While the SEC standings and Top 25 polls went up in flames around him on Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn barely noticed what was happening outside of his own team's contribution.
"I'm so wrapped up in what we were doing," Malzahn said. "I was just so happy to get a big win on the road."
His team's big road win -- a 45-41 victory over then seventh-ranked Texas A&M -- was one of five games over the weekend in which a top-10 team in the AP Poll lost, the most in six years. Remarkably, Auburn's win was also one of five SEC games in which the Vegas favorite lost, with Missouri blasting Florida 36-17, Vanderbilt topping Georgia 31-27, Tennessee knocking off South Carolina 23-21 and Ole Miss stunning LSU 27-24.
Amid the carnage, SEC communications director Chuck Dunlap tweeted: "From all the Top 25 teams to the results from today, 1-14 strength and depth of the SEC on full display today." That's one way of looking at it. The view from outside Birmingham, however, is that a perfect storm of youth, injuries and uncharacteristically bad defenses has left the conference that's won the past seven BCS championships in an increasingly precarious state in this year's title race.
Last year, you may recall, the SEC held a staggering six of the top-10 spots in the final BCS standings. The league was top-heavy, but those teams were all pretty darn good, as subsequent bowl results would mostly bear out.
However, when the first BCS rankings of the season were unveiled on Sunday night, league juggernaut Alabama (7-0) held its familiar spot at No. 1, Missouri (7-0) checked in at No. 5 and ... that's it. Auburn (6-1), No. 11 in the BCS, is the only other SEC team with fewer than two conference losses. Everybody else may already be playing for a spot in the Outback Bowl.
It may be that the top-ranked Crimson Tide -- which stomped Arkansas 52-0 on Saturday and have allowed just 16 combined points in their past five games -- are all the league needs to keep its vaunted championship streak intact. But remember, Alabama has lost a game in November in each of the past two seasons (to LSU in 2011 and Texas A&M in '12) before climbing back into the top two. 'Bama might not want to take that chance this year, because it may not be able to bounce back from what could be considered a bad loss.
You know it's a rebuilding year for much of the conference (which had a record 63 players selected in the 2013 NFL draft) when two of its most successful teams to date were barely competitive just a year earlier.
Auburn, 0-8 in the league and 3-9 overall in Gene Chizik's final season on the Plains, could barely move the ball in 2012. It's not entirely surprising that Malzahn, the renowned offensive coordinator for Chizik's 2010 national title team, has immediately injected life into the Tigers, who are averaging more than 300 yards per game.
On Saturday, however, Auburn took down Johnny Football. The Tigers, whose sole loss this fall at LSU, 35-21, on Sept. 21, have come a long way in a short time.
"We've had some guys really step up and play their best football this year," said Malzahn. "I'm just proud of our guys. The things this group has overcome, I couldn't be happier for them."
Good for Auburn. But it's hard to say how much it has closed the gap on the rest of the SEC, or how much the rest of the SEC has regressed.
Take Missouri, for example. A year after going 2-6 in its debut SEC campaign and generally being laughed off as a Big 12 impostor, coach Gary Pinkel's undefeated team is now the toast of the league. In consecutive weeks, Mizzou has defeated preseason top-10 foes Georgia (4-3) and Florida (4-3), the latter a 36-17 rout in which the Tigers outgained the Gators by a staggering 500-151 margin. Missouri dominated Florida with redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk filling in for injured starter James Franklin.
"I thought we were going to be a good football team," Pinkel said afterward. "I don't know why nobody else thought we were going to have a good football team."
Good for Mizzou, too, which already holds a two-game lead in the SEC East loss column before welcoming South Carolina (5-2) this week. But the Tigers beat up on a pair of teams (Georgia and Florida) decimated by injuries. Are they really a top-five team, as the latest polls suggest? Or are they merely a top-three team in a down conference?
The Pac-12 is the nation's strongest league this season. Case in point, Oregon annihilated Tennessee 59-14 on Sept. 14. Since then, the Vols have taken Georgia to overtime and defeated the Gamecocks. Certainly a team can get better as the year progresses, and the Vols' most recent games came at home, not in Autzen Stadium. But the score discrepancies still don't reflect well on the SEC. Nor does the fact that Washington State, which has lost three Pac-12 games by scores of 55-17 (Stanford), 52-24 (Oregon State) and 62-38 (Oregon), played Auburn to the wire on the Tigers' home field in Week 1. Now, that same Auburn team is No. 11 in the country, according to AP voters.
