Just as we had hoped, a trio of much-anticipated Week 11 games offered valuable insights into several of the remaining BCS championship contenders. Stanford boosted its chances of playing for the national title with a physically dominant 26-20 victory over Oregon, effectively eliminating the Ducks from the BCS race. Baylor showed that it has quite a capable defense in a 41-12 rout of Oklahoma. Alabama turned in a typical Alabama performance by wearing down LSU in a 38-17 win.
All were impressive results. All reflected positively on the victors. Yet my big takeaway from the weekend was this: Florida State is the best team in the country.
The Seminoles did not play a high-profile opponent on Saturday. Instead, they throttled lowly Wake Forest 59-3. But with Oregon's loss to the Cardinal doing away with the lingering question of which team belongs at No. 2 in the BCS standings -- Florida State was ranked second and the Ducks were ranked third last week -- it's now a bit easier to look at the big picture. There is some distance this week between the Seminoles and No. 3 Ohio State (which had a bye), No. 4 Stanford and the No. 5 Bears. But Florida State remains one spot behind the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide. And for the first time this fall, I find myself wondering why.
Mind you, I covered Alabama's beatdown of the Tigers on Saturday night, and I could not have come away more impressed with their balanced and efficient offense. Much as the Cardinal had done to Oregon last Thursday, the Crimson Tide basically sucked the life out of LSU in the second half with a punishing ground game. This was not particularly surprising. It's what Nick Saban's teams have been doing for the last five years. The difference now is that the Alabama coach also has an explosive passing offense. With the Crimson Tide trailing 7-3 early in the second quarter, quarterback AJ McCarron hit tight end O.J. Howard over the middle for an 11-yard gain that the freshman turned into a 52-yard touchdown reception. The 6-foot-6 Howard, who was pulling away from the Tigers' secondary as he crossed the goal line, is almost unfairly fast for a man who weighs 237 pounds.
MANDEL: Alabama's offense proves to be its best defense in win over LSU
Still, a No. 1 team typically doesn't have a glaring weakness like the one Alabama has at cornerback. LSU receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry repeatedly burned starters Deion Belue and Cyrus Jones in the first half, much like Texas A&M star Mike Evans dominated Belue and John Fulton back on Sept. 14. I therefore can't help but wonder how 'Bama's corners would fare against Seminoles wideouts Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, easily the finest trio of receivers in the country.
Perhaps I'm being too nitpicky. The Crimson Tide's defense played much better in the second half, and Alabama did, after all, beat the 10th-ranked Tigers by 21 points. Most of the other contenders also have flaws. The Buckeyes have given up more than twice as many passing touchdowns (15) as 'Bama (seven). Stanford's unexceptional offense leaves little margin for error, something that proved costly when the Cardinal lost two fumbles in a 27-21 defeat at Utah (4-5) on Oct. 12. And Baylor's standout defensive effort came against a Sooners offense that ranks just 60th in the country -- still the highest of any team the Bears have played.
But when I look at Florida State, I see no obvious holes. Quarterback Jameis Winston and the undefeated Seminoles have overwhelmed every team they've faced. The scores are staggering: 41-13 over Pitt; 62-7 over Nevada; 54-6 over FCS Bethune Cookman; 48-34 over Boston College; 63-0 over Maryland; 51-14 over No. 3 Clemson; 49-17 over NC State; 41-14 over No. 7 Miami; and 59-3 over the Demon Deacons. The last time Florida State won each of its first nine games by at least two touchdowns was in 1993, the year Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden won his first national championship.
Alabama rolls, but are the Tide flawed?
SI.com's Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples discuss what Alabama
proved in its 38-17 win over LSU
Florida State, without question, has the best quarterback among the teams currently ranked in the Top 5. Alabama's McCarron is more experienced, Ohio State's Braxton Miller is more versatile and Baylor's Bryce Petty has more impressive stats. But Winston simply makes throws the others can't. It's not an exaggeration to say he's the best NFL quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and he has a heck of a supporting cast with his offensive line, running backs and receivers.
There were questions coming into this season about how the 'Noles could replace the eight defensive players they lost in the 2013 NFL draft. Those questions, however, have long since been answered. Florida State ranks fourth nationally in total defense and scoring defense. The Seminoles held Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd -- who has completed 65.8 percent of his passes, and who throws for nearly 300 yards per game -- to just 156 passing yards in a 17-of-37 performance. On Saturday, Florida State intercepted Wake Forest's quarterbacks six times. Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, nose tackle Timmy Jernigan and linebacker Telvin Smith are all among the best in the nation at their respective positions.
