In recent weeks, this column has devoted a whole lot of space to a certain Heisman- and championship-contending quarterback currently under NCAA investigation. All the while, Stanford's Andrew Luck has quietly been building his own case for an invite to New York, a spot in a BCS bowl and consideration as the No. 1 pick in next spring's NFL draft.
Currently, only the latter is considered likely.
On Saturday, Stanford's third-year sophomore exorcised some serious demons in leading a 48-14 rout of rival Cal, avenging the worst performance of his young career, which came in last year's Big Game. He completed 16-of-20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns and led No. 7 Stanford (10-1) to scores on all eight of his drives.
We also found out that Newton isn't the only quarterback out there who can run over a defender. In a play that will surely live in YouTube infamy, Luck, who's run for 445 yards this season, broke off a 58-yard gain. During the run, Luck plowed into Bears safety Sean Cattouse with his left shoulder, seemed to stop and stare at Cattouse for a split-second while regaining his bearings, watched Cattouse fall to the ground and then took off again for another 20-plus yards.
"In my head, I was thinking, 'Someone's got to be coming from somewhere.' I'm a slow quarterback and I'd been running for a while," Luck said Sunday. "He came in high on me, and I guess at that point momentum and inertia took over. I don't remember looking at him. I was just stunned I was still on my feet."
NFL scouts are rightfully drooling over the 6-foot-4, 235-pound high school valedictorian and son of former pro Oliver Luck, with his cannon arm, refined mechanics and playbook mastery. The mobility's nice, too. San Jose Mercury News columnist and former NFL beat writer Tim Kawakami recently dubbed Luck the fourth-most "valuable" quarterback prospect of the last decade, behind only Michael Vick, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers.
"I believe he is [NFL-ready]," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said recently. "He's physically mature, he's mentally mature. He's got a rare talent."
In terms of college recognition, however, Luck may get overlooked. The Heisman is considered Newton's to lose -- unless the electorate gets queasy about his mounting off-field saga. And it's hard to argue against Boise State's Kellen Moore (the nation's top-rated passer), Oregon's LaMichael James (the nation's leading rusher) or even Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon (who's having a record-breaking receiving season).
There's not much more Luck can do. He's completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 2,746 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Factoring in his rushing, he's averaging 290.1 yards of total offense, just ahead of Moore and 13 less than Newton.
"I'm sort of taking the approach that if I play well enough on the football field to make a statement, I'll get an invite," said Luck. "If I don't, I don't."
And while his team isn't undefeated, it is 10-1 for the first time since 1926 (that team went 10-0-1), with the only loss coming to No. 1 Oregon in a game where Luck threw for a season-high 341 yards but also threw two picks.
It's because of that Oregon loss, and because of a quirky rule, that even if Stanford beats Oregon State next week to finish 11-1, its reward might be a trip to the Alamo Bowl. In any other year, the Cardinal would replace the Ducks in Pasadena, but this year the Granddaddy is obligated to take the highest-ranked non-BCS team, in this case TCU or Boise State.
It is therefore both a jubilant and frustrating time to be a Stanford fan. The school's best team in 80 years might not go to a major bowl game, and its best quarterback since John Elway might not get an invite to New York, as running back Toby Gerhart did last year. And the window of opportunity is closing. Luck may be down to his last two games as an amateur, and many believe Harbaugh will join the pro ranks himself sooner than later.
Stanford's fate may in fact be tied to Newton's. If the Auburn star struggles Friday at Alabama and the second-ranked Tigers go down, it might open the Heisman door slightly for Luck. More likely, it would move Boise or TCU up to the BCS title game and allow the Cardinal to head to Pasadena. It's considered unlikely the Sugar or Orange bowls would take the school due to travel concerns.
Luck admitted the BCS situation "has come up in the locker room," but that "the guys appreciate what's going on here right now. It's a great time for the program. We're just hoping to go out and get that 11th win."
I first met the then 20-year-old at a Pac-10 event in New York last summer. He's basically your typical, goofy college kid, albeit much smarter than I'll ever hope to be. (He apologized Sunday for calling later than expected, saying it was "a major oversight." What college kid says that?) He's an avid follower of the national college scene, thanks in part to his dad, the athletic director at West Virginia, and he can be seen at Stanford volleyball games cheering on his sister, Mary Ellen, a freshman for the Cardinal.
Asked last week about his myriad accomplishments to this point, Luck said: "It's nice. But I wouldn't say it's satisfying quite yet."
Here's hoping he gets some sort of coronation before we lose him to the pros.
Twelve years ago this New Year's, Wisconsin's Ron Dayne rushed for a Rose Bowl-record 246 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-31 win over 10-1 UCLA. It was the height of Barry Alvarez's tenure (the Badgers returned to Pasadena again the next year), and one defined by a smashmouth style that's become an endangered species in the new century.
Except, of course, at Wisconsin.
Bret Bielema's fifth-ranked Badgers (10-1) stand one win from returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 11 years, and they're doing it the same way they did in the days of Dayne: by bulldozing people. They've run for 357 and 338 yards, respectively, in wins over Indiana (83-20) and Michigan (48-28), their fifth and sixth straight. In the second half Saturday, the Badgers ran on 29 consecutive plays.
"We kept running because we knew we could," said tackle Gabe Carimi.
Note that leading rusher and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay did not play in either game. But as with the great Wisconsin teams of old, the offensive line is this group's most powerful asset. That line has helped sophomore Montee Ball (155.7 yards over his last three games) and freshman James White (162.5) emerge as the next great Badger backs.
These Badgers do differ from their predecessors in one respect. Whereas Alvarez's teams usually featured a caretaker quarterback to mix things up between runs, present day starter Scott Tolzien is a weapon in his own right. Before Wisconsin went run-heavy in the second half Saturday, Tolzien completed 13 consecutive passes, finishing 14 of 15 in leading Wisconsin to its first victory in Ann Arbor since 1994.
Admittedly, the Badgers' past two wins have come against largely hapless defenses, and they'll face another one in Saturday's finale against Northwestern, which allowed 519 rushing yards to Illinois. Assuming Wisconsin prevails, and Ohio State takes care of Michigan, Wisconsin will punch its ticket to Pasadena, where the competition will be significantly stiffer. At this point, Wisconsin is guaranteed to face one of three opponents: Boise State, which boasts the nation's top rush defense, TCU (No. 5) or Stanford (No. 33).
"I'll put us with anybody," said Bielema. "I know we have one loss [at Michigan State on Oct. 2], but I watch college football and we're a good football team ... In the bigger picture, we're playing as well as anybody out there."
For three years, one word has hovered over Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor: maturity. Do a quick Google search and you'll find the following headlines: "Pryor showing maturity of a leader;" "Buckeyes Will Need a Mature Terrelle Pryor to Succeed;" and "Terrelle Pryor Maturing Before Our Eyes."
Every college student arrives a young pup and comes out a man. In Pryor's case, his maturation has been meticulously chronicled every step of the way.
Saturday's triumph at Iowa marked the latest step in that process. On the field, at least. After three quarters of what appeared to be another big-game flameout (he threw two interceptions), Pryor delivered a defining game-winning drive. After friend DeVier Posey dropped a wide-open 50-yard touchdown (which Pryor admitted made him "mad"), Pryor responded by scrambling 14 yards on a fourth-and-10 from the 50, then later hit Dane Sanzenbacher for a 24-yard strike just inside the sideline en route to the go-ahead touchdown. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes won 20-17 to improve to 10-1.
"I might not be the best quarterback or have the best stats, but I guarantee you I can bring my team back and make them believe we're going to come back," Pryor said.
With a win Saturday against Michigan, Pryor will wrap up at least a share of his third straight Big Ten title and improve his career record as starter to 30-4. By any reasonable measure, he's lived up to the considerable expectations that accompanied his recruitment as the No. 1 prospect in the country in 2008.
And yet, for whatever reason, most of us still haven't fully jumped on the bandwagon. He's no longer mentioned in the same breath as Heisman candidates like Cam Newton, Kellen Moore, Andrew Luck, Ryan Mallett or Denard Robinson. His final stat line Saturday was 18-of-33 for 195 yards, one touchdown and two picks. Until that last drive, his play was undistinguished.
And then there's this: After the game Saturday night, Pryor (@Tpeeze2) took to Twitter to lambast his critics. First: Talk is cheap none of you haters could fit my shoes w ten socks on. Bums. Go Bucks. And later: Heard Kirk herbstreit was dogging us. He a fake buckeye. Fake as hell. (Both have since been deleted.)
The "maturity" thing continues.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:
Title game: Oregon vs. Auburn
Rose: Wisconsin vs. Boise State
Fiesta: Oklahoma State vs. Pittsburgh
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. TCU
Sugar: LSU vs. Ohio State
The only change from last week is Oklahoma State replacing Nebraska as the Big 12's representative. The Cowboys are playing well, the Huskers are not. And though a week ago I would have said the Orange Bowl would snap up 11-2 Nebraska if it lost in the conference title game, I can't see it biting if the Huskers drop three.
Having said that, drastic changes could be at hand this time next week, most notably if Auburn loses (Boise would move up to the title game if it beats Nevada, Stanford to the Rose Bowl), Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State (we'll have a new projected Big 12 champ) or Arkansas beats LSU (the Hogs would likely take the Tigers' at-large spot in the Sugar or Orange bowls).
• In hindsight, perhaps I overreacted just a tad regarding the Wrigley Field end zone debacle. While the ignorance of NCAA rules among organizers remains astounding, the clunky setup did not impact the game. If anything, the scene Saturday (speaking as a Northwestern alum) was even cooler than I'd imagined, from Ernie Banks on the GameDay set to the fans watching from the rooftops to the scoreboard showing Big Ten scores. This photo pretty much says it all.
Between the lines, Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure made his own history, rushing for a school-record 330 yards on 33 carries -- the highest total by an FBS player this season -- in the Illini's 48-24 rout. Apparently Northwestern's marketing campaign did not go over well in Champaign. "When I heard Northwestern called 'Chicago's Big Ten team' all week, yes, that bothered me," said linebacker Martez Wilson. Illinois (6-5) became bowl eligible with the win.
• No one was more bothered Saturday than Nebraska's Bo Pelini. The red-faced coach spent the majority of his team's 9-6 loss to Texas A&M (8-3) berating officials, who called 16 penalties against the Huskers to two on the Aggies. He tried to chase one of them down after the game ended. Give Pelini this: The roughing-the-passer flag that helped set up A&M's go-ahead field goal was absurd. But Pelini's fixation with Big 12 officiating (see last year's conference title game) is getting tiresome.
"I'm not talking about the penalties," Pelini said afterward. "You all watched the game." So did Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who, in an AP interview Sunday, called Pelini's repeated outbursts "unfortunate."
• Michigan State (10-1) staged a furious fourth-quarter rally to survive an upset bid from Purdue, thanks in large part to two interceptions and a blocked punt. My biggest takeaway from the game, however, was the sterling performance of Purdue's true freshman cornerback, Ricardo Allen, who had a pick-six early, broke up a pass in the end zone late and notched nine tackles. The 5-foot-9 Allen, who's started every game, has the makings of a future All-America.
