OTE has allowed yours truly to guest author a series of "What If" segments, specifically in regards to what would have happened if a Plus-1 of conference champs had been in place. We start with 2011. Next week we'll look at 2010, and we'll continue to go back further each week.
Imagine, if you will, that the Plus-1 scenario that I have laid out here multiple times had been in effect last season. The scenario is simple: the Plus-1 – or if you prefer, "Final Four" - would include the four highest ranked conference champions. I’m not here to debate the merits of my proposed system; I have done as much ad nauseam. I’m here to show you how the BCS Final Four would have looked had it been in place this past year. The following story may be somewhat long for some of you, I know. But to really understand how a Plus-1 such as I am proposing would affect the regular season, you have to go back to the Saturday after LSU defeated Alabama. So fire up the Delorean and get 'er up to 88 MPH. Here we go...
Saturday, Nov. 12th 2011
A resurgent TCU team enters Boise, ID on a hot streak, winning their last four games by double digits, including a 69-0 beat down on New Mexico that would make Bret Bielema blush. The Frogs have lost only two games, a heart breaker to eventual Heisman winner and #2 draft pick Robert Griffin III, and an overtime loss to a reinvigorated SMU program.
The Broncos, on the other hand, are undefeated and standing at 5th in the BCS rankings. With two teams from the same conference ahead of Boise, the Broncos are in a rare position: they control their own destiny. If Boise State wins out, they will finally get their shot. The only tough matchup left is tonight. After that, the Broncos are sure to be double-digit favorites the rest of the way.
The Broncos’ freshman kicker lines up for the game winner, a 39 yard chip shot. Sports fans are glued to the TV. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Houston, and Virginia Tech fans are all cheering for a miss. A Bronco loss would mean TCU has only two cupcakes left to clinch the MWC championship. They only need to win one, since they would have won the head to head matchup with Boise. This is the de facto MWC Championship. If the field goal is good, Boise can celebrate what will likely be a berth in the National Semifinal. If it misses, TCU can celebrate, and Horned Frog fans will be glued to their TV sets the next few weeks, praying for parity in the Big Ten, ACC, and for someone to beat up on Houston.
As the kick sails through the air, screams of joy can be heard from Madison, East Lansing, Houston, and Blacksburg. In Boise, there are screams, but that is all they are.
The score flashes across the board in Stanford Stadium. A collective gasp is heard around Palo Alto, and a rush of adrenaline fills the Oregon players as they prepare for the second half. With Boise likely eliminated from contention, Oregon now has a chance at revenge. Many feel the Ducks were the better team when they faced the #1 LSU Tigers, but unforced errors swung the pendulum in favor of the Bayou Bengals. Beat Stanford, and they’re in Pac-12 driver’s seat. And beat them they did. They may very well get their shot at revenge.
Saturday, Nov. 19th 2011
The beat rolls on. LSU, Oklahoma State, Oregon, and Clemson all control their own destinies. Oklahoma State loses a tough matchup in OT to a stubborn Iowa State team, but the Cowboys will likely be able to remain among the four highest ranked conference champs if they win out – especially if they do it in impressive fashion. Clemson feels relevant again for the first time since the Reagan Administration, and they merely need to keep winning. They’re on the edge, ranked 7th, and Houston will be next in line should the Tigers lose again yet win the conference. It is unlikely they will be able to lose to a 5-5 NC State team yet remain ranked ahead of unbeaten Houston should they both win out after this weekend.
Parity in the Big Ten has five teams competing for the crown: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Penn State. Slip ups down the stretch by Clemson, VaTech, and Houston would most assuredly mean that the Big Ten Champion would earn a Final Four berth. The fans in Madison, East Lansing, Lincoln, Ann Arbor, and State College watch with glee as the mediocre Wolfpack take a 27-3 lead at halftime on Clemson and never look back. The door is now open for a Big Ten team. Two things have to happen: Clemson will have to rebound and take down Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game (something they have already done a few weeks earlier), and Southern Miss – flying under the radar – will have to garner a convincing win against Houston.
The following week does not bring many surprises, but South Carolina’s win over Clemson was much more convincing than most had predicted. If Clemson can pull off the upset of Virginia Tech the following week in the ACC Championship game, the Oregon Ducks will be next in line. Houston – looking to become the first ever non-BCS conference team to win a national championship – controls its own destiny. Michigan State and Wisconsin are set up for a rematch in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, but fans in Madison and East Lansing are looking forward to something they never thought they would care to watch: The Conference USA Championship Game.
Saturday, December 3rd 2011
The Houston Cougars need only to beat the 24th ranked Southern Miss Golden Eagles to earn a spot in the National Semifinal. They fail, miserably, as Southern Miss dominates from start to finish. With the noon game ending, fans across the country tune in to watch the ACC Championship, which now has national championship implications. Never has the ACC Championship game had greater relevance. If Virginia Tech wins, Frank Beamer could finally win that national title which has eluded him during his long tenure in Blacksburg. If Clemson wins, the ACC will likely earn two BCS berths for the first time in years, and with attendance down in the once storied conference, the money would mean almost as much as a national championship.
