Louisiana State and Alabama will play for college football’s national title in New Orleans on Jan. 9 in an unprecedented Southeastern Conference rematch that ensures the sport’s most dominant league of a national champion for the sixth straight season.
The first Bowl Championship Series title game to feature two teams from the same conference — a rematch of top-ranked LSU’s regular season 9-6 overtime victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — was considered almost a foregone conclusion last week.
But Oklahoma State’s unexpected 44-10 rout of Oklahoma on Saturday night created some uncertainty and stirred debate over whether a once-beaten Crimson Tide team, which did not win its division, deserved a title game berth over the once-beaten Cowboys.
In Sunday’s final BCS standings, LSU became the first team with a perfect rating under the current system. And Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, said the gap between Alabama (.942) and Oklahoma State (.933) was the smallest ever between second- and third-place teams under the current BCS formula. As a result, college football will stage a sequel to the physical, defensive-oriented Nov. 5 game that included zero touchdowns, four missed field goals and four interceptions.
“I don’t expect this game to be a rerun of the first game,” Hancock said. “Of course, that first one was terrific and obviously drew a tremendous amount of interest around the country and a fabulous TV rating. . . . It will just be over the top. It is the best match.”
If Alabama beats LSU, the schools will have split games this season. When asked whether he was concerned about being perceived as the clear champion if that should occur, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said: “Has the Super Bowl champ ever lost to a team in the regular season and then beat that team in the playoffs? That’s what it is, the national championship game.”
Instead of playing for the national title, Oklahoma State (11-1) will meet Stanford (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl. In the Orange Bowl, ACC champion Clemson (10-3) will play Big East champion West Virginia (9-3). Pacific-12 champion Oregon (11-2) will play Big Ten champion Wisconsin (11-2) in the Rose Bowl.
And in a Sugar Bowl matchup of two at-large selections, a resurgent Michigan team, which finished the regular season 10-2, will play Virginia Tech, which finished 11th in the BCS ratings. The Sugar Bowl chose the Wolverines and Hokies over at-large teams such as Boise State (11-1), rated seventh in the BCS, and Kansas State (10-2), rated eighth.
Paul Hoolahan, the chief executive of the Sugar Bowl, said the fact that the Hokies’ fan base traveled well to previous Sugar Bowls was “extremely important in the whole decision-making process.”
But the most intrigue Sunday centered on which team should meet LSU (13-0) for the national title. The Tigers have beaten eight ranked opponents by an average of 22 points and likely would have earned a title game berth even if they had not beaten Georgia in Saturday’s SEC championship.
The debate over LSU’s opponent, for some, boiled down to what one values most: quality losses or more quality victories.
On one hand, Alabama’s lone defeat came in overtime against a team some are calling one of the best of the BCS era, which began in 1998. Oklahoma State’s only loss occurred Nov. 18 in double overtime at Iowa State, a team that finished with a 6-6 record.
But Oklahoma State beat seven teams with winning records and five teams ranked in last week’s BCS top 25. Alabama (11-1) beat three Football Bowl Subdivision teams with winning records and two teams ranked in last week’s BCS top 25. Alabama may have the best overall victory, a 38-14 win on Sept. 24 over Arkansas, which finished sixth in the BCS ratings.
“We bought into the system,” Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy said on ESPN after Sunday’s announcement. “For whatever reason, people decided that they wanted to see a rematch of LSU and Alabama. . . . Our university decided to buy into the system a number of years ago. Because of that, we are going to go with the way it fell and hopefully next time we’ll get an opportunity to play in the big game.”
Outside of SEC country, there was little clamoring for a rematch, especially one that was not all that easy on the eyes for fans of offensive football. But how Oklahoma State’s offense, which ranks second nationally in averaging 49.3 points per game, would fare against LSU’s stifling defense will have to remain a mystery.
In on an-field television interview after Saturday’s victory against Oklahoma, Gundy said, “I think people have to decide whether they want to see a 9-6 game or a 39-36 game. . . . I think this is the opportunity for people to find out how good the defense is in the SEC. We’d like to have that challenge.”
It appeared like a moot point heading into the weekend. Even Gundy last week had publicly endorsed Alabama as the nation’s No. 2 team “right now.” And Brad Edwards, ESPN’s BCS analyst, projected last week that there was a 95 percent chance of a LSU-Alabama national title game matchup.
The USA Today coaches’ and Harris Interactive polls, along with the compilation of six computer ratings, make up the formula for the BCS standings. In the end, Alabama maintained a narrow advantage in the two polls, while Oklahoma State held an advantage in the computer ratings.
Now LSU finds itself having to beat its stiffest competition twice in one season to earn the national championship.
“Rather than rehash the system, the system that we have worked the way it did,” Saban said. “The two teams that came out on top are in the game. And I am sure that if we were in their [Oklahoma State’s] position, we would be disappointed. But rather than rehash the system, I think maybe we should do research on what would make the system better in the future.”