Monday, December 3, 2007

NCAA Football: Who Wants #1?

I'm old enough now to remember thirty-six season's worth of college football. The 1972 Nebreaska Cornhuskers featuring Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and 1973's Penn State squad with John Cappelletti is as far back as I can visually go.

Back then when the pre-season AP and UPI polls would come out, the top ten would almost always include Nebraska and Oklahoma from the then-Big 8 conference, Michigan and Ohio State from the Big 10, USC from the then-Pac 8, independents Notre Dame and Penn State and Alabama from the Southeast conference. By the time the regular season ended, five of those squads would often make up the top five with either a perfect record or one loss. There just wasn't a lot of parody within conferences then. The powerhouses successfully recruited most of the top talent and most seemed to dominate for a decade or more.

There were always occasional, star student-athletes who could lift a team to the pinnacle level, if even just for a season or two. Tony Dorsett led Pittsburgh to prominence in 1976 and Herschel Walker did the same for a few seasons at Georgia in the early '80's. The Pony Express backfield of Southern Methodist University, featuring tailbacks Eric Dickerson and Craig James, are legendary but SMU had just a handful of winning seasons before their arrival and even fewer since their departure.

What has happened this college football season is unprecedented in my memory of the game. This past weekend, newly installed Nos. 1 & 2, Missouri and West Virginia both lost, marking the third week in a row that the #1 team has lost. Though I can't complete a search of how many #1 teams have lost this year, I did find that seven #2-ranked teams have lost and thirteen top-5 teams lost to unranked opponents. Here is the final BCS rankings. One of the biggest slides came from the Oregon Ducks, ranked #2 just three weeks ago, now riding a three-game losing streak all the way down to #28. Remember the upstart South Florida Bulls, undefeated and #2 in the first BCS poll seven weeks ago? They're now 9-3 and down to #21. Boston College was #2 six weeks ago but have fallen to #14 after three losses. South Carolina, #6 in the first BCS ranking, are unranked now. The Kentucky Wildcats, nearly in the top five after upsetting then-#1 LSU two months ago, are now just 7-5 and at #38. Perhaps the season's biggest disappointment was the star-laden Michigan Wolverines, a pre-season top-10 who lost their first two games then fought back to challenge for the Big 10 title before slumping again to finish at #32.

Now we're back to the two teams that held the #1 position longer than anyone else, Ohio State and LSU, earning trips to the championship game on January 7th at the Superdome in New Orleans. How bizarre is that? They were ranked #'s 3 & 7 respectively just last Friday. Though many schools, Oklahoma, USC and Kansas in particular, could claim that it's BS instead of BCS, I think that considering the circumstances that this wacky season has brought, the selection committee got it about as close to right as they could. Ohio State is 11-1 and impressively beat the stronger teams in their division while the 9-2 Tigers suffered both of their losses in triple-overtime. Oklahoma and USC are both playing great ball right now but each lost two games that they shouldn't have.

Personally, I think that too much is put into the hype of who's #1 and the tradition of college football and the great post-season rivalries have been lost to the current generation of fans except for us seniors and seniors-to-be. At the risk of sounding like Dana Carvey's grumpy old man character from Saturday Night Live who claimed that "in the old days, we would eat tree bark when we were hungry, and we liked it," I can't get into the post-season like I used to when the Rose Bowl featured the Big 10 champ vs. the Pac 10 champ, the Southeast champ would play the top Florida school in the Orange Bowl and if there were two undefeated teams at the end of it all who had to share the national championship, then so be it. That's the way it was and we liked it.

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