Four key games could shape the BCS title race; more Overtime

Sunday October 6th, 2013

After outlasting Northwestern, Carlos Hyde (34) and Ohio State face a very manageable next five games.
Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

I tweeted during Georgia's overtime win at Tennessee on Saturday that CBS -- which had previously aired SEC thrillers between Alabama and Texas A&M, and LSU and Georgia -- had a stranglehold on early-season college football drama. But later, after No. 4 Ohio State (at Northwestern) and No. 5 Stanford (vs. Washington) had survived upset bids in a pair of fantastic games, it occurred to me that the most anticipated games of the next few months will not take place in the nation's most respected conference. Instead, due in part to the fact that several different leagues include two thus-far dominant teams, at least one-half of the BCS championship game will be determined by the results of these four showdowns.

Oct. 19: No. 6 Florida State (5-0) at No. 3 Clemson (5-0)

Newly ranked Maryland went to Tallahassee on Saturday looking to make a statement. The turtles presumably went home with their heads fully retracted. The Seminoles walloped the Terrapins 63-0 in a game in which star quarterback Jameis Winston yet again defied his age and all reasonable expectations with another spectacular performance. The redshirt freshman completed 23-of-32 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns, including his Johnny Manziel-esque escape act on a third-quarter scoring pass to Nick O'Leary. "Famous Jameis" remains the nation's No. 2-rated passer, and the clubhouse favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

JOHNSON: Jameis Winston, Florida State destroy Maryland; more early Snap Judgments

A few hours later at the Carrier Dome, Tigers fifth-year senior Tajh Boyd (20-of-27, 455 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions) carved up the Syracuse defense just as he has so many others in his career, staking Clemson to a 35-7 halftime lead. The first-half eruption enraged Orange coach Scott Shafer, who oddly chose to curse out counterpart Dabo Swinney for having the audacity to go for it on fourth-and-goal late in the second quarter. (Syracuse sacked Boyd and the Tigers turned the ball over on downs.) "Really?" Swinney asked when he learned of Shafer's outburst after Clemson's 49-14 win. "Were we supposed to take a knee?"

Not only will the game between the Tigers and Florida State be the most important ACC game since ... (drawing a blank) ... but the battle between both teams' star quarterbacks can't get here soon enough.

Nov. 7: No. 10 Oklahoma (5-0) at No. 15 Baylor (4-0)

We've never seen anything quite like what the Bears (which is ranked far too low at No. 15 in the AP Poll) are doing offensively. Baylor entered Saturday night's game against West Virginia having averaged 69.7 points and 751.3 yards against three non-AQ-conference foes. Surely the Mountaineers, a Big 12 team, would slow the Bears down a little, right?

Umm ... no. Led by quarterback Bryce Petty and running back Lache Seastrunk, Baylor proceeded to put up 56 points and 617 yards in the first half. In their 73-42 win, the Bears gained an incomprehensible 864 total yards, even after coach Art Briles called off the dogs in the third quarter. "Good grief, really?" Petty said when told of the yardage total.

ELLIS: Baylor's offense keeps on rolling; more late Snap Judgments

Baylor shouldn't slow down any time soon, as their next three games are at 2-3 Kansas State, against 1-3 Iowa State and at 2-2 Kansas. Hide the women and children.

The Bears Thrusday-night meeting with the Sooners should be all the more interesting because Oklahoma happens to be excelling so far on defense. Following Saturday night's 20-17 win over TCU, coach Bob Stoops' Sooners ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense (13.0 points per game) and ninth nationally in total defense (281.6 yards per game) -- though Oklahoma suffered a tough blow when standout linebacker Corey Nelson's was likely lost for the season to a pectoral injury.    

Nov. 7: No. 2 Oregon (5-0) at No. 5 Stanford (5-0)

The Cardinal survived Washington 31-28 in Saturday's best game -- though it ended after much of the country had already gone to bed -- a tilt defined by big defensive plays, an incredibly gutsy performance by Huskies quarterback Keith Price (who threw for 350 yards despite enduring five sacks and many more crushing hits), Stanford wideout Ty Montgomery 204 return yards (including a 99-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff) and a controversial replay review that ended a potential game-tying or game-winning drive. (On fourth-and-10 from the Cardinal's 49-yard line with just over a minute to play, Price hit Huskies receiver Kevin Smith at the 35. Officials on the field ruled that Smith had made the catch, but the pass was ruled incomplete after a video review. Replays showed that Smith appeared to have trapped the ball, but it was hardly indisputable.)

