On Nov. 28, 2007, while most of the college football world was focused on the final games of the regular season and the feverish coaching search at Michigan, Baylor quietly announced the hiring of Houston coach Art Briles. His seemingly unenviable mission was to make the Bears, the Big 12's perennial doormat, relevant.
A couple of weeks later, on Dec. 14, Duke hired David Cutcliffe, the coach at Ole Miss from 1999 to 2004, who had spent the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. On Dec. 1, Cutcliffe and the Volunteers had played for the SEC championship. He left Knoxville to take over a program that hadn't won an ACC game in three years.
On Saturday, Cutcliffe's Blue Devils beat No. 24 Miami 48-30 to improve to 8-2 and take over sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal Division. Next Saturday, Briles will lead 9-0 Baylor against 9-1 Oklahoma State in a primetime showdown that will most likely determine this year's Big 12 champion. In the context of this season, neither occurrence is overwhelmingly surprising. Take a step back, however, and it's easy to remember that nothing could have seemed more unlikely.
"The great thing about playing football, you're always in the moment," Briles said on Sunday. "Everything is the same this week as since we've been here. This Sunday is no different than any other."
Now more than ever, programs are able to shed years, if not decades, of irrelevance and compete at the top of their conferences. All it takes is the right coach, plenty of resources and a whole lot of patience. In 2013, there are no better examples than the Bears and Blue Devils.
To put Baylor's current 6-0 Big 12 record in perspective, consider that upon joining the expanded conference in 1996, it took the Bears nine years to win their first six league games. Briles' predecessor, Guy Morriss, went 7-33 in Big 12 play. Morriss' predecessor, Kevin Steele, went 1-31.
To put Duke's current 4-2 ACC mark into context, consider that Cutcliffe's predecessor, Ted Roof, won three conference games in five years. Roof's predecessor, Carl Franks, also only won three ACC games in five years.
In late 2007, Briles and Cutcliffe took over the undisputed worst BCS-conference programs in the nation. Nearly six years later, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, both teams are in control of their BCS-bowl destinies.
"I was raised on, Always have a plan and work your plan," said Cutcliffe. "When you believe it strongly enough, good things are going to happen."
On Saturday, Cutcliffe's Blue Devils did something that once would have been considered unimaginable. They beat the Hurricanes by being the more physical and athletic team. Duke rushed for a staggering 358 yards against a Miami team that was just two weeks removed from being ranked seventh in the AP Poll. The Blue Devils didn't seem remotely surprised by the result.
"We wanted to impose our will," redshirt junior running back Josh Snead said afterward. "We knew that the team that was going to win had to be the toughest team."
Duke, which has now beaten two ranked teams in a season (the Blue Devils beat then-No. 14 Virginia Tech 13-10 on Oct. 26) for the first time since 1971, plays its last two games this year on the road, against 4-6 Wake Forest on Nov. 23, and against 5-5 North Carolina on Nov. 30. According to Patrick Stevens of the Syracuse Post-Standard, there are currently 32 possible Coastal Division tiebreaker scenarios, but the Blue Devils would render them moot by winning out.
"We'd be honored to keep it easy on the ACC office," said Cutcliffe. "These guys know what's at stake."
Yet Duke, which cracked the AP Poll at No. 25 on Sunday for the first time since 1994, has not yet reached the same level of national relevance as Baylor. The Bears are potentially playing for more than just a Big 12 title. Briles' team closed the gap on No. 3 Ohio State in the latest BCS standings (Baylor actually overtook the Buckeyes at No. 3 in the latest AP Poll) and would likely move ahead of the Buckeyes with a road win on Saturday over the Cowboys, who are ranked No. 10 in the BCS.
The Bears routed Texas Tech 63-34 on Saturday at JerryWorld in Arlington, erasing an early 20-7 deficit in less than three minutes. Despite playing without two of their top three running backs (Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin) and their second-leading receiver (Tevin Reese), they rolled to 675 yards of total offense, just shy of their season average of 683. Quarterback Bryce Petty threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for two scores to help Baylor surpass its average of 61 points per game.
