Originally Published: November 12, 2012

Three-legged BCS race to the finish

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

The last time college football staged a national championship game without an SEC participant, former U.S. President George W. Bush was two years into his second term in the White House.

The average price of gasoline was about $2.31 per gallon, and America was still enchanted with a boy wizard named Harry Potter.

No. 2 Texas upset No. 1 USC 41-38 in their epic contest in the 2005 BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl, which was the last time an SEC team didn't bring home a crystal trophy at season's end.

When Longhorns quarterback Vince Young dashed into the end zone with 19 seconds left to end the Trojans' 34-game winning streak, Johnny Manziel was in seventh grade. Kevin Sumlin had just finished his third season as Oklahoma's special teams and tight ends coach and was still more than two years away from becoming a head coach.

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John David Mercer/US PresswireTexas A&M's win over Alabama opened the door for the three remaining undefeated teams in the BCS standings.

On Saturday, Manziel and Sumlin worked together to possibly bring an end to the SEC's dominance, leading No. 15 Texas A&M to a 29-24 upset of No. 1 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

The Crimson Tide's loss (and Syracuse's 45-26 upset of previously unbeaten Louisville) leaves three undefeated BCS-eligible teams with three weeks to play in the regular season: No. 1 Kansas State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Notre Dame. Unless two of them lose, the SEC champion is going to be left out of the Jan. 7 title game in Miami.

"Two of the three national championship teams that I coached lost a game," said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who won a BCS title at LSU in 2003 and two more at Alabama in 2009 and 2011. "This team still has an opportunity to win the West and go to the SEC championship game and win a championship. There's still a lot for this team to play for."

Ironically enough, the Aggies might have ended the SEC's hopes of winning its seventh consecutive BCS national championship in their first season in the league. It's almost as if SEC commissioner Mike Slive invited the wolves into his barn with a welcome mat of barbeque and Golden Flake chips (the kind Paul "Bear" Bryant liked).

During the previous six seasons, SEC teams followed almost an identical recipe in winning national titles: defense, more defense, and just enough offense. It worked for Saban at LSU and Alabama. Even though Urban Meyer had Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow under center, the Gators won BCS titles in 2006 and 2008 because of their defense more than anything else.

But then Sumlin, the former Houston coach known for his fast-paced, high-octane offenses, hit the SEC establishment in the mouth on Saturday. The Aggies scored three touchdowns in the first quarter against Alabama's vaunted defense, leaving the Crimson Tide huffing and puffing as they tried to keep up with the frenetic pace.

Manziel, a redshirt freshman from Kerrville, Texas, completed 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards with two touchdowns, while running 18 times for 92 yards. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Manziel became only the second freshman quarterback since 1972 to upset a top-ranked opponent on the road (Oklahoma's Charles Thompson won at No. 1 Nebraska in 1987).

"No moment is too big for him," Sumlin said.

Thanks to "Johnny Football," the BCS championship picture became even clearer on Saturday, with three undefeated teams fighting for two spots in Miami:

1. Kansas State Wildcats

Record: 10-0, 7-0 Big 12
Remaining games: at Baylor, Saturday; vs. No. 15 Texas, Dec. 1
Number of top-10 wins: 1
Number of top-25 wins: 4
Most impressive victory: 24-19 at then-No. 6 Oklahoma, Sept. 22
Least impressive victory: 27-21 at Iowa State, Oct. 13

Strength: quarterback Collin Klein
The Heisman Trophy front-runner has completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 2,020 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, while running 154 times for 748 yards with 19 scores. Over the past two seasons, Klein has accounted for 71 touchdowns in 23 games.

Weakness: pass defense
The Wildcats rank only 78th nationally in pass defense, allowing 251.2 yards per game. The statistic is a little bit deceiving, as Kansas State's defense has held up against the best quarterbacks it played, keeping them at or below their season averages. Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for 298 yards with one touchdown against Kansas State. West Virginia's Geno Smith was limited to 143 yards with one touchdown in a 55-14 loss, and Texas Tech's Seth Doege threw for 331 yards with two touchdowns in a 55-24 loss.

Why it will play for the BCS national championship: Kansas State might have the easiest remaining path among the BCS title contenders. The Wildcats play at defense-less Baylor on Saturday and then get Texas at home after a bye week. The Wildcats have the country's best player (Klein) and the most seasoned coach among the contenders (73-year-old Bill Snyder). As long as the Wildcats keep winning, it's hard to see Notre Dame passing them in the majority of the computer ratings or human polls. The Wildcats don't have to finish No. 1 in the final BCS standings; they only have to be in the top two.

