TCU, Cincinnati title-worthy? Welcome to the sport's new reality

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At his postgame press conference last Friday following a 24-21 win over West Virginia, Brian Kelly, coach of the 10-0 Cincinnati Bearcats, said all the things a coach should say when he's still got two games left ahead of him. "I don't sit around and think about being 10-0," said Kelly. "I never think in those terms."

Away from the podium, however, when prodded by a reporter, the coach whose team sits fifth in the BCS standings acknowledged he's not oblivious to the bigger picture.

"Look, we know about Florida, we know about Alabama, we know about Texas," said Kelly. "If I'm ever sitting down reading the paper or trying to get some information, I want to know about TCU and Boise." What do you want to know, coach? "If they're still undefeated."

A day after his team's eye-opening 55-28 rout of 16th-ranked Utah, TCU coach Gary Patterson also started out saying all the things a coach should say when his 10-0 team has another game to prepare for next weekend. "We've got to go to Laramie, Wyoming," said Patterson, "where if we don't play well, we can get beat."

Prodded further, however, Patterson acknowledged having noticed the first-place vote his team received in the latest Harris Poll. "That's pretty cool," he said. "That shows we're making strides."

These are "cool" and unusual times to be the coach at a place like TCU or Cincinnati. Never before have the top six teams in the BCS standings (No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 6 Boise State) all held undefeated records with just three weeks left in the regular season. The only other year that's come close was 2004, when USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah and Boise State remained perfect through the entire regular season.

Yet this season's landscape feels entirely different than that one. Back then, the nation was busy working itself into a tizzy over the previously unthinkable possibility that an undefeated SEC champion, Auburn, might not play for the national title. Utah, which would go on to become the first non-BCS team to reach a BCS bowl, sat behind one-loss squads Cal and Texas. The Utes were a sidebar; the Broncos barely merited the agate page.

This year, we have the Big Three -- Florida, Alabama and Texas -- from which the two BCS title participants will presumably emerge. There's no Auburn-like controversy, at least not yet. But as I read through e-mails and scrolled through Twitter comments late Saturday from fans who were watching TCU -- many of them for the first time -- a common theme emerged: "Wow. ... TCU is for real ... Very impressed ... as good as the 'top three.' ... deserve to play for national title."

This is college football in 2009. In the past, any mention of TCU (or Utah, or Boise State) in the same sentence as "national title" would have immediately garnered smirks and the automatic response of "Who have they played?" Now, there's an unquestioned respect level. The Horned Frogs have Utah to thank for much of that; last year's Sugar Bowl romp over Alabama elevated both the Utes' and the Mountain West's profile. But I'm guessing a lot of it is also coming from a simple eyeball test.

In a year in which the teams at the top aren't necessarily the prettiest, viewers that tuned in Saturday night were treated to an all-around dominant TCU performance against a nationally-respected opponent. The Horned Frogs jumped to a 35-7 lead early in the second quarter. TCU's vaunted defense did its thing -- Jerry Hughes terrorized Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn; Tank Carder returned an interception for a touchdown.

But what separates the 2009 Horned Frogs from Patterson's previous teams is an equally explosive offense. Andy Dalton & Co. racked up 549 yards on a Utah defense that came in allowing less than 300 per game. They've outscored their last five opponents 233-53.

"We've always played very good defense here," said Patterson, the Frogs' head coach since 2000, "but I'll be honest -- I'm glad we don't have to face our offense right now."

Teams aren't exactly lining up to face Cincinnati's third-ranked offense, either. But here's another sign of college football's new reality: The Bearcats are the BCS-conference team, yet I'm hearing far less national-title buzz for them than I am the Horned Frogs. (Meanwhile, poor Boise State is a legit top-10 team with no buzz whatsoever.) Part of that may be due to the Bearcats' close calls the past two weeks in primetime games against Connecticut and West Virginia, though they have a huge showcase game still to come at No. 8 Pittsburgh.

