Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Choosing a Champion

My father and I were watching the Las Vegas Bowl on TV about a week ago. Please don't judge us. Withdrawal from college football does not come easily.

Anyway, the game ended (mercifully) and the broadcasting crew announced that, after a commercial break, the broadcast would resume with the presentation of the bowl trophy to the winning team. And it occurred to me that, even though I had watched most of the game, I had no real interest in watching a trophy being given to the winner.

I would guess that most bowl viewers feel the same way.

There are how many bowls now — 40? I suppose there will always be pockets of viewers who really do want to see the trophy being awarded after each bowl — mostly folks who have some connection to the winning school — but the only one that really matters, the only one that nearly all college football followers will want to see is the one that is awarded after the national championship game on Jan. 9, 2017.

At the risk of sounding like I have succumbed to good old days syndrome, I often think things were better when there were only a handful of bowls. All the extra games are great for hard–core fans who only want to see football, but only a handful have any real meaning, which is really the way that it used to be. The only difference is that, of the handful of meaningful games, only two will decide who will play for the national title. And we won't know who those two teams are until Saturday night.

Back when polls ruled, there was occasionally ambiguity about the national champion, but it was hard to beat the drama sometimes. When I was a boy, I recall a year when Texas was undefeated and ranked No. 1 going into bowl season. As the SWC champions, the Longhorns were the host team in the Cotton Bowl. All they had to do was win that game, which began around noon on Jan. 2 (New Year's Day fell on a Sunday that year so the New Year's Day bowls were played the following day), and they were sure to be national champs.

But they lost.

At that point, speculation began about who might move up in the polls the next day and claim the national crown. The top contenders were Oklahoma, Alabama and Michigan, all of whom played after the Cotton Bowl concluded. Oklahoma and Michigan lost their bowls. Alabama won its bowl, but the Crimson Tide lost to Nebraska (9–3 that year) earlier in the season.

The pollsters picked Notre Dame — the team that beat Texas — to be national champ in a year that saw half a dozen teams finish with a single loss.

When the bowl games were done and the nation awaited the pollsters' verdict, there was an excitement in the air. Who would be named national champion? There were several plausible contenders, and supporters of each could make good cases.

Under the current playoff arrangement, the only similar drama might occur when a playoff field is chosen and a deserving team (or more) fails to make the cut — and all that really proves is that the playoff field as it exists is not adequate.

Now I know this would add about a week to the season, but the field should at least be doubled to eight teams.

College football wants to replicate college basketball's phenomenally popular national tournament, but a huge reason for its popularity is the number of teams who are given the chance to compete. You can't start with the Final Four. Teams must earn their way in.

Expanding the field would add more drama to the playoffs. I absolutely believe college football will acquiesce on this — eventually.

Once the final gun sounds on the night of Jan. 9, though, there won't be any drama. The winners of the New Year's Eve semifinals will meet that night, and the winner of that game will be proclaimed the champion. Just like the Super Bowl, really. No muss, no fuss. And maybe that is as it should be.

But it isn't nearly as much fun.

Tuesday, Dec. 27
  • Military Bowl: #23 Temple vs. Wake Forest, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: You have to go back to the year after the Stock Market Crash to find the only time these schools have met.

    But with Temple coach Matt Rhule leaving for Baylor, there is an element of intrigue in this game.

    Temple, after all, is coming off a season–ending win over Navy, and the Owls are favored by 13½ points. It's a good job opportunity for Ruhle — and a good opportunity to impress the folks in Waco even though Rhule won't be coaching against Wake Forest. Still, the team's performance will speak volumes about Rhule's coaching skill — and whether Baylor hired the right guy. I pick Temple to win.
Wednesday, Dec. 28
  • Russell Athletic Bowl: #14 West Virginia vs. Miami (Fla.), 4:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is the 20th time these schools have met but only the first since 2003.

    For a couple of decades, they were conference rivals, and Miami dominated the series. The 'Canes have only lost to West Virginia three times.

