BCS: Buckeye Calmness Slipping

It’s much more a matter of art than science, but in feeling the pulse of America, one gets the sense that the general public doesn’t quite know how to approach the BCS title game… with one exception.

On the surface, the United States doesn’t seem strongly drawn toward either Florida or Ohio State as game time approaches. Perhaps the January 8 kickoff is putting this game on the back burner for awhile. Maybe the fact that two other teams–Oklahoma and Boise State–are currently residing in suburban Phoenix (as they prepare for the Fiesta Bowl under the BCS’ new and slightly-tweaked bowl alignment) is diluting the hype surrounding Gators-Buckeyes. Quite possibly, the intensity and the ecstasy won’t emerge in full force until January 4, once all the other BCS bowls have been put to bed. At any rate, however, there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming public sentiment in favor of either team.

But there is one item that is gaining traction with a week and a half left before kickoff (when this story was filed). It doesn’t favor the No. 1 team in the country.

It might not be a big deal on the merits, but in the weeks before a national championship game, every distraction has the potential to blow up in a team’s face. America’s college football community is–at least to some degree–latching onto the recent mini-controversy involving Buckeye running backs Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells, who left a planned fundraiser Saturday night to avoid NCAA penalties. The two members of the OSU backfield were attending a spaghetti dinner in Akron, an event that tried to raise money that would cover travel expenses for the Pittman and Wells families to and from the BCS title game. A levelheaded assessment of the situation suggests that it’s much ado about nothing… at least from a technical, legal standpoint. However, the world of emotions is a weird place for every human being, especially young men who stand in the glare of a very bright spotlight. One never knows how much a seemingly trivial event can upend the winning edge or the stable psyche of collegiate athletes before the biggest game of their lives.

College football fans might not be sold on the Gators’ chances in Glendale, but they’re definitely paying attention to any potential cracks in Ohio State’s armor. It could put a whole new meaning to the term “Spaghetti Western” when the Gators and Buckeyes duel in the Desert.

It’s interesting–though not necessarily surprising–that fans would latch onto this little incident and feel slightly less confident about Ohio State’s chances. Before the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Miami, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett drowned himself, coach Jim Tressel, and his entire team in a cloud of controversy by popping off about the way he’d been treated over the past year. It was the kind of event that would typically tear a locker room apart, but instead, Clarett brought his best stuff, and an inspired bunch of Buckeyes summoned up the fortitude needed to stun Larry Coker’s Hurricanes in double overtime. When Ohio State and intrigue mix in suburban Phoenix in early January, it doesn’t seem to matter.

So why are fans gravitating toward this spaghetti silliness? They have good reason to do so.

Plainly put, national title games in the BCS era (which began with Tennessee’s plug-ugly win over Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl) have been downright weird. Teams that were so unmistakably awesome over the course of the regular season would suddenly turn to mental mush in the big game under the bright lights.

Of the eight BCS title games played thus far, only two have been played by both teams at a very high level, in accordance with their abilities. The 2000 Sugar Bowl involved a stunning performance by the losing quarterback, as Michael Vick put on a show even while Peter Warrick and Florida State pulled away for a victory over Virginia Tech. The second BCS title game to live up to the hype was, of course, last season’s Texas-USC classic, in which Vince Young carried his team to a stirring comeback win over the defending champion Trojans.

You might wonder why the aforementioned 2003 Fiesta Bowl didn’t make the cut. Plainly put, Miami did not play anything close to the full measure of its capabilities. Willis McGahee did get injured, but that sad event occurred in the second half. Ken Dorsey lacked his typical command, and Kellen Winslow, Jr. didn’t possess his customary swagger. The 31-24 final score was a product of the gimmicky overtime format, and not a measure of the quality of either offense. Ohio State played the game according to its preferred tempo and style, but a Miami team with a 34-game winning streak played an oddly disjointed brand of ball, and that’s why the Buckeyes were able to “raze Cane” against the boys from Coral Gables. Sure, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl was a lot more dramatic than the 2000 Sugar Bowl, but given the nature of the matchups, Hokies-Seminoles offered a much better display of top-shelf football. Only twice has the BCS title game involved high-level pigskin performances on both sides for a majority of snaps, and even then, that statement needs to be qualified a bit.

The Texas-USC game, as good as it ultimately became, involved a host of dubious replay decisions along with a brain-dead play by Reggie Bush, who tried to lateral a ball in the middle of the field near the end of a spectacular run. Even when great national title games unfold, an upside-down, inside-out moment manages to somehow creep into the proceedings. When massive hype collides with a five- to seven-week layoff, and is then compounded by overwhelming adrenaline rushes and dizzying pressures, college football players–even on the two best teams in America–will make some head-scratching mistakes. The history of college football, in fact, has a long track record of humbling the Heisman Trophy winner in the national title game. See Reggie Bush last season. Ask Jason White about the 2004 Sugar Bowl against LSU. Consult Eric Crouch about the 2002 Rose Bowl against Miami. Interview Chris Weinke about the 2001 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. The list goes on and on.

College football fans are putting two and two together: Troy Smith might encounter emotional kryptonite on January 8. Ohio State could be body-snatched by the seven-week layoff. Weird psychology could turn conventional wisdom on its head. This is why Ohio State has not surged to a 10-point favorite on the Vegas lines. This is why the Gators, if anything, are currently gaining and not losing in the battle of public opinion. Yes, it could just be that football fans are engaging in some wishful thinking. Yes, it might be that the Buckeyes will become a more popular and universally acknowledged choice in the final few days before kickoff. But right now, fans are getting that funny feeling, a notion which says that something weird could unfold in Glendale.

They might be right.

Urban Meyer and everyone in Gainesville sure hopes so.