After seeing Cincinnati in person, I believe the Bearcats -- while certainly fun to watch -- aren't in the same class as Florida/Alabama/Texas. There's no disputing their offensive firepower, but their defense isn't BCS-caliber. They'd also suffer in a national-title matchup due to their lack of a physical red-zone option. Relief pitcher/quarterback Tony Pike played that role against West Virginia, coming off the bench to throw a pair of touchdown darts. He'd face a lot more pressure, however, against one of those aforementioned defenses.

TCU is a different story. Take away those cool, new uniforms, and you'd never know you're not watching an SEC defense. Throw in an offense with its own share of playmakers, and you've got a complete football team.

"I have been a head coach for five years, and that is the best team I've faced," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Frogs.

Could they beat one of the Big Three? Absolutely. Would they? There's only one way to find out. Are we going to get that opportunity? Not unless someone knocks off Texas.

Patterson seemed quite content Sunday with his one first-place Harris vote, but will he be lobbying for something more if TCU wins its last two? Actually: No.

"Is all we're going to do is complain that we don't have an opportunity to play for national championship? Why turn a marvelous season into a negative?" he said. "I don't have any control, besides winning, whether I play in a national championship game or not. If we're given that opportunity, we'll be excited, but why should I turn what these kids have done for 12 games into a negative?"

He shouldn't. And he won't have to. I'm sure there will be no shortage of pundits and politicians ready to take up the cause for him.

When I talked to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh last week following his team's 51-42 upset of Oregon, he said the Cardinal were treating their last three Pac-10 games like the NFL playoffs. "[The Oregon game] was like the divisional playoff," he said. "Now we've got to get ready for the conference semifinal."

Personally, I prefer to use NCAA tournament analogies when discussing mythical playoff events, in which case Stanford is the torrid No. 5 seed that nobody wants to play right now. Two weeks ago, the Cardinal (7-3, 6-2 Pac-10) were still a cute little story, a rebuilding program zeroing in on their first bowl berth in eight years. But there's nothing cute about consecutive 50-point outbursts against the Pac-10's two most respected teams, the latest a 55-21 beatdown of 11th-ranked USC that shredded any remaining aura surrounding Pete Carroll's normally resilient program.

Ironically, Stanford's offense is doing exactly what the Trojans did for years: Out-physical people. With the help of a tough offensive line and bruising fullback Owen Marecic, Heisman hopeful Toby Gerhart bulldozed his way to 178 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, which opened the field for freshman sensation Andrew Luck to take shots downfield. Luck was an efficient 12-of-22 for 144 yards and two touchdowns, including a 24-yard strike to Coby Fleener that opened the floodgates early in the fourth quarter. (The score was 28-21 at the time.)

And let's not forget the defense, which picked off Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley three times (including Richard Sherman's back-breaking 43-yard touchdown return) and forced a Barkley fumble.

"It was put-up-or-shut-up time for Stanford football," said Harbaugh. "Our guys came out focused and loose and did what we had to do to win."

In the opposite locker room was a sullen, stunned team that's basically had its entire reality shattered over the past three weeks. For seven years, USC (7-3, 4-3) was the team beating people 55-21. The Trojans rarely lost, and they never got humiliated like they have twice in the past three weeks. Saturday marked their first November loss under Carroll and the most points ever allowed by a USC team.

In Saturday's most degrading moment, Stanford scored to go up 48-21 with 6:47 left -- and went for two.

"I'm not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like that in the Coliseum after so many years and so many good things and playing well and all that," said Carroll. "I don't really know where to put it."

Two years ago, Stanford went into the Coliseum as a 41-point underdog and pulled off an epic upset. Saturday, the Trojans were favored again, but the Cardinal proved to be in a whole other class. Wrap your head around that.

My reaction to the latest polls and BCS standings.

This week's most notable poll absurdity concerns Iowa. Following a closer-than-expected overtime defeat at Ohio State, the coaches poll voters dropped the Hawkeyes (9-2) two spots to No. 15. I don't have a problem with that. The bigger injustice is that they jumped two teams Iowa beat on the road -- 9-2 Penn State (from 17th to 12th) and 8-2 Wisconsin (from 14th) -- ahead of the Hawkeyes. Keep in mind, just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions lost 24-7 at home to the Buckeyes.

Lest you think this I'm nit-picking, keep in mind that the Big Ten teams' final rankings could have direct consequences on the BCS pairings (see below).

