Commentary

Long layoff hurts BCS title game

Originally Published: January 10, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The system robbed us again.

After waiting 37 days to see No. 1 Auburn play No. 2 Oregon in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, we ended up watching 55 minutes of what looked like the Liberty Bowl and only about five minutes of what we actually hoped to see.

[+] EnlargeWes Byrum
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWes Byrum's game winner capped a furious final five minutes.

Not until Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews slapped the ball out of Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton's hands -- which set up the Ducks' tying touchdown and 2-point conversion with about 2½ minutes to play -- did Monday night's contest really resemble any sort of championship game.

In the end, Auburn senior Wes Byrum kicked a 19-yard field goal on the final play in a 22-19 victory to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1957.

But it was hard to leave University of Phoenix Stadium early Tuesday morning without a deflated feeling, because you knew the game might have been so much more.

Coach Gary Patterson and TCU also must have been deflated after watching the BCS title game.

"If I was a voter, I'll watch those two teams play and see how my team compares to them," Patterson said after the Rose Bowl. "Then I'll have my own national championship vote if I think we're better. It won't count, but it seems like a lot of votes don't count anymore."

The Horned Frogs looked more impressive in beating red-hot Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio on New Year's Day, which now seems like ages ago.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesGary Patterson and TCU might think they deserved a title shot after Monday's game.

Auburn and Oregon looked so bad through the first three quarters Monday that I almost wondered if No. 3 TCU didn't deserve to be playing here.

It seemed to take the Tigers and Ducks about 55 minutes to knock off 37 days' rust, which really wasn't their fault.

NFL conference champions earning a bye wait two weeks before playing in the Super Bowl, and college basketball's two finalists from a 68-team bracket wait about 48 hours before playing a championship game. No sport waits as long as college football to decide its champion.

And, much like it was Monday night, the BCS National Championship Game usually ends up being anticlimactic because the teams haven't played in so long.

"With two teams like this and two offenses like this, the [layoff] helps the defenses and hurts the offenses," former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. "The defense had a month to game plan and prepare."

Until the final five furious minutes, the Ducks and Tigers slipped and slid across the turf, without either team being able to muster much offense. Both high-scoring offenses were stuffed by what turned out to be pretty underrated defenses, and neither team was as crisp or sharp as it was during the regular season.

How could they be, after waiting more than a month to play?

What were the odds that the opening two possessions of the games would end in punts? Or that each of the next three drives would end with Newton and Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas throwing interceptions? A game that was supposed to go into the 70s in points was scoreless after the first 15 minutes.

"I don't know if it was the layoff," Auburn center Ryan Pugh said. "That was a pretty good defense."

But Auburn and Oregon looked like much better teams more than five weeks ago.

At the end of the regular season, the Tigers actually looked like the No. 1 team in the country. They came from 24 points behind to defeat defending BCS national champion Alabama 28-27 on the road on the day after Thanksgiving, and then blasted South Carolina 56-17 in the Dec. 4 SEC championship game to finish 13-0.

The Ducks finished 12-0 after winning their last two games in impressive fashion: 48-29 over Arizona and 37-20 at rival Oregon State in the Civil War on Dec. 4.

"We would've played better if the game was played two weeks ago," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "We came out of the SEC championship game playing pretty well."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Matt YorkThe month-long layoff and prepared defenses took their toll on the offenses.

Then the Tigers and Ducks took a month-long hiatus. Oregon looked like a fast-paced team for a few minutes Monday night, but it never seemed to find that frenetic pace that made it so dangerous during the regular season.

"I thought we had it ramped up pretty good, and then other times we didn't," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "When you get behind with a penalty or something like that, it kind of puts you off track. But there were times when we had it rolling pretty good, and other times it wasn't going as fast as we should have been."

University presidents, conference commissioners and bowl officials say one of the reasons they don't want any sort of playoff determining college football's national championship is because they don't want to extend the football season.

But could it really be extended any more than it already is? The Ducks spent time during their nine days in the desert taking classes and completing course work because classes have already started back in Eugene, Ore.

"It's one of those things where you think of as many ways as possible to play the game earlier," Pugh said. "The layoff is tough, but it is what it is and this is the system we're playing in."

Once again, the long layoff took the air out of college football's biggest game.

College football fans couldn't wait to see Newton, the SEC's leading rusher and country's top-rated passer, on the same field with Oregon tailback LaMichael James, the country's top runner. They couldn't wait to watch Kelly and Malzahn, two of the sport's offensive masterminds, attacking defenses for four quarters.

Instead, we got three and a half hours of watching a lot of nothing.

"It was just a battle," Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris said. "I hope y'all enjoyed the show we put on for you guys."

This college football fan didn't it enjoy much until the final five minutes.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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