Most college football seasons tend to have one game, or one day of games, that trumps all the rest. It is permanently stamped as a defining moment in our memories. For me, 2005 will forever be synonymous with the USC-Notre Dame Bush Push game. In '07, No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia both went down on the final night of the regular season. And in '10, Black Friday brought both Cam Newton's Iron Bowl comeback and Nevada's overtime upset of Boise State.
As for 2013, we'll be talking about the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend for a long, long time.
While I always say the biggest rivalry in the country is the one a fan's favorite school plays in, the two most exalted nationally are Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn. On Saturday, the Buckeyes and Wolverines played a heart-stopping, record-setting offensive thriller in which Ohio State preserved its national title hopes by thwarting Michigan's do-or-die two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left. The Buckeyes' 42-41 victory was the best regular-season game I've covered in quite some time.
Roughly four hours later, Auburn managed to make that dramatic finish seem completely ordinary.
Saturday's astonishing Iron Bowl had something no college football fan had ever previously witnessed. No team had ever won a game by a returning a missed field goal for a touchdown on the final play before the Tigers' Chris Davis did just that to beat the Crimson Tide 34-28. It's a moment that is sure to join the pantheon of all-time great finishes, which includes The Play (Cal's game-winning kickoff return through the Stanford band in 1982), Doug Flutie's Hail Mary to beat Miami in '84 and Boise State's Statue of Liberty that stunned Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
THAMEL: Auburn delivers indelible BCS moment in stunning Alabama
"When I looked back [during the run], I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said afterward. "When I was running I said 'God is good.'"
Still, it's not just Davis' play that reminded everyone why there's no other sport like college football. For one thing, there was the mind-boggling improbability that Auburn could win a game in unprecedented fashion just two weeks after Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis had made a miraculous touchdown catch in a last-minute victory over Georgia. The football gods seem to have a particular fondness for Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall. Perhaps they feel as if they had been overly harsh in their handling of the Tigers' 3-9 (0-8 SEC) nightmare in 2012.
"The way we won the last two weeks is really unbelievable," said Auburn first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
Then there were the stakes. Davis' kick return would have been a play for the ages even if both teams had been 4-7. But they weren't. With one implausible dash, he not only sent his team to the SEC Championship Game, but he also abruptly ended Alabama's run toward a third straight national title. AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and the rest of the star-studded Crimson Tide could only watch helplessly from the sideline as their season went up in smoke.
Meanwhile, 'Bama coach Nick Saban, the sport's most renowned tactician, lost the game with a full-on strategic backfire, attempting a 57-yard-field goal with an untested redshirt freshman kicker, and apparently failing to account for the possibility that a bunch of 350-pound linemen might have to chase down a speedy defensive back. (Though adept lip-readers on the Internet did notice the defeated coach appearing to say, "I told you," to someone on his headset just before tossing it in disgust.) Saban's ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13-yard line rather than attempt a 30-yard-field goal (albeit with a kicker, Cade Foster, who had missed his previous three attempts in the game) to go up by 10 points with five minutes and change remaining allowed the Tigers to tie the game on quarterback Nick Marshall's 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates with 32 seconds left.
It was apparent just how much this loss hurt Saban from his candid and sometimes defensive postgame comments. The coach who rarely talks about championships spoke with noticeable regret that his purportedly special team might now end the season playing Clemson in the Orange Bowl. "I still think we have one of the best teams in the country," Saban said. "I do not think we played our best game today. Everyone knew what was at stake and we did not make the plays when we needed to make them."
Auburn advances for shot at SEC crown with wild win over Alabama
No. 4 Auburn
beat No. 1 Alabama
on a field goal miss returned for a touchdown as time expired.
Alabama will not get the chance to extend its national title streak this season; the question now is whether any SEC team will get the opportunity to win it all. Ohio State, which has been on the outside looking in for nearly full two years, barely had a chance to celebrate the Crimson Tide's defeat on Saturday night before the debate that's sure to engulf the sport over the next week had already begun.
"An SEC team can't get left out of the [BCS championship game] with one loss," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs told USA Today moments after the Tigers' victory. "We just beat the No. 1 team in the nation, and a team ahead of us [Ohio State] struggled today ... it would be a disservice to the nation if [a one-loss SEC champion] got left out."