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup based on the latest week's games.

• Title game: Alabama vs. Texas • Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon • Fiesta: Iowa vs. Boise State • Sugar: Florida vs. Pittsburgh • Orange: Georgia Tech vs. TCU

TCU's win likely erased any remaining hopes for Boise State of gaining an automatic BCS berth -- but it's starting to look like it might not matter. With "brand name" teams USC, Miami and Notre Dame all falling out of the picture, the Broncos are becoming a more realistic at-large choice. Their biggest obstacle: Oklahoma State (8-2), which, if it wins at Oklahoma, will likely replace Texas in the Fiesta Bowl. Otherwise, the only at-large certainties are TCU, the SEC title game loser and either Penn State or Iowa.

The Penn State-Iowa scenario could become tricky if both finish 10-2. The Hawkeyes won head-to-head but have fallen behind the Nittany Lions in the polls (though remain one spot ahead of them at No. 13 in the BCS standings). The Fiesta Bowl covets Iowa, which has never played there and has a huge local alumni base. However, should the Fiesta select TCU instead, the Orange Bowl would be more likely to tap Penn State.

All 34 projected bowl game matchups.

• A knowledgeable person within the sport whose opinion I value told me Sunday that Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson "may be the best coaching hire in the last 30 years." The No. 7 Yellow Jackets (10-1, 7-1 ACC) are headed back to the ACC title game for the first time since 2006, only this time it feels like the Jackets' best days are still to come. They could well be a national-title contender in the future.

• I may have been a bit too negative in my column from Ohio State's Rose Bowl-clinching win over Iowa. It was a great moment for the Buckeyes, even if it seemed at times like Jim Tressel was trying to prevent it from happening. OSU's defense has been tremendous all season, and linebackers Ross Homan and Austin Spittler were relentless in shutting down the Hawkeyes' running attack.

• We know well by now what a special talent Pittsburgh (9-1) has in freshman running back Dion Lewis (129.1 yards per game, sixth nationally), but Saturday night against Notre Dame, another young back got his chance to shine. Freshman Ray Graham burst for a 53-yard run in the third quarter, then followed it up with a 2-yard TD in the Panthers' 27-22 win. Graham is averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

• Last week, I talked to Colt McCoy about the evolution of Texas' passing game since Oklahoma. He spent time working individually with each of the 'Horns' younger receivers. "Guys were playing positions they've never played before," he said. "Now we've got guys in the right spots." It didn't matter in Saturday's rout of Baylor; in a rarity, the 'Horns ran for more yards (224) than they passed (187).

• Dabo Swinney is pulling out all the stops to make sure C.J. Spiller keeps showing up on Heisman voters' radars. Saturday against N.C. State he became the first player in school history to run, catch and throw for a touchdown in the same game. "Another ho-hum day for him," said Swinney. With a win Saturday against Virginia, the Tigers (7-3, 5-2 ACC) will clinch their first ACC division title.

• Oregon's 44-21 rout (no, LaGarrette Blount did not play) of Arizona Sate, coupled with Arizona's 24-16 loss at Cal, means the Ducks (8-2, 6-1) regained control of the Pac-10 standings but still play two of the three teams -- Arizona (6-3, 4-2) and Oregon State (7-3, 5-2) -- directly behind them. They lost to the third, Stanford. Good luck figuring out the tiebreakers if Oregon loses another game.

• Boise State's Kellen Moore continues to sit atop the nation's pass-efficiency chart following another masterful performance (22-of-32, 299 yards, five TDs, no INTs) in the Broncos' 63-25 drubbing of rival Idaho (7-4). With Houston's Case Keenum suffering his second loss Saturday against UCF, it will be interesting to see whether Moore starts supplanting him on various Heisman Watch lists.

• LSU's offense took a beating in last week's loss to Alabama -- and it showed Saturday against Louisiana Tech. With oft-maligned quarterback Jarrett Lee starting in place of the injured Jordan Jefferson and top rusher Charles Scott, center T-Bob Hebert and tight end Richard Dickson all sidelined, the Tigers (8-2, 4-2 SEC) managed just 246 total yards in a 24-16 win over Louisiana Tech.

