What is it about the postseason bowls in college football that tends to bring out the worst in the best teams and the best in teams believed to be inferior in talent, ability and overall body of work? And you may not have noticed, but the more prestigious the bowl – where, in theory, anyway, the matchups should be more competitively balanced than most – the more lopsided or surprising the outcome.
This reversal in fortune appears to be even more pronounced this season.
When I speak of prestigious bowls, I am largely talking about BCS bowls, but also the Cotton Bowl and perhaps the traditional trio of bowl games played in Florida on New Year’s Day. So roughly nine or 10 of the 35 total bowl games we are subject to beginning in mid-December right on through the first full week in January.
For example, in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day, Georgia was favored by 10 over Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers’ prevailed by five in registering the upset. Wisconsin was a slight favorite over South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl but ended up losing by 10. And then there was underdog Michigan State, although higher ranked than its Pac-12 opponent, upending Stanford in the BCS Rose Bowl.
Big 12 participants this bowl season fed right into this intriguing story line. In fact, the Big 12 bowl representatives were the victors, the villians and the victims and pulloed off two of the biggest surprises in the entire 2013-14 bowl season.
The six teams that went bowling from the Big 12 wound up going .500 in their bowl matchups. Kansas State got it all started with a convincing 31-14 win over Michigan out of the Big Ten in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The win by the favored Wildcats snapped a five-game bowl losing streak for K-State, dating back to January 2004.
Two days later, Texas reprised its early season performance and proved to be little competition for an angry group of Oregon Ducks, who ostensibly were still seething from being snubbed by the Sugar Bowl in favor of Oklahoma. Tenth-ranked Oregon easily disposed of Texas and lame-duck head coach Mack Brown by a compelling count of 30-7.
And then it was on to the two BCS bowls involving Big 12 teams. Conference-champion Baylor believed it deserved better than being matched in the Fiesta Bowl with a team that went by the initials UCF from a conference that no one outside of the American Athletic Conference had ever heard of . This despite the face that the University of Central Florida Knights, like Baylor, had only one loss this season, were ranked 15th in the BCS standings, were AAC Conference champions and had a win over nationally ranked Louisville as one of their 11 wins. This game had Boise State-Oklahoma written all over it.
To refresh your hazy memory, Boise State played heavily favored Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos surprised the Sooners with a couple of quick scores early in the game, briefly lost the lead very late in the game, only to miraculously come back and tie the game with just seconds remaining.
In overtime, Oklahoma stuck first on a 25-yard touchdown run by All-American Adrian Peterson on the Sooners opening possession in the overtime period. Boise State countered with a touchown of its own, thanks to a bit of trickery on fourth down. But insteading of kicking an extra point to tie the game and send it to a second extra session, Boise State went for two to win the game. A perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play caught the Sooners’ defense totally off guard and gave the underdog and unrespected Broncos the upset win that will live on in BCS infamy.
Those of us who had seen this movie before were very wary about all the talk of No. 6 Bayl0r vs. No. 15 Central Florida being one of the biggest mismatches of the bowl season, let alone in the five-game BCS bowl lineup. And viewing the Texas A&M-Duke game in the Chick-fil-A Bowl the night before (who would have ever fathomed that Duke – we’re not talking basketball here - would score 48 points and lead A&M and “Johnny Football” for all but the final five minutes of the game?), you got the feeling that the air was right this bowl season for the unthinkable to happen.
And whad’ya know? Unheralded UCF went tow to tow with the highly ranked Big 12 champions, the team with the most prolific offense in all of college football. Behind the sensational play of its quarterback, Blake Bortles, UCF led Baylor until early in the third quarter, when the Bears pulled even at 28-all. But that was as close as the high-scoring Big 12 champions would get, Consider that at one point in the season, Bayor’s offense was averaging over 70 points a game. But we also should point out that Central Florida came into this game owning the 12th best defense in college football this season.
UCF pushed across another score before the third-quarter had ended, and that held up for an improbable 35-28 victory.
The Baylor loss evened the Big 12 bowl record at 2-2 for the 2013 season, with two more bowl games to go.
Oklahoma State and Missouri were both on the doorstep of bigger bowl fortunes a month ago, but neither was able to close the deal. As a consolation prize, the two former Big 12 foes found themselves in Texas after New Year’s facing each other in the Cotton Bowl Classic. For the better part of three quarters, this game was as dull and uneventful as any the entire holiday bowl season. It was as if both teams were saving themselves for an all-out fight to the finish.
The two teams combined for 41 fourth-quarter points after totaling just 31 in the previous three quarters. Interestingly, 41-31 was the final score, in favor of Mizzou.
The most shocking game of the entire bowl season, and perhaps the best game in college football in 2o13, was the BCS Sugar Bowl with two-time defending national champion Alabama taking on Oklahoma, the No. 2 team in the Big 12 this season. On paper, this game looked like a complete mismatch. The Las Vegas sports books saw it the same way, casting the Crimson Tide as 15-point favorites, the second highest point spread of all the bowl season.
Sooners’ head coach Bob Stoops said he never mentioned his team’s underdog status throughout its month-long bowl preparation, but you can bet the OU players were well aware and angered over all the disrespect they believed they were receiving. No need to repeat what happened here. Anyone with the slightest interest in college football has heard about Oklahoma’s shocking Sugar Bowl victory over the mighty Crimson Tide.
Was the Sooners’ resounding performance another classic example of David pulling off the improbable over Goliath? Not at all, in my view. It was a better example of a team that wanted to win the game more than its opponent and played like it – for all four quarters.
When you separate out everything else, it’s not about who is the best team; it’s all about who is the best team on that particular day. And Oklahoma was that, hands down.
Even the best teams fall short every once in a while. Which strangely is what we love so much and drives our passion for any and all sports, regardless of who we’re rooting for.