For the most part, conference realignment has wrought more bad than good. Longstanding rivalries (Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, West Virginia-Pittsburgh) have been disrupted. One conference (the Big East) will soon be a geographic farce, and another (the WAC) will soon be extinct.
However, one school's decision to change conferences has had a direct hand in one of the most exciting stories of 2012. In fact, it led straight to the most impactful upset of the season, a game that may one day go down as a milestone moment that not only alters a national championship race, but one that ushers in far-reaching changes.
When Texas A&M's leadership decided to bolt the Big 12 for the SEC back in the summer of 2011, the most common response (from myself included) was ... man, the Aggies are going to get their butts kicked for a while. They had long played third fiddle (at best) to Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12. Now they were going to attempt to tussle with Alabama and LSU?
Of course, we couldn't have known then that just a few months later, Texas A&M would upgrade at head coach from notorious underperformer Mike Sherman to Kevin Sumlin, who overachieved at Houston. And not even recruiting analysts realized that Sherman had signed a preternaturally gifted quarterback who, when deployed in the right offense (and afforded an appropriately cool nickname), would flummox the SEC's most renowned defense -- as a freshman.
Texas A&M's 29-24 defeat of top-ranked Alabama Saturday was one of those stop-what-you're-doing upsets that we've come to expect (even if we rarely predict them at the time) in November. Without fail, just when you think you have the BCS pegged, someone gets upset and turns the whole postseason landscape upside down.
But suppose it had been, say, Mississippi State that took down the Tide in Tuscaloosa. While the result would have been arguably more shocking, it wouldn't have carried nearly the same significance. This was Texas A&M, the new kid on the block with its new-fangled offense and its phenom freshman quarterback, beating the defending national champs and the SEC's reigning juggernaut on their own field. And in doing so, the Aggies rendered 'Bama's vaunted defense mortal.
Start with the immediate implications. Texas A&M, the school that came running for refuge from the then-crumbling Big 12 two summers ago, may go down as the team that ended the SEC's BCS dynasty. It's too soon to declare Alabama's national championship hopes dead -- it fell to No. 4 in the BCS standings, one spot above a Georgia team it will face in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game (provided the Tide beat hapless Auburn in two weeks) -- but 'Bama needs some two of the three teams ahead of it -- Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame -- to lose. But remember, just a year ago the Tide lost in November and climbed back to No. 2.
Let's assume for the moment that most or all of the teams above Alabama hold serve, and that Oregon and Kansas State meet in the first SEC-free BCS championhip game since 2005. For six years, the South's most popular talking point was that big-boy defenses like Alabama's were impervious to the no-huddle spread offense practiced in other parts of the country. Well, either Texas A&M magically cultivated an influx of so-called SEC speed in the past 10 months, or the Aggies are living proof that you can in fact win there with an offense imported from Conference USA.
With Johnny Manziel delivering another virtuoso performance (24-of-31 for 253 yards and two touchdowns and 18 carries for 92 yards), A&M raced to a 20-0 first-quarter lead against a defense that had not allowed 20 points in a game for nearly a year. Nick Saban had sounded numerous warnings about the dangers of A&M's no-huddle attack, but they had gone mostly unheeded.
"Their offense is a very difficult offense to stop," Saban said afterward. "... Their quarterback is a fantastic player. He obviously made some plays that were great plays out there. You have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to play against a guy like that."
Alabama's defense mostly clamped down after that early surge, and after cutting the deficit to 20-17 in the third quarter, it seemed inevitable the Tide would eventually pull through. Soon enough, we were watching a Big 12-like shootout with AJ McCarron unleashing bombs to Amari Cooper and Manziel coming back down the field with answers. But the Aggies held on, thanks in large part to notching the first two interceptions of AJ McCarron's season, the second a dagger in the end zone with 1:36 left.
"It is big for us in our first year in the league," said Sumlin. "We are the new guys coming in and we have to prove ourselves and we have to continue to prove ourselves week in and week out."
Oh, they've proven themselves. And in doing so, they may well precipitate a sea change in the SEC. As many as four conference schools (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn) may soon change coaches, and you just know they'll be seeking their own versions of Sumlin. Defense will remain a bedrock for schools like Alabama, Florida and LSU, but before you know it, nearly half the schools in the league could be running their own version of the Air Raid.
