Every year around this time, fans start freaking out over the possibility of an undefeated power-conference team being excluded from the BCS title game. But every year except 2004, late-season upsets have rendered that worrying moot.
This season, however, feel free to commence freaking out.
The calendar will turn to November this week with six power-conference teams -- Alabama (8-0), Oregon (8-0), Florida State (7-0), Ohio State (8-0), Baylor (7-0) and Miami (7-0) -- still unbeaten. If that seems like a lot, that's because it is. There haven't been this many undefeated teams from among the five power conferences and Notre Dame at the start of November since there were seven in 2002 -- and four of those went on to lose on Nov. 1. This year's total will fall by at least one this Saturday after the Seminoles and the Hurricanes meet in Tallahassee. But that will be the only head-to-head meeting between teams in the group the rest of the way.
Another reason this year feels different is that most of the unbeaten teams aren't just winning -- they're dominating. The top ranked Crimson Tide had one close call against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, but have since outscored six opponents by an average margin of 41-4. The No. 2 Ducks have yet to win a game by fewer than 21 points. Third-ranked Florida State's closest victory was by 14 points, and its next closest was by 28. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes just handed Penn State its most lopsided defeat (63-14) in 114 years. And the 59 points that the No. 5 Bears scored in their win over Kansas last Saturday were the second-fewest points they've scored all season.
None of those teams appear particularly vulnerable, yet history suggests that most of them will lose. This list of the six undefeated power-conference teams is in order of which is most likely to finish the regular season unscathed.
1. Florida State. Quarterback Jameis Winston and the Seminoles hung 35 first-quarter points on NC State Saturday. This weekend's game against No. 7 Miami is being billed as a test of their mettle, but Vegas disagrees and has made Florida State a three-touchdown favorite. After the Hurricanes, coach Jimbo Fisher's team will play Wake Forest (4-4), Syracuse (3-4) and Idaho (1-7) before closing out the regular season against injury-ravaged Florida (4-3). The Seminoles will then presumably play in the ACC title game on Dec. 7, most likely against Miami or Virginia Tech (6-2), which just lost at home to Duke.
This Florida State team has shown no resemblance to predecessors who laid eggs against inferior conference foes. Barring major injury, the Seminoles seem the least likely BCS contender to lose a game given their remaining schedule.
2. Ohio State. Coach Urban Meyer's two national title teams at Florida (2006 and '08) both improved as the season wore on, and the Buckeyes, who were far from dominant in their first seven games, showed that they might be following the same sort of arc with Saturday's rout of Penn State. Ohio State rushed for 408 yards and held Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg to 112 passing yards on 23 attempts.
But the big reason that the Buckeyes appear so high on this list is their schedule. All that's left between now and their annual meeting with That Team Up North (more on that in a second) are games against Purdue (1-6), Illinois (3-4) and Indiana (3-4). A potentially dangerous Big Ten championship opponent is No. 24 Michigan State (7-1), which boasts the nation's top-ranked defense. But the Nov. 30 clash with No. 23 Michigan (6-1) in Ann Arbor will most likely be Ohio State's make-or-break moment.
3. Alabama. It would make sense to think the Crimson Tide might grow bored at some point, but that's not the case. Quarterback AJ McCarron, for example, did not take kindly to Tennessee referring to Alabama as "the red team" in interviews last week. "I don't think we're just anybody," McCarron said. "We won two national championships in a row and we're undefeated right now." The Crimson Tide, not surprisingly, thumped the Volunteers 45-10.
'Bama's two potential stumbling blocks are on Nov. 9, when the Crimon Tide plays No. 11 LSU (7-2), and on Nov. 30 when it plays No. 8 Auburn (7-1). In particular, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry could pose problems for the Alabama secondary, the team's Achilles' heel. If the Crimson Tide wins both games, however, beating whichever team emerges from an injury-riddled SEC East in the conference championship game on Dec. 7 should be nothing more than a formality.
4. Oregon. As I wrote from Eugene, the Ducks encountered a formidable UCLA defense on Saturday, committed multiple turnovers and had a punt blocked ... and still gained 555 total yards and won easily, 42-14. Running back De'Anthony Thomas still isn't healthy. He played last Saturday for the first time since Sept. 28, but called it a night after 10 carries due to pain in his ankle. Not that it mattered.
