Forum Spin Doctor
RALPH D. RUSSO
Florida beat Michigan on Sunday in the only game that mattered. The Gators, who lobbied hard for this victory, were picked to play No. 1 Ohio State for college football's national championship, ending any chance for the Wolverines to get the rematch they so desired and thought they deserved.
The close selection was sure to set off renewed calls to scrap the Bowl Championship Series and go to a playoff.
Southern California was a step away from the title game if only it had beaten UCLA on Saturday. Instead, the second-ranked Trojans were upset 13-9, dropping in the standings and clearing the way for Florida (12-1) or Michigan (11-1).
The Gators leapfrogged idle Michigan by winning the Southeastern Conference championship game, 38-28, over Arkansas.
"It's well deserved, and I'm proud of it," said Florida coach Urban Meyer on the Gators' selection.
The championship game is Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
Michigan's consolation prize is a Rose Bowl bid to play USC (10-2), a classic Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup of teams left to wonder what could have been.
In other bowls:
_ Big 12 champion Oklahoma will meet unbeaten Boise State in the Fiesta on Jan. 1.
_ Big East champion Louisville will play ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange on Jan. 2.
_ LSU will take Florida's spot in the Sugar and play Notre Dame on Jan. 3.
For the first time in the BCS's eight-year history, the championship matchup was a mystery heading into selection Sunday.
After the numbers were crunched, the margin between Florida and Michigan couldn't have been much closer. The Gators had a BCS average of .944. The Wolverines were at .934. They were tied in the computer rating, and Florida had a 38-point lead in the Harris poll and a 26-point advantage in the coaches' poll.
When the Wolverines ended their regular season with a 42-39 loss to the Buckeyes two weeks ago, they talked about getting another swing at their Big Ten rivals.
While Michigan was left to wait and hope, the other contenders still had games to play.
Florida made its final case by beating Arkansas, but second-year coach Meyer became very vocal about getting a chance to play Ohio State, especially when it appeared the Gators would be left out.
Losing only once in what's regarded as the nation's toughest conference and not playing for a national championship - especially if Michigan got a mulligan - was more than Meyer could take.
He called for a playoff and suggested the BCS should be imploded if the SEC champ again was left out of the championship game - the way undefeated Auburn was in 2004.
"It's an imperfect system," said Meyer of the BCS. "If you want a true national championship, the only way to do it is on the field."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, however, is not in favor of a playoff.
"With a 12 game season, it would be next to impossible to have a 16-team playoff," he said Sunday. "We'll continually improve the system. As you look at it over the past few years, it has gotten better and better."
It's always something with the BCS. The system was created to make sure No. 1 and No. 2 played in the final game of the season, but rarely has there been a title game everybody agreed upon. If it's not too many unbeaten teams, which was the case in '04 when USC beat Oklahoma for the title, it's not enough, which has usually been the case. Last year, when USC and Texas were the only undefeateds, was an abberation.
"I think we will continue to talk about the format ... to see if there isn't a different format to serve the game better," said Mike Slive, BCS coordinator and SEC commissioner.
This year, it worked out for the Gators, who can focus on winning their second national championship. The first came in 1996, when Steve Spurrier's Gators beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl - a rematch, coincidentally, of a November regular-season game won by the Seminoles.
Michigan had hoped for a similar scenario, but Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr chose not to publicly pitch for his team.
It's unclear whether that would have helped or whether Meyer swayed some poll voters. Maybe when faced with the possibility of a Michigan-Ohio State rematch, the voters, like Meyer, cringed.
Tressel decided not to get involved at all. He has a vote in the coaches poll but abstained.
"After consultation with my director of athletics, Gene Smith, and based upon our unique position in the BCS standings, I believe it is only fair that we not participate (in) the final poll," Tressel said in a statement.
Upon learning the Buckeyes would face Florida, Tressel praised his opponent.
"They have a great football team," he said. "When you can win the SEC championship, you're a great football team."
Instead of the 104th meeting between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes, Florida and Ohio State will play for the first time ever.
The Buckeyes have won four national titles, including the 2002 title under Tressel. Ohio State upset Miami 31-24 in an overtime classic at the Fiesta Bowl.
Last year, Ohio State beat Notre Dame 34-20 in the Fiesta Bowl, giving the country a taste of what was to come this season.
The Buckeyes have been No. 1 since the preseason. Led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Troy Smith, they've run roughshod over their competition. Only Michigan and Illinois have stayed within 17 points of Ohio State this season.
Senior quarterback Smith capped his season with four touchdown passes against the Wolverines. He finished with 30 TD passes and only five interceptions.
Florida, meanwhile, seemed to struggle almost every week. The Gators won at Tennessee by one in September, and none of their last five victories have been by more than 10 points.
The Gators mostly relied on their defense, a unit ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed and sixth in scoring.
Florida's senior quarterback, Chris Leak, entered the season as a Heisman contender but ended up sharing the job with freshman sensation Tim Tebow.
Tebow's tough running has complemented Leak's passing, but unlike the explosive Buckeyes, Florida's offense has had its ups and downs. The Gators' only loss came Oct. 18 at Auburn, a 27-17 setback that was a four-point game until the Tigers scored on the final play.
The Gators are back in the BCS for the first time since Spurrier left after the 2002 Orange Bowl, but Boise State, Louisville (11-1) and Wake Forest (11-2) will make their BCS debuts. Oklahoma (10-2) is a BCS veteran, making its fifth appearance since the 2000 season.
Unbeaten Boise State (12-0) from the Western Athletic Conference is the second team from outside the original six BCS conferences to play in the big-money bowl games. Meyer's Utah was the first in 2004.
Notre Dame (10-2) is making its second straight BCS appearance under coach Charlie Weis. The Fighting Irish will be trying to snap an eight-game bowl losing streak against LSU (10-2).
The Tigers were set to make their first Rose Bowl appearance, but USC's loss has them playing in their home state. The Sugar Bowl returns to New Orleans this season after being temporarily relocated to Atlanta last season because of Hurricane Katrina.