What we learned from Upset Saturday; more Overtime
Just how unpredictable were some of Saturday's upsets? Well, I thought I was being a tad conservative when I picked Oklahoma to beat Texas 30-13. Instead, at one point in the second half the widely dismissed Longhorns led their Red River rivals 29-13.
The highlights: Seven ranked teams lost; an unranked team (Utah) beat a top-10 opponent (then No. 5 Stanford) for the first time this season; the same Michigan kicker who won the Sugar Bowl in 2012 with a field goal in overtime missed two overtime field goals in a loss to Penn State; and a backup quarterback helped Missouri knock off then seventh-ranked Georgia. It was college football at its finest, and wackiest.
Let's dissect the aftermath of Upset Saturday.
• The SEC East is in shambles. The 2013 season began with three teams from this division (Georgia, South Carolina and Florida) ranked in the top 10. Now there are none, and No. 14 Missouri (6-0, 2-0 SEC), which just cracked the AP Poll for the first time last week, sits alone in first place following its 41-26 win over the 15th-ranked Bulldogs in Athens. While standout defensive end Michael Sam and the Tigers put on an eye-opening defensive performance, this game, like so many others in the SEC East this season, was defined by injuries. The decimated Dawgs not only played without injured tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but also without three starting receivers. Mizzou also lost quarterback James Franklin for at least three to five weeks, according to coach Gary Pinkel.
The upshot is that no team from this division is likely to contribute to the SEC's vaunted BCS title streak. The Tigers will host Florida (4-2, 3-1) next Saturday in a showdown of backup quarterbacks. Missouri will follow that up with a game on Oct. 26 against South Carolina (5-1, 3-1), the healthiest of its division rivals -- despite all the fuss about Jadeveon Clowney's ribs. One of these four teams will get to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, but don't expect any to be in national title contention come December.
• Oregon is the class of the Pac-12. On Saturday, the conference's two top-five teams both played in challenging league road games. The No. 2 Ducks (6-0, 3-0) shined, riding stud quarterback Marcus Mariota to a 45-24 victory over then No. 16 Washington, Oregon's 10th straight win in the series. Stanford (5-1, 3-1), on the other hand, failed to convert on both third- and fourth-and-2 from the Utah six-yard line in the final seconds of a 27-21 defeat. The Cardinal, who were impressive in previous wins over Arizona State and Washington, were a trendy preseason pick to win the BCS championship. But with the loss to the underdog Utes (4-2, 1-2) Stanford sank from No. 5 to No. 13 in the latest AP Poll.
There are plenty of big conference games remaining, with No. 9 UCLA (5-0, 2-0) visiting the Cardinal and the Ducks in the next two weeks. And sneaky-hot Oregon State (5-1, 3-0) still has to play both Stanford (Oct. 26) and Oregon (Nov. 29) too. The Cardinal are still certainly capable of beating the Ducks on Nov. 7, but while Oregon is excelling on both sides of the ball, Stanford -- which opted to pass on those two last-second, short-yardage plays -- has not complemented its salty defense with a power-run game. This is the Ducks' conference to lose.
• Ohio State and Baylor are getting no help from their conferences. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are 6-0 and are coming off consecutive wins over ranked teams (Wisconsin on Sept. 28 and Northwestern on Oct. 5) ... but their national title hopes are worse than they were two months ago. For that, Ohio State can blame the Big Ten. A schedule that was already perceived as weak just keeps getting weaker. Michigan (5-1, 1-1) was supposed to redeem the Buckeyes at the end of the season, but the Wolverines' mistake-filled 43-40 loss at Penn State (4-2, 1-1) on Saturday confirmed suspicions that they were not as good as their record. The Nittany Lions, who play Ohio State on Oct. 26, lost to lowly Indiana by 20 on Oct. 5. The Buckeyes have to hope that either the 25th-ranked Badgers (4-2, 2-1) win out and move into the top 10, or that possible Big Ten title game opponents Nebraska (5-1, 2-0) or Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) dominate en route to meeting Ohio State in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.
