History says strange things happen on college football's Championship Saturday. Foregone conclusions are especially dangerous.
Avid fans should hold strong memories of upsets in the Big 12 title game by Texas (with John Mackovic's fourth-down gamble stunning Nebraska), Texas A&M (spoiling Kansas State's trip to the BCS big game), and Colorado (haunting Chris Simms and Texas).
The SEC title game has gone a bit more to form, but it was LSU reversing a regular-season loss to Tennessee and denying the Vols a national title shot two years ago. The unlikely hero that night: Matt Mauck, who has come light years since.
OK, so with history declaring that an upset somewhere is likely ... where will it be?
On a frigid night in Arrowhead? Well, it's been pretty well established that Oklahoma could survive a loss to K-State and still head to New Orleans. That's one potential distraction. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is headed to coach at Arizona, along with at least one more OU assistant. Another potential distraction.
K-State is a dangerous team with just the kind of athletic quarterback that can trouble the Sooners' aggressive defense. The 'Cats are savoring the "no-shot" underdog role. Given their bowl status, they have more to play for than the Sooners. They should have the crowd-noise edge, just down the road from their campus.
So, are you beginning to have visions of a purple-powered upset Saturday night?
History also says Oklahoma is the one team in the league immune from the upset syndrome in the championship game, twice playing well and taking care of business under Bob Stoops. Stoops says he doesn't even remember the previous title game vs. the 'Cats at Arrowhead being cold! Trust me, Coach, it was real cold. You were just a little too preoccupied to notice.
From now until the end of time, a Stoops-coached team will always be ready and well-prepared to play a Bill Snyder team. It would certainly be fitting that this Oklahoma team, approaching near historic dominance on the scoreboard, become the first Big 12 team to repeat as conference champs. That's right, no team has accomplished that. Yet.
So, who among us has got the cajones to call for the unanimous number one in the human and computer polls, the lone unbeaten and the team with the Heisman frontrunner and finalists for the Lombardi, Nagurski, Thorpe, Butkus, Biletnikoff, O'Brien, Unitas, Walter Camp, Maxwell and Groza Awards as well as future draft picks all over the defense to go down?
Not me. Nope. Despite all the potential psychological pitfalls and the danger of K-State. But I do think it could be a lot more interesting than most think.
Will the shocker come in the Coliseum? USC is another supremely focused team. Like Stoops, Pete Carroll is adept at getting his team to block out stuff and lock its tunnel-vision on the next opponent. It's easy for Pete, since he (unlike Stoops) has little or no interest in or understanding of the BCS, the polls, the big picture, or anything else besides the next opponent. But, getting an SC team to think like that (in the land of external distractions) has always been a challenge through the years.
You probably know that Oregon State hasn't won at the Coliseum in a generation. Even in the rare years in which the Beavers had a chance, they blew it. Oregon State (and QB Derek Anderson) have typically struggled away from Corvallis. This year, they have grown as a road team, since a vintage melt down at Fresno State. Cal was a nice win. They came close to winning at Wazzu. Then, the Beavs took a step back at Oregon. It's hard to believe in them Saturday.
I could go on, but why? USC won't lose at home to this bunch with a national title shot on the line. Unless, of course, they all secretly want to live out the west coast fantasy and play New Year's Day in Pasadena against Michigan. If they do, they should go ahead and lose.
UGA vs. Mike
So, will the upset that history dictates happen in the SEC championship game? After all, Georgia is in the game ... Georgia clearly outplayed LSU in Baton Rouge in October ... it's being played in the Georgia Dome ... and Georgia is the underdog.
So, why are so many SEC insiders discounting the chances of the defending champs? For one thing, LSU has improved a lot since the first meeting. The defense had little room for improvement and continues to match Oklahoma's crew in terms of consistent dominance. Nick Saban has shifted around his secondary and found ways to work around the absence of a dominant linebacker. That D-line is scary. Just ask Eli Manning. Or David Greene, for that matter.
With the growth of the freshman tailbacks, LSU has almost obscene depth. Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson, and Skyler Green give Matt Mauck a trio of targets, and he's become more comfortable finding them.
Mauck's sharpness (or lack of it) is still the X-factor with LSU. Like the Tigers, Georgia's defense has surrendered a measly 14 touchdowns in 12 games. The Dawgs are too tough and well-coached to ever get run out. But for some reason, these conference championship games tend to feature more offense and big plays than we expect.
Saturday, just stopping LSU's offense may not be enough, though. Georgia needs turnovers, and the Tigers don't usually accommodate. Georgia also needs to make its field goals. Mop-topped kicker Billy Bennett missed three in the loss to LSU. One common factor is Georgia's rare regular season losses the last few years: Bennett misses. He is 10-of-21 in those six losses, but a very solid 56-of-71 in Georgia's wins.
Again, guys like Tony Barnhart who cover the Dawgs regularly think LSU is just too tough. But there has to be an upset somewhere Saturday and this would be a mild one. You have to take a shot somewhere, so I'll say Georgia wins.
Bulldogs' Big Win
Not UGA. Bully, the always overshadowed dog from Starkville. I applaud Mississippi State's hire of Sly Croom. Obviously, it's a welcome and overdue milestone for the SEC. It's also an inspired choice by AD Larry Templeton.
Can Croom step right in and be an excellent college football head coach? I have no idea. I hope that he can. I do think he can become a recruiting force quickly, though.