Again, it only takes one team to maintain the SEC's national title stranglehold. Alabama appears well equipped to be that team. But these next seven weeks may take on an unusual quality. Big games between current top-10 squads figure to take place in the Pac-12 (Oregon-Stanford on Nov. 7), ACC (Miami-Florida State on Nov. 2) and Big 12 (Baylor-Texas Tech on Nov. 7). There currently aren't any in the offing in the SEC.
Jameis Winston, Florida State roll Clemson in Death Valley
Normally, when a network is afforded access to a team's pregame locker room for its broadcast, viewers see a coach standing in front of his players delivering some last-minute words of encouragement. The players are quiet. The atmosphere is tense.
On Saturday night, however, ABC broadcast a rare, eye-opening moment. With no coach in sight, a relaxed and radiant Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had his teammates' full attention. "We ain't leavin' without a victory!" Winston shouted. "Hey, my brothers. Put a smile on your face." His teammates then joined him in proclaiming that at Florida State "we do it big!"
At that moment, perhaps we should have seen the Seminoles' 51-14 romp of Clemson coming. If not then, certainly after the first sequence of the game, when cornerback Lamarcus Joyner forced a fumble on the Tigers' first offensive play, and Winston connected with a leaping Kelvin Benjamin for a 22-yard touchdown shortly thereafter. Any pregame concerns about the redshirt freshman's ability to handle the raucous atmosphere at Death Valley were instantly rendered moot. By night's end, Winston had thrown for 444 yards and the 'Noles had scored the most points of any Clemson opponent in Memorial Stadium history.
As Andy Staples wrote, it was a display of dominance much like the ones Bobby Bowden's great teams routinely delivered during the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet the truth is Florida State has been back among the most talented teams in the country for a couple of years now. It had 11 players from its 2012 roster taken in last spring's NFL draft. What it was missing was that Bowden-era swagger. Winston, despite being two to three years younger than most of the 'Noles' starters, is conjuring it.
"You look at last year you have a bunch of talent, but you have talent with no belief," Joyner said after the game. "We lacked leadership. No one embraced leadership.
"... In my four years here this was the first brotherhood I've been a part of to embrace that challenge, because of the tradition and history we have here."
The Seminoles are loaded at nearly every position. The receivers, once a sore spot, made one big catch after another on Saturday night. Of course, it helps to have a rocket-armed quarterback hitting them between the numbers. The offensive line and running backs do a tremendous job picking up blitzes, which Winston reads perfectly. And the defense looks like a vintage Florida State defense, swarming and creating turnovers.
On Sunday, the 'Noles returned to the perch they once occupied for 14 consecutive years (1987-2000): a top-four ranking in the AP Poll. In two weeks, they'll face another top-10 foe, Miami, which is also working to return to the sustained level of success it enjoyed in an earlier era.
Of note, the two quarterbacks who have led Florida State to national titles, Charlie Ward (1993) and Chris Weinke (1999), both won the Heisman. (Weinke won the award the next season, in 2000.) Winston and his team are now prime contenders for both trophies.
Reinvented Jeff Godfrey helping to spark UCF's success
UCF returned to campus following last Friday's BCS-altering 38-35 upset of Louisville around 3:45 a.m. As described and captured in video by the Orlando Sentinel, there were about 200 fans and members of the marching band waiting to greet the buses when they arrived.
"I didn't think I'd ever see that when I got here," said senior receiver Jeff Godfrey, who caught the game-winning two-yard touchdown pass from Blake Bortles in the back of the end zone with 23 seconds remaining. The catch not only dashed Louisville's hopes of a possible national title game appearance, but put the Knights (5-1, 2-0 American) -- who moved to the former Big East from Conference USA this season -- in the driver's seat for their new league's automatic BCS bowl berth.
