pure merit:

This writer's politically sensitive ballot (based on a desire to embarrass the BCS system and send the kinds of messages college football's blind, greedy, ignorant and tone-deaf "leaders" need to hear) is as follows:

1—Utah; 2—Florida; 3—USC; 4—Texas; 5—Oklahoma.

My merit-based ballot (based on a desire to appropriately recognize and reward teams for what they've achieved this season, and not to determine who would win a game on a neutral field, which is an entirely different criterion) would look like this:

1—tie, Florida and Utah (split ballot); 3, Texas; 4—USC; 5—Oklahoma.

Sadly but surely, and for the second time in the past three years, a college football season ends with every red-blooded male in America wanting to see USC and Florida duel on a neutral field. When will it ever happen?

Alas, that's another subject for another day. After a weekend of reflection, expect some more season-ending insights on the year that was in college football. For now, toast the Gators, who overcame Oklahoma in yet another BCS Championship Game defined by layoff-induced rust.

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