The sporting equivalent of all that bliss was Ohio State’s little kerfuffle against Michigan State and the Saints’ Sunday night steamrolling of division rival Carolina. The Buckeyes’ loss opened the door for Auburn to defend the conference’s national title against Florida State, while the Saints pistol-whipped the formerly red-hot Carolina Panthers to restore their strut. In baseball, the Evil Empire lost All-Star second basemen Robinson Cano to Seattle and signed aging Carlos Beltran, which raises their roster’s average age to 53.You probably don’t care as much about baseball this time of year as I, so let us concentrate on the subject of southern football.
This time last week, the SEC’s chances of winning an eighth straight national championship seemed as remote as Congress sitting around a campfire singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” in rounds. Top-ranked Alabama had fallen to No. 4 Auburn, leaving the SEC's highest-ranked teams out of national-title-game position. New No. 1 Florida State had only to beat 29-point underdog Duke to punch its ticket to the title game. No. 2 Ohio State faced No. 10 Michigan State riding a 24-game winning streak and the swagger of an erstwhile SEC coach: Urban Meyer, formerly of Florida. No matter that the SEC had a whopping seven teams in the Associated Press top-25 poll, including four top-10 spots. That did not matter because the Seminoles and Buckeyes were making reservations to meet at the Rose Bowl on January 6.
What the experts had forgotten was the SEC’s tradition at pulling title game invitations out of the BCS hat. In 1998, the first year of the BCS, three major teams entered the final weekend of the regular season undefeated. No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 UCLA lost, clearing the way for No. 1 Tennessee. In 2003, one-loss LSU squeaked past one-loss Southern California and into the championship game by virtue of a BCS-computer strength-of-schedule element that was later eliminated. In 2006, one-loss Michigan and one-loss Florida were neck and neck to snag the No. 2 BCS ranking behind Ohio State. The Gators, then led by Meyer, jumped Michigan in the final BCS rankings by a tiny margin: .0101. And every one of those times, the SEC team won the title game. After Michigan State upset Ohio State Saturday, Auburn finds itself in a familiar position today with the chance to make it eight straight titles for the SEC and five straight for the state of Alabama.
The Saints also were given up for dead by some experts after Monday Night’s 34-7 dismantling at Seattle. With the hottest team in the NFL coming to town Sunday night, all of football wondered if the injuries, the one-dimensional offense and the Payton-Brees mojo had left the local heroes vulnerable. But as Mark Twain once said after newspapers reported his death: “Reports of my death are an exaggeration.”
The Saints proved they were very much alive, despite the fact they could muster only three offensive plays in the first quarter. Rob Ryan’s defense held Carolina to two field goals in successive drives, prompting a prescient comment from the broadcast team. They quoted Panthers Coach Ron Rivera saying his team could not beat the Saints by kicking field goals. Too bad, Coach! Field goals accounted for the only offense your team could generate as Ryan’s defense smothered QB Cam Newton while Brees picked apart your top-ranked defense.
The 31-13 victory does not mean the Saints are home free by any means. They travel to St. Louis next week to play a team that shocked them in 2011 when the Rams were 0-6 and the Saints had just come off a 62-7 victory over the Colts. And if anybody has bothered to notice Tampa, the Bucs have won four of five after losing their first eight. Still, the team that a week ago looked like it might not win another game once again has Who Dats pricing plane tickets to the Super Bowl.
All this upheaval reminds me of the television news spoof titled “That Was the Week that Was” that ran from 1964-65. I concede that admitting I remember a TV show of that vintage shows my age. But so what? I might even be old enough now to play for the Yankees!
Jim W. Miller's new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is available at Amazon.com and at local bookstores. And don't forget his website: www.JWMillerSports.com
AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE COLUMN? TALK ABOUT IT BELOW