A pair of Dixie powerhouses will meet Monday night to determine who finishes the college football season No. 1. Anticipation abounds in the Land of Cotton, but many of the rest of us will look away.
The problem is history, as in the very recent history of the SEC: Alabama didn’t even qualify for the conference championship game. Georgia won it by beating a higher-ranked Auburn team that had trounced the Bulldogs, 40-17, three weeks earlier.
An ideal national championship lines up opponents from, say, opposite sides of the Mississippi River. But the peculiarities of an imperfect four-team playoff have produced a showdown between regional neighbors separated by an Interstate 20 stretch of 272 miles and several thousand Waffle Houses.
That there is little fanfare elsewhere can be blamed on one man who may or may not be watching Monday might. His name is Lincoln Riley. He coaches the Oklahoma Sooners, who would have given the game some star power with the presence of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield is a dynamic talent and something of a loud-mouthed brat, which means he’s adored by fans of his own school and loathed by everybody else. In other words, the kind of player capable of turning a provincial duel for bragging rights into must-see TV.
But Mayfield is out of the picture, and that’s on Riley. His inexplicable strategy in the first semifinal game led to Georgia’s 54-48 Rose Bowl victory.
Most coaching decisions that backfire appear flawed only in hindsight. The cliche is true: It’s easy to second guess. But every once in a while, a coaching decision is so dumb, so stunningly bizarre, it doesn’t require a second guess. Riley’s stupidity was evident in real time.
Through the first 29 minutes and 54 seconds of the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma humiliated Georgia. On what should have been the final offensive series before halftime, the Sooners extended their lead to 31-14 on a gadget-play pass a very alone Mayfield caught in the end zone. Mayfield being Mayfield, he celebrated the touchdown by fist-bumping those teammates he didn’t head-butt, all while working the Oklahoma fans into a frenzy. I don’t think he posed for any photos with newlyweds on his way back to the sideline, but he may have signed an autograph or two.
The Sooners were putting on a show for the ages, on a pace to roll up 60 points against a defense that had given up all of 172 points in 13 games prior. With 6 seconds on the first-half clock, all that remained for Oklahoma was to kick off, trusting it could prevent a 95-yard touchdown return.
Riley didn’t have that trust. He called for a squib kick that Georgia pounced on at midfield. The Bulldogs now had 5 seconds to get something going, a task complicated by the fact offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was in an elevator car, en route from the coaches box to the locker room.
Receivers coach James Coley dialed up a quick sideline pass that gained 9 yards to the Oklahoma 37. With one second left, head coach Kirby Smart determined a 54-yard field goal attempt a more reasonable option than a Hail Mary lob.
The kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, never had converted a field goal from such a daunting distance. For that matter, no kicker in the history of the Rose Bowl had converted a field goal from such a daunting distance.
But Blankenship’s kick was strong and true, and Georgia’s deficit suddenly was down to two scores. Instead of trudging into the locker room for a tough-love halftime lecture, the Bulldogs were buoyed by the sense they had survived Hurricane Baker.
“That probably gave them a little bit of juice,” Riley acknowledged afterward.
Probably gave them a little bit of juice? Ya think? The three-point gift Oklahoma donated proved to be the difference in a game that went into two overtimes.
So here we are, left to watch SEC rivals, from different SEC divisions, that don’t sustain the rivalry on a year-to-year basis. Alabama’s most intense foe is Auburn. Georgia’s most intense foe is Florida.
Of the 63 games between the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs, one stands out because of bombshell accusations made six months after Alabama’s 35-0 victory in 1962.
“The Story of a College Football Fix: A shocking report of how Wally Butts and “Bear” Bryant rigged a game last fall,” blared a 1963 headline in the Saturday Evening Post.
While making a local phone call, Atlanta businessman George Burnett had gotten connected to a long-distance conversation between Butts, the Georgia coach, and Bryant. Burnett recognized the voices and determined Butts was relaying inside information to his counterpart.
Burnett jotted down notes obtained by the Saturday Evening Post. It published the story of “the fix.” Butts and Bryant sued for libel damages and won, essentially putting the Post out of business.
It’s a fascinating case — there’s no doubt George Burnett inadvertently eavesdropped on a suspicious conversation between two of the South’s most acclaimed football coaches — but don’t expect a warm and fuzzy recounting of the episode during the ESPN telecast Monday night.
Expect, instead, lots of blathering about two teams that don’t like each other, teams from the same neighborhood challenged to assert dominance.
A prediction? We’re living in Nick Saban’s world. Betting against him is like betting against the giant python in any YouTube animal-confrontation video. Make it Alabama 24, Georgia 20, it will amount to a four-hour SEC infomercial.
I miss Baker Mayfield.