"Its speaks to our offensive line and to Bryce Petty that we were allowed to keep the engine going," said Briles, "because those guys have been really consistent and steady all year."
For much of the season, the Bears have been the poster children for the "But who have they played?" argument. That changes this weekend. The entire country will tune in to watch Baylor play, which is remarkable given that many of the team's fans didn't even watch the Bears for a long period of time.
"We understand the magnitude of where we're at in the season, but at the same time we're still trying to reach our peak performance," said Briles. "We can all be a lot better offensively and defensively. We understand there's better football out in front of us."
Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State have been in the national spotlight for most of the year. This week it belongs to the Bears. Come Dec. 7, Baylor could play Texas for a spot in one BCS bowl, while the Blue Devils could play the Seminoles for a spot in another. Just like we always imagined.
When USC athletic director Pat Haden tapped defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to replace Lane Kiffin as interim head coach on Sept. 29, he talked about the fiery Cajun injecting "joy and fun" into a reeling Trojans team. Still, it's doubtful Haden could have envisioned a scene like what transpired Saturday night in the Coliseum, when fans stormed the field and Orgeron climbed a ladder -- sword in hand -- to lead the USC band in song following his squad's 20-17 upset of fifth-ranked Stanford.
A week after the Cardinal ran over previously undefeated Oregon, USC -- despite being so thin on defense that it played just two substitutes the entire game (and one for only one snap) -- the Trojans (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) intercepted Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan twice in the fourth quarter en route to their fifth straight Pac-12 victory. But the star of the night was Orgeron, particularly after his decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Stanford 48-yard line with the score tied at 17 and less than three minutes remaining. To that point, the Trojans had not scored in the second half. Quarterback Cody Kessler hit receiver Marqise Lee on a slant for a 13-yard gain and USC kept driving to set up Andre Heidari's game-winning 47-yard field goal.
"I knew I was a taking a chance," Orgeron said of the fourth-down call. "But I looked in these guys' eyes and I knew they wanted to go for it, and I knew they wanted to win the game. I wanted to give them a chance as a coach and give them what they wanted."
Orgeron has been the ultimate players' coach during his 5-1 run, and the Trojans are showing their appreciation.
"I speak for the whole team, we absolutely love him," Kessler told reporters. "He's awesome. He's amazing. He has that look in his eye when he's talking to you that you can see that he really, really does care."
Following Saturday's win, the once-remote notion of Orgeron keeping the USC job beyond this season is gaining traction. Though a report surfaced on Sunday that Haden interviewed Denver Broncos defensive coordinator and acting head coach Jack Del Rio, players are speaking up on Orgeron's behalf.
"We want Coach O next year," freshman safety Su'a Cravens told the Los Angeles Times. "Forget the hiring, forget all that. We got Coach O and that's all we need."
While Orgeron deserves ample credit for USC's turnaround, don't expect Haden to give in to emotion when making his decision. The recent history of interim coaches panning out over a longer tenure is not good -- see Michigan State's Bobby Williams, Miami's Larry Coker and West Virginia's Bill Stewart, to name a few. Unless the Trojans wind up winning the Pac-12 (and they need Arizona State to lose twice just to reach the conference title game), USC should and will use its clout and resources to attract a national star like Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin or Vanderbilt's James Franklin.
But Orgeron, 10-25 in his one previous head-coaching stint at Ole Miss (2005-07), has turned himself into a wanted commodity. Don't see surprised to see him running another program in '14.
Auburn beats Georgia on Ricardo Louis' miraculous catch
On Sunday, the Birmingham News ran a poll asking readers to vote on the name of the astounding last-second play that lifted Auburn to a 43-38 win over Georgia. Early results had "The Immaculate Deflection" edging several options that included the word miracle, an apt description for Ricardo Louis' 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a fourth-and-18 heave that deflected off Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. It was one of those only-in-college-football moments that will likely be replayed and remembered for decades to come.
"I always dreamed about making a great play in a big game," said Louis, a sophomore from Miami. "Coach [Gus] Malzahn said in the beginning of the week, he was like, 'Ricardo is due for a great play in a big game,' and he was right."