STAPLES: Washington's mistakes, controversial call doom comeback against Stanford

Stanford has shown flaws (particularly at cornerback) thus far, but at least it has played worthy competition. The Ducks rolled overmatched Colorado 57-16 on Saturday and have now scored at least 55 points in all five of their games, but none of their FBS opponents to date have a winning record. So it may be that quarterback Marcus Mariota (16-of-27 for 355 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions) will shred the Cardinal in this game. Who knows? If nothing else, the contrast in styles between Oregon (whose spread offense keeps getting faster) and Stanford (which ran just 61 plays against Washington and lined up as many as eight offensive linemen on some running plays) will be fascinating.

Note also that both teams have significant roadblocks between now and Nov. 7. The Ducks visits the much-improved Huskies next week, and hosts 4-0 UCLA on Oct. 26, while the Cardinal hosts the Bruins on Oct. 19.

Nov 30: No. 4 Ohio State (6-0) at No. 18 Michigan (5-0)

It will now take a gargantuan upset for the Buckeyes to be worse than 11-0 when they visit Ann Arbor for their regular-season finale. Coach Urban Meyer's team survived a tough test by beating upset-primed Northwestern 40-30 on Saturday. Ohio State wasn't at its best -- particularly quarterback Braxton Miller, who turned the ball over three times -- but the Buckeyes rallied from a 23-13 second-half deficit behind a stingy rushing defense, as well as a strong performance from tailback Carlos Hyde (26 carries, 168 yards, three touchdowns). "Everybody got their mind right in the second half," said Hyde, who broke down in tears afterward when asked about his earlier three-game suspension.

Remarkably, the 16th-ranked Wildcats are the highest-ranked opponent Ohio State has beaten during a winning streak that now stands at 18 games. Following a bye this week, the Buckeyes will face five straight foes who are nowhere near the Top 25: Iowa (4-2), Penn State (3-2), Purdue (1-4), Illinois (3-2) and Indiana (3-2). Even the Wolverines hardly seem intimidating this year, but Michigan does currently own the nation's longest home winning streak among BCS schools (18 games.). The Game is sure to be appointment viewing this season, but there are quite a few biggies elsewhere before then.

RICKMAN: Ohio State tops Northwestern as Wildcats fall just short on big stage

Georgia forges ahead despite growing number of injuries

On Saturday, the Bulldogs (4-1, 3-0 SEC) celebrated yet another hard-fought victory, this one a 34-31 overtime nail-biter at Tennessee (3-3, 0-2). On Sunday, coach Mark Richt began trying to process the how much damage had been done to his offense over the course of the game.

Georgia, having already lost top receiver Malcolm Mitchell to a torn ACL in the season-opening loss to Clemson, began Saturday with star tailback Todd Gurley (ankle) in street clothes on the sideline. Gurley's sidekick, Keith Marshall, departed the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, leaving freshmen J.J. Green (17 carries, 129 yards) and Brendan Douglas (10 carries, 25 yards, one TD) to carry the load. Receiver Michael Bennett later suffered a knee injury that prompted his parents to visit him on the sideline. Fellow wideout Justin Scott-Wesley (knee) joined him shortly thereafter. Even punter Collin Barber suffered a concussion on the momentum-turning blocked punt that the Vols returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Somehow, star quarterback Aaron Murray (19-of-36, 196 yards, three TDs, no INTs) led the Bulldogs on a game-tying 75-yard touchdown drive in the final 1:54 of regulation. In overtime, an unfortunate Tennessee touchback on the opening series -- when receiver Pig Howard fumbled the ball reaching for the pylon -- set up Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan's game-winning 42-yard field goal.

On Sunday, Richt announced the grim postmortem. Both Marshall and Scott-Wesley are gone for the season with ACL injuries. Bennett will have his right knee scoped this week and will miss at least Saturday's game against Missouri.

"It's sad for our players," said Richt. "You see how much work they put in, how hard they play for you and work in practice for you and the offseason. They know in one play like that, it's taken away from them. It's heartbreaking."

There's no rest for the depleted Dawgs. The surprising Tigers (5-0, 1-0 SEC) come to Athens fresh off a 51-28 rout of Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3). Missouri quarterback James Franklin has thrown seven touchdowns with no interceptions the past two weeks.

Georgia's 67th-ranked defense has not been a strength this season. On Saturday it struggled at times to get off the field against the Volunteers' previously woeful offense. The Bulldogs status as the SEC's presumptive challenger to Alabama was predicated almost entirely on Murray and their star-studded offense, but how many fallen stars can one team sustain?

