The Christmas break has been an eventful one in the world of sports with the lengthy college bowl season, the NBA’s glorious return, and the opening rounds of the NFL playoffs. Records fell, new challengers rose, and the BCS system produced perhaps its least-satisfying title tilt yet. Tebowmania reached its logical (or perhaps illogical) conclusion, as millions of voices cried out and then, one week later, were suddenly silenced. The Alderaan analogy can only be taken so far, of course, as the future remains bright at Mile High and I can virtually guarantee that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are not, in fact, Sith Lords. Probably. As for Nick Saban, well, the jury is still out. If you can imagine the possibility of the Broncos losing an undefeated season by being shut out by the Raiders in the Super Bowl somehow, you are getting close to how painful the BCS title game was for LSU supporters like myself. Then came the Saints game. Then the encounter with the New England Death Stars. Suffice to say that this week has been fairly disappointing.
However, your Informant knows that his personal biases should not get in the way of no-nonsense, hard-hitting reporting, and as such, this column will be free of whining, self-pity, and death threats against Jordan Jefferson from this point forward.
Once again, the college football season ended in a manner that does not really solve anything. Alabama fans are happy, of course, but Oklahoma State, Boise State, Houston, Stanford, Oregon (and Wisconsin and Virginia Tech and Arkansas and…) were all left on the outside looking in. This last year was just one more argument in favor of a national playoff; instead, we got the Revenge Bowl. I still believe that this was the strongest LSU team ever, and what Alabama proved is that they are still the kings of the Southland. Oklahoma State’s title argument took a hit with an unconvincing win against overrated Stanford, while Wisconsin, the only other realistic candidate, could not get it done against the chrome-helmeted extravagance of the Oregon Ducks. Even adjusting for the letdown suffered by high-flying teams in meaningless bowl games, the postseason only served to prove the size of the gap between LSU, Alabama, and everyone else. However, the outsiders never got their chance to take on the big boys, so questions will remain. Here is my final Top Ten of the season.
4. Oklahoma State
6. Southern California
8. Boise State
10. Michigan State
Alabama’s defense submitted a performance for the ages this season; a run of sustained dominance that ensures that this team will be counted among the all-time greats. However, they were aided in the title game shutout by LSU’s cautious tactics and failure to adapt to the game conditions. By my unofficial count, LSU completed one downfield pass the entire game, and I could tally their attempts on one hand. It was clear that Les Miles’ game plan was to get the ball to their playmakers in space with sideline throws and sweeps, but against Alabama, space is difficult to find. I do not know why the Tigers did not change plans when it became clear that the initial strategy was not working, nor can I speculate as to why Jarrett Lee, LSU’s composed pocket-passer quarterback, never saw action. LSU was making things easy for the Tide by being predictable and unthreatening. The result of that strategy was 96 yards of total offense and a big, fat zero on the scoreboard. The LSU defense, although not the unstoppable wall that the Tide has assembled, quietly put on a spectacular game of its own. In two games against their Tuscaloosa rivals, LSU surrendered only one touchdown to Heisman finalist Trent Richardson and the entire Alabama offense. The final score obscures the fact that this was a very winnable game for LSU had they produced anything at all on offense. Had LSU scored ten points offensively and gained 200 yards (they averaged 38 points and 375 yards per game entering the contest), they would likely have won this game by taking away pressure on their defense and limiting the number of Alabama possessions. As it was, LSU’s offense was utterly held in check, and Alabama was able to limp its way to a championship, one field goal at a time.
Meanwhile in the NFL, the regular season concluded in dramatic fashion as New England and San Francisco advanced to their respective conference finals to face the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants. This leaves a pair of intriguing possibilities for the Super Bowl, including a Giants-Patriots rematch from 2007 and the Harbaugh Bowl, pitting 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh against his brother, Ravens coach John. In the process of reaching this final four, the Cowboys continued being the Cowboys, submitting an almost laughably pathetic performance against the New York Giants with the playoffs on the line. The Bengals backed into the playoffs and proved, once again, that they cannot win playoff games. The Saints set records with ease, then demonstrated once again how valuable home-field advantage is. In the modern (i.e. post-Mike Ditka) era of the Saints franchise, the team is 5-0 at home in the postseason and 0-4 on the road. San Francisco has found a winning formula with stifling defense and adequate offense, the SEC strategy, in essence. The Niners shun the conventional wisdom that an elite quarterback trumps an elite defense, and at this point it seems to be working. There is no clear Super Bowl favorite, much less a clear favorite in the conference championship games, which unfortunately will occur after press time. Next week’s Informant will contain a full analysis, as well as a thorough Super Bowl preview.
The Broncos were shut down by the Patriots, succumbing to a masterful performance by Tom Brady and an angry beatdown by New England’s maligned defense. Right now, Denver looks the part of a 10-6 borderline playoff team for the near future. However, the Broncos have improved so drastically in a short time frame that the upside potential is still strong. Tebowmania can be crafted into a legitimate, functional offense when training camp rolls around, and the defense is stout if inconsistent. The Broncos went 9-9 in a season of upheaval; the return of stability should make Denver the strong favorite in the AFC West next season, especially considering the proven underachievement of San Diego. Unless the defense makes the leap to elite status, the Broncos are not yet serious Super Bowl contenders, but they will be in the conversation, and John Fox has a long history of making good things happen with average parts. Denver is relevant again after a long absence, and that is an achievement by itself. The Tebow Train will be back next season, and it will likely be significantly improved over this year’s model. The future is bright, and whatever else one might say, Tebow has thus far proven himself to be the savior of Denver football.