Long before the catch, Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) spent most of Saturday's game putting on another clinic in the power offense Malzahn has used to morph the Tigers from a winless SEC team in 2012 to a top-10 squad in '13. The Tigers ran for 323 yards on 57 carries in building a 37-17 fourth-quarter lead on the Dawgs. Credit Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray for mounting a furious comeback that seemed to culminate with his five-yard rushing touchdown on fourth-and-goal to put the Bulldogs up 38-37 with 1:49 left. But with one improbable play, the Tigers sent the seemingly snake-bitten Dawgs to their fourth defeat of the year.
More notably, Auburn, which enters a bye week, set the stage for a momentous Iron Bowl. The Tigers will host No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30 in a winner-takes-all showdown for the SEC West's spot in Atlanta. Remarkably, it will be the first time that scenario has occurred in the rivals' annual season-ending showdown since the conference began staging a championship game in 1992.
Even as the victories kept piling up throughout Auburn's improbable turnaround, it has always been assumed that the Tigers would be a minor nuisance in the Crimson Tide's quest for a third straight BCS championship. Now, Auburn will be ranked no lower than sixth by the time the teams meet. With a rushing attack that's averaging 320.3 yards per game (lower than only option teams Army and New Mexico), Malzahn's crew should challenge even Alabama's vaunted defense.
The Tigers' defense leaves much to be desired, as evidenced by Murray and the Dawgs finishing Saturday's game with 532 yards of total offense. It may be that 'Bama stars AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon shred them. But Auburn has ruined its rival's season before, and it does seem to have some sort of element of destiny working in its favor.
"This team has the 'it' factor," Malzahn said after beating Georgia. "... I told them that I think we're in the midst of something special."
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:
For the second consecutive week, the result of a Stanford game caused the biggest ripple effect in my lineup. Only this time, it benefited Oregon while relegating the Cardinal to a likely Alamo Bowl berth. The Ducks are back in control of the Pac-12 North, and while the BCS championship game remains a long shot, they're heading to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl if they win out (at Arizona, vs. Oregon State and likely vs. UCLA or Arizona State in the league title game).
The bad news for the Pac-12 is that Stanford's loss likely cost the league a second BCS berth. The Orange Bowl, which may have the only at-large opening, is not likely to take a two-loss team that needs to fly across the country, especially not if a Big Ten team is available. I had long projected Wisconsin for this spot since it could close out the regular season with seven straight wins, but the criminally underrated Badgers are stuck at No. 19 in the latest BCS standings. They're no sure bet to crack the top 14. But a one-loss Michigan State team, currently No. 13, might not fall below No. 14 with a conference championship game loss to Ohio State.
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 Baylor (Big 12 champ)
Rose: No. 2 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
Cotton: No. 5 Oregon (displaced Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 8 Missouri (at-large)
Fiesta: No. 9 Stanford (at-large) vs. No. 15 Fresno State (Group of Five)
Orange: No. 7 Clemson (ACC replacement) vs. No. 6 Auburn (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame)
Chick-fil-A: No. 10 Oklahoma State (at-large) vs. No. 11 South Carolina (at-large)
My initial thought was to place Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl and Stanford in the Cotton, but swapping them and allowing the Ducks to face the better opponent creates the best matchup. Everything else filled in fairly naturally, though the SEC lineup could look substantially different in a couple of weeks, after Auburn faces Alabama, South Carolina faces Clemson and Missouri faces Texas A&M. Depending on how those results shake out, there may be one fewer team from that league and perhaps one more squad from the Big Ten or Pac-12.
Spreading the field
• Ohio State scored 60 points on Saturday, won on the road ... and lost ground in the BCS beauty pageant. Presumably because they allowed 35 points to three-win Illinois, the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) fell to fourth, behind Baylor, in the latest AP Poll and lost points to the Bears in the Coaches' Poll and BCS standings. This, despite Carlos Hyde carrying 24 times for 246 yards and four touchdowns and Braxton Miller carrying 16 times for 184 yards.
Elsewhere, Alabama beat 4-5 Mississippi State 20-7, scoring less than half of Florida State's lowest point total of the season. The Tide lost one first place AP vote.
