SEC title tilt surprisingly breathtaking
Does Saturday's finale signal a change in culture down south?
Have you caught your breath yet?
For about four hours on Saturday evening, most of Twitter – at least the sports-fanatical segment of it that I follow – had something to say about being exhausted, being unable to breathe or being utterly fatigued. No, there wasn’t a sportswriter-only track meet that you didn’t hear about. (Though wouldn’t you want to see Bob Ryan run a few laps?) Instead, everyone was breathless -– myself included – thanks to the fast pace and unrelenting second-half drama in one of the better SEC championship games in recent memory.
It wasn’t quite Baylor-West Virginia – Georgia and Alabama brought their defenses, of course – but after a 10-7 first half marked by the stuffed runs and exasperated quarterbacks that mark most SEC contests, it seemed we were in for yet another game that left viewers feeling more bruised than winded. But in the second half, those vaunted defenses began to tire, tradition yielded to chaos and befuddled sports scribes took to Twitter with their exhausted fingers.
In the final 30 minutes of play, the teams combined for 43 points and the lead changed hands four times. Georgia came so close to making it five when it marched 80 yards against the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-in-every-category defense in the game’s final 1:08, which is a feat I thought to be impossible unless it was carried out by a man with the surname “Football.” Tremendous showing, save for the fact that the Bulldogs needed 85 yards, not 80. Those five measly yards may have decided who will be the 2012 national champion.
But, because Georgia opted to run a play instead of spiking the ball and, because of a tipped pass and a seemingly-accidental catch, they only got three yards when they needed eight and the clock on their national championship hopes bled out amidst the confusion while the scoreboard read Alabama 32, Georgia 28.
This game, played in a conference where conservative playcalling is the norm, featured a pair of fake punt attempts, three turnovers, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown and a 45-yard bomb that gave Alabama a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. It didn’t resemble a typical SEC game with a narrative that is best slowly sipped out of a mason jar. No, this game splashed the ice-cold sweat tea in that jar into your face, then filled it up and did it again…and again…and again. The Tide, the favorites, emerged victorious, but their coach admitted to sideline reporters after the game that he was having figurative chest pains. If the usually stoic and steady Nick Saban was feeling jitters, then how white were everyone else’s knuckles in the Georgia Dome on Saturday?
This was the sort of game that made me wonder if the dynamic and varied offensive attacks that have become de rigueur in most other corners of the nation might be trickling down South. Things move slower there; tradition won’t erode at the behest of a trend. But Saturday night, when the SEC’s two best teams clashed in the unofficial conference capital – a scenario where conservatism and defense seemed destined to reign – chaos supplanted order. Might it be a prelude to a new SEC? Might it signal that the conference, which has been good enough to scoff at innovation and gimmicks during the past decade and still win, will have to change its ways? I’m not sure. Maybe it was just a hell of a game.
Because it was a hell of a game. It was college football played in a cauldron heated by pressure, speed and skill. It was the best chapter in another beautiful, confounding and enthralling season.
It was, as anyone who watched the game was quick to say, breathtaking.
We’ve all got one month to catch our breath.
I told you. I told you. I told you. UCLA was not going to get blown out by Stanford two weeks in a row. The Bruins are either skilled at playing possum or found their well of motivation bone dry two weeks ago in a double-digit loss to the Cardinal. That wasn’t the case with a Pac-12 title and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. The Bruins drew first blood on a Johnathan Franklin 51-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter. They took the lead again late in the third on yet another Franklin run, this one for 20 yards. Then they…lost. The Cardinal posted 10 unanswered in the fourth and won the conference championship 27-24. Per usual, Stanford did nothing spectacular, but steadfastly refused to make mistakes. The Cardinal added exactly zero turnovers to the mere eight they’ve coughed up this season. That’s how you win a game when your freshman quarterback only throws for 155 yards and you muster only four yards per carry while allowing your opponent to bite off 7.5 per-attempt for 284 yards. Stanford didn’t win pretty this year, but it won. It won against USC, Oregon, Oregon State and twice more against UCLA. It earned its conference championship. It earned its surprise trip to the Rose Bowl, something it didn't do with Andrew Luck under center and Jim Harbaugh wearing the headset.
