Monday, January 15, 2007

The 2006 college football review

The college football season ended one week ago tonight, with Florida's suprising 41-14 trouncing of previously #1 and unbeaten Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game. I'm glad I don't bet on sports, because if I had I would have lost some money. No doubt, most people who did put money on this game are poorer now, as very few people expected Florida to beat Ohio State, and even fewer expected the result to be as lopsided as it was.

It's always fun to look back at the beginning of the season to see how preseason expectations turned out. Florida, which started the year ranked #7 in the AP poll and #8 in the USA Today coaches' poll, was obviously expected to have a good year but I don't recall very many people picking them to win it all; Ohio State, USC and last year's champion, Texas, were all getting more national buzz and even conference rival Auburn was ranked ahead of the Gators to start the season. Things looked even worse for the Gators after they lost to Auburn in the middle of the season, but as teams ahead of them also suffered losses, and as the Gators climbed their way up to the top of an SEC that was clearly the best conference in the nation in 2006, they earned their right to face an Ohio State team that had sat at the top of the polls all year long.

And they proved themselves to be the best. Sure, the excuses can be made for Ohio State: they had a very long layoff between games. Ted Ginn, Jr. was injured. Anything can happen in any given game. Etc. But the fact remains, that in the biggest game of the year, the Buckeyes were simply overwhelmed by Urban Meyer's Gators. Florida's defense held Ohio State to a mere 82
yards of total offense; Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was only allowed to complete four passes the entire game; he was sacked five times, fumbled once, threw one interception and never found the endzone. And the Ohio State defense simply didn't have an answer for Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, DeShawn Wynn and the rest of the Gator offense. The Buckeyes were also exhausted on defense, since Florida had an amazing 40:48-to-19:12 advantage in time of possession.

Going into the bowl season, the big controversy was whether Michigan should have gotten a chance to face Ohio State in a rematch for the national title, rather than Florida. However, that controversy seems to have fallen by the wayside after the Wolverines were rather handily defeated by USC, 18-32, in the Rose Bowl. Had they beaten the two-loss Trojans, the Wolverines might still have an argument that they could have beaten Ohio State just as convincingly as Florida did. But that didn't happen, and the Wolverines are left looking back at that thrilling November game against Ohio State in November and wondering what could have been.

Now that the season is over, the only controversy, albeit a minor one, seems to be one regarding Boise State, which was the only team to end the season without a loss. They finished #5 in the AP poll and #6 in the USA Today poll after an amazing 43-42 victory in overtime over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Should they have been awarded the national title instead of Florida, by virtue of an undefeated season? One AP sportswriter in New Mexico thought so, but apparently nobody else - the blue-and-orange-clad fans in Idaho excepted - did.

While the argument can be made that Boise State deserved to be ranked higher than #5 - Ohio State (#2) as well as two-loss LSU (#3) and USC (#4) teams ended the season ranked higher than the Broncos in the AP poll - the argument that they should have been crowned champs instead of Florida is a bit more difficult to make. While Boise State's schedule was tougher than most people give it credit for and, trick plays or no, they did beat the Big XII champion in one of the most amazing college football games ever played, it just wouldn't be fair for them to get the nod over a Florida team that just routed an Ohio State squad that was ranked #1 for the entire season and was expected by most to win the national title. Could Boise State have beaten Florida if the two had actually played? Nobody will ever know, of course, but honestly? Probably not. As one who roots for the "little guys" and loves to see non-BCS teams crash the BCS party, however, I'm very happy with what Boise State accomplished this past season and I salute them.

Two other teams that have a legitimate beef with the BCS process are Wisconsin and Auburn. The BCS rule that stated that no more than two teams from any conference could participate in any of the five BCS bowl games meant that they had to settle for Capital One and Cotton Bowl appearances, respectively, instead of the more lucrative BCS games, even though they were both ranked higher in the final BCS standings than either Notre Dame (who were dominated by LSU, 14-41, in the Sugar Bowl) or Wake Forest (who lost, 13-24, to Louisville in the Orange Bowl). Considering the way Ohio State was drubbed, in fact, there's an argument that the Wisconsin Badgers, who defeated a solid Arkansas team 17-14 in the Capital One Bowl and whose only loss was an early-season defeat to Michigan (they did not face Ohio State in Big Ten play this year), end the season as the best one-loss team in the nation behind Florida. Would things have different for the Badgers had they not scheduled a ridiculous out-of-conference slate of Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State and Buffalo?

To be fair to Wake Forest, they did earn their way into the BCS mix by winning the ACC. They, along with Rutgers, were one of the feel-good, rags-to-riches stories of the 2006 college football season. But they represent an ACC that is suprisingly weak right now: Florida State, which was for years the conference's flagship, is clearly a program in decline, Miami's tumultous 7-6 season was a disappointment by any measure, and other decent ACC programs - Virginia Tech, Clemson or Georgia Tech, for example, - just can't quite yet make that next step.

Notre Dame, meawhile, holds the dubious record of the nation's longest bowl losing streak of nine straight games, going back to 1995. I can't help but wonder if Notre Dame is having a problem living up to their vaunted mystique and allure in the BCS era. I think pollsters habitually overrate them (they were ranked #2 in the AP poll and #3 in the USA Today poll to start the season) just because "they're Notre Dame," and their reputation and fan base get them invited to high-profile bowl games that they probably don't deserve to be in (last year's Fiesta Bowl and this year's Sugar Bowl being but two examples).

Louisville, which was the only other one-loss team besides Florida to win its BCS bowl, might have a gripe with the process as well, although it's hard to argue that they played a tougher schedule than Florida and therefore should have faced Ohio State instead. They end the season in the #6 spot in the AP poll. Rounding out the top ten are #7 Wisconsin, #8Michigan, #9 Auburn and #10 West Virginia. The USA Today poll has the same top ten teams except that Wisconsin is ranked higher than Boise State and Louisville.

It was a fun and exciting college football season; I enjoyed it, even if I had to spend part of it watching from a distance in Dubai. I especially enjoyed watching my Cougars win ten games, clinch the C-USA championship and go to the Liberty Bowl for the first time in ten years, even if the results of that game weren't exactly to my liking (Houston did, incidentially, pick up a handful of votes in the USA Today poll, but got no love from the sportswriters; had they beaten South Carolina I'd like to think that they would actually have been ranked, but alas).

So now comes the dreaded, seven-and-a-half-month-long offeseason. Sure, there will be some football-related activities, such as signing day next month and spring practices later on. But it just won't take the place of the actual games, the tailgates, and even the in-season controversies. If there's one thing I hate about college football, it's that the season is just too damn short.

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