At this point in the season, coaches cannot escape the ever-present bowl projections. As if preparing for a conference championship isn't enough to handle, coaches are reminded that not winning isn't the worst of their problems; they could play in a bowl much worse than teams that didn't even make it to their conference championship game. This is the fear that confronts Nick Saban.
No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia face off in Atlanta this Saturday for the chance to become the SEC's seventh straight national champion. The winner travels to Miami to play No. 1 Notre Dame, America's only remaining undefeated team eligible for postseason play. The loser is likely to fall below No. 4 Florida in the BCS rankings, allowing the Gators to take the SEC's second of two BCS Bowl bids. How did Saban feel about an Alabama or Georgia team that makes it to Atlanta not having a shot at the next-best BCS bowl game?
Kinda scared, it seems.
"It's not really a great scenario. You play your way into the championship game, which means you're the best team in your division. It doesn't seem quite right. I don't feel good about it for our football team or their football team."
Correct me if I'm wrong, Coach, but isn't that exactly how you won a BCS National Championship with Alabama last year? You're saying it's okay for Alabama to get to the National Championship by not playing in the SEC championship Game, but it's not okay for Florida to get to the Sugar Bowl the exact same way? You were awfully quiet about these feelings last year, instead talking about the two best teams deserving a shot at a title.
The Crimson Tide coach, who of course has a rooting interest, said Monday that voters should not vote against his team just to avoid a rematch with No. 1 LSU or because Alabama didn't win its conference title.
"If somebody does that, I guess it's their choice to do it," Saban said. "It's a free country. But the whole thing should be based on who's the best two teams. Isn't that what it's supposed to be? If it's not on that, then it doesn't matter whether we've played before or any of that.
"Who's the best two teams? That's the question. If the decision gets made on that, I'll be fine with that. If it gets made on some of this other stuff, that's not fair. It's not fair to the players, and it wouldn't be fair to their players either. It wouldn't be fair to anybody."
Putting aside for now that Florida's résumé is clearly better than Alabama's or Georgia's, and maybe better than both of them combined: Nick, you can't have it both ways. A two-loss Alabama or Georgia team going to the Sugar Bowl over Florida is what wouldn't be right, and here's why:
The best team in the SEC has gone on to play in the Sugar Bowl or better (BCS National Championship Game or a better Orange Bowl matchup) almost every year since the first SEC championship Game in 1992. The only exception is 1999, when SEC champion Alabama played in the Orange Bowl because the Sugar Bowl hosted the BCS No. 1 vs. BCS No. 2 game between Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Following that exception, the SEC champ played in the Sugar Bowl every year from 2000 to 2005, with LSU getting there as a BCS No. 1 vs. No. 2 participant in 2003. And we all know what happened from 2006 to 2011: The SEC sent its champion to the BCS National Championship Game six years in a row. But what happened to the losers of those SEC championship Games? Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia didn't make it to the Sugar Bowl when they lost in Atlanta in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011, respectively.
Bowls exist to make money, which they do by selling tickets. It almost always makes more sense for a bowl to take a team not coming off of a loss, because winning fans are more enthusiastic about bowl appearances and more willing to travel than fans who just watched their team lose a conference championship and chance for the BCS National Championship. (Hi, Florida 2009.)
But Saban's still not wrong in believing there are circumstances when the team that loses in Atlanta deserves to go to the Sugar Bowl; it has happened, but only twice, and to one-loss teams each time: Alabama after losing the SECCG in 2008 to Florida and Florida after losing the SECCG in 2009 to Alabama. Both Alabama and Florida were ranked No. 1 going into Atlanta, both lost to the eventual National Champion, and both of these one-loss former No. 1 teams were far more attractive to the Sugar Bowl than any other team in the SEC in 2008 (best other team: No. 13 Georgia, with blowout losses to both Alabama and Florida) and 2009 (no other BCS-eligible SEC team).
Oh, and the results of those Sugar Bowls? Alabama lost to Utah, 31-17. Florida beat Cincinnati, 51-24.