    The oddsmakers think Miami will win again, having established the 'Canes as 3½–point favorites. But I am making West Virginia an upset special.
  • New Era Pinstripes Bowl: #22 Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern, 1 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have faced each other half a dozen times, and each team has won three.

    But they haven't met in more than 40 years.

    Pitt is favored by 5½ points, and that is good enough for me in this one. I pick Pittsburgh.
Thursday, Dec. 29
  • Valero Alamo Bowl: #13 Oklahoma State vs. #11 Colorado, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools were members of the same conference for decades until Colorado left for the Pac–12.

    They will meet for the first time since 2009. Colorado leads the all–time series, but Oklahoma State has won three of the last four encounters.

    What is more, Oklahoma State seems to be playing better than Colorado here at the end of the season. Well, that is what I think. The oddsmakers think Colorado is a three–point favorite. I will make Oklahoma State an upset special.
  • Belk Bowl: #18 Virginia Tech vs. Arkansas, 4:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: SEC schools have won the last two Belk Bowls, but this will be Arkansas' first visit to the Charlotte, N.C., bowl.

    It will also be Virginia Tech's first appearance in the Belk Bowl.

    And it will be the first meeting between the schools. Oddsmakers have made Virginia Tech a seven–point favorite, but I'll take Arkansas as an upset special.
  • Birmingham Bowl: #25 South Florida vs. South Carolina, 1 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: South Carolina won the only previous meeting between these schools in September 2004.

    South Florida is favored by 10½ points. The spread might be smaller than that, but I agree that South Florida should prevail.
Friday, Dec. 30
  • Capital One Orange Bowl: #6 Michigan vs. #10 Florida State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams have faced each other twice, but the last meeting was more than 25 years ago.

    Michigan was one of the better teams in the country this year. Until the Wolverines lost to Ohio State, I thought they would be in the college football playoffs.

    I guess the Orange Bowl isn't bad compensation for missing the playoffs.

    I wasn't overly impressed with Florida State, and apparently neither were the oddsmakers. They make the Wolverines 6½–point favorites. I agree. Michigan should win.
  • Hyundai Sun Bowl: #16 Stanford vs. North Carolina, 1 p.m. (Central) on CBS: These teams played twice in the '90s with each team winning once at home.

    This is their first meeting in nearly 20 years and their first meeting ever on a neutral site.

    Stanford is a 31½–point pick. I'd like to pick the Southern team (my father always told me, all things being equal, pull for the Southern team), but I have to take Stanford in this one.
  • Franklin Amer. Mort. Music City Bowl: #24 Nebraska vs. Tennessee, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is a meeting between two storied programs.

    Both of their previous meetings were in bowl games. Nebraska was the winner on both occasions.

    Tennessee is a 3½–point pick this time, but I'm not convinced, mainly because I have seen both teams play this year, and I know that both have flaws. I honestly feel this game could go either way.

    It is almost a home game for the Volunteers. On that basis, I will pick Tennessee.
Saturday, Dec. 31
  • Semifinal #1, Chick–fil–A Peach Bowl: #4 Washington vs. #1 Alabama, 2 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I grew up in the South, and my father taught me to support the Southern teams. Arkansas was the football team where I grew up, and that meant the Southwest Conference, but the Razorbacks left the SWC for the Southeastern Conference in the early '90s.

    Alabama is a charter member of the SEC, much as Arkansas was a charter member of the SWC. For many reasons, I should pull for Alabama — but somehow I find it hard to do that. It wasn't hard for me to pull for Alabama when Bear Bryant was the coach. I admired him. I even got to see him coach in person once.

    But things are different now. I am not sure why that is so.

    What isn't different is that Alabama wins — a lot. And the Crimson Tide is likely to win this one, too. The oddsmakers clearly think so. They have made Alabama a 15–point favorite.

    It is hard to argue with that one, really.