• A week after throwing five interceptions in a 10-3 loss to Nebraska, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones lit up Texas A&M for 392 yards and five TDs in a 65-10 rout. It may be just the spark Oklahoma (6-4, 4-2 Big 12) needs heading into season-ending games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The 5-5 Aggies, meanwhile, now rank 108th nationally in scoring defense (34.0 points per game).

• When Houston Nutt decides to get Dexter McCluster the ball, Ole Miss' runner/receiver can take over a game. He was unstoppable against Tennessee, running 25 times for 282 yards and four TDs and catching four passes for 42 yards in a 42-17 rout. Unfortunately for the Rebels (7-3), it marked just the third time this season McCluster had more than 15 touches, all in the past four weeks.

• Rutgers vanished from the national radar by the end of its first game, but the Scarlet Knights (7-2, 3-2 Big East) have a decent shot of finishing 10-2. Following a 31-0 rout of perennial underachiever USF last Thursday in which freshman quarterback Tom Savage showed why he was such a coveted recruit, Rutgers visits Syracuse and Louisville, then closes at home against West Virginia.

• Bobby Bowden likely avoided the indignity of his first losing season in 33 years with Florida State's 41-28 win at Wake Forest. 'Noles fans had to be encouraged by the performance of first-time starting quarterback E.J. Manuel (15-of-20, 220 yards). Manuel, who was Jimbo Fisher's first major recruit back in 2007, will start the rest of the way for 5-5 FSU in place of injured standout Christian Ponder.

• Now that Virginia (3-7) is guaranteed its third losing season in four years, it's safe to say Al Groh's days are numbered. However, I'm hearing Colorado's Dan Hawkins -- whose team also fell to 3-7 with a 17-10 loss to Iowa State (6-5) -- will get a reprieve. Colorado's debt-strapped athletic department cannot afford the reported $3 million to buy out the remaining four years on Hawkins' contract.

• UCF is the definition of a second-half team. The Knights, which overcame a 17-3 second-quarter deficit and trailed 17-10 at the half of its eventual 37-32 upset of No. 13 Houston on Saturday, have led at the half just once in their six victories ... and just once all season. Saturday's win marked the program's first ever over a ranked opponent.

• Here's all you need to know about North Carolina's defense under Butch Davis: The Tar Heels (7-3) have won five straight against ranked foes dating to last season and have forced a combined 15 turnovers in those games.

• Here's all you need to know about Michigan's defense under Rich Rodriguez: If the Wolverines (5-6) allow 38 points to Ohio State, they'll match the school record for most points allowed in a season (347) ... which they set last year.

Ten years ago, June Jones took over a Hawaii team that had gone 0-12 the year before and immediately led it to a 9-4 record and WAC championship. It seems Jones is losing his touch. This time, it took him a full two years to resuscitate a formerly hapless program.

SMU (6-4, 5-1 C-USA), which posted its second straight 1-11 record in Jones' debut season last fall, took over sole possession of first place in Conference USA's West Division (supplanting nationally-ranked Houston) with a 35-31 win over UTEP on Saturday. The Mustangs got the win despite giving up 627 yards, sealing the game on a fourth-and-6 sack at the SMU 14-yard-line in the final seconds.

With one more victory, either next week at 5-5 Marshall or Nov. 28 against 3-7 Tulane, the Mustangs will lock up their first bowl berth since 1984.

SMU fans have suffered through two miserable decades and five different coaching regimes watching a team that seemingly never could recover from its infamous NCAA death penalty in 1987, which shut down the program for two seasons. After firing Phil Bennett in 2007, school officials spent 71 days waiting out Jones, then in the midst of Hawaii's run to the Sugar Bowl, before luring him with a reported $2 million annual contract, a staggering amount for C-USA.

Jones' famed Run and Shoot offense hasn't gotten into full gear just yet, but it's been good enough for the Mustangs to rank 22nd nationally in passing offense (271.7 yards per game). Freshman quarterback Kyle Padron, who stepped in for injured starter Bo Levi Mitchell in SMU's Oct. 24 loss to Houston, was a modest 17-of-24 for 244 yards, two touchdowns and two picks against the Miners -- but he's 3-0 as the Mustangs' starter.

