Saturday, August 16, 2008
Is Ohio State's Success Breeding Outrageous Expectations and is NCAA Football becoming more like the NFL?
Is College Football becoming more like the NFL?
My fellow Americans, welcome to the 2008 campaign, one that all of us, from red state and blue, have anticipated for these many months. Autumn beckons, promising a hard-fought race that, no matter how bitter, will lead us to the traditional transition of power in January.
The polls will say what the polls will say. Money will be raised, especially if you buy a ticket to the Texas-Oklahoma game, where the $95 face value of every ticket is as accurate as $2.00 gas, judging by the listings on StubHub.
Do your own analysis. Watch each team handle the mundane, the little things that prevent big problems. As the political cliché goes, see how well each side performs its blocking and tackling.
As we embark on this most sacred of civic journeys, let us come together on the striped fields of battle, where eight months of training will be combined with ferocity and tempered by sportsmanship -- unless Georgia coach Mark Richt says, "To heck with it. Team, go celebrate!"
However, there is still a noticeable lack of celebration about the BCS. In truth, a majority of the public wants it to go away. The leaders in charge turn a deaf ear, maintaining that a new system would result in a cure worse than the disease. Their collective wisdom brings to mind a comment by a hall-of-fame coach, Sir Winston Churchill, who once sized up an opponent by declaring him "a modest man with much to be modest about."
The BCS leaders believe in Churchill's famous description of democracy: "the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." But you can count on democracy, or at least the American form of presidential politics, to be a fairly accurate predictor of national champions.
In 13 of 18 general elections dating to the first Associated Press college football poll in 1936, a plurality of voters from the home state of the team that would finish ranked No. 1 cast their ballots for the eventual president. The most recent exception? Four years ago, when 55 percent of the voters in California, the home of the No. 1 USC Trojans, cast their ballots for John Kerry.
College football and presidential politics have a long history. When Teddy Roosevelt demanded that the game's violence be curbed in 1905, the major universities formed the NCAA. Dwight Eisenhower played for Army. Harry Truman annually attended the Army-Navy game, switching his seat from one side of the stadium to the other at halftime. Richard Nixon, to Joe Paterno's horror, "awarded" the 1969 national championship to No. 1 Texas before either the Longhorns or equally undefeated No. 2 Penn State played their bowls.
If the topsy-turvy 2007 season did nothing else, it provided a window into the 2008 presidential race. Look no further than the three surprise teams to earn BCS bids, which together frame the life of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama: born in Hawaii, rooted in Kansas, elected in Illinois.
Look no further than three-time defending FCS champion Appalachian State, which began last season by shocking the world with a win at the Big House. This season, Appalachian State opens at LSU. The idea that the Mountaineers can upset the defending champion Tigers is what sustains the fan of every underdog: the hope of audacity.
Look no further than Arizona State, located a short drive from the home of Sen. John McCain. The Sun Devils provided the tell on McCain's successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. A wisecracking, white-haired coach shoved Arizona State into the national championship race and injected life into his own oft-traveled career as well.
Dennis Erickson, 61, coached Arizona State to a 10-3 record last season. When Erickson sat down on the dais at Pac-10 Media Day two weeks ago, he began his comments by saying, "For me, it's just good to be anywhere every year."
And look no farther than Ohio State, which, like the late Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, announces its candidacy for the big prize, only to be humiliated when the votes are counted. Stassen ran for president nine times between 1948 and 1992, and rarely threatened to win the Republican nomination. The Buckeyes have jumped out to an early lead in the past two BCS National Championship Games and rarely -- well, you get the point.
There are other issues that demand national attention. There is our crumbling infrastructure. Where there is no strong interior from which the fastest may spring; where there is no foundation from which the tallest may leap, there will be no champion. Find a team with veteran offensive and defensive lines and you will find, at the very least, a dark horse (Wisconsin? Tennessee? BYU?).
