Michigan State brought tranquility to this year's championship race by eliminating Ohio State from the ranks of the undefeateds and paving the way for a Florida State–Auburn title game matchup devoid of the chaos and controversy that has so often defined the BCS era.
But it's in our nature as sports fans to create controversy when and if it's lacking. So, amid the unusual calm that wound up defining the final year of the BCS, let's engage in a little thought experiment that's sure to spark plenty of debate: If the college football playoff had begun this year, which teams would be in the mix for the third and fourth slots?
We made it. Championship Saturday is in the books, the BCS pairings are set, and the Heisman finalists are packing their bags for New York. There's plenty of bowl-season excitement ahead, but now that the 2013 regular season is in the books — with the notable exception of Saturday's Army-Navy clash! — it's time to take stock and reflect. Do we really need to say good-bye to Johnny Football? Should we just give Gus Malzahn his statue now? Did the entire world go mad and somehow forget about Notre Dame? Grantland's college football enthusiasts are here to share their thoughts on the best and worst this season had to offer. We're looking at you, Diesel.
Sometime around 2 a.m. ET on Sunday, the winless Hawaii Warriors, who'd either led or tied the San Diego State Aztecs for four full quarters, found themselves stalled out near midfield. Time expired on what would have been a game-winning touchdown drive to trigger the team's first victory of 2013. As the officials reviewed the overtime procedures, we watched from a couch five time zones away, 14 hours into a nonstop college football binge, the 12th such bender in as many weeks. Clusters of adults with jobs and houses and no discernible ties to the University of Hawaii put down their midnight coffees, abandoned their phones, and launched into an animated This Is How We'd Do It armchair coaching session. For a then 0-9 team that plays its home games 4,500 miles away. Why?
There's a bias-free case for disinterested third parties to cheer on the toppling of every conference front-runner. There's a perfectly valid reason to raise our glasses every time a relentlessly immobile quarterback lurches free of the pocket for a cartoonish gain. There's a real motivation behind our obsession with cataloguing every clip of a winded defensive lineman trundling down the field with a purloined football, and why "MYRON PRYOR! 310 POUNDS OF GLORY!" will hold a place in our hearts until the end of days, and it doesn't stop with "because fat-guy touchdowns are the best." They are, but that's not the point. The point is the endless hours of amusement that can be yours for the low, low price of making a habit of taking joy in the unexpected.
Enter Week 12, which featured, among other occurrences, a Duke football team making its way into the Top 25, a Georgia-Auburn finish straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and Ed Orgeron gunning for a division title. Never mind the bats, the boils, or the rain of frogs in Northwestern alternate jerseys. It's all part of the plan.
The race to the BCS games commences each August as a clown car of near-limitless capacity. It careers into Week 1 crammed with 120-some teams, each anointed with some degree of possibility, however finite, of stringing together a perfect season and hoisting that crystal ball, or tossing oranges into a joyous throng, or ruining a perfectly good mascot outfit with greasy corn chip smears. (And good grief, that somehow looks even weirder written out than when it's actually happening.) Each week, squads tumble out, forced to trundle along behind. Every so often, bloody-minded interloper clowns with hooks for hands are discovered clinging to the undercarriage. This isn't symbolic language; why do you think nobody wants to tackle Jordan Lynch?
And no matter how tightly packed the contraption might seem rounding into November, no matter how dearly we might all wish to conclude the regular season with a handful of undefeated teams to confound the half-assed system that puts on the big-money games, it's just so famously difficult to make it through a full slate of FBS play unscathed.
In Week 11: The intact AQ squads get some elbow room; Oregon gets kicked into the sawdust; and Alabama remains in the driver's seat, maintaining a level speed of precisely five miles above the legal limit.
What do you get when fully half of the teams in the BCS top 10 don't appear on the weekend schedule and four of those that do put on decisive wins of varying degrees of ruthlessness? We come not to criticize our corporate mothership, which did not engineer the expansive talent gaps between the Buckeyes and Boilermakers or the Tigers and Cavaliers, but by the second quarter of the noon games our remote trigger finger had achieved a measure of sentience and was creeping of its own free will toward the National Treasure/National Treasure: Book of Secrets double feature on ABC Family. You snort, but behold the results from Week 10's top BCS teams:
1. Alabama: OFF
2. Oregon: OFF
3. Florida State: PUMMELED NO. 7 MIAMI, 41-14
4. Ohio State: ANNIHILATED PURDUE, 56-0
5. Stanford: OFF
6. Baylor: OFF
7. Miami: PUMMELED BY NO. 3 FLORIDA STATE, 41-14
8. Clemson: OBLITERATED VIRGINIA, 59-10
9. Missouri: TROUNCED TENNESSEE, 31-3
10. Oklahoma: OFF
And here is Nicolas Cage straddling a banister and screaming about haggis:
Take heart: Week 10 may have been short on suspense, but it produced a revealing crest for the ACC's regular season and served as the inhale before the plunge for every other undefeated title-contending team. And what else do you get when half of the top 10 isn't on the schedule? Four of those five teams are scheduled to play one another three days from now.
