Alabama, Oregon could be nearing culture clash unlike any in BCS era

Publish date:

Down in Baton Rouge, the top-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 5 Tigers staged a thrilling, classic, low-scoring SEC showdown, this time with touchdowns (including a game-winner). When the folks down South boast about "big-boy football," they're talking about games like this, where field position came at a premium, LSU ran the ball 49 times and held possession for nearly two-thirds of the contest and Alabama ultimately survived, 21-17, when quarterback AJ McCarron came to life on a brilliant, five-play, go-ahead touchdown drive. Remarkably, it was the Tide's closest win since Sept. 25, 2010.

"The way we won," running back Eddie Lacy told reporters afterward, "it felt like an SEC championship."

Meanwhile, in the shadow of Hollywood, the second-ranked Ducks and No. 18 Trojans staged a nonstop action flick. When the folks on the West Coast (and the rest of the country) decry SEC football as boring, it's because they're frequently spoiled by shootouts like Saturday's, a game in which Oregon racked up a school-record 730 yards and scored the most points ever by a USC opponent. Chip Kelly's squad won its first four-quarter test this season, 62-51.

"Sometimes the matchups don't go in your favor," said Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, whose unit allowed 615 yards but notched three turnovers. "But we got a couple more stops than they did and we won the game."

You couldn't ask for a better snapshot of the dichotomous state of college football than Saturday night's dose of dueling television drama. On FOX, there was Oregon, the poster program for everything new and different, revving the tempo and running an offense that manages to turn the inside handoff into something just as exciting and productive as the 40-yard bomb. On CBS, there was Alabama, the current standard-bearer for championship football, running much the same offense that's worked for decades upon decades of title teams before it.

You could not ask for two more stylistically opposite approaches, which is exactly why much of the country is thirsting for an Alabama-Oregon BCS championship showdown. It would be a culture clash unlike any in the event's 14-year history.

But of course, this being the BCS, it's never that simple. For those with particularly proficient remote control skills, Saturday night also offered the latest installment in No. 3 Kansas State's methodic march through a seemingly daunting Big 12 schedule. The Wildcats moved to 9-0 with a 44-30 win over 5-3 Oklahoma State despite losing star Collin Klein to an undisclosed injury in the third quarter. If Klein's injury proves serious, the Wildcats' inclusion in this discussion may prove moot, but as of now, they remain a spot ahead of the Ducks in the BCS standings.

If Alabama is the traditional, defensive-minded juggernaut and Oregon is the new-age, score-as-quickly-as-humanly-imaginable machine, Kansas State falls somewhere in between. Klein is an old-school, bull-headed quarterback, but he runs a fairly modern, shotgun-zone offense. The Wildcats' defense is more reliable than Oregon's, but it's not oozing with five-star talent like the Tide's.

The question of which two teams deserve to play in Miami will become an unending headache if somebody (including 9-0 Notre Dame) doesn't lose. But there's little question which hypothetical matchup would be the most fascinating.

"It's just two different styles," said Oregon AD Rob Mullens, who formerly worked in the SEC at Kentucky. "That's what makes it all fine. There are different ways to accomplish your goals."

Mind you, we've been down this road before (sort of), and it almost always ends the same way. In the 2008 title game, SEC champion Florida held a fast-paced Oklahoma offense that came in having scored 60-plus points in five straight games to just 14. Two years earlier, Urban Meyer's defense humiliated Ohio State Heisman winner Troy Smith. Saban's 2003 LSU team teed off on a Heisman-winning quarterback (Oklahoma's Jason White), and his 2009 Alabama team knocked out a finalist for the award (Texas' Colt McCoy).

On the other hand, the team that came closest to ending the SEC's streak is Oregon, which lost to Auburn on a last-second field goal two years ago. Alabama fans will be quick to point out that these Tide are not those Tigers, so dependent on one transcendent player (Cam Newton) and so mediocre defensively for much of that year. 'Bama presumably looks at the 51 points Oregon allowed Saturday and snickers. The Tide have allowed a mere 82 points in nine games.

(Note: Oregon lost three starting defensive linemen for parts of Saturday's game, including standout end Dion Jordan, a contributing reason why its previously stout defense couldn't remotely stop USC in the second half.)

