Last week, this column bemoaned the lack of big-time upsets during the first half of the season. This week?
"Us and Michigan State kind of upset the apple cart," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said the morning after his 28-point underdog Red Raiders went to Norman and stunned No. 3 Oklahoma, 41-38. "That's what's great about college football. Some funny things happen."
Funny things like, say, the prohibitive Big Ten favorite losing on a 44-yard Hail Mary that required a replay reversal? History will tell whether Kirk Cousins-to-Keith Nichol garners legendary status a la Doug Flutie and Kordell Stewart, but considering the stakes -- Wisconsin was ranked sixth in the BCS standings and threatening to crash the national title game -- "Rocket" was more than just a highlight; it was a season-changer.
But drama aside, at least the Spartans' upset was a conceivable result. We knew Michigan State's defense was legit, and playing at home at night, it came through again, picking off Russell Wilson twice and forcing him into a safety.
Texas Tech, though? What the heck?
Oklahoma, the consensus preseason No. 1 team, had won 39 straight home games dating to 2005 and was two weeks removed from a 55-17 rout of Texas. The Red Raiders were 4-2, having lost consecutive home games to Texas A&M and Kansas State (albeit each by a touchdown), with their best win to date coming against 4-3 Nevada.
This was easily the most out-of-nowhere upset of a top five team since eventual BCS champion Florida's 2008 home loss to Ole Miss. However, if any coach could pull it off, it's Tuberville, who went 4-2 against top five foes during his time at Auburn.
"We're a much better team than we were at this time last year," Tuberville said Sunday. "Even though we'd lost two close games we knew we'd gotten better. We knew we had the offense to get it done. But [Oklahoma] is as good as I've seen in a long time."
There were no shortage of strange elements in Norman on Saturday, starting with a 95-minute delay due to a severe storm. The Sooners were playing without several injured starters, including running back Dom Whaley (flu), cornerback Jamell Fleming (knee), defensive tackle Casey Walker (thumb) and linebacker Tom Wort (concussion).
Don't expect the Red Raiders to sympathize. They lost No. 1 receiver Darrin Moore for four games due to knee and ankle injuries the second week of the year; all-conference tailback Eric Stephens to a torn ACL two weeks ago; and two defensive starters, linebacker Blake Dees and defensive tackle Donald Langley, in practice last week. To top it off, center Justin Keown sprained his MCL on the second play Saturday night. Right guard Deveric Gallington, despite never previously playing center, replaced him the rest of the way.
"If you watched the game, every snap was kind of a ground ball," said Tuberville.
And yet Texas Tech stormed to a 24-7 halftime lead on the Sooners and jumped to a 31-7 lead shortly after halftime. That sent a sizeable chunk of fans streaming to the exits, thereby missing the home team's inevitable comeback bid. OU cut Tech's lead to 31-24 early in the fourth quarter. But to Tech's credit, it immediately jumped back up 41-24, then survived one last frenetic rally in which the Sooners scored two touchdowns in the final 6:45 but missed a chip-shot 28-yard field goal with 2:52 left that would have made it a one-score game.
It was that kind of night for OU, which looked out of sorts on both sides of the ball. Tuberville said Tech's goal defensively was to take away the short pass and make Landry Jones beat it with deep balls. Jones finished with 412 yards and five touchdowns but was an uncharacteristic 30-of-55 against the nation's 96th-ranked defense.
"We didn't blitz all night, we played zone coverage," said Tuberville, whose undermanned defense held the Sooners to 5-of-17 on third-down conversions. And while Red Raiders quarterback Seth Doege was his usual prolific self (33-of-52, 441 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions), Tech steadfastly ran the ball 43 times despite mixed results, allowing it to control time of possession.
"Credit them," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "They whipped us in every part of the game. I told the players we were definitely outcoached and outplayed."
While Saturday night's two upsets only added to the absurdly premature talk of a possible Alabama-LSU BCS rematch, it didn't change anything for new BCS No. 3 Oklahoma State (7-0), which still controls its destiny if it can win out (its schedule includes dates with 4-2 Baylor, 7-0 Kansas State, 5-2 Texas Tech and 6-1 Oklahoma). The undefeated Wildcats, who host the Sooners this week, probably do as well, though few seem to think they can pull it off. And Boise State (7-0), Clemson (8-0) and Stanford (7-0) will likely keep lurking.
