Thursday, January 9, 2014

College football in the rearview

A couple years ago an acquaintance of mine described this as a "political blog," which somewhat surprised me because I use it to write about pretty much whatever I feel like writing about. Still, I only say somewhat surprised because, let's face it, politics are a frequent topic of mine and my opinions are strong.

Remembering that comment brings me, rather circuitously, to something I want to say: Writing on this blog over the last few months has been pure joy because I have stayed away from political issues. I still have strong opinions about them and am still tuned in to what is happening with this noble, 237-year-old experiment known as the United State of America; but writing about politics on your off-time can be a drag, and it has been a wonderfully escapist release to instead focus mostly on college football.

So with the entire 2013 season behind us, and with it capped off by a tremendous title game, I am in the mood to offer up a few final thoughts on it before turning my attention to other things.

The National Championship Game
My school lost the final BCS Championship Game on Monday night. In most circumstances -- and in all circumstances that involve championship games -- I am a firm believer in the old adage that moral victories are for losers. Therefore, I will not concoct any hokum about moral victories for my Auburn Tigers. The best team won, and Florida State proved they are #1.

To a man, Auburn's players are competitors, and therefore they are certainly feeling bad. As they should. Competitors should feel bad when they earn their way all the way to the brink of the national championship, then fail to close the deal when they are in a position to close it.

Which is not to say...
...that they shouldn't be proud of everything they accomplished this season. From 3-9 in 2012 to 12-2 in 2013, from winless in their division to champions of the toughest conference in all the land. In many ways, this was the most memorable Auburn team of my lifetime, surpassing even the national championship team of 2010.

What I will say...
...on behalf of Auburn is that they proved all of their doubters and critics wrong on Monday night. Nobody gave them a chance, yet they came within 13 seconds of winning. FSU's final touchdown would not have won the game, but merely sent it to overtime, had Cody Parkey not missed a field goal on a 33-yard chip shot earlier in the evening.

"Can't throw" Nick Marshall completed clutch passes down the field from beginning to end.

The defense, which everyone thought incapable of stopping the Noles, succeeded in bottling up Jameis Winston most of the night; in covering FSU's much taller receivers like wallpaper; and in tackling better that I have seen any other NCAA defense tackle this year (with the possible exception of Michigan State).

When Auburn fell behind late in the fourth quarter -- following a 100-yard kick return that would have been a dagger to the hearts of most teams -- they responded with grit and poise by marching all the way down the field against Florida State's highly touted D, and scoring a touchdown to retake the lead with 1:19 remaining.

The Denouement
Unfortunately, it was right after that clutch TD that the phrase "most of the night" would rear its head to haunt the Auburn defense. After 58+ minutes of superb tackling by everyone on that side of the ball, two defenders simultaneously blew a tackle, which caused a fairly short hook pattern to morph into a long gain down the sideline. That set up FSU's winning score, which occurred with 13 seconds left,  when Winston threaded a pass through good coverage and into the hands of a receiver who enjoyed a decided height and reach advantage over the DB's.

In short, the team with the match-up advantages won. And in a logical world, isn't that exactly how it should play out when the turnovers are even (which they were) and the bad officiating cuts both ways (which it did)?

In the final analysis, 1) Auburn's offense was better than FSU's, but just barely; 2) FSU's defense was better than Auburn's, but just barely; and 3) FSU's special teams were clearly better than Auburn's, even after taking into account the fact that Auburn's punting unit routinely pinned them deep in their own territory...And when a team is better in two of the three phases of the game, doesn't logic say they should win?

About that bad officiating
On the off chance anyone wonders what I was talking about, Auburn was victimized by four blatant holds going uncalled. Meanwhile, FSU was victimized by a facemask and a horse collar tackle both going uncalled, and by a pathetically weak taunting flag being thrown. (Technically, the taunting penalty was the correct call, but all that does is prove that the rule should be changed.)

For all you haters out there who are claiming the SEC is weaker than before because the national champion is from another conference: Think again, because the numbers prove you are wrong. The SEC finished 7-3 in bowls, better than any other conference in America. Right behind it was the Pac-12 at 6-3; and after that, the only other conference with a winning record in this year's bowls was the Sun Belt, which went 2-0. Every other league was .500 or worse.

Every conference has good teams, and the best team from every conference is capable of beating the best team from any of the others on a given Saturday. But when it comes to which conference is strongest top to bottom, that conference is still the SEC.

The Top Twenty
And finally, here's how I see it having shaken out for the 2013 season:

1.    Florida State
2.    Auburn
3.    Michigan State
4.    Missouri
5.    South Carolina
6.    Oklahoma
7.    Alabama
8.    Stanford
9.    Oregon
10.  Oklahoma State
11.  Clemson
12.  LSU
13.  UCLA
14.  Central Florida
15.  Baylor
16.  Ohio State
17.  Wisconsin
18.  Texas A&M
19.  Duke
20.  USC

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