Still, Oregon's next game gives some reason for pause. On Nov. 7, the Ducks travel to play No. 6 Stanford (7-1), the only team to beat them (holding them to a paltry 14 points) since the start of last season. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich's squad will also play Oregon State (6-2) on Nov. 29, and would probably face either the Bruins (5-2) or No. 25 Arizona State (5-2) in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 7. But it's mostly the game against the Cardinal that is keeping the Ducks relatively low on this list.
5. Baylor. Let's start by giving all due credit to quarterback Bryce Petty and the Bears, who gained 743 yards against Kansas on Saturday, and are averaging 717.3 yards of total offense per game. It may be foolish to bet against coach Art Briles' prolific attack. But in many ways, Baylor's season is only now just beginning. Having faced four Big 12 foes with a combined conference record of 2-15, the Bears' last five games include three top-20 opponents (No. 13 Oklahoma on Nov. 7, No. 15 Texas Tech on Nov. 16 and at No. 18 Oklahoma State on Nov. 23) and Texas on Dec. 7. The 5-2 Longhorns are currently tied with Baylor for first place in the league.
6. Miami. It's usually hard to find fault with a 7-0 record, but the Hurricanes have needed last-minute touchdowns to survive against North Carolina and Wake Forest in their last two games. This week, they visit Florida State. Coach Al Golden may well lead Miami to a national title eventually, just not this year.
Connor Shaw rallies South Carolina to stunning win at Missouri
Despite his 22-5 career record as a starter and his 14-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013, Connor Shaw is rarely mentioned among the nation's top quarterbacks. But few will ever dispute his importance to the Gamecocks -- and many will compare him favorably with Willis Reed-- after Shaw's courageous performance last Saturday in this season's most miraculous comeback victory.
Shaw isn't entirely responsible for South Carolina's 27-24 double-overtime road win over previously undefeated Missouri. The Tigers did more than their fair share to contribute to a painful collapse that will not soon be forgotten in Mizzous checkered history of misfortune. But backup quarterback Dylan Thompson and the Gamecocks had repeatedly sputtered against defensive end Michael Sam and the Tigers before Shaw, who suffered a sprained knee the previous week at Tennessee, entered in the third quarter with South Carolina down 17-0. The Gamecocks scored on five of their next six possessions, including Shaw's game-tying touchdown pass to Nick Jones with 42 seconds remaining in regulation, and his 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth-and-goal in the first overtime.
South Carolina won the game when Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett's 24-yard field goal attempt bounced off the left upright in the second overtime. The Gamecocks' victory was thanks largely to Shaw's heroic performance (20-of-29, 201 passing yards, three-touchdowns).
"Connor wasn't going to let us lose that game, plain and simple," Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney told reporters afterward. "We rallied around him, and he rallied around us."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who admitted that he "thought we were dead" at one point, said Shaw "did a little bit in practice" in the week leading up to the game. Still, he "really wasn't sure" that Shaw could play. The quarterback assured his coach he was fine, so Spurrier made the move. "It was do or die," said Spurrier. "We had no chance in the division if we didn't win this one."
Indeed, beyond ending Mizzou's (7-1, 3-1 SEC) dreams of an undefeated season in the most painful way imaginable, the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2) put themselves back in SEC East contention just a week after losing at Tennessee. While still a game behind the Tigers, South Carolina has just two league matchups remaining, against Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2) on Nov. 2 and against Florida on Nov. 16. South Carolina now holds the tiebreaker over Missouri, which will face the Volunteers this Saturday and Kentucky on Nov. 9 before a trip to Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3) on Nov. 23 and a clash with No. 12 Texas A&M (6-2, 3-2) on Nov. 30.
Things will get tricky if Georgia (4-3, 3-2), which beat South Carolina on Sept. 7, forces a three-way tie atop the division. As of now, however, the Gamecocks have a real shot to make it to Atlanta. But that's contingent on Shaw staying healthy enough to play like he did on Saturday.