Will Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno add enough wins to stay in office?
The nation calls for alternative sources of energy, yet there's only one candidate in the ESPN.com preseason power rankings that is credibly green. Oregon tantalized fans with national championship contention a year ago before a knee injury to quarterback Dennis Dixon precipitated the team's late collapse. This season, the Ducks will continue their up-tempo spread offense without Dixon, and few coaches in the Pac-10 expect the Ducks to suffer a scoreboard drought.
The West will continue to be dominated by California -- USC to be accurate. The Trojans have blown through the tacit term limits imposed by graduation. They are favored to win their seventh consecutive league championship. No other Pac-10 school has ever won more than four in a row.
T. Boone Pickens, the oil magnate and Oklahoma State's $165 Million Man, has become the nation's leading proponent of wind farms. Pickens hasn't said whether he got the idea from Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, the sport's leading producer of hot air last season. "I'm a man! I'm 40!" Gundy cried.
According to Gundy's calculation, that would make Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno twice the man that Gundy is.
That brings us to the sad reality of political life. There will be winners and there will be losers. Incumbents will be tossed out on their whistle. There is impatience at Syracuse and Washington. And there are questions even at Florida State and Penn State. All of their 745 victories may not overcome Bowden and Paterno's combined 159 years of age much longer.
Let's face it: Four score (years) and seven (wins) just doesn't have the same ring as when Lincoln said it.
The one incumbent most expected to win his race is Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. He would be only the 17th junior to win the Heisman Trophy, but the first junior to have won it twice. As Tebow goes, so go the Gators. And until coach Urban Meyer finds a running back, Tebow will be going on nearly every down.
Florida's path to the nomination is blocked by one of its biggest rivals. Richt's Bulldogs are a popular favorite in the early polls. They return 17 starters, including the best quarterback-tailback combination in the country in Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. But Georgia does have its question marks, especially how it replaces a nine-year starter.
If Uga VII proves he can fill in as starting mascot, Georgia will sigh, even if it may not breathe easier. That is the cost of playing in the desert on an Indian summer night. Georgia plays at Arizona State on Sept. 20, the Dawgs' first nonconference regular-season road trip west of the Mississippi since a 1960 visit to USC.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not whether the college game is becoming more like the professional. The NCAA has adopted the NFL's 40-second clock. But that's it. Ask how the professional game can become more like the college. Thank you and God bless America.
Sustained success breeds outrageous expectations
The Ohio State record books reveal that legendary coach Woody Hayes won nearly 76 percent of his games, 13 Big Ten titles and three national championships.
But if you believe the expectations surrounding Ohio State's football team each season, you might think Hayes won much more often.
"The general feeling you have at Ohio State is you're expected to win every game," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said. "It's like Woody never lost a game."
Oklahoma's Bob Stoops might feel like he's never won a bowl game -- or the 2000 national championship -- after being scorned for much of the past five seasons for his team's failure in BCS bowl games.
"We've been in six Big 12 championships and we won five of them," Stoops said. "We are doing something right."
But is it enough at schools such as Ohio State and Oklahoma, where sustained success breeds outrageous expectations? The Buckeyes and Sooners are scrutinized more than most schools. Even USC, which has produced three of the past six Heisman Trophy winners and has littered the NFL with its former players, doesn't seem to be under such a powerful microscope.
The Trojans played for at least a share of the national championship for three straight seasons from 2003-05, winning an Associated Press title the first season and a BCS title the later. But USC coach Pete Carroll wasn't heavily criticized after the Trojans lost to Texas 41-38 in the 2006 Rose Bowl, a game in which his late-game strategy might have cost his team a national championship. Most people believed the Trojans were just beaten by a great player, Texas quarterback Vince Young.
USC seemed to get a free pass even after it was upset by Stanford 24-23 last season, a stunning loss that ultimately knocked the Trojans out of the national championship race.
