Saturday, September 6, 2008

Beware of the Pirates

It's only the second weekend of the season and the BCS bowl jockeying has already started. Such is the beauty (and the beauty pageant nature) of college football.

Shortly after East Carolina's resounding 24-3 triumph over West Virginia - its second victory over a BCS conference team in as many weeks - I received a nervous e-mail from a good friend asking if he should be worried about those men in purple. You see, he roots for a BCS conference team and a potential BCS buster like the Pirates just might ruin his plans by stealing a possible at-large BCS bid.

My response?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

East Carolina is the team to watch for this year's BCS buster race. In 2006, we had Boise State. Last year, it was Hawaii. Before the start of this season, the chic pick was Fresno State. And the Bulldogs certainly were quite persuasive in a 24-7 opening week win at Rutgers.

But Fresno State, No. 24 in the unofficial BCS standings, has a pretty ambitious - and therefore tough - schedule ahead of it. The Dawgs host Wisconsin next week and has a trip to the Rose Bowl against a rejuvenated UCLA team on Sept. 27. And the WAC schedule is best not to be overlooked as well, not when Fresno finishes the season with a date on the blue turf against Boise State.

A couple of Mountain West teams also have aspirations to be a BCS buster. Utah, with a conquest in the Big House already in the bag, should be the odds-on favorite to win the conference. Then there's the Utes' sworn enemy Brigham Young, which narrowly escaped Washington with a win on Saturday. The Cougars still need to get by UCLA next week and they finish the season with a pair of daunting road games at Air Force and archrival Utah.

But of all the non-BCS teams vying for a big BCS payday, no one would possess a better resume than East Carolina should it win out. The Pirates have already beaten (then-No. 17) Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia. Their four non-conference games are all against BCS conference opponents (North Carolina State and Virginia still remain). If ECU runs the table, it would finish the regular season with a 13-0 record and 4-0 against teams in the Big East and ACC (with two probable conference champions). That would be good enough to lock up a BCS berth.

In fact, East Carolina's toughest remaining contest might be the Conference USA championship game, against perhaps either Rice or Tulsa. Whether the Pirates can handle that kind of pressure just might decide the BCS bowl pecking order, because the burden of having to win one last game to earn a BCS bid has proved to be enormous.

An astounding eight times (out of 23 opportunities), a higher ranked team, needing only a win to clinch either a BCS title game berth or a BCS bowl bid, lost to an underdog in the conference championship game in the BCS Era (1998-2007). Add three other choke jobs (UCLA in 1998, USC in 2006 and West Virginia in 2007) - when a team lost its final regular-season game to blow a shot at the BCS title game - the pressure of the "last big game" has manifested itself time and again.

And who better than East Carolina coach Skip Holtz should understand that? He was a 29-year-old offensive coordinator (under his father Lou) for Notre Dame in 1993 when the No. 1-ranked Irish needed only a home win over Boston College to secure a shot at the national championship. Instead, the Holtzs watched Tom Coughlin's Eagles pull out a 41-39 upset on David Gordon's 41-yard field goal as time expired.

Notre Dame has not recovered from that loss. Neither has Lou Holtz. Skip Holtz might remember that a bit more vividly later in the season should the Pirates continue their run at a BCS bid.

But we're only two weeks into the season. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

(For you Notre Dame fans - and haters - here's a trip down memory lane)

1 comment:

Mars said...

BYU was and is the favorite to win the MWC, not Utah or TCU.