There are any number of reasons to be fatigued and disinterested in tonight's BCS Championship Game -- it's the culmination of a particularly ugly year for the NCAA, a year in which more news was made by programs behaving badly than by players perfroming spectacularly, a year in which the NCAA's decisions were as inconsistent and inscrutable as ever, a year in which tremendous sums of money motivated seemingly every decision of significance (from where the best player in the nation played to which schools comprised each conference) -- but to do so is to deny yourself the pleasure of experiencing The New and to witness the (potential) changing of the guard at the sport's highest level.
The fact that Auburn and Oregon are playing for the national title is remarkable and no small breath of fresh air to what has become an increasingly stale championship picture in college football. Since Florida emerged as a national power under Steve Spurrier and broke through with a national title in 1996, no "new" program had been able to do the same and join the sport's elites. In fact, it became more of an "old boy's club" than it had been in the prior fifteen years (when programs like Miami, Colorado, Washington, Clemson, and BYU claimed titles). The titles went to established elites like Nebraska, Michigan, Florida State, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Miami (who by 2001 were old money), Ohio State, USC, Texas, LSU, and Alabama. A few of those programs -- LSU, Tennessee -- hadn't claimed titles in decades, but they were still historical powers. Oregon is no such thing. They're a program that attained national relevance -- and now potential national dominance -- by riding high atop Uncle Phil Knight's (seemingly) never-ending wads of greenbacks. To some, that's distasteful -- but it's not illegal and at this stage in the narrative that is college football, if you're not situated in an area rich with natural talent or blessed with an incredible legacy and tradition, then you've got to do something to stand out.
But set aside whatever indignation you might have about the role of Nike money in Oregon's rise to power and look at the actual players that have led them to the doorstep of glory. Nike may have bought Oregon the finest faciltiies in America, but it didn't stock them with a roster full of blue-chip stars the way it did the last few national championship contenders. As Andy Staples notes, Oregon had to dig a little deeper:
Unlike most of the participants in past BCS title games, Oregon did not build its team with mostly four- and five-star recruits. The Ducks' major contributors either were unknowns unearthed by Oregon's coaching staff or recruits with a few BCS-conference options who were one physical shortcoming away from being sought by every school in the country. That mix has produced a two-time Pac-10 champion that will play for the national title Monday against Auburn.
Hmm... sound like any other program we know?
To be sure, Auburn is not cut from the same cloth as Oregon. They have a national championship (albeit from 1957; even Iowa can claim a recognized national title more recent than that one) in their past, an infamous 13-0 season that's only recognized as a national title within the state borders of Alabama (not to mention an 11-0 season in 1993 when they were on probation; they have some history in going undefeated and not being able to play for a recognized shot at a national title), and years of being a prominent member of the national football landscape. They may be in the shadow of their more celebrated big brother school, but they're no Johnny-Come-Latelys to big-time football, either. So, yeah, a title win for them wouldn't mean quite as much in the big picture -- it wouldn't be the incredible breakthrough of a formerly second-tier program, but rather a return to (old) glory from a fallen giant. They'd be new in terms of champions recognized in the last thirty years, but not really new, if you catch my drift. (And none of that even mentions the fact that they may might be one of the dirtiest programs in the history of the sport or that a win for them would only further cement the SEC's dominance of the sport.)
There's no guarantee that this title game truly is a "changing of the guard" moment -- we don't know if Oregon will become the 2010s version of Miami in the '80s (probably not, given that Oregon's relatively barren local recruiting scene will always leave it more dependent on national recruiting, which can be a fickle beast, whereas Miami's rise to power was aided by its proximity to a metric shit-ton of incredible local talent) or if the dips that Alabama, Florida, Texas, and USC experienced this year were flukes or the beginning of a trend (although the smart money is probably on the former). Maybe the old money will re-assert itself in the next few years and we'll be treated to storied programs like Alabama taking on fellow old money elites like Oklahoma for the crystal football and we can all get warm and fuzzy thinking about how it's just like the 1970s all over again. After all, it wasn't that long ago that we were on the cusp of another new money title game -- West Virginia and Missouri were both sixty minutes away from meeting for the title game after the 2007 season, only to each fail their final tests against Pitt and Oklahoma, respectively -- and that turned out to be a blip on the radar. The six title game participants since those two teams failed to make it to the title game? LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and Alabama -- all former title game-winners (in fact, all but Alabama had claimed a title since 2000).
This game is also the culmination of an offensive revolution in the sport -- and frankly it's this revolution that is more likely to change the sport than whether or not Oregon wins the title and establishes themselves as one of the sport's elite programs. Smart Football's Chris Brown produced a brilliant breakdown of some of the nuts and bolts of Oregon and Auburn's prolific offenses and while the breakdown is well-worth reading if you want to feel a little smarter before tonight's tilt, the big picture takeaway is even more compelling:
The ramifications of this game will linger, as it is an epochal game for offensive football, not unlike the 2006 Rose Bowl between Southern Cal and Texas. There, the spread – even a very simple one – officially took the mantle from the old guard and ushered in an era where the notion of "spreading the field to run" was no longer reserved for the underdog. If the dawn of the spread offense in the 1990s and early 2000s was like the rise of the personal computer, where Microsoft, Apple, and IBM had led the way (sometimes unintentionally and to some extent by just being there at the right time), then Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn – two coaches who five years ago were coaching at the University of New Hampshire and Springdale High in Arkansas, respectively – appear to be playing the Google and Facebook roles: Smarter, more driven, more singleminded and even more ambitious than their ideological predecessors.
No matter how much hand-wringing there is from fans of "neanderthal" football or Gary Danielson, the spread is here to stay; there's no question that it will continue to evolve and develop, but it's not a passing fad (no pun intended) or an insidious gimmick. (And, frankly, the outrage from Iowa fans on this point seems particularly hypocritical and laughable, considering that the much-beloved Hayden Fry was one of the first coaches to shift the mindset away from the "three yards and a cloud of dust" mindset that had characterized the league for decades (and that still characterizes it if you believe certain stereotypes). His Iowa quarterbacks (particularly The Two Chucks and especially Chuck Long) set records that wouldn't be broken until Joe Tiller brought his basketball-on-grass attack to the league in the '90s and Randy Walker unleashed the nascent spread in the '00s.) Offensive football is a copycat game and the incredible tempo championed by Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn will be the hottest new trend to be copied and exploited by offenses. Its presence has already been felt to a degree in the Big Ten -- both Northwestern and Michigan have pushed the pace at times in recent years -- and it's only going to get stronger with Kevin Wilson taking over at Indiana (assuming Wilson runs a similar offense to the one he had at Oklahoma); like it or not, teams are going to have to contend with it. There's still a place for "neanderthal" football -- Wisconsin rode it all the way to the Rose Bowl and seemingly could have won that game if they'd just stuck to their neanderthal principles a bit more -- but understanding (and utilizing certain aspects of) the spread will be critical to success in the future.
And what does all this mean for Iowa? It means hope, maybe. Not so much in terms of the spread offense (Iowa ain't running anything but a pro-style neanderthal offense so long as Ferentz is here) or the Uncle Moneybags booster (unless I win the next Mega Millions super-jackpot), but in terms of a program with relatively limited local resources ascending to the sport's highest level... well, in the words of Philly sports fans, why can't us? The story of Oregon's success in 2010 isn't so much the incredible facilities or the new-school high-tempo offensive scheme (that's window dressing), it's the story of a coaching staff that outworked and outmotivated nearly everyone else and who found and developed unheralded talent into players capable of beating anyone. And that's a story that can be applied damn near anywhere.