In a city consumed with so much, Los Angeles doesn't seem to live and die with the Trojans each Saturday. The smog-filled sky doesn't fall after each loss. As a result, Carroll doesn't face quite the same pressure as coaches at such schools as Ohio State and Oklahoma, where State U seems to be the only team that matters.
USC's lofty expectations don't seem to be as overwhelming, either. Late last month, when the Trojans were selected as a unanimous choice to win their seventh straight Pac-10 championship, Carroll said, "It's cool. It's a beautiful thing."
Sometimes we're held to a higher standard than other schools. It's good because you're in the spotlight and get a lot of attention. It's hard because the expectations are always so high. That's Ohio State's tradition.
--Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins
Things couldn't be more beautiful at Ohio State -- or so it would seem. Tressel has won 82 percent of his games, four Big Ten championships and the 2002 national title. He reversed the Buckeyes' losing streak against rival Michigan and has reigned over the Big Ten like few coaches before him.
But as Ohio State opens another season with national championship aspirations, it has become the butt of jokes and, for many college football fans, is Example A for why the BCS system of determining a national champion isn't working. After winning 23 games the past two seasons, the Buckeyes were embarrassed by SEC schools in two straight BCS championship games.
Florida beat Ohio State 41-14 in 2006, and LSU whipped the Buckeyes 38-24 in '07.
For the Buckeyes, just earning a chance to win a national championship isn't good enough anymore. Finishing second simply isn't good enough.
"Sometimes we're held to a higher standard than other schools," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "It's good because you're in the spotlight and get a lot of attention. It's hard because the expectations are always so high. That's Ohio State's tradition."
Tressel said he believes most people, particularly those in the media, don't appreciate the difficulty in simply reaching the BCS championship game.
"When you're covering the game, everyone is there," Tressel said. "It wasn't that hard. They got on a plane and went there and their job is to write about it. How hard was it to get there? It was no different than getting to any other game. To the people that cover it, it wasn't hard. To the X-number of people that have never been in it, they think it's next to impossible."
In each of the past two seasons, Tressel has learned that winning a second national championship is difficult.
"Does that bother me?" Tressel said. "I like to analyze our shortcoming as much as anybody does. I happen to think we're capable of anything. I love to try to get there."
Most college football fans love to beat up the Buckeyes -- and the Big Ten Conference -- for losing on college football's biggest stage. Ohio State is 0-9 against SEC schools in bowl games. Big Ten teams lost badly to USC in the past two Rose Bowls (Illinois in '08, Michigan in '07).
So after Ohio State seemed so overwhelmed in the past two BCS championship games, it was criticized for playing in a weak conference. Not only are the Buckeyes expected to carry the flag for their school and state, but they've also become the face of the Big Ten.
"Should that paint a picture of our whole conference? I don't think so," Tressel said. "But it also makes me feel disappointed that our performance in two championship games brushes with a wider brush. I don't think it's fair. But what I think and what you think doesn't matter. What happens in the games is what matters."
The Buckeyes have won three consecutive Big Ten championships and have lost only two of their past 24 games against conference foes. For many fans outside the Big Ten, it seems too easy.
"Maybe we should put some people in our shoes," Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "It's tough going through the Big Ten. It's brutal. Teams come at you each and every week, and they're always tough, hard-nosed football games. It's a very, very tough thing to do."
Tougher than most people believe, if you ask the Buckeyes.
"When you're getting talked bad about and hated on and stuff, you've got to be doing something right for people to be talking about you," Buckeyes linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "If you're just a mediocre team, people aren't going to talk about you. People are going to have their own opinion. Hopefully, people in Big Ten country will stick up for the Big Ten. I think the Big Ten is talked about in more of a negative light than it should be. It's a terrific conference and a first-class conference; I truly believe that."
And you better believe that -- fair or not -- nothing short of holding up the crystal trophy in Miami on Jan. 8 will curtail the criticism.