By Stewart Mandel
November 29, 2009

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This season has sparked a recurring complaint, one that surfaced again following Week 13 scares from Texas and Alabama: There are no dominant teams this season.

There was a time earlier this year when I felt that way myself, but now, with the finish line just a week away, I'd argue this season has suffered from the polar opposite oddity: There are too many dominant teams. Six of them, in fact. The delineation couldn't be clearer in this week's BCS standings, which feature six undefeated teams (Florida, Alabama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati and Boise State) ... then no one else with fewer than two losses. Just to punctuate the point, No. 6 (12-0 Boise) even beat No. 7 (9-2 Oregon).

It's been a top-heavy season, not just nationally, but within most conferences. In addition to the five leagues with official championship games, the Big East (Cincinnati-Pittsburgh), Big Ten (Iowa-Ohio State), Pac-10 (Oregon-Oregon State) and WAC (Boise State-Nevada) all wound up staging (or will stage) unofficial title showdowns. It's a scheduling coincidence made possible by the fact that, in each case, two teams separated from the pack. (Not so in the Mountain West, where TCU beat its two closest competitors, Utah and BYU, by a combined score of 93-35.)

Finally, this weekend, we get to see two of the Big Six collide when No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama stage their long-anticipated SEC Championship showdown in Atlanta.

"I can't think of a bigger football game that we've been a part of," Gators coach Urban Meyer said Sunday. "There's not a whole lot of difference between playing in the [BCS title] game and playing in the SEC Championship. ... This is every bit as big."

The Gators and Tide have looked vulnerable at times. Some might argue Florida, which has averaged a modest 27.6 points in SEC play, isn't as dominant a team as it was a year ago, when the eventual national champs routinely put up 40- or 50-plus points against conference opponents. But lest we forget, last year's Gators actually lost a game to Ole Miss. This year's version has only suffered one truly close call, a 23-20 last-second win over Arkansas.

Some might also argue that Alabama's come-from-behind 26-21 win at 7-5 Auburn last weekend exposed the Tide as overrated. That's one way of looking at it. The other is to marvel at team that managed a 15-play, seven-minute, 79-yard game-winning drive despite its Heisman-contending running back watching from the bench. 'Bama has had more close calls than Florida (TerrenceCody's field-goal block to fend off Tennessee, the waved-off interception to help survive LSU) but it's also produced more "statement" wins (the season-opener against Virginia Tech and a 22-3 road dismantling of Ole Miss).

"Even though we had some games where we felt like we didn't play our best football, we made some big plays, and players responded when they needed to," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "I'm really pleased with what they've accomplished."

The Gators and Tide so thoroughly dominated the nation's purportedly toughest conference that they each nailed down their spot in Saturday's matchup by Nov. 7. Florida won its division by a staggering four games; Alabama by three. At last, we'll get to see them face a worthy adversary.

"College football wants this game," said Meyer. "I've been hearing it for a long time, trying to ignore it, push it back, but now it's here."

If only we could draw up a similar crescendo for No. 3 Texas. The watered-down Big 12 has produced a championship matchup between the 12-0 Longhorns and 9-3 Nebraska. Texas has beaten just two ranked teams, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; the Sooners finished 7-5, and just beat the Cowboys 27-0. Critics looking to poke holes at the 'Horns found ammunition in last week's 49-39 shootout at 6-6 Texas A&M, while conveniently ignoring the fact Texas never trailed after wiping out A&M's early 7-0 lead. When that's your team's equivalent of a "close call," you know you're doing something right.

This isn't 2007, when LSU won the national championship with two losses. There should be little doubt by day's end Saturday that we'll be watching two truly elite teams in Pasadena. The problem is, there could be as many as three similarly dominant teams left sitting on the sideline. While Florida and Alabama get to settle their half of the bracket on the field, TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati (should it beat Pittsburgh) must sit and root for Nebraska to beat Texas. Even then, two of them won't get a shot.

The computers will say they didn't play as rigorous a schedule as the SEC and Big 12 champs, but those same computers are told to disregard margin of victory. The closest any opponent came to the Horned Frogs over their last seven games was 27 points. Nevada brought an eight-game winning streak to Boise last Friday and fell behind 27-3 by early second quarter (the Broncos won 44-33). If not for a pair of futile last-second touchdowns by Connecticut and West Virginia, the Bearcats would have just one single-digit victory (28-20 over Fresno State) on their docket.

Consider, we stand just a week away from a potential Florida-Texas title matchup that many have been anticipating for 11 months, yet this year's annual round of BCS backlash figures to be the most feverish yet. There is, however, one tantalizing upside to such a top-heavy season: Whoever emerges from Saturday's SEC showdown will have to beat two straight undefeated teams to claim the crystal trophy.

