Unexpected results result in more of the expected
After the improbable comebacks, the down-to-the-wire finishes, the missed field goals, and the utter Bedlam of Week 13, we have the best snapshot yet of how this wild college football season could end.
Of course, it looks about the same as it did at this time last week -- Auburn and Oregon are in position to play in Glendale, Ariz., for the BCS national championship. But for a stretch on Friday, that matchup seemed very much in doubt.
Indeed, Friday proved to be one of the most unexpected days of the season. We start in Tuscaloosa, where defending national champion Alabama delivered one blow after another to a flat and uninspired Auburn team early on in the super-revved-up Iron Bowl.
When Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter, you had the sense the Tigers' championship hopes were about to die. Boise and Fort Worth rejoiced, believing the door had been opened for the Broncos or Horned Frogs to make history and slip into the national title game.
We should have known better. We should have known a team that has thrived on second-half comebacks, a team with the best player in the country on its side, would not let its dream end at the hands of its bitter rival -- a rival that had failed to put together a complete game in 2010. So the comeback began. Cam Newton did it with his arm this time, and Alabama helped the cause, fumbling twice on the way to scoring opportunities.
Auburn posted the largest comeback in school history and won 28-27. As the stunning turn of events unfolded, perhaps you started thinking this was a team of destiny. A shaky defense turned into a stone wall. An inept offense made all the plays when it needed to. One more hurdle remains -- South Carolina and the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Saturday. The Gamecocks gave Auburn all it could handle earlier this season, but as they did against Alabama, the Tigers tightened up late and won.
Oregon has been prone to getting off to slow starts, too, and that is what happened in its Friday night game against Arizona. The Ducks trailed 19-14 at halftime, opening up another glimmer of hope for the non-AQs. But the Ducks, like the Tigers, have been a second-half team this season. So Oregon did what it always does and opened up a blitzkrieg of offense on the befuddled Wildcats, outscoring them 20-3 in the third quarter en route to a 48-29 win. One more hurdle remains: rival Oregon State in the Civil War on Saturday.
After Auburn and Oregon survived, you figured that was it for drama. Of the three undefeated teams playing on Friday, those two seemed the likeliest to slip going into their games. Few figured No. 4 Boise State would have much trouble, let alone fall to No. 19 Nevada on a cold night in Reno.
The Broncos had won 24 straight after all, and had the easiest schedule of anybody in the country -- or so the critics yammered. But anybody who knows anything about the WAC knows this: Nevada has played exceptionally well this season, and the Wolf Pack have played the Broncos close every year since 2007. When Boise State jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead, the rout appeared on, and television sets across the East Coast were switched off.
But anybody who slept on this game slept on perhaps the best game of the season. Nevada slowly started to make its comeback, the way it did in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In all three of those games, Boise State had a double-digit lead that was whittled away in the second half. Only this time, Nevada actually pulled the upset, 34-31 in overtime.
How? If you blame Kyle Brotzman for missing two chip-shot field goals, your blame would be misplaced. This one falls squarely on the shoulders of the offensive and defensive lines, which got pushed around in the second half and ultimately cost Boise State. The pistol offense started firing, and Kellen Moore got harassed enough to get off rhythm. After Brotzman pushed his 26-yarder wide that would have won it in regulation, you got the sense this would be Nevada's night. And it was.
That loss opened the door for TCU and Stanford. The Horned Frogs took care of New Mexico 66-17 on Saturday, even without an injured Andy Dalton, and are in position for the Rose Bowl at worst and the BCS national title game at best. Meanwhile, Stanford is poised to move up to No. 4 in the BCS standings thanks to the Boise State and LSU losses. That would guarantee the Cardinal an at-large berth into the BCS.