But Oklahoma, for all its preseason acclaim, may be done. Ironically, it was Stoops' Sooners who helped keep Tuberville's undefeated Auburn team out of the 2004 BCS title game, which USC (since vacated) won 55-19.
"Payback sometimes works in mysterious ways," said Tuberville. "I don't think anything will ever bring back that [missed] opportunity. But things have a way of usually evening out in sports."
Sitting in a cramped media room following his team's 65-21 win over 25th-ranked Washington, the din from Stanford's adjoining locker room nearly drowning him out, Heisman front-runner and presumed No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck sat and answered a bunch of questions about ... handing off.
"As a quarterback, it's fun to take the snap, hand it off and see those big guys working," Luck said of his offensive line after it helped power the Cardinal to a school-record 446 rushing yards. "It is somewhat a thing of beauty to see those 300-pounders moving. It's amazing."
Starting with former coach Jim Harbaugh and continuing with successor David Shaw, tony little Stanford has morphed into one of the nation's most physical teams. Never was that more evident than Saturday night, when the Cardinal ran the ball down Washington's throat, starting with the explosive Stepfan Taylor (10 carries for 138 yards, including a 70-yard second quarter touchdown) and going right on down the line to Tyler Gaffney (nine carries, 117 yards, one TD) and Anthony Wilkerson (14 carries, 93 yards, two TDs).
Luck topped it off with an effortless 16-of-21, 169-yard, two-touchdown night.
"We're more than just Andrew Luck," Shaw said afterward. "We've got a good team. We've got a physical team. If a team tries to take away the pass, we can run the ball. We've got backs after backs. We're physical up front. The fact we can be a complete offense is what we strive for.
Luck himself is part of the Cardinal's rushing attack. As Shaw noted, he has the option to audible to many different plays on any given call and is hardly reluctant to check from a pass to a run.
"The whole game was in Andrew's hands in terms of getting to the right run play against the right look," said Shaw. "He was 100 percent tonight."
Meanwhile, Huskies quarterback Keith Price, who entered as the nation's fifth-rated passer, never got into rhythm under a steady stream of Stanford blitzes. Michael Thomas' 62-yard interception return for a touchdown just before the half essentially sealed the game. Washington running back Chris Polk broke off two long touchdowns early (46 and 61 yards), but managed just 39 yards on his other 13 carries.
After six games against teams with losing records, this was supposed to be Stanford's first primetime showcase opportunity. Instead, it got overshadowed by the budding Michigan State-Wisconsin, USC-Notre Dame and Texas Tech-Oklahoma upsets on other channels. Thanks to the Trojans' win, however, the Cardinal's trip to Los Angeles next week is getting the GameDay treatment. No. 7 Oregon (6-1) visits Palo Alto on Nov. 12.
It's hard to believe Stanford can get so overlooked when it not only boasts the most heralded player in the country but has now won 10 straight games by at least 25 points -- the first team to do so since 1936. Because they've been beating up on mediocre Pac-12 foes, we presumably assume the Cardinal could never hang with the likes of LSU and Alabama, mostly because they're not stocked with five-star recruits like the Tigers and Tide.
But Stanford is a different breed from Oregon, which has seen its spread offense exposed in its recent SEC matchups. This is an old-school, pro-style team with a future All-Pro quarterback, several high-round offensive linemen and three NFL-caliber tight ends. We don't know if the Cardinal can match up with LSU or Alabama -- but wouldn't it be nice to find out?
In the meantime ... let the countdown to LSU-'Bama begin.
Tigers cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was suspended this week along with running back Spencer Ware and cornerback Tharold Simon, signaled as much with this tweet Saturday night. With both teams entering bye weeks, it's official: Nov. 5 will bring the SEC's first-ever regular-season meeting (not including the conference title game) between AP No. 1 and 2 teams. And they both left tantalizing last tastes.