The first 13 weeks have been fun, but these last two could be epic.

It was interesting to watch how the largely muddled Heisman race seemed to finally crystallize itself over the course of the holiday weekend. It began Thursday night with ColtMcCoy's nationally televised masterpiece against Texas A&M, when the Texas star threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 175 and a score. It marked the third time in four games McCoy has racked up 400-plus yards of total offense and all but assured he'll be returning to New York.

Then, on Friday afternoon, Alabama's Mark Ingram -- the frontrunner on most Heisman lists for the past several weeks -- suffered an unfortunately timed off day against Auburn, gaining just 30 yards on 16 carries. The fact that Nick Saban opted for freshman Trent Richardson to start the Tide's game-winning drive certainly didn't help Ingram's cause, nor did the apparent hip injury that shelved him the rest of the way.

On Saturday, Clemson's C.J. Spiller -- despite a kickoff return for a touchdown on the game's opening play -- saw his last remaining hopes go down the drain with an 18-yard rushing day in the Tigers' 34-17 loss to South Carolina. Florida's Tim Tebow, on the other hand, made the most of his three-hour CBS infomercial, shredding Florida State's jayvee-caliber defense for 311 total yards and five touchdowns.

And then, Stanford's Toby Gerhart closed out the weekend with another humongous night, rushing for 205 yards and three touchdowns and passing for another against Notre Dame. Once a dark horse candidate, Gerhart has the best claim of anyone right now. He leads the nation in rushing yards (1,736), and his 26 touchdowns eclipse the next-closest player by seven.

We could spend all day debating who should merit consideration come the Dec. 7 voting deadline -- Kellen Moore, Golden Tate and Ndamukong Suh chief among them. Realistically, there are only four remaining players who could hoist the statue: Gerhart, McCoy, Tebow and Ingram. Gerhart could be at a disadvantage because he doesn't play next weekend. Although, with the other three all facing elite defenses fully capable of silencing them, perhaps it will work out better for him in the end.

That's how Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly describes the annual, early December rite of coaching turnover and ensuing speculation over replacements, much of which will center on him the minute CharlieWeis' ousting becomes official. There's nothing silly, however, about a coach trying to prepare his team for the biggest game of the season while simultaneously dealing with his potentially imminent departure.

Aggravating seems more fitting than silly. No one but the people involved truly know where and when a particular coaching search is headed, which means 90 percent of what gets reported is either misleading or downright false. This weekend alone, regarding Notre Dame's impending opening, CBS analysts "reported" both that Brian Billick was "part of the process" and that Bob Stoops would interview as soon as Sunday.

Jeez. Maybe Kelly isn't even on the Irish wish list.

As of now, Notre Dame, Louisville and Virginia are the lone BCS-conference schools looking for new coaches, though that could change at any moment. Kansas will soon need to reach a decision regarding Mark Mangino. Illinois AD Ron Guenther previously stated RonZook's job was safe, but the 3-8 Illini still have another game left, which means Guenther still has time to change his mind.

And then there's the potential mother of all coaching changes brewing in Tallahassee. After steadfastly maintaining all season he'd be back in 2010, Bobby Bowden took a much different tone Saturday following a humbling 37-10 defeat at Florida, saying, "I want to coach next year. But let me say I need to go home and do some soul searching.'' He changed his tone slightly, though still not firmly, on Sunday. "The only thing I can say is right now, sitting right here -- and I guess it could change in a day or two, it could -- but right now, I would like to come back. Still, I've got bosses. I've got people that would have to approve it."

Those bosses will reportedly meet with Bowden and anointed successor Jimbo Fisher in the coming days. It's starting to sound more and more like Bowden's 2010 fate won't be his to decide. Though his possible exit would not hold a ripple effect for other schools, the end of a living legend's career would surely trump all other coaching-related stories.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) 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. Cincinnati Orange: Georgia Tech vs. TCU

Why Alabama? I couldn't tell you. The SEC game is a complete toss-up as far as I'm concerned. I've had the Tide penciled in since October, so I'll stick by them for one last week.

The rest of the picture cleared up considerably with Oklahoma State's loss to Oklahoma. Boise State is virtually assured a bid at this point. Assuming Texas beats Nebraska, the Fiesta Bowl is now free to select Iowa, which it's been coveting for years. There are two scenarios that could change this projection: 1) If Clemson beats Georgia Tech, the Orange will need to avoid a TCU rematch. It would likely take the Big East champ instead. There's also a slight possibility the Fiesta could opt to pit undefeated TCU against undefeated Cincinnati if it feels it can sell enough tickets. In that event, the Orange may tap Penn State over Iowa.MANDEL: Projections for all 34 bowl matchups

• The old "throw out the records" cliché played out with abandon this Rivalry Weekend, as a whopping six unranked teams knocked off their ranked rivals -- Georgia over No. 7 Georgia Tech, West Virginia over No. 8 Pittsburgh, Oklahoma over No. 11 Oklahoma State, South Carolina over No. 15 Clemson, Mississippi State over No. 20 Ole Miss and N.C. State over No. 23 UNC.

