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Tide vs. Tigers worthy of a sequel

Contrary to earlier reports from the sideline, Ohio State guard Marcus Hall was not gesturing toward the BMOC as he left the Big House field this past Saturday.

PREGAME WARMUP

The last time Ohio State, Michigan State and Duke all were involved in the national championship equation was 14 years ago.

It was the called the 1999 Final Four.

Otherwise, you've never seen these three programs in the same bunch formation when it comes to impacting, deciding or even winning a BCS championship.

But here we are in the first week of December and Duke -- Duke! … the same program that was picked to finish last in the ACC's Coastal Division, that didn't squeeze into the AP top 25 poll until two weeks ago (its first ranking since 1994) -- could grab the BCS Championship by the facemask and rattle its cage.

And if the Dookies get an assist from Sparty, another no-show in the preseason top 25, then we could be looking at a national title game that nobody thought possible a few days ago:

Auburn versus Alabama -- The Sequel.

It will never happen, right? No. 1-ranked Florida State will easily defeat underdog Duke in the ACC Championship Game this Saturday in Charlotte. And No. 2-ranked Ohio State will dispose of underdog Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game this Saturday in Indianapolis.

It all makes perfect sense, except for the part where college football has a tendency to go Bo Pelini/Marcus Hall and lose its mind every so often. We saw it this past Saturday when Auburn followed "The Prayer At Jordan-Hare," with, "The Loveliest Return On The Plains."

Go figure: back-to-back football miracles on the same field. Back-to-back moments -- a deflected pass for a last-second, game-winning Auburn touchdown to beat Georgia … a missed field goal return for a no-seconds, game-winning, 109-yard Auburn touchdown to beat then-No. 1 Alabama -- that War Eagle fans (and, yes, even Bama fans) will be talking about until the day they spin into their graves.

You could hear the cheers all the way from Auburn. And you could hear them from Columbus, Ohio, too, where the Buckeyes finally slipped past the BCS bouncer and into Club National Title Game.

Bama's loss was Ohio State's gain. The Buckeyes moved from No. 3 to No. 2 in the BCS standings and will play Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship unless … Duke stuns the Seminoles and Michigan State upsets the Buckeyes. Last week, Urban Meyer and the fellas were huge Florida and Auburn fans. This week, Nick Saban is a huge Dookie and Sparty fan (remember, he coached at East Lansing for five years), and Gus Malzahn would settle for just one of those shock-the-world scenarios.

I'm not saying it's going to happen. FSU was putzing around at Florida Field this past Saturday, but then turned on the afterburners and left the poor Gators choking on contrail smoke. So, no, I don't like Duke's chances for the upset. Then again, nobody thought the Blue Devils would reach the ACC Championship Game without buying a group package of tickets.

Ohio State should beat Michigan State on a neutral field. But the Buckeyes are also the same team that gave up 41 points to a Michigan squad that had lost three of its last four games and scored 21 points or less in each of those losses. And if the Wolverines convert a two-point conversion, Ohio State becomes an instant BCS title game afterthought.

But the Buckeyes survived, which is what really good teams do. And Florida State focused long enough against the undermanned Gators to secure its place as the No. 1 team in the country. For now.

Anyway, if this 2013 season has taught us anything, it's this: just when you think you have it figured out, you don't.

PREGAME SPEECH

I must have talked with a dozen or so Auburn fans outside Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday morning and the gist of their pregame Iron Bowl message was this: We're playing with house money … It's been a great season … We'll probably get beat by Bama, but wouldn't it be fun to scare the living begeezus out of Saban?

They said this as they happily twirled their celery sticks in their bloody marys or gestured with their cups of beer. They were happy, thrilled with the beginnings of the Malzahn Era and, yeah, a little bit buzzed.

So just imagine what they were like after Auburn's 34-28 win against the SEC's Death Star?

