It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. Heck, it’d be the third time in three days. (Picked Georgia Tech to win Tuesday in both basketball and football.) But here goes:
I like the Longhorns tonight.
It’s nothing against the SEC. I’ve covered the conference for 30 years and I know full well it’s the best there is. But over those 30 years I’ve learned a little something else, and it’s this: Pay particular attention to an excellent team that’s being given no shot at winning.
Four years ago an undefeated Texas went to California to play for the BCS title and was dismissed out of hand. Because Southern Cal was shooting for a third consecutive national championship. Because the Trojans had not one but two Heisman holders on their roster. Because SC was regarded by us media types as the greatest team ever and therefore invincible.
But it’s a funny thing: Not many teams truly are invincible. Against the wrong opponent on the wrong day, anybody can be unhorsed. And the Trojans played like crazy, at least on offense, that night in Pasadena — I was there, and I well recall Reggie Bush flipping into the end zone and Dwayne Jarrett making like Mr. Fantastic to stretch the ball over the goal line for what seemed the clinching touchdown — and still got beat. Because Vince Young had the greatest single performance I’ve ever seen. Because Texas simply would not go away.
Alabama is a splendid team. Indeed, it’s trying to do something conference brethren Florida and LSU, each of which has won two BCS titles this millennium, couldn’t manage, and that’s finish unbeaten. (Auburn went through the SEC undefeated in 2004 but didn’t get to play for the BCS crown.) And I do believe the raging consensus about the SEC — that its best players tend to be faster than the best players from other leagues — is in fact a fact. But I’d argue that the Big 12 is the league that comes closest to approximating the SEC, and I would never discount an unbeaten Big 12 champ.
Having been around a while, I know how it works: We media types tend to work off the last thing we’ve seen. And on Dec. 5 we saw Alabama trample Florida while Texas nearly pulled a Les Miles and lost to Nebraska. And the Longhorns had a rough ride in College Station on Thanksgiving night against a Texas A&M team that Georgia just crushed without benefit of a defensive coordinator.
That said, no team wins every game by 50 points. At last check, Alabama needed a blocked field goal to survive Tennessee, which would finish 7-6, and the day after Texas struggled to subdue the Aggies the Tide had to rally to beat Auburn. But my point isn’t to derogate Alabama, which is a tough and talented and superbly coached; it’s to suggest those same descriptions apply to its just-as-undefeated opponent.
And we have to be careful when we try to graft one year onto the next. Different seasons bring differing dynamics. Just because Southern Cal had beaten the Big 12 champ (Oklahoma, which was undone when the nicely named Mark Bradley fumbled a punt he shouldn’t have touched) by 36 points in January 2005 didn’t mean the next Big 12 champ would succumb so readily. Just because the SEC has won the past three BCS titles doesn’t mean Alabama is a lock tonight.
Back to 2006: I asked Mack Brown at his day-before media briefing how it felt to have a team that good and be afforded so little chance. (Pretty darn good, he said.) And big-time coaches love these kinds of games. It isn’t often a program like Texas ever gets to be an decided underdog — the spread is only four points, but do you know many folks who are picking against the Tide? — and I’d especially be wary of an underdog that has the better quarterback.
Being my silly self, I picked Texas over Southern Cal back then. (No, it didn’t look good when the Trojans led by 12 points with four minutes left. But it worked out in the end.) Maybe I’m just trying to repeat my one moment of prognosticating perspicacity, but I like the same school to do the same thing in the same stadium.