Meanwhile, Bedlam delivered bedlam to the Big 12 South after Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State 47-41. The true madness happened in the fourth quarter, when the teams put up a combined 40 points, including four touchdowns in the final four minutes of the game. Landry Jones was just a little better than Brandon Weeden, and now it's the Sooners poised to play Nebraska in the conference title game. The BCS standings later tonight will reveal the fates of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, locked in a three-way tie at 6-2.
Connecticut also emerged as the unlikely Big East favorite, while Florida State pummeled in-state rival Florida and got the help it needed from Maryland to move into the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. There was plenty of the unexpected in the ACC -- Miami lost to South Florida 23-20 in overtime, ultimately costing coach Randy Shannon his job.
So while the unexpected ruled this weekend, we are left with the expected this morning: Auburn and Oregon, championship contenders.
When it comes to survival, Auburn is fittest
It took the greatest comeback in Auburn history for the Tigers to stay alive in the national championship chase.
They rallied from a 24-0 deficit on Friday to stun Alabama 28-27 and stay unbeaten, snapping the Crimson Tide's 20-game home winning streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
There's something to be said for simply surviving this time of year, and you can bet that Auburn enters its SEC championship game showdown with South Carolina on Saturday with its eyes wide open.
"We didn't play our best and still found a way to win the game," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.
In other words, there won't be any false sense of invincibility for the Tigers (12-0, 8-0 SEC) when they arrive in Atlanta next weekend. Rather, playing such a close game and surviving on the road against Alabama may have been the perfect way for the Tigers to go into their rematch with the Gamecocks.
"We've had to fight for everything we've gotten," Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. "That's the way it's been for us all year, and we don't expect that to change."
The Tigers' players know how difficult it was the first time to beat South Carolina, which led 20-7 at one point in the first half.
The Gamecocks (9-3, 5-3) found out in the fourth quarter, though, what everybody else has who's faced the Tigers this season. That's what they call winning time.
Auburn has outscored opponents 114-45 this season after the third quarter, which includes the overtime win over Clemson.
"We made a promise to each other that we're going to finish everything we do," Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. "We plan on keeping that promise."
Three's company atop the Big Ten
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A year from now, there will be no debate.
Beginning in 2011, the Big Ten will thankfully dispose of its Little League-ish co-champs title and crown a definitive king in a league championship game. Until then, we're stuck with this: a three-way tie atop the league.
Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State all finished the regular season with identical records (11-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten). Since Ohio State and Michigan State didn't play, the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth goes to the team ranked highest in the final BCS standings.
Judging by the roses hanging from the mouths of the Wisconsin Badgers late Saturday afternoon, it's pretty clear which team that will be.
But which is the Big Ten's best team? The debate is far from over.
Wisconsin is the league's hottest team, having won its final seven regular-season games, including the final four by a combined score of 235-84. Ohio State still can call itself the league's most talented team, boasting elite recruits on both sides of the ball. Michigan State might be the league's most accomplished team, with a 1-0 record among the league leaders and seven wins against bowl-eligible squads, more than both Wisconsin and Ohio State.
But each squad can make a case to be the league's best.
"We are the best team in the Big Ten," Ohio State linebacker Brian Rolle said.
Not surprisingly, Rolle isn't the only one who feels this way in central Ohio.
"I would say us," Buckeyes safety Jermale Hines said. "Am I supposed to say somebody else? I feel we're the best in the Big Ten, hands down."
Informed of the Buckeyes' sentiments later Saturday, Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi laughed.
"I guess that's Ohio State for you," said Carimi, whose Badgers beat the Buckeyes 31-18 on Oct. 16. "If Ohio State thinks that, then whatever. I'd only play with my team."
Michigan State has been somewhat forgotten in the debate, and most project the Spartans to miss a BCS bowl. But Spartans coach Mark Dantonio isn't about to back down after his team won a record 11 games.
"We're the only football team that's beaten Wisconsin, and I might add that we did it convincingly," Dantonio said after Michigan State's win at Penn State. "I'll say it twice: we did it convincingly. They're up there at six or seven [in the BCS standings], and we should be right there with them."
All three teams feel deserving of BCS berths, but only two will be rewarded. Wisconsin certainly knows the feeling after being shut out of the BCS bowls despite an 11-1 record in 2006.
Not that the Badgers are taking pity on Michigan State.
"The cards just didn't fall for us that year, kind of it's not going to fall for Michigan State this year," Carimi said. "But I'm a Badger, not a Spartan, so I honestly don't feel for them."
Tough talk at the top.
ACC wakes up to dream title game
In a matchup-sensitive championship game, the ACC got the best possible result this year in Florida State and Virginia Tech -- two ranked teams that have ended their seasons on winning streaks and will bring brand-name, national recognition to a game that desperately needs it.
Last year's game between Clemson and Georgia Tech in Tampa was entertaining and refreshing after back-to-back games between Virginia Tech and Boston College, but the location of the game and the success of FSU and Virginia Tech should provide the ACC with an even bigger boost this year. Hokies fans are sure to make the trip to Charlotte, N.C., in droves, and more than 55,000 tickets were sold before FSU was even assured of the Atlantic Division title.
While an Atlantic Division title would have been significant for NC State's program and coach Tom O'Brien, the Wolfpack wouldn't have brought the national attention that Florida State will, especially considering the rapid success the Seminoles have seen under first-year coach Jimbo Fisher.
Florida State is coming off a three-game winning streak, but no win was bigger than Saturday's 31-7 dismantling of the rival Gators. The Seminoles snapped a six-game losing streak to Florida, giving Florida State wins over Miami and Florida for the first time since 1999. Virginia Tech has won 10 straight games and enters the championship as the first team to go undefeated in conference play since Florida State in 2000.
Both teams have championship history against each other, as Florida State won its 12th ACC title in 2005, beating Virginia Tech 27-22 in the inaugural championship game. And Florida State beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl in 1999 en route to the national title.
Both programs will bring history and tradition to Charlotte, and that's exactly what the title game needs to establish its own.
Week 13 Impact Performances
Three weekend observations
1. In May 2008, two-and-a-half years ago, I covered a goodwill visit to U.S. military personnel in the Middle East by five coaches: Mark Richt of Georgia, Randy Shannon of Miami, Jack Siedlecki of Yale, Tommy Tuberville of Auburn and Charlie Weis of Notre Dame. With Shannon's firing Saturday night, Richt is the only one still in the same job, and his foundation needs shoring up after going 14-11 over the last two seasons. It's getting more difficult to figure out if the rewards of coaching are worth the pain.
2. There's something poetic in the expected meeting of Oklahoma and Nebraska for the Big 12 conference title. The rivalry that defined the Big Eight died with the birth of the Big 12. That it serves as the league's last championship game exemplifies how the Big 12 became a sum less than its parts. The showdown between head coaches (the Sooners' Bob Stoops and the Huskers' Bo Pelini) who grew up in the same Youngstown, Ohio, neighborhood adds spice. But poignancy will define the day.
3. Thanksgiving used to be the wrap-up weekend for a handful of rivalries. Now it has become the most important three days of the regular season, and the extremes of emotion that played out illustrate why college football is more popular than ever. This was the weekend college football went off its meds: missed chip-shots, Hail Marys, huge comebacks, two losses in the top five, a jaw-dropping Iron Bowl and defense nowhere to be found. I guess if every Saturday were like this weekend, we'd take them for granted.
Final verdict: Auburn-South Carolina
'GameDay' crew final thoughts
We get so caught up in the BCS standings and the race for the national championship that we sometimes forget how important winning these rivalry games are to the players. Florida State snapped a six-game losing streak to Florida. Notre Dame ended an eight-game skid against USC and Utah scored 17 fourth-quarter points to beat BYU. The emotion those kids showed after they won reminded me of the beauty of college football. It proves that there is something out there that is more than just the BCS. And I'm not an opponent of the BCS system necessarily, but if there were an eight-team playoff, the three teams I'd want no part of are Wisconsin, Stanford and Arkansas. Right now, those three teams are playing as well as anyone in the country.