"We've got to dig deep," said Richt. "Get some guys some more opportunities, get them repped up and get them to make some plays."

Jadeveon Clowney missed Saturday's game against Kentucky after telling Steve Spurrier he was in pain.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Is Jadeveon Clowney truly committed to South Carolina?

It seemed preposterous when, for a couple of weeks last winter, columnists and sports talk radio hosts debated whether Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the probable No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, should sit out his junior season to avoid risking injury. But now, it seems he may be half-heartedly doing that very thing.

In the latest twist to Clowney's thus-far underwhelming 2013 campaign, he missed South Carolina's 35-28 win over Kentucky on Saturday with a strained rib muscle -- the same injury that had forced him to miss practice last Thursday. According to coach Steve Spurrier, he had no idea that Clowney might miss the game until the defensive end told him shortly before kickoff that he was in too much pain to play.

"We didn't know he wasn't playing until right before the game," Spurrier said on Sunday. "That was a little frustrating. Usually the trainer or the doctor tells you, 'This guy's out.' That did not happen last night." Asked if he had concerns about Clowney's level of commitment, Spurrier replied: "You'll have to ask him that. I can't speak for Jadeveon."

ELLIS: South Carolina's Steve Spurrier: Jadeveon Clowney 'told me he couldn't play'

To be clear, no player should be forced to play through an injury. Football's traditional macho culture has caused untold numbers of players to injure themselves further. If Clowney has a legitimate injury, so be it. Spurrier echoed the same sentiment.

But this is not the first time that Spurrier has expressed skepticism about his star's health, dating to the preseason, when he suggested that Clowney might not play in the opener if he didn't return to practice quickly enough. Since then, Clowney has been limited by an illness during the win over North Carolina, has had a recurring issue with bone spurs in his right foot and suffered from the flu before the win over UCF on Sept. 28. And don't forget that Clowney -- who has 12 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in four games -- openly questioned how coaches were using him following the Gamecocks' 41-30 loss to Georgia on Sept. 7.

Clowney has long been considered as sure a No. 1 pick as they come, but NFL personnel types are perennially on the hunt for red flags -- and any hint that he's a headache for coaches will surely become just that. More pressingly, Spurrier and South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward have to make sure that the budding drama around one player does not become a distraction for the entire team.

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: Alabama vs. Clemson
Rose: Ohio State vs. Stanford
Fiesta: Baylor vs. Oregon
Sugar: Texas A&M vs. Louisville
Orange: Florida State vs. Oklahoma

One thing is clear after watching both UCLA play Utah and Stanford play Washington this week: This year's Pac-12 is a meat grinder. The Cardinal and the Ducks may well be the two best teams in the country, but I don't like their chances of making it through league play undefeated. I'm elevating Clemson up to the title game for now, but I just as easily could have put Ohio State or Florida State in there. The BCS title race should be much clearer in two weeks. Best of all, however, this lineup produces a dream Fiesta Bowl matchup between a pair of teams currently averaging a combined 1,409 yards of total offense.

Johnathan Gray (32) rushed for 89 yards against Iowa State, but was the subject of a controversial call.
David Purdy/Getty Images

Spreading the field

• Texas' controversial 31-30 win over Iowa State last Thursday produced an all-time rant from Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads. It also fueled plenty of conspiracy theories after officials ruled that Longhorns running back Johnathan Gray did not fumble when Iowa State stripped him near the goal line shortly before Texas scored the game-winning touchdown. The Big 12 issued a statement the next day, however, that said that the replay official "correctly determined there was no indisputable video evidence" to rule either way.

The bigger takeaway: the Longhorns (3-2, 2-0 Big 12), who allowed 463 yards to the Cyclones (1-3, 0-1) and will once again be without quarterback David Ash, are in deep trouble against archrival Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday.

• Maybe it's the green cleats. Notre Dame's (4-2) previously struggling defense sprang to life against No. 22 Arizona State (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) at Jerry World on Saturday night, holding the Sun Devils to 13 points through three quarters, sacking quarterback Taylor Kelly five times (including three by outside linebacker Prince Shembo) and notching a critical fourth-quarter pick-six. Arizona State rallied late before falling 37-34. "We saw a pass rush today that we had not seen most of the year, which obviously changes the way we look defensively," said Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly.

• Miami is 5-0 for the first time since 2004 after beating Georgia Tech 45-30 in its conference opener. The Hurricanes led just 24-23 early in the fourth quarter before breaking the game open with two touchdown runs by sophomore Dallas Crawford. Crawford has only 25 carries on the year, but seven have been for scores. Meanwhile, underappreciated quarterback Stephen Morris threw for a season-high 324 yards despite wincing his way through an ankle injury.