Meanwhile, No. 12 Baylor (5-0, 2-0) survived Kansas State 35-25 in the Bears' first road trip of the season. Baylor had been looking forward to a potential showdown of unbeatens with 18th-ranked Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1) on Nov. 7, but the Sooners got smacked down on Saturday by early-season punching bag Texas (4-2, 3-0). Now the Bears are fighting not only deeply entrenched public skepticism, but also the fact that the Big 12 stinks this year. The conference's current co-leaders are coach Kliff Kingsbury's still-unbeaten Texas Tech team (6-0, 3-0) -- which is off to a great start against weak competition -- and the Longhorns. Baylor needs some team -- the Red Raiders, Oklahoma, Texas or Oklahoma State -- to rise into the top 10 soon.
• Louisville has no shot at the national title. Given their wretched schedule, the eighth-ranked Cardinals (6-0, 2-0 AAC) need to dominate every chance they get in order to be taken seriously. While their defense did just that by hauling in four interceptions in last Thursday's nationally televised 24-10 win over Rutgers (4-2, 1-1), the voters demand blood. In other words, they want to see quarterback Teddy Bridgewater put up 40-plus points on everybody. Bridgewater passed for 310 yards, but he and his teammates also coughed up three turnovers in an underwhelming performance against the Scarlet Knights.
Boise State played under a glass ceiling during the Kellen Moore era, and Bridgewater is dealing with a similar situation -- if not worse. The Broncos at least went out and beat the likes of Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. Outside of this Friday's matchup with UCF, Louisville's best hope for a signature victory comes Nov. 16 ... against Houston (5-0, 2-0).
Texas' Mack Brown gets redemption in Red River blowout
On Saturday at the Cotton Bowl -- the same stadium that has played host to some of the lowest moments of his career at Texas -- Longhorns coach Mack Brown enjoyed a sweet day of redemption. Texas finally looked like the team that their coach had been talking about all offseason. Running backs Johnathan Gray (29 carries, 123 yards) and Malcolm Brown (23 carries, 120 yards) bulldozed a previously stout Oklahoma defense. (The Sooners sorely missed injured star linebacker Corey Nelson.) Longhorns defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat had two sacks and defensive tackle Chris Whaley returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown, and the talented pair terrorized Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell all afternoon. And Texas speedster Daje Johnson returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown en route to a 36-20 Red River rout.
"I knew this was going to be a different mindset coming into this game because [our players] were not happy with the last two years and the way it has looked," said Brown, referring to the Longhorns' 55-17 and 63-21 losses to the Sooners the past two seasons. "Walking out of here last year there were a lot of things said in that dressing room that affected today."
The lazy narrative is that Brown "saved his job" with Saturday's win. That was never the scenario to begin with. My colleague Andy Staples described it best in his column from Dallas, comparing the victory to "that one sweet day" shortly before a couple's eventual divorce, where "it feels like the good old days before the union began to rot." Beating hated Oklahoma will allow Brown to help dictate his own exit in concert with retiring athletic director DeLoss Dodds, most likely in December. Brown has insisted repeatedly that he won't be fired, and he's correct, because Dodds was never going to fire him. But that doesn't mean Brown won't take the decision out of Dodds' hands.
Perhaps Saturday's performance was a breakthrough for Texas. At 3-0 in the Big 12 and having beaten one of the league's presumed contenders, Brown's repeated goal of a conference title no longer seems so far-fetched. Short of that, however, the season no longer feels like the colossal implosion it did a few weeks ago. The Longhorns should be able to bid Brown the amicable farewell he deserves.
Utah makes a Pac-12 statement by upsetting Stanford
Heading into their game against the Cardinal on Saturday, the Utes had gone 7-13 in league play since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Utah's middling record lent credence to the arguments of any power-conference advocates who wanted to diminish the two-time BCS bowl champs' accomplishments in the Mountain West. The record also raised doubts as to whether the Utes could compete in their new conference any time soon. Careful observers, though, may have noticed htat Utah's first two Pac-12 games this season went down to wire: The Utes lost 51-48 in overtime to Oregon State on Sept. 14, and narrowly fell 34-27 to undefeated UCLA on Oct. 3.
