Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Big Game

The NCAA (pseudo-)National Championship Game is tonight between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Texas. Boise State at 14-0 has a gripe, but the system being what it is, either Alabama or Texas will be the national champion this time tomorrow.

While a majority of fans want a real playoff of some kind, the simple fact remains that the NCAA and College Football make more money leaving the Bowl system as it is than to go to a playoff. In a simple case of follow of the money, don't hold your breath for a playoff this decade if that's what you want.

I'm not particularly one of those in favor of a playoff, as I would prefer the old traditional Bowl matchups. If for no other reason than safety, I think teams play too many games as it is. Teams are beat up by the end of the season, and a series, however short, of high caliber Bowl-like competition would be disastrous to college age kids' health. Of course, I also think the unlimited overtime rule is dangerous too, and should go back to a system of the old fashioned tie if after a reasonable overtime period(s), the score is still tied. Mark my words, eventually the system will change when some kid is going to be in a 4+ overtime game and dies of heat stroke or something. Unfortunately, someone is going to have to die first, as this is another case of follow the money. (Overtime games make huge ratings, and ratings translate into bucks).

But this is neither here nor there. The reason for this post was to discuss the Big Game as a matchup. I usually in past years have written extensive pre-game analyses of at least the major bowl games. I chose not to do that this year, mainly due to time constraints and the sheer fact that I don't have cable TV, so many of the teams in the bowls this year I had not witnessed play a game other than Youtube clips after the fact and other people's commentaries.

This probably explains my less that stellar bowl predictions win percentage this year, although if you factor out the mostly stupid bowls before December 30th, I'm still in the .720 batting average range (13-5 I think, but I need to double check.). I've had .900+ overall seasons before, so that's down considerably especially if you factor in the pre-Dec 30th bowls, where I was 7-6 for basically a .600 overall average. I had not seen footage of any of those teams, so I was shooting in the dark for most of those. My big stinker was against my better judgment, as I picked Oregon over Ohio State. I actually picked Ohio State initially and then changed it right before the deadline. (I knew I was sunk when the know-nothing pre-game ESPN crew was all gushing over Oregon, but by then it was too late to change my prediction).

Texas-Alabama is one of the few matchups that actually intrigued me going into bowl season. This is not just because of the fact that they are No. 1 v No. 2 and both undefeated, but because both teams are completely different.

Texas has a high octane offense with perennial Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy. I am not sold completely on their offensive might though. I've watched them twice in depth, against Oklahoma and Nebraska, and their offense scored under 20 points both times. In fact, in my mind Texas lost to Nebraska. It was only because the refs bailed out Colt McCoy by giving him an extra second at the end of the game (something they never did at any other point for any quarterback that entire game) and violated their own rules in doing so, but we won't go into the current rulebook that clearly states, "A game shall be considered over when an officiant signals end of game...[the call] shall not be subject to review." Suffice is to say, Texas with Colt McCoy plays at Nebraska next season. That will settle the matter.

Texas is second in the nation in defense interceptions (14-0 Boise State is No. 1 on that, interestingly enough) and 6th in sacks. Offensively, Texas is 14th in total yard production, 19th in total passing yards, 5th in 1st downs, and not even in the top 40 in running yards. But Oklahoma and Nebraska being the only teams Texas played that had credible defenses, those numbers are likely inflated.

Alabama, on the other hand, doesn't have the pizazz for offensive flair. Alabama is No. 1 in the land in field goals made. They only beat Tennessee because Tennessee couldn't kick a field goal to save its life that game. Kickoff returns for touchdowns is another problem for Alabama, having given up 2 this year, and allowed over 25 yards return per kickoff. Alabama is 31st in sacks, 26th in total offensive yards, 30th in 1st downs, and no where to be found in the top 30 in 3rd or 4th down conversions.

And yet, Alabama is undefeated. They don't necessarily win pretty, but they win. They are tied for first with fewest turnovers, a trademark of Nick Saban, who likes to dwell on fundamentals. Texas, on the other hand, scored 117 points this season off turnovers. I will be interested to see who wins that matchup. This Alabama team looks a lot like the Saban LSU team that won the national title a few years ago.

Though not nearly as high octane, dare I say prima donna-ish, as Texas' offense, Alabama has a much more balanced offense, another staple of Nick Saban, which bodes better for Alabama. Obviously, Mark Ingram, the Heisman winner this year, has the run game in hand. In the last two games, the QB for Alabama has held his own though. Auburn largely neutralized Ingram, but McElroy completed his last 7 passes in that game to set up the win, and passed for almost 240 yards against Florida, which is no easy task.

Despite the Heisman winner, Alabama is really more of a defensive power. Their defensive line will likely overpower Texas offensive line, which has had some dreadful games, particularly against Nebraska. Alabama also has some very physical cornerbacks that no doubt have been eating up the Nebraska-Texas game footage.

Intangibles to consider:
Texas is the underdog. They took a lot of flack for the cheap way they won over Nebraska in the Big XII championship game. Having taken out Florida, Alabama is the heir apparent to the national crown. It is hard to predict how each team is going to respond to those elements. Saban is usually pretty good about keeping his players on an even keel. Texas tends to be very emotional and and prone to momentum swings.

Most intriguing match-up to watch:
Texas is No. 1 in run defense (though in the Big XII this year, that might not mean much). Alabama has a running back who won the Heisman Trophy, and a more balanced offense.

Key to the Game:
I think if Alabama's defense can mess with the Texas QB-Wide Receiver rhythm, and wear down the offensive line (both of which Nebraska easily proved could be done), then Alabama has a good shot at beating Texas. Texas has not played that particularly well in defensive dog fights this year. If Alabama can't slow down Texas' offensive production, I think it will be game over because Alabama just does not have the offense production to win in a shootout.

If Alabama can come out and play against Texas like they did against Florida, I don't think they will have a huge issue winning. If they get the jitters and things don't go according to game plan, all bets are off.

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