Why it won't play for the BCS national championship: Barring a disaster (such as Klein suffering another concussion), the Wildcats should have their way with the Bears on Saturday. But the Texas game suddenly looks like a potential dogfight in Manhattan, Kan., on the final Saturday of the regular season. After allowing 161 points in three consecutive games against West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor, the Longhorns surrendered only 46 points in their past three victories over Kansas, Texas Tech and Iowa State. Texas allowed only 277 yards of offense -- while piling up 609 yards of its own -- in Saturday's 33-7 rout of the Cyclones.

2. Oregon Ducks

Record: 10-0, 7-0 Pac-12
Remaining games: vs. No. 13 Stanford, Saturday; at No. 16 Oregon State, Nov. 24
Number of top-10 wins: 0
Number of top-25 wins: 3
Most impressive victory: 49-0 versus then-No. 22 Arizona, Sept. 22
Least impressive victory: 62-51 at then-No. 17 USC, Nov. 3

Strength: offensive firepower
The Ducks lead the country in scoring offense (54.8 points) and rank third in rushing (325.1 yards) and total offense (562.6 yards). Tailback Kenjon Barner is fourth nationally in rushing with 136 yards per game, even though he has sat out the second half of many games, and freshman Marcus Mariota leads FBS players with a 176.9 quarterback rating. Sophomore De'Anthony Thomas, who averages 130.1 all-purpose yards, might be Oregon's most explosive player.

Weakness: special teams
Maybe it's because the Ducks don't do it very often, but they rank near the bottom among FBS teams in punting (36.5-yard average) and kickoff returns (17.4 yards). Senior Jackson Rice is averaging 37.9 yards on 36 punts, and senior Rob Beard has made 4 of 8 field goal attempts.

Why it will play for the BCS national championship: If the Ducks can win their last two regular-season games and then the Dec. 1 Pac-12 championship game -- against either USC or UCLA -- they might climb to No. 1 in most of the BCS computer ratings. That would probably move them ahead of Kansas State in the final BCS standings. In terms of the eye test, it's hard to say the Ducks aren't the best-looking undefeated team left in the country.

Why it won't play for the BCS national championship: The Ducks probably play the most difficult remaining schedule among the undefeated teams. Stanford is a big, physical team that will present a challenge to Oregon's offense and defense. But the Ducks looked too fast in winning their previous two games against the Cardinal, scoring more than 50 points in both contests. Oregon has defeated the Beavers in each of the past four Civil War meetings.

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Record: 10-0
Remaining games: vs. Wake Forest, Saturday; at No. 18 USC, Nov. 24
Number of top-10 wins: 2
Number of top-25 wins: 4
Most impressive victory: 30-13 at then-No. 8 Oklahoma, Oct. 27
Least impressive victory: 29-26 in three overtimes versus Pitt, Nov. 3

Strength: defense
Coach Brian Kelly has resurrected the Fighting Irish by rebuilding their defense. The Irish are tied with Alabama for No. 1 in scoring defense (11.1 points) and rank in the top 10 in run defense (95.9 yards), total defense (295.2 yards) and sacks (three per game). Notre Dame didn't allow opponents to score an offensive touchdown in five of its 10 games and is tied for fourth nationally in red zone defense, allowing only seven touchdowns in 29 chances. Notre Dame's front seven -- led by linebackers Manti Te'o and Prince Shembo and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt -- is as good as any in the country.

Weakness: offense
There's nothing flashy about Notre Dame's offense, which always seems to manage just enough to win games. The Irish rank 90th in passing (204.6 yards), 33rd in rushing (198.7 yards), 77th in scoring (26.1 points) and 82nd in pass efficiency (124.8 rating). Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson is completing only 58 percent of his passes, but he's coming off one of his better games, throwing for 200 yards with two touchdowns in Saturday's 21-6 win at Boston College.

Why it will play for the BCS national championship: If the Fighting Irish can beat overmatched Wake Forest and then win at USC on Nov. 24, they can watch while Kansas State and Oregon play on the final Saturday of the season. The Irish shouldn't have any problems with the Demon Deacons at home, but beating the Trojans at the Coliseum will be much more difficult. Notre Dame has lost nine of its past 10 games against USC; its only win was a 20-16 victory in Los Angeles in 2010. The Trojans won 31-17 in South Bend, Ind., last season.

Why it won't play for the BCS national championship: If Oregon and Kansas State don't lose between now and Dec. 2, the Fighting Irish might stay at No. 3 in the final BCS standings. What looked like one of the country's most demanding schedules at the start of the season hasn't been as arduous as many expected. Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford haven't been as good as advertised. Even beating USC, which already has lost three games, won't carry as much weight. Notre Dame's close wins over inferior competition (Purdue and Pitt) haven't helped it in the human polls, either.

On The Mark

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Soobum Im/US PresswireLouisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon set the FBS record for most touchdowns by a freshman in the Bulldogs' win over Texas State.

