The best part about this time of the season? The unlikely heroes always emerge.
Before Saturday, if you had asked anyone in Big Ten country who would make the most important runs in the Wisconsin-Iowa game, they would have offered a list of John Clay, Adam Robinson and James White.
They would have been wrong.
The most important runs in Wisconsin's 31-30 win came from Brad Nortman (Wisconsin's punter) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin's third-string tailback). Facing fourth-and-four and a loss if he failed, Nortman -- once an all-county linebacker at Central High in Brookfield, Wis. -- caught the Hawkeyes flat-footed and raced up the middle for 17 yards to keep the game-winning drive alive. Later, Ball -- who had just caught a seven-yard Scott Tolzien pass to convert on fourth down -- muscled into the end zone from eight yards out for the winning touchdown (RECAP | BOX).
Now, the Badgers must keep winning and watch the scoreboard. They need some help to win the Big Ten. The easiest way is if Michigan State loses twice. Failing that, the Badgers need to hope for a three-way tie of some sort (either Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin or Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin). That might leave the Badgers at the mercy of the BCS standings, but at least they suffered the first loss and started back up the polls earlier.
Also, I realize Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is being accused of turning into a less-lucky Les Miles on the Hawkeyes' final possession, but there wasn't much he could do after J.J. Watt sacked Ricky Stanzi to force a second-and-21 from the Iowa 38-yard line. Maybe Iowa lines up quickly and spikes the ball after Stanzi converted on fourth-and-one from the Wisconsin 42 -- thus saving Iowa a timeout. Other than that, Ferentz didn't have a lot of appealing choices.
The Heisman Trophy is Cam Newton's to lose.
Newton is compiling touchdown production stats similar to those Tim Tebow put up when he won the Heisman in 2007, but Newton is doing it on a team in the thick of the national title hunt. After eight games in 2007, Tebow had accounted for 27 touchdowns (10 rushing, 17 passing). After eight games in 2010, Newton has accounted for 27 touchdowns (14 rushing, 13 passing). He also leads the SEC in rushing.
Saturday, Newton couldn't do much through the air (86 passing yards), but he did plenty on the ground, rushing 28 times for 217 yards and two touchdowns (RECAP | BOX). And should he claim the Heisman in New York in December, the play that will run on a loop will be Newton's 49-yard touchdown run during Saturday's fourth quarter. Newton wound his way through LSU's defense, then powered his way toward the goal line. It took a booth review to give him the touchdown, but ESPN will leave out that part when it runs the highlight over and over and over and over in December.
Congratulations, Virginia Tech, you're now eligible to return to the SI.com Power Rankings. Because I have a twisted moral code that rewards teams that win head-to-head matchups, I couldn't in good conscience rank the Hokies while they had the same record as James Madison, which beat Virginia Tech on Sept. 11.
Well, I could have, but then I would have had to rank James Madison one spot higher. I wasn't going to do that. But thanks to Villanova's 14-7 win against the Dukes on Saturday, James Madison is now 4-3. With the résumés no longer equal, Virginia Tech -- which has played well since the loss -- can re-enter the poll.
A lot of Virginia Tech fans e-mailed me during the week complaining that the Hokies weren't ranked. I explained to those people that I'd rather be an idiot in their eyes than a hypocrite in everyone else's. If the Hokies wanted to be ranked higher, they shouldn't have lost to an FCS team in the first place.
In this week's Power Rankings, I wrote that we would find out whether I had Oklahoma State underrated or accurately rated at No. 20.
For once, I got one correct.
National title contenders don't give up half a hundred at home. They just don't.
Oklahoma State is good -- on offense. Kendall Hunter proved again that he is one of the nation's best backs with a 201-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance. Justin Blackmon proved once again that he is one of the nation's best receivers by catching five passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns (RECAP | BOX).
But the defense got gashed through the air and on the ground by a quarterback who got yanked for poor play last week. Championship teams don't let that happen.
Cal is the nation's most schizophrenic team.
The Bears crush Colorado, then get creamed by Nevada. They respond by playing Arizona tough and creaming UCLA. Then they fall behind 42-0 at the half to USC.
So what does Cal do Saturday? Naturally, it hammers Arizona State, 50-17 (RECAP | BOX).
That has to make Oregon State's Mike Riley the happiest coach in America. The Blowout Bears played this weekend, meaning the Blown-out Bears are coming to Corvallis next week.
A win over Nebraska last week in Lincoln proved Texas has talent. A 28-21 loss to Iowa State this week in Austin proves the Longhorns are immature and lack leadership (RECAP | BOX).
Bear in mind that this is the same Iowa State team that lost by a combined score of 120-27 to Utah and Oklahoma in the past two weeks. The Longhorns should have blown the Cyclones off the field, but they couldn't score.
The problems at Texas seem awfully similar to the issues at Florida -- another marquee program that suffered its third loss of 2010 at home against a perennial conference bottom-feeder (last week against Mississippi State). Making the comparison more interesting is the fact that some of the major problems of one -- or both -- might have been solved had one player made a different decision during his recruitment.
Current Gators quarterback John Brantley originally committed to Texas, but he changed his mind after a few months and chose Florida, where his father and uncle had played. Had Brantley gone to Texas in 2007, he probably would have redshirted. Longhorns offensive coordinator Greg Davis would have been much better at harnessing Brantley's drop-back skills than the tandem of Urban Meyer and Steve Addazio at Florida. Last year, Brantley and Garrett Gilbert -- who would have signed with Texas had Joe Montana been ahead of him on the depth chart -- might have competed for the backup job behind Colt McCoy, or maybe Brantley would have been the established backup going into the season. Any competition would have made both quarterbacks better and would have put the guy who won the starting job this season in a much better position.
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Florida might have had a better shot at recruiting Floridian Denard Robinson. More importantly, with Brantley not in the picture, it's doubtful Cam Newton would have left Gainesville. Remember, Newton wasn't kicked off Florida's team for the fenced laptop incident in December 2008. (If texting a death threat to an ex-girlfriend only garners a five-game absence, tossing a fenced laptop out a dorm window after the cops show up probably only merits a couple of quarters in Florida's disciplinary handbook.) Newton left because Tim Tebow elected to come back for 2009, and Brantley had been anointed Tebow's heir apparent.
If Newton is playing for Florida instead of Auburn this season, the Gators haven't lost three games. If Gilbert had faced any legitimate competition for the starting job -- or gotten beaten out by someone who performed better -- the Longhorns haven't lost three games, either.
Saturday began with three undefeated AQ-conference teams (Michigan State, Missouri, Oklahoma State) seemingly getting short shrift compared to their fellow undefeateds. Of those three, Michigan State was the only team no one expected to lose.
If not for a fumble on the goal line in the second quarter, that's exactly what would have happened. Michigan State escaped Northwestern with a 35-27 win (RECAP | BOX), but the Spartans did little to earn the respect they'll need to rise in the polls.
Nearly every team that goes undefeated has to survive a game like this. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was fantastic in the clutch. The fake field goal Michigan State used to beat Notre Dame was called Little Giants. The fake punt that allowed Michigan State to score its third touchdown and get back into the game in Saturday's fourth quarter was called Mouse Trap. (I would have preferred an equally cinematic moniker like Necessary Roughness.)
Next week's game against Iowa should determine once and for all whether the Spartans deserve a place in the BCS title picture. No one will argue the quality of Michigan State's win against Wisconsin, but Michigan could turn out to be quite mediocre, and Notre Dame's third loss in four years to Navy suggests the Fighting Irish aren't very good at all. But a win against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City could earn the Spartans the respect they desire.
Hopefully, they've got another fake kick in the playbook.
Earlier today, I joked on Twitter that Missouri, Northwestern and Syracuse --which feature three of the nation's top journalism schools -- should play a round-robin every year for the Editor-in-Chief's Trophy.
That could be a pretty interesting set of games. Northwestern looked quite good against Michigan State on Saturday. Meanwhile, Syracuse stunned West Virginia, 19-14, in Morgantown to turn the Big East race on its ear (RECAP | BOX). The Orange win tells us two things.
1. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is a miracle worker who has the Orange two wins away from bowl eligibility.
2. The Big East really, really stinks and has no business owning an automatic qualifying spot in the BCS.
That leaves Missouri, which will carry the banner for ink-stained wretches everywhere -- not this one; I went to a football factory instead of a journalism factory -- against the No. 1 team in the BCS standings later tonight.
A few guys screamed at the top of their lungs when the remote came out Saturday at Shakespeare's Pizza in Columbia, Mo. Northwestern theoretically still had a chance to tie the score against Michigan State, but someone wanted the channel changed. This did not make the assembled Missouri and Oklahoma fans happy.
When the channel was flipped, the protests turned to cheers. Texas trailed Iowa State by two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. When the Cyclones finally finished off the Longhorns, the place exploded.
I imagine that's exactly how every bar in Boston sounded Friday night when the Yankees fell to the Rangers.