• Florida State continues to stomp every opponent on its schedule. On Saturday, the Seminoles led Syracuse 35-0 in the second quarter before its offense faced its first third down. Quarterback Jameis Winston, unaffected by a week of off-field headlines, went 19-of-21 for 277 yards with two touchdowns in two quarters of an eventual 59-3 rout. All told, Florida State averaged a staggering 11.6 yards per play against a top-25 defense.
• The legend of Myles Jack continues to grow. The UCLA linebacker and running back became the first Bruin since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005 to rush for four touchdowns in a game, as UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) topped Washington 41-31 last Friday night. "Wow, Maurice Jones-Drew was my idol back in my running back days," said Jack, who insists he still prefers defense. Meanwhile, Steve Sarkisian's perpetually just-short-of-the-hump Huskies fell to 3-9 on the road in Pac-12 play since 2011.
• Oregon State's defense did all it could to silence Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, but Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion threw an uncharacteristic four interceptions -- including a back-breaking pick-six in the fourth quarter -- as the Sun Devils beat Mike Riley's team 30-17. Arizona State (8-2, 6-1) will play for the Pac-12 South title on Saturday at UCLA. "Everything we've worked for is in the 60 minutes of this next game," said Sun Devils coach Todd Graham.
• Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch launched himself back into the Heisman Trophy discussion with a remarkable Wednesday night performance in the Huskies' 48-27 win over Ball State (9-2, 6-1). Lynch's 468 total yards and four touchdowns only tell part of the story; one had to see Lynch's improbable escapes from would-be tacklers to appreciate them. "If Jordan isn't in the conversation for the Heisman, I don't know what people are watching," said NIU coach Rod Carey, whose team improved to 10-0, 6-0 in the MAC.
• Led by Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten's leading rusher, Nebraska became the first team this season to rush for more than 100 yards against Michigan State. In fact, the Cornhuskers played Mark Dantonio's team evenly for most of Saturday's clash. However, five turnovers -- including three in the first quarter -- lifted the Spartans (9-1, 6-0) to a 41-28 victory over the Huskers (7-3, 4-2) and put them one step closer to clinching the Legends Division. "Big win. Program win," said Dantonio. "Everything is in our corner."
• Michigan became the second team in a row to snatch victory from Northwestern on the final play of regulation. With the Wildcats leading 9-6, the Wolverines (7-3, 3-3) raced their field-goal unit on to the field just in time to snap the ball with one second remaining. Brendan Gibbons hit the game-tying 44-yard kick, and Michigan won 27-19 in triple overtime. "Somebody did something because we don't have very good karma right now," said Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian.
• Wisconsin and Indiana will be in different divisions when the Big Ten realigns next year, and that can't come soon enough for the Hoosiers (4-6, 2-4). The Badgers' 51-3 victory on Saturday -- following 83-20, 59-7 and 62-14 results the past three seasons -- saw Wisconsin rack up 554 rushing yards, the highest single-game total in the FBS in 2013. James White led the way with 205 yards, followed by Melvin Gordon's 146 and freshman Corey Clements' 108. The Badgers (8-2, 5-1) have won five straight.
• UCF (8-1, 5-0 AAC), which is currently in line for the American's automatic BCS berth, came dangerously close to losing to 1-8 Temple. Behind a phenomenal performance from freshman quarterback P.J. Walker (423 total yards, five touchdowns), the Owls took a 36-29 lead with 2:04 remaining. UCF tied the game on a ridiculous 30-yard touchdown catch by J.J. Worton. It won 39-36 on a last-second field goal set up by Blake Bortles' 64-yard pass to Rannell Hall.
• After a rough start, Cincinnati (8-2, 5-1 AAC) has quietly put itself in position for its sixth 10-win season in the last seven years. The Bearcats' 52-17 rout of reeling Rutgers (5-4, 2-3) marked the team's fifth consecutive win since an inexplicable loss at USF on Oct. 5. But Tommy Tuberville's squad still has to play 7-3 Houston and 9-1 Louisville. The stingy Cardinals topped the Cougars 20-13 on Saturday by holding the normally high-octane Houston offense to a mere 195 total yards.
