The Same Old (Sour) Notes
January 5, 2009

I get a little carried away this time of year.  When I hear the sports media stumping silliness it just makes me crazy.  And every year the big silliness in December and early January is that the USC Trojans should be crowned as the best team in college football, regardless of what the facts say.

Because they choked against an inferior opponent for the fourth year in a row, the Trojans needed help from Oregon to beat an injury-depleted Oregon State squad in the final game of the regular season to make their annual appearance in Pasadena, but that's a detail that is lost on the sports pundits.  Also lost is that had the Penn State offense been remotely competent in the Rose Bowl, they would have turned a muffed fourth-quarter punt at the Trojan 15-yard line into a quick 7 points which would have given them the opportunity to recover an onsides kick in the closing minute for a chance at a tying score.  Nevermind that Penn State consistently shot themselves in the foot whenever opportunities arose throughout the game... we are used to seeing that from Big 10 football teams.

Regardless, the whole purpose of the BCS is to allow the best teams to opt out of their "traditional bowl rivalries" so that they can play better opponents.  At some point the people who choose the bowl match-ups as well as the coaches and ADs have to say enough is enough and start pitting the best teams against each other.  If USC really wanted to play the best competition, there really isn't anything to prevent them from doing so.  But they choose to play the Big 10, a conference that hasn't been relevant to the national championship picture in any of the major sports in 40 years,
so that they can preserve "their traditional rivalry".  Last year USC could have opted to play Georgia if they wanted and the year before they could have played LSU, but chose instead to take gimmes against Illinois and Michigan.

Since 1970 the Big 10 has won 8 national championships. Not in football. Total. In the three major college sports - football, basketball and baseball - the entire conference has won 8 national championships and only 2 in football.  That's out of 117 possible opportunities.  Even if you retroactively add Penn State before they joined the conference that only brings the total up to 10 titles.  The sports media talk about the Big Ten being a power conference, but consider that the Big East has won just one fewer national titles over the same span yet they aren't guaranteed a BCS spot. 

Compared to the other major conferences, the Big Ten doesn't even show up on the scale. Since 1970, the ACC has won 16 national championships (21 if you retroactively add Miami). The Big 12 has eleven football titles when you include the now-defunct Southwestern conference record of Texas, two basketball titles and four baseball titles. The SEC has won ten titles in football and six apiece in basketball and baseball. 
LSU with 7 major sports titles by themselves almost match the entire Big 10.  Five different schools (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Tennesee) have each won national titles in football, and three of those (LSU in baseball, Florida in basketball and Georgia in baseball) have won championships in football and another major sport.

But let me focus this even more.  In terms of just football titles since 1970, the tally is:
Big 10.....2 (4 when retroactively adding Penn State before they were a member)
Big East...2 (Miami was a member for their 1991 and 2001 titles)
ACC........4 (9 when retroactively adding Miami)
Pac 10.....4  (although Washington should have been declared champ in 1984, so I would personally give them 5)
Big 12....10
(11 when including Texas' championship while in the SWC)

The SEC is the only football conference that features five head coaches that have won national titles and another who finished #2 last year. By comparison the Big 10 has two title winners and Joe Pa's last one came more than 20 year ago. The Big 10 just barely ranks with the Big East and falls well short of a "non-football conference" like the ACC.  That they get an automatic BCS bid is insulting to the intelligence of all football fans and to college football as an institution. 

Yet USC, the Pac 10 and the Rose Bowl committee continue to schedule the pathetic Big 10 for January.  After the predictable thrashing, USC then caterwauls the rest of the year that they weren't given the national title. The ABC/ESPN network does its best to give it to them with their non-stop booster-ism - there's no confirmation whether or not employees of the network each recieve a blow-up Pete Carroll doll each Christmas - conveniently forgetting that every year USC loses to a team that has no business being close in the game. Losing to 41-point underdog Stanford at home ring any bells? How about the year before when they scored only 9 points against a then 6-win UCLA team in a loss in the final regular season game?  This year's beaut was a cringe-inducing loss to Oregon State who had already lost to Penn State and Stanford (!) before facing the Trojans.

