New faces of sport to take center stage on Championship Saturday
After two epic comebacks -- one that kept a contender in the hunt, one that destroyed a contender's season -- we're down to three undefeated teams and one last set of games. As I look at both the lineup for Championship Saturday and the developing lineup for January BCS games, I'm struck by a theme that largely sums up the 2010 college football season:
Out with the old, in with the new.
None of the top five in the current BCS standings (Oregon, Auburn, TCU, Stanford, Wisconsin) started the season carrying top five rankings. Only TCU entered the season in the AP and coaches' top 10. Stanford started the year unranked.
Of the top five teams in the preseason polls, only Ohio State remains in the top 10. Preseason No. 1 Alabama finished fourth in its division. Preseason No. 5 Texas won five games.
Flash forward to Championship Saturday. For the fifth straight year, at least one SEC title game participant carries national title aspirations, but for the first time in that span, it's not Florida or LSU. For the first time ever, the game will include South Carolina.
For the first time in four years and just the second time since 2002, the Big 12 title game holds no national title implications. And this may be the last time we have a Big 12 title game.
For the first time since 2001, a Big Ten team not named Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State will likely earn the conference's automatic BCS berth. Wisconsin last reached Pasadena 11 years ago.
For the first time since 1998, a Pac-10 team not named USC is playing on the final Saturday for a spot in the BCS championship game. Oregon has never won a national championship. Saturday's Civil War in Corvallis marks the biggest game in the program's history.
Auburn won its last and only national crown in 1957. The fact that No. 2 could come just a year after rival Alabama's return to the top would make it that much sweeter. And unlike in 2004, when 13-0 somehow wasn't good enough, the Tigers control their own destiny this time.
And then there's TCU, potentially the ultimate party crasher. The Horned Frogs have two national championships to their name -- but they came in 1935 and '38. Gary Patterson's team does not play Saturday, but it can take heart in knowing No. 1 or 2 has lost on the final day in seven of the BCS' 12 seasons.
On paper, it's not likely either Oregon or Auburn will lose Saturday. The Ducks are facing a 5-6 Oregon State team that lost its punch when all-everything threat James Rodgers went down with a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 9. Chip Kelly's team, which dispatched then 20th-ranked Arizona in typical fashion (fall behind early, unleash massive onslaught in the second half) on Friday, averages twice as many points (50.4) as the Beavers (24.8).
Auburn, meanwhile, survived its biggest test of the season Saturday in remarkable fashion. Down 24-0 on the road against their bitter rivals, Cam Newton and the Tigers rallied to win 28-27 in large part because their defense -- so shoddy for much of the season, including the first half of the Iron Bowl -- limited the Crimson Tide to just 58 yards after halftime. Those who still don't believe in Auburn's championship worth are watching a different team.
Anyone who's followed this sport for any considerable length of time knows better than to assume the expected, though. Look no further than Friday night's Boise State-Nevada stunner. The Wolf Pack always figured to be the Broncos' biggest hurdle to an undefeated season, but Boise dominated every aspect early en route to a 24-7 halftime lead.
But Nevada came out in the second half and did what no other team had done this season: shut down Boise State's offense. Its powerful rushing attack held the ball for all but six minutes and wore down the Broncos' previously suffocating defensive front. As the Mackay Stadium cannon boomed with increasing frequency and a crowd of 30,000 began sounding like 70,000, even a 53-yard Kellen Moore pass with two seconds left was not enough to help Boise survive. Kyle Brotzman missed two chip-shot field goals and Anthony Martinez hit the game-winner in overtime, altering the BCS landscape overnight.
Oregon should probably handle Oregon State, just like two-touchdown favorite Boise should probably have beaten Nevada. But in a rivalry game, on the road, nothing can be written in pen. Perhaps Beavers quarterback Ryan Katz will have the game of his life. Perhaps Jacquizz Rodgers will summon some of his 2008 USC magic.
Auburn should probably handle South Carolina, the only SEC East team ever to reach Atlanta in the same season in which it lost to Kentucky. The Tigers did so once already, beating the Gamecocks 35-27 on Sept. 25. But Marcus Lattimore and Co. are coming off consecutive routs of Florida, Troy and Clemson. They wouldn't be the first three-loss team to dash an SEC team's national title hopes (see LSU over Tennessee in 2001).
If either Oregon or Auburn falls, the lucky beneficiary will be TCU, a possibility that would have seemed utterly absurd just two years ago and seemed logistically impossible as recently as halftime of the Boise State-Nevada game. Before last year's Fiesta Bowl, TCU hadn't even played in a January bowl game since 1959.
