Faint of heart fans need not apply
SEC road bumps leave fans wide-eyed, exhausted each week
A big win matters … until it doesn’t.
For some teams, a conference victory against a top-five team could bolster an entire season or change the direction of a program altogether. It can resonate for years – until the next big game, until the memory of that victory is gradually eroded by time. Boise State fans still likely relish the Broncos’ victory against No. 10 Virginia Tech in the 2010 season opener. NC State’s win on Saturday against Florida State will be remembered among Wolfpack faithful for the better part of a decade. Memories of Texas Tech’s heart-stopping victory against No. 1 Texas in 2008 will always make eyes sparkle in Lubbock.
But what’s the shelf life for a win like that in the SEC? How long does knocking off a top-five team matter? How long does it keep you in voters’ and fans’ good graces?
One week, occasionally two.
South Carolina ran past No. 5 Georgia 35-7 on Saturday, establishing itself as the preeminent squad in the SEC East. It was the type of win – dominance in all three facets of the game – that would be the pinnacle of most seasons, all but guaranteeing a berth in one of the nation’s top bowls and undying contentment from a fanbase. How long will they remember it in Columbia? How long will they be able to take pride in the most important win the program has had in several years?
Until 8 p.m. ET Saturday.
Then the pride and swagger gets swallowed by anxiety and doubt when the Gamecocks step under the searing lights in Baton Rouge. Lose, and they could slip to second in the SEC East -- the amity generated by the win against Georgia would be swept away in a week’s time.
Florida, too, had a season-defining win. It knocked off No. 4 LSU 14-6, a team that hadn’t lost to anyone not coached by Nick Saban since Nov. 27, 2010. The Gators beat the Tigers at their own game -- not easy to do -- by leaning on the run and trusting that their defense wouldn’t yield.
This was, by far, the most important win in Will Muschamp’s year-plus at the helm in Florida and is the program’s biggest win since it bested LSU in October 2009. So savor it, Gator fans -- you’ve got exactly two weeks before you worry about the fate of your team, of its season. Two weeks from now, the Gamecocks travel to Gainesville in a game that could decide the fate of the SEC East. Last Saturday’s victory against the nation’s No. 4 team will be a distant memory once they see Steve Spurrier and his army draped in garnet and black on the opposing sideline.
Such is life on 14 gridirons across the South.
We hear myriad reasons why the SEC is the nation’s best conference. It hauls in a plurality of the nation’s of four- and five-star recruits. The past six crystal footballs handed out now rest in trophy cases in Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida. Their stadiums, their crowds, intimidate visitors like few others. Their fans eradicate the most BBQ before games. Etc., etc., etc.
But, in my mind, the reason the SEC should be the most revered and feared conference is the fact that two weeks from now, all that transpired on Saturday won’t matter anymore; that it’ll be overshadowed by a new set of games that captivate not just the conference, but the nation; that no matter how many top-10 teams you knock off, there’s always another one lurking around the corner.
So savor Saturday, denizens of Gainesville and Columbia. The wins have changed the course of your seasons and thrust you into the national title discussion -- for a week or two.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the aforementioned SEC clashes. In last week’s preview column, I noted that either Georgia or South Carolina needed to win convincingly to grab the attention of the folks with vast houndstooth hat collections. Thanks for reading, Head Ball Coach! South Carolina sealed this one quicker than Luke Wilson fell from svelte movie star to chubby cell phone pitchman. Ten minutes into the game, Ace Sanders taught a master’s class in the complexities of fast-twitch muscle fibers on a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown that put the Gamecocks up 21-0. Along the way to his first punt-return touchdown of the season, he pulled off a couple of violent jukes that asserted control over would-be-tacklers’ central nervous systems and melted my own ACLs just from watching. I look forward to watching him do the same on Sundays in the coming years. The Gamecocks held Georgia’s seemingly potent offense to 224 total yards and shut it out until 1:55 remained and South Carolina was playing the “meh, we’re up by 35 defense” (even less effective than the prevent). On the other side of the ball, Spurrier refrained from pitching it all around the yard -- Connor Shaw only attempted 10 passes, completing six for 162 yards and a pair of scores -- in favor of pounding the rock into the teeth of the Georgia defense. The Gamecocks spread 51 carries among Shaw, Marcus Lattimore, Kenny Miles and Mike Davis. Those runs went for 230 yards, at a solid, if unspectacular, 4.5 yards-per-tote. Slow and steady won this race.
