On Saturday night, 9-1 Oklahoma State faced an undefeated Baylor team that came in averaging 61 points per game. The Cowboys won 49-17, with 14 of the Bears' points coming well after the outcome had been decided. It was without question one of the most impressive victories by any team this season, perhaps topped only by Florida State's 51-14 win at Clemson on Oct. 19.
On Sunday, when the new BCS standings were released, the Cowboys were ranked seventh, behind three other one-loss teams (Auburn, Missouri and Clemson). None of those squads has a win remotely of the same caliber as Oklahoma State's rout of Baylor. Heck, Clemson has not beaten an opponent currently ranked in the Top 25. But the Tigers are ranked sixth because, well, they've been slotted ahead of the Cowboys all year. Why change things now? That's how polling has always worked in the BCS era.
The pecking order of one-loss teams doesn't seem particularly important in 2013, as the three national championship contenders (Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State) are undefeated with just two weeks to play. If Auburn, currently No. 4, knocks off the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl next Saturday, the Tigers would be the undisputed kings of the one-loss bunch.
But the proper placement of a team like Oklahoma State could be extremely significant at this time next year, when the sport moves to a four-team playoff. By then, a selection committee will have replaced pollsters and computers as the evaluators of choice, and if it does what it's supposed to, it will likely treat a team such as the Cowboys much differently than does the BCS.
"I think you've got to look at strength of schedule, and then you've got to look at wins -- if the wins were dominating versus quality opponents," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said on Sunday. "You don't look at what Oklahoma State's score was against a team that's not ranked. You take the conference wins versus teams that are ranked. And you see if they dominated those teams."
The Cowboys are unusual in that they dramatically reinvented themselves midway through the season. Clint Chelf, the quarterback who torched the Bears by completing 19-of-25 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday, did not become the full-time starter until the seventh game of the season against Iowa State. That's the same week that backup running back Desmond Roland moved into the starting lineup and promptly rushed for 219 yards. Oklahoma State averaged 26 points in its first three Big 12 contests. Since then it's averaging 47.8.
Of course, the early-season version of the Cowboys is the one that suffered the team's lone defeat, a ghastly 30-21 loss at West Virginia (now 4-7) on Sept. 28. The Mountaineers losing record certainly distinguishes them from the foes that knocked off Auburn (8-3 LSU), Clemson (11-0 Florida State) and Missouri (9-2 South Carolina). It's another hallmark of the typical voter methodology: Teams are judged based more on the quality of the opponents to whom they have lost than the quality of the ones they have beaten.
"That happens across the country," said Gundy. "When you lose early in the season to a team you shouldn't, people move on with votes. It's just kind of the way it is."
There, too, it makes sense to wonder whether the selection committee might operate differently. Just as the NCAA basketball committee takes factors like injuries and personnel changes into account when assessing a team's résumé, college football's playoff committee might be inclined to view Oklahoma State's loss to West Virginia as an aberration in light of the Cowboys' play since their lineup overhaul. That's not to say the game never happened. It did. But discerning evaluators might recognize that the result isn't representative of the current Oklahoma State team.
Wisconsin (9-2) is another program that might benefit from the new system. Anyone can see that the Badgers, winners of six straight, are much better than their No. 15 ranking in the latest BCS standings. They boast the nation's sixth-ranked defense and eighth-ranked rushing attack. But Wisconsin is a two-loss team, and pollster policy dictates that the Badgers must stay in two-loss purgatory.
The selection committee, on the other hand, would know that one of those two defeats involved a Pac-12 officiating fiasco that prevented Wisconsin from attempting a game-winning field goal at Arizona State on Sept. 14. No one should count the Sun Devils 32-30 victory as a Wisconsin win. Who knows if the kicker would have made it? But the committee might take the manner in which the game ended into consideration when evaluating the Badgers, at least giving them credit for playing the Pac-12 South champs to the wire on their home turf.
Finally, Saturday's slate of games offered a stark window into arguably the biggest issue the committee has a chance to account for -- the wide discrepancy in scheduling policies between various conferences.
On the third-to-last weekend of the season, top-ranked Alabama hosted Chattanooga and second-ranked Florida State faced Idaho. Top-10 teams Clemson and South Carolina played The Citadel and Coastal Carolina, respectively. As I wrote last year at this time, scheduling late-season games against inferior opponents is a brilliant move for those SEC and ACC teams because they don't get punished for it under the current system. At this point in the year, when everyone is banged up and with season-ending rivalry and conference title games looming, it's smart to take a week to rest while hoping that other contenders lose. In fact, that's exactly what happened on Saturday.