But let's not skip to Week 11 just yet. Interesting things went on in Week 10. We're acting like they didn't. They did. We're sorry. Haggis weakens our morals and so does Helen Mirren. Movements and moments from all over:
The haves in this week's BCS top five seem so very have-y, don't they? All neatly arrayed in their reds and greens and golds, with so many blowouts and close scrapes behind them, and so few remaining obstacles between them and a balmy January evening in the Rose Bowl. It's all very exciting, and it should be. They've earned this. It's been a privilege to witness.
Now, would you like to hear how each conference's impending champion could still go terribly, terribly astray? We're winding up Week 9 with a mostly arbitrary and entirely nonbinding conference-by-conference look back at the weekend that was and a breakdown of the sure things and pitfalls remaining:
We did it, you guys. We reached college football's midseason point without having to contend with the soul-crushing threat of continued conference realignment. We made it through seven weeks without allowing the never-ending bombardment of NCAA scandal stories to break our collective spirit. We got further than Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni and Don Treadwell, and that means we get to talk about football. Real, actual football. So forget the distractions and the bullshit, tear yourself away from P.J. Fleck's latest gift to the social-media realm (if you possibly can), and enjoy some of Grantland's takeaways at the midway mark.
Last Thursday, we wondered what this weekend might make of four would-be contenders — teams that emerged from September comfortably within the Top 25 and looking as though they might be cut out for a January Pasadena adventure, but that had some real hurdles left to clear. The findings were surprisingly tidy: two close wins against good teams, and two gaudy blowouts.
That Ohio State and Stanford might hurl themselves against quality opponents like Northwestern and Washington and remain undefeated is unsurprising. That Baylor might blow the doors off West Virginia — good grief; just how sheepish is Oklahoma State right now? — was entirely plausible. But we can't be alone in saying that we really did not expect things to go quite this badly for poor Maryland, which stuck its terrapin neck tentatively into the polls only to have it promptly and neatly sliced off by a cursory flick of Jameis Winston's wrist. (It was then made into soup, though regrettably not in time for last week's Top Chef: New Orleans elimination challenge.)
Let the Wild Rumpus Start
• No. 8 Florida State 63, no. 25 Maryland 0. Oh, Maryland. That's gonna leave a mark. A psychic scar has to come with a conference loss of this magnitude, with being on the business end of a division opponent's biggest-ever win over a ranked team. To quote Dana Holgorsen, who had a pretty bad day himself: That sucks, man.
In case you were busy bounding home incredibly after being left in the woods by your family, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The Blackhawks are one game away from a Stanley Cup championship after Patrick Kane scored two goals in Chicago's 3-1 Game 5 win over the Boston Bruins. Kane's anticipation and hand control carried the day, which he explained as coming from "being like any other boy. You know, you're lonely, looking for things to do, and your hands naturally you know." When met with a decidedly awkward silence, Kane said, "What? I'd practice wristers and close control by myself. What? Oh. Oh. Ohhhhh. Well. Hmmm."
After extensive negotiations, the Los Angeles Clippers have their man: Doc Rivers will take over as the team's head coach with a first-round pick headed to the Boston Celtics as compensation. "This move is just what the doctor ordered," said Clippers general manager Gary Sacks, before receiving a call from his physician Dr. Pete Shulman reminding him that the acquisition will not be a suitable replacement for the Atorvastatin prescribed to help Sacks maintain control over his high cholesterol.
In case you were murdered on the steps of some forum or another Friday, here's what you missed in sports this weekend:
The NCAA tournament field is set with Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, and Gonzaga your four top seeds for March Madness. Expect upsets this year, as Louisville, despite being named the top overall seed, was drawn into the presumptive "group of death," featuring such dangerous teams as Duke, St. Louis, and Michigan State. Also, Gonzaga faces a potentially tough early round game against Pittsburgh oh, god, I'm talking myself into it who, based on advanced statistics, could actually be a slight favorite over the Zags DON'T DO IT; DON'T PICK PITTSBURGH making Pittsburgh my upset special of the tournament NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Surprisingly omitted from the top line of the NCAA Tournament were the Miami Heat, who won their 22nd consecutive game Sunday, beating the Toronto Raptors, 108-91. "Who needs this NCAA crap," Miami forward LeBron James said after the game, before teammate Shane Battier handed him an economic study on the long-term earning effects of college educations that he had co-authored during the offseason with Duke economics professor Arnaud Maurel.
