I grew up near Atlanta.
I’ve been an avid sports fan since I was first able to formulate a sentence.
Taken alone, neither of those statements means much; change the city and those characterizations probably describe you. But, when merged, those sentences carry a nauseating truth. To be a fan of that city’s sports teams during the past two decades means that you’ve endured enough late-season drubbings that “above average” and “very good” have become the acceptable standards, the inescapable constraints of fandom.
The Braves, of course, went to the playoffs 14 consecutive years and made 16 postseason appearances in the past two decades, but emerged with only one World Series title. The Falcons have now made the playoffs five times in the past decade; they’ve won two games. In the 1990’s, the Hawks made the playoffs seven consecutive times – they never made it past the second round. This year, the current roster stands to make its sixth consecutive trip to the postseason – and, you guessed it: They haven’t made it past the second round.
That’s a lot of playoff appearances. That’s a lot of “above average” teams that had “very good” seasons. They start to take their toll, to add up, to convince you that B-plus and A-minus are not only acceptable, but are the standard and that a 4.0 is out of reach. You become placid, content in your place in the sports pecking order, and you comfortably enjoy years filled with far more victories than defeats, but that are utterly devoid of true satisfaction. And there’s seemingly no escape. Fear of slipping from very good to mediocre has held many Atlanta teams hostage, keeping them from making significant changes and suffering short term pain for long term gain. “The status quo is good enough and we’re so close, so we’d better not take any risks,” they think.
Which brings me to the football team at Georgia — and my point …
Though I root for Georgia Tech, I empathize with the Bulldogs’ fans plight all too well and will watch Saturday’s SEC Championship Game against Alabama with the slightest sense of solidarity. Just like the recent vintages of the Braves, Falcons and Hawks, UGA has been exquisitely above average – sometimes very good – for a decade. But it’s not viewed in the same way that the likes of Florida, LSU and Alabama are. The Bulldogs haven’t pitched in to the SEC’s national championship streak; they’re the first one in line outside the exclusive club that houses the conference’s elite.
But now, the Bulldogs, thanks to a hard-fought upset of Florida and a favorable conference schedule, find themselves at No. 3 in the BCS with a game against No. 2 Alabama looming. They get to play that game only 70 miles from campus. They’re only 60 minutes from breaking through the barrier of “very good.” They’re 120 minutes away from, finally, being considered the best team in the nation. Granted, those 120 minutes stand to come against the nation’s two stingiest, most-disciplined defenses, and a national title, which is so close, still feels so far away.
I know the feeling.
And one man has presided over all of those recent, “Hell of a season, but …” years. Mark Richt has won 117 of his 156 games on the Georgia sideline. He’s guided the Bulldogs to a pair of conference titles, but they came before the SEC was the “S! E! C!” and the conference started hording national championships like they were Twinkies after Hostess declared bankruptcy. Richt’s teams, averaging 9.75 wins during a 12-year tenure, have been the epitome of “above average” and “very good.”
But unlike the rest of us who’ve grown to accept being swaddled in regular season wins and playoff defeats, many UGA fans have grown weary of winning division titles. Richt has been on the alleged hot seat, at least in the minds of people who call into sports talk shows, for what feels like half of his tenure. College football evokes more fervor than professional sports, especially in the South, so despite all of his wins, despite fitting in with the “very good” Atlanta pro sports teams, Richt has had to endure a cascade of vitriol through the years.
But a win on Saturday erases it all.
Make no mistake, Alabama is the better team. The Crimson Tide probably will win and Georgia will probably slip back amongst the ranks of the Braves, the Falcons and the Hawks: the very good teams from the South’s biggest city who serve as entertaining speed bumps when championships are on the line.
But though I was born to love Tech and loathe the Bulldogs (sorry, I had no choice in the matter), should they beat Nick Saban’s defending national champion squad, a little part of me will smile.
While my brain will tell me, “Roll Damn Tide,” on Saturday, part of my heart, the sliver of it I left in that city, will hope that all of those Bulldog fans will get to forget what above average feels like.
A Los Angeles Times columnist recently confronted Jim Mora in a news conference and tried to get the UCLA coach to admit that his team laid down against Stanford last weekend. The logic? A loss meant that the Bruins would get a rematch with the Cardinal for the conference title – rather than a trip up to Eugene to face the Ducks. I may or may not have insinuated something similar in my last column; who wouldn’t want a chance to have a second crack at a team you just played in lieu of taking a trip to one of the toughest places to play in college football? But we’ll never know what the Bruins’ tactics were last Saturday. Either way, I expect the rematch to be far more compelling than the 35-17 Cardinal win a few days ago. Last week, the Bruins had nothing to play for – they’d already locked up the Pac-12 South and knew that they’d be playing for the conference championship on the road no matter the opponent – while the Cardinal had to win in order to take the Ducks’ spot in the title game. This week, the stakes are even for both teams: a conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Outside of playing for a national title, there aren’t many things more important in all of college football. Something tells me that Mora might have a few tricks up his sleeve this time around – UCLA did average 36 points per game this season – and that, aside from the SEC title game, this will be the best matchup of championship weekend.
