Apparently college football bowl games have been going on since early December.
The only people who seem to get excited when they see those two words together are found in the chamber of commerce and local tourism boards for dumps like Shreveport, Louisiana.
Last season college football finally got around to creating a College Football Playoff (CFP).
For college football fanatics, the four team field is painfully small, but they know it's still better than nothing. They know that in a 2015 bowl season that extended invites to three garbage 5-7 teams just to fill out the over scheduled slate, the minuscule college football playoff is the only part of college football's post season that carries any watchable weight.
Given football's physical toll on its players the only real hope for a playoff expansion would be to drop the regular season games back down to 11 or even 10 contests. Don't look for that to happen any time soon. So for now, four teams it is.
For just the second year of its existence the playoff selection committee has done a fine job of filling the limited slots. They finally drove a stake into the hearts of SEC fanboys whose public drooling over their conference was beginning to morph into some sort of over glorified cult to which all media and coach pollsters continually bowed. The SEC has been 'Bama and everyone else for a decade. There's no such thing as excellence by association. Michael Jackson didn't make Tito a great musician. Tito, Jermaine... other guy and... other guy were just there, awkwardly dancing in the background. Where in the hell does this rooting for an entire conference even come from? When Mizzou was still in the Big 12 no one ever heard a Kansas Jayhawk fan pulling for the Tigers, touting their shared superiority and sense of pride. Must be a southern thing. That entire region has been trying to validate its overblown sense of importance since the 1800s.
Anyway, Alabama is back in the playoffs this season, deservedly so, but once again, thankfully, they are not joined by a second or third SEC team as was the fear when the idea of the college playoff was first pitched.
The first edition of the CFP was a smash success. It started with the drama of Big Ten champs Ohio State bouncing over co-Big 12 champs, TCU and Baylor, into the final slot before bouncing 'Bama en route to a thrilling run to a National Title.
And an entire country got to root on the Oregon Ducks as they took down the most hated team, coach, and player in the land. The lasting image being Florida State quarterback Jameis (Rapious if you like) Winston clowning himself as if he slipped on some DNA on the field that the Tallahassee police refused to even examine.
Never gets old.
With it airing on New Year's Eve this year, these playoffs look to be an even bigger event. Whose ready for a second helping of legitimate postseason college football?
#4 Oklahoma Sooners vs #1 Clemson Tigers @ 3 p.m. (CT) on ESPN
Las Vegas is giving Big Game Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners the best odds to win the whole thing. If they do, that would mean the first two CFP went to its lowest seeds (Ohio State #4 in 2015).
Much was made of Oklahoma's eight win season down in Norman last year. Poor offensive coordinator, Josh Heupel - a Sooner hero from their last national title (2000) - had to play the dutiful Samurai and fall on his sword for good ol' Stoopy. Huepel's replacement, Lincoln Riley, brought with him the Air Raid offense - a move making Oklahoma the largest profile football program to run a system relegated to the gimmick-dependent second-tier squads. It was a gamble on Stoops' part given his Sooners greatest offensive strength lay in their power running attack led by Samaje Perine - whom Kansas fans may remember ran for half a grand against their 'Hawks in 2014.
Oklahoma came out of the gates in 2015 flinging the ball around like Air Raid offenses do, but after needing a miracle to beat Tennessee, having trouble with Tulsa on their home field, and then inexplicably losing to Texas in the Red River showdown, the offense needed a calibration. Since that loss to Texas, Riley and Stoops reintroduced a focus on the running game as Perine and freshman Joe Mixon started running opponents into submission. The Sooners have averaged over 300 yards on the ground over their last seven games. This more balanced offense has given the Sooners defense the chance to find its strength, because they weren't being shuttled back onto the field every four or five plays as is the greatest flaw that infects the entire team which commits to the Air Raid. Oklahoma was playing better than anyone in the country down the stretch.
The Tigers have a National Championship banner hanging in their stadium. It's true. They won it back in 1981. Beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1982 Orange Bowl. Few outside of Death Valley even know this. After that undefeated '81 season Tiger fans felt their school had risen to the level of national football powerhouse. While Clemson remained a consistent Top 25 program they were never able to sniff that kind of significant football success again.
Tommy Bowden was supposed to be the guy to return football glory to Clemson. Unfortunately, Bowden could never get his Tigers past his father, Bobby's Florida State Seminoles. Bowden never won more than nine games at Clemson. After his final season (2008) - in which the Tigers were seen by many as a lock for the ACC title and a possible National Title contender - got off to a terrible start, Bowden stepped down. He turned the team over to his Assistant Head Coach with a namesake more suited for a chimp of high intelligence, Dabo Swinney.