Duke bowl eligible after proving it can win ugly
On Sunday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe planned to enjoy the start of his team's bye week by watching former Blue Devils quarterback Thad Lewis start for the Buffalo Bills against the New Orleans Saints. Cutcliffe is a noted quarterback guru, having also mentored the Manning brothers while an assistant at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively. But there is more to Cutcliffe's Duke team than good quarterback play -- or even bad quarterback play. One day earlier, for example, the Blue Devils had earned their biggest win in his six years on the sideline despite not completing a single pass in the second half.
Duke's 13-10 upset of No. 14 Virginia Tech (6-2, 3-1 ACC) in Blacksburg marked several milestones for Cutcliffe's program. It was the Blue Devils' first win over a ranked opponent since 1994, and their first road win over a ranked foe since 1971. The victory also made Duke (6-2, 2-2) bowl eligible for the second straight season -- a first in school history.
Who cares if the game was ugly?
"That wasn't necessarily the formula," said Cutcliffe. "What's important is, we turned the ball over, we weren't ourselves, but for 60 minutes we were every bit as physical as Virginia Tech."
The Blue Devils have spent most of Cutcliffe's tenure slinging the ball around, with quarterbacks Lewis or Sean Renfree trying to compensate for the team's overmatched defense. It's a sign of how far the program has come that it can now win games such as the one against the Hokies last Saturday. Duke built a 13-0 lead while holding Virginia Tech scoreless for nearly three full quarters. The Blue Devils intercepted Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas four times. Duke's offense struggled: Quarterback Anthony Boone threw four picks; Virginia Tech outgained the Blue Devils 387 yards to 198; and Duke did not convert a single third down. But Cutcliffe still couldn't be prouder of the result.
"You have an opportunity to win every week if you play solid defense," said the coach, whose team won its fourth straight game since Sept. 28. "For Duke football, the way we won yesterday was significant."
Last year, the Blue Devils reached the six-win mark on Oct. 20, beating rival North Carolina to move to 6-2. They never won another game, allowing at least 42 points in each of five straight losses to close out the 2012 season. With games remaining this fall against NC State (3-4), Miami (7-0), Wake Forest (4-4) and North Carolina (2-5), it will be a letdown if Duke does not add to its win total this time. Perhaps it will help that bowl eligibility is now old hat for Cutcliffe's players.
"It feels totally different," said Cutcliffe. "A year ago, that was emotional, you almost couldn't breathe afterward. The difference is, coming off this one, you're hungrier. It's not a guarantee of success, but people aren't going to have their head in the clouds. We'll enjoy this for a few days because that's what you should do on an off week, but when we get back to work, I'm convinced the attitude will be totally different."
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
Overrated: Fresno State (AP: 16, Coaches: 18)
It's hard to deny a 7-0 team its right to a top-20 ranking, but given that the Bulldogs' signature wins came against Rutgers and Boise State -- a pair of three-loss teams -- there are quite a few teams I'd rank higher, most notably ...
Underrated: UCF (AP: 19, Coaches: 22)
It's abundantly clear that the 6-1 Knights, who hammered Connecticut 62-17 on Saturday, are pretty darn good. A loss to South Carolina means that they shouldn't be ranked above the Gamecocks, but UCF could at least trade places with Fresno State.
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:
Title game: Alabama vs. Oregon
Rose: Ohio State vs. Stanford
Fiesta: Baylor vs. Fresno State
Sugar: Auburn vs. UCF
Orange: Florida State vs. Wisconsin
Predicting an Alabama-Oregon BCS title game admittedly runs contradictory to the best-chance-of-going-undefeated rankings at the top of this column. At this point, I'm inclined to think Florida State will find its way to Pasadena, but I'll wait until after this Saturday's game against Miami to reconsider.
The only change to my lineup this week is Auburn (7-1) replacing Missouri. Auburn may be the Sugar Bowl's best hope to avoid hosting a three-loss SEC team, though the Tigers could certainly still lose to both Georgia and Alabama. It's hard to imagine Mizzou, LSU, Texas A&M or South Carolina running the table, but they're not all going to finish outside of the top 14, either.
Spreading the field
• With coach Jerry Kill watching from the press box for a second consecutive week, Minnesota (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) scored its biggest win in years. The Golden Gophers defeated Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) for the first time since 1960, 34-23. Minnesota ran for 271 yards against the Cornhuskers' awful rushing defense, and quarterback Philip Nelson made some timely throws. The Gophers' defense held Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to 139 passing yards.
While this was a triumphant moment for Kill's program, it was yet another embarrassing loss for Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini, who is having an increasingly tough time explaining his team's maddening inconsistency. "I don't know whether we think we're better than we are or what it is, but at the end of the day, we didn't have the type of approach you have to have on the road to go win a football game," said Pelini.
• Stanford turned in its most impressive defensive performance to date in Saturday night's 20-12 win over Oregon State. Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion entered the game as the national leader in passing yards, but he threw for just 271 yards on 57 attempts, and was sacked eight times. Oregon State wideout Brandin Cooks came in as the nation's leading receiver. He did not record a catch of longer than 14 yards. The Beavers did drive to the Cardinal seven-yard line in the final seconds, but Stanford forced four straight incompletions to secure the victory.
• Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) handed Texas Tech (7-1, 4-1) its first loss of the season on Saturday, thanks to three forced turnovers and some explosive plays on offense. Quarterback Blake Bell connected with Jalen Saunders for a 76-yard touchdown, and Lacoltan Bester, a little-used receiver with 14 catches on the year, broke a 35-yard score on an end around to give the Sooners a 28-24 lead late in the third quarter. On the downside, Oklahoma lost invaluable fullback Trey Millard to a season-ending knee injury.
• Texas A&M rebounded from last week's loss to Auburn with a 56-24 rout of Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4 SEC). Aggies star Johnny Manziel, who barely practiced during the week with a shoulder injury, ran just four times for 11 yards, but he threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception. "In my mind I was always going to play," said Manziel. Meanwhile, chronically overlooked Commodores wideout Jordan Matthews became the SEC's career receiving leader (3,172 yards).
• Fresno State (7-0, 4-0 MWC) continues to live dangerously in its pursuit of a BCS berth. After blowing a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead, the Bulldogs needed a blocked field goal by Marcel Jensen at the end of regulation to force overtime and ultimately survive against San Diego State (3-4, 2-1) 35-28. It was the fourth time this year that a Fresno State game has been decided in the final seconds. "I guess this makes for good memories and for a good talk 20 years down the road," said quarterback Derek Carr (35-of-57, 298 passing yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions).
• Houston (6-1, 3-0 AAC) showed it will be a contender in the American down the stretch with a 49-14 rout of Rutgers (4-3, 1-2). True freshman quarterback John O'Korn completed 24-of-30 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns. "They talk about the AAC with Louisville and UCF and Rutgers, and we're not even getting mentioned," Cougars running back Kenneth Farrow told reporters. "We come out every week with a chip on our shoulder." Houston has games remaining against both UCF (Nov. 9) and Louisville (Nov. 16).
• Michigan State's defense came into last Saturday's game against Illinois allowing the fewest yards in the nation. The Spartans lowevered average even more (to 215.5 per game) in limiting the Illini (3-4, 0-3) to a measly 128 total yards in a 42-3 rout. Meanwhile, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook rebounded from a rough game against Purdue to complete 15-of-16 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including a 29-yard scoring strike to Bennie Fowler on a third-and-25. Next up for the Spartans: Michigan.
• On Friday, BYU (6-2) became the first team this season to accept a bowl bid. It was a formality, mind you, as the FBS independent already had a deal in place with San Francisco's Fight Hunger Bowl. But the bowl extended an official invite upon the Cougars becoming bowl eligible with a 37-20 victory over Boise State (5-3). BYU still has plenty to play for before Dec. 27. Quarterback Taysom Hill and the Cougars have remaining matchups with Wisconsin (Nov. 9) and Notre Dame (Nov. 23).
• Another week, another milestone for Jordan Lynch. The Northern Illinois quarterback caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from receiver Tommylee Lewis in the second quarter of Saturday's 59-20 blowout of Eastern Michigan (1-7, 0-4 MAC). By day's end, Lynch had passed for four touchdowns, rushed for one and caught one to join Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor as the only FBS players to accomplish that feat in the last 10 seasons, according to ESPN. The Huskies (8-0, 4-0) are off to its best start in school history.
• Washington running back Bishop Sankey's 22-yard rushing performance in the Huskies' loss to Arizona State on Oct. 19 proved an anomaly. Sankey bounced back with a season-high 241 yards on 27 carries in a 41-17 win over woeful Cal, upping his season average to 145.3 rushing yards per game. Sankey, however, is not the No. 1 rusher in the Pac-12. For the second straight year, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (154.0) leads the nation, following a 119-yard, four-touchdown effort in a 44-20 victory over Colorado.
• Division III Western Connecticut running back Octavias McKoy turned in a performance for the ages on Saturday. McKoy set the all-division, single-game NCAA rushing record by running for 455 yards in a 55-35 win over Worcester State. He had touchdown runs of one, 15, 41, 53 and 71 yards, respectively.
• Northwestern (4-4, 0-4 Big Ten) continued its puzzling post-College GameDay descent with a 17-10 overtime loss at Iowa. A preseason Top-25 team, the Wildcats are now in danger of finishing below .500.
• If not for South Carolina's last-gasp comeback, Middle Tennessee (4-4) would have scored the week's most dramatic victory. Quarterback Logan Kilgore's nine-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres Jefferson as time expired sealed a 51-49 win over Marshall (4-3).
• Western Michigan (1-8) earned its first win in 2013 with a 31-30 victory over UMass (1-7). The Broncos stopped a last-second two-point conversion attempt by the audacious Minutemen.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
On Dec. 5, 2008, 7-5 Buffalo stunned 12-0 Ball State 42-24 in the MAC championship game, a result followed shortly thereafter by an astounding domino effect.
Then-Ball State coach Brady Hoke moved to San Diego State, where he stayed just two seasons before heading to Michigan. Then-Buffalo coach Turner Gill, having engineered a remarkable turnaround of the previously hapless Bulls, would stay another year before getting hired at Kansas, where he lasted just two disastrous (5-19) seasons. The programs they left behind soon tanked, with Ball State slipping from 12-2 to 2-10 under Stan Parrish, while Buffalo fell to 2-10 a year later in current coach Jeff Quinn's debut campaign. The Bulls went 3-9 in 2011 and 4-8 in 2012.
But look at the MAC standings now. After opening the season with blowout losses to Ohio State and Baylor, Buffalo (6-2, 4-0) sits alone atop the league's East Division. Ball State (8-1, 5-0), which won 48-27 at Virginia on Oct. 5, occupies first place in the West, a half-game above reigning conference champion Northern Illinois. The Cardinals and Bulls don't meet in the regular season, though theoretically they could reunite in Detroit.
Of the two, Ball State looks more legit, despite an inexplicable early-season loss to North Texas. Third-year coach Pete Lembo's team quietly won nine games last season, including going 6-2 in the MAC, and ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense (39.4 points per game). Quarterback Keith Wenning had a streak of eight straight 300-yard passing games snapped on Saturday, but he still threw five touchdowns in a 42-24 win at Akron (2-7).
Following a bye, Ball State will play consecutive Wednesday night games (a.k.a. MACtion), the first against Central Michigan (3-5) on Nov. 6 and the second at Northern Illinois on Nov. 13. The Cardinals likely represent the Huskies' biggest threat to an undefeated regular season and a possible BCS berth. Whichever team wins that game, however, will probably run into All-America linebacker Khalil Mack and the Bulls in the MAC title game.
Jayson Carter: Give him the rock
Bobby Bowden: Give him the spear
Florida State's Hall of Fame coach returned to Doak Campbell Stadium for the first time since 2009 for Saturday's game against NC State. Bowden, 83, even took a pregame handoff.
Mini-previews for three of Week 10's big games:
• Miami at Florida State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): If the Hurricanes hope to pull the upset, they will need a career day from star running back Duke Johnson, who carried 30 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday's win over Wake Forest. It would also help if the Miami defense can contain Winston, but no one has done that to date.
• Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): Cowboys running back Desmond Roland gashed Iowa State for 219 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his first career start. He figures to get plenty more opportunities on Saturday, as Oklahoma State will attempt to keep the Red Raiders' Air Raid offense off the field.
• Michigan at Michigan State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): This will not be a 503-yard passing day for Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, who will face a Spartans' defense that's allowing a national-low 4.7 yards per pass attempt. The potential for four turnovers is far greater. Still, it's never a sure thing thatMichigan State's offense will be able to find the end zone.