• Quarterback Brett Hundley and the UCLA offense are no secret, but it's time to start taking notice of the Bruins' defense. Led by surefire All-America linebacker Anthony Barr (two sacks), UCLA (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) forced Utah quarterback Travis Wilson into six interceptions -- including true freshman linebacker Myles Jack's game-clincher -- to secure a 34-27 victory. Jack is a star in the making and one of several freshmen playing significant roles for coordinator Lou Spanos' defense.

STAPLES: UCLA overcomes adversity to down Utah in tough road win

Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC) finally seems to have the clear-cut No. 1 receiver it's been lacking for several years. Solomon Patton had touchdown catches of 51 and 38 yards, and finished with 124 yards on six receptions in the Gators' 30-10 win over Arkansas (3-3, 0-2). The 5-foot-9 Patton is averaging 18.3 yards per catch. "He's having a special year," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose team also got a 42-yard pick-six and a forced fumble from cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.

• First-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has already taken one step toward restoring normalcy for his program. Auburn (4-1, 2-1 SEC) has now swept the Mississippi SEC schools following Saturday's 30-22 win over previously ranked Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2). Quarterback Nick Marshall threw for only 93 yards, but he ran for a season-high 140 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. "I think he is really talented with the read-option," said Malzahn. "There's a lot of pressure on defenses when we can execute it."

Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) has seemingly found its quarterback of the future. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, making his second start in place of injured Taylor Martinez, completed 8-of-13 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a 39-19 rout of Illinois (3-2, 0-1). Granted, Armstrong had a lot of help from running back Ameer Adbullah, who rushed for a career-high 225 yards on 20 carries. Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini made clear afterward that Martinez will remain the starter when he returns.

• The Jerry Kill conundrum continues for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers coach missed this week's game against Michigan after suffering a seizure on Saturday morning, the fourth that has forced him to miss at least part of a game since he became took over on the sideline in 2011. The Wolverines rwon in a 42-13 romp. Minnesota has stood behind Kill, as it should, in the face of a serious condition. However, Kill's Gophers are now 4-14 in Big Ten play. Medical issue aside, fans will soon start expecting results.

• Third-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson finally got a breakthrough win with Saturday's 44-24 rout of Penn State (3-2, 0-1). The Hoosiers (3-2, 1-0) entered the contest 0-16 against the Nittany Lions. Indiana has had an explosive offense for some time, but its defense was the star of the show, holding sanction-ravaged Penn State to a mere 70 yards on 31 rushing attempts. "[Penn State] is one of the standards you shoot for," said Wilson. "It was nice to go toe-to-toe with them and play a decent game."

Washington State (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) finally got a vintage Mike Leach offensive performance in a 44-22 rout at Cal (1-4, 0-2), led by quarterback Connor Halliday's career-high 521 passing yards on 67 attempts. Bears counterpart Jared Goff threw for 489 yards in an Air Raid marathon. The Cougars, who haven't played in a bowl game since 2003, need to find just two more victories -- against a Pac-12 schedule that does not include either Stanford or UCLA -- to become eligible.

• Louisville (5-0, 1-0 AAC) may face its most formidable opponent of the season when the Cardinals take on Rutgers (4-1, 1-0) Thursday night. It took triple overtime for the Scarlet Knights to survive SMU (1-4, 0-1) 55-52 on Saturday in Dallas. Oft-maligned Mustangs quarterback Garrett Gilbert completed 45-of-70 passes for 489 yards and five touchdowns, with and no picks. Previously, Fresno State's Derek Carr passed for 456 yards and five scores on Rutgers' defense. Your move, Teddy Bridgewater.

• The coaching ax reached the MAC on Sunday, with 0-5 Miami (Ohio) canning third-year coach Don Treadwell. He was 8-21 with the RedHawks. It seems like only yesterday that Treadwell went 2-0 as Michigan State's interim coach in 2010 following Mark Dantonio's heart attack.

• It's probably time to set a hot seat alert for fourth-year Virginia coach Mike London. Ball State (5-1, 2-0) throttled the Cavaliers 48-27 in Charlottesville.

• Further evidence that Northern Illinois (5-0, 1-0) is no longer all Jordan Lynch: Running back Cameron Stingily ran for 266 yards in a 38-24 win over Kent State (2-4, 1-2).

• Sad news out of Utah State: Star quarterback Chuckie Keeton will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL and MCL in last Friday's 31-14 loss to BYU (3-2).

