September 12, 2008

Games of the century aren't so rare

Saturday's showdown between USC and Ohio State is being billed as a de facto NCAA semifinal. Recent history suggests it's more like an early season elimination game.

Of the past seven regular-season matchups between teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll or Bowl Championship Series standings, the only squad that went on to play for the national championship was the 2006 Ohio State team, which won two such contests before losing to Florida in the BCS Championship Game.

While winning a so-called "Game of the Century" doesn't guarantee anything, losing one of these heavily hyped games can be a knockout blow. Twelve years have passed since the last time someone has won a national title after losing a regular-season matchup between top-five teams. "The reality that we have to keep in mind is no matter what occurs, it's still September," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "There's a whole lot of football after September, but that doesn't diminish the excitement about playing a game like this."

Tressel has first-hand knowledge of how an early season signature victory can catapult a team into national title consideration. The last team to claim a national championship after playing a regular-season matchup between top-five programs is the 2005 Texas squad. The Longhorns were ranked second in the country when they rallied for a 25-22 road victory in a mid-September showdown with No. 4 Ohio State.

One year later, Ohio State turned the tables and remained the No. 1 team in the nation after winning 24-7 at No. 2 Texas. The Buckeyes ended the regular season by defeating Michigan 42-39 in another 1-2 matchup.

Since then, the winners of heavily hyped regular-season games have struggled to maintain their momentum the rest of the season. The past four winners of regular-season matchups between top-five teams went on to lose their next game.

No. 5 Oregon controlled its destiny in the national championship sweepstakes last season when star quarterback Dennis Dixon hurt his knee in a 35-23 victory over fourth-ranked Arizona State. Dixon played in the next game but suffered a season-ending injury, and the Ducks ended the regular season with three consecutive losses.

No. 4 Missouri followed up its 36-28 victory over No. 2 Kansas last season with a 38-17 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.

Two years ago, No. 5 Louisville responded to a 44-34 victory over No. 3 West Virginia by blowing an 18-point lead in a 28-25 loss to Rutgers. No. 1 Ohio State followed up a victory over No. 2 Michigan in its regular-season finale by falling 41-14 to Florida in the BCS Championship Game.

GAMES OF THE CENTURY?
Saturday's Ohio State-USC matchup is being billed as a "Game of the Century," but regular-season matchups between top-five teams actually take place at least a couple of times per season. Here's a look at all the regular-season games between teams ranked in the top five of The Associated Press poll or BCS standings during this decade. Teams that went on to win a national title are in bold.
2000
Oct. 29: No. 3 Oklahoma 31, No. 1 Nebraska 14
Nov. 4: No. 3 Miami 41, No. 2 Virginia Tech 21
Nov. 18: No. 3 Florida State 30, No. 4 Florida 7
2001
Oct. 6: No. 3 Oklahoma 14, No. 5 Texas 3
Oct. 27: No. 3 Nebraska 20, No. 2 Oklahoma 10
Dec. 1: No. 5 Tennessee 34, No. 2 Florida 32
2002
Oct. 12: No. 2 Oklahoma 35, No. 3 Texas 24
2003
Oct. 11: No. 2 Miami 22, No. 5 Florida State 14
Nov. 22: No. 5 Michigan 35, No. 4 Ohio State 21
Dec. 6: No. 3 LSU 35, No. 5 Georgia 13
(SEC Championship Game)
2004
Sept. 10: No. 5 Miami 16, No. 4 Florida State 10 (OT)
Oct. 9: No. 2 Oklahoma 12, No. 5 Texas 0
2005
Sept. 10: No. 2 Texas 25, No. 4 Ohio State 22
Nov. 5: No. 5 Miami 27, No. 3 Virginia Tech 7
Nov. 12: No. 5 LSU 16, No. 4 Alabama 13
2006
Sept. 9: No. 1 Ohio State 24, No. 2 Texas 7
Nov. 2: No. 5 Louisville 44, No. 3 West Virginia 34
Nov. 18: No. 1 Ohio State 42, No. 2 Michigan 39
2007
Nov. 3: No. 5 Oregon 35, No. 4 Arizona State 23*
Nov. 24: No. 4 Missouri 36, No. 2 Kansas 28
*-The rankings listed for Oregon and Arizona State were their positions in the BCS standings, rather than the AP poll. Oregon was fourth and Arizona State was sixth in the AP poll at the time of their game.

