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Anatomy of a Mythical Champion

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The ongoing  Blog  Poll  Countdown is down to five "finalists," all of whom appear to me have about an equal opportunity, on paper, to carry the day to the mythical championship. Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and USC all have their merits, and I don’t know how to separate them in any way that’s not completely arbitrary; separation is impossible. Such is the way of the preseason poll.

Where the top spot is concerned, though, at least there is some precedent: the BCS has been in place for ten years, and produced ten champions, plus another pair of teams -- USC in 2003 and Auburn in ‘04 -- that made sufficient noise about being snubbed by the mythical title game to merit inclusion (the Trojans also have the traditional AP vote to back them up; Auburn has it unblemished record). Looking at those dozen, there are a few discernible trends over time:

Numbers beneath stat categories are national ranks per category.
* Number of years as starter in () parentheses -- ex: first year starter listed as Jr (1).
** Based on final AP poll; regular season/conference championship games only.
*** No team stats available, but Weinke finished seventh among individual QBs.
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The most immediately striking, consistent feature is the strength of the defenses, and -- if not necessarily indicative of an actual star at quarterback -- the extreme efficicency of each of the passing games in question. Aside from the running attacks of Florida State and Oklahoma in 1999 and 2000, respectively, no one was bad at anything; almost every team was in the top 20 in both pass efficiency and run defense, and most were among the very best against the pass, too. They also dominated opponents by at least 140 yards and/or 20 points per game, were led by a young coach (within five years, or one recruiting cycle) and a veteran quarterback and overwhelmingly drew their toughest assignment of the regular season at home, or at a neutral site. Somewhat contrary to the "Best Player on the Beset Team" cliché, less than half produced a star worthy of an appearance in New York as a Heisman finalist -- although, to be fair, Florida State, Oklahoma, Miami, Ohio State, LSU, Texas, and Florida all beat teams with either Heisman winners or multiple finalists, so the trophy has been dramatically over-represented in the championship game -- even if a hunk of bronze is more of a result than a cause (and whether this actually describes Eric Crouch or Jason White), it can never hurt to have a really unique, dominant player on your side.

The test is how well the template can be adapted to make sense of the jumble of teams vying for the top spot going into the season -- as Auburn can attest, it’s not a semantic distinction:

Stats based on 2007 national rank.
* According to Stassen Preseason Consensus.
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Georgia, it should be noted, is probably in better shape offensively than its numbers indicate, as the post-Moreno spark that vaulted them into contention over the last month and a half of the season is dragged to earth by the first month and a half, which suggests Matt Stafford has further to go that his counterparts at Ohio State and especially Florida and Oklahoma. This is not exactly true, and if it was, Georgia would still be as well off offensively heading into the season as Florida and Oklahoma are defensively, where both units begin behind the eightball to hold down their end of the deal opposite dynamic, high-scoring offenses. The Sooners, like USC, also benefit from the absence of a fearsome road game, getting Kansas and Texas Tech at home and Texas on the familiar grounds of the Cotton Bowl. Florida, though UF has to visit Tennessee, gets LSU in the Swamp and Georgia in Gainesville Jacksonville [Duh. See comments -- ed.].

It’s Georgia that ultimately comes up short in terms of the schedule: three road games against teams ranked in the preseason polls -- at Arizona State, at LSU, at Auburn -- plus Florida at a neutral site would be an unprecedented gauntlet if UGA emerges unscathed.

That brings us to Ohio State, which is closer across the board to filling the mold snugly, down to the nooks and crannies -- the Buckeyes can run with a Heisman-worthy workhorse, start an experienced, efficient senior at quarterback, are smothering on all levels of defense and already took care of opponents by championship-worthy margins with a team that was juat supposed to be retooling for a serious run this year. And so here they are, with only one major precedent to overcome to emerge as the "perfect fit": not only have few champions had to face their biggest test on the road, but aside from Texas’ close win in Columbus in 2005, none of them faced a team on the level of this version of USC on its home turf; in the Trojans’ case, they’re virtually unbeatable at home under Pete Carroll, winners of 32 straight in the Coliseum before the shocking (and possibly indicative) loss to Stanford.

I still say no team needs to win a single game this year more than OSU needs to win at USC. The stakes are pretty obvious.