This weekend, I returned to Utah to cover BCS No. 3 TCU's 47-7 demolition of the then-fifth-ranked Utes. Suddenly, what seemed like a miracle 16 months ago now appears very feasible. The Horned Frogs' statement win, coupled with LSU's upset of Alabama, has created a reshuffled landscape -- one that allows us to say with about 80 percent certainty that either TCU or Boise State is one Oregon or Auburn loss away from playing for the BCS championship.
That wasn't the case 24 hours before Saturday's games, even though the Horned Frogs and Broncos occupied the same positions in the BCS standings (third and fourth, respectively) as they do today. That's because most pundits, myself included, had presumptively ticketed the Crimson Tide to Glendale assuming they won the rest of their games, most notably the Nov. 26 Iron Bowl against Auburn. LSU's win arguably helped the non-AQ contenders as much as they helped themselves because it essentially creates a buffer for them.
Les Miles' 8-1 Tigers are now the nation's highest-ranked one-loss team, but will need their own miracle to even be able to play for the SEC championship. To get to Atlanta, LSU would need to win out against a schedule that includes a Nov. 27 meeting with 7-2 Arkansas in Little Rock, and for Cam Newton and Auburn to lose twice because of Auburn's head-to-head win on Oct. 23. Based on recent history, voters are unlikely to elevate a team without a conference championship into the BCS National Championship Game.
Next up after LSU is 8-1 Stanford, which faces the same predicament; it can't win the Pac-10 unless Oregon loses twice. Then comes 8-1 Wisconsin, which currently has a lower schedule-strength rating (70th in Sagarin) than TCU (62nd). Then we have Nebraska, which would have the best argument for jumping the non-AQs if it won out, including a victory in the Big 12 title game. But that conference doesn't boast the same elevated respect level as the SEC, and the Huskers' loss to now 4-5 Texas becomes more damaging by the week.
As you can see, TCU's or Boise's "miracle" is suddenly within arm's reach of becoming reality.
The $21 million dollar question, should it come to it, is "which one?" I don't have the foggiest idea, and anyone who says he does is probably a Horned Frogs or Broncos fan.
Boise State started the season No. 3 in the AP poll, and all the Broncos have done since is live up to, if not exceed, the voters' high regard for them. They traveled across the country and beat a team (Virginia Tech) that's currently the overwhelming favorite to win its BCS conference, clobbered the Pac-10's current fourth-place team (Oregon State) and beat six overmatched opponents by an average margin of 51-8. Boise State has now won 22 straight games, 34 of its last 35, and, lest we forget, beat TCU earlier this calendar year in the Fiesta Bowl.
Yet for the second straight season, the Horned Frogs have passed the Broncos in the polls. After watching TCU in person on Saturday, I wouldn't fault anyone for voting as such. TCU put on a clinic against a Utah team that had won 21 straight home games, doing whatever it wanted to offensively and shutting out the nation's third-ranked scoring offense for 55 minutes. This is a complete team, led by a core of veterans like quarterback Andy Dalton (who threw for a career-high 355 yards) but infused with several talented young skill players like redshirt freshman receiver Josh Boyce (who broke two long touchdowns).
"On a big scale ... they've put themselves on a different plateau," TCU coach Gary Patterson raved after Saturday's win. "They made a statement today."
But it's not like Boise State sat around twiddling its thumbs Saturday. It nearly pitched a shutout itself, routing previously 7-2 Hawaii 42-7 and holding the normally prolific Warriors offense to its lowest yardage (196) in 12 years. Not to be outdone by Dalton, quarterback Kellen Moore threw for a career-high 507 yards; Boise gained a staggering 737 on the day.
"Today was a big game with a big opponent with the TV exposure," said Moore. "It was our opportunity to show our best brand of football, and I think we played pretty well."
Mind you, the TCU-Boise conundrum could determine the difference between playing for a national title or playing in ... the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Seriously. Assuming Oregon and Auburn win out, the highest-ranked non-AQ will by rule go to Pasadena to replace the Ducks. The loser is not assured of anything, however, and there's a very real possibility that Boise in particular will get passed over entirely. The Sugar Bowl, having hosted Hawaii, Utah and Cincinnati the past three seasons, is hungry to land a big-name program. And the Orange Bowl could be hosting ACC champ Virginia Tech -- which Boise already faced. The Fiesta Bowl has last pick and will have the Big East champ forced on it.
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? Virginia Tech, the same opponent that was supposed to serve as Boise's signature win, could cause the Broncos to miss a BCS bowl just by its mere existence. The non-AQs may be sitting prettier than at any other time in BCS history, but they remain forever vulnerable to being shoved back into the basement.
