— One more weekend. The BCS title chase has clarity, but could there be one more flurry of surprises ahead? There are 70 bowl-eligible teams for 70 bowl slots — that historic 5-7 bowl team must wait for another season — but plenty of last-second jockeying going on. So let’s get right to it and feature a few subjects that should catch your eye.
1. Hail to the favorites
We love the little guys. We love underdogs. We love the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. We love Butler basketball.
But here’s what we love even more:
The unbeaten Auburn Tigers against the unbeaten Oregon Ducks to decide college football’s national championship.
SEC vs. Pac-10.
East vs. West.
Dynamic offense vs. dynamic offense.
It could be one of the all-timers.
So with apologies to the TCU Horned Frogs, who have registered a wonderful 12-0 season, the nation’s two best teams clearly have been established. It’s clear in the polls, clear on the computers and clear on the eyeball test.
TCU vs. Oregon? TCU vs. Auburn? TCU vs. anybody else? It just wouldn’t be the same.
Believe me, I write these words in a somewhat conflicted state. After all, aren’t many of the most classic sports moments centered around the underdogs?
For the record, I would like a plus-one system, something that gives an additional level of games. It’s the perfect compromise between a full-fledged playoff system and what we have. But that talk has gone nowhere. And I just can’t work up the outrage to say that TCU has been significantly wronged after sweeping through the Mountain West Conference and beating the likes of Oregon State and Baylor.
So give me Auburn against Oregon.
Give me the backdrop of controversy with Auburn’s Cameron Newton, even as he clutches his Heisman Trophy. Give me the Ducks and the intrigue of their game-day wardrobe selection.
This comes with one important proviso: Auburn and Oregon must win Saturday. There’s some potential drama.
Auburn gets South Carolina (9-3) in the SEC championship game. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who won five of these games while at Florida, has his mojo back. Or is it simply more confidence by pounding the ball with freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, then relying on the better decisions of quarterback Stephen Garcia?
South Carolina played an admirable regular-season game at Auburn (losing 35-27) and another tight game is possible. But Auburn has the better team, the game’s ultimate factor (Newton) and some destiny.
Oregon travels to Oregon State (5-6) for the annual “Civil War’’ game. You never know about these rivalry matchups. Oregon State needs a victory to become bowl eligible. But Oregon has come too far to falter.
It’s Formality Saturday.
Some people want chaos. Some people want the Little Guy to get his shot.
In this case, Auburn-Oregon is the best matchup for college football. It’s also the correct one.
2. TCU to the rescue
Speaking of TCU, the Horned Frogs will join the Big East Conference beginning in 2012.
Too bad it couldn’t be Sunday, just in time for selecting the BCS bowl bids.
TCU will bring its computer-friendly history to the Big East’s number-crunching platform, probably saving the league from talk of BCS banishment. Long term, this marriage looks great for TCU and the Big East.
But what about this weekend? Somebody will win the Big East and head to a BCS bowl. Somebody has to win.
That somebody could be Connecticut (7-4, 4-2), which could be make things nice and tidy by winning at South Florida (7-4, 3-3). That would be rather incredible, considering that UConn began 0-2 in Big East play. The Huskies also scored 10 points in a season-opening loss at Michigan against a Wolverines defense that allowed at least 34 points to eight of its opponents.
If UConn falters, West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) would lock down the title by downing Rutgers.
There’s also the slight possibility — if UConn and West Virginia lose, while Cincinnati beats Pittsburgh — of a five-way tie at 4-3 in league play (with South Florida and Syracuse joining in the fun as co-champions).
Yeah, yeah. Those are the rules. But it’s sad that such mediocrity could be rewarded with a BCS bid, while one-loss teams such as Boise State and Michigan State will be shuttled to less glamorous destinations.
It also seems absurd that UConn would undoubtedly be last pick in the BCS rotation (to the Fiesta Bowl). Because of the BCS rule that requires the Rose Bowl to select a top-four ranked non-automatic qualifier if it loses an anchor Pac-10 team, we could also see Stanford shipped across the country to the Orange Bowl, while TCU is placed in Pasadena.
