Eventful Week 9 sets the stage for BCS-altering 'Bama-LSU showdown
Week 9 was arguably the most eventful slate of games to date this season. Five of the 11 remaining undefeated teams went down. Notre Dame asserted itself as a national championship contender. Georgia reclaimed control of the SEC East in the World's Largest Outdoor Interception Party, while USC lost control of the Pac-12 South despite producing a 345-yard day from receiver Marqise Lee. It was a beautifully chaotic Saturday.
Except, of course, in terminally suspense-free Tuscaloosa, where No. 1 Alabama treated then 7-0 Mississippi State like every other previous opponent in a 38-7 rout. You know things are going well when Nick Saban's biggest complaint was the benchwarmers allowing a garbage-time touchdown. "I got upset with the backup players because they are better than that," Saban groused.
For the past several weeks, the nation has fixated its attention on BCS title contenders like Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon, preemptively speculating where each would rank if all were to finish undefeated. Beneath that debate is the underlying assumption that one spot in Miami has already been locked up.
If ever the Tide are to be tested, it figures to be Saturday in what will surely be the season's most hyped game. No. 1 Alabama (8-0) will travel to No. 5 LSU (7-1) in the latest chapter of a two-year, three-game grudge fest.
To be clear: This is NOT the Game of the Century. It is not No. 1 vs. No. 2. And whereas both of last year's matchups were perceived as virtual toss-ups, 'Bama should be a prohibitive favorite Saturday. While LSU, to its credit, is coming off consecutive wins over top-20 foes South Carolina and Texas A&M, its anemic passing game inspires little confidence going up against the nation's premier defense.
However, there is at least one parallel to last year's regular-season meeting in the first week of November, in which the Tigers beat the Tide 9-6 in overtime and sparked the first wave of backlash toward an impending title-game rematch. Last year LSU came in battle-tested, having beaten Oregon in Texas, Mississippi State in Starkville and West Virginia in Morgantown. This year's Tigers lost one road test in Gainesville, but they shined defensively in College Station.
Conversely, last year's Alabama squad had yet to face a worthy adversary, save for an early-season 27-11 road win against an eventual 9-4 Penn State team. The Tide had won every subsequent game by at least 24 points -- just like this year's team has won all but one game by at least 27.
And that's where the parallels end.
A year ago, 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron was a first-year starter the coaches trusted to do little more than hand off to Trent Richardson. A year later, McCarron (68.9 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, no interceptions) is the nation's most efficient passer. Against a talented Mississippi State secondary Saturday, the junior went a cool 16-of-23 for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns in three quarters.
"I have great respect for AJ McCarron," said Bulldogs All-America cornerback Johnthan Banks. "He doesn't make mistakes."
Meanwhile, it's hard to remember now, but LSU's Jarrett Lee went into last year's game as the SEC's most efficient passer. Of course that didn't last long. This year's Tigers quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, ranks 12th in the conference in that category. He went 11-of-29 for 97 yards in that Oct. 20 win at Texas A&M.
"It's a game I've prepared for my whole life," Mettenberger told reporters last week. "You can look at the numbers all you want. For me, individually, they're not the prettiest thing there is, but we're winning football games. That's the important thing."
Last year, LSU also had a decided edge in special teams, and while Tyrann Mathieu never broke a return, extraordinary punter Brad Wing pinned the Tide at their own five-, four-, 11- and 18-yard lines. This year, the Tigers have slipped from third to 32nd in net punting and have been largely a nonfactor in the return game.
In short, LSU does not hold a single discernible advantage over Alabama, and there seems a much better chance of the scoreboard reading 29-6 than 9-6. But the game is at night in Death Valley, where the Tigers rarely lose. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will come at Alabama's offensive line like no defensive linemen the Tide have seen this season, and linebacker Kevin Minter will wrap up running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon well before they can reach second gear. Neither LSU-Alabama contest played to form last year, so why should we expect anything different this time around?
Another all-SEC championship seems unlikely now with Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame all sitting pretty. But remember, at this same time last year, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State were also unbeaten. If LSU wins -- brace yourself -- it's entirely conceivable Alabama could play its way into another rematch. Or how about this scenario? The Tide win and beat Georgia in the SEC title game to finish 13-0, but Florida, which fell to No. 7 in Sunday's latest BCS standings, wins out, finishes 11-1 and climbs back to No. 2.
