PHOENIX -- So now we get to the Sham Bowl, which should come as a steep compliment. "Sham" here refers not to any fraudulence, for we know there has never been any of that in college athletics, but to the name of a late and noble racehorse.
When Secretariat in 1973 became the first being to run a Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, Sham might have become the second in the frantic hoofbeats just behind. Nobody knew for sure because those were savage, primitive days in which snooty human beings timed only the winners and nobody else.
So I do like to honor Sham by invoking his name for anything commendably second-best, so that even if Alabama-Notre Dame is no Secretariat in the pantheon of title games, Oregon-Kansas State here on Thursday night is a pretty damned good Sham. Besides, the name proves so much less unwieldy than other candidates -- including the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bowl, the John Adams Bowl, the Butler Basketball Bowl, the Buzz Aldrin Bowl, the Marv Levy Buffalo Bills Bowl, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (actual name) and especially the Day 332 Of 2012 Bowl.
Day 332 was Saturday, Nov. 17, which proved to be the only day of the season that this wasn't a national title matchup. That would be the evening that Kansas State kicked off in Waco, Texas, at 7 p.m. Central, and Oregon kicked off at home in Eugene at 5 p.m. Pacific or, in other words, at the same time. As those opening kickoffs flew, these two top-ranked teams aimed for Miami, and once the referees put away the footballs, these two second-tier teams aimed for the Sham.
A guy with the fabulous name of Lache Seastrunk tore through the middle on an 80-yard run to cement Baylor's 52-24 trouncing of then-No. 1 Kansas State, a game that managed to conduct a scoreless fourth quarter. And a guy with the fabulous name of Zach Ertz caught a delicate touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to shove Stanford into overtime at then-No. 2 Oregon, a game Stanford would win by 17-14 because for all its IQ, it also has Neanderthal brutes on defense, which also should come as a compliment.
That rearranged the title picture from a quirky Manhattan-Eugene match that people might have bemoaned as too eccentric, with possibly low TV ratings, to a hallowed Tuscaloosa-South Bend match which has old people drooling in a nostalgic Bear-and-Ara haze, with possibly good TV ratings, even if good TV ratings might be overrated in a "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" world. It also thwarted the chance to hear an entire national fan base whine as that of unbeaten Notre Dame would have, and this is the truly devastating part given our grand national tradition of whining fan bases.
While nobody with a right mind can say that any of the four in the two biggest games is really any better than any of the others, this Oregon-Kansas State match does have superior strategic pizzazz, even if strategic pizzazz might be overrated in a Manti Te'o world. It has Kansas State's efficiency against Oregon's frenzy, and so on.
It has Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, and I think we all can agree we'd like to spend a New Year's Eve with Bill Snyder just to see what happens. Do his mouth corners budge slightly upward at midnight? Still, Snyder has become that person you could lament for years for dreariness, but who sticks around (and returns) long enough that you can fancy his dreariness. In that sense, he might even be reminiscent of certain extended-family members and high-school reunion classmates who shall remain nameless here.
According to the transcript, a pre-Sham Bowl press conference began with a moderator asking for general comments, and Snyder saying, "They'd be very brief and very general," and most any reader laughing out loud right there.
This run-up has had Oregon head coach Chip Kelly of the spread offense and the NFL whispers and shouts, expounding about the gruel of recruiting fullbacks, and, well, here: "Yeah, I mean, it's hard. That's a tough sell. 'Come to our program, you're 6-foot-2, we want you to play fullback. You're a glorified guard in the backfield, you'll graduate at 5-10, you're just going to run full speed and slam your head into people.' There's not a lot of kids out there that want to play that position. If you see somebody that has a build, that athletic style, most of those guys want to be linebackers. I don't fault them."
I don't want you to think I'm some sort of football freak, but I think I could listen for a long time while this guy talked about recruiting fullbacks.
As a bonus, then, the Sham Bowl will have a slew of wondrous offensive players, from the Oregon backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas and the Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein to back John Hubert to receiver Chris Harper. It will have defenses trying to be more than props. And it will have the appealing Oregon rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who can manage the chaos of the offense perhaps because of his home state: "Hawaii, it's funny. It's so slow, relaxing. It feel that's kind of taken me to my core."
All told, then, this is quite some Sham. Which should come as a compliment.