Survive and advance
The road to the BCS Championship Game is a road to survival. Not every game will be easy. Not every game will be pretty. Not every game will look impressive.
National champions usually have a clunker along the way: Alabama had two last season against Tennessee and Auburn; Florida and LSU each lost en route to their titles; Texas survived Ohio State in 2005; USC survived Stanford in 2004.
It just so happened that three of the four title contenders this season each had survival games on Saturday: No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 TCU. Oregon punt returner Cliff Harris spoke for them all when he said, "You need luck sometimes."
The Ducks beat California 15-13 in their worst offensive game of the season. An illegal-motion penalty on California kicker Giorgio Tavecchio negated what would have been the go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, and then the Ducks tore a little page out of the Big Ten playbook: ball-control offense.
Oregon milked a stunning nine-and-a-half minutes off the clock to win. But perhaps more than the offensive performance was that this was an opportunity to prove the Ducks can play defense, too. Cal's offense failed to score in the final 50 minutes of the game and managed just 193 total yards and 13 first downs.
Down on the Plains, it feels as though Auburn is in survival mode every week. The mood was heightened headed into its game against Georgia given the speculation surrounding Heisman Trophy contender Cameron Newton. How would he respond following allegations of impropriety regarding his recruitment to Mississippi State out of junior college? How would the team respond?
The Tigers looked a little flat early, trailing 21-7 to a Georgia team that has been short of spectacular all season. But they locked down and turned it on, pulling away to win 49-31. Newton had 299 total yards and scored four touchdowns, becoming the eighth quarterback to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. No distractions for him.
There were plenty for the Horned Frogs, though. Coming off an emotional 47-7 win over Utah, TCU trailed 14-0 early against San Diego State -- at home, no less. The Horned Frogs built a 37-14 lead before holding on to win 40-35 in a game that will do nothing for their reputation. It proved to be a double whammy, as Utah lost to Notre Dame and Oregon State lost to Washington State. All those factors could impact TCU in the polls, especially with No. 4 Boise State waiting in the wings.
Odds and ends
• There wasn't much in terms of upsets on Saturday, but a couple of highly ranked teams were sweating it out early. No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 TCU and No. 9 Ohio State all trailed by double digits in the first half, and No. 1 Oregon and No. 6 Stanford were down early before all came back to earn wins. Oregon, averaging a national-best 54.7 points per game, was held to 40 points below its season average and to one offensive touchdown. TCU faced its largest deficit of the season, down 14-0 to San Diego State. On the day, TCU allowed 35 points and 307 yards to the Aztecs. TCU's previous six had opponents totaled 23 points, while the 307 yards allowed were close to 100 more than the Horned Frogs' season average (215.5 yards per game allowed, best in FBS).
-- David Bearman, ESPN Stats & Information
The Broncos had their survival game months ago. This week, they led a host of teams that made big statements in Week 11. Boise State made it look easy once again in a 52-14 win over Idaho on Friday night. But like TCU, its championship fate is out of its hands. The jockeying between the two non-AQs will grow more intense as the weeks progress, especially if Oregon and/or Auburn slips up and loses and a spot in the title game becomes available.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin dropped 83 points on Indiana, the most it has ever scored in Big Ten play. The Badgers did it without running back John Clay and had to answer questions about whether they ran up the score on the Hoosiers. Indiana coach Bill Lynch said he did not feel that was the case. Despite the big win, there is still little clarity in the Big Ten race -- Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State each have one conference loss.
Finally, we take you to Gainesville, Fla., where South Carolina clinched its first SEC East title and had no idea how to act as though it had been there before. That probably explains why coach Steve Spurrier orchestrated the celebration after the Gamecocks' 36-14 win over the Gators in The Swamp. South Carolina will play in the SEC championship game for the first time in its history in a rematch against Auburn on Dec. 4 in Atlanta.
The Gamecocks dominated the Gators, piling up 239 yards on the ground. Not many gave them a chance to win at Spurrier's old stomping grounds with a program that seemed to be cursed.
But the Ol' Ball Coach survived. That was the name of the game Saturday.
Wisconsin prides itself on being a hard-nosed, no-frills, gritty program.
The Badgers aren't known for their sense of style, and they're proud of it.
But some think that changed Saturday against Indiana, as No. 7 Wisconsin put up 83 points, its highest total in the modern era and its highest total in a Big Ten game. The Badgers exploded for the most points by a Big Ten team since Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950. Only two teams have scored more points in league history.
Wisconsin also finds itself in the thick of the Big Ten title race, which could come down to the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings. Winning is paramount for the Badgers, but so is winning with a flourish.
Did the Badgers pile it on Saturday in an 83-20 beatdown of Indiana?
"There's not one style point on that board," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told ESPN.com late Saturday afternoon. "All those guys did was play football and competed."
