The BCS championship race was reshaped over the weekend. In a 26-20 loss to Stanford that wasn't particularly close until the very end, Oregon's national title hopes were all but extinguished — and an old perception was reignited, with implications that might reach farther than Eugene, and last longer than this season.
When it comes to college football, perception can be everything. That supposedly changes next year, with the advent of the College Football Playoff. But will it?
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When the newly minted selection committee meets for the first time Monday in Washington, D.C., the members won't be evaluating teams, or considering what happened last Thursday night. "It's to get acquainted, get oriented, get to know each other," said Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff's executive director. Since their work doesn't begin until next season, it's left to everyone else to obsess over the current BCS race and extrapolate to a four-team playoff.
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Start, then, with the meaning of Oregon's hard fall.
It wasn't so much the loss, to a top-five opponent on the road, that severely damaged the Ducks, and perhaps others like them. It was how it happened. On a big, national stage, Oregon was bullied by a more physical opponent. Those flashy, fast Ducks went down, again, to what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has christened "Normal American Football." The kind played by Stanford in removing Oregon from the national title picture in each of the last two seasons. The same kind played on another big stage over the weekend, when Alabama outslugged LSU.
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"I like this kind of football," Tide coach Nick Saban said last week, before his team's 38-17 victory. "I guess this is more the kind of football we grew up with."
It's worth wondering: What kind of football did the selection committee members grow up with?
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The committee will be charged with considering objective factors, including conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, common opponents, and subjective factors such as the effect of injuries. But each member will also bring into the room his or her own idea of what makes good football. USC athletics director Pat Haden, for example, recently told USA TODAY Sports he will value road wins in tough environments. Who knows what others will believe is most important?
The panel is filled with very bright people who know the game, but it is essentially a cut-down version of the current polls, a reduction from 100-plus voters to 13. Hopefully, the committee members are smarter, or at least better prepared for the vote after deep, serious research. They'll be expected to shed biases at the door. But if anything, the selection process will be more subjective than the current BCS formula — and more susceptible to opinion of what makes good football.
There's an idea out there that Oregon, for all its recent success running the hurry-up spread, is unprepared or unable to slug it out with bigger, stronger teams. Though reinforced by the losses the last two years, the analysis is flawed. Stanford has some sort of mojo going against the Ducks. The physical, hard-nosed style gives them plenty of trouble. But they present all sorts of problems to those opponents, too. The loss last Thursday had at least as much to do with a knee injury to Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota, which severely limited Oregon's offensive options, and to self-inflicted wounds. Those changed the game and allowed Stanford, with the lead, to grind away.
Still, perception becomes reality. Oregon fell only to No. 6 in the BCS standings. But if chaos occurs in the next few weeks, how will the loss to Stanford be viewed as voters consider whether to move the Ducks up the rankings? And could it affect, say, Baylor?
Oregon isn't the only program dinged by the idea that the kind of football Saban likes is superior to the newfangled, fast and furious stuff. That while those wacky, point-a-minute spread offenses are fun, they're also frivolous.
Currently No. 5 in the BCS standings, Art Briles' Bears play anything but Normal American Football. Where the Alabama-LSU game was played almost exclusively in the middle of the field, between the hash marks, Baylor's offense stretches opponents quite literally from sideline to sideline, leading to frequent one-on-one mismatches and big plays. It feels like a touchdown could happen on any play, and every play.
But much of Baylor's current résumé is built on a soft schedule. A 41-12 victory against Oklahoma last Thursday was impressive, but the Sooners are no longer playing elite football. Given the Bears' rapid rise from the Big 12 cellar, no one seems to know what to make of them — and the default action is to revert to long-held convictions.
Buttressed by the Stanford-Oregon result, one commentator on ESPN's College GameDay posited that Baylor would not be able to succeed in the SEC. Never mind that Texas A&M and Missouri should have shredded the idea in the last two seasons. Or that Auburn, which spreads defenses out and plays as fast as anybody, is three years removed from winning the national championship (22-19 vs. Oregon in an entertaining grinder) and after returning to the offense, is currently a surprising 9-1. When a conference wins seven consecutive national championships, its strength takes on mythical status.
Perception does not change easily.
It's why Ohio State can be undefeated — not just this season, in Urban Meyer's entire tenure — and beginning to dominate opponents, but still is mostly disregarded because the prevailing notion is that the Big Ten is of inferior quality. Baylor is hurt by the Big 12's mediocrity, as well. And there's no telling how much the Bears has been damaged by fellow traveler Oregon's loss.
Fair or not, the reignited notion that fast football is fun but frivolous could shape the future of the postseason, this season and maybe beyond.
George Schroeder, a national college football reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.
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