Surprises everywhere this time of year
But should Baylor and Stanford come as shockers anymore?
‘Well, that escalated quickly.’
Why am I quoting the great Ron Burgundy? Because Week 12 was supposed to be the calm before the storm, yet it turned out to be the season’s tempest. It was supposed to be the week we broke free of the spell our televisions cast over us, escaped from our couch-induced stupor and did things productive humans do like rake leaves in the driveway, gorge on the free samples at Sam’s Club or trade essay length emails about how the plot of Lincoln parallels today’s legislative hurdles. Most of you do stuff like that with your free time, right?
After all, Saturday featured only three games pitting ranked opponents against each other. Half of the teams from the SEC were enjoying leisurely afternoons against FCS squads. Many other schools opted to schedule easier competition to rest up before Thanksgiving dinner and rivalry weekend. But, on Saturday night, despite our best efforts, we had no choice but to be lured back by the siren song emanating from our flatscreens.
Assuming the rankings would remain un-shuffled and no compelling storylines would trickle out of what looked to be a dull Saturday, I’d planned on using this space to write about one of the more atypical Heisman races in quite some time – freshman quarterbacks, senior linebackers and sophomore receivers typically aren’t among the leading candidates – but the compelling volatility of the sport thwarted my plans.
There are no dull Saturdays, I learned.
Remember, this is a game played by 19, 20 and 21-year-old kids (or young men, if you prefer). No matter how much structure and discipline the nation’s top coaches instill, there’s no certainty that these seemingly unbreakable teams won’t start to show cracks when the late-season pressure starts to tighten like a vice. And, on Saturday, that vice did its work – the fissures in Kansas State and Oregon’s sturdy foundations finally revealed themselves.
Both teams, which seemed certain to collide in the national championship game, simply had to do what they’d done all season – step onto the field with a level of confidence that defeats inferior opponents even before the first ball is snapped. But that confidence was usurped by pressure and by the unpredictability inherent in asking young men to handle such lofty expectations. Suddenly, our boring weekend morphed into one marked by a flurry of befuddled text messages from friends far away and bewildered shakes of the head, mouths agape, from friends close by. Things were escalating quickly.
The night is a blur now – I wore the enamel off the “previous channel” button on my remote as the two contests morphed into one surprising narrative. More than the games themselves, I remember the faces in the stands. In Waco, Texas, a sea of black and green seemed to be jumping and dancing all night as the Bears maintained a two-score lead against Kansas State through much of the game and cruised to a shockingly simple 52-24 win against the top team in the nation. The faces in the crowd were bereft of the pressure that accompanies winning – Baylor entered the game with five losses – and the team looked to be having as much fun as its fans.
I remember how starkly that contrasted with what I saw when I changed the channel. Faces in Eugene, Ore., were the polar opposite; they were overwhelmed with angst – eyes dull and voices silent – as Stanford kept hanging around and as Oregon kept uncharacteristically launching punts into the cold night while the scoreboard idled. Then overtime came and those faces – weighed down by doubt and numb with disappointment – looked more like they belonged at an ulcer-inducing, tightly contested baseball playoff game, not in one of college football’s most raucous venues. The pressure the Ducks players were feeling had crept up into the stands and tightened its grip around the 58,792 in attendance.
And then, in overtime, when Kansas State’s fate had already been sealed on the other channel and the Baylor fans’ delirium had reached its peak, Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado’s field goal try started to veer off course. It caromed hard off the goalpost and back to the turf along with, perhaps, the best chance this tremendous Oregon program has had at a national championship in a near-decade-long run of dominance. Four plays later, the undefeated season, and the dreams of a long-coveted title, shattered when Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson’s 37-yard try sailed into the net, unencumbered by a yellow post.
And that’s how a sleepy, forgettable weekend became utter anarchy. The top two teams in the BCS fell on the same night – within minutes of each other – for the first time since Dec. 1, 2007, when Missouri and West Virginia were both toppled.
I’ve never had a piece of writing I was proud of grow so irrelevant so fast. Last week, I reflected on the irony that SEC newcomer Texas A&M became the one that to end the conference’s converted national title streak when it beat Alabama. But, only a week later, it seems that the winner of the SEC title game will be a lock to earn a trip to Miami in January. Like Sylvester Stallone’s career, the SEC’s streak simply will not die, no matter how hard an entire nation tries to end it.
And, in what had become orderly season with predictable outcomes, a Pandora’s Box of national championship scenarios has been opened. Who will grab the slot in Miami that’s not reserved for the SEC champ? Notre Dame is now the lone undefeated bowl-eligible team and carries the No. 1 ranking for the first time since November of 1993 – and its first BCS No. 1 ranking in program history. But when it travels to USC for Saturday’s matchup, the Irish will feel the same pressure that K-State and Oregon succumbed to this past weekend. With four losses already on the books, this talented USC team, much like Baylor, has nothing to lose. Will the Irish be unaffected by those circumstances?
And, suddenly, the Florida-Florida State matchup Saturday could be significant. Both have one loss and the victor will add a win against a top-10 team to its résumé. Should the Irish fall, could that game serve as a de facto national semifinal?
Will Oregon sneak back in? The Ducks need Stanford to lose to UCLA Saturday in order to earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game, which is their only realistic shot at fighting back into the top two. Is K-State’s dream dead? There’s no longer a Big 12 title game to bolster the Wildcats’ standing, so they’ll need a lot of help.
Will Georgia beat Alabama in Atlanta? If it does, it’ll leap back into the title game after being dismissed from the championship discussion after a blowout loss to South
Carolina in October. Could we even be in store for a second consecutive SEC v. SEC national championship contest?
All of these questions, all of this confusion, arose because of what transpired in what was supposed to be college football’s most lethargic, easy-to-skip, you-won’t-miss-much weekends.
I hope we’ve all realized that there’s no such thing.
Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Mora – and here’s your key to the city. It took Jim Mora less than a full season to assert his dominance in Southern California and it took his team far less time to assert dominance over USC on Saturday. Before an afternoon deluge hit Pasadena, the Bruins unleashed their own first-quarter storm against city rival USC, jumping out to a 17-0 lead and pushing it to 24 points in the second quarter.
I figured UCLA would give the Trojans a fight, but 24-0? Not even Nate Silver’s finest algorithms could’ve pinned that one down. The Trojans fought back after their sloppy start, pulling within four early in the third quarter. But as the skies opened up, so did USC’s offensive line, and the Bruins hounded Matt Barkley throughout much of the second half – The Artist Formerly Known as Preseason Heisman Favorite threw a pair of picks. Conversely, UCLA freshman triggerman Brett Hundley ended the day pick-free. But he didn’t have to do much – the game belonged to Bruin running back Johnathan Franklin, who eclipsed 150 yards for the fifth time this season by going for 171 yards and a pair of scores.
The win sealed the Pac-12 South title for the Bruins – this is not the team from Los Angeles everyone thought would be playing for a Pac-12 crown this season – and gave the Trojans their fourth loss in a season many thought they’d emerge from unscathed. Shows that “many” don’t know much. (Did Les Miles write that line?) It’ll be the Bruins’ second consecutive trip to the Pac-12 title game. Last year, they only made it because the Trojans were ineligible for postseason play; Saturday’s win ensured that there’s no such asterisk this season. USC coach Lane Kiffin still has a comfortable lead in headlines, but the scoreboard on the field reads Mora 1, Kiffin 0 in one of the most enthralling new coaching rivalries in the country.
Remember last week, after my prognostications were as hot as Reggie Miller vs. the Knicks, when I said I’d soon go back to looking like George Will picking the election? Well, at least that prediction was right. In my preview column, after a semi-thorough statistical analysis, I determined that the only thing that could decide the Oklahoma State-Texas Tech tilt would be the fairest arbiter of them all: a coin. Well, on Saturday, the Cowboys ensured that you could keep your change in your pocket or use it to buy a delicious, diabetes-free Coke Zero (yes, at my office, Cokes only cost a quarter like it’s 1955) when they went up 35-7 in the second quarter. Well, at least I said that if Oklahoma State was going to win it’d have to lean on the run game because of how good the Red Raiders’ pass d has been this season. I got that part right, didn’t I? Wait, what’d you say? Four what? Oklahoma State threw four touchdowns and won by 38? Good grief.
While the big upsets rightfully garnered much, if not all, the attention on Saturday, the most thrilling game of the day was played in, no surprise, Morgantown, W.Va., where points seem to be as plentiful as coal. The Mountaineers had 32 first downs, 49 points and a mere 778 total yards. Somehow, some way, that offensive cornucopia wasn’t enough, as the Sooners put up 50 points and scored the go-ahead touchdown with only 24 seconds left. The teams combined for four touchdowns in the final 7:10 and more than 1,400 yards of total offense, but neither of those little nuggets surprised you, did they? For once, Geno Smith wasn’t the story for the Mountaineers, though he did throw for 320 yards and four scores. Instead, Tavon Austin, one of the nation’s best receivers, stole the spotlight when his position change yielded Apple-esque dividends. Austin spent most of his evening in the backfield and took, brace yourselves, 21 carries for 344 yards and a pair of scores. Oh, and he tacked on 82 receiving yards on four catches just for fun. His 572 all-purpose yards set a Big 12 record – even though West Virginia found itself on the wrong end of yet another shootout, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Austin was the big winner on Saturday.
Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but Ohio State is 11-0 and only has to hold serve at home next week against a Michigan team with an injured starting quarterback and running back to finish the season undefeated. Thanks to a postseason ban, this is the single-most overlooked storyline of the year. I know the Big Ten is having one of its toughest years in quite a while, but Urban Meyer has taken one of the nation’s most renowned programs – a team that lost seven games last year – to the brink of an undefeated season in only a year’s time. Wisconsin gave the Buckeyes their biggest scare of the season on Saturday. The Badgers pushed them to overtime with a deftly placed touchdown pass with only eight seconds hanging on the scoreboard in Madison. But that, it turns out, would be the last thing Badger fans would have to cheer about. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde propelled the Buckeyes 25 yards in the first four plays of overtime, and scored a touchdown that Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to match. Ultimately the loss didn’t matter much for the Badgers in the short-term – they’ve already clinched their second consecutive trip to the Big Ten title game because division-mates Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible. In the long term, though, the L should be a little jarring for everyone in Madison – it looks like the Big Ten Leaders division will belong to Meyer as long as he wants it.
Rutgers kept its Big East title hopes alive and well with a 10-3 win against Cincinnati. This was a perfect game to have on in the background as you tried -- and failed -- to write pithy comments on Twitter, knocked out the dishes that have been piling up all week or taught your dog how to roll over (actually, my girlfriend was doing that – it’s incredibly difficult to write and formulate coherent thoughts when someone says “roll over” in a high-pitched voice 234 times in a 45-minute span.) But I digress – let me get back to the game. Though the contest looked riveting on paper, the teams combined for only one touchdown – a 71-yard Mark Harrison grab. After that, the teams traded field goals in the fourth and Rutgers pulled out the win against one of its tougher conference opponents.
Trifle with DA-BO at your own risk. North Carolina State may have thought it wise to jump out to a surprising 24-13 lead early in the second quarter against Clemson. But the Wolfpack sprung their trap too early and Mr. Swinney’s offense made them pay for their transgression. The Tigers rolled off 42 unanswered points in a 23-minute span in the second and third quarters and went on to win 62-48. And the 42 consecutive points isn’t even the most impressive Clemson stat – quarterback Tajh Boyd tossed five touchdowns, ran for three more and eclipsed 400 yards through the air and 100 on the ground. Somehow, Boyd’s virtuoso performance made NC State quarterback Mike Glennon’s 493 yards and five scores seem quaint. Other than Ohio State, Clemson is having the quietest dominant season in the country – their only loss came at the hands of the well-regarded Seminoles and nine of their 10 wins have come by at least 14 points.
Mississippi State needed to win last weekend, and win convincingly, not just to stay relevant in the standings, but for Starkville’s collective sanity. After the Bulldogs stormed out to a 7-0 start and the local fervor surrounding the team reached a level not seen there in quite some time, they found themselves on the wrong end of blowouts by LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M. The undefeated start was a mirage, it seemed. But, after a brutal few weeks, the Bulldogs were able to once again convincingly knock off a division foe when they beat Arkansas 45-14 on Saturday. Yes, Arkansas has struggled all season after losing its head coach at the 11th hour, but a dominant win against a conference rival can do a lot to lift the spirits. More importantly, it’ll build a little momentum before this Saturday’s rivalry game with Ole Miss and on to next season. For Mississippi State, a program trying to improve and earn respect, rinsing the bitter taste out of its mouth before the long offseason is hugely important.
How valuable is Denard Robinson to the Wolverines? The quarterback can play a huge role in a game even when he can’t grip the ball because of a damaged nerve in his elbow. Rather than let Robinson stand on the sidelines during the final home game of his highlight-laden career, Michigan coach Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to have the chance to thrill the more than 100,000 fans in the Big House one final time. His inability to toss a spiral didn’t matter last Saturday – he lined up behind quarterback Devin Gardner and served as the Wolverines’ starting running back. Yes, a preseason Heisman candidate quarterback, a senior, gladly served as his team’s main option out of the backfield. And the strategy worked – he took 13 carries for 98 yards, including one of his patented “I hope your ankles are thoroughly taped” 40-yard gallops, and even caught a couple of balls for 24 yards. Yep, his first two career catches came in his final home game. His time at running back was no costly gimmick – the Wolverines beat Iowa 42-17 – and was certainly a treat for the home fans who got a chance to say goodbye to one of the most exciting players in Michigan history.
Virginia did a tremendous job stopping UNC’s all-world running back Gio Bernard on Thursday night. The centerpiece of the offense from Chapel Hill only mustered 57 yards on 15 carries – one of his worst injury free performances of the season. So the Wahoos won easily in front of their home crowd, right? Not exactly. It seems the Cavaliers had to put 13 men in the box to stifle the speedster because Tar Heel quarterback Bryn Renner had a leisurely 315-yard, three-score, zero interception evening. The 37-13 loss ensured that Virginia won’t be making a second consecutive bowl trip.
Welcome back, Sean! Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who was the starter at the beginning of the season, didn’t seem to have his confidence shaken by a midseason benching in favor of the less experienced Cody Vaz. Vaz was out this week with an injury so coach Mike Riley had to hand the keys to the offense back to Mannion, who channeled any frustrations from his time on the bench into a 325-yard, four-touchdown night against Cal. The Beavers went on to hang 62 points on the board and cruised to a 48-point win. The dominant showing by the team and their on-again, off-again man under center should provide a much-needed confidence boost after a pair of losses and before the Civil War against the now slightly-less-than-mighty Ducks this week.
Stanford did what? In my mind, the Cardinal defense holding Oregon to only 14 points in Eugene was just as impressive as Johnny “Football” going into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and having his way with the Crimson Tide D. The Ducks hadn’t been held under 34 points in a single game in the last two seasons, and Stanford shut them out in the first quarter, fourth quarter and overtime?
|STANFORD at OREGON|
And they didn’t do it with unbridled, SEC-esque athleticism, which was the lone way so many people, myself included, thought the Ducks’ attack could be stifled. Instead, Cardinal defenders relied on discipline. They maintained their gap assignments and fought all night to ensure they controlled the edges of the line of scrimmage, not allowing Oregon’s many speedsters – particularly Kenjon Barner – to get around the corner and turn their shoulders downhill. Though he entered the game averaging around seven yards-per-carry, Barner only had 66 yards on 21 totes.
Stanford’s offense did its part too – freshman Kevin Hogan didn’t play scared in the biggest game in his brief career and big tight end Zach Ertz kept the chains moving with 11 catches for 106 yards and the game-tying score with under two minutes left. Still, this win belongs to Stanford’s experienced defensive 11.
