Wisconsin has been on the upper echelon of college football in recent seasons, and on Saturday night it booked its third consecutive Rose Bowl berth. The face of ACC football, Florida State, won its 11th game and sewed up the program’s first BCS appearance since 2005.
And oddly, both of their championship game wins were indicative of disappointing seasons throughout their conferences.
Florida State had its third performance within the last month plagued by a long stretch of listlessness. The first was a Nov. 8 win over a Virginia Tech team that finished 6-6; the second was the regular season finale loss to Florida. Two of the three were wins for the Seminoles, but those coming against ACC opponents and the loss coming out-of-conference are telling measures of the league in 2012.
The ACC went 1-5 against its SEC counterparts. The sole win came via 10-win Clemson’s narrow defeat of a bad Auburn team. I measure the conference against the SEC in this case because the SEC is the measuring stick for BCS championship aspirations, which Florida State once harbored.
FSU has the talent for more than simply returning to the top of a struggling conference. The Seminoles were runaway favorites to win the ACC in the preseason, and made good on those projections. However, FSU was widely regarded as a national championship contender and simply fell short.
Kentucky-bound Mark Stoops’ defense had its great game. For all its struggles at 6-7, Georgia Tech was still the nation’s No. 23 ranked scoring offense and No. 3 rushing team. Florida State held the Yellow Jackets nearly 140 yards below their yardage total on the ground, and 21 points below their per game average. Big Blue Nation can take solace knowing it’s getting a great defensive mind. FSU shouldn’t struggle finding his replacement, either, but that doesn’t solve what vexed a championship caliber roster in 2012 moving forward.
Offense was the issue on Saturday, a common problem for the program with head coach Jimbo Fisher doubling as offensive coordinator. Florida State went scoreless in the second half against a defense that surrendered 40-plus on six occasions.
Wisconsin had no struggles with sluggishness against Nebraska. The Badgers played their best game of 2012 to capitalize on the opportunity Ohio State and Penn State’s NCAA sanctions presented it. UW finished third — not in the Big Ten, but in its division. In addition to Ohio State and Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern all finished with better records than the Badgers.
There were six eight-win teams to reach the BCS before Wisconsin this year. However, five of those (Syracuse ’98, Stanford ’99, Purdue ’00, Pitt ’04, Florida State ’05) were in the era before regular season schedules expanded to 12/13 games. Only Connecticut in 2010 has won just eight en route to the BCS since. The Badgers’ five losses are the most a BCS team has ever taken into the postseason’s top tier.
A Nebraska win could have salvaged some of the luster that came off the Big Ten throughout the season. The Cornhuskers seemingly turned a corner after losing at Ohio State, 63-38. Nebraska won six straight thereafter, and with a second defeat of Wisconsin would have entered the Rose Bowl a very respectable 11-2.
Instead, the Big Ten now bears the distinction of producing the worst, by record, BCS participant in the system’s 14-year history. And Nebraska didn’t just lose, but were throttled, 70-31.Nebraska was invited to the Big Ten to play in conference championship games, but not allow the most points given up in an FBS conference championship game since Gary Barnett’s fate was sealed by Texas in 2005.
The only thing more empty than the Lucas Oil Stadium seats were the gaping holes Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball and James White erupted through in leading a 539-yard team rushing effort. The ball carrying triumvirate went off for eight combined touchdowns.
The Badgers could present a worthwhile challenge to Stanford’s powerful defense. The multifaceted ground attack with which Matt Canada operates can grind down opposing fronts, even if the Badger passing game never found any consistency this season. Wisconsin snapping its Rose Bowl losing streak is the Big Ten’s last hope to avoid 2012 going down as a historically dismal year.
Likewise, Florida State can win its 12th game in the Orange Bowl, the program’s most since winning the national championship in the 1999 season. Such a mark soothes some of the sting of falling shy of the lofty goals held at the season’s beginning.
However, if win No. 12 comes at the expense of Big East champion Louisville, or MAC champion Northern Illinois, much of its meaning is stripped away because those are games the Seminoles are supposed to win with the talent at Fisher’s disposal. That’s in no way meant to disparage the Seminoles’ accomplishments, but 12 wins over what could fairly be considered lesser competition is well short of the championship dreams the program once held.
Still, all that Wisconsin and Florida State can do now is win the bowl games ahead of them. The measures needed to improve will be addressed eventually. Fisher has yet to lead a championship caliber team, but is 30-10 in his three seasons with the program. This year’s ACC title is progress toward FSU’s ultimate goal, but refocusing the offense is vital to taking the next step.
Fisher will be on the search for one coordinator to replace Stoops; this season’s offensive failings should speed up the process of finding a full-time offensive coordinator.
Undefeated Ohio State returns to conference championship and bowl eligibility next season, which will pose a more genuine challenge to Wisconsin’s reign. The Badgers are also moving forward without Montee Ball in 2013, leaving a titanic hole in an offense that struggled wih him at times in 2012.
Nebraska faces a major identity crisis. Both the Ohio State and Wisconsin losses are stark reminders that these are not the Blackshirt Cornhuskers. Nebraska reestablishing its identity is one of the many building blocks the Big Ten needs to reclaim its past glory.