Alabama-Notre Dame: some storylines

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If you were a Hollywood script writer looking to pitch a movie based on a college football championship being played in a land far, far away, it would be hard to come up with a better pair of protagonists than Alabama and Notre Dame.

For any director, it’s a cinematic smörgåsbord replete with plotlines as far as the stomach can see.  The North vs. the South on a gridiron battlefield.  Two of the winningest programs in FBS history, with the Irish tied for second all-time with Texas and the Tide seventh.  Mystique for miles, from Knute to Bear, from the Gipper to Broadway Joe before the bright lights and big city, from 14 claimed national championships for the Tuscaloosa school to 11 claimed by the one from South Bend.

And, it just so happens, the two best teams after the dust had settled and the curtain had fallen on the 2012 regular season.

Simply put, it’s already the most highly anticipated title game of the BCS era… and we’re still weeks away from the Jan. 7 showdown in Miami.  Suffice to say, myriad words will be dumped onto a computer screen to feed the hype machine over the next five weeks, with storylines far surpassing even the schools’ healthy win totals.  Here are but a few of those that may or may not have an impact on which team hoists the crystal into the South Beach sky at game’s end.

Are you experienced?
In a lot of ways, Alabama and Notre Dame are as evenly matched as any two teams that have faced each other on this stage recently.  One area where the Tide has a decided and lopsided advantage?  Big-game experience.  The No. 2 Tide (12-1) will be gunning for an unprecedented third BCS title in four years while the Irish’s biggest game under Brian Kelly prior to this year was, what, the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State after last season?  From handling the weeks-long layoff to dealing with the media circus to a 60-minute game of this magnitude and carrying such immense ramifications, Nick Saban has been there, done that while Kelly is just getting there and has never done that.

Waking the slumbering echoes
In the 14-year history of the BCS, No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) has appeared in just three of the marquee bowl games, with the last coming after the 2006 regular season.  Their national championship drought stretches back even further; the last time the Irish finished a season on top, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, a gallon of gas would set you back $1.08 and Lou Holtz was shtomping acrosh the Irish shidelines.  Since then, “Flounder Like an Irrelevant Program Today” has marked the once-proud program’s trudge through more than two decades of mediocrity.  Following a 16-win run to end the last three years of the Charlie Weis era, though, the tide, so to speak, began to turn for the Irish.  In the two years after Kelly was hired in December of 2009, the Irish posted back-to-back eight-win seasons.  In the third year under Kelly — the same year four other Irish coaches won their first/only national championships at the school, incidentally — the Irish have made a resounding move back onto the national stage.  And relevance in the way that matters most.

Exorcising historical ghosts
While they’ve met but a handful of times through the years, Notre Dame has had Alabama’s number when they have taken the field.  In six meetings, the Irish own a decided 5-1 advantage.  Included in that total?  A perfect 4-0 record against Tide teams coached by the legendary Bear Bryant.  The two teams first met in 1973, with the last coming in 1987.  The first two meetings came in the Sugar and Orange Bowls in back-to-back years, with the Irish winning both games by a combined three points over Tide teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at the time.  Alabama’s only win came during the 1986 regular season, a 28-10 decision in Birmingham.  Of course, the last time the two teams met with this much on the line, Saban was a graduate assistant at his alma mater Kent State while Kelly had yet to enter high school, so the historical angle will be gummed to death in the coming weeks due to lack of teeth.

Chasing the Bear
More than three decades after his death, there’s still nothing that epitomizes and encapsulates the Alabama football program more than Paul William Bryant.  In his 25 years as the Tide’s head coach, the Bear won a school-record 232 games and staked his claim to five* national titles.  While Saban can inch up on but never truly surpass Coach Bryant in the hearts and minds of Tuscaloosans, he can take a step closer to the coaching immortal’s accomplishments; with a win over Notre Dame, Saban would have four national championships on his résumé — one at LSU, three in the Bear’s den.

(*I don’t acknowledge 1973, much like the coaches didn’t acknowledge the postseason)

Record eyeballs glued to boob tube?
The highest-rated game in BCS history was the USC-Texas Rose Bowl affair following the 2005 season, which drew a 21.7 Nielsen rating.  Notre Dame drew a 10.3 rating for its “meaningless” regular season game against USC this year that was roughly half of that record, and equal to the 2012 SEC title game.  Alabama plus Notre Dame plus five weeks of hype?  Records will be shattered.