Ducks fans would presumably counter that Alabama hasn't faced an opposing quarterback nearly of the same caliber as USC's Matt Barkley, and 'Bama certainly hasn't defended a player in the vicinity of Trojans star wideout Marqise Lee. In fact, the Tide's defense proved mortal for the first time Saturday in allowing previously unimpressive LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger to go 24-of-35 for 298 yards.

Maybe Alabama would shut down the Ducks the way they have so many foes before them. Maybe Lacy and T.J. Yeldon would run circles around Aliotti's defense. And maybe Kansas State's ball-control approach is a smarter gameplan for topping the Tide than Oregon's breakneck philosophy. Only one thing is for certain: It would be fascinating to find out.

Apparently, it's written into Notre Dame's NBC contract that every home game must be incredibly dramatic, regardless of the opponent. A goal-line stand to beat Stanford? OK, it's Stanford. But a come-from-behind, triple-overtime 29-26 win over 4-4 Pittsburgh? Really, Irish? This is getting ridiculous.

All kidding aside, there's a strange phenomenon going on in South Bend. The Irish have now played five home games, and all of them have been decided by seven points or fewer. On the other hand, Notre Dame beat Miami 41-3 in Chicago and Oklahoma 30-13 in Norman. Ten of the Irish's 11 turnovers have come at home (including Everett Golson's fourth-quarter end-zone interception Saturday with the Irish down 20-12, one that seemed like a dagger at the time) as well as 33 of their 48 penalties.

Why does Notre Dame make things so much harder for itself at home?

"We're really trying to figure that out," Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "It might be, it is what it is. But we've looked at schedule, we've looked at limiting distractions. ... I don't think there's any question there's a lot going on here at Notre Dame. We really think we've streamlined a lot of those distractions, whether it's ticket requests, family and friends wanting tours of the football facility.

"I also think if we put some points on the board early against Pitt, we're not having this conversation."

Indeed, a week after redshirt freshman Golson played a near-flawless game on the road against top-10 foe Oklahoma, he and the offense were so stagnant early against the Panthers that Kelly yanked him yet again for veteran Tommy Rees. Rees proved no more effective. Ultimately, it was Golson who threw an 11-yard touchdown to T.J. Jones to cut the score to 20-12 early in the fourth quarter and then, after rebounding from his end-zone pick (which came at the end of a 91-yard drive), tossed a five-yard touchdown to Theo Riddick and scored the ensuing two-point conversion to tie the game with 2:11 remaining.

As is often the case in these NBC nail-biters, the Irish needed a little luck. After Cierre Wood fumbled into the end zone in the second overtime, Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed what would have been a game-winning 33-yard field goal. It was revealed Sunday that Notre Dame should have been flagged on the play for having two players with the same jersey number on the field at the same time. "It was a coaching mistake," said Kelly.

Golson eventually scored the winning touchdown to escape yet another home scare and keep the 9-0 Irish's undefeated season alive.

"I know this -- we'll battle you at home," said Kelly. "We'll protect our turf, we'll find a way to win."

Good news, though: Two of Notre Dame's final three games are on the road.

Remember when we all thought Texas A&M was certifiably bonkers for joining the SEC? This was, after all, a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team for most of the previous decade. Now it was moving to (at the time) the toughest division in the toughest conference in the country. How many years it would take for the Aggies to become competitive?

As it turns out, one.

With its 38-13 road rout of then-No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 15 Texas A&M improved to 7-2, including 4-2 in conference play, a mark good enough for second place in the vaunted SEC West. It's been a remarkable transformation under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin, who says any concerns that the Aggies could compete in their new conference went out the window following a 20-17 season-opening loss to Florida.

"The next week we rode the bus back from Dallas [after playing SMU], we were watching the Florida-Tennessee game, it was pretty quiet," Sumlin said by phone Sunday. "Our players realized Florida's pretty good and we could have won that game.

"We're pretty confident right now. The questions about us getting pushed around and out-physicaled in this league, we answered that in the first game. Just because we're a spread team doesn't mean we're a finesse team."

Obviously, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has been the face of A&M's transformation. Saturday against the 7-1 Bulldogs, he completed 30-of-36 passes for 311 yards while rushing for an additional 129 yards and two scores. "We're a different football team than we were Week 1, and he's a different player than he was Week 1," said Sumlin. "He's been on a journey from becoming an athlete to an athlete that plays quarterback."

