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Best of Bob Owens

Owens Analyzes Three More Bowl Games, and the Entire Selection Process

27 December 2001

[Note: I rate each play either as 1 unit, 1.5 units, or 2 units. These ratings will appear in parentheses next to each selection. The higher the number, the better I feel about the play. The point spreads shown are a consensus of those in effect at the time of writing.]

Tostitos Fiesta, Jan. 1: COLORADO -2.5 over Oregon (1.5) I almost made Colorado a 2-unit play, but was deterred both by Oregon's aggressive defense that causes a lot of turnovers, and that Oregon can sail the rock, and the Buffalos are lacking in solid pass defense. (But so too is Oregon.) Colorado may be the best team in the country right now, after knocking off Nebraska and Texas.

(It seems unlikely there will be any arrests or suspensions of Buffalo players stemming from an allegation of rape, at least not before the game; that investigation is ongoing. Whether or not the whole thing will be a distraction in preparing for the game is a question. Sometimes, this type of thing creates more solidarity among the players, especially if they feel the charges are unfounded or frivolous. That, of course, remains to be seen.)

Actually, only an early season 2-point loss to Fresno State kept them out of the Rose Bowl. The Buffs, overall, played a tougher schedule than did Oregon , in that 7 of their opponents are appearing in bowls, versus only 4 who played the Ducks. Should the game turn on field position, Colorado has the better punter. The victor in this game has a chance to be co-national champion, along with the Rose Bowl winner.

Fedex Orange, Jan. 2: MARYLAND +15.5 over Florida (1). Maryland makes its first bowl appearance in a decade, under new coach Ralph Friedgen. Florida has been in many of these, and really this year had their eyes on a bigger prize, before losing to Tennessee in the season finale. They have to be at least a little disappointed that they're not going to Pasadena. The Terrapins, of course, are quite happy to have landed such a prestigious bowl, and will bust their butts to win, which would cap a great season.

Florida should have a problem running on Maryland, even if their best rusher, Graham, is ready to play. They'll do what they do best and take to the air. But when a team turns one-dimensional, predictable, it often allows the opposing defense to take calculated risks, and the Terps rank # 4 in turnover margin. Florida may win, but Maryland has a good shot to stay inside the spot.

Rose Bowl, Jan. 3: NEBRASKA +9.5 over Miami (2). (Parenthetically: this oldest of the bowls still has not sold out to corporate sponsorship. So let's hear it for tradition. We'll hold in reserve a hearty round of boos if it ever becomes the Budweiser Rose Bowl.) Like everyone else, I'd like to see a Division 1-A playoff, and have nothing but contempt for the Bowl Championship Series bandits. (See below.)

Nevertheless, I have to respect the fundamental facts of college football and go with the Cornhuskers, getting that healthy crop of points. I have little doubt that had Miami been in the tough Big 12 conference they would not right now be the sole undefeated team in Div 1-A ball.

But they played in the softer Big East. This league had 3 other good teams, Syracuse, Boston College and Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes did blow away Syracuse, in Miami, but on the road versus Boston College they needed -- and received -- a lastminute, wacky bounce of the ball to win. And BC in that game was missing their chief offensive weapon, the suspended running back William Green, who will be in the NFL next year.

At V. Tech, in the last game of their regular season, the Canes could only squirt out a slim 2-point win.

Nebraska did suffer that humiliating 36-62 loss to Colorado in the season finale, their worst defeat in decades. But to make this team a double-digit dog (they opened at +10) to any Big East team, Miami included, is an over-reaction to the big loss to Colorado. Even with that bashing, the Huskers are still Numero Uno in running offense, 22 in rush defense, 9 in pass defense (significant against a good quarterback like Dorsey of Miami) and 8 in total defense (which includes rush, pass and scoring).

Sure, the Huskers garnered some of their big numbers versus the likes of Missouri and Baylor. But these teams are still better than Rutgers and Temple, two of the Hurricane's hapless victims, so Miami's very solid ratings are also a bit tainted. Miami is more accustomed to playing on grass than is Nebraska, which is an advantage to them, but these teams certainly look a lot tighter than +9.5. They played one common foe, new Division 1-A team Troy State. Miami took that game, 38-7, Nebraska won 42-14.

There are some who believe the Heisman jinx -- that the team who has the player who won that much overrated award usually fails to cover the spread in their bowl game. (Nebraska QB Eric Crouch won the Heisman this year.) The jinx kicked in for a long time, but less so in recent years. {Although it re-appeared last year when Florida State lost to Oklahoma.)

The Heisman hype may tend to distract from team unity, but it won't matter to Nebraska, which has a much bigger issue to deal with than that award. That is the huge controversy that erupted when they were chosen to play for the championship in the Rose Bowl. The tremendous disrespect they have been receiving will work in their favor, and pull the team together, an "us against the world" type of thing.

I believe that to help wipe out the shame of the Colorado game, and to silence their legion of detractors, they are quite prepared to leave their blood on the field of play to secure a win. They should get a lot of help from the Rose Bowl crowd, as the mainly middle-class burghers and farmers who comprise their fans travel much better than do the somewhat more proletarian partisans of Miami.

The rooters for the Big Red Machine are also very loud, their vocal cords made strong by shouting from cornfield to farmhouse. And for fans of both teams a bit squeamish about flying nowadays, California is a much shorter drive from Nebraska than it is from Florida. I'm believin,' wishin' and hopin' that January 3 in SoCal is the Day of the Dog.


