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College Football

Chaos season begins as contenders enter home stretch

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After routing Oklahoma last week, Bryce Petty (14) and Baylor will face off with Texas Tech on Saturday.

Chaos season finally kicked off last Thursday.

Stanford knocked off Oregon, providing the first true shakeup at the top of the polls. Last week, I bemoaned the possibility of a logjam of undefeated teams at the top come December. Two days later, one of those contenders fell from the ranks of the unbeaten. More than likely, one or more of the four remaining undefeated teams at the top will fall. We haven't had the absolute head-scratcher yet -- think Iowa State over Oklahoma State in 2011 --- and some of the teams still have their toughest games to play. So let's examine the potential losses for the four undefeated teams atop the rankings.

Alabama: Nov. 30 at Auburn, Dec. 7 at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against Missouri, South Carolina or Georgia.

Florida State: No likely losses with Syracuse, Idaho, Florida and the ACC title game still on the schedule. This one would have to be a head-scratcher.

Ohio State: Nov. 30 at Michigan, but only because it's such an intense rivalry. Michigan doesn't look good enough to beat the Buckeyes, but strange things happen in rivalries. Dec. 7 at the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis against Michigan State or Nebraska.

Baylor: Nov. 23 at Oklahoma State, Dec. 7 vs. Texas.

Someone else is going down. The exciting part is we don't know who or when.

MANDEL: Florida State looks like No. 1 team after Week 11; more Overtime

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1Alabama Crimson Tide
Las week: 1
Mississippi State has played well in losses to very good teams (South Carolina and Texas A&M) the past two weeks, but Alabama found another gear in the second half of its win over LSU. This Crimson Tide team has a weakness that can be exploited (the cornerbacks), but that's almost impossible to do when the 'Bama front seven is getting the kind of pressure it got in the final 30 minutes against the Tigers. The other major improvement in Alabama's defense owes to the play of the Tide's offensive line and backs. It's awfully tough to score on Alabama without the ball, and the Tide's three second-half touchdown drives on Saturday took a combined 32 plays and consumed 17 minutes and 34 seconds. Time of possession is occasionally a misleading statistic in this age of lightning-strike offenses, but it carries a ton of meaning in a game like Alabama-LSU.

Last game: Beat LSU, 38-17
Next game: Saturday at Mississippi State
 
2Florida State Seminoles
Last week: 3
The Florida State faithful were awfully nervous this time last week. Now? Oregon has lost, the heavens have parted and the path has presented itself. The Seminoles are in prime position to play for the national title. While Alabama is ranked higher in the BCS standings, Florida State has the cleanest road to Pasadena. The Crimson Tide still must face Auburn (currently 9-1) on the Plains in a rivalry game that could decide the SEC West title. After that, 'Bama would have to beat the winner of the SEC East (probably Missouri or South Carolina but possibly Georgia) in Atlanta. The Seminoles will play overmatched Syracuse, Idaho and reeling Florida before the ACC championship. There, they'll face Miami, Virginia Tech, Duke or Georgia Tech. So if you're an Ohio State or Baylor fan, start cheering hard for the Tigers (Auburn or Missouri, take your pick). Your teams probably aren't leaping the Seminoles.

Last game: Beat Wake Forest, 59-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Syracuse
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last week: 4
Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spencer made headlines on Monday when he discussed the teams fighting with the Buckeyes for the top two spots in the BCS rankings. "I'm a little biased, but I think we'd wipe the field with both of them," Spencer said. "But that's just my bias speaking." A reporter wanted Spencer to clarify which two teams he meant by "both," asking Spencer who else he meant besides Alabama. "Whoever," Spencer said.

This made fine grist for the Internet/talk radio mill, but if you watch the video on the Cleveland Plain-Dealer website, it's pretty obvious Spencer is having some fun with this line of questioning. This could wind up being bulletin-board material should the Buckeyes reach the BCS title game, but anything could. Mostly, Spencer just looks like a guy who is confident in his team.

