By Stewart Mandel
November 18, 2012

The reasons behind the SEC's string of six straight BCS championships have been well documented. Schools like Alabama and LSU pay their coaches handsomely. Their backyard is the most fertile recruiting region in the country. The league's exposure on both CBS and ESPN is unmatched.

Give all due credit to Nick Saban, Les Miles, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. But the conference also knows how to game the system. Its scheduling strategy, mocked by many, is in fact pure genius.

Saturday was the most chaotic, season-altering set of games in 2012, and the SEC played almost no part in it. In fact, if you didn't watch a single SEC game Saturday (and why would you, with such offerings as Alabama-Western Carolina, Auburn-Alabama A&M and Texas A&M-Sam Houston State?), you were no less entertained or informed. LSU's dramatic 41-35 win over Ole Miss was the lone exception, and even there, the biggest highlight was Les Miles' postgame press conference.

And yet, despite seven conference teams facing FCS foes, one team (Missouri) losing to a 5-5 Big East squad (Syracuse) and another firing its coach (Tennessee's Derek Dooley) for losing to Vandy, no conference had a better weekend than the SEC. By the end of Saturday night, after Baylor stunned BCS No. 1 Kansas State, 52-24, and Stanford took out BCS No. 2 Oregon, 17-14, in overtime, the SEC had all but assured itself another spot in the BCS title game. One of its players had also taken firm control of the Heisman Trophy race.

Mike Slive was presumably hunkered down in his Birmingham bunker chuckling at the whole thing.

It was only a week ago that Texas A&M upset then top-ranked Alabama, a game that served the dual purpose of both endangering the SEC's national title streak and vaulting Aggies star Johnny Manziel into the Heisman discussion. Both the Tide and looming SEC championship game opponent Georgia needed help to get back into the BCS driver's seat by having two teams from the trio of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame lose, just as Manziel needed Wildcats star and Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein to slip up.

Well -- it's all happening. All the SEC teams and Manziel had to do was dispatch their respective mid-November cupcakes, then go home and watch their competition unravel from the comfort of their couches.

In the latest BCS standings, the 11-0 Irish are now the nation's No. 1 team, the first time they've reached that height in 19 years. On Saturday in Los Angeles, they will play for their first-ever BCS title game berth against tattered rival USC, now 7-4 following a 38-28 loss to UCLA, a game after which star quarterback Matt Barkley left with his right arm in a sling. Lane Kiffin announced Barkley will miss this week's matchup with a sprained shoulder. Win, and Notre Dame is in.

Right behind the Irish are a trio of one-loss SEC teams: Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Barring collapses this week by the Tide (against 3-8 Auburn) or Bulldogs (against 6-5 Georgia Tech), those two will stage their own BCS championship play-in on Dec. 1 in Atlanta.

For the Tide, it's as if the A&M game never happened. It took just one week for Nick Saban's team to move back into the top two following a loss, breaking last year's record of two weeks. For the Dawgs, it's as if their 35-7 demolition at the hands of South Carolina on Oct. 6 never happened. Since then, they've defeated one top-10 foe (Florida) while dispatching of 2-9 Kentucky, 5-6 Ole Miss, 3-8 Auburn and FCS Georgia Southern to seize control of their national championship fate.

And if the Irish fall this weekend, the Gators, who face 10-1 Florida State on Saturday, are sitting there ready to take Notre Dame's place in what would be a second straight all-SEC national title game. The fact that they have not left their state since Oct. 13 and needed a last-second blocked punt to avoid overtime against Louisiana-Lafayette is of no hindrance to their chances.

Many in other parts of the country will lambast those SEC schools for scheduling nonconference lightweights in November. On the contrary, they should be commended for their genius. There were 106 FBS vs. FCS matchups in 2012, so save the sanctimony. The SEC schools simply chose to play their games a couple months later than everyone else, and look how well that strategy paid off.

