By Andy Staples
December 06, 2009

ARLINGTON, Texas -- They didn't open the roof at Cowboys Stadium so God could watch Saturday's Big 12 title game, but as the clock struck zero and a great red wave descended onto the field to celebrate, Texas defensive end Sergio Kindle prayed that heaven gets ABC. "Hopefully," Kindle said, "the Lord saw the clock at one, and the ref was going to stay true to his morals and give us the second."

A higher power did see Colt McCoy's throwaway pass hit a railing with one second remaining. His name was Jack McDonald, and he was Saturday's replay official. With Big 12 coordinator of officials Walt Anderson looking on in the booth high above the field, McDonald, for a few seconds, held the power to determine who would play in the BCS title game.

Had McDonald ruled time had run out, Cincinnati's win Saturday against Pittsburgh probably would have impressed the computers enough to catapult the Bearcats ahead of equally undefeated TCU, and Cincy would have met Alabama in Pasadena on Jan. 7 for the national title. Instead, as Nebraska players celebrated an apparent two-point victory and a conference title, the ESPN/ABC crew zipped a shot to the booth -- which had a high-definition monitor, according to Big 12 spokesman Bob Burda -- that used a superimposed image of the clock to show definitively that McCoy's pass made contact with the railing with a second remaining.

So out trotted Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence to try a 46-yarder to send Texas to Pasadena. Holder Jordan Shipley, who also catches passes every once in a while, lulled a verse from the Book of Jeremiah into Lawrence's ear to enhance his calm. "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord," Shipley said. Meanwhile, Kindle had shifted his trust to the senior kicker from Boerne, Texas. The one he calls "Big Toe."

Lawrence split the uprights, and as two national debates caught fire, one red wave receded and the Longhorns danced amid burnt orange confetti while dreaming of their Jan. 7 matchup with the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Texas won, 13-12, to go 13-0, but long after the matchup is revealed Sunday night, some will wonder if the Longhorns deserve their shot at the national title more than Cincinnati, TCU or Boise State, which all went undefeated.

The Longhorns' worthiness is debate No. 1, but another argument will rage among those who select the winner of the Heisman Trophy. Heisman voters are charged with selecting "the Most Outstanding Player in the United States in 2009," so will they? Saturday, the most outstanding player in the United States singlehandedly dismantled one of the nation's best offenses. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finished with 12 tackles, including seven for loss and half of Nebraska's nine sacks. Suh has annihilated offenses all season, but has done so in relative obscurity. Saturday, on the biggest stage, he nearly exacted the Cornhuskers' revenge for Texas quarterback James Brown's "Roll Left" play in the first Big 12 title game in 1996.

Suh will be No. 1 on my inaugural Heisman ballot, but unfortunately, the majority of the 926 voters don't understand the game well enough to vote for a defensive tackle. They only watch the ball, so they almost always elect a quarterback, a running back or a wide receiver who also returns kicks. Suh, double-teamed almost every down, affected every offensive play Texas ran. We don't need to send it to the replay booth; Suh proved definitively Saturday that he deserves not just an invitation to New York but also his very own bronze replica of former New York University star Ed Smith.

It was Suh who tossed McCoy to the turf as the Texas quarterback launched his final pass. "As far as I'm concerned, I thought the time was over," Suh said. "But obviously it wasn't."

It truly wasn't. The conspiracy theorists almost certainly will argue that the lords of the BCS ordered the replay time-shifted before it was shipped to McDonald's booth. That simply isn't believable. Referee Tom Walker had issues all night with the operation of the clock. Several times, an obviously exasperated Walker flipped on his mic and asked for clock corrections. Also, McDonald was spot-on all night, from his correct ruling that officials had spotted the ball incorrectly on a first-quarter run by Nebraska's Rex Burkhead to the ruling on McCoy's throwaway. After the game, zebra boss Anderson answered questions for almost 10 minutes to clear up any confusion. For instance, Anderson explained that the ball isn't dead when it clears the plane of the boundary; it must hit something. "It hit the railing over there by one of those suites that are on the ground level," he said. "It may have bounced around a little bit, too. Once we saw it hit something, that was the point at which we stopped the clock."

But what if McDonald had gotten it wrong? What if the zeros had remained on the clock? The eyes of Texas would have poured tears into Lone Star pints for months. That's how close the Longhorns were to losing.

And that begs the question that will be posed ad nauseam in Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Boise and possibly in the halls of Congress. If Texas needs intervention from above to beat a team with an offense that might not score on a good Texas high school team, do the Longhorns truly deserve a shot at a national title?

Before answering, consider this. Had Alabama's 12-10 win against Tennessee taken place on Dec. 5 instead of Oct. 24, the nation would have had the same doubts about the Crimson Tide. Instead, Alabama hammered the defending national champs Saturday by playing its most complete game of the season. Texas has played several complete games. Just after Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody blocked two field goals to save Alabama's season, for instance, Texas whipped Missouri, 41-7. So look at the body of work before condemning the Longhorns, who did look downright pedestrian while gaining 202 yards Saturday. "To be an undefeated team at 13-0," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "you have to win in a lot of different ways." Later, Brown couldn't help throwing a barb at prevailing conference perceptions. "If this had been the SEC," he said, "we'd have called it a beautiful game."

If that's not enough, consider it karma. Texas beat Oklahoma by 10 last year and then watched as the Sooners played for the Big 12 and BCS titles because Oklahoma outpaced Texas by 0.128 points in the BCS standings after 12 games. "We can quit talking about 0.128," Brown said, "because it's gone."

While the result may have frustrated BCS opponents, it's actually the worst thing that could have happened to the BCS. Now, three teams -- including one from one of the blessed automatic qualifying conferences -- have gone undefeated and will be offered no opportunity to compete for the national title. Politicians turned up the heat on the BCS this offseason, and this outcome could light a bonfire. The politicos will increase their push for a playoff, and BCS officials had better be prepared to defend their system against an antitrust challenge.

The ones who truly deserve sympathy are the Nebraska players and coaches, who fought a national title contender until the clock read zero and then saw their dreams crushed when they had to play a second that wasn't on the clock. For them, the 2009 season will always be about that one extra second. Unfortunately, sports can be tragic and beautiful at the same time. One team's heartbreaker is another team's season-maker. "In Lincoln, it'll be clock," Brown said. "In Austin, it'll be the comeback."

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