Besides, we don't really know that Alabama and Florida State are better than Ohio State and Baylor. We think we do. We can take an educated guess. But we truly don't know, and no one understands that better than Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. In 2006, Meyer's Florida team was a fairly unpopular candidate for the BCS title game at this point in the season. The prevailing wisdom was that the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game, which pitted two programs with unblemished records, was the best team in the country. People thought one-loss USC should go on to play that team in the national championship. Then USC lost to UCLA on the season's final day, and suddenly popular opinion was torn between the Gators and an Ohio State-Michigan rematch. Meyer had spent a month making his team's case, and voters listened even though few thought a team from the piddly SEC could hang with the champ of the mighty Big Ten.

When Florida was matched against Ohio State in the BCS title game, Las Vegas agreed with conventional wisdom and made the Buckeyes a heavy favorite. It turned out Meyer was correct. His team was significantly better than Ohio State, and Florida's 41-14 win started a BCS title streak that continues to this day and has helped create a new prevailing belief that the champion of the SEC must be superior to the champion of the Big Ten. The truth is, we don't really have the data to accurately say which team among Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor is best. We thought we knew in January 2007, and most of us were comically wrong. So laugh at Spencer all you want. He may ultimately be correct.

Last game: Beat Purdue, 56-0
Next game: Saturday at Illinois
 
4Baylor Bears
Last week: 5
The good news for Baylor? It crushed Oklahoma last Thursday. The bad news? The Sooners looked terrible, and then Oklahoma's best win (Notre Dame) went out and lost to Pittsburgh two days later. It's possible that the Bears made Oklahoma look terrible. This is especially true of Baylor's defense against the Sooners' offense, but Oklahoma's struggles gave more ammunition to those who say the Bears haven't played a challenging schedule. (Had Oklahoma scored a bunch of points and lost by two, that fact would have been used to suggest the Bears can't play defense.) Baylor will face a Texas Tech team in free fall at JerryWorld on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Bears' best two upcoming opponents (Oklahoma State and Texas) will face off in Austin. At this point, the best scenario for Baylor is probably for Texas to keep winning, thus setting up a showdown at Floyd Casey Stadium on Dec. 7 while the other leagues play their championship games. Of course, Baylor must stay unbeaten to make it matter.

Last game: Beat Oklahoma, 41-12
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas Tech in Arlington, Texas
 
5Stanford Cardinal
Last week: 6
When the dust settled on the Cardinal's victory over Oregon and the poll spots got shuffled, one key question emerged: How the hell did these guys lose to Utah? Stanford would probably be sitting in prime position to play for the national title if not for that Oct. 12 loss, but alas, it's too late now. Instead, the Cardinal must concentrate on winning a second consecutive Pac-12 title.

Because of that 27-21 loss to Utah, Stanford has no margin for error. Lose to resurgent USC on Saturday, and the Cardinal will likely fall back behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North race. Even though it's a rivalry game, Cal shouldn't present much of a challenge on Nov. 23. If Stanford can beat the Trojans, it should have no trouble locking up the North the following week.

Last game: Beat Oregon, 26-20
Next game: Saturday at USC
 
6Oregon Ducks
Last week: 2
You'll never meet a bigger bunch of Coach O fans than the Ducks. They need USC to beat Stanford to rescue their Rose Bowl chances. They also need to keep winning to try to climb back into the BCS top four, because the at-large berths are drying up. UCF's victory over Houston last Saturday means the Knights will likely win the American. The voters' disdain for UCF means the Knights will likely finish below No. 16 in final BCS standings. If a team from a non-AQ conference finishes higher -- undefeated Fresno State and Northern Illinois both might -- there goes another berth. With Clemson a potential 11-1 finisher and the Sugar Bowl likely to take an SEC team if Alabama wins the league title and goes to the BCS championship, Oregon would probably need to finish in the BCS top four to activate yet another rule and guarantee itself a spot. Or the Ducks could hope for USC to upset Stanford, which would open the door for Oregon to win the Pac-12 North and regain its shot at the Rose Bowl.