By now, you've no doubt seen the blimp shots of the postgame scene at Jordan-Hare. From way above it looked like someone had disturbed an ant hill. Auburn fans poured onto the field from the stands like milk into a cereal bowl. They lingered. They luxuriated in the moment. They had seen history.

So had Saban. Our man Ivan Maisel, whose column from the game is a must-read, used the Saban quote that counted: "First time I ever lost a game that way. First time I have ever seen a game lost that way. . . The game should not have ended that way."

It wouldn't have ended that way had Alabama made just one of its four field goal attempts. Or converted a third- or fourth-down run. Or held Auburn to less than 296 rushing yards. Or, as Saban bemoaned afterward, properly covered the final missed field goal runback.

Of course, if you're Auburn, you're thinking it ended that way because you rushed for those 296 yards, because your defense held when it absolutely had to, because your quarterback Nick Marshall outplayed or, at the very least, played equal to Heisman Trophy candidate AJ McCarron, and because Chris Davis outran a lot of lumbering Alabama players on his 109-yard dash to history.

Auburn players say they're a team of destiny. That word gets tossed around a lot, but in Auburn's case it might be true. They were 3-9 last year, 0-8 in the SEC.

Of course, you could say the same thing about the Tigers who won SEC Eastern Division. Last season, Missouri was 5-7 overall and 2-6 in its first year in the conference. Now they face Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, otherwise known as The Turnaround Bowl.

Who knows how this plays out? After all, how many miracles do you get in a season?

Auburn is hoping for one more. It's called Duke over Florida State, or Michigan State over Florida State.

Missouri is hoping for the same -- plus a win over Auburn.

And former No. 1 Alabama is hoping for all of the above.

FIRST QUARTER

It appears Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will keep his job, even though he sort of double dared the school to pink slip him after last week's loss to Iowa.

"If they want to fire me, go ahead," said a defiant Pelini following the 38-17 beatdown in Lincoln.

Pelini's temper has a long history of red-lining (see, Hat Throwing on Sidelines … Spittle Projectiles … Leaked Taped Recordings), but I'm with him on this one. At some point you're either the guy or you're not. So Pelini stood his ground, stood up for himself, his staff and his program, and issued an ultimatum of sorts.

It wasn't very eloquent, but it was real, raw and, as it turned out, effective. A day after the loss, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a lawyer who was Wisconsin's senior associate athletic director when Pelini was hired by Nebraska in 2008, issued a public vote of confidence for wallflower Bo.

The statement left some wiggle room for a change of heart. If, say, the Cornhuskers get crushed in a bowl game, Eichorst could easily edit the Pelini narrative.

But for now, Pelini remains the coach. And given that Nebraska isn't a top-10-15 elite destination anymore (sorry, it just isn't), Pelini's 57-24 record is no small thing.

I actually admire Pelini for putting himself out there. He's made more than a few public and private mistakes during his time at Nebraska, but you have to respect his belief in his record and in his program.

Eichorst issued Pelini more of a temporary reprieve than a vote of confidence. He either had to fire Pelini or stand behind him. So for the moment -- and for recruiting purposes, etc. -- Eichorst is standing behind Pelini.

He wasn't the only AD to back a coach. Kansas' Charlie Weis will return next season, despite a 4-20 two-year record. By the way, that's exactly one victory less than Turner Gill had at KU before he got fired after just two seasons.

And there was never a doubt that Florida's Will Muschamp was going to be back in 2014 -- not after Gators AD Jeremy Foley issued his "1,000 percent" backing of the coach a few days after the Nov. 9 loss at home to Vanderbilt. Then he followed it up with an even more definitive statement of support before Florida's home loss to rival Florida State this past Saturday.

Foley doesn't say something unless he means it. He's never been afraid to fire a coach and in this case, he wasn't afraid of supporting a guy whose three-year record of 22-16 has the Gator Nation reaching for a binky.

Nobody is interested in sad stories about injury lists. And to Muschamp's credit, he hasn't used Florida's mind-numbing number of season-ending injuries or games-lost-to-injuries as an excuse for this year's 4-8 record.

