Four years ago, Rhoads was the defensive coordinator of the 4-7 Pittsburgh team that shocked No. 2 West Virginia on the last night of the regular season. That result, coupled with Oklahoma's Big 12 title-game win over top-ranked Missouri, sent voters on an 11th hour scramble to determine the BCS championship participants.
Last Friday night, the Cyclones' third-year head coach oversaw another BCS-jumbling upset, as 27.5-point underdog Iowa State took out second-ranked Oklahoma State 37-31 in overtime.
Of course, his primary objective wasn't to create national chaos in either case.
"There's no gratification in doing that," Rhoads said Saturday, hours before more BCS upheaval ensued in two other locales. "You don't go into meetings and say, 'Let's knock that team out of it.' There's never a thought of that. It's just, let's go out and surprise people that don't think you can do something."
As much as the public hates to hear it, the Great Upset Weekend of 2011 was everything we've come to love about college football in the BCS era. If this were the NFL, a middling team like Iowa State would be playing for draft position at this point in the season. Baylor (7-3), which put a final dagger in preseason No. 1 Oklahoma's national title hopes with a last-second upset, may be the equivalent of a wild-card contender, but even that's a stretch. USC (9-2), ineligible for the postseason, could have packed it in months ago instead of going on the road and toppling No. 4. Oregon.
But these are (mostly) 18- to 23-year-old kids driven by the most personal motivation: respect. For Iowa State, that meant showing a national audience it's no cuddly pushover. Cyclones cornerback Leonard Johnson spent 13 days devouring tape of Justin Blackmon so he could spend the night blanketing Oklahoma State's star receiver. Johnson had an interception and a fumble recovery Friday, helping his team slow down the nation's most prolific offense and delivering the school's first win in 59 tries over a team ranked in the top six.
Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden got his usual 476 yards, but it took 58 attempts to do so, as Johnson and his teammates did a masterful job wrapping up Weeden's receivers. More importantly, the Cyclones forced five turnovers, including a dagger third interception of Weeden to set up Iowa State's winning score in the second overtime.
"Once I got in the end zone, I realized the enormity of what happened," said Cyclones running back Jeff Woody, who rumbled four yards to seal the deal. "Senior night. Friday night on ESPN; only show in town. We're 0-for-history [against top-six teams]. We need a sixth win to go bowling, and on ESPN.com they say we've got a 12 percent chance of playing in a bowl. All those things combined together create the perfect storm."
Oklahoma State wasn't the only victim of that storm. Three of the top five teams in the BCS standings went down in Week 12, the first such occurrence in a decade and the sort of massive upheaval not seen since the wild 2007 Year of the Upset. The past two seasons have seen two BCS powers (Alabama and Texas in 2009, Auburn and Oregon last season) make it through the season unscathed. These types of seasons tend to be more fun.
On the flip side, however, the end result of all that chaos is everything we find maddening about college football in the BCS era. As a result, it's looking increasingly inevitable that this season is heading toward an unsatisfying and unresolvable conclusion.
The latest standings feature an unprecedented occurrence: Three teams from the same division of the same conference (the SEC West's LSU, Alabama and Arkansas) in the top three spots. On the one hand, it's the strongest testament yet to the recent dominance of the conference that's won five straight national titles. On the other hand, it's a reflection of a top-heavy league in which recent champs Florida and Auburn struggled to put away FCS foes Furman and Samford, respectively, on Saturday. Even the Crimson Tide allowed a season-high 21 points to Georgia Southern.
The upside is that Friday's showdown between No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Arkansas suddenly takes on even greater importance. Whichever of the three emerges from the cluster to reach Atlanta the following weekend will face another challenge from surging Georgia (9-2) in the SEC title game.
The downside is that, in one of those only-in-the-BCS scenarios, the second-ranked Crimson Tide would be better off not winning their division. Despite losing at home in its biggest game of the season (9-6 to No. 1 LSU) and despite boasting victories over just three teams with winning records (10-1 Arkansas, 9-2 Penn State and 6-5 Florida), Nick Saban's team will likely cruise into the BCS championship game with a win Saturday over 7-4 Auburn and an LSU victory over Arkansas. The same unwritten axioms pollsters have used to dismiss contenders in the past -- that a team must win its conference championship and that regular-season rematches are frowned upon -- might go out the window for lack of a better option.
