November 11, 2009
There are two games Saturday pitting two BCS top-25 teams head-to-head, Iowa at Ohio State and Utah at TCU, and the oddsmakers are really feeling the excitement: Ohio State opens up as anywhere from a 13-point to 17.5-point favorite over the Ricky Stanzi-less Hawkeyes in Columbus, and the Horned Frogs are marking their second appearance in less than a month in College GameDay's featured game as 19.5-point favorites over the Utes. You know it's a tough sell as a "marquee game" when one of the teams is trying to use the spread as motivation.
It's just that kind of weekend: In the other obviously big games, undefeated Cincinnati is favored to beat West Virginia by two scores Friday night; Georgia Tech is favored to beat Duke by double digits in a game that could decide the ACC's Coastal Division; suddenly struggling USC is a double-digit favorite over suddenly streaking Stanford; and SEC heavies Florida and Alabama are both expected to easily dispatch with South Carolina and Mississippi State on the road en route to the Gators' and Tide's winner-take-all showdown next month in the SEC Championship.
And frankly, it's beginning to feel like that kind of season. As Pete Thamel pointed out in Sunday's New York Times, every game is most definitely not a playoff down the stretch, as BCS proponents are so fond of contending. There is one "playoff' game -- Alabama-Florida in Atlanta, the winner of which is certainly bound for the BCS title game in the Rose Bowl, probably even if one of them happens to slip up in a horrifying upset in one of its last three games of the regular season -- but there is mere survival for Texas, which can also punch its ticket to Pasadena by taking care of its business against apparent non-threats Baylor, Kansas, Texas A&M and Overmatched Big 12 North Champion in the conference title game. For everyone else, it looks like playing out the string for lesser stakes.
That's fine, except that we're hitting mid-November, when the drama, turmoil and debate should be beginning to hit a fever pitch, and already the season feels like a foregone conclusion. There's nothing on the horizon like the familiar imbroglios that have made the rest of the decade so consistently entertaining. In 2003, there was the championship debate over the second half of the season between USC and LSU (which still detest one another for daring to stake a claim to the other's rightful national crown), even before season-long king Oklahoma threw the system into chaos by blowing the Big 12 Championship in spectacular fashion. In 2004, the unbeaten triptych of USC, Oklahoma and Auburn took the drama and unresolved debate straight through November, through championship weekend and even through the bowl games, from which Utah also emerged unbeaten for a little added debate. In both 2006 and 2007, the championship matchup wasn't settled until the final Saturday of the regular season, after jaw-dropping upsets that capped a straight month of contenders falling by the wayside on a weekly basis. Last year, Oklahoma and Texas drove the November with new, delightfully creative intensity as Florida steadily back up the polls and USC and Utah lingered just off the radar, wondering "what about us?"
This year, with no real drama on the horizon another month still, we've been reduced to weekly squabbles over petty officiating scandals, endlessly speculating about the fate of LeGarrette Blount and poring over obscure YouTube clips and message boards for some scraps of evidence of cheap shots, cheap quotes or any other cheap thrills that might fill the dramatic void that is emphatically not unfolding in the results on the field.
A little more than three-quarters of the way through the season, the defining moments of 2009 are probably Blount's right hook at Boise State, the bogus personal foul call against Arkansas' Malcolm Sheppard in Arkansas' loss to Florida, Brandon Spikes' eye gouge of Georgia's Washaun Ealey, and every star player in the state of Oklahoma either going down with a season-ending injury or being declared ineligible for the rest of the year. The most memorable play is either Tim Tebow getting knocked cold at Kentucky or Jahvid Best getting knocked cold against Oregon State. Notre Dame is out of the running for a BCS game but isn't hilariously inept; Ohio State is about the wrap up another Big Ten championship less than a month after losing convincingly to Purdue.
We're not even that happy with the foreordained powerhouses. I'm sure they'll each go down in popular memory as unstoppable monoliths of unimpeachable dominance, but of the "Big Three" swapping positions at the top of the polls for the last month-and-a-half, Alabama and Florida have both struggled to find much consistency or explosiveness on offense, and Texas hasn't beaten anyone in particular, with no one in particular remaining in front of it. With Oklahoma's relative collapse sans Sam Bradford, the Longhorns' best win is over a division rival (Oklahoma State) with no impressive wins of its own; on the same note, the best win for both Florida and Alabama (LSU) hasn't beaten another ranked team, either. The Gators apparently went through some inner turmoil after a close call at Mississippi State, Alabama almost ran out of gas against Tennessee, and Texas at one point trailed well into the third quarter against lowly Colorado. And these are unquestionably the best teams we have.
That can all change, of course. One of the saving graces of the stretch run should be the persistence of upstarts Cincinnati and TCU in the top five (with Boise State right behind), making them potential lightning rods for the annual round of BCS bashing if they're snubbed for a championship shot with unblemished records (which they certainly will be) or intriguing/controversial interlopers in the title game if there's some unthinkable blood-letting among the Big Three. South Carolina, Kansas or Auburn could still throw the best-laid plans for SEC-Texas in Pasadena into a tailspin.
A genuine Cinderella could save this ball yet from just going through the motions to get to Florida-Alabama. But there are no indications at all that anyone in the castle is willing to lower the gate for any approaching party it doesn't immediately recognize.