Michael Wilbon: Small, but Powerful, College Teams Can Make a Big Impression This Weekend
I'm rooting with every ounce of energy in my body for a team that has a 187-pound quarterback, whose biggest game of the year is Thursday night in its season opener, that has won more games since 2000 than any team except Oklahoma and that the Bowl Championship Series would happily pay millions of dollars not to have play for the national championship.
College football hates party crashers, and the cartel will do its damndest to make sure there are none. That's why the teams that ultimately play for the national championship in January will come from a group that includes preseason No. 1 Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, Southern Cal and perhaps even Ole Miss. The powers that be -- that would be the people who run the BCS -- want you to focus on the ACC, Big East, Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-10 and divert your eyes from those little giant killers, notably Boise State, Texas Christian, Utah and Brigham Young.
There's a phrase out there that's gaining traction: designation over performance.
The boys in the cartel would like you to ignore the fact that Utah of the Mountain West, to cap an undefeated season, trashed SEC blueblood Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They certainly don't want you to remember that the Mountain West was 6-1 against the Pac-10 last season and that three teams from the Mountain West (Utah, TCU and BYU) were all ranked above the ACC champion (always overrated Virginia Tech) going into the 2008 bowl season. And they surely want to see Oregon beat Boise State on Thursday night in just about the most entertaining matchup imaginable for a season opener, since the Ducks and Broncos are each capable of scoring 60 points.
It is something of a crusade weekend for college football's equivalent of the mid-majors. Two days after Boise State hosts Oregon, BYU faces No. 3 Oklahoma at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium.
For Boise State and BYU, it's bowl season in September. The Broncos, voted 16th in the coaches' poll but a top-10 team in some preseason forecasts, are ranked high enough to have a chance to be No. 2 in the BCS ratings at the end of the regular season, but only if they beat Oregon impressively to start the season. Boise State, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore coming off a 3,500-yard, 25-touchdown season, is carrying the banner for every team not in one of the big-six conferences. It's much more likely that Boise State will beat Oregon than it is that BYU will beat Oklahoma, which is one of the favorites to win it all. Still, there's something oddly democratic about simply seeing these teams play one another to start the season because college football operates mostly outside the boundaries of fairness.
The only way the BCS is going to be dismantled is if a school such as Boise State or Utah takes down a Goliath in the title game or if the Justice Department initiates a formal investigation of the BCS. That might not be out of the question given the increasing annoyance in legislative circles with some of the systematic inequities -- like the ACC getting $18.6 million last year from BCS games while the Mountain West got $9.8 million, even though Mountain West teams were so much better than the ACC teams. The Western Athletic Conference got even less than that. Of course, that means schools outside the big-six conferences are denied funds to apply to meeting Title IX guidelines or improving facilities or simply keeping their coaches. Urban Meyer went undefeated at Utah, but the system prevented him from winning a national championship and making a competitive salary, so he bolted for Florida.
Hmmm, seems the boys in the cartel have designed a system that ensures that the teams already near the top will stay there.
Penn State, back when it was an unwelcome eastern independent, crashed the party back in the 1980s and then Miami did the same back when teams could bubble up and force their way into the big action and subsequently the big money -- before such upstarts were essentially legislated out. Those two programs and BYU won or shared seven national championships between 1982 and 1991.
The notion that schools outside the big-six conferences don't play big-time football and/or produce the best players is frighteningly ignorant, though increasingly accepted as fact. Reality is, I can take a team of players from schools other than the big six and crush any roster of big-school all-Americans. Think not?
Just ask Alabama's players about Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who had three sacks and a fumble recovery in the Sugar Bowl. Much will be said and written, justifiably, about Florida's Tim Tebow and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the last two Heisman Trophy winners, but also keep an eye on BYU quarterback Max Hall, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.
There are enough other subplots to make the beginning of the college football irresistible, as usual. Will Notre Dame and Michigan continue to be doormats? Will the Big 12 be as entertaining as it was last season? Will Tebow, by leading the Gators to another title, be remembered as one of the great quarterbacks in college football history? But this weekend's contests, specifically the Oregon-Boise State game, could provide the appropriate fireworks to start the season. Sadly, anything that concludes by rewarding designation over production isn't the way to end it.