Few topics in sports have attracted as much controversy as college football's BCS system. The call for a playoff has finally been answered, and by 2014 the national champion will be picked in a new, more fan-friendly format. However, until that time the college football world still has the BCS system, and luckily this year is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in recent years.
This year gives us one of the most anticipated National Championship match-ups ever, with perennial powerhouse Alabama squaring off against a rejuvenated Notre Dame team, which just completed its first undefeated regular season in more than 20 years. The two programs are some of the most decorated in college football history, and the Fighting Irish are one of the biggest surprises of the year after they started off the season ranked outside the top 25. When the two teams kick off on January 7, it may be one of the most watched games of the sports year.
Of course, there are a number of other compelling games, including the Orange Bowl. Played each year in Miami, this year's contest features an unusual match-up between ACC champion Florida State and MAC champion Northern Illinois. The selection of NIU caused quite a stir, especially since their placement in the Orange Bowl knocked Oklahoma out of the BCS picture. While Northern Illinois, who finished the season 12-1, is certainly a good team, their regular season schedule was not particularly challenging, with their biggest win probably coming over Army. Not only that, but their lone loss came to Iowa, who finished the year a paltry 4-8. If they can pull off the upset of Florida State it would be one of the most stunning victories of all time.
The Orange Bowl is surrounded by controversy, but that's not the case with some of the other games, especially the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, which pits Oregon against Kansas State. Both teams were contenders for the National Championship before late-season losses dropped them out of the picture, but they still stand as two of the most exciting squads in the country. KSU is led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Collin Klein, while Oregon's high-flying offense will give the Wildcats a serious test.
There are more than two dozen other bowls to check out, and sometimes it's hard to keep track. Some to be on the lookout for include Capital One Bowl, which pits Nebraska against Georgia, and the Outback Bowl, which features Michigan against South Carolina.
The NFL season is already half over; and boy have things changed a lot since the first four games. Surprise teams many thought could make an unforeseen run into the playoffs have almost disappeared completely, while the defending Super Bowl champion Giants have seem to have hit their yearly mid-season slide. Yet, while the landscape has changed considerably over the last month or so, the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans are still the cream of the crop.
After the first month of the season, a lot of fans, me included, were singing the praises of the Arizona Cardinals. They were 4-0, and their wins included a surprising victory over the defending AFC Champion New England Patriots. Since then, the Cards are 0-5 and are slowly fading from playoff contention in the NFC. Plus, with inconsistency at quarterback - whether it's John Skelton or Kevin Kolb under center - it's unlikely they'll get back in the conversation.
The Cardinals fall from the ranks of the undefeated have helped right the ship a little. The familiar names are back in the thick of things - the Ravens, Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Giants and Bears, are all on pace to head back to the playoffs this year, even though the Giants have lost two in a row and have struggled on offense as of late.
But arguably the biggest story so far this NFL season is the success of both the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. Last year, the Colts released future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to make way for first overall pick Andrew Luck. The former Stanford star was expected to come into a work in progress, but the unflappable rookie has led the Colts to an impressive 6-3 record and on the cusp of a playoff berth.
As for the Broncos, who signed Manning after he was released, things could not be going any better. Manning seems to be showing no ill effects of his several neck surgeries that required a year off and is beginning to click with his receivers. Add that to the fact the Broncos defense is firing on all cylinders, and they are right in the hunt for a wide open AFC at 6-3.
After a wild start, full of crazy finishes and replacement referees, the NFL seems to have returned to more stable ground. Still, there's still half the season left so a lot can happen, but at this point I wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots and Falcons squaring off in Super Bowl XLVII.
The early weeks in the NFL are hard to assess. Each year there is a team that jumps out to a fast start before fading into obscurity (looking at you 2011 Buffalo Bills), so it's typically best not to read too much into early wins. That being said, with four weeks in the books it's probably safe to say that two teams have risen to the top of the early favorites to play for the Super Bowl. The Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons have both started 4-0, and both have put up some impressive numbers in the process.
The Texans and Falcons are two of only three undefeated teams at this point, and while the Cardinals are also a surprise 4-0, they have not looked quite as convincing in their wins. There's a strong case to be made for a Texans-Falcons match-up in Super Bowl XLVII, and at this point in the season it's hard to argue against it.
The Atlanta Falcons, who have put together impressive seasons in the last few years, have yet to get over the hump in the playoffs. However, with fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan looking more poised than ever, this year could be the time they do it. Through four games, Ryan has thrown 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions, and led Atlanta on an impressive drive in the closing minutes for a game winning field goal.
But Ryan is just one piece of the puzzle. Running back Michael Turner has looked like he's in prime form this season, and Ryan's favorite target Roddy White has been his usually, productive self. Not to mention their defense looks better than it has in recent seasons, and it's no surprise they have become a popular Super Bowl pick in the early going.
The Texans have been arguably even more impressive than the Falcons, and you could argue that they would have made the Super Bowl last year had quarterback Matt Schaub not been injured. But he's back this year, and has his team firing on all cylinders. Through four games, the Texans have not really been challenged, winning three of their four games by 20 or more points.
Much like the Falcons, their well-balanced approach features a standout running back (Arian Foster) and one of the best receivers in the game (Andre Johnson). Houston also has a stout defense with players like Brian Cushing and Jonathan Joseph leading the charge.
The Falcons and Texans have staked out an early lead, but as all NFL seasons have showed, anything can happen. Of course, you can never count out the defending champion New York Giants, nor the offensive juggernaut in the New England Patriots - both of whom are 2-2.