But enough about the close calls. Saturday's 27-21 win over defending conference champion Stanford shows that Utah is plenty competitive.
"We feel like we can stand toe-to-toe with the upper-echelon teams in this league," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said on Sunday morning. "We're still a work in progress, but we feel like we've made up a lot of ground the last few years with our depth and talent level."
Saturday's game -- the program's first-ever home win over a top-five foe -- ultimately came down to two last-second defensive stops near the goal line. But to get there, Utah essentially out-Stanforded the Cardinal. The Utes' physical defensive line helped force three fumbles (Utah recovered two), and, outside of one 43-yard Tyler Gaffney run, mostly neutralized Stanford's offense. Meanwhile, Utes running back Bubba Poole helped his team grind out 176 rushing yards on 39 attempts.
Save for a 100-yard Ty Montgomery kick return (his second in as many weeks), the Cardinal did not reach the end zone in more than three quarters of action.
"We're a physical football team -- our front seven on defense are really physical," said Whittingham. "The difference in the game was our ability to run the football. Our offensive line did a really nice job."
To that end, dominant sophomore left tackle C.J. Poutasi (6-foot-5, 345 pounds) is emerging as an All-America candidate.
"Utah is really big up front and creates issues for us on the defensive side," Stanford coach David Shaw said after the game. He noted, "This is as well as I've seen Utah play on the offensive side."
With two conference losses, the Utes seem too far back to emerge from the Pac-12 South this season. They've also yet to play a game outside of their home state, a streak that will end this Saturday when they visit Arizona. But whatever happens the rest of the way, credit Utah with delivering the season's first truly landscape-altering upset.
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
I had not done one of these yet this season because there had been such little movement in the polls. But given this weekend's upsets and the forthcoming BCS rankings, it seems a good time to weigh in.
Overrated: Louisville (AP: 8, Coaches: 6)
It's insane, it really is. Somehow, the Cardinals' Sugar Bowl win last season still carrues more weight than accomplishments this year by such teams as UCLA, Miami and Baylor.
Underrated: Wisconsin (AP: No. 25, Coaches: NR)
The Badgers' officiating-marred loss at Arizona State on Sept. 14 is costing them eight to 10 spots in the polls. Wisconsin, which mauled Northwestern for 286 yards in Saturday's 35-6 rout, will finish with no fewer than nine wins.
Current BCS forecast
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:
It's the game much of the country has been waiting to see for two years, and now, for the first time this season, I'm predicting that the Crimson Tide will play the Ducks for the BCS championship. Interestingly enough, if this game comes to be it might not feature the stylistic contrast many fans might expect. Washington actually operated at a faster tempo than Oregon during the Huskies' loss on Saturday. The Ducks' system may have started their rise, but now they simply have better players than most opponents.
I may change my mind about the BCS title game, however, after this Saturday's meeting between Clemson and Florida State. I've already tipped my hand here as to my pick later this week. The Seminoles are clearly loaded on offense, led by thus-far unflappable quarterback Jameis Winston, but I'm interested to see how their defense fares against Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. If I had to guess today, I'd say that we'll see either an SEC-Pac-12, SEC-ACC or Pac-12-ACC matchup on Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
Spreading the field
• A wild Saturday would not have been complete without a vintage performance from Johnny Manziel in the nightcap. The Texas A&M star completed 31-of-39 passes for 346 yards, carried 19 times for 124 yards and led game-tying and game-winning drives in the final 3:07 of regulation in the Aggies' (5-1, 2-1 SEC) 41-38 win at Ole Miss (3-3, 1-3). The game-tying drive included a 13-yard run on a do-or-die fourth-and-7, a 26-yard pass to Mike Evans and a six-yard touchdown scamper. The game-winning field-goal drive included 12- and 13-yard runs. It was so fun to watch.
