No One’s Crashing The Party: The Real Contenders for the Crystal Football

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Kevin Cline

On Monday, we looked at who could potentially crash the National Championship Game, but we all know that is not happening.  It’s going to be two of the five teams below that play for a title.  But who has the best chance?  Let’s find out, unlikeliest to likeliest.

5) Stanford

If at first you don't succeed, do the exact same thing three more times

From video

If at first you don’t succeed, do the same thing three more times and see if it works out

The last three years, the Oregon-Stanford game has been college football’s version of The Playa Hater’s Ball: Failing to win this game cost the loser three straight trips to the National Championship Game.  This year’s game could be another top-five matchup that plays out the same way again, which begs the question: If this is the fourth year in a row this game really matters, why hasn’t this become a huge rivalry?

The main recipe for a rivalry consists of something like this: Two teams with similarly-spirited fan bases have to alternate positions of dominance over the length of the rivalry.  One team can be up or down for an extended period of time, but to effectively establish the rivalry, there has be enough of a threat caused by one side to spark hatred by the opposing side and then have the first side engage and reciprocate that hate.  This will never happen between Oregon and Stanford for two reasons:

1)      No Oregon fan legitimately believes that at any point in the recent history or foreseeable future, that Stanford has been, or will be, a better team

Stanford hasn’t finished higher than Oregon in the final AP polls since 1992 when the greatest coach not named Lombardi was leading the team.  Stanford has defeated Oregon just twice since 2002.  Neither loss had Stanford taking Oregon’s best punch: the 2009 matchup came a week after one of the biggest wins in the Ducks’ history, and the 2012 affair was Stanford catching lightning in a bottle – managing to play their best game of the season the same week Oregon played its least productive.

As for this year, let’s not forget what happened the last time a team snuck into Autzen Stadium and beat the Ducks on the third Saturday in November.  The following season, that team was met with unrealistic expectations, with that season spiraling out of control following a loss to Oregon.  This year, Stanford’s #4 ranking is the highest preseason AP ranking in school history.  Coincidence?  We’ll find out.

Oregon jumped out early on Stanford in 2012

Kevin Cline

Oregon jumped out early on Stanford in 2012

As much as I want to make fun of Stanford, we know exactly what we are getting from them at this point.  They are a well-coached, disciplined team that is good, but not great.  They have a great defense, but they are closer to BYU[1] than the ’85 Bears.  They lack the offensive playmakers to run the table (keep pinning your dreams to Ty Montgomery while he drops another pass, Cardinal fans) and lost their five leading receivers from last season, although winning a Rose Bowl seemed to absolve a lot of David Shaw’s flaws (the four straight rushes against Notre Dame, starting the season with Josh Nunes over Kevin Hogan at quarterback, etc.) in the eyes of the public.

End result: They are going to finish somewhere between fourth and ninth nationally, and they will bring in another BCS paycheck for the conference, so kudos to them on that.

And for those worried about November 7th, Stanford hasn’t defeated the Ducks in consecutive seasons since 1997.

2)      Stanford lacks the fan power to change anyone’s mind about point #1

This is what it looks like when Oregon hosts the Pac-12 Championship:

LaMichael James scores in the 2011 Pac-12 Championship

Amazing Moments

A full crowd watches LaMichael James score in the 2011 Pac-12 Championship

This is what it looks like when Stanford hosts the Pac-12 Championship:

Fans came out in full force to witness Stanford's first conference championship in 13 years

From video

Fans came out in full force to witness Stanford’s first conference championship in 13 years

This is what it looks like when Oregon wins the Pac-12 Championship:

This is what it looks like when Stanford wins the Pac-12 Championship:

Love that rose, man

From video

He gave all his love to that rose

These are schools not on the same page.

Despite having the highest earning potential of any non-military FBS school, meaning that theoretically, their alumni could most easily afford tickets of any college football fans, it wasn’t until the Cardinal went to three consecutive BCS bowls that they managed to sell out their stadium[2].  Compare that with Notre Dame, the second-highest earners on that list, who has sold out every game the past four decades[3].

Meanwhile, in an era when schools are expanding the size of their stadiums, Stanford downgraded their capacity by 35,000 seats.  To sell the remaining volumes of tickets, they have to advertise on TV[4]:

Compare that to Oregon, who has sold out Autzen Stadium for every game for fourteen consecutive seasons, despite not winning the conference in nine of those years.  This is why the Oregon and Stanford can never be rivals, no matter what happens on the field, interest in Stanford football will never exist in the long-term.  No one can win the Rose Bowl every year, but that’s the threshold to draw a crowd in Palo Alto.  This is but a brief peak before the Stanford community returns to utter indifference, an indifference Oregon fans are incapable of understanding.

4) Michigan
3) Ohio State

Brady Hoke/Urban Meyer

From Video

Brady Hoke/Urban Meyer

Remember a few years ago when everyone agreed that O.J. Simpson was railroaded by that ridiculous 33-year sentence for armed robbery, only no one spoke up against it because everyone felt like he had it coming?  That was Urban Meyer this summer.