For the third straight season, an undefeated Big 12 team lost a conference game on the road in late November. Is it a coincidence that the conference hasn't placed a team in the BCS championship since it expanded to a nine-game league schedule? Also this weekend, Oregon fell to Arizona 42-16 in an outcome that dashed the Ducks' Rose Bowl hopes. The Pac-12 not only plays nine league games in addition to a title game, but it also mandates that its members play nothing but conference games down the stretch (the league makes an exception for USC and Stanford's annual matchups with Notre Dame) to increase TV interest.
Think Oregon coach Mark Helfrich would have liked to have seen Nicholls State -- the Duck's opponent in Week 1 -- sometime this month to rest hobbled quarterback Marcus Mariota? Nick Saban would nod his head yes.
There's no easy solution for this issue, as conferences are free to dictate their own scheduling policies. But a committee might take note of the fact that the Pac-12 has some pretty good teams that have cannibalized each other. If the current rankings system were in place next season, Clemson -- which had its best win in Week 1 against Georgia (now 7-4) -- would have a better shot at the playoff than Stanford, despite the latter's wins over 9-2 Arizona State (which it will face again), 9-2 Oregon and 8-3 UCLA. That's because the current system penalizes bad losses (see Oklahoma State-West Virginia) more than it rewards impressive wins (Oklahoma State-Baylor).
That may change in 2014.
Heisman picture unclear after several contenders stumble
With just two weeks of games remaining, the Heisman Trophy race is basically back to square one.
Three players widely considered among the top five heading into Saturday -- Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Oregon's Mariota and Baylor's Bryce Petty -- likely saw their hopes extinguished. For the second consecutive season, LSU coordinator John Chavis' defense proved to be Johnny Football's Kryptonite, holding the Aggies' quarterback to 16-of-41 passing for 224 yards, with two interceptions, in a 34-10 rout. Mariota, already lagging in the Heisman hunt, threw his first two interceptions of the year in the Ducks' most lopsided loss since 2008. And Petty, in the Bears' biggest game of the season, did not lead their previously potent offense to a touchdown until the fourth quarter of a 32-point defeat.
Meanwhile, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, ostensibly the runaway favorite, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation for an alleged sexual assault. Hopefully most voters will wait to pass judgment until all facts in the case are known. Winston's status will become clearer once a prosecutor in Tallahassee decides whether to charge the quarterback, which would end his season (Florida State does not permit student-athletes who have been charged with a felony to play until the charge has been resolved and all conditions for reinstatement have been met).
With all that in mind, this may be the time for voters to pay more consideration to a few under-the-radar candidates -- and to remember there's no rule stating the Heisman has to go to a quarterback.
Start with Boston College running back Andre Williams, whose recent tear has vaulted him into rarefied air among players at his position. On Saturday, he carried 32 times for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles' 29-26 win over Maryland, his third straight game with 260-plus rushing yards and his fifth performance with 200 yards or more on the season. Williams (2,073 yards) became the first FBS running back since Connecticut's Donald Brown in 2008 to crack the sacred 2,000-yard mark -- and he still gets to play at Syracuse next weekend and in the Eagles' eventual bowl game.
Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (1,559 yards) ranks a distant second to Williams in rushing, but he's gained at least 100 yards in every game he's played. On Saturday, he notched a staggering 48 carries for 206 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats' upset of Oregon.
For a second straight Wednesday night, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch reminded viewers why he's the Johnny Football of the MAC. He rushed 28 times for 161 yards and three touchdowns and went 17-of-22 for 202 yards in an important victory at Toledo. On the season, he's rushed for 1,434 yards and 17 scores and thrown for 2,148 yards with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. Those numbers are eye-popping -- but so, too, are those of Fresno State's Derek Carr, who lit up New Mexico on Saturday for 549 yards and seven touchdowns. Carr's season line now stands at 3,948 yards with 39 scores and four picks.
And finally, in my annual push for a defensive candidate, allow me to present Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. On Saturday against Syracuse, the standout registered nine tackles (eight solo), 3.5 tackles for loss and a blocked extra point that ultimately proved the difference in a 17-16 win. On the season, Donald now has 26 tackles for loss (best in the nation), 10 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. For perspective, 2009 Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska had 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 26 hurries and two forced turnovers.
Realistically, none of these names will take home the trophy, but Williams and Lynch in particular deserve invites to New York. If Winston does become persona non grata, voters can always break open the AJ McCarron "in case of emergency" glass.
