The Hangover Cure: Conference Championship Saturday, 2008

No, it’s not over. But we’re quite close.

And I apologize to music for the theme.

Crashed

Ah, Ball State, you were close.

You streaked through a regular season gauntlet of directional Michigan, Kentucky, and Illinois MAC schools, beat Navy and Indiana in your excursions beyond that grueling conference slate, and gave exactly two people reason to start sounding the “I hate how the BCS discriminates against mid-majors” alarm.

And then you lost to Buffalo in the MAC title game, giving away 14 points on two fumbles in four minutes at the end of the third quarter in a 42-24 loss. You may have outgained the Bulls by 202 yards, but your Cardinals coughed up four fumbles and Nate Davis threw an interception, committing five turnovers on the first weekend of December after committing four in October and November combined.

Great teams can overcome many things. Good teams cannot overcome that many turnovers.

Enjoy the GMAC Bowl.

Breakdown

Cincinnati had every opportunity to lose to Hawai’i.

The Bearcats had already clinched the Big East’s championship and BCS berth; they were making the longest road trip of the season and began their game at 11 PM Cincy time; they allowed 24 straight points; they trailed 24-10 in the fourth quarter; their heroic starting quarterback, Tony Pike, who piloted Cincy to the Big East title with a broken arm, was ineffective throughout, throwing two picks.

And yet, with an interception return, a field goal, a safety, and a bomb from erstwhile starter Dustin Grutza to Mardy Gilyard, the Bearcats rallied to tally 19 points in the final frame and win 29-24.

This, the sort of tenacity that any coach would kill for in a team, is why most athletic directors have been targeting Cincy’s Brian Kelly for their head coaching vacancies: even in an alien road environment, with ostensibly nothing at stake, and with the odds against them, the Bearcats pulled off the unlikely comeback. It happened in the predawn hours, long after the big boys did their rampaging, but it still happened.

And if Kelly should leave for a bigger school in the next few years, it’s a safe bet it will happen again.

Over You

Today, the BCS’ dance partners are selected and announced, and today, once again, Pete Carroll’s Trojans will have to play wallflower, forced to foxtrot with a designated patsy from the Big Ten.

The screams for justice will not be silent.

But it’s got more to do with when and how USC lost and what they could–or rather, could not–do to counter that in the pollsters’ eyes, as the former SMQ helpfully notes, than with any inherent football-related problem. Florida could best brand names like LSU, Georgia, and Alabama after losing; Oklahoma got to tussle with Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri. But USC could only beat up on the lustrous tiers of yesteryear, dumping Notre Dame, Cal, and UCLA, and had to have Oregon State lose to win its conference.

There is, of course, no sane coach in America that would want a part of USC’s defense, statistically stout and stocked with someday’s Sunday stars as it is, but there was no way for USC to redeem itself in the regular season after being gashed by Jacquizz Rodgers, and there is no way to prove that against a team with any national esteem other than Penn State.

USC is the team of the mid-aughts, a juggernaut that steamrolled over a Pac-10 not far removed from its nadir for most of the decade, but as the pollsters and ratings realized this, it became harder and harder for the Trojans to do anything of value on a national stage; when the emperor is fighting peasants, it’s no great feat for the emperor to triumph, and a shock should he go down.

In this way, USC is a victim of its own success.

That said, as a Florida fan with a healthy respect for Oklahoma’s offense, I’m sorry to see that neither will get a chance to line up against the constellation that assembled weekly at the Coliseum.

This is not an argument for a playoff, merely a meditation on the state as is.

But Pete Carroll is welcome to use it as he wishes.

Home

East Carolina came around the long way.

They rocketed past Virginia Tech and West Virginia to begin the year, then cratered against North Carolina State, Houston, and Virginia. And then, the Pirates ripped off six wins in seven games, two by field goals in overtime, one with a touchdown with less than three minutes left on the clock in the fourth quarter, and, on Saturday, with a superb defensive effort to thwart Tulsa and claim their first conference title in 32 years.

The Pirates stymied the Golden Hurricane, allowing only 399 yards to a team that routinely crested 600 this year, and forcing David Johnson, the FBS’s top-rated passer entering the game, to throw five interceptions as part of Tulsa’s seven-turnover outing.

But on a Saturday that was about redemption for teams that learned what resilience looked like when their opponents demonstrated it, East Carolina, once 3-0, then 3-3, looked more like Elon, which sits 125 miles to the east of the ECU campus, than any other school.

Before Saturday, I had never seen a purple phoenix.

It’s Not Over

My current Facebook status brings up the  possibility of an “apocalyptic storm of hype.”

We should all brace for it.

You know where Bob Stoops worked before he became Oklahoma’s head coach? Florida. You know who Oklahoma’s offense is going to be compared to? The half-a-hundred Gators of the ’90s. You know who spurned the Gators when they came calling post-Spurrier? Bob Stoops. You know what the best guessing game of the month is going to be? What If, with Bob Stoops heading to Gainesville as the phrase in question.

These are two teams who have never met, with proud yet divergent histories. One is old and one is new, one a faded, classic maroon and one an electric, consuming blue. It’s a match-up between the two that will be endlessly compared to the Texas-USC clash that was, indeed, one of the best games of college football ever played.

But if you want it to be as wonderful as it may be, I advise you to avoid all sports media between now and then.

Feels Like Tonight

I’ve been a fan of the Florida Gators since 1996.