And let's quiet the talk about the Pac 10 conference strength. True, they went 5-0 this year in bowl games. But only two of the bowls they played occurred when traditionally the top bowls are played: New Years's Eve and after.  And the most significant one of those was against the Big 10, which is now 1-5 in bowls this year with 1 to play, and that conference's record over the last three years is 6-15. Conversely, the SEC will play all eight of its games during the big bowl season and their record over the last three years is 17-7 (5-2 so far this year with 1 game to go). The other three of the Pac 10 bowl wins this year came against traditionally over-rated BYU, a rebuilding Pitt program that had it's first winning season since 2004 and a 7-win Miami (8th best team in the ACC) this year. Yay team!  Only Oregon's win over a very good Oklahoma State offensive team measures up as impressive.

The Pac-10 has been a top-heavy conference at least for a decade and the bottom half plays some of the worst football in the NCAA. This year, they fielded just five winning teams. The bottom two teams combined for two wins. Washington State has not had a winning season since 2003. Washington's streak of non-winning seasons goes back to 2002. Stanford hasn't posted better than five wins in a season since 2001. The Pac-10 went 3-6 versus the Mountain West, including losses by 3rd best Oregon State and 5th best Arizona. Put another way, without USC, the Pac 10 is practically the Big 10.  In fact, without USC the Pac-10 would not have won any titles in football over the last 40 years.  Granted, it was a strong year from the Mountain West, the pinnacle of which was Utah's impressive victory in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.  That's not so much a knock against the SEC as it is evidence that maybe the BCS should consider giving the Big Ten's automatic bid to some other conference.

Many have suggested that this year was a down year for the SEC.  I agree: they only had seven teams with winning records and only four teams in the top 20.  In the Pac 10 that would qualify as a banner year.  I was incredibly disappointed by how LSU performed against its conference schedule this year, but even an underachieving Tigers squad (5th best in the SEC) was clearly miles better than the highest ranked team in the ACC (Georgia Tech).  The 4th best team in the SEC (Ole Miss) thrashed the #1(b) Texas Tech team  in the Big 12 (the #1 and #1a teams being Texas and Oklahoma).  More impressively, both the LSU (at the Georgia Dome) and Ole Miss (Cotton Bowl) wins took place in the other team's back yard.  In a down year for the SEC they dominated the bowl season with the most January appearances and will likely hoist the national championship trophy for the third straight year and fourth in six years.

One can not state with any integrity that this year's USC team has the best defense in college football history (as the ESPN/ABC crowd does) if they give up 27 points in a loss to the 26th ranked offense in the country.  And no one can state with a straight face that USC is comparable to the best teams in the country if they lose the only tough road game they had all year.  Just to be clear, this so-called "best defense in college history" gave up 186 yards rushing to a freshman running back in that game, and USC's last touchdown that made the game look somewhat close came with a little more than a minute left to play.  If (as the sports media are saying) USC dominated Penn State, then Oregon State dominated USC, and "best teams" don't get dominated by anyone.  Certainly "best teams ever" don't.  The Trojans' other toughest opponents - Oregon and Cal, and if you insist on terming Big 10 opponents as "tough", Ohio State and Penn State - were all played at home.  Conversely, Florida trampled bowl-game winners Georgia, Vanderbilt and Florida State on the road and their only loss was a one-point nail-biter at home to Ole Miss, who proved their worth in the Cotton Bowl.  I don't buy the Oklahoma argument that they should be in the title game, but Texas has a legitimate claim after beating Oklahoma at a neutral site and were just one dropped interception on the road in Lubbock after consecutive weeks playing Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State and then Texas Tech from going undefeated. 

So, USC fans and ESPN/ABC talking heads, please understand you have no argument until your team plays a quality opponent in January.  Until USC is more about performance on the field against quality opponents than it is about media-inflated ego, they don't deserve the chance to play for the national title.  While it does happen every once in a while - contrary to the prevailing media and West Coast sentiment - national titles are not given.  They are earned. 

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