Other teams had their shot. Oklahoma State could have punched its own ticket before coughing it up five times in Ames. (Sadly, the tragic plane crash that took the lives of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna undoubtedly impacted the Cowboys' performance.) Oklahoma or Oregon may have moved back ahead of Alabama had they won out. They all ran into upset-minded foes with chips on their shoulders.
"You've really got to break it into tangible things that we could control, and try to separate it from how high a caliber opponent we were talking about," said upset specialist Rhoads. "We had objectives that were specific to this game that we focused on and we executed. It led to a scripted night."
It also led to raucous celebrations both in Ames, Iowa and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Love it or hate it, only the BCS could produce such an unlikely connection.
With a suddenly crowded field, we had been waiting for one of the Heisman contenders to step up and deliver a definitive Heisman moment. It figures the guy who did it was the same one who started things off back on the first Friday night of the season.
Robert Griffin III captured the nation's attention early this year when he led Baylor to a season-opening upset of reigning Rose Bowl champ TCU, then proceeded to maintain a ridiculous stat line, going nearly four games with more touchdowns than incompletions. He was SI.com's first team midseason All-America quarterback. But then the Bears lost three of four games, and RGIII fell out of the discussion involving Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson, etc.
But the truth is, Griffin never went away. He kept putting up ridiculous numbers; it's just that America wasn't watching. But we were watching Saturday night when, with 51 seconds left and the game tied 38-38, the Baylor quarterback calmly led his team down the field, scrambling for runs of 22 and eight yards to keep the drive alive before throwing a game-winning 34-yard strike to Terrence Williams in the far corner of the end zone with just eight seconds on the clock.
"They said we needed that signature win," said Griffin, whose team won its first game in 21 tries against Oklahoma and beat its highest-ranked opponent since 1985. "We got it."
Griffin finished the night with 562 yards of offense. Only one team (Texas Tech earlier this year) has gained more than that against the Sooners during Bob Stoops' tenure. Griffin was 21-of-34 for 479 yards, no interceptions and four touchdowns, one of them admittedly so lucky even he shook his head in disbelief afterward.
"Another day at the office for Robert," said Baylor coach Art Briles. "Very talented, very gifted."
On the season, Griffin has now completed 72.9 percent of his passes for 3,572 yards, 33 touchdowns and five interceptions while rushing for 550 yards and five scores. His 191.7 efficiency rating would shatter Colt Brennan's FBS season record (186.0), though he's second right now behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson (199.3). Wilson has attempted 105 fewer passes.
Remember, Griffin is doing this for Baylor. He's not protected by a bunch of future NFL linemen like Luck. He's played substantially tougher competition than Houston's Case Keenum or Boise State's Kellen Moore. He's not throwing to a pair of five-star receivers like USC's Matt Barkley. My Heisman ballot arrived last week, and while there's still two more sets of games to go before making any final decisions, it's hard to imagine Griffin failing to be in the top three -- if not No. 1.
Not so fast. USC coach Lane Kiffin would like to stump for his own candidate, Mr. Barkley.
"He's not getting [the] attention he should," Kiffin said Sunday. "It's not his fault we're not going to bowl games. If people judge him fairly, and don't take into account the probation and the sanctions, I don't see how he's not going to New York."
Indeed, Barkley shredded the same Oregon defense that shut down Stanford's Luck a week earlier, going 26-of-34 for 323 yards, four touchdowns and one admittedly unfortunate fourth-quarter interception. On the season he's now thrown for 3,105 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But Saturday was as much a showcase for Kiffin's rebuilding program as it was for his quarterback. After watching the Trojans end the Ducks' 19-game home winning streak and become the first Pac-12 team to beat Oregon in more than two years, it's time for the nation to reluctantly acknowledge what many (especially SEC fans) hate to believe: Kiffin knows what he's doing.
Last winter, he made the calculated decision to put off NCAA scholarship reductions for another year pending USC's appeal (eventually denied) to load up on a 30-member recruiting class ranked in the top five nationally. Among those recruits was dynamic receiver Marqise Lee, who caught eight passes for 187 yards Saturday. "There were all these NFL picks on the field, and arguably the best player on the field was Marqise Lee," said Kiffin.