MANDEL: Ohio State outlasts Michigan in surprise rivalry shootout
The Buckeyes did struggle defensively against the Wolverines, allowing Michigan's previously woeful offense to gain 603 total yards. The thought of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston playing against Ohio State's pass defense should send shudders through every member of Buckeye Nation. Ohio State's defense, however, still ranks 46 spots higher (30th nationally) than the Tigers' (76th), and Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde power a tremendous rushing attack that averages more yards per game (321.3) than Auburn (318.3).
The Tigers have unquestionably played a tougher schedule than the two contenders ranked above them (the 26th toughest in the FBS, according to Sagarin, compared with 61st for Ohio State and 66th for the Seminoles), but no one-loss team has ever reached the BCS title game at the expense of an undefeated power-conference team. Based on Sunday's BCS standings, in which the Buckeyes remained ahead of the Tigers in all three components, that's not likely to change this season.
Keep in mind, this is a thoroughly presumptuous discussion. Two weeks ago, four unbeaten teams sat atop the polls. Today there are two.
The Buckeyes (against 11-1 Michigan State) and Auburn (against 11-1 Missouri) both face top-10 foes in their respective conference championship games on Saturday. After such staggeringly implausible finishes these past few weeks, only one thing is certain: Something unpredictable will happen. At this rate, Duke will upset Florida State on a last-second safety.
Missouri clinches SEC East, shows how far program has come
Nobody is likely to touch Malzahn for SEC and/or national coach of the year honors, but Missouri's Gary Pinkel deserves a nod of respect -- not only for his team's accomplishments in 2013, but also for the caliber of program he has built.
Pinkel remains a largely anonymous figure nationally despite spending 13 seasons at Mizzou. The Tigers briefly held the No. 1 ranking in the polls in 2007 and reached the Big 12 title game in both '07 and '08. But Pinkel achieved his greatest milestone to date on Saturday, when Missouri defeated Texas A&M 28-21 to complete an 11-1 regular season and earn a trip to the SEC Championship Game in its second year in the vaunted conference.
Few could have possibly seen this day coming so soon. Just think, if not for a blown 17-point fourth-quarter lead against South Carolina on Oct. 26, the Tigers would be 12-0 and almost certainly playing for a spot in the BCS title game.
"This tells everybody in the whole United States that Mizzou's the real deal," said sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the former No. 1 national recruit whose commitment to the Tigers in 2012 was perhaps the first sign of their elevated profile.
RICKMAN: Missouri secures SEC championship berth; late Snaps
Pinkel's program first made its mark from 2007-08 with the explosive tandem of quarterback Chase Daniel and wideout Jeremy Maclin. Lately, however, the Tigers have become more synonymous with standout defenders such as Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson and current All-America candidate Michael Sam. On Saturday, Mizzou's defense did a marvelous job against a banged-up Johnny Manziel, holding him to 195 passing yards on 35 attempts and just 21 rushing yards on 11 carries.
"Our defensive line wanted him so bad," Pinkel said of defending Manziel. "They wanted a piece of him every chance they got."
Now, the Tigers turn their attention to another dangerous dual-threat quarterback, Nick Marshall, and a talented Auburn defensive line. That unit will try to contain Mizzou's Henry Josey, whose 57-yard fourth-quarter touchdown scamper proved the game-winner against the Aggies.
Win or lose in Atlanta, Pinkel's program has already made history. Mizzou is still struggling to fit in the SEC culturally, as it lacks natural rivals. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article last week noted that the Tigers garnered higher local TV ratings during their 2007 Big 12 run than they have this season, a signal some fans aren't accustomed to seeing games against Georgia and Tennessee rather than versus Kansas and Kansas State. But on Saturday, thousands of Mizzou fans in tiger-print attire will descend on the Georgia Dome for the SEC's seminal tradition. If they don't feel at home now, they will be by game's end.
Nebraska stands by Bo Pelini after disappointing season
It was surreal to watch. At times during his team's 38-17 loss to Iowa last Friday, embattled Nebraska coach Bo Pelini seemed like he was actively trying to get fired. He got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing a pass interference penalty too closely to an official. He attempted a disastrous fake punt from his own 32-yard line with the score 17-10 midway through the third quarter.