    Alabama has a very good team. It is already being compared to some of the greatest college football teams of all time. I can't find a single reason to predict a loss for the Crimson Tide. I'll be pulling for the other team, but I predict that Alabama will prevail.
  • Semifinal #2, PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: #2 Ohio State vs. #3 Clemson, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams have met twice, and Clemson won both meetings.

    The first time was in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Clemson sealed the win with a late interception, and Ohio State coach Woody Hayes sealed his fate by punching the Clemson player who picked off the pass. That ended Hayes' 28–year career as the Buckeyes' coach.

    The second meeting was in the 2014 Orange Bowl. Then as now, Ohio State has a higher ranking and the oddsmakers' blessing. In the Orange Bowl, the Buckeyes were 2½–point favorites. This time they're 3½–point favorites.

    I suppose most people are picking Ohio State to win. But don't underestimate Clemson's motivation — the Tigers want to avenge last year's 45–40 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. Of course, by the time they kick off in Arizona, everyone will know whether Alabama beat Washington; if the Huskies pull off the upset, it might deflate Clemson somewhat. But I don't think that will happen.

    I have a hunch, and I'm going to make Clemson an upset special.
  • Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: #19 LSU vs. #15 Louisville, 10 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Ever since the bowl lineup was announced, I thought this one had the potential to be the most entertaining bowl game of the bunch. It might even outshine the two national playoff games that will be played later in the day.

    It's intriguing to note that, while LSU lost four games, it did so by a combined 23 points — and nearly half of those points were scored by top–ranked Alabama. Louisville lost three games, but the last two were by a combined 29 points.

    In an upset special I take LSU.
Monday, Jan. 2, 2017
  • Rose Bowl: #5 Penn State vs. #9 Southern Cal, 4 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the 10th time these schools have faced each other — and the third time they have faced each other in the Rose Bowl.

    Their first Rose Bowl encounter was nearly a century ago on New Year's Day 1923. Southern Cal won that one 14–3.

    That was the first time they ever faced each other. The most recent time they faced each other was in Pasadena on New Year's Day 2009. Southern Cal won that one, too, by 38–24.

    Oddsmakers like Southern Cal to win this time as well, but the point spread is in single digits — 6½ points. But I like Penn State in this one. I won't call this one an upset special because Penn State is the higher ranked team, but clearly it would be an upset in the eyes of the oddsmakers.
  • Allstate Sugar Bowl: #17 Auburn vs. #7 Oklahoma, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This ought to be one of the better bowls this year.

    It has been 45 years since the only time these schools met — in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day 1972. Oklahoma won by 18 points on that occasion. Oddsmakers think the Sooners will win by about half that. I pick Oklahoma.
  • Goodyear Cotton Bowl: #8 Wisconsin vs. #12 Western Michigan, noon (Central) on ESPN: These schools have faced each other four times, but the last time was in 2000.

    Wisconsin won three of those four contests, and the Badgers are favored to win this one by 7½ points, which suggests a close contest, but it's hard for me to imagine this game generating much interest locally.

    I used to work with a guy from Wisconsin. If he is so inclined, I imagine he can get tickets to this one pretty easily — and they could be pretty good seats, too. If he does go, I expect him to enjoy himself. I pick Wisconsin to win.
  • Outback Bowl: #20 Florida vs. #21 Iowa, noon (Central) on ABC: These schools have met three times, each time in a bowl game, and this will be their third straight meeting in the Outback Bowl.

    Florida won the last time, 11 years ago to the day, and Iowa won the time before. The one non–Outback meeting was in the 1983 Gator Bowl. Florida won that one.

    So the Gators hold a 2–1 lead in the series. Oddsmakers have made the Gators favorites to make it a 3–1 advantage, but Iowa, it is worth noting, defeated Michigan and then hammered Nebraska in the season finale. I pick Iowa in an upset special.
I shall predict the national championship game on Jan. 9.

Last week: 6–2

Overall: 195–65

Postponed: 1

Last week's upset specials: 0–0

Overall upset specials: 12–21

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