But USC's youth movement is hardly limited to receiver (where Lee plays opposite standout sophomore Robert Woods). The Trojans start three true or redshirt freshman linebackers (Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard), a freshman guard (Marcus Martin) and one of two freshman tight ends (Xavier Grimble or Randall Telfer). It's no wonder this team started slowly out of the gate. However, since an Oct. 22 win at Notre Dame, the Trojans have looked more and more like they did during Kiffin's first go-around as an assistant to Pete Carroll, with their only loss coming in triple overtime to Stanford.
"We're a totally different team," Kiffin said. "It's always exciting to see a plan come together, in believing in these kids, these freshmen. All of those guys that were making plays [Saturday] night were the ones making the mistakes at Arizona State [in a 43-22 loss on Sept. 24]."
And they're all going to be around for at least a couple more years, giving USC fans reason to believe the Trojans could return to glory, if even briefly, before the sanctions kick in. Now Kiffin just needs his best recruiting pitch yet to convince his Heisman-caliber quarterback to come back for his senior year.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:
Title game:LSU vs. AlabamaRose: Oregon vs. WisconsinFiesta: Oklahoma State vs. StanfordSugar: Michigan vs. HoustonOrange: Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia
Obviously, things changed considerably this week. The once improbable LSU-Alabama rematch now seems closer to reality. In turn, the projected Big 12 champion (I'm sticking with Oklahoma State) falls to the Fiesta Bowl, and the conference might not produce a second BCS team. (If it does, it's more likely to be 10-2 Kansas State than the loser of Bedlam.) Stanford, which may be guaranteed a berth if it moves back into the top four, is the overwhelming favorite for the other spot.
Meanwhile, the Sugar Bowl now faces the unusual predicament of having to fill its matchup with two at-large teams and no SEC anchor to guarantee fan turnout. Michigan, should it beat Ohio State for the first time in eight years to finish 10-2, would be obviously appealing, provided it moves into the top 14 by season's end. For the Wolverines' opponent, the bowl will likely have to choose between a non-AQ team (undefeated Houston or, if it loses to Tulsa or Southern Miss, 10-2 TCU) or the Big East champ, which right now could be any of five teams, four of them unranked. Houston at 13-0 would be the no-brainer choice, but 9-3 West Virginia would get the nod over 10-2 TCU -- setting up the RichRod Bowl.
• Tragedy continues to strike the college sports world. On Sunday, Arkansas redshirt freshman tight end Garrett Uekman was found dead in his dorm room. He was 19. Condolences poured in from current and former teammates. Meanwhile, at Saturday's Harvard-Yale game, 30-year-old Nancy Barry of Salem, Mass., was killed at a tailgate when the driver of a U-Haul carrying beer kegs accelerated after turning into the area.
Beginning with the Jerry Sandusky revelations two weeks ago, I can't remember a darker time for the sport.
• Back when we were still appalled by a booster hiring prostitutes at Miami, we speculated what the school's eventual NCAA punishment would be. Miami provided the first answer Sunday, announcing a self-imposed bowl ban this season. How convenient. The 'Canes are 6-5 following an ugly 6-3 win over USF on Saturday, and in a best-case scenario were likely headed to the Music City, Independence or Military bowls. Think we'd be getting this same announcement at 8-3? I doubt it.
• Arkansas heads into its Friday showdown with LSU on the heels of three straight impressive blowouts of South Carolina (44-28), Tennessee (49-7) and Mississippi State (44-17). "I really like the way we've played the last three games," said Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino. However, to face LSU the Hogs must hit the road, where in SEC play they've been routed by Alabama and struggled to put away Ole Miss (29-24) and Vanderbilt (31-28).
• What more does Montee Ball have to do to garner some Heisman love? In Saturday's 28-17 win at Illinois, the Wisconsin tailback ran 38 times for 214 yards and two touchdowns and had a touchdown reception against the Illini's ninth-ranked defense. Ball now has 30 rushing/receiving touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to hit that mark. If the Badgers reach the Big Ten championship game, he could rack up the most since Barry Sanders' 39 in 1988.
• Congrats to Georgia (9-2) for locking up the SEC East with a 19-10 win over Kentucky, thus officially ending the Mark Richt Hot Seat Watch. The Dawgs will visit Atlanta each of the next two weeks, first for their rivalry game against Georgia Tech (8-3), then for the SEC title game. If Georgia manages to upset whichever foe emerges from the three-team jumble atop the West, it will earn an automatic berth to the Sugar Bowl. If two out of LSU/Alabama/Arkansas still finish 1-2, the league would get a third BCS berth.
