Notre Dame, Alabama matchup might be legendary
December 2 Guest Column
In its 15th and next-to-last season, the Bowl Championship Series found the peace and prosperity of an argument-free, everybody-on-board title game.
It hit college football's mother lode, a Notre Dame-Alabama showdown for the national title that already is stirring the masses, ratcheting up ticket demand and promising five weeks of overhype. Arguably, it's the greatest championship-game matchup the BCS has delivered.
If not, it's on the short, short list.
Sunday's final BCS Standings nailed it down: the Fighting Irish at No. 1, 'Bama at No. 2, all the voting and computer processing a formality after the Crimson Tide got past Georgia 32-28 in a thrilling Southeastern Conference championship game. Notre Dame is the sport's third all-time winningest major-college program. Alabama ranks eighth. It's the fourth time that a season has played down to a meeting of top 10 programs in the BCS' big game and the first since Alabama and Texas squared off in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2009 season.
More telling, going back to the BCS' inception in 1998, this is the first involving Notre Dame.
The Yankees of college football are unbeaten and reascended to the sport's big stage in Brian Kelly's third season as coach. Never before now had the Irish finished higher than sixth in the BCS rankings. In the five years before this one, they were nowhere to be found among the final top 25.
They wrapped up a perfect regular season two Saturdays ago, the only BCS-eligible team to do so (Ohio State being grounded by NCAA sanctions).
Looming overhead is the sport's Death Star, the omnipotent Southeastern Conference, home to Alabama and the sport's last six national champions. The once-beaten Crimson Tide is seeking its third title in four years, something that hasn't been done since Nebraska from 1994-97 -- and before that, Notre Dame from 1946-49.
The Tide and Fighting Irish have spent a quarter of a century apart, not taking the same field since 1987. They haven't faced off for these kinds of stakes since the very first of their six meetings, in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1973 season, when both were undefeated and Alabama entered No. 1, Notre Dame No. 3.
They delivered a masterpiece, trading the lead six times en route to a 24-23 win by the Irish on Bob Thomas' field goal in the final 4½ minutes. The two teams split the national championship, the nation's coaches sticking with their prebowl rankings (the Tide at No. 1) and most everybody else elevating Notre Dame.
Depending on whom you count as a selector, the programs have combined for a total of 22 or 27 championships.
'Bama coach Nick Saban said after Saturday's come-from-behind victory over Georgia that he wasn't certain of the date of next month's title game. Just that there are weeks of waiting.
"I'll look at the calendar sometime tomorrow," he said.
Mark it: Monday night, Jan. 7. The season gets a big-bang finish in Miami.
Item: One more season before the BCS gives way to the new four-team playoff.
Deduction: No muss, no BCS fuss now. But the selection process -- employing a committee rather than relying on current mathematical rankings -- might have been a bit stickier if the playoff had launched immediately.
Besides Notre Dame and Alabama, it figures that the other two entrants would come from a pool of four teams: Nos. 3-6 Florida, Oregon, Kansas State and Stanford. The 11-1 Gators have perhaps the strongest case with the best collection of wins (Texas A&M and Florida State on the road, LSU and South Carolina at home) and a reasonable loss (17-9 to Georgia). The Gators are ranked a collective second by the BCS' affiliated computers, ahead of 'Bama and behind only Notre Dame.
The fourth and final pick?
Kansas State won the Big 12 championship, and the conference commissioners who'll oversee the playoff say they want league titles and schedule strength to be difference-makers in close-call situations. K-State's lone loss was an ugly one, however, 52-24 at Baylor.
Oregon steamrolled 11 of its 12 opponents, falling only to Stanford in overtime. But it didn't win the Pacific 12. The Cardinal did, and it's hard to overlook that head-to-head outcome in Oregon's Autzen Stadium. The Ducks also took the fewest schedule risks outside their conference.
Stanford is saddled with a second loss, though one -- in overtime at Notre Dame -- came by virtue of a non-touchdown call on Stepfan Taylor's second-effort, fourth-and-goal run from the Irish 1-yard line. Harder to explain away is an earlier defeat against middle-of-the-road Washington.
Saban foresees what others do upon the playoff's 2014 arrival. "We'll have a big, two-hour ESPN show on the four teams that didn't get in that could have got in, should have got in and all that. We'll still have that," he says. "But I think, in most cases, you'll get the four best teams playing in the game. And I think that's going to be good for college football."
Item: Northern Illinois becomes the first Mid-American Conference team to crack the BCS lineup, landing in the Orange Bowl against Florida State.
Deduction: The MAC deserves this after a succession of takedowns of better-pedigreed team. The Huskies had it coming, moving to 12-1 with Friday's 44-37, double-overtime win over Kent State in the league championship game. And who didn't want to see quarterback Jordan Lynch work against a BCS-caliber opponent?
Lynch kept himself at least on the periphery of Heisman Trophy conversation, running for three touchdowns and passing for another against Kent State. The fourth-year junior is the nation's fourth-leading rusher (with 1,771 yards, more than Oregon's Kenjon Barner or Wisconsin's Montee Ball) and the MAC's most efficient passer (a 63% completion rate, 24 TDs and just five interceptions lending him a higher rating than Oklahoma's Landry Jones or Ohio State's Braxton Miller).
He and the Huskies got maximum value out of their Mid-American title, jumping six spots to No. 15 in the final BCS rankings to claim the league's first BCS berth. Northern Illinois needed to finish at least 16th and ahead of the champion of an automatically qualifying conference; it wound up ahead of two (Louisville of the Big East and Wisconsin of the Big Ten).
Item: Heisman ballots are due Monday at 5 p.m. ET, and projections still point to Johnny Football.
Deduction: Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel should prepare remarks for this Saturday's presentation, but Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein gave voters food for at least a little thought. His closing argument was a 184-yard passing, 103-yard rushing, three-TD performance in the Wildcats' 42-24 win over Texas, earning a share of the Big 12 championship and the league's automatic BCS berth.
Klein put the 'Cats on his shoulders, calling his own number on 15 of the first 19 plays in the second half. In that time, they turned a 10-7 deficit into a 28-17 lead. Klein was impeccable in the half, throwing just four passes but completing all of them for 112 yards and running for 84 yards.
"I don't know about everybody else," K-State coach Bill Snyder said. "(But) I don't know anybody who means more to this football team than Collin Klein."
One further note on Northern Illinois' Lynch: He closed with his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game (160 vs. Kent State), and broke Denard Robinson's record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season.
Item: Oregon State and Wisconsin both hit the 70-point mark in their regular-season finales. And Northern Illinois, K-State and Baylor top 40.
Deduction: Bowls still must be folded into the numbers. Still, it's almost certain that this season will remake the offensive record book. Major-college teams have piled up 410.4 yards and 29.6 point a game (records are 392.8 and 28.4). Quarterbacks are completing 60.6 percent of their passes for an average of 239.3 yards (records are 60.6% and 233.1).
The running game has surged, too, averaging 4.41 yards per carry (the record is 4.3) and 171.2 per game (on pace to be the highest since 1988).