Jones' last postseason trip did not go so well; Georgia crushed his Warriors in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. If all goes well, he could be returning to New Orleans -- for the New Orleans Bowl -- or one of C-USA's other bowl partners. The faithful have waited 25 years for any taste of the postseason.

It's come to this: After writing a column last week about the influence of YouTube and Twitter on exposing this season's many officiating controversies, I spent the weekend receiving e-mail reports about pretty much every potentially offensive call from around the country. Please stop. I have eyes, too, and nearly every game I watched this weekend included at least one absurd replay moment.

Friday night at Cincinnati, I watched Bearcats running back Isaiah Pead dive over the pile toward the goal line and lose the ball. Officials on the field called it a fumble, but the guys in the booth said the ball crossed the plane. After watching the replay myself, I found myself in agreement -- but I still had a problem with the double standard officials employed in overturning the call.

After last week's Alabama-LSU interception controversy, SEC coordinator of officials Rogers Reddingtold the Birmingham News: "The instant replay rule is if you don't have clear, 100 percent, absolute proof that the call on the field is incorrect, then you let it stand." Believe me, there was nothing 100 percent positive about Pead crossing the plane.

Nor was there "indisputable evidence" that Jimmy Clausen's arm wasn't moving forward on a late-game fumble call against Pittsburgh, though it did appear so to me. In that case, however, the guys in the booth overturned the call on the field and ruled it a fumble. Ditto the end of the Northwestern-Illinois game, when officials ruled that Illinois receiver Jarred Fayson, while down, did not have possession of the ball when Wildcats defender Sherrick McManis swiped it from him for a game-sealing interception. Again, the replay guys let that one slide. But lest you think that's a Big Ten thing, remember back to the Indiana-Iowa game, when the booth overturned an apparent touchdown catch by Hoosiers receiver Terrance Turner, who sure he looked like he had a foot inbounds to me.

Believe me, I take no joy in wasting column space writing about officiating. It is quite possibly my least favorite topic in sports. But instant replay is causing far too great a credibility crisis in college football, especially considering it was added solely for the purpose of improving officiating.

But at least we may have one possible explanation. In that same Birmingham News article, national officiating coordinator David Parry made the astounding revelation that replay officials -- unlike millions of fans watching from home -- do not use HD television monitors. An administrator at Friday night's game told me conferences are looking to upgrade for next season but are concerned about the cost. Note: You will each be receiving upwards of $17 million from the BCS this season; try taking a cut out of that.

Or, better yet, here's an idea: Is there any particular reason why replay officials actually need to be at the stadium? Why not set up a couple of guys in someone's living room with a remote, a cell phone and a 60-inch plasma screen? Do something. These days the ref in those Buffalo Wild Wings commercials is getting more calls right.

Are you a current or former struggling soccer player? Have you ever dreamed of making a game-winning kick in front of 105,000 people to send your team to the Rose Bowl? Ohio State's 26-year-old walk-on-turned-instant-legend shows you how.

With the last days of the Charlie Weis era upon us, it's time to reflect on all the great memories of his five-year tenure in South Bend. This guy provided about 90 percent of them.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games

• Ohio State at Michigan, Saturday (Noon ET): Shortly after Saturday's Rose Bowl-clinching win, Jim Tressel told his team: "You can have three hours and savor this, but when the clock strikes 12:00, we know what week it is." Then: "I'm just playing with you guys. They have no defense. ... Take a couple of days off."

• Cal at Stanford, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): When's the last time these two rivals both entered their annual Big Game with seven wins? That would be 1991, when Dennis Green was coaching the Cardinal, Bruce Snyder was coaching Cal and Jim Harbaugh passed for a career-high 3,121 yards for the Chicago Bears.

• Oregon at Arizona, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Two years ago, the Ducks' BCS hopes died in Tucson when Dennis Dixon's knee gave out. This time both teams are playing for high stakes: the spot opposite the Buckeyes in Pasadena on New Years. A loss would likely eliminate Arizona; Oregon would still have a slim shot.