THE BCS IS GOING OUT WITH A BANG, GIVING FANS THE FLORIDA STATE--AUBURN SHOWDOWN THEY WANT. SOMEWHERE A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER AND A HARRIS POLL VOTER ARE SHARING A GOOD CRY
YOU SHOULD ALWAYS find something nice to say at a funeral, and as the Bowl Championship Series lies in hospice, let's admit that the stubborn old coot came through with his last breath. There were no false promises of holiday cheer this time. Auburn and Florida State will play in the national-title game at the Rose Bowl, and it is the right matchup in every way.
The Seminoles are the only unbeaten team left, and the Tigers won the vaunted Southeastern Conference by running from last place to first place with their shoelaces on fire.
Florida State has been the sport's dominant team, but Auburn represents the sport's dominant conference, which has won seven straight national championships and wants you to know it. SEC fans chant "S-E-C!" after every bowl win, and probably after most church functions—an a cappella version of "Seven Nation Army," the sports background music that most of America wants to turn off but can't.
Folks in the Midwest, across the Great Plains and on the West Coast believe that their college football teams also deserve some respect, because goshdarnit, they fill their stadiums too. It's a dispute between collared-shirt America and collard-greens America, and despite the rush to crown a "true" national champion, the divide between the SEC and everybody else reminds us this is still a regional sport.
Florida State is an odd team to garner support from the Rust Belt to Silicon Valley, but national-title games are like national elections: You may not like your candidate, but you really can't stomach the alternative. In this case you can cheer against the SEC if you think the league is too good, or not as good as people say; both reasons make sense, and ... wait, we have a caller from Norman, Okla.
"Propaganda," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops complained this spring about the notion of SEC dominance, before mocking the belief that SEC defenses are so much sturdier than defenses in his Big 12.
You don't win seven straight championships because of propaganda, but at least this season Stoops may have a point. From 2008 through '11, Missouri went 20--13 in the Big 12. This year Mizzou went 7--1 in the SEC, winning the East before losing the title game to Auburn 59--42, a score that probably did not alter Stoops's view. In two seasons, Big 12 converts Missouri and Texas A&M have gone a combined 19--13 in SEC play.
Stoops can prove what he has preached this bowl season. His Sooners play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, where Bear Bryant won his last two outright national championships. The Crimson Tide fell from No. 1 because of that wild Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. Oklahoma jumped into the Sugar by upsetting rival Oklahoma State 33--24. Hours after the Sooners' win, Ohio State's two-season unbeaten streak imploded against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game 34--24. This is what made college football a unique beast long before the BCS was conceived: the best rivalries, compelling story lines across every tier of college football and start-to-finish tension. The NFL has better players, but college has better games.
The Rose could be another classic. The Granddaddy of Them All may be the second-biggest game in its own stadium in January, behind Auburn-FSU, but the Michigan State and Stanford fan bases don't care. From 1973 to 2012, Stanford and Michigan State each played in one Rose Bowl. Now the Cardinal will try to win their second straight, and the Spartans will try to stop them in an old-time battle of power versus power. If these are not the two most physical teams in the country, well, we're not going to be the ones to tell them that.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, disappeared from the national-title picture, but they won't go away. Ohio State faces Clemson in the Orange Bowl. After losing the Big Ten title game, center Corey Linsley was asked if he'll remember what his team did, or what it could have done? Linsley said the answer hinges entirely on the Buckeyes' bowl game.
The bowls still matter, and they will again next year, when the sport finally, mercifully, goes to a four-team playoff. In the meantime, we get compelling interregional matchups for the next few weeks and an undisputed championship bout. It's all the BCS ever wanted.
In its final days the BCS brought us the goods, as it often did, even if the package was sometimes delivered by a carrier pigeon, which pooped on it. The BCS is dying of the most natural cause: Something better came along. But it goes to the grave knowing its tumultuous life ends with warm feelings. Rest in peace.
Photograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GROUND CONTROL With Mason blazing for an SEC-title-game record 304 yards in a runaway win over Missouri, the Tigers seemed to be a team of destiny—and when Ohio State stumbled nearly four hours later, they were.