If there's one criticism of the 'Noles, it's that they haven't faced much quality competition outside of their transcendent victory over Clemson on Oct. 19, and their Nov. 2 drubbing of Miami, who now seem to be unraveling. Save for a possible clash with a 9-3-type opponent in the ACC title game in Charlotte on Dec. 7, Florida State's strength of schedule isn't likely to improve. But outside of Stanford, which now boasts wins over three current Top-25 teams (Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon), none of this year's contenders has a truly impressive résumé.
Don't mistake this column for a two-months-early prediction of a possible BCS title game meeting between the Seminoles and the Crimson Tide. A lot can change between now and Jan. 6. But as of today, Florida State has made a pretty convincing case to be the No. 1 team, whether the pollsters are ready to believe it or not.
Florida's offense flails again in loss to Vanderbilt
Florida's injury woes this season are well documented. The Gators, a preseason Top-10 team, are playing with a shell of their original starting lineup. Still, it's a safe bet that most of players who took the field for them on Saturday for their game against Vanderbilt were once more coveted recruits than their opponents. That didn't stop the Commodores (5-4, 2-4 SEC) from stomping Florida 34-17, sending the Gators (4-5, 3-4) below .500 for the first time since 1992, and making it a near-certainty that they will miss a bowl for the first time in 23 years.
Losing to currently ranked LSU, Missouri and Georgia teams, as the Gators did in their previous three games, is one thing. Losing to Vanderbilt at home for the first time since 1945 is another. Not surprisingly, third-year coach Will Muschamp, just a season removed from an 11-win campaign and a Sugar Bowl appearance, is suddenly facing intense heat from his fan base.
"I certainly don't like the product we're putting on the field and that's my responsibility,'' Muschamp said. "I take full credit for that, and when it's good, it's good, and when it's not good, it's not good. And it hasn't been good. That's on me."
RICKMAN: Florida's nightmare season continues with loss to Vanderbilt
Florida has struggled offensively every season under Muschamp, but the increasing extent of its ineptitude is mind-boggling. Quarterback Tyler Murphy passed for a season-high 305 yards on Saturday, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked five times, while the Gators ran for just 39 yards on 34 carries. In a morbidly emblematic sequence late in the fourth quarter, Florida had possession at the Commodores' 41-yard line, trailing 31-17. On third-and-10, Vanderbilt safety Javon Marshall sacked Murphy for a 13-yard loss and officials flagged Murphy for intentional grounding. Going for it on fourth-and-23, Murphy lost 26 yards on a Caleb Azubukie sack and the Gators committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Vandy took over with a first-and-goal at the Florida 10-yard line.
The Commodores blew out the Gators despite gaining just 183 yards of total offense.
Florida will visit No. 11 South Carolina next Saturday, another game the Gators will probably lose, before getting a breather against Georgia Southern on Nov. 23. Florida closes out the regular season against Florida State on Nov. 30. That game could get particularly ugly for the Gators.
The prevailing sentiment right now is that Muschamp's job is safe, but he'll undoubtedly make major staff changes after the season. It will be a long offseason in Gainesville if Florida finished 5-7 while its archrival goes on to play for the national championship.
Has Johnny Manziel played his final home game?
Johnny Manziel is a redshirt sophomore, but Texas A&M's home finale against Mississippi State on Saturday certainly looked and felt like his own personal senior day. There were hugs with family members shortly before the game. Then, after he accounted for 493 total yards (446 passing, 47 rushing) and threw for five touchdowns in a 51-41 victory over the Bulldogs, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner jumped into the stands to join the student section for its traditional singing of the "Aggie War Hymn."
Afterward, Manziel said he had thought "not one bit" about whether this might be his last game at Kyle Field before he moves on to the NFL. But his denial seemed highly implausible, especially with the crowd chanting "One more year!"
"I'm focused on trying to get us to a BCS bowl," Manziel insisted.
Tenth-ranked Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC) would be coveted by a top-tier bowl should it end the regular season by winning consecutive road games against 18th-ranked LSU and No. 9 Missouri. The Aggies' oft-maligned defense, which allowed 556 total yards on Saturday to mediocre Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4), doesn't inspire much confidence. It's always possible, however, that Manziel will do his Manziel thing and help A&M outscore both Tigers teams. That raises another increasingly realistic possibility: Manziel could repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner.