UCF, which debuted at No. 23 in Sunday's BCS standings, previously won at Penn State on Sept. 14 and lost by three points to South Carolina on Sept. 28. If it were to reach the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl, it would mark more than the culmination of a long journey for 10th-year coach George O'Leary's program; it would serve as a fitting cap to a Godfrey's career as well.
As a freshman in 2010, Godfrey, then a quarterback, took over the Knights' starting job early in the season and led his team to an 11-win campaign, a Conference USA title and a Liberty Bowl victory over Georgia. Heading into 2011, UCF coaches couldn't rave enough about their dual-threat quarterback. O'Leary likened the Miami native to his former Georgia Tech star and Heisman runner-up Joe Hamilton.
But as the Knights struggled through a subsequent 5-7 season, Godfrey began splitting time with Bortles, who coaches clearly viewed as the team's quarterback of the future. Godfrey's father, Jeff Godfrey Sr., blasted O'Leary in the local media, and that December his son announced his intention to transfer. Godfrey left the program for a semester.
But at the advice of his mother and grandmother, among others, Godfrey ultimately returned, even agreeing to transition from quarterback to receiver. It appears all parties involved made the correct decision. Bortles, the nation's 16th-rated passer, has led UCF to a 15-5 record since last season. Godfrey now has 52 career catches -- his most recent one easily the biggest play in program history.
"Every day, I count my blessings for all those people that talked me into coming back. I think it was a great decision," Godfrey said on Sunday. "It's wonderful to have an impact as a receiver. I love the position. Getting involved, blocking downfield, catching the ball -- scoring game-winning touchdowns -- it feels great."
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
Overrated: Ohio State (AP and Coaches: 4)
The Buckeyes have basically held serve since the start of the season. But I'd pick several lower-ranked teams to beat the Buckeyes on a neutral field, including Baylor, Stanford, LSU and Texas A&M. Basically, Ohio State could be in trouble against any team that can throw downfield.
Underrated: Oregon State (AP and Coaches: NR)
I get it, the Beavers' Week 1 loss to FCS Eastern Washington was inexcusable. But quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks are simply shredding opposing defenses. The ranked teams I'd pick Oregon State (6-1) to beat include Oklahoma State, Michigan and Nebraska.
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 final year of the BCS, and with matchups like these ... good riddance.
I had previously resisted including Fresno State in my projections, but two things changed in Week 8. For one, the week's rash of upsets helped the Bulldogs debut at No. 17 in the initial 2013 BCS standings. And UCF's victory over Louisville raises the possibility that, much like Northern Illinois last season, Fresno may only need to finish in the top 16, not the top 12, to clinch an automatic berth if it's ranked higher than an AQ-conference (AAC) champ. As for whether Derek Carr and company, currently 6-0, actually make it to 12-0, another major development emerged on Saturday. Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick broke his ankle in a 34-17 win over Nevada. Fresno is looking at a possible rematch with the Broncos in the Mountain West title game.
Meanwhile, even though I slotted Missouri in the Sugar Bowl's SEC spot, don't put it past that game to select LSU instead, even if Les Miles' team finishes with three losses. The Tigers would just need to finish in the top 14. And I remain convinced that Wisconsin will win out. The Badgers (5-2) rolled Illinois 56-32 on Saturday, and the schedule doesn't get much more difficult the rest of the way.
Spreading the field
• If you went to sleep before 1:30 a.m. ET on Sunday morning, you missed history. In the waning moments of a 62-38 loss at Oregon, Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday threw his 84th pass to break Drew Brees' 15-year-old FBS record for attempts in a single game. Halliday finished 58-of-89 for 557 yards with four interceptions and four touchdowns, two of which came in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter. That did not please Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who called Cougars coach Mike Leach "low class" and threw out a couple of dirty words. Aliotti issued an apology Sunday evening.
Perhaps when Leach joined the conference last year, Pac-12 coaches should have consulted with their Big 12 brethren. They would confirm that Leach has been throwing until the end of blowouts, win or lose, with his starting quarterback for 13 years.
• It's already as if Stanford never lost at Utah last week. The Cardinal (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) bounced back nicely with a 24-10 win over previously unbeaten UCLA (5-1, 2-1), a game in which their defense absolutely suffocated Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley. After the Utah loss, Stanford dropped from No. 5 to No. 13 in the polls. Following Saturday's slew of upsets, however, the Cardinal moved back to No. 8 in both and, more importantly, checked in at No. 6 in the first BCS standings.