We all know about closers in baseball -- which, by the way, is the absolute coolest job ever created; any profession where you’re given entrance music and pyrotechnics before you perform you do your job is unbeatable. But have we heard the term in football? Not often. However, the Florida defense has a fourth-quarter ERA of 0.00. The Gators have outscored opponents 41-0 in the final frame this season.
|LSU at FLORIDA|
On Saturday, Florida topped LSU 7-0 in the final quarter en route to the 14-6 win. The Gators were shout out in the first half, but their methodical running attack, spearheaded by 34 carries for 146 yards and a pair of scores by chronically unheralded running back Mike Gillislee, wore down the Tigers. How Gillislee survived 34 carries against LSU, I have no idea. I’m sure he woke up Sunday morning feeling like a man who had, literally, fought a tiger. (Tylenol needs a new product for such a situation, dubbed Tylenol Extra “I Just Carried The Ball 34 Times Against LSU and Hope My Appendages Don’t Fall Off” Strength.) But the effort was well worth it; Jeff Driskel didn’t have to win the game with his arm. The sophomore quarterback was asked to pass only 12 times. He completed eight for 61 yards, and, most importantly, no interceptions. That Gators’ defense, meanwhile, held the Tigers to a mere 200 yards, only 42 of which came on the ground. LSU gets physically overpowered about as often as your dog scoffs at the last piece of bacon, but it happened on Saturday.
West Virginia’s defense yielded 45 points to Texas. Geno Smith, perhaps the nation’s best quarterback, was held to half of the touchdowns he threw the week prior and fewer than half of the yards he put up. The Longhorns held the Mountaineers to 22 fewer points than they scored the week before against Baylor. Sounds grim, but, oh yeah, West Virginia won.
Geno “only” threw for 268 yards and four touchdowns in the Mountaineers’ 48-45 seesaw win against the Longhorns. (do kids even know what seesaws are anymore? Is there a seesaw game on the Wii?) Smith, somehow, wasn’t West Virginia’s most impressive player. That honor belonged to sophomore running back Andrew Buie, who dashed for 207 yards and a pair of scores. Shocking. Not because of Buie’s numbers, but because I didn’t realize that West Virginia even carried a running back on its roster. Someone must’ve told them that the forward pass isn’t the only means of matriculatin’ the ball down field. What will innovative head coach Dana Holgorsen do with this transformative bit information moving forward? West Virginia’s offense just became more potent than Tylenol Extra “I Just Carried The Ball 34 Times Against LSU and Hope My Appendages Don’t Fall Off” Strength. The Mountaineers now have a legitimate shot at capturing the Big 12 title in their first year in the conference. Texas, meanwhile, though much improved, hasn’t finished rebuilding.
Well, assuming the Mayans don’t get their way, it looks like Urban Meyer and Ohio State will enjoy the Big Ten for the next few years. (What are we going to do next year when the Mayan jokes don’t work anymore? Personally, I hope someone unearths an aboriginal prophesy foretelling the end of the world in 2017 so we can keep this thing rolling.) After the Buckeyes knocked off Michigan State the week before, I thought Nebraska might be the Big Ten’s best chance to put a blemish on Urban Meyer’s record in Year 1. Well, I’m about as good at forecasting Big Ten games as the Mayans are the end of the world because Ohio State beat the Huskers by 25. Ouch. And they beat them at their own game. Ohio State amassed 371 rushing yards, spearheaded by quarterback Braxton Miller’s 186 yards. Nebraska mustered 223 yards on the ground, seemingly impressive, but nearly 100 yards below its season average. Adding injury to insult? Nebraska’s best ballcarrier Rex Burkhead seems to have reaggravated the left knee injury he suffered in the year’s first game. He still managed 119 yards on the ground before he tweaked it in the third quarter, but he did not return. Nebraska still has a shot at the conference title thanks to the Buckeyes’ postseason ban, but it’ll need a healthy Burkhead to have a chance.
Saturday left no doubt in my mind that Oregon is the best team outside of the SEC. The Ducks’ “closest” game so far this season was 23-point Week 1 win against Arkansas State. Their average margin of victory through six games is 34 points. That average got pulled down a bit last Saturday when they beat No. 25 Washington by a mere 31. To put that in the appropriate context, remember that Stanford beat USC and Washington beat Stanford. On Saturday against the Huskies, the Ducks possessed the ball for only 24:42. That meager possession time yielded 32 first downs, 52 points and 20.1 yards-per-minute. All of this with a redshirt freshman, Marcus Mariota, under center. The Ducks haven’t asked Mariota to do too much -- most of his responsibilities involved getting the ball to Oregon’s countless weapons underneath -- but he has limited his mistakes, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this year.
Remember when Miami (Fla.) routinely fielded an NFL-caliber roster? Remember when Notre Dame struggled to win eight games a year? Yeah, that was when Luke Wilson was still funny. In a game played in Chicago’s Soldier Field on Saturday, Notre Dame’s defenders played like they were wearing orange C’s on their helmets. They held a Miami offense that was averaging more than 40 points-per-game during the previous three weeks to a field goal, pushing the Irish to second nationally in scoring defense. The Hurricanes couldn’t even muster 300 yards. The Irish offense showed up too, hanging 41 on Miami and rushing for 376 yards. Aside from what South Carolina did to Georgia, this may have been the most impressive showing of the week.
As has been commonplace so far this season, the most exciting game of the week was played out West. Arizona and Stanford played “Wii Seesaw” (Wiisaw?) all afternoon in a game that saw 11 lead changes. Arizona held the lead for an eternity -- 11 whole minutes -- in the fourth quarter. But it wouldn’t hold. Stanford stormed back from a 14-point deficit to tie it then put it away in overtime on a Stepfan Taylor 21-yard touchdown run. This was another gut-wrenching loss for Arizona a week after falling three points short of finishing off a 17-point comeback against Oregon State. The Wildcats are now 0-3 in the Pac-12, but have held their own with a pair of top-20 teams in consecutive weeks. Stanford needed the win badly after getting shocked by the Huskies.
Geno Smith has gotten a lot of Heisman talk the past couple of weeks. Tossing a dozen touchdowns will do that for you. But there’s another quarterback in his conference quietly making a strong case of his own.
Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein added four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing), 129 yards through the air and 116 on the ground to his impressive Heisman résumé in the Wildcats’ 56-16 romp against the rival Jayhawks. Kansas lost to Northern Illinois the previous week, so we all assumed K-State would have a big day, but Klein may have exceeded expectations. Many quarterbacks have posted better numbers than Klein this year, but that’s because they’re snapping the ball every 10 seconds. Wildcats’ head coach Bill Snyder prefers to crawl rather than sprint, so Klein doesn’t get as many opportunities to post gaudy stats. But he’s made the most of those he does get. His 82 rushing yards-per-game rank seventh most among quarterbacks in all of FBS and his seven rushing touchdowns put him in a tie for fourth among signal callers. And it doesn’t hurt his case that the Wildcats are undefeated and have surged to No. 6 in the nation, one spot behind Geno’s Mountaineers.
I’d given Texas Tech quite a lot of love in my columns so far this year (not as much as Gus or Brax, but still), though I wondered if the Red Raiders dominant statistical start on both sides of the ball was more of a reflection of their below-average schedule or own prowess. On Saturday, we got our answer. Oklahoma, which had already fallen to Kansas State, gave Texas Tech its first blemish of the season, and it wasn’t a little scratch. The Sooners put up 41 against a Red Raider defense that had yet to allow more than 14 points in a game this season. The Sooners led 38-13 in the third quarter and went on to win 41-20 despite the fact that Texas Tech led early.
There are no easy games in the SEC. Conference newcomer Texas A&M almost learned that simple truth the hard way on Saturday. After posting 176 points in their past three games, the Aggies could only muster 17 through three quarters at Ole Miss, which is expected by many to finish near the bottom of the SEC West this year. Even programs in the SEC that are stuck redoing the kitchen can give you trouble, especially when you’re on the road. True to that, Ole Miss had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. A week after setting the SEC record for total yardage in a game, Texas A&M freshman triggerman Johnny Manziel tossed a pair of picks and couldn’t muster 200 passing yards. But the Aggies won this one on the ground, thanks in large part to the versatile Manziel, who went for 129 with his feet, including a key fourth-quarter 29-yard gallop. The Aggies learned an important lesson on Saturday about their new conference -- and they’re lucky they did so without suffering a second loss.
Whoops, my fault. A couple of weeks ago, after it beat Clemson, I was so certain that FSU was finally “back.” Back can be interpreted in many ways (just ask Sir-Mix-A-Lot), but in this context I meant back to the elite level where you take care of business in conference and your only real competition is heavyweights from the other top conferences. I meant consistently appearing in the top five or top 10. “Back” certainly didn’t mean that I thought they were capable of scoring a lot of points at home, but forgetting their potential when 80,000 people aren’t doing the tomahawk chop in their general vicinity. Back didn’t mean losing to a 3-2 team that had already dropped a conference game to Miami. But that seems to be as far “back” as FSU has gotten. On Saturday, the formerly No. 3 Seminoles fell 17-16 to an NC State team with previous wins against Connecticut, Citadel and South Alabama. This one has supplanted Stanford’s Week 3 upset against USC as the biggest shocker of the year. FSU dominated the first half, jumping out to a 16-0 lead, but whatever happened at halftime in the FSU locker room must’ve been the exact opposite of anything you’ve ever seen in a sports movie. NC State stormed back, capping it with a Sean Glennon touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining. Wolfpack fans rushed the field as the Florida State faithful consulted with Priceline Negotiator William Shatner, who helped them arrange hotel accommodations for the Orange Bowl instead of the national title game.
Down goes Northwestern! Down goes Northwestern! The mighty Wildcats have finally fallen! Did I just say that? When the team with the second-most losses in FBS history drops a game, we should probably shrug rather than do whatever it is you do when you’re taken aback. And the fact that they lost to one of the winningest programs in history -- Penn State -- makes it more of a dog-bites-man story. But, this year, it’s far from it. Northwestern was undefeated. Penn State had already fallen twice and was expected by many to succumb a third time against the almost vaunted Wildcats. And it looked like it was going according to plan early -- the Wildcats led 28-17 at the end of the third. But Penn State scored 21 unanswered to put this one away. The perfect season is finally over. Oh well, Wildcat fans, I guess it’s back to performing well on graduate entrance exams and being wildly successful in your professional lives. Sorry you had to endure that.
Three minutes into Thursday’s game at Utah, the Trojans found themselves staring down a delirious crowd and a 14-point deficit. USC’s high-flying offense had yielded seven points -- for the Utes -- on an 8-yard scoop-and-score by Nate Fakahafua. Given Utah’s stout defense, anchored by 320-pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the situation seemed dire for the Trojans. Amid national championship expectations, the loss against Stanford was heartbreaking. A second loss to unranked Utah would’ve been backbreaking. But, as I wrote in a feature about USC’s recent trip to Haiti, this team has learned how to handle adversity. Rather than turning against each other, the Trojans rallied behind the stellar play of quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans’ eventual 38-28 win. Despite the comeback, USC can’t hope to play at this level if it hopes to remain in contention for the crystal football that so many expected them to win two months ago.
For Razorback fans, September in Arkansas felt more like Greenland. It was a long, dark, cold month that included an overtime loss to tiny Louisiana-Monroe and blowouts at the hands of Alabama, Rutgers and Texas A&M. Well, the sun finally peaked through the clouds on Saturday when Arkansas headed to Auburn. The Razorbacks leaned on their defense in a convincing 24-7 win against an SEC West foe. The once-promising season is lost, but Arkansas can still fight for pride and respect. On Saturday, it earned quite a bit back. Seventeen-point wins don’t happen often in the SEC, especially when you’re already 0-2 in the conference. The Razorbacks have a great opportunity to prove it wasn’t a fluke when they host Kentucky this week.
Speaking of surprising conference wins, I’d like to welcome Cal to the weekly Pac-12 game of rock, paper, scissors, caulk (since Cal is now involved I suppose we have to add another unrelated inanimate household inanimate object -- let’s go with coffeepot). Apparently coffeepot beats caulk (hey, I don’t make the rules) because Cal knocked off UCLA 43-17 on Saturday. UCLA held the lead through much of the first quarter, but then the Bruins started to cough up the ball. In all, the once-ranked team had six turnovers. That’s how you lose by 26 to a team riding a three-game losing streak. UCLA’s promising start, and offense that ranked among the nation’s best, now seem like distant memories after a pair of losses to Oregon State and Cal. Everyone continues to beat up on everyone in the nation’s westernmost conference. Well, except for Oregon, which would be “atom bomb” in the inanimate object game. My bold prediction: Caulk and coffeepot won’t fare well against atom bomb.
1. The nation’s longest winning streak ended on Saturday. TCU hadn’t lost a game since the Clinton administration. (That’s a blatant lie; just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention. The Horned Frogs’ last loss was Oct. 1 last year against SMU.) The 12-game streak was halted primarily because TCU was without quarterback Casey Pachall, who is serving a suspension for reasons you can Google. Without Pachall, TCU coughed the ball up five times to Iowa State, including three picks thrown by freshman backup quarterback Trevone Boykin, who was thrown to the wolves with little prep time after Pachall’s suspension Friday. Iowa State never trailed in its 37-23 win. The quarterback, who had tossed 10 touchdowns and one interception, is currently suspended indefinitely and TCU’s next win streak may be suspended along with him.
2. Many physicians and physical therapists note that an ACL tear can be a two-year injury. The first year is spent undergoing surgery and rehab so you can set foot on the field again. The second is a year spent playing while trying to overcome doubt and fear. UNC running back Giovani Bernard had a tremendous season last year (1,253 yards, 13 TD, 5.2 YPC) in his first season back after ACL surgery. If that was his year hampered by doubt and fear, then it seemed ACC linebackers would be in trouble this season. But the knee started to give him trouble again earlier this season and he missed a pair of games. Since his return to the lineup, it’s clear that, despite recently tweaking it, he’s overcome the mental hurdles associated with the injury as he’s averaging more than 9 yards-per-carry this season. On Saturday, he was almost single-handedly responsible for UNC’s impressive 48-34 win against Virginia Tech. He led the FBS in rushing for the week with 262 yards at an 11.4 yards-per-carry clip. Bernard’s mind is clearly at peace with the injury. If his body can hold up, expect him to wind up as one of the nation’s top backs this season.
3. Michigan began the season ranked in the top 10. In the wake of poor showings against Alabama and Notre Dame, the Wolverines find themselves bumped back to No. 25. Electric quarterback Denard Robinson has struggled throwing the ball -- he has eight interceptions vs. seven touchdowns tosses -- but has more than made up for it with his legs. In Saturday’s 44-13 romp against Purdue, Robinson set the record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback in Big Ten history. Former Indiana Hoosier Antwaan Randle El held the old mark with 3,895 yards, but Robinson’s 235-yard afternoon against the Boilermakers pushed his career rushing total to 3,905. With seven games left on the schedule to add to that total, the record could be Robinson’s for quite some time.
Here are the games you should be looking for on Saturday when you're glued to the television:
No. 15 Texas
vs. No. 13 Oklahoma
The Red River Rivalry (lucked out on location here; it wouldn’t sound as good if it were the Euphrates River Rivalry) has lost some of its luster this year with both teams entering the game with a loss on the books. This one won’t alter the national landscape as it often does. Still, both teams are in the top 15 and the winner will remain in contention for a Big 12 title, while the loser will have a tough time digging out of a two-conference loss hole.
No. 3 South Carolina
at No. 9 LSU
8 p.m. ET
Just another SEC game that pits two top-10 teams against each other. Meh, just another Saturday in the South. Will LSU lose in consecutive weeks against SEC East foes? Is Bama the lone stalwart out West this season? Or will normalcy be restored by an LSU win, throwing the SEC East standings into the sort of mathematical chaos that only Stephen Hawking will be able to resolve at season’s end. South Carolina is scary on both sides of the ball, while the Tigers are more one-dimensional. Still, under the lights in Baton Rouge, that dimension (I’m talking about defense, if you’ve never watched college football) is capable of winning a game single-handedly. LSU is nearly impossible to beat at home at night, so expect another compelling SEC clash.
No. 22 Texas A&M
at No. 23 Louisiana Tech
9 p.m. ET
There are dozens of games to choose from next week and I’m excited by one featuring Louisiana Tech? Yes, I am. It’s 5-0, in case you haven’t been paying attention. It’s knocked off Houston, Rice, Illinois, Virginia and UNLV. The showdown with Texas A&M was scheduled for Week 1, but got washed out by Hurricane Isaac. A contest that would’ve drawn limited interest had it been played a month-and-a-half ago now features a pair of nationally ranked teams with one loss between them. Can another small school from Louisiana upset an SEC team? Let’s watch to find out.
No. 17 Stanford
at No. 7 Notre Dame
3:30 p.m. ET
Can anyone make Notre Dame even break a sweat? The Irish have dominated big-name programs in the past three weeks, holding Miami (Fla.), Michigan and Michigan State to a combined 12 points. Stanford posted 54 on Saturday in the aforementioned shootout with Arizona, but the Cardinal’s offense has been schizophrenic this season, topping 50 twice, but mustering 21 or less in three separate contests, including an ugly upset at the hands of Washington. Which Stanford team will show up in South Bend? If it doesn’t play as well as it did in the surprise win against USC, it doesn’t stand a chance against this disciplined Notre Dame defense.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed