During its unprecedented seven-year reign of terror in college football, the Southeastern Conference has won national titles by beating teams from the Big Ten (Ohio State twice); the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Texas); the Pac-12 (Oregon); an independent (Notre Dame) and even one of its own (LSU).
Since 2005, the only big-five conference that hasn’t earned the right to have its lunch handed to it by the SEC is the ACC. Now that league has its shot, when 13-0 Florida State takes on 12-1 Auburn on Jan. 6 in the BCS title game.
After all the hand-wringing, politicking and political crossfire over who deserved to be in Pasadena to play for the title, these are the two best teams. It’s a lousy, corrupt, nonsensical system that fosters the worst sporting impulses – greed, scheduling cowardice, insititutional snobbery, etc. – but this is the matchup America wanted to see. The BCS mercifully will be put to rest on Jan. 7, 2014, yet it goes out having finally done its job right in its final season.
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The Seminoles have dominated everyone in their path on the way to an undefeated season. The Tigers have won what is still America’s toughest league, no matter what the envious outsiders say – and they slayed the Alabama giant along the way. Nobody in the nation has a better win than that.
But here comes the plot twist: the ACC team will be favored – by a touchdown or more, as of Sunday night. A worthy adversary has presented itself. The smug SEC finds itself in the unusual position of underdog.
After a steady elimination of pretender unbeatens this season, the Seminoles are the only one left – and nobody came within two touchdowns of changing that. Their dominance has been absolute, even if the level of competition has been suspect. They have the best player in the nation in Jameis Winston. They lead the nation in scoring defense and pass-efficiency offense and defense. They have a chance to win the school’s first national title since 1999, restoring the program to the prominence it enjoyed under Bobby Bowden.
Thus, SEC champion Auburn is in the position of the plucky underdog, the team of destiny that somehow won games it should have lost. Last year that team was Notre Dame, and the Fighting Irish were exposed as in over their heads in a brutal beatdown against Alabama.
Don’t expect the Tigers to be outmanned like the Irish were. Not the way they have played the last two weeks.
If anyone can argue it is as hot as Florida State, it is Auburn. The Tigers have won nine straight, bewildering everyone with a running game that is equal parts speed, power and deception. Everyone knows Auburn is going to run, but nobody can stop the No. 1 rushing attack in the nation – largely because you rarely know where the ball is going from play to play. Quarterback Nick Marshall has been a brilliant ball handler in Gus Malzahn’s tempo-driven spread offense, which fatigues, frustrates and infuriates defenders.
What the Tigers have not proven especially adept at is pass defense. That could be the major mismatch going up against Winston and what may be the best receiving corps in college football.
The BCS exists solely to match up the top two teams in a one-game, winner-take-all season finale. The rest of the BCS bowls – Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta – have some parameters placed upon them by the system but also are left to their own devices, to a degree. That often has led to a lousy array of matchups.
But this time it’s pretty good.
A Michigan State-Stanford Rose Bowl is a traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup, which was the desired (but not assured) pairing for the 100th anniversary of the game. It also matches up conference champions who had great seasons and take special delight in knocking the tar out of opposing teams. This will be hard-hat football.
The Sugar Bowl has big-name coaches and heavyweight traditions. But it also chose pocketbook and future alliances over the best possible matchup, taking Oklahoma over Oregon as the opponent for Alabama. Starting next year that game will be an SEC-Big 12 agreement, but the Sooners and Crimson Tide get the jump on that. Oklahoma will bring more fans to New Orleans than Oregon, which is farther away and less excited about the postseason after blowing an 8-0 start with two losses in the last four games.
The Orange Bowl matchup of Ohio State and Clemson is enticing – and not just because it’s the first matchup between the two since Woody Hayes punched himself out of a job 35 years ago. These are two teams that spent most of the year in the Top 10 but still have something to prove. Someone is going to have its first quality win away from home – but who?
The Fiesta Bowl gets stuck with this year’s bylaw-approved interloper, Central Florida, which is 11-1 but hasn’t looked impressive since coming back to beat Louisville on the road in mid-October. The Knights and Baylor are the novelty act, both playing in their first BCS bowls. Maybe it will be entertaining.
The BCS championship game should definitely be entertaining. At least the teams that have made it there are deserving. And in the final year of this dreadful system, it gives the SEC the chance for the clean sweep of the game’s other power conferences.
But Florida State is a big impediment to the great eight straight.
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