Bottom line: the Gators suffered their worst season in 34 years, aren't going to a bowl game for the first time since 1990, and were handed their worst-ever home loss in the FSU-UF rivalry.

But Foley, whose office is a shovel pass away from Muschamp's, is convinced he hired the right guy for the job. If Foley saw panic in Muschamp, Muschamp would have been fired after Saturday's 37-7 loss to FSU. And if he didn't think Muschamp was capable of making the necessary staff and philosophical changes -- and the dismissal of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were the first of those changes -- then Foley would have cut bait, just like he did with Ron Zook.

And the truth is, Foley's "1,000 percent" backing of Muschamp in November almost precluded him from canning him in December. Because if you did, then what do you tell the next guy you hire? . . . I'm a 1,000 percent behind you, until I'm not.

Muschamp won 11 games last year and was the SEC Coach of the Year. He didn't forget how to coach during the offseason.

The Gators suffered a massive amount of key injuries this season. The offense reeked and has generally been an issue during each of Muschamp's three seasons in Gainesville. If he doesn't get it fixed, and soon, then there won't be any more confidence votes.

Foley has the sweat equity and the muscle at Florida to make such decisions. And by doing so, he knows his credibility, as well as Muschamp's, is on the line.

SECOND QUARTER

IN:

Steve Sarkisian. So in review, Pete Carroll leaves USC for the NFL and is replaced by one of his former USC assistants (Lane Kiffin), who is later fired by a former USC player (USC athletic director Pat Haden), who names a USC assistant coach under Carroll and Kiffin (Ed Orgeron) as interim coach, who then is passed over for the full-time USC gig in favor of another former two-time USC assistant coach (Steve Sarkisian), even though Sarkisian actually won fewer Pac-12 games this season (five) than Orgeron did as interim coach (six).

And Sarkisian lost to the same Arizona State team that got Kiffin fired, and he lost by more points to the Sun Devils (29 points) than USC did under Kiffin (21 points). And he lost to the same UCLA team that just beat Orgeron and USC (admittedly, by fewer points).

I'm not saying Sarkisian is a bad hire -- he isn't. He's more polished than Orgeron and certainly provides USC with a proven offensive philosophy. He's younger than Orgeron, understands all things USC and knows how to recruit that part of the world.

I'm just saying that Orgeron must be wondering, "What's a guy gotta do?" Rather than return to his assistant coach status, Orgeron quit Monday.

U-Dub is a job worth wanting, especially with the renovated stadium and new football facilities. There will be Washington fans who will never forgive him for the move, but the simple truth is this: it's easier to win a national title at USC than Washington. It's nothing personal; it's geography.

Southern Mississippi and Hawaii. Both teams waited until the final full week of the season to avoid taking the 2013 O-fer. Southern Miss beat UAB 62-27, while Hawaii defeated Army 49-42.

And I loved this note I got from the Southern Miss sports information department on Sunday: The win for Southern Miss snapped a four-game losing streak to UAB.

Yes, it did. It also snapped a 23-game losing streak, the longest in the FBS.

Two Birmingham-area players -- true freshman quarterback Nick Mullens and sophomore defensive back Kalan Reed -- had big games against hometown UAB.

Told Southern Miss coach Todd Monken to reporters: "There are no drugs or alcohol that replaces that feeling of we did something together." You know, BMOC is just going to let that softball pitch drop in for a strike and move on.

Penn State. Two years, two winning seasons for Bill O'Brien, who continues to steer the Nittany Lions program past the NCAA icebergs created by the Sandusky scandal.

Penn State finished 8-4 last year, 7-5 this year, including another win against Wisconsin, two overtime wins and a three-point loss to a team nobody realized was that good until now (UCF).

O'Brien won't want to hear it, but seven wins under Penn State's circumstances (scholarship reductions, no bowl eligibility, etc.) is like nine wins under normal circumstances.