Georgia Southern stuns reeling Florida in the Swamp
Georgia Southern is a perennial FCS contender, reaching the NCAA semifinals in each of the past three seasons. In March, it accepted an invitation to move to the Sun Belt, touching off a two-year FBS transition period that came with a price: The Eagles would be ineligible for the postseason this year.
As it turned out, Georgia Southern wasn't playoff caliber; it went 4-4 in Southern Conference play and 7-4 overall. But on Saturday, the Eagles pulled off an even more significant feat -- they upset traditional SEC power Florida 26-20 for the school's first win over an FBS program in 21 tries.
"This game was at a perfect time in our season," Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said on Sunday. "To go down there and win like that is something these kids are going to remember for the rest of their lives. There's so many other teams at Georgia Southern that left a legacy by being a playoff team, or national championship team. This team wasn't going to have those opportunities, but they're now the first team in school history to beat an FBS opponent. This is something really special."
In the visitor's locker room after the game, Monken (the cousin of Southern Miss coach Todd Monken) stood in front of his players and said: "You guys understand what you did?" What they did was stick the latest dagger into the stomach of Gators fans, who are already suffering through their worst season since 1979. Florida's embarrassment only increases pressure on athletic director Jeremy Foley to pull the plug on third-year head coach Will Muschamp, who Foley recently backed with "a thousand percent" confidence. With Florida State coming to town this week, the Gators, a BCS bowl team last year, are all but assured a 4-8 finish.
Florida's rash of injuries this season has been well documented. However, the Eagles have endured similar hard luck. "Nobody tops us" in the injury department, said Monken, who noted that his team has suffered 19 season-ending injuries since preseason camp. That didn't stop the Eagles -- which employ the triple-option (Monken is a protégé of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson) -- from running the ball down the Gators' throats. They attempted just three passes (completing none) but rushed for 429 yards, the most by a Florida foe since Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
This isn't the first time Monken's offense vexed an SEC opponent. In 2011, Georgia Southern scored the most points (21) of any team that played that year's eventual national champion, Alabama. Perhaps that's why the Eagles played with such confidence in Gainesville.
"Our guys at Georgia Southern, when they play a football game, they expect to win the game, no matter who it is," said Monken. "We're outmatched, we're outsized -- athleticism, speed, there's no comparison between the two teams. It's just the heart these guys played with."
Florida fans only wish they could say the same about their team.
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: Oklahoma State vs. Northern Illinois
Sugar: Auburn vs. UCF
Orange: Clemson vs. Wisconsin
If Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma in two weeks, it will lock up the Big 12's berth in the Fiesta Bowl. If that happens, the Cowboys might get a different opponent than previously expected. Northern Illinois jumped Fresno State in the latest BCS standings. The Huskies now have the inside track for the final at-large spot.
I originally intended to have projected 11-1 Baylor as an at-large over a two-loss Big Ten team -- I even tweeted it late on Saturday -- but I'm reversing course. Yes, Wisconsin (which, at No. 15 in the standings, is one spot away from eligibility) and Michigan State have bigger fan bases, but more pertinently, the Big Ten has a contractual relationship with the Orange Bowl beginning next year. Politics always win in the BCS.
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 Auburn (at-large)
Rose: No. 2 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champ)
Orange: No. 5 Missouri (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame) vs. No. 6 Clemson (ACC replacement)
Cotton: No. 7 Oklahoma State (displaced Big 12 champ) vs. No. 11 Michigan State (at-large)
Fiesta: No. 8 Stanford (displaced Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 9 Baylor (at-large)
Chick-fil-A: No. 10 South Carolina (at-large) vs. No. 14 Northern Illinois (Group of Five)
OK, so this week's exercise might not be altogether realistic, seeing as Alabama and Auburn play on Saturday. However, in the new system, if the Crimson Tide won by a close margin and the committee still believed that Auburn was the fourth-best team a week later, there's technically nothing prohibiting them from staging a playoff rematch.
It's also interesting that the rankings work out such that the Orange Bowl's two contractual obligations -- the highest-ranked ACC team and highest-ranked from team among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame -- unintentionally give that game a matchup of No. 5 vs. No. 6.
Spreading the field
• Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's prolific but snake-bitten career came to a sad end on Saturday, when he suffered a torn ACL on Senior Day against Kentucky. Murray made 51 starts and holds SEC records for total offense (13,562 yards), completions (921) and touchdowns (121), but he's had bad luck: His tipped pass ended last year's SEC title game, his receivers have gone down with a rash of injuries and he was on the wrong end of last week's miracle finish at Auburn. Hopefully, Murray will be remembered more for his tremendous play than for the Dawgs' heartbreaking losses.
