For a sport that spent a century-plus seldom having rematches, the college football landscape teems this weekend with rematches. Seven of the nine conference championship games will be rematches of regular season games, including three of the five in the Power Five leagues, which aim to suss out the four-team College Football Playoff.
No. 2 Auburn (10-2) will play No. 6 Georgia (11-1), which Auburn pummeled, 40-17, three Saturdays ago. No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1) will play No. 11 TCU (10-2), which Oklahoma thumped, 38-20, three Saturdays ago. No. 10 Southern California (11-2) on Friday beat No. 12 Stanford (9-4), 31-28, after throttling the Cardinal, 42-24, 12 Saturdays ago.
Asked to describe this phenomenon, coaches tried hard to describe it, with one even veering into the dreaded, “It is what it is.”
“I think what makes this thing unique is it was three weeks ago when we played,” Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said at his weekly news conference this week. “From a coach’s standpoint, you know, when you play another opponent, you look at the last game. There’s no doubt about that. And what you could have done better. You try to predict what they’re going to do. They try to predict what you’re going to do. But we know each other pretty well, probably from the standpoint of just playing so recent.”
“I don’t see it as a challenge or advantage either way,” Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said.
“I don’t know that there is good or bad,” Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley said at his weekly news conference. “It is what it is. You know each other better. There’s probably going to be less surprises. Both teams are going to have a better feel for each other’s personnel.”
Some arcane, arcane numbers: From 1992 to 2016, beginning with the Southeastern Conference’s hatching of a title game, the richest five conferences held 64 championship games between them. Twenty-two spat out rematches, including four of the six for the Pacific-12. In those 22 rematches, the winner of the first bout has gone 13-9. (The Big 12 held a title game from 1996 to 2010, then didn’t, now will again.)
The all-time maestros for beating teams twice have been Bob Stoops, formerly at Oklahoma, and David Shaw, currently at Stanford, both 3-0 in conference-title rematches. Shaw’s 2012 Stanford team played UCLA twice within six days, a merciless assignment, and it won, 35-17, and — remember to breathe — 27-24. His 2013 team played Arizona State twice and won, 42-28 and 38-14. As the Stanford McCaffreys of 2015 prepped to beat Southern California for a second time, Professor Shaw spoke, and spoke it best, as often:
“You get used to playing someone a year after you play them, so you take everything you see with a grain of salt, knowing that their team has changed, your team has changed,” he said. “But when you play them in the same year, you guard against thinking that something that worked last time is going to work this time. You reevaluate your original plan, see what worked, what didn’t work and then, you know, try to find in all three phases, something that you can be successful with again, but also realizing that they may change things based on what worked last time.
“So it’s a bit of a chess match, but the hardest chess match is the one you have with yourself, not necessarily with the opponent.”
Stanford won that September on the Los Angeles Coliseum floor, 41-31. Then Stanford got 461 all-purpose yards from Christian McCaffrey and won at a half-neutral site, Santa Clara, 14 miles (so, roughly a three-hour drive) from Palo Alto, 41-22. Clearly, whatever Stanford designed for Southern California that year was bound to yield 41 points.
Clearly, whatever Auburn designed for Georgia for Nov. 11 was swell. The mighty multiback rushing attack of Georgia, which never finished with fewer than 185 yards in any other game, produced a puny 46 against Auburn.
To reporters in Auburn this week, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said coaches should both ignore and use that game video.
“Obviously, having been in the National Football League [Carolina Panthers, 1995-98] one thing I learned real quick is it’s hard to beat someone twice in the same year, particularly if they’re a good football team, and if they’re a really, really good football team, it’s really hard,” Steele said. “It’s got a life of its own.”
In this life of its own, Auburn must pretend that previous game did not exist: “That last game, it’s not going to look anything like that last game, probably, in anybody’s imagination. So we’ve got to prepare just like the first game against Georgia never happened, although we do have the advantage of the video of it. It did happen.”
And it must prepare with the video of the game that did exist: “We can take off the video to show them how we can correct things.”
The art of the rematch happens heavily in the darkness or in whatever amount of light coaches and players use to study film. “Obviously,” Steele said, “you’ve got to look at your game plan that worked, but they’re also going to look at your game plan that worked, so you have to have some wrinkles that are different. So it presents a challenge in that area.”
Among the nine teams that upturned the previous result and gained “revenge,” whatever that means, two stand out from this decade. In 2012, Wisconsin lost, 30-27, at Nebraska on Sept. 29 yet won their Big Ten title game, 70-31. In 2014, Oregon lost, 31-24, to Arizona at home on Oct. 2, then won their Pac-12 title game, 51-13, sort of correcting the only smudge on Oregon’s record at that time.
A student of the game presented Professor Smart at Georgia with a memory. In 2011, Smart coordinated the defense for an Alabama team that lost at home to LSU, 9-6, in overtime, on Nov. 5. Through the usual byzantine sequence of events and votes and laptop luminosity, Alabama then got a rematch with LSU on Jan. 9 in the BCS championship game, which Alabama won, 21-0.
In answer, Smart noted that a 9-6 game offered little help. He said, “I think you should prepare the same, regardless of a record, regardless of a revenge factor.” Noting that a two-loss Auburn had to win every game in November to get here, while a then-unbeaten Georgia did not, Smart said, “Now everybody’s back’s against the wall.”
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