Still, as I wrote after Saturday's game between Oregon and Washington, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota is breathing down Manziel's neck in the Heisman race. If they continue to lead the pack (Clemson's Boyd and Florida State's Winston will have something to say about that this week), discerning voters might start looking at turnovers. It was one thing to write off Manziel's two interceptions in the loss to Alabama because of his otherwise monstrous performance, but his two second-half turnovers on Saturday helped keep Ole Miss in the game. Mariota put up numbers similar to Manziel's on Saturday, but did so against a better Washington team. He also did not throw an interception, and still has zero for the season.
• Amazingly, Mariota is not necessarily the most productive quarterback in his own state. With a school-record 493 passing yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's 52-24 rout of Washington State (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12), Oregon State's Sean Mannion has thrown for more yards (2,511) and touchdowns (25) than any passer in the country, with just three interceptions. However, a Week 1 loss to FCS Eastern Washington continues to hamper both Mannion and the Beavers (5-1, 3-0), who have yet to return to the Top 25.
• UCLA is 5-0 for the first time since 2005 following its 37-10 rout of Cal (1-5, 0-3), and now quarterback Brett Hundley (31-of-41, 410 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) and the Bruins will get their moment in the sun. UCLA will visit Stanford and Oregon in each of the next two weeks. Washington just endured the same grueling two-game stretch, and despite losing twice, the Huskies maintained enough respect to fall just five spots in the AP Poll. Keep in mind, this may just be round one for the Bruins (2-0 Pac-12) if they reach the Pac-12 title game.
• In LSU's 17-6 win over Florida on Saturday, Tigers running back Jeremy Hill delivered his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in the last five games. What was special about this one (19 carries for 126 yards), however, was that it came against the nation's No. 2 rushing defense. LSU's offense (6-1, 3-1) has relied heavily on quarterback Zach Mettenberger this season, but the Tigers can still play power football with the best of them. Bruising fullback J.C. Copeland at one point gashed the Gators for a 10-yard run and finished with 20 yards on five carries.
• The farther removed that Alabama gets from its historically bad defensive showing against Texas A&M, the more it becomes apparent that the game was more a product of Manziel's abilities than the Crimson Tide's shortcomings. Top-ranked 'Bama (6-0, 3-0) held Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) to 170 yards in a 48-7 rout on Saturday, and has allowed just 68 points and 1,669 yards through six games. The Aggies accounted for more than one-third of those yards and 62 percent of those points.
• Penn State's 43-40 four-overtime win over Michigan -- besides being Saturday's most exciting game -- gave the nation a chance to see overlooked Nittany Lions star wideout Allen Robinson. The country's 10th-leading receiver had five catches for 84 yards, none bigger than his incredible 36-yard leaping sideline grab, which set up quarterback Christian Hackenberg's one-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter. (On the flip side, Robinson's fumble on a reverse in triple overtime could have lost the game.)
• Free of both the Lane Kiffin soap opera and the former coach's conservative play-calling, USC (4-2, 1-2) appeared to cut loose in its first game under interim coach Ed Orgeron. The Trojans beat Arizona (3-2, 0-2) 38-31 last Thursday. Quarterback Cody Kessler threw touchdown passes of 62 and 63 yards in the first quarter. "Coach O really brought coach Carroll back," tackle Kevin Graf said of USC's mindset. Meanwhile, Kiffin said on College GameDay that watching the game "was like watching someone else raise your kids."
• Baylor's offense is, in fact, mortal, though it says something that its most modest performance to date (446 total yards) still included Bryce Petty touchdown passes of 93, 72 and 54 yards in a 35-25 win over Kansas State. To their credit, the Wildcats' defense shut down running back Lache Seastrunk (12 carries, 59 yards), while their offense pounded the Bears' previously untested defense for 327 rushing yards. "We knew the way this season had gone, it wasn't going to continue like that," said Baylor coach Art Briles.
• Virginia Tech's defense turned in another suffocating performance in Saturday's 19-9 win over Pittsburgh (3-2, 2-2). The Hokies sacked Panthers quarterback Tom Savage eight times, led by three from defensive end Dadi Nicolas. "We got eight, but I bet we probably missed eight," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer lamented afterward. The Hokies (6-1, 3-0) have now rolled off six straight wins since their season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama. They are allowing just 3.97 yards per play, second only to Michigan State.