Baylor played like Robert Griffin III was back under center and never really let No. 1 Kansas State think it had a chance. This is the same Baylor team that lost five of its last six games; three of those losses came by two touchdowns or more. But that didn’t matter on Saturday night. The much maligned Baylor defense, which had yielded 40 or more points on five separate occasions this year, made former Heisman-frontrunner Collin Klein look like maybe-not-the-Heisman-frontrunner Collin Klein. The Bears, who let Geno Smith throw eight touchdowns against them earlier this season, held Klein to a pair of scores and picked him off three times. More importantly, they weren’t bested by his ever-patient, battering-ram running style and held him to only 39 yards on 17 carries. Kansas State, built around ball control and defense, isn’t designed to come back from huge deficits, and it showed. The Wildcats mustered only one second-half touchdown and were held scoreless in the fourth quarter as they desperately tried to save their best chance at a national title in school history.
For a while, it looked like Ole Miss might do what so few teams have by stealing a win from the Tigers in Death Valley. But LSU’s Odell Beckham’s scintillating 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter tied the contest at 35. And the Tigers had a nine-play, four-minute, 64-yard drive later in the quarter that ended with the game-winning touchdown with only 15 seconds lingering on the clock. The game was far closer than it should’ve been considering Ole Miss entered the game with four conference losses and had yet to notch a win against a ranked team this year. An LSU loss would’ve spoiled an otherwise terrific season. But, rather than berate his players for a poor showing after the game, the ever-passionate Les Miles delivered one of the strangest, most energetic, pseudo-inspiring postgame soliloquies in recent memory. Here are a couple highlights: "Spectacular group of men. You go find them, you throw your arms around them, you give them a big kiss on the mouth -- if you're a girl.” Thanks for clarifying that point, coach. Anything else? “Wow! What a game, are you kidding me? When Odell Beckham is going…I felt like a bowler at the bowling lanes. Anyways, questions." Coach, I have no idea what any of that means, but, after hearing it, I’d gladly go run over hot coals if you asked. You’re a magic man, Les.
Amid little fanfare, Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron set one of the more impressive NCAA records this season – he now owns the mark for most consecutive passes thrown without an interception to start a season. Unfortunately for Cameron, that streak was snapped at 444 on Saturday by a stout Utah State defensive unit that picked him off in the second quarter and again in the fourth. The Aggies jumped out to a 27-3 lead, but this wasn’t unfamiliar territory for the Bulldogs. Earlier this season, another group of Aggies – hailing from Texas A&M – got out to a 27-0 start before the Bulldogs stormed back and came two points shy of forcing overtime. The game against Utah State was nearly identical, as Louisiana Tech fought back to force overtime after scoring 17 unanswered in the fourth, including a 32-yard field goal with time expiring. But, once again, the Bulldogs fell short in overtime. Louisiana Tech is now 0-2 against Aggies and 9-0 against everyone else. And while the Bulldogs have drawn most of the national headlines concerning the WAC this year thanks to their elite offensive attack, the win will likely seal the conference title for 9-2 Utah State.
Years from now, or even come January, Boston College fans aren’t going to look back on 2012 fondly. But, on Saturday, the Golden Eagles had their most impressive showing of the season when they pushed Virginia Tech to overtime. Boston College hadn’t beaten the Hokies in four years and entered the contest with only six wins in 20 tries against the team from Blacksburg. The Hokies needed a field goal with a minute left to tie it and send it to overtime. And while Virginia Tech triumphed in the extra period, pushing a program that has bedeviled them for two decades to OT has to be counted as a moral victory for Boston College. Most coaches belittle the notion of “moral victories” but when you only have two actual victories this season, I think the Eagles and their home crowd didn’t dismiss Saturday’s moral W.
1. Exactly less than nothing was at stake when Army hosted Temple on Saturday. So why, then, would I devote some precious column real estate to the contest? Because Montel Harris had what would amount to a monster day even in video-game terms. How big? Harris had 351 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. That’s one touchdown shy of the all-time NCAA record and 55 yards on the ground short of LaDainian Tomlinson’s NCAA-best 406 yard day in 1999. The Owls felt little need to exercise their constitutionally protected right to use their arms – quarterback Clinton Granger attempted only four passes. But there was little need to throw when Harris was gaining 9.8 yards per carry and the team combined for 534 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the 63-21 win.
