Jan. 7, 2007
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -It's got a crummy name and an awfully tough act to follow.
The little team that could from Idaho already captured America's imagination, and it feels like a semester or two have passed since Ohio State and Florida last took the field.
The prime-time game is worth millions, but they forgot to pay someone to come up with a title better than the Bowl Championship Series national championship game. No matter what they call it, the game has to fight to get noticed a week removed from the New Year's hangover and in the middle of the NFL playoffs.
The other day some of the players grumbled that they came all the way to Arizona and all they got for their efforts was a portable satellite radio and a few lousy T-shirts.
To top it off, there might still be room for some debate over who really is No. 1 when the bowl season finally comes to a merciful end Monday night.
Is this any way to crown a national champion?
The people who run the hotels, restaurants and bars in the Phoenix area sure think so. They've been packed with fans wearing school colors and spending money faster than Florida can change quarterbacks.
A certain television network looking for big ratings certainly hopes so. Fox spent $320 million for a four-year deal that also includes rights to the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls, never figuring that a team from Boise State would steal some thunder from the final game.
And, of course, two coaches with a lot at stake would have you believe it's the greatest game ever.
"I can't imagine a better bowl to be in," Florida's Urban Meyer said.
Meyer likes it so much he literally helped talk his team's way into this game. With the BCS computers paralyzed by indecision, he lobbied BCS poll voters to give his team the edge over Michigan and they responded by voting once-beaten Florida into the game.
Turns out Michigan didn't really belong in this game anyway. USC made sure of that on the field when it manhandled the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl.
An outside case might be made, though, for the only other unbeaten major college team in the country besides Ohio State. Actually, Boise State made a case for itself in the same stadium on New Year's Day when the Broncos parlayed some plays usually run on sandlots to beat befuddled Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
The hook and ladder tied the game. The Statue of Liberty won it.
Then the running back who scored the winning points capped a storybook night by getting down on one knee and proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend.
It was the kind of stuff they make movies about in Hollywood. And the reason why, for much of the week, the first question asked coaches and players here was: "Did you see the Boise State game?"
At least one workaholic coach didn't.
"I fell asleep and my wife kept hitting me," Meyer said. "She said it was the greatest football game she ever saw."
So could Boise State, which went 13-0 in the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference, be the national champion if Florida overcomes the odds and beats Ohio State?
Not in the BCS, it couldn't. The bowl system is controlled by the top conferences, who seem intent on keeping outsiders away from both their title game and the plentiful riches that go along with it.
Voters in The Associated Press poll owe no such allegiances. And some would pick Boise State No. 1 because it was the only team to win every game.
"Obviously, Ohio State has the tougher schedule and plays in the Big Ten with a bulls-eye on its back all year," said Greg Archuleta, college football reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. "But if they lose I have no qualms about voting Boise State No. 1. They did what they had to do. They'll be the only one undefeated."
The first BCS national championship bowl game is fittingly being played at a university stadium. That would be the University of Phoenix, which not only has no football team itself, but no other teams of any kind, either.
The school, though, makes enough off its courses to pay $154.5 million for the naming rights to the home field of the Arizona Cardinals in this nondescript Phoenix suburb.
That's big money, but college football has become a game of big money. The BCS game is the record 32nd bowl game in a season that began nearly three weeks ago with the Poinsettia Bowl and included seemingly every school besides the University of Phoenix.
The total payoffs to schools are estimated to be some $210 million, which will help keep the budgets of a lot of athletic departments healthy. It will also allow schools to keep paying millionaire coaches even more millions to try and make boosters happy.
Ohio State's Jim Tressel not only got a $200,000 bonus for getting his team into the game, but has a clause in his contract that allows him to renegotiate his $2.6 million annual salary if the Buckeyes win the national title.
The labor, meanwhile, labors for a lot less. Players got satellite radios, commemorative wristwatches and a few threads, but NCAA rules prohibit them from receiving anything worth more than $500 total.
That led to some grumbling this week when some members of the media trying to add a spark to a dreary week of bland coaches and even blander quotes asked players whether they should be sharing in the riches when they are doing the actual work.
"We all deserve more money," Ohio State senior guard T.J. Downing said. "We're the reason this money's coming in. We're the guys out there sacrificing our bodies. We're taking years off our lives out here hitting each other, and we're not being compensated for it."
There figures to be some more grumbling Monday night in Glendale, but this time among residents of the city. Their homes will be shaking when the Air Force sends one of its noisier jets, the four-engine B-1B bomber, on a low-level flight over the stadium just as the national anthem is winding down.
That, presumably, shows what a big game this is. But the fans inside the stadium won't see a thing.
The stadium roof will be closed.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org