Saturday's performance was particularly impressive in that the Aggies didn't let up after taking an early 24-0 lead. Last year under Mike Sherman, A&M repeatedly blew second-half leads, and it nearly surrendered a 27-point advantage in an Oct. 13 shootout against Louisiana Tech and blew an early 12-0 lead in a home loss to LSU the next week. Sumlin doesn't discuss the "elephant in the room," but he says the Aggies' own comeback win at Ole Miss Oct. 6 was a breakthrough.

The Aggies are 3-0 in conference games on the road, but Saturday brings their toughest test to date: a trip to Tuscaloosa to face No. 1 Alabama. Both Florida and LSU's elite defenses showed Manziel can be slowed, and the Tide will be expected to do the same.

But in many ways, that's beside the point. The fact that an Alabama-Texas A&M matchup in mid-November is considered a marquee SEC game says everything you need to know about the impact Sumlin's program is already having.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:

Title game: Alabama vs. OregonRose: Nebraska vs. Oregon StateFiesta: Kansas State vs. Notre DameSugar: Florida vs. OklahomaOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville

The game that had the biggest impact on the BCS picture last weekend turned out not to be Alabama-LSU or Oregon-USC. Instead, it was San Diego State's 21-19 upset of then-BCS No. 19 Boise State. Riding a 100-yard Colin Lockett kick return to start the game and a third-quarter blocked punt that set up another touchdown, the Aztecs (7-3, 5-1 MWC) handed the Broncos (7-2, 4-1) just their third home loss since 2001.

In doing so, San Diego State may have ended any chance of a non-AQ team reaching a BCS bowl this year. Louisiana Tech (8-1) still has an outside shot, but the Bulldogs are buried at No. 20 in the latest standings. The Sugar Bowl folks must be elated. As of last week, they were looking at either a one-loss Boise team or the Big East champ. Now, they may have their choice of brand-name programs, perhaps 11-1 Clemson (if it beats South Carolina) or 10-2 Oklahoma (if it wins out). I'm going with the Sooners for now, particularly with Florida currently on the other side.

To refresh, this is a real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performances to date. Neither preseason buzz nor the likelihood of a player actually winning will come into play, but the quality of competition so far will.

1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. With a 16-of-22, 245-yard performance against Oklahoma State in two-plus quarters, Klein moved to No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency. Unfortunately, if the thus-far undisclosed injury costs him a game or more, his candidacy is likely over.

2. Marqise Lee, WR, USC. He's the nation's all-purpose yards leader. Two weeks he ago he broke the Pac-12 receiving record (345 yards against Arizona). Last week he broke the kick return record (251). His team's record is irrelevant. Lee is that good.

3. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Even with a modest seven tackles against Pittsburgh, Te'o remains on the list for his overall performance. But this week shows why it's so hard for a defensive player to win the award -- one quiet game takes him off the Heisman radar.

A note on Kenjon Barner: According to Oregon beat writer Rob Moseley, if Barner -- who ran for a historic 321 yards against USC -- had played entire games all season and maintained his current pace, he'd already have 2,317 yards. Of course, the reason Barner has been sitting out is because the Ducks have played so many hapless opponents that he hasn't had to play in the second halves. That makes it hard to take his candidacy seriously just yet.

• In the end, Joker Phillips made Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart's decision easy. A day after the Wildcats (1-9) bottomed out with a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt (5-4), Barnhart pulled the plug on his third-year coach, marking the official beginning of silly season. According to Yahoo's Pat Forde, Kentucky's list of candidates includes Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes (who figures to be a hot commodity) but does not include disgraced ex-Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, as many had previously assumed.

• Tennessee's Derek Dooley (4-5) might have joined Phillips on the firing squad Sunday had the Vols not escaped Troy (4-5), 55-48, a game in which their middling Sun Belt foe gained an astonishing 721 yards. Wait a week or two. Meanwhile, Cal's Jeff Tedford (3-7) sealed his fate with a 21-13 home loss to Washington (5-4). It's not just the losing. Cal spent $321 million renovating Memorial Stadium and can't fill the seats due to apathy for Tedford's program.