For instance, back in September, while the rest of the country was playing in traditional early tune-ups, Florida was beating Texas A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky in consecutive weeks to jump from No. 23 to No. 11 in the polls. When the Gators upset No. 4 LSU on Oct. 6, they assured themselves a season-long spot in the top 10. Then the Tigers got themselves back in the mix by beating South Carolina, which ensured Alabama received its rightful adulation upon beating LSU with a last-minute touchdown. Meanwhile, Georgia re-elevated its stock by beating Florida, which by then had notched another quality win over the Gamecocks, ensuring neither the Tide nor Gators ever fell too far.

And now, with their hardest work behind them, the SEC teams can sit back and watch the conferences with more work to do cannibalize themselves. On Saturday, 8-2 Stanford beat 10-0 Oregon on the Ducks' home field, in overtime -- a nearly identical result to 9-0 Alabama's home loss to 7-2 Texas A&M a week earlier. But now, Alabama is back in control of the BCS race while Chip Kelly's team fell to No. 5 in the standings.

Shouldn't have played that Tennessee Tech game so early, Oregon.

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2010, its fans couldn't wait to kiss the Big 12 goodbye. Ditto for Texas A&M when it joined the SEC, and for West Virginia when it joined the Big 12. Generally speaking, it feels good to be wanted.

In the latest case of realignment madness, however, the overwhelming reaction from Maryland fans upon learning Saturday of their school's planned move to the Big Ten was one of disapproval.

On Monday, Maryland's Board of Regents approved the school's move from the ACC to the Big Ten and the $50 million buyout that comes with it. A press conference is scheduled for Monday afternoon. It's expected the Big Ten will quickly add Rutgers in order to get to 14 teams.

In the meantime, more than 70 percent of respondents to a Washington Post poll asking whether Maryland should join the Big Ten voted "No." In a similar Baltimore Sun poll, more than half tabbed the possibility as "a bad move." And it didn't take long for a "Keep UMD in the ACC!" Facebook group to appear. Meanwhile, you don't need a poll to find out how Big Ten fans feel about the possibility of adding two traditionally irrelevant football programs. Unless you're a Ohio State or Michigan alum living in New Jersey or Maryland, there's no upside to this whatsoever.

We've seen no shortage of awkward marriages in realignment these past two years, but this may be the first move where the few individuals spearheading it may be among the only ones that actually want it to happen.

Financially, adding the two schools may well prove a boon for the Big Ten. Realignment is almost entirely about television sets, and as SI's Pete Thamel reported, the Big Ten Network stands to reap as much as $200 million more per year (which gets distributed among the schools) if it can land on basic cable in major East Coast markets like New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. As Thamel notes, however, that's no sure thing, with the East Coast's general apathy toward college sports in general and toward those two football programs, in particular.

But the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein notes that commissioner Jim Delany is a keen follower of demographics. While the population continues to gradually shift away from the Midwest, it's booming on the East Coast. Delany may consider the move an important step toward solidifying the conference's future.

He is going to have quite the job selling these additions to his league's fans, though, many of whom are only now begrudgingly coming to accept the Leaders and Legends divisions. Just as Maryland president Wallace Loh has to convince his basketball-crazed alums why they should be fine parting ways with Duke and North Carolina, Delany must tell Michigan fans they'll be making fewer trips to Madison in the future, but that Piscataway really is lovely in November.

Have we reached our breaking point on this stuff yet?

It doesn't often rain as it did at the Rose Bowl Saturday, but then, there's been a lot of change happening with college football in Los Angeles these days. In fact, there's been a changing of the guard.

For just the second time in 14 years, UCLA (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) beat USC (7-4, 5-4), 38-28, to clinch the Pac-12 South title. Unlike last year, when a 6-6 Bruins team backed its way in to the conference title game, this 2012 team has earned it. And unlike the last UCLA win in this series, a 13-9 upset in 2006 that became the high point of the Karl Dorrell era, nothing felt fluky or temporary about this result. Jim L. Mora's Bruins, winners of five straight heading into Saturday's game against No. 11 Stanford, are trending upwards. Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin's Trojans on Sunday became the first AP preseason No. 1 team since 1964 to drop out of the rankings entirely.