• Congrats to Michigan State, which locked up its spot in Indianapolis (where it will face Saturday's Penn State-Wisconsin winner) with a 55-3 rout of Indiana. The Spartans (9-2) close the regular season Saturday at Northwestern. Regardless of the result, they will reach their first Rose Bowl in 24 years with a win in the conference title game. Lose in Indy, however, and they may suffer the indignity of watching hated Michigan (whom they beat) go to the BCS instead.
• Michigan State and Georgia should be leery of the letdown Clemson suffered after clinching the ACC Atlantic. N.C. State (6-5), fresh off a 14-10 loss to Boston College, annihilated the sixth-ranked Tigers, 37-13. Clemson (9-2) was playing without star receiver Sammy Watkins, but that doesn't explain its defense allowing Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon to go 19-of-29 for 253 yards and three touchdowns. "I really have no explanation for what just happened," joked N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien.
• Mike London's magic continues. Virginia (8-3) went to Tallahassee and snapped Florida State's (7-4) five-game winning streak, 14-13, following a wild ending. Twice Virginia appeared to have ended FSU's last-minute drive, but a fourth-down facemask penalty and a replay overturn that prevented the clock from running out allowed Dustin Hopkins to attempt a game-winning 42-yard-field goal. He missed. Now, the Cavs can reach the ACC title game if they upset Virginia Tech on Saturday.
• Kansas State (9-2) managed to beat Texas, 17-13, despite gaining just 121 yards of offense Saturday. Said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder: "They just beat the tar out of us." Not on the scoreboard. But Mack Brown made a critical decision in the third quarter, pulling quarterback David Ash following his second interception in favor of Case McCoy. Behind McCoy, the 'Horns rallied from a 17-3 deficit and had the ball with a chance to win at the end. Brown may want to make that switch permanent.
• Arizona State's full-on implosion continues. Once a lock to reach the Pac-12 title game, the Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4) have dropped three straight to UCLA, Washington State and, most gallingly, to 3-8 Arizona. It's now hard to imagine Dennis Erickson coming back for another year. And yet, the Sun Devils can still represent the South if they beat Cal (6-5) this week, USC beats the Bruins and Utah (7-4, 4-4) handles Colorado (2-10). ASU would win the three-way tie.
• Meanwhile, Utah has shaken off an 0-4 start in conference play to put itself on the brink of reaching the league championship game in its first Pac-12 season. It can't win a tiebreaker with Arizona State, which it lost to 35-14 on Oct. 8, but it can advance if the Sun Devils and UCLA lose. The Utes beat the Bruins 31-6 two weeks ago. On Saturday Kyle Whittingham's team went to Pullman and pulled off a 30-27 overtime win against Wazzu behind 186 rushing yards from John White.
• Good luck deciphering the Big East race. Rutgers' 17-3 win over Cincinnati left five of the league's eight teams tied for first in the loss column at either 4-2 or 3-2. Friday's Backyard Brawl between West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) and Pittsburgh (5-5, 3-2) could be an important swing game, as no other head-to-head matchups remain between the contenders. The Mountaineers have wins over the Scarlet Knights (8-3, 4-2) and Bearcats (7-3, 3-2) but lost to Louisville (6-5, 4-2).
• Tennessee's 27-21 overtime win over Vanderbilt was decided on a play involving two officiating errors, though the end result was correct. On Eric Gordon's game-winning 90-yard interception return, an official mistakenly ruled Gordon had gone down at the 10-yard-line. Replay officials overturned it. However, because the ref had whistled the play dead, it never should have been reviewed. The Vols (5-6) can now go bowling if they beat Kentucky (4-7), as they do annually.
• RIP, Larry Munson. The legendary voice of the Georgia Bulldogs died Sunday at age 89. He immortalized big Georgia wins with memorable calls like this one.
• With a 24-20 upset at Nevada in which it rallied from a 20-3 deficit, Louisiana Tech (7-4, 5-1 WAC) moved into first place in the WAC, which it hasn't won since 2001.