All the more reason Texas and Alabama deserve credit for surviving theirs.

• BYU and Utah staged another classic Holy War, with Cougars star Max Hall hitting Andrew George for a game-winning 25-yard touchdown in overtime. Afterward, Hall unloaded: "'I don't like Utah. In fact, I hate them. I hate everything about them. ... I think the whole university and their fans and the organization is classless." Hall claimed Utes fans threw beer on his family at last year's game.

• Missouri and Kansas are making an annual tradition of wild Thanksgiving weekend shootouts. A year after the Jayhawks won 40-37 on a last-second Todd Reesing touchdown pass, the Tigers exacted revenge by sacking Reesing for a safety, then driving for a last-second field goal to win 41-39. Missouri's Danario Alexander and Kansas' Dez Briscoe both eclipsed 200 receiving yards.

• Arizona State receiver Kyle Williams won't soon forget his last Territorial Cup -- unfortunately, for the wrong reason. After notching nine catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- including a terrific diving grab in the end zone to tie the game at 17-17 with 2:02 left -- Williams muffed a fair catch at his own 22 with just over a minute left to set up Arizona's (7-4) last-second game-winning field goal.

• Oft-criticized West Virginia coach Bill Stewart finally delivered a much-needed signature win with a 19-16 Backyard Brawl upset of No. 8 Pittsburgh. His defense stifled previously efficient Panthers quarterback Bill Stull (179 yards, two INTs). If the Mountaineers can beat Rutgers (8-3), they'll finish 9-3 -- a game better than last season -- and likely beat out the Cincinnati-Pitt loser for a Gator Bowl berth.

• Boise State jumped up 27-3 on Nevada last Friday, then went nearly 35 minutes with just one touchdown. It's no coincidence the drought began after the Broncos' star receiver, Austin Pettis, went out with an ankle injury. Kellen Moore struggled to find open targets much of the night but still finished 17-of-33 for 262 yards and five touchdowns, raising his TD-to-INT ratio on the season to 38-to-3.

• In his first start since Oct. 15, Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike shredded Illinois (3-8) for 399 yards and a school-record six touchdowns. In the Bearcats' previous game against West Virginia, Pike came in and threw two touchdowns on four pass attempts, and he threw two scores before his injury against USF. Over those three games, he's thrown one of every 4.6 completions for scores.

• A week after LesMiles' woeful clock management doomed LSU against Ole Miss, the Tigers produced a largely methodic last-minute drive against Arkansas to set up a 41-yard Josh Jasper field goal to send the game to overtime. (LSU prevailed 33-30.) "I've got thick skin,'' said Miles. ''I know what I did and how I did it, and more importantly, I understand how the corrections were made."

• Miami's 31-10 rout of USF coupled with losses by Clemson (8-4) and North Carolina (8-4) greatly improved the 'Canes' chances of playing on New Year's Day. If Georgia Tech wins the ACC title game, the Chick-fil-A Bowl will likely take 9-3 Virginia Tech and the Gator will take Miami (9-3).

• SEC bowls are going to have a heck of a time sorting through potential selections after six teams finished with 7-5 records. LSU (9-3) figures to land the Capital One Bowl, but after that it's anyone's guess. Ole Miss finished 8-4 but lost a lot of luster with it Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Meanwhile, a team like South Carolina (7-5) could land anywhere from Atlanta to Shreveport.

• Even in defeat, Texas A&M gave its fans long-awaited cause for optimism with its performance against Texas, highlighted by quarterback JerrodJohnson's 439-yard, four-touchdown performance. With 11 freshman or sophomore starters, The Aggies (6-6) took their lumps this season (a 62-14 loss to Kansas State, a 65-10 beating by Oklahoma), but it appears they have in fact made progress.

• It's been six years since then-Nebraska AD Steve Pederson fired coach Frank Solich because he refused to let the program "gravitate into mediocrity." It will be interesting to see which happens first: the Huskers' first Big 12 title in a decade (they get their chance Saturday against Texas) or Solich's first MAC championship with Ohio (the Bobcats meet Central Michigan the day before).

• Tennessee (7-5) continued its quarter-century hex over Kentucky thanks to MontarioHardesty's 20-yard touchdown scamper in overtime to win 30-24. It marked the Vols' 25th straight win over their divisional foe. Leave it to Lane Kiffin to rub it in thusly: "It's still Tennessee and it's still Kentucky," he said on his postgame radio show.

• It took a 17-16 win over Colorado State (3-9, 0-8 MWC) just to become eligible, but first-year coach Dave Christensen will take Wyoming (6-6, 4-4) to its first bowl game in five years -- most likely the New Mexico Bowl against Fresno State.

• Meanwhile, in the bizarre college football world that includes a playoff (Division I-AA), top seed Montana staged a Herculean comeback against South Dakota State in Saturday's first round, rallying from a 41-14 deficit to win 61-48.

Personally, I've never understood the perennial outrage among fans and media over coaches "running up the score." This isn't Little League. We spend most of the time exhorting our favorite coaches and players to "punish" their opponents, to show "intensity," "tenacity" "hunger," "drive," etc., etc. -- but then, once they've achieved their desired goal, we request that they morph into respectful golf buddies.

That said, even I cringed upon first seeing the bizarre closing sequence of Saturday's USC-UCLA game when Carroll, up 21-7 with 52 seconds left, ordered up the ultimate "gotcha" -- a 48-yard Matt Barkley touchdown bomb to Damian Williams that elicited a near-brawl between the two teams.

Upon further reflection, however, and after reading various opinions around Cyberspace, I can't come down too hard on Carroll for the decision. For one thing, he initially did try to run out the clock, with Barkley taking a knee on first down, only to have Neuheisel call his first of three timeouts. Apparently, UCLA's coach didn't feel the game was over. Why should Carroll?

"He called timeout, nothing wrong with that, just compete," said Carroll. "Then the play came up on the headset [from offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates] and I thought, great freaking call."

Lest we forget -- these guys are rivals. They rightfully hate each other. Neuheisel took out an ad in the Los Angeles Times shortly after his arrival declaring: "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over." You think Carroll's forgotten that? You think he's going to waste an opportunity to further humiliate a school with which he directly competes on the recruiting trail?

My beefs with Carroll involve his reaction after the play. First, he and his players turned an ultimately meaningless touchdown into cause for a World Series-style celebration, pettily jumping up and down with glee over their "feat" (remember when the Trojans celebrated after actual championships?) and practically begging the Bruins to retaliate. Carroll is lucky things didn't get out of hand between the teams or he'd have a far bigger problem on his hands today.

But most gallingly, in his postgame news conference, USC's coach attempted some convenient revisionist history regarding JimHarbaugh's similar rub-it-in two-point conversion try against the Trojans in their last game. "I [had] no problems with Jimmy's call,'' he said Saturday night. Sure he didn't. I suppose he was inquiring about Harbaugh's contract details when he asked him, "What's your deal?"

As Andy Staples wrote in his Snap Judgments column Saturday night, "Run it up all you want, coach. Just don't get upset the next time someone hangs 50 on you."

The real shame of Carroll's UCLA controversy is that earlier the same day, he and his program were featured in one of the most powerful segments I've ever seen ESPN's GameDay produce. Reporter Shelley Smith and cameras told the story of Olson, a 12-year-old who lost his eyesight to cancer but who, in the weeks before surgery to remove his second eye, was granted inside access to his favorite team, soaking in the sights while he still could. Chillingly, Smith interviewed Olson both before and after surgery.

Put aside six minutes and watch this piece.

One of the great mysteries of football is how a wide receiver can look in a catch while remaining acutely aware of exactly where the sideline marker is. Perhaps Notre Dame's receiver can explain how exactly he did this.

If you were watching on CBS, you saw the flicker of flashbulbs (presumably camera phones) light up the Swamp every time it appeared Tebow might score his last touchdown. I'd say this fan got a pretty darn good view.

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

• Florida vs. Alabama, Saturday (4 p.m. ET): Tebow's defining performance to date came in last year's game, when he led consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives to knock off the top-ranked Tide 31-20. There's every reason to believe this one will go down to the wire, too. Who will be this year's game-winning hero?

• Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Saturday (Noon ET): The Bearcats' biggest challenge figured to be slowing down Panthers standout Dion Lewis. But the freshman running back went for 155 yards against West Virginia and Pitt still lost. Perhaps Cincy should go after Stull, instead. Or ask Pike to throw six more TDs.

• Texas vs. Nebraska, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Texas' McCoy will be going against the toughest defense he's faced since the Oct. 17 Oklahoma game. Nebraska has recorded 33 sacks, but if the 'Horns manage just half their season average of 43 points per game, it should be enough to top the offensively challenged Huskers.

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