Ohio State players in blazers shuffled past shoveled snow on their way to the team bus. Oregon players were bundled in sweat suits, many using the hoods to stave off the cold.
Nothing unusual in the obligatory shots of participating teams departing home bases for a championship game, except this:
The first College Football Playoff Championship Game matches teams from places where the hallway closets include heavy coats, gloves, ski hats and scarfs that get regular use. That is, the South or Southwest isn’t represented on the sport’s grand stage.
This hasn’t happened before in the BCS/Playoff era.
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“We’re going to have a Northern champion, it’s a change,” said ESPN studio host Chris Fowler. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”
A breath that on most winter days forms a small cloud from the fans of these schools.
College football’s power shift has been tilting south and southwest for decades. Florida schools got it started, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry rose to new heights in the early part of the BCS era, and the Southeastern Conference dominated the last decade or so.
Add Southern California to the mix, and 15 of the 16 BCS champions came from warm-weather states. The exception was Ohio State in 2002, when the Buckeyes upset Miami, Fla., in double overtime. In 10 BCS title games, both teams came from warm areas.
Does Ohio State-Oregon break the trend? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich doesn’t go that far.
“But we certainly think it’s great for college football,” he said.
Why did the game’s power structure shift?
Cold-weather schools love their football as much as any school stretched across the southern border.
But the numbers, especially in recruiting, favor the South.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer became a Notre Dame assistant in 1996 and his recruiting territory was northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
“You had a big chunk of players to go recruit,” Meyer said. “It’s just smaller now. I’m not saying it’s the quality because the quality is there. It’s just the depth … then you have rivals Penn State, Notre Dame, and you’re all going after the same kids.”
Meyer could have added Michigan, Nebraska and others in the Big Ten. The cold-weather schools of the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC all face similar conditions in their regions.
Lou Holtz, who coached in the North at Notre Dame and Minnesota and the South at South Carolina, Arkansas and North Carolina State, connects the shift financially.
“You’ve got these Midwest towns, blue-collar industrial towns or farm towns that aren’t growing and actually lose population, and that has a direct impact on athletics,” Holtz said. “The tax base erodes, and all of a sudden you don’t have money for assistant coaches or facilities, and schools struggle.”
Forbes examined the growth in the nation’s 52 metropolitan areas of more than 1 million during 2000-12. The 10 fastest growing cities are in warm-weather climates. The 10 slowest, including four that lost population in that span, are in the Northeast or industrial Midwest.
“When I was a youngster growing up in Ohio, on high school game days we met in the middle of town, the band played, and you marched a mile and a half to the field,” Holtz said. “That was a big thing. It doesn’t happen that way anymore.”
Before the BCS, the thermometer had little bearing on where a national champion originated. In 1997, Nebraska and Michigan each finished first in a poll. Penn State, Notre Dame, Washington and Brigham Young won titles over the previous 15 seasons.
But the talent shifted to the South. Since 2000, Ohio State has had more draft picks than any college program. The next nine in the list are from the SEC, Miami, Florida State and Oklahoma.
“It’s a real thing,” said Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida. “The quality is there, it’s the quantity that’s concerning.”
The Ducks and Buckeyes went through Florida State and Alabama in college football’s first national semifinal round to reach the championship game, a path not lost on Lincoln Kennedy, the former All-America offensive tackle from Washington.
To Kennedy, schools in the South have been receiving the benefit of the doubt.
“I understand there’s great football (in the South),” said Kennedy, who is host of a show on Fox Sports Radio. “But now we’ve taken some speculation out of the equation, and look at what happened.
“I think the playoff is going to be the start of something big.”
A more level surface in the national landscape?
The population trends aren’t reversing, but Holtz sees a change that has already paid off for one school.
“You look at what Urban Meyer is doing at Ohio State,” Holtz said. “He won in the SEC by building complete teams. Speed, strength, both sides of the ball. That’s the type of program he’s building at Ohio State.”
One that erased a 15-point deficit in the Sugar Bowl and defeated Alabama, the nation’s top-ranked team, to reach the title game. And the Buckeyes did it with a quarterback, Cardale Jones, making his second career start.
Meyer is 37-3 in three seasons in Columbus, and three other Big Ten powers — Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin are now breaking in new coaches.
“Coaching is the other big part of this thing,” Holtz said. “The Big Ten has improved there in the last few years.”
Helfich, an Oregon native, believes the Pac-12 is as strong as it’s ever been because the league thinks more nationally.
“The recruiting footprint has gone from West to everywhere,” Helfrich said. “We believe a lot in our conference and what has transpired over the last few years in terms of commitment to facilities and the talent that’s come into the league.”
The warm-weather schools aren’t melting away. Some of the regular season’s big story lines were the rise to national prominence of Mississippi State and Mississippi, the Baylor-TCU rivalry and the improved play of Arizona and Arizona State. Sun-screen type of places.
But on Monday they’ll watch a couple of cool customers, who spend many months blowing into their hands for warmth, play for the national championship.