• Just when it seemed that USF (1-4, 1-0 AAC) was on the brink of a full-on implosion, the Bulls pulled a stunning 26-20 upset of Cincinnati (3-2, 0-1) that caused coach Willie Taggart to break out in song.

• There are also signs of life at Tulane, where second-year coach Curtis Johnson has the Green Wave (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) off to their best start since an undefeated 1998 season.

• Finally, in what can best be described as the Futility Bowl, FIU (1-4, 1-0) edged Southern Miss (0-5, 0-1) to deal the Eagles their 17th consecutive defeat.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to join the College Football Playoff committee.
Harry How/Getty Images

Defending Condi

Organizers of the upcoming College Football Playoff recently said the roster for the much-anticipated selection committee would be finalized by season's end, but in recent days, 13 names -- of the expected "12 to 18" members -- have leaked. As reported or confirmed by various outlets, they are:

Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez; Retired Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould; USC AD Pat Haden; Former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt; Arkansas AD Jeff Long; West Virginia AD Oliver Luck; former quarterback Archie Manning; former Nebraska coach and AD Tom Osborne; Clemson AD Dan Radakovich; former Stanford provost and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese; former USA Today college sports writer Steve Wieberg; and former Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington coach Tyrone Willingham.

One name -- Rice -- has garnered far more attention than all the others. Some of the reactions, like ESPN analyst David Pollack's comments on GameDay, have been predictably chauvinistic. But some of the criticism also evokes a simple-minded falsehood about the task these people will be conducting: That one has to have played or coached college football to to be able to properly identify the four best college football teams. That's absurd. On the list of most important attributes for the position, it's much more important that the person is able to commit their time to the effort; think for themselves; make coherent and influential arguments in a group; interpret advanced football metrics; and conduct themselves with integrity, most notably by recusing themselves from discussions about schools with which they have conflicts of interest.

Whether or not you agree with her politics, Rice, a Birmingham native and an Alabama fan who's currently back at Stanford (where she was provost from 1993-99) as a professor, is a brilliant mind who also happens to be the daughter of a football coach. Stanford coach David Shaw told the student paper earlier this year that "he and Rice have drawn up some safety plays or considered ways to exploit the mismatches that [the Cardinal's] tight ends have created in recent years."

Hmm. A critical thinker who closely follows college football, understands the nuances of the sport and knows a thing or two about making pressure-packed decisions. She may be more qualified than most of the names on that list.

Contacted Sunday, CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock declined to discuss any of the specific names, saying, "The process has not been completed." He did, however, address one of the chief concerns being raised, which is, how much time will committee members actually spend watching games? After all, the current ADs are busy on football Saturdays, and, you know, Willingham is a pretty avid golfer.

"Members will be watching plenty of video every weekend," said Hancock. "They're going to have access to games on their computers. We're looking at the possibility of sending cutdown versions electronically. Members are expected to watch video of games." They'll also meet in person several times per year.

It's no secret this committee, no matter who serves on it, will face scrutiny and criticism. Biases will be alleged. Decisions will be questioned. It's really a no-win proposition. Of all the possible names that have been discussed, the reported list really is a nice mix of differing viewpoints and backgrounds, administrative experience, coaching and playing experience and journalism experience. It certainly beats the heck out of the USA Today coaches poll.

SMU: Two points the hard way

This incredible game-tying two-point conversion spans 14 seconds and about 130 yards.

Northwestern: Six points the wrong way

Never, ever gamble kids -- because of plays like this.

Looking ahead

Mini-previews for three of Week 7's big games:

Oklahoma vs. Texas, Saturday (Noon ET): The scores -- 55-17 in 2011, 63-21 in 2012 -- are forever etched in the collective memory of Longhorns' fans, and the Sooners weren't a two-touchdown favorite entering those games. Oklahoma's offense might not be quite as explosive this year, but neither was Ole Miss' before or after it faced Texas in Week 3.

Florida at LSU, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Tigers hung 59 points on Mississippi State and are now averaging 45.5 points per game, but quarterback Zach Mettenberger and company must now face a Gators defense that is allowing just 12.2 points and 217 yards per game. This one should resemble pre-2013 Les Miles games.

Oregon at Washington, Saturday (4 p.m. ET): The Huskies' top-10 defense is the real deal. It held Stanford to 279 total yards. Now it will go up against a Ducks offense currently averaging 630 yards a game. Both teams run no-huddle attacks, so don't expect to run to the kitchen without missing at least three plays.

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