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Post Great game, but no rematch

Monday November 20, 2006

Going into Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game, I gave the Wolverines the slight edge. I thought their run defense would be good enough to make the Buckeye offense rely too heavily on the pass. I also thought that a healthy Hart would give Michigan the balance they needed on offense. I was right about Michigan’s offense. Hart ran well, and Henne played a fair game. But he and the Michigan passing game were not spectacular, and Troy Smith and his receivers were.

But what I really missed on was discounting Ohio State’s big play threat at tailback. Antonio Pittman has been a dependable back this year, rushing for over 1,000 yards. Chris Wells is a typical freshman superstar – electrifying but inexperienced and mistake-prone. They’re both very good players who would probably be standouts on other teams. I, and probably many others, just didn’t expect them to be able to gash a top rush defense. Each had a touchdown run of over 50 yards, and those two touchdowns plus a solid afternoon from Smith & Co. were too much for any team to overcome. Credit Michigan for even coming close.

The final margin ended up being three points, but this felt like a two-score win for Ohio State. After Michigan’s initial touchdown, the Buckeyes grabbed control of the game early in the second quarter. Each time Michigan scored and found life, Ohio State responded to keep the Wolverines at a comfortable distance. Even when Michigan scored late and brought it within three points, you never really felt the urgency because you knew, if it really mattered, Ohio State would simply answer again.

Michigan is a fine team. The score doesn’t bother me – it was a slugfest just as last year’s Rose Bowl was, and it doesn’t mean that anyone’s defense is suddenly terrible. Ohio State simply had the means to attack Michigan and keep the foot on the gas. If your team has a Heisman front-runner at QB, an elite receiving corps that runs three or four deep, and two tailbacks who can take it to the house, you might too.

The talk quickly turned to a rematch in the national title game. Those on Michigan’s side claim that the Wolverines showed that they are worthy of the #2 spot and another shot on a neutral field. I’m sure that Ohio State fans feel that they’ve already proven that they can beat Michigan. And of course others in the Florida and SoCal camps claim that it’s wide open now and time for another team to get a shot. Though the BCS standings disagree with me, I have to side with those who don’t want to see a rematch.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a rematch for the national title. It happens all the time in playoff systems. It even happens sometimes in college football, especially in conferences which have championship games. Georgia and LSU met during the regular season in 2003 and also played for the SEC title. Had Georgia won the December game at the Georgia Dome, they’d have been SEC champs despite losing earlier in the year at Baton Rouge. That’s a fact of life that we proponents of a playoff system must live with. Does it make the regular season game "meaningless"? Not really, in that regular season games determine the shape of the postseason. We recognize though that the postseason is a different stage on which teams have to prove themselves again.

But if we’re not going to have a playoff in college football, then rematches seem improper. Instead of a postseason where we reseed teams and start a new season, the college football regular season resembles one big game of "king of the mountain" that continues on for one more game in the bowls. A team starts the season at #1 and remains there until they are knocked off. There are a select few who get a direct chance to knock #1 from the top. If they can’t do it, they’ve had their shot, and it is appropriate for a different team to get the opportunity. People like to talk about a playoff diminishing the importance of the regular season, but let’s set up a BCS rematch that says Saturday’s loss by Michigan has no consequences.

Though he agrees with me, it’s amusing to hear the criticism of a rematch coming from Florida’s Urban Meyer. Though Meyer was not Florida’s coach in 1996, the Gators’ championship came in a rematch against FSU. Florida wasn’t even the #2 team entering their bowl (this was still pre-BCS). It took a combination of events including an upset in the Big 12 title game and an Ohio State comeback win over Arizona State in the Rose Bowl to make that UF-FSU rematch a default national title game. Meyer’s pretzel logic explaining why Florida has a better case than Arkansas is also good stuff. The Hogs will have their chance to say something about that in two weeks.

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