Les Miles can eat all the grass he wants. Better yet, he can shove some sod into the mouths of his many critics, myself included, because we deserve it. Had Tennessee not sent 13 men onto the field that fateful afternoon last month, the Mad Hatter may well have lost his job on the spot. But after he knocked off Alabama on Saturday -- and outcoached Enemy of the State Nick Saban -- I've got to believe the Mad Hatter has finally won over the faithful.
The fact that the Tigers are 8-1 is a minor miracle considering how inept their offense has been for most of the season. For whatever reason, oft-maligned quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee chose Saturday to step up and deliver their coach a signature victory. They were a combined 14-of-20 for 208 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Jefferson's 75-yard touchdown strike to Rueben Randle got LSU going in the second half, and Lee's 47-yard completion to Randle on third-and-13 late in the game helped the Tigers ice the win.
But let's be honest: The unquestioned star of the day (besides beastly defensive tackle Drake Nevis) was LSU's fearless leader, who once again rolled the dice in crucial situations and once again went home the winner. Down 7-3 early in the second half, Miles called a fake punt from his own 40. Of course it worked. On fourth-and-1, down by one with 9:51 left, he called a reverse pitch that involved ... a tight end. Deangelo Peterson broke for 23 yards.
LSU has come too far for us to keep chalking these things up to luck. With a limited team offensively, Miles and the Tigers have put a lot of time into working on and perfecting the kind of wrinkles that can make the difference in a tight game against a worthy adversary. "It's not just pulling things out of his hat," said defensive coordinator John Chavis. "He knows what he's doing."
Miles also clearly understood the ramifications of Saturday's win. That 2007 national title ring didn't earn him immunity from the demanding LSU faithful. Those were Saban's players after all. This time, however, Miles' players beat Saban's.
"I'll cherish this for a lifetime," Miles said afterward. Hopefully he celebrated with a proper meal.
Michigan's Rich Rodriguez -- the man who holds Miles' self-professed dream job -- still has a long way to go to earn the trust of Wolverines fans. But he enjoyed a pretty darn good week himself.
Last Thursday, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions announced its sanctions against Rodriguez's program. Four major violations isn't something to sneeze at, and the report is littered with findings that involved downright negligence by Rodriguez's support staff. But Rodriguez also scored a major victory when the committee threw out an initial fifth alleged infraction that he "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance." It was a rare victory for a coach who's suffered a lot of defeats in less than three years in Ann Arbor.
On Saturday, Rodriguez's team delivered an important on-field victory. The Wolverines' 67-65, triple-overtime victory was hardly the stuff of champions, and their successful blitz to squelch Illinois' last two-point conversion attempt was about the only stop the Michigan defense made all day. But Michigan coaches and players celebrated afterward like they'd won the Super Bowl, and understandably so. In ending a three-game losing streak, the Wolverines got a huge monkey off their backs, becoming bowl eligible for the first time in three years.
According to AnnArbor.com, Michigan AD Dave Brandon -- the man who ultimately controls Rodriguez's fate -- came up to Rodriguez in a hallway afterward and said, "Rich, you had a really good week." Barring a collapse next week at Purdue, Michigan is likely headed toward a 7-5 finish, which should ensure a fourth year for its coach.
That won't necessarily be welcome news for a whole lot of Wolverines fans who remember when a triple-overtime win over Illinois would have been cause for panic, not celebration, and who came away from Saturday feeling no less embarrassed about their 114th-ranked defense. But they have to ask themselves, what's the alternative? Starting over with another coach and eliciting another round of transfers from an already ultra-young roster?
Michigan's defense is without a doubt a mess, and Rodriguez will almost certainly part ways with coordinator Greg Robinson this offseason. But the school hired RichRod for his offensive wizardry, and it's hard to argue with the results. The Wolverines posted 676 yards Saturday, setting a school record for passing yards (419). Receiver Roy Roundtree also set a record with 246 receiving yards.
And to think, Roundtree and quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier are only sophomores. I'd say there's reason to smile in Ann Arbor this week.
My reaction to the latest AP and coaches' polls:
Underrated: Stanford (AP: No. 7; coaches': No. 9)
The Cardinal, who throttled Arizona on Saturday and have only lost to No. 1 Oregon, may be the best one-loss team in the country. The coaches disagree; they have Stanford ranked behind four other one-loss teams, including ...
Overrated: Ohio State (AP: No. 8; coaches': No. 7)
The Buckeyes started high (No. 2 in both polls), so they remain high despite the fact that they haven't beaten a single team currently ranked in either poll. Their best win is ... Miami? Illinois? But hey, GameDay's coming to town. That's something.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:
Title game: Oregon vs. Auburn
Rose: Wisconsin vs. TCU
Fiesta: Nebraska vs. Pittsburgh
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State
Sugar: LSU vs. Boise State
Complete Bowl Projections
If you're a Boise State fan, this is the optimistic projection right now. You're counting on the Sugar Bowl to go for the highest-ranked team rather than the bigger-name school. (And really, who wouldn't want to watch the masters of trickeration, Les Miles and Chris Petersen, go head to head?) In the meantime, you should probably root for Ohio State to lose to Iowa and Michigan State to lose to Penn State. Already, the Big 12 is down to just two one-loss teams (Nebraska and Oklahoma State), so the Big Ten is your biggest threat.
Meanwhile, Stanford is staring at its own BCS snub. The Cardinal could go 11-1, finish in the top five and have nowhere to go because of the Rose Bowl's non-AQ obligation and the Fiesta Bowl's inevitable Big East condemnation. Perhaps the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl would see fit to reward Andrew Luck and Co., knowing Stanford's large national alumni base might travel well. One thing's for certain: Boise State and Stanford aren't both getting in.
• I could try to wax philosophical about Joe Paterno's landmark 400th win, but it would be futile. How do you put into words such an otherworldly accomplishment? But just as JoePa has persevered these past four decades, these Nittany Lions (6-3) have taken the same path. Penn State's offense, left for dead a month ago, has produced three straight strong performances, including 35 unanswered points Saturday after falling behind 21-0 to Northwestern.
"I just think some of these kids now know what it takes to get it done and to me, that was the important thing," said Paterno after redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin replaced Rob Bolden and threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns. In a short speech to the crowd afterward, Paterno thanked the fans and his current and former players and ended in his typically forward-thinking fashion. "Now that the celebration's over," Paterno said, "let's go beat Ohio State."
• Offense has trumped defense throughout the country this season, and some of the numbers flying around Saturday were truly absurd. No. 25 Nevada gained 844 yards in a 63-17 win over Idaho. How is that even possible? Navy put up 76 points on East Carolina, its most since 1919. Even Duke put up its most points in 20 years in a 55-48 win over Virginia. And the 67-65 Michigan-Illinois score was higher than the schools' past three basketball games against one another.
• Yet another team that put up ridiculous numbers Saturday: Oklahoma State, which racked up a school-record 725 yards in a 55-28 rout of previously ranked Baylor. Star receiver Justin Blackmon is playing a higher version of football than any of his counterparts. In his first game back after a one-week suspension, he caught 13 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and ran for a 69-yard score. Mike Gundy's team (8-1, 4-1 Big 12) now sits alone atop the Big 12 South.
• Steve Spurrier's tenure at South Carolina has been a never-ending roller-coaster, so it's fitting that a week before heading to Florida to play for their first SEC East title, the Gamecocks were demolished 41-20 on their home field by Arkansas. "The way we played," said Spurrier, "you wonder how we won six games already this year." Yet if they win on Saturday, the Gamecocks are heading to Atlanta. And since Spurrier's teams show such little continuity from week to week, it's impossible to handicap.
• Two Big 12 coaches pulled off the big wins they so desperately needed Saturday, with Mike Sherman leading Texas A&M (6-3) to its first victory over Oklahoma (7-2) in eight years, 33-19; and Tommy Tuberville leading Texas Tech (5-4) over No. 14 Missouri, 24-17. It was the Tigers' second straight road loss following that big Oklahoma win. Speaking of which, Bob Stoops needs to figure out why the Sooners can't win on the road anymore; they're 6-6 in their last 12 tries.
• On the opposite end of the Big 12 spectrum, Colorado's Dan Hawkins could not have drawn up a more spectacular abomination to signify his last days in Boulder. Down 45-17 early in the fourth quarter, Kansas (3-6) ran off 35 unanswered points in just over 11 minutes to stun the Buffs, 52-45. Presumably horrified Colorado AD Mike Bohn told the Boulder Daily Camera the school "could make an announcement in regard to [Hawkins'] future later this week."
• UCLA's Kai Forbath and Arizona State's Thomas Weber are both former Groza Award winners, but while Forbath kicked a game-winning 51-yard field goal to beat Oregon State 17-14, Weber hooked his potential 42-yard game winner against USC not long after the Trojans blocked his go-ahead extra point and returned it for two of their own. USC won 34-33 in part because its own kicker, who'd missed two previous attempts, kicked a 29-yarder with 3:06 left.
• Does anyone want to win the ACC's Atlantic Division? N.C. State, Maryland and Florida State entered Saturday tied in the loss column. They stayed that way after the Wolfpack blew a 10-0 third-quarter lead to lose 14-13 at Clemson; Miami freshman quarterback Stephen Morris threw a touchdown with 37 seconds remaining to beat the Terps; and the 'Noles lost 37-35 to UNC when Dustin Hopkins' last-second field goal attempt went ... wide right.
• Two senior quarterbacks suffered heartbreaking, season-ending injuries this week. Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt, the engineer of Paul Johnson's triple-option offense for three years, suffered a broken arm in last Thursday's 28-21 loss at Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, Oregon backup Nate Costa, who's lost two seasons and had three previous ACL tears, appeared to suffer another serious knee injury while trying to salvage a botched field-goal snap against Washington.
• Indiana coach Bill Lynch can't catch a break. His team (4-5, 0-5) missed a golden opportunity to pull off a huge win Saturday against No. 16 Iowa. The Hoosiers either led or stayed within a score the entire way and had a chance to win with 28 seconds remaining, but receiver Damario Belcher dropped a wide-open touchdown catch on fourth-and-10 and the Hawkeyes prevailed, 18-13.
• Ten weeks into the season, the Big East does not yet have a bowl-eligible team. That's astounding. But Charlie Strong inched closer to the mark in his first year at Louisville (5-4) with a 28-20 win over previously streaking Syracuse.
• UCF (7-2) earned its first Top 25 ranking Sunday, entering both the AP and coaches' polls. In the latter, it is the highest-ranked team in the state of Florida at No. 23, one spot ahead of the Gators.
• New Mexico (1-8) earned its first win of the season and second of coach Mike Locksley's tenure with a 34-31 win over Wyoming. It's down to you, 0-10 Akron.
• From the AP's account of Kansas State's 39-14 rout of now 4-5 Texas: "[Garrett Gilbert] put more passes in Kansas State hands [throwing five interceptions] than did [Wildcats quarterback Colin] Klein, who was 2-of-4 for nine yards."
When the bombshell broke last Thursday evening that the NCAA is investigating the recruitment of Heisman frontrunner Cam Newton, an inevitable 24-hour frenzy followed, with over-the-top columnists disparaging the Auburn quarterback and his family (who have not yet been publicly accused of any wrongdoing), conspiracy theorists carelessly speculating as to who tipped off the media (question: Does it matter?) and Heisman voters (myself included) trying to come to grips with the ramifications.
Following a weekend of football and enough time for folks to catch their breath, it seems abundantly clear, to me at least, that for now there are no ramifications whatsoever.
Admittedly, you'd have to be pretty naïve to believe nothing tawdry went down and that former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond's story of a former teammate-turned-rogue agent soliciting cash for Newton's signature doesn't have legs to it. The NCAA doesn't ask a player's parent for bank records without a good reason. Both ESPN's and TheNew York Times' stories of the investigation were airtight in their reporting, despite all the various parties' denials since. (What did you expect them to say?)
But neither story implicated Auburn in the slightest. The school maintains Newton's eligibility is unaffected, and a source told the AP that Auburn has not received a letter of inquiry. Mind you, these things can take months, if not years, to come to a resolution. In the meantime ... there's really nothing to see here.
Newton threw for a career-high 317 yards and four touchdowns in one half of work against FCS foe Chattanooga on Saturday. Afterward, he discussed the allegations for the first time, at least as much as he could. (Involved parties are not allowed to discuss a pending NCAA investigation.)
"I haven't done anything wrong," Newton said. "I'm an Auburn athlete, and I'm still playing for Auburn. I love Auburn, and that's all I've got to say." That wasn't all he had to say. He added: "God has blessed me right now ... When God be blessin', the Devil be messin'."
I'm not going to preach to the 920-plus Heisman voters about how to do their jobs. I can only say how I view mine: It's not my job to prophesize the eventual results of an NCAA investigation to which I'm not privy. Nor is it my problem that a recent Heisman winner had to forfeit his trophy because of extra-benefits violations. That will have no bearing on my vote.
The ballot tells us to vote for the nation's Most Outstanding Player, and specifies that he "must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete." As of today, there's been no evidence or suggestion otherwise regarding Newton's status. Unless that changes in the next month, my decision will be based solely on what he does on the field.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
(NOTE: There really aren't any "big" games this week.)
• Georgia at Auburn, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): In his eighth and final home game of the season, Cam Newton will look to give the adoring faithful yet another thing they haven't seen. I'm thinking cartwheels. Meanwhile, Dawgs star A.J. Green has already said Georgia plans to "shock a lot of people" Saturday. It's on.
• Penn State at Ohio State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): You won't find too many splotches on Jim Tressel's résumé, but for some reason, he's 2-4 in games coming off bye weeks. Something tells me this one will work out fine, especially with star linebacker Ross Homan returning from injury.
• South Carolina at Florida, Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET): So it's come to this. For the Old Ball Coach to finally put a stamp on his South Carolina tenure, he needs to win on the road at a stadium where he once won every week. He'll also need a healthy Marcus Lattimore and a steady hand from Stephen Garcia.