Yes, there are possible parallels to 2011. But as of today, it seems there's a much greater probability that a high number of undefeated teams will cause this year's BCS controversy. If you feel the need to freak out over something, let it be that.
Nov. 3 has been circled on our calendars since the summer not only because Alabama plays LSU, but also because Oregon visits USC. But most of the anticipated buzz for the latter matchup decreased considerably Saturday when Matt Barkley's last-second Hail Mary fell incomplete at Arizona, dooming the disappointing Trojans to their second defeat.
In a huge win for first-year coach Rich Rodiguez's program, the Wildcats (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) went on a 26-0 second-half run to outlast the Trojans, 39-36. It was a shootout that saw Trojans star wideout Marqise Lee catch 16 passes for a Pac-12 record 345 receiving yards -- and still somehow lose.
"It almost looked like our game plan was to have [Lee] get so many yards that he'd get tired. He had about a half mile," Rodriguez said by phone Sunday. "I'm glad the clock ran out."
Rodriguez had his own big-number stars, most notably senior quarterback Matt Scott, who now ranks second in the nation in total offense (386.1 yards per game) after throwing for 369 yards and rushing for 100 more against a befuddled USC defense. And if not for Lee, Arizona receiver Austin Hill would have jumped off the page with his 10 catches for 259 yards.
USC (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) continues to be its own worst enemy. While Matt Barkley threw for a career-high 493 yards, he also had two interceptions, giving him more picks through eight games (eight) than he had in all of 2011 (seven). The Trojans had three other turnovers and racked up 117 penalty yards, none of which serve as good omens a week before facing the second-ranked Ducks, who blasted Colorado 70-14 Saturday.
"We needed them to help us a little bit," said Rodriguez. "Right now we're not quite good enough to stop people, so we need a little help, and those turnovers did really help."
For Arizona, the victory was the latest in a season full of crazy games. After upsetting Oklahoma State 59-38 in Week 2, the Wildcats dropped their first three Pac-12 games, including a last-minute 38-35 heartbreaker against Oregon State and a 54-48 overtime loss at Stanford. Now, amazingly, No. 24 Arizona has an outside shot to win the Pac-12 South if USC loses to Oregon. It would control its own fate with remaining games against the two other teams ahead of it, No. 25 UCLA (6-2, 3-2) and Arizona State (5-3, 3-2).
If you haven't noticed, 2012 has become the Year of the Linebacker. There are so many great ones, in fact, that SI.com went to a 3-4 defense in compiling
As always, Te'o was all over the field in
I happened to be standing behind the end zone facing Te'o at the time and decided to focus on him that play. On the snap, the consummate middle linebacker stood watching, ready to react. He briefly looked at the receivers to his left. I couldn't help turning my eye when Landry Jones threw in the other direction to receiver Jalen Saunders. Linebacker Dan Fox hit Saunders (arguably early), popped the ball loose and
"I couldn't have done it without Dan Fox," said Te'o. "Dan made a beautiful play on the ball, and I just happened to be right there." No, he just happened to be within 10 yards when the pass was released.
Still, even Te'o couldn't match the exploits of Georgia's Jones in Saturday's division-changing 17-9 win over Florida. In an ugly defensive stalemate featuring nine combined turnovers, Jones was the MVP, recording 13 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. His most important play came with 2:05 left. Florida's Jordan Reed broke a tackle and appeared headed to the end zone to set up a possible game-tying score, but Jones caught him from behind inside the Georgia five-yard line and stripped the ball, which the Dawgs recovered in the end zone. It was reminiscent of his game-sealing sack and forced fumble in Week 2 at Missouri.
"I had a great game, but it's about what we did as a defense," said Jones, whose teammate, safety Shawn Williams, called out the Dawgs' defense as "soft" earlier in the week. "All of us did what we came here to do. ... It's a great feeling." Three weeks removed from a humbling 35-7 defeat at South Carolina, Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC) needs just wins over Ole Miss and Auburn to capture the SEC East now that it holds the tiebreaker over Florida (8-1, 6-1).
If not for injuries that cost him two games, Jones might be eliciting much the same Heisman buzz as Te'o right now. As a hybrid outside linebacker he plays a different role, but one that actually produces more eye-popping stats (8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles in six games). Still, the fact that any linebacker is being taken this seriously in the Heisman discussion this late in the season is significant: It shows just how important that position has become in voters' eyes.