The Tigers showed just how much they missed their three suspended players by throttling Auburn (5-3), 45-10. How's this for depth? Without top rusher Ware, Les Miles trotted out freshman Kenny Hilliard, who powered his way to 65 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. Hilliard had rushed for 20 yards all season going in. And as dynamic as Mathieu is, his absence really didn't matter, because first-time Auburn starting quarterback Clint Moesley and backup Kiehl Frazier had no time to get the ball off, enduring six sacks.
"It just seems like no matter who goes down or who's out, we have guys who are ready to step in ... and not just to fill a spot but to go in and dominate," said LSU center T-Bob Hebert.
Meanwhile, for the second time in three weeks, 'Bama started out far too slowly for Nick Saban's liking, going to halftime tied 6-6 with lowly Tennessee (3-4). Visions of a frightening locker-room speech ensued.
"There was a concern going into the game," said Saban, "and something we tried to fight all week in terms of guys being focused on what's happening right now and not being concerned about the future."
At that time I told my editor not to worry, predicting the Tide would go on to win 30-6. They hit the over, winning 37-6. With Trent Richardson held to 77 yards (breaking a string of six straight 100-yard games), quarterback AJ McCarron threw for a season-high 284 yards. Alabama's defense didn't allow a first down the entire second half. Seriously.
In the waning moments, "L-S-U" chants poured down from the Bryant-Denny Stadium stands, and Tide players did nothing to discourage them. On Sunday, CBS announced it is moving the Nov. 5 game to primetime.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:
Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma StateRose: Stanford vs. WisconsinFiesta: Oklahoma vs. Michigan StateSugar: LSU vs. Boise StateOrange: Clemson vs. Syracuse
Well, this segment just got a lot more interesting.
Oklahoma State is the lazy man's choice to replace Oklahoma in the second title-game slot, though I do believe Mike Gundy's team can pull it off. Saturday at Missouri, the Cowboys lost star Justin Blackmon in the first half (head injury) and didn't miss a beat, racking up their usual 533 yards. But it's time to acknowledge that OSU has some serious playmakers on defense, too. The Cowboys intercepted Tigers quarterback James Franklin three times in the second half, including a fantastic play where linebacker Shaun Lewis (who also had a fumble recovery) streaked to the line to catch a tipped pass. Oklahoma State ranks second nationally with 24 turnovers gained.
Meanwhile, Michigan State's upset makes it far more plausible that the Big Ten will qualify a second BCS team, though as of now I'm projecting a Badgers victory in the teams' potential Dec. 3 rematch. Oregon fans will surely be irate to see the Ducks excluded from this lineup, but the Fiesta Bowl would take a second Big Ten team over a two-loss Oregon team that went to Glendale last year. Beat Stanford and it's moot, because the Ducks would go to the Rose Bowl.
• You'll notice the BCS lineup includes a new Big East representative: Syracuse, which dismantled 11th-ranked West Virginia 49-23 last Friday with a wholly different performance than we'd seen from the Orange to date. The defense, buoyed by the return of end Chandler Jones (two sacks), pressured Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith all night. Maybe it was a one-time thing, but we'll give Doug Marrone's team its moment in the sun for now.
• The Big East's actual leader right now is Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0 Big East), alone in first after rallying to beat USF, 37-34. The Bearcats cracked the Top 25 polls Sunday for the first time since the Brian Kelly era. Kudos to Butch Jones for the quick turnaround after last season's 4-8 debut. But as the Big East desperately tries to retain its AQ berth, note that Cincy lost 45-23 earlier this season to the current last-place team in the SEC East, Tennessee.
• Joe Paterno reached another milestone Saturday night against Northwestern, earning his 408th career win to tie Eddie Robinson on the alltime Division I coaching list. Despite their continued quarterback uncertainty (my Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist ballot last week listed Penn State's entrant as "TBD"), the Nittany Lions are 7-1, including 4-0 in the Big Ten. Conversely, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Paterno's junior by 48 years, has now lost five straight.
• Give USC coach Lane Kiffin props (I know it's tough for most of you to do) for his team's notable improvement from early in the season. In consecutive road wins over Cal (30-9) and Notre Dame (31-17), the Trojans (6-1) have allowed a combined 19 offensive points, while Matt Barkley has thrown five touchdowns and no picks. "It's our team's biggest win since we've been here because of all the stuff around it," Kiffin said of ruining the Irish's first night game in 21 years.
