SEC fans rejoice rematch; others recoil
The Bowl Championship Series made it official Sunday night. Ladies and gentlemen, the modern American sports fan's nightmare -- a World Series featuring the Yankees and the Red Sox.
For six months of the year, baseball fans who don't live on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor have New York and Boston shoved down their throats. Now, college football fans who don't live on the Gulf Coast must stomach a national championship mandated by the SEC-industrial complex.
The rest of the nation hears the Southeastern Conference boast of its five consecutive national championships and fumes. But at least, in each of those five games, the rest of the nation had an opponent on which to pin its hopes. This season, college football did what Major League Baseball hasn't had the stones to do just yet. We still haven't seen the Yankees and the Red Sox in a World Series. But for the first time in modern history, two teams from the same league will play for the national championship.
And not just any league, but the SEC, the one that has the evidence to show it's the best league in college football but lacks the discretion not to brag about it.
The 99 percent must sit there for the next seven weeks and take it. The 99 percent could Occupy Bourbon Street if they could handle being trapped amid wall-to-wall Tigers and Tide fans. The fan bases that descend upon New Orleans will spew their enthusiasm at each other until their league and its legitimacy is challenged. At which point purple and crimson alike, fueled by Pat O'Brien's, will join in lungstep, chanting "S-E-C! S-E-C!"
Here's the worst part, the broccoli, Brussels sprouts and castor oil all mixed into one inedible dose: If you believe in the BCS system, not to mention your own eyes, LSU and Alabama really are the two best teams in college football.
They looked the parts before they played four weeks ago. They looked the part that night in Tuscaloosa, a game that supplied in tension what it lacked in offense. LSU won 9-6 in overtime, a game that didn't settle many arguments.
Given the opening to seize the nation's interest, the rest of college football did little to take advantage. The other contenders -- Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, Boise State, Virginia Tech -- all lost, essentially wasting three weeks of campaign time. Not until Saturday night did the Cowboys make a case.
Two weeks after blowing a 17-point lead at mediocre Iowa State, the Cowboys pounded their archrival, No. 10 Oklahoma, 44-10. Within the state, the rout reverberated as the reversal of a perennially one-sided rivalry. Outside the state, the Cowboys presented themselves as a legitimate alternative to Southern-fried hegemony.
In the end, however, the Crimson Tide's strength could be seen in their old-school defense. If the power shift between offense and defense is cyclical in nature, we are in perhaps the longest period of offensive dominance since the relaxation of pass-blocking rules in the 1970s. Yet defense still dominates. It may be harder to find, which may make the defenses that do shine even more dominant. Their ilk is rarely seen.
LSU and Alabama made it to the BCS Championship Game because they play defense better than everyone else. The Crimson Tide and the Tigers rank 1-2 in scoring defense and total defense. They are physical, fast and opportunistic. Take a look at how they played in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Against their other opponents this season, LSU averaged 41 points per game, Alabama, 39. Against each other, they managed to score two field goals apiece in regulation time. Even when they cheated and got to start on each other's 25-yard line in overtime, they managed to score one field goal between them.
Rematches are not replays. LSU and Alabama will have plenty of time to break down video and prepare for each other again. The Tigers have a quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, whom the coaches had yet to entrust with the starting job when they arrived in Tuscaloosa. After being suspended for the first four games of the season because of his involvement in a preseason bar brawl, Jefferson came into the Alabama game in place of an ineffective Jarrett Lee. He has started the past four games, in which the Tigers have scored 42, 52, 41 and 42 points. Jefferson didn't direct all of those scores. Defense and special teams chipped in as well. But his resilience and his experience proved invaluable to LSU coming down the stretch.
The Crimson Tide got those same qualities from junior tailback Trent Richardson, whose production increased as the stakes got higher. The Alabama defense may be laden with Sunday players-to-be. But the Tide go where Richardson carries them. In the three victories since the loss to LSU, Richardson has rushed for 505 yards and three touchdowns.
If the nondrawling portion of the country will give LSU-Alabama a second chance, the Tigers and the Tide will reward such tolerance with a game that will combine physical talent with the kind of emotion that comes only from playing a rival for the biggest stakes. Sports fans love getting that in the NBA. The 2011 BCS season will end with the Lakers and the Celtics playing for the crystal football.
The guess here is that the 99 percent will root for both LSU and Alabama to lose.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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