Monday, October 22, 2012
As the college football season enters the final weekend in October, much of the stage has been set for its final acts. Conference races have been distilled down to a few viable contenders, and the shortlists for individual awards have become even shorter. And yet, with a full month of action to make the season's most dramatic decisions, I have made up my mind on how 2012's final act should be written.
I want to see Oregon play Alabama in January's BCS Championship Game.
A few other teams may currently have more impressive resumes (sorry, Florida). And both the Tide and the Ducks still have the nastiest portions of their schedules remaining, with each facing a trip to play a squad that knocked them off in their own stadiums last year (LSU and USC, respectively). But I have seen enough; this is the game I have to see.
What makes the prospect of this Alabama team playing this Oregon team so enticing is the broader implications of such a matchup. Yes, both teams have been dominant. Neither has played a meaningful second half so far this year. But plenty of teams have rolled through regular seasons before this. No, what makes this potential matchup so appealing is what it would tell us about college football's future.
Spread offenses have, well, spread across this country like a pandemic, from the Big 12's spread passing attacks to Oregon and Ohio State's lightning fast spread option looks. While they differ in how they move the ball down the field, all of these offenses are geared around minimizing the time between snaps in large part to prevent defenses from rotating personnel.
And yet there is one enclave where the super-fast spread has not rewritten the game's DNA. In the SEC, teams certainly mix spread elements into their offenses, but Alabama, Florida (post-Urban Meyer), LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina do not push the same frantic pace we see in much of the rest of the country. In fact, as high tempo spread offenses have replicated across the rest of the country, the SEC has kept to to its more traditional ways — and won six consecutive BCS titles in a row.
But didn't we already see an Oregon-SEC championship game just two years ago? Only in name.
That season's champion, Auburn, was not representative of the SEC juggernauts that have dominated the past half-decade. Instead, the 2010 Tigers were led by a self-styled Superman in Cam Newton and played enough defense to avoid full-blown track meets (see their tilt with Arkansas). Gus Malzahn brought the quickest offense the league has seen in recent years, and the result was a different kind of game.
But even more so, that game left us with an unsatisfying result regarding the trajectory of the sport's strategy. Auburn won a close, low-scoring battle riddled with sloppiness. It would have been difficult to leave Glendale, AZ, that day feeling like Auburn, whatever it represented, had conquered Oregon's attack.
2012 Alabama and Oregon are different. They represent beachheads in the way college football will be played in the years to come.
Unlike the NFL, college football's beauty is in its diversity of schemes, locales, and traditions. At the professional level, the double-edged sword of parity punishes coaches who dare to employ the unorthodox. But with so many college programs at such uneven playing levels, the sport's generals have more opportunities to develop its next strategic innovation.
College football is a sport of regional interest, but it is also a sport of national meta-narratives. The SEC's insurrection against the B1G. The Pac-12's constant struggle against East Coast bedtimes. The shifting sands of conference realignment. We love these stories because, frankly, many of the games themselves are uncompetitive outside a larger context.
Which leads us back to the Tide and Ducks. With the amount of football remaining to be played, the likelihood of both teams holding serve and meeting unbeaten in Miami is likely be worse than 50-50. But if this is the matchup we get on January 7, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which one of these two philosophies has an added feather in its cap on January 8. Such a game would have to be more than just three (okay, probably more like four) hours of entertainment. It would answer some pressing questions of two contrasting ideologies.
Forget Governor Romney and President Obama. This is the debate I want to see.