Saban can't like that.
Saban followed his "doesn't seem quite right" statement with, "It is what it is. I don't really know what me commenting about it is going to do to change it. But I don't feel good about it." It's nice to know he wasn't intentionally stirring things up, but you can't just say "it is what it is" and avoid all responsibility for your comments.
On the surface, it's an agreeable statement, implying that the SEC is far too good and far too deep to have the bowl appearances they will have this year. For instance, a 10-win SEC team could play in the Chick-fil-A bowl while Kent State (11-1, 8-0 MAC), who lost to Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) by 33 this season, could get a BCS bowl bid if the football gods have a particularly cruel sense of humor this weekend.
But Saban is also implying that his two-loss Alabama team would deserve a trip to New Orleans over Florida.
I happen to disagree.
Florida has the most impressive résumé in all of college football right now: The Gators are ranked No. 4 and have beaten the No. 7, 9, 10, and 13 teams in the BCS standings. They have beaten three of the six 10-win teams in the SEC. Of the three remaining, the Gators did not play Alabama this season; suffered their only loss to Georgia at a neutral site because a tight end tried to don Superman's cape; and are unable to play themselves. They beat Texas A&M and the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner on the road in the Aggies' first SEC game, and beat in-state rival and ACC Championship-bound No. 13 FSU in Tallahassee to end the season on a high note. All of that makes a convincing case for a Sugar Bowl bid.
So, yeah, Florida is finally getting the respect it deserves ... with a Sugar Bowl berth, and not the playoffs berth Florida would richly deserve if this were 2014, and it's all coming after the last game of the regular season. And Saban is throwing out the idea that it should have even that taken away.
Will Muschamp's reply to Saban's comment, then, is everything I want to hear as a Florida fan:
"Well, I can switch and go to Atlanta if he doesn't want to go to Atlanta and play. Be careful what you ask for, Nick."
Muschamp wants a chance to go to the Sugar because he believes in his team, as should the entire country; Muschamp believes Florida should play for a national championship, but it doesn't look like he's going to litigate that case. And here, he's saying he'd swap for Alabama's opportunity to play its way into the national title game or settle for the Capital One Bowl in a heartbeat.
Saban should probably be grateful for the chance to go to a second straight national championship despite losing to a redshirt freshman quarterback at home, and silent about what happens to the team that loses in Atlanta. I'm sure he's grateful, but a comment like this makes me wonder why he's even talking about where the loser goes. That's not the Saban I've come to know. While he's not explicitly mentioning Florida, he implies that another team (his team) deserves to go to the Sugar Bowl over Florida. That's not very nice, and not very charitable to a guy, Muschamp, who is the best bough of his coaching tree.
Oh, and he's wrong.
Hypocrisy Can't Prevail, Sugar's Still Sweet
Let's have some fun: How is Florida not the Alabama of last year? How is Georgia not the LSU of last year? How is Alabama not the Georgia of last year? Imagine Les Miles or Mark Richt saying what Saban just did before the LSU-Georgia SEC championship Game last year. A Saban comment like Muschamp's on Monday would have been inevitable and the sports world would have erupted. Saban would not have been a happy camper and neither would Crimson Tide fans. All we would have heard the week of the SECCG is how Alabama only had one loss to a division rival and how they still deserved a shot at the title. (And, well, that's all we heard anyway.)
Tell me: how is Alabama's loss to LSU last year so much better than Florida's loss to Georgia this year? Both teams played their worst games in the losses. Alabama lost at home; Florida lost at a neutral site. Alabama missed four field goals and had two turnovers; Florida committed six turnovers. Alabama didn't score a touchdown; neither did Florida. Alabama lost in OT; Florida was one fumble in the end zone away from the second OT game in the history of its rivalry with Georgia. Florida beat two of the top three teams in the SEC West; Alabama was one miraculous drive against LSU away from going 0-2 against those teams.
Those records seem pretty comparable to me, and Alabama was still in position to play for a national championship after its loss. All Florida wants is the chance to go to the Sugar Bowl in peace.
