Though both teams wouldn't want to settle for it, a Michigan-Tennessee matchup in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando would be terrific, if only because the teams share many traits. Both teams are led by senior quarterbacks who have overcome constant criticism, and both teams refuse to give in to deficits, fatigue, or doubt.
By all rights, the Volunteers should be reeling from their third consecutive loss. But quarterback Casey Clausen willed his team to a 51-43, five-overtime victory at archrival Alabama. Trailing 34-27, Clausen converted a fourth-and-19 in the second overtime that kept the Volunteers alive.
"Casey is one of the toughest-minded quarterbacks, with skill, that I've ever been around," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said after the game. Fulmer added "with skill" almost reflexively, as if to protest Clausen from the catcalls he has received throughout his career, mainly for being neither Tee Martin nor Peyton Manning, his two predecessors.
"He's a guy that, it doesn't get too tough for him," Fulmer added.
The Vols tested Clausen and themselves by fumbling the ball away the first three times they had it. Yet the defense allowed Alabama only three points. After a 2002 season in which Tennessee had all the chemistry of the Michael-Lisa Marie marriage, Tennessee has stuck together this year. When they did so Saturday, it kept them alive in the SEC East race.
"We talked about accountability a lot (last) week," Fulmer said.
Tennessee, in many way, retraced the steps Michigan had taken a couple of weeks earlier. After tough losses at Oregon and at Iowa, Michigan trailed at Minnesota 35-21 with a little over 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Oct. 10. But John Navarre, vilified for much of his career in Ann Arbor, rallied the Wolverines to a 38-35 victory, and Michigan hasn't slowed down since. The 31-3 rout of Purdue on Saturday gave the Wolverines the inside rail on the Big Ten race, even as they travel to Michigan State, which is a game ahead of them, on Saturday.
A few days after that Minnesota victory, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr spoke with pride about how his receivers ran hard on every snap. In doing so, Carr revealed a lot about what has driven this Michigan team.
"(If) every single receiver is running hard, running routes as if you're throwing to them, that's what slows down a defensive back," Carr said. "That's what slows a linebacker. A lot of times, a receiver on a back side of a play knows he won't get the football. But if you have guys running hard, that's one of the reasons we were able to hit the big passes to Braylon (Edwards). He had come off the ball hard all day long. He had been running (short routes), and all of a sudden, off that same look, we were able to find him deep."
Effort is all it is, even when the crowd isn't watching you. Michigan has inserted itself back into the Big Ten race because of it.
The victory gave Carr a record of 12-3 against top-10 teams, which may come in handy in East Lansing this week. Both Michigan and Tennessee have two losses, so the chances of them winning the national championship are all but gone. But while there is still hope for conference titles, their odds of ending up in the Orlando game are better, and wouldn't it be a grand game if they did.
A Father First, Coach Second
Injuries are as much a part of football as sweat. Coaches don't like to see players in their charge get hurt, but with the entire team needing leadership, coaches learn to insulate themselves from the emotional toll.
It was a little tougher for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to ward off the emotions last Tuesday when his starting center underwent surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament. The Hawkeyes' center, Brian Ferentz, is the oldest of Kirk and Mary Ferentz's five children.
"It's difficult," Ferentz said Wednesday, one day after his son's surgery, which took place while the coach held his weekly press conference. "The worst thing anybody will tell you about coaching is dealing with injuries. You see the players work so hard."
It took a couple of more questions to push Ferentz into talking as a father, not a coach.
"It makes you appreciate what all parents (go through)," Ferentz said. "We have kids from all over the country. This is the second time I've seen him go through the pain and the surgery. I'm lucky, because my wife was there when he came out of surgery. I'm lucky because I'm right here. He is being treated where I live."
Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux of Port Arthur, Texas, fractured his right leg at Ohio State last week. Babineaux underwent surgery the same day as Brian Ferentz. Coaches and teammates visited both players. For instance, Kirk snuck over to see his players during position meetings Tuesday afternoon, and again after practice that night.
"That's one thing about having a great medical complex on campus," Kirk Ferentz said. "It's 300, 400 yards away. There's a great support network here, but it's not the same as being there. When it's your son, you get to experience it first-hand."
The Ferentzes are, Iowa believes, one of five father-son combinations in Division I-A (the others: Lee and Andy Owens at Akron; Art and Kendal Briles at Houston; Tony and Travis Samuel at New Mexico State; and Mike and Luke Bellotti at Oregon.
Another benefit, Kirk noted, is that Brian will have his family nearby while he rehabs. "He's learned how to milk that pretty good," Kirk said. As a coach and parent, Ferentz gets a double emotional blow. On the other hand, he said, "Being a coach helps you deal with it better as a parent. Unfortunately, this is part of what we do."
After Ferentz's replacement, Eric Rothwell, and quarterback Nathan Chandler had a lot of problems in exchanging the ball in the Hawkeyes' 19-10 loss at Ohio State two weeks ago, it should be noted that Chandler didn't fumble a single snap in Saturday's 26-14 defeat of Penn State.
On The Job
Soon after Bowling Green promoted Gregg Brandon to head coach last December, he bought 10 season tickets at Doyt Perry Stadium. That in itself is not unusual. Coaches have handfuls of tickets at a lot of schools. But Brandon bought seats right behind the opposing bench.