• Arizona State (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) finally buried its long history of not-ready-for prime-time moments with a division-clinching 38-33 win over UCLA. The Sun Devils came close to blowing a 35-13 halftime lead, but their defense, which sacked Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley nine times, squashed UCLA's last-minute drive. ASU also overcame a 16-carry, 86-yard performance from two-way sensation Myles Jack. "That's the most impressive display of heart by a team that I've ever seen," said Arizona State coach Todd Graham.
The Sun Devils will face Stanford (9-2, 7-2) in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 7, and as the conference's lone remaining team with just one league loss (to the Cardinal on Sept. 21), they would get to host the contest with a victory next week over Arizona.
• Needing to win out to capture the SEC East, Missouri (10-1, 6-1 SEC) deftly handled a tough trip to Ole Miss (7-4, 3-4). The Tigers controlled a 24-10 victory over the Rebels from the get-go. Finish the job against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M next week, and Mizzou will head to Atlanta in just its second season in the league. "We know our back is against the wall right now," said wide receiver L'Damian Washington. "The phrase 'control your own destiny' is kind of getting irritating, but we know what's at hand."
• Oklahoma inevitably righted itself just when doubts started to arise about Sooners coach Bob Stoops. Filling in for the injured Blake Bell, quarterback Trevor Knight sparked a previously stagnant offense, while running back Brennan Clay carried 31 times for a career-high 200 yards. Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2 Big 12) routed Kansas State 41-31. With his 158th career victory, Stoops passed Barry Switzer for the most wins in school history, and he did it against mentor Bill Snyder.
• Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2) is associated primarily with its powerful rushing game, but its defense is also playing at an extremely high level right now. Following a 20-7 win at Minnesota (8-3, 4-3) in which the Gophers' only points came on a pick-six, linebacker Chris Borland (12 tackles, one forced fumble, two recoveries) and the Badgers' defense have not allowed a touchdown in their past three Big Ten games. "That's the most underrated football team in the country," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said of Wisconsin.
• Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not making life easy for the administrators who will soon decide his future. The Cornhuskers (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) pulled out yet another dramatic victory on Saturday, edging Penn State 23-20 in overtime. Ron Kellogg III, who threw the game-winning Hail Mary against Northwestern on Nov. 2, once again steered Nebraska after Tommy Armstrong went out with an ankle injury. The Huskers overcame a pair of costly turnovers in the game. Pelini has a chance to reach nine wins for the sixth straight season on Friday against Iowa (7-4, 4-3).
• The Hawkeyes will visit Nebraska fresh off a 24-21 comeback win over Michigan in which the Wolverines' beleaguered offense managed just 158 total yards, but led 21-7 at one point due to four Iowa turnovers. Ultimately, quarterback Devin Gardner's fumble on a last-minute drive sealed the result. Asked whether Gardner has lost confidence, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, "Yeah, he probably has." Not exactly an encouraging sign heading into this week's showdown with undefeated Ohio State.
• Duke (9-2, 5-2 ACC) tied a school record by reaching the nine-win mark for the first time since 1941 with Saturday's 28-21 victory over Wake Forest (4-7, 2-6). All that's left between the Blue Devils and their first trip to the ACC title game is a date with rival North Carolina -- which will not be easy. The Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3) have won five in a row and scored 80 points in three quarters against Old Dominion this weekend, prompting the schools to shorten the fourth quarter to 10 minutes.
• Redshirt freshan quarterback Cyler Miles made his first start in place of an injured Keith Price, but the Huskies' (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) punishing rushing attack keyed a 69-27 rout of Oregon State (6-5, 4-4). Three Washington backs -- Bishop Sankey (23 carries, 179 yards, three touchdowns), Deontae Cooper (11, 166 and two) and freshman Dwayne Washington (11, 141 and two) -- topped the 100-yard mark.
• Vanderbilt (7-4, 4-4 SEC) continued its recent hex over Tennessee (4-7, 1-6) by thwarting the Vols' bowl hopes with a come-from-behind 14-10 victory. On the Commodores' game-winning drive, replay officials overturned an apparent fourth-and-inches stop, which set the stage for quarterback Patton Robinette to fake a jump pass and run for a five-yard touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. Vandy is on the verge of a second consecutive eight-win regular season; Tennessee is now assured a fourth straight losing campaign.
• Michigan State (10-1) clinched its second Big Ten Legends Division title in three years with a 30-6 rout of Northwestern (4-7). In two weeks, the nation's No. 1 defense will meet the nation's No. 3 team (Ohio State) in Indianapolis.
