Sports Wrap: Bowl Game Preview, Year in Review

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Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis previews the college bowl games and reviews the big sports stories of 2005.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The college football bowl season is upon us, and there's something missing this year: controversy about who's playing for the national championship. There is no doubt that either Texas or Southern California will be the undisputed number-one team. Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us, as he does most Fridays, to talk about sports and the business of sports.

Welcome back, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And, first, the schedule for the bowl games this year seems a little odd. No bowl games on New Year's Day.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, that is the traditional bowl day, but it falls on a Sunday this year. And Sunday, of course, is the official day of the National Football League in America.

SIEGEL: It bought rights to Sunday.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah.

SIEGEL: We're going to talk about three of the big bowl games, and let's start with the game which, for the purposes of brevity, I shall call the Fiesta Bowl, but you and I know it's really the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Mr. FATSIS: That's right.

SIEGEL: So on Monday afternoon Notre Dame, fifth in the country in the rankings back in national prominence, against another big name midwestern school, Ohio State.

Mr. FATSIS: Yup. First-year coach and Notre Dame alum Charlie Weis took over the team before this season and he instituted an NFL-style offense, and it turned out to be the best offense in Notre Dame history. The team's two losses this season were by 3 points apiece, including one to Southern Cal. But Notre Dame's schedule not rated terribly highly, so this game against number-four Ohio State is a big test.

SIEGEL: Then onto the battle of two coaching legends: Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State in what--the game formerly known as the Orange Bowl.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, like the Notre Dame game, this game crosses over into the general interest category. This is going to draw a huge TV audience. Penn State, Paterno had been on the hot seat. People have been calling for him to retire. Instead, he went 11-and-1 this season. The team is ranked third in the country. Its only loss was on a last-second touchdown.

Florida State was only 8-and-4 this year, but who cares. Paterno's 79; Bowden 'is 76. They've won 712 games and 39 bowls between them. And what is truly astounding is that they've been head coaches at the same schools for 70 years combined, 40 for Paterno, 30 for Bowden. You're never going to see that again.

SIEGEL: Now finally, the game that college football fans have been waiting for will be Southern Cal vs. Texas in the--do you know what the name of the game is actually, Stefan?

Mr. FATSIS: The Rose Bowl Presented by Citi...

SIEGEL: By Citibank.

Mr. FATSIS: ...C-I-T-I.

SIEGEL: We'll just call it the Rose Bowl.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah.

SIEGEL: The Trojans and the Longhorns are the only undefeated teams in major college football and there's been a lot of attention to their two high-powered offenses.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, the top two in the country. They've each averaged more than 50 points and 500 yards a game. Texas, though, has a defensive edge. They've allowed about 15 points per game compared to 21 for USC.

SIEGEL: Now I want you to explain the theory that you've told me about and that you're evidently going to write about for tomorrow's Wall Street Journal, that despite all of the stats we have on these two teams, Texas and USC, there is no good way to handicap this game.

Mr. FATSIS: No, or most college football games. The data sample in college football is just very small, only 12 games. There are a lot of teams and a huge disparity in talent, even within conferences. And stats can be really misleading, especially with superior teams like USC and Texas because they have so many blowout wins. USC and Texas each won nine out of their 12 games by more than 20 points.

SIEGEL: But if I understand this, the people who look at all the numbers come out saying Texas is the better team, it's going to win. And the humans who look at the two teams say, `I think USC is going to win.'

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, the computers essentially concluded that Texas played a tougher schedule than USC and their defense is a little bit better and that matters a lot. Texas finished first in five of the six rankings used to determine who plays in the championship games and in 77 out of 111 of these computer ranking services that you can track online.

USC finished on top of both of the human polls. And the humans essentially feel that USC has won a national championship two years in a row and experience does matter in a big game like this. These are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids and you never know what they're going to do.

SIEGEL: Well, Stefan, this is the last time we're going to talk in 2005. So I'm going to ask you what you think, in the year gone by, was the most important, signal sports story of the year?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, I think baseball imposing these much stricter drug penalties on players after being shamed in front on Congress. I mean, this was a huge issue this year. And I think the broader issue that it brings up is how management seems to have a slightly upper hand in pro sports. In the NHL, the National Hockey League, it crushed its union at the bargaining table. A couple of teams very prominently dumped two players, Terrell Owens in the NFL and Ron Artest in the NBA.

And the flip side of that is: Who won? Teams won. New England in the National Football League, San Antonio in the National Basketball Association, and the Chicago White Sox in baseball. And this was all just so sensible that I find it impossible to think that it's going to continue.

SIEGEL: Well, there's a whole year ahead of us for it to be interrupted and reversed. Thank you very much, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us Fridays about sports and the business of sports.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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