Monday, November 5, 2012

Valid Excuses

By Jonathan Lowe

After Saturday night's last-minute victory, Alabama continues to hold on to the top spot in the country. While there are games still to be played, the defending champions put themselves head and shoulders above the rest of the contenders for their crown. But after the Crimson Tide, the top three "bridesmaids" have their worthiness shuffled through more than a game of Three Card Monty.

The big commonality amongst Notre Dame, Oregon, and Kansas State is that they're all undefeated. There are threads of similarity with their schedules (Oklahoma, Stanford, USC). Other than that, your guess is as good as mine. The Irish have the most noted defense. The Ducks ... the most explosive offense. The Wildcats could be called the most complete of the three.

Three programs, three allegiances, three ways to the goal of a national championship berth. That light at the end of the season's tunnel would mean something different to each program involved in the chase. But what exactly?

Validation: The System

We'll start out West, where Eugene has supplanted Los Angeles and Palo Alto as the hotbed for pigskin on the Pacific coast. Starting with the consistency of Mike Belotti, the Duck program has flourished under Chip Kelly. In a world where spread offenses have become the nouveau riche, Kelly's system is a step ahead.

The high-flying attack led them to a perfect regular season in 2010, only to be upended in the BCS Title game by Auburn. Now, they look for validation two years later. It will have to come after a Pac-12 Championship Game that didn't exist in the 2010 run. It will more than likely have to come against another SEC champ, setting U of O up to be this decade's Ohio State (great record, but subpar in relation to their SEC bowl opponent).

Validation: A Turn-Around Career

For Kansas State, a title would also mean credibility. The Wildcats are actually a little more established in the "modern" age of college football than the Quack Attack. This can all be attributed to the efforts (twice over) of coach Bill Snyder. Snyder made his presence known to the Little Apple in 1989. It's been well-documented how he turned one of the worst programs in the game into a perennial contender for Big 12 championships in the late '90s and early 2000s.

After retiring in 2005, the team went under an underwhelming stint with Ron Prince at the helm. K-State wooed Snyder back to the sidelines, and if the Wildcats end up on top after January 7th, everyone in Manhattan, KS will reap the benefits. The coach, in particular, would become the oldest man to lead a program to a championship. In a young man's game, this could be the biggest "fountain of youth" moment in centuries.

Validation: League Supremacy

There's another side of the 'legitimacy coin' that both of these schools could buff. Through this bout of SEC dominance, the Big 12 and Pac-12 have been unwillingly trampled in their fight for second banana. Oklahoma won it all in 2000, but no program has lost more championship bouts. USC's win and loss in the title game have been officially stripped from the record books. Not even Texas could slow the SEC juggernaut that got rolling after the Longhorns won the trophy in 2005. Other than these three schools and Oregon, no other current members of the conferences has even been to the BCS Championship.

The criticisms of the leagues are quite connected. Both are full of prolific offenses and less than stout defenses. On the gridiron, they prefer finesse to power. A win in the big game (and over the vaunted SEC) would go a long way to inching the whole collective closer to the honor of "top conference in the country."

Validation: A Return to Tradition

The school with the most to gain may be the one that's had the most all along. As much as people in Tuscaloosa, Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Los Angeles want to think they have the center of college football, it really revolves around South Bend (and trust me, I'm not a fan). Notre Dame's presence in the game is about as pervasive as the Yankees to Major League Baseball and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. No matter how tough times get, they're never irrelevant enough to throw them completely off the radar.

The Fighting Irish are getting closer to returning to the BCS for the first time since the 2007 Sugar Bowl. With just three more victories, they could easily find themselves in their first-ever BCS Championship Game. It would be a comeback to glory that hasn't been seen since the early 1990s.

Skeptics are saying that we've seen this train roll through before. The last two coaches got off to fast starts. Tyrone Willingham began his ND career with an 8-0 record in 2002. Charlie Weis went 9-3 in 2006 and followed that up with 10-3 season in 2007. The difference, to me, between these coaches and Brian Kelly is the way and the timing of the latter's turnaround.

Kelly's suffocating defense is among the top in the country. It's one he's built up over the last couple of seasons, bearing fruit in his third year on the sidelines. It feels like the coach has built a better foundation than his two predecessors, and a BCS title could stamp the year as a return to euphoria amongst the Leprechaun and his supporters.

When everything settles down on December 2nd, we'll have our championship matchup for this year. Assuming the Ducks, Wildcats, and Irish all win out, it should be fun to find out which team (or teams, depending on the SEC's carnivorous schedule) gets the chance to validate more than just their fans' parking at the area hotels in Miami.

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