In the spirit of the holidays, let us spare the BCS the mockery it so richly deserves and focus on the games it has bequeathed us, a mixed bag of matchups ranging from the recycled (No. 1 LSU vs. No. 2 Alabama in the title game) to the sublime (No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 4 Stanford in what should be a pyrotechnical Fiesta) to the ridiculous (What on earth were you thinking, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, passing over two top 10 teams in favor of No. 11 Virginia Tech—coming off a four-touchdown loss to Clemson—and No. 13 Michigan?).
True, Hoolahan's head-shaking decision reeks of cronyism and is the latest in a long list of reasons to nuke the BCS. But that's not our focus here—we're celebrating the teams, the games, the players! The time has come to embrace these matchups, the way Andrew Luck hugged Robert Griffin III after RG3 was named the winner of the Heisman Trophy last Saturday night in midtown Manhattan.
The presentation ceremony, by the way, was surprisingly crisp and compelling. Emcee Chris Fowler deftly put the five finalists at ease, at one point asking Alabama running back Trent Richardson if perhaps the figurine on the Heisman trophy itself was carrying the point of the ball a tad too low. (Richardson, who has lost one fumble in 614 touches as a collegian, agreed.) Turning to ball-hawk extraordinaire Tyrann Mathieu, LSU's storied Honey Badger, Fowler asked, "Could you knock that loose?" Not surprisingly, Mathieu believed he could.
While it's sure to be all business between them in the Superdome on Jan. 9, when the Tide takes on the Tigers for the second time in 65 days, and with a national championship on the line, they were bosom buddies in the Big Apple. "You look at Trent and think he's a coldhearted kind of guy," said Mathieu after the presentation. "Actually, he's a sweetheart." Richardson, for his part, described the Honey Badger as "a lifetime friend."
Chewing the scenery beside them was Luck, the Stanford quarterback who is almost sure to hear his name called out in midtown Manhattan next April, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announces the first pick in the draft. But for the second straight season Luck was runner-up for the Heisman. He was incredibly efficient and consistent in 2011. But Luck played in a pro-style system predicated on balance. He was very good but not great down the stretch, opening the door for Griffin, who entranced a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Heisman electorate with superheroic performances in late-season wins over Oklahoma and Texas. So it was fitting, moments before he learned that he'd won the trophy, when Griffin lifted one of his pant cuffs, revealing to his audience at the Best Buy Theater that he was wearing Superman socks, complete with tiny red capes.
Bridesmaid though he was, Luck was graciousness personified. He was the first to congratulate Griffin, who deserved the award so richly, Luck later said that "it's very hard to be upset." He'll get a chance to ease that sting on the evening of Jan. 2.
Had Oklahoma State not been stunned by Iowa State on Nov. 18, Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden would've shared the stage on Saturday with Griffin, Luck, Richardson & Co. Despite routing big brother Oklahoma in this year's Bedlam matchup, Oklahoma State missed out on a BCS title game berth by .0086. Like Luck—and against him, as it turns out—Weeden will have a chance to rinse away his disappointment.
Stanford vs. Oklahoma State, Luck vs. Weeden, will be the most wide open of the five BCS bowls. Weeden has thrown for 4,328 yards this season, third best in the country. Luck owns the nation's fifth-highest efficiency rating, at 167.50. Weeden's go-to guy is the beastly, Biletnikoff Award--winning Justin Blackmon, who has caught 113 balls this season for 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Luck did the bulk of his damage throwing to the best corps of tight ends in the country. When Stanford lined up in a three-tight-ends set, it was all but impossible for defenses to account for Coby Fleener, Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, who combined for 79 catches, 1,281 yards and 19 touchdowns. Both teams feature underrated defenses that will have trouble getting off the field in Glendale, Ariz.
No less intriguing is the Rose Bowl between No. 6 Oregon and Big Ten champ Wisconsin. On its face, this one looks like a throwback: the giant, corn-fed lads from the heartland traveling west to take on a slighter, speedier Pac-12 opponent. But that stereotype doesn't really hold up anymore, says Ducks coach Chip Kelly, who points out that Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue are spread teams. "Ohio State with Braxton Miller—he's all over the place," he says.
Yes, Wisconsin lines up behind a hulking offensive line whose aim is to grind defenses into subatomic particles, and which paved the way for Montee Ball's incredible 38 TDs this season—one shy of Barry Sanders's alltime FBS record for a single year. But these are not your father's Badgers. "Adding [quarterback] Russell Wilson to the mix," says Kelly, forces defenses to focus on more than just stopping the run. "If you do, then [receivers Nick] Toon and [Jared] Abbrederis will beat you."
While it does smashmouth very well, this Badgers attack is creative and unpredictable, says Kelly, who points out that Ball has thrown one TD this season and that Wilson has caught three passes. "They're going to attack you, they're going to stretch you," says the Ducks' coach. "There's not one phase of their game you can gang up on." Yes, the Badgers are formidable, he went on, "But when you're in a BCS bowl game, no one's getting a patsy."
Ideally, no. That assumption is based on the premise that the people running the bowls are interested in fielding the best teams rather than the programs whose fans travel in the most prolific numbers. By passing over top 10 teams to invite Michigan and Virginia Tech, the Sugar Bowl devalued itself and further debased the BCS.
"We were shocked ourselves" by the Sugar Bowl invite, admits David Wilson, the Hokies' stud running back, who needed 61 yards going into the ACC title game against Clemson to break the school's single-season rushing record. He eked out just 32 yards on a season-low 11 carries, then questioned his team's play calling after the 38--10 loss, Tech's second 20-point drubbing of the season to the Tigers. "I wasn't frustrated so much as disappointed," he said last Friday. "That wasn't us, that wasn't Virginia Tech football."
Whatever it was, there's a national consensus that it doesn't deserve a spot in the Sugar Bowl—not while seventh-ranked Boise State, a team that opened its season with a win over SEC East champ Georgia, returns to the humble Maaco Bowl Las Vegas for the second straight season.
"I was looking at some of the blogs, some of things people were saying about us," says Virginia Tech right guard Jaymes Brooks. "It's like, Wow, they really hated us being picked. Can't do anything about it now. We just really want to go out and win so we can get the taste out of our mouth from the Clemson game."
Brooks spoke to SI on the phone on Friday, a day after Virginia Tech police officer Deriek Crouse was shot on campus by a man who then killed himself. "Five children lost their dad yesterday," said Brooks. "Sometimes you gotta remember there's life outside of football."
Like so many offensive linemen, Brooks is wise. He reminds us that as worked up as people may get over the slights and injustices perpetrated by the BCS system, it all takes place in the toy department of life. Sometimes you've just got to set your anger aside, pull on your Superman socks and enjoy the games.
BOWL PREVIEW 2011
OPEN SI'S FOLDOUT FOR ANDY STAPLES'S BOWL PICKS
Photographs by DAN WOZNIAK/SOUTHCREEK/ ZUMAPRESS.COM (WEEDEN) AND PETER READ MILLER (LUCK)
BACKGROUND BY SI IMAGING
DESERT SWARM Punts will be at a premium when Weeden (left) and the Cowboys, ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.3 points per game), meet Luck (right) and the Cardinal, who are fifth (43.6).
BRONZED BEAR Baylor enters the Alamo Bowl behind Griffin, whose performance this season earned admiration from Luck last Saturday after the Bears' quarterback was named Heisman winner.