STAPLES: C.J. Mosley delivers a Heisman-worthy performance against LSU
There's a reason an incumbent Heisman winner hasn't hoisted a second trophy since Ohio State's Archie Griffin won it in 1974 and '75: The bar is set impossibly high. With two losses in 2013, many candidates would have already been written off.
But with previous frontrunner Marcus Mariota stumbling at Stanford last week, Manziel will now likely be seen by voters as the top remaining challenger to Florida State's Winston. And Johnny Football has a pretty good case. Manziel ranks second nationally in total offense (392.4 yards per game) and third in pass efficiency, up from 16th during his Heisman campaign. The Aggies' two losses came against a pair of current Top-10 teams (No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Auburn), and in both games Manziel led the offense to 49 and 45 points, respectively.
The one knock on Manziel is that he keeps turning the ball over. He threw three interceptions on Saturday to bring his season total to 11, two more than he had all of last year. Mariota, despite his modest performance against Stanford, has zero. Winston has seven. Baylor's Petty has one. But Manziel also has significantly more pass attempts (315) than the others, and he's completing 73 percent of his throws (up from 68 percent in 2012).
One thing is for certain: Manziel remains more fun to watch than any other player in the country. We're probably down to our last three chances to see him play in college.
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. Florida State
Rose: Ohio State vs. Stanford
Fiesta: Baylor vs. Fresno State
Sugar: Auburn vs. UCF
Orange: Clemson vs. Oregon
MANDEL: Complete bowl projections: Stanford win over Oregon creates nationwide ripple
The Cardinal's upset of the Ducks caused quite the ripple effect in these projections. Obviously, there's a new title matchup, and there's no more ambiguity over which team should now be ranked No. 2. The Crimson Tide and the Seminoles will meet in Pasadena on Jan. 6 if they both win out. The Buckeyes and the Bears need one or both to lose. End of story.
Meanwhile, Florida State's move to the title game allows Clemson to replace them in the Orange Bowl. That game now also has an opportunity to grab Oregon. Previously, I had two-loss Wisconsin in that spot. The folks in Miami might have some reservations about whether Oregon fans will travel across the country for what they will perceive as a consolation prize, but the chance for Orange Bowl officials to pit two current top-eight teams against each other would likely outweigh those concerns.
If this were 2014 ...
Each week for the rest of the season, I'll 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 Stanford (Pac-12 champ)
Rose: No. 2 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
Cotton: No. 5 Baylor (displaced Big 12 champ) vs. No. 9 Missouri (at-large)
Fiesta: No. 6 Oregon (at-large) vs. No. 11 Texas A&M (at-large)
Orange: No. 8 Clemson (ACC replacement) vs. No. 7 Auburn (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame)
Chick-fil-A: No. 10 South Carolina (at-large) vs. No. 14 Fresno State (Group of Five)
This was a much more difficult exercise than last week because of the overload of SEC teams that would qualify. In order to spread that league's four at-large teams over four games -- remember when there was a two-team-per-conference limit? -- lower-ranked teams such as Fresno State would have to travel to more distant locations. As the highest-ranked of the bunch, Auburn would automatically go to the Orange Bowl as per its contract with the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame. South Carolina is a natural fit in Atlanta. Missouri and Texas A&M are basically interchangeable; I placed the Aggies in Arizona mostly because they played in the Cotton Bowl last year.
Spreading the field
• It wasn't a free-agent pickup per se, but tailback Tyler Gaffney's decision last spring to ditch his minor league baseball career and return to Stanford for his senior season is proving a boon to the Cardinal. Gaffney, a former backup to Stepfan Taylor, has emerged as a true workhorse, carrying 45 times for 157 yards in last Thursday's upset of Oregon. He also had 36 carries in a 24-10 win over UCLA on Oct. 19. "Tyler Gaffney ran the ball [against Oregon] the way running backs are supposed to run the ball in this game of football," said Cardinal coach David Shaw.
MANDEL: Stanford stifles Oregon in West Coast clash of football cultures
• Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was on the brink of disaster before the Huskers' Hail Mary to beat Northwestern on Nov. 2. Now, after a 17-13 victory at Michigan on Saturday, Nebraska (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) will play for first place in the Legends Division against Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) this weekend. Conversely, these are not pleasant times for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines (6-3, 2-3) allowed seven sacks and finished with negative rushing yards for a second straight week. "I've got to do a better job," said Hoke.
• What a remarkable run Minnesota is accomplishing under acting coach Tracy Claeys. The Gophers' (8-2, 4-2) 24-10 victory over Penn State (5-4, 2-3) gave them four consecutive Big Ten wins in a season for the first time since 1973. Head coach Jerry Kill watched from the press box before joining the team in the locker room for a celebratory dance. "We never threw in the towel, even after we lost our first two Big Ten games," said Claeys. Minnesota closes with tough matchups at Wisconsin (Nov. 23) and against Michigan State (Nov. 30).
• Notre Dame's slim hopes of returning to a BCS bowl are gone after Saturday's 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh (5-4), a game that turned on two fourth-quarter Tommy Rees interceptions. While the Fighting Irish (7-3) have two nice wins over Michigan State and Arizona State, they've taken a significant step back since reaching last year's BCS title game. The question is whether exiled quarterback Everett Golson would have made a difference. "We go back to square one," said receiver T.J. Jones. "No one's happy."
• Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall has attempted a combined 16 passes in his last three games. Why throw the ball when the Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) are capable of notching a staggering 444 rushing yards (including 214 from Marshall) in a 55-23 rout of Tennessee (4-6, 1-5)? Auburn, which also got two return touchdowns, has improved from 80th to third nationally in rushing offense under first-year coach Gus Malzahn. "I still believe we can throw the football," Malzahn said. "... But when you don't have to, you don't."
• Wisconsin (7-2) welcomed back potential All-America linebacker Chris Borland from a hamstring injury for Saturday's game against BYU (6-3). All he did was notch 12 tackles and two sacks in stifling Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill during a 27-17 victory. BYU came into the week averaging 511 yards per game, and it finished with just 370. Once 3-2, the Badgers are good bet to win out with remaining games against Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State. But they may need some help to crack the BCS.
• Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is doing his thing again. His inexperienced team started 2-4 with a Week 1 loss to FCS North Dakota State, but it's now won its last three games, most notably Saturday's 49-26 rout of then-ranked Texas Tech (7-3, 4-3 Big 12). The Wildcats (5-4, 3-3) did so in typical fashion, limiting Kliff Kingsbury's aerial attack and forcing three turnovers without committing any of their own. "We've improved a good deal, not as much as I would like, but we are getting better week in and week out," said Snyder.
• Two more key Texas players were hurt on Saturday at West Virginia (4-6, 2-5 Big 12). Running back Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley left the game with leg injuries and have been lost for the season. The Longhorns trailed 26-16 in the third quarter, went ahead and then fell behind twice more. Ultimately, the 'Horns (7-2) prevailed 47-40 in overtime to improve to 6-0 in conference play. "They've had to fight and claw each week, and they continue to amaze me," said Texas coach Mack Brown.
RICKMAN: Texas edges West Virginia in overtime to stay perfect in Big 12 play
• Once left for dead at 3-2, USC (7-3, 4-2 Pac-12) rattled off its fourth win in five games under interim coach Ed Orgeron. It beat Cal (1-9, 0-7) 62-28 in a game that featured an NCAA-record three punt-return touchdowns. How drastically have things changed in Los Angeles? Seven weeks after firing Lane Kiffin at the airport, USC will host ESPN's College GameDay for this weekend's game against Stanford. The Trojans could stay alive in the Pac-12 South if they upset the Cardinal.
• Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2 ACC) halted a two-game skid and put itself back in ACC Coastal contention with a 42-24 rout of Miami (7-2, 3-2). Oft-maligned quarterback Logan Thomas rebounded from last week's nightmarish second half by going 25-of-31 for 366 yards with two touchdowns. Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke (7-2, 3-2) and Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) are all tied in the Coastal Division's loss column. There are a myriad of different tiebreaker scenarios.
• Speaking of the Blue Devils, coach David Cutcliffe's team notched its fifth straight victory on Saturday with a 38-20 win over NC State (3-6, 0-6). It came thanks to a historic performance from redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards. In addition to returning a kickoff 100 yards for a score, Edwards became the second player in NCAA history to intercept consecutive passes and return them for touchdowns. Duke hosts Miami on Nov. 16, but its students are already looking past that, chanting, "We want Florida State."
• Following an impressive defensive performance that culminated in four last-second stops inside its own 10-yard line, UCF (7-1, 4-0 AAC) held off Houston (7-2, 4-1) 19-14 in a game crucial to the race for the American's automatic BCS berth. The Knights now hold a one-game edge plus the tiebreaker over both Louisville and Houston. They don't face Cincinnati (7-2, 4-1), so a trip to the Sugar Bowl or Fiesta Bowl looks increasingly likely. "You won't even hear me mention that," said coach George O'Leary.