Georgia. The Bulldogs lose Aaron Murray to a knee injury in the Nov. 23 win against Kentucky, but still figure out a way to finish their regular season with an overtime win at Georgia Tech.

One of these days, someone will explain to me why Georgia fans are always down on Bulldogs coach Mark Richt.

• LSU backup quarterback Anthony Jennings. All the true freshman did was throw a 49-yard, game-winning TD pass with a 1:15 remaining against Arkansas. It capped a drive that started inside the LSU 1-yard line.

Not bad for a kid who had entered the game with zero passes attempted in an SEC game.

• LSU starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger. If you can, go back and watch the way the injured Mettenberger congratulated Jennings on the game-winning TD throw. Classy stuff.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. Speaking of classy …

This was Fitzgerald (as quoted by the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein) after the Wildcats beat Illinois to end a disappointing 5-7 season: "We'll be back, OK? As a coaching staff, we have earned and deserve any and all criticism that goes with not being where we belong. We will be back, I promise you that. We will be back."

Fitzgerald also promised the departing seniors on the team that he would buy them bowl tickets for whatever postseason game the Wildcats play in next season.

Weird scheduling. Northern Illinois plays Friday night in the MAC Championship Game. The unbeaten Huskies have also played games on Tuesday and Wednesday this season.

Brian Wright. The Florida Atlantic interim coach is now 4-0 after taking over for Carl Pelini. That fourth consecutive win -- a 21-6 victory over Florida International -- makes FAU bowl eligible for the first time in five years.

Attention getters. Did you see the way Jimbo Fisher grabbed Jameis Winston's facemask?

Visor domination. The Head Ballcoach has won five in a row against Clemson.

OUT:

Coaches going for the tie and overtime. Nick Saban went for the win against Auburn in regulation … and lost.

Michigan's Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and win against Ohio State in regulation … and lost.

Thing is, I don't question either decision. Given the troubles Bama and Michigan were having on defense, there were no guarantees in overtime.

However, you can second-guess the play calls: a 57-yard field goal attempt by Bama instead of a Hail Mary attempt (hey, it worked for Auburn against Georgia!) … a forced pass by Devin Gardner that was intercepted instead of a run-pass option.

Attendance at the Southern Miss-UAB game. The game started at 1 p.m. Eastern at Legion Field, which meant you'd miss the 3:30 kickoff of the Bama-Auburn game. Plus, Southern Miss and UAB entered the game with a combined 2-20 record.

According to Patrick Magee of the Biloxi Sun Herald, the actual attendance at the game was about half of the announced "crowd" of 6,383.

Florida Atlantic. The Owls are likely to get squeezed out of the bowl mix because there aren't enough slots for all of the eligible teams.

Fresno State. So much for BCS Buster status.

Wisconsin. So much BCS bowl status.

TCU coach Gary Patterson and Baylor coach Art Briles sharing a cab ride.

Patterson and Briles got into it during the Bears' 41-38 win at TCU this past Saturday. And Patterson kept going at it after the game too.

But whatever happened during the game pales in comparison to what happened Sunday. That's when Briles buried his older brother Eddie, who died earlier in the week.

Our Jake Trotter had a wonderful lede in his postgame story about the way the Baylor players rallied around their coach. Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk had pulled Briles aside before the game and told him, according to Trotter, "Coach Briles, I know you lost somebody. But you've gained 99 of us."

HALFTIME SPEECH

At some point, even the most devout anti-Buckeyes have to acknowledge that Ohio State is on a historic run.

Well, everybody except That Team Up North.

Here's the video link.

THIRD QUARTER

If I had to vote now for the Heisman. . .

1. Jameis Winston, Florida State. The Seminoles were only ahead 3-0 with about 10 minutes left in the first half. FSU started a drive on their own 4-yard line and 12 plays later, thanks to Winston, the Noles led 10-0.