Last game: Lost to Stanford, 26-20
Next game: Saturday vs. Utah
 
7 Clemson Tigers
Last week: 7
Since getting crushed by Florida State on Oct. 19, Clemson has won two games by a combined score of 99-37. But Maryland and Virginia had nothing to play for. Georgia Tech does. The Yellow Jackets still have a slim chance to win the ACC Coastal, but they need some help. A victory in Thursday's game would put Georgia Tech in the barn with a 6-2 ACC record. But the Yellow Jackets have head-to-head losses to divisional opponents Virginia Tech and Miami, which also have two conference losses. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech has a head-to-head win over Duke, which also has two league defeats. If Duke beats Miami this weekend, the Yellow Jackets would still need Virginia Tech to lose, because in a three-way tie among those teams, Virginia Tech and Duke's superior divisional records would eliminate Georgia Tech. Have you gone cross-eyed yet? Ladies and gentlemen, ACC football! Of course, none of this will matter if Clemson takes care of business on Thursday. The Tigers, meanwhile, would keep their hopes for a BCS at-large berth alive.

Last game: Beat Virginia, 59-10
Next game: Thursday vs. Georgia Tech
 
8 Auburn Tigers
Last week: 8
The Tigers attempted a combined 16 passes in wins over Arkansas and Tennessee. Meanwhile, they ran 99 times for 677 yards and nine touchdowns. If they can keep up that kind of dominance on the ground, no one will beat them. But Georgia is more talented on defense than Arkansas or Tennessee, and a showdown with Alabama remains on the horizon. To beat the Bulldogs or have a chance against the Crimson Tide, Auburn will probably have to be more two-dimensional. Quarterback Nick Marshall (14 carries for 214 yards at Tennessee) went only 3-of-7 through the air against the Volunteers, but on his lone touchdown pass -- a 25-yard beauty down the right sideline to C.J. Uzomah -- Marshall showed he has the touch to get the ball into the end zone on occasion.

Last game: Beat Tennessee, 55-23
Next game: Saturday vs. Georgia
 
9Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 9
Missouri quarterback James Franklin, who has been out since spraining his shoulder at Georgia on Oct. 12, played five snaps -- all handoffs -- late in the Tigers' win over Kentucky last Saturday. After the game, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel told reporters that he wanted to get Franklin some work, but he didn't want Franklin to throw. Pinkel said that with a bye this week, Franklin should be ready to start when the Tigers travel to Oxford on Nov. 23. Missouri controls the SEC East race, but it has the toughest conference closing kick of the three contenders for the title. After visiting the Rebels, Mizzou will return home to face Texas A&M in what could be Johnny Manziel's final regular-season college game.

Last game: Beat Kentucky, 48-17
Next game: Nov. 23 at Ole Miss
 
10South Carolina Gamecocks
Last week: 10
Thanks to a head-scratching loss at Tennessee on Oct. 19, all South Carolina can do is try to beat a Florida team that just got crushed at home by Vanderbilt and then wait. This weekend's visit from the Gators is the final SEC game for the Gamecocks, so they won't know until at least next week if they'll be headed to Atlanta. When they kick off on Saturday, the Gamecocks won't know whether Georgia has won or lost at Auburn. But the picture should be clear by late Saturday night. Of course, if Missouri wins its final two games, none of the other machinations will matter.

Last game: Beat Mississippi State, 34-16
Next game: Saturday vs. Florida
 
11UCLA Bruins
Last week: 11
Last year, Jim Mora upgraded his team by moving an underused back to linebacker. That player was Anthony Barr, and he turned into one of the nation's best pass rushers. Last Saturday against Arizona, Mora deployed his best freshman linebacker as a tailback -- with some inverted wishbone help from some of his defensive teammates -- and another star was born. Myles Jack carried six times for 120 yards, including this 66-yard touchdown that had ESPN announcer/wizard Joe Tessitore quoting Stripes.



Last game: Beat Arizona, 31-26
Next game: Friday vs. Washington
 
12Texas A&M Aggies
Last week: 14
The Aggies allowed 41 points to a Mississippi State team that hasn't scored more than 28 against any other AQ-conference opponent. We're going to have to accept that Texas A&M is not going to play any defense this season. While that probably isn't good for Kevin Sumlin's blood pressure, it's great for those of us who watch Texas A&M games with no rooting interest. Thanks to Johnny Manziel and the offense, we know the Aggies are going to score a bunch. Thanks to the defense, we know the opponent is going to score a bunch. No matter what happens, we're going to be entertained. This is probably the safest bet in college football.