While Meyer was getting called out for the summer “activities” of players such as Bradley Roby and Carlos Hyde, on top of all the Aaron Hernandez stuff, everyone who would have defended him on the premise that a head coach is really nothing more than a CEO — whose job is to manage tens of coaches and hundreds of players and can’t possibly be involved with everyone — deciding to sit and his hands and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll let this sanctimonious jerk twist in the wind instead.”  It was glorious.

The buzz surrounding the Buckeyes is the assumption that Meyer’s teams always peak in year two (using a highly irrefutable sample size of two teams – 2004 Utah and 2006 Florida – the former going undefeated and the latter winning the National Championship), and if they went undefeated in year one, there’s only one way they can improve — remain undefeated and play in the National Championship Game.

For that to happen, the Buckeyes would have to win 25 straight games (through the Big Ten Championship), an achievement pulled off by only two schools (2000-02 Miami, 2003-05 USC) in the BCS era (even Boise State only got to 24), both of whom won national championships during their streaks, and the run of wins both times ended in the title game.  Those schools were crushing teams weekly, not having weeks where they beat schools such as Indiana, 52-49.  They likely play Michigan twice (note: Jim Delany is not letting another scenario happen), a team that I included this high on the list for two reasons:  1) I feel irrationally certain that the talented, but inexperienced Wolverines are going to be better this year than people think, and 2) Brady Hoke has never lost at Michigan Stadium.  Guess where they play this year’s game against Ohio State?

While Ohio State’s easy schedule is the best argument in favor of them running the table, someone will trip them up this year.  Circle November 2nd at Purdue, as the Boilermakers always find a way to make life tough for the Buckeyes.  Even with that loss, Ohio State will likely defeat Michigan in one or both of back-to-back matchups and end up in the National Championship Game.  The Buckeyes have more opportunity for a second chance than any other program in the country right now, except…

2) Alabama

Nick Saban

From Video

Nick Saban

Can we knock off the dynasty talk?  Like, now.

Alabama finished #2 in the BCS standings each of the last two seasons, losing games in both years.  In 2011, they needed the voters to decide their loss meant less than Oklahoma State’s did, even though the Cowboys had just experienced one of the worst tragedies in school history the morning of its loss.  In 2012, they needed two previously undefeated teams to fall in their penultimate regular season games to even make it in.  Three teams went 11-1 in 2011 and 2012 other than Alabama, yet the Crimson Tide were chosen over teams with identical records in both of those title years.  Dynasties steamroll through teams for seasons at a time, not backdoor their way into the championship game.

People ignore this because, again, Alabama passes the eye test as the nation’s best team, but plenty of teams that were the best in college football during their respective seasons – 2002 Miami, 2005 USC, 2010 Oregon – don’t win championships.  A team isn’t a dynasty if it makes losing home games an annual tradition (they haven’t swept a home schedule since 2009) and gets help from voters getting into the title game.  Their play has made Alabama a deserving champion by earning it on the field, but just because they have won consecutive championships, does not make them a dynasty.

Still, they have to be near the top of the list for one reason: The voters have decided that Alabama, because of the talent of its teams, gets a built-in mulligan every year as long as no one else goes undefeated.  For that matter so does every other SEC team, yet somehow SEC fans still wonder why fans outside their conference resent them.

1) Oregon

Is this the year?

Amazing Moments

Is this the year?

The Ducks are favored in every game.  They play only one team (Stanford) ranked in the preseason Top 20, and Las Vegas favors Oregon by four (it would be a touchdown on a neutral field) in that game.  It is a revenge game they have twelve days to prepare for against a program that has lost all but two games against the Ducks in the previous eleven seasons.  And the dreaded “third Saturday in November” game that has been the Oregon’s bugaboo the past two years is against Utah, picked to finish fifth . . . in the Pac-12 South.

Their next two toughest opponents — UCLA and Oregon State – are at home.  They have the most talented team in school history and would have won it all last year had they not had injuries catch up to them late in the season[5].  All the Ducks have to do is stay healthy and play as they have the previous four seasons, and they will find themselves in Pasadena in January.  The only question is if their game is on the first day of 2014 . . . or the sixth.

We’ll find out in ten days.  Enjoy the season, everyone!

[1] This is not intended as a slight to Stanford or BYU, which had a really good defense last year, finishing 6th in defensive yards per play and 3rd nationally in scoring defense.  They’re equally dominant and each have a huge star (Shayne Skov/Kyle Van Noy), though I imagine Stanford’s defense gets more attention than BYU’s because it plays in a major media market in a major conference and won the Rose Bowl while the Cougars went 8-5 as an independent playing in Provo, UT.

[2] Apparently, you have to win a Rose Bowl to get fans to come out in Palo Alto.
[3] I like that in the Wikipedia entry for Notre Dame’s attendance streak, they point out that the only game that wasn’t a sellout since 1966 was a Thanksgiving Day game because the students were away.  It’s a fair argument, and also the most Notre Dame argument ever.
[4] I can’t even imagine what a Duck ticket advertisement spot would look like, other than it would be cool.

[5] It was a credit to the coaching staff last year how well players played in the absence of those injured, that fans didn’t notice the impact of those injuries – but had many of the players Oregon lost for the year been healthy late in the season, Oregon would have defeated Stanford.



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