You know it was a crazy week when Oregon State lost its first game (20-17 at Washington) and moved
Nebraska's result helped not only the Huskers, but also Boise State. That's right. It's looking increasingly plausible that the 7-1 Broncos will finish ahead of the Big Ten's automatic qualifier (in the latest BCS standings, Boise is No. 19, Nebraska No. 20) and thus be guaranteed a spot. It's long been assumed the Big East champ would end up in the Orange Bowl, but if 8-0 Louisville wins out, presumably the Sugar Bowl would take the undefeated Cardinals over 11-1 Boise State.
Also, Florida still gets the nod over Georgia because the Sugar Bowl is not obligated to (and prefers not to) take the SEC title game loser. That may change if Florida State were to rout the Gators in their regular-season finale.
This is getting ridiculous. The Broncos lost to 5-4 Michigan State, and their best win arguably came against 5-4 BYU. But hey, you know you've arrived when the pollsters are ranking you based on history.
The 8-1 Rockets' lone defeat, a 24-17 loss in overtime at Arizona in Week 1, doesn't look so bad now, plus they've since beaten then-undefeated Cincinnati. Where is the love?
• Ohio State (9-0) is three victories away from a perfect season following an impressive 35-23 win at Penn State (5-3), a game in which Braxton Miller rushed for 134 yards and the Buckeyes' previously suspect defense dominated the line of scrimmage. Miller completed just 7-of-19 passes for 143 yards, but one of them, a 72-yard catch-and-run by tight end Jake Stoneburner, helped put the game away. "I was so excited I missed a lot of throws," Miller said.
All that's left for Urban Meyer's team are games against 2-6 Illinois; a Wisconsin team that managed just 19 rushing yards in an overtime loss to Michigan State Saturday and lost quarterback Joel Stave (collarbone) for the season; and a Michigan team that's managed a combined 21 points over the past two weeks. (Denard Robinson has an elbow injury.) Ohio State could become the first undefeated team without a postseason opportunity since Auburn in 1993.
• Kansas State (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) looked like it might finally face adversity Saturday against Texas Tech, as it led just 13-10 at halftime. Instead, for the second straight week, the Wildcats scored on eight consecutive possessions en route to a 55-24 rout of the Red Raiders (6-2, 3-2). Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein delivered another typical performance, going 19-of-26 for 233 passing yards and two touchdowns while carrying 12 times for 83 rushing yards and another two scores.
• Mack Brown owes an eternal debt of gratitude to the McCoy family. While former Longhorns quarterback Colt helped produce two of Brown's greatest Texas teams, younger brother Case helped avoid what would have been the most humiliating defeat of the coach's tenure. Replacing an ineffective David Ash, McCoy led the 6-2 'Horns on a 70-yard scoring drive with 2:28 remaining to escape 1-7 Kansas. "We were in trouble, obviously," said Brown, who possibly might have been barred from Austin if he lost to Charlie Weis.
• Ohio's hopes of an undefeated season --
• This column first
• Louisville (8-0, 3-0 Big East) is the last remaining undefeated Big East team (though Rutgers remains unbeaten in conference play) following a dramatic 34-31 overtime win over Cincinnati (5-2, 1-1) Friday. Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (24-of-41 for 416 yards) was sensational, but Louisville also got a little help when Bearcats coach Butch Jones attempted to ice kicker John Wallace's initial 30-yard attempt in overtime. Louisville botched the snap just as Jones called timeout.
• North Carolina's (6-3, 3-2 ACC) first win over NC State (5-3, 2-2) since 2006 came in particularly satisfying fashion, as electrifying running back Gio Bernard returned a punt 74 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left in a 43-35 win. With UNC flying under the radar due to NCAA sanctions, Bernard is not getting nearly the attention he deserves. He had 294 all-purpose yards against the Wolfpack and now ranks No. 3 in the nation in rushing (132.9 yards per game).
• This week in the train wreck that is Auburn football: Texas A&M (6-2, 3-2 SEC) came to the Plains and racked up 464 yards
• Defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) moved into a tie for second in the conference standings and back into the national polls following a surprisingly easy 36-14 win over TCU (5-3, 2-3). In his first appearance since Sept. 15, freshman quarterback Wes Lunt, back in the starting job following J.W. Walsh's season-ending knee injury, went an effective 18-of-33 for 324 yards against the Horned Frogs' top-25 defense. Up next for Lunt: 8-0 Kansas State.
