Happy New Year, for those of you bleary-eyed from watching the conclusion of the NFL regular season and the holiday bowl games. You may have other reasons for being hung over, but I pass these by.
Joe Pa, sitting with his injured leg in the press box, beat Phillip Fullmer in whatever brand-name bowl game Penn State played. Good. Michigan now will, or should, stop complaining about being left out of the BCS championship game. Before the Rose Bowl there was already a constituency arguing that Michigan should be named co-national champions (being so voted in the presumptive final AP poll), following the inevitable dismantling of USC and perhaps a lucky, tainted Florida victory over Ohio State. Could there be any other kind? Instead we had a game that brought back memories of the old Pac-10 dominance of the Rose Bowl. The real #2 team in the country – if not Florida – seems to be USC. Or Boise State. About which more later.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Michigan fans or draw cosmic conclusions from the Rose Bowl, especially in terms of Ohio State’s chances against Florida. The time lag between the last game of the regular season and the January bowls is so long that teams seldom perform as they would had that game had been played much closer to the event – as in a playoff system. USC evidently recovered from a very bad loss to UCLA better than Michigan did from a much more explicable loss to Ohio State. Even then the Rose Bowl was tied at halftime. But the system is what it is, so all credit to Pete Carroll. And a memo to NFL personnel directors: if you draft USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett and are surprised to find yourself with a T.O or Randy Moss situation on your hands, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Now about Boise State’s victory over Oklahoma, the insane post-midnight ending of which those of you in the eastern and central time zones may have missed (don’t get me started on TV scheduling and the timing rules in college football). Full disclosure: yes, I am a native of Idaho.
Yes, it was an absolute classic. Hollywood would have rejected the script of the game as completely improbable. It included three trick plays, including the old backyard favorite, the Statue of Liberty, that turned the tide after all seemed lost. The star running back proposed marriage to his girlfriend/cheerleader on national TV, a few minutes after he scored the winning two-point conversion. The critical moments will be replayed for years to come, like Vince Young’s TD run in last year’s Rose Bowl – or, even more apt, “the band is out on the field” conclusion to the Stanford-Cal game. It was a reminder why college sports are worth watching despite all the problems. It is why they play the game. If they show it on ESPN Classic, tape it and watch it.
BSU’s win was not quite as stunning as the original “Rocky,” or Hickory High School (in real life, Milan High School) of “Hoosiers” fame, or even George Mason during the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament. (George Mason, by the way, took out a full page add in the Boise newspaper before the game, offering support from one Cinderella to another.) The school is perhaps best known nationally for its silly blue playing field in Boise – but the win was no fluke. Boise State has a distinguished football tradition. That matters in sports. As a junior college it won the old JC Rose Bowl. It won a NCAA Division I-AA championship. Over the last few years, BSU has been ranked consistently in the NCAA D-I Top 25 and finished #7 in 2004.
And no, the team is not composed of innocent raw young men who are persuaded to leave the potato fields and who are astonished to see the big city. There are a fair number of players from Idaho – which is increasingly urbanized and has produced NFL players like Jerry Kramer and Jake Plummer. But the largest contingent comes from the high school football factories in California. BSU for years has successfully recruited those Californians, such as running back Ian Johnson, who don’t quite make the cut to USC. But they are pretty darned good nonetheless, and they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. First-year coach Chris Peterson was the offensive mastermind behind BSU’s success over the past few seasons and his innovation and play-calling courage (after being somewhat too conservative in the second half) was inspired. BSU’s defense, especially against the run, was surprisingly stout and opportunistic until it wore down.
The real reason for college football fans to cheer Boise State’s win is that it helps open up the game. The schools from the six power conferences don’t want to see the Boise States’ of the world succeed, any more than they wanted George Mason to get on a run last spring. To be sure, if this particular Boise State team played in the Pac-10 or the Big-10 or the SEC, rather than the WAC, it almost certainly would not have been undefeated. It’s very hard to see the current Broncos winning two more games in a national championship playoff. But if Boise State or its non-BCS conference fellows had equal access to money, facilities, and TV exposure – who knows? As it is, the performance gap is not nearly as wide as most think. And there is the underdog factor. Far more Boise State fans made the trip than did Oklahoma supporters. Casual fans watching on TV instantly chose their allegiance. Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, no fool, knew all that coming into the game. He knew BSU was good. He probably wasn’t thrilled with a match up that he could not win, no matter the final score.
That’s why they play the game. And in spite of everything, why we watch. And why college football, including Big-10 football, would be even better if the competition base is expanded.