The NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 is set and it is, without question, sweet. You have traditional powers and upstarts, Cinderellas and usual suspects. It will be great fun to see how it all plays out.
But you know what eclipses “sweet” and reaches awesome? College football.
If — when? — the College Football Playoff expands to 16 teams, they’ll have to call that round the “Just a bit Sweeter 16” or something even cooler than that. It therefore behooves us to take these 16 teams, wave our magic wand, and turn them into — yep! — football teams from 2016. Oh, and it will be interesting.
Three teams are in trouble, as Gonzaga, Xavier and Butler will not be able to offer up much against Power 5 conference might on the gridiron, though it must be noted that in terms of “power,” our 13 Power 5 teams include six that finished with losing records in 2016 and nine that lost at least five games.
None made the College Football Playoff and only four finished ranked, with the Big Ten tandem of No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Michigan leading that charge. And here’s a fun fact: Three of the five Sweet 16 Power 5 matchups feature teams that have never met in football.
So without further ado, the “Just a bit Sweeter 16” (or something even cooler than that).
Wisconsin 20, Florida 17: If you are like this writer, you’d spend several minutes on this one, disbelieving the official record books that these two teams have never played. How in the name of the Citrusy Outback is that possible? In any event, these two rugged, defense-minded squads go nose-to-nose for four grinding quarters before Badgers kicker Andrew Endicott boots a 37-yard field goal for the win as the clock expires.
South Carolina 17, Baylor 14: This game was played on a Friday, which, of course, means that “Deebo” is gonna be riding his bike and acting like a bully. As in: Gamecocks QB Jake Bentley throws two touchdown passes to receiver Deebo Samuel — so nicknamed in tribute to the menacing character from the movie “Friday” — as the Gamecocks roll into the Elite Eight.
West Virginia 1, Gonzaga 0: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen seems a bit piqued. “What do you mean Gonzaga doesn’t play football!?” he yells. “How can that be?” He’s then told that his team automatically advances to the Elite Eight. He finishes his Red Bull and barks, “Well, then. Alrighty. That works.”
Arizona 2, Xavier 0: When Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez hears that West Virginia was given a 1-0 victory over Gonzaga because the Bulldogs don’t have a football team, he demands that his team gets two points for the same reason against Xavier. “Two points is a real football score — it’s a safety,” he says. “And there’s nothing to the idea that I want to do better than West Virginia. Nothing at all. For the most part.”
Purdue 39, Kansas 33: What happens when the Big Ten’s worst defense faces the Big 12’s worst offense? Well, some might call it milquetoast vs. wet noodle, a resistible force vs. a movable object, but in this case it became a rare thing of beauty in these teams’ first-ever meeting. The final score in this magisterial, back-and-forth affair is one of the rarest in football — it’s only happened once in NFL history (2013, Indianapolis Colts over Denver Broncos).
Michigan 30, Oregon 17: Three days before this showdown, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was told that the Ducks had bested the Wolverines in their past two meetings, including a 31-27 upset that led to the famous Sports Illustrated cover, “Dazzling Ducks… Rich, Cool and 4-0 (quack, quack).” His wallpapering of the pregame locker room with said cover seemed to do the motivational trick.
North Carolina 50, Butler 10: In basketball, Butler is a power, practically on equal footing with the Tar Heels, considering the Bulldogs have won the teams’ last two meetings in hoops. On the football field? Well, the 4-7 FCS team, which lost to Drake, Marist and Campbell this fall, isn’t as salty.
UCLA 11, Kentucky 8: Funny thing about this matchup of basketball brand names is they have never before met in football. The quintessential Power 5 athletic programs often written off as “Basketball Schools” during football season, the Bruins take this one because, of the teams’ 19 combined basketball national titles, the Bruins lead with 11.
Wisconsin 34, South Carolina 24: Nope, Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney are not walking through that door. Oh, how South Carolina fans must recall this score reversal from the 2014 Capital One Bowl, the Gamecocks last flirtation with glory, which capped a run of three consecutive bowl wins and 11-win seasons. Since then, they are 16-22, which deserves an official Mean Face from coach Will Muschamp. Wisky advances.
Arizona 13, West Virginia 9: Annnnd we have our first major upset, as the Wildcats, who finished 3-9 in 2016, best the 18th-ranked Mountaineers, who finished 10-3. Anyone in Morgantown recall this score. Anyone? Here’s a hint, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez once described a game he lost by this score like this: “The whole thing was a nightmare.”
Michigan 75, Purdue 10: Jim Harbaugh is asked why he kept his starters in the entire game and went for a two-point conversion with 10 seconds left. His answer: He wanted to score more points than the basketball team did in its late-season win over the Boilermakers.
North Carolina 20, UCLA 17: Just as basketball powers Kentucky and UCLA had never played previously in football, the same is true here. Editorial sidebar: Isn’t there a way to pair home-and-home series in both sports? Something like the “Hoops and Hits Challenge.” Anyway, the executive decision was made here that the Tar Heels played the Josh Rosen-less Bruins, who were pretty darn feckless, so there’s no A-list QB matchup with Mitch Trubisky. So let’s move along to the Final Four.
Arizona 24, Wisconsin 20: The Wildcats are no Cinderella in basketball, but they become one here with an shocking upset of the Badgers. Turnovers made the difference as the Badgers, typically good at protecting the football, fumbled twice and threw two more interceptions — one a pick-6 to the perennially underrated Paul Magloire — while Arizona turned in a clean sheet. And in no way should this unlikely result telegraph the potential drama we want to orchestrate for the fictitious national championship game.
Michigan 28, North Carolina 10: Jim Harbaugh leads his team to victory after a fiery pregame speech that evokes Michigan’s painful 17-15 defeat to the Tar Heels in the 1979 Gator Bowl, as well as the favorite UNC bumper sticker, “If God is not a Tar Heel, then why is the sky Carolina blue?” Harbaugh notes that God is a Michigan fan — everybody knows that.
Michigan 35, Arizona 33: Billed as Rich Rodriguez’s redemption tour, the “Just a Bit Sweeter 16” ends with Arizona falling just short, outmanned by the Wolverines’ superior talent. In the Michigan locker room, the Wolverines are eating steak, and milk is being sprayed in great white fountains of celebration — whole milk, of course. Harbaugh is asked whether he, too, was motivated by revenge, as many Michigan fans still resent Rodriguez. Harbaugh again delivers one of his favorite quotes, Old Man and the Sea: “I was talking to my great friend Santiago while fishing the other day, and he said this about never letting up on an opponent, ‘The punishment I inflict, his fatigue, and that he is up against something that he does not comprehend is everything.’ “