PASADENA, Calif. – We may never know the full extent of what we missed all these years. How many rightful national champions of college football’s highest level never even had a chance to play for the title? It took one day of the College Football Playoff to reinforce how fickle, how faux-certain, the Bowl Championship Series was for its entire existence.
If the BCS still existed, Alabama and Florida State would have finished No. 1 and No. 2 and played for the national championship. Oregon and Ohio State would have played one another in a consolation game, muttering about the unfairness of a system that rewards pedigree over performance. The undefeated defending champs and the Southeastern Conference champion would have been the pairing. The two best teams in the country would have played in the Rose Bowl and wondered.
The best part about the new kind of national championship game may be the lack of ambivalence when Ohio State and Oregon meet on Jan. 12. We know they are the two best teams, because we just saw them prove it on New Year’s Day. (Okay, okay. Objection sustained, TCU.) They did not make it to AT&T Stadium because of perception and guesswork. They made it because they earned it.
In Oregon’s locker room after their 59-20 trouncing of Florida State, as players danced and sang along to hip-hop, the Sugar Bowl played on televisions in the corners of the room. Some players stole glances. Others preferred to embrace the moment. “I’m just going to enjoy this,” Oregon center Hronnis Grasu said with a chuckle. “I’ll watch plenty of film tomorrow.”
He will watch the stunning manner in which Ohio State toppled Alabama. The Buckeyes blitzed Alabama for 28 consecutive points, moved ahead by two touchdowns with less than four minutes to play and then held on for dear life. Cardale Jones proved Ohio State has enough quarterbacks to loan them out, like a Rent-A-Center. Urban Meyer outmaneuvered Nick Saban, again asserting himself as perhaps the best coach in America. The Buckeyes looked every bit as big and athletic as the champion from the mighty SEC.
A victory would mean different things to each team. Ohio State could further reclaim pride for both itself and its maligned conference. In 2006 and 2007, the Buckeyes made the title in consecutive seasons and lost to Florida (which Meyer coached) and LSU by a combined 41 points, the tipping point in college football’s prevailing narrative: No conference was equipped to compete with the SEC, least of all the slow-footed Big Ten.
In the intervening years, Ohio State landed on probation, lost Coach Jim Tressel and went 6-7 under interim coach Luke Fickell. Meyer took over in 2012, when Ohio State remained on probation. The Buckeyes have gone 37-3 in three years since.
Oregon can culminate its ascension to the sport’s highest tier, the rise that began under Mike Bellotti, soared under Chip Kelly and has continued under Mark Helfrich. Oregon has won 60 games in the past five years, more than any school in the country. They have won the Pacific-12 four times since 2009. They won the Rose Bowl in 2012. They played for the national championship in 2011 and led until the final snap, Auburn’s game-winning field goal. They have done it all except win it all.
Oregon is a powerhouse, a trend-setter in every way, but one victory will move it to a different echelon.
“I think it will,” said Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell, who has been in the program for 32 years. “We came up short. The last three seconds of the game, one play, and we’re in it then. If we can go on win one more now, it will change things tremendously for us.”
Oregon will become the first team to win a Rose Bowl and then play again, the same dynamic Ohio State has with the Sugar Bowl. They could celebrate, but they had to temper their excitement with an eye on AT&T Stadium. They also had another worry — Oregon linebacker Torrodney Prevot pointed out that classes resume Monday.
“When we won the last Rose Bowl, it was a little different,” Grasu said. “It was the last game. All you had to worry about was the offseason. Now we got to worry about getting better for the next game. It’s a pretty big game.”
It’s the biggest game. And, like never before, we don’t have to worry about the right teams playing in it.
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