Irish, Horns, Vols, Bears stay in BCS contention

What looked like a rather dull weekend in college football nearly turned out to be a Saturday to remember.

It did if you're still a fan of Michigan State.

Four teams in position to receive spots in the lucrative Bowl Championship Series games had to come from behind in the final minutes to win games on Saturday. Notre Dame scored with 27 seconds left to beat UCLA 20-17 in South Bend, Ind. Defending national champion Texas got a field goal from walk-on kicker Ryan Bailey with 23 seconds left to win 22-20 at Nebraska. Tennessee trailed rival Alabama for more than 56 minutes, until Arian Foster dived into the end zone with 3:28 to play for a 16-13 victory. And California gave up a miraculous touchdown to Washington on the final play of regulation before winning 31-24 in overtime.

"Good teams win games like that," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis told reporters on Sunday. "Good teams make a play at the end of the game to win."

Each of the aforementioned teams found ways to win and stayed in contention for big postseason paydays. Which comeback meant the most?

1. Notre Dame -- When quarterback Brady Quinn threw a 45-yard touchdown to Jeff Samardzija with 27 seconds left, the Fighting Irish saved themselves about $3.5 million. That is the difference between the $4.5 million they'll receive for playing in a BCS bowl game and the $1 million they'll get if they're not in a BCS bowl.

Under the BCS agreement that went into effect this season, Notre Dame is guaranteed a spot in one of the four BCS bowl games -- Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar -- if it finishes in the top eight of the final BCS standings and isn't playing in the BCS title game. The Fighting Irish can be considered for one of the four at-large BCS spots if they're ranked Nos. 9-14 in the final BCS standings.

The Fighting Irish fell one spot to No. 9 in the BCS standings released Sunday, but they could move up as teams ranked ahead of them lose (or move down if teams such as Cal, Tennessee and Clemson keep winning). Louisville, No. 8 in the BCS standings, hosts BCS No. 4 West Virginia on Thursday, Nov. 2 (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET), and rest assured the Irish will be rooting for the Mountaineers to win.

Notre Dame's remaining schedule certainly won't help its BCS cause. The Fighting Irish play Navy in Baltimore on Saturday, followed by a home game against North Carolina, at Air Force and home against Army. Notre Dame closes the regular season at No. 3 USC on Nov. 25. Only the Midshipmen and Trojans have winning records, and Navy lost starting quarterback Brian Hampton for the rest of the season two weeks ago.

Even with Notre Dame's weak schedule over the next month, Weis still has to be concerned about his offense. The Irish ran for only 41 yards and Quinn was sacked five times by the Bruins.

"I'll take that over the alternative," Weis said after the game. "How many times are you going to go 80 yards on three plays with no timeouts with a minute left in the game? I think when your players expect something good to happen, it always gives you a chance."

2. Texas -- The Longhorns knew they were walking into a hornet's nest at Nebraska on Saturday. The Huskers were out to prove they were back among the sport's elite teams.

Nebraska went ahead 20-19 on Marlon Lucky's 25-yard touchdown pass to Nate Swift on a halfback pass with 4:54 to play. And then the Huskers seemed poised to run out the clock -- until Marcus Griffin recovered Terrance Nunn's fumble with 2:17 remaining.

Despite the 20 mph winds and blowing snow flurries, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy drove his team the length of the field to set up a last-second field goal attempt. Regular kicker Greg Johnson, who had already missed two field goals and had an extra point blocked, said his leg was tightening up. So coach Mack Brown turned to walk-on Ryan Bailey, who booted a 22-yard field goal with 23 seconds left to win the game 22-20.

The victory helped Texas move up two spots in the BCS standings, from No. 9 to No. 7, and kept them in position to play in the Fiesta Bowl -- if the Longhorns can win the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 2, probably against either Missouri or Nebraska.

Like the Fighting Irish, the Longhorns won't be helped by their remaining schedule: at Texas Tech on Saturday, home against Oklahoma State, at Kansas State and home against Texas A&M on Nov. 24.

3. California -- I'm still not sure what to make of the Bears. I saw them play against Tennessee in the opener, and they were awful. Then I watched them blast Oregon three weeks ago and came away really impressed. Since then, though, California has struggled to beat Washington State and Washington.

Against the Huskies, California linebacker Desmond Bishop batted a last-second pass into the arms of receiver Marlon Wood, who lunged into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown as time expired. The extra-point kick sent the game into overtime, and the Bears won when Marshawn Lynch ran for a 22-yard touchdown. Washington quarterback Carl Bonnell, making his first start in two years in place of injured Isaiah Stanback, threw his fifth interception of the game to end it.

California scored only three points in the first half and struggled offensively for the second week in a row. Speedy receiver DeSean Jackson hasn't scored in two weeks after scoring touchdowns in the first six games. With opponents dropping more defenders into coverage, at least Lynch has found more running room the last couple of weeks.

After playing eight consecutive games to open the season, the Bears get a much-needed break on Saturday. They play UCLA on Nov. 4 in Berkeley, Calif., then play consecutive road games at Arizona and No. 3 USC. The Nov. 18 game against the Trojans at the Coliseum will probably decide the Pac-10 race.

The Trojans might still receive a BCS spot if they beat the Bears and then lose to Notre Dame. Cal, which is No. 10 in the BCS Standings, can't afford another loss after losing at Tennessee so badly.

4. Tennessee -- The Volunteers' close win over Alabama might have been surprising to many football fans outside of the Southeast, but SEC fans have come to expect nothing less on the Third Saturday of October.

The Crimson Tide, which had played poorly the previous two weeks in close wins over Duke and Ole Miss, led the Volunteers for much of the game. Vols quarterback Erik Ainge threw three interceptions and looked thoroughly confused. Neither team could muster much of a running game.

Finally, Ainge directed a 70-yard touchdown drive late in the game to pull out a victory.

Tennessee's win kept them alive in the SEC East race, where the Vols and Florida are the only teams with one loss in conference play. The Gators have the tiebreaker after winning 21-20 at Tennessee on Sept. 16. If the Gators don't lose to Georgia, Vanderbilt or South Carolina in their last three SEC games, the Vols won't play in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Dec. 2.

But that might not be such a bad thing. The Volunteers are No. 11 in the BCS standings but still play surging South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. If the Vols win those and finish 11-1, Tennessee and Texas might be in the best position of the one-loss teams contending for at-large BCS spots.

On (and off) the Mark
On the Mark
After watching Rutgers play at South Florida last month, I thought the Scarlet Knights had the best running back combination in the country with Ray Rice and Brian Leonard.

I was wrong.

No team has as much speed and firepower at tailback as No. 10 Clemson. Sophomore James Davis and freshman C.J. Spiller combined for 332 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers' 31-7 win over Clemson at Death Valley on Saturday night. One of Spiller's two touchdowns came when he caught a screen pass and ran 50 yards, making two Yellow Jackets defenders look rather silly along the way.

Spiller, from Lake Butler, Fla., is one of the fastest freshmen I've seen in several years. He spurned Florida late in the recruiting process -- could you imagine Spiller, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin in the same offense? -- and signed with the Tigers.

"He's the next Reggie Bush," Davis said. "That's what I call him."

Davis, from Atlanta, has 961 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Early last week, Davis said he wasn't going to eat all week because he was going to eat on Saturday night.

"I think I did a good job of eating tonight," Davis told me after the game. "I'm full."

Off the Mark
It wasn't a surprise that North Carolina fired football coach John Bunting on Sunday night; the only surprising part is that the Tar Heels decided to do it this soon and allowed the former Tar Heels linebacker to finish the season on the sideline.

North Carolina is 1-6 and has lost seven consecutive games to Division I-A opponents. In 2004, Bunting delivered the school's only victory over a top-five ranked opponent -- 31-28 over No. 4 Miami -- and he beat rival NC State each of the last two seasons despite the Wolfpack being markedly more talented. But the Tar Heels never showed consistency and lost 12 games by 30 points or more, including a 52-7 loss at Clemson on Sept. 23.

North Carolina is doing the right thing by making the decision this early. There probably won't be as many coaching openings as anticipated -- NC State's Chuck Amato, Kentucky's Rich Brooks, Arkansas' Houston Nutt and Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione have probably saved their jobs -- so UNC athletic director Dick Baddour might have his pick of the litter.

One assistant coach to watch: Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He had success as a head coach at Ole Miss, taking the Rebels to four bowl games in six seasons there. The Tar Heels have a verbal commitment from highly regarded quarterback prospect Mike Paulus, the brother of Duke point guard Greg Paulus. Hiring Cutcliffe, who tutored quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, might help the Tar Heels keep Paulus.

On the Mark
Michigan State's improbable comeback at Northwestern on Saturday, in which the Spartans rallied from a 38-3 deficit in the third quarter to win 41-38, begs two questions. Where was this against Notre Dame? And, more importantly, how in the world did they trail Northwestern by five touchdowns?

Give State coach John L. Smith credit for rallying his team, which looked like it had quit on its season and him in the first half. Quarterback Drew Stanton turned in another gutty performance, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another.

The biggest comeback in Division I-A history might be enough to save Smith's job -- if the Spartans get to 6-6 and play in a bowl game.

Off the Mark
What did Miami's 20-15 win over Duke on Saturday teach us? That it's a good thing the Hurricanes didn't suspend 13 players for Saturday's game at Georgia Tech. Miami would lose.

The Hurricanes, playing without three starters and 10 reserves who were disciplined for their roles in the ugly brawl against Florida International two weeks ago, nearly blew an 18-point lead. Miami won when safety Willie Cooper intercepted Thad Lewis' pass in the end zone on the last play of the game. Winless Duke had 380 yards of offense and held the Hurricanes to a field goal in the second half.

On the Mark
Rutgers. Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain's 6-0 record. Georgia defensive end Charles Johnson's sack and fumble recovery. West Virginia quarterback Pat White's passing. Maryland's bowl chances. BYU's offense. Michigan's defense. North Dakota State's heart. Washington State coach Bill Doba. Comebacks. LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Kickers. Phillip Fulmer vs. Steve Spurrier.

Off the Mark
Garrett Wolfe's Heisman Trophy chances. Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson's goose egg. FSU's back-in-black uniforms -- and back in last place. Clemson's purple uniforms. Postgame traffic at Clemson. Winless Stanford. Alabama's offense. Cocktail Party. This week's schedule.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.