Maybe one day we'll be hearing about the SEC's unparalleled offenses.
We've reached the point in the season where injuries can play as big a role in determining a team's success as its gameplan. Even the programs at the top of the latest BCS standings have not been immune -- though so far, they've yet to be severely affected.
Early in 10-0 Oregon's Saturday night clash at Cal, there was cause for concern whether the Ducks would be able to field a full team. They went into the game already down four of their top five defensive linemen (Dion Jordan, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Ricky Heimuli), and their last healthy starter, Taylor Hart, went out in the first quarter. Safety Avery Patterson suffered what looked like a serious knee injury shortly thereafter. (Coach Chip Kelly does not reveal injuries.) The Ducks plugged in two freshmen (one that was planning to redshirt) and a recently converted tight end.
And then, just to strike actual terror in Ducks fans, star running back Kenjon Barner left clutching his hand and quarterback Marcus Mariota took himself out with apparent pain in his non-throwing arm. The 3-7 Bears pulled to within 24-17 in the third quarter.
As it turned out, Barner was fine -- and Mariota was more than fine. The redshirt freshman from Hawaii threw four touchdowns in a less than 10-minute span and tossed six scores overall in an eventual 59-17 rout. Over his past two games, Mariota has now gone 47-of-57 for 681 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions to rise to No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency. His 71.7 completion percentage would set an NCAA freshman record. In short, Mariota is the reason Oregon's offense has gone from good to ridiculously good, setting an NCAA record Saturday with its 13th straight game scoring at least 40 points.
"Marcus played outstanding," said Kelly. "When you've got the guy pulling the trigger who's got his sense not to rush things, take what they give you ... they did a decent job early against us but he really made some plays through the air."
Meanwhile, new BCS No. 1 Kansas State dealt with its own injury scare at quarterback last week, as Collin Klein left the Wildcats' game against Oklahoma State with a still-undisclosed injury. The Heisman frontrunner returned Saturday against TCU, and while he didn't have his best game passing (12-of-21 for 145 yards and an early interception; three sacks), he was still healthy enough to run for touchdowns of seven and 34 yards in a 23-10 victory.
"He played reasonably well," said K-State coach Bill Snyder. "He made the plays he had to make in the ball game, but we were probably a little conservative for him. We could have given him more chances than we did."
K-State's defense continues to be superb and can likely compensate if Klein does not return to pre-injury form. Oregon, on the other hand, heads into two games against ranked foes (Stanford and Oregon State) with a beyond-patchwork defense. Still, it, too, can compensate if Mariota keeps performing at a lethally precise pace.
Stanford coach David Shaw had just engineered an important victory, a game in which the Cardinal (8-2) jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on No. 13 Oregon State (7-2), proceeded to watch the Beavers score 23 straight points, then clamped down in the fourth quarter to win 27-23. While his players (many of whom had just played their last home game) could be heard celebrating in their locker room on the other side of the wall behind him, Shaw admitted he would not be able to enjoy this one for very long.
"I'll say 24-hour rule [for the players]," said the coach, "but I'll give myself a six-hour rule. I'll be on my computer tonight [watching Oregon.]"
USC began the year as the Pac-12's favorite, and Oregon State soon emerged as its Rose Bowl sleeper. But heading into their meeting Saturday in Eugene, the Ducks and Cardinal find themselves in the same position as the past two seasons: They're the conference's two highest-ranked teams. This year, of course, there's a large gap between No. 1 Oregon and No. 14 Stanford, and even over the past two years, when the Cardinal had Andrew Luck and went 23-3, they lost to the Ducks 52-31 and 53-30, respectively. Shaw didn't sound particularly optimistic about his team's chances this time around.
"We have not fared well with those guys," he said. "A few years ago [in 2009] we beat them ... but this is a different Oregon team. Those guys are special. I agree with what most people -- outside the computers -- say: This is the best team in the country. It's going to take our best game and not their best game to pull this thing off."
In truth, Stanford may represent the last real shot of derailing the Ducks. As mentioned earlier, Oregon's defensive line is reeling. Stanford's power running game has not been as prolific as it was with Luck, but Shaw unleashed a new wrinkle against the Beavers. Mobile redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan took over as the starting quarterback, and he allowed the Cardinal to dust off the read-option run game they abandoned with Luck at the helm last year. An offense that struggled mightily with former starter Josh Nunes racked up 417 yards in victory, though it also coughed up four turnovers. Hogan went 22-of-29 for 254 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing for 49 yards on 11 carries.