The Tigers once again win convincingly. Virginia Tech is eliminated from contention, having not won its conference.
A simple score flashes across the screen at halftime at Lucas Oil Field: "Clemson 31, Virginia Tech 10 END 3rd Quarter". A collective "Ohhhhhhh" is heard inside The House That Manning Built. Sparty holds a 29-21 lead, and as the second half starts, both teams know that they’re playing for a shot at a national title. Football fans tune into Fox for the second half and witness an incredible back and forth game. In the end though, one thing is clear: Wisconsin is going to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers for a spot in the National Championship.
Saturday, December 10th 2011
Football fans across the country watch the pageantry that is Army vs. Navy. Before the intensity of the semi final games start, we watch two teams whom we respect, not necessarily caring who wins, but merely paying homage to the unrivaled tradition of college football.
At 4:15, all of our TVs are focused on Boone Pickens Stadium, as two unstoppable offenses face off in what will certainly be an entertaining game. With each team trading scores for three quarters, Chip Kelly decides to gamble to see if he can’t break the game open. He has his corner jump the route on yet another screen thrown by Weedon, and the corner picks the pass and takes it to the house. A well conditioned and athletic Oregon defense, energized by the change in events, forces Oklahoma State to go three and out on their next possession. LaMichael James returns the ensuing punt for a touchdown, and the Ducks take a 57-42 lead after Chip opts to go for two. The veteran QB Weedon marches the Cowboys down the field in a matter of minutes, but they fail to convert a two point conversion, and with only a few minutes remaining in the game, the Ducks have a 57-48 lead and possession of the football. In just minutes, the Ducks will punch their ticket to New Orleans. But whom will they face? Will they get another shot at Les’ Lucky Tigers – the team that ranks a woeful 86th in the country in total offense, yet manages to win nearly every game by two scores – or will they face the Wisconsin Badgers, a team lead by an athletic and efficient QB and a record breaking running back behind a line of behemoths?
In Baton Rouge, the fans are drunk and gleeful. All they need to do is take care of another "overrated Big Ten team", and they’re set to take on a team they already beat, this time in the friendly confines of the Superdome. Some fans in the Bayou are concerned with Wisconsin’s offense. Even they admit they haven’t seen a balanced offensive attack all year. They’ve played teams that run various schemes, but most were either pass heavy or run heavy. The most balanced offense they have faced all year was in Tuscaloosa, but they are well aware that AJ McCarron could not hold Russell Wilson’s jock strap. What’s more is that they barely escaped with a win in a game many have said Alabama could have won by three scores with better play inside the LSU 30 yd line. They’re also beginning to realize that their offense is getting exposed. They amassed only 237 yards on Georgia two weeks earlier. Down the stretch, they only saw two defenses that ranked in the Top 30 nationally – Georgia and Alabama – and they were held to an average of 238 yards in those games, one of which had the benefit of extra yards in overtime. While the Corn Doggers are amped up for a game against a "just some Big Ten team", the more intelligent fans in Baton Rouge realize that this could be one of those game of matchups and styles of play that may very well bode well for the Badgers.
The Wisconsin line is feeding off the energy in Tiger Stadium. They know they have something to prove. They are playing for an entire conference. Their mammoth offensive line is not intimidated by LSU’s defensive front. They’ve gone against Michigan State’s defensive line twice, and as the Georgia Bulldogs will later find out, that is no easy task. They recognize that they play in the Big Ten, and that they live to play in the trenches. They salivate at the thought of it. They want to play LSU in the trenches.
LSU wins the toss and defers. After a touchback, Wisconsin lines up across from the vaunted LSU defensive line. It’s a two tight end set. Wilson takes the snap and runs a play fake the likes of which LSU has not seen all year. The fans in Tiger Stadium gasp. They see what is happening. McCarron, Murray, Gino Smith, Tyler Wilson – none of these QBs their beloved Tigers have faced could pull off a play fake like this Badger’s QB. Wilson rolls out to his right and eyes the tight end from the left side as he cuts behind the linebackers, in front of the safeties. The strong safety had already sold out to stop the run, as he had so many times this past year, since he was rarely challenged by a team that could run and throw bombs. The free safety – seeing Wilson eyeing the tight end – comes up to help. But he should have known: Wilson is a much more experienced and smarter QB than anyone they have seen. He was intentionally eyeing the tight end. With a seemingly effortless flick of the wrist on the run, Wilson throws a strike to a wide open Nick Toon, who makes it to the endzone untouched.
Russell Wilson... Dangerous on the roll-out... something LSU never saw all season.