UCLA got another huge game from senior running back Johnathan Franklin (29 carries, 171 yards, two touchdowns), who now ranks among the nation's top five rushers. But the future looks bright in UCLA thanks in large part to dynamic redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, who runs coordinator Noel Mazzone's hurry-up offense with ease and helped stake the Bruins to a 17-0 first-quarter lead. Hundley finished 22-of-30 for 234 yards, a touchdown and no picks.

"We are just seeing the beginning of how great Brett Hundley can be," said Mora.

Meanwhile, USC's four-year starting quarterback, Matt Barkley, is enduring a nightmarish end to his college career. He threw two more interceptions to up his season total to 15, tying his amount from his freshman year. And his day ended with a crushing sack from star Bruins linebacker Anthony Barr that will force him to miss Saturday's Notre Dame game; he left the Rose Bowl with his right arm in a sling.

The loss raised more questions about Kiffin's job security -- which USC AD Pat Haden promptly squashed. Kiffin told reporters afterward he's been assured he'll be back next season, and Haden confirmed such to numerous media outlets.

"Lane is my head coach, 150 percent, now and hopefully for a long time," Haden told the Los Angeles Times. "I see the future. I see the potential. I know what he's been fighting through and I like what he's done."

Kiffin can still salvage some redemption if the Trojans ruin their other rival's national championship bid this week, but his job is only going to get harder the next couple of years as scholarship reductions take a heavier toll. This year was his best shot at a Pac-12 title for the foreseeable future. But another L.A team is ready to take the Trojans' place.

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: Notre Dame vs. AlabamaRose: Nebraska vs. OregonFiesta: Kansas State vs. StanfordSugar: LSU vs. OklahomaOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville

A week ago, the biggest question here was whether Notre Dame could go to the Rose Bowl. Now, we know with near certainty it will not. Either the Irish will play in Miami, or if they lose to USC, they'll play in Glendale. The Rose Bowl will get a Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup. Even if Oregon works itself back into the top two, Stanford, which jumped to No. 8 in the latest BCS standings Sunday, will finish in the top 14 even if it loses to UCLA this week. (Strangely, if the Cardinal win, they would then face the Bruins again in the Pac-12 title game six days later.)

The only real mystery now is which SEC team the Sugar Bowl will take to replace the Alabama-Georgia winner. If Florida beats Florida State, it will be guaranteed that spot by finishing in the top four. As you can tell by my projection above, I'm not predicting that to happen, and my sense is that the spot will not go to the SEC title game loser, since that team will view the Sugar Bowl as a consolation prize. In this scenario, we get a rematch of the 2003 BCS title game.

Not this week. I need time to reassess.

• Vanderbilt's ascension under James Franklin is costing other SEC coaches their jobs. Tennessee's Derek Dooley became the second coach this season (Kentucky's Joker Phillips was the first) to be fired shortly after a loss to the Commodores (7-4, 5-3 SEC), as he was dismissed Sunday following Vandy's 41-18 rout of the Vols. At 0-7 in the SEC this season and 4-19 in the league in three years, Dooley's ouster had been inevitable for weeks. "This is a result-based profession," said Tennessee AD Dave Hart. "You cannot ignore the results at the end of the day."

Many Vols fans have already turned their attention to popular replacement candidate Jon Gruden, whose potential in Knoxville seems to center almost entirely around the fact the Monday Night Football voice was a graduate assistant at the school 25 years ago and married a Tennessee cheerleader. Gruden seems torn about whether to return to coaching or become the new John Madden, but he figures to have NFL coaching opportunities as well. Tennessee will have to write a big check to lure him away.

• West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen deployed Tavon Austin as a running back against Oklahoma, and the results were staggering. Austin notched a Big 12-record 576 all-purpose yards, including 344 rushing yards on 21 carries. Yet even that wasn't enough for defensively challenged West Virginia (5-5, 2-5 Big 12). Landry Jones' sixth touchdown pass, with 24 seconds left, gave Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1) a 50-49 win. "They ended up making one more play than we did," said Holgorsen.