The Falcons, 8-0 and ranked 16th last year, lost at Northern Illinois, 26-17. One reason is that the Huskies student section, right behind the Bowling Green bench, made so much noise that it
affected communication on the field and on the sideline.
"Northern Illinois was louder than Ohio State and Purdue were this year," Brandon said. "I was in the press box. I kept asking, 'What's the matter? What's the matter?' They said, 'Coach, we can't hear.' They (the NIU students) had those thunder sticks. They were right behind our bench."
So Brandon bought 10 season tickets behind the opponent's bench, and decided to give them out to Bowling Green students. And not just any students, either.
"I want 10 whack jobs," Brandon said.
Brandon went to the student union and asked students to audition. The winner would get the 10 tickets, as long as he promised that his nine friends would have a screw loose every Saturday afternoon.
The winner, senior Shaun Pelley, wore an orange cape and mask, and, carrying a Bowling Green flag, ran through the middle of practice yelling.
"The kids looked at each other and told me, 'That guy will work,'" Brandon said.
Junior Nick Martin, with his face painted orange and black, called Pelley, "King Whack Job."
Pelley and his friends don't just yell at the players, although they do a nice job of that. They're original. Senior Nick Gillespie said they got the number of the sideline phone for the opposing team and called it during the first couple of games, delivering a message of, uh, goodwill. The policeman on the sideline discouraged them from continuing.
Pelley is a soft-spoken environmental sciences major, if you can be soft-spoken while wearing a pumpkin carved in the shape of a helmet on your head. He and his several of his buddies spent seven hours carving pumpkins as headgear
"This week, we wanted to get on TV," Pelley said. "Get pumpkins on our head. Be original."
They did get on TV during the Falcons' 34-18, and the crowd of 31,007, many with thunder sticks of their own (payback for last season), made a huge difference, according to both Brandon and quarterback Josh Harris. Judging from the noise, Brandon had way more than 10 whack jobs.
The Real Separation Saturday
With all due respect to Oct. 11, we just got through with the real Separation Saturday. Three conference or division races that began the day with little form ended it with clear front-runners and chasers.
In the SEC West, LSU established itself as the team to beat by dominating Auburn, 31-7, reminding the visiting Tigers and everyone else how Death Valley got its name. Before the beads of sweat could form on anyone's Coke, LSU scored three touchdowns. Once again, Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, given the burden of carrying the offense when the running game failed, couldn't do so.
That's not particularly fair to Campbell -- the way that the Auburn offensive line couldn't make room for Carnell Williams, who rushed for only 61 yards, it surely couldn't make time for Campbell to throw. The LSU defense, which began the season with a veteran defensive line and a lot of question marks, has renewed coach Nick Saban's lease on the list of outstanding defensive coaches.
Though LSU is the team to beat in the West, it's not the leader. Ole Miss, with its 19-7 defeat of Arkansas, will have an off week between playing at Auburn on Nov. 8 and hosting LSU on Nov. 22, for what will be Eli Manning's final home game. The Rebels have been the silent surprise of the SEC West. A defense that played poorly for the first month of the season has turned itself around, although holding the Razorbacks to one score is a lot easier when the top two tailbacks, Cedric Cobbs and De'Arrius Howard, are too banged up to play.
Over the last two weeks, the Big Ten has whittled its list of contenders from seven to three. Of Michigan State, the lone unbeaten at 4-0, Michigan (4-1), and Ohio State (3-1), the Wolverines are the team to beat after their 31-3 humiliation of the Boilermakers on Saturday. (Purdue is 3-1, too, but it's tough to believe that the Boilermakers can stay in the race after that loss). All of the teams have difficult home and road games left. But Michigan's visit to Michigan State on Saturday may separate the race for good. If the Spartans beat the Wolverines for the third consecutive time in East Lansing, they'll be tough for anyone to chase down.
Bowling Green's defeat of Northern Illinois, coupled with Toledo's 38-14 loss at Ball State, gives the Falcons a huge boost toward the MAC West championship. Not only does Bowling Green win any tiebreaker with Northern Illinois, but Toledo plays at Bowling Green on Nov. 28. The Falcons play at Miami on Nov. 4, and that may be a preview of the MAC Championship Game.
Buffalo's 26-17 victory over Ohio not only ended an 18-game losing streak, but raised the possibility of a second MAC win this season. Buffalo finishes the season at Kent State, which is 3-6, with one victory over a I-AA team. Army now has the longest losing streak, at 10 games. ... Washington State leapt at the chance to have its kickoff against Oregon State at 3:30 p.m. PT, instead of 7 p.m., because comedian Jay Leno held a sold-out show on campus at 8 p.m. The athletic department wanted to make sure that no fans would be tempted to leave in mid-game. ... The Ohio State offense didn't suddenly get well against Indiana. The Hoosiers are that young and that bad. The Buckeyes, whose season high of total offense, 345 yards, came in their opener against Washington, had 603 yards in a 35-6, empty-the-bench victory. ... Here's an idea of how far Bobby Bowden has come to overtake Joe Paterno in career victories. After the 1973 season, Paterno led, 82-61. After the 1983 season, Paterno led, 169-140. After the 1993 season, Paterno led, 256-239. ... It's ironic that Nittany Lion defensive back Yaacov Yisrael intercepted two Nathan Chandler passes in the first quarter, returning the second one 83 yards for a touchdown. Penn State came into the game with only six takeaways. They finished it with nine.
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Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.