I have heard it said this week (by completely uninformed people) that Mississippi State is a "Can't win" or "Dead End" job. Wrong. It may be a stepping stone job. Let's face it, the cash and the facilities do not compare to the power programs in the SEC. But you can certainly win division titles at State, and perhaps an SEC title or two.
The reason: high school talent base. I have also heard it said this week that Mississippi just doesn't have enough players on which to build a winner. Huh? That's ridiculous. The state is stocked with more big time recruits per capita than almost any other. As many as a dozen prep players there will make some All-American team. Guru Tom Lemming told me that he could have as many as eight Mississippi players on his team of about 120 guys!
How well will Croom and his staff recruit the state? That will determine his chances of winning titles.
Will breaking the SEC's head coaching color barrier bring in recruits? There is no evidence anywhere that African-American recruits will flock to schools coached by African-Americans. Race has not previously been a deciding factor for many kids. Tyrone Willingham is struggling mightily on the recruiting trail right now. Without late help, Notre Dame's class may its weakest in many years. His staff has not been able to get a handle on traditional Midwest strong holds or attract glamour guys from far away.
Karl Dorrell has just come aboard at UCLA, but his staff is fighting an uphill battle right now against USC, according to Lemming. I could go on.
However, this situation may be a little different. Mississippi State is a rural school that is a comfortable fit for many prospects growing up in small Mississippi or Alabama towns. Given the right set up there, and a social reason to chose State, who knows?
John Blake, although a failure as Oklahoma's head coach, is a proven, top-flight recruiter. Blake just arrived at MSU last January. Croom should try to keep him as D-line coach. Blake really seems to have a way of getting through to recruits. He also may have valuable perspective to offer to Croom.
Woody McCorvey, likely choice as offensive coordinator, comes from Tennessee with a good recruiting track record.
It'll be interesting to see how quickly Croom's crew can attract talent. Jackie Sherrill wasn't exactly burning the midnight oil on the recruiting trail in recent months. They are starting from behind. Will they be able to "shake up the good ol' boys," to use the words of Croom's former Alabama roommate and current Steelers assistant, John Mitchell?
Maybe. He certainly has the immediate attention of rival recruiters in the SEC.
As for the potential NCAA penalties, officials at State do not seem too concerned about a major hit, based on what they know investigators have found. The worst they fear is a year's ban from postseason and maybe a couple scholarships.
The NCAA just may be less inclined to drop the hammer on MSU, with Sherrill replaced by such a historically significant hire. No one would ever admit to that, of course, but we'll see.
Big Red Shakeup
Nebraska's firing of Frank Solich will likely cost it this year's recruiting class. Not the move itself, but the timing of it. December is a critical recruiting month, and with out a head coach, Nebraska is trailing.
Uncertainty hurts worse than anything. As a former recruiting coordinator at Ohio State, AD Steve Pederson had to know that firing Solich in the two weeks prior to the Colorado game would have sent a strong, earlier message that a new era will begin. He had clearly made up his mind, but he waited until the end of the season. You could applaud that, I suppose, but it could be costly in recruiting.
I have always said that Nebraska's dynasty was all the more remarkable because it must attract a number of difference-maker recruits from far away. Other dynasties sit in fertile recruiting ground, like Florida, Texas or California.
Nebraska's status is, therefore, a bit fragile. It cannot bring in the number of marginal students it did in the pre-Big 12 days. Conference rules forbid it. The decline in Nebraska's recruiting has followed.
Turner Gill is considered by many Nebraska's most valuable recruiter. He will be interviewed for the head coaching job, but is considered a long shot to say the least. If you interview for the head job and don't get it, you don't stay or usually aren't asked to by the eventual hire. Losing Gill would set Husker recruiting back even more.
The next Nebraska head coach had certainly better be a strong recruiter and bring with him a staff that dedicates itself to the task. Or else Pederson's fear ("surrendering the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas") will be a quick reality, if it isn't already!
"Hail Flutie" or "Hit The Trombone Player"
It's fitting that the two most famous plays in modern college football (both well-known to even non-fans) will likely carry most of the votes when all your responses are tabulated and the "Ultimate Pontiac High Performance Play" is revealed at halftime of the Oklahoma-Kansas State game Saturday night.
But which will it be: the heave that propelled Doug Flutie to the Heisman, or the rugby lateral-fest that denied Stanford's John Elway his last, best chance at a bowl appearance?
The other finalists in the voting were Kordell Stewart's Hail Mary at Michigan (my personal favorite, as a Colorado alum), Anthony Carter's high step, last-minute TD catch to beat Lee Corso-coached Indiana in 1979 (a play that still haunts him, I promise you), and the sleeper, a little-seen rocket from Brett Favre to lift Southern Miss to a miracle win over Louisville.
Check out ABC's halftime show to see how fans' voting broke down. If you voted (and the polls are closed), maybe you won the Bonneville GXP they gave away.
By the way, the winning play in a similar contest run last college basketball season was Christian Laettner's catch, turn, and shot to beat Kentucky in the NCAA regional finals. Good call.
GameDay Home Finale
After 14 straight road shows (including our milestone 100th Saturday at Gainesville), we'll be closing the regular season at home this week. Hey, I guess everybody here has to help pay for Trista and Ryan's $4 million wedding!
Chris Fowler is host of ESPN College GameDay