2. Saturday must’ve been bittersweet for Montee Ball. Sweet? His 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the 78th of his career, which tied him with Miami’s (Ohio) Travis Prentice for most career touchdowns in FBS history. Bitter? He could’ve broken that record in the fourth quarter, but fumbled on the goal line with little more than two minutes remaining. Despite the fumble, I’m pretty sure that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is going to do everything he can to make sure that Ball gets the record next week when the Badgers head to Penn State. Wisconsin’s spot in the Big Ten title game is locked up, so, with nothing at stake, it’s okay to force-feed your record-setting back in the red zone, even if the Nittany Lions know what’s coming. Getting the record out of the way before the trip to Indianapolis will take a lot of pressure off of coach and star and allow the team to focus only on the title.
3. Michigan State is doing its coach, Mark Dantonio, no favors. It’s well documented that Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack after beating Notre Dame a couple of years ago – he’s since been healthy and has removed stress from his life, save, it seems, for three-plus hours every Saturday. The Spartans’ 23-20 loss was their seventh consecutive game decided by four points or less. Per ESPN Stats & Info’s ever-informative Twitter feed, that’s tied with the 1971 Columbia squad for the longest such streak in history. Michigan State is 3-4 in that stretch. Spartans, for the sake of hearts all around East Lansing, can you find yourselves in a blowout next week against Minnesota? It doesn’t matter what end of the scoreboard you’re on, just that the game is decided midway through the third quarter so that the region’s collective blood pressure can tumble back to normal levels.
This. This is what you should be doing on Saturday, and nothing else.
No. 1 Notre Dame
8 p.m. ET
This game hasn’t been this important since Reggie Bush gave Matt Leinart a little nudge into the end zone in 2005. If USC manages to pull off this upset, it’ll start a chain reaction that affects the fate of one-loss teams nationwide. If Notre Dame doesn’t succumb to the pressure and contains Marquise Lee, then the Irish are all-but-assured one of the two spots in the national championship game, likely playing the winner of the Georgia-Alabama SEC title contest. But if they lose, then K-State and Oregon have hope again and Florida and Florida State will come into play in the national title discussion for the first time in a month. If you’re a fan of chaos, you’re rooting for the Trojans. If you like order and tradition, the Irish are your pick.
No. 6 Florida
at No. 10 Florida State
3:30 p.m. ET
Can Bobby Bowden and the Ol’ Ball Coach strap on a pair of honorary headsets for this one? Both teams from the Sunshine State are in the top 10, which hasn’t happened heading into this rivalry game for a decade. It’s refreshing that this one matters again – it reminds me of simpler times, like when you had to wait for the paper the next day to check scores and when you had no idea who was calling when the phone rang. Wait a minute, those times were terrible, save for watching Bowden and Spurrier clash on your grainy television with the curved screen. Yes, kids, those used to exist, and I have no idea why anyone thought that was a good idea. Neither team will know if Notre Dame will remain undefeated, so both squads will step onto the field in Tallahassee clinging to the slightest hope of a shot at the national championship.
No. 5 Oregon
at No. 16 Oregon State
3 p.m. ET
A month ago, these teams were undefeated and the Civil War looked like it might determine the fate of a nation…just like its namesake. But the teams have combined for three losses and neither will get to represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game if Stanford handles its business against UCLA. After the in-state rivals traded wins for nearly a decade, Oregon State hasn’t won since 2007 and has been outscored by double-digits in three of those four losses. But this is the best team the Beavers have fielded in a while, so they might actually have a shot to end Chip Kelly’s recent dominance in the state.
No. 13 South Carolina
at No. 12 Clemson
7 p.m. ET
I feel like this one could be contested by setting up a couple of podiums at midfield and letting Steve Spurrier and DA-BO go at each other with subtle jabs and smooth southern sarcasm for three hours. As entertaining as that would be, the football game itself could be just as fun. The teams have combined for only three losses – all against teams currently ranked in the top 10 – and this is one of the more underrated rivalries in the nation. These fanbases and coaches aren’t too fond of each other. So, even though there’s not much at stake on a national scale, this game – and the postgame press conferences – are required viewing this weekend.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed