When can you safely assume that the game you've just witnessed was
not a masterpiece of offense? When one of the stars trotted out
for reporters is the punter. Take a bow, Ohio State senior Andy
Groom. Enjoy your moment in the sun. That 59-yard moon shot you
belted out of your own end zone late in the fourth quarter helped
ice an ugly-as-sin 13-7 win against Penn State. When it was over,
Groom and his teammates gathered in the south end zone of the
Horseshoe, faced the Buckeyes' band and sang along to Carmen
While our hearts rebounding thrill,
With joy which death alone can still....
Actually, Ohio State's joy may be stilled by something less
dramatic. Yes, the Buckeyes are 9-0. Yes, they could win out and
finish the regular season 13-0. No, that would not guarantee them
a shot at the national championship.
What's up with that? Is it not one of the basic tenets of sport
that if you win all your games, you win the title? Sorry. That's
not how Division I-A college football works. Ohio State is one of
eight undefeated teams, an absurdly inflated number for November.
The cold truth is, most of those squads could finish their
seasons unbeaten yet still ascend no higher than third in the BCS
rankings, which would leave them with their noses pressed against
the glass of the championship game, the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl.
November 4, 2002
Let us harden our hearts and narrow the field by two. We applaud
your spotless seasons, N.C. State and Bowling Green, even as we
exclude you from the rest of this discussion. Your respective
chances of playing in the Fiesta are nil and niller. Try not to
be bitter. Georgia and Ohio State, two other teams that made it
out of October unscathed, are only slightly better off; both need
major help if they're to get to the Fiesta. The four remaining
teams--Miami, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame--are more in
control of their fate, though ultimately the decision will come
down to the arcane calculus of the BCS formula (box, page 64).
One team will be especially hard to keep out of the Fiesta Bowl
if it remains unbeaten, and that's the Fighting Irish. They came
into the season unranked and to date have played the nation's
toughest schedule without a blemish. Apologies are in order here
not only to the Irish, whom we suspected of winning with lucky
bounces and the sorcery of first-year coach Ty Willingham, but
also to The New York Times computer ranking, which was ridiculed
when the Old Gray Lady dubbed Notre Dame the nation's best team.
What can we say? The computers were right. The microchips somehow
divined what the experts could not--that a team with the Irish's
strengths (solid special teams; punishing, larcenous defense; a
wizard for a coach) doesn't need a prolific offense. While the
Irish found themselves No. 6 in the human polls going into last
Saturday's game at Florida State, they were third in the BCS
rankings. Four of the seven BCS computers had them ranked No. 1.
The machines saw what we missed.
Until Saturday, that is, when the skeptics saw Notre Dame thump
the Seminoles in their own stadium 34-24. The Irish put the game
away in one stunning, 4 1/2-minute stretch in the third quarter
during which they scored 17 points. The highlight was free safety
Glenn Earl's cartoon-violent collision with Seminoles quarterback
Chris Rix, which propelled the ball 15 yards into the Florida
backfield. The Irish picked it up and scored a touchdown two
plays later, then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and
scored again. The Seminoles were finished. "People say they
turned the ball over," says Earl. "Not exactly. We forced those
turnovers. There's a difference."
These guys will let you know if they think you're not giving them
their due. "I don't even like the word opportunistic," says
linebacker Courtney Watson. That adjective, he says, is too
suggestive of luck. "Catching balls, stripping balls, recovering
balls, picking 'em up and running 'em back--those are things that
we practice every day, things we take pride in."
It irks some Golden Domers that the country was late to warm to
them. "People say our offense doesn't put up 40-plus points a
game," says Watson. (The Irish offense is averaging 19.4 per
game.) "Well, where does it say you need a high-scoring offense
to win a national championship?"
Notre Dame will breathe easier if some of the other undefeated
teams take themselves out of the running. Miami's Dec. 7 game
with Virginia Tech will dispose of one of the unbeatens. It will
also help the Irish if Colorado upsets Oklahoma this weekend.
Buffaloes tailback Chris Brown, one of the best runners in the
country, is also the best friend and an ex-high school teammate
of Glenn Earl. "I'm gonna call him this week," says Earl, "and
tell him he needs to go for about 350 [yards] against Oklahoma."
Like Notre Dame the Georgia Bulldogs were nobody's choice for
national champion contenders. And for that reason they feel some
affinity with the Irish. Before last Saturday's game at Kentucky,
most Georgia players were glued to their hotel room TVs watching
Notre Dame and Florida State. "Notre Dame is a lot like us, a
team with a great defense and an offense that has done just
enough to get wins," says junior wideout Terrence Edwards. "The
difference is that everyone else gets a lot more press than we
Not surprisingly, when the Bulldogs lost three key
players--offensive lineman John Stinchcomb (sore left knee),
tailback Musa Smith (broken left thumb) and wideout Fred Gibson
(broken left thumb)--the week before the Kentucky game, the
pundits made them a popular upset choice. "When Miami beat
Florida State, the sports radio shows talked about 'the cream
rising to the top,'" says defensive end David Pollack, "but when
we beat Alabama, they were saying that we 'squeaked by.'"
Strictly speaking, that's true: Georgia has won four of its games
by six points or fewer. But led by the improving quarterback
tandem of David Greene and D.J. Shockley, the Bulldogs rolled up
529 yards in their 52-24 win over Kentucky. Even so, the
Bulldogs' locker room had all the festiveness of an accountants'
convention. "There was not a huge celebration, and I think it was
because we know what is ahead of us next week against Florida,"
says coach Mark Richt. "I just told them that we still haven't
done anything yet."
The Dawgs cannot be pleased by the fact that despite their
thrashing of Kentucky, they were leapfrogged in the AP poll by
the Irish. So was Ohio State, which fell to sixth after its
lackluster win over Penn State. In the event that the Buckeyes
finish 13-0 and still get frozen out of the Fiesta, a pleasant
consolation awaits: the Rose Bowl. That would cap a great run for
a program that was in disarray just two seasons ago. Second-year
coach Jim Tressell has put the pride, and a bit of fun, back into
Buckeyes football. A few days before the Penn State game Tressell
gave the green light to his defensive assistants to start
sophomore flanker Chris Gamble at cornerback. In becoming the
Buckeyes' first two-way starter since Paul Warfield in 1963,
Gamble didn't just take up space in the secondary. He also turned
in the play of the game, a 40-yard interception return for a
touchdown that featured a sick cutback at the 15-yard line.
While one star was born, another was temporarily dimmed. Ohio
State lost Maurice Clarett, its sensational freshman tailback, on
the sixth play of the game. (He suffered a stinger in his left
shoulder but was expected back for the Minnesota game on
Saturday.) Clarett's injury turned him into a cheerleader--he was
among the first to mob Gamble after his pick--and raised the
question, How good is Ohio State's offense without Clarett? The
answer: not good. As in zero touchdowns on Saturday.
Still, with safeties Donnie Nickles and Mike Doss hand-signaling
the coverages to Gamble, the defense shut out the Nittany Lions
in the second half. Afterward, defensive coordinator Mark
Dantonio talked about the resilience of his group. "When
something bad happens," he said, "they don't stay down for very
That's a good thing. Even if they win their remaining games, the
Buckeyes could be in for that disappointment peculiar to big-time
college football, where winning 'em all doesn't mean winning it
How good is Ohio State's offense without Clarett? Not good.
As in zero touchdowns against Penn State on Saturday.