Helmet stickers go to:
• QB Danny O'Brien and WR Torrey Smith, Maryland
O'Brien: 417 passing yards, 4 TDs; Smith: 14 receptions, 224 yards, 4 TDs in win vs. NC State
• WR Cameron Kenney, Oklahoma
6 receptions, 141 yards, 2 TDs in win vs. Oklahoma State
It's all becoming more definite now. The options keep narrowing down, and a week from now, we'll know which bowl games teams will be playing in and who will be playing for the national championship. We'll no longer be dealing with speculation but in absolute certainty.
Helmet stickers go to:
• DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
7 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles in win vs. Northwestern
• RB Jordan Todman, UConn
175 rushing yards, 3 TDs in win vs. Cincinnati
On Friday, I was impressed by the way Oregon and Auburn came from behind to pull out huge wins, especially Auburn being on the road at Tuscaloosa. And Saturday, the teams that had to flex their muscles did. Wisconsin once again showed that it's worthy of the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth with a dominating win. Stanford came out and dropped the hammer again, proving that it's deserving of a BCS invitation. And Arkansas looks like it's on its way to a BCS bowl which is a tribute to the job Bobby Petrino has done there. In just his third season, it looks like he'll have the Hogs in a BCS bowl.
Highlights: Oklahoma-Oklahoma St.
Blog Network: What we learned
The ACC title game is set, while the Randy Shannon era is over at Miami.
Thanks to Boise State's loss, the Big 12 might get two BCS bids after all.
It's all in Connecticut's hands now, while Dave Wannstedt may be in trouble at Pitt.
The Big Ten won't have a team in the BCS title game, but looks primed to place two in BCS bowls.
It will be a travesty if an 11-1 Stanford team doesn't earn a BCS bowl berth.
Auburn is showing that it just might be the Tigers' year, while Arkansas came full circle.
After Boise State's devastating loss, only TCU is left standing among the non-AQ BCS contenders.
Notre Dame's defense hasn't just improved, it's proved itself dominant.
Blog Network: Helmet stickers
Every week our bloggers will hand out helmet stickers to the week's top players, coaches, teams or anything else worth this honor.
Odds & ends
• Stanford kept pace with Wisconsin in hopes of sneaking into the BCS title game with a blowout win over Oregon State. The Cardinal finish the regular season 11-1, the most wins in school history, and would gain an automatic bid to a BCS bowl if they finish in the top four in this week's BCS standings. QB Andrew Luck added four more TDs and set the school's single-season record for TD passes in a season with 28. With one game left, he passed Steve Stenstron (1993) and John Elway (1980), who each had 27.
• Florida State ended a six-game losing streak to in-state rival Florida, winning by 24 points. Combined with a win over Miami earlier this season, the Seminoles won the "state title" for the first time since 1999, but that wasn't even the biggest news of the day in Tallahassee. An hour later, Maryland knocked off NC State, giving FSU the Atlantic Division title and a berth in next week's ACC championship game against Virginia Tech. Florida State played in the first three BCS title games from 1998-2000 and in five BCS bowl games through 2003, but has played in one BCS bowl game since. In attempting to measure the success of Jimbo Fisher in his first season at FSU, the 9-3 record matches Urban Meyer's first regular season at Florida in 2005. The Gators won the national title in two of the next three seasons.
• In the revolving door that is the Big East Conference's BCS bid, Connecticut now controls its own destiny and will earn the bid, and most likely a Fiesta Bowl slot, with a win over South Florida next week. The Huskies began the season 3-4 before recording four consecutive wins, including victories over Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Since the BCS system was put in place in 1998, a team with four losses has played in a BCS bowl game three times, all coming from the ACC ('02 and '05 FSU, '08 Virginia Tech).