• Case Keenum broke the NCAA career completions record (1,427), but the star of Houston's 37-7 win over SMU was linebacker Sammy Brown, who had 10 tackles, three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
• Remember last week when I said Southern Miss could reach the BCS if it won out? Whoops. The Eagles (9-2) fell last Thursday to 3-8 UAB.
• Gary Pinkel sat out Missouri's 31-27 win over Texas Tech as punishment for his DWI arrest this week. That's a stiffer approach than that of Western Kentucky.
During an interview ESPN first aired Friday night, Tom Rinaldi asked Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno for his reaction to the Big Ten removing his father's name from its championship game trophy. Said Paterno: "Let's get there and win it and put it back on. ... We'll bring a nice yellow post-it note and we'll stick it right back on there."
With the furor over the Jerry Sandusky child molestation allegations and Penn State's gross mishandling of the situation still fresh and the story developing daily, it's hard for many to separate the individuals under scrutiny and those who merely coach and play for Penn State. People are entitled to their suspicions, but neither interim coach Tom Bradley nor any other current assistant was mentioned in the grand jury report (several vehemently denied prior knowledge of the alleged 2002 shower incident in interviews with Rinaldi), and certainly the players had nothing to do with it. On top of the Sandusky fallout, the players learned this week that recently dismissed coach Joe Paterno is suffering from treatable lung cancer.
With all that in mind, I couldn't help but feel happy for the Nittany Lions following their 20-14 win at Ohio State, Penn State's first victory of the post-Paterno era. Next week, the Nittany Lions (9-2) visit Wisconsin (9-2) for a shot to go to Indianapolis and break out that post-it note.
Perhaps uplifted by getting out of scandal-torn Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions seemed to have an extra spark Saturday, racing to 20 first-half points in part by breaking out the Wildcat, which they apparently had been practicing all season. Receivers Bill Belton and Curtis Drake took snaps, and Stephfon Green ran for a 39-yard touchdown out of the formation. When Jay told his ailing father of the team's plans this week, he reportedly replied: "It's about time."
"It was a nice wrinkle that we needed," said Bradley.
While there's finally some reason to smile in State College, things are bleaker in Columbus, where Ohio State has now lost five games for the first time in a decade and will be a heavy underdog this week against archrival Michigan despite winning the past eight meetings. Depending on what you read, Urban Meyer has either agreed to or will soon agree to take over as head coach sometime after Saturday's game, with the NCAA Committee on Infractions' looming penalties the one potential stumbling block. Buckeyes fans need only look to the school that just beat theirs for some perspective.
"A game is a game," said Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin. "Whether we win or lose out there, it's not going to help [Joe Paterno's recovery] out at all. But it definitely made him feel good that we went out there and got a win."
A lot of people have a lot of negative feelings toward the man right now, and understandably so, but all can agree on one thing: May he have a speedy recovery.
LaMichael James averages the most yards per game. Montee Ball is the touchdown machine. Trent Richardson is the human highlight reel.
But the nation's leading rusher as measured by actual yardage is Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey. With a season-high 214 yards on 37 carries in Saturday's 31-21 win at North Texas -- a game that made the Hilltoppers (6-5) bowl eligible for the first time -- Rainey now has 1,468 yards on the season, two ahead of Virginia Tech's David Wilson.
But he's closing in on a more notable feat. If he gains 32 yards in WKU's season finale against Troy, Rainey will become just the eighth player since 2000 to post back-to-back 1,500 yard seasons, a feat previously achieved by LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, DeAngelo Williams, Garrett Wolfe, Darren McFadden and James.
That's some distinguished company.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• Arkansas at LSU, Friday (2:30 p.m. ET): You don't often see this for a game between No. 1 and No. 3: LSU opened Sunday as a two-touchdown favorite. Either the Tigers really are the second coming of 2001 Miami, or Vegas doesn't believe Arkansas is the third-best team in the country. I'll go with the latter.
• Penn State at Wisconsin, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): If not for a Hail Mary, the Badgers might still be in the thick of the national title discussion -- but they'd still need this win to reach Indianapolis. Penn State's defense is capable of slowing down Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, but can its offense do enough to get by?
• Notre Dame at Stanford, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Many a player has wrapped up the Heisman by playing either for or against the Irish. USC's Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart were the most recent examples to use the Thanksgiving weekend showcase as a closing argument. Andrew Luck could follow in their footsteps.