Then, of course, there was this: "If they want to fire me, go ahead," Pelini said during a postgame press conference in which he also called the pass-interference flag "chickens---" and accused Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz of having worse sideline behavior than his own.
The blowout capped a disappointing, injury-riddled 8-4 regular season for the Cornhuskers, who have now lost exactly four games in each of Pelini's six seasons at the helm. But to considerable surprise, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst did something far different than fire Pelini on Saturday. He issued a statement of support to quash "unfounded conjecture and speculation" about the coach's status.
"We very much look forward to our upcoming bowl game and coach Pelini continuing to lead our program in the future," said Eichorst.
ELLIS: Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst backs Bo Pelini in statement
While Eichorst prefaced his statement by noting he normally "[does] not comment publicly about our coaches until their full seasons are complete," this did not read like an empty vote of confidence. In fact, if Eichorst were even semi-considering pulling the plug, it would be foolish to wait another month until after Nebraska's bowl game. For one thing, the Huskers' performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (their likely landing spot) should hold little bearing on a greater job evaluation. But more notably, it puts the program behind in a potential replacement search and subsequent transition.
Either Eichorst is not ready to make a decision, or he is truly confident that Pelini is still the man for the job. Or, as some have speculated, he has already put out some early feelers and found there's no surefire replacement. The Nebraska job is not what it was in 1997. Most coaches don't view it as a place to win national championships.
For his part, Pelini released a statement later on Saturday thanking Eichorst for his support and apologizing for "reacting emotionally yesterday." It's at least the third time in his tenure that the combustible coach has issued a public apology, including earlier this season after a 2011 audiotape of a private, expletive-laced rant about Huskers fans was leaked. Which makes it all the more amazing that Eichorst may be bringing him back. While it's no guarantee a new coach would post a better record than Pelini's 57-24 mark, the school could certainly find someone who wouldn't repeatedly embarrass himself in the process.
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: Florida State vs. Ohio State
Rose: Stanford vs. Michigan State
Fiesta: Oklahoma State vs. Northern Illinois
Sugar: Auburn vs. UCF
Orange: Clemson vs. Alabama
MANDEL: Complete bowl projections: Season's end brings clarity to postseason picture
The margin between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Auburn in the latest BCS standings is thin (.027 points), so I wouldn't rule out the possibility of the Tigers passing the Buckeyes if both win their respective conference title games. However, it does seem that if voters in the Coaches' and Harris polls were going to make that move, they would have done so this week in the immediate aftermath of Auburn's victory over Alabama and Ohio State's close call against 7-4 Michigan. Both the Buckeyes and Tigers will face top-10 opponents on Championship Saturday, so style points really shouldn't enter the equation. Missouri, should it beat Auburn, stands a significantly lesser chance of climbing to No. 2 without a Florida State or Ohio State loss primarily because it's not the team that knocked off the defending champion Crimson Tide.
As for the other BCS matchups, yeesh. There was some buzz late Saturday night about the possibility of the Orange Bowl pitting Alabama against Oregon, a matchup many have been hoping to see for the better part of two years. Don't bet on it. If the Seminoles move up to the title game, the Orange Bowl -- an ACC partner that recently entered into a contractual agreement for the next 12 years -- would be highly unlikely to turn away an eligible ACC team (Clemson) and incur the wrath of commissioner John Swofford (whose league would lose $6 million as a result).
Finally, in the event that Northern Illinois loses to Bowling Green in the MAC title game, a spot would open up in the Sugar Bowl, most likely for Baylor if it goes 11-1 but does not get the Big 12's automatic berth. Oregon would be a possibility there, too.
One other note: Michigan State may be heading to Pasadena regardless of its performance on Saturday, unless Ohio State falls to No. 3 or the Spartans fall out of the top 14 (not likely).