I remember Danny Wonderful, hanging half a hundred, the cracks about Auburn libraries, the duels with Peyton, the shadow of the whistle, that stupendous Sugar Bowl, Doug Johnson, Jesse Palmer, Noah Brindise, Jevon Kearse, Jabar Gaffney’s catch on Rocky Top, eating Turtle Soup in Miami, Spurrier bolting, Ron Zook’s hiring, the Draining of the Swamp, the recruitment of Chris Leak, the frat fight and Zook to the rescue, “Fire Ron Zook,” the Swindle in the Swamp, the Vernell Brown reverse pass to Rex Grossman, Urban Meyer giving way to Urban Renewal, the recruitment of Tim Tebow, the emergence of “Dallas Baker, Touchdown Maker,” the birth of the Tebow Child, the ‘Cock Block, the incalculable joie de vivre of Reggie Nelson, the breathless wonder of Percy “Oh, Mercy” Harvin, the redemption of Chris Leak in the Gator Raid, Tim Tebow’s audition for the role of God in 2007, and, now, the scorched-earth run of 2008, with quarkbacks, Janoris Jenkins, Brandon Spikes, and Tebow-as-William Wallace.

But nothing was quite like yesterday.

Yesterday felt titanic, epic and epochal, the villains clad in crimson and led by the Archcoach of Death. Florida and Alabama have history in ways that Florida and Ohio State never will, and though nothing can touch winning a national championship over the hated in-state rival while avenging an earlier loss by utterly vanquishing a team, there was something special about winning this conference, this year, over this team.

Alabama was every inch an extension of its coach except on two second-quarter plays, a boneheaded move by special teams ace Javier Arenas and a poorly prepared fake field goal; for all the rest of the ticks on the clock, ‘Bama was a wave of humanity pitting maximum effort against slightly superior talent. The lines pushed forward and back, the secondary wrapped its blanket as tightly as possible, and the skill position standouts, Glen Coffee, Julio Jones, and Rashad Johnson, were grinding, diving, football machines. This was a great team, no doubt.

The Gators were greater.

Without Percy Harvin, his wheels stopped, as always, by various ailments of ankle and heel, and mostly without Chris Rainey, nursing a groin injury, the Gators’ offense was stripped of its most slippery rocks; without Brandon Antwine, and with Dustin Doe nicked up, the Gators’ defense was less solid than usual.

But the offense and defense still had their biggest boulders, in hogmollies that would not quit and wore Alabama to a fine powder in the fourth quarter. With the game in the balance, the yards that came easily for Coffee and the ‘Bama ground game could not be found, and John Parker Wilson’s protection evaporated; on the other side, creases got wider, and Tim Tebow breathed even easier.

And, of course, those boulders standing tall allowed Tebow to shoulder the Gators for the fourth quarter. He was as good as quarterbacks get in that last stanza, perfect on his throws and bullish on his runs, sharp in short-, medium-, and long-range passing and fiery in his exultations.

Tebow, on a day that saw the greatest team effort for the University of Florida’s football team since that game in Glendale, was more the catalyst of this team that ever before, racing to the sidelines to exhort the kickoff team, yelling “Let’s go” to anyone in earshot on the sidelines, and effortlessly pouring everything he had into the biggest game of his life.

Tim Tebow is a strange sort, who meets ever grander challenges and responds with ever more astonishing results, but this was his signature game, a sixty-minute gem that could have gone another half-hour without any ebb in emotion. It’s hard to believe in the hype of those who would agree wholeheartedly with the idea that Tebow really is the son of God, or those who would call him one of the best to ever play the game of football.

But he is driven by forces I could never harness and pushes harder than any other quarterback I’ve seen, less out of personal ego and thirst for glory and more because he feels that this is his talent, his raison d’etre, and he’s blessed to be able to do so in concordance with friends he’s come to love and a coach with whom he’s formed an unbreakable bond.

I was fraught with more nervous tension before this game than before any other UF game in my life, believing, as I did, that the week of hype and the soaring line would restore UF to its typical position as the nouveau riche gorilla of the SEC, setting us up for a stomping at the hands of the elephant from Tuscaloosa.

And as the game developed into the back-and-forth bout it was, I turned more and more introspective. It’s an unnatural state for me: while I’m not a shouter for my teams, preferring wry detachment as a way to diminish my dismay in the event of a loss, I do really get into games, rooting with the passion of a fan with a team in the fight.

This, I realized, I experienced both as that fan and as a witness to majesty.

Two teams met on a field in Atlanta on Saturday and left all but the blood on the field, in the sort of battle between young men who have grown up immersed in the sport of the South that fulfilled the wildest dreams of the older generations who nursed this game to its current enormity. It was hard-fought and brusing and all those other cliches of barbarism, but it was also beautiful.

Few moments in sports really move me, because even as a young man, I am jaded, tainted by the sobering realities of sports: money, power, and the erosion of ethics in the pursuit of both. I know there is little on the field that is as pure as it seems.

But at the end of this game, Tim Tebow, helmet off, walked up to Urban Meyer on the sideline, caught his coach’s eye, and shook his hand. It was a simple, evanescent thing, but a symbol of something so much more.

And it moved me.

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1 Comment

Filed under College Football, The Hangover Cure

One response to “The Hangover Cure: Conference Championship Saturday, 2008

  1. No.2 Hutch 4 No.3

    The more I think about Tebow, the more I think he may only ever, as a footballer, be best remembered for his college football career. I recall the platitudinal hype surrounding Troy Aikman and it took him what seemed like forever to succceed in the pros. The list of never-made-it-reallys is stunningly long. Namath, Staubach, Bradshaw, Montana, Favre, Brady, Tebow may be the only list that matters if he goes to the NFL. The more I think, the more I think he should join the list of those who graduate into a career other than football.

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