What Did the Bowls Tell Us About Florida-Ohio State?
T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions
Unless you are drooling over the GMAC Bowl or the International Bowl (and if you are then you are truly a degenerate), then the biggest focus in your football world right now is obviously Monday's big National Championship showdown between Florida and Ohio State. Since the match-up is so compelling and controversial, and because it has been set for so long, you have surely evaluated the two teams from every angle. You have an opinion on how the Florida defense will fare when they try to stop Troy Smith, if Florida can find a way to establish a running game, and whether Chris Leak can find consistency against the Buckeye secondary. I've been looking at that stuff for more than a month, and I'm sick of it.
Now that the BCS games have all been played, and all of the meaningful bowl games are in the books, what we can do is look at what we have learned in other bowls this year that we can apply to this game. It may not be the most useful approach in all cases, but at least it gives us something else to think about and debate between now and kickoff on Monday.
1) The Big Ten. The conference has been pretty bad in the bowls, and at times embarrassing, but we probably didn't really expect much better. The obvious exception is Michigan. The Wolverines played the Buckeyes very tough, and were supposed to be second best in the country, but they laid a historically massive egg in the Rose Bowl. Putting that inexplicable performance aside for a second, the rest of the conference went 2-3 in bowl games. That's not great, but there are a few silver linings in that dark cloud. First, two of the losses were very close. Texas was lucky to beat Iowa by two, and it took the biggest comeback in history by Texas Tech to get past the stumbling Golden Gophers. Besides Michigan, only Purdue got soundly outplayed. The other positive result is that those five teams were 4-1 ATS, showing that the conference seemed to exceed bettor's expectations. In other words, the conference is about what we thought it was - three elite teams (or two it seems), and a bunch of solid but decidedly lesser talents.
2) The SEC. It may be because I am decidedly not an SEC guy, but I get very sick of hearing endlessly about how this is by far the best conference in the country. I haven't bought it in past years, I don't buy it this year, and the bowl records are validating my opinion. The conference is 5-3 so far. That's much better than the Big Ten, but it is far from a tour de force. More significantly, some of those wins have come in unexpected spots that do little for my overall opinion of the conference. Kentucky's dismantling of Clemson was fun to watch, and Georgia was surprisingly strong against Virginia Tech, but both of those results had as much to do with their opponents shortcomings as anything. South Carolina certainly could have had an easier time with Houston, and Alabama's loss to Oklahoma State was an embarrassing end to an embarrassing era for the program. Similarly, Auburn struggled with Nebraska much more than other elite programs like Oklahoma and USC did. LSU's dismantling of Notre Dame was impressive, but, increasingly I have to believe that there are a whole lot of programs that could dismantle Notre Dame. I know I sound overly harsh, but my point is that the conference has been solid, but not nearly as dominant as their press clippings would lead you to believe that they are.
3) Head-to-head. The schedule makers were very kind when it came to helping us handicap this game. They gave us two New Year's Day showdowns between the two conferences. The results were the same in both cases - the SEC teams were favored, and the Big Ten teams won outright. Of the two, the Penn State win over Tennessee seems more surprising. Wisconsin won a tight game against Arkansas in which both offenses generally struggled, and both teams were unable to establish their own game plans in the face of solid defense and good execution. Penn State, somewhat unexpectedly, was able to completely shut down and demoralize the Volunteers and set the tone almost from start to finish. What was obvious in both games is that the perceived SEC speed advantage doesn't seem to exist. Arkansas' front seven had a very good game, and were able to sack and cover at will, but they weren't obviously faster than Wisconsin's defense. Both Big Ten teams also had remarkable speed, especially at linebacker. Florida's sound bites the last week or two are dwelling heavily on their speed advantage. It seems very possible that the Gators could be in for a rude awakening on that front on game day. Miami thought that they had a speed advantage on Ohio State a few years ago, too, and we know how that ended.
4) The Rose Bowl. It kills me to revisit my team's dismantling, but a lot can be leaned from this game to apply to the national championship. Michigan is really the only team this year that gave Ohio State a real challenge. They matched them almost point for point. The biggest similarity between USC and Florida is in the athleticism of the defensive front seven, with ends that can drop into coverage without looking out of place. Michigan was able to score a lot against Ohio State's defense, yet they were completely shut down by USC. You have to wonder if Florida will be able to do the same thing against Ohio State. The difference, as Michigan well knows, is that Troy Smith is freakishly athletic himself and can get out trouble, while Chad Henne was standing in one spot and waiting for the Trojans to sack him. The Rose Bowl didn't change my perception of the National Championship Game (I still think it is a mismatch), but it did give me reason to believe that the Florida defense could fare better than I am imagining.