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 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 4 Alabama (at-large)
Rose: No. 2 Ohio State (Big Ten champ) vs. No. 3 Auburn (SEC champ)
Orange: No. 13 Clemson (ACC replacement) vs. No. 5 Missouri (SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame)
Cotton: No. 6 Oklahoma State (displaced Big 12 champ) vs. No. 10 Michigan State (at-large)
Fiesta: No. 7 Stanford (displaced Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 9 Baylor (at-large)
Chick-fil-A: No. 8 South Carolina (at-large) vs. No. 14 Northern Illinois (Group of Five)
This would have been an interesting predicament for the selection committee: If Missouri defeats Auburn on Saturday, thereby handing Auburn its second loss, Mizzou would unquestionably become the highest-seeded SEC team. But would Alabama -- which received a playoff spot in this simulation -- move back above the Auburn team to which it just lost? Head-to-head results are one of the factors the committee is supposed to consider, but it's not the only one. The Crimson Tide crushed the same LSU team that defeated Auburn 35-21 on Sept. 21 and had a better nonconference victory over Virginia Tech.
Another interesting case to consider is that of a team that's currently not in this lineup: Arizona State. Should the Sun Devils beat Stanford in the Pac-12 title game this weekend to improve to 11-2, they would be the champions of one of the nation's two toughest conferences. They would also hold an eight-game winning streak and boast a strong nonconference schedule, beating 9-3 Wisconsin (32-30 on Sept. 14) and losing to 8-4 Notre Dame (37-34 on Oct. 5). All metrics say Arizona State has played one of the toughest schedules in the country. Here's guessing the committee would view them much more favorably than this season's pollsters.
Spreading the field
• Duke did it. Ross Martin's go-ahead 27-yard field goal and DeVon Edwards' interception in the final seconds sealed the Blue Devils' 27-25 win over North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 ACC) to give Duke (10-2, 6-2) its first trip to the ACC championship game and first 10-win season in school history. All this for a program that lost at least 10 games six times since 2000. Kudos to sixth-year coach David Cutcliffe for one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent history.
"[Cutcliffe] said, 'I'm going to change this program around,' and people were laughing at him," said fourth-year junior quarterback Anthony Boone. "It all goes back to him. He's the foundation of this team. He is the rock of what you see on Saturdays now."
• The Blue Devils are already a four-touchdown underdog for Saturday's clash with Florida State. Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston went 19-of-31 for 327 yards with three touchdowns and a pick in an easy 37-7 win at dilapidated rival Florida (4-8). With one game left before Heisman Trophy votes are due, Winston's pass efficiency rating stands at 192.6. The FBS record is 191.8 (Russell Wilson, 2011). Baylor's Robert Griffin III finished at 189.5 in his Heisman-winning season.
STAPLES: Florida State downs Florida as programs head in opposite directions
• After completing a 35-14 win over rival USC, UCLA coach Jim Mora gathered his team in the Coliseum tunnel (which both teams use) and bellowed: "We own this town!" That may seem over the top, but it's hard to argue after the Bruins' (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) second straight win in the series and first in the Trojans' stadium since 1997. The blowout loss likely dampens interim coach Ed Orgeron's chances of landing the permanent job at USC (9-4, 6-3) despite posting a 6-2 record since taking over for Lane Kiffin.
• Bret Bielema's debut season at Arkansas went downhill beginning the moment his wife, Jen, tweeted "#karma" following Wisconsin's controversial Sept. 14 defeat at Arizona State. The Razorbacks, 3-0 at the time, never won another game, but Friday's 31-27 loss to LSU (9-3, 5-3) had to be the most painful. Tigers freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings, subbing for an injured Zach Mettenberger (knee), led LSU on a game-winning 99-yard drive. Mettenberger is expected back for the Tigers' bowl game.
• Bielema's former school suffered its own painful loss on Saturday. The Badgers' (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) BCS hopes went down the drain after a baffling 31-24 home loss to Penn State (7-5, 4-4). It marked the second straight season coach Bill O'Brien's team ended its sanction-shortened campaign with a win over Wisconsin. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg's 339-yard, four-touchdown passing performance should give Nittany Lions fans reason for optimism heading into 2014.
• Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) completed its first undefeated conference season since 1966 with a stifling 14-3 win over Minnesota (8-4, 4-4). The Spartans can capture their first outright Big Ten title since '87 if their top-ranked defense can slow Ohio State in Indianapolis. "This is an important game for who we are right now," coach Mark Dantonio said on Sunday. "... The things we've done so far have been relatively impressive, but we're not there yet."
