Fort Lauderdale – The history of the BCS title game isn’t exactly exhaustive, dating as it does to that long-ago time of January 1999, but even in that small sampling a commonality winds through. Since this “system” was implemented, no school has repeated as BCS champ.
On Monday night, Alabama is favored to annex a second consecutive national title (and a third in four seasons, and the 115th in Tide annals if we go by Bama’s ever-escalating count). The worst thing we can say about this Tide team is that it’s superb, but other superb defending champs have arrived at this juncture only to trip over the final hurdle.
Three times a program has sought to stack BCS titles end to end. Three times it has failed, and each failure came as a shock. Favored by 10 ½ points, Florida State was beaten 13-2 in January 2001 by Oklahoma – the Seminoles’ offense was overseen that night by a distracted Mark Richt, who had already taken a job in Athens – and that was the mildest example. The other two were seismic.
In January 2003, an unbeaten-yet-unassuming Ohio State met No. 1 Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Almost half the Buckeyes’ victories had been so close that they became known as the Luckeyes, and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than … well, you know. Ohio State, an 11 ½-point underdog, took the Hurricanes to overtime and appeared to have lost when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete, but a late penalty flag brought new life and, in short order, a stunning national championship.
In January 2006, Texas arrived at the Rose Bowl as the designated victim of a team being hailed as the greatest ever. USC actually was going for a third national title, the 2003 version having been awarded by the Associated Press but not the BCS, and its 55-19 thrashing of Oklahoma in the January 2005 Orange Bowl was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
It was so fresh that, on the morning before the Rose Bowl, this correspondent asked Texas coach Mack Brown how it felt to have a team so good that was being given no chance. (The unbeaten Longhorns were a touchdown underdog.) Laughing sardonically, Brown thanked us media folks for providing that goad. Then his Longhorns, Vince Young chief among them, went out and won the greatest collegiate game ever played.
As for the here and now: Notre Dame is unbeaten, but seems the choice of nobody. It has won five games by seven or fewer points, which recalls the Luckeyes of 10 years ago. It is a 10-point underdog to a team ranked below it, which recalls the Oklahoma of 11 years back. It is a program of massive tradition that many view as out of its depth, which recalls the Texas of Vince Young.
If you’re Brian Kelly, who coaches Notre Dame, you love these dynamics: To be No. 1 in the land and the school of Rockne and Ara and the Gipper to boot and still to be roundly expected to lose by a nice round number … that’s a better underdog story than “Rudy.” (Which was the tale of a Fighting Irish walk-on who sacked the Georgia Tech quarterback.)
The temptation is mighty to pick an Irish upset – this from someone who picked both Ohio State in 2003 and Texas in 2006 – but there’s an even greater deterrent. None of the defending champs who suffered BCS upsets were from the SEC, and the SEC has gotten so good at winning national championships that it would take a monumental performance by a transcendent player to derail this locomotive. As stout as Notre Dame is, there’s no Vince Young on its roster.
This Alabama team isn’t quite as imposing as the BCS titlists of 2011 and 2009, and its home loss to Texas A&M and its narrow escapes against LSU and Georgia offer cause for Irish hope. (And so, in an oblique manner, do the bowl losses suffered by Florida and LSU of the almighty SEC.) But A&M scored 29 points in beating the Tide, and Georgia would have needed 33.
Notre Dame has broken 30 in only four of its 12 games. It ranks 74th nationally in scoring offense. Its defense is match for Bama’s; its offense is not. The Tide, who rushed for 350 yards against Georgia, might not get half that against the Irish, but Alabama does find ways to score. (It has mustered 30 or more points in 11 of its 13 games, LSU and Texas A&M being the exceptions.)
It would not be surprising to see this championship game finish 17-10. It would, however, be surprising if Notre Dame had the 17. Precedent favors the underdog, but reality, as ever, favors Alabama.
By Mark Bradley