• It's a different story at UCLA, where Jim L. Mora's Bruins (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) are alone in first place in the Pac-12 South following a 66-10 dismantling of Arizona (5-4, 2-4). After a brief midseason slump, coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense is rolling again. Running back Johnathan Franklin has rushed for a combined 326 yards over the past two weeks, and UCLA is averaging 514.9 yards per game. Unlike last year's 6-6 team, this one could earn its way into the league championship game.

• Nebraska (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) took a big step toward capturing the Big Ten's Legends Division thanks to the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez. For the second time in three weeks, the Huskers rallied from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to win. Bo Pelini's team beat Michigan State (5-5, 2-4), 28-24, with a comeback capped by Martinez's five-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with six seconds left. Martinez did throw three picks, but he also ran for 205 yards on 17 carries. In doing so, he broke Eric Crouch's school record for career total offense (8,166 yards).

• Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) all but wrapped up the SEC East with a 37-10 win over Ole Miss (5-4, 2-3). All that remains for the Bulldogs is a trip to 2-7 Auburn. In the coming weeks, you'll likely hear chatter that the Dawgs would deserve to jump some or all of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame if they manage to upset No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta. But if that happens, note that seven of Georgia's eight wins have come against the following teams: Buffalo (1-7), Missouri (4-5), FAU (2-6), Vanderbilt (5-4), Tennessee (4-5), Kentucky (1-8) and Ole Miss (5-4).

• Miami (5-4, 4-2 ACC) took control of the ACC Coastal Division with a 30-12 rout of Virginia Tech (4-5, 2-3). However, there could be a forthcoming wrinkle. Miami may decide to self-impose another postseason ban in anticipation of NCAA sanctions. "We made the decision last year after we became bowl eligible," acting AD Blake James told The Miami Herald. "I think that would be the plan." Second-place North Carolina (6-3, 3-2) is already ineligible.

• Another week, another unsung player steps up for Oregon State (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12). With starting tailback Storm Woods sidelined by a leg injury, third-string sophomore Terron Ward, who had a previous season high of four carries, ran 19 times for 146 yards in a 36-26 win over Arizona State (5-4, 3-3). The Beavers also played without star cornerback Jordan Poyer. "That is what this team has done so far," said coach Mike Riley. "If someone is hurt, then somebody steps in and makes the big plays like Terron did."

• We salute you, Gary Patterson. Rather than put the ball back in the hands of Geno Smith, TCU's coach went for two on the final possession of double overtime in Morgantown -- and got it. Trevone Boykin's pass to Josh Boyce lifted the Horned Frogs (6-3, 3-3 Big 12) to a 39-38 win over reeling West Virginia (5-3, 2-3). Remember, Patterson did the same thing with 1:05 left in last year's 36-35 win at Boise State. "In these environments," said Boyce, "you have to go for it."

• A week after nearly slipping into the abyss at Kansas, Texas (7-2, 4-2 Big 12) recorded its most important win to date, a 31-22 victory at Texas Tech (6-3, 3-3). Quarterback David Ash, pulled against the Jayhawks, rebounded nicely with an 11-of-19, 264-yard, three-touchdown performance (with no interceptions), and the oft-maligned defense performed admirably. "This is more of what we expected to start the season,'' said Longhorns coach Mack Brown. "...It was the best team win we have had all year."

• Ohio State's (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) march to perfection continued with a 52-22 rout of Illinois (2-7, 0-5). After a bye, the Buckeyes' schedule finishes with Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) and Michigan (6-3, 4-1). Meanwhile, Indiana (4-5, 2-3) controls its Rose Bowl destiny. Seriously. After the Hoosiers' 24-21 victory over Iowa (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten), the winner of Saturday's Indiana-Wisconsin game now takes control of Ohio State and Penn State's vacated Leaders Division.

• It's rare that a top-20 team changes quarterbacks this late in the season, but that's exactly what is happening at Stanford (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12). While the struggling Josh Nunes played the first two series at Colorado (1-8, 1-5), redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan took over and went 18-of-23 for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-0 win. Coach David Shaw had been gradually giving the mobile Hogan more playing time. "You'll see a whole lot of Kevin Hogan" this week against Oregon State, said Shaw.