• Speaking of the Spartans, they scored 42 points -- 42 points! -- in Saturday's 42-28 win over Indiana (3-3, 1-1). It was the most points Michigan State has scored against an FBS opponent in more than two years.
• Watch out folks, USF is off to a 2-0 start in American conference play following Saturday's 13-10 win at 0-5 UConn. The Bulls now have the unusual line of 2-4 (2-0 AAC).
• UNLV (4-2, 2-0 MWC) has won four straight games for the first time since 2000 after Saturday's 39-37 win over Hawaii (0-6, 0-4). Rebels kicker Nolan Kohorst hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired.
• Finally, a hearty salute to Army running back Terry Baggett, who rushed for a school-record 304 yards and four touchdowns (one of them 96 yards) on just 18 carries in a 50-25 win over Eastern Michigan.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
For a Conference USA game, Tulane's 36-33 triple-overtime victory over East Carolina on Saturday caught the attention of some heavy hitters. When Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson checked his phone afterward, he had congratulatory texts from New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis, among others.
"People are beginning to get back on board," said Johnson, who spent six seasons as a Saints assistant before taking over Tulane's program last year. "They're starting to act like there's college football again here in New Orleans."
At 5-2 (3-0 C-USA), the Green Wave already have their most wins since 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and touched off Tulane football's descent into the league basement. The Green Wave went 2-11 in 2011, the year before Johnson took over, and 2-10 last fall in his debut campaign. Meanwhile, the Pirates (4-2, 2-1) have gone to bowl games in six of the past seven seasons and had emerged as the early C-USA favorite after they routed North Carolina on Sept. 28. Even Johnson wasn't overly optimistic about his team's prospects entering Saturday's game.
"You looked at our schedule [before the season], you said we're not going to beat them, we're not going to beat Syracuse," said Johnson, whose team did indeed fall 52-17 to the Orange on Sept. 21. "Unlike saying this was a signature moment -- I don't think we can say that right now, but it was definitely a huge win for us."
All the more remarkable, Tulane was without injured starting quarterback Nick Montana, and top running back Orleans Darkwa went down in overtime. Johnson instead put his faith in his defense and special teams. He said he developed an admiration for Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's "Beamerball" while he was an assistant at Miami from 1996-2005, and he is building his program with that in mind. It helps to have reigning Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos, who Johnson calls "the best kicker in the world." When East Carolina's Warren Harvey missed a 34-yard field goal in the half of the third overtime, Johnson didn't hesitate. He sent Santos out on first down to kick the game-winning field goal, his fifth of the day.
Now, Tulane's players will reap the benefits of their victory. The Green Wave have a bye this week, and their schedule currently includes no practices. "I told them, if they win, I'll give them the week off," said Johnson. "I didn't want to renege on my deal."
For the older players who hadn't enjoyed a lot of wins prior to this season, this is certainly well deserved.
Les Miles being Les Miles
A reporter referred to LSU being a "nail to Florida's hammer" in last year's 14-6 loss to the Gators (as opposed to vice versa in Saturday's win). Oops.
Steve Spurrier being Steve Spurrier
The Old Ball Coach expresses empathy for his fallen opponent (Arkansas) with a trace of his patented condescension.
Mini-previews for three of Week 8's big games:
• Florida State at Clemson, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): You'll read plenty about the quarterbacks this week, but what about the defenses charged with stopping them? Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley, the nation's sack leader, will look to bring the heat on Winston, while Seminoles linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan will look to bring down Boyd in the backfield.
• UCLA at Stanford, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Cardinal should play angry following this week's loss at Utah, but anger won't slow down the Bruins' Hundley. Linebacker Trent Murphy and Stanford's defense will need to disrupt the quarterback's rhythm and take pressure off the Cardinal's inconsistent offense.
• USC at Notre Dame, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): If the Trojans' offense plays like it did against Arizona, it may well extend USC's current five-game winning streak in South Bend. If the Fighting Irish defense plays like it did against Arizona State, however, it may make life difficult for Kessler and his offensive line.