• On the flip side, Brian Kelly's rebuilding program continues to stall. Coming off a 59-33 win over Air Force followed with a bye week, the Irish (4-3) managed just 267 total yards against USC. Dayne Crist's fumbled snap at the Trojans' one-yard line -- which Jawanza Starling returned 80 yards for a touchdown -- brought back ugly memories of that USF opener. "Losing stinks," said the Champs Sports Bowl-bound Kelly. "For me, it's hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink."
• The sport's most renowned rebuilder, Bill Snyder, is at it again. Who would have guessed No. 10 Kansas State (7-0) would be the undefeated team heading into Saturday's home date with Oklahoma (6-1)? The Wildcats trounced Kansas (which is now allowing 50.3 points per game), 59-21, for their best start since 1999. One of the highlights: Freshman Tyler Lockett's kickoff return for a touchdown. Lockett's father Kevin and uncle Aaron are former Snyder players.
• It was not such a fun weekend in the Embree household. UCLA receiver Taylor Embree was one of 10 players the Pac-12 suspended last Friday following the bizarre streaker-induced brawl Thursday night's UCLA-Arizona game. On Saturday, Oregon handed Embree's dad, Colorado coach Jon, a humiliating 45-2 defeat in Boulder, despite the Ducks playing without Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.
• It was a rare sight on the blue turf Saturday: Boise State having to play four quarters to put away an opponent. The Broncos (7-0) had never previously faced Mountain West foe Air Force (3-4), and the Falcons' option attack gave the Broncos fits. Kellen Moore (23-of-29, 281 yards, three TDs, one INT) and Doug Martin (21 carries, 125 yards) eventually put the Falcons away, but this is the type of competitive conference game Boise rarely saw its last few years in the WAC.
• No. 6 Clemson (8-0) seems to get more explosive by the week. Tajh Boyd threw for five touchdowns in the Tigers' 59-38 beatdown of North Carolina (5-3), and while Sammy Watkins (eight catches, 91 yards, one touchdown) was part of the action once again, sophomore DeAndre Hopkins stole the show with season highs of nine catches and 157 yards, with one score. Meanwhile, the Tigers' defense forced six turnovers, with defensive end Kourtnei Brown returning two for scores.
• Illinois' early-season glory has passed, as Purdue (4-3) sent Ron Zook's team (6-2) spiraling out of the rankings with a 21-14 upset. A year after producing Ryan Kerrigan, the Boilers have another defensive standout on their hands in sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen, a freshman All-America last season who held explosive Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins to no catch longer than 20 yards. Purdue also held national leader Whitney Mercilus without a sack.
• The shine is also off Georgia Tech (6-2), which managed just 211 total yards -- its lowest total since the Orange Bowl two years ago -- in a 24-7 loss at Miami (4-3). Paul Johnson's option offense is more dependent on the pass than most realize, and after a hot start, Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington is just 18-of-51 with four interceptions over his past four games. "It's frustrating for me because I feel I let the team down," said Washington.
• Keep an eye on Southern Miss. The Eagles (6-1) not only beat SMU (5-2) in an important Conference USA showdown, they also held June Jones' high-powered offense to a mere field goal in a 27-3 rout.
• Your (almost) weekly Case Keenum NCAA record book watch: The Houston quarterback broke the career records for total offense (17,173 yards) and touchdowns (150) with a 392-yard, six-touchdown day against Marshall.
• Virginia Tech's David Wilson became the season's first 1,000-yard rusher (1,037) thanks to some insane consistency: He's rushed for between 123 and 136 yards in five straight games.
• It's hard to say which is more remarkable: That East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis went 26-of-26 in the first half against Navy (an NCAA record), or that the Pirates still needed a missed field goal on the final play to prevail, 38-35.
• Tulane's problems apparently ran deeper than Bob Toledo. In their first game since his resignation, the Green Wave (2-6) lost 33-17 to ... Memphis (2-6).
If I could get back one pick from our already outdated midseason Crystal Ball, it wouldn't be Oklahoma's title-game slot. It would be "Coach on the Hottest Seat." At least the Right Reverend's team showed signs of life in its near-upset of No. 10 Arkansas on Saturday (Ole Miss led by 17 before falling 29-24). Rick Neuheisel's team? Not so much.
