Monday, December 2, 2013

BCS Hopes Dashed, Saved on Two Plays

By Adam Russell

Sometimes the decisions people make in life can have dire consequences. A poor financial decision can land one in bankruptcy court. A poor marital decision can land one in divorce court. You get the point.

The final week of the college football regular season saw decisions by two coaches that extended the national title hopes of one team and dashed the hopes of another. Both decisions were gutsy, perhaps even a little insane, but neither was successful. Additionally, both decisions will be highly second-guessed, much maligned and extensively scrutinized maybe for years to come.

I'm talking about the decisions by Michigan's Brady Hoke to go for two rather than kick for the tie after scoring late in the game against arch-rival Ohio State, and Alabama's Nick Saban to try a long field goal rather than run out the clock and go to overtime against arch-rival Auburn. In Michigan's case, it allowed the hated Buckeyes to remain unbeaten and potentially play for a BCS championship. In Alabama's case, it allowed the despised Tigers to score the winning touchdown and knock the Crimson Tide out of the hunt for a third consecutive national title.

I understand throwing caution to the wind and going for all the marbles in similar situations, but sometimes making that decision depends a lot on the flow of the game and the nature of the opponent. A coach has to take into account the second half, fourth quarter and final minutes of that quarter to get a feel for what his team can do on both sides of the ball — all three, actually. He needs to assess how effective is the offense, how tired is the defense, and if his kickers are accurate with distance. He also needs to take into account the environment of the game — e.g. weather and field conditions, momentum, crowd involvement — and what is at stake with either a win or loss.

Looking at the Michigan situation, I can understand Hoke wanting to go for two down by one with 32 seconds left for a number of reasons. His offense had outscored OSU 20-7 in the fourth quarter, getting into the end zone on its only three possessions in the frame, and his defense had forced a turnover that helped the Wolverines score and make it a 35-35 game. Plus, his players apparently voted unanimously to go for the win rather than take the game to overtime.

However, this might have been a situation where Hoke might have wanted to exercise a veto over his players' wishes. The same reasons mentioned above for going for two make perfect sense for kicking the point after and going to overtime. The offense was rolling and the defense was playing pretty well also, so why not trade jabs from the 25 for a while and hope the last session reflected the fourth quarter?

Another reason, and maybe even a more important one, for tying the game and going to OT is simply the opportunity to break Ohio State's winning streak and knock them out of the BCS championship race. I get that the same reason is a good one for going for two and trying to win it outright, but it's a risky "do or die" situation that, if unsuccessful (as it was), will keep Wolverine fans wondering for years what might have been.

Okay, so maybe going for two was the right call in this situation. The players wanted it, momentum was on Michigan's side — and why not try to win it in regulation? But if coaches believe that making a gutsy call like that is the right one to make, then they need to call a play that puts their team in the best position to be successful. In my opinion, running a play from a formation that spreads out the secondary and moves the pocket would have given Michigan a better chance to convert than using the stacked receiver formation and a drop-back pass play. The receivers didn't have much time to find an open area or fight off the defenders, and two routes ended up being in the same area, which bunched the secondary defenders and gave Devin Gardner little room to pass. Even running a fake PAT might have been a better choice than the play that was selected.

Moving on to Alabama, Saban tossed aside his usual penchant for going with the high-percentage play and trotted out a freshman kicker to boot a 57-yard game winner that went all wrong. I get that Saban had no confidence in regular kicker Cade Foster, who had missed three field goals in the game, but it didn't seem likely that a first-year player who had made only one kick — and that from 20 yards — would put the Tide in the SEC title game.

So, rather than taking a shot at the end zone on a Hail Mary play — a play much more likely to yield points for Alabama with the personnel they have — or simply kneeling down and taking the game to overtime, Saban put the fate of his team's national title hopes on the largely untested leg of an 18-year-old kid. It was a pretty uncharacteristic move from a coach who is fairly predictable when it comes to personnel.

While Hoke's decision was semi-plausible, Saban's was not. Hoke had nothing to lose — no conference division title, no winning streak, and no possible national championship — so laying all the cards on the table for a win on one play was a gamble he could afford to take. Saban had everything to lose, and to risk it all against Alabama's most hated rival in the most critical of situations was a huge risk.

If Saban's decision was made next year, it might not have the same implications that it does this year. With the BCS going by the wayside and a limited playoff system being implemented, Alabama would possibly still have a legitimate shot at a title if other teams above them lost. I don't doubt that they would be considered for a playoff spot and could easily win two games to win it all. But this isn't the playoff era quite yet and how the game against Auburn ended will have a lasting impact in the minds of 'Bama faithful.

Of course, the decisions by both Hoke and Saban are left to debate as to whether they were good or bad, and my view is but one that believes they were poor. If certain things happen next weekend in the conference championships, the BCS committee might have a decision to make regarding which one-loss teams are worthy of playing for the national championship. Maybe Saban's decision will be moot, and as might Hoke's, but as it stands right now, both seem to be questionable at best.

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