How Ohio State won a bowl while losing respect
More mediocre teams than ever filling out too many bowl games for more than three weeks has turned college football's postseason into a blur for just about everyone but family, friends, alumni and NFL scouts.
Take the Sugar Bowl. The hype surrounding the matchup of Ohio State and Arkansas suggested you tune in to find out if the Big 10's best could snap an 0-for-9 skid against Southeastern Conference rivals dating to the days when the legendary Woody Hayes was still roaming the sideline.
But the real suspense ended with Ohio State's first offensive series, when current coach Jim Tressel proved no more willing to do what's right than his university, school president Gordon Gee, conference commissioner Jim Delany, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, the NCAA and the suits in charge at the Bowl Championship Series.
Thanks to a ruling so favorable it should have made all of them blush redder than one of Tressel's sweater vests, the Buckeyes were allowed to use five players who should have been suspended for Tuesday night's game, but won't have to start serving their punishment until next season instead.
Three of the players — quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey — provided the lion's share of Ohio State's offense and a fourth — defensive lineman Solomon Thomas — grabbed the game-saving interception to preserve Ohio State's 31-26 win on Tuesday night.
Tressel said he impressed the seriousness of the suspensions on the five players by threatening to leave them back in Columbus unless each promised to return next season and face the music. Pryor repeated his intention to do just that seconds after the game, saying, "We made dumb mistakes two years ago, the NCAA had to do their job.
"And I apologize," he said again, "to everybody."
If only the grown-ups who turned the postseason from a weeklong celebration of the sport into just another mind-numbing moneymaking scheme were subject to the same pangs of conscience. Like the rest of his yet-to-be-suspended teammates, Pryor's sins were silly and small, at least the ones he's been caught committing — selling awards and trinkets he won on the field — but rules are rules. Unless, apparently, there's plenty of money to be made by bending them.
Ohio State and the NCAA did just that, dusting off an obscure interpretation of the rules that allowed postponement of a suspension to preserve a "unique opportunity."
Conveniently, they also agreed the Sugar Bowl presented just such an opportunity. But just for good measure, the school also accepted part of the blame by claiming their compliance people hadn't educated Pryor and his teammates on the rules in question, no doubt because they were too consumed with coursework.
On such flimsy excuses is the entire postseason built. When the BCS hijacked college football's most prized possession, it promised to match No. 1 vs. No. 2 and let the remaining bowls serve as a reward for other deserving teams. But the fact that there were too few deserving teams and not enough compelling matchups to prop up sagging TV ratings or fill up the nearly three dozen bowls staged this season hasn't stopped any of them from going forward.
More than a dozen teams that finished 6-6 enjoyed their day in the sun, some at the expense of more successful teams — like an 8-4 Temple squad that didn't receive an invite — because their fan base doesn't travel in numbers. For all the other rules that govern the postseason, a winning record hasn't yet found its way into the books.
More troubling, though, is what happens to some of the schools that make the cut. In order to fund the lavish habits of the bowl committees and their BCS enablers, invited schools are on the hook to sell tickets. Figure in travel expenses and breaking even occasionally proves tougher than winning the game itself.
All of it might be easier to take if the games were at least more entertaining. But this season has made a mockery of the notion that you can't have too much football on TV. The championship game is still a few days off, but it will have to be something special to wrest much attention from the start of the NFL playoffs that precedes it over the weekend.
For all the other ways they've rigged the sport, it's too bad that nobody in charge in college football settled on the one idea that would have made the rest of the postseason actually worth watching — playoffs.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org