• In a wild West Coast game, UCLA (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) moved into contention in the Pac-12 South with a 45-43 win over Arizona State (5-3, 3-2). The Sun Devils rallied from a nine-point deficit to take a 43-42 lead with 1:33 left, but quarterback Brett Hundley drove the Bruins back down the field, and Johnathan Franklin's 19-yard run set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's game-winning 33-yard field goal. "Johnathan is like Yoda," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the
• Spinal Tap had better luck with drummers than Maryland is having with its quarterbacks. The Terps have now
• Welcome back, Sammy Watkins. The formerly injured Clemson star caught his first touchdown while amassing a school-record 202 receiving yards in the Tigers' (7-1, 4-1 ACC) 42-13 rout of Wake Forest (4-4, 2-4).
• Florida State (8-1, 5-1 ACC) brought Duke (6-3, 3-2) back to reality with a 48-7 drubbing. The Blue Devils will still go bowling, but Saturday showed they still have their limits.
• Second-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson finally captured his first Big Ten win. The Hoosiers notched a 31-17 result over Illinois (2-6, 0-4), whose own coach, Tim Beckman, may have to wait until 2013 to claim his elusive first league victory.
• Fourth-year Purdue coach Danny Hope (3-5, 0-4), on the other hand, may not see 2013 on the sidelines at all. The Boilermakers fell to Minnesota (5-3, 1-3), 44-28.
• You know who's having a great first year? Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze. The Rebels improved to 5-3 (2-2 SEC) with a 30-27 win over Arkansas (3-5, 2-3).
• You know who's having the worst imaginable first year? Southern Miss' Ellis Johnson. Johnson took over a program with 16 consecutive winning seasons -- including a 12-2, Conference USA championship season just last year -- and has led it to ... 0-8. Rice (3-6) drubbed the Eagles, 44-17, Saturday. Ouch.
It was a scene both horrifying and heartwarming, unwanted but inspiring. As trainers readied South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore for a lift onto the cart following a gruesome and devastating right knee injury Saturday against Tennessee, the Gamecocks' entire team left its sideline to surround him in encouragement. Numerous members from the Vols' sideline soon joined them. By day's end, athletes from Tim Tebow to Abby Wambach to Robert Griffin III had tweeted well wishes for Lattimore.
It's a testament to the level of respect both in the SEC and around the nation for Lattimore, an obvious first-round talent and a player who already came back from an ACL injury in his left knee last season. It's also a telling sign of just how horrifying an image it was (I'm choosing not to include a video clip here), one that evoked memories of Willis McGahee in the 2002 BCS title game or Tim Krumrie in Super Bowl XXIII.
Lattimore left the game to a standing ovation, his head buried beneath a towel. TV cameras briefly caught a gut-wrenching image of his family watching the scene. ESPN's sideline reporter at the game, Jenn Brown, was standing on the stadium concourse when Lattimore's mother met up with him. "I heard loud sobs. He was just hugging his mom and they were rocking back and forth for the five, six minutes I was standing there," Brown, who called it the toughest moment she's ever covered, told me Sunday. "I was crying."
In a statement Sunday, South Carolina team doctor Jeffrey Guy said that Lattimore suffered "significant impact to the front of his right knee" and that "the ensuing hyperextension of the knee resulted in injury to several ligaments." Earlier in the day, coach Steve Spurrier indicated that Lattimore would miss not only the rest of this season, but possibly 2013 as well while rehabilitating.
But Spurrier was also adamant in diffusing speculation that Lattimore's football career is over, saying other players have previously come back from similar injuries. "We're optimistic his football days are ahead of him," said Spurrier. Prior to Saturday, it was all but a certainty Lattimore would turn pro this spring. While he's certainly not obligated to conduct his rehabilitation in Columbia, it seems unlikely an NFL team would draft and invest in him knowing he may miss most or all of the 2013 season.
If he does remain a Gamecock, Lattimore will have no shortage of support. Brown said numerous school officials came up to her afterward to say things like "Marcus is one of the finest young men you'll ever meet." South Carolina President Harris Pastides announced that the school will hold a rally on campus Monday -- which happens to be Lattimore's 21st birthday -- where he, Spurrier and others will speak. The video will be streamed for Lattimore to watch from the hospital.
Here's wishing for a speedy recovery, Marcus, and a day in the not-too-distant future filled with smiles, not tears.
Ohio State's quarterback combines a basketball crossover with an end-zone dive. It's sweet.
It's just one of his 16 catches Saturday, but it pretty nicely sums up how the USC receiver got to 345 yards.