• South Carolina's domination of in-state rival Clemson continues. The Gamecocks (10-2) held Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd to no touchdowns and two interceptions and sacked him five times in a 31-17 victory, a school-record fifth straight in the series for South Carolina (10-2). "They're a good team that continues not playing very well against us," said Steve Spurrier in a very Spurrier-esque barb.
• Georgia has had no shortage of dramatic endings this season -- some good, more bad -- and its regular-season finale fit the script. With quarterback Hutson Mason making his first start in place of injured star Aaron Murray, the Dawgs (8-4) dug themselves into an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech (7-5). Coach Mark Richt's team rallied to win 41-34 in double overtime. Richt improved to 12-1 in his tenure against the Yellow Jackets.
• TCU coach Gary Patterson went off on Baylor coach Art Briles for his handling of safety Ahmad Dixon's targeting ejection during the Bears' 41-38 victory over the Horned Frogs on Saturday. "The head coach comes across the field to me, OK?" said Patterson. "There's a guy laughing in front of the cameras on the sidelines. That's not what I call class." He also invited Briles to visit his home "if he's got a problem with me." Perhaps Patterson has a legitimate beef, but the bigger problem is likely that he just finished the worst season (4-8) of his 13-year tenure.
• Arizona State (10-2, 8-1) will host Saturday's Pac-12 championship game against Stanford (10-2, 7-2) after trouncing rival Arizona 58-21. The Sun Devils scored 50-plus points for the fourth time during their seven-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Cardinal beat Notre Dame 27-20 behind running back Tyler Gaffney (33 carries, 189 yards) and cornerback Wayne Lyons, who had two fourth-quarter interceptions. "Losing is unacceptable," said Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly. "Eight and four is not where we want to be."
RICKMAN: Arizona State climbs to No. 11 in newly released AP Poll
• The bar is set so high at Oregon these days that a 9-3 campaign would have been regarded as a full-on disaster for first-year coach Mark Helfrich. It was a very real possibility in Friday's back-and-forth shootout with rival Oregon State (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12). However, Ducks star Marcus Mariota shook off two early interceptions and led his team on a game-winning drive. He threw a 12-yard touchdown to Josh Huff (nine catches, 186 yards, three scores) to cap a 36-35 win with 29 seconds left.
• Washington running back Bishop Sankey broke Corey Dillon's school single-season rushing record on Saturday against Washington State. Sankey's total is now up to 1,775 thanks to a 34-carry, 200-yard performance in the Huskies' 27-17 Apple Cup victory over the Cougars (6-6, 4-5). While still a far cry from Don James' heyday, Steve Sarkisian's program finally hit the eight-win mark for the first time since 2001. "I'm just tired of answering questions about it, quite honestly," Sarkisian said of breaking the seven-win barrier.
• Boston College tailback Andre Williams' Heisman chances suffered a blow when an aggravated sprained right shoulder limited him to nine carries for 29 yards -- 26 of them coming on one first-quarter touchdown run -- in the Eagles' (7-5, 4-4 ACC) 34-31 loss to Syracuse (6-6, 4-4). Williams will still finish the year with a national-best 2,102 rushing yards, but he missed an opportunity to make a big final impression.
• Syracuse's win gives the ACC 11 bowl-eligible teams. Even if the league gets two BCS berths, two teams will need to find at-large spots.
• Mississippi State's (6-6) dramatic 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss (7-5) in the Egg Bowl assured the Bulldogs a fourth straight bowl trip for the first time in school history.
• Rutgers (5-6) suffered its fifth loss in six games, falling to 2-5 in the American Athletic Conference, with an embarrassing 28-17 defeat to Connecticut (2-9). Athletic director Julie Hermann soon has to decide whether Kyle Flood is the right coach to lead the Scarlet Knights into the Big Ten.
• West Virginia (4-8) blew a 31-7 lead and eventually lost to Iowa State 52-44 in triple overtime. AD Oliver Luck will soon determine whether Dana Holgorsen is the right coach to lead the Mountaineers, period.
• Marshall (9-3) will visit Rice (9-3) in this week's Conference USA championship game. The Thundering Herd's last league title came in the MAC in 2002. The Owls' last title was a shared SWC prize in 1994. (Rice's last outright crown came in '57).
• Utah State (8-4) earned a Mountain West title game date at Fresno State (10-1) with a 35-7 win over Wyoming (5-7). On Sunday, the Cowboys fired fifth-year coach Dave Christensen.