• Cincinnati (9-2) won its sixth straight game with a 24-17 victory over Houston (7-4). The Bearcats hold out slight hope of sharing the American Athletic Conference title.
• Washington State will go bowling for the first time since 2003. Mike Leach's much-improved Cougars (6-5) topped Utah (4-7) 49-37.
• Stanford's 63-13 blowout of Cal marked its most lopsided win in the rivalry's history. The Bears' 1-11 season is mercifully over.
• Illinois (4-7) ended its 20-game Big Ten losing streak by edging Purdue 20-16.
• Connecticut (1-9) finally earned its first win of the season, rallying from a 21-0 deficit to beat Temple, 28-21.
• East Carolina's 42-28 win over NC State gives the Pirates victories over both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels for the first time in the same season.
• Finally, North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen notched an FCS-record 44th career win in a 24-3 victory over South Dakota.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
Boise State was considered such an important addition to the Mountain West that the conference implemented special rules last year to appease the school when it nearly left for the Big East. Boise got to keep the rights to its home television broadcasts, and a new revenue distribution method was devised that also figured to benefit the Broncos.
But an interesting thing has happened in the three seasons since Boise left the now-defunct WAC. It's proven mortal. On Saturday, San Diego State (7-4, 6-1 MWC) topped the Broncos (7-4, 5-2) for a second straight year. The Aztecs won 34-31 in overtime after Broncos kicker Dan Goodale missed yet another game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation. (Is it a curse?)
The loss will likely cost Boise its long-assumed appearance in the inaugural Mountain West title game. If Utah State (7-4, 6-1) wins its finale against 5-6 Wyoming, the Aggies -- despite losing star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a knee injury early in the season -- will win the Mountain Division and earn a Dec. 7 date with 10-0 Fresno State.
The Broncos have now lost four Mountain West games in three seasons, double the number of conference losses coach Chris Petersen sustained in his five seasons (2006-10) in the WAC. Mind you, those four defeats have all been incredibly close, with a combined margin of just seven points. But Boise never used to allow its conference opponents get within striking distance; now, that's happening with some sense of regularity.
"It's kind of heartbreaking because we had a lot of excitement about this year," tailback Jay Ajayi told the Idaho Statesman.
Boise lost starting quarterback Joe Southwick to a broken ankle in October. His replacement, Grant Hedrick, struggled on Saturday night while leading the Broncos to a season-low 297 yards of total offense. And San Diego State is no pushover. It came within a blocked field goal of ending Fresno State's BCS hopes on Oct. 26 and has not lost another conference game. Out of conference, however, the Aztecs lost to FCS Eastern Illinois and Oregon State and got crushed at Ohio State on Sept. 7. That's the most troubling part for Boise: It's nearly eliminated from winning a generally terrible league. San Jose State's home loss to Navy on Friday dropped the Mountain West's nonconference record to a brutal 19-27 in 2013.
Petersen had a special run with Kellen Moore, and he's only a year removed from an 11-win campaign. But he also has experienced plenty of turnover on his coaching staff, and his new conference is not as strong as it was when Boise joined. The topic comes up every year, but this time it takes on a different tenor: With USC and potentially Texas, Nebraska and even Florida's jobs coming open, does Petersen take the opportunity to bolt the Broncos? Or will he stick around to try to recapture that 2006-11 glory?
Daniel Rodriguez: A moment to remember
Clemson's 25-year-old walk-on receiver, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal recipient for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq, caught his first career touchdown against The Citadel.
Florida: A moment to forget
Losing at home to an FCS foe toward the end of a nightmare season did not deter the school from proceeding with its weekly "All-Access" feature.
Mini-previews for three of Week 14's big games:
• Ohio State at Michigan, Saturday (Noon ET): The historic rivalry has lost its luster in recent years, due mostly to Michigan's mediocrity. But this game does have a long history of one team ruining the other's national title hopes. The Wolverines might have a better chance if they were to suit up their 1995 offensive line.
• Alabama at Auburn, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): As if these rivals needed bigger stakes, this will be the first time in Iron Bowl history that the game will pit two top-four teams. It's a play-in to the SEC Championship Game. Expect another fascinating chess match between Saban and Gus Malzahn.
• Clemson at South Carolina, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): Both programs have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years, but the Gamecocks have owned this rivalry for the past four seasons. South Carolina has shut down Tajh Boyd in the past, but its all-over-the-map offense will need to produce as well.