Monday, August 11, 2014
CFB 2014: Giving Away the Ending
Spoiler alert: the 2014 college football season will have a twist ending.
This January will be our first foray into a major college football tournament. For the first time in, well, ever, the participants in college football's national championship game will have won something in addition to the hearts and pens of voters to get there. There will be no more computer polls, nor will there be unintelligent discussion of those computer polls. And, maybe best of all, there will be honest-to-goodness meaningful college football on New Year's Day.
To be fair, we've strange endings. Just last year, we saw Auburn parlay the miracle of 4th-and-18 and a sudden-life field goal return to come within moments of a BCS title. We saw the 100th Rose Bowl populated by top-five teams from the Big Ten and Pac 12, except instead of Ohio State, Michigan, USC, or UCLA, they were Michigan State and Stanford. And there was no question they belonged there. We saw the Baylor Bears crowned Big 12 champs, only to be felled by Central Florida in a BCS bowl.
But we see the unusual every year; that's why we love college football. When raw, young players churn through dozens of programs, unusual is the norm. The final scenes of 2014 will be unpredictable, but don't be taken by surprise! Let me spoil the ending of the 2014 college football season in advance with these three absolutely, certainly, guaranteed-or-your-money-back outcomes for the end of this season.
1. The SEC champ will definitely play in the first College Football Playoff...
I know, not the riskiest prediction. But in theory, how many losses would the SEC champ have to have not to make the final four? I think only a fourth loss would definitely eliminate an eventual SEC champ from playoff contention.
For instance, what if Florida follows three season-opening wins by blowing a fourth-quarter lead to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Then, still smarting from the loss, the Gators sloppily turn the ball over a handful of times on Rocky Top two weeks later, losing 19-16 at Tennessee. At 1-2 in the conference, Will Muschamp gives a fiery press conference that week and wrestles a live gator on the podium.
In the following six weeks, the inspired Gators beat LSU, Missouri, and South Carolina in the Swamp, as well as Georgia in Jacksonville, giving them the head-to-head divisional tiebreakers. Florida takes its confidence to Tallahassee in the last week of the regular season, and Florida State needs a last-second Jameis Winston Hail Mary to beat the Gators.
Encouraged by how they stood up to the 'Noles, Florida crushes Alabama in their rematch in the SEC Championship Game. With one of its losses being a close one on the road against the defending national champs and another avenged in the conference title game, doesn't that 10-3 Florida team make the playoffs in many scenarios? Would you want to be Oregon's Mark Helfrich or Wisconsin's Gary Andersen, pitching your 11-2 squad against them?
...while the Big 12 champ won't even get a sniff.
Sure, the SEC dominated the winning side of recent BCS title games, but the Big 12 was often in the discussion for the participation trophy, as Texas and Oklahoma each played in multiple BCS title games, and Oklahoma State prowled around it a few times. But not this year.
Oklahoma is the clear favorite to win the conference based largely on its thrashing of Alabama in last season's Sugar Bowl. And if Bob Stoops can bottle that performance for 12 games this season (and, don't tell him I said this, but Alabama's performance for his 12 opponents this season, as well), Oklahoma won't sweat a single fourth quarter.
The problem here, obviously, is that we often fall in love with bowl performances. Just a year earlier in the same bowl, Louisville thrashed a mildly interested Florida team. That result drove plenty of preseason buzz for the Cardinals who responded by stumbling forgettably through the unimpressive AAC. It's almost as if that Sugar Bowl performance came from a different season!
The Sooner and Cardinal coaches and players deserve plenty of credit for beating good SEC teams in the conference's pet bowl. They beat the teams put in front of them, and had they lost, they likely would not have been excused for a lack of interest.
But for Oklahoma to earn a playoff spot, they will need Trevor Knight to reproduce that Sugar Bowl performance for most of the season rather than the less effective performances that dotted the rest of 2013. With Baylor and Oklahoma State appearing consistently competitive and Texas, Texas Tech, and Kansas State all poised to improve, I see a conference that spread losses among its members, including the Sooners.
