Remember a few weeks ago when 600-yard passing days and 70-63 games were all the rage? Well ... false alarm.
There are still plenty of shootouts to go around if that's your thing (just watch Texas every week), but when it comes to the majority of teams still in contention for the national title, it's all about defense. In fact, a couple of them are making the case that you hardly need to throw the ball at all.
AP No. 3 Florida (7-0) continued its surprising resurgence Saturday with a 44-11 rout of then-No. 9 South Carolina. And the game followed much the same script as the Gators' previous SEC wins (only with a wider margin of victory). Florida's offense produced just 29 first-half yards and punted four times, but it raced to a 21-3 lead by forcing three fumbles deep in opposing territory. For the third consecutive week, quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for fewer than 100 yards, though he did finish with four touchdown passes.
The Gators recorded just 183 total yards and still won by 33 points.
"I'd rather have one yard in front of me than 75," said Driskel.
Meanwhile, SEC counterpart LSU (6-1) is taking its offense-optional approach to another level. In Saturday's 24-19 win at Texas A&M, the Tigers converted just 2-of-16 third downs. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger went 11-of-27 for 97 yards. But much more importantly, Les Miles' defense picked off last week's quarterback du jour, Johnny Manziel, three times and held him to 27 rushing yards on 17 carries.
"The defense always sets us up," said Tigers running back Jeremy Hill, who broke off a long fourth-quarter touchdown (47 yards) for the second straight week. "Every game they find a way to keep us in the game."
No. 2 Oregon's (7-0) flashy offense gets no shortage of attention and was obviously instrumental in last Thursday's 43-point explosion in just over a quarter against Arizona State (5-2). But the Ducks, too, threw for only 48 yards on the night. Besides an explosive running game (406 yards against Arizona State), Oregon's defense has become its calling card in 2012. The Ducks held Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly, the nation's third-rated passer coming in, to 93 yards and picked off he and backup Michael Eubank four times.
"Our defense is playing outstanding," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "That's the key to being a great football team."
No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) has mastered the art of low-scoring victories, including Saturday's 17-14 win over BYU, and it doesn't seem to make a difference who lines up under center. Tommy Rees got the start at quarterback Saturday following Everett Golson's concussion the week before and was far less effective (7-of-16 for 117 yards) than he's been in his recent late-game relief appearances. No matter. The Irish produced a pair of 100-yard rushers (Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood) and rode a defense that -- gasp -- allowed its first two offensive touchdowns since Sept. 8, but pitched a shutout after halftime and has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game.
Notre Dame will put that streak on the line Saturday at No. 8 Oklahoma against a Sooners' offense currently averaging 44.7 points per game. "We're a hard-nosed team," said defensive end Stephon Tuitt. "We're going to fight until the bitter end. I hope a lot of people out there realize that."
Now, this is the point in the column where I remind you that it certainly doesn't hurt to have an effective quarterback. In fact, it's likely the difference between a good team and a great team. Case in point: No. 1 Alabama (7-0).
Obviously, the first thing people think of when discussing Nick Saban's team is its stifling defense. And indeed, after holding Tennessee to 282 total yards in Saturday's 44-13 victory, the Crimson Tide remain No. 1 nationally in total defense (195.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (8.3 points per game). Alabama is also closely associated with its powerful rushing attack, which ground out 233 yards against the Vols.
But guess what? The Tide now boast the nation's most efficient passer as well. AJ McCarron, who went a scorching 17-of-22 for 306 yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee, is completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 1,476 yards, 16 touchdowns and, through seven games now, still no interceptions.
"We're starting to see that AJ's more than a game manager," said Tide center Barrett Jones. "He was really explosive. They brought a lot of guys in the box, we needed to throw the ball and we did that. It was awesome."
The only other team that comes close to rivaling Alabama's completeness in all three phases of the game is one with significantly fewer former four- and five-star recruits. Saturday night, No. 4 Kansas State (7-0) went to West Virginia and put an end to this season's early Air Raid narrative. Wildcats star Collin Klein, not Geno Smith, produced the night's huge passing performance (19-of-21 for 323 yards and three touchdowns) while also rushing for four scores. Klein may not pass 50 times, but when he does throw, he's incredibly effective. He ranks second in the FBS (behind McCarron) in pass efficiency with a 70.5 completion percentage to date.