There have been many, many lows in Neuheisel's four-year UCLA tenure -- a 59-0 loss to BYU in his second game, a 60-13 loss at Oregon last season -- but last Thursday was unquestionably a new level of humiliation. Arizona, 1-5, under the direction of interim coach Tim Kish and sporting one of the nation's statistically worst defenses, routed the Bruins 48-12, leaving Craig James and Jesse Palmer to spend roughly two hours trying to diagnose Neuheisel's problems. (Their grand conclusion: He just doesn't have good players.)
Amazingly, the Bruins (3-4) went into the game still entertaining hopes of winning the woeful Pac-12 South. At 2-1, with wins over Oregon State and Washington State, they were tied for first in the loss column with Arizona State. Perhaps the players were deflated by AD Dan Guerrero's comments foretelling their coach's almost certain dismissal. On the heels of his "day-to-day" line a week earlier, Guerrero analyzed the state of the program line-by-line in a blog post, indicating mere bowl eligibility would not be Neuheisel's saving grace.
Even that now seems out of the picture. Guerrero would be wise to go ahead and put the coach out of his misery, but instead he said after Thursday's game he would make no immediate decision. "My philosophy on early terminations may be different than some," said the same man who hired, then held on to, Karl Dorrell well past the point of obvious failure.
Now, Neuheisel will go into next week's Cal game severely shorthanded after the Pac-12 suspended four of his receivers (Embree, Randall Carroll, Shaq Evans and Ricky Marvay) as well as defensive tackle Cassius Marsh (two games) and guard Alberto Cid (half game) for their roles in the halftime brawl.
"My argument is I'm absolutely the right guy for the job," Neuheisel reiterated Thursday night. "I'm looking forward to continuing that quest."
Please, someone make it stop. It's too painful to watch.
Five years ago, Ron English first made a name for himself as the coordinator for a Michigan defense that started 11-0 and produced NFL standouts LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Leon Hall. A year later, the Wolverines lost to Appalachian State and Lloyd Carr retired. English resurfaced at Louisville, then in 2009 took a head-coaching job that assured even more obscurity -- especially after his first team went 0-12.
Two years later, however, English is soon to be back on a lot of prominent athletic directors' radars. He has Eastern Michigan (5-3) off to its best start since 1995. On Saturday, Eastern beat Western Michigan, 14-10, which coupled with a win the week before over Central Michigan gave the Eagles the Michigan MAC Trophy (yes, this really exists).
Not surprisingly, the Eagles are doing it with defense. On Saturday they held Western's star receiver Jordan White -- who came in averaging more than 10 catches and 133 yards -- to seven catches for 70 yards. Imports Marlon Pollard (10 tackles), a UCLA transfer, and Lattarius Thomas (seven tackles), a Louisville transfer, helped lead the way.
And just like when he was at Michigan, English is not one for basking in praise.
"I think our defense ... really, we have a long ... we can be a good defense, we have some pieces," he said. "As a defensive guy it's hard to be real happy all the time because you're always nitpicking and nitpicking. I think the guys will be happy when they go home because they helped win the game."
Eastern Michigan has only played in one bowl game in school history -- the 1987 California Bowl against San Jose State -- but Little Ceasars Bowl executive director Ken Hoffman scouted the Eagles on Saturday. English would likely tell him they've still got a ways to go, but after winning two games over the past two seasons, English's team has already made significant strides.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• Stanford at USC, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Trojans' lack of depth is most evident at the line of scrimmage, which is never a good sign against the physical Cardinal. But USC is gaining momentum, and Stanford hasn't played a tough road game. It's a lot like the lead-up to the Wisconsin-Michigan State game.
• Oklahoma at Kansas State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Bill Snyder comeback tour would reach unprecedented heights with K-State's first win over the Sooners since the 2003 Big 12 title game. Unfortunately, the Sooners' loss to Texas Tech was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Wildcats. OU will be angry.
• Florida vs. Georgia, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): It's a stretch to say Mark Richt is coaching for his job here, but he could really use the win, both to keep the Dawgs in the hunt for a trip to Atlanta, and because the Gators have been his constant tormentor. He's got to beat them when they've lost three straight.