"The team that wins should gain a lot of confidence," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who has been involved in dozens of matchups between top-five teams during his legendary career. "But they'd better be careful and not get overconfident, or they'll have a letdown the next week."

Of course, Ohio State and USC are much more accustomed to playing on the big stage than Louisville, Oregon or Missouri. The Buckeyes and Trojans would seem more immune to the hangover effect of playing such a big game.

Then again, this isn't necessarily a recent trend. In fact, it helped Bowden win his first national championship 15 years ago.

One week after No. 2 Notre Dame beat top-ranked Florida State 31-24 in one of the most heavily hyped regular-season games of the 1990s, the Irish fell to No. 17 Boston College 41-39. Florida State went on to edge Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and capture the 1993 national title.

Eight years later, fifth-ranked Tennessee pulled off a 34-32 upset of No. 2 Florida that put the Volunteers one win away from a chance to play for the national title. But Tennessee squandered the opportunity a week later by falling 31-20 to No. 21 LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer cited Ohio State's closer-than-expected 26-14 victory over Ohio last week as an example of what can happen to a team that gets caught looking ahead.

"Ohio must have been a pretty good team, but obviously (Ohio State) had some thoughts toward the next ballgame," Fulmer said. "That scares the heck out of you as a coach. After a big win, depending on who you follow it with, you could have the same thing. You've got to handle those things. (You hope) the leadership and maturity of your team will help you in those aspects."

Of course, the loser of Saturday's game faces an entirely different kind of test.

"They can be challenged by it and decide to work harder and get better from it," Bowden said. "Or they can take the loss as a downstroke and get beat again the next week because they're still fretting over the last ballgame. It nearly all goes back to what kind of players have you got. Do they believe in themselves, or do they (not) believe in themselves?"

Bowden has been through both extremes.

His 1993 team followed up that heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame by throttling N. C. State 62-3, which allowed the Seminoles to regain their No. 1 ranking. Two years earlier, his top-ranked Seminoles fell 17-16 to No. 2 Miami in the first of the "Wide Right" games and weren't quite the same the rest of the season. Florida State fell 14-9 to No. 5 Florida in its next game and struggled to a 10-2 victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

The loser of this game ought to be in better shape than Florida State was either of those two seasons. After all, this game takes place in early September, while the Seminoles suffered both of their losses to top-five teams in November.

Then again, one of these teams faces a unique set of circumstances.

USC indeed should rank near the top of the pecking order of one-loss teams in the BCS standings if the Trojans fall to Ohio State, then win the rest of their games. Ohio State probably won't have that luxury after losing the past two BCS title games by a combined margin of 41 points.

Even the Buckeyes realize that.

"If I was a fan, unless Ohio State goes undefeated, who wants to see Ohio State go (to the title game) again?" Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said before the season. "We have to win every game."

Nobody has lost a regular-season matchup between top-five teams and gone on to win the national championship since the 1996 Florida squad. And that team traveled an even more improbable road than the obstacle course facing the loser of Saturday's showdown.

Florida didn't merely have to bounce back from a September setback. The Gators seemed out of national title contention after losing their regular-season finale to No. 2 Florida State 24-21. Then all the dominoes started falling their way.

The loss to Florida State dropped Florida to No. 4 in the national rankings. The Gators moved up a spot and earned a Sugar Bowl rematch with Florida State after beating No. 11 Alabama 45-30 in the SEC Championship Game while No. 3 Nebraska lost 37-27 to unranked Texas in the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game. When No. 4 Ohio State beat No. 2 Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl, it turned the Sugar Bowl into a winner-take-all game. Given new hope, the Gators responded with a 52-20 victory over Florida State to capture the national title.

"We knew we had to win the SEC championship," said Terry Jackson, a running back on the 1996 championship team who now works as the director of player and community relations for the Gator football program. "We knew we had to take care of our business, and everything else would take care of itself if it was meant to be."

What advice would those Gators give to the loser of Saturday's game?

"It's still a long season," said Alachua (Fla.) Santa Fe High coach Shea Showers, the starting free safety on the 1996 Florida team. "One good thing about it being right now, whoever loses can still end up being in the championship game."

They'll just need quite a bit of help to get there.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.




 

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