But K-State, like the other teams mentioned above, wins with its defense. The Wildcats notched the first two interceptions of Smith's season, sacked him four times and held him to his lowest passing yardage output (143) since 2010.
"If we play to our capabilities, we can do some good things out there," said cornerback Nigel Malone. "Eventually, if [people] take notice, they do, if not it doesn't matter. We're going to play the defense we know how."
People have noticed, Nigel. Contrary to earlier reports, there are great defenses to be found this season. It's no coincidence they reside at the top of the BCS standings.
In his 11 years as a head coach, Urban Meyer has never had a season quite like this one. While he won two national championships at Florida, neither title team started 8-0. His 2004 Utah team and 2009 Florida team both hit the 12-0 mark, but generally dominated their opponents. His 2012 Ohio State team prefers a flair for the dramatic.
Saturday in Columbus, Purdue (3-4) broke an 83-yard touchdown pass to Akeem Shavers and an 100-yard kick return by Akeem Hunt in the first quarter. Even worse for the Buckeyes, do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller was taken to the hospital after hitting the turf hard on a third-quarter tackle (he was deemed symptom-free and released Saturday night). But despite the adversity, Ohio State's perfect record remains intact after backup Kenny Guiton, trailing 22-14, drove the Buckeyes 61 yards in 47 seconds, converted the ensuing two-point try and completed a 17-yard pass to set up a go-ahead touchdown in overtime for a 29-22 win.
"It's a commitment these kids have made. They refuse to lose," Meyer said by phone Sunday. "They make plays when they have to. We're 8-0 with a chance at 9-0, but we play a very good team [this week]."
That team, Penn State (5-2), is, like the Buckeyes, exceeding expectations -- and doing so under similar circumstances. Saturday's game in State College is being referred to as the "Banned Bowl." Both teams are undefeated in conference play and ineligible for the postseason; however, the winner could claim the title of 2012 Big Ten Leaders Division champion. (The conference has decided to recognize the division winner even if it can't play in Indianapolis.)
With just one truly convincing win, a 63-38 victory over Nebraska, sandwiched by close calls from inferior foes like Cal (28-21), Michigan State (17-16), Indiana (52-49) and Purdue, Ohio State will likely face its toughest test of the season next weekend. They'll face the conference's hottest quarterback, Penn State's Matt McGloin, the much-improved senior who went 26-of-38 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in the Nittany Lions' 38-14 road rout of Iowa (4-3) Saturday. This is the same McGloin who threw five interceptions the last time Meyer faced him, in the 2011 Outback Bowl, Meyer's last game at Florida.
"He's just playing with so much confidence," said Meyer. "Last night I got home and watched him, it seems like he has control of that offense. I know they had attrition, but they've got really good players on that team."
So do the Buckeyes, but as Meyer will attest, "we've got so much work to do there's not enough hours in the day." Even so, they're 8-0, and even the backup quarterback is getting in on the heroics. Asked what it's like to coach a team so alternately frustrating and triumphant, Meyer didn't hesitate: "There's nothing better."
Duke made its fans wait 18 years for another bowl trip, but they didn't even have to wait until November to lock this one in.
The Blue Devils (6-2) are going bowling. Quarterback Sean Renfree led Duke 87 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining Saturday to beat rival North Carolina (5-3), 33-30.
"To watch it unfold before my eyes like that, after three years, a game like this against North Carolina -- you couldn't write a better script," senior receiver Conner Vernon told reporters afterward. "Someone needs to make this a movie."
To fully grasp the storybook nature of Duke's milestone, just look at the program's recent history before coach David Cutcliffe's 2008 arrival. Since going 8-4 and reaching the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1994, the Blue Devils have endured four winless seasons, two one-win seasons and three two-win seasons. Cutcliffe's predecessor, Ted Roof, went 6-45 from 2003-07. Roof's predecessor, Carl Franks, went 7-45. Despite upgrading the program's depth and talent over the past few years, Cutcliffe still endured consecutive 3-9 seasons prior to the 2012 campaign.