In case you were out drunkenly explaining that Joel Schumacher was never a good enough director to "lose it Rob Reiner style," here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
The Los Angeles Lakers were again bested by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 122-105. The Thunder played solid fundamental basketball, limiting themselves to only two turnovers on the night while shooting over 90 percent from the free throw line. "We give the fans what they want here in Oklahoma City," said Kevin Durant after the game, before spending the rest of his night handing out small bags of baby carrots to kids asking for his autograph.
The Big Ten Road Trip, with all its local comforts, is over, and now it's time to plunge back into the chaos of the national scene. A huge part of college basketball analysis is projecting what will happen in the postseason. It makes sense, because the sport is defined by a few crazy days in March, but I always get a fleeting sense of regret around this time of year. I wish conference tournaments meant more, and I especially wish regular-season conference championships meant more.
I love March Madness as much as anyone, but the truth is it's one of the worst postseasons in terms of crowning the actual best team. That's why it's great; you have to win on a given day, and the small sample size allows for the upsets and anomalies that give the tournament its character. In fact, of the six major American professional and college sports, I'd argue that college hoops is at the bottom of the postseason reliability spectrum. Here are my rankings, from most to least reliable:
There have been signs, here at the tail end of my weeklong swingthrough the Midwest, that the tenuous grip on sanity I've maintained for three decades might be careening into the abyss. I woke up in a fog in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, to read a story about a kangaroo delaying the Australian Open, and wondered if maybe Rafa Nadal was involved. But it was a women's golf tournament, and I was left wonder, in a daze, why I thought Rafa would be conspiring with kangaroos in the first place
But mainly, there's this whole pillow episode, which I'm not even sure I should mention. My sleep has been iffy for most of the week, and after the first restless nights, I thought I'd diagnosed the problem. I was accustomed to sleeping next to my wife, and the absence of another human being was throwing off my circadian mojo. In desperation, I decided to place the extra hotel pillows vertically, creating a vaguely person-shaped companion by my side. I swear this was not an emotional crutch. I didn't spoon with this new pillow-person (or worse, you sickos), I didn't give it a name, and I didn't make further attempts to humanize the thing. I would just sort of pat it, once or twice, to trick my brain into believing things were back to normal. It maybe worked, a little. It wasn't until Thursday, driving northwest on I-94 through western Wisconsin when I began to consider that constructing a pillow wife might have been an odd maneuver.
But the ultimate sign of impending hysteria — and the simplest, I think — was the mere fact that I was going to a basketball game between Minnesota and Wisconsin. That's Minnesota, the team in a perilous free fall whose season might be kaput if it lost, and Wisconsin, the brutally efficient, molasses-paced team that brings out the ugly in even the prettiest teams. I was bound for Williams Arena, a.k.a. "The Barn." And I got exactly what you'd expect. But, craziest of all, I enjoyed it.
Today's Shuffle is going to be a quick one — to get your college hoops fix, check out dispatch no. 1 on Indiana-Ohio State from my Big Ten road trip — but, wow, the wheels have really come off, haven't they? Let's do a list of 10 thoughts and conclusions from the weekend, except let's make it just like college basketball rankings and have the numbers mean absolutely nothing.
7. Nobody is good. Or everybody is good. But if everybody is good, then nobody is good. So in the end, nobody is good. Unless you reverse it, in which case, OH, JUST SHUT UP. THIS YEAR IS COMMUNIST. IT'S A PERFECT COMMUNIST YEAR.
With that in mind, who is communist icon Karl Marx's college basketball doppelganger? What about Friedrich Engels? If you take away the beards, I'm going with Marx as a young Bobby Knight and Engels as a fatter-faced Aaron Craft. But I'm not really happy with either of those, so please help me in the comments.
If the e-mails I sent to my editors reached a level you might call "pleading" or even "begging," you can't blame me. The college basketball currents had been colliding for three months, creating the conditions for a freak wave that finally crested last week and may break at any moment. Against all odds, the bastion of stodgy basketball that is the Big Ten had become the biggest and best show around. I knew I had to get to the Midwest fast, while the magic was thick.
What Big Ten magic, you ask? Oh, the two epic Burke-Craft battles; Indiana's first-half blitzkriegs against Michigan and Minnesota, and the furious comebacks that followed; the Illinois Miracle Minute; Bo Ryan, great coach that he is, stealing game after game despite losing his best defender for the season. And then there's the talented group out in the Twin Cities, the underachievers who rebound like men possessed but keep just losing and now stand on the verge of total collapse ... and it goes on and on. This is a constant, brutal war of attrition, and it's terrific theater.
THE PITCH: Watch the six best Big Ten teams face off in a span of five days. Indiana at Ohio State on Sunday, Michigan at Michigan State on Tuesday, Wisconsin at Minnesota on Thursday. Simple, profound, necessary. The editors sensed my desperation and agreed.