Before the trip south to play USC this week, it would behoove Chip Kelly to show his players a few hours of footage from the Coliseum. No, I’m not talking about the one in Southern California, rather, the building from which it draws the name. More than studying film of Matt Barkley throwing 137 out-routes to Marqise Lee, the Ducks players need a healthy dose of Gladiator – you know, that movie you adored a decade ago but now keep hidden in a drawer and are ashamed to admit you re-watch every few years. There’s one quote, delivered by Proximo (Russell Crowe’s preposterously-tan mentor), in that movie that should resonate with every Oregon player and coach this week.
“I was the best because the crowd loved me,” he told his pupil. “Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.”
Oregon doesn’t simply need to win against the Trojans to bolster its chances of a national title game berth, they have to win the crowd; they have to, as Crowe responded, “Give them something they’ve never seen before.” (Other than the uniforms.) The crowd in this case isn’t a group of ravenous Romans or laid-back Southern Californians. No, it’s the pollsters. It’s the people who cast votes in the Harris and Coaches’ polls, the ones who have two-thirds of the say in the BCS formula. Because the other third – the computers – isn’t impressed by Oregon’s 8-0 start and 34-point average margin-of-victory.
And, when perusing Oregon’s schedule so far, how can you blame them?
Last week, Oregon beat Colorado by 56 – and did so with backups playing the balance of the game – but the computers, which don’t factor in winning margin, said “so what?” They’ve said the same to Oregon’s undefeated season, which includes a win against exactly one team – Arizona, now No. 22 – currently ranked in the BCS. They seem unimpressed by an out-of-conference schedule that includes teams from the Sun Belt, Mountain West and Ohio Valley. That’s why, despite treating the “eye test” like a first-grade math quiz up to this point, the Ducks have fallen from No. 2 in the BCS to No. 4 in recent weeks. Tumbling two spots sounds small, but is no doubt a precipitous drop when you consider the import carried by that No. 2.
It’s not the BCS’s fault – the computers are right to penalize them for an easy schedule. And it’s not Oregon’s fault – the Ducks opted for easy out-of-conference games, yes, but their Pac-12 schedule is heavily back-loaded by pure chance. (After USC, games against Stanford and Oregon State – both ranked – await.) At the moment, even though they’re traveling at mach two, the chrome-and-black-and-green-and-neon-and-yellow Ducks are flying well under the radar. Their brilliance this season has been obscured by the string of big wins by Kansas State and Notre Dame, who’ve made a habit of knocking off ranked opponents.
But, starting this weekend, Oregon will have its chance get noticed, to draw the attention of the fickle, coveted crowd. USC already has a pair of losses, which would lessen the impact of a potential Ducks win amongst the computers. They see USC as a string of numbers and data rather than as the mighty Trojans that voters have grown to respect – even subconsciously – after years of success. So to beat that respected conference rival convincingly, and to do so with flair, means that Oregon will win over many of those all-important voters. The Ducks have been entrenched at No. 2 in the Harris Poll since the first was released in Week 7, but Kansas State has whittled their lead from 351 points to 69. And Oregon has been No. 2 in the Coaches’ Poll since Week 5, but the points gap between the Ducks and the Wildcats has fallen from 371 to only 25. A dominant showing against USC would reverse that slide. Anything less and it might continue.
Oregon’s schedule, even with three tough games looming, can’t quite measure up to Notre Dame’s or Kansas State’s, thereby affording them little chance of passing those teams in the computer rankings should all remain undefeated. So the Ducks badly need to sway the humans; they badly need to wow the crowd against the Trojans and Cardinal and Beavers; they badly need to put on a show in the Coliseum befitting Maximus himself.
To earn a shot at the national title, Oregon, you must win the crowd; you must give them something they have never seen before.
I didn’t lead with Alabama-LSU this week because, well, you’re going to read roughly 43 more articles about that game between now and Saturday night, so I wanted to give you a little reprieve. But, you’ll indulge me for a couple of paragraphs, won’t you?
Just in case I haven’t been clear this season about how good Alabama’s defense is, let me allow the numbers to speak for me: The Crimson Tide is first in scoring defense (8.1 PPG), first in total defense (203.1 YPG – a full 24 yards better than second-place Florida State and 40 yards better than third-place LSU), first in rushing defense (57.25 YPG), second in passing defense (145.9 YPG), tied for second in turnover margin (plus-17), first in red zone defense (opponents have scored on only 53.33 percent of red zone possessions) and fourth in opponent third-down conversion rate (25.69 percent). To quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
LSU, meanwhile, hasn’t been too bad on that side of the ball itself. The Tigers stand third nationally in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. But they’re going to need to play even better than they did in last year’s regular-season win over the Tide, when they held Alabama to six points through four quarters and overtime, or when they yielded 21 to the Tide in the national title game. Why? Because Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is the nation’s top-rated passer and will be a much tougher test for the LSU defense than the McCarron it faced last year. On paper, even though it’s one of the fiercest rivalries in the nation, this contest looks like an easy win for Bama. But remember who is under the headset and white cap for the Tigers. Les Miles is best known for his proclivity to trust his gut, to take risks on fourth down and to draw up some deceptive plays on special teams. Don’t think for once second that Mr. Miles isn’t planning on reaching deep into his famed hat to pull out some of his best tricks for this game, which is a must-win for his Tigers. Alabama looks unbeatable – it has won each game by at least 19 this season – but going to LSU at night when they’ve had two weeks to prepare and Miles is guaranteed to throw the kitchen sink, the bathtub, the shower curtain and the toothbrush holder at the Tide assures me that this one will be a lot closer, and a lot more enthralling, than the numbers suggest.
When is the letdown game going to happen for Kansas State? Every team has one, right? Elite teams always have one game where they’re pushed, where they’re tested, where they need a little luck or late resolve to pull it out, or where they have neither and fall. Kansas State was supposed to lose at mighty Oklahoma in Week 4. Instead, it won by five. The Wildcats were supposed to be tested by West Virginia’s home crowd and combustible offense two weeks ago. Instead, they won by 41. K-State was supposed to be vexed by Texas Tech’s stout defense last week. Instead, they won by 31. “Supposed to” doesn’t seem to matter to this team. Thanks to the steady leadership of their head coach, Bill Snyder, the only thing that seems to matter at all is winning. Well, Saturday night, coming off of two impressive wins – the kind that can make you fatter and happier than a defensive tackle on all-you-can-eat wings night – the Wildcats are “supposed to” lose their focus when a very good, very unheralded Oklahoma State team comes to Manhattan. Everything in my gut tells me this is “supposed to” be a close game, a good game, the game where K-State finally gets tested. But Bill Snyder and Collin Klein have stomped all over (sans hobnail boot) those gut feelings and those “supposed to’s” all year. Why would they stop now?
While that game is the conference centerpiece, there’s yet another quality Big 12 clash this weekend. Texas travels to Texas Tech as the underdog – a rarity in this series. After Case McCoy saved the Longhorns from a loss last weekend in Lawrence, Kan. when he replaced a struggling David Ash, the quarterback controversy in Austin has escalated from a slow simmer to a vigorous boil. As he has been all season, Ash is the starter this week against the Red Raiders, but should he struggle against the nation’s 15th-best passing defense, I have a feeling that Mack Brown might employ a quick hook and give the young McCoy another shot at salvaging the game, and, consequentially, the Longhorns’ season.
Believe it or not, Alabama and LSU aren’t the only SEC teams playing on Saturday. Texas A&M and Mississippi State will kick off only minutes after Lee Corso puts the College Gameday crew in harm’s way. In the last two weeks, remember, he almost inadvertently caused a baby alligator to take a chunk out of Kirk Herbstreit’s exquisitely sculpted face and nearly shot Chris Fowler with an Oklahoma-themed shotgun. Provided everyone on the Gameday set survives, you’ll be free to kick back and enjoy this game in Starkville worry-free. Despite their disparate styles of play, this is as evenly-matched a game as you’ll watch all year. No. 15 Mississippi State has a top-30 defense, which was ranked higher before they had to deal with the Crimson Tide last week. The No. 16 Aggies boast the nation’s fifth-ranked offense thanks to their new quick-snapping spread offense and young, fleet-of-foot-and-mind quarterback Johnny Manziel. We’ll see if this is yet another “Welcome to the SEC” game for the Aggies, who have fallen to conference heavyweights Florida and LSU, or if A&M can muster its first win against a ranked SEC opponent this year. It’s probably their best shot to do so, given that they have to venture to Tuscaloosa next week.