Not that Saturday was completely un-Duke like. Just like a week earlier, when the Blue Devils raced to a 20-0 lead over Virginia Tech only to lose 41-20, Duke saw a 23-9 third-quarter lead evaporate after three fourth-quarter Tar Heels' touchdowns. With 3:12 left and the Blue Devils clinging to a 30-26 lead, star cornerback Ross Cockrell appeared to recover a North Carolina fumble, thus staving off danger -- but the ball squirted out of his hands and into those of Tar Heels running back Gio Bernard, who took it in four yards for a touchdown.
And if that wasn't enough drama, Renfree's game-winning throw came on a do-or-die fourth down. "It's much sweeter to do it this way," he said later.
Duke has already doubled its win total from each of the past two seasons, and it still has five games to go. In fact, at 3-1 in conference play, the Blue Devils sit alone in first place in the ACC's Coastal Division. Staying there seems unlikely, especially with remaining games against the ACC's lone ranked teams in the AP Poll, No. 11 Florida State (7-1) and No. 14 Clemson (6-1). But with this charmed team, don't completely rule the possibility out.
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. OregonRose: Wisconsin vs. USCFiesta: Kansas State vs. Notre DameSugar: Florida vs. OklahomaOrange: Florida State vs. Rutgers
While most of the Big Ten continues to bumble around, Wisconsin (6-2), after its early-season struggles, is starting to look more and more like the Wisconsin we've come to expect. James White (15 carries, 175 yards), Monteé Ball (24 carries, 166 yards) and the Badgers pummeled Minnesota, 38-13. And with its spot in Indianapolis nearly wrapped up, it's starting to feel like Wisconsin will head to Pasadena for a third straight year.
Meanwhile, for the first time this season I have a new Big East representative in the Orange Bowl. While Louisville (7-0) continues to eek out conference victories -- Saturday it needed a Teddy Bridgewater touchdown with 1:35 left to survive USF (2-5) -- Rutgers (7-0) has yet to allow more than 15 points in its four league wins. Khaseem Greene and the Scarlet Knights rank 14th in the nation in total defense. First-year coach Kyle Flood could deliver Rutgers' first BCS berth.
To refresh, this is a real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performances to date. Neither preseason buzz nor the likelihood of a player actually winning will come into play, but the quality of competition so far will.
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Coming off his best passing performance, the dual-threat star and the nation's second-rated passer accounts for 64 percent of the Wildcats' offense.
2. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU. The middle linebacker had 20 tackles Oct. 6 against Florida and spent all of Saturday's matchup with Texas A&M harassing Johnny Manziel. Minter racked up 12 tackles, a sack and an interception in the Tigers' 24-19 win.
3. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. With another 10 tackles and an interception against BYU, the senior leads the Irish's stout defense in both categories.
A note on AJ McCarron: As the nation's new top-rated passer, McCarron will undoubtedly start garnering Heisman buzz. But he only averages 22 pass attempts and, unlike Klein, doesn't run. McCarron is doing an outstanding job for an outstanding team, but is he the nation's most outstanding player? I can't say that.
• Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy dropped a bombshell in his Sunday night teleconference, announcing that quarterback J.W. Walsh is out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the first half of Saturday's 31-10 win against Iowa State. The news comes as a complete surprise seeing that Walsh played the whole game and threw for a career-high 415 yards while running for 46 more. Walsh's likely replacement is the player he replaced earlier in the season, true freshman Wes Lunt.
• It wasn't pretty, but Michigan (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) ended its four-year skid against Michigan State (4-4, 1-3), 12-10, on Brendan Gibbons' 38-yard field goal with five seconds left. Wolverines star Denard Robinson, who struggled so mightily against the Spartans' defense the past two years, completed a 20-yard pass through a tight window to receiver Drew Dileo to set up Gibbons' kick. "This program was in desperate need for a win in this game," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said afterward.
• No. 8 Oklahoma's (5-1) offense tuned up for next week's showdown with Notre Dame by ripping hapless Kansas (1-6), 52-7. Much of the damage came on special teams: Justin Brown had a 90-yard punt return touchdown and Roy Finch had an 100-yard kickoff return score. "We know that Notre Dame's a great team but we're a great team also," said Finch. "So, we just wanted to close out Kansas and we know that the game ahead of us next Saturday is going to be a crazy game."
• USC's Matt Barkley was a cool 19-of-20 for 298 yards and six touchdowns in a 50-6 rout of woeful Colorado (1-6), and in doing so, he threw his 100th career touchdown to break Matt Leinart's school record. Meanwhile, someone please have mercy on the Buffs, which must turn around and visit ... No. 2 Oregon. The Ducks led Arizona State 43-7 a few minutes into the second quarter last Thursday. Larry Scott needs to invoke emergency legislation and install a running clock.
• It's come to this: After a 17-13 loss at Vanderbilt (3-4, 2-3 SEC) in which it gained just 212 total yards, Auburn has become the first team in the history of the AP Poll (since 1936) to go 1-6 two years after winning a national title. It's also the Tigers' worst start since 1952. And on a truly sad note, tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, one of the few holdovers from that glorious 2010 team, suffered a career-ending hip injury. "... sad to say it is over at Auburn," he tweeted.
• Nebraska (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) scored two touchdowns in the last 5:55 at Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) to turn a 12-point deficit into a crucial 29-28 victory in Evanston. It was the second time this season the Wildcats have blown a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to a Big Ten foe. More embarrassingly, there were so many Nebraska fans in attendance at Ryan Field that Northwestern had to employ a silent count on its failed final drive. "We didn't prepare for that all week," said quarterback Kain Colter.
• Clemson (6-1, 3-1 ACC) keeps taking care of business while waiting and hoping that Florida State stumbles again to cede control of the ACC Atlantic Division. The Tigers throttled Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2), 38-17, thanks in part to two Jonathan Meeks interceptions, one of which he returned 74 yards for a touchdown. "I believe it was [the defense's] best effort," said coach Dabo Swinney. This the first time since 1992 that Frank Beamer's Hokies have lost four games before November.
• For the second straight season, Florida State (7-1, 4-1 ACC) may be without running back Chris Thompson, this time to a knee injury suffered in the second quarter of Saturday's 33-20 win over archrival Miami (4-4, 3-2). Thompson will have an MRI Monday. Fortunately the 'Noles still have last year's freshman standout, Davonte Freeman, a Miami native who broke off a 33-yard run and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in his return home to put the game away.
• Cal coach Jeff Tedford is inching ever closer to the chopping block. On the 30th anniversary of The Play, and on the earliest date the Big Game has ever been played, Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) came to Berkeley and shut down the Bears (3-5, 2-3), 21-3. In a not particularly uncommon sight, the Cardinal sacked Cal quarterback Zach Maynard four times, raising the Bears' season total to an FBS-worst 33 sacks allowed. "That was a poor performance," said Tedford. "We couldn't block them."
• Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez finally scored his first Pac-12 victory with a 52-17 win over struggling Washington (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12). The Wildcats (4-3, 1-3) racked up 533 yards and now rank fifth in the nation in total offense (548.7 yards per game). Meanwhile, the mysterious struggles of Washington quarterback Keith Price continue. He went 29-of-52 and threw two interceptions. "We're going to get together and fight our way through this," said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian.
• Another week, another pair of Big 12 shootouts. First, No. 15 Texas Tech (6-1, 3-1 Big 12) survived TCU (5-2, 2-2), 56-53, in triple overtime thanks to seven touchdown passes from Seth Doege. "Welcome to the Big 12," Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said of his first-year conference team. Then, in the nightcap, Texas and Baylor's defenses (ranked 107th and 120th in the nation, respectively) allowed the offenses to run wild in a 56-50 Longhorns victory. Texas (5-2, 2-2) got its ground game going, with Joe Bergeron scoring five touchdowns, while the Bears (3-3, 0-3) racked up 607 total yards.
• Geno Smith broke Trent Dilfer's NCAA in-season record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception when he reached 273 shortly before throwing his first pick against Kansas State. But Smith's record lasted barely an hour. Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron upped his total to 275 following his 29-of-37, 400-yard night in the No. 24 Bulldogs' (6-1) 70-28 rout of Idaho (1-7).
• No. 7 Oregon State (6-0), a 21-7 victor over Utah (2-5) Saturday, has already doubled its win total from last season. That's incredible. Even more remarkable: This is the Beavers' first 6-0 start since 1907.
• In a thrilling game that may ultimately determine the Sun Belt title, Louisiana-Monroe (5-2, 3-0 Sun Belt) edged Western Kentucky (5-2, 2-1), 43-42 in overtime. SEC nemesis Kolton Browning's two-point conversion proved to be the difference.
• Navy (4-3) has bounced back nicely from a 1-3 start. Saturday, it knocked off Indiana (2-5), 31-30, for its first win over a Big Ten opponent since 1979.
• South Alabama (2-5) scored its first Sun Belt win and its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent. The Jaguars beat FAU (1-6) in double overtime, 37-34.
In the latest testimony to the MAC's resurgence after a decade of irrelevance, I give you the following score: Toledo 29, No. 21 Cincinnati 23.
Saturday, the Rockets (6-1) dealt the Bearcats (5-1) their first loss of the season and improved to 5-1 all-time at the Glass Bowl against ranked foes. Sunday, they narrowly missed cracking the AP Top 25 (they were the first team out), though in-state MAC rival Ohio (7-0) moved up two spots to No. 23.
As you may recall, Toledo went to bowl games each of the past two seasons behind an explosive offense, but it lost both its coach (Tim Beckman) and speedy all-purpose extraordinaire (Eric Page) last winter. Beckman's 32-year-old former offensive coordinator, Matt Campbell, has led the Rockets to their best start since 2001, and junior Bernard Reedy has picked up right where Page left off. Reedy returned a kick 91 yards to the end zone late in the third quarter Saturday to give Toledo the lead, his third straight game with a kick or punt return touchdown.
Toledo's win gives the MAC 14 victories this season against nonconference FBS foes, tied with 2008 for the most this century. That includes three wins against the Big Ten (Penn State, Iowa and Indiana) and three against the Big East (Cincinnati, UConn and USF). It's also unusual for the conference to have four teams with just one loss this late in the season. In addition to Ohio and Toledo, Northern Illinois (which lost by one point to Iowa in its opener) is 7-1 and Kent State 6-1.
Unfortunately, of those teams, Ohio only plays the Golden Flashes in the regular season, and not until Nov. 23. A date with Toledo would have to come in the MAC championship, which the Rockets have not reached since Bruce Gradkowski was their quarterback in 2004.
Idaho's coach, who went 20-50 in seven seasons, became the first casualty of this year's coaching carousel. But we'll always remember the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl.
Akey's interim replacement at Idaho is still better known to most of us as the quarterback of Washington State's 2002 Rose Bowl team.
Mini-previews for three of Week 9's big games:
• Florida vs. Georgia, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): In its last two games, Georgia lost 35-7 at South Carolina and stumbled its way through a 29-24 win at Kentucky. Yet if the Dawgs manage to upset the Gators, they'll control their destiny in the SEC East -- and no one will be more frustrated than Steve Spurrier.
• Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Sooners' offense has markedly improved since a 24-19 loss to Kansas State Sept. 22, but it hasn't faced a defense remotely on the level of Notre Dame's since then, either. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will have a plan to fluster Everett Golson.
• Mississippi State at Alabama, Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET): The Bulldogs last knocked off the Tide in Nick Saban's first season as Alabama's coach, 17-12. Since then, 'Bama has won by scores of 32-7, 31-3, 30-10 and 24-7, respectively. Mississippi State may be 7-0, but this will still be considered a Herculean upset if Tyler Russell and Co. can pull it off.