But Stanford is also the lone Pac-12 team with an elite defense. The Cardinal's top-ranked rushing defense held the Beavers to 82 rushing yards (3.1 per attempt), its sixth game holding a foe to less than 100 yards on the ground. And the group seems to have a never-ending armada of linebackers. Senior Alex Debniak, Stanford's 14th-leading tackler, recorded a crucial sack of Cody Vaz on the Beavers' last drive. (Vaz suffered a twisted ankle and left the stadium on crutches.)
Stanford will bring the best defense Oregon has seen by far. Of course, the Cardinal have been decent the last two years, and they've still given up 50-plus points each time. Will this year's unit fare better? "We'll see," said Shaw, before glancing at his watch, "in about seven days and an hour from now."
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: Oregon vs. Kansas StateRose: Nebraska vs. Notre DameFiesta: Oklahoma vs. Texas A&MSugar: Alabama vs. ClemsonOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville
The Texas A&M-Alabama game set off a gigantic ripple effect that resulted in six of the 10 spots here changing from last week. That starts with the fact that the Rose Bowl may now have first choice of replacement teams if Oregon finishes No. 1, and while there's still a chance a three-loss Stanford, Oregon State or UCLA finishes in the top 14, the folks in Pasadena will be hard-pressed to turn down the Irish. (If it's Stanford, they can use the excuse that Notre Dame beat the Cardinal.)
If that happens, the Fiesta Bowl will have a shot at an SEC team. Texas A&M is unquestionably that game's most logical choice, both for proximity and fan enthusiasm over the Aggies' breakthrough season. Note, though, that if Florida beats Florida State to finish 11-1, the Gators would almost certainly finish in the top four and be guaranteed a spot.
Meanwhile, if Alabama wins the SEC but doesn't move back to No. 2, it could be looking at a Sugar Bowl date with 11-1 or 10-2 Clemson. That's sure to stoke the fans' fire. Here's how that scenario could be avoided: The Rose Bowl sticks with a Pac-12 team, and the Fiesta Bowl passes on Notre Dame to avoid an Oklahoma-Irish rematch. Then it's Alabama-Notre Dame. The bowl will practically be able to print money.
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. Klein is now facing stiff competition from Johnny Manziel, a dual-threat quarterback with more gaudy statistics. But Klein still leads him in one important area: He's yet to lose a game.
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. You've won me over, Johnny Football. Manziel now has more than 1,000 rushing yards and is closing in on 3,000 passing yards. And I've got no problem voting for a freshman; I voted Adrian Peterson No. 1 in 2004.
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC. The Trojans star had 10 catches for 161 receiving yards along with six carries for 66 rushing yards in the Trojans' 38-17 win over Arizona State. And all that came despite an allergic reaction before the game that caused his eyes to nearly swell shut.
• Apparently Florida coach Will Muschamp has managed to obtain some of Les Miles' voodoo magic. The Gators avoided an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette (5-4) when backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett threw a game-tying touchdown with 1:42 left, and then, with 13 seconds remaining, Florida blocked a punt, which Jelani Jenkins returned 36 yards for the game-winning score in a 27-20 decision. Florida is 9-1 despite having the nation's 114th-ranked passing offense.
"Anytime you see the seventh-ranked team in the country storm the field like they won the Super Bowl to beat you, you know you're doing some good things," said Ragin' Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth.
• Syracuse is good for one of these a year. The Orange (5-5, 4-2 Big East) squashed Louisville's (9-1, 4-1) undefeated dreams in a 45-26 rout. Doug Marrone's team, which came in averaging 155.7 rushing yards, gashed the Cardinals for 278. "This was the worst game we ever played. They came out and got us," said Louisville defensive back Hakeem Smith. The Cardinals still control their BCS fate. The Orange will go bowling if they beat either Missouri or Temple.
• Notre Dame (10-0) enjoyed a drama-free 21-6 win at Boston College (2-8), a game in which quarterback Everett Golson went a steady 16-of-24 for 200 yards, two touchdowns and no picks and linebacker Manti Te'o notched his sixth interception. The Irish continued their trend of winning far more decisively away from home (average margin: 25.4 points) than in South Bend (average margin: 4.6 points), so prepare for a heart-stopper Saturday against Wake Forest (5-5).