• Here's to the most amazing stat you'll read all week: Kansas State has scored 111 points off turnovers; its opponents have scored zero.

• Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has moved into the top five nationally in pass efficiency. He's completing 70.4 percent of his passes for the 9-0 Cardinals.

• With 157 rushing yards against UMass, Northern Illinois quarterback "Air" Jordan Lynch has now eclipsed 100 yards in eight straight games, an NCAA record for quarterbacks.

• Utah's Reggie Dunn set an NCAA record with his fourth career 100-yard kick return Saturday against Washington State. Three have come in the past two weeks.

• The annual enigma that is NC State continues. The same Wolfpack team (5-4, 2-3) that previously beat Florida State was embarrassed at home Saturday, losing 33-6 to Virginia (3-6, 1-4).

• Maryland's emergency linebacker-turned-quarterback Shawn Petty went 9-of-18 for 115 yards in a 33-13 loss to Georgia Tech. But he did throw two touchdown passes to Stefon Diggs.

• USF quarterback B.J. Daniels' career came to a sad end Saturday, when he broke his ankle against UConn. Daniels started 42 games in four seasons.

Back in the preseason, I was among the many delusional media types that thought Mike Leach would sweep into Pullman and lead Washington State to its first bowl berth in nine years. After all, that's what he did every season during his 10-year tenure at Texas Tech.

As it turns out, the 2-7 Cougars will not be bowling, and Leach has had one of the worst debut seasons of any newly hired coach in the country. It's not just that Wazzu is 0-6 in the Pac-12 (it even managed to lose to Colorado); it's that the Pirate is compounding things with some of his comments and actions.

On Saturday, Utah (4-5) ensured Leach of his first losing season as a head coach with a 49-6 blowout. Afterward, the notoriously oddball coach ripped his players at a postgame press conference, and he targeted his linemen in particular. "A part of it's effort, and some of it borders on cowardice," Leach said of an offensive line that allowed six sacks. "... It was one of the most heartless efforts up front I've ever seen. And our D-line wasn't any better." Then, in what amounts to overt humiliation, Leach ordered all of the Cougars' starting offensive and defensive linemen to come out of the locker room to field media questions (whether the media wanted to talk to them or not).

"In four decades of covering the [Pac-12], I've never seen anything like it," Seattle Times veteran Bud Withers wrote of the scene.

Remember, earlier in the season, Leach lamented that many of his seniors had an "empty-corpse quality." According to Withers, the coach went there again in his postgame radio interview. "That could have been a zombie convention," he said of the Cougars' performance.

You know what you're getting when you hire Leach. He's the farthest thing from conventional, and he says exactly what's on his mind. However, he also got fired from Texas Tech for allegedly embarrassing a player, and with the exception of his opening remarks ("Our effort today was pitiful. It starts with our coaches, with me in particular"), his entire postgame rant was a Bob Knight-esque exercise in verbal bullying. Coaches sometimes call out players as motivation, but with three games left in the season, that hardly seemed the intent here.

"We're going to have a lively spring, I'll tell you that," Leach said. "There's some individuals that aren't going to be here next year.

Don't be surprised if he loses a whole bunch of those individuals' allegiance for Washington State's last three games.

Cincinnati's running back executes the Tim Tebow jump pass without breaking stride.

With one lethal juke, Alabama's running back saves the Crimson Tide's national title hopes.

Mini-previews for three of Week 11's big games:

• Oregon State at Stanford, Saturday (3 p.m. ET): Each team has just one conference loss, and each still has a game remaining against Oregon. The winner here will likely become the Ducks' last remaining challenger in the Pac-12 North. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinal employ new quarterbacking sensation Hogan.

• Texas A&M at Alabama, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): These two programs, linked in history by their ties to shared coaches Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings, play for the first time as conference rivals. Yet it seems almost natural. Nick Saban is no fan of hurry-up offenses. Here's his chance to put the kibosh on one of them.

• Penn State at Nebraska, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Last year's game in State College was the first played after the release of the Jerry Sandusky grand jury report and Joe Paterno's subsequent ouster. It was a somber affair. Huskers fans, eyeing a trip to Indianapolis, hope for a celebratory afternoon this year in Lincoln.