If 2012 Florida had the luck of 2011 Alabama on Saturday night, Notre Dame would have lost. What if that was followed by Georgia winning the SEC championship this weekend? College football would be looking at The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party: Miami Edition for the BCS National Championship Game this year. That Florida-Georgia rematch would have been the Alabama-LSU of last year.
And Florida's powerful voices, Jeremy Foley and Muschamp and Bernie Machen, could make a case for a shot at this national title. But they aren't. They know Florida had our chance to beat Georgia: we didn't. We, the fans, know that. We had our chance to hope, and we just didn't get as lucky as Alabama did with Oklahoma State in 2011 or Kansas State and Oregon in 2012.
After 2006, and 1996, it feels funny to be asking "Why do you hate the Gators, football gods!?" Florida has every reason to. It won't.
I care about college football and rules and fairness, and therefore I have a problem with Saban criticizing the very process that gave him the chance to win yet another national championship last year. But I'm only really upset with Saban because he hasn't applied his logic retroactively. If a comment like this somehow finds a way to influence pollsters and keep Florida out of the Sugar Bowl to make way for a two-loss Alabama or Georgia team, there will be a world of angry fans, coaches, and ADs ready to storm Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and New Orleans, and one Florida fan who will refuse to acknowledge Alabama's 2011 National Championship (don't worry, you'll still have 13* others to brag about).
Hypocrisy cannot prevail, and so it won't. Yes, the SEC should have the chance to go to better bowls, especially when an SEC team is playing in the national championship, but "it is what it is," and if Saban's Alabama deserved a shot at the title last year, Muschamp's Florida more than deserves to go the Sugar Bowl this year without so much as a peep from the coach that played one of the easiest schedules in the SEC this year.
And while we won't be in Atlanta, I am not the least bit upset about it. Yes, it would be nice to have the chance to go to Miami ... but do you know what else is nice? Going from the Gator Bowl to the Sugar Bowl. Going from 6-6 to 11-1. Watching the talent on this team flourish. Watching these coaches do everything they promised they would. This is what Muschamp meant when he said he wanted to do things the "Florida Way". I am elated to be making New Year's Eve plans for New Orleans.
I am so thankful for and proud of this team and coaching staff that it brings tears to my eyes. Laissez les bon temps rouler, and all that, because this team made sure the kind of weather Gators fans get to stick together in is sunnier than anyone dreamed.
Sugar Bowl History
- 1992: SEC champ Alabama
- 1993: SEC champ Florida
- 1994: SEC champ Florida
- 1995: Virginia Tech vs. Texas (Florida won the SEC championship and played Nebraska in the national championship game)
- 1996: SEC champ Florida vs. Florida State for the national championship
- 1997: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 10 Ohio State (No. 3 Tennessee won the SEC championship and played No. 2 Nebraska in a better Orange Bowl)
- 1998: No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Texas A&M (SEC champion Tennessee played FSU for the BCS National Championship)
- 1999: FSU vs. Virginia Tech National Championship (SEC champ (Alabama) played in the Orange Bowl)
- 2000: SEC champ Florida
- 2001: SEC champ LSU
- 2002: SEC champ Georgia
- 2003: SEC champ LSU vs. Oklahoma for the BCS National Championship
- 2004: SEC champ Auburn
- 2005: SEC champ Georgia
- 2006: LSU (not SECCG loser Arkansas); SEC champ Florida played Ohio State for the national championship
- 2007: Georgia (not SECCG loser Tennessee); SEC champ LSU played Ohio State for the national championship
- 2008: Alabama (SECCG loser); SEC champ Florida played Oklahoma for the national championship
- 2009: Florida (SECCG loser); SEC champ Alabama played Texas for the national championship
- 2010: Arkansas (not SECCG loser South Carolina); SEC champ Auburn played Oregon for the national championship
- 2011: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech, because SEC champ LSU and Alabama were busy tying their season series at 1-1 for the national title