Commentary

Danger lurks on championship Saturday

Originally Published: November 29, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The work began last winter with offseason conditioning. Through the unending grind of spring practice, the sweat of summer 7-on-7s, the unending grind redux of August, and one game after another, No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon persevered. Each team stands four quarters away from playing in its first BCS National Championship Game.

But 60 minutes is a span that can last a lifetime. The Tigers and the Ducks are guaranteed nothing. Every competitor, be he a coach or athlete, understands that in his head. Taking it to heart is a more difficult task. Six teams have learned that lesson in the most devastating way possible.

Since the BCS began in 1998, six teams have been upset on the final Saturday of their season and watched a berth in the BCS National Championship Game slip from their grasp. The list doesn't include games such as Ohio State-Michigan in 2006, and the Florida-Alabama showdowns in the past two SEC Championship Games. Those games served as de facto semifinals. The winner moved on to the BCS title game.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers
Bob Donnan/US PresswireWest Virginia's stunning loss to Pitt left the Mountaineers out of the mix for the 2007 national championship.

In the six games at hand, the team on the other side of the field played for pride and, in most cases, a better bowl game. A bowl game wasn't in the offing for Pittsburgh in 2007. The 4-7 Panthers didn't get a bowl berth for knocking archrival West Virginia out of the BCS title game. That didn't make the 13-9 victory any less sweet.

The Mountaineers, like five teams before them, have had to live with the memory of what might have been.

As a boy growing up in Atmore, Ala., in the 1960s, Woody McCorvey watched the Rose Bowl and dreamed.

"Daddy was calling us in the house," McCorvey said. "'Hey, the Rose Bowl is getting ready to come on.' That was the game. That was the game."

McCorvey had the kind of coaching career that most guys only wish they had. He spent 37 seasons turning boys into men, the last 26 of them in the ACC or SEC. Last year, McCorvey, 59, became Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney's associate athletic director in charge of wisdom and been-there-done-that. There's a nice symmetry in that. Swinney played receiver for McCorvey at Alabama.

College football has been good to McCorvey. He won a national championship ring on Gene Stallings' staff at Alabama in 1992. He can tell all sorts of stories about that team. McCorvey had one good chance to win a second ring. It came at Tennessee in 2001.

He's got a story about that team, too.

"This game is a very grueling game," McCorvey said. "A lot of highs, a lot of lows. You can be going along, everything going really good, and next thing you know, you're on the bottom."

[+] EnlargeTennessee-LSU (2001)
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAn LSU celebration knocked Tennessee out of the 2001 national title game.

In 2001, in a game moved from September to December because of the 9/11 attacks, No. 6 Tennessee upset No. 2 Florida on the last Saturday of the regular season to win the SEC East. No. 3 Texas frittered away its opportunity to move up, losing to No. 7 Colorado 39-37 in the Big 12 championship game. The Volunteers replaced the Gators at No. 2 behind Miami.

Tennessee had only to beat LSU in the SEC championship game. Win that game, and the Volunteers would play for the national championship in the Rose Bowl. The Vols took a 17-10 lead into the half.

"You're sitting there at halftime," McCorvey said, "and you're thinking, 'Not only could we be playing for the national championship, but we could be playing in the granddaddy of them all. That's the thing that affects me. We had a very good chance."

But LSU came back and dominated the fourth quarter to win the game 31-20. Nebraska played Miami in the Rose Bowl. Tennessee went to the Citrus Bowl.

"You got a chance to finish it off and go to the Rose Bowl and play Miami," McCorvey said, "and you don't finish and you don't get it done. At halftime, sitting there with a pretty comfortable lead, that's one of the hardest things to overcome as a coaching staff, like Alabama the other day. ... Complacency does set in. That's when you have to do your greatest coaching job."

Two would-be champions fell short on championship Saturday in 1998, the first year of the BCS. No. 2 UCLA lost to unranked Miami 49-45. A short while later, No. 3 Kansas State blew a 27-12 lead in the fourth quarter and lost the Big 12 championship game to No. 8 Texas A&M, 36-33, in double overtime. Florida State, its season already complete, moved up and into the BCS Championship Game.

In 2006, No. 2 USC needed to beat rival UCLA to return to a third consecutive BCS National Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeUSC Sideline
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIA loss to UCLA prevented USC from reaching the title game in 2006.

"I think back on that game," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, then the USC quarterbacks coach, "and you're supposed to win going away. The longer the game stayed close, the more confident UCLA got. When you get put in that situation, you always want to start fast, get the lead and win convincingly."

USC had beaten its past three opponents, all of them ranked, by at least two touchdowns. This game shouldn't have been that difficult. A year earlier, the Trojans had beaten a 9-1 UCLA team 66-19. These Bruins had dropped four consecutive games late in the year and came into the rivalry game with a 6-5 record.

But they didn't go away. The Bruins held the Trojans to 55 rushing yards and one touchdown. Ohio State, awaiting USC in the BCS Championship Game, played Florida instead.

"I don't think you ever forget about it," Sarkisian said.

USC has not gotten that close to playing for the crystal football again. Of the six upset victims, only Texas has reached the BCS title game since its loss. UCLA, Tennessee and West Virginia haven't been back to a BCS bowl since those seasons.

"Looking back at it," McCorvey said of the 2001 Vols, "that's one of the most talented football teams I've ever been a part of."

Three Tennessee players would be selected in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft, 18 in the 2002 and 2003 drafts combined.

"It's something that you live with," McCorvey said. One of his fellow assistants at Tennessee, offensive line coach Dan Brooks, is with him at Clemson. "Every now and then, it will come up. We'll talk about it. Someone asked Dan the other day, 'What's the most talented team you ever coached?' He said, '2001, without a doubt.' He came out with it that quick."

The coaches at Auburn and Oregon will look back on their 2010 teams with appreciation for their talent and wonderment at what they accomplished. Whether they look back in pain, too, will be decided on championship Saturday.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com