Confusion, redemption and fear reign supreme in our college football postseason.
With the proliferation of bowls and their veritable plethora of locations, sponsors, animals, chicken sandwiches, computers, flowers, precious stones, auto parts and finance companies, we have a reasonable metaphor for our confusing Madison Avenue sports culture.
The most frequent questions I am asked this time of year invariably begin with, "Who is playing where? What do they call that bowl? Is that a real bowl? Why did they change their name? And let's see, where is our team playing? Does anybody care?" (Actually, the surprising answer is yes a resounding yes.)
I have been to several of the so called "meaningless" bowls, most notably in Honolulu, Las Vegas, Mobile and New Orleans, and I have found them very spirited, both from the fans' and the players' perspectives. People showed up in numbers, the players were thrilled to be competing in another game on national television, and the cities were delighted to have the out-of-town guests. It has been nice to defend specific bowls and teams based on actual performance, attendance and spirit at the events. They are good for all concerned.
Ask any former player about the worst bowls of all and the response will invariably be, "The Toilet Bowls are the worst!" The scatological reference is due to the distaste for hard work late in the week. (I confess. I watched and listened to Howard Cosell too much. )
These are the bane of college football players' existence, the dreaded Thursday post-practice scrimmages. The starters are excused and the few players who love them are the walk-ons who never get to play in a game and who just love to smash some varsity guys in the teeth, imagining they are in the Rose Bowl.
In fact, the Toilet Bowls I performed in were actually played at Rose Bowl Field, so named at my alma mater, Georgia Tech, because the 1928 Rose Bowl performance by Tech had produced the funds to build the practice facility. The contests usually ended up with some wonderful 190-pound linebacker from South Georgia with a 4.0 grade point average in Electrical Engineering making 14 tackles and being carried off the field by his cheering fellow scout-teamers.
Just one notch up from the Toilet Bowls in terms of popularity with coaches and players are the "Redemption" Bowls, which plague the conference championship games roughly every other year.
"Redemption" Bowls this year will be held this Saturday in the ACC championship game between Virginia Tech and Florida State and in the Big 12 championship game featuring Texas vs. Colorado. We refer to those games that include one worthy participant and an opponent from the weaker division who backs into the title game, arriving essentially by default.
Referring to these games, Texas coach Mack Brown has been quoted as saying that the Big 12 coaches voted 12-0 against them, and the athletic directors voted 12-0 for them. The gala events are so lucrative I'm guessing the CPAs threatened to quit if the games were not played. There are even some schools that have incentive clauses in head coaches' contracts, providing up to $50,000 for winning. I suppose bribery is OK as long as it is legal.
These events are a function of budget strains in the ongoing financial escalation in intercollegiate athletics. There is no solution to the divisional imbalance issue since it is a function of the ebb and flow of competition, coaching stability, talent, team momentum and even injuries each year.
Fear Factor and Redemptive Scent
Obviously, the worst-case scenario -- for the conferences, the teams that have played well all year and the BCS -- is for the poorer teams to win. The 2001 Texas loss to Colorado by a score of 39-37 comes to mind for some reason. Just remember the mess that game created.
The upshot is that Texas and Virginia Tech have a great deal to lose and little to gain this week, while Colorado and Florida State have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Unfair? Yep, and so is life. So let's play, focusing on the dominant forces for the week, redemption on the one hand and fear on the other.
Colorado and Florida State are coming off embarrassing performances the last half of the year but can drastically alter their futures. Indeed, Colorado's Gary Barnett may very well save his job with a win. FSU's legendary coach Bobby Bowden may salvage his son Jeff's offensive-coordinator position with a strong offensive showing. What the Buffaloes and Seminoles can almost smell is redemption.
Texas and Virginia Tech face the possibility of having an off day and blowing the great accomplishments of the 2005 season what gets into the players' hard drive is fear of failure.
The Games Themselves
All human beings are subject to the power of suggestion, some more than others. Football players, who have been motoring on adrenaline for weeks and who are under daily stress from coaches, the press, friends and even family, are more susceptible -- especially this time of year. Their minds are literally bombarded, and their bodies are literally beaten up.
My point is this: If one or both of the dominant teams, Texas and Virginia Tech, are overwhelmed by the suggestion that they are about to blow the whole season, especially since Texas did precisely that four years ago, there will be an upset, maybe two.
If one or more of the underdogs, Colorado and Florida State, become so confident that they are capable of redeeming the whole year with four hours of reckless abandon, there could be an upset or two. As unlikely as that is, such are the possibilities with these most suggestible of human creatures -- teenage males.
A brief analysis of the teams' numbers reveals some interesting details to watch as the games unfold.
In the ACC game, the biggest statistical difference is Virginia Tech's plus-seven turnover ratio to FSU's minus-seven. If that is reversed in this game, watch the Seminoles' defense on third down. As poorly as this defense has played, it still has held opponents to only 28 percent on third-down conversions. That is a powerful stat and will keep them in the game if it can be duplicated against the league's leading passer, Marcus Vick. Both teams were dominant in the fourth quarter, so if Florida State can stay ahead in the turnover battle, win on third down and keep the game close going into the last stanza, it will be a great game.
The other stark reality for Virginia Tech is an 0-11 record vs. Florida State, including an 0-6 record for Frank Beamer. Also, remember the early Bobby Bowden years when he was playing Beamerball before it was Beamerball. It is at these trying moments that Bowden is at his most dangerous.
In the Big 12 matchup, there is no apparent statistical advantage for the Buffaloes. Texas has dominated virtually every opponent, Colorado included (43-17 in Austin). The Longhorns even whipped Oklahoma this year.
One thing that might help Colorado's cause is Barnett's humor. How could you play uptight when your coach is quoted as saying that if the last-ranked grad from med school could be called doc, then his team might as well be called champs? If the Buffs are chuckling during warm-ups, we just might have a contest in Houston.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.