• Wisconsin's Monteé Ball tied the NCAA career touchdowns record (78) on Saturday, but the image of one that got away may define Ohio State's season. With 2:46 left, Ball dove toward the goal line only to be met by Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier, who punched the ball free, and Ohio State recovered. The Badgers managed to send the game to overtime, but Ohio State prevailed, 21-14, and will play for an undefeated season against 8-3 Michigan. "We can talk about it now," said Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer.

• Denard Robinson's final home game at Michigan Stadium was a bit different than all those that came before it. Coming off an elbow injury that forced him to miss two games, Robinson played running back, receiver and a little bit of quarterback against Iowa (4-7), notching 122 all-purpose yards. But his replacement, Devin Gardner, shined, accounting for six touchdowns in a 42-17 rout. Gardner has provided the offense with a new wrinkle that should give Wolverines' fans some cause for hope heading into Ohio State week.

• Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) finally figured out how to protect a fourth-quarter lead, going up 23-20 on Michigan State with 7:30 remaining and -- unlike in its three losses -- stopping the Spartans' last-ditch comeback effort. The Wildcats forced four turnovers. With a win next week against 2-9 Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald's team will post a winning record in conference play for the third time in its past five seasons and will likely play in the New Year's Day Outback or Gator bowls.

• One of the most overlooked coaching jobs this season is happening at Oklahoma State (7-3, 5-2 Big 12). Losing both former star Brandon Weeden and this year's top two quarterbacks has not slowed the Cowboys, who routed Texas Tech (7-4, 4-4), 59-21, on Saturday. Third-stringer Clint Chelf completed 11-of-21 passes for 229 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Mike Gundy's team will head into this week's Bedlam game against Oklahoma coming off consecutive 50-point efforts.

• Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was an 11th-hour replacement when Greg Schiano left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and FIU's Mario Cristobal turned down the Scarlet Knights' job. All he's done is lead the program to its first-ever 5-0 Big East record. On Saturday, Rutgers (9-1, 5-0) shut down Cincinnati (7-3, 3-2), 10-3 in what Flood, an eight-year staff member, called "the best defensive effort since I've been at Rutgers." The stage is nearly set for a winner-takes-the-BCS-berth showdown at 9-1 Louisville on Nov. 29.

• Meanwhile, the one team to beat Rutgers, No. 22 Kent State (10-1, 7-0 MAC), locked up a berth in the MAC title game and achieved its first 10-win season in school history with a 31-24 victory over Bowling Green (7-4, 5-2). Dynamo Dri Archer, who you first heard about in this column, sprang for 241 rushing yards on 17 carries, including this incredible 74-yard run that has to go down as one of the plays of the year -- just as Darrell Hazell will surely get nods for Coach of the Year.

• Perhaps it comes with playing in the ACC, but Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is having the quietest monstrous season imaginable for a 10-1 team. On Saturday, Boyd accounted for 529 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns (five passing, three rushing) in a 62-48 shootout win over NC State (6-5, 3-4). Counterpart Mike Glennon, the new NFL draft prospect du jour, threw for 493 yards and five scores. "Overall, it was a fun game," said Boyd.

• As if this season hasn't been hard enough for Boston College fans to swallow, on Saturday, shortly before the 2-9 Eagles fell in overtime to Virginia Tech, former standout running back Montel Harris rushed for a Big East-record 351 yards and seven touchdowns on 36 carries in Temple's 63-32 rout of Army. And that was after Matt Brown rushed for the first two touchdowns before leaving with an injury. The Owls (4-6) and Black Knights (2-9) attempted a combined 13 passes.

• WAC football is going out in style. In a game that likely decided the league title, Utah State (9-2, 5-0) topped No. 19 Louisiana Tech (9-2, 4-1), 48-41, in overtime, after the Bulldogs rallied from a 27-3 second-half deficit. Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron finally threw his first two interceptions of the season. Meanwhile, much-improved San Jose State (9-2, 4-1) topped BYU, 20-14, to give the league more nine-win teams than any other non-AQ conference.

• In a likely preview of the Conference USA championship game, Tulsa (9-2, 7-0) edged UCF (8-3, 6-1), 23-21. The teams could meet again in Tulsa in two weeks.

