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The National Championship Game

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In just about thirty-six hours, the national championship game will kick off from the Louisiana Superdome. You will just have to forgive me if I am not overly excited.

If you are an LSU fan or an Ohio State fan, I imagine you are probably overjoyed, and rightfully so. But if you are not a fan of either of those two schools, and are just looking to see a true champion, in its purest form, being crowned, this game is certainly not for you. The harsh fact of the matter is that neither of these two teams are anything close to being considered great, and while a "champion" will be crowned, it will only be crowned because, by definition, someone must win it, and not necessarily because either team particularly deserves it.

LSU is the first team with two regular season losses to ever play for a national championship in the history of college football. And when I say history of college football, I don't mean just since the BCS came into being, or even since the AP Poll came about. I mean literally the entire history of college football, dating back to the first college football game ever played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. This is the first time in the 138 year history of college football that this has ever happened. In any other year, ever, this LSU team wouldn't even be mentioned in consideration for a national championship, much less actually playing for a national championship.

And why should they? Exactly what have they done to warrant such an end?

All told, LSU went only 6-2 in conference play this season, and the harsh truth of the matter is that in many years, that would not even be good enough to get you to Atlanta, much less the national championship game. In each of the past four years, 6-2 would have resulted in LSU sitting at home and not even being SEC West Champions, much less national champions. In that sense, LSU did absolutely nothing this year that they didn't do in 2006, it's just everyone else was that much worse.

And you have the very fundamental question looming: Is this LSU team even as good as the 2006 Tigers? I really can see no reason to come to that conclusion, and I actually think they are slightly worse than they were a year ago.

To begin with, this team actually has fewer Pythagorean Wins than it did a year ago, which is an insightful sign of team quality. Beyond that, look at things on a comparative basis. Last year they lost to 12-1 Florida (eventual national champions), and 11-2 Auburn. This year they lost to an 8-5 Kentucky team, and an 8-5 Arkansas team, the latter of which had a lame duck coach who was going to resign three days later.

More to the point, just look at things a bit closer on a game-by-game basis. Last year they lost to an 11-2 Auburn squad, on the road, when a last-second heave ended up five yards short of the end zone. This year they beat an 9-4 Auburn squad, at home, on a successful last-second touchdown heave. Last year they beat an 8-5 Kentucky team 49-0, but this year they lost to an 8-5 Kentucky team. Last year they beat a 10-4 Arkansas team in Little Rock, but this year they lost to an 8-5 Arkansas team in Baton Rouge. Last year they easily defeated a 6-7 Alabama team in a game that was not as close as the score indicated, and this year needed seventeen fourth quarter points to beat a 7-6 Alabama team that they had trailed the entire second half. You get the idea.

In reality, this LSU team looked incredible in the first four weeks of the season, but in the final nine games they were nothing more than just pretty good. They lost twice to two very average-at-best teams (Kentucky and Arkansas), needed to rally from behind in the final two minutes of each contest to beat 7-6 Alabama, 9-4 Florida, and 9-4 Auburn, had another squeaker win over a not-so-good Tennessee team, and then beat three terrible teams (Tulane, Louisiana Tech, and Ole Miss). Nothing particularly impressive there.

In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that LSU is the best team in its own conference. I know the talking heads all like to shout and scream that Georgia didn't even win its own conference, but considering that LSU and Georgia both finished with identical records without playing each other, that really means next to nothing. Saying that LSU is the better team based on the fact that they won the SEC is about like saying that the 2006 Chicago Bears were a better team than the 2006 New England Patriots simply because the Bears made the Super Bowl while the Patriots did not. What that ignores is that the two teams had very different routes. The Chicago Bears had a much easier route to the Super Bowl as a result of being in the weaker NFC, the same way that LSU had a much easier route by being in the weaker SEC West. Had the roles been reversed, Georgia would have easily been the SEC West Champion and hence gone to Atlanta, while LSU would have been fighting much harder for that right in the SEC East. Plain and simple, it's just not an open and shut case, and though I have picked LSU in every single game this season, I would probably pick the Dawgs in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up.

The simple truth of the matter is that this LSU team is in the national championship game for two main reasons: (1) the media loves them, for whatever reason, and has voted for them strongly all year, regardless of how they played (see Tulane), and (2) luck, and lots of it. It has been those two things and those two things alone that have gotten LSU into the national championship game, and not any greatness on their part.

So that is LSU, but what about Ohio State?

The Buckeyes, too, are nothing particularly special. Coming into the year, no one thought this team would be particularly good, and initially they were early to warm to the Buckeyes. Even after a 6-0 start to the season, Ohio State was still mired in the polls behind Cal, so that gives a bit of perspective.

I think the media and other "experts" were wise to be hesitant of them. After all, this was the exact same team that was annihilated by Florida in the 2006 national championship game, sans several stars, such as Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Antonio Pittman, and others. Why should anyone have legitimately thought they were any better in 2007 without all of those players? The answer was simple, no one did, and it was and is a valid point.

The truth of the matter with Ohio State is that we simply do not know how good of a team they are because they haven't played the schedule needed for a solid evaluation of them. Their out-of-conference schedule was a joke, as the only decent team they had scheduled (Washington), turned out to be terrible (4-9). It's hard to blame them overly for that, but the conference schedule didn't offer anything much tougher. The Big Ten was quite weak this year, and you have to have the gut feeling that if this Ohio State team were really that good, they would have went undefeated through that schedule. Last year's Ohio State squad did it with ease, why couldn't this year's squad?

Now, in all fairness, they did essentially easily dominate seven of their eight conference opponents (the Michigan State game, despite a close final score, was a game the Buckeyes dominated), but nevertheless the lone loss to Illinois is hard to dismiss. I gave Ron Zook a lot of credit for what he did this year at Illinois, but the truth is that the Illini were not that good, and Ohio State should have easily beaten them at home. Missouri beat them, as did Michigan, as did Iowa, and USC simply castrated them in the Rose Bowl. There is no reason why Ohio State should not have beaten that team easily, but they couldn't stop them defensively and their offense simply could not keep shooting itself in the foot.

And speaking of that defense, just how good is it? If you look at them statistically, they rank number one in the nation in about a million different categories, but really, how good are they? I honestly do not know. Yes they have been completely suffocating all year long, but have they really played a truly great offense? One that could both run and pass, spread the field with athletes, and run the ball physically? I don't see where they have. The best offense they have faced all year long was Illinois, and the Illini put up 400 yards of offense and 28 points against the Buckeyes in Columbus. Obviously, that's not the endorsement you are looking for if you a reason to be high on Ohio State.

Aside from that, exactly what good offenses did they face this season? After all, not a single Big Ten team finished in the final top twenty in either total offense or total defense. Penn State could run the ball fairly well, but struggled in the passing game, and ended up 40th or lower in most major statistical categories. Michigan had a good offense at times, but the Buckeyes faced them with Hart and Henne injured, plus the weather conditions that made it extremely tough for the offense to move the football. Purdue had a good offense as a whole, and those familiar with my writings are likely well aware of my fondness for Joe Tiller's short passing attack, but those guys don't have the talent that the top teams do, and the offense bogged down when facing solid opponents. Wisconsin, much like Penn State, had a good rushing attack, but could not throw the football effectively, and they weren't particularly good as a whole. Moreover, star tailback P.J. Hill missed that game due to injuries. As a result, when you look at things closely, you see that while the Buckeyes look like defensive gods on paper, they really haven't been tested yet.

When you put it all together, this isn't much of a game, at least as far as national championship games go, anyway. In any other year in the history of college football, LSU would not be here, and in most every other year, neither would Ohio State. Of course this will be hyped as the game of the century by Fox, but that is only because they have paid literally hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast the game. You will hear Rush Limbaugh glowingly profess his love for the Clintons before you even the slightest indication from Fox that they are airing what amounts to a lackluster contest.

So exactly what will the game itself bring? I really do not know. Again, neither team is particularly special, and both have a fair amount of flaws. In those situations, it is nearly impossible to predict anything. On the one hand, I wouldn't be surprised if LSU steamrolled the Buckeyes in very much the same fashion as Florida did a year ago. Then again, on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Ohio State won with ease after yet another showing of dumb mistakes and miscues from the Bayou Bengals. What would surprise me is if both squads play a very good, highly competitive, mistake-free football game. But as for who will win, I don't have the slightest clue.

What I do know, however, is that this is not right. We have a "championship" game that pits one not particularly special team against another not particularly special team, and the not particularly special team that makes the fewest mistakes will be crowned "champions." How is that right? Why should LSU be crowned national champions simply because they beat a team that breezed through a ridiculously easy schedule that included a choke-job at home to a mediocre-at-best team? Why should Ohio State be crowned national champions simply because they beat a team that couldn't even beat an 8-5 team that lost to the likes of Mississippi State, or an 8-5 team with a lame duck head coach? The answer is very simple, they shouldn't. One will, by default, but neither should.

And more to the point, are these two teams really the two best teams in the country? I know one of them will be crowned a champion because that is how the system works, but who is the best team? Being the "champion," however you define that, is a slightly different concept than being the best team, mind you. I would argue that neither of these two teams are the best in the country. After the Rose Bowl cakewalk, I'm convinced USC is the best team in the country -- at least when they are not decimated with injuries as they were in the losses to Stanford and Oregon -- and I would pick them with no hesitation in a head-to-head match-up over either LSU or Ohio State. I would certainly pick Georgia over Ohio State, and I might also pick them over LSU as well. The mere fact that the winner of this "championship" game may very well not even be one of the two best teams in the country, I feel, only accentuates all the negatives of the current system.

I have never before advocated a playoff system, but if this is what has become of college football, then that is exactly what we need. LSU shouldn't be crowned national champions solely because they beat Ohio State, and Ohio State shouldn't be crowned national champions solely because they beat LSU. If we are going to continue having these types of teams in the championship game, we need a playoff system so that at least one team will have to go through the gauntlet of all of the top teams in that particular year, and not have a situation where we have one team being dubbed champions simply because they beat one single other undeserving team in a "championship" game.

If this is truly what college football has become, the time for change has come.