2. Jameis Winston will have better stats, but not repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner.
At this point, the wait for another two-time Heisman winner feels very much like the wait for the next Triple Crown-winning horse. We've had some great candidates, odds-on favorites even, but we've been burned so many times.
On first glance, Jameis Winston looks like the ideal candidate to join Archie Griffin in Double Heisman land. Winston plays quarterback for a high-profile national title contender, has a sparse injury history, and should have enough talent around him to prevent teams from game planning aggressively against him. His schedule has enough marquee games (Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida) to get Winston national attention yet is soft enough that he should be able to improve on his 2013 stats.
And yet, there are those crab legs. You may remember Winston was busted for inexplicably shoplifting crab legs from a Publix in Tallahassee this off-season. While the incident looks like the kind of light-heartedly dumb thing a young lunkhead might do, at least some portion of the Heisman voters will connect it to the entirely not light-hearted sexual assault allegations that swirled around Winston last season.
College football, given its small sample sizes and complex program hierarchy, makes the search for apples-to-apples comparisons difficult. This drives interest and debate across the sport, but it also complicates evaluating players and teams under single sets of criteria. More than any sport, college football has to rely on narrative.
Unfortunately, narrative can be an opaque witch's brew of ingredients. And for some Heisman voters, nebulous "character" assessments are major components of their recipes, the rogue spice that overwhelms otherwise reasonable judgment. Call it the Manziel Effect.
All of which is to say, some Heisman voters will be motivated to find compelling reasons not to vote for Winston. Between that and voters' tendency to prefer a fresh winner, I don't see Winston winning again.
(On a side note, I've never understood how the crab leg story was allowed to run its course. I've lived in two major college towns, each bigger than Tallahassee, and I'm positive a reigning Heisman trophy winner who pilfered a small amount of produce would have at least been given the opportunity to return or pay for the items. I'm not saying this double standard is fair, but do you think Peyton Manning would get a speeding ticket in Denver?)
3. The semifinals sites will cause handwringing.
The playoff selection committee has been pretty vague about how it will choose teams for its inaugural College Football Playoff. Its website gives lip service to strength of schedule, common opposition, and conference championships, but it leaves the interpretation open enough to allow committee members plenty of space in choosing teams.
However, one thing it is fairly specific about is the assignment of the semifinal sites. In each playoff year, the committee will be able to pair the two semifinal games with the two host sites in that year's rotation. This may seem like a formality, but the examples given illustrate a slippery slope. For example, this year's sites are the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the former being UCLA's home stadium while the latter is an informal home for LSU. In cases where UCLA or LSU is seeded third or fourth, the committee explains, it would be unfair for them to play a higher seeded team as a virtual home team. They call this "geographical disadvantage."
I can appreciate the sentiment here. The committee is largely modeled after the NCAA basketball tournament's selection committee, and geographic placement is an underrated responsibility that group must address as it builds its postseason. And yet, I think the football committee underestimates just how petty college football coaches can be if they think avoiding obvious geographical advantages for the No. 3 and 4 seeds will be enough.
Using this year's sites as an example, wouldn't teams built for a slower pace, like Stanford or Michigan State, prefer to play up-tempo opponents on the natural grass of Pasadena rather than the artificial surface in New Orleans? And, given the SEC's historical ties to the Sugar Bowl or the Big Ten and Pac 12's to the Rose Bowl, is there a logistic advantage for teams from those conferences who have recently played at those sites?
And what about the list of sites in general? Most bowls are held in the South or Southwest, a logical choice for December and January. But by definition, isn't that a disadvantage for teams from the Big Ten or Pac 12?
These games have to be played somewhere, and knowing this crowd, someone is going to be unhappy about just where that somewhere is. I give the committee credit for identifying a potentially obvious complaint, but this is going to be an issue no matter how considerate they are. That's how it always ends.