• In the 148th meeting of their historic rivalry, Lehigh beat Lafayette, 38-21. It was announced Saturday that the teams' 150th game, in 2014, will be played at Yankee Stadium.

• Harvard beat Yale, 34-24, on Saturday. With the win, Harvard has now notched six straight victories over Yale for the first time in the 129-year history of the The Game.

• Beleaguered Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson isn't going down without a fight. When his team scored an 86-yard touchdown with 2:48 left to get within 34-33 of UTEP, Ellis went for two. The Eagles didn't get it, and thus fell to 0-11.

With two weeks remaining, the Heisman race has been thrown into flux. Most people seem to agree that Texas A&M's Johnny Football is the player to beat, but those other two spots on the ballot have suddenly become wide open. Voters really ought to take a look at the Johnny Football of the MAC -- Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.

In last Wednesday's nationally televised 31-24 win over Toledo, the Huskies' first-year starter became the first "400/150" player in college football history -- he threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 162 yards on 30 carries. He even contributed a 62-yard punt to boot.

"For how long people have been playing college football, to go out and have a record of your own, that's pretty special," said Lynch, a fourth-year junior, on Sunday. "But definitely if you watched the game, there's tons of plays our receivers and running backs made to help me out."

It was just the latest milestone for Lynch, who, in leading NIU to a 10-game win streak and clinching a third straight MAC championship game berth, has rushed for at least 100 yards in nine straight games, an NCAA record for quarterbacks. He ranks third nationally among all players with 1,504 rushing yards, putting him within 198 of Denard Robinson's NCAA single-season quarterback record of 1,702. He also ranks third in total offense (371.5 yards per game), one spot behind Manziel, and 10th in pass efficiency (159.4), one spot above Geno Smith.

Northern Illinois, formerly coached by Minnesota's Jerry Kill, was the lone FBS school to offer the 6-foot, 216-pound Chicago native a scholarship to play quarterback. Lynch ran the triple-option in high school, offering few chances to show off his arm, but the system did prepare him to run NIU's spread-option offense.

While Lynch is reticent to brag about himself ("All credit goes to the coaches for putting me in the right situation and for making my stats possible," he said), NIU is not holding back. It launched an official Heisman campaign for Lynch a few weeks ago, complete with a promotional website, And his coach, Dave Doeren, whose 24th-ranked team (10-1) has now won 19 of its last 20 games (an 18-17 loss to Iowa in this year's season opener was the lone setback), is happy to campaign for him.

"I think to be the Heisman winner, you have to do everything. You've got to be almost perfect," Doeren said recently. "All he needs to do is continue to do what he's doing, win games, be productive, and not make mistakes. That's what he's doing. ... To win that award, you've got to play that way. I think he's deserving of the conversation."

The last MAC player to earn an invitation to New York was Marshall's Chad Pennington in 1999. Byron Leftwich finished sixth in 2002, and Ben Roethlisberger came in ninth in '03. Lynch is hurt by the fact he came into the year with no name recognition, but he'll have another showcase opportunity on Nov. 30 against No. 23 Kent State.

Adjust the volume level on your computer -- then just watch and enjoy (especially the end).

You will now.

Mini-previews for three of Week 13's big games:

Michigan at Ohio State, Saturday (Noon ET): The first installment of Urban Meyer vs. Brady Hoke could be the beginning of a long and heated rivalry-inside-the-rivalry. Michigan snapped a seven-year losing streak against the Buckeyes last season. Braxton Miller will look to avenge that defeat and deliver Ohio State's first undefeated season since 2002.

Florida at Florida State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Gators possess the nation's 114th-ranked passing offense, just ahead of all the triple-option teams. But hey, they're 10-1, and they also lay claim to the nation's fourth-ranked defense, which will attempt to slow Florida State's running game and try to rattle Seminoles star EJ Manuel.

Notre Dame at USC, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Trojans still have Marqise Lee. The sophomore receiver racked up another nine catches for 158 yards last week and could personally derail Notre Dame's national title hopes. Otherwise, however, it's the Irish's suffocating front seven going up against USC's redshirt freshman backup quarterback.

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