I’ll admit it. For the first time all year, I skipped out on the night games – setting the trusty DVR, of course – so that I could grab a scrumptious, but far too expensive, birthday dinner with the lady (guess my age and you win an autographed copy of the book I’ll write 30 years from now) and to go watch "Lincoln", which I’d put off for far too long because I’ve been plugged into college football for fourteen weeks in a row like it’s the Matrix (you try getting out of the house when you’ve got a 7-inch piece of metal plugged into the back of your head.) But I couldn’t resist Honest Abe’s call or the succulence of a steak served on an 8,000 degree plate any longer, so I unplugged and turned the TV off. But, going through withdrawals when I emerged from the theater, I immediately reached for my iPhone to see what I’d missed. The first thing I saw, other than the fact that my Yellow Jackets somehow almost came back and beat Florida State – more on that in a bit – was a big, bold 70 next to Wisconsin. I immediately reset the app, assuming that an Agent Smith-esque, faulty bit of code had infiltrated the software and caused an egregious error.
The Badgers, who entered the game with five losses and averaged only 27.5 points-per-game this season, hung 70 on Nebraska, which had only been coughing up 22.5 PPG. How did this happen? In reality, it was all thanks to Wisconsin’s offensive line, which rediscovered its ability to plow roads and opened the door for Wisconsin’s 539 rushing yards. Three Badgers went for more than 100 yards on the ground, a pair of whom – Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon – eclipsed 200. The team’s effort was merely 319 yards above its season average and came against a defense that had been allowing a respectable 167 yards on the ground. Just doesn’t make sense; I’m going to go back to mumbling at the box score now.
Kansas State didn’t crumble after Baylor assaulted its crystal football a couple of weeks ago like it was the printer in "Office Space". Rather than letting their freshly mangled national championship hopes further derail a fantastic season, the Wildcats closed in style by putting up 21 unanswered to start the fourth quarter en route to a 42-24 win against the Longhorns. K-State can’t win a national title and it looks like former Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein will be applauding Johnny "Football" later this month rather than hoisting any hardware, but the Wildcats can still call themselves co-Big 12 champion after going 8-1 in the conference and 11-1 overall. Bill Snyder seemed to work miracles with a team that had about as much preseason buzz as long-vacant beehive and, by midseason, Kansas State appeared like like it would proceeded unabated to the national championship game. Though that didn’t happen, at least the season put the other Manhattan back on the map.
So who is co-Big 12 champ? The Sooners, of course. They earned their share of the Big 12 crown with a 24-17 win against pesky TCU on Saturday. Though they lost to K-State earlier this season, conference rules award conference championships to teams that finish with identical conference records. After the loss to the Wildcats, the Sooners all but fell out of the national discussion, but Bob Stoops still mustered a 10-win season, his 11th in 14 years at the helm in Norman. And, remember, Oklahoma’s only losses came to a pair of teams – Kansas State and Notre Dame – that will play in BCS bowls.
Well, as many had feared, everybody won the Big East this year. OK, not everybody, but half of everybody. Really, no, I’m not kidding. Louisville knocked off Rutgers 20-17 on Thursday night and Cincinnati doubled up Connecticut 34-17 on Saturday. That means that Louisville, Rutgers, Cincy and Syracuse finished 5-2 in the conference. But if you want to declare a definitive conference champ, go with Louisville. With the win against Rutgers, which came via a field goal with 1:41 remaining, the Cardinals earned the conference’s BCS bowl berth. So, congrats-ish, Cards!