Last game: Beat Mississippi State, 51-41
Next game: Nov. 23 at LSU
 
13 Michigan State Spartans
Last week: 15
Last week, ESPN.com's Brian Bennett provided an excellent statistical look at this Michigan State defense's place in history if its stingy numbers hold. Still, the Spartans would give up any sort of statistical record for a shot at the offensive juggernaut from Columbus that is favored to win the Big Ten title. A Michigan State win in Lincoln on Saturday would essentially wrap up the Legends Division, giving the Spartans their shot at Ohio State in Indianapolis. That is the best matchup for the league and the best test for the Buckeyes. But getting there won't be easy.

Nebraska's emotional rollercoaster of a season has hit an upswing, and the Spartans have had no luck against the Cornhuskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. Two years ago, the Spartans were coming off the "Rocket" game against Wisconsin when they went to Lincoln and got thrashed 24-3. Last year, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez threw a touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with six seconds remaining to beat Michigan State in East Lansing. With Martinez still injured, the Spartans will face Tommy Armstrong Jr., who engineered a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive last Saturday at Michigan.

Last game: Beat Michigan, 29-6
Next game: Saturday at Nebraska
 
14 Wisconsin Badgers
Last week: 22
All the Badgers can do now is keep winning and hope some of the teams that could swipe BCS berths lose. Northern Illinois could very well fall to Ball State on Wednesday. That would eliminate one threat. Fresno State still has to play San Jose State on Nov. 29. Clemson has to play South Carolina, but a Gamecocks' win in that one would likely hand the Tigers only their second loss and might put South Carolina in position to take an at-large spot. An Auburn loss to Georgia, followed by a loss to Alabama on Nov. 30, would probably eliminate the Tigers from at-large consideration. Wisconsin will need some help, but a BCS bowl isn't out of the question. If not, the Badgers can enjoy sunny Orlando.

Last game: Beat BYU, 27-17
Next game: Saturday vs. Indiana
 
15LSU Tigers
Last week: 13
The Tigers had a moment in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. With the score tied at 17 early in the third quarter, LSU seemed in position to shock the nation. Then the Crimson Tide realized they only needed to run the ball down the Tigers' throats to move the ball and milk the clock. LSU's defense will have to get better during its bye week, because Texas A&M's offense -- while dramatically different -- is every bit as potent as Alabama's. Of course, Zach Mettenberger may throw for 500 yards against the Aggies' defense, so it should be a fairly even matchup.

Last game: Lost to Alabama, 38-17
Next game: Nov. 23 vs. Texas A&M
 
16Oklahoma State Cowboys
Last week: 16
In the next two Saturdays, the Cowboys will have a chance to take command of the Big 12. They'll face Texas and Baylor, and a pair of wins would put Oklahoma State atop the league heading into Bedlam against an Oklahoma team lacking an offensive identity. The Cowboys' Sept. 28 loss at West Virginia looms large now, because otherwise Oklahoma State might have been able to get away with splitting these two. At this point, the winner of the league will probably be the one that sweeps the other two contenders.

Last game: Beat Kansas, 42-6
Next game: Saturday at Texas
 
17UCF Knights
Last week: 18
After surviving Houston's rally, the Knights need only go 3-1 the rest of the way to win the American and secure a berth in a BCS bowl. With Temple, Rutgers, South Florida and SMU remaining on their schedule, that shouldn't be a problem.

Last game: Beat Houston, 19-14
Next game: Saturday at Temple
 
18Louisville Cardinals
Last week: 19
This Saturday's game, which could have been for the American Athletic Conference title had Houston managed to complete its final pass in Orlando, is now only for pride. The Coaches' and Harris poll voters apparently still haven't been informed that the Cardinals lost to UCF on Oct. 18, but the people who keep the league standings are well aware. Those people, by the way, are probably thrilled with this turn of events, because Louisville is headed to the ACC next year. The Cardinals can console themselves with the giant pile of money they'll receive from the ACC relative to what they would have received from the American.