• Boston College tailback Andre Williams took over as the national rushing leader following a 295-yard performance in a 48-34 win over New Mexico State. It was Williams' third 200-yard effort this season, and he's now averaging 163.4 yards per game.
• After a series of close calls, Fresno State (9-0, 6-0 MWC) delivered a resounding 48-10 rout of Wyoming (4-5, 2-3). Thanks to the losses above them, the Bulldogs moved up to No. 14 in the latest BCS standings.
• Buffalo (7-2, 5-0 MAC) maintained possession of first place in the MAC East with a 30-3 blowout of Ohio (6-3, 3-2). The Bulls could meet the winner of Wednesday's showdown between Northern Illinois (9-0, 5-0) and Ball State (9-1, 5-1) in the conference championship.
• On Saturday, Eastern Michigan revealed that it fired coach Ron English for "wholly inappropriate language" in a team meeting, which included the use of a gay slur. The Eagles (2-8) won their first game without him. They beat Western Michigan (1-9) 35-32 in overtime.
• Old Dominion, which will move up to FBS next season, scored its first win over an FBS foe by defeating Idaho (1-9) 59-38. Though are we sure Idaho still counts as an FBS program?
You don't know Jack
UCLA linebacker Myles Jack has been the nation's most impressive true freshman for much of the season. A starter since Week 2 and the Bruins' fourth-leading tackler with 62, the Bellevue, Wash., native hauled in a game-sealing interception against Utah on Oct. 3, notched 12 tackles the next week against Cal and forced a fumble and blocked a punt against Oregon on Oct. 26. In Saturday night's 31-26 win at Arizona, he recorded eight tackles and recovered a Ka'Deem Carey fumble in the end zone. The guy is a heck of a linebacker.
Now, he's also a stud running back.
With the Bruins' backfield decimated by injuries, coaches installed a special package last week for the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Jack to tote the rock against the Wildcats. With fellow linebacker Jordan Zumwalt and defensive end Keenan Graham serving as blockers in a diamond formation, Jack first raised eyebrows by shedding a tackle and darting outside for a 29-yard gain in the second quarter. But the highlight was his 66-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run to put UCLA up 31-19.
Jack finished with a team-high 120 yards on six carries.
"We keep getting him in shape so he can go both ways, and we're talking Heisman Trophy in a couple years," Zumwalt said afterward.
Jack, who told reporters that he still prefers hitting people to getting hit, is shaping up to be one of the sport's premier players over the next couple of years. That's due in large part to his versatility. A four-star recruit in the class of 2013, he's a hybrid linebacker who can play inside or outside. He can stuff the run or, apparently, run the ball.
"He'll be a first-round pick as a linebacker," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. "We tried to recruit him as a running back."
With the victory, UCLA (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) still controls its destiny in the Pac-12 South, as it has yet to play both first-place Arizona State (7-2, 5-1) and fellow contender USC (7-3, 4-2). Quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Anthony Barr should remain the primary faces of the Bruins, but look for Jack to become a bigger name -- especially if he continues to play both ways.
Verne Lundquist: Shots fired
CBS' venerable play-by-play man refused to give celebrity girlfriend Katherine Webb the Brent Musburger treatment.
Jesse Palmer: Shots fired
ESPN's color analyst dared to suggest Stanford is good enough to beat Alabama. (Cue the video clip to the 4:39 mark.) You can imagine how that went over.
Mini-previews for three of Week 12's big games:
• Georgia at Auburn, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): For the second time this season, Georgia will face a quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, who used to play for the Dawgs. He'll pose a hefty challenge for Georgia's mediocre defense. But a healthy Todd Gurley coupled with quarterback Aaron Murray could give the Tigers' defense fits, too.
• Michigan State at Nebraska, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Decades of Huskers teams made their living running the ball down opponents' throats. That's not likely to happen against a Spartans' defense that allows a measly 1.6 yards per carry. Nebraska will have to play some shutdown defense of its own in this one.
• Oklahoma State at Texas, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): This is a de facto elimination game to see which team will eventually challenge Baylor for the Big 12 title. The injury-plagued 'Horns are 6-0 in conference play, while the streaking Cowboys are 5-1. Both play the Bears down the stretch. Texas' run defense will be challenged.