Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Sugar Bowl Fiasco (Guest Post From Greg Blanchard)

By Greg Blanchard

American college football is my favorite sport, followed closely by English soccer. The edge has much to do with feeling a direct connection to the college football game through my university years in Oklahoma. Games still to come at the end of November and early December could put my alma mater, Oklahoma State, in the national championship game. The ominous doubt comes from a single loss, last week in double overtime.

Unlike the NFL, American college football is and always will be a mess. Part of that is the nature of the game. Even the most skilled players are young and not yet professional. Plus, players graduating or jumping early to the NFL forces coaches to deal with constant turnover of personnel. Good teams develop players to replace those who leave, but the best schools don’t have four full years with amateurs. The most talented players are often barely “students” and leave early for the NFL either by choice or due to academic ineligibility.

The biggest source of college chaos though, is the method of crowning a champion. My third favorite sport, American college basketball, has the best method in the world for determining who is the champion. More than 60 teams are invited to a single-elimination tournament and the last winner gets the trophy. It is both an elegant and exciting sporting event every year, affectionately dubbed “March Madness.”

Alas, the same organisation cannot be said for American college football. An elaborate combination of computer rankings and votes by coaches and sportswriters pick two teams out of a potentially long list of worthy candidates. That’s it. One game is largely set up in what is essentially a popularity contest. This year, it looks like the first finalists will be the Louisiana State Tigers. Determining their opponent will be nothing short of bizarre … again.

LSU has won three national championships, and all were played in their home state at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. One was before I was born, the other two are quite recent. In fact, the other two are the last times that the Sugar Bowl has hosted the national title match. And it's these Louisiana championships that are worth a retrospective. It’s not because of any hometown advantage, but the way the 2003 and 2007 seasons wound up in selecting the team to oppose LSU.

In 2003, LSU lost an early game 19-7 to a key rival but ended the year ranked #2. The Oklahoma Sooners were ranked #1 or #3, depending on the poll. They lost their last game of the season 35-7 on a neutral field, and the game was more lopsided than the result. The Southern California Trojans were the other team ranked either #1 or #3, and their only loss of the year was in triple overtime on the road. The team that beat them was quarterbacked by Aaron Rogers, who currently holds the Super Bowl MVP trophy.

Somehow, the voting process and computer calculations selected the just-drubbed Oklahoma team. LSU won the national championship comfortably, by a 21-14 margin. The game was close throughout, but LSU never trailed.

Southern California fans were outraged at being snubbed. One year later the team would take revenge. With several returning players to both the California and Oklahoma teams, the Trojans beat the Sooners in Florida, 55-19. The game was more lopsided than the result (38-10 at halftime).

Jumping ahead to the 2007 season, the Sugar Bowl in Louisiana would host the title game again, but it didn’t seem likely that the home-state Tigers would qualify. But in the strangest season of the modern college football era, they took their spot in that game with two losses. It is still the worst won-loss record since the change in 1998 to put the “two best teams” in a title game against each other.

What made 2007 such an unusual year? More than ten times from October 13 to December 1, the #1 or #2 team lost with no head-to-head matches between top-ranked opponents. All of those games were upsets. To set the stage, it might be helpful to document a few dates and scores. Note how many different teams are holders of these top spots. That is unusual for college football.
I’ll start in near the end of the season, skipping a few examples from October.

November 3: #2 Boston College Eagles 17-27 Florida State Seminoles

November 10: #1 Ohio State Buckeyes 21-28 Illinois Fighting Illini

November 15: #2 Oregon Ducks 24-34 Arizona Wildcats

November 23: #1 LSU Tigers 48-50 Arkansas Razorbacks (in triple overtime)

November 24: #2 Kansas Jayhawks 28-36 Missouri Tigers

December 1: #2 West Virginia Mountaineers 9-13 Pittsburgh Panthers

December 1: #1 Missouri Tigers 17-38 Oklahoma Sooners

After losses in November by both LSU and Ohio State, it seemed impossible that either team could qualify for the national championship game. I remember telling Buckeye fans in my home state that they shouldn’t lose hope. “We’ll get back into the mix … if Arizona beats Oregon, Arkansas beats LSU, West Virginia flames out, and all of the Midwestern teams knock each other out in the last three weeks of the season.” I was completely serious, but I was also completely shocked when it happened.

In their last game of the regular season, LSU lost an overtime thriller that knocked them from #1 to #7 with only one game left to play. They needed to finish #2 in order to qualify for the national championship game and another short trip to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Clearing the path for LSU was even more improbable than Ohio State’s situation. All of those upsets I listed above, and more, were crucial.

Unlike the doubts in 2003 about the quality of LSU’s opponent, there were few questions that all of the upsets eliminated other potential teams from the title game. LSU may have been the only two-loss champion in the modern era, but both of those losses came in triple overtime against gung-ho conference rivals.

The 2007 Sugar Bowl ended with a decisive LSU victory over Ohio State, 38-24.

And now, here we are again. Four years on, the venue rotation has the Sugar Bowl hosting the national championship. LSU is undefeated and ranked #1. That’s not the only thing that feels familiar, though. Just in November, here is a list of potential challengers who have lost games that might have put them in contention: Alabama Crimson Tide, Stanford Cardinal, Boise State Broncos, Oregon Ducks, Clemson Tigers, Oklahoma Sooners, and Oklahoma State Cowboys. Decisive games will be played this weekend.
This is no way to pick a champion. The English Premier League has the perfect answer. Every team plays every opponent twice, once at home and once away, then add it up. Americans love our championship games, though. Everything that is elegant about college basketball’s tournament is missing from college football. It is my favorite game’s biggest blight.

On the other hand, like the subtle imperfections that make a diamond sparkle, college football consistently captures my attention in years like this. Anything can happen because an unpredictable set of “anythings” already has. We may not know who will really finish first and second until December 4th.

There is one thing I’ll say with confidence. Four years from now, the title game will be back in the Sugar Bowl. Expect Louisiana State to have a strong year in 2015, and don’t be too quick to call your university a front-runner. Likely as not, college football fans could be enduring this fantastic fiasco for a fourth time.

You can hear from Greg on the “Inappropriate Conversations” podcast, which can be found at or on iTunes

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