AP tiebreaker
Depending on which way the polling winds blow, and if it’s favorable in their direction, Alabama claims (I think) 14 national championships.  Notre Dame claims 11, with both teams using various polls to dignify their historical national championship status.  The one certainty in all of the title claiming?  There are two teams that have each won a record eight Associated Press titles — Alabama and Notre Dame, of course.  Jan. 7 in Miami, as it turns out, will turn into a tiebreaker for the ages that no one ever anticipated.

Degenerates speak
In the week leading up to the SEC championship game, Alabama had been listed as a 9.5 favorite over Notre Dame should the two teams ultimately meet in the BCS title game.  With the game officially set?  The odds range from 8.5 to 10, depending on the book.  Notre Dame may be undefeated, but they’ll go into the title game as decided underdogs in the eyes of both the sports books in general and the betting/viewing public in particular.

Coaches poll sees minimal movement after routine weekend

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Without much drama around the country this weekend in college football, there were very few changes seen in this week’s updated Amway Coaches Poll. While three teams dropped out to make some room for some fresh faces at the bottom of the poll, the top 12 remained unchanged from last week. No. 1 Alabama remains atop the coaches poll with all 64 first-place votes cast in their favor.

A few schools making some movement of note this week included No. 17 Mississippi State and No. 18 LSU moving up two and three spots, respectively. No. 20 Stanford also moved up three places this week. The biggest drop within the top 25 this week was taken by No. 21 Oklahoma State, with the Cowboys falling eight spots after a home loss to Kansas State. The Wildcats remain unranked in this week’s coaches poll.

Michigan, NC State, and West Virginia each fell out of the top 25 this week following their respective losses. That made room for No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Boise State, and No. 25 Virginia Tech.

Here is this week’s full coaches poll:

  1. Alabama (64 first-place votes)
  2. Miami
  3. Clemson
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Oklahoma
  6. Auburn
  7. Georgia
  8. Ohio State
  9. Notre Dame
  10. USC
  11. Penn State
  12. UCF
  13. TCU
  14. Washington
  15. Washington State
  16. Memphis
  17. Mississippi State
  18. LSU
  19. USF
  20. Stanford
  21. Oklahoma State
  22. Michigan State
  23. Northwestern
  24. Boise State
  25. Virginia Tech

Defending national champion James Madison takes No. 1 seed in FCS playoffs

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Last week the playoff field for Division 2 and Division 3 was set, and we are still two weeks away from learning what four teams will compete in the fourth College Football Playoff. Today it was the FCS playoff field that was unveiled for the first time. Not surprisingly, defending national champion James Madison, the top-ranked team in FCS, took the top spot in the 24-team field.

At 11-0, it was expected the Dukes would be the number one overall seed. The Colonial Athletic Association champions are in the FCS playoffs for a fourth-straight season. The number two seed is a familiar name to those following FCS football. North Dakota State (10-1) took the second overall seed in the playoff field. The five-time national champs remains a force to reckon with once again and will hope to get a shot at playoff revenge against James Madison in this year’s championship game. It was James Madison that eliminated the Bison from the postseason last year with a 27-17 upset in the semifinals.

JMU went on to top Bo Pelini and Youngstown State in the championship game after the unseeded Penguins went on a miraculous run to the championship game. Youngstown State had taken out the No. 3 seed Jacksonville State (40-24) and No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (40-38) before falling against the No. 4 seeded Dukes. Youngstown State did not reach the postseason this year.

Jacksonville State takes the three-seed, followed by Central Arkansas, South Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Wofford and Southern Utah. Other automatic entrants through conference championship automatic qualifiers include Kennesaw State, Central Connecticut State, Lehigh, and San Diego. At-large teams making the field include Northern Arizona, Weber State, Monmouth, Elon, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, South Dakota, Northern Iowa, Western Illinois, Furman, Samford, and Nicholls State.

You can view the full bracket HERE.

Kyle Whittingham attempts to defend bizarre timeout decision that doomed Utes vs. Washington

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If you went to bed a little early on Saturday night then the chances are pretty good you missed one of the more baffling coaching decisions of the season. With Washington and Utah tied at 30-30 after the Huskies battled back in the second half, Washington received the football with under a minute to play. Washington seemed to be playing for overtime with a short run to keep the clock rolling when Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham called a timeout. This gave Washington head coach Chris Petersen a chance to change the mindset on his sideline and go for the win before overtime, and it led to a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Whittingham essentially gave Washington a chance to win the Huskies had no intention of playing for in regulation, and it may end up costing Utah a spot in a postseason bowl game. After the game, Whittingham defended his decision-making by saying he was attempting to be aggressive, suggesting that if Washington really was playing for overtime, they would have taken a knee.

