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A Second Chance at Finishing First?

You may have heard that Michigan and Ohio State are playing a football game tomorrow. It's kind of a big deal, inasmuch as it will decide who goes to the national championship game as the No. 1 team in the land, it embodies everything that is great about college football, and it features two of the best defensive players in Division I-A.


Let the bell-ringing slobberknockery commence!

The question already is being asked, though . . . if it's close, should the loser get the rematch in Glendale?

The Lawgiver, who most emphatically has a dog in this fight, had this to say about a rematch:

I am not in favor of it unless there are no other viable options. Viable options include undefeated Rutgers, a one loss USC, or a one loss SEC champion.

(Brian notes, by the way, that a once-beaten Notre Dame squad would not constitute a viable option in his mind. Since I agreed to be nice to the Fighting Irish this week, I will express neither agreement nor disagreement with Brian's wise, reasonable, factually-supported, wholly sensible, and inarguably correct conclusion upon this point.)

You can tell I'm being kind to the Golden Domers because I didn't even mention how ridiculous the green jerseys look.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Pat Forde's discussion of a second Michigan-Ohio State game prompted this frank response from College Football Resource:

I'm straddling the fence on this one. If they've proven to be the two best teams at the end of the season, they probably should be in there. But it's also college football's signature postseason game, and the fans might want a more compelling, unique matchup if possible.

As a general rule, I am opposed to postseason rematches. Surely I am not the only one who found L.S.U.'s 27-9 drubbing of Notre Dame in the 1997 Independence Bowl viscerally satisfying yet ultimately pointless, in light of the Fighting Irish's 24-6 mastery of the Bayou Bengals in Baton Rouge just two games previously. This ain't the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament; let's let the regular-season meeting be decisive.

There is an old saying among historians and litigators that, when you have one witness, you know the truth, but, when you have two or more witnesses, you're never sure. On Halloween night in 1959, Billy Cannon's punt return gave No. 1 Louisiana State a 7-3 victory over third-ranked Ole Miss.

Billy Cannon's thrilling runback propelled Louisiana State to a 1-1 record against Ole Miss in the 1959 season. (Photograph from Sports Artifacts.)

L.S.U. had a letdown against No. 13 Tennessee the following week, losing 14-13 in Knoxville, and the Sugar Bowl paired the second-ranked Rebels against the third-ranked Tigers in a rematch of 9-1 teams. Ole Miss won in New Orleans, 21-0, proving exactly . . . what? Did college football cheapen a classic contest that settled the Heisman Trophy race by muddying the waters with a second series meeting in the same season?

At least in 1959, the final polls were released before the bowls, so that year's Sugar Bowl effectively was an exhibition game, at least as far as the rankings were concerned. What we got in 1996, however, was absolutely maddening.

A decade ago, No. 1 Florida fell to No. 2 Florida State on November 30. The 10-1 Gators dropped to No. 4 and the 11-0 Seminoles waited to learn which team they would face in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.

Second-ranked Arizona State was undefeated but obligated to face fifth-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. No. 3 Nebraska lost to unranked Texas in the Big 12 championship game when James Brown rolled left on fourth down and completed a pass covering 61 yards and setting up the touchdown that gave the Longhorns a 10-point victory. (Texas went on to get smacked by Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, handing the 'Horns their fifth loss of the season.)

That had to be your one good play call?!?!

Brigham Young logically was the next contender in line. The Cougars finished the regular season with a 12-1 record, were ranked sixth before the Cornhuskers' loss to Texas, and defeated a top 20 Wyoming squad in the W.A.C. championship game. Unfortunately, the bowl organizers in New Orleans balked at the financially untenable idea of welcoming Mormons to Bourbon Street, so the S.E.C. champion Gators were given a second shot at the crown.

Florida hammered the 'Noles in the rematch, but even that was not alone enough to seal the deal. In Pasadena, the unbeaten Sun Devils took a three-point lead with a minute and 40 seconds remaining, only to watch the Buckeyes drive 65 yards to score the winning touchdown with 19 ticks left on the clock and knock off the last major undefeated team in the land.

The Gators didn't luck into the national championship---they demonstrated their dominance in the Big Easy---but a sequence of oddities had to be strung together in order to give them their second chance. Four teams were more deserving of a shot at Florida State than a Florida squad that had already lost to the 'Noles in the regular-season finale, but two of those teams were committed to the Rose Bowl, another was upset in its conference title tilt, and the last was, quite frankly, the victim of high-dollar financial pressures and mid-major conference prejudices.

After B.Y.U. got gypped out of a Sugar Bowl berth in 1996, LaVell Edwards went down to the local bar, ordered a glass of milk, and told the bartender to leave the carton. (Photograph from K.S.L. T.V.)

For all the criticism the B.C.S. receives, it at least brought the Rose Bowl to the table, so the drive to produce a clear game between the nation's top two teams (which I do not consider necessary or particularly desirable, but which we now have) will not go awry just because the Big Ten or Pac-10 champion is ranked No. 1. A situation reminiscent of 1996 (in which the top two teams in the country at the end of the regular season, Arizona State and Florida State, could not meet in the postseason) is impossible in 2006.

That being the case, the loser of tomorrow's game should move aside and let the next team in line move up into the role of challenger, just as a bout between the two top heavyweight boxers should produce not only a definitive champion (in the form of the winner) but also a new No. 1 contender (in the form of the next highest-ranked boxer after the loser).

The team that leaves the field in disappointment tomorrow will have had a stellar season and will deserve a B.C.S. bowl bid. At 11-1 and without a conference championship to its credit, however, that team will not have a claim better than---or even equal to---that of an undefeated Big East champion Rutgers squad, a once-beaten Pac-10 champion Southern Cal squad, or a once-beaten S.E.C. champion Arkansas or Florida squad.

Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis is perturbed at the suggestion that the loser of tomorrow's Michigan-Ohio State game should be awarded a national championship game berth over her alma mater. (Oh, by the way . . . thanks for the suggestion, Jmac!)

Circumstances may change, of course. If, for instance, West Virginia beats Rutgers, Cal beats U.S.C., U.S.C. beats Notre Dame, L.S.U. beats Arkansas, and Florida loses the S.E.C. championship game, the Michigan-Ohio State loser will have an argument.

In the absence of such an unlikely 1996-like sequence of flukes and happenstances, however, the team that fails to emerge victorious tomorrow will be no more deserving of a national championship game berth than Nebraska in 2001 or Oklahoma in 2003. In each instance, we will be talking about a very good team that failed to win its conference championship and, for that reason (but, in this case, not just for that reason), fell slightly short of earning the right to contend for the top spot in the final poll.

Go 'Dawgs!