If you check out the ACC Coastal standings you’ll see a pair of asterisks next to division leaders North Carolina and Miami. If you looked farther down, you’d notice that the first team without a blemish by its name happened to be the 6-6 Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech, which meant they’d be put into the conference title game against Florida State. But it turns out my worries were unfounded. After falling into a predictable 21-3 hole against the two-loss Seminoles, Georgia Tech acquitted itself well. The defense, which had given up a million yards, give or take a few, this season, dug in and shut out Florida State over the game’s final 35 minutes. And the triple option did what it’s designed to do and slowly chipped away at field position and the score as the Jackets pulled within six in the fourth quarter. But that’s as close as they’d get. Though Georgia Tech lost, it may have been the team’s most commendable performance of the season and should serve as a sorely-needed confidence boost for next season when Vad Lee, who looked occasionally brilliant this year, will take over quarterbacking duties full-time. The win garnered the Seminoles the ACC title and a BCS bowl berth that everyone expected them to win all year. But, despite the strong showing this season, many around Tallahassee likely aren’t pleased with those accomplishments.
If you remove context, the best game of the weekend was played in Detroit’s Ford Field. No, I’m not talking about Andrew Luck’s walk-off touchdown against the Lions on Sunday. Rather, Friday’s MAC championship game. Northern Illinois and Kent State needed two overtimes to decide which squad would take the conference title and earn a trip to a BCS bowl. The dream run for Kent State, which might’ve ended with the Golden Flashes taking their first conference championship in 40 years, was snuffed out in one of the more excruciating ways possible. Northern Illinois dominated most of the way, outgaining Kent State by nearly 300 yards and holding a two-touchdown lead until five minutes remained in the fourth quarter. But then the Golden Flashed poked in a five yard run and returned a Northern Illinois fumble on the first play of the ensuing possession. Suddenly, the easy win was a tie game and the teams traded one more touchdown each before the fourth quarter was finished. They matched field goals in the first overtime, but Kent State couldn’t muster a touchdown in the second extra period when its season, and dreams of breaking that painful streak, stalled on the NIU nine-yard line.
Reminder: Geno Smith is good at football. There was no conference title on the line when Kansas visited Morgantown on Saturday, just the Mountaineer quarterback’s final chance to post some vidja-game stats. He didn’t disappoint in a 59-10 win against the now 1-11 Jayhawks. First off, congrats to the West Virginia defense for holding a team under 20 – it was only the second time all season. With that out of the way, let’s break down the Talented Mr. Smith’s line one final time. He completed 23 of his 24 passes, tying an FBS record for single-game completion percentage. Uh, not bad. He threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns, which is standard fare this year for Geno, who eclipsed 300 yards seven times and tossed at least three touchdowns in eight games. His final line? Forty touchdowns, only six interceptions, 4,004 yards and a completion percentage of 71.4. I know West Virginia lost five games this year as it struggled to acclimate to the Big 12, but please give this man a seat at that little award ceremony in New York.
If college football had a rather large end-of-season tournament, none of those high seeds would want to draw Baylor. The Bears are playing like they’d be able to go on a Butler-esque run. They’ve won four of their last five – the lone loss coming when they put a scare into the Sooners – and scored 41 points or more in each win. Along the way, they beat then No. 1 Kansas State by 28 and have subsequently knocked off quality Big 12 teams Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had been playing well over the last month, but found themselves in a 24-3 hole early in the second quarter on Saturday. The Bears’ defense, as it’s prone to do, let Ok. State back in, but the early hole proved far too deep to climb out of and Baylor took the 41-34 win. Robert Griffin III left Shaq-sized shoes to fill after his Heisman season last year, but Baylor QB Nick Florence has put up numbers nearly on par with those of his electric predecessor. On Saturday, he added 296 yards through the air and 71 on the ground to his gaudy totals this season. He finished the regular season with 4,121 yards passing and 531 on the ground along with 40 total touchdowns. But bad news for the Bears – Florence is only a bowl game away from finishing his college career.
In last week’s preview column, I assured you I’d give Conference USA another mention after neglecting it like an office plant all season. And, like the main character of the movie I saw this weekend, I do not lie. Tulsa beat UCF 33-27 and won the C-USA championship.
Views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed