Key matchups could bring clarity to BCS title race; more Overtime
In the moments after Florida State's win over rival Miami on Saturday night, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher and quarterback Jameis Winston both answered questions about overcoming "adversity" during the game.
Mind you, Florida State had just won 41-14. But in this year's BCS title race, adversity consists of Winston throwing two interceptions and the previously unbeaten Hurricanes daring to stay within seven points of the 'Noles until early in the second half. In the case of Oregon a week earlier, adversity was 5-1 UCLA limiting the Ducks to three touchdowns through three quarters. Oregon eventually won that Oct. 26 matchup by nearly an identical score, 42-14.
Thus, we're at a complete loss trying to separate the teams at the top of this year's BCS standings.
As the 2013 season hits its final month, Alabama, Florida State and Oregon sit at the top in some order, with undefeated Ohio State generally regarded a notch below and undefeated Baylor still a wild card. Fans can pore over the Billingsley rankings all they want, but there will be no discernible separation among the top three unless one of the frontrunners loses. To date, that's only come close to happening once, when Alabama beat Texas A&M 49-42 on Sept. 14 in a game the Crimson Tide led by double digits for most of the second half.
Which brings us to Week 11, easily the most intriguing slate of games thus far. It features three matchups between unbeatens and top-12 opponents. On Thursday night, No. 2 Oregon (8-0) will visit No. 6 Stanford (7-1) in a rematch of last year's 17-14 Cardinal upset in Eugene, while No. 5 Baylor (7-0) will host No. 12 Oklahoma (7-1) in the Bears' first notable test of the season. On Saturday, No. 10 LSU (7-2) will visit No. 1 Alabama (8-0) in a game that holds seemingly annual national title implications.
Over an eight-day span that started on Saturday with Florida State's win over Miami, all of the prime contenders save for Ohio State (which has a bye this week) will have a chance pad their BCS résumés. Or they'll lose, which quite frankly, would help clear the entire picture up.
After Week 10, one could subjectively argue that any of Alabama, Florida State or Oregon deserves to be ranked No. 1. Quantitatively, however, the 'Noles have the most impressive résumé. Saturday's victory marked their second blowout of a top-10 foe, and while Miami may lose another game or two the rest of the way (it lost star running back Duke Johnson to a season-ending broken ankle), Clemson (8-1) remains in the top eight. Florida State whipped the Tigers 51-14 on the road on Oct. 19. Winston has been sensational, but Saturday night was a reminder that the 'Noles have ample other weapons, such as running back Devonta Freeman, who had 176 total yards and three touchdowns in the win.
"I feel like we can play with anybody in the country," said Florida State nose guard Timmy Jernigan. "I feel like we're second to nobody."
That may be true -- as evidenced by the love the BCS computers are showing the Seminoles -- but the pollsters currently disagree. Unfortunately for Fisher's team, it likely won't have another showcase opportunity to change voters' minds. It closes against 4-5 Wake Forest, 4-4 Syracuse, 1-8 Idaho and 4-4 Florida before the ACC title game. And while Florida State's marquee matchups are finished, most other contenders' are still to come.
Oregon, for example, has an opportunity to make a huge statement on Thursday. Not since Alabama's season-opening 35-10 win over Virginia Tech -- which has recently been devalued by the Hokies' consecutive losses to Duke and Boston College -- has one of the top-five teams faced a defense the caliber of Stanford's. The Ducks average 331.5 yards per game on the ground. The Cardinal allow just 103.9. Last year, Stanford held Oregon to two touchdowns. The Ducks have scored at least 34 points in every one of their other previous 34 games.
An Oregon win by any margin would presumably push it back up to No. 2 in the BCS standings, though that would surely prompt howls from Tallahassee if the game comes down to the final seconds. Even then, however, the Ducks have remaining regular-season games against Arizona (6-2) and Oregon State (6-3). If they reach the Pac-12 title game, they'll likely meet Arizona State or UCLA.
Meanwhile, it feels as if Alabama has been on a perpetual bye for about eight weeks now. In reality, it's just dispatched six straight overmatched foes by a combined score of 246-26. This year's LSU game doesn't feel quite as monumental as the past two regular-season meetings, given the Tigers' two early losses and their rebuilding defense. But LSU's star-studded offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill and Odell Beckham Jr.) ensures this will likely be far from another 9-6 contest.
If we're being honest, the Tide are ranked No. 1 right now because they started the year No. 1, and because who the heck would bet against an undefeated Nick Saban team? By season's end, however, 'Bama will have faced LSU, current AP Poll No. 7 Auburn and, if they reach the SEC title game, most likely No. 9 Missouri or No. 13 South Carolina. The Tide will have their chances to reassert their superiority.
Then there's Baylor. Thursday night's showdown with Oklahoma feels like an official debut after a seven-game soft launch. The Bears, whose four conference opponents to date are a combined 4-13 in other league games, are playing catch up. But if they keep putting up 50 points and 600-plus yards against the Sooners (7-1), No. 25 Texas Tech (7-2) and No. 15 Oklahoma State (7-1) in the next few weeks, they'll have to be taken more seriously. At the very least, they'll have an opportunity to leapfrog the Buckeyes.
After that, however, Baylor, will have to wait to see whether some of the other undefeated teams go down. If they don't, the final season of the BCS is going to be its most frustrating ever.
Michigan State's defense silences rival Michigan
Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) routed hapless Purdue 56-0 on Saturday, and throughout various other game broadcasts this weekend, I heard announcers emphasize the Buckeyes' need for "style points." Well, that's not the case. Ohio State needs two of the teams ranked above it to lose, plain and simple. Its margin of victory is largely irrelevant. More than anything, Urban Meyer's team needs to win all of its remaining games, and an interesting challenger is emerging as a possible Big Ten title game opponent.
Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) already boasted the nation's top-ranked defense before Saturday's meeting with archrival Michigan. But its jaw-dropping defensive performance in a 29-6 blowout of the Wolverines was something to behold. The Spartans sacked Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner four times in the first quarter and seven times on the day. They held their opponent to a staggering -48 rushing yards on 29 attempts (which includes the sacks and a snap over Gardner's head).
In a telling sequence, Michigan appeared to turn the momentum when cornerback Raymon Taylor intercepted a Connor Cook pass at the Spartans' 41-yard line with the Wolverines trailing 16-6 late in the third quarter. Instead, on the ensuing Michigan possession, the Spartans' defense imposed their will. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun (2.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries) and safety Isaiah Lewis stuffed Gardner for a five-yard loss on a first-down keeper. Linebacker Denicos Allen (nine tackles, three sacks) sacked the quarterback for a nine-yard loss on second down. Allen and Ed Davis sacked Gardner again on third down.
"We basically lived in the backfield," said cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who had a forced fumble and an interception.
Michigan finished the game with 168 total yards. The Wolverines have admittedly dealt with offensive line issues all season long, but they put up 751 yards against Indiana just two weeks ago.
"You never think you're going to be that good," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of the performance. "They have a good football team, but we have a great football team."
Many outside the Big Ten might scoff at that notion, but Michigan State plays the type of suffocating defense on which Alabama and LSU have long prided themselves. Narduzzi's group is allowing just 43.4 rushing yards per game. It hasn't faced an elite quarterback or offense all year, but it'd most likely get that opportunity if the Spartans hang on to win the Legends Division.
Ohio State's offense is rolling. Since missing two early-season games with a knee injury, quarterback Braxton Miller has completed 74.4 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Running back Carlos Hyde has notched four straight 100-yard games. There's a lot of football left between now and Dec. 7, but a clash between the Buckeyes' offense and Spartans' defense would be fascinating.
Nebraska and Northwestern's fates change with one heave
A fifth-year senior quarterback with 45 career pass attempts. A mustachioed redshirt freshman wide receiver with 13 catches on the season. A 49-yard desperation heave, a mass of bodies, a tip and a catch, and two teams' seasons changed in an instant.
Two unlikely figures, Nebraska's Ron Kellogg III and Jordan Westerkamp, combined for what will presumably go down as one of the most memorable plays in the Huskers' storied history with Saturday's game-winning Hail Mary to beat Northwestern 27-24.
"I didn't even know I could throw it that far," said Kellogg, who had completed 6-of-12 throws for 55 yards with an interception on the day prior to his heave. "We mess around with it [in practice]. Tommy [Armstrong Jr.] and I mess around just heaving the ball trying to hit the goal post. Never do we think that we'd have to do that in a game to win the game."
Thanks to one last-gasp throw, Nebraska (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and its fans got to enjoy some much-needed euphoria. Coach Bo Pelini's job security had become a hot topic on the heels of a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, and as the underdog Wildcats (4-5, 0-5) jumped to a 21-7 lead in Lincoln -- and then went ahead 24-21 on a 21-yard field goal with 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter -- it sure seemed like Pelini was headed for another unpleasant week.
Theoretically, one miracle pass says nothing about the true state of Pelini's program. Yet in the real world, an exhilarating victory quiets the whispers like nothing else can.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine a more devastating way for Northwestern to lose. On Oct. 5, Pat Fitzgerald's team was 4-0 and ranked No. 16 in the country. ESPN's College GameDay was on campus, and the program was riding high. But starting with that night's near-miss against Ohio State, the injury-riddled Wildcats dropped four in a row, including an overtime loss at Iowa on Oct. 26. Their goals shifted from a possible division title to simply reaching bowl eligibility. Despite being down to one healthy running back by Saturday's end, they appeared to have their fifth victory in hand against Nebraska. They called a timeout before the final play to set their defense.
But as Kellogg's heave descended, Westerkamp slipped behind Northwestern's players and found himself wide open. He was in the perfect spot when the ball deflected. "You can never let somebody get behind the pile," said Fitzgerald. Even crueler, the Hail Mary came less than a year after Michigan pulled off a similar late-game bomb to help send their 2012 matchup with Northwestern into overtime. The Wolverines ultimately won that meeting 38-31.
Now, the Wildcats need to upset either Michigan or Michigan State to avoid missing a bowl for the first time since 2007. The Huskers went from the brink of disaster to remaining within a game of first place in the Legends Division. All on one improbable heave.
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:
Clemson, 8-1 and back up to seventh in the latest BCS standings, would get left out of a BCS bowl in the current scenario. To avoid that, the Tigers either need Florida State to move into the title game or Fresno State and Northern Illinois to both lose, thus freeing up an at-large spot. Or the Orange Bowl could take one for the team and select UCF, which would allow the Sugar Bowl to take the Tigers. Or Clemson could finish in the top four and guarantee itself a berth.
In other words, if Clemson goes 11-1, I don't see it missing the cut.
In other news, Notre Dame climbed to No. 23 in the latest BCS standings, which is significant because the Fighiting Irish would almost certainly be selected over Wisconsin or any other at-large team if it finishes in the top 14. To do that, however, they'd need to win out. Notre Dame will visit Stanford on Nov. 30.
If this were 2014 ...
Starting this week, I'll include a section that will show what the new big-six bowl lineup (including playoff matchups) would hypothetically look like if the new postseason format were already in place. For this exercise, I'll use the current BCS standings in place of the forthcoming selection committee's rankings.
Sugar: No. 1 Alabama (SEC champ) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
Rose: No. 2 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 3 Oregon (Pac-12 champ)
Fiesta: No. 5 Stanford (at-large) vs. No. 16 Fresno State (Group of Five)
Cotton: No. 6 Baylor (displaced Big 12 champ) vs. No. 9 Auburn (at-large)
Orange: No. 7 Clemson (ACC replacement) vs. No. 8 Missouri (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame)
Chick-fil-A: No. 10 Oklahoma (at-large) vs. No. 11 Miami (at-large)
• The Sugar and Rose bowls are scheduled to host the first semifinals next year, with No. 1 Alabama getting the first choice of geographic placement.
• Big 12 champ Baylor, displaced from the Sugar Bowl, would make the most sense in the Cotton Bowl.
• Clemson would replace ACC champ Florida State in the Orange Bowl, and Missouri, as the highest-ranked available team from among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame, would get the other Orange Bowl spot.
• Stanford and Fresno State (the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences) would make the most geographic sense in the Fiesta Bowl.
• Oklahoma would be placed in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to avoid a conference rematch with Baylor. Auburn would be placed in a traditional SEC bowl, and Miami would be placed in a traditional ACC bowl.
Spreading the field
• Give it up for Ed Orgeron. USC's interim coach is 3-0 in Pac-12 play following the Trojans' (6-3, 3-2) impressive 31-14 win at Oregon State last Friday. Star receiver Marqise Lee returned from a knee injury and scored a 71-yard touchdown, and sophomore running back Javorius "Buck" Allen broke out, rushing for 133 yards and three scores. Silas Redd added 22 carries for 140 yards, and USC intercepted Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion three times.
Remarkably, Orgeron's three conference wins in 2013 equal the same number he had in three seasons at the helm at Ole Miss.
• Preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) finally put it all together against a quality foe in this week's 52-34 win over Texas Tech (7-2, 4-2). The Cowboys have developed a powerful ground game thanks to the emergence of Desmond Roland (31 carries, 96 yards, three touchdowns) and freshman Rennie Childs (nine carries, 70 yards). They finished Saturday with 281 rushing yards on 55 attempts. "We've got a chance [to win the Big 12]," said coach Mike Gundy. "We're not good enough to look past the next game. But we're improving."
• The maddening career of Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas played out over the course of one game on Saturday. In throwing for a career-high 391 yards against Boston College, the senior broke Tyrod Taylor's school record (8,719 yards) for career total offense. Then Thomas turned the ball over four times in the second half, which led to 17 points for the Eagles (4-4, 2-3 ACC) as they topped the Hokies (6-3, 3-2) 34-27. "Everything is right about him," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said in defending Thomas. "Maybe he tries too hard, but that's not a bad fault."
• Georgia (5-3, 4-2 SEC) welcomed Todd Gurley back to the lineup against Florida after he missed three games with an ankle injury, and he promptly broke off a five-yard rushing touchdown and 73-yard catch-and-run score early in the first quarter. The Gators (4-4, 3-3) rallied from a 20-0 deficit to get within 23-20, but they couldn't avoid their third straight loss this season and their first three-game losing streak to the Dawgs since 1987-89 -- an indignity for Will Muschamp that even Ron Zook managed to avoid.
• Missouri (8-1, 4-1) staved off any concerns about a post-South Carolina hangover by demolishing Tennessee, 31-3. The Tigers ran for 339 yards. "Why in the world would you ever be thinking about last week's game when there's so much out there?" said coach Gary Pinkel. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2) handled Mississippi State 34-16. If they beat Florida on Nov. 16 and if Georgia loses to Auburn, Mizzou needs to win out against Kentucky (2-6), Ole Miss (5-3) and Texas A&M (7-2) to win the SEC East.
• The rivalry between Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema is off to a roaring start, even if the coaches won't admit that one exists. After complaining that Auburn edited out a swinging-gate formation from game tape it sent to the Razorbacks, Arkansas installed its own swinging-gate play and ran it with success on Saturday. Malzahn complained over the summer about players faking injuries to defend the hurry-up offense ... and then this happened. The Tigers (8-1, 4-1) won 35-17.
• Even with star linebacker Chris Borland sidelined with a hamstring injury, Wisconsin's defense was dominant in a 28-9 win over Iowa (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten). The Badgers' sixth-ranked rushing defense held the Hawkeyes' normally productive rushing attack to just 110 yards on 31 attempts. Linebacker Marcus Trotter, filling in for Borland, recorded a game-high nine tackles, including a crucial fourth-and-1 stop of Iowa tailback Mark Weisman when Wisconsin led just 7-6 in the third quarter.
• If it seems like Notre Dame manages to win a lot of close games -- many against opponents it should probably beat handily -- well, that's because it does. On Saturday, Navy (4-4) led the Irish 34-31 until late in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame went ahead on a Tarean Folston touchdown run with 3:47 remaining, and then stud freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith helped stuff the Midshipmen's nifty fourth-down end around. In pulling out the 38-34 victory, the Irish won their 10th straight game decided by seven points or fewer dating back to last season, including five this year.
• It was easy to scoff when, after a Sept. 14 loss to Ole Miss dropped his team to 1-2, Texas coach Mack Brown declared: "We can get all this righted by winning the Big 12." Well, it's now November, and the Longhorns (6-2, 5-0 Big 12) remain undefeated in conference play. They sit alone in first place by half a game. Texas dispatched Kansas 35-13 over the weekend and will visit West Virginia on Saturday before ending with a gauntlet of ranked foes: Oklahoma State (Nov. 16), Texas Tech (Nov. 28) and Baylor (Dec. 7).
• TCU, on the other hand, continues to struggle in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs (3-6, 1-5) erased a 27-17 fourth-quarter deficit to force Saturday's game against West Virginia (4-5, 2-4) into overtime, but a series of miscues resulted in an unsuccessful 62-yard field goal attempt. The Mountaineers won 30-27, leaving Gary Patterson's team -- which went 23-0 its last three years in the Mountain West -- with a 5-10 league record since joining the conference before last season.
• In its first game since last week's shocking resignations of head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis, Florida Atlantic (3-6, 2-4 C-USA) upset Tulane 34-17. A day earlier, media reports revealed two individuals signed affidavits saying they had witnessed Pelini use cocaine and marijuana. Offensive coordinator Brian Wright served as the interim coach. "Sometimes you need a slap in the face to refocus," said defensive end and co-captain Andrew Stryffeler.
• With last Thursday's 28-16 win over Rice, North Texas (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) became bowl eligible for the first time since 2004. Coach Dan McCarney, in his third season with the Mean Green, has still got it.
• Dennis Franchione has Texas State (6-3, 2-2 Sun Belt) bowl eligible in just its second FBS season. Meanwhile, Larry Coker and UTSA have a winning C-USA record (3-2) in their first year in the conference.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
Division III Gallaudet University, the nation's premier college for the deaf and hard of hearing, can't rely on Rivals.com or Scout.com to identify its football recruiting targets. "If a kid who's deaf or hard of hearing is a good football player, someone's going to write a feel-good story," said Gallaudet coach Chuck Goldstein. "We have a Google News alert set up. Any time, 'deaf, hard of hearing and football' pops up, we email the coach and I come out and visit."
Goldstein, the Bison's fourth-year head coach, has landed some pretty good players. His Washington, D.C.-based team is off to its first 8-0 start in school history. With a win this week over Anna Maria College from Paxton, Mass., Gallaudet would wrap up its first Eastern Collegiate Football Conference title and, in turn, its first-ever berth in the D-III NCAA tournament.
But first, the Bison had to beat Becker College from Worcester, Mass., which it did on Saturday with a play so remarkable it made the SportsCenter Top 10. With the game tied 34-34 and just two seconds remaining, Becker attempted a game-winning 31-yard field goal. Gallaudet freshman Chris Papacek blocked the kick, and senior running back Ryan Bonheyo returned the ball 79 yards to the end zone for the winning touchdown.
"It's one of those games where you're sitting there at the end going, did that just happen?" Goldstein said on Sunday. "... It's been an inspiring year, and it almost feels like destiny at this point."
Gallaudet, which has played football since 1883 and invented the huddle in 1890, faces a myriad of unique challenges. In fact, football was dropped to a club sport before it returned to the Division III ranks in 2007. The Bison currently field a roster of only 54 players, compared with 80-plus for many of their opponents. All are deaf or hard of hearing, so Goldstein and his assistants communicate entirely in American Sign Language, which Goldstein, a 2001 graduate of Salisbury (Md.) University, learned on the job.
"My first team meeting as an offensive coordinator [in 2009], I practiced with my GA 30 times," said Goldstein, who installed the triple option. He was less prepared when, in his first game, the Bison fumbled three times in the first half. He wanted to express his anger, so he threw a chair when he entered the locker room. Unfortunately, the players were turned the other way. "Only three kids turned around," he said.
He's much more adept now, and his 54 players are on the verge of accomplishing something that will resonate not only at Gallaudet, but also nationally and beyond. "We represent not just Gallaudet and football, but we represent every deaf person in the world," said Goldstein. "It's a special season, no doubt."
Nebraska: 'Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!'
For jubilant Nebraska fans, here's how Kellogg-to-Westerkamp sounded on the Huskers' radio broadcast.
Northwestern: 'A Hail Mary that came through!'
For sulking Northwestern fans, here's a friendly reminder that once upon a time (in 2000) these things went the Wildcats' way.
Mini-previews for three of Week 11's big games:
• Oregon at Stanford, Thursday (9 p.m. ET): The last time Oregon came to Stanford Stadium in 2011, it put up 53 points and handed Andrew Luck his first home loss in two years. The Cardinal defense is more talented across the board these days, but current quarterback Kevin Hogan, while improved, is still a far cry from Luck.
• Oklahoma at Baylor, Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET): How big of a deal is this game in Waco? Baylor has lifted the tarp off the south end zone seating of Floyd Casey Stadium for the first time since 2006. The Bears ended the Sooners' national title aspirations with a 45-38 home victory in 2011. Oklahoma will look to return the favor on Thursday.
• LSU at Alabama, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron has completed 69.4 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He's barely entered the Heisman conversation to this point, but that could change with a big game on Saturday. Zach Mettenberger may make himself some NFL dollars if he does the same.