• Congrats to Buffalo star linebacker Khalil Mack, who tied the FBS record for career tackles for loss (75) with 2.5 in a 24-7 loss to Bowling Green.
• Congrats also to UTSA coach Larry Coker, whose team finished just its second FBS season (and third year of existence) with a 7-5 record. It is not eligible for a bowl.
• Finally, congrats to Southern Miss (1-11), which ended its 23-game losing streak with a 62-27 rout of UAB (2-10) on Saturday. The Golden Eagles avoided consecutive winless seasons.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
The numbers were fantastical, even by today's video-game standards. On Friday, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and San Jose State counterpart David Fales each threw six touchdowns ... in the first half. The Spartans led 42-41 at the break. Defenses clamped down a bit in the third and fourth quarters, but ultimately Fales' 547 passing yards outpaced Carr's 519 in a 62-52 San Jose State victory that ended the Bulldogs' (10-1) remaining BCS hopes.
"It's hard," Carr said afterward. "Guys are torn up, as well they should be."
Fresno State had been the highest-ranked non-AQ conference team since early in the season, and it seemed in position to secure a long-coveted BCS bowl berth. However, fellow undefeated Northern Illinois suddenly leaped the Bulldogs in last week's BCS standings. The Huskies (12-0) topped Western Michigan 33-14 last Tuesday to keep their dreams alive, but it remained unclear whether they'd stay ahead of Fresno State. That concern is moot after the Bulldogs' loss to the 5-6 Spartans on Black Friday in San Jose.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch and NIU are one win away from making back-to-back BCS bowl appearances. Furthermore, Lynch appears to be gaining steam as a legitimate candidate to garner at least an invite to New York as a Heisman finalist. Against Western Michigan, Lynch set a new FBS quarterback record with a 321-yard rushing performance, breaking a mark previously held by ... Lynch, for his 316-yard day against Central Michigan on Oct. 16. Yes, he's racking up these numbers against bad competition. But then again, if it's so easy to rush for 300 yards against Western Michigan, why hasn't another player done it?
Lynch now has 1,755 rushing yards on the season, better than all but three players nationally (Boston College's Williams, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Washington's Sankey), to go with 2,457 passing yards. In total, he's accounted for 4,212 yards with 42 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
"Jordan Lynch is the best player in college football and that's no disrespect to anyone else," said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, a former NIU receiver and assistant. "The reason is he makes every single guy around him better. ... And with all the pressure, he continues to perform."
Northern Illinois heads into Friday night's MAC championship against Bowling Green (9-3) having won 24 consecutive regular-season games. The Huskies' lone setback along the way was a 31-10 defeat to Florida State in last year's Orange Bowl. In fact, that seemingly lopsided loss is a major reason why many fans around the country will root against NIU in hopes of avoiding another BCS blowout.
But perhaps that's not giving coach Rod Carey's team enough credit. The Huskies trailed that Jan. 1 game against the Seminoles 17-10 at the end of three quarters. No other Florida State opponent has stayed that close to the 'Noles at that point in the game during this calendar year.
'Auburn has won the Iron Bowl!'
Auburn radio announcer Rod Bramblett gets to make a once-in-a-lifetime call for the second time in three weeks.
'Auburn is going to win the Iron Bowl'
Alabama announcer Eli Gold had to relay the news, too.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• Auburn vs. Missouri, Saturday (4 p.m. ET): The Gus Bus will drive about 100 miles north on I-85 to the Georgia Dome. Will it be able to bring all that magic from Jordan-Hare Stadium? Missouri has the talent on defense to slow Auburn's offense, but quarterback James Franklin and company will need to produce some big plays.
• Florida State vs. Duke, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Three years ago, Duke coach David Cutcliffe told a national reporter he "100 percent guarantee[d]" the Blue Devils would win an ACC title within five to six years. He's now only one step away, but that goal still seems so far when his opponent is as talented as Florida State.
• Ohio State vs. Michigan State, Saturday (8:17 p.m. ET): The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked rushing defense (64.8 yards per game). The Buckeyes field the second-ranked rushing offense (321.3 yards per game). Michigan State has a ton of athletic defenders, but they will go against the best offensive line they've faced by far.