Swinney's promotion coincided with Bobby Bowden's retirement down at FSU, which in turn opened up competition in the ACC. By his third season (2011), Dabo had the Tigers rolling. They won 10 games for the first time since 1990, and it would prove to be the first of five straight 10+ win seasons. Clemson hadn't seen a period of that kind of success since the 1980s. The Tigers' undefeated 2015 regular season was the program's first since their '81 championship season.
Tiger fans knew this team was going to be solid, but when one of their best players, wideout Mike Williams, suffered a brutal freak injury to his neck after smacking into the goal post in the first quarter of the very first game of the season, the year got off to a dark start. Then sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson emerged as a Heisman Trophy Candidate, the Tigers beat sixth ranked Notre Dame, and the first CFP poll of the fall surprised everyone with its selection of Clemson as its #1. All of which gave Tiger fans hat old '81 feeling all over again.
Deshaun Watson is a hell of a lot of fun to watch quarterbacking the Clemson Tigers. Much like Vince Young was for the 2005 Texas Longhorns, he probably deserved the Heisman Trophy over Henry. Because much like Reggie Bush and USC, you could take Henry off the Tide and Alabama would still be good. Take Watson off the Tigers and Clemson isn't even in the playoffs. Sometimes one superstar is all you need. But the Sooners balanced attack may be too much for Clemson.
#3 Michigan State Spartans vs #2 Alabama Crimson Tide @ 7 p.m. (CT)
America, meet Mark. Mark, meet America. Over the past six seasons, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into the quietest powerhouse in the nation. Sparty has posted 11+ wins in five of those six seasons, currently averaging 12 wins over the last three. And that's saying something seeing as how it's not terribly easy to win in the Soviet era hellscape that is East Lansing, Michigan. Sure they had some good years in the 1960s, but hell, so did Kansas. It wasn't until Dantonio took over MSU that Spartan fans could once again think of themselves as more than a basketball school.
This season for Spartans fans wasn't easy on their emotions. They knew their team was set to be good. The last three seasons had been pointing to 2015. They returned senior quarterback Connor Cook and came into the season with a #5 ranking. Things started to look even better after the Spartans beat fellow Top 10 team Oregon in week two. Michigan State made it as high as #2 in the polls. Then their hated rival, Michigan, had them staring at a crushing defeat before the Wolverine punter forgot how to catch a snap and the year's best miracle finish took place in front of a stunned Big House crowd. The first CFP rankings felt Michigan State a bit weak however, kicking MSU down to #6 despite their 8-0 record in their first poll.
The very next week, as if to validate the CFP selection committee's lack of faith, MSU lost to a mediocre Nebraska team. They fell all the way down to lucky #13 in the CFP polls. Apparently, if you're a Big Ten team, that is exactly where you're supposed to be after the Week 11 CFP polls. In 2014 Ohio State found themselves sitting at #14 at week 11 before making their late season surge to crash the party - which is what MSU did on their way to eliminating undefeated Ohio State and Iowa from the playoff dream, and inserting themselves in their stead.
Nick Saban is to college football what Bill Belichick is to the NFL - the best coach of the modern era. With four National Titles, Saban is just one title away from tying another former 'Bama coaching legend, Bear Bryant, for most all time. Since 2008 Saban has post 12+ wins in six seasons. In fact, with the creation of the CFP making it so strong teams can weather a lone loss to keep their title hopes alive, Saban's 'Bama teams, if they keep winning at his current rate, may become a playoff mainstay for years to come.
Just like last year, even though 'Bama is slotted as the second seed, the Crimson Tide is still seen as the big bad boys on the board. Armed with 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who ran for an SEC record 1,986 yards, 'Bama once again has juggernaut running game powered by an NFL caliber offensive line. When it comes to running backs, Saban's Alabama team has sort of become the modern day equivalent to Joe Paterno's old Penn State squads. Paterno had no shortage of backs who looked like gods behind his big Lion lines only to go on to the NFL and flame out. Saban has had no shortage of backs look like studs at 'Bama only to go to the NFL and look slow and productively inconsistent - one of which was a fellow Heisman winner (Mark Ingram). But this isn't the NFL. In the college game, behind that 'Bama line, Henry has two more chances to look like a beast.
Saban's going for his fifth title overall, and an absolutely unreal fourth in seven seasons at Alabama.
'Bama's methodical offense is what keeps their brutal defense fresh, which is usually all they need to crush the dreams of their opponents. Saban's creed is one built on field position and strength over gimmicks and tricks. In that regard they match up pretty well with Michigan State. The Tide's only loss this season came at the hands of Ole Miss's nonsensically open offense, in a game the Tide almost came back to win. Oklahoma and Clemson's attacks could provide similar problems for 'Bama.
A battle of big boys, Oklahoma vs Alabama, appears to be looming. But don't sleep on Michigan State or Clemson.
The selection committee has done their job. These really do feel like the best teams for a four team playoff. Whatever the outcome, it sure as hell beats bowling.
Enjoy the games, and Happy New Year everyone!
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