I mentioned the dreaded “letdown game” earlier. That’s exactly what RichRod is facing this week in his first season at the helm in Arizona. After knocking off the Trojans in dramatic fashion last week, has it been hard for him to keep his team motivated for what’s sure to be a sneaky-tough road trip to UCLA? The Bruins’ season has had more ups-and-downs than an episode of ER. (Wow – that reference is about a decade out of date.) After running all over Nebraska in a Week 2 win – literally, they had 344 rushing yards – the Bruins fell to Oregon State and lost to Cal by 26 in a three-week span. They’ve followed that with quality wins against Utah and Arizona State. Will the real Bruins please stand up? (Dang, yet again, I’m placing myself squarely in the early 2000s.) Let me put it in simpler, less-dated terms – they’re a tough team to figure out. Both teams are coached by first-year head men who could use a victory to steady an uneven season and build momentum for what could be promising a promising second year.
Manti Te’o has gotten a slew of Heisman hype and seems like the only defensive player who has drawn attention from the vast sports punditry universe. While Te’o has been outstanding – evidenced most recently by his game-clinching pick against Oklahoma last week – there’s another linebacker whose performance is starting to rival that of the Notre Dame star. UGA’s Jarvis Jones – who was highly-regarded in the preseason but has been swallowed in the Te’o fervor – reintroduced himself rather vociferously against Florida last week. Jones’ effort against the Gators was exquisite – he forced a pair of fumbles, recovering two more and recording three sacks. But, more important than the numbers – and more Te’o-esque – he seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the Bulldogs when they most needed him. Jones preserved the Georgia win by forcing a fumble at the goal line when it looked like Florida might score the equalizing touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Nationally, the junior outside linebacker is tied for sixth in tackles for a loss, fifth in sacks and leads the nation in fumbles forced. Now that Georgia has wrestled control of the SEC East away from the Gators and, barring upset, will play for a chance at the SEC title, you’ll likely be hearing Jones’ name a lot more this season. More big plays in big wins and he might appear in Te’o’s rare defensive Heisman candidate stratosphere – keep an eye on him this week when Ole Miss visits Athens.
Trivia time. Do you know how long it’s been since Kent State won a conference championship? Give up? Forty years! But one of the unhappiest streaks in college football might be coming to an end this year. When you look at the numbers, maybe Kent State’s upset over undefeated Rutgers last weekend shouldn’t have been so surprising. The Golden Flashes aren’t flashy, but they do so many of the little things right. Most impressive is that, at plus-19, they now lead the nation in turnover margin. That figure has pushed Kent State to 13th-nationally in time of possession, which is key to the team’s 7-1 start. That’s how you win games despite being 70th and 68th in the country in total offense and defense, respectively. The Golden Flashes are 4-0 in the MAC and will likely stay undefeated this weekend when they play 1-8 Akron. But they have to face tough conference opponents Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Ohio down the stretch – keep an eye on those games to see if Kent State can capture its first conference title since Nixon was in office.
When you see a rather bulky man in a No. 31 jersey taking snaps for Maryland this weekend, there’s no need to rush to the optometrist. No, in last weekend’s loss to Boston College, the poor Terps lost their fourth – yes, fourth – quarterback to injury when Caleb Rowe tore his ACL. Rowe was Maryland’s last active quarterback under scholarship, and none are coming back soon; collectively, they’ve suffered three ACL tears and a broken foot. This weekend, true freshman linebacker Shawn Petty will be tasked with leading the Terps offense against Georgia Tech. Have you ever seen anything like this? Remarkable, unfortunate and unprecedented – I’ll have an in-depth look at this stranger-than-Being-John-Malkovich story for you in a feature on Friday. Stay tuned.
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