It has been a record-setting season for No. 20 Louisiana Tech, which has quietly put together a 9-1 record. In Saturday's 62-55 win at Texas State, Bulldogs quarterback Colby Cameron broke the NCAA record for consecutive passes without an interception with his current streak of 419; the previous mark of 379 was set by NC State's Russell Wilson in 2008.

"He's done a great job of taking care of the ball," Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes told reporters. "When you can do that, there's so many people involved -- the protection up front, it's receivers catching the ball, it's running backs catching the ball and a lot of it is Colby being accurate."

Bulldogs running back Kenneth Dixon, from Strong, Ark., also broke the FBS record for touchdowns (24), rushing touchdowns (24) and points scored (150) by a freshman. San Diego State's Marshall Faulk set the previous records with 23 touchdowns, 21 rushing touchdowns and 140 points in 1991. Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams tied Faulk's rushing touchdowns mark in 2009.

Off The Mark

Northwestern has endured plenty of heartbreak in its not-so-glorious football history, but this season might go down as one of its worst in terms of what might have been. First the good news: the Wildcats are 7-3 and headed to a bowl game. Now the bad: They might have gone to the Rose Bowl if they'd closed out three games.

After blowing an 11-point lead in the final 10 minutes in a 39-28 loss at Penn State on Oct. 6, and then a 12-point lead in the final six minutes of a 29-28 loss to Nebraska two weeks later, the Wildcats did it again on Saturday. After taking a 31-28 lead at Michigan with less than four minutes to go, Northwestern intercepted quarterback Devin Gardner's pass and was in position to run out the clock.

But the Wildcats couldn't pick up enough first downs and were forced to punt in the final minute. Michigan took possession at its 38 with 18 seconds to go, and Gardner threw a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree, who made an acrobatic catch off a tipped ball. Brendan Gibbons kicked a 26-yard goal to force overtime, and then the Wolverines won the game 38-31 on Gardner's 1-yard touchdown run.

On The Mark

Division II Lock Haven University of Lock Haven, Pa., ended the country's longest losing streak with a 15-7 victory over Cheyney on Saturday. The Bald Eagles had lost 52 consecutive games, the longest slump in Division II history, winning their first game in exactly five years. Of course, Lock Haven fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts after the season finale.

Lock Haven second-year coach John Allen was previously director of player development at Penn State and was also head coach of NFL Europe's Berlin Thunder.

"I keep saying it over and over and I can't say it enough, but these kids are so resilient," Allen told the Williamsport (Pa.) Sun-Gazette.

Off The Mark

Colorado's historically awful season continued with a 56-31 loss at Arizona on Saturday. The Buffaloes allowed Wildcats sophomore Ka'Deem Carey to run for a Pac-12 record 366 yards with five touchdowns. Carey needed only 25 carries to break the previous record of 357 yards set by Washington State's Rueben Mayes on Oct. 27, 1984.

The Buffaloes, who are allowing 505 yards of offense and 47.2 points per game, rank in the top 90 in only three of the 17 major statistical categories kept by the NCAA. They're 59th in tackles for loss, 78th in sacks and 27th in net punting.

On The Mark

Syracuse was pretty much left for dead after a 17-10 loss at Minnesota on Sept. 22, which put the Orange at 1-3. But after dominating Louisville in a 45-26 victory on Saturday, the Orange (5-5, 4-2 Big East) are only one win away from becoming bowl eligible. They close the regular season with road games at Missouri on Saturday and at Temple on Nov. 23.

Orange tailback Jerome Smith has been the difference, running for more than 100 yards in each of the past four games. He had a season-high 144 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown against Louisville. Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for 246 yards with three touchdowns, and Alec Lemon caught nine passes for 176 yards with two touchdowns, helping the Orange take a 31-13 lead at the half.

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John S. Peterson/Icon SMIA controversial replay ruling that cost Penn State a touchdown against Nebraska left the Nittany Lions fuming after the game.

Off The Mark

As impossible as it might be to believe, at least one Penn State player believes Big Ten officials have conspired against the Nittany Lions, the most recent example being a controversial replay ruling in Saturday's 32-23 loss at Nebraska.

With the Cornhuskers leading 27-23 midway through the fourth quarter, Penn State tight end Matt Lehman tried to stretch the ball over the goal line for a touchdown. Officials ruled he fumbled before crossing the goal line, and replay officials confirmed the decision, even though TV replays showed Lehman scored on the play before fumbling.

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin told reporters that the Nittany Lions were never going to be on the right end of a close call anytime soon. The implication seemed to be that Penn State is being punished for the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA probation.

And after seeing the replay on Saturday, one has to wonder if he might be right.

"Man, I don't know. We're not gonna get that call here," McGloin said. "We're not gonna get that call ever, actually, against any team. Doesn't matter who the refs are. We'll never get that call. … It's us against the world and we're not gonna get those types of calls in these types of games."

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