Even the most casual of sports fans has heard something of this big dust-up. To recap as briefly as possible: for the last several years the Bowl Championship Series, an entity controlled by the schools of the six major football conferences, has attempted to match in a supposed championship game (which rotates among the 4 major bowls) the two best teams at the end of the season.

Fine. But it is how they arrive at the top two that has been the bone of contention. Basically, they use the final rankings of the AP poll and that of ESPN/USA Today, and then mix in the rankings of eight others that were generated by computers, operated by techno-nerds from various universities. Up until this year the BCS has lucked out, with little controversy over its final two.

This year the BCS's lucky streak ended. Miami was unanimous for # 1, but the aggregate computer rankings placed Nebraska at # 2, a team that did not even win its own conference. (That I believe Nebraska will give Miami a good game doesn't mean I agree with the selection process.) AP and ESPN had Oregon at # 2, Colorado at # 3, and Nebraska at # 4. A long, angry howl erupted across the land when the BCS released its final rankings.

Outrage characterized most reactions, especially since many sports gurus had predicted the BCS would one day find themselves in just such a fine mess. The head coach of snubbed Oregon likened the BCS system to cancer. And in stating that "enough is enough," ESPN's Chris Fowler noted that Nebraska squeezed into # 2 by virtue of an obscure season-ending game between TCU and Southern Miss.

TCU had a few months earlier lost to Nebraska by only 14 points, and when they beat S. Miss by 2 points in their last game it fattened the Cornhuskers "strength of schedule" points on the computer rankings, permitting Nebbie to move into second place by a fraction of a point. If TCU had lost that game, either Oregon or Colorado would be facing Miami in the Rose Bowl. Fowler's bottom line was that the BCS is rank stupidity, and everyone agrees.

Everyone but the BCS bigwigs, that is, who have steadfastly resisted all calls for a Division 1 football playoff. (It's the only major college sport that does not have one.)

The BCS was created by the six major college football conferences, and the school presidents, administrators, fund-raisers, and athletic directors don't want anything to upset the current system, which they believe is the best way for them to control the fat economic plums that drop down from the big bowl games. The BCS contract with ABC runs through 2005.

The 62 universities that make up the six powerful conferences (plus Notre Dame) share the $140 million that the bowl games bring in, and the other 51 full Division 1-A schools receive a paltry $10 million from post-season play. The BCS couches its opposition to a playoff in righteous terms, but it's all bottom-line stuff.

They claim that a playoff will deprive the athletes of classroom time, and education is paramount. But they have no rational answer as to why they allow the enormously profitable basketball tournament known as March Madness to cut into the school time of the players.

They also shed croc tears that the end of the bowl system (they say) will mean a lot of little teams -- like North Texas or Louisiana Tech -- will never experience the joys of post-season play. And they weep when contemplating the grand bowl tradition being drowned in a commercial playoff frenzy.

In fact, the BCS front only cares about the top 5 or 6 bowls that earn them the most money. They don't really explain why a playoff would make North Texas vs Colorado State irrelevant, and the current system, with all its emphasis on the championship game, doesn't. In truth, the handwriting is on the locker room wall: last year on-site attendance at the bowl games -- with the exception of the championship between Florida State and Oklahoma -- dipped to a 21-year low.

The calls for a reversal of the present downward course have been on the rise, and from inside the BCS schools compound, too. Oregon's athletic director wants the four big bowls to again take place on New Year's Day, followed by another BCS ranking. Then the top two teams will play the next week in a championship game. ABC's John Saunders also wants to return to the traditional bowls, followed by a playoff for the top four teams in the revised rankings.

These scenarios, though, still leave the lesser conferences with little or no chance to get into this truncated playoff picture. Which would suit the BCS folks fine, since they do not want some outsider team that has a good year sneaking into the Final Four, or even -- horrors -- the championship game.

That's why the major conferences a few years ago turned down the offer of a Swiss sports corporation to pay U.S. college football three billion dollars for the right to stage a 16-team playoff, even though that would be a lot more than the bowls generate.

Here's a concept that will both preserve the bowl system and operate a true playoff:

First, start with the 16-best-team scenario. (Because small conference teams having a great year may sometimes rank in the top 16, but they never get into the top four.) Begin the playoffs the second week of December. While some teams will complain about not making the Sweet Sixteen cut, it will be minor stuff compared to the tempest we now have.

The first eight games could be played at bowl sites that are the most popular, or the oldest, and done over a three-day period (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) to ensure maximum TV exposure. Four more of today's bowl sites could be used for the next four games, two others for the Final Four, and one of the current biggies for the championship game. These games would generate far more interest than the increasingly irrelevant bowl contests we now have.

What about the other 10 bowl games? Well, what about them? These little bowls come and go with considerable frequency, depending on the financial health and interest of their corporate or big-city sponsors. This year, for instance, we bid aloha to the Aloha Bowl.

The less prestigious bowls would be no worse off than they are today, and true football fans will watch some of them. (Especially if they have a wager down.) Marshall's overtime win versus East Carolina, in the highest scoring bowl game in history, was more exciting than some of the "big" games on tap will be. And a playoff will generate enough revenues to subsidize the lesser existing bowls, if it comes to that, to give schools like Louisiana Tech some national exposure.

Such a system will be the most profitable and most exciting sports spectacle the U.S has ever experienced. But will it ever happen? I think it's inevitable. The nabobs of the major conferences will eventually realize that their constricted monopoly is actually destroying confidence in their game, and causing television sets all over the land to change channels. At first, they have a "playoff" with just two, or four, teams, but it will soon expand.

I'd certainly accept that as a first step. And I'm hopeful the process will begin sometime this century.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.
Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.