Bielema said style points never entered his mind as Wisconsin scored touchdown after touchdown.
Wisconsin pulled starting quarterback Scott Tolzien and starting running back Montee Ball after three quarters. The Badgers attempted four passes in the final quarter, including one from backup quarterback Jon Budmayr to receiver Jared Abbrederis that went for a 74-yard touchdown on third-and-6.
"There was just the one pass play someone could [question]," Bielema said, "but it was third-and-5, and we wanted to keep the chains moving and I said we could throw the football, and obviously a big play happened.
"You can't put the [backups] in and say, 'Don't play football.'"
Bielema took some heat Oct. 9 when he went for a two-point conversion against Minnesota with the Badgers leading 41-16 midway through the fourth quarter. He claimed he was simply going by the book on when to go for two points, but then-Minnesota coach Tim Brewster took issue with the decision in a testy postgame exchange.
There were no fireworks between Bielema and Indiana's Bill Lynch after Saturday's game.
"There was no issue whatsoever," Bielema said. "He just congratulated me and said a lot of positive things. I thought Coach Lynch was really good after the game. We weren't trying to do anything but just play football."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The drill came near the end of a Thursday practice during a bye week, a time when players' thoughts usually drift toward plans for the long weekend. And on a team with a 4-5 record and not much to play for, the seniors could have already checked out.
Instead, the drill may have signaled an important step in Brian Kelly's building process at Notre Dame. It was a version of the old Oklahoma drill: three offensive players versus three defensive players fighting for 10 yards of turf. The Irish competed so intensely at it that Kelly had to repeatedly pull banged-up players like Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith out.
"Everybody was jumping in there, ready to go," Smith said. "I mean, for a practice drill? Everybody was into it, and guys who were too injured to actually go in were cheering. It was just like football should be."
Notre Dame carried that over into Saturday's 28-3 win over No. 14 Utah, using an old-fashioned roughneck style to pound both lines of scrimmage. Kelly has preached toughness ever since taking the job this past winter, and his team finally showed it, mentally and physically, to beat its first ranked team in four years.
If the Irish go on to a bowl game and improve next season, Saturday's victory might be remembered as a turning point. Kelly sees it more as a natural progression.
"It's not a moment," he said. "It's the culmination of what we've been working on since December. You don't just pull these out of a hat."
Notre Dame still needs to beat Army this week or win at USC just to get to a minor bowl. The program has a long way to go. But steps in the right direction might have begun in an innocuous bye-week training drill.
Spurrier delivers on long-awaited promise
Perched on his players' shoulders at the end of the game Saturday night, Steve Spurrier was wearing that familiar smirk.
It was almost a bashful smirk.
But there he was -- in the Swamp, the Florida fans long gone, the South Carolina fans delirious and the scoreboard not doing justice to what had just transpired on the very field where the legend of the Head Ball Coach was born.
South Carolina didn't just beat Florida to secure its first trip to the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks punished the Gators, beat them up physically, played with more heart and played with more smarts in a 36-14 victory that won't be forgotten anytime soon in the Palmetto State.
Winning the Eastern Division was one thing for Spurrier and the Gamecocks, but going through the Gators to win it and doing it at the Swamp makes it all the more special.
After all, Spurrier's the one who named the place "the Swamp" back in the 1990s and changed the way they played football in the SEC with his Fun 'n' Gun offense.
He won six SEC championships along the way and will forever be an icon in Gator Nation.
But what he's accomplished at South Carolina rates up there with any of his coaching accomplishments.
Forget that the Eastern Division was down this season. It doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that it's taken longer than most of the South Carolina fans had hoped.
All that matters is that the Gamecocks will get a chance on Dec. 4 in Atlanta to play for an SEC championship against Auburn, something a lot of people thought would never happen on Spurrier's watch, or anybody's watch, at South Carolina.
This is a program that's won more than eight games only twice in school history. Spurrier had lost five or more games in each of his first five seasons in Columbia.
The frustration of being average took its toll on a man who set the standard in the SEC in the 1990s.
Following an ugly Outback Bowl loss to Iowa two years ago, Spurrier admitted that he thought about walking away.
To read the rest of Chris Low's story, click here.
Oregon survives at Cal
Three weekend observations
1. After Saturday, when Oregon scored 40 points fewer than it averaged, Auburn fell behind by at least 13 points for the third time and TCU couldn't put away San Diego State, it's a little unsettling that one of them may be our national champion. All three are idle this week, meaning we have to live with these performances for a while. History reminds us that national champions have Saturdays when they scuffle, even late in the season. Alabama struggled to beat Auburn a year ago. Mom was right -- this, too, shall pass.