Last game: Beat Connecticut, 31-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Houston
 
19Arizona State Sun Devils
Last week: 21
Unlike Stanford, Arizona State (barely) survived a trip to Salt Lake City, and the Sun Devils seem to be on a collision course with UCLA for a showdown to decide the Pac-12 South title on Nov. 23. Because only one of Arizona State's losses came in conference play, the Sun Devils could slip up against Oregon State on Saturday and still control their destiny in the South race. But given the way both teams have played of late -- Arizona State has won four in a row; Oregon State has lost its past two -- that result seems unlikely.

Last game: Beat Utah, 20-19
Next game: Saturday vs. Oregon State
 
20Ole Miss Rebels
Last week: 23
The 6-3 Rebels have already matched last season's win total, but now they want more. An eight-win season is probable, but a nine-win season is certainly possible. Ole Miss should have little trouble with Troy this weekend. The tricky game will be Missouri's visit to Oxford on Nov. 23. I'm not sure how well South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier knows Hugh Freeze, but given the major SEC East implications, he'd be wise to call Freeze and offer a few pointers before that one.

Last game: Beat Arkansas, 34-24
Next game: Saturday vs. Troy
 
21 Northern Illinois Huskies
Last week: 25
The biggest obstacle standing between Northern Illinois and a third consecutive MAC title is Wednesday's showdown with West Division rival Ball State. The Cardinals are 9-1, and fans whose schools might be in the market for a coach this offseason are probably already aware of the prodigious talents of Ball State headman Pete Lembo. If the Huskies can survive this one, their path to the conference title is clear, and the possibility of a second consecutive BCS bowl berth remains on the table. Wednesday's game should also provide a great showcase for Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, who has thrown for 1,871 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 1,150 yards and 12 scores in 2013.

Last game: Beat Massachusetts, 63-19
Next game: Wednesday vs. Ball State
 
22Georgia Bulldogs
Last week: NR
The Bulldogs are 5-1 when tailback Todd Gurley plays and 1-2 when he doesn't. That one win was a 34-31 overtime thriller at Tennessee. Basically, Georgia is a different team without Gurley. Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph broke down the numbers this week and found that the Dawgs have averaged 7.5 yards a play on drives when Gurley has touched the ball, and 5.9 yards a play on drives when he has not. Gurley's ankle remains an issue, but he has played the past two weeks. The Bulldogs will certainly need him to beat Auburn.

Last game: Beat Appalachian State, 45-6
Next game: Saturday at Auburn
 
23 BYU Cougars
Last week: 24
The Cougars got pushed around at Wisconsin, but the Badgers are pushing a lot of teams around this year. BYU should win its remaining three games, but to do that, it will have to dictate the tempo as it did earlier in the season. Wisconsin didn't let it last weekend.

Last game: Lost to Wisconsin, 27-17
Next game: Saturday vs. Idaho State
 
24Texas Longhorns
Last week: NR
The Longhorns have had some close calls -- Iowa State fans might say "bad calls" -- but here they are. Texas is 6-0 in Big 12 play heading into the stretch that will determine who wins the league. The losses of tailback Johnathan Gray (Achilles tendon) and defensive tackle Chris Whaley (knee) are huge. For a team that already had a fairly thin margin for error against better competition, that may be the bad luck that pushes the Longhorns over the edge. Of course, we counted them out against Oklahoma, and they proved us wrong. Maybe they'll do it again.

Last game: Beat West Virginia, 47-40 (OT)
Next game: Saturday vs. Oklahoma State
 
25Oklahoma Sooners
Last Week: 17
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told reporters on Monday that Blake Bell will remain the Sooners' quarterback, and it didn't sound as if a change is even an option. Oklahoma must change something offensively, however, because the predictable scheme it trotted out last Thursday in Waco will not beat a quality opponent. The Sooners' defense, which held Baylor in check for longer than it probably should have given the disadvantages handed to it by the inept offense, should be enough to beat Iowa State. But Oklahoma must finish with a trip to Manhattan to face a rapidly improving Kansas State and a visit to Stillwater to face an Oklahoma State team that could be playing to clinch the Big 12 title. If the Sooners want to stay near the bottom of the poll, they can probably keep doing what they're doing. If they'd like to return to the top, some changes are in order.

Last game: Lost to Baylor, 41-12
Next game: Saturday vs. Iowa State

Next five: Fresno State, USC, Minnesota, Nebraska, Duke

Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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