WASHINGTON — It’s not March Madness — not even close.
But over the next few days we’re supposed to act as if the conference championship football games are the equal of the days leading up to Selection Sunday, even though conference winners will not be rewarded with automatic playoff berths, and even though an Alabama loss would not knock the Crimson Tide out of the Final Four.
Instead, we get to see another aspect of Selection Sundays gone by: watching teams finish under .500 in their leagues still rewarded with postseason play. Thank you, bloated bowl system, which has one foot steeped in 1980s tradition and another knee deep in ESPN programming demands.
Just as there was a No. 4-team playoff in 1973, when Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan all went unbeaten, there’s no eight-team bracket that rewards a Colorado if they upset Washington or an Oklahoma that caught fire after two early nonconference stumbles. Sadly for a 12—0 Western Michigan, there isn’t a 16-team field (as you’ll see, FCS has a 24-team bracket, yet somehow survives). Thank goodness there’s a 12-member committee to decide on the four spots that largely have been determined.
Navy (9-2, 7-1 AAC) vs. Temple, noon on ABC. The Midshipmen are reportedly holding the bowl system hostage because they play Army next week, and heaven forbid if they win the conference title and lose to the Black Knights, giving the Cotton Bowl a 10—3 team instead of an 11—2 club. Never mind that teams back in the day would lose games after accepting bowl berths in mid-November. To be in consideration for Cotton, the high-octane Midshipmen (11th in FBS scoring) have to find a way to score against an Owls defense that allowed just 10 points in November. Senior Will Worth has been the catalyst this fall and will need to be one more time.
Midshipmen edge the Owls, 28—23.
FCS second round — hold on, are you saying that 24 schools can coordinate travel and play more than one game in late November to early December? In the words of Ralph Wiggum, “Me, fail English? Unpossible.”
James Madison (10—1) vs. New Hampshire (8—4), 2 p.m. on ESPN3. The Dukes out-dueled the Wildcats 42—39 in Durham during the regular season, despite allowing four fourth quarter touchdowns. Two concerns for JMU stem from that game: UNH held their vaunted running game under 200 yards, and the Dukes’ defense coughed up 512 yards passing. One thinks that in Harrisonburg the No. 1 running game will find its rhythm, and they’ll have more rest than rust after the first-round bye.
The Dukes do it again, 34—24.
Richmond (9-3) at North Dakota (9-2), 6 p.m., ESPN3. This is where the FCS Playoffs becomes cruel. Nobody should have to go to the Dakotas for any reason other than to visit Mount Rushmore—and that’s in South Dakota. Even though you need to go north by northwest to get there. Kyle Lauletta threw for 315 yards in the first round win over North Carolina A&T. But how will his throws fare in windy Big Sky country? The Fighting Hawks have won nine straight after beginning the year with one-possession losses to Stony Brook and Bowling Green. Due to a scheduling quirk, Richmond is the first one-name school they will face this fall.
Home field dooms the Spiders in a 31-27 loss.
Virginia Tech (9—3, 7—1) vs. Clemson (11—1, 7—1), 8 p.m. on ABC. The Tigers look to return to the playoffs, while the Hokies try to play the spoiler even though I believe that if they win and bounce Dabo Swinney’s team out of the Final Four, they’d cost their league big money. It’s easy to say, here, that the Tigers are ripe for upset — their six, one-possession games were a little too much for a top five team (for the record on the other one-loss teams: Ohio State had five, one-score games and Washington had two). But since their one-point loss to Pitt, Clemson has pounded a pair of bowl-eligible teams by the combined score of 91-20. The Hokies haven’t beaten a school with a winning record since October.
Hokies come up short, 35—17.
Last week: 4—0! plenty to be thankful for
*Little known fact– Kippy & Buffy (my .Va. tailgating pals) are in Orlando, but not for the ACC Championship. They made reservations before the league moved the title game from Charlotte. But they did bring a delicious apple dessert wine from Horton Vineyards.
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