For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
SATURDAY EVENING'S GAME against Ole Miss had barely gotten started when the all-business leader of the Crimson Tide defense, linebacker C.J. Mosley, caught himself grinning.
The first play of the game had been a 38-yard pass that had sliced into Alabama territory. And just moments later the vaunted Rebels offense had decided to take their first big chance of the night. On fourth-and-2 at the Alabama 29, Ole Miss was going for it. Receiver Laquon Treadwell, the man who caught that demoralizing pass to start the contest, took the ball and seemed destined to get the first down. But he was met by a Tide safety -- he of one of college football’s greatest names, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix -- who scooped up Treadwell, upended him and threw him to the turf, inches shy of the conversion. Treadwell was credited with a 1-yard carry, one of Ole Miss’ scant 46 yards rushing in a 25-0 shutout, shutdown loss.
“That stop set the tone. Before the game I kept telling everybody, 'Remember what they said',” Mosley says, grinning as he recalled the waning confidence in the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, acerbated by Mississippi quarterback Bo Wallace saying his team could score on anyone. “They called us out. We answered the bell.”
Mosley’s words were meant to apply only to his team. But he could have very easily been speaking for multiple other big-name programs that sent some very big-time messages during September’s final football weekend. Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma ... they all announced their presence with authority.
Officially speaking, it was Week Five of the 2013 college football season. In reality, it was Statement Saturday.
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) September 29, 2013
In Columbus, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller returned and quickly reminded everyone why he was on so many preseason Heisman short lists: He threw solidly and efficiently, often on the run, for four touchdown passes and racked up 281 total yards.
Miller made his “Remember me?” statement at the end of the first half. Leading 17-14 after a big Wisconsin score, he drove the Buckeyes across midfield but then lofted up a horrible wounded-duck Hail Mary toss on third down with 10 seconds remaining. The ball wobbled its way toward the right side of the goal line and into the hands of cornerback Sojourn Shelton, but slipped through the freshman’s hands and fell incomplete.
Given a second chance with time ticking away on fourth down, Miller calmly took the snap, jogged up through the left-side alley of a collapsing pocket and fired an off-the-back-foot strike. The 45-yard rope hit waiting Corey Brown, who had inexplicably slipped alone behind the secondary. Though Wisconsin would make it close late, the half-ended pass was the backbreaker. “Man, it slipped out of my hand,” Miller said of the interception. “I told Coach, let’s do it again and make up for it on the next throw.”
A soft early schedule -- Buffalo, San Diego State, Cal, Florida A&M -- hasn’t exactly won the hearts of college football experts or pollsters. But a victory over a should-be undefeated, top-25 team; the fact that the OSU defense held the Wisconsin running machine to 104 yards; and the return of Miller all add up to image momentum that will only increase should the Buckeyes win at 16th-ranked Northwestern this weekend.
Said safety C.J. Barnett: “I don't know if we made a statement. We know we had our doubters. Hopefully, we proved them wrong. But if not, it doesn't matter. We're just going to keep working.”
Along the I-85 corridor, two schools who met nearly a month ago were busy making statements of their own. Clemson, coming off a somewhat flat nationally televised Thursday night performance against NC State, looked crisp early and often against Wake Forest, one of the culprits behind the “Clemson pulling a Clemson” perception that has dogged the program over the last decade. The Tigers won 56-7 in a game that was largely over at the end of the first quarter.
Just down the road at Georgia, the Dawgs outlasted LSU, thanks to a big-boy fourth-quarter drive led by oft-criticized quarterback Aaron Murray. Speaking of which, you think maybe it’s time to park the “Richt and Murray don’t show up for big games” talk?
Murray certainly does. After Sanford Stadium had emptied out, he made his way to the "College GameDay" stage, where an hour earlier his former roommate, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, had come up short in the closing moments. When Murray was prepped on the upcoming topics of conversation with Tom Rinaldi, he was told there would be a question about shedding the "bad in big games" image.
"Yeah," he said with a smile. "I figured that was coming."
On camera he was smooth, admitting that he hadn't been able to watch LSU's final drive ("My teammates said, 'Stop being a baby and watch the game!'") and repeating his in-huddle statement to the team that he'd used against North Texas the week before: "Relax and have fun". And yes, he addressed the whispers about his big-stage performances. "This isn't about me. This is about our team. This has been a brutal first month and I think we've proved to the nation that Georgia is for real. No matter what happens, we keep pushing."
Consider this: Georgia played four games in September and three were against top-10 opponents; they won two of those, becoming the first team since Alabama’s 2008 squad to defeat two top-10 teams before Oct. 1. The one game they lost was by only three points at Clemson’s Death Valley, which, when on its game, is one of America’s most intimidating venues.
Yes, UGA is giving up yards and points, but when you’re producing 554 yards and 41 points a game, you buy your D time to get their act together, especially with O-challenged Tennessee as their next opponent. “We're ready. We're here, man,” says wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, with enthusiasm. “We can take on anybody, any time … We'll take anybody, anywhere."
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) September 28, 2013
On the West Coast, Oregon posted 55-plus points for the fourth consecutive week. The Ducks racked up 381 yards of offense, despite De’Anthony Thomas being injured on the opening kickoff, purposely letting off the gas in the second half, and playing in a rain storm so strong that it knocked out power to a chunk of Eugene. They also played a little defense, shutting down Sonny Dykes’ famed Air Bear (with an admitted assist from the monsoon).
Meanwhile, Stanford steamrolled Washington State and Oklahoma ran past Notre Dame … all while key rivals USC and Oklahoma State stumbled, one into program in chaos (Wanted: Head Coach), the other into an inexplicable loss (Take Me Home, Country Roads!).
See? September statements, one and all.
“September is great, and on the win-loss record, the September wins count just like all the others,” says Sooners head coach Bob Stoops, already looking ahead to the next two weeks, with TCU coming to Norman and then the annual visit to the Cotton Bowl to see Texas. “But there’s an old football cliche and we know it around here better than anybody: They remember what you do in November.”