The brilliant end of the Southeast’s stranglehold

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The Ohio State vs. Oregon college football championship Jan. 12 in Jerry Jones’s basement game room is causing more heartache in football’s America than Papa John’s Fritos Chili pizza.

Because, well, it SHOULD’VE been Bama and FSU. The BCS WOULD’VE given us Bama and FSU. And two weeks ago nobody COULD’VE believed it wouldn’t be Bama and FSU.

Yet, the semi-final games were played and it’s very decidedly never going to be Bama and FSU.

That Nor’easter nipping at your neck is everyone west of the place that decided a president by the margin of a piece of confetti in 2000 breathing a collective sigh of relief.

And the crosswind is a pair of decisive victories by Oregon and Ohio State breathing life into the notion that a four-team playoff—at once incomplete in its infancy while adding heft to the notion college football is about as close to an amateur enterprise as amateur porn sites—is thus far working.

The decisive semi-final outcomes resulting in this unlikely pairing is such a disturbingly better match up than the prospect of a traditional Southeast-themed championship that it can only be the result a couple decades of gears turning toward college’s fringe, rather than sheer luck or fate intervening on Jan. 1.

Oregon, a program on the rise since Rich Brooks roamed the sideline and title sponsor Nike’s best-selling sneak was coined for a man named Penny, is still routinely maligned by the blubbery pundits as gimmicky; versus Ohio State, resurrected and spit-shined from the 2011 rubble of Jerseygate by one Urban Meyer—known from his Utah days to now as a little flavorful and gimmicky himself.

But these gimmicky West Coast-based blend (not bland) spread offenses and other erstwhile ignorable programs which color outside the margins and the hashmarks (think: Marshall, Boise State, Utah State, Baylor and TCU) will grow in number and remain venerable for the following reasons:

  • The SEC’s patsy out-of-conference regular season schedule does come back to bite it (or at least took a chunk out of Vegas) during bowl season: Mississippi State, which was one game away from being named the second SEC team in the final four, was trounced by ACC also-ran Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl joining other top SEC programs Auburn (34-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl) and LSU (31-28 loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl) in this year’s SEC bowl bust…a parade of futility whose grand marshal was Ole Miss. The school with a secession-era mascot less than two months ago stood tall with Bama and Mississippi State as three of the top five programs in the nation. Then they got waxed like Andy Stitzer by, who else? Final-four odd-team-out TCU. The 42-3 final score doesn’t take into account TCU suited up the band for the fourth-quarter SEC mercy rule and the Rebs still barely avoided a shut-out with a late field goal. On the bright side, new-to-conference Missouri does run a very fresh-looking offense under second-year coordinator Josh Henson. Though the Tigers lost to Bama in the SEC title game it was more at the behest of head coach Gene Mauk’s conservative play calling which loosened up ever-so-quietly as Mizzou took down the Golden Gophers of Minnesota at the Citrus Bowl.
  • College football’s parity is just beginning to show not only because Oregon and Ohio State represent teams with progressive coaches who run progressive schemes, but because the regions slowest to embrace football as a track meet or ballet not a heads-down Smashmouth scrum are going to continue to lose. And by lose we don’t mean just 42-3, we mean lose athletes, lose alumni support, lose programs. The spread is quickly becoming the offense of choice of high school football because it plays faster, smoother and more athletic/watchable than the rendered fat amorphous blob of your grandfather’s single-wing attack. Well-publicized head injuries and the expense of equipment has dropped Pop Warner participation numbers almost 15 percent since 2012. Nutrition, conditioning, speed and sportsmanship are the new pillars of youth sports which doesn’t leave much room for molasses asses and barking coaches. Prep football programs will still cherry pick some of the school’s best athletes, but gone is the propensity to want to hit and be hit. Scrambling brains and sacrificing joints truncating careers in track, soccer and swimming—sports student athletes can more likely excel at at the next level—no thanks.
  • Recruiting and appeal is no longer regional. The rest of the country, specifically the West, has quietly caught up with and surpassed the Southeast on defensive size and speed, offensive schemes, coaching prowess and practice facilities. Oregon’s current top two commits are from Missouri and Georgia and another five of their top 10 hail from Southern California including guard Zach Okun, skill position player Malik Lovette, defensive tackle Rasheem Green, defensive end Keisean Lucier-South and inside linebacker John Houston Jr. Stanford, USC, Washington, UCLA, Arizona and even Utah are ever closer to tipping the scales of in-state/out-of-state recruits to even, each taking big chunks from yesterday’s stay-home football states Texas, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.

Still, it is a transition moment. And this year, to much of sports nation, the Buckeyes/Ducks sounds like an aberration, a great Holiday Bowl match up and not much else. But that’s the same “Oh, it’s just one comet” mentality that did in the first set of dinosaurs.

Recruits will continue to migrate to the West and regardless of tradition and a TV contract, the ONLY thing the Southeast has in store for the rest of the country henceforth is Sperry topsiders and blotchy frat guys screaming in the Gameday broadcast backdrop with crooked hats and half-empty Solo cups to house their beery tears.

And no, one disastrous bowl season combined with emergence of a four-team playoff does not spell the end for the biggest conference in all of amateur sport. What it does show is SEC has much more to prove in coming seasons than they’d like to admit. Without change, the very distinct, very recent memory of relevance could be the only salve as the search continues for a schedule replacement for University of Alabama-Birmingham 

A timezone stranglehold on an arcane cable highlight show no longer matters and neither does the old guard in a burgeoning meritocracy spawned by manifest destiny and the possibility of more than 700 really ugly uniform combinations per game.

Though it may already be too late for some storied programs because change—a college football first in the first year of a playoff—has already taken place.

 

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