Winston converted a third-and-26 situation and a second-and-20 on the drive. He also threw a 45-yard TD pass.

He finished with 327 yards and three TD passes.

As for Winston's legal situation, the BMOC has made it clear that we'll let the criminal justice process play itself out before making a final decision. Though, we could do without Winston's attorney whining about how the state attorney's due diligence is affecting his client's ability to win a Heisman.

If you're Winston, wouldn't you want the investigatory process to be as thorough and complete as possible?

2. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois. The NIU quarterback is third in the nation in rushing -- not among QBs, but everybody. He's outrushed Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Auburn's Tre Mason, among others.

Lynch is fourth in total offense, second in points responsible for, and as a reminder, has had two 300-plus rushing game this season.

The Huskies are undefeated and remain in the mix as a BCS buster.

3. Derek Carr, Fresno State. Fresno's undefeated season ended last week with the loss to San Jose State, but it wasn't Carr's fault. He threw for 519 yards and six TDs in the loss and remains ranked No. 1 in the country in passing yards, total offense and points responsible for.

4. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Two words: Iron Bowl.

5. AJ McCarron, Alabama. I can't stand that "Heisman Moment" jibberish, but had Bama held on to beat Auburn, people would have remembered another signature win for McCarron and the 99-yard TD pass he threw that gave the Tide a 28-21 fourth quarter lead. And had he gone on to lead Bama past Mizzou, I think McCarron would have won the Heisman.

Part of McCarron's strength as a Heisman candidate was his won-loss record. The defeat at Auburn undermines that a bit, though I would remind voters McCarron wasn't playing defense and wasn't the guy who missed multiple field goals.

6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State. He only completed six passes against Michigan, but two of them were for scores. And he ran for 153 yards and three more TDs in the rivalry win.

In consideration: Boston College's Andre Williams, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.

FOURTH QUARTER

Looking for reasons why Duke has won a school-record 10 games, why the Dookies will face FSU in the ACC Championship Game, and why David Cutcliffe deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration?

Here are four:

• Duke has overcome double-digit leads in three games (down 22-0 to Virginia, 17-7 to Miami and 14-0 to Wake Forest).

• Duke has given up a grand total of just 37 points in the fourth quarter.

• For the first time since 1962, Duke is unbeaten on the road. Two of their five road wins came at Virginia Tech and rival North Carolina.

• November has been a cruel month for the Blue Devils in the past. Duke was 1-19 in November during Cutcliffe's first five seasons in Durham. This year: 4-0.

POSTGAME

From the home office in Wheaton, Ill., comes this week's version of a four-team BCS playoff format.

No. 1 seed Florida State vs. No. 4 seed Alabama.

One way or the other we were going to get an FSU-Bama matchup.

No. 2 seed Ohio State vs. No. 3 seed Auburn.

Believe me, I thought long and hard about bumping Auburn over the Buckeyes. But the wise Dan Jenkins, who has forgotten more about college football than most of us will ever know, says you never, ever jump a one-loss team over an unbeaten one.

But what if that once-beaten team just beat undefeated Bama and seems to be on speed dial with the football gods? Then can you make an exception?

5. Missouri: Yes, just as we all thought back in August: an SEC Championship Game matchup between Mizzou and Auburn.

6. Oklahoma State: A win at home against Oklahoma guarantees the Cowboys a BCS bowl and at least a share of the Big 12 title.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks would have been in the SEC Championship Game if they hadn't collapsed against Tennessee in late October.

8. Baylor: The Bears end their regular season -- and their stay at tired Floyd Casey Stadium -- with a game against Texas. A win keeps them in the conversation for a BCS bowl.

9. Stanford: I probably have the Cardinal ranked too low. I just can't get the Utah and USC performances out of my mind.

10. Michigan State: For those who question the football bona fides of Sparty, you're about to get your answer in Saturday's Big Ten Championship.

Close, but not quite there: Oregon, Arizona State, Clemson, LSU, Northern Illinois.