• It's now a matter of when, not if, Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) dismisses third-year coach Derek Dooley. Saturday's 51-48, four-overtime home loss to Missouri (5-5, 2-5) served as his Waterloo. Dooley made several questionable decisions late in regulation and in overtime, and they resulted in his 13th loss in his past 14 SEC contests. Missouri (5-5, 2-5), which started 0-4 in the conference, can reach its eighth straight bowl game if it beats Syracuse (5-5) this week.
• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel is quietly having a fantastic season (68.4 percent completions, 2,641 yards, 19 touchdowns, five interceptions), and he saved his team from possible disaster last Thursday at Virginia Tech. While the Hokies (4-6, 2-4 ACC) held the Seminoles (9-1, 6-1) to -15 rushing yards, Manuel threw for 326 yards through the air, including an underneath pass that Rashad Greene broke 39 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 40 seconds remaining.
• Nebraska (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) brushed off a 20-6 halftime deficit against Penn State (6-4, 4-2) to win, 32-23, and maintain control of its division. But Nittany Lions fans were apoplectic about a controversial fumble call on what could have been a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown. Quarterback Matt McGloin only fueled the fires. "We're not going to get that call here," he said. "We're not going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are. That's the way it is."
• We joked at the time that Wisconsin clinched the Leaders Division in July, as soon as Penn State joined Ohio State on the ineligible list. In reality, it took until Nov. 10, when the Badgers (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) wrapped up their spot in Indianapolis with a 62-14 rout of Indiana (4-6, 2-4). How's this for improving over the bye week: Wisconsin, which ran for just 19 yards in its last outing against Michigan State, pounded the Hoosiers for 564 yards on the ground.
• Meanwhile, Northwestern (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) is the anti-Nebraska when it comes to second-half performances. For the third time this season, the Wildcats let a double-digit second-half lead slip away, only Saturday against Michigan, Northwestern reclaimed the lead, 31-28, and held it until the final seconds when Wolverines receiver Roy Roundtree caught a 53-yard deflected pass from Devin Gardner to set up a game-tying field goal. The Wolverines (7-3, 5-1) won 38-31 in overtime.
• Basketball season is underway in the ACC, and Saturday, Georgia Tech beat North Carolina, 68-50. ... Oh, in football?! In the highest-scoring game in league history, Tech quarterback Vad Lee, who'd seen spot action previously, took over for Tevin Washington on the third series and never relinquished the job, throwing for 169 yards (on six completions) and rushing for 112 more. The Jackets (5-5, 4-3 ACC) remain in the hunt for the Coastal Division title because ...
• Despite a monstrous performance from Miami freshman all-purpose dynamo Duke Johnson (150 rushing yards, 214 kick return yards and an eight-yard touchdown pass), Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC) rallied to beat the 'Canes (5-5, 4-3), 41-40, on a 10-yard Michael Rocco touchdown pass with six seconds left. And so, the division might come down to Miami's Nov. 24 game at Duke (6-4, 3-3). But the Blue Devils will need to beat Georgia Tech this week to stay alive.
• The most heated divisional races in the country currently reside in the MAC. The top two teams in the West will clash Wednesday, when Northern Illinois (9-1, 6-0 MAC) hosts Toledo (8-2, 5-1). Then on Saturday, No. 25 Kent State (9-1, 6-0) will visit Bowling Green (7-3, 5-1) for East supremacy. How deep is this conference? Kent State is the third different team to be ranked this year (and NIU is 26th in the Coaches' Poll), while Bowling Green knocked early-season darling Ohio (8-2, 4-2) out of contention last week.
• This week also includes a huge game in the WAC, where No. 19 Louisiana Tech (9-1, 4-0 WAC) hosts Utah State (8-2, 4-0) in a game that will likely determine the dying conference's last-ever champion. The Bulldogs warmed up by outlasting Texas State, 62-55.
• Congratulations to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who passed the legendary Bud Wilkinson for second on the Sooners' career wins list at 146 with a 42-34 win over Baylor. Next up: Barry Switzer.
• Congratulations also to Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey. He broke Rueben Mayes' 28-year-old Pac-12 record with 366 rushing yards on just 25 carries in a 56-31 win against Colorado.