LSU is experiencing more of their well documented first half offensive woes. They get a first down on a 3rd and 7 scramble by Jordan Jefferson, but are forced to punt a few plays later. Wisconsin comes out throwing again, this time to their tight ends, which create serious matchup problems with LSU’s speedy but undersized secondary. When the Badgers finally decide to go to Montee Ball, the Tigers become frustrated with his smooth strides, patience, and shiftiness. They pound it with Ball until they get to the LSU 30 yard line. Then they run the play action fake again, the same play the Badgers scored the long touchdown on. Wilson rolls out to his right, but this time, he keeps the ball in a designed playaction boot leg. The left side tight end comes around and blindsides a linebacker as Wilson turns up the sideline. The safeties, having not played against a QB this fast and athletic, cannot get a proper angle on Wilson. The Honey Badger attempts to chase him down, but Toon Badger – downfield from his post route – cracks back on the Honey Badger, and Wilson streaks in for the score.
The Tigers get a few key special teams plays and a turnover, but their downfield running attack out of the shotgun isn’t as effective against a Badgers defensive front that has been involved in Big Ten trench warfare all season. A frustrated Jefferson, pressing with his team down two scores in the 3rd quarter, makes a boneheaded throw to a Wisconsin linebacker. Though they have to settle for a field goal, Wisconsin goes up by 17 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers stage a valiant comeback. Their well conditioned offensive unit begins to wear down the Wisconsin defense, and as has been the case so many times for the Tigers this past season, the offense becomes more effective in the fourth quarter. They cut the deficit to three with 5 minutes remaining. The Mad Hatter tries to catch Wisconsin sleeping and attempt an onside kick, but his reputation is well known to the Wisconsin coaching staff, and the Badgers are ready for it. The Badgers proceed to pound Ball up the middle and milk the clock, showing two tight ends, two backs, and one wide left every time. As soon as Wilson notices the safeties selling out again for the run, he fakes the handoff and takes off around the right side. He has only the linebacker to beat to the sideline, and from their it’s six points and the game. The left outside linebacker, noting the superior speed of Wilson, takes a wide angle. As he gets within two feet of the Badgers QB, Wilson makes one of his patented full speed cuts. Russell to the house; Badgers for the win, 38-28.
"See what I did? Aaron Murray can't do that. Hope your ankles are ok."
In a game where matchups mean everything, LSU is upset by Wisconsin in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers defense spent all season stopping schemes and mediocre quarterbacks, and the few decent quarterbacks they did see lacked a superior running game to complement their passing abilities. The discipline of the Badgers was also something the LSU defense had not seen. Rarely did they jump early or commit false starts, and never did they miss assignments. Conversely, the LSU offense was not dynamic enough to match Wisconsin’s point total. Special teams and turnovers nearly bailed out Les’ Lucky Tiger Offense again, but not this time. Spencer Ware spent his season amassing yards in the second half between the tackles on worn down defensive fronts. But at 223 pounds, Spencer Ware is average by Big Ten standards, and stopping him was quite simple after stopping 235-240 backs like Le’Veon Bell, Jason Ford, and Marcus Coker.
January 9th, 2012
The lead-up to the National Title game has been, well, interesting. Michigan hung on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma State played valiantly against Alabama in the Fiesta bowl, but the Tide pulled away in the fourth. West Virginia embarrassed Clemson in the Orange Bowl, a surprise to many of us. In the Sugar Bowl, Boise State gave the LSU Tigers their second loss in a row, led by a fierce defensive front and the offensive scheming of Chris Petersen.
With all eyes on New Orleans for the BCS Championship game, the prognosticators have made Oregon a slight favorite, despite the fact that Wisconsin beat the team that beat the Ducks. That’s because they realize that it’s all about matchups. Wisconsin won at LSU because the Badger defense had a better shot at stopping a subpar one-dimensional LSU offense more times than the LSU defense could in-turn stop the Badger offense. Tonight in New Orleans, many of us know the opposite is true: the Oregon defense is more likely to make a few more stops on the Wisconsin offense than the Wisconsin defense will make against the Oregon offense.
And so it was. After trading scores with the Badgers all game, Chip Kelly’s Ducks got the ball back with the lead late in the fourth quarter. Many called it the most exciting BCS Championship game since Southern Cal vs. Texas six years earlier, and the ratings agreed.
In the end, the best team won. The Oregon Ducks – despite their two losses – were never outgained in total yards the whole year, something that happened four times to the Tigers during their 13-0 start. Thanks to the work of Jim Delany, our beloved Plus-1 system finally gave the Tigers a matchup that proved too much for LSU and its Honey Badger, who had bailed his team out on numerous occasions the past season. Wisconsin finished the season as runner-up, and while nobody wants to take a loss, it was certainly easier to swallow knowing that they got to New Orleans via Baton Rouge, and in doing so, they’d helped bring some respect back to the nation’s oldest conference.
Because in the end, it is all about matchups. Many of us would agree that Wisconsin matching up with LSU was more favorable than a matchup with Alabama. And for once, the Big Ten finally got a matchup that looked good on paper against the SEC’s top team. And who do we have to thank for that? Nick Saban.
Party on, Chip Kelly.
Think this scenario would have been unlikely? I encourage all to recall what happened on January 9th when Saban opened up the playbook and challenged LSU with the merely average throwing ability of AJ McCarron.