• I think we can now safely say with hindsight that Virginia Tech's loss to James Madison on Sept. 11 was the single strangest event of the season. On Saturday, the Hokies (9-2, 7-0 ACC) won their ninth straight game, 31-17 at Miami, to advance to the ACC title game for the fourth time in six years. There will be no postseason, however, for James Madison. The Dukes beat Maine 14-10 on Saturday to finish 6-5, tied for eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
• It's hard to believe, but Oklahoma State's 48-14 win over Kansas gave the 10th-ranked Cowboys (10-1) the first 10-win regular season in the 110-year history of the program. (Bowl wins gave the school three 10-2 records in the 1980s.) Now comes the big one. No. 14 Oklahoma (9-2), fresh off a 53-24 beatdown at Baylor, comes to Stillwater on Saturday for a winner-takes-the-Big-12-South edition of Bedlam. Receivers Justin Blackmon (OSU) and Ryan Broyles (OU) will take center stage.
• North Carolina fans have loyally defended coach Butch Davis amid an NCAA investigation, but Saturday he may have committed the unthinkable: falling to 0-4 against rival N.C. State. As has been the case all season, UNC (6-5) fought valiantly but fell, this time on a freakish play in which Wolfpack receiver Owen Spencer emerged from a cluster of about seven players to catch a deflected pass in the end zone on fourth-and-goal. N.C. State, down 19-10 at the time, won 29-25.
• The Wolfpack's win coupled with Florida State's 30-16 victory at Maryland narrows the ACC Atlantic Division contenders down to two. FSU (8-3), which forced three fourth-quarter turnovers Saturday to pull out a tough road win, finished 6-2 in conference play to clinch at least a share of first. But if N.C. State (8-3, 5-2) wins at College Park next week, the Wolfpack, who beat the Seminoles 28-24 on Oct. 28, will advance to their first conference title game to face Virginia Tech.
• Mississippi State played at home Saturday for the first time since defensive end Nick Bell's Nov. 2 death from cancer, and the 36-yard lines at Scott Field were emblazoned with decals honoring his jersey number. Bell would have been proud of the Bulldogs' effort against No. 13 Arkansas. The Bulldogs took it to double overtime, but the Razorbacks ultimately prevailed, 38-31, thanks to star Ryan Mallett's eighth 300-yard passing game this season, a national best.
• After scoring a combined 10 points against TCU and Notre Dame the past two weeks, Utah (9-2) racked up 500 yards of offense to rally from 17 back to beat San Diego State, 38-34. Quarterback Jordan Wynn, nearly benched against the Irish, threw for a career-high 362 yards as the Utes survived a 528-yard passing day from the Aztecs' Ryan Lindley. "I'm very proud of our guys for hanging in there," said Kyle Whittingham. "They never dropped down a bit."
• Further proof that the way a team looked last week is absolutely no indicator of how it will perform the following week: A week removed from losing 31-14 to last-place Washington State, Oregon State (5-5) played its best game of the season in throttling No. 20 USC, 36-7. And Ole Miss, 1-5 in the SEC and a week removed from losing 52-14 at then 3-6 Tennessee, went to Tiger Stadium and gave No. 5 LSU everything it could handle before falling 43-36.
• I've done the math, and it appears that my preseason pick to win the Big East can still very much pull it out. Connecticut, 3-4 just a few weeks ago, improved to 3-2 in conference play with a 23-6 win at Syracuse (7-4) and is tied for second place with West Virginia. However, Connecticut has already beaten both the Mountaineers and first-place Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1), so one more Panthers loss would put the Huskies in the driver's seat.
• In a tear-filled moment at Southern Miss, linebacker Martez Smith -- paralyzed from the waist down following last week's shooting -- was on hand to wave to the crowd on Senior Day.
• Since its embarrassing showing against Navy a few weeks back, Notre Dame's defense has played 11 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
• After working so hard to lift Rutgers out of the Big East basement, Greg Schiano's team (4-6, 1-4) is back in it after losing 69-38 at 3-6 Cincinnati.
• Colorado (5-6) improved to 2-0 since firing Dan Hawkins with a 44-36 win over Kansas State (6-5). Hawkins was on hand to escort son Cody on Senior Day.
• Elsewhere Saturday, Harvard beat Yale, 28-21, in the 127th edition of The Game, while Lehigh topped Lafayette 20-13 in the teams' 146th meeting.
Please tell all those economic experts who chart stuff not to freak out if America's spending is down on Black Friday. A whole lot of folks are going to be inside, glued to the tube.
When the television schedules were set last summer, no one could have predicted that the nation's top three teams would all be playing the Friday after Thanksgiving, all against formidable foes. Forget fighting crowds at the mall. Sit back and enjoy one heck of a triple-header: No. 2 Auburn at No. 9 Alabama at 2:30 p.m. ET, followed by No. 20 Arizona at No. 1 Oregon at 7 p.m. and No. 3 Boise State at No. 19 Nevada at 10:15 p.m.
(If that's not enough to hold your attention, West Virginia and Pittsburgh -- both possible BCS auto-qualifiers -- meet at noon, and Colorado visits Nebraska at 3:30 in their last meeting as Big 12 foes.)
Obviously, the main attraction is the Iron Bowl. While this is the fourth time since 2004 that one of the two has entered the showdown holding national-title hopes, we must go back to 1994, when 10-0 Alabama beat 9-0-1 Auburn, to find a meeting where both teams were so highly regarded. And even that one couldn't hold a candle to the hype surrounding this year's game, due in large part to CamGate.
Auburn had its first bye of the season last week, while Alabama had a de facto bye, hosting first-year FCS program Georgia State last Thursday. Tide coaches and players didn't hide from the fact that they'd already begun planning for Newton and the Tigers, and Saban answered his first questions about the game before he'd even left the field at Bryant-Denny on Thursday, saying it would be "bad for college football" if Newton wasn't allowed to play against the Tide and that Alabama was focused on "containing the outside" to take away Newton's big runs.
First of all, barring some drastic turn of events in the next five days regarding the NCAA investigation into Newton's recruitment, the Auburn star will play. And while this isn't the first tough defense Newton and the Tigers have faced (LSU ranks fifth nationally), this game versus the defending national champs has long been anticipated as Auburn's make-or-break date with destiny.
Adding to the drama: Should Auburn fall, the Boise State-Nevada game later that same night would suddenly take on huge importance. With the Broncos in a tightly contested duel with TCU for the status of "next in line," an impressive showing against a ranked foe could be the decider. Colin Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack come in ranked third nationally in total offense (537.7 yards per game) and have played the Broncos close in the past, losing 69-67 in Kaepernick's first start back in 2007, 41-34 in '08 and 44-33 last season.
For its part, Boise is coming off a 51-0 shutout of Fresno State that prompted veteran Bulldogs coach Pat Hill to say: "We've played against some pretty darn good football teams in my time. Never have we been manhandled like that."
Cam Newton, Oregon's offense and Boise's defense all on one Friday. Who needs Saturdays?
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• Auburn at Alabama, Friday (2:30 p.m. ET): We've seen Cam Newton do pretty much everything imaginable; now we get to see him do it on fresh legs. Alabama will need huge games from Mark Barron and Dont'a Higtower to contain the Tigers star. Or it will need Rhodes Scholar finalist Greg McElroy to throw for 400 yards.
• Arizona at Oregon, Friday (7 p.m. ET): Cal delivered the blueprint for slowing down Oregon: rotating defensive linemen, playing man coverage and faking a lot of injuries. The Wildcats have the speed up front to do much the same, but the Ducks have yet to score fewer than 52 points at Autzen Stadium this season.
• Boise State at Nevada, Friday (10:15 p.m. ET): The Broncos held Hawaii to its lowest yardage total in 12 years and handed Fresno State its first shutout in 12 years. Boise's defense isn't looking to make history in Reno, just to slow down a Nevada team that's averaging 44 points and put up 52 when Cal came to town.