Irish one win away from Miami
With a victory at USC Saturday, Notre Dame heads to title game
Like the film, Memento – see it if you haven’t, you’ll need a pen and paper and, perhaps, some Tylenol – we’d need to watch Saturday unfold backwards in order for it to all make sense. But we can’t. So, like the movie, the day’s plot will happen in reverse, making it all the more compelling and confusing. We won’t know what the stakes are for all of those rivalry games we watch before the sun goes down until we know what happens on Saturday night in Southern California. So, until Notre Dame and USC take the field at 8 p.m. ET, every twist and turn of the plot could be important…or completely irrelevant.
Should Notre Dame beat USC on Saturday night to preserve its undefeated record, all the games played throughout the day – the ones highlighted below in this very column – will be rendered moot. A Notre Dame win means that the Irish will be one of the two combatants in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Miami and that the efforts of all the other teams fighting for that spot Saturday afternoon – namely Florida, Florida State and Oregon (Kansas State is off this week) – will be for naught.
What about the other spot? Assuming Georgia and Alabama handle their respective business on Saturday against swooning rivals Georgia Tech and Auburn, the winner of their SEC title clash is assured to take the trip down to Miami.
So the afternoon’s complicated plot – centered around rivalry games in Corvallis and Tallahassee – won’t make sense until about 11 p.m. on the East Coast, once our story told backward reaches the end (or is it the beginning?)
And the protagonist of the day’s story – or antagonist if you plan on wearing green on Saturday – will be an enigma, a freshman quarterback with nine collegiate passes to his name. Last week, as he left the Rose Bowl, Matt Barkley’s arm was in a sling thanks to a separated shoulder and his Heisman candidacy was a on a stretcher thanks to 15 interceptions and four losses. So now his freshman understudy Max Wittek will see what sort of damage he can do with some of the nation’s most dangerous weapons – Marqise Lee, more than a weapon, is the red button on the President’s desk personified – against the nation’s top scoring defense.
Certainly the inexperienced freshman can’t match what Barkley – who has thrown 116 career touchdowns – could have done against the Irish, right? Really, we have no idea. Perhaps the Irish will underestimate him. Perhaps the Irish will be overwhelmed by the pressure that comes with being favored to add that elusive 12th win. Perhaps Wittek can step in and outperform Barkley, who, despite his prolific career, has thrown the second-most interceptions in the nation this year. We have no way of knowing how these variables will influence the game.
By Saturday night, Wittek will have gone from obscure backup to most important man in college football, the man that fans in Gainesville, Fla. and Eugene, Ore. and Manhattan, Kan. will cheer like one of their own. A day’s – a season’s – worth of drama will be in his hands. If he succeeds, the twisting plot we watched unfold on Saturday will matter. If he doesn’t, the day’s only scene that we’ll care about is the last one – the one that ends with unblemished gold helmets held aloft.
Florida and Florida State enter their annual showdown both ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2000 when the No. 3 Seminoles bested the No. 4 Gators 30-7. Don’t expect that sort of lopsided outcome this week – both squads stand in the top four nationally in total defense. That’s a far cry from the peak of the rivalry when it took at least 30 points and a few cans of rocket fuel to seal the win. Though this one’s being played in ACC country, it may end up looking more like an SEC West tilt if those monstrous defensive lines keep having their way. The winner wraps up the season with one loss and a computer-pleasing late-season win over a top-10 opponent. Florida, No. 4 right now in the BCS, has the best chance of sneaking into the national title game with a win.
Remember when Oregon was cruising to championship game and we thought the rest of the Pac-12 was just a distant reflection in those chrome helmets? Now, thanks to a kick that missed its target by, literally, a couple of inches, the Ducks need quite a lot to go their way if they’re going to fly to Miami. It’s amazing that years of tremendous recruiting, an entire season of practices and games spent honing, arguably, the nation’s most precise offense and incessant praise from pundits and voters can be wiped away when a kick clangs backwards off of a goalpost rather than caroming through. But that’s what happened to Oregon last week against Stanford. So now the Ducks need to beat Oregon State, have Notre Dame lose, have UCLA knock off Stanford and have Florida State best Florida. And that’s just on Saturday. Then, the Ducks would have to beat UCLA in the Pac-12 title game. And then, maybe, just maybe, they’d earn their shot at the crystal football. But step one in that long string of events is no simple task. The Beavers are undefeated at home this year and, like Stanford, lean on a sturdy defense for survival. This Oregon team can’t lose two straight, can it? Likely not, but stranger things have happened in rivalry games – Oregon State is certainly no also-ran and would love nothing more than to snuff out big brother’s lofty hopes.
Can we just call this Stanford-UCLA I? And, unlike boxing, we won’t have to wait six months and endure staged animosity and gaudy pinky rings at the weigh in before the rematch. Should the Cardinal win this one, Stanford will host the Pac-12 title game next week against, you guessed it, UCLA. The Bruins are coming off the biggest win of Jim Mora’s brief tenure by knocking off cross-town rival and perceived big brother USC in convincing fashion. The Bruins are at home for this one, but with the win over the Trojans in the rearview mirror and a berth in the Pac 12 title game locked up, might motivation, or lack thereof, be a factor here? And, if you had the choice, which UCLA does, who would you rather play with a championship on the line: Oregon or Stanford? Should the Bruins go all out and pick up the win, they’ll draw Oregon, but if they take it easy on Saturday, maybe deciding to keep a few tricks in the bag, then we’ll get to see Stanford-UCLA II next week.
Saturday marks the first-annual, “wait, they’re both in the SEC?” bowl when Missouri travels to College Station to take on the Manziels…sorry, I meant the Aggies. (When I was looking for Texas A&M on an online database earlier, I hit control+F and accidentally started typing “Manziel”. I’m serious.) The new Heisman frontrunner – a freshman, in case you forgot – is not the whole team, but sometimes it certainly feels like it. He has, after all, gone over 250 passing yards and 90 rushing yards in the same game seven times this season. Yes, I repeat, he’s a freshman. Rather than getting beat up, A&M seemed to enjoy its inaugural run through the nation’s toughest conference, dropping only two games along the way and, of course, there was that little upset they pulled in Tuscaloosa. How has Missouri enjoyed its first season down South? Just take everything I said about A&M and flip it. The Tigers were able to knock off Tennessee, but beyond that overtime win, the SEC has been about as kind to the new kid in town as expected. Things won’t get much easier against their fellow conference newbie.
Can Urban Meyer go undefeated in his first year at Ohio State? Does it even matter if he can? We know it can’t earn the Buckeyes a title shot thanks to a postseason ban, but what does this year teach us about next year? Should the rest of the nation fear Ohio State? Should we expect more of the same? A 12-0 season is certainly nothing to scoff at, especially considering Meyer did it with a team coming off of a 6-7 season and with only one of his own recruiting classes, but his players never had to play amid the same pressures that fractured K-State, Oregon and Alabama’s perfect seasons in the last two weeks. Would the Buckeyes have been able to sneak away with close victories against Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin if they knew any mistake would mean a loss and any loss might snuff out a run at the national title? Would playcalling have been the same? How much easier does that lack of big-picture pressure make games for players and coaches? Really, we won’t know until next year. And we’ll never know if this year’s 12-0 would’ve happened if the crystal football loomed over every game, every decision. But, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself; the Buckeyes are 11-0 now. This week, they have to finish the job at home against rival Michigan. But given the nerve issue in Denard Robinson’s arm and starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s broken leg, Michigan’s offensive firepower, and chances of derailing the perfect Buckeyes season, are significantly hampered.
Thanks to the holiday, there are a slew of games on Friday. Fantastic – it’s a good excuse for getting out of being dragged to the mall at 4 a.m. only to be trampled by the sweater-wearing masses, right? Well, if you do stay home, you’ll be lulled to sleep by a healthy dose of tryptophan and “meh”-inducing games. I can dig for a nice storyline in most contests, but the only one thing that will tantalize me through most of the day on Friday will be the leftovers. But, if you don’t mind staying up late, Arizona State traveling to Arizona will be a nice nightcap. With quality new head coaches at the helm, the teams have already combined for 13 wins (only 10 last year) and a bunch of points (both are averaging more than 36 per game). This is the first edition of what could develop into a nice little rivalry between a pair of programs grappling for renown.
I’m not supposed to play favorites, but I think the bosses will let this one slide. Everyone should be cheering for Southern Miss this weekend. Why? The Golden Eagles are the lone winless FBS team. Saturday’s trip to Memphis marks their last chance at putting a mark in the column on the left. And this isn’t coming after years of mediocrity – last season, the Golden Eagles went 12-2, including a Hawaii Bowl win against Nevada.
Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten? I won’t criticize any schools’ reasons for moving – they’ve all got to do what they feel are in the best interest of their institutions – but our conference maps are getting messier every season. I’m not old-fashioned, I just like a little geographic order and the rivalries that sprout due to proximity. This constant game of conference musical chairs seems to only be getting started – the Big Ten should probably change its name to “The Big Even Number that Will Probably Be Bigger Next Year” while the Big East may have to just settle for “East” as the conference regroups. No storied rivalries were destroyed with these moves, but I’m sure we’ll lose some important ones soon. A few superconferences might make things more orderly in the long run, but improvement will certainly come with a price.