But before this year, Florida hadn't lost five regular-season games in 22 years. Prior to Texas this year, a team had never gone from the BCS championship game one year to no bowl the next. It's been the season of new blood, and Championship Saturday will be drenched in it.
Nevada coach Chris Ault knew the television cameras were rolling, knew national writers were in the room, knew there would never be a better time to champion his long-overlooked program than in the moments following "the greatest victory this university has ever had," a 34-31 overtime upset of third-ranked Boise State late Friday night.
"We've been very, very good, although sometimes our community doesn't appreciate it or realize it," said Ault, who has gone 54-33 and invented the now-ubiquitous Pistol offense since beginning his third stint as Nevada coach in 2004. "We've been very competitive with the limited resources we have at this university financially and in terms of support. We've got to make the jump like Boise did a few years ago."
Nevada athletic director Cary Groth sat in the audience as Ault spoke.
Nevada's (11-1) breakthrough victory brought an end to the most feverishly debated topic of the season: Boise State's national title candidacy. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what long-term implications there may be.
As long as Chris Petersen is at the helm, Boise, much to the chagrin of SEC country, isn't going away anytime soon. One overtime road loss to a top 20 team doesn't suddenly render the Broncos chumps. They may not come close to another top two ranking anytime soon, but with next year's move to the Mountain West and a recently announced Chick-fil-A Kickoff date with Georgia, Boise will contend for a BCS bowl again in Kellen Moore's senior season. Like any good program, the Broncos will have to replace pieces, and some years will be better than others. But their status as a nationally relevant program isn't going to fade.
The question is whether Ault's program can put itself in similar position. It took four years of work by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua -- who became the most productive rushing tandem in NCAA history during Friday's game -- to reach this pinnacle. Replacing them will be no small chore. But with the impending migration of the WAC's top programs to the Mountain West (Boise, Nevada, Fresno State and possibly Hawaii will all move over by 2012), it's a safe bet the league's champion will earn a BCS berth most seasons going forward, even if the MWC does not achieve automatic-qualifying status.
Ault's right about the importance of fan support. About a fourth of the 30,712 in attendance at Mackay Stadium were wearing orange. On the season, Nevada has averaged fewer than 20,000 per game. But with Utah and BYU leaving the Mountain West and TCU possibly following suit, Boise is going to need an adversary. Nevada now has the momentum to make it happen.
Rarely has the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State "Bedlam" game lived up to its moniker as vividly as it did Saturday night. The teams combined for 40 points in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for touchdowns of 86 and 76 yards. He and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden combined for six touchdowns and six interceptions.
When all was said and done, the Sooners (10-2) had prevailed, 47-41, with Jones finally earning his first signature road win and Bob Stoops earning his eighth trip to the Big 12 title game. The Cowboys (10-2) missed what may have been their last and best chance to win the division before the league goes to 10 teams next year.
All of which sets up a very fitting send off for Big 12 North champ and soon-to-be Big Ten member Nebraska, which faces one last showdown with its most competitive and historic Big 8 rival.
The Huskers head to Arlington with much of their fan base convinced that Big 12 officials will do anything in their power to keep Nebraska from winning a championship on its way out of town. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said the league decided not to send a representative to Lincoln to deliver the division trophy at last Friday's Colorado game after Nebraska fans flooded the league office with "very, very vile, vulgar, disgusting [e-mail and voice] messages," including a voice mail to Beebe that said, "If I see you on the street, I'm going to hit you in the head with a bottle and stab you."
Assuming things are on the up and up, the matchup should be fascinating from a football perspective. On the one hand, it's tough to pick against Stoops, who has gone 6-1 in his previous title-game appearances and whose team's offense is averaging 48.3 points over its past three games. On the other hand, Oklahoma will be going up against the nation's No. 2 pass defense, with Nebraska defensive backs Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg, DeJon Gomes and Alfonzo Dennard just waiting to pounce on the slightest Jones misfire. (He's thrown 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.)
One thing's for certain: A possible trophy presentation featuring Beebe and Bo Pelini/Tom Osborne would be the must-see event of the year.
The combination of Boise State's loss to Nevada and Arkansas' win over LSU had three effects: 1) It assured 12-0 TCU of an automatic at-large berth; 2) It gave Arkansas the inside track to the Sugar Bowl if Auburn beats South Carolina; 3) It moved Stanford into the top four of the BCS standings, thus guaranteeing the Cardinal an at-large berth as well.
What you see above is the ideal possible scenario, both in terms of matchups and geography, for all five bowls. However, if 7-4 Connecticut wins at 7-4 South Florida, or if 8-3 West Virginia loses to 4-7 Rutgers, the Huskies would become the Big East representative, in which case the Orange Bowl would almost certainly take the Cardinal instead. Also, if Florida State beats Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, the Orange might want to avoid a rematch of last year's FSU-West Virginia Gator Bowl.
• Through 11 games, Brian Kelly had done little to inspire confidence in his first season at Notre Dame. But on Saturday Kelly ensured a very happy offseason in South Bend by doing what neither Tyrone Willingham nor Charlie Weis could do: beat USC. The 20-16 win ended an eight-year drought, and it came despite injuries to the team's top quarterback (Dayne Crist), running back (Armando Allen), tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and defensive lineman (Ian Williams).
"We put the fight back in the Fighting Irish," said Kelly, whose team won its last three to finish 7-5 and complete its first regular season above .500 in four years. Mind you, it took some rain and USC receiver Ronald Johnson dropping a wide-open touchdown in the final minute for Notre Dame to pull it out. Said Kelly of the drop: "It was about time we caught a break."
• And then there's the debut season Jimbo Fisher is enjoying. By day's end Saturday, Florida State's first-year coach had led the Seminoles to their first win over Florida, 31-7, since 2003, their first nine-win regular season since that same year and, thanks to N.C. State's loss at Maryland, their first ACC division title since 2005. "What a perfect day for Florida State football,'' said Fisher.
• The 'Noles opponent Saturday in Charlotte will be No. 12 Virginia Tech (10-2), which, with a 37-7 rout of Virginia, achieved the ACC's first 8-0 regular season since Florida State in 2000. In the process, quarterback Tyrod Taylor broke the school's career passing record (6,532 yards) and -- this is remarkable -- Frank Beamer passed Woody Hayes for ninth place on the sport's all-time career wins list (239). "It means you're getting old," joked Beamer, who's actually a young 64.
• Mark Dantonio has officially eradicated Michigan State's long history of disappointments. In notching their first win in Happy Valley since Penn State joined the conference in 1993, the Spartans (11-1) captured a share of their first Big Ten title since 1990. One might argue that Michigan State should be going to the Rose Bowl instead of Wisconsin, which it beat. After all, the main reason the Badgers finished higher in the BCS standings is because they started higher.
• The worst part of Rich Rodriguez's miserable three seasons in Ann Arbor is that it's taken all the fun out of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. To no one's surprise, Terrelle Pryor and Dan Herron had their way with the Wolverines in a 37-7 rout, and the Buckeyes (11-1) have now outscored Michigan (7-5) 100-24 in the last three meetings. "I'm ticked," said Rodriguez. So are Wolverines fans, but I'll refrain from commenting further for fear it'd be out of date by the time you read this.
• I've written more than 1,000 articles for SI.com, but never have I written a
• While Wisconsin (11-1) has been garnering attention primarily for piling up a ton of points (83 against Indiana, 70 against Northwestern) and rushing yards (247.3 per game), it wouldn't be heading to Pasadena without do-everything defensive end J.J. Watt. The prospective All-America had a sack, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick in Saturday's rout of the Wildcats (7-5). Watt now has 21 tackles for loss, four caused turnovers and three blocks.
• It seems like the BYU-Utah Holy War comes down to the last play of the game almost every year. Down 13-0 at one point, the Utes (10-2) took the lead for the first time with 4:24 left, going up 17-16. Then Brandon Burton blocked BYU kicker Mitch Payne's 42-yard field goal attempt as time expired. The win likely locked up a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl for Utah (possibly against Boise State or Nevada), while the Cougars (6-6) will head to the Armed Forces or New Mexico bowls.
• While the first slew of hot-seat coaches have gotten the ax (most notably Randy Shannon), West Virginia's Bill Stewart removed himself from danger after the Mountaineers (8-3) dismantled Pittsburgh, 35-10, in the Backyard Brawl and returned to the polls. With a win over last-place Rutgers next week, Stewart will deliver his third straight nine-win season. The better question: How does Dave Wannstedt, 41-31 in six seasons, keep his job?
• Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen completed one of the season's biggest turnarounds in improving the Terps from 2-10 to 8-4. While Maryland's offense was largely a work in progress all year, the Terps unleashed the hounds Saturday against N.C. State (8-4), with freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien throwing for 417 yards and receiver Torrey Smith catching 14 passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns. "Hopefully, we'll start getting some respect," said Friedgen.
• By now, it's abundantly clear there's no point heaping high expectations on a Kirk Ferentz-coached team, because Iowa's most hyped teams inevitably flop. An embarrassing 27-24 loss to rival Minnesota (3-9) put the finishing touches on a disappointing 7-5 season for a team that began the year ranked ninth in the AP poll. And because of the glut of other 7-5 Big Ten teams (Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern), the Hawkeyes may have cost themselves a New Year's Day bowl appearance.
• Tennessee's Derek Dooley deserves props for resurrecting the rebuilding Vols from a 2-6 season to a four-game winning streak and bowl eligibility. The Vols' rise coincided with Dooley's decision to hand the quarterback reins to freshman Tyler Bray, who threw for 354 yards in Tennessee's 26th straight win over Kentucky (6-6). Not to rain on the Vols' parade, but the Wildcats had the best record of any of the five FBS teams Tennessee beat this season.
• Vanderbilt's Robbie Caldwell, who unsurprisingly announced his resignation Saturday, was a picture of class and a barrel of laughs during his four months as the Commodores' head coach, though it ended in a 2-10 record. With any luck, we'll be hearing him in a TV booth next season, though Caldwell may have his sights on the current opening at his alma mater, Furman. Vanderbilt has hired an outside search firm, and it's hard to predict who may wind up in Nashville.
• Georgia (6-6) became the necessary 70th eligible bowl team when it beat Georgia Tech on Saturday. Washington (5-6) could still join the list with a win over Washington State (2-9).
• In his first start in place of injured star Montel Harris, Boston College freshman Andre Williams ran 42 times for 185 yards in a 16-7 win at Syracuse. Strangely, the Orange finished 5-1 on the road, 2-4 at home.
• Congrats to second-year Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, whose RedHawks improved from 1-11 a year ago to 8-4 and advanced to the MAC title game with a 23-3 win over Temple (8-4).
• Tune in to Saturday's UCF-SMU Conference USA championship game to see Knights true freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey, who ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency.
• With a 22-14 win over Buffalo in its finale, Akron (1-11) avoided finishing as the nation's lone winless team in 2010.
The failed tenure of Miami coach Randy Shannon goes down as one of the all-time mysteries.
On paper, he was everything "The U" could have hoped for -- a 'Cane through and through, with national title rings as both a player and assistant; a morally scrupulous man who eradicated the program's tarnished culture and achieved the highest APR score (977) of any BCS-conference coach; and a South Florida native who reasserted the program's dominance in backyard recruiting. (His top five class in 2008 included 12 players from Miami high schools.)
Yet there's no question the school had to make a change. Progress had stalled, and excitement over the program had eviscerated. The image of 26,369 fans at 73,000-seat Sun Life Stadium watching the 'Canes (7-5) lose to a USF team playing with a freshman walk-on quarterback (Bobby Eveld) was presumably the final straw.
"Simply stated, winning is important at the University of Miami," AD Kirby Hocutt said Sunday. "It always has been and always will be."
There are any number of X's and O's reasons behind Miami's struggles. Quarterback Jacory Harris was often either injured or interception-prone. The running game was often non-existent. The defense didn't dominate like it did when Shannon was coordinator. But really, the Hurricanes' single most notable trait under Shannon was losing their famed swagger. They did not remotely resemble their brash, relentless predecessors who won those five national championships.
The question then becomes whether a new coach can reignite that swagger and win titles at Miami without sacrificing the academic and off-field progress Shannon made. I believe so. And the one overwhelmingly obvious candidate is Mike Leach. The former Texas Tech coach pushed hard for the job the last time it came open. (Friend Donald Trump lobbied to president Donna Shalala on Leach's behalf.) He graduated players in Lubbock. He'd give the program an unmistakable identity. And we're all curious to find out what his Air Raid offense is capable of with access to the type of athletes Miami can recruit.
Who knows whether Shalala and Hocutt will give Leach another chance. Hocutt has retained decorated search consultant Chuck Neinas, who will no doubt attract a bevy of interested national stars. Think Georgia's Mark Richt (an alum), Mississippi State's Dan Mullen and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, among others. All would be excellent hires.
Saturday night, ESPN's Mark May railed against the school for firing Shannon and blamed the school for unrealistic expectations. "Miami in 2010 is not Miami in 2002," he said, primarily citing the school's underwhelming facilities and unwillingness to pay big dollars. That's absolutely preposterous.
Miami won five national titles with worse facilities, and nearly any available coach would gladly accept a slightly lower salary for the opportunity to coach such a prestigious brand in such a fertile recruiting area. With the right hire, Miami's next coach will do a whole lot better than 28-22.