• Congrats to 6-4 Vanderbilt, which clinched back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time ever with a last-minute 27-26 win at Ole Miss. Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers' brother, Aaron, watched from the stands and sideline.
• And finally, congrats to UMass (1-9). The Minutemen got their first win as an FBS member by beating Akron (1-10), 22-14.
Last week in this space, I wrote about Mike Leach's orchestrated humiliation of his starting offensive and defensive lines in his postgame press conference following a 49-6 loss to Utah. That turned out to be only the beginning of the public discord surrounding Washington State's program. Last Monday, Leach suspended star receiver Marquess Wilson for walking out 20 minutes into a two-hour conditioning workout the previous night. Rumors circulated that Wilson had quit the team entirely, which he finally confirmed in an open letter released hours before the Cougars' game Saturday night against UCLA.
But Wilson did more than just announce his departure. In the release, he directed some serious accusations at Leach and his staff. "The new regime of coaches has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us," he wrote. "... My teammates and I have endured this treatment all season long. It is not 'tough love.' It is abuse. This abuse cannot be allowed to continue." He went on to reference "the physical, emotional and verbal abuse being allowed in the locker room and on the field."
Leach dodged questions about the accusations following the Cougars' 44-36 loss to the Bruins ("I'm not going to talk about anybody who's not here," he said), but Sunday Washington State president Elson Floyd instructed AD Bill Moos and the Pac-12 to independently investigate Wilson's claims to "get to the bottom of the matter."
Wilson, who had a disappointing season following last year's 1,388-yard campaign, clearly knew how to get his message out. He released the statement just hours before kickoff, and he had to know the word "abuse" would elicit a serious response, especially given the nature of Leach's ouster at Texas Tech. While it's since been dispelled under oath that Leach never locked Adam James in a closet, he made no bones of the fact he believed the receiver was a slacker and malcontent. Meanwhile, he'd been publicly criticizing Wilson's focus and practice habits all season and benched him against Stanford Oct. 27.
A recent first-hand account noted a practice where Wilson "dropped multiple passes during red zone drills, then showed little effort during the team's 'skelly' session," after which Leach "followed a verbal thrashing by demanding roughly 20 'up-downs' from the playmaker."
I'll reserve judgment until more than one player has leveled such accusations. Leach would hardly be the first coach to berate his players in practice, but "abuse" can take on any number of forms, and the actions in question may well have taken place behind closed doors. Whatever the case, Leach will go into the offseason with more challenges than simply upgrading the 2-8 Cougars' talent. He's now being investigated by his bosses.
Meanwhile, at Leach's old school, Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville appeared to slap a graduate assistant Saturday against Kansas, and then he tried to explain it away as no big thing. "He was on the field, and I reached to grab him and pull him off," said Tuberville. "When I pulled, I missed his shirt and I grabbed his face mask and his microphone ripped off his head. I was trying to get him off the field."
Really? ... You got that from this?
On Monday, Tuberville was more contrite, saying, "It upset me, too. You don't do things like that. Heat of the battle," and "I have to hold myself to a higher standard." He said he apologized to the graduate assistant, Kevin Oliver.
Would that have been so hard to admit Saturday?
Texas coach Mack Brown made good on his pledge to line up in the wishbone formation for the first play to honor the late Longhorns coach -- and Iowa State was still caught off guard.
While one Lone Star legend moves on, another is blossoming before our eyes.
Mini-previews for three of Week 12's big games:
• Ohio State at Wisconsin, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): With all of the hoopla being generated by dual-threat stars Klein, Manziel and Mariota, it feels as if Braxton Miller is playing in Poland. He'll get no shortage of exposure these last two weeks, however, especially if he leads the Buckeyes to an undefeated season.
• USC at UCLA, Saturday (4 p.m. ET): As if this rivalry wasn't chippy enough already, there's now two particularly combative coaches involved in Lane Kiffin and Jim L. Mora, and their teams just happen to be the two most penalized in the entire country (a combined 18 per game). It will not be a tranquil afternoon at the Rose Bowl.
• Stanford at Oregon, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): It's the biggest game in the country this week, yet Oregon is still favored by 24 points. The Cardinal may well be able to pressure Mariota more than previous Ducks opponents, but it will take an exceptional performance to slow both him and Oregon's rushing attack.