2. The spread offense has opened up the field and the scoreboard. Has the onslaught of scoring opened up the minds of coaches to be more daring, too? Think of all the risky calls that have won games this year (Michigan State-Notre Dame, LSU-Florida, UConn-Pitt, etc.). On Saturday, Oregon won by the margin of a second-quarter two-point conversion, and Auburn flipped the momentum of a tie game by recovering an onside kick to start the second half. Whatever the reason, it's a blast.
3. It proved to be a happy coincidence Saturday that Auburn honored Bo Jackson 25 years after he won the Heisman Trophy. In the third quarter, after Mike Dyer broke Jackson's school season record for rushing yards by a freshman (859 yards, 30 more than Jackson), the scoreboard showed Dyer on the bench. He stood and waved. Jackson walked into camera range, kissed Dyer on the forehead and held his arm up as the new champ. "He said, 'I'm proud of you. I want you to break the rest of my records,'" Dyer said.
Final verdict: TCU
'GameDay' crew final thoughts
Fair or not fair, this was a very bad day for TCU. Not only did it have a close call against San Diego State, but the teams that gave the Horned Frogs their marquee wins -- Oregon State and Utah -- both lost to teams with losing records in Washington State and Notre Dame. That could create some doubt in the minds of the voters as to the strength of TCU's schedule and how good it really is. TCU began the week looking like it was in the driver's seat for at least a Rose Bowl berth. Now the Horned Frogs might find themselves on the outside looking in if Boise State passes them in the BCS standings.
Helmet stickers go to:
• QB Jeff Tuel, Washington State
103 rushing yards, 157 passing yards, TD in win at Oregon State
• QB Trent Steelman, Army
149 passing yards, 37 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs in win at Kent State
The top 10 teams all won, but it wasn't pretty. Still, you have to be lucky to win a championship. It's getting down to the wire now, and Saturday's game will be a wake-up call for Oregon. I think if Oregon had to play Stanford again, as Auburn will have to play South Carolina again in the SEC championship game, the Ducks would be in trouble. Now that Ohio State has stopped trying to win the Heisman Trophy for Terrelle Pryor and gone back to the I-formation and running the football, I think the Buckeyes are the best one-loss team in the country.
Helmet stickers go to:
• RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
40 carries, 212 rushing yards, 3 TDs (all career highs) in win at Florida
• S Quinton Carter, Oklahoma
17 tackles, 1 pass breakup in win over Texas Tech
Of the top 10 teams, the only one that won impressively was Auburn with the way it pulled away from Georgia at the end. And Cam Newton came through again. No matter what teams do, no one can stop him. Cal put a scare into Oregon, but the Ducks came away with a win, and that may be the spark that pushes them through the final two games of the season. As for Wisconsin, Brett Bielema and the Badgers were bullies again. There's no reason to score 83 points on somebody, but the Badgers were impressive. I think they're the best one-loss team in the country.
Helmet stickers go to:
• DT Drake Nevis, LSU
7 tackles, 1 sack, forced fumble, pass deflection in win versus Alabama
• QB Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Career-high 435 passing yards, 3 TDs in win versus Baylor
Gamecocks win SEC East
Blog Network: What we learned
The defending division champions won't be defending much this season, while Miami is showing signs of life.
Texas A&M and Colorado look like new teams, while season-ending injuries showed how unfair college football can be.
Making any pronouncements about the Big East race is dangerous business, but it looks as though we've settled on five teams.
Iowa's loss to Northwestern means we're likely down to three teams in the Big Ten title race.
Oregon's offense is not unstoppable, there is hope at Washington State and Lane Kiffin just might be a good coach.
Cam Newton proved himself unstoppable once again, but don't look for any revelations from Auburn as to how it's responding to allegations surrounding his recruitment.
Boise State won impressively; TCU won unimpressively. How will that translate in the human polls?
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.
• ACC: Dustin Hopkins; Max Holloway; Virginia Tech defense
More ACC stickers
Odds & ends
• After a slow start, Wisconsin kept scoring against Indiana, throwing up 83 points, the most by an FBS school since the turn of the century. It's the third-most points in a Big Ten conference game and the most since 1950, when Ohio State scored 83 on Iowa. The Badgers' basketball teams broke the 80-point barrier once in 2009-10, also scoring 83 in a home game against Indiana. A Big Ten team broke 70 points three times this season, with Wisconsin doing it twice (70 points against Austin Peay).
• In South Carolina's rout of Florida, freshman Marcus Lattimore went for more than 200 rushing yards, the ninth 200-yard rushing game in school history. It was the first since Derek Watson went for 215 against Eastern Michigan in 2000 and the first against an SEC opponent for South Carolina. The Gamecocks advanced to their first SEC title game, and a win over No. 2 Auburn next month would give South Carolina its first conference title since 1969 (ACC).