• Ohio State fans should be more worried about their team's 79th-ranked passing defense than potential BCS scenarios. Star cornerback Bradley Roby's targeting ejection certainly didn't help matters, but Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock threw for three touchdowns (one for 85 yards to Jake Duzey) on Saturday. The Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-2) were tied with the Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) heading into the fourth quarter before running back Carlos Hyde (24 carries, 149 yards, two touchdowns) lifted his team to a 34-24 win.
• Notre Dame fans may have a new appreciation for oft-maligned quarterback Tommy Rees. After the senior, who had thrown for two first-half touchdowns, went out with a neck strain early in the third quarter of Saturday's matchup with USC, the Irish (5-2) gained a mere 27 yards the rest of the game. Their defense helped preserve a 14-10 victory, Notre Dame's first home win over the Trojans (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) since 2001. Coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday that Rees is day-to-day.
• Another week, another Texas Tech (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) victory under first-year head coach and quarterback whisperer Kliff Kingsbury. His latest protégé, freshman Davis Webb, went 36-of-50 for 462 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in his first career road start, a 37-27 win at West Virginia (3-4, 1-3). Webb, who became the starter last week, helped the Red Raiders rally from a 27-16 deficit. "When we've had to have big drives, Davis has made them," said Kingsbury. "I'm really proud of how he handled himself in the fourth quarter."
• Despite Northern Illinois' Top 25 ranking, we hadn't heard much this season about quarterback Jordan Lynch, who finished seventh in Heisman voting in 2012. Then Lynch went out and broke the FBS record for rushing yards in a single game by a quarterback. Lynch ran for a staggering 316 yards on 32 carries in the Huskies' 38-17 victory over Central Michigan. "The holes were so wide open," he said. "It was nothing I did." The previous record-holder was another NIU quarterback, Stacey Robinson (308 yards in 1990).
• Records fell all over the country on Saturday. Michigan wideout Jeremy Gallon broke the Big Ten mark for receiving yards in a game with his 14-catch, 369-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 63-47 win over Indiana. Gallon's effort ranked second in FBS history behind only Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards' 405 receiving yards against Nebraska in 1998. Michigan (751 total yards) and quarterback Devin Gardner (584 total yards) broke school records for total offense in a wild victory for the Wolverines (6-1, 2-1).
• BYU (5-2) tied an FBS record by running 115 plays in its 47-46 win over Houston (5-1, 2-0 AAC). Quarterback Taysom Hill was responsible for 78 of them. Known primarily as a runner following his 259-yard rushing performance against Texas in Week 2, Hill threw for a career-high 417 yards with four touchdowns and three picks on 44 attempts. He also carried 34 times for 128 yards.
• Just two weeks ago, Northwestern and Washington suffered close losses to top-10 foes Ohio State and Stanford, respectively. Now that seems so long ago. Playing without stars Kain Colter and Venric Mark, the Wildcats (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) dropped their third straight, 20-17 at home to Minnesota (5-2, 1-2). Meanwhile, Arizona State (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) pummeled the Huskies 53-24, holding tailback Bishop Sankey to just 22 rushing yards. "That," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, "was embarrassing."
• North Carolina (1-5, 0-3 ACC) has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country, but last Thursday's near-upset of Miami at least proved a showcase for standout Tar Heels tight end Eric Ebron. A projected first- or second-round NFL draft pick, Ebron caught eight passes for 199 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown in the first quarter. North Carolina led 23-20 late before running back Dallas Crawford (33 carries, 137 yards, two touchdowns) and the 'Canes (6-0, 2-0) mounted a game-winning 90-yard scoring drive to win 27-23.
• Baylor (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) got back to doing Baylor-esque things in Saturday's 71-7 rout of Iowa State (1-5, 0-3), as coach Art Briles' team racked up 714 yards of total offense. It marked the fifth time in six games that the Bears, who have now won 10 straight dating to last November's upset of Kansas State, have scored at least 69 points. Mind you, all five of those games came at home. Baylor hits the road for the second time in the 2013 season this weekend. However, the game is at ... Kansas (2-4, 0-3). Is this the week the Bears crack 80 points?