• Congrats also to Kansas (3-7), which ended its three-year, 27-game Big 12 losing streak with a 31-19 victory over West Virginia (4-7). After the final whistle, fans threw the goal posts into Potter's Lake.
• Maryland (6-4) has reached bowl eligibility for the first time under third-year coach Randy Edsall. The Terps knocked off Virginia Tech (7-4) 27-24 in overtime.
• Colorado (4-6) ended a 14-game Pac-12 losing streak by further humbling Cal 41-24.
• For the second time this season, a Division III player broke the NCAA all-divisions single-game rushing record. Cartel Brooks of Heidelberg (Ohio) University sprang for 465 rushing yards on 38 carries in a 42-14 win over Baldwin Wallace.
• Finally, in a bizarre story, Saturday's scheduled Division II CIAA championship game was cancelled after Virginia State players allegedly beat up Winston-Salem State quarterback Rudy Johnson in a restroom while attending a banquet. The conference banned Virginia State from the Division II playoffs.
Boston College's Andre Williams running into the record books
Boston College running back Andre Williams has carried the ball 288 times this season, more than any other player in the country. On Saturday against NC State, he reached a new personal high with 42 carries. Asked on Sunday whether his body is feeling the effects, the 6-foot, 227-pounder paused to contemplate his answer.
"It definitely takes a toll on me physically," Williams conceded, "but by the end of the game the defense definitely feels it worse than I do."
The Eagles' workhorse is not only running over defenses; he's shattering records. On Saturday, he racked up an ACC-record 339 rushing yards -- the most by an FBS player this season -- in a 38-21 win over the Wolfpack that made BC bowl eligible one year after going 2-10. It was Williams' fourth 200-yard performance this fall. He ran for 295 yards and two scores just a week earlier at New Mexico State.
At a program that's produced no shortage of standout backs, Williams broke both Mike Cloud's single-season school record and former Virginia star Thomas Jones' ACC record. Williams, who has 1,810 rushing yards on the season, is currently averaging a national-best 181 yards per game; no FBS player has finished with an average that high since UCF's Kevin Smith in 2007.
Might it be time to start putting Williams' name in the mix for Heisman consideration? "There are some tremendously worthy players out there," said Eagles coach Steve Addazio, "but why not Andre?"
The well-spoken Williams is reluctant to talk about individual accolades. After suffering through three mediocre seasons under former coach Frank Spaziani, the senior is just thrilled the Eagles will return to a bowl game. Addazio, formerly Temple's head coach, is known for emphasizing a physical running game. It helped that he inherited a talented offensive line, as senior tackles Matt Patchan (a Florida transfer) and Ian White help bulldoze holes for Williams.
"It really couldn't have turned out better for me," said Williams, whose previous season-high was 584 rushing yards, "because that's my style, to be really physical and wear the defense down as the game goes on. The offensive line plays with a lot of nastiness and passion. They're really able to push guys around."
Boston College will look to push around Maryland and Syracuse the next two weeks, and possibly open a path for Williams to land an invite to New York.
J.J. Worton: 'Oooooooooh'
The UCF receiver made an incredible catch to save the Knights' from disaster against Temple.
Ricardo Louis: 'A Miracle in Jordan-Hare'
The Auburn wideout's incredible catch as described by Auburn's radio announcers.
Mini-previews for three of Week 13's big games:
• Baylor at Oklahoma State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Oklahoma State possesses a top-10 defense (4.66 yards per play) and is the league's best hope of slowing the Bears' historic offense. But guess which other team boasts a top-10 defense? Baylor (4.22). Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf is no Bryce Petty.
• Texas A&M at LSU, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Johnny Manziel's last two auditions for the Heisman electorate both come against ranked opponents, the first against a vulnerable LSU defense. Manziel may have to lead the Aggies to 50 points, however, to compensate for the wreckage the Tigers' offense should cause against A&M's defense.
• Arizona State at UCLA, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): This one will likely decide the Pac-12 South. While Sun Devils quarterback Kelly has passed for 2,838 yards with 24 touchdowns, the start of this game is UCLA two-way standout Jack. The linebacker and part-time running back has five rushing touchdowns in the last two weeks.