It’s another unintended consequence for the ever-changing BCS that could nonsensically deny a natural Wisconsin-Stanford matchup in the Rose Bowl.
3. One more time: Oklahoma-Nebraska
It’s the Big 12 championship game Saturday at the Jerry Jones mega-playground in Arlington, Texas. But it’s so much more. For college-football fans of a certain age, the Oklahoma-Nebraska matchup still carries magical implications.
Barry Switzer. Tom Osborne.
Billy Sims. Johnny Rodgers.
It was the “Game of the Century’’ in 1971: No. 1 Nebraska over No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31.
Incredible but true: Neither team entered the game with a ranking below No. 11 from 1971-82.
Incredible but true: The teams each held top-five rankings for four consecutive meetings in the 1980s.
Oklahoma-Nebraska unraveled when the Big Eight morphed into the Big 12. The Sooners and Cornhuskers were placed in different divisions. The game wasn’t even played every season.
Just like that, one of college football’s most storied traditions was gone.
So it’s thanks for the memories and the last Oklahoma-Nebraska game for, well, who knows how long? Nebraska is off to the Big Ten in 2011. Some might view it as the Cornhuskers’ final opportunity to stick it to the league they fled under contentious circumstances.
Me? I’d love a classic, a memorable game. In an era when there will be 10 teams in the Big 12 and 12 teams in the Big Ten, tradition often takes a beating.
One more Oklahoma-Nebraska matchup is a nod to the way it used to be.
4. Under the radar
Nearly nine years ago, his actions changed forever the manner in which coaches fill out their resumes. George O’Leary lost his dream job (Notre Dame), and he was banished from everyone’s mainstream consciousness.
On a Saturday when everyone else is focused on BCS implications, O’Leary’s Central Florida Golden Knights will play in the Conference USA championship game for the third time in six seasons.
Nobody mentions O’Leary for big-time jobs any longer. Those opportunities probably have passed him by. But he has built something special at Central Florida. The Knights (9-3) face Southern Methodist (7-5) for the C-USA title, more evidence that the program has the talent for upward mobility.
It has the television market and destination (Orlando) to make it very attractive for a BCS football conference looking for a new member to round things out, a league such as, say, the Big East. O’Leary, whose first season with Central Florida was 0-11, can even his seven-year Knights’ record at 44-44 by beating SMU.
Then it’s off to a bowl game (the Liberty with a C-USA title) and the opportunity to register the school’s first postseason victory.
O’Leary’s work at Central Florida might not resonate with the masses. But he has given the Knights an identity, and the chance for more.
5. Hokies set the standard
There are plenty of ACC observers delighted to see the Florida State Seminoles (9-3) once again playing in the league’s championship game. After all, a healthy Florida State program makes for a higher-profile conference.
There are others who wonder why the Miami Hurricanes (7-5) can’t make more of a dent in the ACC. Since joining the league, the Hurricanes, who trumpet the program’s five national championships at every occasion, have not won a league title. Miami has not even won its division.
It is easy to focus on everything wrong in the ACC — namely, why Florida State and Miami haven’t provided the expected value for the league?
But the ACC has one thing very right about its operation, the way the Virginia Tech Hokies (10-2) do business. If the Hokies defeat the Seminoles on Saturday, they will win their fourth ACC title in seven seasons, since the league raided the Big East.
Virginia Tech has played in four of the six ACC championship games. Under Coach Frank Beamer, the Hokies generally display the consistency of a metronome. There’s not much deviation from the plan. There’s never a sense of panic.
Virginia Tech began this season at 0-2 with a back-and-forth 33-30 loss against Boise State, then a horrific 21-16 defeat against Football Championship Subdivision member James Madison, perhaps this season’s most inexplicable upset.
Since then, 10 straight victories — with No. 11 possibly on tap for Saturday. A bowl victory, and a 12-game winning streak to close the season, would make it one of the sweetest finishes ever for Beamer’s crew.
Back in September, who could’ve imagined that?