Yes, Wisconsin and Nebraska combined for seven losses this season. Yes, Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten. But Gus Johnson will be in the house (Lucas Oil Stadium). As we’ve learned all season long, his presence means that a game is 177 percent more likely to be decided in the final minutes, 203 percent more likely to feature an upset and 355 percent more likely to have at least two plays, whether warranted or not, that cause Gus to terrify analyst Charles Davis, anyone else in his general vicinity and the millions watching at home. (My dog hides under the coffee table whenever someone throws an interception in a game Gus is working.) … Actually, whether or not Gus was involved, Wisconsin might have a shot at pulling the upset. The Badgers did push Ohio State and Penn State to overtime in consecutive weeks and only lost to the Huskers by three in their first meeting. And though they’re 10-2, the Huskers have made a habit of playing in close games; five of their wins have come by single-digits and they’ve had to erase second-half deficits just as many times, including scoring 20 unanswered to beat Wisconsin. The Badgers are the defending champions and won a close title game last year in the very same building. Combine that experience with the Huskers’ propensity to live dangerously — and add a little Gus to the mix — and this one could be far more compelling than it looks on paper.
Thanks to the exodus of Texas A&M and Missouri, the Big 12 title game is a Dr Pepper-infused relic. Still, even though the contest has been scrapped, the conference champion won’t be decided until the season’s final weekend. Kansas State enters its home game against Texas with one conference loss. A win against the Longhorns would lock up K-State’s first conference title since 2003. But if the Wildcats lose then the outcome of the Oklahoma-TCU game played earlier in the day will matter. If Oklahoma wins and K-State falls, the Sooners will secure an out-of-nowhere conference championship, their fifth since 2006. If both teams win, K-State takes the title thanks to a head-to-head victory against the Sooners way back in September, which was well before you knew who Collin Klein was.
Syracuse isn’t playing on Saturday, but it’s nevertheless a significant part of the Big East storyline. Thanks to mass confusion – and a bunch of losses – in the final month of the season, the Orange is now in the mix for a conference title. So, too, is Cincinnati. As the season wore on, it seemed inevitable that Saturday’s season finale between Louisville and Rutgers would be the de facto conference championship game. The teams combined to win their first 16 games, but have gone on to lose four of their previous six, including consecutive conference losses by Louisville. Should Rutgers, which is playing at home, grab the win, the Scarlet Knights will be conference champions thanks to a 6-1 Big East record. If they lose, then Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati (assuming it handles its business against UConn on Saturday) and Syracuse will all be 5-2 in the conference will collectively share the Big East crown. … If Rutgers falls then the computers will decide who gets the conference’s automatic BCS bid. Fittingly enough, that’ll probably be whoever wins the Louisville-Rutgers game, so, in a roundabout way, that game still ultimately decides who will “win” the conference. Did all of that make sense?
Shouldn’t I be excited that my favorite team, Georgia Tech, the team whose gold GT symbol is emblazoned on the one piece of Division I paraphernalia I own (I went to a DIII school) is playing for a shot at a conference title? I should, but I’m not. Not in the least. Other years, I might’ve hopped in the car and taken the nine-hour drive to Charlotte. But with Tech sneaking into the championship game with six losses thanks to a self-imposed postseason ban by Miami (Fla.), I’m not so thrilled about what’s going to transpire this weekend. The Jackets have to face the best Florida State team that we’ve seen in a decade. And, by the way, the Noles are still smarting after they surrendered a second-half lead to Florida at home last weekend. GT Freshman quarterback Vad Lee shows promise and once Tech lands a new defensive coordinator – they dismissed Al Groh midway through this season – I expect the Jackets to settle back into their familiar spot somewhere between No. 10 and No. 22. But, the team that will take the field in Charlotte – the one that lost to Middle Tennessee, BYU and fell to Georgia by 32 – is no top-20 squad.
This is the one I’ve secretly been waiting for. Ever since I did a feature on Kent State, the little program that couldn’t (for 40 years), I’ve been quietly enamored with the Golden Flashes. They ran the table in the conference and their only loss came at the hands of an SEC team (Kentucky). Kent State will square off with Northern Illinois, which also is 11-1 and undefeated in the conference. The Huskies were only a point shy of running the table this year, but surrendered nine unanswered to Iowa in the fourth quarter of the season opener and fell 18-17. Aside from that, they’ve won nine games by double digits, stand ninth nationally in rushing, 12th in scoring and 15th in scoring defense. One game stands between Kent State and its first conference title in four decades, but it is, by far, the Golden Flashes’ toughest conference test of the season.
Savvy scheduling by the Sun Belt this season has given us a surprise treat in championship week. Arkansas State plays host to Middle Tennessee State in a regula- season game that will determine the conference champion. Both are 6-1 in conference. Out of conference, Arkansas State only lost to Oregon by 23 in Week 1. And, no, I’m not using “only” sarcastically there; a 23-point loss in Eugene to a fresh and healthy Ducks team counts as a moral victory. Middle Tennessee made headlines, at least in Atlanta, when it demolished Georgia Tech 49-28 in Bobby Dodd Stadium in one of the more shocking upsets of the season. No, I didn’t cry; Papa John was only a phone call away when I needed him most.
I just looked back through the ol’ archives (note: no I didn’t) and despite writing about 9,000 words per week on college football during the past 13 weeks, it seems I’ve mentioned teams from Conference USA exactly zero times this season. One-hundred-seventeen-thousand words and I couldn’t spare a single one for C-USA? Shameful. Truly shameful. Well, better late than never, I suppose. All 12 teams in the conference have finished their regular seasons and the conference title game will be played with alongside all of the rest this weekend. (Yes, they have a conference title game; it garnered a spot on ESPN2.) Tulsa welcomes UCF on Saturday in a matchup of 9-3 teams. The highlight of UCF’s season came when the Golden Knights hung with Ohio State for a half in Week 2. The highlight of Tulsa’s season? Beating UCF 23-21 two weeks ago. Brace yourselves; I’ll have more on the Conference USA title tilt in Monday’s season finale of Breaking the Huddle.
Views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed
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