“You’d have to ask Chris that. But if they were not being aggressive they would have taken a knee,” Whittingham explained. “What’s the point in running a play if they’re not going to try to at least maneuver into field goal range. So we called timeout, had them in decent field position, second and eight or second and nine, and one incomplete pass and another timeout if they decide to run the ball. So it was a long shot, but we’re just trying to win and it obviously didn’t work out.

Here’s the play where Utah called the timeout. It sure seemed as though Washington had no real intention of playing for a field goal unless Utah made a huge mistake, which as it turned out they did,

Whittingham had no legitimate reason to call for the timeout and admitted it was a decision he would take back given the hindsight of knowing how the game would eventually end.

“In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have called the timeout,” Whittingham said. “But at the time, we were just trying to be aggressive and get the ball back to a guy who has about a sixty-yard range field goal wise.”

Petersen said after the game they were merely trying to run Myles Gaskin to see if there would be a crack or a big play. That never developed, but the timeout changed the situation for Washington. Petersen, not one to go out and trash an opposing coach over a questionable decision that benefits him, said he understood what Whittingham was trying to do.

“We wanted to run the ball and see if we could pop through with Myles and maybe get a 10-yard run,” Petersen said. “I get what Kyle was trying to do. You have to play aggressive in these situations.”

No, you do not.

There is a time to play with aggression, but this was not the time. Washington was settling on playing overtime, and Whittingham overthought the situation and got burned by it.

Josh Rosen gets the stats, Sam Darnold the win as No. 11 USC tops crosstown rival UCLA

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UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen grabbed all the gaudy stats, but USC signal-caller Sam Darnold managed the win.

The primetime battle of potential No. 1 overall picks in next year’s NFL Draft didn’t quite live up to the hype for fans or scouts alike, but the No. 11 Trojans completed their regular season on Saturday night with a hard-fought 28-23 win over their crosstown rivals at the L.A. Coliseum in a contest that was far from the shootout that was expected coming in.

Darnold had his moments behind center and flashed several reasons why NFL front office types are so enamored with him, hitting some nice touch passes over the middle and scrambling for numerous big plays outside of the pocket. The numbers weren’t quite up to his season standards with 264 yards through the air and no touchdowns but the redshirt sophomore did find the end zone on a scramble.

That he scored on the ground probably wasn’t too surprising given that UCLA is the worst rushing defense in the country but every yard had to be earned in the chippy rivalry game between the two schools 15 miles from each other. Running back Ronald Jones didn’t see as many carries as you would expect down the stretch but managed 122 yards and two scores to keep the chains moving on a pretty consistent basis.

The best play for the cardinal and gold might have actually come on special teams, as Michael Pittman used a little misdirection on a punt return to scoot 72 yards nearly untouched for a touchdown and the game’s first points.

As good as USC was at times on the night, they didn’t runaway with the win like many expected for a team on the fringes of playoff contention. A lot of that had to do with Rosen, who again kept his side in things with a 421 yard outing with three touchdowns and a pick — numbers that could have been even better if not for a few plays here or there. That aerial attack helped open things up for a normally dormant ground game, with Soso Jamabo rushing for 62 yards and Bolo Olorunfunmi adding another 56.

It wasn’t enough to bring the Victory Bell back to Westwood however, as the annual trophy will remain just south of downtown for the eighth time in the past decade. The Bruins still have a shot at going to a bowl game if they can beat fellow in-state rival Cal next weekend but their margin for error to reach the postseason is still incredibly slim given how improved the Bears are this year.

The Trojans meanwhile, finally get some well deserved rest after capping off an 8-1 campaign in conference play and a perfect record in the division. After a week of rest — the first of the year since they had no bye week — they’ll head to the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium for a rematch with either Stanford or Washington State. The team remains way outside looking in with regards to the College Football Playoff chase at the moment but after a third straight win over their crosstown rival, that probably is the furthest thing on their minds as another picture perfect night in Los Angeles comes to a close.