• Welcome to the ACC, Syracuse. Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2 ACC) pounded the Orange 56-0 on Saturday. Newcomers don't just walk in and win right away in the ACC the way they do in, say, the SEC.
• Not only is Miami (Ohio) still in the oh-fer column following a 24-17 loss to Akron (2-6), but the RedHawks (0-7) have scored just 71 points on the season. That's the number of points Baylor scored this weekend.
Breaking down the troubling situation at Grambling State
The team's games were rarely televised, and yet to fans of a certain age, the image of Eddie Robinson prowling Grambling State's sidelines -- as he did from 1941-1997 -- is unforgettable. In 1985, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated upon breaking Bear Bryant's all-time coaching wins record. He finished his career an astounding 408-165-15. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 88.
What's happening to Robinson's former program right now couldn't be farther from those glory days. In fact, it's downright disgusting. It's also a cautionary tale about the financial strain of competing in college athletics for the hundreds of universities without 100,000-seat stadiums and billion-dollar TV networks.
Last week, Grambling's players revolted against alleged mistreatment by the school, skipping two days of practices and refusing to travel to Saturday's game at Jackson State. That forced the 0-7 team to forfeit and Jackson State to hold an intrasquad scrimmage on homecoming. As detailed by SI's George Dohrmann and in a letter from the players to the administration obtained by ESPN, the players' grievances include: the early-season dismissal of coach Doug Williams; 14- and 17-hour bus rides to recent away games; mold, mildew and other unsafe conditions in the football facility, including poorly cleaned uniforms that "contribute to the multiple cases [of] staph infection"; players having to pay for Gatorade and Muscle Milk out of their own pockets and more.
"We had to pay for those expensive items ourselves," according to the letter. "We were also forced to get water from hoses underneath the stadium in 90-degree plus weather."
The Grambling fiasco appears to be a case of extreme financial neglect, starting at the highest levels of the state. Most non-BCS athletic departments depend on university subsidies to operate. But according to Dohrmann, state funding to the school has dipped from $31.6 million to $13.8 million over the last six years. The ripple effect is inevitably being felt in athletics, which has been unsuccessful in passing a student fee and receives very little in alumni donations.
"We are functioning now in a financial emergency," school president Dr. Frank Pogue told SI.
Even still, there's clearly been widespread mismanagement. The school is on its third athletic director in four years and, now, its third football coach this season. While cuts had to be made throughout the athletic department, a football team taking a 17-hour bus ride is insane. And buy the kids some Gatorade for Pete's sake.
Historically black colleges like Grambling are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in Division I athletics, with Grambling among several to receive NCAA sanctions in recent years for poor APR scores. Still, it's not inconceivable that something similar could occur at another school. Cuts in states' higher education funding have not been limited to Louisiana, but costs keep increasing. And contrary to popular narrative, the vast majority of athletic departments are not rolling in money.
Kodi Whitfield: Catch of the year
You've seen a bunch of one-handed catches this year ... but none quite like this one from Stanford's receiver.
Aaron Brown: Unfortunate touchback of the year
You've seen a lot of players fumble into the end zone ... but not after a 90-yard interception return.
Mini-previews for three of Week 9's big games:
• Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Kingsbury found plenty of success as the Red Raiders' quarterback, but not against Oklahoma, which beat his team 60-15 in Norman in November 2002. Kingsbury was no longer on Texas A&M's staff to exact revenge on the Sooners in last year's Cotton Bowl. He finally gets a shot this week.
• UCLA at Oregon, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): UCLA needs to shore up its young, injury-riddled offensive line in a hurry or else the Ducks' defense may replicate what Stanford's unit did on Saturday. More intriguing, however, will be watching Bruins star linebacker Anthony Barr match wits with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and his playmakers.
• South Carolina at Missouri, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): If Missouri wins this one, its fans might as well book their flights to Atlanta. The Tigers' defense likely faces its toughest challenge of the year in slowing Gamecocks running back Mike Davis, but Mizzou's offense is playing pretty well, too. Jadeveon Clowney will need some help.